The Making of the English Working Class

The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is an influential and pivotal work of English social history, written by New Left historian E. P. Thompson ( It concentrates on English artisan and working class society in its formative years 1780 to 1832. Its tone is captured by the oft-quoted line from the preface:


‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.’

Thompson attempts to add a humanist element to social history, being critical of those who treat the people of the working class as a statistical bloc. These people were not just the victims of history. Thompson displays them as being in control of their own making. (‘The working class made itself as much as it was made’.) He also discusses the popular movements that are often forgotten in history, such as obscure Jacobin societies like the London Corresponding Society. Thompson makes great effort to recreate the life-experience of the working class, which is what often marks it out as such an extremely influential work. He uses the term ‘working class’ rather than ‘classes’ throughout, to emphasize the growth of a working-class consciousness. He claims in the Preface that ‘in the years between 1780 and 1832 most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs’. His re-evaluation of the Luddite movement, and his treatment of the influence of the early Methodist movement on working class aspirations are also particularly memorable. (Thompson’s parents were Methodist missionaries.)

Thompson’s theories on working-class consciousness are at the core of this writing, and their agency was manifested by way of the core English working-class values of solidarity, collectivism, mutuality, political radicalism and Methodism. Thompson wished to disassociate Marxism from Stalinism and his injection of humanistic principles into this book was his way of steering the Left towards democratic socialism as opposed to totalitarianism. Still worth reading half a century on.


976 pages in Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition

ISBN 978-0141976952

E.P. Thompson


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