Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Richard A. Rempel
Thomas E. Willey
The Making of the English Working Class is widely regarded as a seminal contribution to the development of post-war English historiography. Whether historians agree with Thompson's views or not, they cannot study the period 1780-1832 without paying some attention to the arguments expressed in that text. The Making also claimed the attention of socialists and sociologists since it dealt explicitly with the concept of social class. Indeed, Thompson's arguments on this question challenged, as he intended, many of the ideas then current on class and the attendant notion of revolution. Although I refer briefly to the literature dealing with the impact of The Making in the introduction, this dissertation has little to say on that subject. Instead, it inquires into the concerns that prompted the publication of the text.
There has been no adequate study of the relationship between The Making and the political and intellectual context in which Thompson wrote. This is a serious omission, because the status of the text cannot be established without understanding Thompson's intentions. This dissertation hopes to go some way to filling in the gaps in the literature on Thompson's work by considering this aspect of it.
A central proposition in The Making is Thompson's defence of the claim that men have the capacity to act as agents in the making of their own history. This notion, he argued, was denied by the ideologies which gave the Cold War its specificity. Marxists, in the Leninist tradition, reduced human thought to terms defined by abstract economic laws over which men had no control. Bourgeois thought similarly constrained human motives, but within a framework defined by an acquisitive and competitive conception of man's nature. In both cases human nature was assumed to be fixed and the character of this could be seen to be reflected in the existing organization of social relationships.
According to Thompson, bourgeois and Marxist alike had reified a particular present and derived an eternal human nature from these abstractions. Thompson rejected this ideological conception of human nature and, following the early Marx, argued that men define their own nature through their actions. Thompson also traced this theme to the emphasis which the English Romantic critique of industrial capitalism placed on creative labour. The definition of creative labour, especially in the work of William Blake and William Morris, can be shown to have played an important role in shaping Thompson's own understanding of socialism.
Thompson, in fact, drew heavily from Romanticism and integrated themes from this tradition with his own experiences in the labour movement to aniculate an original conception of socialist activity. The connection between his study of William Morris - one of his earliest and most important statements on Romanticism - and his later political and historical work, up to and including The Making, has all too often been ignored. This study focuses on this relationship in the belief that it will help one to understand some of the reasons lying behind publication of The Making.
The first two chapters deal with Thompson's interpretation of the importance of English Romanticism for contemporary socialist practice. They are followed by a fairly detailed discussion, in chapters 3 and 4, of Thompson's critique of the Marxist orthodoxy that was dominant in the 1950s. Chapter 5 considers Thompson's explanation both of the sources of political apathy in post-war Britain and the factors which he believed portended socialist alternatives to the present. Chapters 6 and 7 pursue a theme introduced in chapter 2: the political significance of Thompson's history. I conclude with a general discussion of the significance which Thompson attributed to the role of creative literature, and especially to poetry, to the task of creating a socialist consciousness.
McShane, Michael Francis, "'HISTORY AND HOPE': E.P. THOMPSON AND THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS" (1990). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 3549.