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Making and Unmaking the Working Class

E. P. Thompson and the “New Labor History” in the United States

James R. Barrett

For both political and historiographical reasons, E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class had a great impact on the new radical US history at its moment of gestation. Thompson's Socialist Humanism appealed to younger radical historians seeking to break with both Cold War liberalism and a highly structuralist form of Marxism. His looser conception of class and his emphasis on culture shaped a new more flexible conception of class formation. Yet Thompson's interrogation of class analysis, and the racial and ethnic complexity of the process in the United States, encouraged an emphasis on “unmaking” in the American context. If we have deconstructed and greatly complicated the notions of class and class formation, this process started not with postmodern theory but rather with The Making. The experience of class, which resides at the center of the book, also draws our attention to the emotional dimension of class.

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Worst Conceivable Form

Race, Global Capital, and The Making of the English Working Class

Zach Sell

W. E. B. Du Bois noted that the nineteenth-century US slave plantation corresponded with the factory in its worst conceivable form. This article expands upon Du Bois's insight to consider the emergence of the English working class in correspondence with American settler slavery and colonial projects within the British Empire. From above, elites theorized about the exploitation of labor as a world historical project to compare the enslaved, the colonized, and the English worker against one another. From below, proletarian intellectuals imagined the freedom of English laborers through the condition of the enslaved in the American South and Jamaica and the colonized in South Asia. By placing these histories from above and below together, this article argues that it is impossible to conceive of the English working class making itself and being made at remove from the enslaving and colonizing projects of global capital.

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Caroline Bressey

Though a substantial and groundbreaking book, the comprehensiveness of E. P. Thompson's narrative in The Making of the Working Class highlighted its many absences. This article considers the potential for examining the black presence within a Thompsonian framework of class in eighteenth-century England. It focuses on the politics of multiethnic solidarity, considering why black history remains so marginalized when key organizations and political moments, such as the Cato Street Conspiracy and the London Corresponding Society, both present in The Making, were multiethnic in their political ambition and their membership. Through the discussion of a Victorian multiethnic community of antiracist activists, this article also examines how research focusing on the intersecting geographies of race and class can contribute to the foundations of scholarship of English history provided by The Making.

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The Ecology of Class

Revolution, Weaponized Nature, and the Making of Campesino Consciousness

Christopher R. Boyer

Mexican villagers endured three decades of dispossession during the late nineteenth-century dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1880, 1884–1911). The transfer of most lands held by communities known as pueblos led many rural people to join the Mexican revolution of 1910–1917, and it helped to structure the postrevolutionary politics. Using E. P. Thompson's concept of “community,” this article suggests that villagers' sense of solidarity formed by their shared lives within the pueblos, and leavened by collective experiences during the Díaz dictatorship and revolution, helped them to forge a new identity as campesinos with an inherent right to land reform during the postrevolutionary era. A core component of campesino identity was opposition to hacienda owners. This opposition set up a struggle over land during the 1920s and 1930s that led some landowners to “weaponize nature” by destroying natural resources such as forests rather than turning it over to villagers through the land reform.

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Nationalism and Internationalism Reconciled

British Concepts for a New World Order during and after the World Wars

Antero Holmila and Pasi Ihalainen

force of the world will not suffice, … the physical force of the world shall.” 52 Labour MPs did their best to reconcile League internationalism, national sovereignty, and the promotion of the working-class cause. Labour internationalism focused on the

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Lara Kriegel

Considerations of E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class have situated its 1963 publication within political, social, and intellectual contexts. A study of its cultural, emotional, and affective contexts remains lacking. This article locates The Making in the context of an important genre developed, on stage and on screen, at the moment of its publication: the “kitchen sink” dramas written by the so-called Angry Young Men, including Look Back in Anger (1956/1959), A Kind of Loving (1960/1962), and A Taste of Honey (1958/1961). It understands these texts as a collective commentary on loss—the loss experienced by Thompson's working class subject and by his learned readership, too—and assesses the affective dimensions of class beyond Thompson's rendition of class formation. In so doing, it follows on the work of feminist critics and cultural historians who have sought, at once, to augment and challenge the view of class formation that E. P. Thompson was able to provide. Through this engagement, it seeks to extend Thompson's interest in the contours of class formation into a domestic sphere concerned, among other things, with emotional relations, consumer practice, and reproductive politics.

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"But the Child Is Flighty, Playful, Curious"

Working-Class Boyhood and the Policing of Play in Belle Époque Paris

Miranda Sachs

By the end of the nineteenth century, working-class children increasingly fell under adult supervision. Working-class boys, however, retained much autonomy over their leisure time. By examining memoirs and police archives, this article shows that boys’ play often flirted with the criminal or the dangerous. When boys entered the workplace, this reputation for lawless play followed them. Drawing on accident reports, this article demonstrates that employers and republican labor inspectors blamed boys for dangerous workplace accidents by highlighting boys’ playful nature. The article concludes by showing how reformers constructed spaces for boys’ leisure in an attempt to tame and direct their play. I argue that this reckless play became one of the defining characteristics of working-class boyhood both within peer society and to external observers. Regulating boys’ play thus became a way to ensure that they matured seamlessly into worker-citizens.

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History from Down Under

E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class and Australia

Ann Curthoys

E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class was influential in Australia as it was throughout the Anglophone world. The focus of interest changed over time, starting with the fate of those of The Making's radical protesters who were transported to the Australian colonies, and then focusing on questions of class formation and the relationship between agency and structure. The peak of influence was in the 1980s, especially in the rising field of social history, and a little later in the burgeoning field of cultural history. Yet The Making's own limitations on questions of gender, race, and colonialism meant that feminist and indigenous histories, which were transforming the discipline, engaged with it only indirectly. In recent years, as the turn to transnational, imperial, and Indigenous histories has taken hold, Thompson's influence has somewhat declined.

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Silvie Lindeperg

Unanimously celebrated as an authentic representation of French railroad workers' resistance against the Germans during the Occupation, René Clément's La Bataille du rail (The Battle of the Rails, 1945) was a valuable piece of ideological capital in the wake of France's liberation. Through a close reading of the film's production and reception, this article shows that the film's heroic blueprinting of the Resistance was the result of mediation between two opposing points of view: that of the Marxist Left, which sought to portray the Resistance as belonging to the working class, and that of the Gaullists, who were intent on promoting the myth of an idealized "True France" without class or ideological divisions and united in its opposition to the Germans.

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South African Remains

E. P. Thompson, Biko, and the Limits of The Making of the English Working Class

Isabel Hofmeyr

E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class exercised a substantial influence on the South African academy and acted as a key shaper of a “history from below” movement in the 1980s. While Thompson's influence in South Africa has been celebrated, the limits of his circulation are less frequently explored. This article takes on this task by placing The Making alongside Steve Biko's I Write What I Like. Biko was a major figure in the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). The article compares the interlinked formations of which the two texts formed a part—the BCM displaced white radical intellectuals, who retreated into class analysis as an analytical alternative to race. The article also examines specific copies of the two titles found in South African libraries and uses the different patterns of marginalia as a way of tracing the individual impacts of the two texts.