Thursday, 15 November 2012

The causes of E. P. Thompson

The ‘mature’ political and historical career of Edward Thompson began in 1956, when he launched a public, and at times bitter, struggle against Stalinism in politics, in Marxist theory and in history. ‘I commenced to reason in my thirty-third year,’ he wrote of that turning point.[1] In politics, Thompson set out to construct a libertarian, humanist communism, and to involve himself in a series of struggles, most notably against the spread of nuclear weapons. In history and theory, he challenged the tendency of both Stalinism and bourgeois sociology to reify human relations,[2] and fought to ‘restore to Marxism its commitment to the concrete struggles of actual men and women’,[3] as against the Stalinist tendency to treat people as the stupid instruments of the forces of production.

This project led Thompson to re-examine the process of historical causation. In his histories, he looked at the process by which the English working class was formed (and formed itself) as a class, and then went backwards to look at various aspects of the development of capitalism in the eighteenth century, and the plebeian resistance to it. In his theoretical writing, Thompson began by rejecting Marx’s notion of base and superstructure as ‘a bad and dangerous model, since Stalin used it not as an image of men changing in society, but as a mechanical model, operating semi-automatically and independently of conscious human agency.’[4] He launched his polemics against Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn for their schematic approach to English history and their dismissal of the radical traditions of the English working class, and against the anti-humanist structuralism of their intellectual mentor, Louis Althusser.[5] For much of his career, Thompson wrote as a Marxist and a revolutionary opponent of capitalism. Anderson, Nairn and some other Marxists arguedthat Thompson’s theory and his history was ‘culturalist’, anti-theoretical and built around a subjective redefinition of categories such as class.[6]

For Thompson, history was the history of class struggle, and the class struggle in its various forms was overwhelmingly the subject of his histories.[7] Society changed because class struggle took place and changed it, not always for the better. The theme running through The Making of the English Working Class is the way a distinctively working class movement, built upon organisations of mutual aid and with a new and distinctive class consciousness, emerged from political and economic struggles between 1790 and 1832. The essays making up Customs in Common look at the growing polarisation between patricians and plebs, the fights over enclosure of the common lands, the attempts to enforce the imperatives of the commercial grain market against those who insisted on feeding the local community in times of dearth, and the gradual imposition of a time-conscious work discipline on rural labourers and factory workers.

These class struggles are driven in considerable part by conflicting material interest. In searching for the reasons behind the sudden declaration of fifty new capital offences in England in 1723, Thompson finds an eruption of ‘class war’ in the forests of East Berkshire and Hampshire. He therefore begins Whigs and Hunters by teasing out the rival claims for the use of forest resources between the declining gentry and yeoman class of the long-established forest communities, and the newly rich landowners and lords (temporal and ecclesiastical) who asserted their right to graze their deer unimpeded in ‘their’ forests. Also involved was a struggle over the legal and ideological bases of economic life as ‘non-monetary use rights were being reified into capitalist property rights’[8]. The long tradition of communal access to the forests, regulated by local forest courts was being overturned by those who benefited from the new commercial approach that saw property (including the forest) as private, to be ruthlessly used in personal self-advancement. This was an attitude shared by the new-rich landowners and the forest officials they appointed, who set out to monopolise the forest for themselves. [9]

The significance of this method is that it really does put human beings at the centre of ‘making history’. Social development is shaped by the outcome of these struggles, and this is never predetermined. Instead, the result of any conflict is influenced by a range of factors: the economic ‘weight’ and political strength of the rival classes, their internal solidarity, the cohesion provided by commonly held ideas, the strength of their leadership and their ability to make common cause with other classes or elements in society or alternatively the degree to which they are internally divided, enervated by traditions of deference, badly led or isolated. For Thompson, the history of actual class struggles can neither be unravelled nor understood without concrete analysis, and attempts to short-circuit this ‘end up by explaining nothing.’[10] Thus we find him insisting that ‘every real historical situation’ arises ‘from a particular equilibrium of forces,’[11] and that concrete analysis of the various competing forces, and the particular equilibrium of forces at key moments, play a major role in his histories.

In Whigs and Hunters, this is evident at many levels. A localised rebellion gave rise to a turning point in English law because the king’s deer were involved, because Walpole, a new Prime Minister was eager to consolidate his power, because the authority of the government was undermined at a moment when it had become tenuous as a result of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. Thompson also speculated that it was the collapse of the Bubble that had impoverished many of the forest gentry and made desperate their struggle to defend traditional usages. On another plane, the ‘Black Act’ crystallised the prior development of a ‘Whig state of mind’ that saw defence of property as the highest duty of the state, to the point where human life itself had been severely devalued. So when the immediate crisis in the forests passed, the 1723 ‘Black’ Act was entrenched in English law, its already wide scope extended. At another level again, the skilful politician Walpole used or manufactured Jacobite conspiracies with links to the Blacks to bind Parliament and the ruling class more firmly behind his new laws.[12] Thus a turning point in legal history arose from both the prior development of capitalist relations, and the particular conjunction of economic and political circumstances and the way people fought out their rival claims. This ‘victory’ for England’s capitalists became an element in shaping the future, as it was then used for another hundred years to terrorise those who lacked sufficient respect for property.[13]

However, a focus on class struggle by itself is not enough to ensure that the making of history is understood as the work of ‘men’ (to paraphrase Marx). The combination of Weberian sociology, Second International Marxism and Stalinism had transformed class into a static sociological structure into which people were duly slotted according to occupation, which then obediently produced (in the ‘Marxist’ variant) class struggle. The efforts of ordinary men and women to understand and change their world are written out of such an approach. Thompson set out to write them back in; indeed to put them at the centre of our understanding of class and class struggle. He did this in The Making of the English Working Class. He began with a short, but very pointed polemic against those who saw class as a ‘thing’, a static ‘structure’, defined by relations of production, arguing instead that class could only really be understood as a relationship between people that becomes apparent to them over time as they find themselves engaged in struggle alongside other people with whom they begin to feel, and then understand, an identity of interests as against others.

The making of the English working class involved, for Thompson, the transformation of a disparate layer of wage earning artisans and labourers, who identified predominantly with their separate trades and the struggle against the landed interest, into a class, singular, involving widespread identification of a common class interest, in open conflict with its symbiotic rival, the class of (especially manufacturing) employers, and the government. There are, in fact, a number of transformations or ‘makings’ involved here. There are new forms of class struggle; the strike, trade union, and radical press which tend to replace the ‘food riot’ and other plebeian mass actions. There is a profound ideological shift, from the radical constitutionalism of the 1790s, the retreat into Methodism, and then Owenism and quasi socialist political economy. Dramatically changed too are class alignments, the methods and scale of production, economic relations, the size and nature of the new factory labour force, and finally the depth of class divisions. A modest revolutionary current centred on London artisans in the 1790s is transformed, by 1830, through repression, exploitation and struggle, into a widespread determination across the broad working class to overthrow the existing order. Much of Thompson’s book is aimed at explaining and documenting the growth in revolutionary temper of the English working class.

The overall transformation of class relations was only in modest part a product of changed methods of production and changed economic relations. One of the central arguments of The Making of the English Working Class is the role played by the growing rapprochement between the landed gentry and manufacturers after the hostilities of 1792, when many manufacturers supported the reform agitation. These two classes were pushed together by their mutual ‘counter-revolutionary panic’ in the face of the French revolution and its English echoes, and, Thompson argues, this in turn expressed itself in every aspect of social life. The Combination Acts of 1799-1800 repressed both Jacobin conspiracies and trade union attempts to raise wages, further cementing the ruling class alliance and the alienation of working people from both their economic and political rulers. Napoleon’s self-installation as emperor saw former Jacobin-baiters appealing to English Jacobins to support the new war against France as lovers of liberty.[14]

The repeal of most paternalist legislation, one of the main hegemonic mechanisms of gentry ‘leadership’, allowed free rein to the employers, and again profoundly alienated wide layers of the working class. Thompson sees the class struggles of Luddism as one of the results.[15] And the challenge of Luddism, the inability of the magistrates and armed forces to penetrate and destroy Luddism, and the successful armed defence of the Rawfolds factory by the mill owner, further illustrated their mutual dependence and cemented a growing partnership. ‘But what brought emotional reconciliation to the properties classes brought profounder antagonism between them and the working classes.’[16] The old means of resistance, for example, the defence of traditional use rights and customary prices, the petitioning of parliament, had become anachronistic. Trade unionism was the one working class response which survived and flourished because in the environment of the factory and workplace community it was just possible to sustain and protect illegal unions whereas insurrectionary conspiracies culminated in the disastrous Pentridge rising of 1817. Friendly societies also emerged ‘in response to certain common experiences,’[17] and in turn stimulated trade unionism. In trade union politics, William Sewell sees a dual transformation. Collectivism was generalised from narrow individual trade union solidarity to all workers; while in the radical republican tradition, which had established roots amongst London artisans in the 1790s, the central role of private property was challenged in favour of collective aims. The result was a view of political rights being due to those who laboured, rather than those who owned property. These new ideas proved to be ‘remarkably durable’.[18] The English working class was in considerable part made by, and in response to, the united ruling class offensive it faced.

A critical element in Thompson’s account, and in all his history, is the part played by human experience. He rejected the idea that social being determined consciousness as mechanical and false, and instead posed a more mediated, though still materially based relationship.

Changes take place within social being, which give rise to changed experience: and this experience is determining, in the sense that it exerts pressures upon existent social consciousness, proposes new questions... [it] walks in without knocking at the door, and announces deaths, crises of subsistence, trench warfare, unemployment, inflation, genocide. People starve: their survivors think in new ways about the market. People are imprisoned: in prison they meditate in new ways about the law. In the face of such general experiences old conceptual systems may crumble and new problematics insist upon their presence.[19]


[1] E.P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 1.

[2] Ibid, p. 271.

[3] David McNally, ‘E. P. Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism’ in International Socialism (London), No 61, (Winter 1993), p. 76.

[4] Cit, Harvey Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis, Polity Press, London, 1984, p. 172.

[5] These were ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ and ‘The Poverty of Theory’, both published in E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978.

[6] Tom Nairn quoted in 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. 46.

[7] This is also the theme of Harvey Kaye’s analysis; see Harvey Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis, Polity Press, London, 1984, p. 173.

[8] E. P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990, p. 244.

[9] The criticism of culturalism is rejected by, among others, Keith McClelland, William Sewell, Ellen Meiksens Wood, Harvey Kaye and Bryan Palmer

[10] E.  P. Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ in EP Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 48.

[11] Ibid, p. 45, ‘Patricians and Plebs’ in E. P. Thompson Customs in Common, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993, p. 93.

[12] This analysis is spelled out in the Chapter, ‘The Politics of the Black Act’, E.P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990, pp. 190-218. See also the brief discussion of ‘causation’ on p. 214.

[13] Ibid, pp. 245, 255.

[14] E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 495-6.

[15] Ibid, pp. 600-601.

[16] Ibid, pp. 613-614.

[17] Ibid, p. 462.

[18] 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, pp. 70-71.

[19] E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, pp. 200-201.

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