Top positive review
WHAT WAS IT THAT WAS MADE AT THIS PERIOD, EXACTLY?
22 April 2017
I should have read this book 50 years ago when it first came out. In those days EP Thompson was a leading intellectual in Britain, in an age when intellectuals still contributed largely to public debate, and history was thought to be important. The making of the English working class has doubtless continued to be studied by academics and teachers since those days, but EP Thompson (who was a considerable personal force and a fierce debater) died in 1993 and is no longer here to defend his views; and I doubt if the subject matter of the book commands the public attention it once did, now that the Labour Movement has fragmented and been largely excluded from the corridors of power.
I was left the book by a friend, who died tragically, and for whom it was a kind of Bible. I read it as a belated homage to him. It is certainly very thorough, entertaining and interesting; but does it really explain the origins of the English working class? It is really a history of ideas, taking us from the Jacobinism of the 1790s, via the risings of the Luddites, the Pentridge Rising and the Cato Street Conspiracy to the writings of Robert Owen, the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the ideas of Robert Owen and the Chartists. This does not tell us much about ‘the working class’, as a unit, or about its numbers, composition and conditions. It certainly tells us something about the influences on various working classes (in the plural); but these influences were also at work (perhaps more powerfully so) on the lower middle class. Thompson does not dwell much on literacy rates amongst the working classes, and in any event, an ability to read, or even possession of a book or text, does not prove that a person has read it.
Thompson was a Marxist and clearly believed in the importance of materialism, the labour theory of value, and the class struggle; and in this book his implied criticism of all the writers he tells us about is that they had not yet grasped the fundamental truths which Marx and Engels had yet to expound. This means three things (1) He explains religion by reference to its social usefulness and effects, rather than attributing any importance to what people actually said and believed. Thus he belittles its importance. Famously, he even describes Methodism as a kind of masturbation! (2) He regards all the ideas he describes as immature in some way, compared with full blown dialectical materialism. Yet this would seem to both anachronistic and to conflict with his wish to rescue the people concerned from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’. (3) The book does not really deal with the class struggle. It is a description of a series of movements and risings, and a parallel history of political thinking.
One has the feeling that the title was chosen because the subject was topical. One could equally well argue that the English working class did not really come into existence until the late 19th century, by which time a majority of the population lived in towns, a vast numbers of workers worked in factories, Marx and Engels had written their seminal works, and there were conscious movements designed to establish the working class in power, by constitutional or revolutionary means. By comparison, Mr Thompson’s book seems to deal with a disjointed series of activists and thinkers, of uncertain origins, who were driven by a hatred of tyranny and ‘the Establishment’, without being clearly imbued with notions of class.
Nevertheless, parts of this book are a very good read. I found the description of how the Great Reform Act of 1832 was such a disappointment to the Radicals of most interest.