restricted access The Lost Causes of E. P. Thompson
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The Lost Causes of E. P. Thompson

Perhaps the least interrogated word in the title of Thompson’s classic, The Making of the English Working Class, is “English.” Thompson acknowledged that he did not aspire to speak for the Scottish and the Welsh elements among the labouring poor, as their cultural traditions were different enough for him to be “cautious” about “generalizing beyond English experiences.” But at the same time his “English experiences” included that of the Irish in England: “I have considered the Irish, not in Ireland, but as immigrants to England.”1 The problem of how a national identity writes itself into historical texts remains somewhat buried in this great book by a great historian who remained all his life an engaged and critical student of “the peculiarities of the English.” But if Englishness as such was something Thompson took as a given, the differences of all that was not “English” remained an integral, if muted, part of his analytical framework. Otherwise it is hard to explain why this book that inveighed against the use of sociological models in history, became such an inspiring model for others to follow.

The name that Thompson gave in The Making to this opening towards historical difference was “culture.” One of the most fervent passages in the book read: “The making of the working class is a fact of political and cultural, as much as of economic, history. It was not the spontaneous generation of the factory system. Nor should we think of an external force – the ‘industrial revolution’ – working upon some nondescript undifferentiated raw material of humanity and turning it out at the other end as ‘fresh race of beings’. The … Industrial Revolution [was] imposed, not upon a raw material, but upon the free-born Englishman – and the free-born Englishman as Paine had left him or as the Methodist had moulded him. The factory hand or stockinger was also the inheritor of Bunyan, of remembered village rights, of notions of equality before the law, of craft traditions.” And then came his pithy and powerful dictum: “The working class made itself as much as it was made.” (213)

It was Thompson’s insistence on very particular cultural traditions of the English working people – the idea of the “free-born Englishman” or of equality before the law, for instance – that encouraged me once to ask: What would happen in the histories of men and women who filled the ranks of the industrial working classes in a country like India but whose cultural heritage was significantly different from that of their counter-parts in England? Was there a Marxist rule of historical providence that guaranteed that even these people would, whatever their historical differences with the English, inevitably find [End Page 207] themselves on the high road to class-consciousness and socialism? In what way could their differences frustrate and make ambiguous the universal sociological schema of Marxism?

These questions sometimes led to admiring but critical readings of The Making. However, it really was Thompson’s original unease about universalistic and schematic variants of Marxist sociology that gave some of us in India – I mean myself and my colleagues in the Indian project of Subaltern Studies – the spiritual and intellectual courage we needed to stage a full-blooded rebellion against what we saw as stultifying aspects of much that passed in India as Marxist history. But that is a different story. What I want to do in this brief tribute to someone I consider one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century is to read again Thompson’s Preface to the first edition of The Making with an eye on the unease that I have already mentioned. The unease I speak of was writ large on the entire body of this preface.

One can only note with a sense of irony today that Thompson was actually unhappy with the title of what turned out to be his most successful book. Yet few titles have been as popular in academic historiography of the twentieth century: which other title has been more copied, echoed, emulated, and remembered than The Making? In the 1970s and 80s scores of historians wrote up accounts...

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