Meaning of English Working Class

Thompson’s work is completed with the publication of its third volume, The Formation of the English Working Class has excellent editorial quality, and excels in its translation considering the narrative tone and the research material, popular records from the period between 1790 and 1832 in England;

It is a classic of the workers’ movements. The work that best reconstructs the decisive historical movement of the transition from English society to industrial capitalism from the perspective of the lower strata of that society. Thompson studies the context of workers’ lives, their concerns, aspirations, rites and collective symbols, in an environment hostile to the recognition of their social and cultural identities founded on the tradition of English society of that period;

Thompson’s intellectual familiarity and emotional involvement with the protagonists provided an expressive narrative of the time. This characteristic highlights it among the classics, through the cunning look of the social micro-processes that make up the descriptive picture of its historical scenarios;

The text emerges in an academic scenario dominated by structural paradigms, with almost nothing mentioning the role of people and their relationships in the construction of historical reality. In contrast, Thompson subscribes to the methodological tradition of the interpretive society with an emphasis on the active role of social actors in the construction of their identities, interests and collective actions;

According to Thompson, the three parts that make up The Formation of the English Working Class have the following structure: in the first part he deals with the popular traditions of the 18th century, which influenced the Jacobin acceptance in the year 1790. In part two he moves on to the objective influences , the experiences of groups of workers during the Industrial Revolution. In the third part, the history of plebeian radicalism, through Luddism, goes back to the end of the Napoleonic wars. Finally, Thompson discusses theoretical aspects and class consciousness in the 1820s and 1830s;

The fundamental thesis of the book is that between 1790 and 1832 in England, there was a transformation of heterogeneous groups of workers into a working class with its own identity and effective class consciousness, in the Marxist sense of the term, which continued its trajectory in the following years;

Thompson points out that the crucial factor was not the objective external or structural conditions of industrial capitalism, but the very experience and collective action of the groups of workers in opposition to the upper classes of English society;

The class identity that English workers came to experience was painstakingly built from fundamental foundations of the tradition of English society, that is, the moral economy and the ideal of “free English by birth”, inherited from the agreement of the Revolution of 1688, embodied in the Constitution of the King, Lords and Commons. This tradition ensured space for demonstrations and rights for both: masters and subjects;

The opposition to this popular expression against speculators in the food market was given by the Methodism of John Wesley, constituting an authoritarian trait and extreme concern with the instituted order, an effective mechanism of social and political control;

Although Thompson admits that Primitive Methodists created organizational and ideological space for political radicalism, in general, Methodist expansion during wars was a component of the psychic process of the counter-revolution. To transpose 1832 to 1833 is to enter a world where the workers’ presence can be felt in all the counties of England and in most areas of life, with the identity of the working class being in a mature stage;

During The Formation of the English Working Class we find the rich description that Thompson makes emphasizing the distinctions, specificities and differences in the way of life of those who made up the contextual framework of the workers of the time. Despite all the difference, they were all from lower classes, that was the view of their superiors;

The solidarity system was primarily of a communal nature. In a second moment, it is based on the interest of earnings, in a context of market economy, with sufficient capital-labor exploitation relations to serve as a class divider;

In the period focused on by Thompson, interests were focused on defending the rights and duties related to the moral economy and the constitutionalist ideal of ‘free English’. The first manifestations of the industrial world of the factory were already outlined, in the classic relationship of exploitation of the depersonalized Industrial Revolution, as it does not admit the old obligations of paternalism or deference, or even the interests of the profession;

At this moment, there is no fair price, justified salary in relation to social or moral sanctions, as opposed to the free performance of market forces. The worker has become an instrument, a figure among others in cost. Class solidarity, the identity of interests produced by the exploitation between capital and labor were the basis of the union;

Many ideas of the industrial workers were anticipated by domestic workers in many cities, from where the core of the labor movement drew its ideas, organization and leadership. Thompson sees this as evidence of the continuity of class culture by integrating the experiences of early century workers and industrial workers;

Thompson emphasizes and recognizes the distinction between the interests and values ​​of self-employed and factory workers. In the second decade of the 19th century, due to the inconsistency of the values ​​on which it was based, there was a hostility towards the factory system that had nothing to say about factory reform or social issues, in general;

Later on, the ideology of economic ‘independence’ and inflexible political individualism originated, which was not in tune with the experience of factory workers, having the main channel in the union organization itself. Ideology fit the weavers who shared an aversion to the noise and oppression of factories, their suspicion against London, their preference for moral rather than pragmatic argument, their nostalgia for disappearing rural values;

The relative prosperity of the early years of the Industrial Revolution had led to a rise in not only material but also cultural values. Manual workers gained strength in their protests with the disintegration of traditional values, with the people of different villages resisting the conflict between unplanned economic individualism and an older way of life;

Even ‘charisma’ in the late 1930s, with its modern social movement and political tone, which marked the entry of the working classes into England’s political scene, was far from being a genuine expression of a revolutionary proletariat;

Finally, when concluding that from 1830 onwards there was a maturing of class consciousness, in the traditional Marxist sense, with science among the workers of the continuation on their own in old and new struggles.

In The Formation of the English Working Class, Thompson not only polemicizes with the propaganda of the winners, he also criticizes the Marxist conceptions about the working class that transformed it into the result of the steam energy plus industrial system equation, in a mere factor of production. It is a classic for analysis by the Social Worker, as the author describes in detail the English social life, its aspirations, the way they were grouped together in conquests and how society benefited from revolutionary theories. We can assess the spirit of the changes to inspire us, as we have an arduous struggle in Brazil. The process of deconstructing inequality so profound in our country will not be easy.

English Working Class