What was E P Thompson up to?

Let’s think about E P Thompson. His 1963 book, Making of the English Working Class, transformed the way that historians on the left conceptualized “social class.” But what, precisely, was it about?

Whereas other Marxist historians focused particularly on the large structures of capitalism, Thompson’s eye was turned to the specific and often surprising details of artisanal and working culture in pre-industrial England, the many ways in which the working people at the bottom of English society conceived of themselves and created their own organizations for education and politics in the last half of the eighteenth century. Neither peasant nor middle class, the many segments of working people in England were socially organized by trade and skill, and with remarkably distinct cultural traditions, songs, and political repertoires. They were not, in fact, a “class”. And yet, they became a class — this is the “making” that Thompson’s title refers to.

(Harvey Kaye’s British Marxist Historians offers an excellent survey of the major British Marxist historians — Hobsbawm, Hilton, Dobbs, Thompson, and others.)

Commentators often describe Thompson’s central contribution as being the provision of a detailed understanding of “class consciousness” in counterpart to Marx’s conception of a “class in itself” — a group of people defined in terms of their relation to the system of property relations. On this line of interpretation, Thompson provided one of the missing links within Marxist theory, by demonstrating how the transition from “class in itself” to “class for itself” was accomplished.

This is too simplistic a reading of Thompson, however. For one thing, Thompson’s book demonstrates the very great degree of contingency that attached to the historical construction of the English working class when we consider this process in cultural detail. But to find that the process is contingent, is also to negate the Marxist idea that there is a necessary and direct connection between a group’s structural position in the property system and its social consciousness. For another and related reason, Thompson’s story goes well beyond Marx’s in its emphasis on the independent agency of English working people. Their organizations, their ideas, and their political strategies were not simply derivative of the structural situation of “labor and capital”, but rather were the result of specific acts of leadership, creativity, and popular mobilization.

So let’s consider the main elements of Thompson’s historiography. What was his goal as a historian of this period of England’s social history? In writing the book, Thompson took a huge step forward in creating the field of social history, and he established a paradigm of historical writing that guided a generation of historians. His goal is almost ethnographic: he wants to discover the many threads of thought and culture that passed through the many segments of English working people. He takes ideas and ideology very seriously — and recognizes that the ideas of English Methodism and the rhetoric of liberty were profoundly important in these segments of English society. In particular, the ideas and the modes of organization that were associated with Methodism, were deeply formative for the laborers’ and artisans’ consciousness that was being forged.

Just as important as these elements of “high” culture, Thompson articulates his concept of the “moral economy” of the crowd — the idea that there is a shared set of norms in popular culture that underlie social behavior. He identifies popular disturbance — riots, strikes, and expressions of grievances of various kinds — as a crucial indicator of political behavior and popular consciousness. And he tries to demonstrate that the popular disturbances of the eightheenth and nineteenth centuries were governed by a set of norms that were popularly observed and enforced — about price, about social obligation, and about justice. The “bread riot” was not a chaotic or impulsive affair. And this becomes an important theme in the consciousness of the working class that Thompson describes: a consciousness that denounces political oppression as deeply as it decries exploitation.

In other words, Thompson’s version of working class consciousness invokes liberty and justice as much as it does deprivation and material factors. “In the end, it is the political context as much as the steam-engine, which had most influence on the shaping consciousness and institutions of the working class” (197). “The people were subjected simultaneously to an intensification of two intolerable forms of relationship: those of economic exploitation and of political oppression” (198).

The culmination of this retelling of the multi-threaded histories of English working people is indeed “a working class consciousness” — a more or less coherent social and political philosophy that supported a political program and a morality of equality and solidarity. “Thus working men formed a picture of the organization of society, out of their own experience and with the help of their hard-won and erratic education, which was above all a political picture. They learned to see their own lives as part of a general history of conflict between the loosely defined ‘industrial classes’ on the one hand, and the unreformed House of Commons on the other. From 1830 onwards a more clearly defined class concsiousness, in the customary Marxist sense, was maturing, in which working people were aware of continuing both old and new battles on their own” (712).

Thompson’s book remains an innovative and pathbreaking classic — and one that can continue to provide new ideas about how to understand society.

(See this post on ChangingSociety for more discussion of E. P. Thompson.)

2 Replies to “What was E P Thompson up to?”

  1. I came across E.P. Thompson's concept of agency via the term "Eigensinn" (~ stubborness, sense of oneself) shaped by the German microhistorian Alf Lüdtke. Since then, I am asking myself how important and articulated was the concept "agency" within the writings of E.P. Thompson. Perhaps, you can answer this question?

  2. My impression is that it's not so much a question of Thompson's use of the term "agency" as it is the active characteristics he attributes to the English working class that constitutes his view of the role of agency in history. Fundamentally, Thompson's use of the word "making" in the title — "The Making of the English Working Class" — encapsulates his view that this process was one of self-definition and self-creation for this tradition of workers. That is what made them agents: they created their own identities, organizations, myths, and literatures; they were agents of their own destinies.

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