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The Making of the English Working Class at Fifty

Remembering EP Thompson

by CAL WINSLOW

Edward Thompson, who died in 1993, will above all forever be remembered as the author of The Making of the English Working Class, a book described by my friend Fred Inglis as an “astonishing work, you might say Thompson’s version of a prophetic Book. It is a work of scholarly history, it is a vast Romantic-Marxist novel. Record and archive and citation are faithfully observed; the heroes and heroines of working class formation, Somerville, Bamford, Joanna Southgate, speak as they speak in the original texts, but all are gathered into a collective making of membership, a coming-to-creative-consciousness which is their grand and contradictory confection of culture…”

More on this latter…

The Making, a masterpiece, now in its fiftieth year of uninterrupted publication, burst the complacence above all of history departments. Its impact, Iain Boal has written, was “incendiary”; it sent “shock waves” through “the polite smoking rooms” of still quiescent universities and “permanently changed the landscape of that epoch.”

On this side of the Atlantic, The Making helped clear a path in a widening challenge to the official record of compromise, consensus and conservatism.

More, perhaps, it raised forbidden banners of class, banners then still half buried in the ruins of post McCarthy America, yet indispensable if a new generation was to make any sense at all of the challenges of the sixties.

The Making was many things, it would become many more; different things for different people. Yet one thing remains inescapably certain; The Making is at its heart about class and it is about the recovering of the history of class struggle.

I read The Making for the first time in 1967. I met Edward in 1969 at the new Warwick University, where he directed the Center for the Study of Social History. Warwick then was a radical campus; “Red Warwick” its Student Union still calls it. I came to Warwick from Seattle, where I’d been an anti-war activist, chair of our Vietnam Committee.

1969 was the year Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) imploded, an irreversible step in the fatal descent of the US student left. But I was still looking to find a evidence for a socialism from below, however, I thought “history from below” might reveal clues – in understanding new movements, as well the challenge of old ones, first of all a labor movement that seemed incorrigibly conservative.

The Center was a small place – Edward (the Director), a half-time secretary, a visiting lecturer in US labor history for the MA course, Melvyn Dubofsky in 1969, following David Montgomery. One office, one seminar room. There were a handful of PhD students. Yet it was an exciting place, sometimes thrilling.

The Center demanded serious academic work, but there were no objections to activism; a culture where activism was encouraged was in fact already established. We worked after all in the shadow of 1968, the Paris spring, the debacle in Prague. Vietnam dominated the nightly news. There were huge anti-war demonstrations in London, there was South Africa. Barclays, the only bank on campus at Warwick, was boycotted for its involvement in apartheid South Africa. The Springboks (South African Rugby) tour was stalked and disrupted.

The atmosphere at the Center included a strong sense of the collective, work was shared; a sharp argument, give and take, was valued; we were comrades. Albion’s Fatal Tree, the collaboration of the crime group and others, was one result. The ‘crime group’ came together in 1969, at a time not coincidentally when students were interested in riot and rebellion, the crowd, the law, enclosures, direct action, the defense of the commons and new forms of organization and protest.

And there was a spirit of good will regarding the activists at the Center, good will that went both ways. Certainly plenty of space was allowed for all, though there were also significant areas of silence.

The center was in no sense isolated; Edward’s contacts seemed endless, they included not just academics but trade unionists. Lawrence Daly, the leader of the Fife miner’s, then Secretary Treasurer of the National Union of Miners’’ (NUM), led one seminar.  We students invited Sheila Rowbotham to speak. Bernadette Devlin, then the youngest Member of Parliament ever, came twice. We were connected with Ruskin College, Oxford, via the History Workshop.

In fact, we activists had a lot going for us; certainly no one faulted our intense objections to the war, nor our obligation to oppose it. We Americans brought links with Berkeley and Columbia, with Civil Rights and Black Power. Warwick students had already established relationships with groups of Coventry shop stewards, some of them no older than ourselves, militant rank-and-file car workers, then contesting “productivity deals” – the spearhead of the British employers’ offensive. Interestingly, Coventry then wore the label, “the little Detroit” with honor.

In the midst of this, there was Edward, instructor, mentor, critic, dissenter, comrade. His door, always open. Julian Harber remembers an example of the Thompson’s “legendary hospitality”: “I attended a Workers’ Control Conference in Coventry where Dorothy noticing me in the audience passed me a note enquiring whether I needed a bed for the night… having arrived with a sleeping bag but no actual accommodation, it was a welcome offer.” And there was always the Making working classchance for a good argument. Peter Linebaugh writes, Thompson “…wanted discussion, even argument. And argument he got. We were a collective, and not one that agreed on everything. Far from it.” The Thompson’s old friend Trevor Griffiths tells me he still remembers the smell of Lansdowne Crescent in Leamington, the smell of the sweat from the heat of the arguments, the smell of those who’d just left.”

Edward was a towering figure – and despite our “healthy sense of community and mutuality, reinforced by egalitarian premises” (Protest and Survival, 1993), it was the rare student who was not fascinated by his past and inspired by his presence.

Who amongst us was not familiar with Thompson’s father, also Edward, and his American mother, Theodosia, both missionaries?  The father was a novelist, poet, and preacher who taught Indian history at Oxford and lived Indian history in India, who was an associate of Gandhi and Nehru. And familiar with the assassination of his older brother Frank, 24, by fascists while on duty behind enemy lines near Sofia?  We tracked him to the Communist Party Historians Group; the first New Left; his row with Perry Anderson at New Left Review. 

We knew the Thompson’s home in Halifax, though we’d never been there. Edward’s teaching in the mill towns and mining villages of the West Riding was legendary; for students his notion that for the teacher of adult workers there was as much to learn as there was to teach was foundational.

Anna Davin, then a history student, writes: “Thompson taught the course on industrialization, and of course told us about people and their lives and culture. He introduced us to the classic work of Ivy Pinchbeck on Women Workers and the Industrial revolution (1930). Women were always there in his account, working, singing, rearing children, taking part in bread riots, writing poetry, or – like the early feminist and revolutionary, Mary Wollstonecraft – demanding change.”

“Through the Smoke of Budapest,” an emotional appeal on behalf of Hungarian workers, signaling his exodus from the Communist Party in 1956, was fabled – his lifelong antipathy to Stalinism, deeply embedded in all his writings; his libertarian socialism (“socialist humanism”), rejection of hierarchical forms of organization and hostility to ‘democratic’ centralism were, for a fleeting moment, ABC in the New Left. In the eighties, he carried these on into anti-nuclear movements. There was more than politics. For many of us hurry-up courses on Milton, Swift, Blake and Wordsworth were required, just to be part of the conversation.

And there was war – and peace. The history of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) helped inform attitudes toward the anti-Vietnam war movement, as did the impatience of Thompson, the World War II tank commander, with the advocates of violent confrontation as a contemporary strategy, similarly with emerging cults of violence. In the Center (as in Edward’s writings) there was the sense that politics and history went together, discussions of what was blended into what ought to be.

We activists were rather working class as a group – not exactly “scholarship kids” but mostly children of upward mobility in the fifties and sixties. What was interesting for an American was the experience of working class identity in its positive sense. The English kids, typically, were the products of single-sex grammar schools and the first in their families to enter high education.

Ron Rose came to Warwick from the North. His dad drove a meat delivery van for the Co-op and voted Conservative.

“I got a grant (from the state) of twelve quid a week.” He “was paid to sit in a warm library reading books. My dad got eleven, 11 pounds for a 48 hour week.”

We were in a real way prized – though always expected to carry our weight. It was good to be working class. Not by accident I now suspect.

In February 1970, students, occupying the Warwick University Registry, came upon records revealing, among other things, the surveillance – by local industrialists and the University administration – of David Montgomery, the visiting American historian (“a revival of labor espionage”, Edward warned). There were files on students, including records of their political activities, and above all there were documents exposing a deep, often secret, collusion between the University administration and the management of Coventry’s then still thriving car industry. The affair became a national scandal.

Judith Condon, then studying literature with Germane Greer:

“Personally, I remember in particular: the sense that if students stuck together in common purpose – on one occasion ‘rough musicking’ the University Council from outside as the only way to make our voice heard – then the authorities could not ignore us; the exhilarating moment after the files were uncovered, when we spread out to our departments and debated what their contents meant for the notion of academic freedom; the unhesitating leadership of Edward Thompson…”

Thompson himself immediately published an account in New Society, ‘Warwick: The Business University’. Within two weeks a wave of sympathy movements broke out at a dozen other universities.  By March, Thompson, with the assistance of Warwick staff and post-graduates had produced a book, a Penguin Education Special, Warwick University Ltd.

The value of education, underlying much of what we did at Warwick, in our case the study of history, was passionately upheld, and along with this came concerns for the future. Warwick stood out among British universities as one of the first to develop close links with the business community and has been successful ever since in the commercialization of research.

Thompson concluded Warwick University Ltd with questions about the direction of the ‘Mid-Atlantic University’, including prescient worries regarding the outlook for education more generally: “man exists and progresses, not only by productive technology, but also by the strength of his ideas and by the artifacts of his culture. In his submission to a subordinate role in a managerial system, he is re-enacting the meaning, for Britain in the 1970s, of the trahison des clercs. So, against all this, we have raised at Warwick, not only a new flag or two, but some very ancient and tattered flags, even older than those of rotten liberalism…The outcome of this episode will also be some kind of an index of the vitality of democratic process – and of the shape of the next British future.”

We lost.

Condon again: “In this novel environment, we had no idea that the university’s governance and structures had been forged in the image of manufacturing industry and under the influence of some of its captains; nor how opposed they were to the very notion of a students’ union.”

It’s awful now – we’ll leave today’s Warwick aside – it’s awful now, as they – David Cameron is the nineteenth Prime Minister to have attended Eton – close down admissions, confine the humanities for the few and price the “top” universities out of reach, to think that we were just an anomaly, a peculiarity of post-war prosperity.

I think back and what has remained with me is this – I (we) not only studied with Edward, we were allowed into his world. I think this sharing of experience may have been uneven, often very uneven, still it was real. I think this helps explain why so many of us went into working class adult education – Julian, Judith, Merfyn, Janette, Lucia, Sheila, John, Anna – just from that group.

We shared not just in the classroom but in his own life’s experience (indirectly of course) – fascism, resistance, war, the new spirit of 45, cold war, and, then, his seventeen years life and work in the industrial North, in Halifax, where he and his wife, Dorothy, in 1948, far from the Metropolis, settled in a working class district and raised their children, sending them to state schools.

The Making then became part of us as well.

Edward taught adult education, crisscrossing the heavily populated West Riding to meet small groups who signed up for courses on offer from the Leeds University Extramural Department and the Workers Education Association (WEA), most often three year courses, 24 weeks per term – simply to learn. No degrees, no certificates, no promise of future employment.

Edward was one in a generation of socialist educators – workers’ education was an active alternative to elite education. In a shabby old car, or sometimes in elderly buses or even shabbier trains, he carted with him a heavy box of books, and picked his way cross country to a village hall, a school room, the back premises of the local library, the annex to a church vestry, and on occasions someone’s sitting room, to meet with a dozen or fifteen people in order to talk about Wordsworth and Blake, Lawrence and Shakespeare, or the future of socialism, but especially the inheritance of these people and their West Riding communities – the connections between his students and their forebears, the weavers, the spinners, the miners, the Luddites, the Chartists and utopians. Or did they teach him?

“I went into adult education because it seemed to me to be an area in which I would learn something about industrial England and teach people who would teach me.” Against this background Edward wrote his two big books, William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary, and of course the The Making, the latter intended originally as a modest “industrial and social history” of the West Riding.

The Making is different things to different people, and quite rightly, though this I think can lead to misunderstandings. It is not strictly speaking an academic work, though it is most certainly a challenge to academic history and a counter narrative to the official story. Its author, self-taught, had no advanced degree, was attached to no prestigious university department; his use of poetry, song, broad sheets, all made academics flinch. And it is, importantly, a political work, a polemic and a call to arms, aimed not at the academy but, principally, at his students, the CND, the Left Clubs and those young workers, indifferent to the trade unions and the Labor Party, radicalized yet watching from the fringes of these movements.  It was a work of the moment. And its objectives; there were many. It might “make socialists,” in the William Morris sense. But perhaps mostly in those three years of writing he must also have wanted a sort of platform for the New Left, a history upon which to build a non-aligned movement, against capital and empire.

The Making recovered an authentic revolutionary tradition and the made the experience of class central in this. And, despite a small mountain of argument against it, The Making still soars and it is quite right to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. When we read it today it is still alive, its characters still speak to each other and to us. It is still relevant. I think that is what Inglis means by calling The Making a romantic novel and remembering this: “It was a life-changer for the youngish readers in the 1960s. Its large, never-quite grasped purpose was to find and recharge the lost veins of English romantic socialism, to make them glow again in the body politic.”

Possible, Perhaps, in the right circumstances…

We continue to work in the (largely) dark, altogether uncertain of our future, in the lingering Great Recession, as well as in the widespread recognition and grim reality of staggering inequality. Can Edward help us?

There have been many accounts of The Making; there exists now a virtual mountain of interpretation, swollen this year in particular in a flurry of remembrances, critiques, conferences and celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary. All for good, surely? Alas not so simple. While certainly Edward has always had a following (a peculiar one, of course), the truth is that he’s been out of (academic/left) fashion for quite some time now, certainly amongst historians, and even amongst those founders of the once-promising “new labor history” in the US. Some rehabilitation seems in progress in the UK, such signs are few (apparent readership to the contrary), if present at all, here. This is true even when we “celebrate”, then, one hears, as often as not, the tones of a requiem, very little of the joy of jubilee.

Nevertheless, it remains a fact that in the fifty years since first publishing The Making, no single person has done more in terms of making the case for class, that is for its existence, its nuances, its ambiguities, and then for understanding its centrality than Edward Thompson. Did he get it all right? Of course not. Room for improvement? Certainly.

The Making was followed by a series of equally brilliant essays, some more narrowly eighteenth century, others of much wider significance. All together these inspired a generation of social and labor and feminist activists and historians, the results of which are easy enough to find. What’s the problem then? It’s that not just Edward that has gone out of style. So has class. And so has the courage to say this, even harshly, to comrades as well as critics.

Still not so long ago, the theme “we are the 99%” was received by many as a sort of revelation, yet if so it was a clumsy one, telling us next to nothing about relationships and offering very little indeed about how to uncover the actual structures of society, where we might find the fissures, spaces to work, sources of conflict. In a sense, it disguised these.

These need recovering.   So this makes today the right moment to revive and read Edward Thompson, above all on class. After all there are causes yet to fight, causes that might still be won. “We are not at the end of social evolution ourselves.”

I have added the voices of some of the others at Warwick, though limited by space and availability but to emphasize that we were indeed a collective, sometimes not knowing it and albeit a peculiar collective. 

Hugo Radice has edited a new edition of Warwick University Ltd. It is to be issued by Spokesman Press in January.

Cal Winslow is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press, 2012 (second edition, revised and expanded), an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010), and an editor of West of Eden, Communes and Utopia in Northern California (PM Press, 2012). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area collective, Retort. He can be reached at cwinslow@berkeley.edu