Would The Making of the English Working Class get made today?

It is fifty years since leftist publisher Victor Gollancz published The Making of the English Working Class by English historian Edward Palmer Thompson (1924–1993). During 2013, this event has been, and is being, commemorated globally in political and scholarly conferences and journals. My dilapidated copy is the Penguin revised edition (1968), purchased in 1970. Still in print, and with more than a million copies sold worldwide, Thompson’s hugely influential doorstop book is regarded as a pivotal exploration of social history, as much an historical classic as it is a literary classic. The book runs to some 900 pages and over a quarter-million words.

Footnoting and referencing in The Making is simple and hardly existent  compared to current academic practice, with its predilection for masses of endnotes, or footnotes that threaten to exile the text from the page. Thompson’s bibliography is equally sparse, the author declaring that, given the expanse of time covered in the book (1780–1832), a complete listing was impossible: instead he sufficed with a four-page ‘Bibliographical Note’. Collectively, especially through the device of internalising source references unobtrusively in his text as part of the narrative, Thompson indicated and acknowledged his most relevant primary and secondary sources. As Thompson later explained, he deliberately set out in the book to manifest ‘rather irreverent attitudes to the academic proprieties’.

The Making is not a continuous narrative, but takes the form of a literary triptych of related themes and studies. Contrary to current scholarly practice, it is not swamped in theoretical language and intellectual refinements accessible only to niche audiences, but is written in an accessible manner, with the intention of being read. As politics and sociology, it demonstrates that class is not a thing, but a happening, made in the contexts of place and time by action, reaction, conflict and change; as social history it demonstrates the rich cultural life, the thoughts and ideas, of ‘the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan”, people who, prior to 1963, had been largely absent from histories of culture, ideas, and scholarly discourse.

Thompson’s book was produced post-WW2, while he was employed at Leeds University, working in adult education; it was his work in this field, and the knowledge there was an audience, that shaped his determination to write an accessible text. He had previously published a book on William Morris (1955), and was associated with leftist journals and publications (The Reasoner, New Reasoner, Past & Present) concerned with historical writing and the expression of socialist humanist ideas. These were partisan publications in which he had initiating, editorial and contributor roles, and not publications that would rate highly today as prized scholarly destinations/outlets. Indeed, his mode of publication was the sort of thing which today is not regarded as career friendly for an academic, nor conducive to employment certainties.

Indeed, I wonder if Thompson’s book would see the light of day in today’s world where academics are directed to ‘publish or perish’, ideally in top-rated outlets (no matter only a handful of people will read your work), with niche readerships for journals, and global print runs of a few hundred very expensive copies for books.

The Making is a sprawl, a phone book linked by narrative, way longer than the preferred 80,000 word limit of today’s publishers and thesis supervisors. Its documentation is on the light side, not the sort of extensive listing made possible today by cyber technologies and programmes. And where would Thompson find the time to read and write in today’s market-oriented university, where academic production is straitjacketed by punishing teaching loads and administrative burdens?  Where, too, the encouragement to take on a huge task, a big slab of time and a cast of thousands, when the system and the work loads encourage, if not demand, topics that are minute and discrete? And how would The Making eventuate in a writing climate attune to the formulaic production of academic/scholarly genres, where the writing process is templated, constrained and shaped by word limits, structures, and mandatory theoretical exegeses?

Sadly, in the modern  university, with the role and concept of ‘academic’ shaped by  market forces, and related management, accountability and performance processes, the making of another The Making is more likely to be terminated at conception rather than allowed to run full-term.

Rowan Cahill

Rowan Cahill is a sessional teaching academic at the University of Wollongong, and the co-author with Terry Irving of Radical Sydney (UNSW Press, 2013).

More by Rowan Cahill ›

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  1. Excellent article. I too have a rather dog-eared copy.
    On footnotes, not always a problem: see Marx Capital, a brilliant book, full of footnotes a number of which are untranslated from three or more different languages.
    So the question, what do we do to counter the trends in publishing academic texts? Any ideas?

  2. I agree Mike; footnotes, bibliographies, can have useful, valid, necessary roles. As for academic publishing, some key problems that concern me relate to expensive texts, small print runs, niche writing, niche audiences, paywalls, and the pressures on academics to produce specified amounts of published material on the pain of threats to their careers. All of which is problematic. Niche writing and publishing create material not intended for wider audiences. The ‘publish or perish’ syndrome is conducive to conveyer belt production, opening practitioners to charges of irrelevancy/waste. Paywalls effectively turn academics into unpaid labourers for multi-million dollar publishing empires. Further, pressures to publish in highly ranked academic journals, coupled with training to produce genred academic writing for specialist outlets, are conducive to the isolation of academics from the cut and thrust of more public and accessible forums, and work to discourage the formation of public intellectuals. Part of the solution to these problems involves the exploration and encouragement of open access publication, along with the exploration of ways of developing audiences beyond the specialist and niche.

  3. Hi
    I have been doing some research on academics and alienation as part of a late phd which covers some of the issues you mention. The interviews with a range of academics was quite revealing.

  4. I have two comments. First, it is worth keeping in mind that the book was written outside of mainstream academia even then: Thompson did not have graduate degrees himself, and taught (at the time he wrote Making) in an extra-mural (adult education) department.

    Second, while it’s true that the Making is not awash in “theoretical language and intellectual refinements accessible only to niche audiences,” this should be qualified. Unlike much academic history written today, Thompson discusses methodological problems throughout the book, integrating questions about what sources of history can be trusted and how they can be used. I think these passages are wonderful. By way of contrast, while his language might be accessible, Thompson’s content is not always so: living outside of England, I had no background for so much of what is discussed in his book (from Peterloo and the Cato Street Conspiracy through Methodism and corresponding societies to William Cobbett, Charles Fox and Francis Place). All of these, and so much more, are discussed in the book in a way that assumes the reader already knows who or what they are. Teaching it now, my students can use Wikipedia and other sources to fill in background, but when I read it in 1989 I frequently felt buried in contexts and references that I did not understand, even if his English adult education audience of 1963 did. This makes the book, for all its wonder, a difficult book.

  5. James Muir makes important points re MEWC. The book is a wonder, and it has its difficulties. And as he points out, it did originate outside of mainstream academia. As Thompson pointed out in a ‘Radical History’ interview in 1976, he was “hard up” at the time and his publisher wanted a text book on the British labor movement, 1832-1945. Once thompson started writing, he explained, the material took over, and MEWC is, in a sense, the first chapter of the longer project. As well as being a work of historical discussion/analysis, I reckon MEWC also needs be seen as a work of art, of a project that began one way, and ended up another in a creative rush/flow; in the 1976 interview mentioned, he described his early approach to the writing/practice of history as being like “a painter or poet”. The difficulty of assumed knowledge James mentions is relevant; the book originated in an intellectual/political ‘conversation’ about history and historical practice amongst British left historians, and so in part, MEWC reflects this. I think, as part of this, and helping account for its vastness and sprawl, is that once the writing began, it was an opening of floodgates for Thompson, a release of the problems and questions he had been chewing over, and a chance to indulge in what he explained was his “fascination with the archives” and “in getting to the bottom of everything”.

  6. Very thought-provoking post, Rowan. I agree completely that MEWC is a book that defies almost all of the conventions of a modern academic book. That said, I suspect that today it would simply not be labelled as ‘academic’ – instead it would be published as ‘popular history’. There is plenty of ‘popular history’ being published today, at least in Britain, and much of it is written by professional historians. Often is isn’t especially great, but some of it manages to be both accessible and even academically influential.

    Relatedly, there is still also plenty of ‘history from below’ being written too. Indeed, a goup of historians (including myself) recently held an online workshop on that theme in which Thompson was a key discussion point:

  7. Thank you Brodie, and I will add the ‘manyheadedmonster’ link to the ‘Radical Sydney’ (RS) blog I run with colleague Terry Irving. Re the many histories ‘from below’ that are being written, I could not agree more, and the many blog links to these on the RS blog hearteningly attest to the extent of this approach and the related productivity.

  8. Fascinating review and thoughts thanks Rowan, on so many levels. Especially your comments about today’s academic writing (endnotes that threaten to exile text from page, theory swamped, inscrutable to non-specialist reader), market driven academia and the idea that class is not a thing but a happening (how this distinction would enrich much contemporary left thinking!). I’ll also be seeking it out.
    (and great comment too, Denis. I mean, sadly possible.)

  9. Glad you will seek TMotEWC out Jane. Thompson made the point about ‘class’ as a happening in his 1965 essay “The Peculiarities of the English”, in the ‘Socialist Register, 1965’. He argued thus: “When we speak of a class we are thinking of a very loosely defined set of people who share the same congeries of interests, social experiences, traditions and value-system, who have a disposition to behave as a class, to define themselves in their actions and in their consciousness in relation to other groups of people in class ways. But class itself is not a thing, it is a happening”.

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