A Classic History Book: The Making of the English Working Class

The Making of the English Working Class, by E. P. Thompson. Pelican. 18s.

Thompson’s excellent work, 800 pages long and first published in 1965, has now been brought out as a paperback. Applying the Marxist view that men make their own history but only out of the materials at hand, Thompson traces the formation of working class consciousness (by which he means the awareness among industrial workers that they were a separate class in society apart from the ruling landed and commercial oligarchy and manufacturing middle class) under the impact of the industrial revolution between 1780 and 1832. But this was not a passive process; working class consciousness was forged out of the struggles of London artisans, weavers, field labourers and Irish migrants against oligarchic government and the factory system. 

The early working class is often seen as an ignorant rabble. Thompson exposes this myth and shows how the independent craftsmen who spearheaded the resistance to capitalism, in the Midlands and the North as well as in London, were in fact well-informed and literate with their own view of what society should be like – basically a simple and stable community with a secure place for all. 

Wilkes and Liberty, Tom Paine and radicalism, the Corresponding Societies, the pernicious effects of Methodism, Peterloo, the early trade unions, the Cato Street Conspiracy, Robert Owen and Owenism are among the names and events in radical and working class history examined in detail. 

Thompson’s book deserves a place on every socialist’s bookshelf alongside Thorold Rogers‘ Six Centuries of Work and Wages, the classic history of the workers in England which it (to a certain extent) replaces and certainly supplements.

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