Class has been an openly discussed factor in English life for the past two centuries. For radical politics, from at least the Peterloo massacre (1819) onward the emergence of a lower class campaign opposing its exclusion from voting defined a new politics*. The Regency Period saw an emerging demand for democracy which had not been present since the Putney debates in the English Civil War. The re-emergence of politics from below by the 1830s impressed foreign observers as a definitive aspect of politics in the UK, gaining strength through the nineteenth century, and spreading to other countries.
The best known observers thus impressed were German immigrants Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Engels a businessman based in Salford, Marx a political exile based in London but working politically with Engels on the implications of British developments. Both came to the conclusion that the new class politics in Britain had revolutionary possibilities, expressing their view in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. Other observers agreed that class was now a dominant element in British political and social life, but without revolutionary implications. The Fabian Society (formed 1884) knowing that male rural workers were about to gain the franchise (as the urban male workers had done in 1867) devised a parliamentary politics based on the voting potential of the working class men now allowed the vote.
The Fabians joined the Labour Representation Committee (the foundation of the later Labour Party) on its formation in 1900, and remain in business as part of the Labour Party. The Representation of the People Act 1918 triggered further male voting and substantial female voting allowing the Fabians to play a major role in twentieth century Labour politics. Their embrace of working class enfranchisement seemingly put them on the cusp of radical developments delayed from the nineteenth century but now possible to achieve. Yet the twentieth century provided more questions than answers.
The 2019 election and its effects indicate that the long history of class as a key aspect of British life, and the domination of the class factor in left of centre politics, may both have come to an end. This has not entirely been a bolt out of the blue, though the collapse of the Labour vote in the seats described as the Red Wall at the 2019 election was largely unexpected. Yet long term trends weakening class voting had been described as early as 1983 – by Crewe and Sarlvik in Decade of Dealignment (1). By the end of the 1970s other commentators including the Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, had commented that class was not looking the dominant political and cultural factor it had been for most of the twentieth century (2).
The conclusion that class is no longer the key factor it once was is gaining support though still controversial. But to begin at the beginning, when did class begin to exert an effect? And in what ways? The obvious starting point for England is E P Thompson’s Penguin Classic The Making of the English Working Class, and this is analysed in this paper. If the origin of class in English history can be established, the current debate on the state of class politics may be better brought into focus.
Why the Making?
Thompson was commissioned by the publisher Gollancz in August 1959 to write a book which would be a textbook on working class politics 1790-1921**. Thompson recalled in 1980 that what appeared as the final text was initially designed to be only the first chapter, but he abandoned the 121 year chronology to focus on dealing with little more than the 40 years after 1790 (3). Thompson commented in the famous preface to the original edition published in 1963 that he had drawn upon the researches of his wife, Mrs Dorothy Thompson, but did not say that her own work was research into the Chartists. Presumably he did not go beyond the first chapter of his original commission because if he had written about developments after 1832 he would have been trespassing on her work. The Thompson’s were a partnership in history and politics as well as life.
Thompson’s book essentially ends in 1832 with the Great Reform Bill, the final date in the text being 1835 (4). The original preface sets out the theoretical issues around class consciousness which Thompson deals with in the text, but it is worth noting that in the preface to the 1980 edition he alludes to two specific traditions he was writing against, firstly positivism and secondly the Marxist tradition which held that the working class was a “spontaneous generation of new productive forces” (5). His approach was dominated by his opposition to the Marxist tradition of the British Communist Party (CPGB), which he had left in 1956 after more than a decade in active membership. No one could be a member of the CPGB during the Stalin era without total commitment and the bruising events which led him to resign undoubtedly made him reject much of the base and superstructure theory of traditional Marxism, though he always regarded himself as a Marxist historian.