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Customer Review

on 25 May 2014
"The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present in its own making." E P Thompson

It is clear from even a brief count of the substantial number of reviews Selina Todd’s book has received that a historical examination of the working class in Britain is both popular and controversial. Any one dealing with the subject of class knows that the word is as one reviewer said “a fiercely contested concept and is not simply a descriptive taxonomy”.

Maybe this is a little surprising given that the bourgeois media, academics and politicians have for the last three decades told us that the class war is over, John Major told us that Britain was a “classless society” and Tony Blair trumpeted we are “all middle class now,” and my favorite the working class no longer exists. It is a shame that Todd has to some extent adapted to this conservative offensive with the title of her book The Rise and Fall of the Working Class.

The first thing that strikes you about this book is that is heavily influenced by the “history from below “genre. In fact the book could almost be seen as a sequel to E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.

Selina Todd describes the period covered by the book as a “working-class century and in 1910 people “who worked with their hands constituted the vast majority of Britons”. Given that the title of the book indicates that she believes that the working class has fallen a premise that is not at all accurate, and implies that nowadays the social and numerical weight of the working class is less. Of course it is safe to say that the working class of 1910 is not the same as the working class of 2014 but according to an orthodox Marxist position it still holds the same basic relationship to the means of production. Also it is in many ways larger now given the fact that many middle class people have now been so effected by the current economic crisis that they have been forced back into the working class.

In her introduction Todd makes the claim that the motivation for the book came from an earlier period of her academic career when she found that very little work has been done on the type of working class family she came from.“ Eventually, I realized I would have to write this history myself”. She continues “the only working-class history on offer was conventional labour history — which is great, but it did mean that the only working-class people you ever heard about were those involved in. That wasn’t the full history of working-class life as I knew it from my peers at school and my own family”

I find this very hard to believe given that the last three decades has seen a veritable cottage industry grow up examining different aspects of working class life. It is also hard to believe that an academic of Todd’s standing found it hard to find material. Off the top of my head three names amongst many spring to mind David Kynaston, Andy Beckett and the prolific Dominic Sandbrook.
This is not to say that the book is without merit. It is well researched and informative. The book is part oral history, part academic and suitable for the general history buff. Todd vividly describes the oppression faced by the working class and its attempts to challenge capitalist exploitation.

In fact the strongest part of the book is Todd’s use of oral history. It is a very thorough and well researched piece of history. Todd said “throughout the book, I rely heavily on personal testimonies, gained from interviews and from unpublished and published autobiographies. I combed local studies libraries across the country to find the testimonies of over 200 people, and then I added to these by using the archives of some social surveys of working-class life in the 1950s and ’60s”.
You could say that Todd seeks to rescue the domestic workers; factory hands; the unemployed and, of course, the upwardly mobile from the condescension of history. According to one reviewer “the book is peppered with anecdotes of real people, from those working in what was little more than domestic servitude in some cases in the early part of the last century, to the militant trade unionists of the 1960s and 1970s, to the consumers of today is what sets it apart. We learn about those whose lives were changed by fame, fortune and in Vivian's case, the pools (before the greater riches of the National Lottery), to those who became the first property owners under Margaret Thatcher “.

It must be said however that Todd’s conception of class like her great predecessor E P Thompson has nothing to do with an orthodox Marxist view of class. Todd believes as did E P Thompson, that a historical materialist position cannot sufficiently explain the origins of the working class despite professing being influenced by it. “Class needs to be spoken about in a less determined way”.

In his essay on the ‘Peculiarities of the English’, E.P. Thompson gave his theoretical definition of class: “When we speak of a class we are thinking of a very loosely defined body of people who share the same congeries of interests, social experiences, traditions and value-system, who have a disposition to behave as a class, to define themselves in their actions and in their consciousness in relation to other groups of people in class ways. But class itself is not a thing, it is a happening”.
The rejection of a historical materialist understanding of the class struggle was and still is to a certain extent a hallmark of a number of historians who professed a sympathy with Marxism. It is to be hoped that Todd does not pick the bad habits of Thompson who like other historians of his generation decided to cherry pick certain aspects of a Marxist method and leave aside the most important parts such as the relationship between base and superstructure and how it affects the history of the working class.

As the Marxist Cliff Slaughter put it so well “When we say that political ideas and movements reflect the economic base we should remember that such reflection is a series of conscious acts. Men’s consciousness is formed in an environment of social institutions controlled by the ruling class, institutions of repression and institutions for educational conditioning, staffed by people trained to operate these institutions as though they were part of a naturally or divinely ordained system. The majority of labour’s own organizations have become tied to this structure of established institutions, and are staffed by the ‘labour lieutenants of capitalism’. The proletariat’s consciousness of its role has to be achieved in struggle against all these institutional forms and their ideological results. Without the highest degree of centralized organization, these ideological battles cannot be won”.
Todd does not see the working class through rose tinted spectacles but she believes that the most the working class can do is reform capitalism not overthrow it. Also her attitude towards the “labor lieutenants” is at best weak at worst it borders on a glossing over the betrayals of both the Labour Party and the Unions.

In this light it is not really an accident that the book with over 450 pages does not mention Karl Marx in its index, the Communist Party gets only two mentions. Perhaps most damagingly is her view of the most important events affecting the English working class. While it is easy to agree that the Second World War and the rise of Thatcherism are important events in the life of the English working class surely the most important political event of the 20th century concerning the working class did not happen in Britain but in Russia i.e. the 1917-The Russian revolution. If one event shaped the modern day English working Class it was that event. Yet Todd has next to nothing to say on it.

Another strange absence is that despite professing her admiration for E P Thompson, the Marxist History Group, which included E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm to name but a few , is completely ignored. One does not have accept everything this group wrote said or did but I believe it is not possible to write a history of the English working class without examining their work
.
As the Marxist Ann Talbot said “Not only was their contribution to the writing of history significant, but also they themselves represent a particularly critical phase in British history, when Britain lost its world hegemony to the USA and class conflict became more intense. They represent a layer of socialist-minded intellectuals who looked in this period of crisis to the Soviet Union and the Russian revolution for a new model of society”.

Having said this Talbot was extremely critical of the People’s history genre of which Todd adopts hook line and sinker in her book, she continues “The Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defense of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”.

It is also remiss of Todd not address her predecessor E P Thompson given that he played such an influential role in her adopting the approach of “history from below” genre. Thompson was founder of the magazine the New Reasoner, along with historian John Saville, and Universities and Left Review, edited by Stuart Hall.

Thompson and Saville were hostile to the orthodox Trotskyists represented by the then Socialist Labour League’s international revolutionary perspective. His magazine was imbued in what was then called the “English Marxist” tradition.

New Reasoner was said to advocate a “socialist humanist” version of Marxism. This was in reality nothing to with Marxism but was no more than a crude cover for his support for the Stalinist “British Road” advocated by the CPGB.

The New Left movement under the leadership of Thompson and Saville was responsible as Paul Bond says for “introducing the nationalist, ethnic and gender specific theories that have led to so much confusion over the last 30 years, as well as helping the imperialists divert workers and youth along dangerous communal lines in South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East”.

Finally if Todd continues to adopt the use of culture and gender to explain class relations it will shift her present axis further away from a Marxist position on class. The People-The Rise and Fall of the Working Class is a useful guide to certain aspects of working class life over the last century but should not be seen as a Marxist analysis. It is hoped that Todd’s next book attempts this difficult of processes.
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