The Making of the English Working Class Kindle Edition
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“Mr. Thompson’s deeply human imagination and controlled passion help us to recapture the agonies, heroisms and illusions of the working class as it made itself. No one interested in the history of the English people should fail to read his book.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“An admirable work of imaginative scholarship, which no student of the period will be able to neglect.” —Bernard Semmel, The American Historical Review
About the Author
- ASIN : B01B2CJEUG
- Publisher : Open Road Media (March 15, 2016)
- Publication date : March 15, 2016
- Language : English
- File size : 5194 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 1000 pages
- Lending : Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #213,821 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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This is a formidable 832-page paperback which was written in 1963 by the venerable British historian E. P. Thompson. It provides a detailed description of the events involved in the emergence of the British working class in the years between 1780 and 1832. Part I (pages 1 - 188) deals with the role of the French revolutionary spirit in infecting Britain in the 1790's. Part II (pages 189 - 450) describes the experiences of various groups of workers dealing with the early years of the Industrial Revolution and the unfolding rulings of Parliament. Part III (451 - 832) explains the various views and political theories of the leading reformers and radicals. The book has no illustrations or images of any kind. It is pure text. This book is lavishly praised by professional historians and specialists of the period. For example, the London Tribune called it "a true masterpiece." I will share some cautions for those who are not specialists in this historical period.
The author, E. P. Thompson (1924 - 1993) was, along with Eric Hobsbawn, a member of a small group of British left wing historians. He was an early member of the Communist Party, but he quit the party in disgust when the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956. He spent his career writing and advocating for nuclear disarmament and other liberal causes. I learned this after finishing the book, and I certainly did not detect any Marxist bias in the book itself.
This book was written for those who teach college-level British history. After 50 years it remains on many university reading lists. It is my impression that Thompson was a professional historian writing for an elite coterie of other professional historians.
This book focused on a brief 52-year period from 1780 to 1832 when Britain was dealing with the developing Industrial Revolution. Within this time period, he zeroes in on the issues facing the laboring class which was increasingly exploited by the new industrialists. The bulk of the discussion revolves around political theories in favor of liberating the laboring people and political theories for defending the status quo and exploiting the laboring people. This is the main thrust of the book. The author goes into great detail with each twist and turn of the period as the two sides in the debate go back and for forth with their polemics.
I was interested to learn...
I was interested to learn many things: 1. Prime Minister Pitt suspended habeas corpus twice in efforts to suppress reform movements. 2. The Methodist Church was not particularly supportive of the legal and political struggles of the working people because John Wesley was obsessive in his desire to be submissive to the ruling government and to encourage his followers to defer their present-day, earthly hopes to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. 3. Beginning in 1792 those who gathered to discuss the merits of expanding the right to vote were treated as traitors and were subject to the death penalty. 4. Thomas Paine (who returned to England after the Revolutionary War) was an early leading theorist on behalf of the laboring people, and he sought political asylum in France. 5. The laboring people were repressed and exploited not only by the early mill owners but also by the landed aristocracy and even the Church of England (which was closely allied with the King and his government). 6. In this 52-year period Parliament passed a blizzard of laws, most of which ratcheted up the repression to the laboring people and only a few laws made a calculated concession to laboring people in order to avoid a violent revolution. It worked. England survived the 1700's and 1800's without a revolution.
What the book did not do for me
I am not a professional historian, so I am probably not the target audience of this book. I am a retired businessman, and I was interested in learning more about the everyday lives of my ancestors in England during the 1700's and 1800's. In that period up to 90% of the people in England were either peasants or "working class." I was a little disappointed
1.) I didn't learn very much about these everyday lives - their housing, their diets, their work, their standard of living, their health and medical care, their hopes and fears. This focus on "everyday life" or "ordinary life" is the increasing focus of historians in the 21st century, but it was not the focus of this book.
2.) The author assumes that his readers have a background in the events of this period, and therefore he doesn't begin with a clear explanation of the event or legislation - for instance the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800. I found myself consulting Wikipedia again and again to get the background necessary to piece things together.
3.) As an amateur I would have liked some simple learning devices such as a glossary of terms and a timeline of events in this tumultuous 52-year period. Again, timelines are much more common in comparable history books written today than they were in books written 50 years ago. I am compiling my own timeline based on the text of this book.
4.) Finally, I would have liked a summary of the key events between 1780 and 1852 that produced a consciousness of something called "the working class" by 1832. The title "The Making of the English Working Class" seemed to imply that the book would dissect and analyze the ingredients that produced this class consciousness. I confess I somehow missed a simple step by step explanation.
In conclusion, although this book probably deserves a 5-star rating for professional historians, its value to me, a non-professional, was more like a 4-star rating.
Who should buy this book?
If you are a professor of British history or a PhD student in the field, this book needs no introduction . It probably is part of the canon of required reading in your field, and you probably will agree that it is "a masterpiece." But if you are not a specialist, I suggest that you buy this book and invest the required 16 to 20 hours to read it, only if you have serious interest in this 50-year period in British history and/or a deep interest in the plight of the British working class when it emerged in the 1800's.
This is a History (please note the capital "H") of decades of action by millions of people. It is not light reading. Sometimes that story can only be told through statistics and citing government reports. Be prepared to do at least a bit of work to follow along. That said, the writing is clear and concise and the narrative easy to follow. The subject is vast and much of what Thompson had to say flew in the face of the happy histories those in power wrote about themselves and their forebears, making necessary detail otherwise omitted if other honest works had been more readily available. Hence, a book longer than it might, under other conditions, have been. For myself, the work has exactly the right number of words.
I'm having to pare down my hard copy collection of books and my 45 year old copy of "The Making of the English Working Class" will have to go to another home, so I'm thankful for this inexpensive electronic version. Hopefully, the problems noted by previous reviewers have been corrected.
PS. If someone has a great recommendation that describes what I am looking for above, please let me know. Thanks.
In terms of the actual text: This is a classic history from a Marxist historian. There are 100's of reviews from learned scholars. For me, I found the text to be much less focused on actual work and too focused on political theory, theology and religious positions of various protestant sects, and so on. Much, much less actual "working class" social history than I would have expected.
Top reviews from other countries
I was left the book by a friend, who died tragically, and for whom it was a kind of Bible. I read it as a belated homage to him. It is certainly very thorough, entertaining and interesting; but does it really explain the origins of the English working class? It is really a history of ideas, taking us from the Jacobinism of the 1790s, via the risings of the Luddites, the Pentridge Rising and the Cato Street Conspiracy to the writings of Robert Owen, the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the ideas of Robert Owen and the Chartists. This does not tell us much about ‘the working class’, as a unit, or about its numbers, composition and conditions. It certainly tells us something about the influences on various working classes (in the plural); but these influences were also at work (perhaps more powerfully so) on the lower middle class. Thompson does not dwell much on literacy rates amongst the working classes, and in any event, an ability to read, or even possession of a book or text, does not prove that a person has read it.
Thompson was a Marxist and clearly believed in the importance of materialism, the labour theory of value, and the class struggle; and in this book his implied criticism of all the writers he tells us about is that they had not yet grasped the fundamental truths which Marx and Engels had yet to expound. This means three things (1) He explains religion by reference to its social usefulness and effects, rather than attributing any importance to what people actually said and believed. Thus he belittles its importance. Famously, he even describes Methodism as a kind of masturbation! (2) He regards all the ideas he describes as immature in some way, compared with full blown dialectical materialism. Yet this would seem to both anachronistic and to conflict with his wish to rescue the people concerned from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’. (3) The book does not really deal with the class struggle. It is a description of a series of movements and risings, and a parallel history of political thinking.
One has the feeling that the title was chosen because the subject was topical. One could equally well argue that the English working class did not really come into existence until the late 19th century, by which time a majority of the population lived in towns, a vast numbers of workers worked in factories, Marx and Engels had written their seminal works, and there were conscious movements designed to establish the working class in power, by constitutional or revolutionary means. By comparison, Mr Thompson’s book seems to deal with a disjointed series of activists and thinkers, of uncertain origins, who were driven by a hatred of tyranny and ‘the Establishment’, without being clearly imbued with notions of class.
Nevertheless, parts of this book are a very good read. I found the description of how the Great Reform Act of 1832 was such a disappointment to the Radicals of most interest.
Excellent footnotes and a wealth of ideas for further research.