Dominic Alexander defends E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class - one the most debated and influential of all the books produced by British Marxist historians
For socialists, the class consciousness of the working class is oxygen. What is it, how is it reproduced and developed, and what was its historical origin? These are questions of the greatest importance.
It is understandable, then, that E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class remains perhaps the most debated and influential of all the books produced by the British Marxist historians who emerged from the Communist Party in the 1950s. Even today, it remains a touchstone.
Caroline Steedman’s recent Labour’s Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England situates itself by noting Thompson’s neglect of domestic servants as a section of the working class (2009, 8-9, 16-17).
Though a target of much criticism, the book, forty-seven years after first publication, remains relevant even to its critics. It is not the final word on working class social history of the period, nor would Thompson have considered it so. But it has remained central because of its Marxist methodology and the controversy over Thompson’s argument that a working class consciousness had bloomed by the early 1830s.
Thompson charted the transformation of the popular radical politics of the 18th century - which lacked clear understanding of the class character of industrial capitalism - into a genuinely working class politics in the early 19th century. The story is an epic one, and Thompson’s writing is both angry and inspiring in depicting the deadly struggles of English Jacobins, Luddites, trade unionists, hand-loom weavers, early socialists, and all the other strands that made the working class a social and political force. It is the verb that is the key to Thompson’s method and argument.
Working-class consciousness was not the mechanical product of a set of structural circumstances created by industrial capitalism. Rather it was the product of a response to the development of capitalism across different sections of workers already subject to capitalist relations of production. The class consciousness that Thompson sees being created through the class struggle was not solely that of those in the most advanced industries, but included other groups of workers, such as the handloom weavers. The working class was structurally disparate, but through its own struggles forged a common consciousness - and thus became, in Marx’s sense, a class for itself.
The work concludes with a militant, self-conscious working class able to shake the confidence of the ruling class in the early 1830s. The aristocracy was frightened into sharing its rule with the industrial bourgeoisie, through the extension of the suffrage in the Reform Act of 1832. The working class received this Act, which excluded it from the vote, as a betrayal by middle-class reformers. The result was the first great political movement of the modern working class: Chartism.
The ferment of the 1830s included the first attempt at a single trade union for all workers, the movement for the Ten Hours Act, and early socialist ideas derived from the work of the Utopian Socialist intellectual Robert Owen. These overlapping struggles contained already the typical tendencies of working-class consciousness, from reformist demands to syndicalism to social-revolutionary ambition.
The postmodernist counterattack
Thompson’s interpretation was attacked root and branch, starting in the 1980s, by a new generation of postmodernist historians engaged in a wholesale challenge to Marxism. The first of significance was Gareth Stedman-Jones writing in Languages of Class (1983). He contrasted Thompson’s high-note of the early 1830s with the character of Chartism, and judged the struggles of the period extremely wanting in terms of class consciousness. After the collapse of Chartism in the 1850s, argues Stedman-Jones, working-class activity does not meet the criteria for a Marxist definition of class consciousness.
Stedman-Jones’ strictures on what constitutes class consciousness are highly debatable. Even accepting these, to assume from subsequent downturns that the early 1830s did not represent a moment of remarkable class consciousness is to forget that, like social class itself, class consciousness must be constantly reproduced. Why should there not be decline from a high-point reached in 1832?
That said, Engels’ judgement was that after 1832 - apparently a supreme moment of bourgeois victory - the business of parliament became dominated by the presence and demands of the working class, from the Ten Hours movement to Chartism (1845, introduction).
Chartism, according to Stedman-Jones, far from being a class-based movement, consisted of a primitive populist politics, unable to grasp the class antagonism between worker and capitalist (1983, 100-4). Instead, working-class intellectuals depended upon an earlier radicalism that saw it as natural for manufacturers and workers to ally against the parasitic aristocracy.
Stedman-Jones is a representative of the ‘linguistic turn’ in history - postmodernism - and thus focuses his research on textual analysis. It is at this point that the contrasting strength of Thompson’s method appears. For Stedman-Jones, the vocabulary of radical language, inherited from the long history of protest, counts in the analysis of class consciousness in the 1830s. For Thompson, it was the collective actions and direction of struggle which determined the resonance and impact of the language used.
Stedman-Jones is able to ignore the development of working-class radicals’ ideas, and the way that economics was increasingly central to their understanding of society (1983, 106). Rather, they are judged for how far their analysis approached that of a (schematically represented) Marxism. Effectively, if they fell short of Marxist analysis, then they could not represent a truly proletarian class consciousness. Never mind that they grasped the crucial importance of Ricardo’s labour theory of value, the formal class analysis was not fully developed. This approach turns class consciousness into a pre-existing ideal rather than something created by historical struggle.
Creating class consciousness
Stedman-Jones’ approach misses the way that class itself is a historical relationship, a dialectical motion, not a series of empirical data which can pinned onto a classification board like so many butterflies. Class consciousness is not a thing; it is not a measurement of the number of workers who hold a correct doctrine, as defined by an historian of ideas.
Stedman-Jones claims to want to develop a historical method distinct from both empiricism and Marxism (1983, 7-8). Yet his approach to class consciousness is precisely that which Luk√°cs identified as bourgeois and empirical. What matters is the ‘relation to society as a whole’, since class consciousness is ‘neither the sum nor the average of what is thought or felt by the single individuals who make up the class’ (1971, 50-1). The writings Stedman-Jones analyses should be related to the ‘historically significant actions of the class as a whole’.
Class consciousness consists of historical moments of relationship, in which events and the language used by the actors need to be seen in their totality, not dissected separately. This was Thompson’s approach. He saw the connections between various strands of working-class activity, and the way in which the more ‘backward’ were pulled into class action by the more ‘advanced’. The radical ferment of 1832 seems, for example, to have provoked the last millenarian peasants’ revolt - J N Tom’s insurrection of labourers in Kent (Thompson 1963, 800-1).
The Charter and the Corn Laws
A problem with the Chartists that Stedman-Jones returns to repeatedly is the apparent ambiguity in their attitude towards the ‘middle classes’ (1983, 105-7). Crucial to Chartism was its moral insistence that middle-class reformers should support the Charter, with its demand for universal (manhood) suffrage. They either refused to do so at all or recoiled from the militant working-class movement. This confrontation was precisely where the class character of Chartism crystallises in social action. Stedman-Jones, by contrast, sees the radical vocabulary of Chartism, with its demand for popular unity against the corrupt establishment, as evidence that it was nothing more than a cross-class alliance.
This is how Chartist ‘class collaboration’ worked in practice. The middle class, having gained the suffrage, moved onto its next key goal, the repeal of the pro-aristocratic Corn Laws. Chartists would come and disrupt Anti-Corn Law meetings, demanding that middle-class reformers drop their preferred goal in favour of the Charter, the working-class demand. The Chartists argued that the middle class could secure the repeal of the Corn Law after the Charter was achieved.
This is not cross-class radicalism, but a militant, politicised, and confident working-class consciousness in direct conflict with the bourgeoisie. The words of texts may not employ the ‘correct’ theoretical terminology, but the dialectic of historical relationships taken in their totality shows the operation of class consciousness.
This was Thompson’s procedure for the period up to 1832. He analysed apparently isolated, sometimes strange actions and phenomena in terms of the whole development of class and class conflicts across the period. Class consciousness is always uneven, but Thompson was able to show how the totality of the political development of workers flowed together. Thus, even the most religiously-orientated groups of labourers were being informed by the increasingly class-conscious politics and activity of the most advanced elements of the working class in the 1820s and 30s. This is to investigate history dialectically rather than through a postmodernist procedure which slips lamely backwards into the empiricism it supposedly rejects.
The methodological regression of postmodernist historians is even more marked in another product of the linguistic turn, Patrick Joyce’s Visions of the People (1991). Here, terms like ‘the people’ and their uses in various contexts are collected to show that for most of the 19th century the working class did not have any class consciousness at all. Rather, a pre-industrial conception of the people in general was retained, together with a generalised opposition to the aristocracy.
The accumulated mass of empirical evidence is never related to any wider relationship or development, economic or political, but appears as a set of individual curiosities. That there may often have been a political strategy behind the deployment of the term ‘people’ does not occur to Joyce.
In the case of the Chartists, the confrontation with the Anti-Corn Law reformers appears as a self-confident attempt to achieve political hegemony. Instead of simply supporting the demand for cheap bread, the Chartists argued that the middle class, having won the vote for themselves, were morally obliged to support the continuing working-class struggle for full democracy. This is the point at which a politicised working class rolls out a strategy for change based on its claim to represent a universal interest. This awareness of the universality of its political aims is something Luk√°cs saw as crucial to proletarian class consciousness in a later period when the movement was far more advanced.
Many responses to the argument that class consciousness had formed by the early 1830s rely upon noting the limitations of working-class consciousness in ensuing generations. However, the thoughts of the ruling class are ruling thoughts, and society in all its aspects only exists by continuing reproduction. Class consciousness can rise and fall as a result. The working class as a historical agent could produce historical materialism and the dialectical method as a way of overcoming the stranglehold of bourgeois thinking over society. But this does not prevent bourgeois historical thought from periodically reasserting itself.
Thompson’s argument in The Making of the English Working Class remains vitally important. It not only describes a period of remarkable advance in the history of the working class. It is also a supreme example of the dialectical method in historical analysis. Thompson demonstrated how working people were not just worked upon by historical forces, but were able, by their own political agency, to forge themselves as a class for itself.
This analysis should strengthen our political will today. At the dawn of modern working-class history, structurally disparate sections of the working class could achieve a conscious unity in pursuit of economic and political objectives. The working class may at present be fragmented and politically demoralised. Yet white-collar, industrial, and service workers, and even the mass of professionals, have much in common. What elements of struggle and resistance there are may seem fragmented - by location, by sector, by issue, by campaign - but so it would have seemed in the years leading up to 1830.
The articulation of class may not be as robust as it was in the early 20th century, but anti-capitalist protests and campaigns (defined broadly) and anti-war movements have demonstrated a pervasive critique of the present order, and a set of dissenting values and agendas. In comparison to the 1820s, these make a very promising starting-point for the forging of new unities in the struggle against capital.
Engels, F, 1845, The Condition of the Working Class in England, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/condition-working-class/ch02.htm
Joyce, P, 1991, Visions of the People.
Luk√°cs, G, 1971, History and Class Consciousness.
Stedman-Jones, G, 1983, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832-1982.
Steedman, C, 2009, Labour’s Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England.
Thompson, E P, 1963, The Making of the English Working Class.
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).
More articles from this author
- Can economic planning work? - explainer
- The South Sea Bubble: England's first stock market crisis 300 years ago
- Liberalism At Large: The World According to the Economist - book review
- Democratic history challenges imperialist and racist history
- Invisible Leviathan: Marx’s Law of Value in the Twilight of Capitalism - book review
- Crisis capitalism: why state intervention is not socialism
- Why are key workers so low paid?