From International Socialism, No.24, Spring 1966, pp.27-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The weakness of George Rawick’s review (The English Working Class, IS 23) is his lack of historical sensitivity and his lack of knowledge of English history in the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first three of the nineteenth. I suspect he relies too much on his reputation as a Marxist and not enough on the efforts of reading and understanding which the period requires. Edward Thompson has always used the archives and the original sources, never accepting the traditional theories or the traditional approaches. His work on food riots in the eighteenth century is a masterpiece of original and resourceful scholarship. He is, above all, an extremely sensitive historian as his work on William Morris has shown. In The Making of the English Working Class he has achieved a triumphant synthesis of sensitivity for the sources of history and understanding of their complexities. It is not a book free from faults and a close examination of many sections and a comparison of the evidence offered by Thompson, the debate between Drs Hobsbawn and Hartwell in the Economic History Review and the statistics available in the Abstract of Historical Statistics will convince everyone of the difficulty encountered in interpreting the cost of living and wage indices in this period. George Rawick is not likely to have read Neil Smelser’s book Social Change in the Industrial Revolution very carefully and he can certainly claim no familiarity with the problems of the period if he can write:
‘Thompson has specifically answered the historical defence of English industrial capitalism developed by such historians as T.S. Ashton, Sir John Clapham, Dorothy George, F.A. Hayek, and N.J. Smelser, and Thompson takes up their argument and with scholarly accuracy demolishes them.’
The real differences of opinion between Marxists and non-Marxists about the effects of the Industrial Revolution do not hinge on the consumption or non-consumption of quantities of tea, sugar, and cotton goods. Even T.S. Ashton never produced evidence that the working-class drank coffee (p.209). The real debate is about the quality of life – and this certainly suffered. The English people did leave the countryside with extraordinary rapidity (cf. A. Redford, Migration in England, 1850-1900), but it was pointed out by Marx that this might be due as much to the removal of opportunities for domestic employment in the countryside, which occurred with the consolidation of the factory system as to a real desire to leave the land. The numbers involved may easily have been the surplus population which resulted from the population explosion which began in the 1770s and rose to a peak in the years 1811-1821. Briefly, the quality of life was worse for the mass of the new industrial proletariat. Food prices were high, housing was bad, hours of work were long, the rhythm of the factory machinery was insistent and there was little or no satisfaction to be derived from the work or the workplace. The standard of living did not rise or fall dramatically and it is true that ‘for very large but indeterminate groups the standard of living remained at the point of subsistence’ (p.209). This is beside the point: the vast mass of the people in the England of Gregory King had been living at the point of subsistence but they had possessed compensation in their work. Their children were not subjected to the perils of crawling between the moving parts of machinery or opening and shutting the doors of air passages in the coalmines. They themselves had known traditional holidays and had not known the racking landlords, the jerry-builders and truck shops, who received them into the new towns of the industrial revolution. The food had not been adulterated, the beer had not been watered, the butter had been fresh and not rancid and it had not been difficult to get milk for young children who had just been weaned. No capitalist historian has ever claimed that the water was not stinking with sewage and industrial effluence or that the air was not contaminated with smoke, soot and grime. This represented an absolute deterioration in the conditions of life of the English working class, and it is this part of Edward Thompson’s argument that should be emphasised – not the scholarly wrangles over the cost of living. Dr Hartwell’s arguments can be safely ignored (cf. the current Economic History Review) if it is remembered that these were the factors which made life so miserable and so exacting for the mass of urban Englishmen between 1790 and 1830.
Thompson’s book is about the Industrial Revolution and it is fruitless for Mr Rawick to claim: ‘This is the story of how this class from 1750 to 1832 built itself up and in doing so led the nation.’ The book is essentially not about the late eighteenth century. Thompson writes (p.1):
‘“That the number of our members be unlimited.” This is the first of the leading rules of the London Corresponding Society, as cited by its secretary when he began to correspond with a similar society in Sheffield in March 1792.’
The book begins in the 1790s and is about the disturbed times of the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It should not be pretended, as Rawick does, that it is a reworking either of Cole and Postgate, The Common People, which began in 1760, or of Engels, The Condition of the Working Class, which was written in 1844. Rawick is more competent when talking about Thompson’s analysis of ‘a genuinely and deep republican, revolutionary, and pre-socialist movement.’ This did undoubtedly exist, but one would look in vain in Thompson for real evidence of the possibility of revolution. It is possible that had the English aristocracy suffered a crisis of confidence, the Corresponding and Constitutional Societies and the Luddites would have possessed the organisation and abilities to plan a revolution. However, any reading of George Lefebvre’s work on the French Revolution leads one to suspect that the class, economic, religious and social structures of the two countries were deeply different and that revolutionary ferment in England (ably documented by Thompson) was no substitute for revolutionary crisis and action in France.
Rawick is inadequate when discussing the implications of Peterloo. The monster meeting at Peterloo was not ‘a working-class demonstration.’ The working class was the basic component in suffrage reform, but the audience at Peterloo contained all conditions of men. This was what made the government’s letter of congratulation to the magistrates so shocking. The government did not ‘fire on the demonstrators’ as Rawick suggests. The Manchester Magistrates gave the Yeomanry orders to charge the crowd with sabres. The government had given no orders and certainly did not feel it would have had to make concessions to ‘a largely working-class movement.’ The working class in 1831 by burning Nottingham Castle and rioting in Bristol, made the Reform Bill of 1832 possible. Even in 1832 a more moderate line of reform was won by working-class violence and protest and not by the middle-class reformers. The Making of the English Working Class is about working-class men and women one hundred and fifty years ago. It is a superb historical document; Edward Thompson wrote on page 12:
‘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 history.’
He has succeeded: it is pointless to say more.
Last updated on 24 April 2010