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.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Making planning easier or how to circumvent democracy?

We’re in a war or at least the economic equivalent of one, according to the Prime Minister.  He cites the Second World War when ‘normal rules were circumvented’ and everything was thrown at the one aim of defeating Nazism.  So his plan is that ministers will cut down on the ‘time-wasting’ he sees as legally challenging government policy.  The legal right to a judicial review of decisions, especially for major infrastructure projects has, he maintains, grown out of control and needs to be scaled back largely because it either delays or prevents things getting done.  So his plan is to reduce the three month limit in which people can apply for judicial review and charge more for reviews to prevent objectors bringing ‘hopeless cases’ to review.
The Prime Minister may be right to raise this issue given the burgeoning number of applications for judicial review: in 1975, there were 160 but by 2011 this had increased to more than 11,000 but three quarters of these were in immigration and asylum cases anyway.  The critical question is whether this increase in judicial review  has contributed to the government being ‘too slow in getting stuff done’ whether he is right that  ‘Consultations, impact assessments, audits, reviews, stakeholder management, securing professional buy-in, complying with EU procurement rules, assessing sector feedback--this is not how we became one of the most powerful, prosperous nations on earth’ .  There is an important balance in a democratic society between the need for any government to govern and the right of people to object to the policies that the government is pursuing and the Prime Minister is suggesting that the balance has shifted too far towards the right to object. 
All of this is to do with how best to stimulate the economy—the war that Cameron says we must win if we are to retain our economic global influence and prevent Britain sleepwalking into EU exit.  This may well be how the war looks from the bunkers of the generals but what about the cannon-fodder that appears to be the rest of us?  Stimulating the economy by making it easier for business to do things may well have a beneficial effect on the rank-and-file by providing much needed employment and hence taxation to address the country’s deficit but at what cost?  If you take two areas of policy—the need for additional airport space and the question of nuclear power as a means of addressing energy security—both are issues that will be vigorously contested but are also questions that need quick resolution largely because of the length of time they will take to implement.  These are projects of national importance so should a small number of objectors (small that is relative to the nation’s population) be allowed to hold things up?  David Cameron would argue that they should not: they should have to right to object but once their objections have been heard (and presumably rejected) the projects should go ahead.  I suspect that nationally there would be few objections to this stance; people are concerned about energy security especially where it relates to rising fuel prices and large infrastructure projects would create jobs especially if they were situated in areas of endemic unemployment.  The question in a democracy is when is it acceptable to run rough-shod over the views of the minority for the benefit of the majority and who decides?  The answer, of course, is precisely those institutions and processes that the Prime Minister thinks should be truncated. 
It would be much easier if Britain was not a democracy.  The government could decide policy and implement it whether people agreed or not.  But then we would not be a democratic society in which the right to be heard and to object to policies you disagree with is fundamental.  Democracy can be annoying, often inefficient and certainly from the political classes’ point of view frustrating but that’s the point of it!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Legitimacy, authority and elections

That the turnout for the election of police and crime commissioners is so low is hardly a surprise.  It has been talked up by the government over the past few weeks though I suspect that there was the hope that the figure would get over 20 per cent.  Early indications are that the government will not even achieve this and the blame game has already begun.  Apparently it was the media’s fault—insufficient coverage and a failure to get across what the elections were about.  Absolute nonsense…in my authority we received mailshots from all candidates and anyway there was widespread and effective coverage on the BBC website and through local television and radio.  The government may be right that in the next elections (to be held in May not on a dank November day) there may be an increased participation by the electorate as it gets to see what the police commissioners can do.  However, attempts to portray this as a victory for democracy are decidedly misplaced.  Those elected may have legitimacy but their authority to act is seriously compromised.  How could a police commissioner elected on less than ten per cent of the vote sack a chief constable or have the authority to push through unpopular changes? 

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Why so few people used their votes is not difficult to explain.  The number of people voting in national and local elections has been declining since the 1950s though this has accelerated in recent decades.  The responsibility of individuals to vote appears to have gone out of fashion.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, as all political parties have become centrist in their aspirations so the differences between them have lessened: what people say is that it doesn’t matter who you elect, you get the same thing.  While this may not be true, it is increasingly how people view political parties and the non-ideological focus of much politics means that political parties often do not differ on the principle merely the details.  Secondly, there is an intense mistrust of politicians that predated the MPs’ expenses scandal but was intensified by it.  We simply do not trust politicians who say or promise one thing and then do another and generally fail to justify why to people’s satisfaction.  This is not helped when politicians make decisions that the public regard as simply unfair.  Take, for instance, the reduction of the upper level of income tax from 50p.  Although this may have made sound economic sense, in the minds of those on lower incomes it appeared simply to  advantage the richer at the expense of the poorer shattering any belief people ever had (if they ever did) in the notion of everyone being in this together and has proved a public relations disaster.

It may be true that turnout for elections for police commissioners will improve once the innovation is bedded in but I have my doubts.  Despite the protestations that the new positions are non-partisan and that those elected will act on behalf of the whole community (which they must if they want to be re-elected), there are grave concerns about how far their election will result in an even more politicised approach to policing.  It remains to be seen whether this will be the case but it does reflect an intense suspicion of constitutional change in this country and rightfully so.  Constitutional change is frequently introduced by political parties to advantage their own position at the expense of other political parties and often at the expense of the electorate.  Yet the one issue on which there would be widespread public involvement—a referendum of the European Union—has been denied by successive governments for reasons that are often specious and almost always politically motivated.  There is a growing chasm between the political classes and the public across Britain that these elections have served to heighten and a belief that politicians, of whatever hue, are only ever willing to allow people to vote on issues that they known they will win or that they are not too committed to and are prepared to lose simply to show that they do listen to the people.  In democracies, election provides those elected with legitimacy, a mandate to act but low turnout removed the authority they need to carry out that mandate.

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.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the BBC in crisis

I have resisted the temptation to comment on the current debacle at the BBC for two reasons.  I have always had considerable respect for the organisation but also because I have an intense dislike of feeding frenzies and comment in the media over the past month or so has increasingly resembled sharks circling a fatally wounded seal.  George Entwistle is undoubtedly the most unfortunate media mogul I can remember.  With a long and distinguished record with the BBC, his appointment as Director-General was almost universally welcomed and yet, after 54 or 55 days in post, having been hit not by one but two perfect media storms, he took the honourable course and fell on his own sword.  This morning's ‘stepping aside’ by Helen Boaden and her deputy—I suspect others will follow—demonstrates that the crisis in the BBC (and it is a crisis) is one of bloated, largely unaccountable management rather than poor journalism (though this was also the case with the North Wales child abuse issue).

The Director-General would probably have survived the decision not to air the Jimmy Savile programme last year on Newsnight.  His defence of the decision before the House of Commons Media Select Committee was hardly his finest hour—his answers were weak and often evasive and appeared to rely on the somewhat worn formula that he did not really know about the proposed programme—but he did act fairly promptly and set up an inquiry to ascertain the rationale behind the decision not to air.  The media has juxtaposed this decision with the broadcasting of fulsome tribute programmes on Savile over Christmas 2011: it would not have been possible to broadcast both and the Newsnight programme would have meant changes to the Christmas schedule.  By juxtaposing the two, it becomes easy for critics to suggest, largely without any evidence to back it up, that the Newsnight programme was sacrificed because of the tributes.  I’ve always thought this was an incredibly weak argument as the BBC changes its schedules with relative ease on other occasions. That Newsnight decided not to broadcast its findings may have been a poor editorial position—but perhaps poor only in retrospect. 

The North Wales care home programme is another matter.  After the Savile controversy, was this a case of getting a hard-hitting programme on child abuse out before the opposition?  One of the first things prospective journalists are told is ‘check your sources’ and yet this is what apparently experienced journalists and editors abjectly failed to do.  A simple phone call to the ‘leading Tory minister of the Thatcher era’ or showing his photograph to the witness would have simply settled the matter and yet for some unaccountable reason no one thought to do this. Perhaps they thought that by not naming him, there would be no problem but even the most green journalist would have realised that this would lead to a rabid and rapid response from the social network media.  It was his flaccid response on the Today programme on Saturday to this that led to Entwistle’s resignation twelve hours later. 

It is important, I think, to see the decision not to broadcast the Savile investigation and broadcast the North Wales programme in context.  The first decision is defensible and is only judged (possibly) as erroneous in retrospect; the second has no defence at all.  This does not mean that all BBC investigative journalism is suspect as some in the media have suggested.  What it does show, however, is that the managerial chain of command is suspect with serious questions to ask about who reported to whom.  Although the more general issue of how the BBC is managed is important and needs close examination, the important thing is to restore the image of investigative journalism and that is relatively easy to do: verify your sources, lawyers view and sign off on the programme, senior editor approves broadcast.  If these simply and obvious steps were not in place, they should have been and if they were, why did they not work? 

Friday, 9 November 2012

Setting the question

The Scottish government has confirmed the question to be put to the people of Scotland in the independence referendum in the autumn of 2014.  Those eligible to vote will be asked to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question: Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?  The Electoral Commission, an independent body will test the Scottish government’s preferred wording in focus groups to see whether it is fair and easily understood.  Getting the question right and unambiguous is important to all those with an interest in the outcome of the referendum. 

The proposed question is essentially divided into two parts: ‘do you agree’ and ‘that Scotland should be an independent country’.  There are problems with the proposed wording but also problems with what is no included in the question.  What is blatantly omitted from the question is any reference to leaving the Union.  You might agree that Scotland should be an independent country but that might not include leaving the Union but independence within the Union.  The critical word is ‘independence’ and what that actually means in practice.  The SNP understand independence to mean that Scotland should become a sovereign nation over which the rest of the Union have no control at all.  However, if Scotland retains the pound sterling as its currency, highly likely given the present instability in the euro-zone, decisions about interest rates, for instance, would be retained in London.  Untangling a union of three hundred years duration will inevitably be messy so that any notion of sovereign independence will inevitably be diluted because of the realities of the existing union and the problems in making a clear, unambiguous divorce.  The problem with not including ‘independence’ by using a question such as ‘should Scotland be governed as a separate country’ is also replete with problems. 

I have always thought that the solution to the Scottish question and the Welsh question lies best in the development of a federal structure in which domestic policy is decided by the constituent countries while those areas that affect the four countries, such as foreign policy, relations with the European Union, terrorism and so on are decided by the Union parliament.  Since the introduction of devolution, the old constitutional notion of a unitary state has become increasingly redundant yet there has been little discussion of the ways in which the nature of the union could be changed to accommodate nationalist aspirations in its constituent parts.  The alternatives appear to be either retaining a unitary union or independence for countries that vote for it.  There has been little debate over the merits of a federal system that maintains union but with a more devolved constitutional framework.  To move in this direction would require a changed mind-set among English politicians who are the most rabidly advocates of the existing union and would give the population of the United Kingdom as a whole the opportunity to vote for a changed structure.  In practical terms, this would give Scotland independence especially if linked to fiscal independence to decide those issues that affect Scotland and come up with different policy decisions from England, Wales or Northern Ireland: an evolution of the existing devolved systems.  Independence within an overarching federal union has advantages over complete sovereign independence. 

Arguably, the question proposed is the wrong question not because Scotland is likely to vote for the status quo (if polling is accurate) but because it does not address the question that really needs to be asked: should the United Kingdom be a federal rather than a unitary union?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

It’s the story silly: Edward Thompson and narrative

Thompson’s critics argue that his unique narrative style further imposes biased principles onto his historical subjects. It is widely known that Thompson’s initial academic interests were primarily in literature, and his inspiration to become a historian largely has been attributed to his admiration for William Morris, a nineteenth-century politician and historian. Like Morris, Thompson did not object to painting a very lofty and glossy picture of a utopian socialist future. Thompson also agreed with Morris that a socialist revolution would not only entail an economic change but an alteration of peoples’ mind-sets that would embrace the benefits of a socialist system[1].  Thompson’s ideological development as a Marxist historian was shaped just as much by Dickens’s Hard Times as Engel’s The Housing Question[2]. Thompson abandoned his extensive activism for historical writing in the 1960s, because he felt as though a revelation of a past development of working-class consciousness would be equally if not more fruitful to his leftist endeavours. Thompson’s friend Robert Palmer called Thompson’s Marxist beliefs ‘a communism driven less by economic necessity and the logic of determinative forces than by moral passion and desire.’[3] Thompson’s most famous work, The Making of the English Working Class, heavily reflected this fervour with his appreciation for Romantic literature.

While many historians admire Thompson’s writing style in The Making of the English Working Class, Renato Rosaldo is critical about the implications of his writing structure. Rosaldo describes historical writing as a practice that must both remain true to the historical evidence and create a narrative to explain the evidence. Though these components are two distinct entities, they cannot be adequately separated. Facts without an accompanying story are nothing more than a chronology; however, the historical narrative must remain consistent with the information, or else it is simply fiction[4]. Rosaldo then claims that Thompson tells his story in a very ‘melodramatic’ fashion, as to present the history in such a light that the reader would sympathise with the working class. Rosaldo uses the character of Thomas Hardy, the leader of the Correspondence Society in London in the 1790s as an example; Thompson portrays Hardy as a man who was persecuted by the ‘evil forces’ of the state. Nevertheless, this interpretation of Hardy’s oppression could have just as easily been interpreted as a consequence of divine fury, a ‘consequence of moral flaws,’ or ‘a quirk of destiny.’ Rosaldo believes that Thompson’s choice of this ‘melodramatic’ tone is not so much consistent with his subjects’ own perception of their situation but simply Thompson’s interpretation[5].

Rosaldo’s complaint about The Making of the English Working Class is that Thompson treats his narrative as a ‘neutral medium,’ though he has imposed his own understanding of what happened onto his subjects. By telling the history of the working class in a storybook-like fashion, Thompson takes the role of the omniscient narrator in a novel, presuming to know how his subjects really thought and felt. However, Rosaldo identifies the values conveyed in the work as those of Thompsom and not those of the nineteenth-century working class. Thus, the major lesson is that historians, particularly those who are ultimately concerned with human agency, must take care to not conflate their subjects’ perceptions and values with their own, or else they are being unfaithful in their narratives[6]. In Rosaldo’s words, the most unfortunate flaw of The Making of the English Working Class is that ‘the very identification which enables other voices to be heard in their full persuasive force as they speak to the present can at the same time muffle the distinctive tones of the past.[7]‘ Ultimately, the question is that one can never be sure whether historical concepts make history or if they are inherent within historical change.

Although it is impossible to recover a completely (or even mostly) objective account of history, Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class can be criticised because it confuses the author’s own biases on his subjects. If the tone of the work reflected Thompson’s actual relationship to his subjects, it would have been at the hefty expense of the fluidity between past and present and the complex dynamics of human interactions that Thompson wanted so much to convey. Moreover, though Thompson is nearly as guilty of this hazy conflation as Rosaldo claims. The questions posed and answered by The Making of the English Working Class are quite deliberately connected to the work of the New Left. Thompson’s very concern for making the connection present in his work in itself admits the author’s agenda for trying to find links in the Radical Tradition. Thompson never asserted that he was outside of history; he always intentionally and purposefully spoke about the past to the Present. Both in his history and in his activism, Thompson linked the past to the present, because it is the past that provides us with our cultural legacy; however, it is the duty of the present humanity to create the future. Rosaldo himself says quite eloquently that for Thompson, ‘Cultural traditions are selected, recombined and invented as an active part of class formation. Cultural traditions, understood as actively selected versions of the past, constitute and reconstitute themselves through the future.’[8]


[1] Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, Verso, 1994, pp. 58-59.

[2] Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, Verso, 1994, p. 58.

[3] Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, Verso, 1994, p. 57.

[4] Renato Rosaldo, ‘Social Analysis in History and Anthropology,’ in Harvey J. Kay and Keith McClelland (eds.), E.P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Temple University Press, 1990, p. 103.

[5] Ibid, pp. 116-117.

[6] Ibid, pp. 116-120.

[7] Ibid, p. 120.

[8] Ibid, p. 103.