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Society for History Education

E. P. Thompson and American History: A Retrospective View

Author(s): Paul G. Faler
Source: The History Teacher, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Nov., 1994), pp. 31-36
Published by: Society for History Education
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History Teacher.

E. P. Thompson and American History:

A Retrospective View

Paul G. Faler
Universityof Massachusettsat Boston


writing of Americanworkingclass history. He broadenedand reinvigorated a narrow and sterile field, and provided a new way of viewing
Americanlaborhistory.In an unforeseenway, however, he also contributed to its demise. Lest we exaggeratehis personalinfluence, let us first
remember too the work of HerbertGutman and David Montgomery.
Their provocative studies in American labor history complementedthe
work of Thompson. Much of the best work in the field shows their
imprintas well as that of Thompson.
We also need to remindourselves of the setting in which Thompson's
work appeared,the 1960s. His considerableinfluence was partlyowing
to the atmosphere in which The Making of the English Working Class

appeared.A political and culturalrevolutionwas occurringin America,

rending the American social fabric and raising rebellion against forces
thathad long been in place. Race, war,class, and culture,especially sex,
music and drugs,became the explosive mixturethatwould blow apartthe
established order.Enmity and conflict, partlyalong class lines, became
The HistoryTeacher

Volume 28 Number 1

November 1994



Paul G. Faler

importantfeaturesof Americain the 1960s.Thatupheavalforeverchanged

America.The termwatershedadmittedlyis overused,but the 1960s were
a true watershedin 20th centuryAmerica.Thompson'sblendingof class
and culture, exposing the connecting links of economic, political and
social change in the England of the late 18th and early 19th centuries
seemed the best way to grasp the true natureof America as well. There
seemed a correspondencebetween the present and the past. Just as we
experienced simultaneously the cross currents of politics, class, and
culture, we were drawn to a scholar who approachedthe past with the
same breadth.
Therewere specific ways in which Thompsoninfluencedthe writingof
workingclass historyin the UnitedStates.First,he broadenedthe scope or
purviewof laborhistory.Before Thompson,laborhistorianshad centered
theirattentionon tradeunions;laborhistorywas essentiallythe historyof
organizedworkers.Therewas considerableemphasison unionsandfederations: their evolution, factionalism,ideological differences, strikes, and
politicalactivities.The periodizationof laborhistorywas determinedby the
rise andfall of federations:the NationalLaborUnion,the Knightsof Labor
and its rival,the AmericanFederationof Labor(AFL);the suddenappearance of the IndustrialWorkersof the World(IWW)as a radicalalternative,
andfinallythe appearanceof the Congressof IndustrialOrganization(CIO).
Moreover,the scholarswho wrote much of this laborhistorywere often
economistsratherthanhistorians.Followingin the traditionof the founders
like JohnR. CommonsandSelig Perlman,theyviewedworkersprimarilyas
wage earners.Laborhistorywas a partof industrialrelations.In thisversion
of history,workingpeople were synonymouswith organizedwage earners.
Thompsondid not renounceor abandonthe work of laboreconomists;
he provideda prodigiousamountof informationon laborsocieties andon
wages, hours, and conditions of work. But he also enlargedand broadened labor history to include workingpeople outside the labor societies
or early trade unions. For those of us who were historiansratherthan
economists, he provideda model to emulate,to inspireandchallenge. He
offered what some young scholarslike myself believed was sorely lacking in the history of working people in America which was too narrow,
too economic in scope, too much tied to trade unions and organized
The breadthof Thompson's work derived from his notion and use of
class. It was crucialto his history.He specifically renouncedthe concept
of class as an economic category, a groupof people defined by occupation or stratum of wealth. Instead he employed a broader term and
arguedthat class was a relationshipthat was best discernible over time
and evident in all the areas in which people within the system of

E. P. Thompsonand AmericanHistory:A RetrospectiveView


productive relations confronted each other. Most importanthe looked

for the ways in which the class experience was expressed in cultural
terms, how a sense or consciousness of class was expressed in the ideas,
traditions, language, and customs of the people undergoing both the
experience of industrializationand class at the same time. Others may
find in Thompson's work more importantlessons and models, but for me
it was the interweavingof class and culturethat was the most attractive
and instructive.Class was a social term;labor merely an economic one.
The latterwas narrowand limited;class was as broadas the experienceof
man as a social creature.Labor history under Thompson's influence
would be enlarged to encompass all those facets of society that both
affected, and were influencedby, workingpeople. Influencedby him, our
approachbecame a fusion of laborand social history, a term that better
capturedthe fuller dimension to which we aspired in our scholarship.
Class analysis would be a way to examine and understandthe experience
of workersin Americanhistory.
In addition to his use of culture to understandclass, Thompson also
showed a compassion for his subjects that impressed many of us. His
approachwas probablybest stated in his often quoted vow to avoid in
his history "the enormous condescension" that posterity had shown
English working people, particularlythose who flocked to millennial
sects and Methodist chapels. Though he also saw them as deluded
participantsin a "chiliasmof despair"or a Methodismthathe viewed as
religious terrorism,he also accordedrespect to those humble converts.
He aspiredto representthem to posterity,to let them speak throughhim
to those in the 20th century who wished to understand them. This
profession of objectivity for outcasts on the margins of society was an
attractiveand worthy ideal.
In The Making of the English WorkingClass, Thompson put into
scholarly and literaryform a magnificentexample of the kind of history
we wanted to write. But in the late 60s, we were unpreparedto undertake a full scale history of American workers. We needed first to
understandthe partsthat would compose the largerwork. In 1968, I set
out to apply some of the insights I had learnedfrom Thompson,Gutman,
Montgomeryand others.I would do a case study, an accountof the early
industrial revolution in the community of Lynn, Massachusetts from
colonial times to the Civil War. Along the way, I also learnedthatothers
had embarkedon similar studies of working people in other towns and
in other trades and industries. In a sense ours was an undertakingthat
aimed towarda fuller accountof the Americanindustrialrevolution and
the experience of workingpeople. We hoped thatwithin a decade one of
us would write "The Making of the AmericanWorking Class."


Paul G. Faler

Paradoxically,the ambitionwas wreckedon the rockof class, the new,

broader cultural definition of class that Thompson had emphasized.
There was a fatal flaw in Thompson's model. As we followed working
people from the work place, we found ourselves following divergent
paths. There were many instancesof the class consciousness and coherence thatThompsonhadfound. But therewas considerabledivergenceas
well, more than could be acknowledged and still subsumed within a
concept of class.
To extend the metaphor, as we followed wage earners from their
common work place, the work place diminished in importanceas the
defining, centralexperiencein theirlives. We became painfullyawareof
their deep seated differences,even hostility towardone another,often to
the point of uniting with middle and upper class elements against other
workers.We had once intendedto merge the economic and the cultural,
laborhistoryand social history.Now we foundthatthey diverged.I think
we had once hoped that "The Making of the AmericanWorkingClass"
would be based on many pieces of a large puzzle. Studies of particular
groups and case studies would at some point converge and we would fit
the pieces together. Instead, the pieces no longer fit. The fragmentsno
longer belonged in the same puzzle: Race, gender, ethnicity, skill and
culturebecame powerfulcompeting sources of identityand loyalty. The
field of labor and social history began to fragment and splinter until,
ultimately, the grand picture we sought became a collage of distinct,
American history was like American society itself in the 1960s and
thereafter.The same splinteringprocess was occurring.Ironically, our
own experience made us acutely conscious of the great rifts within
American society. Moreoverthe rifts were just as evident in the past as
they were in the present.Ironically,Thompson'semphasison culturehad
the unforeseenresult of conductingus into a realm in which differences
and tensions within the Americanworkingclass were endemic and deep.
WhereThompsonhad soughta culturaldimensionfor class, in the United
States cultureunderminedthe very concept of class. In the end we could
no longer use the term working class since it lacked the culturalcoherence, integrity,and identitythatThompsonhad found in England.
I recall the troubledconcern among many of us in the 1970s as our
grandgoal of a historyof an Americanworkingclass recededfrom view.
Several conferences convened to assess the state of our work, take stock
of our knowledge, and try to reassemblethe scatteredpieces. We sought
synthesis but found only fragments.The more we learned about each
fragment,the more separateanddistincteach became,andthe less related
to any other.

E. P. ThompsonandAmericanHistory:A Retrospective


Moreover,the breadthand completenessthat Thompsonput forth, on

closer analysis, had a limit of its own. As a graduate student at the
University of Wisconsin, I recall a chance meeting with John F. C.
Harrison, himself English and an outstanding social historian whose
work on 19th centuryEnglish workersThompsoncited favorablyseveral
times. We discussed Thompson. I mentioned how much I liked The
Making of the English Working Class. Harrison said it was indeed a fine

book but, after all, not a history of the English working class. It was,
rather,a history of the radicaltraditionwithin the English workingclass.
Class and class conflict, struggle and strikes, oppositionalculture,these
were the featuresof history thatThompsonemphasized.
In retrospect,Thompson's Marxismwas both a strengthand a weakness, as it has been, too, for many of us who write labor and social
history.Like Thompsonwe tendedto neglect workerswho were not class
conscious, who remained aloof from unions or who, in strikes, either
stayed at work or, God forbid,become strikebreakers.I think it of mixed
resultthatmuch laborhistoryhas been writtenby Marxistsor partisansof
laborunions. On the one hand,their ideology has createda greatinterest
in the working class. Withoutthem we would know much less than we
do. But, at the same time, we have a distortedhistory that emphasizes
conflict and omits or gives slight attention to unity and cooperation
across class lines. Politically, for example, we know a good deal more
aboutthe few workersin Americanhistorywho were socialist or communists thanaboutthe much largernumberwho were Republicans.We give
disproportionateattentionto people like ourselves to people who speak
and act as we believe we would have done. Ultimatelyour motive should
be to understandthe people we study and not, by our inquiry,to approve
their actions.
So Thompson's legacy was a mixed one. With his notion of class as a
social term he inspired and stimulatedthe study of working people in
America in a new way. But, in the end, his definition of class made the
term untenable.The merging of class and cultureproved the undoing of
class. His interest in class made for inclusiveness, bringing in working
people from beyond the trade societies. In America, the applicationof
this mandatebroughtwithin the purview of labor historiansgroups that
earlierhistoriansignored.In thatrespect,Thompson'sexample enhanced
the field and gave us a fuller pictureof Americanworkingpeople. But it
was precisely in the non-economicareasthata common culturalidentity
or class consciousness was lacking.
Moreover,just as John Harrisonobserved in his comment on the bias
in Thompson's work, there was a limit to the inclusiveness of our own
histories of workers. We extended class beyond organized workers to


Paul G. Faler

include minorities and ethnic groups, but ignored, misrepresented,or

downplayedothergroupsfor ideologicalreasons.My own worksince the
1960s convinces me that the 19th centurynativist movement in Massachusetts, for example, was, to a greatdegree, a workingclass movement
and thus deserves a place in a history of working people. The brick
makersin Charlestown,Massachusettswho destroyedthe Ursuline convent in 1834 were working people. In later years, working people were
predominantin many parts of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and in
GeorgeWallace's partyin the 1960s. The largestwildcatstrikein American historyoccurredin 1943 when 25,000 autoworkersstruckagainstthe
employmentof blacks at a Packardplant in Detroit.In my own lifetime,
the most intenseclass consciousnessamongworkersthatI have observed
occurredin Boston in 1974-75 duringthe anti-busingmovement.Even if
one views all these actions as wrongheaded,as delusions, as expressions
of misdirected resentment,they ought to be acknowledged, addressed,
and explained with thatrespectthatThompsoninvoked.
A historyof the Americanworkingclass seems moreremotethanever.
Here perhapsis one of the best illustrationsof the relationshipof present
to past. Race andgender,not class, have become the focal pointsof study,
as they have become the dominantsourcesof identityin manyof our own
lives and in America as a whole. As consciousness and expressions of
class diminish, interest in the working class diminishes as well. Many
who once workedin the field have moved on to otherareas.The field is as
deserted as America's factories. Labor history is the rust bowl of the
profession. But we might at least salvage something from Thompson's
legacy. Historyis not class struggle,but neitheris it racismor patriarchy.
Social class is still useful in understandingAmerica's history,even if not
in the way we once thought--or hoped.