John Saville


Custom made

(January 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.149, January 1992.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The new, major work by the socialist historian E.P. Thompson has been long awaited. Here John Saville reviews Customs in Common and looks at the background to Thompson’s work

Customs in Common
E.P. Thompson
Merlin £25

The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963, has been the most widely discussed historical volume of social history in the 20th century in the English speaking countries. Its influence upon many branches of the social sciences, especially social anthropology and sociology, has been far reaching. It is a superb book, written with a profoundly humanist approach towards the emergence into history of the industrial working class; and to Marxist studies its contribution has been of major importance. It remains the source of much critical debate and theoretical discussion.

We now have, with this present volume, the companion text for the century before the factory era. Thompson notes that he began work on the 18th century as soon as the manuscript of The Making was completed; but in the event only a series of essays were published at regular intervals until their gathering together in this latest study.

Its central theme is the crucial significance of custom in the social and political culture of the plebeian majority of the population. Thompson describes his purpose in the opening chapter: ‘All studies in this book are connected by different paths with the theme of custom within the culture of working people in the 18th and into the 19th century.’

A large part of the class struggles in the century before the factory, so he argues, pivoted upon ‘customs’ and traditional practices and much less upon the wages that dominated industrial conflict in the 19th century. Traditions were transmitted through contemporary culture in many ways: through oral narrative and song, in ritualised performances for festive or commemorative occasions or, at times, as symbols of protest.

In the 18th century, with the spread of literacy, the oral narrative was supplemented by the publication of broadsheets, chapbooks, almanacs and so on. It was a conservative traditional culture which sought to restrain breaches of long established usages; and it was the violation of these traditional customs that provoked social and political protest which at times easily tipped over into violent action. We have what Thompson calls ‘a rebellious traditional culture’ and, since this was a century of wide ranging economic change, riotous activity was a not uncommon pattern of social behaviour.

This volume is made up of eight essays: Patricians and Plebs; Custom, Law and Common Right; The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century; The Moral Economy Reviewed; Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism; The Sale of Wives; Rough Music; and introduced by a short essay on Custom and Culture in which the author discusses some theoretical questions implicit in his use of the terms. Some of these essays have been published before in one form or another, but the longest new essay is The Moral Economy Reviewed, and together with the republished original article, analysis of what is meant by ‘Moral Economy’ occupies nearly a third of the whole volume.

Thompson begins with a long essay on the political culture of the 18th century gentry – the Patricians – and the working people – the Plebs. He repeats the arguments of two earlier articles but here brings together the main themes in greater detail and with many fascinating examples of what he sums up as the ‘very vigorous self-activating culture of the people derived from their own experience and resources.’

In the analysis of the Patricians he is especially trenchant on the predatory character of the 18th century phase of agrarian and commercial capitalism and the role of the state in the process of capitalist accumulation. His ten pages or so provide as good a summary as you will find anywhere on the nature of state power in these decades.

His argument raises very interesting questions for Marxists. Thompson, in my view rightly, insists that the hegemony of a ruling group or class does not necessarily impose an all embracing domination upon the ruled, and that 18th century England is an excellent example of a society in which the subordinate classes exhibit a liveliness and vigour, and a notably skewed deference, in sharp contrast with more mechanistic models.

At the same time he also argues that the insubordination of the poor, while often expressed, and certainly constantly complained about, was an inconvenience rather than a menace to the patrician classes, although he notes the sharpened edge of class divisions in the 1780s. Europe thought of Britain as ungovernable for much of the 18th century, but it was not in London but in Paris that the year 1789 was so memorable. Why so? Certainly the threat from below was not comparable with that of the first half of the 19th century.

To return for a moment to the Gramscian question of hegemonic power which may, indeed often does, inhibit, distort or suffocate the emergence of alternative views of society and its future. This is agreed, and it is equally agreed this was not wholly the case in Britain in our period. Trade unionism, for example, existed among groups of workpeople throughout the century (contrary to the assertions of the Webbs). Those who organised themselves – Newcastle keelmen, Spitalfields silk weavers, West Country clothing workers – in quite tightly knit bodies, did not stand aside from the more populist protests.

In turnpike riots, food riots, the many varied protests against enclosures and the violations of communal rights, an examination of the social composition of the ‘crowd’ will show a horizontal sample from local craftsmen, and labourers, and women. In areas where mining or clothing outwork predominated there would obviously be a higher representation from these groupings or from whatever occupation or industry was dominant in the locality or region.

Custom and customary rights were clearly exhibited in the agrarian sectors of society and it is here, in the chapter Custom, Law and Common Right, that Thompson prides a great array of new evidence that makes too simplistic some of the more recent writing on agrarian change and which, it must be emphasised, underwrites much of the classic work of the Hammonds on the rural labourers: work to which Thompson very properly pays full recognition. What Thompson shows in this chapter is the central importance of custom and customary rights, and the tenacity with which these rights were defended in a wide range of different kinds of protest.

In general he makes the point that the popular opposition to enclosure and to the loss of common rights was much more widespread than has often been recognised, and that it continued over a much longer time span than had been normally accepted. This is an illuminating chapter and provides the basis for a more comprehensive and more subtle analysis of agrarian change in the 18th century.

About one third of this volume is taken up with the original article on The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, first published in 1971, followed by a longer review of some of the literature of debate which the original article provoked. Thompson used food riots to explain and illustrate the meaning of his phrase ‘The Moral Economy’. His argument is that in almost every 18th century crowd engaged in some kind of social protest, of which the food riot was only one example, the individual men and women who made up the crowd were motivated by beliefs that they were defending certain traditional rights and customs; and it was the disregarding, violation, overturning of these traditionally accepted customs that provoked the particular collective action. In the food riots it was the profiteers at various stages along the line who were responsible for the raising of prices above that considered normal and just.

What was happening in these decades was the inexorable growth of commercial capitalism and the steady encroachment in all areas of economic life of the market economy. Thompson gives a scintillating account of the new laissez faire arguments of Adam Smith, and of the ways in which they were applied to food markets.

He makes the very important observation that it was those members of the propertied classes trained in the laissez faire tradition who then went to administer the rapidly growing empire where famine was common, and who were responsible for the application of the strict rules of the market in times of food crises. Hundreds of thousands, in some years millions, died in Ireland (still a semi-colonial country in spite of the Union) and India during the 19th century: testimony to the gruesome consequences of the power of dogmatic belief.

This is a fascinating book. We now have our historical signposts to the understanding of the social consciousness of working people in the century before industrialisation. It was in The Making that Thompson took the story forward to the first half century of industrialisation when the working class began to enlarge their political horizons and consider the implications of alternative forms of social organisation.

This is our history and these are our people; and it is a book we must all read. It happens also to be well produced, with 538 pages of text, 32 plates of illustrations, footnotes where they should be, at the bottom of each page, and for £25. Martin Eve, the publisher, deserves our thanks.

Last updated on 4 July 2010