Sunday, 9 February 2014

Conference Report: The Making of the English Working Class at 50

 From LSHG Newsletter 51 (Spring 2014)

Report of roundtable at the Institute of Historical Research Saturday 30th November

The London Socialist Historians Group organised a roundtable at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London on 30th November to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class.
This is a brief indication of what took place, based on my notes of what was said. The afternoon was podcast and will appear on the IHR’s website in due course. In addition a book will follow from CSP in due course.
In opening the session I noted that it was more or less 50 years since the publication of the Making [in late 1963] which had initially come out as yellow covered hardback from Victor Gollancz at £3 13s. Only with the 1968 Penguin paperback did the book get a much wider circulation.
While the book remains in print it is not in the memory of all. When Jeremy Paxman asked contestants on a recent edition of University Challenge who had written it, not one could answer.
My paper was on the relevance of EP Thompson’s category of the moral economy today [I will post a summary of that separately]. The key point was that while Thompson, mostly, stuck to the point that he felt the moral economy was time bound to the late eighteenth century there is a sense in which still has currency today. What are criticisms of banks and energy companies about if not rooted in an alternative moral economy.
Marika Sherwood spoke next and addressed specifically a research agenda which is suggested by the MEWC but not covered by it- namely the black presence in the making of the English working class. We know there were three black people arrested for their part in the Gordon Riots in 1780, but we know little about them. Likewise we don’t know if there were black participants at Peterloo.
Peter Dwyer said that the impact of the Making on liberation struggles in South Africa had been huge and the reality that changing things was so much ‘more bloody messy’ than any text book would indicate is well covered in Thompson.
He emphasised that there was a need to look at lost causes and blind alleys pursued by those fighting for a better world, without romanticizing them to try and learn some lessons.
Logie Barrow argued that the Making was the most influential English history book of the Twentieth Century but wondered how the Thompsons [both Frank and E.P.] origins and time in the CPGB had coloured the framework of the Making arguing that Thompson had said little about his perspectives on post-1917 revolutionary Russia.
Finally Steve Woodhams looked at some of the background to the writing of the Making in terms of what EP Thompson had been doing during the years he had been researching and writing it. In 1947 Thompson had been in Yugoslavia and on his return became a WEA tutor in Halifax where he taught not history but literature. After a short break the Roundtable moved to a period of wide ranging discussion about the book and the influences on it.
One point made by several speakers was the Making is very weak on women’s struggles, a point noted in previous literature. Thompson’s research agenda was probed- the influence those who participated in his WEA classes for example- and the impact his association with European Nuclear Disarmanent [END] had on his future research after the Making.
His period at Warwick University was discussed and whether there was a Thompsonian school of history. There was also a discussion around Thompson’s historical method in the Making.
It was agreed that the Making still had relevances 50 years on but the precise struggles it reflected as Katrina Navickas noted earlier in the year are now perhaps being played out more on the streets
of Mumbai and San Paulo than London and Manchester.

Keith Flett

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