Working Class History : The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson and Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global by Paul Mason [Review]

Anarchist history is fascinating, to me anyway, but you can’t just read about people who share your ideas. We can learn from people who’ve lived where we live and worked at the same jobs, as well as people we think we have nothing – or everything – in common with. London’s Past Tense have shown how radical local history can be brought to life. These two books take a big view of working-class history from below, writing down struggles and movements that are usually written off.

The Making of the English Working Class is a monster, over 900 pages. But it’s well written and rescued from being just an academic study by the spirit in which it’s done. Thompson aims to rescue the working class men and women he writes about ‘from the enormous condescension of posterity’ (p.13). By showing the social, economic and mental landscape in which they lived and struggled, he helps us understand them. History is more often intent on writing them off as either thick or doomed, their defeat inevitable in a world where the policies of the powerful are presented as the outcome of natural laws (sound familiar?)

If you live in England, you should read it because there’s no telling who’s been thrown in your village pond (sadly, you can’t rely on the index). For the rest of the world, it’s a fascinating study of changing ideas and action. We’re shown the end of appealing to the good old (Anglo-Saxon) days when asking for social change (p95); the battle against meekness and the role of religion, especially Methodism, in the workers’ movement (which gave examples of grassroots organising, but also morbid and repressive attitudes); the connections between the violent ‘redress’ movement of Luddism and ‘peaceful reform’; not to mention the effect of uniting Irish and English troublemakers. Best of all are the chances to hear workers themselves speak: ‘labour is always sold by the poor, and always bought by the rich, and that labour cannot by any possibility be stored, but must be every instant sold or every instant lost […] labour and capital can never with justice be subjected to the same laws’ [Manchester silk-weaver, p.329, quoting Standing Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers Petitions, 1835, p.188 (2686)]

Written over 40 years ago in the heyday of social democratic reformism and ‘social consensus’, Thompson’s work feels more relevant than ever, now that keeping the poor in their place and letting the rich get richer are the ideological consensus of our rulers again.

Live Working or Die Fighting is bang up to date too. Each chapter is introduced by a report from global working class life, from Chinese and Indian factories, to Nigerian and Bolivian slums, to the offices of London’s Canary Wharf. These are valuable and fascinating in themselves (Mason knows his stuff) and introduce related historical episodes from the workers’ movement between 1819 and the 1930s. While the stories of the Haymarket Martyrs, Paris Commune or the pre-WW1 syndicalist revolt are probably most familiar, how much do you know about the Bund (General Union of Jewish Workers) or Shanghai workers in 1919? The plan works well to make connections between historical events and current issues. His clear and engaging style helps too: syndicalist Victor Griffuelhes agitates ‘as if a French version of Tom Mann had appeared but on performance-enhancing drugs.’ (p.120)

Mason looks at the common features of workers’ movements, how they try to ‘create the new society within the old, building co-ops, fighting for autonomy in the workplace, creating a union way of life’ (p.280). Like Thompson, he helps us understand, for example, the world-view of German metal workers in 1905 (p.152+) and shows how ‘economic’ struggles are as often about control or dignity as about wages.

Live Working or Die Fighting is not a heritage-themed tribute to ‘world that has gone’, but an inspiring look at a changing world. Both Thompson and Mason, in letting us know what has happened in the past make us think about the world of tomorrow. The best sort of history.

John Patten

The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson. Penguin, 1968 (2nd ed.)

Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global by Paul Mason. Vintage, 2008. £8.99