E.P. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class”, Industrial Capitalism, and the Climate Emergency

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This is the eleventh post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

“If you are a historian, your work is about global warming.” Dagomar Degroot

A few weeks ago Dagomar Degroot provided an overview of the excellent work done by historians of science, historical climatologists and historians of climate and society. But he also argued, given the all-encompassing nature of the climate emergency, for us to think about the contributions of a much wider range of historical scholarship: “In a sense, just about every kind of history has relevance to the present crisis, because climate affects every aspect of the human experience.” I am going to take up this point and present a book published just three years after Charles David Keeling confirmed the rising level of CO2 in the atmosphere in 1960. During the early 1960s, leading historians remained unaware of the significance of these scientific breakthroughs and instead were introducing new methods to study “history from below.” This work, focused on workers and their fights for democracy and unionization, is surprisingly relevant to the climate crisis today.

There is a lot of value in reading the history of other intractable problems and the messy and incomplete ways they have been solved over time. For this, I recently returned to E. P. Thompson’s classic, The Making of the English Working Class, for the first time since I read (and skimmed) it during graduate school. Thompson focuses on a moment of transition and conflict where industrialization, democratic reform, and increased commitment to free-market principles amongst the political and economic elite all created considerable social instability. Thompson follows the Luddites as they responded to a situation where new machines, and the growing hegemony of the free trade ideas put forward by Adam Smith, dramatically undercut their standard of living. Their handcraft skills became obsolete, and merchants took advantage of the surplus of labour to drive down compensation. Once prosperous skilled tradesmen found themselves thrown into poverty. Parliament, elected by a corrupt system that generally included no representation for the new industrial cities, ignored calls for reforms to protect these workers and passed laws making unions and other collective action illegal.  

The value of the book remains immense almost fifty years after its publication, even after the legitimate critique of its limited gender analysis and its underlying economic determinism from Thompson’s engagement with Marxist theory. It provides a detailed look at the social and political responses of communities of working people to rapid economic transformations. We face a future of similar transformation and we need to consider how communities facing economic dislocation will respond to these changes. We need to stop criticizing people who live in communities that rely on oil, gas or coal to maintain a comfortable standard of living for resisting calls to “believe in science.” Having watched other resource-producing and industrial regions decline, they are worried the end of coal or oil means accepting their kids will need to leave the community as they transition from a life of hard work for a good income to a demoralizing reliance on government handouts. Of course, many environmental activists have long recognized this challenge and are working with the labour movement to fight for a just transition. Thompson’s book highlights the importance of this work and reminds us of the potential radicalization of people who are set to lose their livelihoods, particularly when they are accustomed to a relatively high standard of living compared with other workers.  

The book also highlights the unsatisfying nature of progress. The dislocated skilled workers don’t win in the end. Historians can look back and argue that the British working classes benefited in the long term from increased standards of living and more social mobility, but the generation trying to survive the transition during the 1820s, 1830s, or 1840s mostly faced economic hardship, declining standards of living, unhealthy urban conditions, and the failure of grassroots political movements. Urban working men didn’t win the vote until 1867. While it is dangerous for historians to predict the future, I expect progress in addressing the climate emergency will be messy, uneven and often unsatisfying. Reading this book might help inspire us to keep fighting through these difficult decades ahead, knowing it will be hard to identify any of the early stages of the successful transition to a more sustainable future. As anyone who teaches topics related to the climate emergency knows, it is all too easy to retreat to nihilism in the face of intractable challenges and generational injustice. Linking the struggle of our time to tame the damage done by industrial capitalism with the early histories of labourers fighting for decent pay and better working and living conditions in that system’s formative years might help give the climate justice movement a sense of history and the knowledge that grassroots movements can succeed – at least partially – in transforming capitalism.

Feature Image: Manchester from Kersal Moor (1851) by William Wyld.
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