The People: the rise and fall of the working class

The People: the rise and fall of the working class, by Selina Todd, reviewed by Rhian Jones

December 1, 2014 · 2 min read

the-peopleWorking-class history, like working-class politics, can sometimes feel like a lost art. E P Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963, influenced a generation of social historians to rescue the lives and experiences of ordinary Britons from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. By the end of the 20th century, however, the concept of class was in retreat both politically and within academia, with historians, sociologists and cultural theorists basing their analyses on a more individualistic politics of identity.

Selina Todd’s The People, like Michael Collins’ The Likes of Us and Lynsey Hanley’s Estates, is a work of history refreshingly fuelled by personal experience of working class identity and awareness of the social, cultural and political changes that this has undergone in the past century. Through first-person accounts by servants, factory workers, miners and housewives, her account challenges clichés and stereotypes.

Todd follows Thompson in understanding class as something enacted through culture as well as production. Her emphasis on consciousness as a determinant of what it is to be working class, rather than rigidly policed economic or occupational status, is helpful in a contemporary discourse in which the shrinking of the working class’s industrial base is often used to argue that it no longer exists. Instead, Todd observes that ‘what really made people working class [was] lack of power’. Todd’s tracking of rhetorical references to ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’ by politicians of all parties is a useful contribution to the British left’s attempt to reclaim the concept of ‘the people’ from right‑wing populists.

The People is more than a work of nostalgia, and more than a swansong or retrospective tribute to a ‘working class’ that once existed and now no longer does. Rather, it serves as a reminder that class, like a history, is an ongoing process under which a neat line cannot be drawn.


Review – Steal as Much as You Can by Nathalie Olah

Anna Clayton reviews Natalie Olah's book, which explores how upper middle-class pop culture has affected British politics

Review – Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

Suchandrika Chakrabarti reviews Wendy Liu's proposals to reclaim technology's potential for the public good

Review – One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA by Daniel Finn

Connor Beaton reviews Daniel Finn's account of the politics and personalities which drove the IRA


'The Murder of Count Helfenstein' during the German Peasants' Revolt (Credit: WikiCommons)

It’s after the end of the world: inequality and doomsday

As apocalypse rhetoric spreads during Covid-19, James Hendrix Elsey explores what 'the end of the world' really means under racialised capitalism – and what comes next

Gender, class and cliché in Normal People

The BBC hit drama shows the complexities of class mobility, but can’t avoid class and gender stereotypes, says Frances Hatherley

Review – Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined by J J Bola

Mask Off offers a toolbox of explanations and arguments to question and challenge toxic masculinity, writes Huw Lemmey

Enjoying this article? Grateful for the lack of ads?
Donate any amount to Red Pepper and support radical media with an independent editorial line, strict ethical advertising policy, and no-paywall promise.