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« In Memoriam: Dr. C.B.T. Smith 1915 - 2009 | Main | Blogging While Brown! »

The Making of the English Working Class, by E. P. Thompson

By Larry James
June 17, 2009

E. P. Thompson published Making of the English Working Class in 1963. I picked up my well-worn copy the other day for the first time in about thirty years. So, it's been a while since I worked my way through the story rise of labor in England. Once you get into Thompson's rhythm and style, the book flows. And that is good, the book is a tome - over 800 pages - not exactly a quick, weekend read, but well worth the effort.

The history of democracy and the growing insistence on democratic reform in England in the days just before, during and following the French and American revolutions makes for fascinating reading. The London and provincial corresponding societies provided regular meeting opportunities for revolutionary minded, anti-monarchical thinkers, most of whom were common, laboring people - artisans, tradesmen, dissenting clergy and the like.

The interests of these groups - often persecuted, spied upon and, at times, suspected of plotting insurrection - remained largely unchanged across the reach of English labor history, at least in principle. Much of the conflict and debate stirred by these groups pitted a vision of traditional "moral economies" against emerging "free markets" - one product of modernity and a system served by expanding trade options.

The common consumers - those who worked to produce and to consume - suffered at the hands of those who controlled and manipulated prices in the marketplace. The local groups of correspondence allowed for debate, conversation, organizing and resistance in the face of what was perceived as clear injustice.

I can't resist posting a couple of excerpts from Thompson's brilliant work. What's said about history? Something like past being prologue, isn't it?

Food riots were sometimes uproarious, like the "Great Cheese Riot: at Nottingham's Goose Fair in 1764, when whole cheeses were rolled down the streets; or the riot in the same city, in 1788, caused by the high price of meat, when the doors and shutters of the shambles were torn down and burned, together with the butcher's books, in the market-place. But even this violence shows a motive more complex than hunger: retailers were being punished, on account of their prices and the poor quality of the meat. More of the "mobs" showed self-discipline, within a customary pattern of behaviour. Perhaps the only occasion in his life when John Wesley commended a disorderly action was when he noted in his journal the actions of a mob in James' Town, Ireland; the mob...

...had been in motion all day; but their business was only with the forestallers of the market, who had bought up all the corn far and near, to starve the poor, and load a Dutch ship, which lay at the quay; but the mob brought it all out into the market, and sold it for the owners at the common price. And this they did with all calmness and composure imaginable, and without striking or hurting anyone. (64)

The Sheffield Society originated... from a gathering of "five or six mechanics... conversing about the enormous high price of provisions." It grew so rapidly that by January 1792, it comprised eight societies "which meet at their different houses, all on the same evening." ...There were 1,400 subscribers for a pamphlet edition (at 6d.) of the First Part of Rights of Man, which was "read with avidity in many of the workshops of Sheffield. In March 1792, after four months in existence, the society claimed nearly 2,000 members. (149)

[The purpose of the society was...] To enlighten the people, to show the people the reason, the ground of their sufferings; when a man works hard for thirteen or fourteen hours of the day, the week through, and is not able to maintain his family; that is what I understood of it; to show the people the ground of this; why they were not able. (151)

The usual mode of proceeding at these weekly meetings was this. The chairman (each man was chairman in rotation) read from some book... and the persons present were invited to make remarks thereon, as many as chose did so, but without rising. Then another portion was read and a second invitation given. Then the remainder was read and a third invitation was given when they who had not before spoken were expected to say something. Then there was a general discussion.

The moral effects of the Society were very great indeed. It induced men to read books instead of spending their time at public houses. It taught them to think, to respect themselves, and to desire to educate their children. It elevated them in their own opinions. (154-155)

Talk about community organizing! Fascinating read.

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