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THE SPINNING JENNY AND THE SORTING TABLE: E. P. THOMPSON AND WORKERS IN INDUSTRIALIZING EUROPE AND SOUTHERN AFRICA*

  • JOHN HIGGINSON (a1)
Abstract

The most compelling aspect of E. P. Thompson's work for labor historian of Southern Africa is his contention that class is a fluent group relationship or ‘happening’ – something workers do, in addition to what employers and the state impose upon them. However, by the 1970s, Thompson recognized that his earlier claim also had to resonate with other key assumptions about working class aspirations; especially the need of a shared group consciousness to be more meaningful for individuals than the laws of the state. The principal weakness of Thompson's for African historians, however, is the absence of a more explicit discussion about the demise of the English peasantry in his work.

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I wish to thank Joye Bowman, Mwangi wa Githinji, Bruce Laurie, Zhongjin Li, Toussaint Losier, Leonce Ndikumana, Traci Parker, and two anonymous readers for their invaluable suggestions. The remaining errors are my own. Author's email: jeh@history.umass.edu

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1 Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1966), 910, 189–91.

2 Higginson, J., ‘What happened at Hotpoint: the March 1974 elections of Local 571 of the Sheet Metal Workers International of America’, Focus (1976), 112 .

3 See Higginson, J., A Working Class in the Making: Belgian Colonial Labor Policy, Private Enterprise and the African Mineworker, 1907–1951 (Madison, WI, 1989), 35 .

4 See Thompson, E. P., ‘“Rough music”: le charivari anglais’, Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, 27:2 (1972), 285312 .

5 See E. P. Thompson's account of rural litigation in seventeenth-century Wiltshire: ‘“Rough music”: le charivari anglais’, 288.

6 See the chapter of Alan Macfarlane's The Origins of English Individualism (Oxford, 1978) entitled ‘When England ceased to be a peasant society: Marx, Weber and the historians’, 34–61.

7 See Hill, C., The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (London, 1972), 14, 118, and 226; see also Thompson, E. P., Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993), 6575 .

8 See Bundy, C., The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry (2nd edn, London, 1988), 30–1, 140–5; see also Norton, D. (ed.), The Bible: King James Version with The Apocrypha (Cambridge, 2006), 1781 .

9 E. P. Thompson, Witness against the Beast, 75; see also Thompson, E. P., Customs in Common (New York, 1993), 112 .

10 Crais, C., Poverty, War and Violence in South Africa (New York, 2011), 90 .

11 See Thompson, E. P., ‘Patrician society, plebeian culture’, Journal of Social History, 7:4 (1974), 382405 ; E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common, 260–2.

12 Drawing on Amartya Sen, Diana Wylie rightly claims, ‘During their industrial revolution, black South Africans obtained only the most restricted “exchange entitlements”.’ Badly put, but correct nevertheless. See Wylie, D., Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (Charlottesville, 2001), 3544 ; see also Beinart, W. and Bundy, C., Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa (Berkeley, 1987), 21–30, 142–4; see also Phimister, I. R., ‘Peasant production and underdevelopment in Southern Rhodesia, 1890–1914’, African Affairs, 73:291 (1974); Darch, Colin, ‘Notas sobre fontes estatísticas ofíciais referentes à economia colonial Moçambicana: uma critíca geral’, Estudos Moçambicanos, 4 (1983–5), 103–25; Iliffe, J., ‘The organization of the Maji Maji Rebellion’, The Journal of African History, 8 (1967), 495512 ; Crais, Poverty, War and Violence in South Africa, 67–121.

13 Phoofolo, P., ‘Epidemics and revolutions: the rinderpest epidemic in late nineteenth-century southern Africa’, Past and Present, 138 (1993), 112–43.

14 See van Onselen, C., Chibaro: African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900–1933 (London, 1976), 1428 ; see also Higginson, A Working Class in the Making, 19–30; C. Bundy, The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry, 204–9; Keegan, T. J., Rural Transformations in the Industrializing Transvaal: The Highveld to 1914 (London, 1987), 3460 ; Phoofolo, ‘Epidemics and revolutions’, 112–43; see also Phoofolo, P., ‘The eve of the rinderpest outbreak, 1896’, in Kolapo, F. and Akurang-Parry, K. O. (eds.), Latitudes of Negotiation and Containment: African Agency and European Containment (New York, 2007), 83103 .

15 For the dilemma of southern Africa's countryside at this juncture, see Robert I. Rotberg's introduction to the second edition of J. Merle Davis's edited book Modern Industry and the African (London, 1967), xi ; see also Feinstein, C. H., An Economic History of South Africa: Conquest, Discrimination and Development (New York, 2005), 2247 ; Marks, S., ‘Class, ideology and the Bambatha Rebellion’, in Crummey, D. (ed.), Banditry, Rebellion and Social Protest (London, 1986), 351–72; Melber, H., ‘How to come to terms with the past: re-visiting the German colonial genocide in Namibia’, Afrika Spectrum, 40 (2005), 1, 139–48; Fields, K., Revival and Rebellion in Colonial Central Africa (Princeton, NJ, 1985), 128–92.

16 See Thomas Reefe Collection: Luba Documents, Center for Research Libraries, Chicago, Illinois, ‘Maroyez, Rapports mensuels: CSK, juillet–septembre 1908’; see also Colin Bundy, The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry, 117.

17 W. Beinart and C. Bundy, Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa, 142–4.

18 See, for example, Hobsbawm, E., Labouring Men (New York, 1967), 3743 ; Foster, J., Class Struggle and Industrial Revolution: Early Industrial Capitalism in Three English Towns (London, 1974), 115 ; Jones, G. S., Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian England (New York, 1984), 79 ; Perrot, M., Les ouvrières en grève (Paris, 1974), 1621 ; Agulhon, M., La republique au village (Paris, 1970), 4–7, 187–9; Castro, A., História Económica de Portugal, Volume III (Lisboa, 1985), 417, fn. 117; Sewell, W. Jr, Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (New York, 1980), 510 .

19 National Archives of Zimbabwe (hereafter NAZim) S 138/106 1923–128, Wankie: Confidential 238/712, ‘To Superintendent of Natives: Bulawayo’.

20 For the most comprehensive explanation of the cheap labor thesis, see Wolpe, H., ‘Capitalism and cheap labour-power in South Africa: from segregation to apartheid’, Economy and Society, 1:4 (1972), 425–56; see also Burawoy, M., ‘The functions and reproduction of migrant labor: comparative material from South Africa and the United States’, American Journal of Sociology, 81:5 (1976), 1050–87.

21 Tacitus, C., Tacitus Dialogus, Agricola and Germania (Oxford, 1908), 108–9.

22 Bradford, H., A Taste of Freedom: The ICU in Rural South Africa, 1924–1930 (New Haven, 1988), 165–6.

23 See T. Snyder, ‘Hitler's world’, New York Review of Books, 15 Sept. 2015, 1; see also Snyder, T., Bloodlands (New York, 2010); Anderson, B., Imagined Communities (New York, 1991), 7.

24 See P. Johnson, ‘Colonialism's back – and not a moment too soon’, New York Times Magazine, 15 Apr. 1993, 22–6; see also Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J. A., Why Nations Fail: The Origin of Power Prosperity and Poverty (New York, 2012), 4569 .

25 Lloyd, T., ‘Africa and Hobson's imperialism’, Past and Present, 55 (1972), 153; see also Sarraut, A., Les mise en valeur des colonies francaises (Paris, 1923), 59 .

26 See Bradford, H., ‘Highways, byways and cul-de-sacs: the transition to agrarian capitalism in revisionist South African history’, Radical History Review, 46/7 (1990), 7585 ; see also Higginson, A Working Class in the Making, 124–30.

27 Kubicek, R. V., Economic Imperialism in Theory and Practice (Durham, NC, 1979), 53109 .

28 Richardson, P. and van Helten, J.-J., ‘The development of the South African gold mining industry, 1895–1918’, Economic History Review, xxxvii:3 (1984), 330–42.

29 Native Grievances Commission, ‘Testimony of Alfred Weston Stockett’, 1914; Native Grievances Commission, ‘Testimony of Charles Walter Villiers’, Magistrate's Court, Johannesburg, 3 Mar. 1914, 1–7.

30 Humphries, D., Thomas, D. G., Cowley, A., and Matheson, J. E., Benoni (Benoni, South Africa, 1968), 1233 ; see also Native Grievances Commission, ‘Testimony of Charles Walter Villiers’, 1–7.

31 See J., H. and Simons, R. E., Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850–1950 (London, 1969), 230–3; see also Krikler, J., White Rising: The 1922 Insurrection and Racial Killing in South Africa (Manchester, 2005); Higginson, J., ‘The formation of an industrial proletariat in southern Africa: the second phase, 1921–1949’, in Wallerstein, I. (ed.), Labor in the World Social Structure (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1983), 130–1; Higginson, J., ‘A world briefly upended: an examination of Jeremy Krikler's White Rising: The 1933 Insurrection and Racial Killing in South Africa ’, Journal of the Historical Society, VII:1 (2007), 134 .

32 A large number of men who fought on the Boer side in the South African War and who also participated in the failed white rural uprising of 1914 were concentrated at a number of the key deep-level mines of the Far East Rand such as Modder B, Knights Deep, New Kleinfontein, and Van Ryn Deep. They called themselves the ‘Backvelders’ or ‘Free State Artisans’. See D. Humphries et al., Benoni, 191–3; see also W. A. Murray, The Poor White Problem in South Africa (Carnegie Commission: Health Report), Volume IV (Stellenbosch, 1932), 107–19.

33 See Native Grievances Committee, ‘Testimony of Stanley Archibald Markham Pritchard’, 26 Jan. 1914, before H. O. Buckle, Magistrates’ Court, Johannesburg, 2–3; see also Moodie, T. D., ‘Maximum average violence: underground assaults on the South African gold mines, 1913–1965’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 31:3 (2005), 553–65.

34 See Moodie, ‘Maximum average violence’, 563; see also Native Grievances Committee, ‘Testimony of Alfred Weston Stockett’, 6 Feb. 1914, before H. O. Buckle, Magistrates’ Court, Johannesburg, 1–9.

35 South African Industrial Federation (hereafter SAIN) AH 646, Bd 3.30, Historical Papers, William Cullen Library, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, ‘Conference: Between Representatives of the Executive Committee of the Mining Department of the South African Industrial Federation and the Chamber of Mines … Thursday, 20th Dec. 1921’, 6; see also Rickard, T. A., ‘The strike on the rand’, Mining and Engineering Journal, 113:18 (1922), 757 .

36 See Krikler, White Rising, 199–200; see also SAIN AH 646, Bd 6.3.17 to Bd 6.3.22, Historical Papers, William Cullen Library, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, ‘Criminal Cases of Public Violence associated with the Rand Rebellion of 1922: Instructions to Counsel on Defence, Testimony of William Jacobus Stoltz (accused), Testimony of Pieter Jacobus Nel (policeman)’.

37 By the evening of 7 March 1922, and for at least a full week afterward, the corner of Sixteenth Street and Delarey Street in the Vrededorp section of Johannesburg became one of the most dangerous places in South Africa for a non-white person to be: See Anon., ‘Starting trouble: systematic attempts to provoke natives: important affidavits’, Sunday Times, 19 Mar. 1922; see also, SAIN AH 646, Bd 6.3.22, ‘Public Violence …’, 1922 (various testimonies).

38 Native Grievances Committee, ‘Testimony of Herman Melville Taberer’, 6 Feb. 1914, before H. O. Buckle, Magistrates’ Court, Johannesburg, 2–4.

39 See, for example, the correspondence of T. Holcomb, the American Ambassador to South Africa entitled ‘SA Communists on Trial, 6–20 January 1947’, Confidential: U. S. State Department Central Files, South Africa, 1945–1949 (Scholarly Resources).

40 See Berg, M., ‘What difference did women's work make to the industrial revolution’, History Workshop, 35 (1993), 30–5; see also, E. P. Thompson, The Making of the Working Class, 194–5; Samuel Thorne Papers MS1193, folder 4, ‘The Mining Industry and the Economy of South Africa’, Sterling Library Special Collections, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

41 See Chakrabarty, D., Provincializing Europe (Chicago, 2000), 4962 ; see also Lewis, W. A., Growth and Fluctuation, 1870–1914 (Boston, 1965), 1924 .

42 For a particularly egregious example of this oversight, see the chapter ‘Filling in the boxes’, in Smelser's, N., Social Change in the Industrial Revolution, An Application of Theory to the British Cotton Industry (New York, 1965), 2445 .

43 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 191.

44 Ibid . 189–93.

45 van Onselen, C., The Small Matter of a Horse: The Life of ‘Nongoloza’ Mathebula, 1867–1948 (Johannesburg, 1984), 37 .

46 See Thompson, E. P., ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century’, Past and Present, 50 (1971), 7683 .

47 See de Morogues, B., De la misère des ouvriers et de la marche à suivre pour y remédier (Paris, 1832), 2931 ; see also Smith, A., The Theory of Moral Sentiment (Indianapolis, 1982), 30–3 (see particularly the chapter entitled ‘Of propriety’); Turrell, R. V., White Mercy: A Study of the Death Penalty in South Africa (Westport, CT, 2004), 151–8.

48 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 59–64; see also Linebaugh, P., The London Hanged (New York, 2003), see particularly the chapter entitled ‘Pandemonium and finance capital, 1690–1720’.

49 van Onselen, C., The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath (London: Jonathan Cape, 2007).

50 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 62 and 90; see also Calhoun, Craig, The Question of Class Struggle (Chicago, 1982), 3460 ; Higginson, J., ‘Liberating the captives: independent Watchtower as an avatar of colonial revolt in southern Africa and Katanga, 1908–1941’, Journal of Social History, 26:1 (1992), 55–7.

51 H. Bradford, A Taste of Freedom; see also van Onselen, C., ‘The witches of suburbia: domestic service on the Witwatersrand, 1890–1914’, Studies in Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 2 (London, 1982), 173 .

52 W. A. Lewis, Growth and Fluctuation, 1870–1914, 28.

53 N. Smelser, Social Change in the Industrial Revolution, 1770–1840, 43.

54 See Chakrabarty, D., ‘Translating life-worlds into labor and history’, in Chakrabarty, D. (ed.), Provincializing Europe (Princeton, 2000), 7291 .

55 Moodie, ‘Maximum average violence’.

56 Foucault, M., Essential Works of Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, Volume I , ed. Rainbow, Paul (New York, 1994), 1535 . For example, E. Picard, a petit bourgeois member of the Parti Ouvrier Belge, was quick to blame ‘foreign elements’ such as the Senegalese railway workers who, from his vantage point, were subverting indigenous Congolese workers by example because of their discussions of rights and the political franchise: See Picard, Edmond, En Congolie (Bruxelles, 1896), 93–4.

57 South African National Archives, SAB PM, vol. 1/1/251, file 120/33/1913, ‘Closed Compounds: Black Peril Commission's Report: Testimony of Theodore Etienne Navroord, Deputy Commissioner of Police’, Friday, 25 Oct. 1912; see also Sheila T. van der Horst, ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’, paper read in January, 1954, at the Annual Meeting of the Council of the South African Institute of Race Relations, 6–7.

58 See AG 2738, Historical Papers, William Cullen Library, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Sharecropping and Tenancy Project, ‘Interview with Mr. M. Moloko [interviewer: Mr. B. Moeketsi]’, Sekama/ Mathopestad, Boons, 20-11-79, Tape Numbers 78A/B and 79A/B; see also ‘Interview with Mrs. R. M. Mogoai [interviewer: M. S. S. Ntoane], 884 Ikageng Location, Pochefstrom, 06-11-1979, Tape Number 72 A/B.

59 See AG 2738, Historical Papers, William Cullen Library, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Sharecropping and Tenancy Project, ‘Interview with Mr. Joe Mahlako [interviewer: M. M. Molepo]’, Tape 81, Aa 14.

60 See Higginson, J., Collective Violence and the Agrarian Origins of South African Apartheid, 1900–1948 (New York, 2015), 187–90; see also van Onselen, C., ‘The witches of suburbia’, Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886–1914, Volume II: The New Nineveh (New York, 1982), 173 .

61 Lloyd, ‘Africa and Hobson's imperialism’, 137–8.

62 After years of research and surveying African mineworkers at Anglo Platinum, Nhlanhla Thwala concluded that more than 60 per cent of the workers at Anglo Platinum would support the banning of Fanakalo at the workplace. Moreover, 40 per cent of them believed that Fanakalo was the source many of fatal accidents on the mines: See N. Thwala, ‘The mining sector in South Africa and the search for a workplace language: is Fanakalo still relevant in South Africa?’, Articles on Language: Wits Language School (1 Jul. 2008), 1–4 (http://www.witslanguageschool.com/NewsRoom/ArticleView/).

63 See E. P. Thompson's, ‘Outside the whale’, in Thomson, E. P. (ed.), The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London, 1978), 25 .

* I wish to thank Joye Bowman, Mwangi wa Githinji, Bruce Laurie, Zhongjin Li, Toussaint Losier, Leonce Ndikumana, Traci Parker, and two anonymous readers for their invaluable suggestions. The remaining errors are my own. Author's email:

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