Here we are, once again, thinking about The Making of the English Working Class. It brings to mind the Beatles’ lyric, “Let’s all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your Mother was born.” Certainly, for my generation of left-leaning historians these musings could get pretty nostalgic. But what, beyond a trip down social history’s memory lane, compels us to return to Thompson’s classic? Of course, there are many reasons to think seriously about a book that influenced a generation of readers. But when does such a work slip across a line that separates the present from the past? If one now reads Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?, R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self, or perhaps Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, most probably it is to learn about the by-gone Sixties. The Making, as it became known, can and should be read as a product of its day, as a political intervention, and above all as a book that inspired the wave of “history from below.” But Thompson’s book is also more.
Elsewhere I have suggested what might be gained by revisiting an earlier concept of “culture” associated with Thompson and Raymond Williams as historians moved “beyond” the cultural or linguistic turn.1 As for language, one is still struck by Thompson’s imaginative understanding. In writing about religious “imagery,” he commented: “when we speak of ‘imagery’ we mean much more than the figures of speech in which ulterior motives are ‘clothed’. The imagery is itself evidence of powerful subjective motivations, fully as ‘real’ as the objective, fully as effective … in their historical agency. It is a sign of how men felt and hoped, loved and hated, and of how they preserved certain values in the very texture of their language.”2 In a lecture marking the thirtieth anniversary of the book’s publication, Carolyn Steedman quoted this same passage to illustrate the sort of attention historians needed to pay “to the materiality of the written word” in order to think about “other knowledges, other consciousnesses, in the making of the English working class.”3 On re-reading the book one comes across such passages that have not fully registered before; The Making retains a capacity to surprise the reader with a fresh invitation to reflection.
If asked to choose one might argue that the book’s key chapter and driving concept is that of exploitation, seen as inseparable from class. Chapter six, [End Page 224] entitled simply “Exploitation,” opens Part Two of The Making, “The Curse of Adam,” consisting of a series of chapters that address the experience of work and community during England’s industrial revolution. A short chapter in a long book, “Exploitation” includes some of the book’s more striking passages; for example, the work’s central proposition, “Nevertheless, when every caution has been made the outstanding fact of the period between 1790 and 1830 is the formation of the ‘working class’” – revealed first in terms of “class consciousness,” or a feeling of identity among diverse groups of workers, and second, in the growth of “corresponding forms of political and industrial organization.” (194) Over these decades, there developed deeply rooted working-class institutions, intellectual traditions, community-patterns, and what Thompson termed “a working-class structure of feeling” (a construction adopted from Williams). The next paragraph concludes with a classic assertion of agency: “The working class made itself as much as it was made.” (194) Thompson throws down the gauntlet, challenging both the empiricism of economic history and the mechanistic orthodoxy of post-war Marxism. It was the felt experience of “economic exploitation and of political oppression” out of which workers mobilized a movement opposed to the reactionary state apparatus and the new industrial order. The “transparency of the process of exploitation” served to unite workers across diverse regions and forms of employment. Thompson brilliantly elucidates a process whereby the diversity of working-class experience assumed a recognizable coherence, generating common feelings of “unfreedom” and intensified exploitation.
For Marx exploitation derived from the process...