Friday, January 10, 2014

The Making of the English Working Classes

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

E. P. Thompson's classic The Making of the English Working Classes traces the genesis of working class consciousness and how it was parlayed into action, resulting in many workers' rights that are taken for granted today.

The title of this 1963 classic by leftist historian E. P. Thompson makes it sound like some dreary Marxist tome. I opened The Making of the English Working Classes suspiciously, thinking I would perhaps give it a cursory look and get a rough idea of what it was about. Little did I think I would spend two happy weeks engrossed in its fascinating 960 pages.

For such a large book, The Making of the Working Classes covers a fairly short span of time, from roughly 1780 to 1830. This is a period when the Industrial Revolution was kicking in and the artisan classes were having their skills and livelihoods encroached upon by new labour saving technologies. Skilled stockingers and hand loom weavers were finding their wages cut and their craft made irrelevant by the new machines. During the period that Thompson chronicles, the conflict between capital and labour was at its most violent. Luddites who broke machines risked death, whether in combat with the authorities or by sentence of death.

The most fascinating aspect of this book is how it integrates all the different parts of the workers struggle for fair pay and conditions. Thompson discusses in detail how a working class culture came into being, through the use of legal, political and journalistic means. The working classes didn't manifest themselves as part of a natural capitalistic cycle: they educated themselves and used the British legal system to their best advantage. The French revolution had resulted in a reign of terror; the British Industrial Revolution, while ruining many lives, did manage, even if by default, to give birth to a working class that knew how to fight for its rights, without widespread bloodshed and turning its government upside down and inside out.

To appreciate the genius of the English working classes, and to learn the importance of their legacy to today's workers, then this classic is indispensable.

The Making of the English Working Classes, by E. F. Thompson. Published by Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780141976952  $29.99