History after E.P. Thompson

Friday, 13 November, 2015 - 09:30

The final schedule for this workshop is available here.

The fourth workshop will take place in Ann Arbor between November 11 and 18, 2015, on the problem of the effects of EP Thompson's writing on historical scholarship.  Many researchers at Wits and Michigan share a common interest in the theoretical problems of writing emprically driven social history of Thompsonian provenance. These theoretical concerns allow for a productive comparative dialogue about capitalism, class and culture across very diverse national contexts.  The event is being organised by Stephen Sparks, Geoff Eley, Sarah Duff and Keith Breckenridge.

Please submit your proposal for participation to the on-line form here.


E.P. Thompson was a hugely important figure in the global development of social history from the 1960s. In South Africa his influence was marked, reflected in scholarship with recognisably Thompsonian characteristics defined by richly detailed explication of the historical experiences of South Africas black population. Nurtured by remarkably fecund Africanist and Southern Africanist seminars at the School of Oriental and African Studies and Oxford, the revisionist social history tradition found its intellectual home in the History Workshop at Wits University. Revisionist scholarship emerged as a challenge to liberal convictions about the pre-industrial origins of racial segregation in South Africa and claims about the colour-blind character of the market, but structuralist revisionists in the 1970s were centrally preoccupied with understanding the nature of South Africas capitalist transition in the light of literature on capitalist transformations globally. Early revisionist social histories explicated the preservation, resilience and importance of pre-capitalist social forms (chieftaincy, oscillating migrant labour between urban and rural areas). This more comparativist moment did not last across the field.

Thompson's attack on Althusserian Marxism, The Poverty of Theory, helped fuel a reaction against structuralist accounts of racial capitalism in South Africa which took the form of social history emphasising the agency of the black working class in inauspicious circumstances. With retrospect this was both a productive and unproductive development. As elsewhere, the Thompsonian legacy in South African historiography and historical practice now appears inherently paradoxical: encouraging sensitivity towards culture and the analysis of class as process, while nurturing a common sense which was – and in many ways remains – of generally hostile disposition towards theory. From the mid 1980s social historians were much less likely to engage with larger theoretical and comparative debates about the relationships between capitalism, the state, coercive labour regimes, race and class formation than scholars a decade before. Curiously, the precocious sensitivity to culture which South African social historians developed was not facilitated by the kinds of anthropological influences that were important to the cultural turn in Anglo-American scholarship.

Like Thompson, the leftist historians who he inspired in South Africa were challenged for insufficiently addressing gender and race, and were subsequently assailed by post-structuralists for alleged commitment to teleological Marxist meta-narratives and naïve empiricism. This workshop aims to explore the genealogies and legacies of Thompsonian social history across Anglo-American, Africanist and South Africanist scholarly domains. Historians at Wits and Michigan share training and ongoing intellectual interests in the theoretical challenges of writing social history in a world where many of the tenets of class analysis have been undermined by the effects of de-industrialisation. There remains a nagging sense – underlined by the interest generated by Thomas Pickettys Capital in the Twentieth First Century – that the contemporary global predicament necessitates the writing of theoretically ambitious comparativist histories employing culturally nuanced class analysis in the mode of the Thompsonian tradition. The workshop promises to interrogate the legacies, limits and possibilities of Thompsonian scholarship (and the relationship between theory and empiricism between the North and South).

Possible sessions:

What has been lost? What has been gained? The legacy and limits of Thompsonian social history

An introductory session based on a key set of pre-circulated readings which should ideally function as an exercise in taking stock of the powers and limits of the Thompsonian social history tradition across Anglo-American, South African and Africanist domains. What were some of the key genealogies of Thompsonian scholarship across the world? What have been some of the chief criticisms directed at the Thompsonian tradition? How has historical practice moved on from the mode of social history which he and those he influenced wrote? What historiographical gains have resulted from the transition into a post-Thompsonian historiography? What has been lost via this shift? What possible usefulness and relevance might Thompson's version of culturally sensitive class analysis have for a contemporary world where many of the tenets underpinning this mode of class analysis have been undermined by the effects of de-industrialisation?

Race, empire and class based social history writing

Thompson's Making of the English Working Class has been vigorously criticised for blindness to the importance of gender, race and empire to the story of working class formation it traces. Though white South African leftists developed an interest in white working class racism which predated the work of David Roediger, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, they faced similar accusations of retreating into class analysis in their final analysis, in an alleged effort to avoid directly addressing vexed questions around race and their own racial complicity under apartheid. This session will take stock of these and related criticisms of class based social history writing.

Committed scholarship: History, politics and the Left

Like E.P. Thompson, many leftist scholars in South Africa engaged in worker and adult education projects; were intimately involved in trade union and anti-apartheid organising, and worked towards connecting their scholarship with wider publics. This session will explore contentious debates in Anglo-American, South African and broader African academies about the relationship between scholarship and politics and/or activism. These have included debates about the role of the University and the politics of knowledge production; controversies (which Thompson participated in) around Leftist politics and affiliations, especially in light of revelations about Soviet excesses; about the relationship of Leftist scholars to nationalist movements in decolonising Africa etc. The session will also discuss an emergent pragmatic interest in scholarship contributing towards progressive policy interventions and institution building via initiatives like historyandpolicy.org and similar incarnations elsewhere, including South Africa.

The politics of the Commons

The concept of the commons was central to the work of E.P. Thompson as well as that of those heavily influenced by him, who have in turn proven influential. While the concept retains purchase in an increasingly privatised world, it has been critiqued for romanticised visions of subaltern conviviality. In colonial Africa, as elsewhere, subaltern African populations undoubtedly worked to defend the commons, but colonial discourses and policies also constructed the rural commons as the proper place for African subject populations. South African native policy deployed the commons as part of a project of racial segregation which largely excluded Africans from urban areas. Social histories in South Africa highlighted the curious symbiosis between the rural homestead building strategies of black migrant labourers and the interests of mining capital and segregationists. This session aims to interrogate the analytical value of the notion of the commons for historical work across time and space.

Joining theory and empiricism: The legacy of The Poverty of Theory

E.P. Thompson's broadside against Althusserian Marxism, The Poverty of Theory, was an important, if overdetermined, watershed in the development of neo-Marxist social history. In South African historiography his polemic nurtured a growing dissatisfaction with abstract visions of the black working class as faceless victims of racial capitalism. While the social history writing, which this backlash against structuralist schema produced represents a rich and powerful body of work, in many ways South African historians are today struggling to back out of a cul-de-sac. The fine grained empiricism of South Africanist scholarship has ironically been reinforced over the last decade by the return in Northern academies of abstract theorisations influenced by the work of Michel Foucault and Edward Said. This session will explore the legacy of Thompson's Poverty of Theory – and the importance of the work of Foucault and Said – to the changing relationship of theory and empiricism and consider ways in which the two might better be brought together in contemporary scholarship.

The absence of anthropology: E.P. Thompson as Geertzian proxy

While anthropological scholarship by Clifford Geertz in particular (and Mary Douglas) proved highly influential to the cultural turn in Anglo-American historical scholarship in the 1980s, this was largely not true for the trajectory of South African historiography. While early revisionist social histories were influenced by French structuralist anthropology, by the time Geertzs influence was at its height, South Africanists remained generally resistant to the textual turn which his work encouraged. The instrumentalisation of cultural difference under apartheid made many South Africanists – especially key black scholars like Archie Mafeje and Bernard Magubane – nervous about taking a full-throated anthropological turn, even while the work of the likes of Jean and John Comaroff invited a convergence of the disciplines. In this context, as South African historians began to trace the rural origins of the South African working class, work such as E.P. Thompson's – with its sympathetic readings of plebeian culture – served as a model for writing histories which were increasingly sensitive to culture. While this sensibility proved productive of some of the finest social history scholarship in the broad revisionist tradition, it also meant South Africanists were rarely drawn to reading and engaging with larger theoretical debates within anthropology and at the intersection of history and anthropology. This session will explore the legacies and limits of Thompsonian and Geertzian influences for historiography across the Anglo-American, Africanist and South Africanist literatures.

Comparative historiographies of capitalist transformation

The preservation, resilience and importance of pre-capitalist social forms and the importance of coercive racialised labour to South Africas historical trajectory meant that the extent and character of South Africas capitalist transformation was a central preoccupation in revisionist structuralist scholarship in the 1970s. This interest remained important in early revisionist social history writing. As they grappled with South Africas sonderweg, scholars engaged with comparative literatures on labour, peasantries, the state and capitalist transitions in England and Germany; on slavery and capitalism in America, and on African history more broadly. They joined wider theoretical debates about the relationships between capitalism, the state and coercive labour regimes, as well as between race and class formation. However, the increasingly bitter bifurcation between the structuralist and Thompsonian social history variants of revisionist scholarship saw these theoretical questions and the comparativist reading habits and sensibility they demanded largely drop out of much of the work conducted in the broadly Thompsonian tradition. This session aims to revisit the comparative historiographies of capitalist transformation, asking what analytical value – and theoretical legitimacy – the questions asked by this literature might have for understanding the history and contemporary development of capitalism.

Bibliography for "History after E.P. Thompson" workshop


Historiographical foundations

Atkins, Keletso. "'Kafir time": preindustrial temporal concepts and labour discipline in nineteenth century colonial Natal', Journal of African History, 29:2, (1988), 29-44

Bonner, Philip " Keynote Address to the "Life after Thirty" Colloquium", African Studies, 69:1, (2010), 13-27

Bozzoli, Belinda. "Introduction: Popular History and the Witwatersrand", in Belinda Bozzoli ed., Labour, Townships and Protest Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1979

Bozzoli , Belinda. "Introduction: History, Experience and Culture", in Belinda Bozzoli Ed., Town and Countryside in the Transvaal: Capitalist Penetration and Popular Response. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983

Bozzoli, Belinda. "Class, Community and Ideology in the Evolution of South African Society", in Belinda Bozzoli ed., Class, Community and Conflict: South African Perspectives. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987, 1-43.

Bozzoli, Belinda and Peter Delius "Radical History and South African Society" Radical History Review, 46: 7, (1990), 13-45

Breckenridge, Keith. "Promiscuous Method: The Historiographical Effects of the Search for the Rural Origins of the Urban Working Class in South Africa" International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 65, (Spring, 2004), pp. 26–49

Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan 'The Making of the Working Class': E. P. Thompson and Indian History" History Workshop Journal, No. 43 (Spring, 1997), pp. 177-196

Cooper, Frederick "Work, Class and Empire: An African Historian's Retrospective on E. P. Thompson" Social History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1995), pp. 235-241

Eley, Geoff. A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005

Hyslop, Jonathan. "E.P. Thompson and Social history in South Africa" (Unpublished)

Johnstone, Frederick. ""Most Painful to Our Hearts": South Africa through the Eyes of The New School", Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, Vol.16, No. 1 (1982), 5-26

Lissoni, Arianna; Noor Nieftagodien & Shireen Ally "Introduction: "Life after Thirty" – A Critical Celebration", African Studies, 69:1, (2010), 1-12

Marks, Shula. "Towards a people"s history of South Africa? Recent developments in the historiography of South Africa" in Raphael Samuel (Ed) People"s History and Socialist Theory, London: Routledge. & Kegan Paul 1981, 297-208

Moodie, Dunbar. "The Moral Economy of the Black Miners' Strike of 1946" Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1, Oct., (1986) 1-35

Scott, Joan W. "Women in the Making of the English Working Class" in Joan W. Scott. Gender and the Politics of History, New York: Columbia, 1998

Sewell, William "How classes are made: critical reflections on EP Thompson's Theory of Working Class Formation" in Harvey J. Kaye, Keith McClelland. Eds, E.P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Temple University Press, 1990, 50-77

Steedman, Carolyn "The Price of Experience: Women and the Making of the English Working Class" Radical History Review Vol. 59: (1994) 108-119

Posel, Deborah. "Social History and the Wits History Workshop", African Studies. 69:1, (2010), 29-40.

Van Onselen, Charles. "Randlords and Rotgut 1886-1903: An Essay on the Role of Alcohol in the Development of European Imperialism and Southern African Capitalism" History Workshop, No. 2, Autumn, (1976) 33-89

Van Onselen, Charles. “Crime and Total Institutions in the Making of Modern South Africa: the life of "Nongoloza" Mathebula 1867–1948,” History Workshop 19:1, (1985) 62-81



Race, empire and class based social history writing

Ally, Nurina and Shireen Ally "Critical Intellectualism: The Role of Black Consciousness in Reconfiguring the Race-Class Problematic in South Africa" in Andile Mngxitama, Amanda Alexander, Nigel Gibson (Eds) Biko Lives! Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Bressey, Caroline "Race, Antiracism, and the Place of Blackness in the Making and Remaking of the English Working Class" Historical Reflections Volume 41, Issue 1, (Spring 2015)
Burton, Antoinette. "Who Needs the Nation? Interrogating "British" History" Journal of Historical Sociology, Volume 10, Issue 3, (September, 1997) 227–248

Chattopadhyaya, Utathya "Talking History: E. P. Thompson, C. L. R. James, and the Afterlives of Internationalism" Historical Reflections Volume 41, Issue 1, (Spring 2015)

Gilroy, Paul. “There Ain"t No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (1987), 11-42

Gregg, Robert and Madhavi Kale "The Empire and Mr. Thompson: Making of Indian Princes and the English Working Class" Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 32, No. 36 (Sep, 1997), 2273-2288

Hall, Stuart. "Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance" in Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism. Paris: UNESCO, 1980

Hofmeyr, Isabel "South African Remains: E. P. Thompson, Biko, and the Limits of The Making of the English Working Class" Historical Reflections Volume 41, Issue 1, (Spring 2015)



Committed scholarship: History, politics and the Left

Bozzoli, Belinda "Intellectuals, Audiences and histories: South African experiences, 1978-1988" in Radical History Review 46: 7, (1990) 237–63

Isaacman, Allen. "Legacies of Engagement: Scholarship Informed by Political Commitment" African Studies Review, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Apr., 2003), 1-41

Legassick, Martin. "Debating the revival of the workers' movement in the 1970s: The South African Democracy Education Trust and post-apartheid patriotic history" Kronos, No. 34, (November 2008), 240-266

Magubane, Bernard. "Whose memory – whose history? The illusion of liberal and radical historical debates" in Hans Erik Stolten (Ed) History Making and Present Day Politics: The Meaning of Collective Memory in South Africa, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2006

Ranger, Terence. "Nationalist Historiography, Patriotic History and the History of the Nation: the Struggle over the past in Zimbabwe" Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol. 30, No. 2 (Jun., 2004) 215-234

Sithole, Jabulani "Contestations over knowledge production or ideological bullying? A response to Legassick on the workers' movement" Kronos, No. 35 (November, 2009), 222-241



The politics of the Commons

Breckenridge, Keith "Revenge of the Commons": The Crisis in the South African Mining Industry", History Workshop Online, November 5, 2012

Chari, Sharad. "State Racism and Biopolitical Struggle: The Evasive Commons in

Twentieth-Century Durban, South Africa" Radical History Review. No. 108 (Fall, 2010) 73-90

Greer, Allan "Commons and Enclosure in the Colonization of North America" The American Historical Review. 117:2 (2012) 365-386

Linebaugh, Peter The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, University of California Press, 2009

Linebaugh, Peter "Enclosures from the Bottom Up" Radical History Review 108 (Fall, 2010) 11-27

Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000),

Maddison, Ben. “Radical Commons Discourse and the Challenges of Colonialism,”  Radical History Review, No. 108 (2010): 29–48

Thompson, E. P. “Custom, Law and Common Right,” in E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. New Press, New York, 1991

Joining theory and empiricism: The legacy of The Poverty of Theory

Achmat, Zackie "“Apostles of Civilised Vice": "Immoral practices" and "unnatural vice" in South African Prisons and Compounds, 1890–1920”, Social Dynamics: Journal of African Studies, 19, 2, 1993

Simon Clarke "Socialist Humanism and the Critique of Economism" History Workshop, No. 8 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 138-156

Deacon, Roger. "Hegemony, Essentialism and Radical History in South Africa". South African Historical Journal 24, 1 (1991).

Glaser, Clive. “The Empir(icists)Strike Back”, English Academy Review, 16, (2000), 8-22

Carolyn Hamilton et al, Eds, Refiguring the Archive. Cape Town: David Philip, 2002

Hofmeyr, Isabel. "The Narrative Logic of Oral History", Paper presented to African Studies Institute, University of Witwatersrand, May 1988.

Minkley, G. and Ciraj Rassool. "Orality, Memory and Social History in South Africa", in S. Nuttall and C. Coetzee (eds), Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Nield, Keith. "A Symptomatic Dispute? Notes on the Relation between Marxian Theory and Historical Practice in Britain" Social Research, Vol. 47, No. 3, (Autumn, 1980) 479-506

Robinson, Jenny “(Dis)locating Historical Narrative: Writing, Space and Gender in South African Social History”, South African Historical Journal, 30: 1 (1994) 144-157

Vaughan, Megan. 'Colonial discourse theory and African history, or has postmodernism passed us by?', Social Dynamics, 20: 2 (1994), 1-23



The absence of anthropology: E.P. Thompson as Geertzian proxy

Comaroff, Jean. "Missionaries and Mechanical Clocks: An Essay on Religion and History in South Africa" The Journal of Religion. Vol. 71, No. 1 (Jan., 1991), 1-17

Gordon, Robert and Andrew Spiegel "Southern Africa Revisited" Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 22 (1993), 83-105

James, Deborah. 'Anthropology, history, and the making of past and place', African Studies, 56: 2, (1997) 115-136

Kuper, Adam. "The academic frontier: History and Social Anthropology in South Africa", African Studies, 56: 2, (1997) 69-84

Mafeje, Archie "The Problem of Anthropology in Historical Perspective: An Inquiry into the Growth of the Social Sciences" Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, Vol.10, No. 2 (1976), 307-333

Magubane, Bernard "A Critical Look at Indices Used in the Study of Social Change in Colonial Africa" Current Anthropology, Vol. 12, No. 4/5 (Oct. - Dec., 1971), 419-445

Thompson, E. P. 'Folklore, Anthropology, and Social History', Indian Historical Review, 3 (January 1977), 247-66



Comparative historiographies of capitalist transformation

Beinart, William and Peter Delius, "Introduction" William Beinart, Peter Delius, and Stanley Trapido (eds.) Putting a Plough to the Ground. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1986

Beinart, William. "Chieftaincy and the Concepts of Articulation: South Africa ca. 1900-1950" in B. Jewsiewicki (Ed.) Mode of Production: The Challenge of Africa, Safi Press, 1985.

Bozzoli, Belinda. "Marxism, Feminism and South African Studies" Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, (1983), 139-171

Bradford, Helen "Highways, Byways and Culs-de-Sacs: The Transition to Agrarian Capitalism in Revisionist South African History" in Radical History Review, 46/1 (1990)

Bradford, Helen. “Peasants, Historians and Gender: A South African Case Study Revisited, 1850–1886,” History and Theory, 39, (December 2000) 86–110

Bundy, Colin. "The Emergence and Decline of a South African Peasantry" African Affairs, Vol. 71, No. 285 (Oct., 1972), 369-388

Bundy, Colin. "An Image of Its Own Past? Towards a Comparison of American and South African Historiography" Radical History Review, 46/1 (1990)

Cooper, Frederick. 'Urban space, industrial time, and wage labor in Africa' in Frederick Cooper (ed.), Struggle for the City: Migrant Labor, Capital, and the State in Urban Africa. Beverly Hills: 1983, 7-50.


Harries, Patrick "Modes of Production and Modes of Analysis: The South African Case" in B. Jewsiewicki (Ed.) Mode of Production: The Challenge of Africa, Safi Press, 1985.

Higginson, John (1992) "The Hidden Cost of Industrialization: Reflections on the Emergence and Reproduction of the African Industrial Working Class in Southern Africa," Contributions in Black Studies. Vol. 9, Article 17.

Keegan, Timothy. "The Dynamics of Rural Accumulation in South Africa: Comparative and Historical Perspectives" Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct., 1986), 628-650

Trapido, Stanley “South Africa in a Comparative Study of Industrialisation,” Journal of Development Studies 7 (1971).

Van Onselen, Charles Frederick Johnstone and Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, "The World the Mineowners Made: Social Themes in the Economic Transformation of the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914" [Discussion and Commentary] Review (Fernand Braudel Center), Vol. 3, No. 2, (Fall, 1979) 289-323.

Wolpe, Harold "Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power: From Segregation to Apartheid" Economy and Society 1(1972)