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Book Review E. P. Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class"

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Introduction

Book Review E. P. Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class" Reading 'The making of the English working class', one can not but be imbued by the same sense of despair, as E.P. Thompson retells the life of the proletariat at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The narrative is depressing, portraying the men and women of the working class in an endless struggle against their oppressors, "For most working people the crucial experience of the Industrial Revolution was felt in terms of changes in the nature and intensity of exploitation".1 Unlike Wallerstein or Pomeranz, Thompson in not a theorist.2 In this book he was not interested in the ad hoc events that fermented capitalist political economy. To Thompson, the arrival of industrialisation was a priori, it was the human tragedy destined to follow which was Thompson's greater concern. In this sense, E.P. Thompson is a humanist. When reading 'The making of the working class', first one must ask if it is really history at all. Thompson admits in the preface that it is not a consecutive narrative but a series of essays admittedly with common themes and some chronological progression. ...read more.

Middle

The theme of class struggle runs throughout 'The making of the English working class'. Thompson persuasively argues that, during the generation between 1815 and 1848, England had come much closer to a Revolution of the kind France had gone through between 1789 to 1794, than the Whig interpretation of History would make one believe. For instance, "It was in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution that the millenarian current, so long underground, burst in to the open with unexpected force."9 Thompson is unequivocal at condemning the capitalist apparatus that subjugated the working class. Besides the usual suspects, the merchants and factory owners, Thompson saved his utmost criticism towards the Methodist Church, dedicating an entire chapter to the Methodist failings. However, this chapter betrayed a trace of Radical Romanism and put the scholarly soundness of Thompson's work at risk. For example, the Methodist Church split from the Church of England partly because Wesley thought the establishment was too remote from the poor and also many of the clergy in the Church group were actually from the working class. Thompson admits as much in his book, "It (Methodism) ...read more.

Conclusion

In 'The making of the English working class', Thompson entailed a particular and controversial vision of class. Like Marxist historian Georg Luk�s, in History and Class Consciousness' Thompson's preface outlined the view that class was not an inert thing but a real historic process of human relationships.16 "The real relationship must be embodied in real people in a real context...We cannot love without lovers, nor deference without squires and labourers".17 Some of Thompson's assertions are not beyond dispute. He claims for instance, that the position of the English working class had definitely deteriorated compared to the eighteenth century. However, it has been shown, by, H.T. Dickinson among others, that the working class position was already very dismal long before the Industrial Revolution started, and the dispute among historians over this question is still far from being concluded. Because of these points of debate, 'The making of the English working class' attracted much criticism, such as his underestimation of women's role in class formation which has been challenged by J.W. Scott, an error which Thompson subsequently confessed. Overall however the book gave a good sense of working class conditions in this period and is a valuable source for the study of class formation so long as historians note its obvious bias and counteract it with the use of several other sources. ...read more.

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