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Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class: Commentary

This passage shows Thompson not only describing the situation at the time he is writing about but also looking at the implications of the history for the sources it has left behind. It reflects an important theme in Thompson’s writing, a demand that we look beyond the superficial image, often derived from hostile middle class testimony, and understand working class activity in its own terms. Thus, the ambiguity or lack of reliable written sources about the working class is not a reflection of their lack of education, still less their lack of intelligence, but the exact opposite: the result of a canny policy of silence which was very prudent in the circumstances of the time. Thompson brings out very effectively the sense of the different classes inhabiting two different worlds, with very little understanding between them. The imagery comparing the magistrates and their men to Pizzarro’s men (Pizzarro was the sixteenth century Spanish conquistador who conquered the Inca empire in Peru) on their fruitless quest for gold is striking and effective. The second paragraph works particularly well because Thompson cites a strong of examples to illustrate his basic point, that the Home Office papers, where spies’ and magistrates’ reports ended up, are heavily based on misinterpretation or third-hand gossip. The overall impression from the passage is of a working class which shows much greater wisdom and maturity in looking to its own protection than is shown by the magistrates and the middle class employers who were so desperately seeking discreditable information about it.

 

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