Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

E.P. Thompson's Capital: Political Economy in the Making

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

E.P. Thompson's Capital: Political Economy in the Making

Article excerpt

THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS was not written by an historian. In 1963 its author, E.P. Thompson, was a writer and political activist, who worked as a Tutor in English for the Extra Mural Studies Department at the University of Leeds. His first book had been a spirited political biography of William Morris; his second an edited collection of essays gathered in the wake of Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which was soon followed by the British incursion into the Suez and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. As an activist, Thompson played a key role in the creation of the New Left. He co-edited with John Saville the Reasoner, a mimeographed journal of dissent within the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), which became the New Reasoner after he and Saville left the party rather than obey a directive to suspend publication; and he was a local organizer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in Great Britain to call for an end to both nuclear testing and nuclear weapons. Thompson and his New Left comrades wanted to create a viable alternative, on the one hand, to the CPGB, which was almost solely identified in the public mind with defending the national interests of the USSR, whatever the impact of such defense on the interests of workers elsewhere; and, on the other, to the British Labour Party, which devoted itself far too slavishly in the opinion of Thompson and his comrades to defending the national interest of the United States and its NATO front. He wrote The Making of the English Working Class as a contribution to this creation, a witness to the possibility of a different kind of politics and a different kind of world.

Things did not turn out the way Thompson had hoped, though that is not a story I will tell here. My goal here is simply to help honor The Making of the English Working Class and its author, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication, by emphasizing the book's importance not only as a work of history but also as a political, and even a theoretical, tract for our time. I want especially to underscore the ways in which The Making was not just a product of the New Left but also a strategic intervention within it. It was addressed primarily to a broad audience of activists and working-class students rather than historians; and it was intended more to change the way history was made than to change the way it was written. Moreover, Thompson did not write with just an English audience in mind, or with just the past in view: the working class for him was global, and he was as concerned with its prospects as with its formation. He sought to show the world, including those parts of it to which his students belonged, as well as his comrades on the Left and the many people with whom he worked in campaigns for peace and other forms of social protection, that the history of earlier struggles provided imaginative resources to assist their common efforts to make the world a better place.

The Making is not just a history, then, at least not in any conventional sense. It is a work of political and social conviction, which is also a history. Anyone familiar with the book remembers Thompson's famous desire to "rescue the poor stockinger ... from the enormous condescension of posterity." (1) The sentiments that follow deserve to be equally familiar:

Our only criterion of judgment should not be whether or not a man's actions are justified in the light of subsequent evolution [in other words, in the light of history]. After all, we are not at the end of social evolution [i.e., history (!)] ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the [English] Industrial Revolution we may discover insights into social evils which we have yet to cure. Moreover, the greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialization, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during [our] Industrial Revolution. …

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