The Making of the English Working Class and Social Movement Studies Fifty Years Later

By Michael McQuarrie (guest Contributing Editor)

The Making of the English Working ClassIn 1963 an obscure Marxist press published The Making of the English Working Class by Edward Palmer Thompson, an adult educator and one of the intellectual founders of the British New Left. By the time Thompson died thirty years later, Eric Hobsbawm, Thompson’s one-time colleague in the post-war Communist Writers Group, noted that he was one of the 250 most-cited authors of all time and was the most-cited 20th-century historian in the world.

The book is epic in scope. Thompson traverses the period between 1789 and 1832 to recover popular traditions and the gradual formation of working-class consciousness. It is an original and much needed account of the industrial revolution from the perspective of the English people. The Making transformed the discipline of history and influenced the post-sixties generation of historical sociologists as they rebelled against the consensus and modernizing theories that had dominated sociology. In the golden anniversary year of its publication, reassessments of the book and its author were commonplace in the British press. In contrast, Thompson and the book are mostly forgotten in American sociology. Why?

A few key claims held together the sprawling narrative. First, the collective subjectivity that was being created was working class. Second, class is primarily defined in terms of identity and consciousness, not structural position. Third, class formation depends on “experience,” by which Thompson meant the experience of exploitation and political contention, but more importantly, the cultural framework through which those experiences were understandable and meaningful. Finally, Thompson makes a methodological argument about the importance of “recovery”—if we are to appreciate the importance of history’s losers we must actively endeavor to recover the possibility in their activity in order to appreciate it as a reasonable response to crisis rather than as a deluded struggle against a historical transformation which, in retrospect, was inevitable. Based on this, Thompson argues that English democracy was saved from the depredations of elites by the working class even though it lost its struggle against capitalism.

Most of these arguments were directed against Stalinists, structural academic Marxists, and professional British historians who narrated the industrial revolution based on material standards of living. But Thompson’s opponents were different from those of American social movement and historical sociologists in the 1970s and 1980s. The latter were grappling with Parsons, modernization theory, positivism, and a hostility to interpretation. With such opponents Thompson’s arguments about class and agency were mostly beside the point.

Thompson’s recovery of popular culture and tradition argued for a practically-reasonable account of contentious action that gave full rein to emotion, tradition, and the uglier side of working-class collective action. In contrast, in the United States coping with established collective behavior theories put the emphasis on the strategic rationality of social movement actors. Likewise, Thompson’s insistence on the “discipline of historical context” in recovering popular traditions and practices stood in the way of generalizing from cases to concepts and theories. While Thompson’s approach and insights, particularly his emphasis on writing history “from below”, certainly influenced some social movements scholars like Charles Tilly, Aldon Morris, Ronald Aminzade, Craig Calhoun, and William Sewell, the development of social movement theory and method moved against the grain of The Making, becoming more abstract, generalizable, elite-centric, and resting on a strategically-rational account of action.

Given the relatively poor fit between Thompson’s central claims in The Making and the needs of historical and social movement sociologists, is there any reason for sociologists to reconsider The Making today? I think there are three such reasons. First, Thompson’s recovery of popular practices and discourses shifts our understanding of class dominance and hegemony from one that paralyzes people except in moments of “political opportunity” to one that sees elite dominance as provisional and contingent. Of course, popular political culture today doesn’t have much in common with early nineteenth-century England, but a similar point is made, albeit abstractly, by critical theorists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Second, Thompson’s account of action shares much in common with Bourdieu’s (indeed, they seemed to regard one another highly). The difference is that Thompson was dismissed by critics for being overly voluntaristic while Bourdieu was criticized for overemphasizing reproduction and hegemony. When we view them together, it is possible to see that neither voluntarism nor determination are necessarily outcomes of an analytical emphasis on practical action. Third, Thompson’s title indicates an important theoretical and historical argument. The working class was “made” through the action of the working class itself. It built institutions, networks, discourses, repertoires, and practices that eventually permeated the whole of British society. Class society and indeed democratic society were likewise created through working class action. There was no prior model for this; it was an act of collective popular creativity. We rarely treat popular politics as having this sort of creative potential, much less analyze these emergent qualities. In a moment when politics seems so devoid of democratizing potential we could do worse than recall that it was not always so.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Making of the English Working Class and Social Movement Studies Fifty Years Later

  1. Pingback: The Making of the English Working Class Fifty Years Later | expat sociology

  2. Michael Schwartz

    I think that McQuarrie is underestimating the impact of Thompson’s work on social movement theory and also understating its relevance to current analysis. McQuarrie says this about its impact:

    “While Thompson’s approach and insights, particularly his emphasis on writing history “from below”, certainly influenced some social movements scholars like Charles Tilly, Aldon Morris, Ronald Aminzade, Craig Calhoun, and William Sewell, the development of social movement theory and method moved against the grain of The Making.”

    The scholars he lists are central figures in the area and he might well have listed 10 others similarly influenced. But more important is that these scholars and many others projected the primary thrust of Thompson–the primacy of social movements in creating society-wide social change–into the center of social movement theory.

    McQuarrie asserts that the Thompsonian emphasis was lost, and that the current trend is toward a “more abstract, generalizable, elite-centric, and resting on a strategically-rational account of action.” I don’t disagree that there are such trends in current SM theorizing, but only the “elite-centric” tendency contradicts the fundamentals of Thompsonian analysis–and that trend is by no means dominant. In fact, elite-centrism is currently losing ground in social movement theory, drowned in the sea of studies that speak exactly to Thompson’s “bottom-up” emphasis on the agency of mass based social movements

    I think it is particularly important to correct McQuarrie’s implication that Thompson’s view contradicts at “strategically rational account of action.” While Thompson was instrumental in laying to rest the mechanical materialist theories of class struggle in favor of a dialectical materialist viewpoint that including emotion and culture in his analysis, he was also a relentless adversary of the “short-circuited thinking” stance of the collective behavior school. To Thompson, the making of the British working class (or any large mass movement) was a sensible attempt to address complex difficulties, and not the expression of irrational or arational impulses, whatever their origin. (To see this clearly, read his treatment of role of Methodism in 19th century England)

    On the question of current relevance, I think that McQuarrie should give more emphasis to his defense of Thompson’s enduring usefulness, especially this comment:

    “The working class was “made” through the action of the working class itself. It built institutions, networks, discourses, repertoires, and practices that eventually permeated the whole of British society.”

    Social movement theory has embraced Thompson’s insistence on searching for the agency of subaltern classes, but we have not done enough in understanding their role in building enduring institutions (long enduring SM organizations, counter institutions, third parties etc), in creating new discourses (though there is some good work on Occupy Wall Street in this regard, and don’t forget framing theory), and repertoires (we have a good start in looking at social movement repertoires, but enough of not the Thompsonian interest in social movements as a vehicle for developing democratic practices in the society as a whole)

    So McQuarrie is right that we still have much to learn from Thompson. And I think that, after 50 years, The Making of the English Working Class will continue to be read, digested, and used by social movement scholars, perhaps on a newly upward trajectory.

  3. Schwartz rejects my assertion that much of Thompson’s approach ran against the direction of social movement theorizing as it developed in the 1970s and 1980s, in particular with regards to Thompson’s account of action and the issue of generalizability and abstraction. I briefly respond to these criticisms here (more to come).
    On generalizability, Thompson regularly invoked what he came to call the “discipline of historical context” as an essential part of historical interpretation and, more importantly, as an essential corrective to theoretical abstraction and sociological generalization. The point is made repeatedly in his historical, theoretical, and political writing. It is absolutely central to sustain the claims he makes in The Making against the usual narratives of professional historians, Fabian and liberal historians (who otherwise offered up very similar accounts), and against Marxists who had traditionally viewed the movements he analyzed as “petit-bourgeois.” He invoked it against Marxist structuralism of various types, against sociological generalization–including the sort of conceptualization that developed in political process theory, for example–and against teleological accounts of class formation. This is why some of his Marxist opponents labelled him an “empiricist” in opposition to their “theoretical” (really abstract and general) inclinations.
    In addition to Thompson himself, McClellan and Calhoun, both pretty engaged critics, argue that this discipline is central to his thought. Moreover, this wasn’t simply off-hand methodological discussion, it was central to his conception of Marxism. Thompson always insisted on the importance and viability of the English Marxist tradition, not just in order to “recover” a class-conscious working class in an artisanal and populist movement, but in debates among the New Left and, in particular, in opposition to those who denigrated the British tradition and insisted on either more internationalist or more theoretical versions of Marxism. This is central to his thought and one of the issues that was most likely to prod him into polemics. It obviously mattered a lot.
    In terms of action Schwartz basically imagines two possibilities: either strategic rationality or irrationality (collective behavior). Yes, Thompson would never assert irrationality as an explanation of working class or plebeian (in the case of the 18th century) action. But to argue that he had a strategically rational account of action instead is equally misguided. Thompson basically saw the latter as a puffed up form of behaviorism and associated that with Stalinism. Understanding action necessitates the “discipline of historical context” precisely because it is practically reasonable. If action were strategic it wouldn’t require such labor to interpret and the book would probably be 200 pages long instead of 900.
    Thompson spends hundreds of pages in The Making reconstructing popular traditions, repertoires, solidaristic practices, and modes of authority to explain why what the working class did made sense to them, even if not to us. He recovers all of this to overcome the condescension of posterity–which comes from, among many other sources, assessing the English people according to a standard of strategic rationality (they were populist so they must be falsely conscious, they supported Queen Caroline rather than stage a revolution so they must be falsely conscious, etc. etc.). Thompson absolutely thought the strategic thing to do after Peterloo, for example, was to revolt, but he never asserts that the popular radicals were irrational for not doing so. Thompson studied wife sale, moral economy, and the Romantics; he celebrated William Cobbett and Major Cartwright as much as Richard Carlile, and in all of this he was probing the impact of tradition, emotion, and desire to show that it wasn’t deluded. In his political writings Thompson is also expansive about the political import of desire and emotion for Marxism. For some, like Perry Anderson, Thompson’s proclivity for this was an object of ridicule.
    This is what it means to write history “from the bottom up.” It is hard to do this, which is probably why I don’t find the same flood of Thompsonian writing in social movement sociology that Schwarz does. Finally, without this account of action, without an appreciation of all the creative work that had to be done to overcome the hysteresis capitalism created between received culture and the fact of exploitation and class conflict, the creativity entailed in making the English working class is rather empty, and without that the point of the book is lost.

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