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on 29 March 2017
no probs
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on 28 April 2017
A must read book for those interested in class sociology, history of England 1790-1840 and labour organisation. Unmissable and highly recommendable.
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on 4 January 2017
very pleased
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on 7 March 2017
Brilliant
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on 4 June 2014
Clarity of exposition. Wide coverage of material. A very good sourcebook for further study. Small typeset makes it not an easy read.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 February 2005
An extraordinary volume looking at a period (1780-1832) when the manufacturing classes got organised and gradually reduced wages and rationalised production, with the aid of a good deal of machinery. Thompson shows how the increasingly impoverished and alienated working classes, as they gradually came to think of themselves, worked their way through a variety of radical postures, including Jacobinism, dissent and methodism, constitutional reform, and then repressed by the Tory government during the Napoleonic wars went underground and turned up in 1816 more radical and numerous than ever. By this time we have highly organised if localised trade unions, groups and clubs in every neighbourhood studying Cobbett, The Black Dwarf and other radical literature, embracing agitation for universal suffrage and the cooperative ideas of Robert Owen. We also get fascinating pictures of men like Cobbett, Henry Hunt, William Blake and Hazlitt as well as many less well known names and the countless thousands who suffered and struggled in the interests of their class. Thompson also shows how historians who have not done his colossal research have often settled for Whig propaganda about the mindless character of the working class, or the condescension of contemporary historians like Place who wanted to play down the energy and commitment of radical elements.
Above all Thompson for the most part works hard to get a balanced view sometimes from limited information and keeps his tongue in his cheek much of the time. He is witty and cheerful, and the book is full of quotations from original sources. A great read if you want to really understand what was going on when Britain became 'great'.
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This review is of the 1991 Penguin edition of a work originally published in 1963. The edition includes Thompson’s preface to the 1980 edition and the postscript he inserted in 1968 in which he addressed some of the criticisms made of his magnum opus. The work itself is divided by Thompson into three parts: 1. ‘The Liberty Tree’, 2. ‘The Curse of Adam’, & 3. ‘The Working-Class Presence’. The parts in total comprise fifteen chapters written on over nine hundred pages. There are no figures, maps, or illustrations: all is text. Sounds like heavy going, but for me it was highly enlightening, bringing out of the shadows a history of England that is very rarely mentioned in these times – and is very readable.

In his preface, Thompson sets out his stall, saying he is looking at the crucial period between 1780 and 1830-35, the point at which “the working class are no longer in the making but has been made.” He remarks that, “This is a group of studies, on related themes, rather than a consecutive narrative.” He argues that the working class is not a thing in itself but a historical process.

Then there is that famous paragraph about the losers: “I am seeking 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. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not.” Thompson seeks to rescue them from the footnotes of history and make them the main text.

In the first chapter the scene is set in 1792, in the heady atmosphere of the French revolution still in its throes across the channel with the British authorities seeking to contain any signs of similar actions occurring on this side. Thompson tells us of the actions of the London Correspondence Society in its attempt to further the cause of the working man and I could not help but ruminate that today, fifty years after the Thompson’s book was written, the prime importance of private property remains centre-stage, only now it is elements of the ‘working class’ in league with capital who are the investors in ‘buy-to-lets’. Contemporary observances like these littered my reading and no doubt will do yours too, such is the book’s value at subtly highlighting inherent and incessant conflicts within society.

Space precludes my reviewing the rest of the book in any detail. But Thompson also addresses the influence of religious dissent and the importance of certain texts – from Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ to the ideas of Cobbett and Owen – to the mental raw material of these troubled and troubling times. In particular I learned how Methodism deflected agitation against economic injustice rather than nurtured it; how the ‘revolutionary mob’ was less of a problem than the hired hands of the ‘Church and King’ parties; and how there was such a thing as the English ‘Reign of terror’ to mirror that in France. Indeed, even now, we celebrate our triumphs on the high seas and on the fields of battle in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars without ever considering the repression that took place back home. When the wars were finally over, barracks had to be built all over the country.

Thompson explores the living standards and quality of life for occupational groups such as weavers. As well as the world of what we traditionally think of as the industrial revolution, Thompson does not neglect the lives of those working in agriculture and domestic service. But his contention is that it was not the factory worker but the skilled artisan who had the most to lose and was thus the centre of agitation.

We laugh now at Luddites, but he clearly shows that “Luddism must be seen as arising at the cross-point in the abrogation of paternalist legislation, and in the imposition of the political economy of ‘laissez-faire’ upon, and against the will and conscience of, the working people.” Those processes of abrogation and imposition have never ended since the word ‘Luddite’ was first coined, Thompson writing how with Luddism “What was at issue was the ‘freedom’ of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade.”

Thompson’s language is rich in memorable phrases – such as how the “slave owners from West Indian plantations grafted their wealth to ancient pedigrees at the marriage-market” – and a few words of cutting humour often inhabit the text. And lest we think Thompson overtly prejudiced, there is often a clear striving for objectivity, such as in the effects of the industrial revolution on the status of women. And he also draws on literature as witness testimony: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Gaskell, Coleridge and Southey make passing appearances.

I did A-level history and in many respects reading this book was a revisiting of what we touched on at school in the early 1980s. But then I was young and little interest in history’s ‘losers’. Now I am older, wiser – and a worker and ‘loser’ myself – I can now appreciate more the fascinating struggles of my ancestors. But there is so much here in Thompson’s book than I was taught at school and that is new to me. For example, why is the Pentridge Rising not as well-known as the field of Waterloo? Thompson has inspired me to explore these aspects of English history, such as the works of Paine and Cobbett. And I can only end my review by quoting from Thompson’s final paragraph: “The working people … had … nourished, for fifty years, and with incomparable fortitude, the Liberty Tree. We may thank them for these years of heroic culture.”
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on 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.
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on 4 October 2014
A classic.
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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.
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