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Glass Half Full?
on 31 August 2016
The first point to note about this book is that it is an academic treatise. The second point is that it is now over 50 years old, so I assume at least some of the arguments have been superceded by subsequent research. I am not an academic historian so I do not know whether they have or have not.
The book is a labour of love. In it, Thompson tries to show that, during the fifty years between 1780 and 1830, i.e. the years that might be described as the peak of the industrial revolution, a working class consciousness developed among the working people of England. (Let’s be very clear here. Thompson rigidly sticks within both his chosen dates and specified geography. You can feel him holding himself back from straying into the1830s and events in Wales and Scotland are barely mentioned.) He argues further that this working class consciousness arose from within the working class itself and was not inculcated into it by middle class, liberal intellectuals.
As I said the book is an academic treatise, so Thompson laboriously takes us through all the evidence in support of his argument. This involves a considerable amount of analysis of sources, because this is the problem. The sources, both primary and secondary, were unreliable. The leading working class protagonists left behind almost no written record of their activities and beliefs, usually for the very good reason that such records, if discovered, would have got them hung. This leaves Thompson heavily reliant on the records kept by their enemies, the British government. These records are heavily tainted by the lies and exaggerations provided by the informers and agents provocateurs employed by the authorities. The press, then as now, was heavily biased and memoirs left behind by liberal intellectuals who tried to influence the political activities of working class are heavily freighted with self-justification. Even secondary sources, mostly written by middle class writers sympathetic to the working class movement, fall prey to Whig history.
The net result is that Thompson frequently appeals to the reader to follow him into a balance of probability, most often one that says that the government informer in question was exaggerating for his own ends, but that what he was saying contains more than a grain of truth. Thompson’s version of the story of Luddism is particularly clear example of this.
I found that, in almost every case, I could follow Thompson’s argument and agree with him that there were, among the working class, politically motivated leaders who were able to persuade other workers, often from trades not directly affected by the particular grievance being pursued, to risk life and livelihood in taking on the masters, factory owners or the government itself.
The question is, does this prove that, by 1830, a fully fledged working class consciousness had evolved in England? Of course, part of the question boils down to whether one accepts there was a working class at all. Thompson is quite clear on this. He deliberately used the singular “working class” in the title of the book, when he could have used the more open plural “working classes” as many of his critics have suggested he should have done.
I am with the critics on this. To what extent can there be solidarity between masters and journeyman, factory workers and skilled artisans, urban proletariat and field labourers, Irish navvies and English watch-makers, male miners and female lace-makers, soldiers and trade unionists, or mechanics and traditional hand weavers. And then there is one of the largest of categories of worker, the domestic servant, who notoriously identify with and take on the consciousness of their employers. Thompson passes this group over in silence. Another category ignored by Thompson is the emigrants to the USA, who expressed their “solidarity” with the English working class by leaving it behind altogether.
Thompson is not interested in these differences. He argues that they were gradually realising that they had common interests in getting the vote, forming mutual aid societies, eliminating child labour, etc. He definitely shows that there was a small minority who believed this and that the circulation figures of a small radical press that promulgated these ideas were growing. He shows that benevolent societies were becoming more prevalent and there may have considerable underground trade association activity, although we really need more statistical evidence to justify this.
But he does not show that there was a common consensus among working people on what needed to be done. He leaves us hanging at the end of the book in 1830, on the brink of the Reform Act where the working classes were famously left out in the cold. No wonder, with some of the leaders still tied to Painite Jacobinism, others flirting with Owenism, others following versions of the political economy of the liberal classes and some still in thrall to an idealised rural artisanship. The working people themselves were still rallying to Methodism and even to religious mystics like Joanna Southcotte and her successors. They also seem to be quite attached to the monarchy and ready to show their hostility to other nations.
Obviously something was in the air, because Chartism was just around the corner. But until the demands of the working class were codified in the Charter, is it true to say that there was a working class consciousness? The petitions for the Charter were signed by numbers well in excess of 1 million. The largest numbers Thompson gives us are in the hundred thousands.
Thompson might argue that Chartism was what is what it was because someone kept the light of the French Revolution burning in England from 1790 until 1830. His book proves that there were many brave men and even some brave women who did just that. But where he sees the glass of working class consciousness in England as half full by 1830, I am afraid I see something that is half empty. There were miles still to go.
Although this book has classic status, I am not sure I would recommend it to the non-academic reader as worth reading fifty years on from its first publication. It is extremely long (about 950 pages) and somewhat strangely structured. I would recommend reading more recent, shorter detailed monographs on Luddism, Cobbett, Peterloo, the Reform Act or Chartism.