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New Left Review I/90, March-April 1975


Gareth Stedman Jones

Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution

John Foster’s Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution [1] John Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution—Early industrial capitalism in three English towns, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1974. is a remarkable contribution to English historiography. It represents both a continuation of, and a stark contrast to, the impressive tradition of social history which has grown up in Britain in the last two decades. If the best work of English social historians has largely grown within a Marxist tradition, that Marxism has been lightly worn. Mainly as a reaction against the positivism dominant within social science, English social historians have tended to disguise sharp analytical distinctions, and eschew sophisticated quantification or explicit theorization. If their guiding lines have been Marxist, they have also drawn much from a native socialist tradition, a tradition which remembered Capital as much for its moral passion as its theoretical achievement. Moreover, their methods of approach have by no means been inspired solely by Marxist sources. The less positivistic realms of sociology have obviously been drawn upon, and economic history of the more traditional kind has always provided a bedrock of support. But it is above all a drawing nearer to social anthropology which has most distinguished modern social history from traditional labour history. Ideas like ‘moral economy’, ‘primitive rebellion’ and general attempts to reconstruct ‘history from below’ have been attempts not only to relate forms of social thought and behaviour to their material roots, but also to uncover the social meaning of lost or disappearing forms of struggle, ritual or myth and to reconstitute their coherence. Compared to traditional labour history, social historians have reacted against the assumption that the history of the working class or of any other oppressed group could be adequately understood through the history of its leadership or its formal organizations, and even more strongly against the short-hand which gauged the ‘maturity’ of a labour movement by tons of steel produced or miles of railway line laid down. It has shifted the attention from political vanguards to those whose consciousness traditional historiography would have labelled backward or unenlightened. It has thus been a reaction, not only against a certain form of Marxist history writing, but also against a much older whig-liberal tradition.

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