Would-be Revolution

by E. P. Thompson (Gollancz 73s. 6d.)

EDWARD THOMPSON HAS WRITTEN AN HISTORICAL WORK with an inescapable political message. The English working class was “made” by the development of its political, revolutionary consciousness: it was this consciousness which gave it identity; and perhaps retention of its identity as a class is today still (or even more) dependent upon its retention of this consciousness.

The story is traced from the Pittite legislation designed to suppress radicalism at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars to the first formal attempt at mutual accommodation between the old ruling class and the new managerial class, the Great Reform Bill of 1832. The decisive factor was the Industrial Revolution. “The people were subjected simultaneously to an intensification of two intolerable forms of relationship: those of economic exploitation and of political oppression. Relations between employer and labourer were becoming both harsher and less personal; and while it is true that this increased the potential freedom of the worker, since the hired farm servant or the journeyman in domestic industry was (in Toynbee’s words) ‘halted half-way between the position of the serf and the position of the citizen’, this ‘freedom’ meant that he felt his unfreedom more … The reflexes, of panic and class antagonism, inflamed in the aristocracy by the French Revolution were such as to remove inhibitions and to aggravate the exploitive relationship between masters and servants. The Wars saw not only the suppression of the urban reformer but also the eclipse of the humane gentry.” (ppl98-9, 219).

“Large-scale sweated outwork was as intrinsic to (the Industrial) revolution as was factory production and steam.” (p261). Taking for example the experience of the workers in the weaving trade during the years 1780-1830, what happened—allowing for over-simplification was that three groups—the master weaver working for himself, the journeyman weaver, working either in the shop of the master-clothier or more commonly in his own home on his own loom for a single master, and the smallholder weaver, working only part-time on his loom—became merged in one group of greatly debased status, “that of the proletarian outworker, who worked in his own home, sometimes owned and sometimes rented his loom, and who wove up his yarn to the specifications of the factor or agent of a mill or of some middleman.” (p271). In the face of the increasingly imperious demands of capital, labour was beginning to see and feel that it had a common interest: the main characteristics of the development of the weaving trade—the debasement of the worker’s status and the ending of his differentiation from other workers—were repeated in other trades.

Another process of definition was brought about by Pitt’s suppression of the traditional radical movement of the eighteenth century with its slightly Whiggish, slightly aristocratic overtones: radicalism went underground and found a new champion in the people who made it their own movement. The social protest of the eighteenth-century bread riots gave way to more sophisticated political activity (though the simple and unconsidered nature of the riots can be and has been over-emphasised: and Thompson is now carrying out research which should demonstrate that they were not devoid of an impressive moral passion). “The unsung hero of this development whom Thompson honours was John Thelwall, itinerant lecturer of the London Corresponding Society, whose consistent and somewhat unsparkling radicalism became eventually an embarrassment to his friends Coleridge and Wordsworth (vid. p 176). Thelwall, says Thompson, “offered a consistent ideology to the artisan … He took Jacobinism to the borders of Socialism; he also took it to the borders of revolutionism.” (p160).

Thompson characterises and illumines his theme with a number of excellent analyses of the significance of certain people, events and movements. Perhaps the most suggestive and at the same time most farfetched of these analyses is what amounts to a polemical dissertation on the influence of Methodism in the creation of a factory-work discipline. In an article on “Labour in the English Economy in the Seventeenth Century” (Economic History Review 1955) D. C. Coleman has described the recalcitrance of labour in response to the somewhat crude and uninviting carrot-and-stick incentive of a pre-industrial economy. And this problem had already been noted by Dr. Andrew Urr (the bête noire of the first volume of Capital) who, in The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), pointed out that “the main difficulty” of the factory system was not technological but social, the “distribution of the different members of the apparatus into one co-operative body”, above all “the training of human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work, and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automation”, (quoted 360). Thompson takes up Urr’s argument concerning the good disciplinary effect of religion, and contends that above all in the Wesleyan imagery of salvation whereby the sinner is “translated from the power of Satan to the kingdom and image of God’s dear son”, “we may see in its lurid figurative expression the psychic ordeal in which the character-structure of the rebellious pre-industrial labourer or artisan was violently recast into that of the submissive industrial worker … These Sabbath orgasms of feeling made more possible the single-minded weekday direction of these energies to the consummation of productive labour”, (pp367-8, 369). The part that religion plays in the formation of attitudes, and what gives it the power to play that part, are susceptible of further analysis; but this is certainly a provocative starting-point.

Luddism was a stage in the evolution of the working class political method, the last stage perhaps in the practice of “collective bargaining by riot” which, E. J. Hobsbawn suggests*, is essentially a sign of weakness, of lack of class solidarity. But both he and Thompson emphasise that machine-wrecking was a means and not an end, and that it was usually a very disciplined and selective activity. “Luddism”, says Thompson, “must be seen as arising at the crisis-point in the abrogation of paternalist legislation, and in the imposition of the political economy or laissez faire upon, and against the will and conscience of, the working people”. (p543). In the spring of 1812 Luddites attacked, and were repulsed from, Rawfolds Mill in Yorkshire. (The incident is the subject of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley.) “The gunfire at Rawfolds signalled a profound emotional reconciliation between the large mill-owners and the authorities. Economic interest had triumphed, and the ultimate loyalty of the manufacturers when faced with working-class Jacobinism was displayed in one dramatic incident”. (p561). But with an increasing awareness of strength there came a decrease in violence. “Let us”, wrote T. J. Wooler in The Black Dwarf (September 1818), “look at, and emulate the patient resolution of the Quakers. They have conquered without arms—without violence—without threats. They conquered by union”. (quoted p675). Even after Peterloo (August 1819) divided the radicals into those who wanted to proceed with caution and those who were prepared for immediate violence, the radical press preserved its new, self-assured and even mocking tone. Cobbett (who had left England for America in February 1817 and returned in November 1819) was impressed and encouraged by what he saw: “I am of opinion”, he wrote to the Bishop of Llandaff in 1820, “that your Lordship is very much deceived in supposing the People, or the vulgar, as you were pleased to call them, to be ‘incapable of comprehending argument’.” (quoted p745). At last, points out Thompson, here was a national political journalist who wrote for a specifically working class audience: and so doing did much to increase its self-awareness.

“If Cobbett’s writings can be seen as a relationship with his readers, Owen’s writings can be seen as ideological raw material diffused among working people, and worked up by them into different products” (p789). Owen’s A New View of Society appeared in 1813: the vague hopes of the working class began to receive a coherent form. “The rationalist propaganda of the previous decade had been effective; but it had also

* In an article, “The Machine Breakers”, in the first number of PAST & PRESENT (February 1952), p 61, an excellent “journal of scientific history” published three times yearly: to subscribers (15s. p.a., students 10s.) write to the Business Manager of “Past and Present”, Corpus Christi College Oxford.

been narrow and negative, and had given rise to a thirst for a more positive moral doctrine which was met by Owen’s messianism”. (p796). By 1832 Bronterre O’Brien and other radicals were emphasising the question of the means of social control (i.e. political power) which Owen had ignored; but they always recognised that Owenism had had “a great and constructive influence. They had learned from it to see capitalism, not as a collection of discrete events, but as a system. They had learned to project an alternative, utopian system of mutuality. They had passed beyond Cobbett’s nostalgia for an older world and had acquired the confidence to plan the new”. (p806).

I think there is something questionable in the way Owen’s millennialism is seen as an aberration, although a significant and educative one, from the direction which the movement of social protest was taking. The millennialist fantasy of a world transformed by an individual change of heart has after all had as respectable a history (vid. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1957, Mercury paperback 1962) and as wide a human appeal, as has had the dream of political power as the means of building a new world. Nor is it dead yet. Thompson quite rightly shows that Owenism was not an isolated occurrence. and says something of other chiliastic movements which appeared during the time of which he writes. But he sees the whole thing as subsidiary to and perhaps even derivative from the main political development, and does not allow that here are two aspects of the same human reality, often existing together in an uneasy but excitingly ambivalent relationship within one political movement (anarchists should know!), different but related interpretations of the one human desire, inseparable from each other in their eternal dialogue.

Posted By

Mar 21 2019 19:16


Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas

Attached files