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 historical scholarship with recognisably Thompsonian characteristics defined by richly detailed explication of the experiences of the black working class. Revisionist scholars challenged 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 Africa’s 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 subsequentlyassailed 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 Picketty’s 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).