The Canon: The Making of the English Working Class. By E.P. Thompson

June 25, 2009

My task was to identify a book of such influence that the field of cultural studies would be diminished by its absence. While pausing at Raymond Williams' The Long Revolution, Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, John Frow's Cultural Studies and Cultural Value, Meaghan Morris' Too Soon Too Late, Eric Michaels' For a Cultural Future, Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers, Paul Gilroy's Postcolonial Melancholia and Judith Butler's Precarious Life, there is only one choice. Indeed, one paragraph in one book has powered my research.

E.P. Thompson's riveting, revelatory, extraordinary and expansive The Making of the English Working Class (1963) seduces readers into believing that social history can make a difference. Although historians cannot change the past, a different present is made by migrating righteous dissent from earlier struggles.

Thompson wrote a doorstop of a book. The first copy of The Making of the English Working Class I read as an 18-year-old is now in a sorry state. Pages are bent, attacked and coloured. My younger self loved this book because it opened a door on a world of courage and failure, loss and consciousness. It was carried in a handbag for four years with packed lunches, mascara and bottles of Impulse. It was then supplemented by another doorstop: Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces. There are parallels between the weavers' destruction of power looms and punks gobbing at royalty.

Although Thompson's book may be supplemented, it will never be discarded. His archival research is enhanced by swirling, percussive prose. The combination of rigour and imagination, scholarship and creativity is unmatched. It is an inspiration.

To summon a historian's greatest work as part of the can(n)on of cultural studies may seem a fickle choice, particularly considering his brusque attacks on "theory" (and/or Louis Althusser). But in the midst of his critique, Thompson bequeathed a lesson from history to the flighty, overpainted, interdisciplinary mistress of cultural studies. In the preface of the book that would make his name, he carved out our project.

"I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.

"Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideas may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties."

Thompson's affinity for lost causes and the losers of history bestowed a project to cultural studies scholars. Our task is not to fight the condescension of posterity, but the condescension of complacency. Our sources may be popular culture rather than the People's Paper. Communities are mediated rather than Methodist. The history we share with Thompson does not have "terminal points". We remain dedicated to making new ideas rather than reconditioning old theories.

The Myth of Digital Democracy

By Matthew Hindman. Princeton University Press 198pp, £39.95 and £16.50. ISBN 9780691137612 and 38688. Published October 2008

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