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New Left Review I/24, March-April 1964

Tom Nairn

The English Working Class


The English working class is one of the enigmas of modern history. Its development as a class is divided into two great phases, and there appears at first sight to be hardly any connection between them.

It was born in conditions of the utmost violence, harshly estranged from all traditional and tolerable conditions of existence and thrown into the alien, inchoate world of the first industrial revolution. Formed in this alienation by the blind energies of the new capitalist order, its sufferings were made more hopeless by the severest political and ideological persecution. From the outset it inspired fear by its very existence. In the time of general fear produced by the French Revolution, such dread and hostility became chronic, affecting the old ruling class and the new industrial bourgeoisie alike, and creating a climate of total repression. What was possible but revolt, in the face of this? Humanity, pulverized and recast in this grim mould, had to rebel in order to live, to assert itself as more than a mere object of history, as more than an economic instrument. The early history of the English working class is therefore a history of revolt, covering more than half a century, from the period of the French Revolution to the climax of Chartism in the 1840’s.

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Tom Nairn, ‘The English Working Class’, NLR I/24: £3

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