E P Thompson was well-known as one of Britain’s foremost twentieth-century historians, certainly (alongside Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and perhaps Raphael Samuel) one of the country’s foremost radical historians. He was a mainstay of the New Left in the 1950s (and a founder of the New Left Review) and also a major figure in the rise of cultural studies: his classic study The Making of the English Working Class is usually cited as one of the field’s seminal texts, along with Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy.
In the 1970s, however, Thompson took issue with the turn within cultural studies towards structuralist and post-structuralist theory: his essay on “The Poverty of Theory” is an empassioned attack on Louis Althusser and a defence of socialist humanism. At the same time, he found himself increasingly uncomfortable within a university system whose priorities seemed to him to put profits over people, and to favor managerial control over democracy and intellectual debate. He therefore spent the last two decades of his career as a freelance writer (and peace activist), unaffiliated with any particular institution.
The nature of Thompson’s discontent with the university is best seen in a short and rather odd book, Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management, and the Universities, which was written (in a week!) and published in 1970, in a climate of student protest and public outrage.
The facts of the matter are simple enough. In the late 1960s, Warwick was still a very young university: it had been established in 1965 as a state institution but with strong input and influence from the leaders of the manufacturing industries in near-by Coventry. Their plan was to seek ways in which academic expertise could feed in to industrial research and development. Fully twenty per cent of the students were to be in Engineering, and among the problems they were set to tackle (and the firms they were designed to benefit) were “metal fatigue (Massey-Ferguson), fuel injection system (Rover Company), vehicle instrumentation (Rootes and Ford Motor Company), fatigue in tyres (Dunlop)” (72) and so on. But the issues to be resolved were not merely technical: money was also supplied to set up an Institute of Directors’ Professorship of Business Studies, a Pressed Steel Professorship of Industrial Relations, and a Clarkson Professorship of Marketing, etc., all of which were to be housed in a “School of Industrial and Business Studies” whose “austere academic concerns” (as Thompson sardonically puts it) were to include “the choice of finance, the new issue market, institutional leaders, leasing, capital gearing and the cost of capital, taxation and company policies, take-overs, long-term financial planning” (75).
But the industrialists didn’t have everything their own way. Not enough engineers or would-be plutocrats applied, and the Arts and Social Studies “took up the slack and expanded more rapidly than had been intended” (71). Among those hired in these disciplines was Thompson himself (who had previously worked at the margins of academia, teaching adults in “extra-mural” classes at Leeds). And as the university expanded, the question of new building became a point of contention. The students wanted a Students’ Union, with a bar and space to socialize on what was a rural campus some distance from any major town. The Administration preferred to allocate space to staff and to come up with real estate that could be easily rented out for conferences during the vacations. The matter bounced around various committees for some time until, fed up, the students decided to occupy the University Registry. It was what they accidentally found while they were there that led to the subsequent storm:
At about eight o’clock that evening, one of the students (in an office next to the Vice-Chancellor’s) began thumbing through a file marked “Student-University Relations,” which had not been locked away. Amongst other things the file contained a report from a certain Mr Catchpole on a meeting addressed by Dr David Montgomery, an American Labour Historian who had been visiting the University the previous year. The student thought that perhaps Edward Thompson, who had been a colleague of Montgomery’s, might be interested in hearing the contents of the report. (51)
And interested E P Thompson indeed was. In the specific case of David Montgomery, the Director of Legal Affairs from Rootes Motors had been sent to a Labour Party meeting at which the visiting lecturer had been invited to talk, to see if there were grounds for his “prosecution under the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act” (107). Finding no such evidence, a Director from Rootes wrote to the Warwick Vice-Chancellor in any case, to report back. But this was the tip of an iceberg: for what was revealed (as students then steadily worked their way through the files available to them) was systematic collusion between the university and political and industrial interests to spy and report on student and staff activities outside the university. Essentially, the co-penetration of industrial with academic interests had corrupted the university, whose officials all too eagerly cooperated in petty policing and willful obstruction of free thought and discussion.
What follows is much careful consideration of what are often the minutiae of dissatisfaction at this one particular institution, though there is plenty to learn from even now. For one, the book is beautifully written, and often rather funny. Thompson takes a historian’s delight in this peek into the archives of the present. As he says,
It is my trade to open files, but the authors of the correspondence have always been long dead. One of the difficulties in writing “contemporary history” is that, until the files have been opened, the actual thoughts and the motives of the actors may be difficult to determine because of their public image. But here, for a moment, the actuality and the image co-existed, giving a sense of double vision; and even when the inertia of institutional routine reasserted itself, there lingered the sense of a new dimension to its reality–what the institution wished to be taken for set alongside one’s new knowledge of what it actually was. (157)
He admits that this double vision may be uncomfortable for those concerned: “Of course no correspondent likes the idea of militant youth going through his confidential letters” (157). But it is in this generalized crisis that the university finally gets to grip with what it could be, as well as with what it is. As Thompson says of a mass meeting called to discuss the concerns that arose from the occupation, “If ever there was a moment of birth of Warwick University, it was at that meeting. A University is not born when the Privy Council grants it a charter; it is born when its members come to realize that they have common interests and a common identity” (53).
Or as he puts it later, the scandal and the revealed corruption enabled a new sense of the university’s values. For beyond the details of who did and said what to whom, “The students began to realize that these were not the real issues at all, but were merely symptoms. What was wrong was the whole concept and structure of the university. The ideals of academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge had to be reasserted over the aims of the ‘Business University.’” (59). Ultimately, “the University of Warwick only began to find its identity in a time of crisis” (59).
Likewise, for those of us who observe that the contemporary university is now (in Bill Reading’s phrase) “in ruins”, we might similarly hope that a rebirth might be possible in the face of the crisis occasioned by today’s MOOC fever, the increasingly rapid encroachment of commercial interests, the shallow-minded enthusiasm for short-term fixes, and the obsession with the university’s “business model” over any sense of its values. At least we can hope.
Warwick University Ltd ends leaving the largest issue open:
Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management? Or can we by our efforts transform it into a centre of free discussion and action, tolerating and even encouraging “subversive” thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society in which it operates? (166)
Thompson’s own answer to these questions presumably came when he resigned his post and dedicated himself to writing and working outside the academy and, increasingly, to activism in the peace movement. For those of us who are in the institution now–and not least but not only the students who are once again in occupation at the University of Warwick, over the latest attempts to turn public good into tradeable commodity–let us hope that these questions remain open. Let us return to the issue of what the university is for, understanding that the balance between dystopian threat and utopian promise is more finely poised than ever.