Monday, 26 November 2012

Further causes of E. P. Thompson

Edward Thompson’s conceptualisation of experience is an important theoretical contribution in understanding history and in particular, the formation of class consciousness.[1] While the historical writing of Marx and Engels was generally subtle, the way they summarised the relationship between social being and consciousness was often crude or incomplete.  In practice, experience of the relations of production is continuous and its impact on consciousness on-going. But this does not mean it is predetermined since a specific form of exploitation does not automatically lead to a predetermined class consciousness. The working class is neither automatically revolutionary as a result of its position nor a helpless victim of the ideological dominance of its ruling class. ‘No ideology is wholly absorbed by its adherents: it breaks down in practice in a thousand ways under the criticism of impulse and of experience,’ Thompson observed.[2] At the same time, he vigorously rejected the notion that consciousness is independent of economics, posing the dialogue between social being and social consciousness as central to the historical process.[3]

Of all Thompson’s propositions, this is probably his most controversial. Critics commonly see Thompson collapsing both relations of production and actual consciousness into ‘experience’. It is forced to explain too much and its mediating role is consequently lost.[4]  Thompson may emphasise the experience of work and exploitation, of dealing with employers and merchants, but keeps distinct the real relations that generate the experience, for instance in his description of the reasons for child labour in the textile mills, of the forms of labour in cottage industry and also in his discussion of the way gluts were created to break the weavers’ resistance to price variation. Thompson also clearly distinguishes between experience and consciousness pointing out that the experience of workplace, friendly society and trade union solidarity invaded the chapel and affected workers’ religious ideas.

Perry Anderson argues that Thompson assumes that experience leads to actual (i.e. correct) knowledge, yet Thompson repeatedly points to the limits of experience--not only the farmers and sailors dealing mystified by kingship,[5] but the Methodism of the repressed English working class, and the way outworkers and artisans persisted with petitioning Parliament in spite of their’s and others’ experiences. Anderson also argues that experience is implicitly presented as the causal mechanism of history as a result of Thompson comparing it to Mendel’s genetics.[6] Yet Thompson rejected the idea of there being a causal mechanism or ‘motor’ to history.[7]

Thompson’s account of the weavers illustrates the way he combines a changed economic environment, consciousness, experience and class struggle to explain the destruction of a traditional artisan culture and the eventual development of a distinctive working class. These cottage industry artisans initially benefited from the industrial revolution as more and cheaper yarn led to a massive expansion in weaving. But this expansion soon saw them lose economic independence to the great clothiers who came to employ them, and who used this expansion to cut wages. This in turn drove each weaver to increase their own production, leading in turn to more savage wage cutting. The weavers fought this in the terms of their existing organisations and traditions. They petitioned parliament to legislate minimum wages, and its refusal led them responded with a massive strike, which was brutally suppressed. Among employers, magistrates and clergy, the conviction grew that poverty was essential to make people work hard and the experience of impoverishing the weavers may well have confirmed something which began as prejudice. Faced with a transformed industry and repression, their traditional craft unionism, with its emphasis on controlling the standards, prices, customs and even personnel of the trade, collapsed. The destruction of their industry by the power loom, from 1820, was the final step. Desperate poverty combined with the experience of parliamentary hostility and bloody repression to turn them from Church and King loyalism to machine breaking, mobilisation at Peterloo, Owenism and physical force Chartism. From proud participants in a narrow craft, they became an important part of a wider class with a common agenda for change and elements of a common consciousness.

There were others who were beginning to think and act in class ways, and one of the most important reasons was the existence and growth of an often illegal, radical press. The class struggle for a free press, free of taxes that make newspapers unaffordable to working men and women, is one of the most heroic episodes in the making of the English working class. Thompson’s emphasis on common experience in the formation of class is important, but it was the radical press that made England’s labourers aware that they shared a common situation with so many others. This is magnificently highlighted in Thompson’s short essay on William Cobbett’s journalism.[8]  Cobbett’s writing was very different from that of the essayist Hazlitt or the popular theorist Paine. His style was intimate, personal, immediate and concrete. Over more than two decades, his political articles appealed to experiences common to England’s labourers to make his points and to show in concrete terms that each individual’s situation was shared by others. His ‘extraordinary sureness of instinct...disclosed the real nature of changing relationships of production,’ Thompson wrote.[9] The ‘touchstone of his social criticism was the condition of the labouring man,’ a profoundly radical outlook, which, could lead, Thompson argues, ‘close to revolutionary conclusions.’[10] His writing ‘led outwards from the evidence of his senses to his general conclusions,’ an approach that was later to become a more conscious part of the revolutionary tradition. When Lenin discussed the Bolsheviks’ new newspaper Pravda in 1912, he observed that the many reports, written by workers themselves, about their lives, the abuses they faced, their opinions and how they were organising, were the raw material of experience from which wider political conclusions could be drawn.[11]  Alongside Cobbett there were a series of papers, writers and groups seeking ‘to render into theory the twin experiences...of the Industrial Revolution, and...popular Radicalism insurgent and in defeat.’[12] There were intense debates over Bentham, Malthus and Robert Owen, all educating a dispersed layer of working class activists who would help create the class consciousness and organise the struggles that would make ‘the working class presence...the most significant factor in British political life’ in 1832. ‘The experiences of the previous quarter-century had prepared men’s minds for what they now could read.’[13]

After writing The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson went backwards to the eighteenth century to study class relations: the nature of the part customary, part market economy, the struggles to defend it from deeper commercialisation, and the culture of the working classes. Most significantly, he presented these struggles as he had earlier presented Luddism, as rational and thought-out, not as the mindless conservatism of the ignorant. He was studying (and writing about) the class struggles that were ultimately to produce the decisive shifts of the 1790s.  He presents eighteenth century England as a society in which money has become of primary importance in economics and in political power, while for large numbers of lower gentry, yeomen, farming tenants and poor labourers, residual common use rights and community traditions remained of major importance, in their survival and their cultural life. The attack on these rights and the enclosure of the commons met sustained resistance, and obliged ‘agricultural improvers’ to develop an ideology to justify their theft: property no longer implied social obligations, but increasingly gave absolute rights to the possessor; the commons were ‘a hindrance to Industry, and...Nurseries of Idleness and Insolence’.[14] ‘Custom Law and Common Right’ describes some of the resistance (as indeed does Whigs and Hunters) from those poorer villagers who found their rights expropriated. Thompson sees in the prolonged process of enclosure, stretching well over a century, a measure of the tenacity (and also the localism) of that struggle. The law shifted its focus from the protection of the person to protecting property. The divisions between the classes grew.

The same process--the class struggle against paternalism and to impose commodification--was seen in food, as the marketing and consumption of grain was gradually separated from the community in which it had been grown. In ‘The Moral Economy of the Crowd’, Thompson describes this tension coming to a head in times of dearth, when villages expected ‘their’ grain to be available to feed them. He poses the organised food riot, when a community mobilised to use its force of numbers to impose an affordable price, as one of the characteristic forms of class struggle through the century.  In ‘Patricians and Plebs’, he describes the changing relationship between labourer and employer, as the old system of paternalist control over the whole life of the labourer was eroded. Marx wrote of the bourgeoisie putting ‘an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations’, leaving behind nothing more than a cash relationship.[15] In ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, he addresses the process by which employers of labour attempted to gain more production from employees. Work shifted from being task oriented to time oriented. The most interesting aspect is the description of employers experimenting with different forms of hire--day labour, by the hour--until they came up with the most profitable mix.

In these essays and in Whigs and Hunters as well, Thompson is studying the transition to capitalism. As he reminded us, the people he writes about did not see themselves as ‘transitional to anything’. They were incrementally changing and adapting: the law, relations with the labourers, the market system, property, even ideas of what was morally right. Thompson brings out the extent to which these changes were fought over. ‘The death of the old moral economy of provision was as long-drawn-out as the death of paternalist intervention in industry and trade,’ he wrote.[16] The relations of production of capitalism did not spring to life out of the steam engine or the mill; they were created gradually because they were resisted bitterly, and had to be fought for and imposed.  Nevertheless, there is a problem with Thompson’s narrative of class struggle: it is incomplete. We never find out why the differences involved between the classes cannot be settled by a greater measure of compromise, why the employers feel the need to push things so far, why the government feels confident it can engage in brutal repression. The economic imperatives facing the English working class are meticulously examined; not so the economic strengths of, or pressures facing, their employers, landowners and merchants.[17] This flies in the face of Thompson’s insistence on the mutuality of class. Why did Walpole and the Whigs face so little ruling class opposition to the substantial risk of passing the ‘Black Act’? Why did they prosecute the enclosures so slowly, while the tearing up of minimum wages is done abruptly? Were there not economic as well as ‘political’ reasons for the gradual rapprochement between manufacturers and the landowners and government which began in the 1790s and which so decisively shaped the circumstances in which the working class was ‘made’?  He is vague, too, about the nature of ruling class appropriation in Whigs and Hunters when he declares that it was ‘not clear what these [Whig] fortunes of thousands per annum rest upon’.[18] Even Bryan Palmer finds one discussion of ‘exploitation’ an ‘evasion’.[19] It is his failure to engage with the (changing) economic structure of production that makes ‘Patricians and Plebs’ one of his vaguer and less satisfactory articles.

Thompson’s stance also leads to a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to historical materialism itself. So much of Thompson’s polemic is directed against structuralism that he never gives us more than a truncated picture of what he actually sees as the relationship between the economic and ‘cultural’. The result in The Making of the English Working Class, argues Sewell, is that he assumes economic determinism ‘as a kind of unconscious rhetorical backdrop against which specific empirical accounts of working-class experience, agency and consciousness are placed,’ and that economic developments provide ‘a kind of hidden dynamo [that] propels the narrative in a certain direction.’[20]  The result is to make the economic changes appear ‘given’, inevitable, perhaps even natural--the opposite of Thompson’s intention. The flip side of his refusal to ‘privilege’ economics can be seen in Whigs and Hunters where we find him embracing the rule of law as ‘a cultural achievement of universal significance’ and ‘an unqualified human good.’[21] This comes at the end of his book, in a final, abstractly argued, ‘theoretical’ essay, which manages to contradict the evidence of the previous 238 pages. Instead of reifying the forces of production, he reifies the law.

Edward Thompson’s achievement impacted on the ways people study and think about history and historical change. He set out to show that the exploited and oppressed were makers of history through the class struggles they waged. By insisting on the need for concrete analysis of social forces, he underlined that nothing in history was inevitable, and that human society was created out of class struggle. In doing so, he challenged the view that capitalism developed peacefully in Britain and showed that the most fundamental of economic relations were themselves experimented with, and resisted, and made by people and over a long period of time. Wage labour and the alienation of what workers produce may seem ‘normal’ in western societies today; they did not in England in the eighteenth century. By focusing on experience he developed ‘an ability to reveal the logic of production relations...as an operative principle visible in the daily transactions of social life.’[22]


[1] See Ellen Meiksins Wood ‘The Politics of Theory and the Concept of Class: E.P. Thompson and His Critics’ in Studies in Political Economy: a socialist review, No 9, (Fall 1982), pp. 62, 58

[2] E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 431.

[3] For example, criticising Althusser for ignoring it, E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 201. See also E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, pp. 224-225, and ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ in E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 79 where he describes ‘dialectical intercourse between social being and social consciousness’ as being ‘at the heart of any comprehension of the historical process within the Marxist tradition.’

[4] William H, Sewell, ‘How Classes are Made: Critical Reflections on E. P. Thompson’s Theory of Working-class Formation’ in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, p. 60, Anderson and Johnson make similar points; Wood disagrees, see Ellen Meiksins Wood ‘The Politics of Theory and the Concept of Class: E.P. Thompson and His Critics’ in Studies in Political Economy: a socialist review, No 9, (Fall 1982), p. 58.

[5] Thompson’s example, E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 199.

[6] Perry Anderson Arguments within English Marxism, Verso, London, 1980, pp. 25-27, 28-29 and 79-83.

[7] E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, pp. 295-300.

[8] E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 820-837.

[9] Ibid, p. 834.

[10] Ibid, pp. 835-836.

[11] Lenin, VI, ‘The Workers and Pravda’ in Collected Works, Vol. 18, April 1912-March 1913, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1963, p. 300.

[12] E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 781.

[13] Ibid, p. 806.

[14] Cit, E. P. Thompson Customs in Common, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993, p. 165.

[15] In the Communist Manifesto, see Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, edited and introduced by Lewis S. Feuer, Collins, New York, 1969, p. 51.

[16] E. P. Thompson Customs in Common, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993, p. 253.

[17] This point is in part made by Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Falling Through the Cracks: E.P. Thompson and the Debate on Base and Superstructure: in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, pp. 125-152, p. 136.

[18] E.P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990, p. 245.

[19] Bryan D Palmer The Making of E. P. Thompson: Marxism, Humanism, and History, New Hogtown Press, Toronto, 1981, p. 124, footnote 4. The article is Thompson, E.P., ‘Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?’, Social History, vol. 3, (2), (1978), pp. 133-165.

[20] William H Sewell, ‘How Classes are Made: Critical Reflections on E.P. Thompson’s Theory of Working-class Formation’ in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, p. 57. Wood makes a similar point, in Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Falling Through the Cracks: E.P. Thompson and the Debate on Base and Superstructure: in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, p. 135.

[21] E.P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990, pp. 265, 266.

[22] Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Falling Through the Cracks: E.P. Thompson and the Debate on Base and Superstructure: in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, p. 142.

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