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books What a Legendary Historian Tells Us About the Contempt for Today’s Working Class

A century after his birth, EP Thompson’s empathy with those facing scorn and condescension is more relevant than ever. The first paragraph starts: “The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.”

EP Thompson: the idea of people possessing the capacity to act upon the world was central to his life work.,(Photograph: Mirrorpix // The Guardian)

It is not often that, as a teenager, you get captured by a 900-page tome (unless it has “Harry Potter” in the title). Even less when it is a dense book of history, telling in meticulous detail stories of 18th-century weavers and colliers, shoemakers and shipwrights.

Yet I can even now picture myself first stumbling across EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class in a bookshop. I had no idea about its cultural significance or its place in historiographic debates. I would not have known what “historiography” meant, or even that such a thing existed. But I can still sense the thrill in opening the book and reading in the first paragraph: “The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.” I did not know it was possible to write about history in that way.

I still have that old, battered, pencil-marked Pelican edition with George Walker’s engraving of a Yorkshire miner on the cover; a book into which I continue to dip, for the sheer pleasure of Thompson’s prose and because every reading provides a fresh insight.

Were Thompson still alive, he would have been 100 on Saturday. The occasion was marked by a small conference, in Halifax, a town in which Thompson lived for many years, while teaching in Leeds and writing his book. But beyond that, there has been little fanfare.

Still in print more than 60 years after it was first published, The Making of the English Working Class has acquired an almost mythic status. Thompson himself, though, has faded from our cultural horizon. The historian Robert Colls noted a decade ago that when, in 2013, Jeremy Paxman asked, in the semi-finals of University Challenge, who wrote The Making of the English Working Class?, “nobody knew”.

Thompson’s most influential work was written at the high tide of working-class influence in British politics. Today, the old industrial working class, about the making of which Thompson wrote, has largely been unmade, politically marginalised and stripped of its social power. Few regard class as a fertile concept in historical thinking, fewer still as a foundation for progressive politics. Yet the very shifts that have led to the contemporary neglect of Thompson also make his arguments significant.

At the heart of Thompson’s book is a reimagining of class and class consciousness. Class, he wrote, was “not a thing”, or a “structure”, but a “historical phenomenon” through which the dispossessed “as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs”.

Thompson was arguing against both the conservative view of class relations as describing “the harmonious coexistence of groups performing different ‘social roles’” and a form of economic determinism that imagines, as he put it later in an interview, that “some kind of raw material like peasants ‘flocking to factories’” could be “processed into so many yards of class-conscious proletarians”. For Thompson, the working class “made itself as much as it was made”. This idea of agency, of people, even in the most inauspicious circumstances, possessing the capacity to act on the world was central to his life work. 


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Thompson was a Marxist, a member of the Communist party who left in disgust in 1956, after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution, and helped found the New Left. His Marxism was, however, leavened by two other traditions, that of radical Protestantism, from the 17th-century Levellers and Diggers to the later dissenters such as Quakers and Baptists, and of Romanticism, most powerfully articulated by William Blake, the subject of Thompson’s final, posthumously published, book. This dissenting, romantic Marxism is deeply imprinted in Thompson’s historical scholarship, his polemical debates and his political activism.

The most celebrated line from The Making of the English Working Class is Thompson’s avowal “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan” from the “enormous condescension of posterity”. What he meant was that from our vantage point, a movement such as the Luddites, textile workers who, in the early 19th century, opposed the introduction of new machinery, and destroyed them, might seem backward and irrational, their very name a byword for senseless opposition to technological innovation. Yet theirs was not, in Thompson’s eyes, “blind opposition to machinery,” but rather a fight against the “‘freedom’ of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by… beating-down wages”.

All these themes are perhaps even more relevant today than they were when Thompson wrote his book. His understanding of class not as a thing but as a relationship, and one not given but forged out of struggle, is as meaningful to this post-industrial age as it was in the analysis of the coming of industrialisation.

Thompson’s empathy with those forced to struggle on an inhospitable social terrain has lessons for us, too. Today, the issue is the enormous condescension not of posterity but of the present: the contempt for working-class people, the hostility to benefit “scroungers”, the derision of those forced to use food banks, the indifference to injustice. It is visible also in the scorn for the supposed bigotry and conservatism of the working class or in the disdain of those who voted the wrong way or have become disillusioned with the left. Thompson’s insistence that “their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experiences” is as necessary to acknowledge now as it was then.

There are, as critics have pointed out, holes in Thompson’s narrative. Women are largely absent in The Making of the Working Class, as is the wider world, especially the impact of slavery and colonialism on class consciousness, which is odd given the influence of working-class radicals on the abolition movement. There are times, too, when Thompson’s Romanticism shades uncomfortably close to a despair about modernity.

Nevertheless, for all the criticisms, The Making of the English Working Class is not only a magnificent work of historical excavation but also a sumptuous tribute to the human spirit, to the capacity of people to transcend their circumstances and collectively to envision a better world. “The art of the possible,” as Thompson wrote, “can only be restrained from engrossing the whole universe if the impossible can find ways of breaking back into politics, again and again.”

[Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist ]