Cover image for The essential E.P. Thompson
The essential E.P. Thompson
Thompson, E. P. (Edward Palmer), 1924-1993.
Uniform Title:
Works. Selections. 2000
Publication Information:
New York : New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton & Co., [2001]

Physical Description:
x, 498 pages ; 24 cm

Format :


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Material Type
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Item Holds
DA480 .T46 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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E.P. Thompson was one of the most visionary and influential historians of the last century, acclaimed as the innovator of "history from below"--the immersion in the many details of everyday life, particularly among the working class, as a vital means of understanding the past and the patterns of history itself. His classic work, The Making of the English Working Class , changed the ways in which not only historians but a whole new generation looked at the past. The Essential E.P. Thompson , the largest collection of Thompson's historical work published in one volume, gives us the full range of his scholarly output, from William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary and The Making of the English Working Class , to Albion's Fatal Tree and Customs in Common . Both a superb introduction for those new to Thompson's work, and an invaluable addition to any history lover's collection, The Essential E.P. Thompson is a stirring testament to the range, complexity, and vision of "one of the most eloquent, powerful, and independent voices of our time" ( The Observer , London).

Author Notes

E.P. Thompson (1924-1993) was one of England''s foremost historians and social critics. His books include Customs in Common , Witness Against the Beast , and Making History (all available from The New Press), as well as The Making of the English Working Class .

Dorothy Thompson (1923-2011), Edward's wife and coworker of many years, was a distinguished historian and the author of the classic The Chartists and o Queen Victoria: Gender and Power , among other works.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In his lifetime, the British historian E. P. Thompson was both admired and reviled. Even his harshest critics paid tribute to his incisive intellect and his efforts to write "history from below," detailing the everyday lives and contributions of ordinary people. Yet conservatives could not stomach his leftist sympathies while orthodox Marxists attacked his constant rebellions against their ideological straightjacket. Dorothy Thompson, his wife, coworker and a prominent historian, has compiled a representative anthology of his work. The selections reveal a man committed to what he viewed as "progressive" causes, but also a man open to new ideas and interpretations of history and culture, even if they contradict his long-held positions. Some of the selections, such as The Making of the English Working Class (1963), are familiar to many historians. Others, such as his moving examination of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, are rather obscure gems. This book will be a delight for historians and general readers with an interest in the social sciences. --Jay Freeman

Library Journal Review

This collection of writings by Thompson, the influential British historian of 18th- and 19th-century England, was compiled by his widow, the historian Dorothy Thompson (The Chartists). In this single edition, she includes The Making of the English Working Class, Customs in Common, Making History, and other of Thompson's salient works of history from the bottom up, or "history from below"Da phrase that happens to be the title of one of the essays here. Whether discussing weavers or Mary Wollstonecraft, Thompson argues that social relationships in the modern Western world are open, dynamic, and evolving categories. Thompson considers consciousness, culture, and value systems just as crucial to the historical narrative as are explanations of social class and power. Indeed, his works have become important points of reference for many post-1960s American social historians. Recommended for academic libraries.DCharles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One EXPLOITATION from The Making of the English Working Class John Thelwall was not alone in seeing in every "manufactory" a potential centre of political rebellion. An aristocratic traveller who visited the Yorkshire Dales in 1792 was alarmed to find a new cotton-mill in the "pastoral vale" of Aysgarth--"why, here now is a great flaring mill, whose back stream has drawn off half the water of the falls above the bridge": With the bell ringing, and the clamour of the mill, all the vale is distub'd; treason and levelling systems are the discourse; and rebellion may be near at hand.     The mill appeared as symbol of social energies which were destroying the very "course of Nature." It embodied a double threat to the settled order. First, from the owners of industrial wealth, those upstarts who enjoyed an unfair advantage over the landowners whose income was tied to their rent-roll: If men thus start into riches; or if riches from trade are too easily procured, woe to us men of middling income, and settled revenue; and woe it has been to all the Nappa Halls, and the Yeomanry of the land. Second, from the industrial working population, which our traveller regarded with an alliterative hostility which betrays a response not far removed from that of the white racialist towards the coloured population today: The people, indeed, are employ'd; but they are all abandon'd to vice from the throng.... At the times when people work not in the mill, they issue out to poaching, profligacy and plunder....     The equation between the cotton-mill and the new industrial society, and the correspondence between new forms of productive and of social relationship, was a commonplace among observers in the years between 1790 and 1850. Karl Marx was only expressing this with unusual vigour when he declared: "The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist." And it was not only the mill-owner but also the working population brought into being within and around the mills which seemed to contemporaries to be "new." "The instant we get near the borders of the manufacturing parts of Lancashire," a rural magistrate wrote in 1808, "we meet a fresh race of beings, both in point of manners, employments and subordination ..."; while Robert Owen, in 1815, declared that "the general diffusion of manufactures throughout a country generates a new character in its inhabitants ... an essential change in the general character of the mass of the people."     Observers in the 1830s and 1840s were still exclaiming at the novelty of the "factory system." Peter Gaskell, in 1833, spoke of the manufacturing population as "but a Hercules in the cradle"; it was "only since the introduction of steam as a power that they have acquired their paramount importance." The steam-engine had "drawn together the population into dense masses" and already Gaskell saw in working-class organisations an "`imperium in imperio' of the most obnoxious description." Ten years later Cooke Taylor was writing in similar terms: The steam-engine had no precedent, the spinning-jenny is without ancestry, the mule and the power-loom entered on no prepared heritage: they sprang into sudden existence like Minerva from the brain of Jupiter. But it was the human consequence of these "novelties" which caused this observer most disquiet: As a stranger passes through the masses of human beings which have accumulated round the mills and print works ... he cannot contemplate these "crowded hives" without feelings of anxiety and apprehension almost amounting to dismay. The population, like the system to which it belongs, is new ; but it is hourly increasing in breadth and strength. It is an aggregate of masses, our conceptions of which clothe themselves in terms that express something portentous and fearful ... as of the slow rising and gradual swelling of an ocean which must, at some future and no distant time, bear all the elements of society aloft upon its bosom, and float them Heaven knows whither. There are mighty energies slumbering in these masses.... The manufacturing population is not new in its formation alone: it is new in its habits of thought and action, which have been formed by the circumstances of its condition, with little instruction, and less guidance, from external sources....     For Engels, describing the Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 , it seemed that "the first proletarians were connected with manufacture, were engendered by it ... the factory hands, eldest children of the industrial revolution, have from the beginning to the present day formed the nucleus of the Labour Movement."     However different their judgments of value, conservative, radical, and socialist observers suggested the same equation: steam power and the cotton-mill = new working class. The physical instruments of production were seen as giving rise in a direct and more-or-less compulsive way to new social relationships, institutions, and cultural modes. At the same time the history of popular agitation during the period 1811-50 appears to confirm this picture. It is as if the English nation entered a crucible in the 1790s and emerged after the Wars in a different form. Between 1811 and 1813, the Luddite crisis; in 1817 the Pentridge Rising; in 1819, Peterloo; throughout the next decade the proliferation of trade union activity, Owenite propaganda, Radical journalism, the Ten Hours Movement, the revolutionary crisis of 1831-2; and, beyond that, the multitude of movements which made up Chartism. It is, perhaps, the scale and intensity of this multiform popular agitation which has, more than anything else, given rise (among contemporary observers and historians alike) to the sense of some catastrophic change.     Almost every radical phenomenon of the 1790s can be found reproduced tenfold after 1815. The handful of Jacobin sheets gave rise to a score of ultra-Radical and Owenite periodicals. Where Daniel Eaton served imprisonment for publishing Paine, Richard Carlile and his shopmen served a total of more than 200 years imprisonment for similar crimes. Where Corresponding Societies maintained a precarious existence in a score of towns, the post-war Hampden Clubs or political unions struck root in small industrial villages. And when this popular agitation is recalled alongside the dramatic pace of change in the cotton industry, it is natural to assume a direct causal relationship. The cotton-mill is seen as the agent not only of industrial but also of social revolution, producing not only more goods but also the "Labour Movement" itself. The Industrial Revolution, which commenced as a description, is now invoked as an explanation.     From the time of Arkwright through to the Plug Riots and beyond, it is the image of the "dark, Satanic mill" which dominates our visual reconstruction of the Industrial Revolution. In part, perhaps, because it is a dramatic visual image--the barrack-like buildings, the great mill chimneys, the factory children, the clogs and shawls, the dwellings clustering around the mills as if spawned by them. (It is an image which forces one to think first of the industry, and only secondly of the people connected to it or serving it.) In part, because the cotton-mill and the new mill-town--from the swiftness of its growth, ingenuity of its techniques, and the novelty or harshness of its discipline--seemed to contemporaries to be dramatic and portentous: a more satisfactory symbol for debate on the "condition-of-England" question than those anonymous or sprawling manufacturing districts which figure even more often in the Home Office "disturbance books." And from this both a literary and an historical tradition is derived. Nearly all the classic accounts by contemporaries of conditions in the Industrial Revolution are based on the cotton industry--and, in the main, on Lancashire: Owen, Gaskell, Ure, Fielden, Cooke Taylor, Engels, to mention a few. Novels such as Michael Armstrong or Mary Barton or Hard Times perpetuate the tradition. And the emphasis is markedly found in the subsequent writing of economic and social history.     But many difficulties remain. Cotton was certainly the pace-making industry of the Industrial Revolution, and the cotton-mill was the pre-eminent model for the factory-system. Yet we should not assume any automatic, or over-direct, correspondence between the dynamic of economic growth and the dynamic of social or cultural life. For half a century after the "break-through" of the cotton-mill (around 1780) the mill workers remained as a minority of the adult labour force in the cotton industry itself. In the early 1830s the cotton hand-loom weavers alone still outnumbered all the men and women in spinning and weaving mills of cotton, wool, and silk combined: Still, in 1830, the adult male cotton-spinner was no more typical of that elusive figure, the "average working man," than is the Coventry motor-worker of the 1960s.     The point is of importance, because too much emphasis upon the newness of the cotton-mills can lead to an underestimation of the continuity of political and cultural traditions in the making of working-class communities. The factory hands, so far from being the "eldest children of the industrial revolution," were late arrivals. Many of their ideas and forms of organisation were anticipated by domestic workers, such as the woollen workers of Norwich and the West Country, or the small-ware weavers of Manchester. And it is questionable whether factory hands--except in the cotton districts--"formed the nucleus of the Labour Movement" at any time before the late 1840s (and, in some northern and Midland towns, the years 1832-4, leading up to the great lock-outs). Jacobinism, as we have seen, struck root most deeply among artisans. Luddism was the work of skilled men in small workshops. From 1817 onwards to Chartism, the outworkers in the north and the Midlands were as prominent in every radical agitation as the factory hands. And in many towns the actual nucleus from which the labour movement derived ideas, organisation, and leadership, was made up of such men as shoemakers, weavers, saddlers and harnessmakers, booksellers, printers, building workers, small tradesmen, and the like. The vast area of Radical London between 1815 and 1850 drew its strength from no major heavy industries (shipbuilding was tending to decline, and the engineers only made their impact later in the century) but from the host of smaller trades and occupations.     Such diversity of experiences has led some writers to question both the notions of an "industrial revolution" and of a "working class." The first discussion need not detain us here? The term is serviceable enough in its usual connotations. For the second, many writers prefer the term working classes , which emphasises the great disparity in status, acquisitions, skills, conditions, within the portmanteau phrase. And in this they echo the complaints of Francis Place: If the character and conduct of the working-people are to be taken from reviews, magazines, pamphlets, newspapers, reports of the two Houses of Parliament and the Factory Commissioners, we shall find them all jumbled together as the "lower orders," the most skilled and the most prudent workman, with the most ignorant and imprudent labourers and paupers, though the difference is great indeed, and indeed in many cases will scarce admit of comparison. Place is, of course, right: the Sunderland sailor, the Irish navvy, the Jewish costermonger, the inmate of an East Anglian village workhouse, the compositor on The Times --all might be seen by their "betters" as belonging to the "lower classes" while they themselves might scarcely understand each others' dialect.     Nevertheless, when every caution has been made, the outstanding fact of the period between 1790 and 1830 is the formation of "the working class." This is revealed, first, in the growth of class-consciousness: the consciousness of an identity of interests as between all these diverse groups of working people and as against the interests of other classes. And, second, in the growth of corresponding forms of political and industrial organisation. By 1832 there were strongly-based and self-conscious working-class institutions--trade unions, friendly societies, educational and religious movements, political organisations, periodicals--working-class intellectual traditions, working-class community-patterns, and a working-class structure of feeling.     The making of the working class is a fact of political and cultural, as much as of economic, history. It was not the spontaneous generation of the factory-system. Nor should we think of an external force--the "industrial revolution"--working upon some nondescript undifferentiated raw material of humanity, and turning it out at the other end as a "fresh race of beings." The changing productive relations and working conditions of the Industrial Revolution were imposed, not upon raw material, but upon the free-born Englishman--and the free-born Englishman as Paine had left him or as the Methodists had moulded him. The factory hand or stockinger was also the inheritor of Bunyan, of remembered village rights, of notions of equality before the law, of craft traditions. He was the object of massive religious indoctrination and the creator of new political traditions. The working class made itself as much as it was made.     To see the working class in this way is to defend a "classical" view of the period against the prevalent mood of contemporary schools of economic history and sociology. For the territory of the Industrial Revolution, which was first staked out and surveyed by Marx, Arnold Toynbee, the Webbs, and the Hammonds, now resembles an academic battlefield. At point after point, the familiar "catastrophic" view of the period has been disputed. Where it was customary to see the period as one of economic disequilibrium, intense misery and exploitation, political repression and heroic popular agitation, attention is now directed to the rate of economic growth (and the difficulties of "take-off" into self-sustaining technological reproduction). The enclosure movement is now noted, less for its harshness in displacing the village poor, than for its success in feeding a rapidly growing population. The hardships of the period are seen as being due to the dislocations consequent upon the Wars, faulty communications, immature banking and exchange, uncertain markets, and the trade-cycle, rather than to exploitation or cut-throat competition. Popular unrest is seen as consequent upon the unavoidable coincidence of high wheat prices and trade depressions, and explicable in terms of an elementary "social tension" chart derived from these data. In general, it is suggested that the position of the industrial worker in 1840 was better in most ways than that of the domestic worker of 1790. The Industrial Revolution was an age, not of catastrophe or acute class-conflict and class oppression, but of improvement.     The classical catastrophic orthodoxy has been replaced by a new anticatastrophic orthodoxy, which is most clearly distinguished by its empirical caution and, among its most notable exponents (Sir John Clapham, Dr. Dorothy George, Professor Ashton) by an astringent criticism of the looseness of certain writers of the older school. The studies of the new orthodoxy have enriched historical scholarship, and have qualified and revised in important respects the work of the classical school. But as the new orthodoxy is now, in its turn, growing old and entrenched in most of the academic centres, so it becomes open to challenge in its turn. And the successors of the great empiricists too often exhibit a moral complacency, a narrowness of reference, and an insufficient familiarity with the actual movements of the working people of the time. They are more aware of the orthodox empiricist postures than of the changes in social relationship and in cultural modes which the Industrial Revolution entailed. What has been lost is a sense of the whole process--the whole political and social context of the period. What arose as valuable qualifications have passed by imperceptible stages to new generalisations (which the evidence can rarely sustain) and from generalizations to a ruling attitude.     The empiricist orthodoxy is often defined in terms of a running critique of the work of J. L. and Barbara Hammond. It is true that the Hammonds showed themselves too willing to moralise history, and to arrange their materials too much in terms of "outraged emotion." There are many points at which their work has been faulted or qualified in the light of subsequent research, and we intend to propose others. But a defence of the Hammonds need not only be rested upon the fact that their volumes on the laborers, with their copious quotation and wide reference, will long remain among the most important source-books for this period. We can also say that they displayed throughout their narrative an understanding of the political context within which the Industrial Revolution took place. To the student examining the ledgers of one cotton-mill, the Napoleonic Wars appear only as an abnormal influence affecting foreign markets and fluctuating demand. The Hammonds could never have forgotten for one moment that it was also a war against Jacobinism. "The history of England at the time discussed in these pages reads like a history of civil war." This is the opening of the introductory chapter of The Skilled Labourer . And in the conclusion to The Town Labourer , among other comments of indifferent value, there is an insight which throws the whole period into sudden relief: At the time when half Europe was intoxicated and the other half terrified by the new magic of the word citizen, the English nation was in the hands of men who regarded the idea of citizenship as a challenge to their religion and their civilization; who deliberately sought to make the inequalities of life the basis of the state, and to emphasise and perpetuate the position of the work people as a subject class. Hence it happened that the French Revolution has divided the people of France less than the Industrial Revolution has divided the people of England....     "Hence it happened...." The judgment may be questioned. And yet it is in this insight--that the revolution which did not happen in England was fully as devastating, and in some features more divisive, than that which did happen in France--that we find a clue to the truly catastrophic nature of the period. Throughout this time there are three, and not two, great influences simultaneously at work. There is the tremendous increase in population (in Great Britain, from 10.5 millions in 1801 to 18.1 millions in 1841, with the greatest rate of increase between 1811-21). There is the Industrial Revolution, in its technological aspects. And there is the political counter -revolution, from 1792-1832.     In the end, it is the political context as much as the steam-engine, which had most influence upon the shaping consciousness and institutions of the working class. The forces making for political reform in the late 18th century--Wilkes, the city merchants, the Middlesex small gentry, the "mob"--or Wyvill, and the small gentry and yeomen, clothiers, cutlers, and tradesmen--were on the eve of gaining at least some piecemeal victories in the 1790s: Pitt had been cast for the role of reforming Prime Minister. Had events taken their "natural" course we might expect there to have been some show-down long before 1832, between the oligarchy of land and commerce and the manufacturers and petty gentry, with working people in the tail of the middle-class agitation. And even in 1792, when manufacturers and professional men were prominent in the reform movement, this was still the balance of forces. But, after the success of Rights of Man , the radicalisation and terror of the French Revolution, and the onset of Pitt's repression, it was the plebeian Corresponding Society which alone stood up against the counter-revolutionary wars. And these plebeian groups, small as they were in 1796, did nevertheless make up an "underground" tradition which ran through to the end of the Wars. Alarmed at the French example, and in the patriotic fervour of war, the aristocracy and the manufacturers made common cause. The English ancient régime received a new lease of life, not only in national affairs, but also in the perpetuation of the antique corporations which misgoverned the swelling industrial towns. In return, the manufacturers received important concessions: and notably the abrogation or repeal of "paternalist" legislation covering apprenticeship, wage-regulation, or conditions in industry. The aristocracy were interested in repressing the Jacobin "conspiracies" of the people, the manufacturers were interested in defeating their "conspiracies" to increase wages: the Combination Acts served both purposes. (Continues...) Copyright © 2001 Dorothy Thompson. All rights reserved.