Almost 15 years ago, I read an article by Carolyn Steedman entitled “The Price of Experience: Women and the Making of the English Working Class.” In that article, Steedman talked about her first encounter with the work of Thompson and then, looking back on it many years later, how her experiences had formed an entirely different opinion of a monograph that so shaped her work and a generation of fellow historians’ work. In many respects, I think this confessional by Steedman is representative of my own relationship with Thompson. I read The Making of the English Working Class (MEWC) as an 18-year old very interested in class divisions and social struggle. Having grown up in a labor household that lived through many strike actions, I wanted to get some meaning about my own position in the world by reading the history of labor. I had just completed a class in American Social History and was treated to the work of Herbert Gutman; Thompson seemed the logical next step, or so I was told. That summer read started a lifelong love affair with an historian I would never have the opportunity to meet, at least in person.
So when revisiting the Preface to MEWC and EPT’s critique of Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution I felt like I had just conversed with a friend I hadn’t spoken to in years. Sure, I assign Thompson readings every chance I get, particularly in my theory courses, but I haven’t read these works in quite some time. While I have always held Thompson’s work in high esteem, in recent years, it has become something of a whipping post for scholars of all persuasions—he didn’t focus on gender (forget gender, he didn’t focus on women), he misconstrued the working class, his arguments are problematic, his theoretical persuasion didn’t match his own lived experience. So what really struck me as I read these three documents on a quiet Monday afternoon is how indebted (despite the critiques) historians (and all scholars interested in cultural studies) are to Thompson’s conceptualization of the past.
In reading “The Long Revolution” I learned (all over again) that Thompson thought about relations between individuals long before “cultural history” was officially fashionable. Further, Thompson thought about the dynamism of culture. It, and the people “it” embodied, were living, breathing characters in the past and we cannot forget their roles in history. “Culture as experience” according to Thompson could better help us “understand the process of social change” and all the messiness of human intervention involved in it. Those processes very often took the form of social struggle, and to adequately pull meaning from the phrase social struggle, we need to tease out the ways in which people acted in various situations that were important to them to better their lives.
He continues this trajectory in MEWC. While he raised the question of agency in his review of RW, he really strikes at the issue in MEWC. Agency—the capacity of people to act on their own behalf—cannot be forgotten. In these early works, Thompson provided a roadmap for us to write about the past in ways that avoided the strict structures of institutional history. And by avoiding those structures, we can better explore how people were historical actors who shaped their culture. He provides a sampling of people to whom the history of the working class is indebted. According to Thompson: “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” (12). This rescue, as he terms it, was a result of taking seriously the culture of that moment in and of itself, of respecting it for what it was. “History from below” indeed.