- Paperback: 864 pages
- Publisher: Vintage (February 12, 1966)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0394703227
- ISBN-13: 978-0394703220
- Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 2.9 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,946 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Making of the English Working Class
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Thompson's work combines passion and intellect, the gifts of the poet, the narrator and the analyst -- Eric Hobsbawm Independent A dazzling vindication of the lives and aspirations of the then - and now once again - neglected culture of working-class England -- Martin Kettle Observer Superbly readable ... a moving account of the culture of the self-taught in an age of social and intellectual deprivation -- Asa Briggs Financial Times An event not merely in the writing of English history but in the politics of our century -- Michael Foot Times Literary Supplement The greatest of our socialist historians -- Terry Eagleton New Statesman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From the Inside Flap
"Thompson's book has been called controversial, but perhaps only because so many have forgotten how explosive England was during the Regency and the early reign of Victoria. Without any reservation, The Making of the English Working Class is the most important study of those days since the classic work of the Hammonds."--"Commentary
"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."--London "Times Literary Supplement
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
The Industrial Revolution ushered a sea change for workers by usurping the old paternalist economy by laissez faire. The economic policies and changes in each industry coupled with the abrogation of paternalist legislations in the early 1800s united workers in common misery: `for the field laborer, the loss of his common rights, and the vestiges of village democracy; for the artisan, the loss of his craftsman's status; for the weaver, the loss of livelihood and of independence.' Collectively, the group felt `a sense of loss status as memories of their `golden age' lingered'.
The horrors of the French revolution and the fear of violent revolution at home joined landowners and manufacturers to block reforms. With the advent of Paine's `Age of Reason' and `Rights of Men,' gentry reformers such as Wyvill became alarmed by the linkage of `political with economic demands' and the demands of expropriation of the landowners. With support from both the aristocracy and the middle class, the government swiftly adopted reactionary measures, such as the Two Acts, suspension of habeas corpus, Combination Act and even planting spy as agent of provocateur to extirpate agitators. Pitt transitioned from a champion of `piecemeal reform into diplomatic architect of European counter-revolution.'
Thus, reform followed a circuitous path, though it remained `a contest of the middle class and the working class.' The reformers were generally divided among constitutionalists, like Cobbett, and Spencer's radical revolutionary. Radicalism divided the society between `useful' or `productive classes' or courtiers, sinecurists, fund-holders, speculators, parasitic middlemen.' In the face of government intransigence, such as the fruitless and expensive recourse to the Parliament between 1800 and 1812 showed, skilled men, artisans and some outworkers turned to the radical culture for reform. With each succeeding crisis, such as the Peterloo massacre, the radical's clout accreted and gained moral consensus among the general populace, culminating to the Pentridge rising, `one of the first attempts in history to mount a wholly proletarian insurrection, without any middle-class support.' In a wrestle for control, the Reform Acts 1832 was the middle class's effort to thwart a revolution were it to occur.
The changing responses to the government measures shepherded the coming of class consciousness. During the early part of the French revolution, `Church and King' mobs could be manipulated against the reformers. With the tightening of government control, a growing number of communities began to follow their own moral codes - from the transitional mobs during the food riots, the plebian jury's refusal to convict reformers and `seditionists' termed by the government, the centralized tactics of Luddism and to the support of and participation in trade unionism. From the experiences of passive and active resistance and cooperation, this new working class culture unified the mass to voice their demands and work toward their goals - a force that could not be suppressed.