The Making of the English Working Class Fifty Years On

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Next year sees the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which was first published by Victor Gollancz in 1963. Undoubtedly one of the most influential historical books of the twentieth century, The Making set much of the agenda for the ‘new social history’ of the 1960s and 1970s, influencing generations of historians and other scholars. In a few pages in the book’s Preface, Thompson laid out some of the ideas that would guide several generations of historians: class as a relationship rather than a structure or category; the working class being ‘present at its own making’; the revolutionary potentials of working-class politics; and, perhaps most memorably, the responsibility of historians to ‘rescue’ ordinary people of the past, especially those whose struggles were defeated, from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’—a phrase that currently generates more than 33,000 google hits.

The Making of the English Working Class has also been subject to extensive critique and commentary, not least in the pages of History Workshop Journal. Among other flaws, critics have focused on its gendering of its subject as male (the Preface describes the book’s project as a ‘biography of the English working class from its adolescence to its early manhood’); its failure to consider the significance of Empire, race, or the world beyond England’s shores; and its hostile approach to Methodism as ‘the chiliasm of despair’. Despite or because of these critiques, readers often return again and again to their battered and much-annotated copies of the book, which continues to provoke and inspire, not least because of the extraordinary power of Thompson’s prose.

A conference at the People’s History Museum in Manchester is already planned. History Workshop Journal plans to publish a forum on The Making at Fifty, including contributions by historians on their experience of reading and re-reading the book. In anticipation of that forum, we invite readers of the journal and this website to contribute their own reflections on and memories of reading, teaching and studying The Making of the English Working Class. When and why did you first read it? Do you re-read it, and under what circumstances? What aspects of it do you remember most vividly? What about it inspires, what provokes? If you teach, do you ask students to read it, and how do they respond? How has your reading of Thompson changed since you first read The Making? Please add your recollections below.