The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson


E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966 [1963])

Thompson’s book, like the title suggests, chronicles the making of the English working class. In the Preface he lays out his methodology and argument. “Making, because it is a study in active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning.” “I do not see class as a ‘structure’, nor even as a ‘category’, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships… the notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. …And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs” (9). “Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms… Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way” (10). “Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition” (11).

He also describes the aim and structure of the book, “This book can be seen as a biography of the English working class from its adolescence until its early manhood” (11). Part One of the book looks at “the continuing popular traditions in the 18th century which influenced the crucial Jacobin agitation of the 1790s.” Part Two traces the experiences of workers during the Industrial Revolution and attempts to “estimate… the character of the new industrial work discipline, and the bearing upon this of the Methodist Church.” Part Three picks “up the story of plebeian Radicalism… through Luddism to the heroic age at the close of the Napoleonic Wars.” The book concludes by look at the evolution of political theory and class consciousness in the 1820s and 1830s. Thompson admits to have a particular democratic communist agenda in writing his book, “Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won” (13).

The work is broken into three parts. The first part “The Liberty Tree” covers chapters one to five, the second part “The Curse of Adam” covers chapters six to twelve, and the third part “The Working Class Presence” covers chapters thirteen through sixteen.

Part I: The Liberty Tree

In the first chapter, he defines a working-class organization as “There is the working man as Secretary. There is the low weekly subscription. There is the intermingling of economic and political themes… There is the function of the meeting, both as a social occasion and as a centre for political activity. There is the realistic attention to procedural formalities. Above all, there is the determination to propagate opinions and to organise the converted, embodied in the leading rule: ‘That the number of our Members be unlimited’” (21).

In the second chapter, he sees religious dissent as a space for preserving radical ideas by keeping them “in the imagery of sermons and tracts and in democratic forms of organization” (30). Additionally, “The tension between the kingdoms ‘without’ and ‘within’ implied a rejection of the ruling powers except at points where co-existence was inevitable” (31) or throughout “the Industrial Revolution we can see this tension…. in the Dissent of the poor, with chiliasm at one pole, and quietism at the other” (50). He summarizes this argument, “The intellectual history of Dissent is made up of collisions, schisms, mutations; and one feels often that the dormant seeds of political Radicalism lay within it, ready to germinate whenever planted in a beneficent and hopeful social context” (36). On a side note, in this section he also traces the origin of “a ‘calling’” to Puritan culture and argues that it was “particularly well adapted to the experience of prospering and industrious middle class or petty bourgeois groups” (37). He pays particular attention to Methodism throughout the book, arguing that it had both a conservative aspect and “was indirectly responsible for a growth in the self-confidence and capacity for organisation of working people” (42).

In the third chapter Thompson lays out his famous argument about moral economy and describes his method: “If we are concerned with historical change we must attend to the articulate minorities. But these minorities arise from a less articulate majority whose consciousness may be described as being, at this time, ‘sub-political’… The inarticulate, by definition, leave few records of their thoughts. We catch glimpses in moments of crisis… and yet crisis is not a typical condition” (55). Further, “We may isolate two ways in which these ‘sub-political’ traditions affect the early working-class movement: the phenomena of riot and of the mob, and the popular notions of an Englishman’s ‘birthright’” (59). As he summarizes this, “Hence the final years of the 18th century saw a last desperate effort by the people to reimpose the older moral economy as against the economy of the free market” (67) and in “considering only this one form of ‘mob’ action we have come upon unsuspected complexities, for behind every such form of popular direct action some legitimising notion of right is to be found” (68).

In chapter four Thompson takes up the task of describing how the Englishman’s “birthright” of freedom formed a basis for the moral economy and working class resistance. He writes, “they felt themselves, in some obscure way, to be defending the ‘Constitution’ against alien elements who threatened their ‘birthright.’ …Patriotism, nationalism, even bigotry and repression, were all clothed in the rhetoric of liberty” (78). Mostly, this manifested as a desire to be left alone and understanding that the “profession of a soldier was held to be dishonourable” (81). However, Thompson also notes, “This defensive ideology nourished… far larger claims to positive rights” (83).

In chapter five Thompson tries to show how the traditions of the 18th century laid the way for the emergence of working class radicalism in the early 19th century. He summarizes the chapter thusly: “In the 1790s something like an ‘English Revolution’ took place, of profound importance in shaping the consciousness of the post-war working class. It is true that the revolutionary impulse was strangled in its infancy; and the first consequence was that of bitterness and despair. The counter-revolutionary panic of the ruling classes expressed itself in every part of social life; in attitudes of trade unionism, to the education of the people, to their sports and manners, to their publications and societies, and their political rights. And the reflex of despair among the common people can be seen, during the war years, in the inverted chiliasm of the Southcottians and the new Methodist revival” (177).

Part II: The Curse of Adam

Chapter six lays out a theoretical framework for the next few chapters that deal specifically with the impact of the Industrial Revolution on particular groups in society. He argues, “steam power and the cotton-mill = new working class” (191) and claims the “working class made itself as much as it was made.” He sees a working class and not classes because “first… the growth of class-consciousness: the consciousness of an identity of interests as between all these diverse groups of working people and as against the interests of other classes. And, second, in the growth of corresponding forms of political and industrial organizations” (194). At the heart of these differences in interests lie an exploitative relationship which “is depersonalised, in the sense that no lingering obligations of mutuality… are admitted” (203). Furthermore, the “process of industrialisation must, in any conceivable social context, entail suffering and the destruction of older and valued ways of life” (204). He writes, “People may consume more goods and become less happy or less free at the same time” (211).

Chapters seven, eight, and nine look at how the process of class formation impacted field labourers, artisans, and weavers. In all three cases he argues that the conflict between the groups and the emerging industrial class can be understood as a “conflict… between two cultural modes or ways of life” (305).

Chapter ten is dedicated to arguing that the above groups did not fare better under the Industrial Revolution, “In the fifty years of the Industrial Revolution the working-class share of the national product had almost certainly fallen relative to the share of the property-owning and professional classes” (318). He pays particular attention to child labor and argues against those who note that it took some time for the movement against it to arise after the advent of the Industrial Revolution by claiming, “We forget how long abuses can continue ‘unknown’ until they are articulated: how people can look at misery and not notice it, until misery itself rebels” (342). Setting up the next chapter he claims, “We shall return to the Methodists, and see why it was their peculiar mission to act as apologists of child labour” (348).

Chapter eleven focuses on the role of Methodism in forming, taming and disciplining  the working class. During this period he sees Methodism as making great gains among the working class and consolidating “a new bureaucracy of ministers” (351). He also claims, the “factory system demands a transformation of human nature” (362). Further, he lays out a variety reasons why Methodism accommodated child labor.

Chapter twelve looks at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on community, “In the industrial areas it can be seen in the extension of discipline of the factory or clock from working to leisure hours, from the working-day to the Sabbath, and in the assault upon… traditional holidays and fairs” (403). He summarizes the chapter “together with that of the loss of any felt cohesion in the community, save that which the working people, in antagonism to their labour and to their masters, built for themselves” (447).

Part Three: The Working-Class Presence

Chapter thirteen looks at how popular radicalism survived into the 19th century, the “laws outlawing corresponding societies and open political meetings had atomised the movement, so that the individualistic and quarrelsome behaviour of its leaders was a function of their situation as ‘voices’ rather than as organisers” (469).

Chapter fourteen traces this popular radicalism in “the Industrial Revolution, [and how] new institutions, new attitudes, new community-patterns, were emerging which were, consciously and unconsciously, designed to resist the intrusion of the magistrate, the employer, the parson or the spy” (487). Additionally, we “find some the sharpest conflicts involving men with special skills who attempted to attain to, or to hold to, a privileged position” (506). The major form of working-class organization that Thompson focuses on here in Luddism, “We have attempted to draw closer to the Luddite movement from three directions: the shadowy tradition of some political ‘underground’: the opacity of historical sources: and the vigorous traditions of illicit trade unionism” (521). For the Luddites, “What was at issue was the ‘freedom’ of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by unrestricted competition, beating-down wages” (549). He sees the Luddites looking forward to “a democratic community, in which industrial growth should be regulated according to ethical priorities” (552). He traces its demise to various factors. In the Midlands: where they were partially successful, the government deployed massive force against them, and it made their practices illegal. The Luddites also had the impact of bringing about greater unity amongst the ruling classes.

Chapter fifteen traces the development of political radicalism, as opposed to the workplace-based radicalism of the previous chapter. Thompson holds that it “was a generalized libertarian rhetoric, a running battle between the people and the unreformed House of Commons within which one issue after another was thrown to the fore” (604). He sees radicalism as having born “a direct relationship to the structure of each community” (611). He also treats the problem of leadership in this (these) movements: “the democratic movement looked to the aristocratic or gentlemanly leader;” “there was… [a] demagogic element;” there was no political organization to provide “self-discipline” (623); there was a tension between a resort to force and electoral reform. The “true heroes” of this movement were its local leadership, not its national leadership (631). Finally, he traces the influence of the Peterloo massacre on both the development of the working class and its enemies.

Chapter sixteen provides the conclusion and traces the emergence of class consciousness which occurred when “working men formed a picture of the organisation of society, out of their own experience and with the help of their hard-won and erratic experience, which was above all a political picture” (712). The development of a free press played an important role in this because “Persecution cannot easily stand up in the face of ridicule” (722). William Cobbett was crucial here. The Owenites mark the emergence of the first working-class movement and marks the end of older forms of revolt because they learned “to see capitalism, not as a collection of discrete events, but as a system” (806). Throughout this period there was also the emergence of middle class consciousness.

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