One of the founding texts of contemporary social history, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) remains in many respects unsurpassed fifty years after its publication. Most obviously, its author was one of the best literary stylists ever to write history. More substantively, Thompson’s scholarship is unusual in its breadth and depth, incorporating newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, memoirs, private correspondence, and parliamentary commission testimony. And it is all in the service of a noble enterprise, “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” (p. 12). By letting these vanquished people speak in their own words, on their own terms, Thompson rehabilitates them and their experiences. In the end, his book is a deeply humane, deeply imaginative, and deeply partisan work—partisan toward humanity, against complacency in all its forms.
Thompson’s historical method follows from his moral purpose. His central analytical tool is the notion of class, but, as he explains in the Preface, by “class” he does not understand a structure, a thing, or a category, but a “historical phenomenon,” “something which in fact happens…in human relationships.” Or, as he says later, “class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition” (pp. 9, 11). He intends his humanistic understanding to contrast with the Marxist Louis Althusser’s structuralist, anti-humanist understanding; the whole book is in effect an empirical substantiation of Thompson’s polemic against anti-humanism in its Marxist and bourgeois forms. That is to say, the work is supposed to demonstrate the fruitfulness of a “historical,” “relational,” “developmental” understanding of class, as opposed to one that considers people to be mere occupants of structural locations in institutions, bearers of social roles. In large measure, the attempt succeeds.
Thompson’s project is to reconstruct the formation of a working-class consciousness among England’s lower orders between about 1790 and 1832. He divides his book into three parts. The first is devoted to political radicalism amongst artisans and other workers in the 1790s, a radicalism stimulated by the French Revolution and Thomas Paine’s influential pamphlet Rights of Man (1791). This agitation, brutally suppressed by the government, did not yet evince a working-class consciousness. In the second part, Thompson considers the economic changes and some of their cultural manifestations in the forty-year period he is analyzing. The third part returns to the narrative of political radicalism after the 1790s to show how it finally developed an unequivocally working-class character, so that one can say “the working class” had been born.
Among the many thought-provoking aspects of Thompson’s discussion is his brilliant analysis of Methodism as in large part a means by which the poor were partially reconciled to their miserable lot, as well as his defense of Luddites as not just a lot of wild mobs running around smashing machines but rather well-organized groups of men who traveled from village to village sabotaging particular kinds of machines that were known to displace workers and result in lower wages. The sections on Owenism, William Cobbett, Peterloo, the government spy system, the 1832 Reform Bill, the “standard-of-living controversy” (about whether the Industrial Revolution improved or harmed the lives of the poor), and many others, are equally valuable. Through it all, Thompson refuses to pretend to be neutral on questions of value, instead bringing to bear stern humanitarian value-judgments, as when he argues against apologists of capitalism that the Industrial Revolution was in fact a catastrophe for the poor, and that statistics and quantitative averages of supposedly rising standards of living are inadequate to the qualitative reality of epochal social change (which affects groups of people unevenly, so that “averages” conceal as much as they reveal). The book’s moral passion helps to make it the compelling work it is.
One of the book’s few unsatisfactory features is its theoretical introduction and framework. No doubt Thompson is right to insist that historical actors’ experiences be recaptured and reproduced, and that a rigid sociological or economic “structuralism” is not appropriate to the historian’s craft. However, such formulations as “Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition” are inadequate, being either truistic or false. People do occupy locations in social structures, and these locations do condition their consciousness. It is dangerous when a historian wades into theory, for he or she may oversimplify matters.
To make such criticisms, however, of a work like The Making of the English Working Class is but to cavil. Thompson’s project is not so much theoretical as historical, and in this it succeeds magnificently.