This week marked the 100th birthday of E.P. Thompson, pioneer of ‘history from below’ and his generation’s foremost crusader against the nuclear arms race and the politics of exterminism.
“Against the kingdom of the Beast, we witnesses shall rise!”
Addressing the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s October 1981 London demonstration, Edward Palmer Thompson reached back into the mists of radical history, welcoming the crowd of 250,000 to Trafalgar Square with the revolutionary-millenarian marching call of seventeenth-century England’s New Model Army.
A socialist historian, poet, peace campaigner, and lifelong dissenter, the author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963) understood the indispensability of the popular struggles of the past for the movements for human liberation, equality, and very survival in his own time. ‘We are historians’, Thompson famously exclaimed at 1979’s History Workshop conference, ‘because we know that the past is not dead, inert, and confining, but is strong with energies which can be brought once again to our side.’
Published posthumously, Thompson’s final work — a study of his hero, William Blake (1994) — hypothesised a subterranean ‘antinomian tradition’ underrunning modern British history from the Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution through to Blake’s era, suggested by its evocative title: Witness Against the Beast. The powerful spiritual resource this ‘consciously anti-hegemonic’ nonconformist tradition furnished for Blake’s ‘combative polemic against the “Beast” of the State’ in his own time was something Thompson greatly admired. Lecturing at New York’s Columbia University amidst ‘campus revolution’ in 1968, the historian had affirmed his own allegiance to this antinomian old mole, boldly claiming Blake as ‘the founder of the obscure sect to which I myself belong, the Muggletonian Marxists.’
Born 100 years ago this week, Thompson carried his radical politics through his life’s work as a historian, pioneering a revolution in the field of ‘history from below’ with his 1963 masterwork, alongside other classics like William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955), Whigs and Hunters (1975), and Customs in Common (1980). But he also bore his fierce respect for his historical subjects and their rebellious inheritance into his political crusading, as testified in his resonant apocalyptic address to the massed ranks of CND.
Concluding a memorial lecture at Burford Church, hallowed resting ground of the Leveller martyrs of 1649, Thompson had elaborated his favoured metaphor:
‘I think the ‘kingdom of the Beast’ is perhaps stronger at the end of the twentieth century than it’s ever been in the history of the world. It’s as strong as the old Roman Empire but it’s more technologically perfect; and the ‘wings of Leviathan’ (as they would have seen it), the ‘wings’ of the Beast, of the superpowers with their nuclear arms, crowd the whole skies of the world. And it’s that kind of spirit in which the ‘witnesses’ rise against the Beast that I think should be transmitted from the Levellers to us.’
Rhetorically synthesising folk past, embattled present, and uncertain future within his fevered campaigning throughout years of profound international danger, Thompson can today be seen, as well as its great historian, as himself an avatar of this long antinomian tradition in his own right — and a ‘Witness’ against the ‘Beast’ of his own age: the nuclear arms race.
The Making of E.P. Thompson
Sprung from the Oxford household of progressive Wesleyan ex-missionaries — ‘supportive, liberal, anti-imperialist, quick with ideas and poetry and international visitors’ (including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi) — a middle-class radicalism came easily to the young ‘E.P’. His elder brother Frank an exemplary Communist, Edward joined the Communist Party of Great Britain [CPGB] himself in 1942 whilst reading History at Cambridge, at the height of the Soviet Union’s wartime anti-fascist esteem internationally.
Thompson experienced the Second World War as a fresh-faced tank commander trundling through the North African and Italian theatres, including the grinding Battle of Monte Cassino. Stirring memories of discussing the Beveridge Report with his enthused compatriots, and ‘internationalism and optimism’ fraternising with fellow Communists throughout ‘liberated Italy’ persisted beside haunting distress at the deaths in combat of men under his command, and devastating news of the execution by fascist firing-squad of his beloved brother, captured behind the lines aiding Bulgarian partisans as a Special Forces agent.
It was not his time as a soldier, however, that set Thompson on the road to peace activism. No pacifist, he would remain unrepentantly proud of his service in the ‘anti-fascist war’, within what he argued had developed into ‘an anti-fascist and consciously anti-imperialist army.’ Indeed, reflecting on his Italian war in ‘The Liberation of Perugia’ (1985) following a nuclear disarmament conference in the Umbrian city, the veteran campaigner contended a ‘political affinity’ between the ‘anti-fascist alliance of World War II’ and ‘the peace movement of today’: an internationalist popular front for life and freedom against death incarnate — against the Beast.
His lifelong anti-militarism owed decisive inspiration, rather, to the ignominious events whereby that war was concluded, and the bifurcated postwar order inaugurated. The romantic young Communist had been keenly affected by the ‘active democratic temper’ and ‘authentic mood of internationalism’ across the European panorama amidst the partisan revolutions against Nazism. Always staying with him, in 1960 Thompson memorably recounted these prelapsarian continental days:
‘[W]e must awaken the real Europe, our Europe, once again. This other Europe was a reality in 1945—a reality felt by ordinary people from Cassino to Lidice and from South Wales to Stalingrad. It is dormant now but it has never been the same thing as the Europe of NATO and of the Common Market.’
It was for this vision of a really democratic, really socialist European renaissance that E.P. — alongside his lifelong partner and collaborator, fellow Cambridge historian and Communist Dorothy — travelled to aid reconstruction in revolutionary Yugoslavia as enthusiastic volunteers along the ‘Youth Railway’. But the Spirit in Europe of which Thompson wrote stirringly in 1947 was then already in the process of sharp curtailment. ‘The division of Europe’ into mutually hostile, internally intolerant geopolitical camps, East and West, for which the mature Thompson held ‘rulers on both sides responsible’, represented ‘a betrayal’ of the dream for which Edward had fought and Frank died, turning the victories of the anti-fascist war ‘into a pile of shit.’
On the Anglo-American side of this disastrous co-reciprocal zoning of the continent, it was Churchill and Bevin’s fateful ‘sending of our reluctant forces to Athens, at Christmas 1944, to crush the Greek partisans’ that had first flung Thompson into what would become Britain’s modern antiwar movement: debating within his regiment about refusing orders should the (ultimately unrealised) possibility they be dispatched to shoot down EAM-ELAS for Greek monarchism come to pass.
Spurning cloistered postwar Cambridge for Halifax, finding employment through the Workers’ Educational Association, the Thompsons became active within West Riding peace circles as Cold War frosts crystallised. Come the Korean War, Edward would be chairing the Halifax Peace Committee and editing the left-wing Yorkshire Voice for Peace (among other movement roles), whilst holding a seat on the Communist Party’s Yorkshire District Committee.
The other great crime at the war’s end which would determine Thompson’s trajectory was the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — jointly comprising ‘the first annunciation of exterminist technology’, in whose shadow his generation would grow ‘habituated to the expectation that the very continuation of civilization was problematic.’ With the USSR acquiring its own A-Bomb by 1949, and Truman’s commissioning of the hydrogen bomb shortly thereafter, Thompson’s 1950 poem ‘The Place Called Choice’ dated ‘fairly exactly’ his own realisation of this existential threat.
‘. . . Spawn of that fungus settling on every city,
On the walls, the cathedrals, climbing the keening smoke-stacks,
Drifting on every sill, waiting there to germinate:
To hollow our house as white as an abstract skull.
Already the windows are shut, the children hailed indoors.
We wait together in the unnatural darkness
While that god forms outside in the shape of a mushroom
With vast blood-wrinkled spoor on the windswept snow.
And now it leans over us, misting the panes with its breath,
Sucking our house back into vacuous matter,
Helmeted and beaked, clashing its great scales,
Claws scratching on the slates, looking in with bleak stone eyes.’
Socialist Humanism and CND
Up until the mid-1950s, Thompson remained a loyal, albeit somewhat idiosyncratic cadre of the Communist Party. Although distant in Halifax from the Party’s disciplinarian King Street headquarters, he was involved in its national life — belonging, with Dorothy, to the renowned Communist Party Historians’ Group. A 1951 Party cultural conference presentation on ‘William Morris and Moral Issues Today’ gives a flavour of Thompson’s contemporary international politics: contraposing Morris’ (and the CP’s) ‘message of life against that of the slaughter-house culture’ exported by the United States, embodied on the world stage by ‘napalm, the Hell Bomb, and the butchers of Syngman Rhee.’
The young historian was ceaselessly active in protesting colonial outrages: Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Algeria, and the Suez Crisis of 1956. Ultimately, however, the most consequential international developments for Thompson’s Communist life came in the Eastern Bloc: with Nikita Khruschev’s ‘Secret Speech’ admitting the enormity of Stalin’s crimes that February, and the popular, repressed uprisings in Poland and Hungary that summer. Disillusioned by these revelatory blows, and dismayed by the British leadership’s refusal to concede open critical discussion of them, Edward and Dorothy joined some 8,000 others in exiting the Communist Party ‘Through the Smoke of Budapest.’
Thompson’s political, philosophical, and moral reckoning with ‘Stalinism’, elaborated unsparingly in his ‘Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines’ (1957), coincided with intensifying worldwide alarm over concatenating H-Bomb tests, increasing exponentially in explosive yield. This was no accident for William Morris’ biographer, who saw an intimate link between contemporary capitalist and Stalinist ideologies of ‘self-alienation’ — reducing ‘human beings to things, commodities, or appendages to machines’ — and the emergence to threaten humanity of ‘the biggest Thing of all, a Thing to end all things.’
‘The bomb is like an image of man’s whole predicament: it bears within it death and life, total destruction or human mastery over human history.’
Perceiving in the Cold War ideological atmosphere and in H-Bomb proliferation a consistent anti-human tendency, Thompson’s political journey out of the compromised Communist Party (though not, he insisted, out of communism) thus conveyed him to the crusade for nuclear disarmament. Ensuring mankind destroyed the Bomb before the Bomb could destroy mankind, Thompson felt, was the necessary fulcrum of the ‘socialist humanist’ initiative through which conscious, creative humanity could reclaim the future stolen from it by the Cold War. ‘The bomb must be dismantled; but in dismantling it, men will summon up energies which will open the way to their inheritance.’
Thompson was, naturally, a leading presence within the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from its inception — attending its grand Central Hall launch in February 1958, and identifying in its ‘rapidly gathering success’ a ‘new temper among the people.’ CND’s policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament was one which he lauded; conscious of the H-Bomb danger’s rootedness in geostrategic power politics, however, he argued this should be ‘complemented by renunciation of [Britain’s] military and diplomatic commitments of NATO, and the initiation in Europe of a policy of active neutrality.’ Such ‘positive neutralism’ owed formative inspiration to the posture of Non-Alignment pursued by the Yugoslav socialist republic, in whose postwar construction Thompson was proud to have shared.
Through all the discontinuities and ruptures that punctuated his career, unremitting opposition to NATO remained a political constant for E.P. Thompson, from its foundation to his death. In the year of CND’s foundation, he wrote:
‘The NATO power complex, so far from being a friend to any working-class movement, stretches from Algeria to Guatemala, from Portugal to Saudi Arabia; its pervasive retrogressive influence, as the holy alliance of the status quo, can be seen in the fact that during its period of dominance no Western labour movement has made any significant forward advance whatsoever.’
A necessity for the envisaged anti-nuclear movement, Thompson felt, was to ‘break through the taboos by which the Cold War [was] sustained.’ In Britain, this meant challenging ‘the fetishistic reverence attached to NATO and the American alliance’ — and the ‘[p]owerful political inhibitions set up whenever these ineffable entities come under scrutiny’. The dominant ideology behind this reverence for, and inhibiting clear-eyed critical discourse around, Britain’s postwar Atlanticist subordination to Washington in fundamentals of foreign (and nuclear) policy, Thompson would influentially christen as ‘Natopolitanism’.
Joining thousands of youngsters on CND’s Easter marches between London and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, Thompson was enthused by the iconoclastic instincts of the ‘Aldermaston generation’. With his and fellow ex-CPGB historian John Saville’s post-’56 journal The New Reasoner joining with the Universities and Left Review to form the New Left Review, Thompson looked to the incipient ‘New Left’ to surpass exhausted party orthodoxies and help reopen Britain’s path to socialist advance, starting with the CND cause from which ‘[s]erious politics today, in any worthwhile scale of human values, commences’. The successful unilateralist motion at Labour’s 1960 Scarborough conference, despite red-faced redbaiting invective from Hugh Gaitskell, appeared for Thompson to complete ‘the first stage’ of this struggle to ‘awaken the conscience of the nation’ against nuclear weapons, Natopolitanism, and generalised, stifling apathy.
Active nationally, the Thompsons also set about organising pro-disarmament activity across northern England, in 1960 leading the New Reasoner contingent on a 140-mile ‘Coast to Coast’ march from Withernsea to Liverpool — with Edward ‘so blinded by the huge CND banner he was carrying that he almost disappeared down an open manhole’.
This popular political and moral dissent against the ultimate symbol of faceless, tyrannical domination provided the formative atmosphere within which Thompson set about composing his magnum opus. Looking back in a 1980 preface, he confessed his puzzlement ‘to know when and how the book got itself written, since in 1959–62 I was also heavily engaged in the work of the first New Left, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and so on.’
Innocence and Experience
First published through Victor Gollancz, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) became an unexpected cult sensation — revolutionising the terrain of social history almost overnight, and winning for Thompson the legendary status among students, radicals, proletarian autodidacts, and even the begrudging academy that survives today. Unfortunately, however, this step into the sun as a public historian was to coincide with the faltering of the project to which Thompson had committed himself since 1956.
While the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty following the deep breath of the Cuban Missile Crisis represented a limited abatement of the arms race, for which CND’s role piloting a wider international outcry could claim some credit, the political road to British disarmament appeared blocked. Labour’s Atlanticist right had succeeded in reversing the 1960 vote for unilateralism the following year, and Thompson’s hopes that CND might cohere a loose pre-party formation for the New Left proved frustrated.
Disputes within the New Left, with E.P. butting heads with the Review’s younger new editors over English Questions and a perceived drift towards a Third-Worldist preoccupation, bequeathed him a polemical orientation towards the main currents of original Marxist thinking in contemporary Britain, and their Parisian structuralist influences — eventually to culminate in 1978’s mordacious The Poverty of Theory. Political fortunes faltered and personal camaraderie strained, Thompson spent time withdrawn from the political arena (but not from anti-establishment troublemaking) teaching at Warwick University, although in 1967 he would help draft the May Day Manifesto.
Isolation at home coupled with a chronic disappointment of international hopes: an overture to Castro via C. Wright Mills offering to relocate to revolutionary Cuba as a teacher, apparently foreclosed upon Soviet ‘intervention’; inspiration in the Chilean Road to Socialism, mourned in his September 1973 ‘Homage to Salvador Allende’; six disturbing weeks in India during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, fuelling a vocalised concern with the troubling expansion of Britain’s own ‘security state’. It was at the tail-end of this pessimistic political ebb that Thompson learned of the NATO Double-Track Decision to install US cruise missiles on British soil.
Protest and Survive
Thompson’s iconic 1980 pamphlet Protest and Survive, published through the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation (BRPF) in rejoinder to the government’s farcical Protect and Survive civil defence guidance, propelled the now white-haired antinomian back to the heart of national politics — and according to contemporary polling, of favourable public consciousness.
Proffering a foreboding analysis of Cold War co-armament as having reciprocally engendered a powerful ‘degenerative drift’ towards annihilation, Thompson cast a plague on both US and Soviet houses, but identified in Washington’s intended emplacement of cruise missiles throughout Western Europe (including at Britain’s Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth) an aggressive thrust inspired by US thinking about a potential ‘“theatre” nuclear war […] confined to Europe’, one which — its ostensible geographic delimitation excluding US cities whilst exposing Cisuralian Soviet ones — ‘crazy’ American strategists might actually entertain initiating.
‘[L]ocalised to a small area from the Urals to the western coast of Ireland’, such a ‘theatre’ exchange would of course, at the very least, decimate the populations of Europe; moreover, ‘owned and operated by the United States’, the Western European governments (let alone peoples) would have no say over their deployment: ‘someone else’s finger will be upon “our” trigger.’ With regard to Britain, Thompson asked:
‘[H]ow does it happen that Britain should find herself committed to policies which endanger the very survival of the nation, as a result of decisions taken by a secret committee of NATO, […] leaving the “owning and operation” of these “theatre” weapons in the hands of the military personnel of a foreign power, a power whose strategists have contingency plans for unleashing these missiles in a “theatre” war which would not extend as far as their own homeland?’
For the old anti-Atlanticist, this alarming situation ‘illuminate[d] the degree to which’ Britain’s ‘national sovereignty’ had been lost absolutely, and its ‘democratic process […] deformed’ unrecognisably, through three decades’ integration within the imperial structure of Natopolis. Concluding that ‘a general nuclear war is not only possible but probable, and that its probability is increasing’, Thompson nevertheless refused ‘to accept that this determinism is absolute’, declaring: ‘We must throw whatever resources still exist in human culture across the path of this degenerative logic. We must protest if we are to survive. Protest is the only realistic form of civil defence.’
Thompson urged the mobilisation of a great public campaign in Britain ‘to contest the importation of these foul and menacing weapons, which are at one and the same time weapons of aggression and invitations for retaliatory attack’, and in Europe to build what he would later dub a positive-neutralist ‘people’s detente’, across the Iron Curtain and against the bombs. In the BRPF’s ‘Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament’, published contemporaneously to (and in later editions of) Protect and Survive, he made a consonant call for an independent democratic movement for a nuclear-free European zone intermediating the two superpowers:
‘We must commence to act as if a united, neutral and pacific Europe already exists. We must learn to be loyal, not to ‘East’ or ‘West’, but to each other, and we must disregard the prohibitions and limitations imposed by any national state.’
Coming in at this highly combustible moment in British and European history, Thompson’s 1980 interventions had the effect of igniting a prairie fire.
The Poison of Caesar
The early-to-mid 1980s made the recalcitrant Marxist historian an icon of the mass movement to banish nuclear weapons — and if possible, the Cold War itself — from the ‘theatre’ of Europe.
Selling over 100,000 copies, Thompson’s pamphlet was instrumental in the contemporary revival of CND as a mass force under Bruce Kent (its membership skyrocketing thirty-eightfold over five years), with ‘Protest and Survive’ becoming the slogan for a series of massive national and regional demonstrations. On the intellectual front, his theory of ‘exterminism’ provoked effervescent international responses — including Mike Davis’ sympathetic 1982 critique, ‘Nuclear Imperialism and Extended Deterrence’.
NME magazine, in whose pages Thompson would repeatedly feature as almost a pop figure, described him as ‘the smash hit’ of November 1980’s colossal London rally, having earned ‘a huge ovation with his characteristically stirring words: “I wasn’t sure about this six months ago” he said. “But we can win. I want you to sense and feel your strength.”’
In incessant speaking demand, CND’s new vice-president bestrode the country like the itinerant radical preachers who had comprised his protagonists in The Making, telling his later biographer: ‘I am scarcely at home for more than two days on end, and I have had to stop my own historical work completely.’ Reflecting his newfound cultural profile, Thompson addressed Glastonbury Festival (co-organised through the eighties by CND itself), appealing to Britain’s dissenting subaltern traditions:
‘This has not only been a nation of money-makers and imperialists, it’s been a nation of inventors, of writers, of theatre and musicians, an alternative nation — and it is this alternative nation which I can see in front of me now!’
Marketed as ‘NOT The Dimbleby Lecture’ following BBC management’s political spiking of that invitation, Thompson’s Beyond the Cold War (1981) elaborated his vision of a non-aligned pan-European peace movement. ‘I think, once again, of 1944 and of the crest of the Resistance. There must be that kind of spirit abroad in Europe once more. But this time it must arise, not in the wake of war and repression, but before these take place. Five minutes afterwards, and it will be too late.’
Thompson attempted to help cohere this spirit through the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) campaign, coordinating supportive parties from across Western Europe behind huge anti-nuclear demonstrations whilst cultivating links with progressive Eastern dissidents and extending fraternity to movements like Poland’s Solidarność. Maintaining the necessary internationalism of any disarmament initiative, Thompson proclaimed: ‘“NATO out of Britain, Britain out of NATO” is an excellent slogan, but it must be a slogan taken together with a nuclear-free Europe, and with a break-up of both blocs.’
With Labour’s return to unilateralism at its 1980 conference significantly inspired by Protest and Survive, the prospects of throwing back Washington’s cruise missiles before they even arrived appeared encouraging. However, with calamitous post-Falklands electoral defeat in 1983 as Labour (and ex-Labour) Atlanticists openly maligned Michael Foot’s anti-cruise proposals, what Thompson called the ‘dragon’s teeth’ ultimately were successfully ‘sown in Greenham Common’ — to be met with the tireless encirclement of the Women’s Peace Camp.
His uncompromising nonalignment won Thompson Curtain-crossing notoriety as well as admiration. Soviet apparatchiks accused him of machinating to ‘bury the peace movement’ on behalf of alleged CIA handlers, while NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe condemned neutralist continental impulses for playing ‘right into the hands of a man named Thompson, who heads the campaign for nuclear disarmament in the UK.’
In 1984, debating at the Oxford Union, the anti-militarist grandee would finally come face-to-face with an embodiment of ‘the Beast’, in the shape of Ronald Reagan’s hawkish Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Warning of the universal danger posed by the twin superpowers’ ‘irrational’ reciprocal belligerence, Thompson invoked Blake’s poetic reflection upon the folly of imperial vainglory: ‘The strongest poison ever known; Came from Caesar’s laurel crown’ — imploring his audience, and his opponent, to ‘reject the poison of Caesar.’
Defeat in Achievement
The hesitant mutual retreat from the intercontinental ballistic brink come the Gorbachevian era, symbolised by the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, was an achievement for which Thompson attributed appreciable responsibility to ‘the pressure of peace movements’ internationally. Reflecting back in a November 1991 appearance on Desert Island Discs, he maintained:
‘I think there has been a sad underestimation of the role played by mass peace movements in many parts of the world. I think these did alter the terms of politics, the art of the possible, they redefined what was possible and necessary for politicians.’
Exhausted, ultimately irrecoverably, by his total bodily commitment to anti-nuclear crusading throughout the 1980s, Thompson had lain hospitalised when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, recalling coming off a ventilator during the Velvet Revolution ‘so that I got my lungs back and the people of Prague got their lungs back on the same day.’ Consciously entering his twilight years, Thompson was initially cautiously optimistic for the post-Cold War world: bidding his Marxist comrades in 1990 ‘wait a few months before we decide that it is “capitalism” which has triumphed tout court’, and suggesting that ‘the end of the Cold War’ should be seen ‘as a moment of opportunity, not defeat.’
But if there was any such ‘opportunity’ for progressive politics at the fin-de-siècle of the Soviet system, it was never realised — with US-predominated neoliberal hegemony descending like an iron heel upon the post-Communist societies. Thompson soon perceived this geopolitical direction of travel, criticising the ‘Lop-Sided “Settlement”’ whereby ‘withdrawal of Soviet forces […] from eastern and central Europe and the Baltic states’ had not been accompanied by a concomitant US exit:
‘The American idea of a ‘settlement’ is for a reunited Germany – and its military forces – in NATO, [while] US nuclear-armed navies patrol the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and US bases – with their Tridents and their aircraft armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles – remain everywhere in the West and South, from Oxfordshire to the Turkish border with the USSR.’
Without ‘a truly symmetrical dismantling of both blocs, in which NATO at long last ma[de] concessions which match the concessions in the East’, the resolution of the Cold War in Europe would be one which had ‘evicted one side and left the other fully armed and holding onto all its stations’. Having opposed Thatcher’s jingoistic performance over the Falklands, and faced police manhandling during an Oxford Street sitdown against the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli, Thompson remained implacably hostile to Western imperialism in its moment of triumph: decrying the Gulf War as sickening (despite Saddam Hussein’s being ‘a prime bastard’), and as ‘of the pattern of the future’.
Thompson’s Witness and Ours
Thompson’s final years were thus, in retrospect, those of the consolidation of the unipolar Washington Consensus. Reflecting on the thirty years since — from the collapse of Yugoslavia into ethnonationalist bloodletting to the millions claimed by the Global War on Terror, disastrous recrudescence of Great Russian revanchism, and ongoing genocide in Palestine — it does not strain the imagination to consider what Thompson would have made of the world it inaugurated.
As it happened, however, the weary warrior’s witness ended peacefully in his Rushwick garden in August 1993, aged just sixty-nine, with Dorothy at his side. E.P. Thompson’s life as historian, socialist, creative, polemicist, educator, and soldier in and out of uniform defies summarisation. The Radical History Review, paying artistic tribute upon the historian’s death, opted to foreground Thompson’s lifelong battle with the Beast of nuclear armageddon: illustrating him in armour, in the bellowing throes of knightly combat with a dragon.
It was as such an unyielding fighter, of profound historical and exemplary significance for the modern British peace movement, that Thompson was remembered by veterans of the Protest and Survive years at the CND-cosponsored National March for Palestine that fell upon his centenary, including former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Writing in the 2020s, it’s clear that we are back in Thompson’s world. Between terrifying nuclear brinkmanship over Ukraine (and perhaps soon, the South China Sea), US warheads returning to RAF Lakenheath, and our Parliamentary representatives besieged by a Starmer leadership for whom NATO and Trident represent ‘non-negotiable’ idols, Britain’s internationalist left would benefit from rediscovering E.P. Thompson the revolutionary — for years the most prominent opponent of nuclear Natopolitanism in UK public life.
Running as a fiery seam through every stage of Thompson’s life was an unassailable instinct of dissent towards established power and established orthodoxy. The historian’s final, posthumously published sentence declared: ‘Never on any page of Blake is there the least complicity with the kingdom of the Beast.’ The very same, on his centenary, can be said for E.P. Thompson himself.Original post