Review of E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class
"I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity."
E. P. Thompson was the most riveting and engaging of the New Left historians. His biography of William Morris established the latter as a key figure in the Labour movement rather than a mere aesthetic crank, while his study of another great William, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, is also a classic. His tour de force is, however, The Making of the English Working Class, perhaps the most influential historical work of the post-war era. It was responsible for founding and guiding the new school of social history, both in England (where key exponents included John Rule and George Rudé) and in America, an approach that is often called "history from below."
The Making of the English Working Class is one of those few academic works that has enjoyed widespread popular readership, and it still awakens strong emotion, usually besotted fascination or infuriated opposition. It is exciting because it is a book of hitherto untold stories, the collective history of millions usually left out of the historical record. Thompson's great achievement was to bring the bulk of the English population, with their multifarious religious and philosophical outlooks, their regional differences and the cultural traditions associated with their various trades, in from the ignored periphery and place them in the centre of the historical canvas. He showed how they reacted to the tremendous upheaval and stresses of the Industrial Revolution, and how they fought to change the course of history.
Thompson was a highly political and combative figure who did not see eye-to-eye with many other socialists, let alone liberals or conservatives: he famously clashed with both Perry Anderson (who recorded their disagreements in Arguments within English Marxism) and Tom Nairn. He departed from traditional Marxism in his insistence that the development of the English working class had political and cultural aspects, and was not simply a product of changing economic structures, and rejected Stalinism because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (better late than never, one might think). What we find in Thompson, then, is a socialism which rejects materialism in favour of an almost spiritual focus, acknowledging the importance of decent living standards but critiquing industrial exploitation also in terms of its impact on the inner person; a characteristic approach of English trade unionists, as Jonathan Rose has shown in his brilliant book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, and also (of course) of Blake. Attacking the reifying tendencies of much Marxist scholarship, Thompson emphasised that class was a relationship, rather than a thing, a development in which the working-class themselves were involved, not something simply imposed on them by the industrial system. The book illustrates the importance of native pre-industrial radical traditions to the uniquely English working-class consciousness that eventually emerged: "The changing productive relations and working conditions of the Industrial Revolution were imposed, not upon raw material, but upon the free-born Englishman -and the free-born Englishman as Paine had left him or as the Methodists had moulded him."
Accordingly, the book is divided into three parts, dedicated respectively to pre-industrial radical traditions, the experience of industrialisation, and the development of class-consciousness. The Liberty Tree takes in the London Corresponding Society, the Putney Debates, food riots, Burke, Wordsworth and Paine, John Bunyan and religious Dissent. It posits, in passing, a dichotomy between London, where Dissent matured into secularism, and the provinces, where Methodism took hold : "South and North, intellect and enthusiasm, the arguments of secularism and the rhetoric of love -the tension is perpetuated in the 19th century. And each tradition seems enfeebled without the complement of the other." Such a brilliant, provocative aside is typical of Thompson, whose work is teeming with ideas, just one of which would furnish another academic with a lifetime's research. Radical responses to the French Revolution are, unsurprisingly, a prominent theme of this section.
Adam's Curse looks at the work experiences and material lives of the working classes during the Industrial Revolution itself, including field labourers, artisans, and weavers, among others. The chapter on the weavers, who were rendered gradually obsolete by the new power looms and victims of the new Poor Law, contains this heart-rending testimony from a Bolton muslin-weaver: "I have not merited these things. I am a loyal man, strongly attached to the institutions of my country, and a lover of my country. 'England, with all they faults, I love thee still,' is the language of my soul..." Thompson goes on to describe living conditions — the wretched diet, homes that were hovels, and childhoods cruelly blighted by factory labour—but also the support provided by friendly societies, and the contrast with pre-industrial English life, with its Saint Monday, rush-bearing, network of regular fairs, and so on. The most controversial chapter in the book is undoubtedly "The Transforming Power of the Cross," in which he identifies Methodism as the secret ingredient in industrial exploitation. He argues that its emphasis on duty and the emotional catharsis of its weekly worship rendered the working-class sufficiently meek to bear the inhuman regimentation of the factory system.
The final section, The Working-Class Presence, shows how these two elements— pre-existing political radicalism, and industrialisation— fused to create modern class consciousness. "Radical Westminster" is very interesting in its portrayal of unique links between middle- and working-class London reformers, co-operation conspicuous by its absence elsewhere in the country. Ground-breaking research on the Luddites is contained in the chapter "An Army of Redressers," revealing the sophisticated constitutional defences that they advanced for their actions, and their expectation that Parliament would intervene to protect their trade. This chapter also provides an in-depth study of Peterloo and the developments that led up to it, showing how it brought the North to the brink of civil war. "Class Consciousness" (the last and most important chapter) captures the scope and variety of working-class intellectual culture, with especially interesting analysis of artisan auto-didacticism, Owenite utopianism, and fascinating excerpts from pamphlets and correspondence, including a letter written entirely in north-east dialect ("a great filosopher says, to get noledge is to naw wer ignerent.") Numerous radical leaders --including Cobbett (sympathetically treated here), Paine, and Feargus O'Connor—figure in the narrative, but it is these more obscure sources that are so compelling.
The book is certainly not without its flaws. Thompson does acknowledge the contribution of Methodism to the development of class-consciousness and trade unionism, but only perfunctorily, compared to his lengthy attack on the faith. This is a significant blind-spot in his narrative, and also a missed opportunity to bolster his argument that English working-class consciousness was a product of native traditions: Jonathan Rose shows that the union movement owed a huge debt in spirit, as well as in organisation, to Methodism rather than to Marxism, underlining the error of Thompson's dismissive assertion that "Methodism and Evangelicism contributed few active intellectual ingredients to the articulate culture of the working people." The Making of the English Working Class does not acknowledge those (admittedly later) industrialists who were concerned to provide their workforce with a decent quality of life, such as the Quaker industrialist Joseph Rowntree, deeply involved in social justice issues. There is also a huge gap where the experience of domestic servants—a huge demographic— ought to be. It did not suit Thompson to investigate the persistence of semi-feudal employment relationships, and this lacuna has since been addressed by Carolyn Steedman in Domestic Servants, Anglican Clergymen, and Happy Endings in the English Industrial Age.
Yet, for all this, the book achieves something of immense importance. It shows that the history of working-class people is a different history, that English culture at the lower social levels is something highly distinctive, far more egalitarian, original, and questioning than establishment cultural forms. The self-conscious Englishness of Thompson's approach leads him to emphasise radicals' invocations of the Norman Yoke and their equally prelapsarian myth of the pre-enclosures, pre-Napoleonic Wars era. He quotes Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor: "Here's that we may live to see the restoration of old English times, old English fare, old English holidays, and old English justice". It is a typically English attempt to advocate progress through the nostalgic turn. Thompson highlights both the diversity of the English working-class at the time of the Industrial Revolution ("the Sunderland sailor, the Irish navvy, the Jewish costermonger, the compositor on The Times....might scarcely understand each others' dialect") and its nascent sense of common purpose, the development of "the consciousness of an identity of interests as between all these diverse groups of working people and as against the interests of other classes."
The book appeared at a significant time. Educated young people capable of reading, comprehending, and relating to such a study were coming of age in 1963. E. P. Thompson, responsible for the youthquake? Probably not, but he certainly influenced the attitudes of the generation educated by Butler; the book showed them that the working-class, though it ultimately lost the battle over industrialisation, did not go down without a fight. Along with The Uses of Literacy, the book quickly gained talismanic status, contributing to a growing sense of self-aware working-class confidence. Before Thompson, working-class identity involved a sense of being written out of history, and his book magnificently addresses this lack of story, describing industrial amounts of original research in pacey, jargon-free, visceral prose that engages both head and heart. This was a history of the people for the people, not merely for a rarefied academic audience.
Thompson's ideology has often been criticised (attacks to which Fred Donnelly responded robustly in a much-cited 1976 article), and often with a hostility that conservative or liberal histories do not attract. One suspects that it is the emotion in the work that really alarmed the academic-critical establishment, however: The Makingof the English Working Class is an unapologetically partisan book, illuminated by tremendous righteous indignation. In E. P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions, Bryan D. Palmer records the suspicion with which the critics received it, Ruth Himmelfarb quipping in the American magazine The New Republic that Thompson was not just engagé but enragé. The book's palpable anger was disparaged by many contemporary reviewers, yet, given what Thompson's research revealed, it is difficult to imagine how else he could have reacted. Perhaps it would be frivolous to suggest a connection between the book's modulated fury and the later, more generalised rage of punk (though this is hinted at in Tara Brabazon's recent Times Higher Education review), but, as an enabler of working-class confidence, Thompson's masterwork may have helped to set the stage for it. --Isabel Taylor