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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

Keywords: David Montgomery; David Roediger; E. P. Thompson; The Making of the English Working Class; new left; radical history; Socialist Humanism; work class formation

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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