The Making of the English Working Class: A Radical Perspective

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Thompson: A Marxist Historian

Thompson was a historian with a Marxist background whose interest in radical political works sets him apart from other authors we studied. He, like Hoggart, followed culturalism, a perspective that stresses human agency, or the active production of culture and not its passive consumption. His book The Making of the English Working Class really embodies the term, since in it he traces the development of the English working class between 1780 and 1832, more or less the time encompassed by the Industrial Revolution. The book can be seen as a rescue operation of the members (especially radicals) of the working class lost in a history led by the deaths of monarchs, statesmen, military leaders, and politicians. These 'other histories' with the working class as active agents of change challenge it. His technique involves tracing key moments of radical conflict and analyzing resistance and political struggle. Some important events in the radical working class agency are the popular revolts that influenced the English Jacobin agitation at the end of the 18th century; the particular experience of industrial workers to gain insight into industrial work discipline, influenced by Methodism and the Methodist Church (the Poor Law); and finally, the story of plebeian radicalism in relation to working class consciousness and politics, such as Luddism. Chartism is an honorable mention since, despite being outside the limits of TMEWC, it gives an idea of what was lacking in Britain before, during, and after its existence.

The Key Role of the Working Class

The key thing is that he puts the working class at the center of historical change, rejecting the notion of them being simple pawns. Likewise, the emergence of the working class is seen as an active process, and the working class as the product of an active struggle. It isn't a definition or structure, but something that happens. Indeed, the working class is not isolated because it happens or exists in relation to other classes: their existence is one in terms of antagonism, or an opposition between the ruling class and the rest.

Experience, Consciousness, Antagonism, and Politics

The working class is the translation of experience into culture, which leads to class consciousness, or a sense of belonging. All in all, experience is what consolidates identity, and Thompson links it to a growth of political consciousness too. Between the years 1780 and 1832, the working class felt an identity of interest amongst themselves and against their employers or rulers.

Working Class Radicalism

He also paid close attention to working class radicalism. First, the term 'radical' refers to the lower class. Working class radicalism and corresponding societies go hand in hand, since Thompson describes them to give historical substance to the rise of working class radicalism. At the end of the 18th century, working men began clubs and societies which channeled radical ideas. By the start of the 19th century, the London Corresponding Societies and Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, a key book in political radicalism, were banned but circulated in secret. Moreover, they prohibited mass meetings. Thompson's conclusion was that, despite the strength in unity of the monarchy, church, and upper class, by the 1830s the working class was consolidated as a force.

Conclusion on TMEWC

His main ideas as a whole: class as a historical phenomenon, recognizing its processes of development, class as an experience which leads to working class consciousness. Society is what determines working class experience. Society at the same time is determined by relations of production, a Marxist term based on economic industrialization.


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