This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the appearance of EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, first published by Victor Gollancz in 1963. Inspirational for some, provocative and controversial for others, the book was a wellspring for social historians. The conversation about The Making of the English Working Class was started on History Workshop Online and it has generated many wonderful comments. The online debate is still open at http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/the-making-of-the-english-working-class-fifty-years-on/
For issue 76 of the journal we invited three historians working on different places and periods to reflect on their relationship with the book (rather than with the man) and to consider how they regard the book now, fifty years on.
The scope of the replies was broad. Ervand Abrahamian discusses the lasting influence of the book on the different factions in Middle East Studies and in particular the way that EPT’s historical contextualization of Methodism has had relevance for historians of Iran. Historians who are attentive to the interplay of religion and politics, and reject the notion of a timeless, mystic Orient, have drawn strength and methodological inspiration from Thompson in both India and the Middle East.
Kathleen Wilson guides us through her journey to provincial English archives, to the port cities, taverns and coffee shops where empire debates raged in the 18th and 19th centuries. This journey was sign-posted by a well-timed reading of the Making. Suddenly so-called ephemera became sources. Wilson’s long engagement with the central place of empire in everyday lives had begun.
Selina Todd recalls her own engagement with the book as a student, reading against the backdrop of Major and Blair’s Britain in the 1990s. She carefully unpicks how EPT both inspired and shaped her own work on servants and class. Students engage differently with the book today, she says, not because of apathy but because of the world they inhabit. They regard poverty and inequality as global issues and have new comparative works and easily digestible narratives from which to draw. Seeing extreme differentials of power, they struggle to understand Thompson’s central message: that people have the collective ability to change things. They may be less enthusiastic about the Making but are nevertheless drawn to work, like Subaltern Studies, which has emanated from Thompson’s legacies.
The book was a stone in water, sending out circles that continue to ripple outwards. Many of EPT’s ideas are far from exhausted and have the capacity to help us contextualize injustices and forms of social resistance, to put peoples’ experiences and lives at the centre of the story. The ‘moral economy’ – an idea developed by Karl Polanyi, Thompson and James Scott – and the question of when and how people come to perceive gross injustices, still has immense salience for historical work and is still being explored and mined.
Coincidentally, at least two of the articles in this volume include references to EPT. Briony McDonagh conveys the range of resistance to enclosure in sixteenth century England. Hedge-breaking was accompanied by a range of strategies to resist enclosure and assaults on common rights. Roads, paths and drove-ways might be dug up, while mass ploughings were undertaken to restore land to the pre-enclosure state. A picture is revealed of vibrant, imaginative resistance that brings to life the strength of feeling among ordinary people at being cut off from their commons.
Vanita Damodaran’s paper reflects similar themes in nineteenth century India. She suggests that rights to common land in the forests of central India could sometimes be identified, recorded and even championed by colonial officials and local missionaries. They recognised when the local moral economy was infringed by the encroachment of the state and could side with adivasis (tribal peoples) against such predations. The recognition of such rights continues to have real significance today, as their descendants struggle to resist or to negotiate the presence of mining companies and the plunder of resources in India.
Other articles in this issue also build in many – implicit – ways on his themes and perceptions: the reactions of ordinary people to vast social and technological transformations in Calcutta and the importance of poetry and song as they adapt to this survival (Ghosh) or the central place of reading, travel and education in the lives of workers (Sutcliffe). History Workshop has also been rooted in a gendered social history, and most of the authors here foreground the lives of women and prize gender as a way of thinking through the human past. For example Jill Liddington reflects on the value of the Women’s Library in London (which was recently threatened with closure) based on her experience of using it over the last 40 years. Garthine Walker’s radical assessment of rape and rapists in early modern England, for instance, makes uncomfortable reading, but tackles a subject that stands unflinchingly in the vanguard of the discipline.