From International Socialism (1st series), No.23, Winter 1965, pp.27-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
It is not too much to say that there is no book of Marxist scholarship since Marx’s Capital which is the superior of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.  This book re-establishes the importance of the self-action of the working class – and its revolutionary creativity – as the central drama of modern history.
Deepening and correcting the work of Engels, the Hammonds, G.D.H. Cole and others on the history of the English working class, this volume is the story of how this class from 1750 to 1832 built itself, and in so doing led the nation. Thompson is able to do this concretely because he sees class as an historical process, not as a ‘thing,’ ‘structure,’ or ‘category.’ He reminds us that class is ‘an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness.’ Class is a relationship ‘embodied in real people and a real context.’ Moreover, ‘we cannot have two distinct classes, each with an independent being, and then bring these into relationship with each other. We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and labourers.’ Throughout, Thompson follows his statement of method in the introduction to the book:
‘If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.’
Thompson understands that class consciousness is not something to be attained at once or something that is equivalent to ideas. He writes:
‘The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms. If the experience appears as determined, class-consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predicate any law. Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way.’
He avoids anything that smacks of a narrow determinism, utilising at all times a very rich and creative historical imagination. We know of men’s consciousness through seeing what they do over a long period of time, not by taking a public opinion poll in order to arrive at their ‘ideas.’ Man struggling with his own experience, that is the real dialectical process. There are for Thompson as there are in life no separate compartments called ‘intellectual history,’ ‘social history,’ ‘economic history,’ and ‘political history.’ There is only the history of men struggling, only the class struggle, a totality which must be understood in as many different ways as possible, but always as a totality, not as separable categories. Thus, the working class is not created by political leaders, nor by the ideas of intellectuals, nor by ‘economic processes.’ Instead, the working class creates and throws up its own ‘political leaders,’ creates the basis for new ideas, makes viable the ideas of middle-class reformers, and transforms fantasies into part of the process of historical development. Above all, economic processes do not exist independently of men, work does not exist other than as the activity of workers.
Thompson writes from the point of departure of a Marxist: the struggle for socialism. He concentrates his attention on those events and persons which, transcending the past, point to the future. The aim is not to give historical medals but to understand historical development and he is able to demonstrate that men and events which are reactionary or absurd in one sense can be simultaneously revolutionary in another.
Thompson’s Marxism is within the range of that of Marx himself: profoundly humanistic, an analysis and record of how man in the midst of warping and alienating institutions and class oppression struggles for genuine freedom. For Thompson the historical and therefore necessary relation of the revolutionary movement to the growth of individual freedom is not some casual afterthought that can be ignored in order to produce more long tons of steel or to maintain ‘the party’ in power. It is the essence of the matter. He begins his volume with the study of the late eighteenth century English radical movement, a movement which he sees as ‘Planting the Liberty Tree.’ On the front page of Part One he places a 1796 instruction of the London Corresponding Society to its travelling delegates: ‘You are wrestling with the Enemies of the Human Race, not for yourself merely, for you may not see the full Day of Liberty, but for the Child hanging at the Breast.’ Thompson demonstrates that progress is dependent on the self-activity of the working class. While the working class of each nation struggles in ways dictated by the particular history of that nation, it is the working class which at all times takes the lead for the nation as a whole. He ends the 832 pages of text talking about 1832, that moment when the arrival of Acquisitive Man and Utilitarianism symbolised the political ascendancy of the British bourgeoisie, with the following statement:
‘Yet the working people should not be seen only as the lost myriads of eternity. They had also nourished, for fifty years, and with incomparable fortitude, the Liberty Tree. We may thank them for these years of heroic culture.’
As one of the central themes of his book, Thompson carefully examines a question which has been the subject of much historical debate: the quality of life for the mass of the people under early industrial capitalism in England. After all, it is upon the demonstration of oppression in England in this period that much of the fire of Marx’s Capital depends. And, consequently, it is at this point that defenders of the status quo have sought to demonstrate that Marx was in error. Thompson has specifically answered the historical defence of English industrial capitalism developed by historians such as T.S. Ashton, Sir John Clapham, Dorothy George, F.A. Hayek and N.J. Smelser, and Thompson takes up their arguments and with scholarly accuracy demolishes them. Surveying the period from 1790 to 1830, Thompson concludes: ‘the condition of the majority was bad in 1790: it remained bad in 1830 (and forty years is a long time) ...’ Moreover, ‘in half a century of the fullest development of industrialism, the standard of living still remained – for very large but indeterminate groups – at the point of subsistence.’
And while the standard of living did not substantially improve, the conditions of life of the working class were wretched. The mass of people, Thompson shows, experienced a deep sense of deprivation and disclocation in the forty years before the First Reform Bill. And if masses of people felt such deprivation one is reduced to mere fantasy to suggest that this feeling was unreasonable.
This sense of deprivation was tied to the new work routine of the capitalist factory system itself and the dislocation of the earlier family-based economy. The ties of men with the older agricultural society were now replaced by the ‘dark Satanic mill,’ ‘the barrack-like buildings, the great mill chimneys, the factory children, the clogs and shawls, the dwellings clustering around the mills as if spawned by them’.
Industrial capitalism involved the destruction of older and remembered village rights, of notions of equality before the law, of craft traditions. The period from the 1790s through the 1830s was a period in which the English villager turned factory worker was faced with a sharp reduction and limitation of his social and political rights. This repression followed upon the political and revolutionary efforts of the working class to resist the many different kinds of new exploitation.
Thompson details the history of the struggles of the English working class against this new exploitation. Whether their pay be relatively high or low the working class in modern industrial capitalist societies have struggled for a better and more human life. They struggle in ways of their own choosing, dependent upon where they are and what they are in a position to see and comprehend. Thus, Thompson shows that at one time in the struggles of the English working class, a substantial section turned to the millenial religious sect of the prophetess Joanna Southcott who claimed to give her followers a special seal, ‘a sort of promissory note that the bearer should “inherit the Tree of Life to be made Heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ!”’ After the political repressions of the 1790s and the defeat of the Luddites in the last years of the Napoleonic Wars, many turned to the cult of the poor which cursed the false ‘shepherds’ of England (landowners and governors) who conspired to raise the price of bread. It attacked the Established Church and Clergy as the ‘Whore of Babylon,’ it questioned the rights of the Crown, it talked of a millenium where the last would be first, and the wicked oppressors of the poor punished. And in the same way that some turned to Joanna Southcott, others turned to Methodism and converted the cant and piety of the official Wesleyans into a variety of radical alternatives such as those of the Primitive Methodists, the Quaker Methodists, and even Jacobin and Luddite Methodists.
This movement of religious fanaticism with a radical message gave way to more political alternatives after keeping alive and transforming a spirit of rebellion and disaffection. Thompson understands this as an historically necessary stage of development of the working-class movement, even though he does not ‘advocate’ its programme. He does not spend a moment excoriating anyone for having followed the ‘false’ prophecies of Joanna Southcott. Rather, he follows the English working class as it learns through the experience of the Southcottians. He demonstrates that working people and the oppressed throughout the world utilise such movements as part of their struggles. The Southcottians through the pages of Thompson’s book take their place with the early Christians, the Fifth Monarchy men of the English Revolution, the Ghost Dance movement among American Indians, the Mau Mau of Kenya, the Rastafari of Jamaica, and the Black Muslims of the United States, as stages in the development of more successful political and revolutionary movements.
Thompson carefully studies the political history of the period and discovers a genuine and deep republican, revolutionary, and pre-socialist movement, a movement of great importance. The myth of English exceptionalism put forward by certain reformist ideologues – English change is always gradual, ‘constitutional,’ and peaceful – is neatly punctured by Thompson. Working-class and artisan societies such as the London Constitutional Societies, the more radical Spenceans and others were part of the revolutionary ferment of the American and French Revolutions. They looked to Jacobin models; the works of the Anglo-American radical Thomas Paine became part of the popular culture of the English working class.
Moreover, there was a long history of violence and direct action. In the late eighteenth century, the urban mob, the slum proletariat, the anti-social poor, the world of Gin Lane and the Beggars Opera, were sporadic forms of class resistance and class struggle. They gave way to the better articulated models of the revolutionary movement of the late 1790s led by Colonel Edmund Despard and later to the even more extensive and well-planned activities of radical artisans and workingmen – the Luddites – who utilised direct sabotage as part of the struggle. Thompson is not afraid in any way of the masses of poor who flocked into the city and made life for themselves as they could. His confidence in the working class has a flavour of authentic Marxism, for that matter has the tone of the best of Brecht:
‘Those who have wished to emphasise the sober constitutional ancestry of the working-class movement have sometimes minimised its more robust and rowdy features ... We need more studies of the social attitudes of criminals, of soldiers and sailors, of tavern life; and we should look at the evidence, not with a moralising eye (“Christ’s poor” were not always pretty), but with an eye for Brechtian values – the fatalism, the irony in the face of Establishment homilies, the tenacity of self-preservation.’
Thompson rejects the views of such social-democratic gradualists as the Hammonds who argued that the Luddites were of little importance, for the most part either not guilty of the charges placed against them or simply incited into violent action by more sophisticated agents of the Government. He demonstrates that the movement of the Luddites was widespread, had meaningful revolutionary aspirations and was a necessary and fruitful part of the development of the class struggle: it was part of the general development which culminated in the government attack upon a working-class demonstration for suffrage reform at Peterloo in 1819 where eleven were killed and hundreds injured. Government felt it had no choice but to fire on the demonstrators – for any concession in 1819 would have meant concession to a largely working-class movement; the middle class reformers were not yet strong enough (as they were in 1832) to offer a more moderate line of advance. Thus, in effect, the working-class movement in England provided the momentum on which the middle classes won the suffrage in 1832. The working class led the nation and provided the agitation which forced the slow democratisation of society. While the whip of reaction is always the alternative to the revolutionary movement, it is revolutionary ferment that produces most of the significant reforms in capitalist societies.
One last point remains to be made. The development of a working-class culture and community which Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy and Raymond Williams in Culture and Society discuss and describe is shown in its historical genesis in Thompson’s book. It is seen, without sentimentality, as changing, vibrant and dynamic, developed through the great talents and creativity of the English working class itself. The working class took the journalism of the tinsmith with a year or two of grammar school, Richard Carlile, and that of the farmworker become country farmer, William Cobbett, and transformed these two great talents into important weapons in the forging of a class culture. In the same way they took the paternalistic ‘Utopian Socialism’ of Robert Owen and transformed it into the beginnings of a modern English working class culture: Chartism, trade-unionism, Friendly Societies, the Cooperative Society, working-class politics. For Thompson what is important is not the individual talents of such men, but the total class culture and class community which they fed and by which they were transformed.
1. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz, London, 73s 6d, Pantheon, New York.
Last updated on 9.10.2007