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Reasoning in Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class

I suggested above that historical presentations contain specific theses concerning the past and that it is possible to differentiate between the meaning of these theses and the evidence for them. But what is the nature of evidence in a work of history then? Is evidence narratively structured or not? And, once more, what is the relation between meaning and evidence in a work of history?

The point of evidence is to give a reason or reasons to accept a historiographical thesis. The primary mode is to bring forward factual evidence that supports the thesis, but the historical data should naturally be so connected as to lead to the conclusion defended in the book. This connected evidence should in turn create a structure that makes a case in favor of one's claims, as Stephen Toulmin has usefully suggested. Although Toulmin's frame of reference is jurisprudence, he extends his analogy to historiography. If a historian's 'case' is to defend the character of Tiberius, for example, we can challenge his case by drawing attention to 'the grounds (backing, data, facts, evidence, considerations, features)' for making that case (Toulmin 1958, 11).

What factual evidence is there in Thompson's book that is not necessarily required for the understanding of the historical thesis but supports it, for example? In this case, if ever, it has to be 'for example' since the 'factual basis' is so copious. I will mention several very useful details with regard to the main thesis. One key point of Thompson's book is that when a market for the labor force was created, it increased the insecurity of the workers enormously. Thomson provides very illuminating authentic descriptions of this state of affairs: '"If there comes a frost they discharge them," said one overseer. "When the season opens they come to me, and take 'em back again. The farmers make my house what we call in our trade a house of call." Wet weather created a "surplus": harvest a "shortage"' (Thompson 1991, 248). Through the documented words of this overseer one becomes a little more convinced and understands slightly better why the workers' situation is said to have deteriorated despite improvement in material living conditions in general. Furthermore, in several chapters Thompson gives other very interesting details on the ways in which the working people's predicament became worse: field laborers lost their common rights and the vestiges of the village democracy, artisans lost their craftsman's status, weavers experienced the loss of livelihood and independence, children lost opportunities for work and play in the home and while many workers' real incomes improved they too felt the loss of security and leisure as well as a deterioration of the urban environment (e.g. Thompson 1991, 487).

All these details provide evidence for Thompson's claim that the working people's situation became more insecure and, more importantly, add information on how this happened. This claim in turn is one reason for why working people became radicalized, which can then be taken as a pre-condition for the creation of the shared awareness of a class condition and, furthermore, seen as a definitional criterion for the birth of the English working class. I hope the reader has now acquired some sense of what the argumentative nature of historical books means. A chain of reasoning connects these various claims, and they are only some of the claims and the relations presented in support of the main conclusion. However, many of the details above are not necessarily required for understanding the main thesis regarding the emergence of English working class. It is perfectly possible to understand what Thompson means by his main claim without knowing what kind of exploitative opportunities a particular overseer saw. And one may not even necessarily need to be aware that the field laborer lost the vestiges of village democracy, although this statement appears fairly important. But if one knows these details one both understands the thesis better and realizes why Thompson has advanced it. There is no necessary end-point to this informational and evidential deepening.

It is worth taking note of how Thompson himself characterizes his treatise: 'This is a group of studies, on related themes, rather than a consecutive narrative' (1980, 11), much like Goldstein's 'accumulating examples'. I will next characterize the main argumentative line in the book in some more detail and examine the roles of three main sections of Thompson's argument.19 How do these 'studies, on related themes' support the main thesis?

In the first main section, Thompson establishes that in the years and events before the eighteenth-century the seeds for the later emancipatory working class movement were planted. The second section adds another element that is needed in order to make the conclusion reasonable. Thompson argues that the working class was doomed to hardship and struggle. They were, apparently, carrying the 'curse of Adam', as the second part suggests. Thompson also shows that the conditions for unskilled manual labor and in industries subject to the outwork system reflected a regime designed by employers, legislators and ideologists to cheapen human labor in every way (Thompson 2009, 346). As a result of these years of struggle, the '"average" English working man became more disciplined, more subject to the productive tempo of "the clock", more reserved and methodical, less violent and less spontaneous' (451). This happened in part through the influence of disciplining industrial practices and in part through the influence of Methodism and other religious forms. Still, the working class community was the product of 'neither paternalism nor of Methodism but in a high degree of conscious working-class endeavour'(457), which is to say that the working class community had their collectivist values and their own moral code. The third and final main section of the book studies the underground years, when working class radicalism was a 'defensive movement', and asks whether there was a discontinuity with the early years of radicalism.

There are many sub-sections, which occasionally seem to advance the main argument very little and which appear as factual 'diversions' in a positive sense into the investigations of some related historical phenomena. A case in point is Luddism, which is an integral part of the working-class radicalism of the early nineteenth-century and simply cannot be ignored. Luddism was a transitional movement towards a fully conscious working class and grew out the illegal tradition before 1811 as an eruption against industrial capitalism, which violated the accepted paternalistic legal code among artisans (601; 658). It is typical for historiography that the main argument is given depth by descriptive and factual parts of some independently interesting historical phenomenon. Furthermore, although my suggestion is that historians argue for points of views, factual discourse is and remains an important part of historical discourse. If a historian makes a significant claim, designed to play a role in a chain of reasoning, the historian usually has to back up this claim with reference to empirical data. For example, when Thompson asserts that the roots of English working class lie in the dissenting movement of the late eighteenth-century, he has to describe and give information of what these movements were. Historiography is an empirical discipline after all.

Further, as already discussed, the last section of the book makes the point that the English working class developed underground gradually and was 'made' by the mid-1830s. Because of the often secretive nature of the working-class movement, this section contains information on various related phenomena, such as the work of spies, provocateurs and working-class leaders as well as court trials in these decades. It is now the right moment to jump to the postscript of the book, which summarizes retrospectively the main argumentative line followed:

What happened in this 'making' was twofold. First, there was a shift in the whole background, as well as in the minority foreground, of popular dispositions ... second, from 1816 onwards ... men were putting themselves into a new stance in relation to other social groups and were developing new solidarities. (938)

When I write about the argumentative nature of historiography, the point is not to suggest that historians use formal argumentative strategies and that their main mode of writing resembles explicit arguments of the type made by analytic philosophers. The point is, however, to suggest that they nevertheless advance a central thesis and that such theses are made reasonable through the reasoning displayed in their books, which almost invariably contain long descriptive sections. If the descriptive sections are called 'narratives', one runs a risk of seriously devaluing the work of most historians since the connotation of that is that historians merely report given chronological events.20 Before the historian finds the final organization of a book, a great deal of analytical work is required. As Marwick observed, 'devising such a structure, and carrying it through successfully, is one of the most difficult tasks of the historian. This structure - finally represented in the table of contents, the organization of chapters and sections of chapters - determined the special form that a piece of historical writing takes . .. any substantial piece of historical writing will have to have more than just organisation or a plan - a "structure"' (Marwick 2001, 207-208).21 The use of the terminology of 'narrative' may be seen acceptable as long as one understands and explicates that 'narrative' amounts to a certain cognitive and synthesizing structure in the book. Nevertheless, I do not think it is the best term to describe the structure of historical works.

If I now needed to summarize the argument of Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class in its bare bones, I would compose the following list of premises leading to the conclusion: (1) Certain dissenting movements and the traditional idea of the 'Free born' Englishman pre-conditioned the sense and need for activism among workers at the end of eighteenth-century; (2) The industrial revolution made the living conditions of most working-class people insecure; (3) External economic pressures and previous activism molded the feeling of shared class consciousness; (4) The consciousness of a working people's shared predicament continued to develop during the underground years and working-class culture assumed several separate forms in those years. (Conclusion) By the mid-1830, English working people had developed a fully mature working-class awareness of their place in the battles of society.

 
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