Well, it took me darn near a month to finish this monster (800+ pages) of a book. Can't say I regret the experience, though. Truly , this is a masterpiece, both in terms of its substance and its approach. I could quite easily write more then a thousand words on this book, but hey, this is Amazon, right?
Before I begin, I would like to state up front that I am not a historian or a graduate student of history. Please forgive me if my review contains incorrect statements.
"The Making of the English Working Class" is precisely what its (awkward) title describes: a history of the developments leading to the emergence of the modern industrial working class in England (and Scotland, sort of. Wales and Ireland are excluded, although Irish immigrants living in England to figure in some parts of the book). The time period covered is roughly the 1790's to the 1840's. Thompson starts with a description of "Dissent", discusses the influence of the French Revolution on that tradition (Dissent), spends a good chunk of the book describing the effect of the industrial revolution on the lives and lifestyles of the workers in industrial England, and then spends an equal amount of time describing the reaction of the workers and their leaders to this adjustment in circumstances.
Along the way, Thompson takes a hatchet to historians on the left, right, and center. His section on the change in circumstances of the workers in England is most critical of writers like F.A. Hayek, i.e. those writers who try to say that the industrial revolution "wasn't that bad" or "wasn't bad at all" for the workers. He devotes a good part of Part II of the book to attacking the methods of statistical or economic history. His preference is to use documentary evidence of the time. In this way, the book (published in the 60's) is a forerunner of historical "postmodernism"(Oh, please forgive me for the term), where authors abandon "objective" evidence (economic statistics) in favor of "subjective" evidence (pamphlets, letters and newspapers).
I guess that's hardly a revolutinary arguement now-a-day, but back then, I can hardly imagine.
His section on the reaction of workers to the industrial revolution is rather more critical to historians of the left and center, who sought to discount the violence associated with the Luddite movement as somehow unrepresentative of the working class movement in England. Thompson's revisionist history of the Luddite movement is a tour de force. Really, it's breathtaking.
In my opinion, the book kind of loses steam after that section. Thompson has some harsh words for the London based "leaders" of the workers movement, and I felt his discussion of Owenism left too much to the readers imagination. I don't suppose this book was meant for someone with only a loose grounding in English history, but none the less, that's what I have, so I'm just stuck.
To the extent that I have anything critical to say about this book, it's that Thompson at times presupposes a graduate level education in English history. I haven't read AJP Taylor or Hayek or any of the other authors Thompson attacks. IN the end, though, I felt like it didn't hurt my enjoyment of this book. I would highly recommend it, although you should set aside a good chunk of time to make your way from beginning to end.