DOI: 10.1111/hith.12343 ISSN: 0018-2656


Daniel Cunningham
  • Philosophy
  • History


In this article, I extract a theory of class from E. P. Thompson's historical works of the 1960s and 1970s, focusing especially on his 1963 magnum opus The Making of the English Working Class, the articles later collected in the 1991 volume Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture, and the essays “The Peculiarities of the English” and “Eighteenth‐Century English Society: Class Struggle without Class?” In the first section, I argue, following Ellen Meiksins Wood, that Thompson developed a genuinely historical materialist theory of class formation as a “structured process” that moves from class struggle to class consciousness, a theory that complicates the frequent description of Thompson as a “voluntarist.” In the second section, I take a more critical position toward Thompson's understanding of class, discussing a tension between this notion of class as structured process and his numerous invocations of class as a form of “lived experience” whose diversity and unpredictability exceed theorization. This tension aside, Thompson claims that, in the case of the nineteenth‐century English working class, to which he dedicated so much research, lived experience coincided with the more general structured process he posits. In the third section, therefore, I more fully elaborate on this specific process of class formation as Thompson portrays it, identifying and discussing three intertwined threads: (1) a movement from a past‐oriented defense of traditional institutions to a future‐oriented demand for reforms, (2) the development of oppositional, class‐specific pedagogical institutions and practices, and (3) the creation of a distinct class culture (which Thompson closely aligns with the achievement of class consciousness) that is aware both of itself and of its antagonism with other classes.

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