Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A class act

Nicholas Beuret looks at E P Thompson's classic The Making of the English Working Class

January 18, 2013
5 min read

E P Thompson’s work usually gets a nicely worded (if often guarded) review. After all, he’s part of the original new left, sings the praises of the Levellers as revolutionaries, and is part of the turn to social history and history ‘from below’. He is also often lauded for being part of the move towards ‘cultural’ considerations (cultural studies) with Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. If a review digs a little deeper, it might get to the lack of racial or gender analysis in his work (Struggle for the Breeches by Anna Clark is the most famous repost to E P Thompson’s lack of gender analysis). He is an important author and figure for all of these reasons, but we do him and arguably his most famous book The Making of the English Working Class a disservice if we stop there.

I don’t mean his political life beyond the text as it were, leaving the Communist Party, as a ‘freelance polemicist’ and ‘voice of the peace movement’. I mean that we should follow him down into his books to see what they say, and to make as much out of them as people do of his life. The Making of the English Working Class in particular deserves to be read for a number of reasons.

Published in 1963, it is a historical text that concentrates on English artisan and working class society ‘in its formative years, 1780 to 1832’. In Thompson’s own words he sought ‘to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’. The book itself is a seminal history from below text, drawing out aspects of the formation of capitalism largely ignored until its publication.

So what makes The Making of the English Working Class so interesting? First, it has a theory of class as a thing that emerged and developed over time. That is, the working class didn’t spring magically out of the processes of enclosure fully formed, but was (and still is) the varied and always contested result of an open process between capital and the not-yet or have-been working class bodies that still populate the world: ‘The working class did not rise like the sun at the appointed time. It was present at its own making.’

But second, if we follow Thompson’s method – his fine grain detail, his patchwork of groups, trends, everyday life and events – what you see is an image of class as a continual process. People are always making and being made into ‘the’ working class. And through that process class – as a concept, as a consciousness – is constantly evolving. It’s worth noting that he was

very much working in parallel on an understanding of the always-antagonistic nature of class as a relationship of resistance and rebellion with the Italian autonomist Marxists, the most famous of whom (for non-Italians) is Antonio Negri. The priority for them, as for Thompson, was the thread of resistance and rebellion that ran through history and formed the basis of capitalist social relations.

Third, and like them, his writing shows class as not one but many. Considered theoretically, the working class is all the same – labour in the abstract. Look a bit more closely, think about your day at work, the commute and the people around you and you’ll see a hodge-podge of peoples, often at odds or even war with each other. Consciousness is the key aspect, emphasised by Thompson against the more economically determinist readings of both Marx and class dynamics:

‘And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs . . . If the experience appears as determined, class-consciousness does not.’

But even here he innovated. Consciousness was not ‘raised’ – people did not need to be made aware of their exploitation or loss to be moved to action. Thompson showed how, in a myriad of ways, people developed their own narratives, ideas, theories and understandings of what was happening and, more importantly, what they wanted to happen. From religion to late night drunken raids on factories, political groups to parliamentary reform – more than ‘culture’, Thompson considers all of life to be both organised and a terrain of struggle and innovation.

Finally, Thompson cautions us not to rush to judgment as though we ourselves were in some position from which to lay out all that has come before us. In motion, riding the rough seas of class conflict, the horizon can surely be our only ultimate guide:

‘Our only criterion of judgment should not be whether or not a man’s [sic] actions are justified in light of subsequent evolution. After all, we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves.’

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences


94