E P Thompson addresses anti-nuclear weapons rally, Oxford, England, 1980 E P Thompson addresses anti-nuclear weapons rally, Oxford, England, 1980. Source: Kim Traynor - Wikicommon / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 4.0

On the centenary of Thompson’s birth, Dominic Alexander celebrates his monumental work, The Making of the English Working Class

Edward Palmer Thompson, born a century ago on 3 February 1924, was not only one of the most important British Marxist historians but was also among the most important internationally. He is surely best remembered for his monumental work, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), which in charting the development of a political class consciousness among workers in England during the Industrial Revolution from the end of the eighteenth century through to the 1830s, has been praised and attacked in equal measure ever since.

Given all this argument, it is worth establishing just what the book’s core contribution was to the story of the working class, and to the history of political radicalism. The book begins with the English Jacobins of the 1790s and explores the religious and political traditions the radicals inherited from dissenters and other sources. It then moves from considering this relatively respectable milieu of literate artisans and shopkeepers to what can be gleaned about attitudes of the ‘unrespectable’ working class, whose participation in politics could appear as ‘as something of a mixture of manipulated mob and revolutionary crowd’. 

The establishment routinely paid such people to attack their opponents, especially radicals, on the basis that the latter were a threat to the people’s liberty. Thus, In the 1790s, radical reformers might well be attacked by a ‘Church and King’ mob, but this changed in the course of the next couple of decades. As early as 1815, ‘it was not possible, either in London or in the industrial North or Midlands, to employ a ‘Church and King’ mob to terrorize the Radicals.’ The ruling class hold on the loyalty of the ‘unrespectable’ crowd had evaporated. This is one of the notable signs of growing class consciousness and hostility to the ruling class and the system. 

In one respect, Thompson’s argument is about how the two, often mutually antagonistic, sections of eighteenth-century plebian society, the artisanal and the ‘disreputable’, both fed into what would become a self-conscious working class waging a mass struggle for radical democratic change by the 1830s with the Chartist movement. Explaining this massive shift in social alignments and political consciousness takes in the most detailed consideration of the social conditions and exploitation endured by all sections of the wider working classes during these years of the Industrial Revolution, as well as all the industrial and political agitations of the time.

In so doing, Thompson challenged a whole range of academic opinions about the period, from arguments that the working class benefited from industrialisation (they demonstrably did not), to long-standing dismissals of various radical figures and movements, such as the Luddites. The latter, in particular, Thompson showed to be far from blindly anti-technology or just ‘primitive’ trade unionists, but people capable of considerable feats of clandestine organisation and political-economic awareness.

Controversies and opponents

The magnificence of the research and the vivid detail in the writing won many a reader over to Thompson’s argument, but aspects of it have remained controversial even among Marxists. The issues have been partly muddled by the passage of time. Thompson himself in later years wrote voluminously on contemporary politics, particularly through his anti-nuclear activism, but the positions taken in such essays need to be assessed separately from what he wrote in The Making. The development of historical research, the academic arguments engendered by the book, and Thompson’s disappointments with the New Left, all had an impact on his later writings.

It is necessary to go back to the original context for The Making to grasp Thompson’s intent. He had opponents in two directions, firstly the right-wing and liberal academic consensus, and secondly a version of Marxist analysis that has now largely been left behind. That was the typically mechanistic conception of social change and consciousness indebted to Stalinist Marxism. Whatever some may have later taken from the book, The Making itself remained fully materialist in its approach.

The period the book covers was long understood to be a dramatic one, and Thompson agreed that ‘the history of popular agitation during the period 1811-50’ suggests that ‘it is as if the English nation entered a crucible in the 1790s and emerged after the Wars [i.e.1815] in a different form’. For Thompson, this led on to a period in which a class-conscious working-class movement took shape by the 1830s. However, the period 1790-1815 also coincided with a ‘dramatic pace of change in the cotton industry’, so the assumption had been that the arrival of the modern factory system was the direct and automatic cause of the emergence of a militant working class: ‘the cotton-mill is seen as the agent not only of the industrial but also of social revolution, producing not only more goods but also the ‘Labour Movement’ itself.’ This deterministic view was what Thompson had set out to challenge.

To start with, he was quite right to point out that the mass of pre-factory hand-loom weavers, for example, ‘were as prominent in every radical agitation as the factory hands. And in many towns, the actual nucleus from which the labour movement derived ideas, organization, and leadership, was made up of ’a whole range of artisanal trades. Factory workers did not become the dominant core of the working class until at least the 1840s. In other words, there is not a straight read-off to be made from the new forces of production of the modern factory system to a class-conscious labour movement.

Dialectics of change

This is really what should be expected. No social formation arrives all at once, ready-made, but necessarily grows within already existing social relations, creating a whole host of contradictory dynamics and influences. Even so, Thompson was not in any way denying the significance of the new forces of production, indeed he notes in the course of the analysis being quoted here that: ‘Cotton was certainly the pace-making industry of the industrial revolution, and the cotton mill was the pre-eminent model for the factory-system’. Moreover, much of the book is concerned directly with the impact of the industrial revolution on all sections of the ‘labouring classes’, which had much to do with the rise of the range of radical dissent and protest in the period.

Thompson’s argument, however, is that nothing is automatic, and people can only pursue their struggles using all the available social resources. Thus the existing radical traditions inherited from the eighteenth century, many of them even preserving elements of the radicalism of the seventeenth-century Civil War period, fed into and helped to shape the working-class politics and consciousness of the 1830s. Although Thompson could later be interpreted as arguing that ‘culture’ was more important than the ‘economic base’ in determining consciousness, thus opening the way to postmodernist approaches that disappear the materiality behind social change altogether, that was clearly not what the argument of The Making was doing in 1963. Then, the target was Stalinist determinism, where ‘consciousness’ is held to reflect statically conceived economic structures.

The argument of The Making seems to me to be firmly in line with Marx’s oft-quoted view that: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ Thompson’s famous explanation of class in the Preface to the Making is sometimes criticised for leaning too heavily on the subjective side of the formation of class, but the material foundation of class is underlined as strongly here as it is throughout the book: ‘The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily’.

Class consciousness is, however, necessarily more dependent upon subjective factors: ‘We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predicate any law. Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way.’ Class itself is not a static structure in which people are simply slotted, but is something that happens: ‘class is a relationship and not a thing.’ This then is a powerful argument against the kind of academic sociology that splits the population into various strata, each of which can be defined as much by status indicators as economic position: ‘If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences’.

Class in time

However, class is a relationship of domination and exploitation, which unfolds over time. This renders different particular experiences of it comparable; thus hand-loom weavers and factory operatives came to understand, argued Thompson, that their experiences of class shared the same ‘logic’, regardless of other differences between them. This played out over the decades 1790-1830, and over different struggles, economic and political, in which radical and eventually early socialist views were increasingly common amongst workers of various sectors. Since class consciousness happens as a historical process, so it can also subsequently weaken, and even be overcome by the various material differences between sections of the working class. It must be continuously nurtured and revitalised.

Rather than undermining the Marxist understanding of the role of base and superstructure in society, Thompson in the Making seems to offer a properly dialectical conception of the way in which people come to understand the social relations in which they live their lives. Existing traditions of dissent and protest therefore played an important part in the formation of the new working-class consciousness of the nineteenth century. This is not to give ‘superstructural’ forces undue weight but to realise that what were subjective factors in one generation feed into the objective conditions of the next. In sum, Thompson was pointing out that what we do now matters because it lays down the conditions in which we and our successors will be working in the years to come. Apart from the theoretical arguments about class and consciousness, it seems very likely that this argument about the necessity and meaningfulness of activism is one of the main reasons so many readers have found the book to be inspirational.

The Making was by no means Thompson’s only important contribution to Marxist historiography. Throughout the rest of the 60s and 70s, he continued to work on the social history of the eighteenth century, showing that a century supposedly without class struggle was, in fact, brimming with it, and that while classes did not yet exist in the form they would come to take due to the industrial revolution, nonetheless, the pre-industrial period was characterised by conflict between the two poles of capital and labour.

Two classic articles, ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’ (1967) and ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ (1971), were later followed by the book Whigs and Hunters (Penguin 1975), which found class conflicts raging in aspects of early eighteen-century English society where no one had thought to seek them before. His very final book was a tour de force of intellectual history, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), where Thompson unpicked Blake’s debt to seventeenth-century revolutionary religious radicalism through the obscure sects that survived to his time, carrying fossilised parts of that radical tradition with them.

Late arguments

The essays on eighteenth-century England were developed further and finally collected in the book Customs in Common (Merlin, 1991/2010). However, here there are concessions to very different approaches to history, and probably to the increasing volume of attacks on his earlier writing from the academic left, as well as the right. In some of the statements in this last book, Thompson does at points allow for consciousness to be formative of class itself in some sense.

This was surely in response to the postmodernist approaches that had been attacking the very root of the materialist account of history. For example, Joan Wallach Scott, in a passage seemingly directed at Thompson, insisted that while ‘the rhetoric of class appeals to the objective “experience” of workers, in fact such experience only exists through its conceptual organization; what counts as experience cannot be established by collecting empirical data but by analysing the terms of definition offered in political discourse’ such that ‘class and class consciousness are the same thing’. This dispiriting, pure idealism is not the position Thompson took in The Making, and would indeed have undermined the very basis of all the painstaking research Thompson had carried out for that and his subsequence books.

Thompson’s understanding of history was highly sensitive to the complexities of change, and how in new circumstances, people forge new relationships and ideas out of the materials, whether organisational or ideological, bequeathed by old circumstances. Yet, if ‘discourses’ really had total primacy, then no new ideas could ever be born, and certainly no new movements could ever have appeared. The Making, in contrast, was about a period where, demonstrably, new kinds of struggles and new ideas burst forth together. It was not the ideas that puppeted the people, but the workers and artisans who developed the ideas and ways of resisting their rulers and the ruthlessness of the new capitalism.

In a sense, by the 1990s, the arguments had come full circle. Thompson was originally arguing against a view of Marxism that saw ‘consciousness’ as merely a reflection of material circumstances. His project was to show that people were active, rather than simply reactive, in forging the shape of their struggles and thus that class consciousness was actively self-created. For a variety of reasons, not least the generational defeat of the left in the 1980s, academic fashion blew past this dialectical view. It landed on another absolute as untenable as the Stalinist thesis: the enthronement of language as the controller of all that is real. Unfortunately, we have not yet escaped that space. Thompson was endeavouring to find the dialectical midpoint. This would recognise the interplay of determination and agency, of consciousness and material constraints, where the potential for class struggle to change the world is found. The lesson of The Making is that what we do matters, but also that it is necessary to think to do; theory and practice are inextricably bound together.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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