am 21. April 2000
This is an extraordinary book and still hold its power to suprise and challenge the reader. Its structure would suggest that its really a series of essays each of which uses some remarkable research. However such a perspective would not do justice to its underlying thesis -that the English working class was not the sterile output of economic forces but actively engaged through aspiration and struggle in its own making. This is the essential thread of the book and as such constitutes a challenge not only to traditional top down theories, but also to mechanist or 'vulgar ' marxist accounts. Yet leaving aside its value stance it is a masterpiece of writing. The attack of Thompsons style could be a pleasure even to those who may not share his persuasions and there is no question that he makes history live in a way only the greatest of historians can. The book does suffer from considerable faults. While Thompson does an effective demolition on the quantative/systemic school of historians this does not justify the shortage of figures.As Perry Anderson has pointed out we do not know much about the size of the working class by the end of the book. Additionally Thompson is sometimes led astray by his own talent for metaphor or the telling phrase Famously he does this in the chapter 'The Redeeming Power of the Cross' with his characterisation of certain hymn texts as 'psychic masturbation'.
Whatever the limitations of the book they are overwhelmed by its originality and its capability to stimulate thought. It is well worth purchase.