On E.P. Thompson's Legacy

Cohen, Sheila
Date Written:  2014-01-01
Publisher:  Against the Current
Year Published:  2014
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20343

In a tribute to E.P. Thompson, Cohen gives insights into his work "The Making of the English Working Class" regarding its valuable focus on the self-activity and self-organization of the people.



In the formative period of 1770 to 1790,"“the rhetoric of constitutionalism contributed to its own destruction…" by shedding light on the glaring "workings of faction and interest in the unreformed House of Commons." Meanwhile, the giant shadow of the French Revolution could not but contribute to an increased awareness of the shortcomings of bourgeois "democracy."

Such awareness was magnified by the fire and inspiration of writers like Thomas Paine, whose astounding prescience is rightly celebrated here. By the early 1790s, when "war fever raged," a "sea-change in the attitudes of the inarticulate" could be observed, demonstrated in organizations like the Norwich Revolution Society which included in their constitutions and actions a conscious adherence to direct democracy.

As Thompson recounts, "Even the chance use, in a letter, of the words 'our leaders' led to a democratical hue-and-cry…" Not surprisingly, those participating in such grassroots organising were seen by the powers-that-be as "very violent and…ready to adopt every thing tending [to] Confusion & Anarchy'. John Thelwall, one of the two "considerable theorists" of the insurgency, "took Jacobinism to the borders of Socialism; he also took it to the borders of revolutionism."

This wave of dissent had ebbed by the end of the 1790s; yet it left in its wake two sections of the radical London Corresponding Society, "one attempting a quasi-legal existence…the other committed to illegal organisation." Part of this illegality consisted of "couriers pass[ing] regularly on illicit trade union business between all parts of Britain."

Thompson refuses to dismiss such activity as that…this was a parochial affair of ship's biscuits and arrears of pay, and not a revolutionary movement. This is to mistake the nature of popular revolutionary crises, which arise from exactly this conjunction between the grievances of the majority and the aspirations of the politically-conscious minority."

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