A classic work of social history chosen by Dominic Alexander
Growing up in a socialist household, there was never a time when I did not think of myself as a socialist in some sense. What I didn’t understand until reading E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class was how the liberation of the working class must be a revolutionary act of self-emancipation. Before this book, my head was full of ultra-left revolutionary rage and enthusiasm, alongside bits of technocratic social democracy, with phrases and notions absorbed from bourgeois sociology.
The story of the formation of a radical class-conscious working class through a patchwork of different struggles and experiences over the fifty-year period from the 1790s to the 1830s seemed to break open the whole of history, and not just this story alone. This was a Marxist analysis that put people’s own struggles, that is everyday class conflict, centre stage; rooted in quotidian experiences as well as the more dramatic events, bizarre religious cults (Joanna Southcott’s followers) as well as demands for political reform. Everything that was top-down about the thinking I had inherited was revealed to be in fact anti-socialist.
Moreover, Thompson managed to convey a sophisticated new approach with a mixture of plain language and subtle dialectic, for which his very famous preface is justly remembered:
‘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 … More than this, the notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. Like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomise its structure. The finest-meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class, any more than it can give us one of deference or of love. The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context’ (p.9).
Few books can have so well fulfilled their introductory promises as Thompson’s book does after this preface. Thompson was a generous kind of historian who shared his research methods very openly in his writing. The result for this reader was that while the book remains a monumental achievement, it seemed to an (admittedly, arrogant) teenager that it might be possible to do this type of historical work. It further seemed that such work could even contribute to the class struggle in the present.
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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