restricted access Looking Back and Ahead
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Looking Back and Ahead

The 1963 publication of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class constituted a major event in social science and historical scholarship. By placing class struggle squarely at the center of social development, Thompson effectively undermined the underlying economism of modernization theory and reigning interpretations of the industrial revolution – cotton mill = new industrial society – in one fell swoop. Writing at a moment of welfare state expansion and relative labour peace, his emphasis on the moral economy of the working class generated enormous excitement in writing history “from below,” resulting in important reinterpretations of slave resistance, the role of peasantries in twentieth-century anti-colonial and national liberation struggles, the centrality of women in all such social movements, and the conditions in which solidarities across class, gender, racial, and ethnic lines may coalesce or fragment. No mean feat in the usually staid world of academia.

For my generation of anthropologists embarking on graduate training during the 1980s – the tumultuous first decade of the neoliberal political reign – The Making remained a seminal text, but received a more divided reception. Some celebrated it as an inaugural text of the cultural turn, which early on privileged populist cultural politics over class struggle.1 The political economists among us, myself included, were rather more skeptical of certain aspects of Thompson’s national and cultural emphases, even as we celebrated his intense focus on historical struggle. It was the unmaking of national working classes and the intensifying globalization of labour processes that demanded our attention. Many of us thus turned to alternative world-historical anthropologies, especially those created by Eric R. Wolf, Sidney W. Mintz, and Cedric J. Robinson2 in the first half of that decade. In our search for usable histories that helped make sense of the mounting worldwide assault on labour, we found the quite different historical foci and analyses of such authors linked by a common thread. Europe and the People Without History, Sweetness and Power, and Black Marxism seemed congruent in a common theoretical conclusion that spatially distinct and differently classified labouring populations were the conjoined products of global processes of uneven proletarianization.

This collective conclusion raised a couple of fundamental questions, which continue to generate discussion some three decades on. What were the [End Page 229] implications of their emphasis on the globalized “making” of distinct but interconnected labouring populations for our understanding of local and national working classes? Could we create parallel maps of labour’s political relations, imaginations, and possibilities across geographic space and social categories? I, along with many others of my generational cohort, found these questions compelling. They did not, however, mark the end of my engagement with The Making, but served to frame what I still consider to be an essential encounter with Thompson’s classic text.

Posing the first question was an important step in contextualizing national class formations within wider spatial fields. From this vantage point, the making of the English working class could not be separated as a distinct phenomenon from, at the very least, the inequalities produced and operating within the interconnected spaces of the British Empire. This was Robinson’s explicit rejoinder to Thompson, but implicit in both Wolf’s and Mintz’s accounts, as well. In this view, Thompson’s trilogy of community, class-consciousness, and class formation seems rather problematic. It’s easy enough to see how redrawing the external boundaries of community or expanding the geography of class-consciousness could radically alter our understanding of English working-class politics in early nineteenth-century England. To what extent, for example, did the slave rebellions within the British Empire or the transatlantic abolitionist movement influence English working-class consciousness? It is well known that the powerful abolitionist voices of Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass found a wide audience among working-class radicals during the period covered in The Making. But they were only the most well known of the Black mariners and dock workers who steadily made their way to London, which already served as the most important hub of the Black Atlantic. What kind of impact did these articulate proponents of universalism from below have on English working...

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