My last conversation with Edward Thompson, the Marxist historian, was at the gates of Durham Castle. That, on reflection, was how it should have been. There was always something slightly grand about him, as if a castle, or at least a country mansion, might be a natural place for him. Durham Castle is now a college, and there had been a conference there, so we found ourselves breakfasting together in its great hall. Thompson’s consternation at seeing me is not to be forgotten. He greeted me with a grunt and opened a newspaper to block off the view; and when I found him half an hour later outside the castle with his luggage, he looked even more beleaguered. “I’m just waiting to be picked up,” he said in embarrassment. Imagining he meant that his wife was about to drive him home, I waved goodbye and walked to the station, bag in hand. A few minutes later he appeared on the platform, looked at me in a persecuted way, and rushed to the counter to buy another newspaper to hide behind. He had taken a taxi.

But then it was not in his nature to travel light or in less than due style, and his socialism was gentlemanly. That was his distinction, his aspirations were not middle-class, like those of his friend and rival Raymond Williams, but touched with grandeur, and his country home in Worcestershire is rumored to have embraced a deer-park. My Cambridge colleague Williams, who died five years before Thompson and whose values (by contrast) were those of a middleclass family man, often spoke with amusement of Thompson’s love of the high life, and his success with women was remarkable. No wonder the word “charisma” figured large in his obituaries. He was to the British left what Evelyn Waugh, a generation earlier, had been to the right: an aberrant symbol in tweeds and country boots who profoundly regretted that he had not inherited a title and a family seat. His parents, who had been Methodist missionaries in India, were radical.

His older brother Frank was executed by the Nazis in Bulgaria while working for Special Operations, fresh from Winchester and Oxford; he died at 21, full of the promise of youth. Edward and his mother edited Frank’s literary remains as There is a Spirit in Europe (1947), the spirit being a high-minded Stalinism that inspired Edward, a communist by conviction from the age of 16, to join the British Communist Party and to work on a railway in Yugoslavia before Tito’s break with Stalin. Three years after Stalin’s death in 1953, Edward broke with the party over its support of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and with John Saville started The Reasoner, a journal that, after more than one change of name, became the New Left Review. In 1957 he became a founder-member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

His academic career was little more than transient, his six years as Reader in Social History at the new university in Warwick ending without a chair; he was never one to be comfortable with second place, or with silent withdrawal. In fact, his resignation was made in noisy protest, and in Warwick University Ltd. (1970) he publicly accused this academic establishment of venality in fostering connections with big business. The routine of teaching, in any case, meant nothing to him, and for the last 20 years of his life and more he lived by choice the life of an itinerant sage—a sort of British Jean-Paul Sartre—organizing round-table conferences for the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris and, in the 1980’s, playing a starring role in European Nuclear Disarmament (END).

The books, meanwhile, poured forth, and by the 1980’s, according to the Arts and Humanities Citations Index, he was the most quoted 20th-century historian on earth. He began with a study of William Morris in 1955, achieved a climax with The Making of the English Working Class in 1963, and entered the world of active affairs with the New Left May Day Manifesto in 1967, of which he was coeditor. These were all manifestly works of polemical intent. The historian showed through more clearly in Whigs and Hunters (1975), on the 1723 game acts against poaching. But detachment did not interest him, and three years later his most controversial book appeared, The Poverty of Theory (1978), a collection of papers in which he chided the Polish exile Leszek Kolakowski for his apostasy from Marxism and Louis Althusser, the Parisian philosopher, and for an excess of intellectual rigor and aridity: he aspired toward a middle way in which humanity and socialism might some day be reconciled. The stream of articles and pamphlets, meanwhile, was unending, and before his long last illness he completed a study of William Blake, published posthumously as Witness Against the Beast (1993).

By then he had supplanted Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970, at what might be called the Rolls Royce end of the British left; and with his sunburnt looks and aureole of greying cuds, delighting above all in the adoration of the young, he was an essential figure on CND platforms and at international conferences devoted to the intellectual redefinition of the left in an age of fading hope. His coevals, it is true, could find him self-important and sulky, and not only at the breakfast table, and he was never honored as Russell was, though a year before his death he became a Fellow of the British Academy. But by then he was a puzzled sage, at once passionate and ambiguous, dedicated and yet plagued by doubts, and a popular idol needs above all things to look and sound certain.

The uncertainties, so far as one can chart them from public documents, began with his departure from the Communist Party in 1956. Years later he was to begin the foreword to The Poverty of Theory with the ominous words: “I commenced to reason in my 33rd year, and despite my best efforts I have never been able to shake the habit off.” The remark is ambiguous in multiple ways, even if you allow that “despite my best efforts” is ironic. But even that is unclear. Thompson did try at times not to reason, fearful of where reason might take him. The general tenor of the remark, too, is unclear. It sounds like self-recommendation. So does the rest of the book, and in Thompson’s writings the first person is never far away. But why, one is left wondering, would a man of privileged upbringing and education—Kingswood and Cambridge—wait till he was nearly 33 before thinking for himself?

The answer is not to be spoken lightly, but it must be attempted. Thompson, for all his dissidence, loved to belong to things. He joined the Communist Party, following his brother Frank; the journals he helped to found and edit were group journals; the Round Table and END were international groups. Though never a man of the majority, he was never a loner either; and commencing to reason, which started when his life was nearly half done, meant not walking a lonely road of intellection but promoting oneself from disciple to leader. Though he loved to think of himself as awkward, in the tradition of Blake, Cobbett, Morris, and F.R. Leavis, it was alway’s the sort of awkwardness that sought admiration; the public figure who is indifferent to approbation has never been born. “One must put oneself into a school of awkwardness,” he once wrote, and “make one’s sensibility all knobbly—all knees and elbows of susceptibility and refusal.” That is one way of commanding attention, certainly, and attention was what he could not be without. The nonconformist tradition in which he was brought up did not die when it rejected God. And, like many another nonconformist, he could not live in another’s shadow.

Since a leader cannot bear competition, the leadership of the New Left, in its day, was not harmonious, and it could lay about its friends as well as its adversaries. Thompson could be devastating. His review of Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution in New Left Review (May-June 1961) is a case in point: the book, he wrote, reads as if it were written by “an elderly gentlewoman and near-relative of Mr. Eliot, so distinguished as to have become an institution”—an institution, Thompson goes on happily, called The Tradition: “There she sits, with that white starched affair on her head, knitting definitions” and decorous beyond belief. “In her presence how one must watch one’s language]” As a demolition-job that shows some skill, and though Thompson’s prose was too disjointed to make him an eminent stylist, his invective, at times, had pungency and bite.

His style, like Marx’s own, oscillated between the stolidly academic and the virulently witty; and as with Marx, it is the witty virulence that is interesting. In The Making of the English Working Class his ancestral Methodism is soundly and repeatedly vilified, and though the rhetoric is extreme it saves the book from the charge of stolidity. Methodism, in his view, did not just inhibit social revolution by its promise of felicity in an after-life. Darker and more nebulous charges are made against it. It was a form of psychic masturbation. It encouraged hysteria, like the false pregnancy of Joanna Southcott, the religious enthusiast, in 1814. It is such bizarre detail, such grotesque incidents and the passion of vilification they arouse in him, that keep the book readable.

His theoretical exercises were less happy. The epistemology of Louis Althusser, who later became famous by strangling his wife, cannot easily be made a lively topic, but the reader hardly deserves to be told that it was “founded upon an account of theoretical procedures which is at every point derivative not only from academic intellectual disciplines but from one (and at the most three) highly specialized disciplines,” meaning his philosophy, which was “a particular Cartesian tradition of logical exegesis marked at its origins by the pressures of Catholic theology modified by the monism of Spinoza.” That is bedsit-Trotskyite English, and there were moments when it came too easily to him. It suggests not only a disregard of the reader but a despair about politics; the despair of one for whom the revolution never came.

Thompson’s crusade led nowhere. Behind his prose, however, lay a rich interior life—not just of the country gentleman in his boots, or of the cult historian, but of the tousled hero adored by the crowd. In that mood he was defiant, and his defiance was heroic. “I will not be silenced by mere opposition,” he wrote to Kolakowski in his “Open Letter,” no doubt to the latter’s profound astonishment. Imagine expecting any such thing. Thompson may have preferred silence at breakfast, but his true inclinations were all for arguing out and arguing down: “The great bustard, by a law well-known to aeronautics, can only rise into the air against a strong head-wind. It is only by facing into opposition that I am able to define my thought at all.” One imagines a polite and erudite Polish dissident, brought up in the grey tedium of postwar Poland where debates about Marxism-Leninism were about as exciting as the liturgies of an established church, feeling puzzled by all this vivid self-agitation. Of course no one was trying to silence Thompson. It was merely important to him to imagine that many were.

But then behind the bravado there lay self-doubt. After all, there was plenty to be doubtful about. Thompson had served Stalin faithfully down to his death in 1953 and for several years more. He commenced to reason, as he put it, only after Khrushchev had shown the green light to anti-Stalinism in his speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956, which suggests that he still needed a leader to show the way. He had believed in the nostrums of the left in its heyday, one by one, and one by one he saw them falter and fail, and he wondered how he had ever believed them: that you defeat capitalism by making the state the supreme capitalist; that to abolish grammar schools is to move toward greater equality of education; that a nuclear arms race can only beggar the West and lead to nuclear war. “The whole grotesque carnival of annihilation is still on the road,” he shouted to a CND rally at Hyde Park, London in October 1981. “Time is not on our side.” In fact it was. The West was not beggared by the arms race, and the world did not explode. It was the socialist empire that died, and with it the fading hopes of those who believed that its theory of mankind was at once inevitable and just.

Meanwhile, the work of definition and redefinition continued, buoyed up by an invincible sense of virtue and righteousness; but even the polemics now look dated. The struggle to humanize socialism by anglicizing it—less Marx and more Morris—was honorably patriotic, but its terms were confused. “Marx did not invent the socialist movement,” he wrote in The Poverty of Theory, and Morris had more to say than he about the humane objectives of socialism; but he then quotes a letter of Morris consisting entirely of unstinted praise of Marx. If there was ever an English, pre-Marxist phase of socialism, Morris does not seem to know about it; nor does The Making of the English Working Class, which is about radical movements before the great Reform Act of 1832, demonstrate that a socialist tradition flourished in England before that year.

Thompson gravely overrated, too, the attention that Marxists pay to the writings of Marx. “To return . . . to propositions of Marx is like going on a crosscountry run in leaden boots,” he remarks at the end of The Poverty of Theory, complaining that Althusser and his kind were prisoners of texts, capable of doing no more than reading and quoting the writings of Marx. If only they had read them at all. In 1992 Althusser’s posthumous autobiography appeared, L’Avenir dure longtemps, revealing that the French philosopher had read none of the writings of Aristotle and Kant, on whom he lectured, and only the early writings of Marx. Thompson had supposed that the French Marxist habit of quoting Marx meant that they were studious, even book-bound. In fact they were lazy and borrowed quotations. The author of Lire le Capital (1968), on his own admission, had not read it.

The Poverty of Theory is a tortured and shadowed work, oddly compounded of heroics and self-reproach. It ends with a passage that brought tears to the eyes of some when it first appeared, and it is still a passage to haunt the mind: “What if the defeat be total and abject, and call in question the rationality and good faith of the socialist project itself?” What indeed? That was written long ago, in the 1970’s, and about events even longer ago, such as the Soviet action in Budapest in 1956. But it is also, in a strange and perhaps unintended way, predictive. In 1989 the Soviet defeat was total and abject, after all, and it did call into question far more than the rationality and good faith of the Soviet system.

Thompson’s writings were composed too early to tell us what he thought about all that. The Poverty of Theory ends evocatively with an echo of the famous last sentence of Voltaire’s Candide, where an innocent returns to the home of his youth after a wealth of conflicting experiences and sees its familiar sights as if for the first time. The world, though itself unchanged, looks different, and what is different is oneself. Thompson concludes his book by announcing that he will now return to “my proper work,” whatever that was, “and to my own garden,” as if the universe of politics that had once looked simple had grown too complex for him to understand. “I will watch how things grow.” Like the endeavors of his parents to Christianize India, his crusade had led nowhere. But he was right to think that it is by watching and learning, when theory fails, that innocents at last become wise.