Remembering E P Thompson

Issue: 134

Christian Høgsbjerg

Scott Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left and Postwar British Politics (Manchester University Press, 2011), £60

At a time when the “thinkers” of Blue Labour are attempting to rewrite the history of the English working class movement for their own reactionary nationalist project, the appearance of Scott Hamilton’s new study of the great Marxist writer and thinker Edward Palmer Thompson (1924-1993), author of the classic The Making of the English Working Class (1963), is most welcome. Reading EP Thompson is a refreshing reminder that Britain has a “long and tenacious revolutionary tradition”, one stretching “from the Leveller corporals ridden down by Cromwell’s men at Burford to the weavers massed behind their banners at Peterloo”. Moreover, “from the Chartist camp meeting to the dockers’ picket line” this tradition “has expressed itself most naturally in the language of moral revolt” rather than, say, slogans that open the door to racism such as British Jobs for British Workers. Yet, as Hamilton notes, the “political and intellectual adventures” of EP Thompson stretched far beyond the discipline of history and even the boundaries of Marxism, encompassing poetry and literature and embracing a radical liberal tradition of dissent.

Hamilton’s study takes its title from, and is built around, Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (1978). This famous collection of wide-ranging polemical articles, written from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, was part of Thompson’s attempt to defend the tradition of “Socialist Humanism”, the banner he raised after leaving the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1956 alongside thousands of others in protest at the suppression of workers’ councils by Russian tanks during the Hungarian Revolution. Hamilton’s accessible work introduces the circumstances and context in which Thompson’s thoughtful and thought-provoking essays were written, critically discusses their argument and reception, and, while acknowledging their limitations, suggests much of Thompson’s thinking retains relevance for socialists today.1 The original archival research undertaken, together with Hamilton’s correspondence with a number of people close to Thompson—including his partner Dorothy, the late socialist historian—and his own subtle and sophisticated understanding of the contradictions of Thompson’s personal, political and intellectual evolution make this an authoritative and impressive volume.

Politically, Hamilton is convincing in his demonstration of how the broad, patriotic cultural Popular Front politics of the Communist Party, which “encouraged the mingling of ideas from England’s liberal, Romantic and Marxist traditions”, fundamentally shaped Thompson’s “hardcore beliefs”. As a poet and writer as well as a scholar himself, Hamilton is a particularly insightful guide to Thompson’s wider cultural preoccupations. Though one might, in places, have wished for more on Thompson the great Marxist historian, overall The Crisis of Theory stands as an indispensable companion volume to The Poverty of Theory, particularly of value to those reading Thompson’s essays for the first time.


1 For more discussion of EP Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays itself, see Alex Callinicos, “The Ingredient of Humanity”, Socialist Review, number 9 (February 1979), online here: