Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

E. P. Thompson and Radical Romanticism

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

E. P. Thompson and Radical Romanticism

Article excerpt

As I have reread The Making of the English Working Class and numerous other texts by Thompson, I find myself thinking in terms of blindness and insight, not in the absolute deconstructive binaries employed by Paul de Man, but rather to signify the inescapable process in which the insights we manage to gain are purchased at the price of being blind to other aspects of reality they do not permit us to see. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class is incalculably rich in narrative, with vivid, novelistic characterization and description, but, as many have noted, it is poor in historically relevant statistics. Thompson's handling of Romanticism from his 1955 book on William Morris to his later work on Thelwall and Blake consistently mined a vein of radical Romanticism that he called the Romantic revolt, thereby neglecting the more nationalistic and counter-revolutionary areas of Romanticism. Thompson's eloquent and passionate opposition to Stalinism and what he called variously Marxist Platonism, idealism, and theoreticism produced some of the best political writing since George Orwell, but perhaps because of the events of his own life--the tragic death of his brother, a Communist, at the hands of Bulgarian fascists in 1944; the personally satisfying experience he enjoyed working with fellow Communists on the construction of a Yugoslavian railroad in 1947; and his leaving the British Communist Party in 1956 after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution--he was ungenerous and unsympathetic to anarchist and opponents of Stalinism who repudiated Stalin and sometimes even the entire Bolshevik Revolution much earlier than 1956. "Premature" anti-Stalinists found little favor in Thompson's writing, which harshly criticized Orwell himself in the interesting but not wholly persuasive essay, "Outside the Whale" (1960). Before I go any further, however, I must say, first, the blindness/insight dialectic applies to everyone, including myself, and, second, my recent review of Thompson's work has convinced me that he is a great writer who still has much to teach us about Romanticism, history, and politics.

Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963), one of the "founding texts of British cultural studies" (Stevenson 2), made an important mark in Romantic studies in two ways: by supplying a unique historical context for the Romantics and by linking Romanticism with the process of the working class's own making. Near the very end of The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson concludes that working-class political culture countered laissez-faire policies with intelligence and moral passion in ways parallel with but separate from "the great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism." The "Romantics and the Radical craftsmen" who "opposed the annunciation of Acquisitive Man" comprise an early 19th-century "resistance movement" (832). In a later writing he linked the working-class movement with the Romantic critique as a revolutionary resistance to "economic man" (Poverty of Theory 294). According to Thompson, then, at the moment of the Industrial Revolution the working class did two things: it registered a Romantic, ultimately utopian protest against the utilitarian cash-nexus governed by naked instrumental reason, and it created strong organizations and a tough-minded political culture capable of struggling against capitalism on numerous fronts and for the long haul. In replying to the New Left Review editors who found the working class insufficiently revolutionary, Thompson countered that "the workers, having failed to overthrow capitalist society, proceeded to warren it from end to end" with unions, cooperatives, political associations, and other institutions that survived and produced meaningful reforms (Poverty of Theory 281). The radical Romanticism that Thompson links with working-class culture shares the utopian protest against Economic Man that The Making of the English Working Class describes in such moving detail. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.