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Venice Stream Historiography Seminar 9: E.P. Thompson - History from Below

(after a lecture on `Edward Thompson: Commitment and Culture’)

The historian E. P. Thompson’s work and influence can be considered under many headings: `E. P. Thompson and the New Social History … and the cultural turn in historical studies … and anthropology … and Marxism … and labour and people’s history … ‘ (and many more). We have chosen to begin discussion of his work and its legacy with the idea of `history from below’ because this will allow us to revise the idea of `history from above’ (as practised for example, by von Ranke) and to anticipate the emergence of Subaltern Studies in the later twentieth century. With the argument that Thompson was above all `a historian of the Cold War era’, we can also revisit the proposition that all historical writing is as much about the cultural and political circumstances it emerges from, as it is about its ostensible subject matter.


Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963), 9-27, 207-232, 887-915

Thompson, E. P., ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & Present 50 (1971), 76-136 & reprinted in Thompson, Customs in Common (London, 1991), ch.4

Background Seminar Reading:

Burke, P., What Is Cultural History? (Cambridge, 2004), 23-29

Green, A., & Troup, K. (eds), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-century History and Theory (Manchester, 1999), 33-43 & 44-58 (‘Marxist Historians’)

Hughes-Warrington, M., Fifty Key Thinkers on History (London, 2001), `E. P. Thompson’

Iggers, G. G. & Wang, E. Q., A Global History of Modern Historiography (London, 2008), 250-279

Munslow, A. The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies (London, 200), 43-45, 64-67

Rosaldo, R. `Celebrating Thompson’s Heroes: Social Analysis in History and Anthropology’, in H. J. Kaye & K. McClelland (eds), E. P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1990), 103-124

Rule, J., 'Thompson, Edward Palmer (1924-1993)', Oxford DNB (Oxford, 2004)

Soper, K., `Socialist Humanism’, in Kaye & McClelland, op.cit., pp. 204-232.

Thompson, E. P., `Folklore, Anthropology and Social History’, Indian Historical Review, 3:2 (1978), 247-266, & reprinted as a Studies in Labour History Pamphlet (1979), copy available in SLC

Welskopp, T., ‘Social History’, in S. Berger, H. Feldner and K. Passmore (eds), Writing History: Theory and Practice (London, 2003), 203-22

Yeo, E., `E. P. Thompson: Witness Against the Beast’, in W. Lamont (ed.), Historical Controversies and Historians (London, 1998), 215-224

Questions for Seminar Preparation (may also be used as essay titles):

  1. How and why did Thompson practice ‘history from below’ in his analysis of the eighteenth-century ‘moral economy’ in England?
  2. How did Thompson's ‘socialist humanism’ inform his writing of history?
  3. How do Thompson’s views of class and of human agency differ from those of Marx?
  4. Did Thompson romanticise ‘plebeian culture’?

1. Debating `the Thompson legacy’:

Anderson, P., Arguments within English Marxism (London, 1980)

Bess, H., `E. P. Thompson: The Historian as Activist’, American Historical Review, 98 (1993), 19-38

Curry, P., `Towards a Post-Marxist Social History: Thompson, Clark and Beyond’, in A. Wilson (ed.), Rethinking Social History: English Society, 1570-1920 and Its Interpretation (Manchester, 1993), 158-200

Donnelly, F. K., `Ideology and Early English Working-Class History: Edward Thompson and his Critics’, Social History 2 (1976), 219-38

Eastwood, D., `History, Politics and Reputation: E.P. Thompson Reconsidered’, History 85 [No.280] (2000), 634-54

Hitchcock, T., `A New History From Below’, History Workshop Journal, 57 (2004), 294-98

Iggers, G. G., Historiography in the Twentieth Century: from Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Middletown CT, 1997), ch.7

Ireland, C., `The Appeal to Experience and its Consequences: Variations on a Persistent Thompsonian Theme’, Cultural Critique 52 (2002), 86-107

Johnson, R., ‘Edward Thompson, Eugene Genovese and Socialist-Humanist History', History Workshop Journal, 6 (1978), 79-100

Kaye, H., & McClelland, K. (eds), E.P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1991)

King, P., ‘Edward Thompson's Contribution to Eighteenth-Century Studies: The Patrician-Plebeian Model Re-Examined’, Social History, 21 (1996), 215-28

Randall, A., & Charlesworth, A. (eds), Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Crowds, Conflict and Authority (Basingstoke, 2000)

Scott, J. W., ‘The Evidence of Experience’, Critical Inquiry, 17 (1991), 773-97, & revised as ‘Experience’, in J. Butler & J.W. Scott (eds), Feminists Theorize the Political (New York, 1992), 22-40

Steinberg, M. W., ‘A Way of Struggle: Reformations and Affirmations of E.P. Thompson's Class Analysis in the Light of Post-modern Theories of Language’, British Journal of Sociology, 48 (1997), 471-92

Steinberg, M. W., ‘Culturally Speaking: Finding a Commons Between Post-Structuralism and the Thompsonian Perspective’, Social History, 21 (1996), 193-214

Wrightson, K., English Society, 1580-1680 (2003), 9-16 (Introduction)

2. Other Works by E. P. Thompson: Not History?

Thompson, E. P., Warwick University Ltd. Industry, Management and the Universities (Harmondsworth, 1970)

Thompson, E. P., Writing by Candlelight (London, 1980)

Thompson, E. P., The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London, 1978).

Thompson, E. P., Witness Against the Beast. William Blake and the Moral Law (London, 1993).

3. Some Post-Thompsonian Approaches to the History of Class:

Calhoun, C., The Question of Class Struggle: Social Foundations of Popular Radicalism During the Industrial Revolution (Oxford, 1982)

Davidoff, L., & Hall, C., Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (London, 1987)

Feldman, D., ‘Class’, in P. Burke (ed.), History and Historians in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2002), 181-206

Jones, G. S., Languages of Class: Studies in English Working-Class History, 1832-1982 (Cambridge, 1984)

Joyce, P., Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1840-1914 (Cambridge, 1991)

Rollison, D., ‘Discourse and Class Struggle: The Politics of Industry in Early Modern England’, Social History, 26 (2001), 166-89

Wahrman, D., Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c.1750-1840 (Cambridge, 1995)

Walter, J., Understanding Popular Violence in the English Revolution: The Colchester Plunderers (Cambridge, 1999), ch.7 (esp. 260-84)

Wood, A., The Politics of Social Conflict: The Peak Country, 1520-1770 (Cambridge, 1999), 10-26, 316-25

4. British Marxism and Communist Historians

Dworkin, D., Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left and the Origin of Cultural Studies (Durham NC, 1997)

Hobsbawm, E. J., `Where are British Historians Going?’, Marxist Quarterly, 2 (1955), 14-26

Kaye, H. J., The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis (Cambridge, 1984)

Kaye, H. J., The Education of Desire. Marxists and the Writing of History (London, 1992)

Kaye, H. J., `Fanning the Spark of Hope in the Past: the British Marxist Historians’, Rethinking History, 4:3 (2000), 281-94

Lee, R. E., The Life and Times of Cultural Studies (Durham SC, 2003), 11-34

Long, P., Only in the Common People. The Aesthetics of Class in Post-War Britain (Newcastle, 2008)

Palmer, B. D., `Reasoning Rebellion. E.P. Thompson, British Marxist Historians, and the Making of Dissident Political Mobilization’, Labour / Le Travail, 50 (2002), 187-216

Renton, D., `Studying Their Own Nation Without Insularity? The British Marxist Historians Reconsidered’, Science and Society, 69:4 (2005), 559-79

5. Women and the Making of the (English) Working Class

Chakrabarty, D., Rethinking Working-class History. Bengal, 1890-1940 (Princeton NJ, 2000)

Chenut, H. H., The Fabric of Gender: Working-Class Culture in Third Republic France (Philadelphia PA, 2005)

Clarke, A., The Struggle for the Breeches. Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (London, 1995)

Hall, C., `The Tale of Samuel and Jemima. Gender and Working-class Culture in Nineteenth-century England’, in H. J. Kaye & K. McClelland (eds), E. P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1990), 78-102; also available in Hall, C., White, Male and Middle Class (Cambridge, 1992)

Kessler-Harris, A., Gendering Labor History (Urbana IL & Chicago, 2007)

Scott, J. W., ‘Women in The Making of the English Working Class’, in Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988), 68-90

Steedman, C., Master and Servant. Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age (Cambridge 2007)

Steedman C., Labours Lost. Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England (Cambridge, 2009)

6. The Historian’s Times

Bloom, A., & Breines, W. (eds), `Takin' it to the streets’. A Sixties Reader (Oxford, 2003)

Fraser, R. (ed.), 1968. A Student Generation in Revolt. An International Oral History (London, 1988)

Horn, G-R., The Spirit of '68: Rebellion in Western Europe and North America, 1956-1976 (Oxford, 2007)

Lashmar, P., & Oliver, J., Britain's Secret Propaganda War 1948-1977 (Stroud, 1998)

Mayhew, C., A War of Words: A Cold War Witness (London, 1998)

Rowbotham, S., Segal, L., & Wainwright, H., Beyond the Fragments. Feminism and the Making of Socialism (London, 1979)

Saunders, F. S., Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London, 1999)Scott-Smith, G. & Krabbendam, H. (eds), The Cultural Cold War in Western Europe (London, 2005)

Thompson, E. P., `The Business University’, in Writing by Candlelight (London, 1980), repr. of `The Business University’, New Society, 19 Feb 1970

Thompson, E. P., Beyond the Cold War (London, 1982)