Monday, 22 April 2013

'English Working Class': Made Up North!

The 4th Northern Radical History Network Conference in Bradford
LAST Saturday Dave Goodway, the social and cultural historian who worked in Continuing Education at the University of Leeds from 1969 to 2005, gave an illuminating rendering of the intellectual influences upon E.P. Thompson through William Morris and, perhaps more importantly, the necessary territorial environment in which Thompson found himself when he researched his significant book 'The Making of the Working Class' in 1963, in what is now West Yorkshire. This last point became clear when Mr. Goodway came to answer the question from Adam Gutteridge from Sheffield:
'How did the book come to be produced out of a specific geographical location?'

Mr.Goodway responded thus:
'He didn't teach local history, his background was in English literature, but E.P. Thompson's “The Making of the Working Class” is a national history with in-depth local research in the West Riding of Yorkshire that goes beyond the London-centric history, and he made an active choice to live in an industrial area.'
or as E.P. Thompson has it in his Preface dated Halifax August 1963:
'This book was written in Yorkshire, and is coloured at times by West Riding sources.' 

Thompson had gone to Cambridge in 1941 to study English literature and social history in Elizabethan England, going to Leeds University as a staff teacher still in English literature in 1948, and had in the 1950s still regarded himself as a poet and had been elected to the District Committee of the Communist Party around this time. He later came to write a 908-page book on William Morris 'Prophet of a New Order', and claimed 'Morris came to seize me by the throat', and Goodway said this book led him to 'reclaim Morris for a socialism that is revolutionary'. It was Thompson's work on this book that was, according to Mr. Goodway, crucial in beginning a transformation in Thompson's thinking that was accelerated in 1956 when he left the Communist Party, during what became 'the most important year for Thompson': following the Hungarian Revolution E.P. Thompson had written about the folly of 'leaving error unrefuted'

Goodway pointed to the distinction that Thompson found in his study of William Morris between 'Desire and necessity' or between morality, human will and conscience on the one hand, and Marxist determinism on the other. Derek Pattison told me that the historian Eric Hobsbawn regarded E.P. Thompson's 'The Making of the English Working Class' as too 'romantic'; Hobsbawn stayed in the Communist Party up to his death, long after Thompson left in 1956, and Hobsbawm deftly continued to juggle his grand historical ideas about society and with a straight poker-face, and an apparently clear conscience as the mountains of corpses piled up across the planet.

E.P. Thompson is not, like Hobsbawm seems to be, studying a topic to pour scorn on some social element like 'Primitive Rebels' or 'Bandits' in order to show that they are immature or backwards stages in a linear progression to the present. Thompson writes in his Preface:
'I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the 'utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not.'

One senses a smug, supercilious condescending attitude in Hobsbawm, that is lacking in the Englishman, E.P. Thompson. George Orwell's portrayal of 'Catastrophic Gradualism' would not trouble the hardened Marxist Professor Hobsbawm, as I suspect it would E.P. Thompson. The publishers Gollanz asked the historian John Saville for a text book on the English working-class and he referred them to Thompson, then what started as a social and political history of the West Riding ended up by being what Dave Goodway describes as 'the most important history book in England'. For Goodway the word 'Making' in the title of 'The Making of the Working Class' is vital because it emphasises that 'man must and does create the conditions under which he lives'. 'Making' in this sense means 'agency and engagement' in people creating for themselves their own destiny. Goodway said that the key organising theme of this work was visible in Thompson as early as 1955 during his work on Morris, and the facilities for the study of the subject were present in the fact that Thompson was involved in giving adult education classes in the West Riding of Yorkshire; several of his students helping in the project from classes scattered across West Yorkshire from Todmorden to Northallerton.

Fiona Cosson from Littleborough in Lancashire, asked if Thompson was a 'public intellectual' and if this is something of a legacy that has now been abandoned by the Left? It was thought that historians today had bought into the 'consensus' and moved from the study of 'class' to research into consumption with research grants now awarded for contemporary concerns like consumption habits and perhaps issues of identity politics. Goodway said that there are pressures on academics to produce their results before they are really ready, and that he felt that there is little chance now that researchers and academics can create works like 'The Makings of the the Working Class' or 'William Morris'.

There was some discussion as to if Thompson was right in his central thesis that the working-class became a reality at the time of the Reform Act Bill in the 1832 the focus of his Chapter 16 on 'Class Consciousness', or as Hobsbawn has claimed, later in the 19th Century with the emergence of the popular press and cheap railway travel.  Hobsbawm had taught Goodway, and he said that Hobsbawn didn't address the issue that this late 19th Century rendering of the formation of the English working-class was an altogether more passive animal.  Something that was not tackled last Saturday was Thompson's stress in his Chapter 2 of the book on the London bias of many theorists of the English working-class.  At the end of that chapter, after giving a quote from Dr. Hobsbawm, he writes:
'Nearly all the theorists of the working-class movement are in that London tradition - or else, like Bray the Leeds printer they are analogues of the skilled London working men.'
He then argues:
'But the list itself reveals a dimension that is missing - the moral force of the Luddites, of Brandreth and young Bamford, of the Ten Hour men, of Northern Chartists and I.L.P. (and) South and North, intellect and enthusiasm, the arguments of secularism and rhetoric of love - the tension is perpetuated in the nineteenth century...  And each tradition seems enfeebled without the complement of the other.'

The next issueof the printed issue of NORTHERN VOICES No.14, will soon be available for sale with a with a review of one of Dave Goodway's books 'The Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow:  from William Morris to Colin Ward'Northern Voices can be obtained as follows:
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Anonymous said...

A generally thoughtful review of an interesting day but totally blighted by the tell-tale slip
"One senses a smug, supercilious condescending attitude in Hobsbawm, that is lacking in the Englishman, E.P. Thompson"
Shame, shame, shame on you.

bammy said...

A memorial service was held on behalf of Eric Hobsbawm on Wednesday the 24th, April 2013, and his daughter recalled in last Saturday's FT Weekend Magazine: 'My father died at the age of 95 with scores of global editions of his books in print, countless honorary doctorates and visiting fellowships and something close to a cult following among people of all classes, ages and types. He had political enemies in death as he had in life- he was resolutely a Marxist historian and never relinquished his membership of the Communist Party...'.