Dorothy Thompson: historian of Chartism

Submitted by Matthew on 23 February, 2011 - 2:48

Labour and socialist historian Dorothy Thompson died on 29 January at the age of 87. She is best known for her large and tremendously important work on the 19th century Chartist movement.

Thompson took an over-arching view of Chartism as a movement, never overlooking the contributions of the individual men and women involved.

She studied in detail the culture of Chartism and the role of gender within it, without retreating from what was at root a class analysis. In The Early Chartists (1971) she stressed the diversity of Chartism while emphasising its national character. Her major work, The Chartists (1984), brought the role of women and Irish radicals into discussions of the movement.

Thompson helped develop an understanding of Chartism as something much more than a fight for the right to vote; it was, she argued, a radical working-class social movement. This “cultural” approach was similar to that taken by her partner E P Thompson in many of his works (e.g. Customs in Common). The idea was that culture was not a static “thing” but a process by which people developed ways to struggle against dominant social systems.

Edward and Dorothy Thompson were part of a group of Communist Party historians who, after the Second World War, were instrumental in a turn away from studying just “high politics”. They helped give birth to “social history”.

But the Thompsons also became dissidents in the CP — leaving the party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary along with 19 journalists who worked on the party paper the Daily Worker and thousands of members. Eric Hobsbawm was the only prominent member of the Communist Party Historians’ Group who did not leave.

They were part of a group of intellectuals who grouped around the New Reasoner. The New Reasoner was strongly humanistic, and used the language of “progressive” politics that dates back to the “Popular Front” period of the 1930s when Communist Party’s advocated alliances between workers’ organisations and middle-class and bourgeois elements.

It is a politics that still lingers strongly in Stalinist influenced left.

A break with Stalinism had occurred, but took a long time because many involved had, like Dorothy Thompson, spent their whole lives, from childhood, as Communist Party members.

Dorothy Thompson’s political role in the “New Left” was mainly in opposing nuclear weapons. This included editing the collection Over Our Dead Bodies: Women Against the Bomb (1982).

Ray Challinor, labour historian and long-time member of the IS/SWP, also passed away recently. E P Thompson died in 1993 and Christopher Hill in 2003.

They were part of a generation of left-wing historians whose work attempted to study class struggles over periods in history. Hill spent his life analysing 17th-century Britain and the rise of the bourgeois state. EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class looked at the process of class formation in England. And Challinor looked at aspects of the British revolutionary socialist movement.

From the 1980s much academic history lapsed into micro-history. It was influenced by post-modernism and the idea that things are too complicated, or analytical frameworks are too flawed, for us to attempt comprehensive study of whole periods or to apply “big ideas”.

We can hope that a labour history movement returns to the foreground as the tide of class struggle in society rises. As and when it does, we have a wealth of material to rediscover, reapproach critically, and build on.

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