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Hard Times

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 has largely been left to the “trooble opp at mill” school of popular fiction. This is an indictment of the ravages of laissez-faire industrialism which deserves to be put alongside the classic studies of J. L. and Barbara Hammond.

The Hammonds laid a greater stress on the worst horrors of the system: the little girls chained and harnessed and dragging trucks of coal through the mines on all fours, the chimney-sweeps’ climbing boys who ran a daily risk of being suffocated or burnt alive and whose occupational disease was cancer of the scrotum. There are details in Mr. Thompson’s narrative, too, which would make anybody shiver: the children’s burial clubs in the worst-hit weaving communities, for instance, where Sunday-school pupils contributed a penny a week towards their own funerals. But documenting atrocities is not Mr. Thompson’s main concern. His aim is to rescue the workers who bore the brunt of the Industrial Revolution from “the enormous condescension of posterity,” to present them not as anonymous passive victims but as men defending themselves as best they could against hopeless odds. They felt that they were being exploited, and many of them understood perfectly well what was happening to them. Mr. Thompson quotes an extraordinarily acute analysis of the whole factory system written by a cotton operative in 1818, while even earlier a group like the committee of Nottingham framework-knitters had sized up the opposition:

It is true that Government has interfered in the regulation of wages in times long since gone by; but the writings of Dr. Adam Smith have altered the opinion, of the polished part of society, on this subject. Therefore, to attempt to advance wages by parliamentary influence would be as absurd as an attempt to regulate the winds.

The unpolished part of society was not a leaderless rabble. The rights of the “free-born Englishman” were at stake as well as his livelihood, and many of the sharpest conflicts turned on issues of principle—justice, independence, tradition—rather than on wages.

It could be argued that this is a book not so much about the making of the working-class as about the growth of working-class radicalism. The great problem—perhaps unanswerable—is to decide how much the activities of the articulate and politically conscious minority can tell us about the formation of the class as a whole. Only during a crisis do the rank and file and the radical elite unquestionably stand together, and it is on the crises that Mr. Thompson has chosen to concentrate. He tries to show how strong the insurrectionary element was, and how much underlying continuity there was between the periods of agitation when it came to the surface. One odd result of this is that it leads him to take a view of the working-class mood closer to that of an early nineteenth-century Tory than of an early twentieth-century Fabian. Making every allowance for the exaggerations of government spies and agents provocateurs, he is reluctant to discount their stories of conspiracies and underground organizations. His chief quarrel with earlier historians of the period such as the Hammonds and Graham Wallas is that they relied too heavily on the mass of materials collected by Francis Place, who as a convert to Bentham and constitutional reform was anxious to provide a version of events which underlined the role of the moderates and played down the possibilities of a “levelution.” (A portmanteau word of the period which tells its own story—Mr. Thompson quotes a street-song from Belper in Derbyshire:

The Levelution is begun,
So I’ll go home and get my gun,
And shoot the Duke of Wellington.)

Francis Place himself had come to the fore in the 1790s as a leading member of the London Corresponding Society. Even at that time he urged that working-class reformers would do better to back up middle-class radicals than act entirely on their own initiative. The L. C. S., founded to promote universal manhood suffrage by the “wellmeaning, sober and industrious” shoemaker of Piccadilly, Thomas Hardy, was in any case not strictly a working-class movement. Its members were predominantly small tradesmen and artisans, nourished on the traditions of Dissent and the eighteenth-century “Mob,” and fortified by the writings of Tom Paine: Mr. Thompson sees them and their numerous provincial counterparts less as Jacobins than as sans-culottes. But they were hardly in a position to make a revolution, even though there was a strong republican wing inside the L. C. S. opposed to the gradualists, including various followers of the unworldly Thomas Spence, who advocated land-nationalization. The evidance is fragmentary—necessarily so—but Mr. Thompson argues that after Pitt had finally crushed the corresponding societies the ultra-Jacobins went underground, were in contact with the United Irishmen who rose in revolt in 1798, and played a shadowy role in the great naval mutinies of Spithead and the Nore.

More than anything else it was the war which strengthened the government’s hand. The Church-and-King mobs who assailed reformers in the early 1790s may have been manipulated by the authorities, but this was hardly necessary once patriotic enthusiasm and anti-French feeling had been revived. Nelson, as Mr. Thompson says, was the most genuinely popular national hero since Drake. And even radicals were disheartened by the career of Napoleon. But none of this made the government any less detested, and after 1815 radicalism re-emerged on a far larger scale than anything that had been seen in the 1790s. The breakneck development of the factory system was creating vast new sources of unrest and new kinds of social tension: at the massacre of Peterloo in 1819 it was not the regular troops, the Hussars, who showed real savagery in riding down the crowd, but the Yeomanry, Manchester manufacturers and businessmen dressed up as soldiers.

The demonstrators at Peterloo, who had come to hear the most popular postwar radical orator, Henry Hunt, had been peaceful and orderly. But there was also a tradition of revolutionary plotting which ran from Nelson’s old shipmate, the romantic Colonel Despard, through “the Nottingham Captain,” Jerry Brandreth, to Arthur Thistlewood of the Cato Street Conspiracy. The dream of a coup d’état was hopeless, and in fact all these men paid with their lives. But Mr. Thompson tries to show that they were not the ignorant riff-raff or wild-eyed fanatics that conventional history-books usually make them out to have been. Brandreth’s last letter to his wife, or the behavior of the Cato Street conspirators in court and on the scaffold, show heroic fortitude—and considerable intelligence. But all said and done these men only stand on the margin of working-class history. A more important exercise in rehabilitation is Mr. Thompson’s treatment of the Luddite disturbances. The Luddites have entered the language as mere machinebreakers, hitting out blindly against the forces of progress; but Mr. Thompson has collected as much evidence as he can to show that their grievances were directed against masters rather than machines, that their targets were not haphazard but carefully selected, and that far from being led by hotheads they were as well organized as clandestine conditions would allow. A Luddite riot was perhaps a more frightening spectacle than this might suggest, but a strong case is made out for seeing Luddism in a political rather than a purely industrial context, as marking a transition between the old world of paternalism and traditional safeguards and the new era of agitation for better working conditions.

This is the other side of the picture presented from a middle-class point of view by Charlotte Brontë in Shirley. There is a good deal in Mr. Thompson’s book of special interest to those whose main knowledge of the period is literary. He brings a sympathetic curiosity to bear on many aspects of early working-class culture: radical journalism (there is a telling stylistic comparison between Hazlitt and Cobbett), the free-thinking circle around Richard Carlile, the impact of Robert Owen, the aspirations of the self-educated summed up in the title of William Lovett’s autobiography, Life and Struggles in Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge and Freedom. But in addition, major figures are seen in a new perspective. It makes a difference, for example, if one comes to Coleridge through his radical friend John Thelwall instead of encountering Thelwall in a footnote on Coleridge. Above all there is Blake. “Against the background of London Dissent,” writes Mr. Thompson, “with its fringe of Deists and earnest mystics, William Blake seems no longer the cranky untutored genius that he must seem to those who know only the genteel culture of the time.”

Mr. Thompson’s discussion of religion practically adds up to a book in itself. The followers of Joanna Southcott, “Zion” Ward and other lurid prophets of the Millenium are rescued from obscurity: their delusions are seen as “the chiliasm of despair,” closely related to the political convulsions—and political setbacks—of the time. There is also a long analysis of the internal contradictions of Methodism, which enabled it to serve simultaneously as a religion for the manufacturer or millowner and for his workmen. The democratic tendencies inside Methodism, deriving from older traditions of Dissent, were preserved by individual local preachers and laymen; but the official ministry, under the control of Wesley, who was a Tory, and even more of his successor, the pharisaical Jabez Bunting, taught submission to the temporal powers. With a few qualifications Mr. Thompson confirms Halévy’s account of Methodism as a major brake on the revolutionary impulse at the end of the eighteenth century. Working-class energies were directed against Evil rather than social evils (“On Bradford likewise look Thou down/ Where Satan keeps his seat”) or absorbed by sexual guilt. Some of Thompson’s quotations from the hymnbook are—in more sense than one—damning. As he says, it is essential to grasp how far an obsession with the sins of the flesh permeated English working-class culture in the nineteenth century if one is to understand how Lawrence was driven to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Yet it takes more than religion, or even straightforward political repression, to explain why the fabric of society wasn’t torn apart by the forces which uncontrolled industrial capitalism released. Mr. Thompson’s book reads like the prelude to a revolution—a revolution which was in fact never to take place. The possibilities of revolution were still alive with the physical-force Chartists in the early 1840s, but by the end of that decade a spectre was not haunting the Palace of Westminster—it had been exorcised in 1848, when the last major Chartist demonstration fizzled out in the rain on Kennington Common. And ten years later a middle-of-the-road man like Bagehot could marvel that the world of Lord Liverpool and the reactionary “Six Acts” had ever existed.

Without minimizing the extreme poverty which could be found in England down to the 1930s, or the legacy of drabness and hardship which still survives even today, it is easy to see how after about 1850 state intervention, trade unionism, economic growth, and the gradual spread of technological benefits combined to take some of the edge off social conflicts. But how was revolution (or at any rate attempted revolution) averted before then? Obviously there can be no one simple answer to such a question. Many local factors have to be weighed: it might have been a very different story, for instance, if the factory-system had developed as rapidly in London as it did in the Midlands or the North. But a generalization, indeed a platitude, can be risked: extremism had little appeal for the great majority of Englishmen unless they were driven to it by severe distress. Cobbett, on whom Mr. Thompson writes very well, is a key figure: the greatest of popular radical journalists, he could announce that “we want great alteration, but we want nothing new.” This was not just a streak of blind conservatism coming out: the fundamental rights of the freeborn Englishman were something worth conserving at almost any cost. Liberty of conscience, equality before the law, a parliamentary opposition: these were realities, and no English government, however reactionary, could act like an absolute monarch. From the prosecution of Thomas Hardy and his colleagues in the 1790s to the trial of the political parodist William Hone twenty-five years later, the authorities were always liable to find themselves thwarted by the jury-system. Nor did they behave nearly as brutally as they might have done under another system. Nobody was actually put to death under the provisions of Pitt’s Two Acts, for instance; while there was only one Peterloo. Mr. Thompson quotes a recent writer as saying that after the concentration camps modern readers are left “comparatively unmoved” by the spectacle of child labor during the Industrial Revolution. This was a foolish and insensitive remark. But I hope that it isn’t equally callous to feel that the political repression of early nineteenth-century England, even including Peterloo with its eleven dead and over four hundred wounded, was relatively mild by subsequent standards. Mr. Thompson himself shows rather poor taste when he calls the Yorkshire master-clothiers, famous for their blunt self-reliance, the kulaks of the Industrial Revolution.

The most striking fact about nineteenth-century England was not the weakness of the working class but the strength of the middle class. It was a middle class which had enjoyed a long period of incubation under a constitutional monarchy, and one which could plausibly represent itself as attached to the cause of general social progress rather than sheer exploitation. (The very term “middle class” carries with it a claim to represent the broad average, the normal Middlemarch, Middletown human condition; “bourgeoisie,” by contrast, suggests a self-contained and easily identifiable target, but it is a word which most Victorians would have had difficulty in pronouncing.) Mr. Thompson stands as a powerful witness to how far the most ruthless exploitation was in fact masked by “progressive” doctrines in “the age of steam and cant.” But contemporaries were not altogether selfish or blinkered when they thought, of themselves as living in an age of improvement. Mr. Thompson has some angry pages on the inhuman cruelty—there is no other word—with which Chadwick and Kay ran the New Poor Law. Nothing can justify their attitude (“I believe there has been in England since the days of the Stuarts, no law so often infamously administered,” wrote Dickens thirty years after the 1834 Act). But Chadwick and Kay were not just the inexplicable monsters which they appear viewed from this angle: Chadwick was, after all, the greatest sanitary reformer of the century, and Kay (later Kay-Shuttleworth) did more than any other single man to pave the way for a national system of education. In the end liberalism prevented an open collision and raised the middle classes above themselves. It’s small consolation to the long-dead millions whose lives were wrecked by Political Economy, but the future belonged to Francis Place rather than to the out-and-out radicals. Yorkshire working-class nonconformism has led up, not to a revolution, but to Harold Wilson.

Mr. Thompson was one of the founders of the New Left group in the mid-1950s, and his book is probably the most notable contribution so far to the New Left’s critique of English culture. He is right in claiming that the events of the critical years with which he deals, and particularly the way in which democratic and egalitarian values were kept alive by popular radicalism, are nowadays far too often overlooked. But too many things have happened since 1832 for the outlook of the British working-class at that time to have as much relevance to the problems of the present as he tends to suggest. The analogy with contemporary Asia and Africa which he makes in his preface surely can’t be carried very far, while it is uncertain what lessons we are meant to draw from talk about “the smog of ‘two-party parliamentary politics.’ ” But no one should be put off by the blemishes: Mr. Thompson has produced a work of commanding authority and permanent importance.

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