Dorothy Thompson, 30 Oct 1923 – 29 Jan 2011

February 8, 2011 at 3:48 pm (good people, history, intellectuals, Marxism, unions, workers)

It was with great sadness that I read Sheila Rowbotham’s excellent obituary of Dorothy Thompson in yesterday’s Graun. Dorothy was a superb, Marx-influenced historian and life-long ‘person of the Left.’

She had been a member of the Communist Party in her youth, but left (together with her husband Edward ‘E.P.’ Thompson) after the 1956 invasion of Hungary and set up the anti-Stalinist New Reasoner. This remained a  journal rather than a political organisation, but was a major force upon the 1960’s ‘new left’ and influenced not only intellectuals, but many of the best trades unionists of the time, such as Lawrence Daly of the NUM.

Dorothy was my History tutor at Birmingham University in the early 1970’s and (I discovered later) was personally responsible for preventing me being kicked out and for ensuring that I received an Ordinary degree rather than an outright Fail. As it became apparent to her that I’d done no real work and was likely to fail my History  finals, she called me in to see her and gave me her copy of James Joll’s Europe Since 1870, urging me to at least read it before the exam. I did so, but always felt I’d let her down with my fecklessness and lack of application.

Dorothy’s marriage to Edward was, as Sheila Rowbotham writes, “a life-long love affair”: but it also resulted in her own considerable ability as a social/labour historian being overshadowed by the fame of ‘E.P.’ and – especially – his masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class.

I saw Dorothy just once again after my university days: in October 2006 at the funeral of another wonderful comrade, Beryl Ruhl (I wasn’t aware that they’d known each other – but was not in the least surprised to discover that they had). I didn’t introduce myself, partly because I expected that she wouldn’t remember me and partly because I feared that she might. She looked very old and frail and much tinier than I remembered her. But I listened in on her conversations with other mourners and it was clear that she was as intellectually sharp as ever, despite having  never really got over the death of Edward in 1993.

Dorothy’s greatest literary/historical achievement is, IMHO, her 1971 book The Chartists. The best tribute to her I can think of is to quote from the Conclusion of that superb work, much of which is of considerable contemporary relevance:

“Perhaps the most important gain in the Chartist period was in the sphere of independent working-class organisations with limited aims. The legal recognition of trade unions, the de facto recognition of apprenticeship regulation by unions, of wage bargaining and the negotiation of other aspects of working conditions by at least some trades, were gained in these years in the face of a determined resistance by most employers and a strong ideological opposition from the powerful dogma of political economy. To an extent cooperative societies and friendly societies also represented victories. If a humane and dignified system of poor relief did not emerge in local or national government, the skilled workers and others in regular employment were able to make their own provision through these organisations. By dropping, or rather by ceasing to believe in, the efficacy of political change as the lever of social change and the establishment of social justice, the working people lost the unity of the Chartist period, the strong sense of the interrelatedness of the demands of all sections of the propertyless and unrepresented. They accepted a re-definition of the nature of power and politics, accepting the division between ‘political’ and ‘industrial’ activity which Chartism had never recognised. Within this new division they made certain advances in the ‘industrial’ sector which ensured some share for the workers in the great industrial expansion of Victorian Britain…

…”But perhaps the ethos of Chartism could anyway not have survived into the great urban centres of the later nineteenth century. It needed the small communities, the slack religious and moral supervision, the unpoliced public street and meeting-place. The control which such communities could exercise over shopkeepers, constables, schoolteachers, local preachers and even Poor Law guardians was greater than anything that could take place in the cities or in the rural villages. As society in Britain became increasingly polarised between a de-populated countryside and large urban centres, the unifying influence of a common living area and shared institutions lessened. Such working- class organisations as survived combined a degree of local autonomy with membership of national networks, substituting shared values of local identity between skilled and regularly-employed workers throughout the country for the community of neighbourhood. Many groups who had at times played an important part in Chartism – women, immigrant, unskilled and semi-skilled workers, individual home-based artisans like cobblers, tailors, blacksmiths, small printers, as well as radical lay preachers and other local orators, ceased to be part of the labour movement. Organisations moved from the home, the inn and the street to the large workshop and the trades club. It is not necessary to posit a lower level of commitment or of class consciousness amongst the organised workers of the later nineteenth century. Their movements were different. They accepted the scale of modern industry, and the arguments for a continual expansion of scale in industry and government, indeed they embodied the values of centralisation and economies of scale in their own organisations. They had no desire to hold back the clock, to retain control over many of the areas which had seemed essential to the Chartists – education, policing, community leisure activities. Only in the workshop did they maintain the battle for control to any real extent, and even here they accepted, like all their generation, the inevitability of technical ‘improvements’, the uncontollability of economic laws.”

In 1995 a group of former students of Dorothy’s presented her with a  festschrift entitled ‘The Duty of Discontent’ (the title taken from a lecture by the Chartist Thomas Cooper).

‘The Duty of Discontent’, indeed: Dorothy: you certainly fulfilled that particular duty.

3 Comments

  1. BS said,

    Excellent post

    You should re-edit and sent to the paper as they often print follow ups

  2. Scott Hamilton said,

    A really sad loss. I only met Dorothy face to face once, when she cooked me a roast duck at her Georgian terrace house in Worcester and upbraided me over the quality of antipodean beer, but we worked together via e mail on a book project. I’ve put some of the last message she sent me on my blog:
    http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2011/02/last-e-mail-from-dorothy.html
    As you can see, she was feistily intelligent until the end. I think you’re right about the way EPT’s shadow has in some ways obscured her achievements.

  3. Dorothy Thompson (1923-2011) « Entdinglichung said,

    […] Dorothy Thompson, Historikerin, Aktivistin, Sozialistin und Partnerin von E.P. Thompson starb am 29. Januar im Alter von 87 Jahren, mehr in einem lesenswerten Nachruf von Sheila Rowbotham im Guardian, hieraus zwei kurze Auszüge: […]

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