Labor history or labour history is a sub-discipline of Social History which specialises on the history of the working classes and the labor movement. The central concerns of labor historians include industrial relations and forms of labor protest (strikes, lock-outs), the rise of mass politics (especially the rise of Socialism) and the social and cultural history of the industrial working classes. Labor historians may also concern themselves with issues of gender, race, ethnicity and other factors besides class but chiefly focus on urban or industrial societies which distinguishes it from Rural history.
Labor history developed in tandem with the growth of a self-conscious working-class political movement in many Western countries in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Whilst early labor historians were drawn to protest movements such as Luddism and Chartism, the focus of labor history was often on institutions: chiefly the labor unions and political parties. Exponents of this institutional approach included Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The work of the Webbs, and other pioneers of the discipline, was marked by optimism about the capacity of the labor movement to effect fundamental social change and a tendency to see its development as a process of steady, inevitable and unstoppable progress. As two contemporary labor historians have noted, early work in the field was "designed to service and celebrate the Labour movement."
Further information: Historiography of the United Kingdom § Marxist historians
In the 1950s to 1970s, labor history was redefined and expanded in focus by a number of historians, amongst whom the most prominent and influential figures were E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. The motivation came from current left-wing politics in Britain and the United States and reached red-hot intensity. Kenneth O. Morgan, a more traditional liberal historian, explains the dynamic:
- the ferocity of argument owed more to current politics, the unions’ winter of discontent [in 1979], and rise of a hard-left militant tendency within the world of academic history as well as within the Labour Party. The new history was often strongly Marxist, which fed through the work of brilliant evangelists like Raphael Samuel into the New Left Review, a famous journal like Past and Present, the Society of Labour History and the work of a large number of younger scholars engaged in the field. Non-scholars like Tony Benn joined in. The new influence of Marxism upon Labour studies came to affect the study of history as a whole.
Morgan sees benefits:
- In many ways, this was highly beneficial: it encouraged the study of the dynamics of social history rather than a narrow formal institutional view of labour and the history of the Labour Party; it sought to place the experience of working people within a wider technical and ideological context; it encouraged a more adventurous range of sources, ‘history from below’ so-called, and rescued them from what Thompson memorably called the ‘condescension of posterity’; it brought the idea of class centre-stage in the treatment of working-class history, where I had always felt it belonged; it shed new light on the poor and dispossessed for whom the source materials were far more scrappy than those for the bourgeoisie, and made original use of popular evidence like oral history, not much used before.
Morgan tells of the downside as well:
- But the Marxist – or sometimes Trotskyist – emphasis in Labour studies was too often doctrinaire and intolerant of non-Marxist dissent–it was also too often plain wrong, distorting the evidence within a narrow doctrinaire framework. I felt it incumbent upon me to help rescue it. But this was not always fun. I recall addressing a history meeting in Cardiff...when, for the only time in my life, I was subjected to an incoherent series of attacks of a highly personal kind, playing the man not the ball, focusing on my accent, my being at Oxford and the supposedly reactionary tendencies of my empiricist colleagues.
Thompson and Hobsbawm were Marxists who were critical of the existing labour movement in Britain. They were concerned to approach history "from below" and to explore the agency and activity of working people at the workplace, in protest movements and in social and cultural activities. Thompson's seminal study The Making of the English Working Class was particularly influential in setting a new agenda for labor historians and locating the importance of the study of labor for social history in general. Also in the 1950s and 1960s, historians began to give serious attention to groups who had previously been largely neglected, such as women and non-caucasian ethnic groups. Some historians situated their studies of gender and race within a class analysis: for example, C. L. R. James, a Marxist who wrote about the struggles of blacks in the Haitian Revolution. Others questioned whether class was a more important social category than gender or race and pointed to racism, patriarchy and other examples of division and oppression within the working class.
Labor history remains centered on two fundamental sets of interest: institutional histories of workers' organizations, and the "history from below" approach of the Marxist historians.
Despite the influence of the Marxists, many labor historians rejected the revolutionary implications implicit in the work of Thompson, Hobsbawm et al. In the 1980s, the importance of class itself, as an historical social relationship and explanatory concept, began to be widely challenged. Some notable labor historians turned from Marxism to embrace a postmodernist approach, emphasizing the importance of language and questioning whether classes could be so considered if they did not use a "language of class". Other historians emphasized the weaknesses and moderation of the historic labor movement, arguing that social development had been characterized more by accommodation, acceptance of the social order and cross-class collaboration than by conflict and dramatic change.
Main article: Labor history of the United States
Labor history in the United States is primarily based in history departments, with occasional representation inside labor unions. The scholarship deals with the institutional history of labor unions and the social history of workers. In recent years there's been special attention to historically marginal groups, especially blacks, women, Hispanics and Asians. The Study Group on International Labor and Working-Class History was established: 1971 and has a membership of 1000. It publishes International Labor and Working-Class History. H-LABOR is a daily email-based discussion group formed in 1993 that reaches over a thousand scholars and advanced students. the Labor and Working-Class History Association formed in 1988 and publishes Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.
Prominent scholars include John R. Commons (1862–1945),David Brody (b. 1930),Melvyn Dubofsky, and David Montgomery (1927-2011).
Kirk (2010) surveys labor historiography in Britain since the formation of the Society for the Study of Labour History in 1960. He reports that labor history has been mostly pragmatic, eclectic and empirical; it has played an important role in historiographical debates, such as those revolving around history from below, institutionalism versus the social history of labor, class, populism, gender, language, postmodernism and the turn to politics. Kirk rejects suggestions that the field is declining, and stresses its innovation, modification and renewal. Kirk also detects a move into conservative insularity and academicism. He recommends a more extensive and critical engagement with the kinds of comparative, transnational and global concerns increasingly popular among labor historians elsewhere, and calls for a revival of public and political interest in the topics. Meanwhile, Navickas, (2011) examines recent scholarship including the histories of collective action, environment and human ecology, and gender issues, with a focus on work by James Epstein, Malcolm Chase, and Peter Jones.
Outside the Marxist orbit, social historians paid a good deal of attention to labour history as well.
Addison notes that in Britain by the 1990s, labour history was, "in sharp decline," because:
- there was no longer much interest in history of the white, male working-class. Instead the 'cultural turn' encouraged historians to explore wartime constructions of gender, race, citizenship and national identity.
- Allen, Joan, Alan Campbell, Eric Hobsbawm and John McIlroy. Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives (2010)
- Arnesen, Eric. Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History (3 Vol 2006)
- Kirk, Neville. "Challenge, Crisis, and Renewal? Themes in the Labour History of Britain, 1960–2010," Labour History Review, Aug 2010, Vol. 75 Issue 2, pp 162–180
- Linden, Marcel van der. Transnational Labour History: Explorations (2003)
- McIlroy, John. "Asa Briggs and the Emergence of Labour History in Post-War Britain." Labour History Review 77.2 (2012): 211-242.
- Mapes, Kathleen, and Randi Storch. "The Making and Remaking of a Labor Historian: Interview with James R. Barrett." Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas. 13.2 (2016): 63-79.
- Navickas, Katrina. "What happened to class? New histories of labour and collective action in Britain," Social History, May 2011, Vol. 36 Issue 2, pp 192–204
- Price, Richard. "Histories of Labour and Labour History," Labour History Review, Dec 2010, Vol. 75 Issue 3, pp 263–270, on Britain
- Robert, Jean-Louis, Antoine Prost and Chris Wrigley, eds. The Emergence of European Trade Unionism (2004)
- Heerma van Voss, Lex, and Marcel van der Linden, eds. Class and Other Identities: Gender, Religion and Ethnicity in the Writing of European Labor History (Berghahn Books, 2002)
- Walkowitz, Daniel J., and Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, eds. Rethinking U.S. Labor History: Essays on the Working-Class Experience, 1756-2009 (2010)
- ^Mike Savage and Andrew Miles, The Remaking of the British Working Class, 1840-1940, Routledge, 1994, p. 1. ISBN 0-415-07320-0
- ^Kenneth O. Morgan, My Histories (University of Wales Press, 2015) p 85.
- ^Morgan, My Histories (2015) p 86.
- ^Morgan, My Histories (2015) p 86. online at JSTOR
- ^E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1963. ISBN 0-14-013603-7
- ^Daniel J. Walkowitz and Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, eds. Rethinking U.S. Labor History: Essays on the Working-Class Experience, 1756-2009 (2010)
- ^See Study Group on International Labor and Working-Class HistoryArchived 2015-05-18 at the Wayback Machine.
- ^See H-LABOR website
- ^John Rogers Commons, Myself (1934), his autobiography.
- ^David Brody, "The old labor history and the new: In search of an American working class." Labor History(1979) 20#1 pp: 111-126.
- ^Melvyn Dubofsky (b. 1934), Hard Work: The Making of Labor History (2000) excerpt
- ^David Montgomery, Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (1980) excerpt
- ^Neville Kirk, "Challenge, Crisis, and Renewal? Themes in the Labour History of Britain, 1960–2010," Labour History Review, Aug 2010, Vol. 75 Issue 2, pp 162-180
- ^Katrina Navickas, "What happened to class? New histories of labour and collective action in Britain," Social History, May 2011, Vol. 36 Issue 2, pp 192-204
- ^John McIlroy, "Asa Briggs and the Emergence of Labour History in Post-War Britain." Labour History Review 77.2 (2012): 211-242.
- ^Paul Addison and Harriet Jones, eds. A Companion to Contemporary Britain: 1939-2000 (2005) p. 4
Marcel van der Linden’s book ‘Workers of the World: Essays toward a Global Labor History’ is an encyclopaedic, thought provoking, tour de force on the field of labour relations that scholars from different disciplines should read (and possibly internalise). Written by a labour historian with the purpose of contributing to a global labour history freed from Eurocentrism and methodological nationalism, the book, by getting inspiration and using examples from, and establishing linkages with, adjacent disciplines and perspectives (from industrial relations to sociology, from development to political economic theories), goes beyond the field of labour history, contributing to a much needed reformulation of work and work relations within capitalism. Indeed, from the perspective of the reviewer and potentially of all those without a specialist historical background, the major contribution of the book has been to establish, with the use of illuminating empirical studies from different epochs and from different regions of the world, a set of theoretical departure points for the study of labour and labour relations that by their nature apply to different disciplines.
In this perspective, three sets of questions, particularly, are central to the book (p.9):
- What is the nature of the world working class? How can we define and demarcate that class, and which factors determine its composition?
- Which forms of collective action did this working class develop in the course of time, and what is the logic in that development?
- What can we learn from adjacent disciplines? Which insights from anthropologists, sociologists and other social scientists are useful in the development of global labour history?
In order to answer these questions, the book is divided into four sections dealing with (in the author’s own words): conceptualisations; varieties of mutualism; forms of resistance; and insights from adjacent disciplines. Although this structure fits well with the overall aims of the book to contribute with new concepts to a global labour history, in the following paragraphs I will consider specific issues treated in the book in the light of their applicability and value to contemporary studies that put labour and labour relations at the centre of their analysis. Centrality of labour means here both uncovering the mechanism through which the wealth produced within capitalism is contemporaneously created and hidden to workers, and envisaging strategies for their collective emancipation.
In the first part of the book, Van der Linden proposes a new broader conceptualization of the world working class less oriented to the exclusion than the inclusion of various dependent or marginalised groups of workers. (p.10). Departing from the idea, emphasised in Marx’s work, that ‘free’ wage labour would be the only form of labour commodification within capitalism, Van der Linden, by looking at the historical dynamics and patterns of capital accumulation, argues that work has been organised in different ways, giving space to a variety of forms of labour exploitation. While the wage workers of the industrial proletariat of the 20th century have, in their number and central position, certainly epitomised the idea of class and workers’ emancipation, in reality it is possible to identify, both in historical and current perspective, the co-existence of a variety of intermediate positions, of ‘grey areas’, between wage labour and other forms of work exploitation. In this sense, Van der Linden distinguishes between four different possible types of labour commodification depending on the combination of the following conditions: a) the carrier of labour power is the possessor of it (autonomous commodification) b) the carrier of labour power is not the possessor (heteronomous commodification), c) the carrier sells his or her own labour power, d) the carrier does not sell his or her own labour power. Further variations can then be identified by looking at the degree of autonomy/dependency workers have in respect to their employers for what concern: a) labour capacity, b) means of labour, c) labour product, d) work of the other household members, e) relationship with the employer outside production, f) relationship with fellow workers in the labour process.
Of all these variations and forms, the ‘coerced commodification of labour power’ (p. 34), would be the common denominator for the identification of a class of ‘subaltern workers’.
This brief summary cannot give more than an overview of Van der Linden’s contribution and missed are all the subtleties, connections, implications and empirical examples abundantly used by the author all along the first chapters of the book, where the call for a broader conceptualization of the working class is powerfully argued and clearly laid out. While the analysis is overall convincing, historically solid, and provides useful classifications for the study of workers worldwide in the global era, a number of questions are raised by this ‘enlarged’ (as compared to the ‘narrow nineteenth-century concept of the proletariat we find in Marx’ (p. 18)) reconstruction.
Is the diversity of work relations within capitalism something new? To what extent is the emphasis on varieties of labour commodification helping to identify a class based strategy for collective action? What’s the link between a new way of defining the working class and forms of collective action? Is classification per se enough and how this does help in framing processes of working class formation?
Many Marxists would argue that heterogeneity of jobs, work relations and forms of labour commodification, has always characterised capitalism. Marx himself, while emphasising the potentially emancipatory role of the industrial working class because of the central position this had in the production of wealth, was aware and commented on various occasions about the many different forms in which human labour could be coerced and this in the sphere of both production, circulation and reproduction.(1) Thus, far from ignoring existing differences, there was in Marx a clear hierarchy and preference for the industrial working class, not just because this represented, for its relations with capital in the sphere of production, a class in itself, but potentially as a revolutionary subject.(2) This double aspect of class, linking theoretical categorisation related to the type of work relations with issues of action, identification and organisation, epitomised in the class in itself/class for itself formula, remains crucial to the analysis of class within current capitalism.(3) In other words and independently of formal class identification, is there today a new revolutionary subject that for its role within the structure of capitalism may substitute and/or integrate the ‘old’ free wage labourers?
We may all agree that, today at a greater speed than in the past, the expansive character of capitalism is producing a permanent fluidity of labor relations in all continents (p. 363), characterised by a ‘transcontinental’ precariousness and flexibility of work, marginalisation of workers, increase of informality, all well represented by processes of de-localisation and outsourcing of manufacturing and services through the global commodity chains. This changed reality might well justify attempts to enlarge the working class concept as convincingly as Van der Linden does introducing useful distinctions between occupations and work and offering, in this way, a less Eurocentric reconstruction. However, I believe it also imposes us to think about the possibilities, in a context where a new international division of labour is emerging (4), of collective identification between different groups of workers and of their collective articulation and resistance to the dominant system. Coming back to the question formulated above, what is then the link between a new way of defining the working class and forms of collective action?
This concern seems to be also the leit-motif of much of the analysis presented in the central part of the book that dedicates seven chapters to detailed studies of different forms of collective response to capital domination, including both traditional forms and organisations of workers’ resistance (strike, trade unions) and associational practices for self-help and production (mutualism, cooperativism). Despite their historiographic relevance, I do not think these chapters help to link the theoretical sophistication of the enlarged concept of subaltern workers proposed by Van der Linden with current realities. While it is true that Marx’s identification of the industrial working class as revolutionary subject has to be revised, in the light of changes in the global society, the emphasis on trade unions and strikes, which epitomise the limits and possibilities of the ‘restricted’ vision, is somehow contradictory. This contradiction is also reinforced by the institutional approach of the chapters. After opening the chapter on strikes (chapter nine) with reference to the many forms in which subaltern workers can defend their interests (‘sometimes openly and sometimes secretly, sometimes individually and sometimes collectively’ (p. 173)) and a large empirical exposition of this, the rest of the chapter and chapter eleven on trade unions, which is logically linked, turn then on a very meticulous but extremely rational, pre-defined view of collective action in workplaces, which does not account for the spontaneity on which subaltern workers’ resistance is often built (as the author says at different points in the book, eg. p. 213). There is an underlining tendency, especially among industrial relations scholars, to reduce all forms of collective action to the formula- trade unions-leaders-strikes-collective bargaining, what I call elsewhere (5) ‘institutionalised collective action’, that I think represents a major problem in formulating alternative organisational strategies for workers. I am sure Van der Linden does not underestimate this, but a chapter collecting the insights coming from the experiences of spontaneous workplace resistance and organisation (building on chapter eight on producers cooperatives and including workers’ councils and factory occupations) may have spread light on alternative forms of work organization and resistance available to subaltern workers, and especially to those whose level of autonomy from capital is reduced.
Considering again the linkages between definition of working class and collective action, the second set of questions identified in the book, I am not convinced the part on ‘varieties of mutualism’ adds to the argument. While it is true that mutualism may implies the development of solidarity linkages and collective identification, these associations, whether temporary or permanent, remain forms of self-help and defence of working class people that are based more on the role of workers as consumers in society than on their productive function. Consumer protests, consumer and service cooperatives and other forms of mutualism may all be valid attempts to defend workers from the vagaries of the market but do not contest the logic of the system on which exploitation and domination are based. By the contrary, workers’ collective decision to establish producers’ cooperatives, eliminating capitalists from the sphere of production, might be seen as forms of collective action that for their nature have a strong emancipatory potential.(6)
Overall, how far does the book go towards a global labour history? Are linkages between the enlarged working class concepts and strategies for workers’ collective action established? What kind of insights for future, interdisciplinary research?
In a previous review of the same book, Peter Waterman was pointing to the fact that ‘There is here only one chapter which ends with at least some “speculations about the future” (p. 280) and that is chapter 12 on labour internationalism and this within a book that could be read as if it were an archaeological study of a vanished or vanishing species’.(7) I basically agree with the spirit of Waterman’s observation (and the new title he proposed for the book, Workers of the World: Unite!), which is moreover reflected in the same chapter 12 where, again, the emphasis is on formal institutions rather than on the perspectives for ‘real life’ workers’ alliances and coalitions (something recently developed, for instance, by Bieler et al (8)). But, this notwithstanding, I think in the last chapter some important predictionss are made about the future and suggestions are offered for the development of new research lines that may help to establish interconnections (teleconnections) between the diversity of global labour relations and subaltern workers’ collective actions.
As van der Linden says in the conclusions of his book, ‘the rebuilding of the ship of labour history is in progress and … we still lack a lot of timber’(pp. 359–60). Hopefully this review will contribute to this collective effort and help generate the knowledge to strengthen working class organizations.
- For example see N. Iñigo Carrera, ‘El concepto de clase obrera’, in Labour Again Debates:Reconceptualising the Working Class (2003) <http://www.iisg.nl/labouragain/documents/inigocarrera.pdf> [accessed 4 March 2010] or E. De la Garza, ‘Comentarios al artículo del profesor Marcel Van der Linden’, in Labour Again Debates:Reconceptualising the Working Class (003)http://www.iisg.nl/labouragain/documents/delagarza.pdf [accessed 4 March 2010].Back to (1)
- B. Fine and A. Saad Filho, Marx’s Capital (London, 2004), p. 167-170.Back to (2)
- R. Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action and Contemporary American Workers (Berkeley, 1988); R. Hyman, ‘Marxist thought and the analysis of work’, in Social Theory at Work, ed. M. Korczynsky, R. Hodson and P. Edwards (2006).Back to (3)
- M. Taylor, Global Economy Contested: Power and Conflict Across the International Division of Labour (London, 2008).Back to (4)
- M. Atzeni, Workplace Conflict: Mobilization and Solidarity in a Developing Country (Basingstoke, 2010).Back to (5)
- D. Egan, ‘Toward a Marxist theory of labor-managed firms: breaking the degeneration thesis’, Review of Radical Political Economics 22(4), 1990, 67–86.Back to (6)
- P. Waterman, ‘Review of Workers of the World: Essays toward a Global Labour History by Marcel van der Linden’, Development and Change, 2009, 40 (4) 809–10.Back to (7)
- A. Bieler, I. Lindberg, I. and D. Pillay, Labour and the Challenges of Globalization: What Prospects for Transnational Solidarity? (London, 2008).Back to (8)