A class that made itself

Issue section: 

Socialist historian E P Thompson's classic book The Making of the English Working Class was first published 50 years ago. Keith Flett takes a look at this seminal work of labour history that placed workers at the centre of making their own history

It is 50 years since the publication of E P Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. Published by Gollancz in the autumn of 1963, it was paper-backed by Penguin in 1968 and remains in print today. The original paperback cover, a painting of a collier from 1814, clay pipe in mouth, walking stick in hand tramping for work, remains an iconic image of the origins of the modern working class. The impact and influence of the book have been worldwide, despite the fact that the paperback edition weighs in at 958 pages. The book set the terms of reference for much labour history that followed.

Chapter headings such as "Members Unlimited", a reference to the London Corresponding Society of the 1790s that moved to a then unknown open and democratic model of organising, or "The Free-Born Englishman" now hold their place in labour history itself. Thompson looks at the range of influences there were on the development of the English working class, in particular religion, and touches on the levels of exploitation and living standards that underwrote the political protests of the period from the 1790s to the 1830s, where the book ends as the Chartist movement starts. Thompson did not write about Chartism for several reasons.

Firstly, the book was already nearly a thousand pages long and late in submission to the publisher. Secondly, his partner, the late socialist historian Dorothy Thompson, was an acknowledged expert in this area.

In the second half of the book Thompson looks at "The Working-Class Presence", writing in great detail about the range of working class responses to the development of market capitalism: from millenarians who thought the world would end, to Luddites who sought to control the advance of machinery, to revolutionaries and radicals of all types and trade unionists. Anyone looking at the sheer length and range of the book today must surely wonder how Thompson managed to write such an epic volume, particularly in an age when all research notes were at best bashed out on a typewriter. Indeed the scale of his achievement, 50 years on, is marked by the reality that there has never been a successor or updating volume from another historian.

Thompson the teacher
Fortunately we do know something of the process that led Thompson to write the book. He was a Workers' Educational Association (WEA) tutor in Yorkshire in the 1950s, teaching labour history to largely working class students. The book was developed as he taught classes over a number of years and crucially, as Thompson himself noted, by discussion and interaction with his students, the inheritors of the traditions that he wrote about in the book. Hopefully the preceding paragraphs will encourage those not familiar with the book to at least take a look at it, but Thompson himself would have been unhappy at any commentary on his book that simply said how good it was.

The emphasis and approach of the book have a quite specific historical and political context which it is important to understand. Edward Thompson had been a member of the Communist Party. The first edition of his earlier book, William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary, published in 1955, suggests that at least in public he did not dissent from the politics of the party in that period which would nowadays be characterised as Stalinist. He had been a member of the Communist Party Historians Group along with numbers of other distinguished Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm.

A founding moment
However, the events of 1956, when Russia invaded Hungary and Russian leader Khrushchev made a lengthy speech revealing the crimes of the Stalin era, led Thompson and others to move into opposition to the leadership of the British party. They published a journal, The Reasoner - the title was an echo of a radical paper of the mid 19th century - and refused to stop publication when ordered to do so. Leaving the party, Thompson and fellow historian John Saville began to publish the New Reasoner, one of the opening shots of which was Thompson's Through the Smoke of Budapest.

It was part of the founding moment of the British New Left and Thompson went on to play a leading role. The New Reasoner was to merge with another journal, Universities and Left Review, to form in 1960 the New Left Review. Thompson was a commanding presence in the early years of the NLR and there were landmark debates in its pages with Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn on the nature of British capitalism and the British working class. These debates were centrally focused on the politics of The Making of the English Working Class.

In essence Thompson argued that the working class needed to be specifically understood and situated in the historical context of the battles it had to fight and the traditions it had to work with, rather than be judged against an abstract Marxist benchmark - broadly Anderson's approach - and found wanting.

Thompson's departure from the Communist Party marked his subsequent political approach. He was distrustful of party organisation and centralised leadership and favoured what might be broadly called a libertarian socialist perspective. That certainly did not mean he was against organisation as such, as the book underlines at some length. The Making of the English Working Class therefore became one of the founding documents of what became known as "history from below", following Marx's injunction that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself.

A manifesto for the New Left
Thompson certainly still saw himself as a Marxist in the 1960s but argued for a different perspective on Marxist politics to the then dominant one of the Communist Party. In a sense The Making is a manifesto for this as well. Thompson's approach is best summarised in the preface to the book which amounts to a mere six pages but which contains passages which remain central to an understanding of socialist history today. Thompson sees class formation as an active process. He writes in the opening paragraph of the book that "the working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making".

He goes on to emphasise that the use of the term "working class" as opposed to "classes" in the book's title is quite deliberate. Thompson sees class not as something fixed in aspic for historians to gaze at, a "thing", but as a relationship between two groups. He argues that "we cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and labourers".

History from below
In probably the most famous passage of the book Thompson lays out his history from below approach. He notes, "I am seeking 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." Thompson complains that the "blind alleys, the lost causes and the losers... are forgotten".

The book sparked several historical debates, for example around Thompson's views on workers' standard of living and on his treatment of the impact of religion on the working class. He describes Methodism as "psychic exploitation", seeing it as a counter-revolutionary tendency in the working class. These debates are now part of labour history itself but Thompson's development of the term "moral economy" continues to spark historical research and has contemporary political relevance.

In the book Thompson looks at food riots - often over the price of wheat and bread - and argues that in practice the rioters had a clear idea rooted in custom and community of how much should be paid for a loaf of bread and when there was profiteering going on. This he calls a moral economy which was gradually replaced by the economics of the market as the 19th century drew on.

Yet the idea that human values rather than an abstract market should set the real worth of something remains a strong political idea now.

Over 50 years critics have found much that is not in Thompson's book. It can be argued that it significantly underplays the role of women in the making of the working class. Again Dorothy Thompson worked on this area, but were the book to be written today the emphasis of the research for it and its conclusions in this area would need to be amended.

Likewise the work of Peter Linebaugh, Marcus Redikker and others on the Black Atlantic has shown the links and influences between the slave trade, British colonies and what took place in the imperial heartlands. A modern understanding of what made the English working class cannot overlook this point.

The last word, however, should rest with Thompson. In concluding his preface he notes that "causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won". In other words, while he had written a history book, the pattern of the struggles he revealed continued to play out in newly developing working classes around the world. Fifty years on they still do.