What is the significance of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class after a half-century of scholarship and change? To ask this question is, in large part, to ask where the project of social history is today. Thompson’s historical work, and The Making, in particular, was of course the cornerstone of a renewed working-class history, of history “from below” or “from the bottom up.” And Thompson’s reminder that class is relational, along with his insistence upon the importance of experience as the cradle of “the political and cultural expression of working-class consciousness,” have profoundly shaped the writing of social history more generally over the past fifty years.1
I first read parts of The Making in the early 1990s, as a Master’s student in History at Queen’s University in Kingston. I read the rest of it a couple of years later as a PhD student at York University in Toronto. Almost twenty years later, having recently reread the book in its entirety, I am struck by a number of things.
The first is the sheer pleasure of the read. Long, dense, detailed, even exhaustive, The Making is nonetheless a compelling story. Part of this is the pleasure that Thompson clearly takes in the telling detail, the poignant example, the anecdote full of significance. And the delight that he appears to take in language and words, reporting the existence of “colourful characters like Mudlarks, Scufflehunters, Bludgeon Men, Morocco Men, Flash Coachmen, Grubbers, Bear Baiters and Strolling Minstrels” (55) or anonymous letter-writers who signed their epistles “‘Mr. Pistol’, ‘Lady Ludd’, ‘Peter Plush’, ‘General Justice’, ‘Thomas Paine’, ‘A True Man’, ‘Eliza Ludd’, ‘No King’, ‘King Ludd’, and ‘Joe Firebrand’, with such addresses as ‘Robin Hoods Cave’ and ‘Sherwood Forest’.” (601n2) As Thompson remarks in his Bibliographical Note (833), he draws selectively on available manuscript sources. But he quotes them generously, providing readers with glimpses of the voices of a working class in the making. These quotations, the spelling often idiosyncratic, sometimes phonetic, are such that readers can almost hear these voices. I think, for instance, of the several-page-long quotation from “A Journeyman Cotton Spinner” (199–202), or the excerpts from anonymous threatening letters penned by Luddites: “I Ham going to inform you that there is Six Thousand men coming to you in Apral and then We Will go and Blow Parlement house up and Blow up all afour hus.” (714, 715) These quotations do provide what Arlette Farge would [End Page 241] describe, somewhat sceptically, as an “effet de réel.”2 But Thompson uses them, not to add a patina of authenticity, but to prove a point, to show resistance, to suggest alternate explanations. He reminds us that such quotations from the sources are essential because “without such detail, it is possible for the eye to pass over the phrase, ‘the decline of the handloom weavers’, without any realisation of the scale of the tragedy that was enacted.” (290) And he quotes these manuscript sources with affection, with empathy, often with humour.
This is not, however, a naive quoting of ‘workers’ voices.’ Thompson is nothing if not appropriately cautious about his sources. This is the second thing that struck me in rereading The Making – I hadn’t remembered all of the methodological discussion of the pitfalls and potential of the manuscript sources.3 This is perhaps because I first read the book as a student, whereas I read it now as someone who teaches. Words, Thompson reminds us, must be “critically fumigated” (493) if they are to be useful for the historian. Often, of course, these methodological discussions serve to cast doubt upon previous interpretations, notably those belonging to what Thompson calls “the empiricist orthodoxy” (196), a reliance upon cost-of-living series and trade cycles; Thompson argues, convincingly, that “we cannot make an average of well-being.” (231). He reminds us of the partial and fragmentary nature of some of these accounts – but without concluding that they are meaningless. And, equally important, without concluding that they could mean anything – this is...