E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics

E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics

E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics

E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics

Synopsis

E. P. Thompson is a towering figure in the field of labor history, best known for his monumental and path-breaking work, The Making of the English Working Class. But as this collection shows, Thompson was much more than a historian: he was a dedicated educator of workers, a brilliant polemicist, a skilled political theorist, and a tireless agitator for peace, against nuclear weapons, and for a rebirth of the socialist project.

The essays in this book, many of which are either out-of-print or difficult to obtain, were written between 1955 and 1963 during one of the most fertile periods of Thompson’s intellectual and political life, when he wrote his two great works, The Making of the English Working Class and William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. They reveal Thompson’s insistence on the vitality of a humanistic and democratic socialism along with the value of utopian thinking in radical politics. Throughout, Thompson struggles to open a space independent of official Communist Parties and reformist Social Democratic Parties, opposing them with a vision of socialism built from the bottom up. Editor Cal Winslow, who studied with Thompson, provides context for the essays in a detailed introduction and reminds us why this eloquent and inspiring voice remains so relevant to us today.

Excerpt

If many of the Yorkshire young people had in fact got socialism ‘inside of them,’ then something of its quality—the hostility to Grundyism, the warm espousal of sexual equality the rich internationalism—owed much to Tom Maguire.”

The late Edward Thompson paid special tribute to only a few individuals. Tom Maguire was one. Maguire was a young Leeds socialist (1865–1895); he was a member of the Socialist League and a founder of the Yorkshire Independent Labour Party (ILP). Thompson immortalized him in his 1960 essay “Homage to Tom Maguire,” reprinted in this book.

Maguire personified the tradition of northern socialism for Thompson and connected him and his own comrades to that tradition. Thompson clearly felt a deep admiration for the young socialist (Maguire died at thirty). It was not that he idealized Maguire, but he did see in him the best of the working class, the kind of person the socialist movement needed. Maguire, semi-employed, of poor Irish-Catholic parentage, became a socialist at sixteen; he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) a year later. When the split in the SDF took place in 1884, he sided with William Morris, artist and revolutionary socialist. This, for Thompson, was not simply an episode of historical interest. Rather, it was a link in a chain; and this took him right back to the origins of British Marxism and its since-forgotten fusion with English Romantic socialism, with Morris, his circle, and the Socialist Federation.

Edward Thompson was one of the great figures of the post–Second World War left. He is remembered best as a historian, the author of a biography of William Morris, and then, most famously, for his magisterial history of the Industrial Revolution in England, The Making of the English Working Class (1963). He was, of course, much more than this. He was a veteran of the war; he served as a tank commander in North Africa and the Italian campaign. He thought of himself as a poet first, also as a writer; visiting New York, in 1946, “an aged war veteran of 22,” and the author at that time of just one short story, he was thrilled at the “misrecognition” of being “taken to be a writer.” Indeed, as a writer, his . . .

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