E.P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class

This book, while a bit ponderous, was quite interesting.

I’ve read
dozens of authors who acknowledge a debt to Thompson, so I’ve been eager
to read it. The size, and having a week to read it, meant that I had to
“gloss” or “gut” the book more than read it, but I enjoyed the task, and
hope to return to it when I have more time. (I never thought I’d see the
day when I see Foucault coming up in a syllabus and think, “finally, a
nice quick read!”)

This book looks at the rise of class consciousness among the British
working classes in the period between the 1790s and the 1830s. Thompson
divides the book up into three sections.  The first section is primarily
an intellectual and religious history. I found it a bit hard to follow,
as I’m not too familiar with the history of many of the groups that
Thompson feels it is sufficient to simply mention without explanation.
For this reason, I have to admit I had wikipedia on my laptop next to me
for a lot of this section.

The next section looks at material and
cultural conditions in the lives of workers—looking at specific
industries before moving onto issues of standards of living, religion in
the lives of the poor and working class, and broader cultural issues of
leisure, immigration, etc. The final section deals with conflicts that
represent the inchoate working class coming toward a final class
consciousness in the first part of the nineteenth century.

The thing that most struck me about the book was Thompson’s emphasis on
class consciousness, rather than simply class. Many Marxist scholars,
moreso even than Marx himself, have this tendency to see class as a
structural fact. Under capitalism, there are workers and there are
capitalists, and therefore class exists, and should be treated as a
material reality.

Thompson argues that it is awareness of class
structures, and the perception of more commonalities within class strata
than across them. For this reason, the book deals with the period that
it does—Thompson trying to record the advent of workers’ class
consciousness, and the process of its formation. He questions the common
assumption that industrialization necessarily and immediately brought
about the creation of a new working class, arguing that “…we should not
assume any automatic, or over-direct, correspondence between the dynamic
of economic growth and the dynamic of social or cultural life.” (p. 192)
It’s a situation of correlation and impact rather than direct causation.

Overall, I don’t necessarily agree with the argument put forth by some of the folks in my Historiography class that Thompson is unduly influenced by Marxist ideology.
Given the context of his times, there were many Marxists who were still
very strict adherents of dialectical materialism. In the consistent
emphasis he places on the social and cultural, Thompson signals a break
from such strict by-the-Das-Kapital Marxists.

Of course, I’m the product of a loose socialist upbringing, and went to
a pretty overwhelmingly Marxist college. So there’s a chance I’m just a
little blind to overt commie propaganda…