E. P. Thompson ‘s Historiography

E. P. Thompson ‘s
“The working class did not rise like the sun
at an appointed hour. It was present at its
own making.
I do not see class as a “structure”, nor
even as a “category”, but as something
which in fact happens (and can be shown to
have happened) in human relationships...
Moreover, we cannot have two distinct
classes, each with an independent being,
and then bring them into relationship with
each other. We cannot have love without
lovers, nor deference without squires and
labourers. (p.1)”
“I am trying to rescue the poor stockinger,
the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” handloom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and
even the deluded follower of Joanna
Southcott, from the enormous
condescension of posterity...
Our only criterion of evolution should not be
whether or not a man's actions are justified
in the light of subsequent evolution. After all,
we are not at the end of social evolution
ourselves. (p.13)
‘And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or
shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as
against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The
class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are
born—or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences
are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional
forms. If the experience appears as determined, class-consciousness does not. We can
see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences,
but we cannot predicate any law. Consciousness of class arises in the same way in
different times and places, but never in just the same way.’
We have to try to understand both things – the continuing
traditions and the context that has changed. Too often, since
every account must start somewhere, we see only the things
which are new.
It is quite possible for statistical averages and human experiences
to run in opposite directions. … People may consume more goods
and become less happy or less free at the same time...
E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963
Class acquired a peculiar resonance in English life: everything,
from their schools to their shops, their chapels to their
amusements, was turned into a battleground of class.
In these same years, the great Romantic criticism of Utilitarianism
was running its parallel but altogether separate course. After
William Blake, no mind was at home in both cultures, nor had the
genius to interpret the two traditions to each other...these years
appear at times to display, not a revolutionary challenge, but a
resistance movement, in which both the Romantics and the
Radical craftsmen opposed the annunciation of Acquisitive Man.
E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963
“It is possible to detect in almost every 18th
century crowd action [e.g. food riots] some
legitimising notion. By the notion of
legitimisation I mean that men and women
in the crowd were informed by the belief that
they were defending traditional rights or
customs… it was grounded upon a
consistent traditional view of social norms
and obligations, of the proper economic
functions of several parties within the
While this moral economy economy cannot
be described as ‘political’ in any advanced
sense, nevertheless it cannot be described
as unpolitical either…”