By Benjamin Schwarz
I’d read the cuboid book (848 pages) The Making of the English Working Class, by E.P. Thompson, in college, but in the way that undergraduates too often read—too rapidly, for the purpose of regurgitating arguments in a seminar and to root out facts to deploy in a term paper. Revisiting it now for no particular reason, the book has given me the most exhilarating experience of my reading life this year. Thompson—English patriot (he fought his way up Italy in a tank unit), former Communist, political activist, rigorous historian—chronicled how between 1780 and 1832 the culture, traditions, and economy of artisans, small producers, tradesmen, and the yeomanry gave way to wage labor, the factory system, and mass industrialization.
By dexterously mining sources that had gone untouched since they’d been interred in the archives, Thompson summoned up the causes, arguments, and stratagems of a nearly wholly forgotten political culture. He revealed how that conservative political culture came to realize that industrial capitalism was uprooting communities, devaluing purposeful work, corroding family life, and concentrating wealth, resources, and production into what William Cobbett (Tory Anarchist par excellence and in some ways the literary hero of the book) called “great heaps”—a process that created “but two classes of men, masters and abject dependents.” Lost were the traditional values of liberty, independence, and individualism—and the open, confident, and generous approach to life those values engender. Won was a steely and resilient class consciousness, reconciled to the new order, but which would fight heroically, albeit in a stunted way, to humanize that new order.
Steeped in English literature—see the constant, apposite, and often starling allusions to Bunyan and Byron, Defoe and the Bible—Thompson wrote powerfully, concretely, plangently, with an exquisite sense of cadence and rhythm. That style deepens this elegiac book, elevating it to a masterpiece of literature as well as of scholarship. This is a work, Thompson unabashedly makes clear, about history’s losers, and in its embrace of the losers, as well as in other ways, The Making of the English Working Class is a profoundly anti-progressive book. Its protagonists’ values and their 50-year struggle to resist being turned into a proletariat may have seemed merely primitive and retrograde to strident Marxists (and may seem so to progressives of all stripes today), but Thompson’s historical imagination and sympathy allowed him to see the value, and the tragedy, of lost causes:
I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan…from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties. Our only criterion of judgement should not be whether or not a man’s actions are justified in the light of subsequent evolution. After all, we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution we may discover insights into social evils which we have yet to cure.