ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Fifty Years of E P Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class

For all the criticisms that can be made of it, E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class remains a magnifi cent and majestic tribute to human political will and imagination, the sheer capacity of the oppressed to struggle, however inchoately and inconclusively, for imagined and better alternatives to the present.

The year 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of E P Thompson’s great work, The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Looking back across the difference of these decades, the least interrogated word in the title of Thompson’s classic, The Making of the English Working Class, seems to have been the word “English”. Thompson acknowledged that he did not aspire to speak for the Scottish and the Welsh elements among the labouring poor, as their cultural traditions were different enough for him to be “cautious” about “generalising beyond English experiences”. But at the same time his “English experiences” included that of the Irish in England: “I have considered the Irish, not in Ireland, but as immigrants to England.”1 The problem of how national identities write themselves into historians’ texts lies somewhat buried in this magnificent book by a great historian who remained all his life an engaged and critical student of “the peculiarities of the English”. But if Englishness as such was something Thompson took as a given, the differences of all that was not “English” remained an integral, if muted, part of his analytical framework. Otherwise it is hard to explain why this book that inveighed against the use of sociological models in history became such an inspiring model for others to follow.

The name that Thompson gave in The Making to this opening towards historical difference was “culture”. One of the most fervent passages in the book read:

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