log in

Conscious organisation at a political level had been crucial in the victories over the past two centuries, richly illustrated in E.P. Thompson's reprinted classic, argues Dominic Alexander.

E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (Merlin 2010, 1991), xii, 547pp.

To describe a movement as ‘spontaneous’ is, in current parlance, to be complementary. It implies that it is not directed by special interests, or manipulated by somehow illegitimate outside actors. For many it implies freedom from hierarchical control. Spontaneity appears to be a sign of mass human agency, escaping from other determinations, economic or political, imposed upon us.

Yet as so often with one-sided approaches, the consequences of the starting point come to contradict that very premise. A really ‘spontaneous’ popular movement becomes one that is merely an atomic collection of individual responses to external stimulus; buffeted by a social version of Brownian motion, the unorganised movement can be very much determined by economic and political forces beyond its control. In truth, no popular movement really is purely spontaneous, but the illusion that it might be both hamstrings activism, and cedes the ideological ground to various types of determinist bourgeois thought (think of ‘nudge economics’).

To illustrate why this is the case, a rich source is the last major work of the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common, reprinted now nearly twenty years after its original publication. At the core of the book are two classic essays, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ and ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’. Both articles provoked considerable debate and research from the time of their first publication. In Customs in Common, Thompson was concerned to present his last words on these subjects and respond to his critics and adversaries. It is the debate over ‘The Moral Economy’ that most clearly highlights the dangers of one-sided readings of popular movements.

The subject of the ‘Moral Economy’ is the chronic ‘bread riots’ of eighteenth-century English towns, and the popular crowds, largely artisan in character, who instigated them. One account, from 1766 in Gloucestershire, remarked that ‘On Friday last a Mobb was rais’d in these parts by the blowing of Horns etc. consisting entirely of the lowest of the people such as weavers, mecanicks, labourers, prentices, and boys, etc’.

The sheriff who wrote this account was, according to Thompson, impressed by the crowd despite himself, as they ‘went... to a farmhouse and civilly desired that they wou’d thresh out and bring to market their wheat and sell it for five shillings per bushel, which being promised, and some provisions given them unasked for, they departed without the least violence or offence’ (p.227). It is remarkable that the ‘mob’ was at times in a position to enforce its notion of ‘just price’. The ruling class could, locally and temporarily, be paralysed by ‘an overwhelming popular consensus’ that prices in times of shortage should reflect need rather than the requirements of the ‘profiteer’ (p.229).

The eighteenth century has never been well served by standard history, which has resolutely denied the reality of class struggle in the period. Rather the picture has been of the progress in elite political concerns, held apart from questions arising from the industrial revolution, itself presented as if social struggle did not exist. Thompson’s writings were instrumental in challenging this stultifying account of the era, and so in refuting increasingly sunny and utopian accounts of early capitalism.

In the introduction to Customs in Common, Thompson advanced a robust argument defending a view of eighteenth-century England which placed class struggle at the centre of the analysis. The nature of class in this era allows some historians to deny that economic exploitation was key to its politics, or even that class as such really existed. Thompson argued that the ruling class, the gentry, had become insulated from direct engagement with exploitative relations, relying on social forces beneath them to operate the real gears of the system: ‘A great part of the gentry’s appropriation of the labour value of “the poor” was mediated by their tenantry, by trade or by taxation. Physically they withdrew increasingly from face-to-face relations with the people in village and town’ (pp.44-5).

The gentry were, in consequence, able to present themselves as paternalists; protecting the poor from the worst practices of those farmers, traders and masters immediately confronting labourers. The conventional image of this society was (and still is) one of rank rather than class; class being dissolved into so many incremental steps from landless labourer to landed Lord. Yet Thompson revealed the dynamic of exploitation as creating only two social poles, capital and labour, with the ‘poor’ and gentry being the social expressions of the economic contradiction. In effect Thompson showed that, dialectically, bourgeoisie and proletariat existed before a literal, or positivist, reading of those terms could perceive them. Capitalism existed throughout the eighteenth century, and thus so did the essential classes and class struggle of capitalism (see pp.71-3 in particular).

This is the context in which the ‘bread riots’ of the poor are so instructive. Thompson argues that these were no mere ‘spontaneous’ reactions to the price of bread rising to crisis levels. Rather the ‘riots’ were a conscious attempt to assert the power of popular organisation and popular values embedded in traditional communities against the expanding system of exploitation. In other words they depended upon a certain level of pre-existing social organisation, and ‘culture’, that could support this political-economic protest.

The space for this form of protest was the result of a particular balance of class forces. The outcome of the English Revolution had left a society where feudal mechanisms for the control of labour, the Church in particular, had been broken, but Puritan attempts to replace them with new bonds had in turn been reversed by the Restoration. The ruling class was left with imperfect means at its disposal to control ‘the poor’, and faced a permanent balancing act. It is in these social conditions that the politics of the crowd could flourish, and at times challenge the logic of capitalist relations.

E.P. Thompson’s argument on the eighteenth-century crowd and its riots, originally advanced in 1971, faced a fearsome backlash. The essential reason for this should be clear: Thompson was sullying the picture of a golden age of capitalism where the market ruled supreme and Adam Smith’s hidden hand worked autonomously to fuel economic growth for all. Not a bit of it; the growth of capitalism was contested by its victims at every point. The arguments against Thompson are characterised very often by an attempt to show that the crowd was driven by blind economic forces: that the movement of the price of bread determined the outbreak of rioting. Thus the people concerned were simply engaged in a series of almost automatic behaviours which could even be mathematically predictable given economic fluctuations.

It is in this context where the danger of a one-sided approval of ‘spontaneity’ becomes clear. Interpreted in this light, popular activity can be easily reduced by quantitative analysis, for example, to an automatic behaviour. The real politics that motivated people to protest can be sidelined by an economic determinism which denies the reality of resistance to the system. Without social and political analysis, the rioters become victims of the economic cycle. Thus the recent revolution in Egypt is certainly influenced by the surge in the price of food and other key goods, but that does not describe the origins of the revolution itself. Rather many years of organised political as well as economic struggle laid the ground for a revolutionary response to new hardship.

In the case of eighteenth-century England, Thompson’s opponents, using reductive quantitative analysis (see pp.186-7 for example), were attempting to justify the brutalities of capitalist economic cycles. In addition, stripping the mob’s actions of conscious political and ideological content enabled them to consign social resistance into the historical dumpster, as a dead end reaction to industrial growth, which could have no meaning for people struggling against capitalism in the present.

Along the way, those arguing against Thompson had the gall to charge him and his Marxism with the crime of ‘determinism’. This seems to be a textbook case of psychological projection: it is bourgeois economic history which, in separating economics from politics and from culture, fixing separate categories, removes historical agency from social actors like the plebeian crowd. It is the Marxism of a historian like Thompson, who in treating economics, politics and culture as a dialectical whole, is able to retrieve the agency of working people, even when it lies buried beneath judicial and police reports. The key value of the analysis is its ability to discern the dialectic of class and exploitation as a web which draws together apparently disparate elements of the social whole, and explains them through their role in the totality of a class society. The controversies which Thompson recounts would even be usefully read bearing in mind Istv√°n M√©sz√°ros’ arguments concerning the methodological assumptions of bourgeois thought. Certainly, the methodological reductionism of mainstream history rules out of court the realities of class struggle which Thompson was nonetheless able to demonstrate with considerable empirical heft.

To the extent which Thompson can be seen as overemphasising the role of consciousness in the constitution of class itself (see p.57 for example), he can be seen to be ceding ground to the general postmodernist turn in the academic ‘left’ of history of the previous two decades. There is a somewhat tragic undercurrent reading the book now, because Thompson was to die not very long after its publication, and it is marked in the occasional passage with signs of the left’s generational defeat in the early 90s. Yet throughout these essays, Thompson was defending the core of his writing, and his dialectical approach remains firmly in command of the material. A discussion of ‘Gramscian’ hegemony in relation to the polarities of gentry and the crowd in the eighteenth century serves to distinguish Thompson very clearly from those who turned Gramsci’s analysis towards reformsism (see pp.86-7, part of his long-running quarrel with the Althuserians). In terms of Marxist historical method, Thompson himself was not defeated.

A final key issue that the book reveals is the importance of past social struggles to those of the future. It is true that ultimately the eighteenth-century crowd lost its battle with capitalism, and as a social class the artisans were annihilated, their descendents transformed into industrial workers. Yet the inheritance of past struggles lived on in various ways, and provided the objective conditions for succeeding class struggles. The eighteenth-century poor themselves depended upon the inheritance of early modern and even medieval traditions and folklore to create and justify their protests. Far from being harmless curiosities, folk customs were some of the materials out of which the crowd was able to assert its ability and right to take control, even briefly, of the distribution and price of bread (p.50).

The customs of saints days and the culture of ‘leisure’ time is an area which comes into play in the second of the central essays of this collection, ‘Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’. Here again Thompson was taking something which had appeared non-political and of marginal interest to historians, to reveal the historically contested construction of capitalism. Capitalism needs workers to work according to capital’s clock, not to the labourer’s own inclinations. One of the crucial means of restoring profitability to capitalism at various points in its history has been the ability of capitalists to intensify the work process. Key to this is the control of time itself: in the eighteenth century this involved both the hour and the elimination of the many medieval holy days. The struggle against the capitalisation of time was lost, but is ultimately remembered again in the guise of May Day, the international day of labour, once a semi-pagan fertility celebration. The creation of the ‘weekend’ itself is the result of labour’s fight-back against the loss of pre-industrial holidays. Inscribed in the very rhythm of our week is the record of past class struggles.

The struggles of the exploited under one social system flow into the struggles of a new era. The subjective, active organisation of struggle in one generation of resistance becomes the objective factors for the struggles of the next generation of resistance. This is both long term and short term: the successes or failures of one decade become objective realities for the next, and more broadly those of one century, and one era, become those of another. This once again is why it is so dangerous to be lulled into a one-sided worship of the ‘spontaneous’ as unalloyed good, and the ‘organised’ as immediately suspicious.

Why did the crowd of the eighteenth century ultimately lose its fight? Part of the reason lies in why the very existence of class struggle could be, and still is, denied by bourgeois history. There is scant official ‘political’ record of a challenge to the ruling class and the social system. Bread riots, and other such manifestations of resistance, were resolutely local in nature. By the nature of the pre-industrial labouring population, the immediate community was key to all social and economic activity, and the localised structure of resistance militated against any kind of development beyond the immediate and temporary. The ‘customs’ were held ‘in common’, but as localised expressions they would be ultimately defeated by the gentry and its allies who were able to mobilise on a grander level. The lack of any developed ‘politics’ of the crowd meant that the ‘mob’ could often enough be diverted by the paternalist gentry into reactionary actions which merely supported the existing elite (the Gordon Riots for example).

For the working class which succeeded the artisans’ communities, conscious organisation on a much wider scale, and at a more conscious political level, was crucial. The victories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from May Day to the Welfare State, were brought about by conscious, planned political action, and that must be recalled as we seek to defend those advances.

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 book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).


Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now