According to E.P. Thompson class is not a “thing” but an event and a relationship, a relation, always historical. It exists only because and as it is enacted.
The book studies the period 1780-1832 wherein the English working class became conscious of itself. The ruling class gained cohesion as well over these years in the face of an insurgent working class.
Thompson is concerned with the agency of working people (see 12). He says class is a cultural as much as an economic formation, so he is cautious as to generalizing beyond the English experience (13).
I like his tone very much and I would have liked to meet E.P. Thompson.
“By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a ‘structure’, nor even as a ‘category’, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.” (9)
“There is today an ever-present temptation to suppose that class is a thing.” . . . “Class-consciousness [is seen to be] a bad thing, invented by displaced intellectuals, [as it] disturbs the harmonious co-existence of groups. . . .” (10)
“For I am convinced that we cannot understand class unless we see it as a social and cultural formation, arising from processes which can only be studied as they work themselves out over a considerable historical period.” (11)
—The Making of the English Working Class. 1963; New York: Pantheon, 1964.