I’ve recently been re-reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. For this book, ‘magesterial’, ‘dazzling’, ‘sheds lights on an overlooked period of our history’ and all the other dull clichés are for once apt. If these terms didn’t make me cringe so much I would employ all of them to describe what was Thompson’s ‘magnum opus’.
If anything, ‘often overlooked’ would be a startling understatement in this instance. The book covers the years 1780 to 1832, and examines the political agitation of those victims of history; the artisans and craftsmen who would soon find themselves made obsolete by the factory system, consumed by the black cloud of the industrial revolution, thrown to the urban slums and joining the mass of the newly emerging industrial proletariat. In the preface, Thompson describes his wish 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’
These years truly were the ‘making’ of the new working class; the decline of a predominantly rural economy of artisan trade to one of mass industrialisation, urbanisation, slums and wage labour. The gates of Merrie England had been broken down by Adam Smith and the enemies of this outdated mercantilism of craftsmen, and the masses were being led towards the sooty heights of Cottonopolis and the workhouse.
There is little overlooked about the Industrial Revolution itself, it was covered heavily when I was at school, and seems to feature to a significant(ish) degree in the collective memory of the nation. We think of child labour, we see the slums, the words of Dickens, Brunel’s bridges, the counterbalance of the Romantics, Turner’s ominously blurred steam trains drifting through as yet unspoiled pastures.
Thompson’s focus, the ‘overlooked history’, is purely on those on the front line of these great changes, their political consciousness, aspirations and responses to what he calls, ‘these times of acute social disturbance’. He describes the activities of the followers of Jacobinism in England, reformers and revolutionaries who saw hope for salvation in the radicalism of the French Revolution, many of whom later prayed for a French invasion of Britain that would topple their own ancien regime. He describes the struggle for the vote, the growth of trade unionism among artisans, highly secretive and illegal, a mysterious picture conjured of masked craftsmen meeting nightly in wooded clearings, taking part in oaths and initiation rituals, drilling with pikes for the coming “‘levelution.”
The London Corresponding Society, the radical weavers of Spitalfields, Nottinghamshire, and Lancashire, the revolutionary journalists of Republican, Cap of Liberty, and Medusa are all brought back to the life. Radicals and demagogues, certainly popular men or devils, depending on who you spoke to, in their own time, are all but forgotten now. From speakers and campaigners like William Cobbett and Henry Hunt, to doomed conspirators like Arthur Thistlewood, leader of the Cato Street Conspiracy, and Jeremiah Brandreth, the unemployed stocking maker and ‘Nottingham Captain’, who led an ill-fated attempt to occupy the city in 1817. Compared with later popular history that was preserved at length by the socialist movement, the world Thompson describes is a labyrinth of riots, uprisings, conspiracy, insurrection, hanging and treason.
The Making of the English Working Class is a wealth of forgotten history, and the history of English radicalism is almost certainly forgotten, not being one that sits well with the still adored myth of the passive, stiff upper lipped, ‘free-born Englishman’. Two incidents described and analysed at length in the book exemplify this national amnesia, and both have current relevance.
The first is the obvious example of the Luddites, the radical handloom weavers of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Threatened by the introduction of the automated looms of factory production that would render their trade somewhat obsolete, they rioted, smashed factory looms, and torched mills from 1811-1813. Many were executed, and hundreds were transported to the colonies. In our current understanding of the word ‘Luddite’, the radical political factor has been completely removed. Thompson is at pains to differentiate between our meaning of Luddite; a derogatory term for someone who is anti-technology, and this leading to a false idea of the weavers’ motivations; and what a Luddite was, an artisan making a futile attempt to protect his livelihood. Luddism also contributed to the agrarian riots of 1830, discarded in the popular imagination, known as the Swing Riots, which occurred in the southern counties and were one of the largest popular uprisings in the history of England.
The true meaning of Luddism is all the more surprising considering the appearance of a national celebrity in its midst. In 1812, after several years swanning and inseminating his way across the continent, Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords and made three speeches in defense of the rioters, and against the introduction of the Malicious Damage Act of 1812, that made frame-breaking a capital offense. Byron was one of the few parliamentary defenders of the Luddites, if not the only, and the law was passed. He never entered the House again, but instead devoted his pen to the cause of Radicalism for years to come, penning his Song For The Luddites, The Landlords’ Interest, and Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats. This was an episode where politics and literature truly crossed paths; as this monster of Romanticism, that enemy of the Industrial Revolution and mechanisation, found common cause with the riotous victim of the age, the unemployed weaver.
Nick Clegg and David Cameron both namechecked the 1832 Reform Act when they took power last year, pledging their tinkering with civil liberties law would resemble such a momentous event. Thompson does a wonderful job of exposing the fallacy of the idea of a historical ‘British democracy’ in describing the often violent and widespread campaign for male suffrage that led to the election of radical MPs and the passage of the Reform Act. Far from being a benevolent gift from the Commons to the people, the Reform Act was prefigured by decades of relentless agitation by reformers, the bloody highlight of which was the Peterloo Massacre, a massive meeting of radicals in Manchester that ended at the hands of charging cavalry. For all the habits of the modern politician to describe our democracy as ‘historical’, ‘great’ or ‘longstanding’, it takes only a cursory glance at Thompson’s work to remember that full suffrage was not granted to women and most men until 1918. In the true manner of reform granted by the state after popular agitation, the final legislated product promised little, the Reform Act still leaving the vast majority of men (six out of seven, it is believed), without the vote.
While lucidly describing these forgotten episodes of our history, Thompson also reveals the fallacy of many modern myths about the docile nature of England and its people. The book ends at the point of 1832, a watershed where artisan radicalism gave way to mass factory trade unionism and the beginnings of the socialist movement. In describing this transition of radical politics from one phase to another, Thompson mirrors the world of radicalism he found himself in as a leading light of the New Left, that crossroads between the Communist Party and its subservience to the Soviet Union, and anti-Soviet socialism.
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when the people of Budapest rose against their Communist rulers, proved the breaking point for many socialist intellectuals. Like the Dreyfus case, which proved a litmus test for a person’s politics for decades afterwards, the subsequent Soviet suppression of the uprising, and a person’s reaction to it, would reveal whether or not they were of a pro-Soviet persuasion. Thousands around the world abandoned their respective Communist parties in the face of the bloodbath in Budapest.
Many left the Communist Party of Great Britain, and EP Thompson was one of the first out the door, unlike our other ‘great’ socialist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who has experienced a recent renaissance of sorts, who issued some fairly unflattering articles in support of the Soviet authorities, albeit, ‘with a heavy heart’. Thompson remained a socialist and criticised the Labour governments of the post-war period from a left-wing perspective, and was a major figure in CND, becoming partly famous for speaking passionately about nuclear weapons to Glastonbury crowds in the 1980s. His speeches in favour of nuclear disarmament, and against all too easily embarked upon wars must have resembled Byron’s impassioned speeches supporting the Luddites in the House of Lords. Through the jeers and shouting, he condemned the lawmakers who sat beside him;
‘When a proposal is made to emancipate or relieve, you deliberate for years, you temporize and tamper with the minds of men; but a death-bill must be passed off-hand, without a thought of the consequences’
It was the last time Byron would sit in Parliament, and like those frame-breakers and radicals who could find no redress through the laws of the land, Byron would contain his political activity to his poetry, mirroring Thompson’s overall argument, that the most radical reform can never be bestowed by parliaments.