Why E.P. Thompson is My Hero
by Ralph Dumain
My relationship to the intellectual legacy of E.P. Thompson is as idiosyncratic and erratic as my exposure to other thinkers. My exposure to Thompson is through his writings on literature and philosophy rather than his central works on history that have secured his reputation. I have yet to read Thompson's seminal The Making of the English Working Class, which was so influential as a pioneering approach to "history from the bottom up" that C.L.R. James once quipped that it was the best book on black history ever written.
So far I have read all or parts of four of Thompson's later works: The Poverty of Theory, Making History: Writings on History and Culture, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, and The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age . The Blake book was Thompson's last published work before he died; it was the culmination of a life's work on the subject. The Romantics was posthumously published, after being reconstructed by Thompson's widow.
One of the most inspiring traits of Thompson's writing is the constancy of his feeling for an issue close to me, the question of where intellectuals are situated in society and how they relate to traditions. Thompson in everything he writes has his pulse on the autodidact's sensibility; he is keenly aware of networks of knowledge and what official scholars and academics are always leaving out. Thompson is not only keenly analytical but a fantastic writer as well, proving that one can be both intellectually sophisticated and write in plain English.
For example, I can still remember two essays in Making History. His essay on radical American poet Thomas McGrath is brilliant, and resolutely anti-Stalinist in a very different way from the usual tedious stereotyping. It's noteworthy how McGrath hated not only the Eastern literary czars but also the Hollywood Communist writers like John Howard Lawson. Thompson's essay on Christopher Caudwell is another brilliant gem, perhaps the most perspicuous evaluation of Caudwell's work ever. Thompson shows that while Caudwell's literary criticism is crude and schematic (hence leaving him open to being dismissed by other Marxist critics such as Raymond Willliams), it is in his original philosophizing that Caudwell shines. Thompson acutely analyzes the structure of Caudwell's arguments, even showing how Caudwell fills in the gaps in his knowledge and ideas with metaphorical expressions which help him do his epistemological work.
Thompson's The Poverty of Theory is an excellent and eloquent defense of history and the notion of experience written to combat Althusserianism in Britain.
The Romantics also contains some characteristically Thompsonian twists, showing again how Thompson thinks outside the boundaries of academic shibboleths.
There are many exciting features of Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, but the first thing I noticed was Thompson's treatment of Blake's relation to his sources, particularly the underground tradition of radical antinomian Christianity. Blake was not a product of polite society or official education, which meant the class elitism of the Classics. 200 years before today's Culture Wars Blake was fighting his own culture war against the entire intellectual tradition of class society. His own philosophy was home-made and was also radically different from the sources he drew on. Regardless of the intellectual poverty of a heritage of religious crackpots, the fact is that Blake saw in the figure of Jesus something that had escaped all the Moral Virtues and ethics and nobility of the nobles, i.e. a radical overturning of an entire system of values, which undermines the judge and executioner by the doctrine of forgiveness of sins, which forgives the oppressed masses from the accusations of moral inferiority by the ruling class. Blake always claimed to read the Bible in the "infernal" sense, which means radically different from the way it is understood by the other 99.99% of humanity. At times he worried about being a source of "imposition", i.e. religious prophecy as source of mystification and oppression, but he was committed to his own sources which he interpreted for his own purposes. Hence the otherwise nonsensical proclamations that the Bible is the great code of art, etc. The real question for my purposes is not the value of Rabbi Hillel or Jesus of Nazareth but rather the most radical and critical assault upon the philosophical underpinnings of class society in human history. Blake came at this task from a rather unusual direction. For his background was neither science nor mathematics nor logic nor philosophy. He was a skilled tradesman with a heritage of radical Christianity. Therefore, the medium in which he expressed his ideas was quite different from the way a person who participated in the profession of philosophy would have expressed them. Yet in decisive respects he was far more advanced than them all, more than Hegel, more than Feuerbach, more than all save Marx.
(First draft of web version, 20 Feb 2000, more to come)
© 1996, 1997, 2000 Ralph Dumain
E.P. Thompson on William Blake & Intellectual Traditions
William Blake Study Guide
Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys
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Uploaded 20 February 2000
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