Monday, 14 February 2011

Dorothy Thompson (1923-2011)

Dorothy Thompson who has died aged 87 was one of the post-1945 era’s leading socialist and feminist historians and a political activist of considerable note and impact.

She was married for many years to the socialist historian EP Thompson who died in 1993 and her work and activity can be seen as in some ways complimentary to and at the least equal to his. While Edward studied the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for example, Dorothy focused on the period immediately afterwards- that of Chartism.

In terms of political activism both left the Communist Party in 1956, both were part of the new left in the 1960s and later went on to become peace campaigners around the CND of the 1980s. Yet both Dorothy and Edward made distinctive and independent contributions to historical knowledge and socialist politics.

Thompson, born Dorothy Towers, a third generation South Londoner, has recorded much about her early years in Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation[1993] and in an interview she gave to Sheila Rowbotham in New Left Review 200. Rowbotham has also provided a fine obituary in The Guardian [7th Feb]

Thompson had been politically active from age 14 but at Cambridge University Girton College from 1942 she engaged both with the politics of the Communist Party and the kindred intellectual spirit of Edward Thompson. Both were involved in the project to build a railway in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Both eschewed involvement in the academic establishment for work in adult education in Halifax during the 1950s and much of the 1960s. Change in Universities was central to the upheaval of the 1960s and Thompson moved to take up an academic post in the history department at Birmingham University from the late 1960s.

She was responsible for tutoring and encouraging a generation of socialist historians who went on to produce a distinctive body of work- often around the subject of Chartism.

From the late 1960s too her published works began to flourish. These were often ground breaking in the areas they dealt with.

She was for example one of the first to touch on the exclusion of women from labour movement histories in her essay 'Women and Nineteenth Century Radical politics: a lost dimension', published in 1976.

From 1971 with the Early Chartists she had begun to publish a series of works which were, with the Chartists [1984] for many years the landmark history of Chartism reflecting her enormous knowledge and breadth of research in this area. Her research into Chartism was ground breaking, opening up new topics of study from a focus on female Chartists to the role ethnicity in Chartist politics.

The political activism was not forgotten and Rowbotham records in her Obituary how Thompson helped to organise events around the Beyond the Fragments initiative in the early 1980s. At the same time she was active in European Nuclear Disarmanent, a campaign that specifically encouraged links with peace activists in Eastern Europe, reflecting the heritage of her decision to quit the Communist Party in 1956. In 1983 she published ‘Over Our Dead Bodies-Women Against the Bomb’.

A former student Neville Kirk has noted that Thompson was an ‘inspirational teacher both democratic and rigorous in her practice’. He argues that she put a research agenda focusing on ambiguities, nuances complexities and contradictions before adherence to a specific historiographical framework, such as the Fabian or Marxist, two dominant themes in Chartist studies.

This meant that Thompson could sometimes come up with points or issues that were awkward for Marxist historians or active socialists. As her interview in New Left Review 200 reflects she was doubtful about the political implications of the concept of progress in history for example and in later years concerned about whether people did want to be politically active. However her commitment to the left both in historical research and politics could never be doubted whatever the disagreement on specific issues.

In particular in 1956 and after she stood clearly with socialists who did not see the Stalinist States of Eastern Europe as in anyway associated with socialism.

In person Dorothy Thompson could be a sharp critic but that was combined with a friendly encouragement to historians to actually get on and do historical research and to expand historical knowledge with their findings. In the age of Wikipedia an emphasis on visiting the archives cannot be overestimated.

Keith Flett
[A longer version of this will be published in Socialist Review].

Scott Hamilton, author of a forthcoming work on EP Thompson has also shared some of his email correspondence with Dorothy, while Owen Ashton, a former student of Dorothy who edited the volume of essays in her honour, has also sent us the following:

DOROTHY THOMPSON (1923 -2011 )

As printed in 1993 when Edward Thompson died, so now sadly in 2011, these
evocative lines - taken from his brother Frank's poem, Polliciti Meliora,
( translated from the Latin as 'having promised better things') - are an
equally fitting tribute to the work of Historian Dorothy Thompson, her
remarkable life of dissent and her inspiring commitment to struggle and
''Write on the stones no words of sadness
only the gladness due
that we, who asked the most of living
knew how to give it too''
(Major Frank Thompson was captured and shot near Sofia in 1944)

Owen Ashton
Stafford, 8th February 2011

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