Penn State

Andrew G. August - professor of history, Penn State Abington

Book Title: The Making of the English Working Class

Author: E. P. Thompson

Book Description:

The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson stands among the foundation texts for what was called at the time the “New Social History.” Dedicated to redirecting historical research away from institutions and high politics and creating a new “history from below,” Thompson and his colleagues inspired a generation of historians (including myself). Even in light of methodological and theoretical turns in historical study over the last forty years, the questions and concerns Thompson raised over four decades ago remain compelling.

The Making of the English Working Class makes specific arguments about the English poor in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Thompson traces how the English poor transformed into a new working class. He examines their cultural heritage and the experiences of industrial change and political exclusion. Though pathbreaking and important, these insights are, perhaps, less important in shaping the influence of this work than are Thompson’s theoretical approach and his attitude toward his subjects.

Thompson forged an approach to social history that transcended the narrow materialism of some of his Marxist colleagues. His Marxism was nuanced; it recognized the importance of both culture and structure. For Thompson, culture was not simply a superstructural epiphenomenon. It had its own logic, historical dynamic and influence. Class developed out of the experiences (including culture) of men and women living in societies characterized by inequities of power and wealth.

Even more inspiring to many historians is Thompson’s approach to his subjects. In a famous passage from The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson expressed his intention “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity” (Vintage ed, p. 12). Succeeding historians have built on this notion, applying it to women, victims of imperialism, and oppressed people throughout history.

In its nuanced theory, its impressive argument and, most importantly, its commitment to the dignity and agency of the impoverished and oppressed, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class has had a profound influence on my scholarly work.

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