E. P. Thompson and the class issue

Trevor Fisher on the continued relevance of The Making of the English Working Class

Don Flynn, writing on the fragmentation of class, has opened up a debate that cannot be avoided – once Covid-19 is defeated. We cannot assume that the economic effects of the impending recession will turn voters leftwards, though the poorest are going to suffer most. Against a background of hardship for the poor – indeed all those without resources to fall back on – and in a situation where the evidence shows people with a BAME background have a disproportionate number of casualties, class may not be the immediate focus. But Labour has traditionally seen class as basic to its politics and the loss of the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies hit hard – perhaps too hard, given other factors in the 2019 defeat. Whatever the immediate state of play however, class politics are going to be crucial long term.

As Don says, history has provided pointers to the future. By touching on E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class he pinpoints a long-running debate, especially amongst Marxists. The crude Marxist assumption that socio-economic forces shaped consciousness never fitted well in a Britain which was uniquely proletarianised by the middle of the 19th century and yet did not produce a socialist consciousness even when Labour finally emerged.

For someone like myself – from a working class background brought up in a slum area – the attitudes of my working class, Tory-voting parents could not be understood in that framework. Discovering Thompson’s book was an epiphany. I was already a student at Warwick University when the paperback edition came out in 1968. The 944 pages were rapidly devoured and the approach to class understood. I enrolled for Thompson’s course unit, attracted by his approach to the study of social history. I had already found the pre-Gramscian Marxism of the Communist Party too crude. Thompson introduced culture and political development into the class equation, making the development of the early proletarians rounded and comprehensible.

Emphasising the importance of political struggle, from the Church and King riots of the 1790s to the dawn of Chartism after 1832, Thompson argued class was not a sociological construct – “so many men who stand in a certain relation to the means of production” as he put it – but a cultural phenomenon with “lags and distortions”. This made sense for a Brummy like myself – the ‘City of a Thousand Trades’ was an artisan town till after the Second World War. Deindustrialisation then reversed the process, though Birmingham remains a city of class conflict. Thompson’s view of class enables economic changes to be accommodated through political action.

It is undeniable his view had limitations: he neglected the role of women, for example. And in the postscript to the paperback edition he quotes a critic writing he had not given enough attention to the “flag-saluting, foreigner-hating, peer-respecting side of the plebeian mind”, responding that this only makes the emergence of class consciousness “in the 1830s… out of many disparate elements… all the more remarkable”. True, but the reactionary elements had to be sidelined. As Don says, the knitting together of disparate elements was produced by a growing  understanding of what united them. It is still not clear how this happened, and whether the English experience was unique, but the general point is correct. As Don points out, it is what unites which makes for success, but history will not repeat itself.

In conducting this debate, a starting point is the title of Thompson’s classic book. It is not accidental that this is the making of the English working class – Thompson was well aware that the Celts are different. Given that Scotland has moved left while England and Wales moved right, the key factor here is not racial but political. Secondly, Thompson’s belief that there was one Working Class has to be revisited. Work defines our lives, and the lack of it or its conduct in the conditions of Post-Covid will shape politics as it always has done. But we cannot talk of one working class any longer – we need to talk of working classes. Starmer made a crucial mistake in suggesting the Red Wall voters “lent” their votes to the Tories last December. They made decisions based on their understanding of their political choices and Labour did not have their votes as of right. This assumption is shared by both old left and Blair right, assuming  the votes of the traditional working class are Labour’s guaranteed banker. They are not. And until the Party understands there is no automatic loyalty based on socio-economic factors, then it will struggle to achieve election victories.

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