The Making of the English Working Class
by E.P. Thompson
Pantheon, 848 pp., $15.00
The years between 1790 and 1832, the terminal dates of this study, saw Britain transformed into the first effectively industrialized economy in the world. With incredible harshness farm workers and artisans were hammered into a proletariat. They were also years of diehard political repression. The course of the French Revolution after 1792 turned William Pitt from a cautious reformer into a reactionary who was ready to attack civil liberties; his successors held out grimly against political change for over a generation. As a result, the period has all the confusion of a threesided contest, between workers, middle class, and aristocratic landed interest. Alliances shift, and economic antagonisms are muffled by the general rhetoric of liberty and parliamentary reform. Nothing brings out the complexity of the situation more clearly than the way in which both middle-class and working-class reformers were able to call themselves Radicals; by 1832, as Mr. Thompson says, there were two Radical publics, one pointing towards the Anti-Corn Law League and the other towards Chartism. The Reform Act of that year represented, of course, the triumph of the middle class. It was the end of an era which had opened with the fall of the Bastille—”how much the greatest event that ever happened in the world! and how much the best!” A new era was opening with a new kind of Bastille going up: the workhouse, which a generation reared on Malthus and Political Economy devised as an instrument to terrorize the poor. The abstract praise of freedom had given way to the propaganda of Free Trade.
There is no secret about where Mr. Thompson’s sympathies lie. He is deeply stirred by the heroic resistance of the working class, and full of sardonic anger against modern apologists for the way in which they were oppressed, such as the sociologist who recently praised the Parliament which turned down one minimum-wage proposal after another for its success in “handling and channeling” the “unjustified disturbance symptoms” of the weavers, many of whom were on the verge of starvation. The Making of the English Working Class is an impressive achievement, a long, sprawling, closely documented book which nevertheless has something of the point and vigor of a pamphlet. Mr. Thompson’s researches on such topics as lunatic-fringe revivalism, autodidact culture, and the insurrectionary underground have taken him into many odd corners of the human spirit. Much of his best material is drawn from the annals of local history: in particular he has an awe-inspiring knowledge of early nineteenth-century Yorkshire. Inevitably some of his interests are highly technical—only an economic historian, for instance, could pass judgment on his contribution to the famous debate about whether or not there was a rise in the working-class standard of living before the 1840s (naturally he inclines towards the “pessimists”). But for the general reader he has restored the tragic dimensions of a story which the textbooks usually hurry past with a few clichés (“widespread discontent”) and which as a subject for imaginative literature …