E.P. Thompson and why class remains an important organising framework

I have been travelling for most of today so I have to keep this post short. Well shorter than usual. Edward Palmer Thompson – who died at the age of 69 in 1993, was a British writer who wrote the exceptional book – The Making of the English Working Class – which was a very long social history published in 1963, and considered essential reading for young leftists at the time. I read it in the early 1970s as part of my rites of passage into Leftist intellectual thought and while I prefer books that are less than 800 pages (-:, I found it absorbing. I was reminded of it when I recently read a UK Observer article (February 4, 2024) – What a legendary historian tells us about the contempt for today’s working class – by Kenan Malik.

I have the Pelican original paperback version – here is the front cover:

E.P. Thompson’s book is a classic social history that traces the way the English working class developed in the early years of the industrial era.

It was somewhat confronting for traditional Marxists who had become used to trotting out deterministic historical narratives (historical materialism) where the working class were moulded by capital into servitude.

E.P. Thompson argued that, in fact, the working class had agency to build their own futures.

He considered how the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism – which involved the structural shift from agrarian wealth to industrial wealth and the shift from the transparent expropriation of surplus value via the feudal arrangements determined by manorial politics to the opaque expropriation of surplus value hidden by the specific capitalist wage form, where workers seemed to be paid an hourly wage for the duration of the working day – created a distinct working-class identity.

His rejection of deterministic views of historical change was based on his deep analysis of working class communities in England – the way their daily lives were lived and the way they resisted the domination of capital.

I remember reading a really interesting article written by American sociologist – Donald Francis Roy – called the ‘Efficiency and the Fix: Informal Intergroup Relations in a Piece-work Machine Shop’ – which was an ethnographic work based on his studies of an engineering factory while he was employed on the shop floor.

It was published in the American Journal of Sociology (60, pp.255-66) in 1955 and described the way the workers banded together to ‘fix’ piecemeal rates in their favour unbeknown to the management who employed time and motion engineers to set rates that they thought would maximise profits and make the workers toil within an inch of their tolerances.

The workers demonstrated agency through various practices such as ‘gold bricking’, ‘quota restriction’ and other techniques.

When the engineers were assessing the assembly line tasks, the workers knew they could make it out that they were working flat out and the rates would be set accordingly.

Then when it came to actually produce things, the workers could earn a good living by reducing the effort they put in because they had ‘fixed’ the piece rates.

Agency at work.

Famous US sociologist – Michael Burawoy – wrote an review of several of Donald Roy’s works and noted that he had over the source of “his career … [been] … employed in 24 different ‘bottom rung’ jobs in some 20 industries’ as part of his fieldwork and said that:

Roy was no slumming graduate student looking for a field site, but rather he was an experienced blue-collar worker – the genuine thing rather than the Marxist pretender …

(Reference: Michael Burawoy (2001) Donald Roy: Sociologist and Working Stiff, Contemporary Sociology, 30(5), 453–458).

The point is that Roy’s work, and later the work of Burawoy, who did similar fieldwork in the same factory that Roy had worked in some thirty years earlier (and culminated in Burawoys’ famous book – Manufacturing Consent – a must read) – was totally consistent with the observations that E.P. Thompson was making about agency in ‘The Making of the English Working Class’.

E.P. Thompson also examined how cultural practices which embraced specific language idioms and shared rituals were intrinsic in defining the working class and separating them from the management.

And like Roy’s work, resistance based on class struggle was central to E.P. Thompson’s understanding of the working class dynamics.

Having a sense of struggle gave the working class identity and meaning and garnered their solidarity.

He considered it crucial to try to view the working class from within.

He wrote:

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.

So while people disparage the ‘Luddites’, for example, as being somehow backward and ignorance, for E.P. Thompson, they were solidaristically resisting the Capitalist’s intent to destroy their work practices and the embedded cultural practices and rituals.

It wasn’t technology that was the problem but the capitalist hegemony.

The Luddites were expressing their agency and demonstrating that they were important forces in defining their collective being.

For E.P. Thompson, the workers’ “aspirations were valid in terms of their own experiences” and to understand working class dynamics, one had to start at that point, rather than wax lyrical from ivory towers.

Moreover, and important for the rest of this post, was his eccentric concept of ‘class’.

Whereas Marxists had considered class to be structural – as in, who owned or didn’t own the material means of production – E.P. Thompson considered it to a ‘relationship’ such that there is a commonality among people based on culture, etc.

So while it was obvious that the ‘class experience’ was “determined by the productive relations into which men are born—or enter involuntarily”, how one felt about that “class-consciousness” embodied the way those “experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms”.

And so class evolves as the consciousness evolves.

It is a difficult concept to differentiate but important to his work.

E.P. Thompson was a genuine communist – who resigned from the Party in protest of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and over the course of his career demonstrated an unfailing antagonism to coercive Marxism as practiced by Stalinism.

He also realised that the British Labour Party was selling out in the early to mid-1970s, a shift that I have written a lot about.

All of that and more made his work compelling reading.

So I was interested in what Kenan Malik had to say as he rehearsed his understanding of E.P. Thompson’s 1963 epic.

His article was recognising the 100th birthday of E.P. Thompson.

While class was a central organising concept for E.P. Thompson, Malik claims that:

Today, the old industrial working class, about the making of which Thompson wrote, has largely been unmade, politically marginalised and stripped of its social power. Few regard class as a fertile concept in historical thinking, fewer still as a foundation for progressive politics.

This is the sort of statement that E.P. Thompson would rail against.

I guess that I am in the “fewer still” cohort who thinks that economic class is still the only foundation for progressive politics.

Without it what are we supporting?

Are were going to recommend women on the shop floor on low wages and torrid conditions feel a closer bond to a female manager who swans through the factory occasionally than they feel to the male workers around them on the shop floor?

Those sort of questions remain relevant.

Sure enough the working class has evolved as tertiary industries emerge and service sector jobs replace manufacturing jobs.

And while it might be hard to understand how surplus value is created in a modern office space, just think back to the wage form, which Marx wanted us to understand is a crucial construct in advancing an understanding of why workers might be ‘free’ to work for who they want but not free not to work, unlike those on the other side of the wage bargain.

Kenan Malik is correct when he argues that:

Thompson’s empathy with those forced to struggle on an inhospitable social terrain has lessons for us, too. Today, the issue is the enormous condescension not of posterity but of the present: the contempt for working-class people, the hostility to benefit “scroungers”, the derision of those forced to use food banks, the indifference to injustice. It is visible also in the scorn for the supposed bigotry and conservatism of the working class or in the disdain of those who voted the wrong way or have become disillusioned with the left.

Recall the way the London progressives who wanted Britain to remain in the most advanced form of neoliberal structure, the EU, talked about the poorer workers in the North who voted to leave the EU based on their direct experiences with neoliberalism.

The Leavers were variously called ignorant, fools, incapable of making decisions who needed the ‘South’ to tell them what was best for them.

If you read or re-read E.P. Thompson’s epic study I think it becomes obvious how relevant it is to today’s struggles.

The workers might wear clean clothes and work in clean spaces now more than walk down narrow streets in Northern British towns to factories but they still are serving the same role – to work harder and longer than they have to to produce their own subsistence, however, liberally one wants to define that.

And to understand why that is the case, you have to start with Marx and his concept of class.

And one can enrich and deepen the concept by reading the ethnographic works of the C20th social historians like E.P. Thompson, who really delved into what defined the working class.

It is as relevant today as ever.


I recommend everyone reading these ethnographic studies – they have broadened my knowledge considerably and been really interesting into the bargain.

I am currently reading a book – Fiat Socialism – by Carlos Garcia and will write some comments about it presently.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2024 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. I am not a Marxist, but I am deeply convinced of the value of class analysis, so I’m grateful for this reference, thanks.

  2. Re: ‘Are we going to recommend women on the shop floor on low wages and torrid conditions feel a closer bond to a female manager who swans through the factory occasionally than they feel to the male workers around them on the shop floor?’ Unfortunately, our masters seem to have had no qualms about exploiting gender to divide the working class, as seen (in the UK) by the very extended unwinding of Equal Pay disputes now bringing many local councils to the point of bankruptcy (or its local government equivalent of providing a very diminished and basic service). Every possibility for division is to be exploited, male and female, direct service to backroom service, north to south, historic or settled immigrants to recent arrivals, those in settled jobs to those in marginal employment/unemployed. Unity of purpose, whether in unions or empathy for those being ethnically cleansed is the enemy of the Establishment.

  3. What was it that Leona Helmsley said? “Only the little people pay taxes”
    Sends shivers down my back that capitalism caters only for the wealthy, more so since neoliberalism era.

    Thank you for the book recommendation.

  4. I look forward to your book report ….I am currently reading a book – Fiat Socialism – by Carlos Garcia

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