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09 March 2009 @ 08:37 pm
The Making of the English Working Class  
I purchased The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson as a result of my interest in the Pentrich Revolution. I read the sections on Pentrich and decided that the whole thing looked quite interesting so skipped back to the beginning and started again. That was about four months ago.

It's a bit difficult to know where to start in discussing a book which is nearly 1000 pages long and spans 50 years of English history. Especially when it assumes you are starting from a fairly informed point - for instance it never actually discusses the content of the 1832 Reform Act just the extent to which it cemented an alliance between "blood and money" which effectively drove a wedge between the working and middle classes (NB. Thompson's interpretation).

I was struck, initially, by the vehemence reserved for Methodism. My family history, and I'm sure that of many other people, features, in no small part, the legend of Methodism lifting the family from out of the mines, via its principles of education, to become teachers, lay preachers and working mothers. So it was a shock to find Methodism painted as the villain of the piece as a profoundly defeatist, reactionary and anti-intellectual movement which viewed education as necessary only as far as it was a tool for instilling morality in the congregation and no further and in which teaching children to write was regarded with suspicion. To be honest, despite endless coverage of child labour and historical attitudes to children at school it is still shocking to learn that Wesley wrote:

Break their wills betimes. Begin this work before they can run alone, before they can speak plain, perhaps before they can speak at all. Whatever pains it costs, break the will if you would not damn the child. Let a child from a year old be taught to fear the rod and to cry softly; from that age make him do as he is bid, if you whip him ten times running to effect it... Break his will now, and his soul shall live, and he will probably bless you to all eternity.

An interesting postscript to the book touches on the way Wesleyanism transformed itself during the course of the 19th century into something more radical and with a more sincere interest in education which of course is the point where Wesleyanism begins to intersect with my own family history, but Thompson has nothing but scorn for them at the turn of that century.

Thompson's essential thesis, if I have understood it correctly, is that the rapid industrialisation that took place between the 1790s and 1830s profoundly damaged a system in which, although the workers had no rights, there was an understood paternalistic relationship between labourers and (essentially) landowners which had its own internalised norms of behaviour and methods for recognising and dealing with exploitation of the workforce. When this broke down a long period was entered in which the emerging working class saw its living conditions consistently deteriorate year on year while its attempts at redress met with successively repressive measures.

It is possibly a forlorn hope, but I would love to see a good economic analysis of the period. There seems to be some contradictions between a (possibly war induced) economic depression and rapid industrialisation. It would also be nice to see some analysis of the extent to which over-population led to the detioration in working conditions and the extent to which practices such as child labour and the workhouse system (in which denizens of the workhouse, receiving poor relief, were offered out as labour for "wages" lower than that received by labourers not receiving poor relief which, of course, provided an economic incentive to make sure as much of the local labour force counted as paupers as possible) was responsible.

Economic curiousity aside, Thompson then traces a thread from the Jacobin radicals of the 1790s who were drawing their inspiration from the French Revolution, through intermittent attempt by labourers to unionise or form political clubs. It examines the luddite movements and distinguishes rather different aims and outcomes in its three centres of activity (Nottingham, Yorkshire and Lancashire) culminating in the 1832 Reform Bill which Thompson appears to view with disfavour. I was originally inclined to think this a "marxist history" in that much is made of class identity and there is talk of the way the middle classes betrayed the working classes. But Thompson is also fairly scathing (in the preface) about "Marxist historians" who apparently view the emergence of a working class, as in a workforce aware of having a class consciousness and with fairly sophisticated methods of organisation and its own distinct culture, as some kind natural event rather than something forged by specific circumstances (if I've understood correctly). I was particularly interested in the chapter on luddism since it seems likely that the Pentrich Revolution had some connections with the Luddite activity of five years previously.

In fact reading it in the context of what currently appears to be being called "Racefail '09" it was interesting to see many similar themes emerge - the horror of the middle classes when faced with the prospect of "hordes" of organised working class men, the tendency for middle class radicals to appoint themselves the leaders of and spokesmen for the working class whether the working class wanted them to or not and so on and so forth.

As an aside, I was amused to discover that one of the intellectual problems the proponents of Universal Suffrage faced was the fact that any argument in favour of giving the vote to all men, naturally extended to giving the vote to women. Clearly a reductio ad absurdam - you would no more give the vote to lunatics!

This was a fascinating book but undeniably hard going in places. It is written with more personality and passion than I am used to detecting in history textbooks but also with less regard to hand-holding the lay reader through the complexities of history. If, however, you've a serious interest in the period or in the history of working men and women then I would highly recommend it.
daniel_saunders: Radcliffe Cameradaniel_saunders on March 9th, 2009 10:49 pm (UTC)
I remember reading certain chapters of the book when I was at university (the parts on charivaris/rough music, if I'm not getting confused with something else).

Thompson is also fairly scathing (in the preface) about "Marxist historians"

Thompson is generally seen as a Marxist historian, so I suspect he was criticising particular historians/interpretations, not distancing himself from Marxism as an ideology.

Also interesting to note (re: your comments on Thompson's view of Methodism) that according to Wikipedia, Thompson "was born... to Methodist missionary parents".
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on March 10th, 2009 06:09 pm (UTC)
the parts on charivaris/rough music, if I'm not getting confused with something else

I think you must be thinking of something else - though given I read some of this four months ago, its possible I'm just forgetting.

Skimming back through the preface I see Thompson dislikes Marx's definition of class but it is the "Fabian orthodoxy" (in which the working class are perceived as passive victims) that he is particularly concerned to distance himself from.
parrot_knightparrot_knight on March 10th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
I think that the Thompson book with the chapters on charivaris/rough music is Customs in Common, which I have - I don't have The Making of the English Working Class though I did struggle with parts of it as a first year.
daniel_saunders: Worcester Collegedaniel_saunders on March 10th, 2009 09:28 pm (UTC)
I think you must be thinking of something else

Perfectly possible, I'm going back several years.
reggietatereggietate on March 10th, 2009 08:40 am (UTC)
This is one of the books I've always meant to read, but never got round to buying. I really must remedy that omission one of these days.
pingback_botpingback_bot on March 10th, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC)
Another test, continue ignoring.
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(Anonymous) on April 29th, 2009 01:20 pm (UTC)
Thompson on Education
Hello, I wonder if it is possible you could guide me to the sections of the book which specifically refer to the democritisation of education, please. I need to get my head around that aspect of Thomson's book in a very short space of time and am unable to read the whole book before my deadline. Thx (MA student)
louisedennis: historylouisedennis on April 29th, 2009 01:27 pm (UTC)
Re: Thompson on Education
Off the top of my head I think the discussion of education takes place partly within the discussion of Methodism and, I think, there is a section on how factory owners viewed an educated workforce as more amenable (provided they weren't over educated). I'm not quite sure where that was.

The book has a pretty good index though, I found, so you could try looking up education or schools in that...

Edited at 2009-04-29 01:28 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous) on April 30th, 2009 06:45 am (UTC)
Re: Thompson on Education
I really appreciate your help, thx. Unfortunately in my edition the index is a bit poor and there is no 'education' or 'schools'. But, you given me a good place to start. I appreciate it. Thx.