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Remembering E.P. Thompson


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>More on this later…

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman"”>, a masterpiece, now in its fiftieth year of uninterrupted publication, burst the complacence of the history departments. Its impact, Iain Boal has written, was “incendiary”; it sent “shock waves” through “the polite smoking rooms” of still quiescent universities and “permanently changed the landscape of that epoch.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>More, perhaps, it raised forbidden banners of class, banners then still half buried in the ruins of post McCarthy America, yet indispensable if a new generation was to make any sense at all of the conflicts and movements of the sixties.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:
"Times New Roman"”> was many things, it would become many more; different things for different people. Yet one thing remains inescapably certain; The Making is at its heart about class and it is about the recovering of the history of class struggle.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>1969 was the year Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) imploded, an irreversible step in the fatal descent of the US student left. But I was still looking to find evidence for a socialism from below, however, I thought “history from below” might reveal clues – in understanding new movements, as well our inheritance from the old ones, first of all a labor movement that seemed incorrigibly conservative.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>The Center demanded serious academic work, but there were no objections to activism; a culture where activism was encouraged was in fact already established.
We worked after all in the shadow of 1968, the Paris spring, the debacle in Prague. Vietnam dominated the nightly news. There were huge anti-war demonstrations in London, there was South Africa. Barclays, the only bank on campus at Warwick, was boycotted for its involvement in apartheid South Africa. The Springboks (South African Rugby) tour was stalked and disrupted.

The 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:
Calibri”>The ‘crime group’ came together in 1969, at a time not coincidentally when students were interested in riot and rebellion, the crowd, the law, enclosures, direct action, the defense of the commons and new forms of organization and protest.
line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>And there was a spirit of good will regarding the activists at the Center, good will that went both ways. Certainly plenty of space was allowed for all, though there were also significant areas of silence.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>In fact, we activists had a lot going for us; certainly no one faulted our intense objections to the war, nor our obligation to oppose it. We Americans brought links with Berkeley and Columbia, with Civil Rights and Black Power. Warwick students had already established relationships with groups of Coventry shop stewards, some of them no older than ourselves, militant rank-and-file car workers, then contesting “productivity deals” – the spearhead of the British employers’ offensive. Interestingly, Coventry then wore the label, “the little Detroit” with honor.  

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Edward was a towering figure – and despite our “healthy sense of community and mutuality, reinforced by egalitarian premises” (Protest and Survival, 1993), it was the rare student who was not fascinated by his past and inspired by his presence.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>We knew the Thompson’s home in Halifax, though we’d never been there. Edward’s teaching in the mill towns and mining villages of the West Riding was legendary; for students his notion that for the teacher of adult workers there was as much to learn as there was to teach was foundational.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>“Through the Smoke of Budapest,” an emotional appeal on behalf of Hungarian workers, signaling his exodus from the Communist Party in 1956, was fabled – his lifelong antipathy to Stalinism, deeply embedded in all his writings; his libertarian socialism (“socialist humanism”), rejection of hierarchical forms of organization and hostility to ‘democratic’ centralism were, for a fleeting moment, ABC in the New Left. In the eighties, he carried these on into anti-nuclear movements. There was more than politics. For many of us hurry-up courses on Milton, Swift, Blake and Wordsworth were required, just to be part of the conversation.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>We activists were rather working class as a group – not exactly “scholarship kids” but mostly children of upward mobility in the fifties and sixties. What was interesting for an American was the experience of working class identity in its positive sense. The English kids, typically, were the products of single-sex grammar schools and the first in their families to enter high education.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>“I got a grant (from the state) of twelve quid a week.” /I/ “was paid to sit in a warm library reading books. My dad got eleven, 11 pounds for a 48 hour week.”

10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:
Calibri”>In February 1970, students, occupying the Warwick University Registry, came upon records revealing, among other things, the surveillance – by local industrialists and the University administration – of David Montgomery, the visiting American historian (“a revival of labor espionage”, Edward warned). There were files on students, including records of their political activities, and perhaps most importantly there were documents exposing a deep, often secret, collusion between the University administration and the management of Coventry’s then still thriving car industry. The affair became a national scandal.

10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:
Calibri”>Judith Condon, then studying literature with Germane Greer:

10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-language:EN-US”>“Personally, I remember in particular: the sense that if students stuck together in common purpose – on one occasion ‘rough musicking’ the University Council from outside as the only way to make our voice heard – then the authorities could not ignore us; the exhilarating moment after the files were uncovered, when we spread out to our departments and debated what their contents meant for the notion of academic freedom; the unhesitating leadership of Edward Thompson…” 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:
Calibri”>Thompson himself immediately published an account in New Society, ‘Warwick: The Business University’. Within two weeks a wave of sympathy movements broke out at a dozen other universities.  By March, Thompson, with the assistance of Warwick staff and post-graduates had produced a book, a Penguin Education Special, Warwick University Ltd.

10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:
Calibri”>The value of education, underlying much of what we did at Warwick, in our case the study of history, was passionately upheld, and along with this came concerns for the future. Warwick stood out among British universities as one of the first to develop close links with the business community and has been successful ever since in the commercialization of research.

10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:
Calibri”>Thompson concluded Warwick University Ltd with questions about the direction of the ‘Mid-Atlantic University’, including prescient worries regarding the outlook for education more generally: “man exists and progresses, not only by productive technology, but also by the strength of his ideas and by the artifacts of his culture. In his submission to a subordinate role in a managerial system, he is re-enacting the meaning, for Britain in the 1970s, of the trahison des clercs. So, against all this, we have raised at Warwick, not only a new flag or two, but some very ancient and tattered flags, even older than those of rotten liberalism…The outcome of this episode will also be some kind of an index of the vitality of democratic process – and of the shape of the next British future.”

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:Calibri”>We lost.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:Calibri”>Condon again: “ 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:
Calibri”>It’s awful now – we’ll leave today’s Warwick aside – i
line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>I think back and what has remained with me is this – I (we) not only studied with Edward, we were allowed into his world. I think this sharing of experience may have been uneven, often very uneven, still it was real. I think this helps explain why so many of us went into working class adult education – Julian, Judith, Merfyn, Janette, Lucia, Sheila, John, Anna – just from that group.

mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>The Making line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Edward taught adult education, crisscrossing the heavily populated West Riding to meet small groups who signed up for courses on offer from the Leeds University Extramural Department and the Workers Education Association (WEA), most often three year courses, 24 weeks per term – simply to learn. No degrees, no certificates, no promise of future employment.

"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> In a shabby old car, or sometimes in elderly buses or even shabbier trains, he carted with him a heavy box of books, and picked his way cross country to a village hall, a school room, the back premises of the local library, the annex to a church vestry, and on occasions someone’s sitting room, to meet with a dozen or fifteen people in order to talk about Wordsworth and Blake, Lawrence and Shakespeare, or the future of socialism, but especially the inheritance of these people and their West Riding communities – the connections between his students and their forebears, the weavers, the spinners, the miners, the Luddites, the Chartists and utopians. Or did they teach him?

“I went into adult education because it seemed to me to be an area in which I would learn something about industrial England and teach people who would teach me.” mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>It was a life-changer for the youngish readers in the 1960s. Its large, never-quite grasped purpose was to find and recharge the lost veins of English romantic socialism, to make them glow again in the body politic.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>There have been many accounts of The Making; there exists now a virtual mountain of interpretation, swollen this year in particular in a flurry of remembrances, critiques, conferences and celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary. All for good, surely? Alas not so simple. While certainly Edward has always had a following (a peculiar one, of course), the truth is that he’s been out of (academic/left) fashion for quite some time now, certainly amongst historians, and even amongst those founders of the once-promising “new labor history” in the US. Some rehabilitation seems in progress in the UK, such signs are few (apparent readership to the contrary), if present at all, here. This is true even when we “celebrate”, then, one hears, as often as not, the tones of a requiem, very little of the joy of jubilee. 

mso-fareast-font-family:Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>The Making line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
Calibri;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Not so long ago, the theme “we are the 99%” was received by many as a sort of revelation, yet if so it was a clumsy one, telling us next to nothing about relationships and offering very little indeed about
how to uncover the actual structures of society, where we might find the fissures, spaces to work, sources of conflict. In a sense, it disguised these.

These need recovering.  

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