History through the eyes of the working man

Few books have had a greater impact on the way we consume history than EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. David Priestland hails a work that dared to consider the lives of ordinary people...
 
This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Image from an early edition of 'The Making of the Working Class'.

Did Danny Boyle read EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class before planning his Olympics opening ceremony in 2012? There was more than a whiff of Thompson’s very English and Romantic socialist vision to the historical extravaganza. England’s green and pleasant land; William Blake’s radical poem Jerusalem; the volcanic disruptions of the industrial revolution; heroic workers building the first industrial nation, while confronting factory owners, and establishing trade unions – all are strong Thompsonian themes. The history of the working class may no longer be the fashionable topic it was when EP Thompson published his celebrated work 50 years ago, but the book retains its power and influence, not only among professional historians, but also in the broader culture.

The Making of the English Working Class is an unusually important piece of history writing. Described by one eminent historian of Britain as “incontestably the single most influential work of English history of the postwar period”, it was also a bestseller. Thompson became one of the few 20th-century celebrity historians, and undoubtedly the only one who was a truly anti-establishment figure. AJP Taylor, the only historian to rival him in book sales and media coverage, was far less iconoclastic.

In many ways The Making of the English Working Class reads rather like a Dickens novel. The working class, like one of Dickens’s heroes, attains maturity and a sense of itself as a fully-fledged ‘adult’ political force amid the political turmoil following the French Revolution and the social dislocations brought by capitalism and industrialisation. Yet this was a slow ‘getting of wisdom’ – from the radical Jacobin politics of the 1790s, to the machine-breaking Luddism of the 1800s, to the fight for the vote in the 1830s. And in the meantime, the working class was led astray by false prophets – Methodists and apocalyptic religious sectarians – or betrayed by false friends, whether landowners or the middle classes. But by the time of the Chartist movement of the 1830s, maturity had finally been achieved in the form of a fully fledged, ‘conscious’ working class.

And yet, dramatic though it was, it was less the story that had an impact, than the way Thompson told it. The history of workers was then a very fashionable subject. Just as many 19th and early 20th-century European historians wrote histories of emerging nation states as they fought for independence, postwar historians were eager to champion the cause of another oppressed social group. Many historians had experienced the Depression of the 1930s, and saw workers as a class that had suffered, had fought with dignity for its rights, and after the Second World War was finally achieving its due.


Edward Palmer Thompson, "one of the few 20th-century celebrity historians. (Mary Evans)

However, studies of workers tended to focus on trade unions and socialist parties, their leaders and their doctrines; and if they were about workers themselves, they were almost exclusively concerned with “the condition of the workers” – that is their standards of living. There was little concern with what ordinary workers thought, experienced or felt.

The Making of the English Working Class tried to capture that experience in one massive, digressive 950-page volume. In place of wages and costs of living charts, Thompson regaled his readers with popular ballads, trade-union banner art and fire-and-brimstone sermons. In many ways, this was closer to an anthropological, or ‘ethnographic’ study of workers – their lives, their culture and their attitudes. Thompson’s was not the only history of the era to achieve this: Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels and George Rudé’s The Crowd in the French Revolution had similar goals. But Thompson’s work was undoubtedly the most ambitious and influential.

 

Defining a class

Thompson insisted that the story of the working class could only be told by paying close attention to the subjective. Old-style Marxist historians thought class could be defined with almost mathematical precision, as the product of a particular economic and sociological structure. Thompson, however, argued that English workers did not always feel themselves to be part of a working class; their experiences differed enormously, depending on their trade and skills. It was therefore only gradually that the class was ‘made’.

As an academic, Thompson was challenging rigidly structuralist Marxist historians, but he also had a personal commitment to recovering working class experience. His was an unconventional career, combining teaching with political activism, and while at the University of Leeds he set up workers’ education groups, teaching miners and other workers their history. Inspired by their reminiscences, he dubbed The Making of the English Working Class his ‘West Riding book’, and in the work’s preface he famously defined his goal as “to rescue the poor stockinger, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan… from the enormous condescension of posterity”.

It is perhaps not surprising that The Making of the English Working Class should have been a bestseller in 1963, when it became fashionable to be working class. This, after all, was the year after the impeccably proletarian Beatles had their first hit, and the year before Harold Wilson’s ascendancy, with its carefully honed populism.

But at the same time, Thompson’s book appealed to a more patriotic sentiment among his readership. The author of a biography of William Morris and a famous essay The Peculiarities of the English, he was at pains to show his working class rooted in its specifically English context. Indeed he can be seen as a very English type of Marxist, with a dedication to empirical detail and a scepticism of ‘continental’ theory – a socialism rooted in the religious dissenting tradition, and a love of English popular culture. 


Harry Rutherford’s painting, The Opening of the Chartists’ Meeting House, Hyde. It wasn’t until the 1830s, argued EP Thompson, that the working class developed a sense of itself as a political force. (Bridgeman) 

By the 1970s, however, attitudes to Marxism and the working class were changing, both among the public and historians. Most important was the massive intellectual shift brought of the 1960s and 1970s. In the eyes of a ‘New Left’, it was not the working class that was the main victim of prevailing power structures, but other groups – women, ethnic minorities, third-world peasants and gay people. For many sixties student rebels, workers had become a central element in the ‘warfare-welfare state’, and could be as sexist, racist and homophobic as the hated establishment. Indeed, Thompson’s own writing was soon denounced for its blithe neglect of race, women and the role of slavery in the British economy. He was also condemned for exaggerating the role of a specifically working-class consciousness when other identities (such as local solidarities) were more important.

These criticisms were only reinforced by the economic changes of the 1970s and 1980s. The bitter industrial conflicts of the 1970s led many, on the left and the right, to see unionised workers as a deeply unromantic and unappealing self-centred interest group. Meanwhile, with the decline of heavy industry, the Marxist notion that the industrial working class would inherit the earth seemed increasingly anachronistic. For a new 1990s ‘third way’ Blairite and Clintonian left, the future lay in meritocracy, education and social mobility, not in working-class solidarity.

The labour history championed by Thompson has therefore not fared well in recent years. While labour history is still studied, it is much less popular in universities than it once was. However, The Making of the English Working Class did continue to inspire a broader ‘history from below’ – a type of history that has been flourishing over the last 30 years.


Coal miners in County Durham, c1963. Though it was now “fashionable” to be working class, sections of the left and right would soon demonise the working man. (Getty)

The impact has been particularly significant on histories of the third world. The work of the influential anthropologist James C Scott on the history of south-east Asian peasants and their rebellions owed a great deal to Thompson, as did the so-called Indian ‘subaltern school’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Led by the Bengali Marxist historian Ranajit Guha, they were more interested in peasants than workers, but like Thompson they stressed the importance of a ‘subaltern’ culture that challenged elites – both the colonial British and their Indian collaborators, and indeed Indian nationalist leaders.

But the spirit of Thompson still has a good deal of sway in the west where many university historians – largely a left-of-centre group – are using his tools of cultural analysis in the search for “subaltern” subjective experience. Like Thompson, they study the marginalised and the powerless, but not so much the white working class, as migrants or nomadic peoples affected by ecological change.

TV and popular history also bears the Thompsonian imprint. University of Essex academic Pam Cox’s BBC series, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, examined the experiences of Victorian and Edwardian maids, cooks and valets through letters and diaries. Deliberately screened to coincide with Downton Abbey, it challenged its rather soapy and cosy portrayal of relations between masters and servants.

Family history has also given a boost to Thompson’s cultural history from below, for most of us have working-class ancestors. Some of the most popular episodes of the BBC genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? have explored the lives of the working classes, through the families of personalities such as Jeremy Paxman, Lesley Garrett and Bill Oddie.

And even the most traditional, elite-focused history – like the history of war – has had to embrace the ‘history from below’ turn. The recent popular histories of the Second World War by Antony Beevor and Max Hastings have both devoted a great deal of attention to the experience of the ordinary soldier.

So will The Making of the English Working Class be considered a classic in 100 years’ time? The manual working class, and with it its history, is unlikely to regain its old centrality and prestige. But as our society continues to become more democratic – at least culturally – our appetite for learning about ordinary people, their lives, feelings and experiences, is only likely to increase.

 

Dr David Priestland is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Oxford. He is he author of Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (Allen Lane, 2012).

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