This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of E P Thompson’s classic social history, ‘The Making of the English Working Class’. Have you read it? It’s not been out of print in all this time and has even been reissued recently. Like many of you, I’ve not read it either, not cover to cover anyway but I did dip into it for quotes for essays when I was a student. I mention it now because I was attending an event at The People’s History Museum in Salford to mark the occasion. What comes back to me strongly is how I felt at the time, namely, I was reading about my history, my family’s history. It wasn’t about kings and queens or prime ministers and generals. This was a history of ordinary, working people and my family was part of it. Now someone had written it down and this was the first time I’d read about it. In a strange way, it made me feel as if I came from somewhere! We mattered.
We heard from one of the speakers how E P Thompson loved stirring and causing trouble. Passionate about history and literature, he was employed in the ’60s by Leeds University in the Extra Mural Department, where he taught on Joint courses with the WEA. This is how he first came into contact with one of the speakers, Julian Harber. Julian had known EP Thompson in his Halifax days after becoming Tutor Organiser there. And I had met Julian when I became a rep on the Unite National Advisory Committee (NAC) in the WEA.
Later, EP Thompson moved to Warwick Universtiy to lead the social history school. He was passionate about social history, the history of families like mine and where we’d come from. History became a living experience. It explains the present and enables us to look ahead. He expected excellent sources of information and evidence in constructing an argument. We heard how he sent his ‘crime school’, as they became known, a group of postgraduate and phd students, all over England to visit the Record Offices, researching and gathering.
The Making is controversial. From the right, it’s not regarded as ‘proper’ history. Where are the significant players and events? From the left, the arguments take you away from economic determinsm, the idea that our life chances are decided depending on how we relate to the economic base. His writing is full of ideas and this is what I responded to as a young man. Holding the view that where you stand towards the means of production is only part of the story, albeit a very significant one, the causes of social change are subtle and complex. They permeate the atmosphere. Thompson advocates a critical approach to examing history and social class, very much in keeping with the WEA theme of community engagement. And there’s that word ‘class’ again. Stuart Maconie, another of the speakers and a Wigan supporter, spoke of fans having to pay up to £1000 just to take their family to watch a football match at Wembley, staying overnight because there were no trains laid on after the late kick-off. This, he argued, was a sign of modern day class struggle.
The word ‘agency’ kept cropping up. What does that mean? It seems important. Suddenly, it felt like being back at college, exciting, in the world of ideas but I’m not 18 anymore. Who or what are the agents of social, political and economic change? If I’ve understood right, it isn’t only the economic base. According to Thompson, people could be agents too. He was criticised for omitting feminist and racial considerations, which later came to the fore in the 1960s. As he was writing The Making during the 1950s, perhaps, he was a man of his time? I looked around the packed hall. There were numerous women attending the conference, but seemingly few people from an ethnic minority background.
It just so happens that WEA is sending me on a workshop soon about Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educational theorist also from the 1960s, so I thought I’d better have a look at his book, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ again. I’ve picked it up before but never got into it. This time, opening it on the train to Salford, it spoke to me. It struck me how similar were the themes coming up at the conference and in the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire makes the point that ‘radicalisation, nourished by a critical spirit, is always creative’. This is something the WEA is rediscovering about its own past. We have heard that Thompson enjoyed conflict. This could be creative. He enjoyed seeing how something new came out of a situation involving two diametrically opposed positions. Freire speaks of the tension between the processes of ‘dehumanisation and humanisation’. I understand this to mean that the intention of those in power, the oppressors, is to prevent the oppressed from becoming fully human.
It reminded me of some lines in The Four Quartets by T S Elliot. He writes in the first, Burnt Norton, ‘only a flicker/over the same time-ridden faces/distracted from distraction by distraction/ filled with fancies and empty of meaning’. How aware these words sound today, given the social and economic changes which have enveloped Britain since 1979, the beginnings of Thatcherism. The task of the ‘oppressed’ – in today’s parlance, the disabled, the unemployed, part-time unemployed, pensioners, underemployed graduates, people on low incomes and others- is to liberate not only themselves from their oppression but also their oppressors. Friere argues this is the only way we will all become fully human. I don’t know how humanisation will come about but I’m only on chapter one. It does make me question where my own consciousness lies.
Is this aspirational? Does it work? Friere has this to offer in his Introduction, ‘ From these pages, I hope at least the following will endure: my trust in the people, and my faith in men and in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love.’ Thoughts bubbled up on reading these words. While Freire, like Thompson, writes of ‘men’, I hope woman are included in this. Women empowering themselves in the community brings about real deep-rooted, sustainable development. Men have to learn to be less violent and more communicative, more open. We can, that’s the hope. If we hold the view that women are oppressed by men, then women must make the men and, therefore, themselves truly free. The words sustain and feed my Quaker faith and practice, which has a lot, I’m discovering, to do with love. ‘Let us see what love can do’, William Penn once wrote. Believing the best of people, trusting men and women, including your oppressors is the Quaker way. It’s not easy. It takes practice.
The conference programme was illuminated by readings from The Making by a couple of actors, Maxine Peake and Christopher Eccleston (the best Dr Who ever, according to my youngest…and I have to agree with him). It was powerful to hear Thompson’s prose, read aloud in ordinary Manchester accents. Rodney Bickerstaffe, who used to lead the Trade Union, Unison, brought social struggle right up to date with his tales of Mrs Thatcher, painting a picture of her as unforgiving and severe. He reminded us that a powerful establishment has always demonised groups and individuals and used them as scapegoats; them, not us, the ‘enemy’, something deeply hurtful to people.
Where does the WEA fit into this in the 21st century? How would E P Thompson fare with its need to fill classes and complete paperwork, to fulfill the criteria of the Skills Funding Agency and OFSTED? Do we have enough tutors like him? Who will go on to write the sequel to ‘The Making’? WEA is going through one more transitional phase in its history. There is talk and action around critical engagement, like community conversations, picking up on important local and national issues. Do we have a critical appreciation of key works in history and politics such as ‘The Making’ and ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’? What of Christopher Hill’s ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ as a text to study and debate? Can we do more of this? Are people interested? How about capturing the stories of local people in their communities, as they’re changing? What joins us together? What divides us? Picture a world you want to live in. How do we get there? I hope the WEA can play its part in this. The answers might just be in our past. It’s time to look in the loft at my mum’s house to see if my copy of E P Thompson’s ‘The Making’ is up there. I would like to read it again from cover to cover.