July 10, 2013
Dean Michael Merrill to Participate in Global E.P. Thompson Conference at Harvard
He will speak about E.P. (Edward Palmer) Thompson and the theory of the English working class.
Thompson was a British historian, writer, socialist and peace campaigner best known for his historical work on the British radical movements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular “The Making of the English Working Class.”
Thompson also published the novel “The Sykaos Papers” and a collection of poetry. He was one of the principal intellectuals of the Communist party in Great Britain, although he left the party in 1956 over the Soviet invasion of Hungary; he nevertheless remained a historian in the Marxist tradition, calling for a rebellion against Stalinism as a prerequisite for the restoration of communists’ confidence in revolutionary perspectives.
He played a key role in the first New Left in Britain in the ‘50s and was a vociferous left-wing socialist of the Labor governments of 1964-70 and ’74-79, and an early and constant supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, becoming during the 1980s the leading intellectual light of the movement against nuclear weapons in Europe.
In the abstract written for and accepted by the conference, Merrill’s writes, “The intellectual qualities that made E.P. Thompson a great historian were the products of his commitments, as he understood and lived them, as a Marxist and a Communist. He offered 'The Making of the English Working Class,' among other reasons, as an example of how Marxists ought to go about understanding the world, if they wanted actually to change it, in ways that made our circumstances better and not worse.
“In particular, he wanted a Marxism that was both subject to empirical controls and enriched by a language of individual agency and moral responsibility.
“I will pay homage to these commitments, both theoretically and practically, first, by situating Thompson's historical practice in the context of his theoretical concerns; and, second, by recounting the history of the phrase, 'a fair day's wages for a fair day's work,' first used in 1834 by a group of Bradford stockingers and subsequently picked up at first by the English and subsequently by the global labor movement.
“While Thompson missed its part in his story, the phrase remains today probably the best-known short description of the labor movement's goal, as most working people understand it. As such, the recovery of its origins is wholly consonant with Thompson's stated mission to 'rescue the poor stockinger ... from the enormous condescension of posterity'.”
Merrill’s eulogy for Thompson, “E.P. Thompson: In Solidarity,” was published in Radical History Review 56: 152-156 1993