This month marks 100 years since the birth of British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson. His work offers vital insights into the growth of class consciousness — but also helps us see how parts of the 20th-century left lost their structural focus on class.

E. P. Thompson addresses an anti– nuclear weapons rally, Oxford, England, 1980. (Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons)

Some people are influential but not brilliant. Others are brilliant but remain unrecognized their whole lives. Neither fate befell Edward Palmer Thompson. In the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, the British Marxist historian was one of the “100 most cited authors of the 20th century in all fields” for 1976–83. Even during his lifetime, many spoke of a “Thompsonian view” of social history.

It’s easy to see why. Thompson developed intellectually in the British Communist Historians’ Group, widely credited as having revolutionized the history profession internationally. According to Perry Anderson, it even paved the way for Anglophone hegemony in Western Marxism. In his seminal 1963 work, The Making of the English Working Class, which his close friend Eric Hobsbawm described as a “historical volcano” erupting, Thompson had developed his understanding of class as “history from below.” Detecting an “unreconstructed Hegelianism” in Marx’s Grundrisse that turned capital into a subject of history, Thompson argued that Capital was not a work of history — and that in later years even Friedrich Engels had understood that it lacked a sufficiently historical character.

Thompson observed “a real silence” in Marx regarding the real history of capitalism, as embedded in politics, law, ideology, and cultural forms like value systems. Thompson turned against prevalent usage of Marx’s “base-superstructure” metaphor and against Georg Lukács’s analytical distinction of “class in itself” and “class for itself,” both of which he considered troublesome. Instead, Thompson defined class as the process of the development of class consciousness.

Thompson observed ‘a real silence’ in Marx regarding the real history of capitalism as it is embedded in politics, law, ideology, and cultural forms like value systems.

This brought Thompson into antagonism with another seminal contemporary Marxist thinker, Louis Althusser. This French philosopher strongly criticized the Marxist humanism to which Thompson sought to return, and argued that history was a “process without a subject.”

In his 1978 essay The Poverty of Theory, directed against Althusser, Thompson defended “historical logic” and the theoretical approach to historical knowledge. He acknowledged that Marxist historians were “indebted for certain concepts to a general Marxist theory which extends itself towards, and draws upon the findings of, Marxists at work in other fields.” With its “difficult but still creative” “provisional categories,” he argued, “Marxism has given us a universal vocabulary.” However: “[I]f there is a common ground for all Marxist practices then it must be where Marx located it himself, in historical materialism. This is the ground from which all Marxist theory arises, and to which it must return in the end.” Yet, Althusser’s French structuralism, like other currents such as West German state-derivation Marxism (seeking to conceptually derive the state, law, ideology etc. of bourgeois society from capitalist economic relations), had taken to the extreme a tendency, already present in Marx and Engels, to cast real history in abstract laws. Thompson mocked “the absurdities to which this error has been taken in the work of Althusser and his colleagues — that is, the absurdities of a certain kind of static self-circulating ‘Marxist’ structuralism.”

Was Thompson Right?

Later, some who sympathized with Thompson, such as Perry Anderson and Ellen Meiksins Wood, considered his criticism of Althusser exaggerated.

Two years after The Poverty of Theory was published, Anderson attempted a half-salvation of Althusser and Étienne Balibar in his Arguments Within English Marxism. For Anderson, the accusation that these coauthors of Reading Capital had equated the capitalist “mode of production,” in which Marx’s laws of tendency operate, with the real-historical “social formation” of capitalism was not justified. For him, Althusser and Balibar had emphasized this conceptual separation precisely because they intended to problematize and correct the “constant confusion in Marxist literature between the social formation and its economic infrastructure.” Thompson had, Anderson argued, “contrived to convict his opponents of an error which they were the first to name.”

Later, Meiksins Wood agreed with Anderson’s perception, considering Thompson’s critique “rather ill-judged” She saw Thompson and Althusser as two different attempts to deal with the problem of Marx’s “base/superstructure metaphor.” For her, this latter had “always been more trouble than it is worth” because of its “denial of human agency and its failure to accord a proper place to ‘superstructural’ factors, to consciousness as embodied in ideology, culture or politics.” While Thompson pursued Marxist humanism as a solution, the Althusserians theorized a “relative autonomy” of the various “levels” of bourgeois society and “their mutual interaction” with “a deferral to determination by the ‘economic’ to ‘the last instance,’” thus eradicating, with “a certain amount of conceptual trickery,” real history from the “science of society.”

Ellen Meiksins Wood saw Thompson and Althusser as two different attempts to deal with the problem of Marx’s ‘base/superstructure metaphor.’

Yet, Wood also sought to save parts of Thompson’s critique. In Democracy Against Capitalism, she writes that “there remains an important sense in which Thompson was right,” because Althusser and Balibar’s distinction between mode of production and social formation “simply reproduced the very mistakes in the base/superstructure metaphor which it was intended to correct.” This could be said insofar as their “concept ‘mode of production’ . . . constitutes the basis from which a social totality — ‘capitalism’ in the totality of its economic, political and ideological relations — can be theoretically generated.”

Thompson’s Dynamic and Subjective Theory of Class

In a sense, Thompson’s Marxism (he preferred the term “historical materialism”) moved from this point of skepticism regarding the base-superstructure model. To him, “historical materialism” expressed a “sense that ideas and values are situated in a material context, and material needs are situated in a context of norms and expectations, and one turns around this many-sided societal object of investigation. From one aspect it is a mode of production, from another a way of life.” With this in mind, Thompson called for an “alternative heuristics of ‘structure’ and of ‘process’” and devoted himself to the effect of structures in the processual.

Thompson defined the historical process as one that arises from collective human action:

Every action is in relation to others, just as the individual is generally mediated (through the market, power and subordination relations, etc.). Insofar as these actions and relations gave rise to changes, which become the object of rational enquiry, we may define this sum as historical process: that is, practices ordered and structured in rational ways . . .

Today, Thompson’s concept of “making” is widely used, from Beverly Silver’s studies on the “making,” “un-making” and “re-making” of the global working class to Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s Making of Global Capitalism. This hadn’t been true when Thompson’s book was published — hence why his foreword explains that his title uses the word “making” because “it is a study in an active process. . . . The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.”

In his book, Thompson wrote against two conceptions of class: within Marxism, against Georg Lukács’s “class in itself/for itself” dichotomy, and beyond this, against bourgeois science. Thompson argued against Lukács’s concept of class and against the Althusserians and the Leninist vanguardism that tended to be inherent in them:

There is today an ever-present temptation to suppose that class is a thing. This was not Marx’s meaning, in his own historical writing, yet the error vitiates much latter-day “Marxist” writing. “It”, the working class, is assumed to have a real existence, which can be defined almost mathematically — so many men who stand in a certain relation to the means of production. Once this is assumed it becomes possible to deduce the class-consciousness which “it” ought to have (but seldom does have) if “it” was properly aware of its own position and real interests. There is a cultural superstructure, through which this recognition dawns in inefficient ways. These cultural “lags” and distortions are a nuisance, so that it is easy to pass from this to some theory of substitution: the party, sect, or theorist, who disclose class-consciousness, not as it is, but as it ought to be.

At the same time, Thompson wrote against bourgeois science, via two lines of attack. Firstly, against the hegemonic bourgeois theories of the time, such as those of Ralf Dahrendorf and Talcott Parsons’s role theory in sociology, which acknowledged the existence of classes but pursued the immanent goal of adapting wage laborers’ “grievances” to the system. Secondly, he wrote against sociological positivism, which, because it is unable to find a class with a collective identity in quantitative cross-sectional studies of workers’ consciousness, negates the existence of classes altogether. Against them, Thompson wrote:

But a similar error is committed daily on the other side of the ideological divide. In one form, this is a plain negative. Since the crude notion of class attributed to Marx can be faulted without difficulty, it is assumed that any notion of class is a pejorative theoretical construct, imposed upon the evidence. It is denied that class has happened at all.

Implicitly, Thompson thus also targeted the ascending neoclassical and right-wing libertarian ideas of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich August Hayek, who had criticized socialism as a deceptive invention of intellectuals rather than the ideological expression of real classes who made themselves in real history.

Against both Lukácsian Marxism and bourgeois perspectives, Thompson defined class as

an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.

According to Thompson, “Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.” And, as he argued in his essay “The Pecularities of the English,” class can only be observed over time:

Sociologists who have stopped the time-machine and, with a good deal of conceptual huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine-room to look, tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class. They can only find a multitude of people with different occupations, incomes, status-hierarchies, and the rest. Of course they are right, since class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion — not this interest and that interest, but the friction of interests — the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise. Class is a social and cultural formation (often finding institutional expression) which cannot be defined abstractly, or in isolation, but only in terms of relationship with other classes; and, ultimately, the definition can only be made in the medium of time — that is, action and reaction, change and conflict. . . . [C]lass itself is not a thing, it is a happening.”

In this sense, Thompson’s theory can be understood as a dynamic and subjective class theory:

Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born — or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms. If the experience appears as determined, class-consciousness does not.

The West German Thompsonian historical sociologist Michael Vester thus described the “emergence of the proletariat” as a “learning process.” According to Thompson, in England this process was finished between 1780 and 1832 insofar as “most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against their rulers and employers.”

Thompson railed against orthodox readings that rendered the working class passive and ignored its agency and historical efficacy.

With this theory of class, Thompson turned against three orthodoxies. Firstly, against bourgeois-socialist Fabianism, which saw the working class merely as “passive victims of laissez-faire capitalism” and thus looked upon it paternalistically. Secondly, against bourgeois approaches that view the working class only as a “labor force, as migrants, or as the data for statistical series.” Both rendered the working class passive and ignored its agency and historical efficacy, as well as its struggles for what critical psychologist Klaus Holzkamp conceptualized as “agency capability.” Thompson, instead, wanted to rehabilitate working-class people as acting subjects of their own history. This meant “history from below” in the most emphatic sense; in this regard, Thompson was a radical democrat beyond liberal elite rule, beyond the new “critical criticism” of the Frankfurt School, and beyond Leninist and often sectarian vanguardism.

Thirdly, Thompson opposed what he called the “‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ orthodoxy,” where scholarship focused on the early history of the labor movement that he studied, in order to identify supposed “forerunners — pioneers of the Welfare State, progenitors of a Socialist Commonwealth, or (more recently) early exemplars of rational industrial relations.” For Thompson, this approach, which thinks and interprets history from its end, as if it had to happen that way, is problematic. Surely, this bends history as it actually happened in order to adapt it to the concepts and power relations of the present. But for Thompson, in a spirit reminiscent of Walter Benjamin, it is also missing the “blind alleys, the lost causes, and the losers themselves.” In contrast, he strove “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.”

Thompson thus returned to the romantic-poetic vein of the beginning of his intellectual career, which had given rise to his first book, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary:

Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.

It was also in this sense that Thompson’s posthumously published study on William Blake — contrary to the prevailing Blake research — recognized in the Romantic poet’s lyrical work the attempt to reject “the least complicity with the kingdom of the beast,” modern industrial capitalism.

Even if struggles over automation measures by capital usually ended in defeat, they nevertheless had an impact on the development of class consciousness.

Still, Thompson’s focus on historically failed defensive struggles is also owed to a systematic way of thinking class. It is justified by the fact that — as Beverly J. Silver has also shown in a Thompsonian spirit — major waves of workers’ struggles in history have very often been linked to automation measures by capital. Even if, historically, these usually ended in defeat and “could not stop further mechanization and the associated decline in wages,” they nevertheless had an impact on the development of class consciousness because, according to Thompson, its emergence could not be imagined without corresponding class struggles. In this, Thompson drew on Marx’s idea of the revolution that creates the revolutionaries. In his essay “Eighteenth-Century English Society: Class Struggle Without Class?” he writes: “The protagonists in the class struggle discover themselves as classes in the course of the struggle.” In his view, “far too much theoretical attention has been paid to the term ‘class’, (mostly quite obviously a-historical), but too little to the term ‘class struggle.’” This, he thought, was problematic because the latter is “the more universal concept.”

Thompson’s argument about the political nature of class could be seen in action in the dispute with influential Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. In notes in preparation for the conference “Is there anything wrong with the socialist idea?” the dissident Kołakowski, who had been living in the West since 1968, had written: “Let us imagine what the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would mean if the (real not imaginary) working class took over exclusive political power now in the United States.” Thompson responded:

The absurdity of the question appears (in your view) to provide its own answer. But I doubt whether you have given to the question a moment of serious historical imagination: you have simply assumed a white working class, socialized by capitalist institutions as it is now, mystified by the news media as it is now, structured into competitive organizations as it is now, without self-activity or its own forms of political expression: i.e., a working class with all the attributes of subjection within capitalist structures which one then “imagines” to achieve power without changing either those structures or itself: which is, I fear, a typical example of the fixity of concepts which characterizes much capitalist ideology.

Contemporary Influence

Thompson’s dynamic and subjective class theory served as the spiritus rector of many Marxist movements of thought. It was compatible with various international approaches to Marxism. In particular, it was easily adaptable to Italian operaismo, which, constantly breathing historical optimism, consistently viewed social analysis from the perspective of the agency, self-empowerment, and historical efficacy of the working class and capital’s strategies to prevent this. It was also an inspiration for Frank Deppe’s seminal 1981 book, Einheit und Spaltung der Arbeiterklasse, arguing that division, not unity, is characteristic and typical of the working class’s existence.

Thompson’s contrast to French structuralism should not be overstated. Much as the Miliband-Poulantzas controversy over the capitalist state was, according to Clyde W. Barrow, a debate over methodology, this clash was also as a disciplinary controversy between Marxist historiography and philosophy. This also shows in the fact that the late work of Nicos Poulantzas, whom Thompson had sharply attacked alongside his teacher Althusser, bears parallels with his own insights. Hence, in his major (and final) work State, Power, Socialism (1978), the Greek-French state theorist also describes the fragmentation of the working class as the normal state of affairs, which can only be overcome through class struggle. Poulantzas does this with the concept of “individualization.” Not only are workers in competition with each other on the capitalist market, but the state, whose function it is to organize the ruling class and disorganize the dominated classes, unites them in its state apparatuses through mechanisms of hierarchization such as school grades and educational degrees, and barriers such as university entrance qualifications, etc. This doubles the objective competition on the labor market, which can only be eliminated through extreme efforts to organize in trade union interest groups and class-based socialist parties.

Neoliberal globalization creates — sometimes as unintended consequences of capital’s strategies — workers’ power resources and ‘labor unrest.’

One of the most fruitful theoretical approaches of Marxism today, which inspired Thompson, is the “power resources approach.” This was originally developed by Silver in connection with the operaista theoretical heritage and was henceforth transformed and refined by Klaus Dörre and others at Germany’s University of Jena. In her Forces of Labor (2003), Silver examined how the constant attempt by capital to undermine the existing power resources of the working class and its resistance to this — which Silver, drawing on Thompson, calls “labor unrest” — propels the constant transformation of productive forces and production relations. As such, it affects and corrodes the power resources of the working class: “Marketplace power” (resulting from tight labor markets), “workplace bargaining power” (emanating from workers’ structural location in production) and “associational power” (resulting from labor union organizing and density). Restoring a structural analysis of the capitalist mode of production, Silver thus added the concept of “class unmaking” to the concept of “class making,” essential for understanding the historical crisis of the (Western) labor movement under the conditions of global capitalism. And yet, neoliberal globalization creates, sometimes as unintended consequences of capital’s strategies, workers’ power resources and “labor unrest.” Take, for instance, the conditions of “just-in-time” production, which made capital vulnerable and labor disputes in logistics more promising, while today the shift to “just-in-case” production restructures the conditions for labor activism once more.

Turning to the Subject — But Away From Marxism?

Still, not everyone was enthusiastic about Thompson’s feud with Althusser. A decade after Thompson’s death, Hobsbawm wrote in his autobiography that he had told him it was “almost a crime on his part to abandon his possibly epoch-making historical work in order to work on a thinker who would no longer have any influence in ten years’ time.” However, the German sociologist Jürgen Ritsert supported the notion that “the influence of the so-called ‘structuralist Marxism’ of some French theorists” was “so strong” that Thompson was right to feel “compelled to write a polemic against what he feared to be a structuralist misery of theory.” His correctness is also shown by the fact that the Althusser school’s theoretical abstraction took on a life of its own in subsequent decades and detached itself not only from historical reality and social (structural) analysis but also from political practice in general, let alone the workers’ movement. As a radical-chic aestheticism of “baroque theories” (in John Sanbonmatsu’s term) — Jacques Lacan, Jacques Rancière, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and also Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Luc Nancy — it nonetheless prevailed in academia. The “linguistic turn” was undoubtedly inherent in this.

At the same time, the retreat from questions of political economy, Marxist or not, and the turn to culture in Western Marxism — in the Frankfurt School, in the reception of Antonio Gramsci in the mid-to-late 1960s, in Stuart Hall and also in Thompson — had already been an expression of historical subjective defeats (in 1933 against fascism, after 1945 against anti-communist hegemony). Marxist economists such as Paul Sweezy or Ernest Mandel tended to be an exception. The “culturalist turn” was meant to explain why the working class–based revolution had failed. Theorists turned to culture to understand why capitalism seemed so unbearably stable and how it was reproduced. The “culturalist turn” was part of — and itself reinforced — the widespread misunderstanding of a more or less complete integration of the working class into capitalism and the silencing of the capital-labor antagonism, be it through the state administrative apparatuses in combination with the mass communication media of the culture industry (advertising, film, television, pop culture), as in the Frankfurt School; or, as in Althusser, through the combination of repressive state apparatuses and ideological state apparatuses, among which the French structuralist even counted the labor unions; or, as with Foucault, the “quasi-fascist” power that infiltrated subjects and interpersonal relationships and destroyed the “grand narrative” of socialism and socialists taking over the state, understood as a form of macro-power.

The ‘culturalist turn’ was part of — and itself reinforced — the widespread misunderstanding of a more or less complete integration of the working class into capitalism.

The abandonment of political economy made it more possible for left-wing radical theorists to mistake the specific historical conditions of Fordism under Keynesian regulation, which temporarily allowed record profit rates and historically rising real wages, for general conditions of developed capitalist society. Together with culture, this was perceived as the glue that held everything together and was supposed to explain the stability of capitalist power relations. However, as radical-left theorists were all still dissatisfied with the status quo and fundamentally rejected the existing conditions, the “longing for something completely different” (Max Horkheimer) and the need for a unity of theory and practice and social change remained, not least among those whom Alain Lipietz termed the “rebellious sons of Althusser,” or in the practice-oriented disciples of Theodor Adorno, such as Hans-Jürgen Krahl and Jürgen Habermas. Initially, this desire for change turned to fringe-group strategies: the hippies revolting against the capitalist work ethic in Herbert Marcuse; the mentally ill, prisoners, petty criminals, and sexual minorities in Foucault (and Pier Paolo Pasolini); the communicative reason of the enlightened intellectual in Adorno and Horkheimer themselves. The opportunity for such a practical orientation on a wider scale arose from the “epiphany” of 1968, with which Barrow explained Poulantzas’s “poststructuralist” turn from Political Power and Social Classes (1968) to State, Power, Socialism (1978). Other reference theorists of “Cultural Marxism” also had this great awakening experience, notably Marcuse, who abandoned his theory of One-Dimensional Man in society’s immobilized antagonism in favor of the practical-political considerations of his book Counterrevolution and Revolt.

The “Paris May Day,” but also the wildcat strikes in West Germany, had shown that “late-capitalist” society was far from without contradictions — and that the capital-labor antagonism had not been eliminated by political, ideological, and cultural factors and institutions. The more politico-economically oriented traditional left in the Western communist parties, decried as “reformists” by the radical left, saw 1968 essentially as the exhaustion of the development potential of postwar capitalism and a certain intensification of class and distributional conflicts as a result of recession and mass unemployment. Yet, the various “culturalist” and correspondingly elitist-vanguardist currents of the radical left interpreted 1968 as a “world revolution” from Paris to Prague, from California to Vietnam. For these latter, who were much more academically oriented, this impression could arise — even as an awakening experience — precisely because until then they had declared practice largely impossible. They suggested that “the system” could only be changed, if at all, from “the outside” through a kind of revolutionary act by vanguardist “fringe groups,” a change in “mass consciousness” (the “subjective factor”), or by an external force, such as the “fighting peoples” in the developing countries whom Maoists identified as the “revolutionary subject.”

The more revolutionary the events of 1968 were interpreted as being, the more 1968 inevitably had to be seen as a defeat.

Inevitably, all of this was linked to implicit avant-garde concepts, which in turn had their cultural roots in the student milieus and the “New Man” ideas of the ’60s cultural revolution. Basically, these currents embodied radical left-wing revenants of the “Young Hegelians,” whose avant-garde attitude — “If only the masses were as enlightened and intellectually liberated as we are, if only they would rally around us, then we could have a real revolution!” — Marx had mocked as “critical criticism.”

The more revolutionary the events of 1968 were interpreted as being — the more the radical left-wing intellectuals overestimated the significance of the revolt of the future functional elites of the bourgeoisie at the universities, which inevitably also reflected an overestimation of their own abilities — the more 1968 inevitably had to be seen as a defeat. While activists in the more labor-oriented Western communist parties experienced an expansion of their power to act in the post-’68 period — which included the Western policy of détente with the Soviet Union, the international recognition of East Germany, the democratization of universities, the appointment of Marxist professors, and new fields of activity in the trade unions — the vanguardist currents in the student associations instead set out to find the causes of a perceived defeat. Within these socialist groups, the lack of connection between (striking) workers and the left-wing student movement was often identified as the reason for this defeat. Hence why Maoist-oriented forces in particular headed into the factories with much ardor as die-hard “professional revolutionaries.”

At the same time, the (re)gained practical perspective in this spectrum concentrated on the real, existing mass movements. Increasingly, this meant not trade unions and defensive and receding workplace struggles, but civil society mass protests recruited mainly from the “new petty bourgeoisie” (Poulantzas), such as the struggles in Germany against the “Runway West” at Frankfurt Airport, against the construction of nuclear power plants, etc.

Now, unlike Althusser, Thompson’s Marxism was far from Maoist. His orientation toward mass movements beyond the factory floor was connected to the British peace movement. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which he headed, was also more in direct, historical-classical connection with the communist labor movement, even if Thompson was a leader in the break with the one-sided pro-Soviet currents. This was reflected in the split of the Campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament (END) from the CND, seeking a connection to the Eastern European peace movements, which were (also) fed by dissidents, such as the Prague student leader and later Czech foreign minister and president of the UN General Assembly, Jan Kavan.

Propelled by the desire to identify the next historical subject of revolutionary or reformist change, there was a shift from the agency of the working class to the new social movements.

Nevertheless, as the German historian Bernd Hüttner has pointed out, there was a connection between Thompson’s “history from below” and the turning away from the working class, class analysis, and thus from Marxism. As Hüttner puts it, “history from below” developed in three stages, particularly in Germany. The criticism of the “Great Man Theories of History” prevalent in the 1950s–60s, which narrated history as the result of elite decisions, led — driven in part by the now incipient reception of Thompson’s work — to a split at the West German Historians’ Summit (“Historikertag”) in 1972 and the development of “history as historical social science” (Hans-Ulrich Wehler), which devoted itself to social history, the analysis of capitalism, and dynamic class development. However, Thompson’s approach, which replaced the theory of capitalism with an analysis instead centered on “agency,” left room for such analysis to focus on the agency of “new social movements.”

Propelled by the desire to identify the next historical subject of revolutionary or reformist change, this shift from the agency of the working class to the new social movements was facilitated by two dynamics: firstly, the large majority of the (former) student movement revolutionaries had little connection to the actually existing labor movement, while the new social movements were almost exclusively driven by the “professional middle classes” to which the intellectuals themselves belonged. Secondly, the fact that the neoliberal counterrevolution had wiped out the massive defensive strike waves of the 1970s also made it plausible to follow the public shift in attention to the new social movements, not least because that was also how academic careers were made. Yet at the theoretical level, this reinforced the shift away from an analysis of the structures of capitalist society, insofar as the new “history of the everyday” (“Alltagsgeschichte”), which essentially emanated from the new social movements, had criticized the still somewhat structuralist “historical social science” for not including individuals, everyday life, and individual patterns of interpretation. This antistructuralist epistemological individualization was essentially a theoretical doubling of the capitalist isolation of the individual worker through labor-market competition. The economic and political weakness of the working class resulting from neoliberalism was thus theoretically reinforced and solidified.

The shift away from structural analysis and rise of epistemological individualism meant that grievances could hardly be addressed by anything except identity politics.

The weakness of organized labor obviously worsened inequality and social injustices during the neoliberal period. However, the shift away from structural analysis and rise of epistemological individualism meant that grievances could hardly be addressed by anything except identity politics. With a few exceptions, class initially disappeared almost entirely from academic research and public discourse. When it was revived during the 2010s, it was difficult to do so without an understanding of class as more than just another discriminated identity in need of “recognition” rather than — as Marx and also Thompson meant it — a social relationship based on exploitation.

What Ellen Meiksins Wood in 1987 diagnosed as a general “retreat from class” under the impact of what Althusser had termed “the crisis of Marxism” could obviously continue insofar as the neoliberal turn meant a crisis in the labor movement, which continues to this day.

Thompson himself did not retreat from class. He remained loyal to Marxist research and socialist politics until the end of his life. But this did not necessarily apply to others whom he had influenced. Both the “culturalist” and the “agency turn,” with which not only the second but also the first New Left and thus also Thompson are undoubtedly associated, were not only an expression of a subjective historical defeat, but also opened up the terrain for a political activism that, in the face of the neoliberal counterrevolution, threw itself on the new social movements as actors of the desired social change. It became theoretically impoverished and was absorbed into the both theory- and history-less social movements and party projects that emerged from this in the early 1980s, such as the “Greens,” which passed off their lack of theory and history as an expression of an “undogmatic left.”

It was during the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, that the new social movements eventually reached political power as part of the center-left governments and sought to implement their goals of social, ecological, and cultural modernization. However, they did so at a time when the labor movement was tremendously weakened through accelerated capitalist globalization. Insofar as now the working class was lacking as the only or at least the most powerful force capable of materially grounding feminist or environmentalist demands, the result was that legal, cultural, discursive, and symbolic victories were won at the expense of the necessary ecological restructuring of the economy or the much-needed enforcement of free public daycare, free public homes for the elderly, etc.

Thompson himself did not retreat from class. He remained loyal to Marxist research and socialist politics until the end of his life.

On the contrary, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroeder’s privatization and deregulation schemes and the transformation of the welfare into a “workfare” state meant that the traditional ladders for working-class upward mobility were kicked down. This paved the way for right-wing populisms to prey on the betrayed. The “new” in Clinton’s “New Democrats,” Blair’s “New Labour,” and Schroeder’s “Neue Mitte” was to kick down the old social movement, i.e. the labor movement, and push its organizations further into a defensive position vis-à-vis capital. What could be learned from the limited new social movement victories during the 1990s years of progressive neoliberalism was that no real social progress is possible without organized labor — let alone against it.

It would be terrible philosophical idealism to blame Thompson and the New Left for the working class’s defeats. Yet it cannot be ignored that the theoretical reflection of this defeat was a shift away from class analysis — and that this was made much easier through both the Althusserians’ shift to ever more abstractionist theoreticism and the Thompsonians’ revolt against structuralist analyses of capitalism and class.

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