James D Young 1969

Industrialism and Revolution

Source: Survey, no 73, Autumn 1969. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The industrialisation of England between 1780 and 1832 and the response of the pre-industrial labour force to that cataclysmic social, economic, cultural and political experience is the central motif of EP Thompson’s brilliant and fascinating book. [1] The Making of the English Working Class was first published in 1963, and Thompson has added a postscript to this new Pelican edition of his work in which he impressively defends himself against his critics and detractors. He has, of course, very little difficulty in demolishing the criticisms and arguments of the dominant British school of right-wing economic historians who still persist in regarding working people as statistical fodder in the evolution of what Thompson characterises as their ‘Pilgrim’s Progress orthodoxy’. Nevertheless, his persistent use of the word ideology in the pejorative sense against economic historians is rather odd in a man who places himself in the Marxist tradition.

This study of the ‘making’ of the English proletariat has, however, raised as many questions as it answers; and the low theoretical level of Marxist historiography and the general lack of knowledge concerning Marxism among so-called ‘bourgeois’ historians is such that many important historical problems are neglected by historians and sociologists alike. It is, for example, difficult to see how Thompson could square the Brechtian values he attributes to the English pre-industrial labour force with the general Marxist criticism of the ‘primitive rebels’ who litter historical territory. This problem touches on the role of human consciousness in history and in the evolution of society.

EP Thompson’s description of the ‘secret history’ of the English resistance to industrialisation brings us against the fact that many of the British revolutionaries of this period were either déclassé elements or they were culturally alienated from their own society. Marxist historians in the West are now vaguely aware of the continuity of ‘cultural alienation’ among Irish revolutionaries from John Doherty to Willie Gallacher, and this recognition has created problems for them which they are not really conscious of. Since Marxists hold that ‘false consciousness’ is the consciousness of individuals in ‘a condition of alienation’, how could this continuity of cultural alienation represent either working-class consciousness or working-class culture? And why were there so few authentic working men contributing to the ‘radical culture’ which Thompson regards as one of the great achievements of the Industrial Revolution? Perhaps such questions are too heretical for even dissident thinkers like Thompson.

EP Thompson’s contribution to historiography is considerable. Moreover, his efforts 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’ are admirable; and his rediscovery of the important dimension of human agency in the history-making-process should help to mitigate the dangers of a one-dimensional society evolving in the future. But his hatred of industrialism — and the agencies creating industrialism — is so fierce that the historian who wrote William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary in 1955 is probably mapping out a title for mapping his own biographer: Revolutionary to Romantic.

The work by EJ Hobsbawm, [2] a stimulating and gifted historian of the orthodox Marxist persuasion, is an impressive history of the economic and social convulsions which have transformed Britain since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. In a somewhat haughty, aloof and élitist manner he vividly describes the origins, developments and social consequences of the first and second Industrial Revolution. He takes full account of the impact of industrialisation on the formation of class consciousness among proletarians and entrepreneurs alike; but he ignores the same cultural patterns in the ‘socialist countries’ (sic!) he contrasts with the advanced industrial societies in Western Europe. He accepts the traditional view that the Industrial Revolution represents a fundamental watershed in world history, yet he is not aware of the revolutionary character of the entrepreneurs in the eighteenth century. They were, in fact, far more revolutionary than the proletariat.

EJ Hobsbawm’s description of the origins and social consequences of the Industrial Revolution is distinctive and interesting, but hardly original. The main criticism of Industry and Empire is that (like its predecessor, Reformation to Industrial Revolution by Christopher Hill) it often reads like a synthesis of the arguments and debates which rage in the Economic History Review. His chapter on ‘the beginnings of the decline’ abounds in useful new insights into the causes of the so-called ‘Great Depression’ between 1873 and 1896. Here Dr Hobsbawm convincingly argues that the British Empire which made the metropolis, in Marx’s phrase, ‘the despot of the world market’, eventually resulted in Britain’s relative decline as an industrial nation. Also he admits that the backwardness of our educational system, the social stigma linked to any form of technical education, and the barriers against social and labour mobility are not easily explained in either economic or social terms. He is nevertheless on very strong ground when he says that the politicians and entrepreneurs in the metropolis ‘always had a line of retreat open’:

We could retreat further into both Empire and Free Trade — into our monopoly of as yet undeveloped regions, which in itself helped to keep them unindustrialised, and into our functions as the hub of the world’s trading, shipping and financial transactions. We did not have to compete but could evade.

Dr Hobsbawm also thinks that by 1848 socialism had, as he puts it, ‘disappeared from the land of its birth’. Furthermore, ‘there were no socialists to dream of a new society. There were trade unions, seeking to exploit the laws of political economy in order to create a scarcity of their kind of labour and thus increase their members’ wages’. In the 1960s socialism is, he thinks, stone dead. This conclusion springs from the misconception that working-class socialism is essentially ‘belly socialism’. But socialism has on the basis of Dr Hobsbawm’s own internal evidence been a long time a-dying. In the general field of labour history he overrates the importance of the ‘aristocracy of labour’, and in my own — admittedly subjective — experience as a youth in a ‘lower’ working-class environment, he creates an artificial dichotomy between the manual and the skilled workers in his evaluation of working-class culture. His basic shortcoming as a social historian is that he has no imaginative insight into the ethos of working-class life; and so he bemoans the passing of working-class ‘culture’ and the impersonality of the new housing estates, and all the rest of the romantic ‘look-back-in-anger’ elements in our café society culture. Experience in the ‘lower depths’ would have cured him of these illusions, and therefore equipped him to recognise the positive features of the new council housing estates. But the criticism that one can level against him is a tribute to his stature as a major British historian. He is a sort of AJP Taylor who is more committed to an intransigent puritan socialist morality, interlaced with non-working-class interests, and crowned by the guilt complexes of an upper-class Englishman.


1. EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Pelican, Harmondsworth).

2. Eric J Hobsbawm, An Economic and Social History of Britain Since 1730 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London).