The Making of the English Working Class: A Radical Perspective

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Thompson was an historian with a Marxist background, whose interests of radical political works set him apart from other authors we studied. He, as 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 embodies this term, since in it he traces the development of the English Working Class between the years 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 radical ones) of the working class lost in the history lead by the deeds of monarchs, statesmen, military leaders and politicians. These other histories of working class as active agency change challenge it. His technique involves tracing key moments of radical conflict, resistance analyzing and political struggle. Some important events in the radical working class agency are the popular revolts that the English Jacobin agitation at the end of 18th century; the particular experience of industrial workers to gain insight of the industrial work discipline, influenced by the methodism and Methodist Church (poor law), and finally the plebeian radicalism in relation to the working class consciousness and politics, such as Luddism. Chartism is an honorable mention, despite of being outside the limits of TMEWC, it gives an idea of what was lacking in Britain before, during and after its existence.

The Working Class as Active Agents

The key thing is that he puts the working class at the center of a historical change, as an active agent, rejecting the notion of being simple pawns. Likewise, the emergence of the working class is seen as an active process and the working class as a product of an active struggle. It is not a definition or structure but something that happens. Working class is not isolated because it exists in relation to other classes: their existence is one in terms of antagonism, or an opposition between of the ruling class or capitalists (exploiters) and the rest (exploited). The conflict and each class’ uniqueness emphasize the working class identity and the fact that classes were not simple, but complex.

Class Consciousness and Radicalism

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

Thompson also paid close attention to the working class radicalism, or the working class as a ‘revolting class’. First, we should examine the term ‘radical’, which refers to roots, being at the grass level, which refers to the lowest level. Radical also applies to a movement performed by laborers, usually carried out with revolts and riots. Of course, they faced repression. 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 created clubs and societies, like the London Corresponding Society, which channeled radical ideas. However, this institutionalization and organization of working class posed threats to the ruling class. At the beginning of the 19th century, London Corresponding Society and Thomas Paine’s The Right of Man, a key book in political radicalism, were banned, but circulated in secret, moreover a series of combination acts prohibited mass meetings. The reactions against repressions continued to contribute to the gain of consciousness and motivate the non-conformist ideas.

Consolidation of the Working Class

Thompson’s conclusion was that, despite the strength in unity of the monarchy, upper class and church, by the 1830’s the working class was consolidated and was a force. Its demands and rebellions entailed repression but the confrontations helped to consolidate the ruling and working classes even more.

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