Phil Griffiths

EP Thompson and the process of historical causation

I wrote this essay in 1996

EP Thompson and the process of historical causation

Page 1

The "mature" political and historical career of EP Thompson began in 1956, when he launched a public, and at times bitter, struggle against Stalinism -- in politics, in Marxist theory and in history. "I commenced to reason in my thirty-third year," he wrote of that turning point. 1 In politics, Thompson set out to construct a libertarian, humanist communism, and to involve himself in a series of struggles, most notably against the spread of nuclear weapons. In history and theory, he challenged the tendency of both Stalinism and bourgeois sociology to reify human relations, 2 and fought to "restore to Marxism its commitment to the concrete struggles of actual men and women", 3 as against the Stalinist tendency to treat people as the stupid instruments of the forces of production. This project led Thompson to re-examine the process of historical causation. In his histories, he looked at and attempted to theorise the process by which the English working class was formed (and formed itself) as a class, and then went backwards to look at various aspects of the development of capitalism in the eighteenth century, and the plebeian resistance to it. In his theoretical writing Thompson began by rejecting Marx's metaphor of base and superstructure as "a bad and dangerous model, since Stalin used it not as an image of men changing in society, but as a mechanical model, operating semi-automatically and independently of conscious human agency." 4 He launched his now famous polemics against Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn for their schematic approach to English history and their dismissal of the radical traditions of the English working class, and against the anti-humanist structuralism of their erstwhile intellectual

Thompson, EP, The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 1 (PT) 2 PT, p. 271 3 David McNally, "E P Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism" in International Socialism (London), No 61, Winter 1993, p 76. (McNally) 4 Quoted in Harvey Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis, Polity Press, London, 1984, p 172 (BMH)

Anderson. The theme running through The Making of the English Working Class is the way a distinctively working class movement. emerged from political and economic struggles between 1790 and 1832. Nairn and some other Marxists responded to the effect that Thompson's theory and his histories were "culturalist". Ellen Meiksins. 6 This essay will focus on the issues of historical causation. Fall 1982. built around a subjective redefinition of categories such as class.P. These class struggles are driven in considerable part by conflicting material interest. both published in PT 6 Tom Nairn quoted in Wood. Thompson finds an eruption of "class war" in the forests of East These were "The Peculiarities of the English" and "The Poverty of Theory". in particular. 7 Society changed because class struggle took place and changed it -. "The Politics of Theory and the Concept of Class: E. and voluntarist. see BMH. No 9. In searching for the reasons behind the sudden declaration of fifty new capital offences in England in 1723. Class) 7 This is also the theme of Harvey Kaye's analysis. 173 5 . 46 (Wood. the fights over enclosure of the common lands. on the role of experience. the attempts to enforce the imperatives of the commercial grain market against those who insisted on feeding the local community in times of dearth.not always for the better. on his treatment of economic structures and consciousness and on his critique of base and superstructure. built upon organisations of mutual aid and with a new and distinctive class consciousness. and. anti-theoretical. on Thompson's treatment of class struggle and class. history was the history of class struggle. 5 For much of his career. Thompson and His Critics" in Studies in Political Economy: a socialist review. Louis Althusser. and the gradual imposition of a time-conscious work discipline on rural labourers and factory workers. p. p. It will also assess some of the major points made by his Marxist (and other) critics. For Thompson.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 2 mentor. and the class struggle in its various forms has been overwhelmingly the subject of his histories. Thompson wrote as a Marxist and a revolutionary opponent of capitalism. The essays making up Customs in Common look at the growing polarisation between patricians and plebs.

“The Peculiarities of the English” in PT. enervated by traditions of deference. Harmondsworth. William Sewell. regulated by local forest courts referring to use-rights going back "time out of mind". He therefore begins Whigs and Hunters by teasing out the rival claims for the use of forest resources between the declining gentry and yeoman class of the long-established forest communities. 9 The significance of this method is that it really does put human beings at the centre of "making history".EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 3 Berkshire and Hampshire. Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act. Keith McClelland. to be ruthlessly used in personal self-advancement. Ellen Meiksens Wood. For Thompson. Whatever errors or problems may emerge in such a history. the result of any conflict is influenced by a range of factors: the economic "weight" and political strength of the rival classes. EP. the cohesion provided by commonly held ideas. 48 (Peculiarities) 11 Peculiarities. 45. p. badly led or isolated. among others. Harvey Kaye and Bryan Palmer 10 EP Thompson. the history of actual class struggles can neither be unravelled nor understood without concrete analysis. Social development is shaped by the outcome of these struggles.or alternatively the degree to which they are internally divided. and the newly rich landowners and lords (temporal and ecclesiastical) who asserted their right to graze their deer unimpeded in "their" forests. their internal solidarity. Also involved was a struggle over the legal and ideological bases of economic life as "non-monetary use rights were being reified into capitalist property rights" 8 . it is not "culturalist". p. was being overturned by those who benefited from the new commercial approach that saw property (including the forest) as private." 11 and that concrete analysis of the Thompson. 244 (Whigs) 9 The criticism of culturalism is rejected by. p. 93 (Customs) 8 . p. and attempts to short-circuit this "end up by explaining nothing. “Patricians and Plebs” in Thompson. Penguin. 1990. The long tradition of communal access to the forests. Instead. 1993. Harmondsworth. This was an attitude shared by the new-rich landowners and the forest officials they appointed." 10 Thus we find him insisting that "every real historical situation" arises "from a particular equilibrium of forces. and this is never predetermined. the strength of their leadership and their ability to make common cause with other classes or elements in society -. Penguin. who set out to monopolise the forest for themselves. Customs in Common. EP.

which then obediently produced (in the "Marxist" variant) class struggle. At another level again. 255 12 . the "Black Act" crystallised the prior development of a "Whig state of mind" that saw defence of property as the highest duty of the state. the skilful politician Walpole used and/or manufactured Jacobite conspiracies with links to the Blacks to bind Parliament and the ruling class more firmly behind his new laws.that it was the collapse of the bubble that had impoverished many of the forest gentry and made desperate their struggle to defend traditional usages. So when the immediate crisis in the forests passed. we can see this at many levels. 13 Whigs. 245. 214. more -. The efforts of ordinary men and women to understand and change their world are written out of such an approach. pp. because the authority of the government was undermined at a moment when it had become tenuous as a result of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. and the particular equilibrium of forces at key moments. Using Whigs and Hunters. This analysis is spelled out in the Chapter. Thompson set out to write them back in. "The Politics of the Black Act". pp. 190-218. This "victory" for England's capitalists became an element in shaping the future. to the point where human life itself had been severely devalued. play a major role in his histories. Thompson also speculates -. a focus on class struggle by itself is not enough to ensure that the making of history is understood as the work of "men" (to paraphrase Marx). its already wide scope extended. as it was then used for another hundred years to terrorise those who lacked sufficient respect for property. indeed to put them at the centre of our understanding of class and class struggle. See also the brief discussion of "causation" on p. because a new Prime Minister was eager to consolidate his power. 12 Thus a turning point in legal history arose from both the prior development of capitalist relations. 13 However. the Act was entrenched in English law. Second International Marxism and Stalinism had transformed class into a static sociological structure into which people were duly slotted according to occupation.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 4 various competing forces. The combination of Weberian sociology. On another plane. A localised rebellion gave rise to a turning point in English law because the king's deer were involved. and the particular conjunction of economic and political circumstances and the way people fought out their rival claims.

the transformation of a disparate layer of wage earning artisans and labourers. when many manufacturers supported the reform agitation. a static "structure". the methods and scale of production. but very pointed polemic against those who saw class as a "thing". a number of transformations or "makings" involved here. Thompson argues. One of the central arguments of The Making of the English Working Class is the role played by the growing rapprochement between the landed gentry and manufacturers after the hostilities of 1792. and. There are.the class of (especially manufacturing) employers -. the retreat into Methodism. and finally the depth of class divisions.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 5 He did this in his masterpiece. who identified predominantly with their separate trades and the struggle against the landed interest. involving widespread identification of a common class interest. the size and nature of the new factory labour force. defined by relations of production. from the radical constitutionalism of the 1790s. trade union. by 1830. These two classes were pushed together by their mutual "counter-revolutionary panic" in the face of the French revolution and its English echoes. through repression. The Combination Acts of 1799-1800 . into a class. in fact. exploitation and struggle. for Thompson. and radical press which tend to replace the "food riot" and other plebeian mass actions.the strike. an identity of interests as against others. The overall transformation of class relations was only in modest part a product of changed methods of production and changed economic relations. There are new forms of class struggle -. The making of the English working class involved. in open conflict with its symbiotic rival -. Dramatically changed too are class alignments. economic relations. and then Owenism and quasi socialist political economy. arguing instead that class could only really be understood as a relationship between people that becomes apparent to them over time as they find themselves engaged in struggle alongside other people with whom they begin to feel. The Making of the English Working Class.and the government. There is a profound ideological shift. He began with a short. and then understand. A modest revolutionary current centred on London artisans in the 1790s is transformed. into a widespread determination across the broad working class to overthrow the existing order. this in turn expressed itself in every aspect of social life. singular. Much of Thompson's book is aimed at explaining and documenting the growth in revolutionary temper of the English working class.

further cementing the ruling class alliance and the alienation of working people from both their economic and political rulers. 613-4 17 MEWC. 600-01 16 MEWC. pp. Trade unionism was the one working class response which survived and flourished because in the environment of the factory and workplace community it was just possible to sustain and protect illegal unions whereas insurrectionary conspiracies culminated in the disastrous Pentridge rising of 1817. Thompson sees the class struggles of Luddism as one of the results. for example. Penguin. 14 The repeal of most paternalist legislation. pp. 462 14 . which had established roots amongst London artisans in the 1790s. allowed free rein to the employers. the inability of the magistrates and armed forces to penetrate and destroy Luddism. These new ideas Thompson. further illustrated their mutual dependence and cemented a growing partnership. "But what brought emotional reconciliation to the properties classes brought profounder antagonism between them and the working classes. the petitioning of parliament. EP. one of the main hegemonic mechanisms of gentry "leadership". 1968. rather than those who owned property. pp.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 6 repressed both Jacobin conspiracies and trade union attempts to raise wages. The Making of the English Working Class. Napoleon's self-installation as emperor saw former Jacobin-baiters appealing to English Jacobins to support the new war against France as lovers of liberty. had become anachronistic. The result was a view of political rights being due to those who laboured. and again profoundly alienated wide layers of the working class. and the successful armed defence of the Rawfolds factory by the mill owner. 495-6 (MEWC) 15 MEWC. Collectivism was generalised from narrow individual trade union solidarity to all workers. In trade union politics. Harmondsworth. p." 16 The old means of resistance. the central role of private property was challenged in favour of collective aims. Friendly societies also emerged "in response to certain common experiences. the defence of traditional use rights and customary prices. while in the radical republican tradition. 15 And the challenge of Luddism. William Sewell sees a dual transformation." 17 and in turn stimulated trade unionism.

Class. which give rise to changed experience: and this experience is determining. People are imprisoned: in prison they meditate in new ways about the law. in the sense that it exerts pressures upon existent social consciousness. People starve: their survivors think in new ways about the market. Thompson's Theory of Working-class Formation" in Harvey J Kaye. and announces deaths.though still materially based -relationship. the way they summarised the relationship between social being and consciousness was often crude or incomplete: "determines". [it] walks in without knocking at the door. inflation. pp 200-01 20 See Wood. pp. But it is not a predetermined or mechanical impact. and in all his history. A specific form of exploitation does not automatically lead to a predetermined class consciousness. E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives.P. The working class is neither automatically revolutionary as a result of its position.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 7 proved to be "remarkably durable". 20 While the historical writing of Marx and Engels was always subtle and concrete.. crises of subsistence. proposes new questions. In the face of such general experiences old conceptual systems may crumble and new problematics insist upon their presence. is the part played by human experience. "corresponds to". as the Anderson/Nairn Sewell. 62." 19 As straightforward as it is. Polity Press. nor. London. I see Thompson's conceptualisation of experience as a vital theoretical contribution in understanding history and in particular. 58 18 . pp. the united ruling class offensive it faced. However. 70-71 19 PT. unemployment. A critical element in Thompson's account. trench warfare. genocide. "ultimately determining". experience of the relations of production is continuous (not just ultimately present). Jr. its impact on consciousness ongoing. and instead posed a more mediated -. and Keith McClelland (eds).. "How Classes are Made: Critical Reflections on E. the formation of class consciousness. 1990. He rejected the idea that social being determined consciousness as mechanical and false. 18 The English working class was in considerable part made by. "Changes take place within social being. William H. and in response to.

58 24 Thompson's example. 21 At the same time. criticising Althusser for ignoring it. Thompson also clearly distinguishes between experience and consciousness (which I take to mean deliberate thought." 23 Sewell. friendly society and trade union solidarity invaded the chapel. There are many other such examples.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 8 thesis would have it." Thompson observed.not only the farmers and sailors dealing mystified by kingship. see Class. p. for instance in his description of the reasons for child labour in the textile mills. 23 I feel this is mistaken. Critics most commonly see Thompson collapsing both relations of production and actual consciousness into "experience". 201. It is forced to explain too much and its erstwhile mediating role is lost. yet Thompson repeatedly points to the limits of experience -. PT. he points out that the experience of workplace. Wood disagrees. Perry Anderson argues that Thompson assumes that experience leads to actual (ie correct) knowledge. pp. See also PT. 431 For example. 60 Anderson and Johnson make similar points. this is the one that has probably been most controversial -. 24 but the Methodism of the repressed English working class. that is. and Peculiarities. 22 Of all Thompson's propositions. but keeps distinct the real relations that generate the experience. a helpless victim of the ideological dominance of its ruling class. p. In discussing Methodism. p. p. "No ideology is wholly absorbed by its adherents: it breaks down in practice in a thousand ways under the criticism of impulse and of experience. p. theory and other ideas). p. 79 where he describes "dialectical intercourse between social being and social consciousness" as being "at the heart of any comprehension of the historical process within the Marxist tradition. PT. he vigorously rejected the notion that consciousness is independent of economics. of dealing with employers and merchants. Anderson also argues that experience is implicitly MEWC. posing the dialogue between social being and social consciousness as central to the historical process. 199 21 22 . affected workers' religious ideas. in descriptions of the forms of labour in cottage industry and also in his discussion of the way gluts were created to break the weavers' resistance to price variation. Thompson may emphasise the experience of work and exploitation.even amongst some who are sympathetic to him. and the way outworkers and artisans persisted with petitioning Parliament in spite of their's and others' experiences. 224-5.

customs and even personnel of the trade. pp. 25 Anderson has read too much into a grandiose comparison. prices. with its emphasis on controlling the standards. from 1820. 26 Thompson's account of the weavers illustrates the way he combines a changed economic environment. Thompson rejected and ridiculed the idea of there being a causal mechanism or "motor" to history. their traditional craft unionism. 25-27. and one of the most important reasons was the Anderson. was the final step. experience and class struggle to explain the destruction of a traditional artisan culture and the eventual development of a distinctive working class. London. Faced with a transformed industry and repression. They petitioned parliament to legislate minimum wages.and the experience of impoverishing the weavers may well have confirmed something which began as prejudice. magistrates and clergy. mobilisation at Peterloo. the conviction grew that poverty was essential to make people work hard -.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 9 presented as the causal mechanism of history as a result of Thompson comparing it to Mendel's genetics. From proud participants in a narrow craft. 295-300 25 . 79-83 (Arguments) 26 PT. But this expansion soon saw them lose economic independence to the great clothiers who came to employ them. 1980. Among employers. pp. The destruction of their industry by the power loom. Perry. And of course there were others who were beginning to think and act in class ways. they became an important part of a wider class with a common agenda for change and elements of a common consciousness. The weavers fought this in the terms of their existing organisations and traditions. Owenism and physical force Chartism. Verso. Desperate poverty combined with the experience of parliamentary hostility and bloody repression to turn them from Church and King loyalism to machine breaking. 28-29. leading in turn to more savage wage cutting. and who used this expansion to cut wages. This in turn drove each weaver to increase their own production. These cottage industry artisans initially benefited from the industrial revolution as more and cheaper yarn led to a massive expansion in weaving. collapsed. Arguments within English Marxism. which was brutally suppressed. and its refusal led them responded with a massive strike. consciousness.

all educating a dispersed layer of working class activists who would help create the class consciousness and organise the struggles MEWC." Thompson wrote. 820-37 MEWC. 835-6 30 Lenin. The class struggle for a free press.. 834 29 MEWC. 30 Alongside Cobbett there were a series of papers. Thompson argues. April 1912-March 1913. and.disclosed the real nature of changing relationships of production. the abuses they faced.of the Industrial Revolution.. writers and groups seeking "to render into theory the twin experiences. written by workers themselves.. p. When Lenin discussed the Bolsheviks’ new newspaper Pravda in 1912." a profoundly radical outlook. Over more than two decades." 31 There were intense debates over Bentham.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 10 existence and growth of an often illegal. Volume 18. about their lives. His style was intimate. Moscow. were the raw material of experience from which wider political conclusions could be drawn. 27 Cobbett's writing was very different from that of the essayist Hazlitt. I have discussed Thompson's emphasis on common experience in the formation of class. is one of the most heroic episodes in the making of the English working class. could lead. free of taxes that make newspapers unaffordable to working men and women. p. but it was the radical press that made England's labourers aware that they shared a common situation with so many others..popular Radicalism insurgent and in defeat. or the popular theorist Paine. Progress Publishers. 1963. he observed that the many reports. VI. "The Workers and Pravda" in Collected Works. Malthus and Robert Owen. p. 28 The "touchstone of his social criticism was the condition of the labouring man." an approach that was later to become a more conscious part of the revolutionary tradition. This is magnificently highlighted in Thompson's short essay on William Cobbett's journalism.. His "extraordinary sureness of instinct. radical press. "close to revolutionary conclusions. his political articles appealed to experiences common to England's labourers to make his points and to show in concrete terms that each individual's situation was shared by others. immediate and concrete.. their opinions and how they were organising. which. 300 31 MEWC. 781 27 28 . pp. p. personal." 29 His writing "led outwards from the evidence of his senses to his general conclusions.

33 "Custom Law and Common Right" describes some of the resistance (as indeed does Whigs and Hunters) from those poorer villagers who found their rights expropriated. Thompson went backwards to study class relations in the eighteenth century: the nature of the part customary.. in their survival and their cultural life.. In "The Moral Economy of the Crowd". and the culture of the working classes. "The experiences of the previous quarter-century had prepared men's minds for what they now could read.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 11 that would make "the working class presence. he presented these struggles as he had earlier presented Luddism. as the marketing and consumption of grain was gradually separated from the community in which it had been grown. The divisions between the classes grew. part market economy. 806 Quoted in Customs. and obliged "agricultural improvers" to develop an ideology to justify their theft: property no longer implied social obligations. He presents eighteenth century England as a society in which money has become of primary importance in economics and in political power.was seen in food. stretching well over a century. while for large numbers of lower gentry. The law shifted its focus from the protection of the person to protecting property.the (bourgeois) class struggle against paternalism and to impose commodification -.Nurseries of Idleness and Insolence". as rational and thought-out. The same process -. Thompson sees in the prolonged process of enclosure. the struggles to defend it from deeper commercialisation. residual common use rights and community traditions remained of major importance. Most significantly..the most significant factor in British political life" in 1832. the commons were "a hindrance to Industry. not as the mindless conservatism of the ignorant. but increasingly gave absolute rights to the possessor.. a measure of the tenacity (and also the localism) of that struggle. p. yeomen. and. Thompson describes this tension coming to 32 33 MEWC. 165 . He was studying (and writing about) the class struggles that were ultimately to produce the decisive shifts of the 1790s. The attack on these rights and the enclosure of the commons met sustained resistance." 32 After writing The Making of the English Working Class. farming tenants and poor labourers. p.

They were incrementally changing and adapting: the law. as one of the characteristic forms of class struggle through the century. and in Whigs and Hunters as well. 253 34 . the market system. leaving behind nothing more than a cash relationship. Nevertheless. relations with the labourers. he addresses the process by which employers of labour attempted to gain more production from employees. The most interesting aspect in some ways. As he so brilliantly reminds us. p. by the hour -. for all its excitement and explanatory power. Feuer. 35 The relations of production of capitalism did not spring to life out of the steam engine or the mill. Marx wrote of the bourgeoisie putting "an end to all feudal. p. there is a problem with Thompson's narrative of class struggle. New York. see Marx. 51 (Feuer) 35 Customs. ed and intro by Lewis S. Karl and Friedrich Engels. and had to be fought for and imposed. Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy. even ideas of what was morally right. is the description of employers experimenting with different forms of hire -. property. Thompson brings out the extent to which these changes were fought over. he describes the changing relationship between labourer and employer. the people he writes about did not see themselves as "transitional to anything". we never find out why In the Communist Manifesto. While each individual episode is meticulously analysed. 1969.until they came up with the most profitable mix. they were created gradually because they were resisted bitterly. when villages expected "their" grain to be available to feed them. patriarchal. Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism". Thompson is studying the transition to capitalism. He poses the organised food riot." he wrote. as the old system of paternalist control over the whole life of the labourer was labour. 34 In "Time. "The death of the old moral economy of provision was as long-drawn-out as the death of paternalist intervention in industry and trade. In all these essays. when a community mobilised to use its force of numbers to impose an affordable price. idyllic relations". Work shifted from being task oriented to time oriented.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 12 a head in times of dearth. In "Patricians and Plebs". Collins.

or pressures facing. p.and which so decisively shaped the circumstances in which the working class was "made"? We are inevitably drawn back to the question of base and superstructure. Also Engels comment that the form taken by class struggle is often determined by superstructural elements. London. why the government feels confident it can engage in brutal repression. 1990. 136 (Base and Superstructure) 37 Johnson's criticism runs right through "Socialist-Humanist History". the comment is in MEWC. 125-152. 38 and because Thompson himself is capable of qualifiedly agreeing with Marx and Engels on a point where their thought has been corrupted. pp. Thompson and the Debate on Base and Superstructure: in Harvey J Kaye. p. Thompson simply passes over without comment Marx's central point: the central role of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production in the 36 This point is in part made by Ellen Meiksins Wood. landowners and merchants. that too much has been read the manner of Richard Johnson -. p. "Falling Through the Cracks: E. . p. because that is not part of Marx's argument. As Perry Anderson points out. The economic imperatives facing the English working class are meticulously examined. why the employers feel the need to push things so far.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 13 the differences involved between the classes cannot be settled by a greater measure of compromise. Feuer." 37 It is also clear that the issue is not the "mechanical model" of superstructure trailing behind base. I hope it has established that Thompson is a materialist. and Thompson knows Marx understood the immense impact of ideas and laws on economics. 13 38 See BMH. 437. in his 200 page critique of Althusser. Polity Press. 172. 36 This flies in the face of Thompson's insistence on the mutuality of class. For if this essay has proven anything. not so the economic strengths of.into his famous comment that "class is a cultural as much as an economic formation. and Keith McClelland (eds). that ideas and laws and politics are profoundly influenced by economic change. E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives. while the tearing up of minimum wages is done abruptly? Were there not economic as well as "political" reasons for the gradual rapprochement between manufacturers and the landowners and government which began in the 1790s -. their employers.P. Yet he still rejects base and superstructure. Why do Walpole and the Whigs face so little ruling class opposition to the (presumably) substantial risk of passing the "Black Act"? Why do they prosecute the enclosures so slowly (is it really simply a matter of local popular resistance?).

amongst other things. in generating the class struggle and economic (and social) crisis. Marx also discusses the counter-tendencies -. This is an extraordinary assertion given Marx's insistence (in. for example Wages. contradictions and involuntary change. And while the tendency of the rate of profit to decline is asserted as the fundamental obstacle to and endless future history of capital accumulation. but without its most powerful elements: the independent impact of rising productivity on class relations.anti-historical. that the value of labour power is determined by a traditional standard of life. 249-55 41 PT." and for that reason. 250.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 14 development of history. p." 41 William Sewell argues that Thompson conceives of structures "in reified supra-human terms.not surprisingly since it was his method to dig out the contradictions inherent in every phenomenon. and the understanding that the role of the superstructure is to contain antagonistic relations of exploitation using non-economic means -stabilising society at some points. as. Right throughout the work. Prices and Profits). Thompson's own histories brilliantly illustrate key aspects of this "ignored" theory. p. where the impact of joint-stock companies and professional managers is discussed..right through into the final discussions of Volume 3. 81 PT. Yet Thompson sees Marx's analysis as "necessarily. This brings to mind Thompson's surprising (and brief) rejection of Capital as "an alternative lawed structure of economic relations. it is an attempt to identify the dynamic of capitalism (in capital accumulation under the pressure of competition) and its internal contradictions. merely echoes much of Marx's own theory. based around the interplay of congruities. 253. commodity-relations develop and change -. a means of raising wages." 40 It is nothing of the sort. Ironically. Arguments. p. The discussion runs pp. the inherent contradiction within each mode of production that creates pressures towards fundamental social breakdown. since the actual history can only be seen as the expression of ulterior laws. but creating an entirely new set of explosive tensions and reasons for class struggle at points of crisis. and the distinction Marx and Engels had of being amongst the few early socialists to support trade unionism. It is a convincing speculation. 39 Thompson's only attempt at an alternative to base and superstructure.. 39 40 . avoids them.

The result in The Making of the English Working Class.the opposite of Thompson's intention. 42 Anderson. 133-165 45 Sewell. 44 Palmer. 124. "Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?". argues Sewell. The article is Thompson. No 2. "theoretical" essay. The flip side of his refusal to "privilege" economics can be seen in Whigs and Hunters where we find him embracing the rule of law as "a cultural achievement of universal significance" and "an unqualified human good. Instead of reifying the forces McNally. 43 Even Bryan Palmer finds one discussion of "exploitation" an "evasion". p. to in a sense reify them -. inevitable. Base and Superstructure. too. Sewell and others have noted the "lack of definite coordinates" in the Making of the English Working Class. is that he assumes economic determinism "as a kind of unconscious rhetorical backdrop against which specific empirical accounts of working-class experience. 265. Vol 3. pp. 85 Whigs. 135 46 Whigs.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 15 The result is not "culturalism" but a certain tendency to vagueness and fragmentation. 245. He is vague." and that economic developments provide "a kind of hidden dynamo [that] propels the narrative in a certain direction. an approach he had criticised in Cobbett as reducing economic analysis to a polemic against vested interests. pp. 266 42 43 ." 45 Ironically the result is to make the economic changes appear "given". p. abstractly argued. So much of Thompson's polemic is directed against structuralism that he never gives us more than a truncated picture of what he actually sees as the relationship between the economic and "cultural". Wood makes a similar point. 44 It is his failure to engage with the (changing) economic structure of production that makes "Patricians and Plebs" one of his vaguer and less satisfactory articles. in a final. perhaps even natural. p. about the nature of ruling class appropriation in Whigs and Hunters when he declares that it was "not clear what these [Whig] fortunes of thousands per annum rest upon". p. Thompson's stance also leads to a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to historical materialism itself. May 1978. Social History (London)." 46 This comes at the end of his book. EP. which manages to contradict the evidence of the previous 238 pages. agency and consciousness are placed. p. footnote 4. 57. David McNally notes the imprecision of Thompson's critique of Stalinism as a "parasitism".

Base and Superstructure. As a response to Stalinism it is understandable. he underlined that nothing in history was inevitable. By focusing on experience he developed "an ability to reveal the logic of production relations. challenged the view that capitalism was developed peacefully in its homeland and showed that the most fundamental of economic relations were themselves experimented with. He set out to show that the exploited and oppressed were makers of history through the class struggles they waged. an operative principle visible in the daily transactions of social life. EP Thompson has achieved a rare impact on the way people study and think about history and historical change. and resisted. and made by people and over a long period of time. Class. 46 . Wage labour and the alienation of what workers produce may seem "normal" in western societies today. 142 Quoted in Wood. he reifies the law.. In doing so.. but others have managed to avoid it. and that human society was created out of class struggle. 48 He is much closer to Marx and Engels than his critics. they did not in England in the eighteenth century. We can only speculate as to the real reasons for his position. atheoretical or subjectivist. By insisting on the need for concrete analysis of social forces. as Tom Nairn would have us believe.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 16 of production." 47 Thompson's rejection of Marx's base and superstructure metaphor and his minimal attempts to study the economic situation and strength of England's ruling classes. and we can only benefit from studying him. p. p. but it does not make his histories culturalist. 47 48 Wood. deprived his histories of an even greater measure of coherence.

"Ideology and early English working-class history: Edward Thompson and his critics" in Social History. Moscow. ed and intro by Lewis S. Feuer. 1982. Richard. Progress Publishers. 219-238 Johnson. 'Edward Thompson. Autumn 1978. London. George Routledge & Sons.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 17 Bibliography Anderson. Studies in the Development of Capitalism. London. London. Thompson and the discipline of historical context" in Richard Johnson. 1963 McClelland. No 61. pp. P. 1946 Donnelly. "The Workers and Pravda" in Collected Works. pp. No 6. The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis. Collins. 75-89 Marx. No 2. "Some comments on Richard Johnson. Hutchinson. pp. Eugene Genovese. pp. David. Maurice. pp. 79-100 Kaye. FK. Karl and Friedrich Engels. New York. "Edward Thompson. Keith. Perry. 1984 Lenin. 101-115 McLennan. April 1912-March 1913. David Sutton (eds). Harvey J. Making Histories: Studies in history-writing and politics. VI. 1980 Dobb. "E. 96-130 McNally. and Socialist-Humanist History'" in History Workshop. Gregor. Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy. Polity Press. Winter 1993. Eugene Genovese. Volume 18. Verso. No 7. and Socialist-Humanist History" in History Workshop. Bill Schwarz. Gregor McLennan. Arguments within English Marxism. 1969 . London. "EP Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism" in International Socialism (London).

EP. Allen Lane. John G Rule. Humanism. ?? Thompson. "Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?". Penguin. London. London. "Patrician Society. EP Thompson. Out of Apathy. 255-344 Thompson. Penguin. "The English Working Class" in New Left Review. Thompson: Marxism. EP. peter Linebaugh. 1976 . No 2. May 1978. EP. pp. Polity Press. 1968 Thompson. William H. Jr. New York. Penguin. 1960 Thompson. 50-77 Thompson. P. Stevens & Sons. 1990. The Making of the English Working Class. Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act. Cal Winslow. Vol 3. pp. Writings on History and Culture. Customs in Common.EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 18 Nairn. "The Crime of Anonymity" in Douglas Hay. London. Harmondsworth. pp. Making History. Harmondsworth. The New Press. 1981 Sewell. pp. Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. and History. Social History (London). 133-165 Thompson. pp. EP. New Hogtown Press. "The Long Revolution" in New Left Review. No 9. Thompson's Theory of Working-class Formation" in Harvey J Kaye. Toronto. 43-57 Palmer. The Poverty of Theory and other essays. 1975. No 11. p. The Making of E. 1990 Thompson. No 10. pp. EP. New York. and Keith McClelland (eds). E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives. 1994 Thompson. 1978 Thompson. Bryan D. EP. Harmondsworth. EP. 34-39. EP.P. Tom. pp. 1993 Thompson. revised edition Pantheon Books. EP. London. EP. 24-33. Merlin Press. "How Classes are Made: Critical Reflections on E. Plebeian Culture" in Journal of Social History. EP. 382-405 Thompson. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary.

pp. 1994 Wood. Ellen Meiksins. Thompson and His Critics" in Studies in Political Economy: a socialist review. and Keith McClelland (eds).P. "Falling Through the Cracks: E. Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Fall 1982. Polity Press. 45-75 .EP Thompson and the process of historical causation Page 19 Thompson. paperback edition. London. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. EP. No 9. 1990. Ellen Meiksins. E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives. pp. Thompson and the Debate on Base and Superstructure: in Harvey J Kaye. 125-152 Wood.P. "The Politics of Theory and the Concept of Class: E.

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