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EP Thompson and the Making of the New Left

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Book review by Peter Hogarth

January 12, 2015

EP Thompson became a great figure of the post-Second World War Left. Known best for his masterful history of the Industrial Revolution in England, The Making of the English Working Class (1964), was a historian and activist who worked tirelessly to make true the words of Karl Marx: “the emancipation of the working class will be the act of the working class.” 
 
Coming from very non-working class roots, EP Thompson joined the Communist Party of Britain during the World War II while he served in a tank unit. After the war, he and his wife, Dorothy (also a Communist) settled in Halifax in the north of England and began working in adult education in the working class area. 
 
Thompson left the Communist Party in 1956, repulsed by the USSR’s invasion of Hungary. Remaining dedicated to the Marxist tradition, he became a founder of a New Left, uniting dissident Communists in Britain and around the world looking to fight for a real socialism--unlike the one they saw in the USSR. Thompson created and directed the Centre for the Study of Social History at Warwick University, a labour historian specializing in “history from below,” writing numerous books, before turning to full-time peace/anti-nuclear activism. He founded the European Nuclear Disarmament (END), a movement that connected with dissidents in the Soviet Union to oppose nuclear armament by competing blocs. Thompson died at the age of 69, but left behind an incredible body of work that attests to his life-long commitment to social change. This collection of essays and polemics is an important part of that legacy. 
 
In EP Thompson and the Making of the New Left, editor Cal Winslow has compiled a collection of essays brimming with optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect, to paraphrase Gramsci. Thompson attacks the quiescence of Communist Party leaders in the face of Soviet injustice, exalts the validity of people as the active agents in history and social change, reasserts the centrality of the class struggle in the tensions of oppression. Thompson proposes a way out of apathy, which he describes as “an expression of the impotence of the individual in the face of contemporary institutions,” by steadfast allegiance with the rank-and-file of the Labour Movement and young people opposing the system. Throughout, Thomspon demonstrates an aversion to dogmatism and emphasizes the need to resist the deep-rooted prejudices and assumptions of the old left in building the new one. 
 
This is a book that will give you a concise collection of many of the ideas that helped shape a left that rejected the state capitalism of Moscow and instead looked to the actual movement of workers and students that was fomenting against the system. These ideas are not without their flaws, Thompson’s aversion to party-building and many of the lessons generalized by Lenin and Trotsky would foreshadow some of the problems the New Left would face in translating the exciting movements of the streets into a lasting political challenge to capitalism.  
 
That being said, this is a valuable collection to read. Thompson’s essays seek to raise the horizons of what is possible and what people should insist on. Most of all, Thompson demands more. Thompson demands, a “socialist society that would revolutionize human relationships, replacing respect for property by respect for man, and replacing the acquisitive society by the common weal.”

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