The Impact of Paine's Rights of Man and Thompson's English Working Class

Classified in History

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By 1800, the London Corresponding Society and Paine’s The Rights of Man were banned by the government. As Thompson explained, every time the working classes tried to assert their rights, they were repressed. However, The Rights of Man continued to be read and circulated in secret.

Thompson´s Making of the English working class can be divided into three parts:

1) Recounts the popular revolts which influenced the English Jacobin agitation at the end of the eighteenth century: The name ‘Jacobin’ was given to political radicals or revolutionaries who demanded and worked for political reforms, often inspired by the Jacobins of the French Revolution. 2) Describes the particular experiences of workers during the Industrial Revolution and gives ‘an estimate of the character of the new industrial work-discipline, and the bearing of this on the Methodist Church’: was an evangelist protestant Religion founded by John Wesley in the eighteenth century which attracted large numbers of poor people who found in it the promise of self-improvement and salvation. Thompson argued that if the Methodist Church could be understood to be positive in some respects it also served to weaken the poor from within by adapting them to strict forms of work-discipline. 3) And narrates the story of plebeian radicalism (like Luddism) with relation to working-class consciousness and political theory: Describes the British textile workers who (between 1811 and 1816) were involved in rioting and machine-breaking. This was the industrial workers’ version of peasant revolts. The movement is believed to be named after Ned Ludd, an eighteenth-century Leicestershire workman who was known as a machine breaker and who became a popular hero.

Taking a bird’s eye view of Thompson’s method, it is possible to extract some very useful ideas for the practice of cultural studies. The technique of tracing key moments of radical conflict, the documentation of demands for social and political rights and the calling attention to the printing and consumption of radical forms of writing etc. can be adapted to the analysis of any marginalized or repressed group.

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