E. P. Thompson - Review
The Making of the English Working Class, Pelican.
Labour History, 15, November 1968, pp. 75-77.

“A class,” says E. P. Thompson in his preface to The Making of the English Working Class, “is not a thing but a continuing experience.” In this statement lies the strength and weakness of the English working-class and of Thompson’s empathetic analysis of it. Since the English working-class has never bid for power, that is, has never reached a revolutionary consciousness, Thompson is forced to write of their social experience. It is in discussing the myriads of this experience that his book excels. As an account of this half of the truth it is faultless. Its failing rests in its persuasive arguing that it is all of the truth. The other half of the truth concerns the power of the working class in England. While Thompson rightly praises the growth of class consciousness in such diverse forms as trade unions and brass bands, he does not confront the implications of this consciousness in terms of power. Although it is possible to disagree about its causes, there can be no denying that the English working class accepts the limits of thought and action that its masters pay lip-service to. At the crudest level this is evident in the action of British workers who voluntarily increased their working hours to help the export drive.

The author covers the half-century from the late 1780s to the early 1830s, especially from the foundation of the London Corresponding Society in 1792 to the failure of the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820. Thompson in unafraid of controversy and only on the standard of living debate does he confess to any uncertainties. To make up for the lapse he demonstrates that even if material standards rose there was an increase in “misery”: “In comparing a Suffolk labourer with his grand-daughter in a cotton mill we are comparing – not two standards – but two ways of life.” (p. 231) Concern with the “ways of life” is the book’s strongest point. Perhaps it is in his discussion of Methodism that Thompson illustrates this best. The utility of Methodism as a work-discipline is evident. What is less easy to understand is why so many working-people were willing to submit to this form of psychic exploitation … During the years 1790-1830 three reasons may be adduced: direct indoctrination, the Methodist community sense, and the psychic consequences of the counter-revolution.” (p. 375)

The counter-revolution is central to Thompson’s argument. The truly catastrophic nature of the Industrial Revolution” resulted in the “intensification of two intolerable forms of relations: those of economic exploitation and of political oppression.” This political oppression Thompson sees as “fully as devastating, and in some feature more divisive, than that which happened in France” (p. 197-9). The oppression was necessary to destroy that “inchoate resistance of free-born Englishmen” (p. 224) who believed that there had been a Saxon liberty-tree under whose branches they should be protected. The counter-revolution, most successful form 1795-1810, produced its own reaction. Thompson is quick to point to the considerable degree of “revolutionary” action in the second decade of the nineteenth century. The rocket with which this new era was announced was the assassination of the Prime Minister, Perceval, in the House of Commons on 11 May 1812. Having shown the rational, discriminating nature of Luddism, Thompson further claims that “no account of Luddism is satisfactory … (if it) dismisses its insurrectionary undertones with talk of a ‘few hot heads’.” (p. 587) The Hammonds are held responsible for “History’: denegation of “insurrectionary schemes on the part of working men” of the period. But considering the suffering of the weavers and the twenty years of war “it might appear more surprising if men had not plotted revolutionary uprising than if they had.”

And so we return to our initial criticism. Thompson finds “insurrection schemes” and translates them into a revolutionary consciousness. It is true that the English working class has produced their own specific culture. But it is a culture that is not merely different from that of their masters, but subordinate to it. What are not subordinate are “the local booksellers and newsvendors, trade union organisers, secretaries and local speakers for the Hampden Clubs and Political Unions – men who did not expect to become honoured life-pensioners of the movement as a reward for imprisonment, and who, in many cases, were too obscure to do more than leave a few records of their activity in the local press of the Home Office papers.” (p. 631) It is they who, in their countless thousands, inhabit the pages of this book, itself a fitting tribute to their memory.

The very circumstances of this edition of Thompson’s book indicate the degree to which the power of the English ruling class has been unaffected by the growth of working-class culture. One of the most noble sketches in the book is of a printer who spent the best part of thirty years in gaol for his continual reprinting of The Rights of Man. The Making of the English Working Class comes to us by courtesy of Sir Allen Lane, whose cultural enrichment of the working class is as undeniable as it has been rewarding. Sir Allen is a millionaire, a knight of the realm, and this is the one thousandth Pelican he has published.

The importance of Thompson’s work for the student of Australian history is tremendous since Australia was being “made” in the years that Thompson discusses. As social background to the “criminal” convicts, and as a political backdrop to the “social” exiles, Making of the English Working Class is indispensable reading. In particular there are sections on the Scottish Martyrs, the Luddites and the Cato Street Conspirators. But more significant still is the total political experience we have inherited from England and reshaped n Australia. Thompson has presented us with a valuable, if unintentional, contribution to our understanding of the ideas that many convicts and immigrants brought with them. These ideas and experiences did not survive transportation unaltered and they often took on entirely different, almost opposite, form in the open environment of Australia, especially after 1840. But no matter how different the fruit, it all sprang from the same British seed. Perhaps the strongest example of this remains the demand for “land”. Certain superficial analogies suggest themselves. The unemployed weaver who brought a free press to Britain, by their willingness to accept gaol rather than pay the crippling stamp duty, bear comparison to the Wobblies who established free speech in Australia, for a time.

The consciousness which the English working class made was by no means the product of dull tracts and mundane meetings. Literacy, so essential to the “making” process, had its specific class form in “The Bad Alphabet for the Use of the Children of Female Reformers”. (p. 718) Youngsters were taught their ABC and a political programme simultaneously:

B is for Bible, Bishops and Bigotry

K is for Kings, Knaves and Kidnappery

W is for Whigs, Wicket and Wavering.

And no more delightful courtroom scene can be imagined than that of William Hone, on trial for publishing blasphemous libels, entertaining the court with examples of satire from all ages. The humour was not always intentional. The Glass-makers refused admittance to “Persons that are infamous, of all-character, quarrelsome of disorderly … (and to) Waterman.” The Watermen, not to be outdone, denied benefits to any brother who “is clap’t or pox’d”.

See also: Marxism
Labour History