On E.P. Thompson's Legacy

— Sheila Cohen

THIRTY PAGES INTO my re-reading of The Making of the English Working Class, it dawned on me why Thompson’s masterpiece is so loved: it celebrates (almost entirely) the movement aspect of the institution/movement dialectic, the direct dynamic of working-class democracy as opposed to the formalised “representative” antics of the powers-that-be.

Yet this masterpiece opens with a highly contentious pair of statements: “The working class…was present at its own making;” and “I do not see class as a ‘structure’…but as something which…happens…in human relationships.” (9)

This appears to leave class without, so to speak, any material substance. Yet Thompson’s unprecedented emphasis on the subjective experience of the newly forming working class also allows for what is perhaps the book’s most valuable quality — its focus on self-activity and self-organisation “among the common people.” (22)

These early forms of working-class organizing might seem unworthy of the “condescension of history” were they not indicative of a raw democratic accountability still characteristic of inexperienced workers caught up in struggle. The “Wesleyan tendency” within Methodism, for example, was notable for its emphasis on grassroots participation; a “continuous thread of communitarian ideas” was associated with other Dissenting sects such as the Quakers. 47)

Yet religion was not the only influence on such “communitarianism;” by the last decade of the 18th century, rioting masses were influenced by “the Jacobin consciousness of a minority.” As Thompson comments, “this was a transitional mob, on its way to becoming a self-conscious Radical crowd.”’ (65, 69)

Toward Direct Democracy

In the formative period of 1770 to 1790, “the rhetoric of constitutionalism contributed to its own destruction…” by shedding light on the glaring “workings of faction and interest in the unreformed House of Commons.” (88) Meanwhile, the giant shadow of the French Revolution could not but contribute to an increased awareness of the shortcomings of bourgeois “democracy.”

Such awareness was magnified by the fire and inspiration of writers like Thomas Paine, whose astounding prescience is rightly celebrated here. By the early 1790s, when “war fever raged,” a “sea-change in the attitudes of the inarticulate” could be observed, demonstrated in organizations like the Norwich Revolution Society which included in their constitutions and actions a conscious adherence to direct democracy.

As Thompson recounts, “Even the chance use, in a letter, of the words ‘our leaders’ led to a democratical hue-and-cry…” (138) Not surprisingly, those participating in such grassroots organising were seen by the powers-that-be as “very violent and…ready to adopt every thing tending [to] Confusion & Anarchy’. John Thelwall, one of the two “considerable theorists” of the insurgency, “took Jacobinism to the borders of Socialism; he also took it to the borders of revolutionism.” (160).

This wave of dissent had ebbed by the end of the 1790s; yet it left in its wake two sections of the radical London Corresponding Society, “one attempting a quasi-legal existence…the other committed to illegal organisation.” Part of this illegality consisted of “couriers pass[ing] regularly on illicit trade union business between all parts of Britain.” (167)

Thompson refuses to dismiss such activity as that…this was a parochial affair of ship’s biscuits and arrears of pay, and not a revolutionary movement. This is to mistake the nature of popular revolutionary crises, which arise from exactly this conjunction between the grievances of the majority and the aspirations of the politically-conscious minority.” (168).

‘The Working Class Made Itself…’

Appropriately enough, it is in the ensuing chapter on Exploitation (189ff) that Thompson himself raises the dialectic of structure and agency in the process of class formation: “The making of the working class is a fact of political and cultural, as much as of economic, history. It was not the spontaneous generation of the factory system…The working class made itself as much as it was made.” (194, emphasis added — SC)

This, of course, did not protect the newly burgeoning class from savage repression. The 1799 Combinations Acts were used not only in the infamous persecution of the Tolpuddle Martyrs but in numbers of prosecutions of other union activists. Yet the irresistible urge to working-class union organization continued.

Thompson notes that as early as the 1750s, “Manchester small-ware and check-weavers had strongly organised trade societies;” the “exceptional trade union organisation” of woolcombers “reached back at least until the 1740s.” (282) Unusually for writers in the pre-feminist early 1960s, Thompson observes “the first indications of independent trade union action among women workers” during this period. (416)

Such organization took place in the rapacious context of industrialisation, described as “carried through with exceptional violence in Britain.” (445) Its astonishingly rapid development was evident to one observer absent from England for only 10 years; speaking of the “manufacturing communities,” he commented: “…they seem to have lost their animation, their vivacity, their field games and their village sports; they have become a sordid, discontented, miserable, anxious, struggling people, without health, or gaiety, or happiness” (quoted, 446).

Yet Thompson records progress on the basis of what seems at first an almost hopeless commitment by dedicated activists. In common with present-day Britain, a lot of early 19th-century radical efforts were focussed on Parliament; many such activists — Francis Place in particular — wanted no truck with the rough-and-rude tactics of basic working-class struggle. In fact, as Thompson sums up the dynamic: “the radicalism of the City…was becoming more and more distanced from the plebeian movement.” (468)

By contrast, the radicalism of the oppressed was underpinned by concrete class-based conflict: “Repression did not destroy the dreams of the egalitarian English republic; it dissolved the remaining ties of loyalty between working people and their masters, so that disaffection spread in a world the authorities could not penetrate.” (499) The first 20 years of the 19th century saw a significant separation of the perceived interests of the burgeoning working class as against those of their masters.

The Rise of Unions

Even more significantly, those “separated interests” were finding expression in their classic organized form — trade unionism.

Although Thompson notes that “at any time before the 1840s it is a mistake to segregate… political disaffection and industrial organisation,” the ruling class was clear on the dangers of the latter. The 1799 Combination Acts swiftly outlawed the external structures of union organization. Yet within a year of the Acts’ passing, Pitt was to be “increasingly alarmed at reports of a rising tide of successful trade unionism, involving a score of trades.” (500, 502)

This could only indicate the increasing significance of the crucial activist layer; framework-knitters’ leader Gravener Henson noted that “every committee or active man among [artisans] was regarded as a turbulent, dangerous instigator, whom it was necessary to watch and crush if possible” (quoted, 509).

Yet it was not only key activists but the masses behind them who engaged on a regular basis in subversive activity. Perhaps the most famous example is the phenomenon called Luddism, a term widely adopted to suggest violent opposition to technological development. As with most such labels, the real complexities of the movement are lost.

As Thompson points out later in this chapter, “machine-breaking has a far longer history” than did the specific example of Luddism. But the distinction between previous episodes of “violent direct action” and the Luddite movement can “be summed up in a single characteristic…Luddism was a quasi-insurrectionary movement, which continually trembled on the edge of ulterior revolutionary objectives.” (Thompson’s emphasis)

Indeed, Luddism occurred during a period in which, as a whole, “Sheer insurrectionary fury has rarely been more widespread in English history.” (570)

Despite the catastrophic defeat of this insurgency, during the same period the lusty infant of trade union organisation was continuing to thrive. As early as 1818 a major strike by Lancashire spinners coincided with “the first impressive attempts to organise a ‘General Union of Trades’….The Lancashire spinners were…pioneering new forms of organisation on the national scene.” (644)

In this and other centers of organization, the working class was more serious — and more impatient — than the radicals of the era in their desire for revolutionary insurrection. The “nightly drillings” of worker activists at the time were a serious preparation for that event; in fact the Pentridge rising of June 1817 was “one of the first attempts in history to mount a wholly proletarian insurrection, without any middle-class support.” (668)

The wit and pertinacity of Pentridge’s working-class activists is summed up in their song, “The Levelution is begun” and their self-styled nickname “the Regenerators” (668 and n4). In general, the chutzpah and contempt for authority of these working-class activists is demonstrated in the “great strikes…in Lancashire and the Midlands in which supposedly illegal trade union[ists] paraded in the streets…The effect upon…morale of each successive demonstration was instantaneous.” (671).

According to Thompson, “If the open organisation of the people had continued on this scale it would have become impossible to govern.” (682). But by the end of 1819 the resurgent working-class movement was “in a virtual state of collapse,” symbolising the inherent instability of such dynamics in any era.

Yet the quote with which Thompson launches his final chapter on Class Consciousness provides a salutary warning against defeatism: “People fancy that when all’s quiet that all’s stagnating. Propagandism is going on for all that. It’s when all’s quiet that the seed’s a-growing…” And emphasising the point that consciousness and action within class society is above all periodic, Thompson notes that “From 1830 onwards a more clearly-defined class consciousness, in the Marxist sense, was maturing…” (711, 712)

In line with that maturing consciousness and the burgeoning trade union organization of the period, a working-class press was growing. By contrast to most of today’s trade union journals, such publications carried “searching debate and exposition of Socialist and trade union theory…In every part of the country the experiences of the previous quarter-century had prepared men’s [sic] minds for what they now could read.” (728, 733)

In 1825, what they now could read included the Trades Newspaper (736), whose editor was “one of the…truly impressive trade union leaders [of] those early years.” (774) The newspaper carried out a Labor Notes-style function in reporting what was going on across the movement, regularly reporting on actions like the major strike of Bradford woolcombers in 1825.

At the time, revolutionary optimism could fill its pages: as one member of the Builders’ Union wrote, “The Trades Unions will not only strike for less work, and more wages…but they will ultimately ABOLISH WAGES, become their own masters, and work for each other…” (quoted, 829).

That prediction remains unfulfilled in today’s global capitalism, but the resurgent dynamic of struggle and its legacy in the consciousness of working-class activists receives its true acknowledgement in this most solidaristic of working-class histories — and, in our current slough of despond, it still offers much-needed hope.

January/February 2014, ATC 168

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