Commentary Magazine

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

Those Dark, Satanic Mills

The Making of the English Working Class.
by E. P. Thompson.
Pantheon. 848 pp. $15.00.

To a generation reared on classical economic history, it was something of a shock to be told a few years ago that the agony of the Industrial Revolution was a myth. Earlier historians such as Engels, the Hammonds, the Webbs, G.D.H. Cole, and the elder Toynbee had vividly depicted the havoc wrought by a burgeoning middle class determined to forge its destiny out of coal, cotton, and the machine. Thus, the Hammonds, doyens of English economic historians, taught that the Industrial Revolution brought confusion to the settled ways of free-born Englishmen that we are still seeking to compose, power that we are still seeking to subdue. Cole's mountainous compilation of facts revealed that severe deprivations in material existence were the common lot of more than half of all England in those days. And Toynbee also forcefully reminded us that industrialism can produce wealth without producing well-being.

In 1954, however, a group of economic theorists and historians of a Whig-like persuasion published a series of studies, Capitalism and the Historians, to prove that all this was largely fiction Their intent was to correct the exaggerations they found in the earlier historians and to demonstrate that capitalism even in its early traumatic days had improved the condition of the laboring classes. Friedrich Hayek, for example, argued that capitalists had applied their earnings on a large scale to provide means of production for workers who could not otherwise have produced their own sustenance. Indeed, the altruism of the capitalist was responsible for palpable advances in the standard of life for everyone. Evidence to support this interpretation was supplied by Sir John Clapham, T.S. Ashton, and W.H. Hutt. The classical view which looked with dismay upon the Industrial Revolution as an upheaval that scattered its social debris all over England was replaced by a supposedly empirical circumspection. Misery and political reaction were only by-products of a “take-off” into sustained economic growth. That the enclosures destroyed village after village was of no great moment, for the entire process had allowed a larger population to be better fed, and the social tension it bred was merely an accident of rising food prices. The new, conservative view of the Industrial Revolution gained a good deal of currency in the following years even among liberals who might have been expected to question it.


Now comes a young, brilliant English writer, E.P. Thompson, lecturer at Leeds University, with a tenacious drive for truth and a knowledge of historical sources vastly superior to that of the Hayeks and the Hutts, to assure us of the fact that the Industrial Revolution was a human catastrophe. Disturbed by the complacency and narrowness of the revisionist position, Thompson restores the balance of historical truth with extraordinary skill and with a fervor that makes the Ashtons and Clap-hams seem like desiccated compilers of figures.

First of all he demonstrates that the statistical evidence employed to sustain the revisionist thesis is completely muddled. Clapham had totaled county wage averages and from them had derived a national average—a patent arithmetical absurdity. Also, this calculation obscured the fact that 60 per cent of the workers were in counties with earnings well below the national “average.” More importantly, Thompson draws upon a much more concrete awareness of the actualities of political as well as social life in the late 18th and 19th centuries. As he so rightly observes, it is possible for statistical measures and human existence to run in opposite directions. (Witness the writing of contemporary commentators who do not wish to be bothered about poverty in the United States because it affects only one-fifth of the population.) Thompson's feeling for the debased quality of experience created by the new, mass society makes his observations on the economic situation of the time unusually trenchant:

The condition of the majority was bad in 1790; it remained bad in 1830 (and forty years is a long time) . . . There were undoubted increases in real wages among organized workers during the burst of trade union activity between 1832-4; but the period of good trade between 1833 and 1837 was accompanied by the smashing of the trade unions by the concerted efforts of Government, magistrates and employers . . . even in the mid-40's the plight of very large groups of workers remains desperate . . . This does not look very much like a “success story.”

The traditional village economy in the countryside collapsed under the pressure of those who wanted sheep runs. “The cottager without legal proof of rights was rarely compensated. The cottager who was able to establish his claim was left with a parcel of land inadequate for subsistence and a disproportionate share of the very high enclosure costs.” The enclosures were a plain case of class robbery, says Thompson, motivated by a greed for high rents: they had little to do with a wish to feed a growing industrial population. The new instruments of production transformed the social as well as natural landscape. Skilled artisans were replaced by ordinary workers and ordinary workers by machines. The dubious measurements of the revisionist historians made wages seem high in the first half of the 19th century, but as Thompson shows, the indexes of urban wages were based on the earnings of skilled workers, ignoring the great mass of unskilled and unemployed. And working conditions everywhere grew worse than before.


While Thompson bases a good deal of his history on sound statistical and economic analysis, its major thrust is political, for the character of the Industrial Revolution cannot be understood outside of its political context. Together with the economic exploitation that went hand-in-hand with frighteningly depersonalized social relationships, there was bred a new climate of repression. A casual word of doubt about the wisdom of the Crown might be reported by a hundred spies and suffice to send the speaker to jail for years. A penny pamphlet in defense of freedom brought charges of high treason. Beneath all this was the system of Old Corruption by which Parliament remained firmly in the hands of the landed aristocracy: their rule, sustained by the complaisant approval of wealthy merchants and manufacturers as well as an emerging white-collar class was stupid enough to bring England to the edge of revolution. Meanwhile, noblemen dipped into the public coffers at will for imaginary services to the state. Decade after decade, venality continued unabated, mainly because most of the populace, aside from literate artisans and workers, was indifferent. The Industrial Revolution had made them prosperous and they did not wish to call the system into question. Thus while the throne was occupied by inert idiots, hereditary gentlemen and their commercial companions were able to maintain control of the society and the empire.

Hence, it is not surprising that the old regime soon encountered opposition from the dispossessed classes and their spokesmen. How working-class protest was created and fostered forms a large part of Mr. Thompson's story. Attracted by the example of the French Jacobins, English artisans almost immediately began the fight in behalf of social justice and effective law, and for their pains they were just as immediately hounded, jailed, and hanged. Indeed, it was not so much the Reign of Terror across the Channel that threw the propertied classes into a panic, but rather the demands of “working men in villages and towns over the whole country claiming general rights for themselves.” Working-class impulses, given strong voice by Tom Paine, began to shape themselves into class consciousness, and by 1795, according to Thompson, a deep cleavage between the classes had appeared. Any possible national alliance between an impatient bourgeoisie and an emerging proletariat was shattered before it could start. A mutual fear impelled the middle classes and the landowners to lock arms in a common corruption. Thompson tells this story with full awareness of its dramatic tensions. His cast of characters is no mere collection of shadows but is made up of genuine people driven by greed and power at the top, indignation and fear at the bottom.

Though widely supported, especially in the countryside, radicalism was unable to develop real offensive strength. Yet there were ardent, articulate defenders of its principles and it became a powerful tradition in British political life, even though it had to stay underground. For many years its major spokesman was William Cobbett, a great political pamphleteer, who was sickened alike by the incomparable scandals of royalty, the corruption of the merchant class, the prostituted press, the gouging and squeezing of factory worker and peasant. For exposing brutality in the army, Cobbett was fined two thousand pounds and sentenced to two years in jail. In the first quarter of the 19th century the authorities grew so fearful of criticism that they resorted to spies and hoked-up evidence on a scale unknown before in England.

The early worker movements were desperate but politically naive affairs—Luddite armies to break machines, Cato Street conspiracies to assassinate the Cabinet (in this one spies supplied the guns), correspondence societies to propagandize the hinterlands, illegal trade unions to protect ancient crafts, and even a millenarian search for heavenly salvation to escape the spreading oppressiveness of industry. Let us not judge these hungry men harshly, says Thompson. Relief and reform could come only with constitutional advances, which were unlikely when the governing powers refused to concede that working men had the right to human existence, much less to a political one.


From all this turmoil there evolved an important working-man's culture that neither Tory nor Whig nor middle-class reformer could continue to ignore or suppress. The worker had learned how harsh political strife could be and from this experience had forged his own brand of radicalism. As his ideology developed he focused on the freedom to speak and assemble as primary rights of man. He sought to reclaim the dignity that the machine had destroyed. There seems little doubt, as Thompson says, that the Reform Bill of 1832 turned aside imminent revolution. But the workers were to gain nothing from this strange piece of legislation, for the “reformed” Commons, at once launched an effective counter-attack. Throughout the rest of the century, England's two societies remained in a state of unending tension.

Thompson's account is blunt and courageous: he reads the facts as they are given in the record and they are usually far from pleasant. He has rescued the past from the hands of those who for ideological reasons would obscure its true significance and in doing so he has told us much about ourselves. And is this not what the good historian must do? For the indifference of nobility and bourgeois to the fate of those crushed by the 19 th century's industrial upheaval is more than matched by the self-satisfaction of the affluent who today turn away from the nameless troubles of workers displaced by computers. Thompson's book has been called controversial, but perhaps only because so many have forgotten how explosive England was during the Regency and the early reign of Victoria. Without any reservation, The Making of the English Working Class is the most important study of those days since the classic work of the Hammonds.

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