The Making of the English Working Class commemoration, People's History Museum, 13 April 2013

A beautiful spring morning at the People's History Museum in Manchester, 13 April. This was the first of many events this year commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson. Organised by the PHM, the Working-Class Movement Library, and put together by Craig Horner, the conference was a good mix of scholars who had personal anecdotes about meeting or being taught by Thompson, trade unionists, younger academics and students who never met him but are still influenced by his work, and representatives from radical history groups.

Highlights of the day included readings from The Making by surprise guests Christopher Eccleston and Maxine Peake, who brought the text to life in a much more compelling way than did the overacting of Thompson's diary extracts on the Luke Fowler film last year. Someone has recorded a few of Eccleston and Peake's readings here.

Alex Hutton from Darwin College Cambridge started off the day with a summary of the historiographical context of The Making. His main point was about the rapid pace of change between the first edition of 1963 and the second, more widely sold and read paperback of 1968. The book depended on the context of Thompson's experience working as a WEA tutor in the West Riding, and the book was written almost as a textbook for the types of people he taught there: trade unionists, craftsmen, textile workers and miners, whom he hoped would identify with the protagonists in the book. It also came at the time of the 'New Left' and new social histories such as Asa Briggs's Victorian Cities (1962), and Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Revolution (1965). 1963 was also seen as a time of great optimism and modern change, as Larkin's oft-quoted line about being between Lady Chatterley and the Beatles' first LP testified. Reviewers later regarded the book within a trilogy of other classics: Richard Hoggart's Uses of Literacy (1957) and Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (1973).

Yet by 1968, the political circumstances had changed. The WEA had lost its vitality, Thompson had gone to Warwick and the new universities were beginning to change the nature of higher education in the country. Thompson had turned his back on the New Left and, although revolution was in the air on the continent, pessimism had begun to sink in in Britain.

Julian Harber then recollected his time as a student at Warwick under Thompson's tutelage. He was inspired by Thompson's 'History From Below', in TLS, 7 April 1966. What became known as the 'Crime Group' at Warwick, the collective of scholars and students who went away for weeks researching in the public record office as was, and local and county archives, was also a formative experience. It certainly provided an inspiring model of 'a community of scholars' that a university should be. It is therefore significant that its product, Albion's Fatal Tree (1975), remains a key work in the discipline and a great example of collective scholarship.

Harber recalled how for Thompson in the 1980s, the writing of history took a back seat to the making of history, particularly his involvement in the campaign for nuclear disarmament. He suggested that Thompson, if he could look on the state of both history and politics today, would have suggested both had retreated from his central goal: understanding and recording the cultural experiences of ordinary working people.

Stuart Maconie came on for the first star turn. His talk centred around the concept of class and class war, and how, despite the BBC's 'class calculator', it is still a very difficult subject to talk about, especially at the BBC. He commented on how careful a line he had to tread concerning the announcement of the death of Lady Thatcher, and the significance of Question Time being moved last week from Rochdale (where he was invited to appear) to Finchley. He also discussed how class war was present in more elusive ways today, for instance at the football. He mused about an old sociology question about why do the poor pay more for goods and services,  taking as his example the Wigan-Millwall game that he was going to attend that day. He believed working class people been priced out of watching their clubs, and was especially incensed about the lack of rail transport back from London.

John Halstead of Sheffield focused on the literary qualities of The Making, which he argued were central to Thompson's historical method. Thompson was an English lit tutor and poet, as well as a historian. He also commented on Thompson's rejection of the Marxist model of a base superstructure and also of sociological approaches to class, which was distinctive and idiosyncratic compared with other contemporary historians.

Sian Moore of UWE considered women and The Making. Thompson's neglect of women in the book is well documented already, not least in Anna Clark's The Struggle for the Breeches (1995). Moore focused on her research about the Bradford worsted industry, and found that women were central in resisting industrial practices. She argued against Craig Calhoun's critique of Thompson, suggesting that Calhoun's juxtaposition of skilled artisan versus industrial worker did not apply to Bradford, where there was no linear progress towards the factory industry. She suggested that familial alliances overcame tensions between male skilled workers and female and juvenile factory workers, and that women acted alongside men in strike action. She also outlined a tradition of resistance in the domestic worsted industry, which then translated into factory industry. Her description of pilfering and damaging work had echoes of Richard Soderlund's 2006 article on worsted workers' resistance and shades dangerously into definitions of social crime and protest, however.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, leader of UNISON until 2001, gave us a lively speech typical of a seasoned trade union leader. He had also chaired the Modern Records Centre at Warwick, and emphasised that one lesson from The Making was that if you have a story, record it. We need to tell our stories because, if we don't, they won't get recorded.

Adrian Randall gave the plenary lecture. He outlined the historiography of The Making, noting that before 1963, the history of the working class was divided between labour history (the 'onward and upward' school) and social history (descriptive, portraying working people as passive victims). The Making was therefore a radical leap for history from below, and was much bolder and bigger than even Hobsbawm and Rude's classic Captain Swing. The key phrase of the book, and indeed of the day and of most of the commemorations of Thompson, is rescuing ordinary people from 'the enormous condescension of posterity'. E. P. Thompson saw social history as a mission, a mission that involved listening to and recognising the voices of the poor and the neglected.

1963 was also the year of the Robbins' report, that opened the way for the new universities and expansion of higher education. The mindset of the old universities continued, however, and Randall quoted from the evidence in Warwick University Ltd about attitudes towards 'long-haired layabouts' of the new students, and the 1950s anti-Communist mindset.

The new social history from below was not welcomed by economic historians either, and Thompson annoyed them further by making the point about his rejection of their approaches in his book. The Right attacked Thompson for 'too much imagination' in history, while the left were annoyed about his rejection of the base superstructure and his cultural Marxism being a dangerous slide to relativism.

Class in history retreated as free market liberalism won out in the 1980s, to be replaced by postmodernism. In the 1990s, 'we were all middle class', and historians shifted to focusing on consumerism. Social history returned to a focus on the middle and upper classes, and things and furnishings. Randall then commented on the revival of history from below in the past ten years, especially in rural history.

Randall finished by reflecting on the reaction to Thompson's death in 1991. The establishment generally left him alone. David Eastwood, however, wrote an article in HWJ which, Randall argued, 'drips with the condescension of the establishment', claiming that he 'lacked a sophisticated understanding of the French Revolution', and that he 'woefully misunderstood the cleverness of the British state'.

He concluded by stating that The Making has never been out of print because it is not like most historical studies which end up as 'academic chipwrappers', but rather it speaks to everyone. Michael Gove's version of history is as a museum, whereas Thompson showed that history matters because it continues.

The Making: not an 'academic chipwrapper'

John Bohstedt of Tennessee discussed not the food riots of the eighteenth century, but food riots in Egypt and West Africa in 2008. He pointed out that demands for the right to eat, 'food security', in essence echoed the moral economy and politics of provisions theses, and that some of the symbolism of the actions of food rioters today echo those of their eighteenth century forebearers.

Richard Sheldon of Bristol discussed the meaning of Old Corruption, and how although 20th century historians regarded it as an inadequate model, because of its lack of class analysis, Thompson regarded it as a more serious and complex system.

Matthew Roberts of Sheffield Hallam discussed the treatment of Luddism in The Making. A lot of the book's most controversial themes are wrapped up in Luddism: Methodism, capitalism, and how to write the history of the condemned from those sources who condemned them. He also pointed out that nearly half of the postscript to the 1968 edition concerned Luddism. For Thompson, Luddism was part of a revolutionary underground, and not a kneejerk reaction to the conditions of wartime. It was an informed disciplined and moral response to the abrogation of paternalist legislation by both government and manufacturers. Finding little support from government, Luddites dug deep into the traditions of their own communities.

Roberts convincingly put forward a few criticisms of Thompson's interpretation of Luddism. First, he exaggerates the self-restraint of the Luddites. Roberts pointed to the more riotous and rough activity that formed the everyday life and culture of framework knitters, including their other crimes of bastardy, poaching and fights. Luddism, he also argued, makes more sense in this way, as a rural movement (as I have argued in my paper in Northern History).

Thompson also did not have much to say about the gendered division of labour. Luddites broke machines that were worked by women. Roberts was also skeptical, at least in the Midlands' region, of the links between Luddism and Methodism. Most of the Luddites he examined were connected with church not chapel.

Roberts put forward the case of Luddism as a failed consumer (as well as producer) movement. The writings of the Luddites (and combinations more generally) expressed the moral outrage of customers: shoddy materials that produced poor quality goods. Luddism thus failed because of the 'telescopy of the philanthropy of the middle classes', who were more involved in the consumerist movement of anti-slavery, while (as Oastler later pointed out), disregarded the slavery of their own employees.

Kevin Morgan considered the seeming paradox of The Making's enduring appeal in an era of seeming declining class identity. He explored Thompson's definition of class in the preface of the book, emphasising how class as a relational process rather than a definable 'thing' was at the heart of its potency and continued relevance.

Then I spoke very briefly on the brief of 'keeping The Making from the enormous condescension of posterity'. Much of what I outlined about the historiography had already been discussed in Adrian Randall's excellent plenary. As I discussed in my article, 'What happened to class?', the history of protest and the history from below more generally, hit a fallow period in the 1980s and 1990s, when labour history moved to look at gender and international identities, and social history became more concerned with what people bought rather than what they thought (and did).

I hoped to sound upbeat that, more recently, new studies and new scholars were reviving Thompson's legacy in new ways. This is evident not only in academic studies, where my 'new approaches to the history of protest' network has revealed excellent new work in unexpected places. Some of the most interesting new work is in rural history and early modern/medieval history, using Thompson's focus on locality, region, law and custom to understand topics such as enclosure riots and peasant rebellions in new ways. In some respects, The Making has been less influential in these studies than Customs in Common and Whigs and Hunters.

I then suggested that what perhaps is lacking (as yet) from these academic studies is the popular appeal that The Making had and still has. What hadn't been discussed in detail during the day, apart from reminiscences of Thompson's role at the WEA, was his experience as what we would today call a public historian. His tv appearances as well as his willingness to give talks to a variety of different groups cemented his appeal. But today's term 'public historian' suggests that other historians are not public. Surely we are all public historians, or should be.

There are some excellent ways in which the legacy of Thompson is being continued today, with the help of new technology. History Workshop Online and radical history networks like the northern network that Fiona Cosson promoted at the event, as well as institutions like the People's History Museum and the Working-Class Movement Library, serve that role in exciting new ways. I forgot to mention how digital history, from Ancestry to Old Bailey Online, is helping people rediscover 'history from the below' too.

I did express some concern about history on tv though. TV documentaries and historically-based series with very few exceptions, are still predominantly about the upper and middle classes, and their lives in big country houses with nice furnishings. Even those that focus on the working classes are mainly about what it's like below stairs, or misery-narratives, that give the impression of the 'lower orders' having very little agency, and certainly very little politics. It would be good to have a tv series that tells the stories told by the People's History Museum: that the working classes did have agency and did get involved in massive movements for the vote and to change their working and living conditions.

Teaching The Making is also a problem for, as even Thompson found back in the 1960s, students who don't have any experience of the types of people or struggles it describes. I suggested that giving students Warwick University Ltd to read might be useful, especially in this age of the cost of higher education being borne by the student.

Peter Gurney of Essex ended our session with thoughts on his own meeting with the Thompsons and why The Making still matters.

The day was a wonderful range of different views and reminiscences. It was a shame that there was no time for questions or discussions from the floor, who no doubt would have been able to add to the testimonies of how The Making had been a 'conversion experience' for them or tales of the legendary hospitality of the Thompsons.


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