The Making of the English Working Class
Victor Gollancz 1963, rev. ed. Penguin 1968 676pp
E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class was one of the most successful history books of the 20th century. At the time of its writing, Thompson had one book to his name – a largely unnoticed biography of William Morris – and held a less than glamorous position in the extra-mural department at Leeds University. No one could have predicted that within months The Making would become a runaway commercial and critical success. In 1968 Pelican Books bought the rights and published a revised version as its 1,000th title. Fifty years on, it is still in print, widely revered as a canonical work of social history.
With its preface so memorably declaring the book’s intention ‘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’, The Making was part of the new wave of ‘social history’. Social history sought to put those who had traditionally lain outside the profession’s mainstream concerns of politics, diplomacy and statecraft into the historical frame. Workers, women and people of colour were finding their historians. A very different kind of history was starting to emerge.
In fact, pioneering social and economic historians had been studying working people for decades, but the focus had always been squarely on the tangible, the measurable, the ‘significant’: wages, living conditions, unions, strikes, Chartists. Thompson attempted something different in The Making. He touched, of course, upon the trade unions and the real wage, but most of his book was devoted to what he referred to as ‘experience’. Through a patient and extensive examination of local as well as national archives, Thompson had uncovered details about workshop customs and rituals, failed conspiracies, threatening letters, popular songs and union club cards. He took what others had regarded as scraps from the archive and interrogated them for what they told us about the beliefs and aims of those who were not on the winning side. The Making rambled over aspects of human experience that had never before had their historian. The timing of its appearance could scarcely have been more fortunate, as the 1960s saw unprecedented expansion in the university sector, with the creation of new universities filled with lecturers and students whose families had not traditionally had access to the privileged world of higher education. Little wonder, then, that so many felt a natural affinity with Thompson’s outsiders and underdogs.
Yet, radical and innovative as it was, The Making, like all history books, was still very much a book of its time. In the Marxist tradition, Thompson rejected the notion that capitalism was inherently superior to the alternative model of economic organisation it replaced. He refused to accept that the decline of the artisans was inevitable, or that their distress was a necessary adjustment to the market economy. It was an argument that resonated widely at the time, when Marxist intellectuals could still believe that a realistic alternative to capitalism existed and could still argue that ‘true’ Marxism had not been tried properly.
The Making also shared the sexual politics of the 1960s. The new power-driven factories at the heart of Thompson’s ‘industrial revolution’ were operated largely by women and yet women were curiously absent from his book. Of course, given Thompson’s central concern with the new working-class culture of the period their absence is not entirely surprising: women were, after all, largely excluded from the political culture spawned during industrialisation. But accepting and reproducing the sexual inequalities and exclusions of industrialising Britain lies in tension with the book’s radical ambitions.
Our historical understanding of the Industrial Revolution has inevitably changed many times since The Making was first published. Thompson did not provide the answers. Rather, his enduring gift was to create a space in which generations of teachers and students could seek to understand the marginalised, the powerless and those who left little mark on the historical record.
Emma Griffin is Professor of History at the University of East Anglia. Her books include A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution (Palgrave, 2010)