Labor History Research Paper

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Labor history has a double meaning. In a narrow sense it denotes the history of social movements of wage earners, including their leaders, their organizations (e.g., mutual aid societies, trade unions, consumer, and producer cooperatives, and working-class parties), and their collective actions (petitions, strikes, boycotts, electoral campaigns, etc.). In a broad sense, labor history comprizes the history of the working classes at large, including the history of family life, demography, everyday culture, leisure activities, housing, religion, migration, and so on. In the early phases of its development as an academic discipline since the 1870s practitioners of labor history predominantly used the narrow concept.

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1. Beginnings

Labor history as an academic practice came into being after the classical Wage Fund theory had become discredited. According to this theory (of which many variations have existed) there is at any point in time a fixed amount of money out of which wages can be paid; it was therefore ‘plainly impossible, in any given state of capital and population, to bring about any genuine and permanent rise of wages, otherwise than in the slow course of generations’ (Webb and Webb 1897, II, p. 603). Trade-union action could thus have two results. Either it would lead to a redistribution of wages from one segment of the working class to another without the total available amount increasing: ‘the increased wages secured for merely absorb a larger share of the capital, leaving less to be distributed among others.’ Or, trade-union action was more or less useless: ‘If wages are below equilibrium, a union can raise them, thus doing what ought to be done and in time would be done by the market itself’ (McCulloch 1851, pp. 50–2). In the 1870s the decline of the Wage Fund theory started with criticisms by John Stuart Mill and others.

With the decline of the Wage Fund theory trade unions and strikes came to be seen in a different light. While most scholars previously had considered tradeunion activities as false in theory and pernicious or futile in practice, it now became a much more serious topic deserving careful analysis, both contemporary and historical. Pioneer efforts were, amongst others, Lujo Brentano’s On the History and Development of Gilds, and the Origins of Tradeunions (London 1870), Richard T. Ely’s The Labor Movement in America (New York 1886) and the History of Trade Unionism (London 1894) by Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb (born Potter).

For a long time two patterns of interpretations were dominant. On the one hand there was the liberal tradition, represented by, for instance, John R. Commons and Selig Perlman in the United States, the Hammonds in Britain, or scholars like Lujo Brentano, Gerhard Schulze-Gavernitz, and others in Germany. They reconstructed the development of labor movements as the history of the civil emancipation—and consequently the integration—of the working class within capitalism.

The other ‘classical’ tradition was, of course, the Socialist approach in its many forms, varying from moderates to radicals, and including people like the Webbs in Britain, Edouard Dolleans in France, Eduard Bernstein and Carl Grunberg in Germany, or Edvard Bull in Norway. What these socialists had in common was their interpretation of labor history as a history of attempts to transcend capitalism—in whatever way.

Both ‘classical’ approaches emphasized the labor movements’ institutional aspects. Classical labor history consisted of the application of the approaches, methods, formats, and styles of the traditional historiography of ideas and politics to the field of labor history. Insofar as it had addressed ‘social issues,’ it had been an offshoot of economics and economic history; and insofar as it had addressed the movement itself and its organizations, leaders, and ideas, it had been an offshoot of political or intellectual history. Both versions of the classical approach ‘tended to produce both a model and an accepted version of history, both national and international, which ranged from an informal but not very flexible to a formal and highly inflexible orthodoxy’ (Hobsbawm 1984, p. 4) I should add, however, that some authors were more or less dissident. There have always been historians who paid attention to atypical aspects, like Werner Sombart in his essays on the Italian proletariat (1895); John Le Breton Hammond and his wife Barbara Bradby in their trilogy The Village Labourer, 1760– 1832 (1911), The Town Labourer, 1760–1832 (1917) and The Skilled Labourer, 1760–1832 (1919), or Ivy Pinchbeck in her book on Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850 (1930).

2. Broad Interpretation

The classical approaches, whatever their precise substance, served as syntheses for large groups of labor historians. These old syntheses began to be undermined in the 1950s and the 1960s—a process that continued with even greater force in the following decades. In Britain, Asa Briggs, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson, and others tried to contextualize workers’ struggles. As Hobsbawm wrote in 1964, these historians accentuated ‘the working classes as such ( … and) the economic and technical conditions that allowed labor movements to be effective, or which prevented them from being effective’ (Hobsbawm 1964, p. vii). Somewhat later, similar trends became apparent in other countries. In the United States, Ira Berlin, David Brody, Herbert Gutmann, and David Montgomery, among others, were pioneers.

In France, where the writers of ‘evenemential’ (e enementiel) labor movement history had long been opposed by the followers of the Annales, whose structural and serial historiography had largely ‘left the people out’ (to borrow Raphael Samuel’s expression), some rapprochement was, especially after 1968, apparent; that was, however, such a slow process that Perrot felt the need to remark in 1979: ‘(In French historiography) the study of the workers’ movement has polarized historians for a long time and eclipsed other problems, such as the development of the working class and its culture. However, this is changing rapidly’ (Perrot 1979, p. 150). In Germany, the Strukturgeschichte, which was founded in the 1950s by Werner Conze and others (and which incorporated some elements from the National Socialist Volkssoziologie, including its focus on the ‘structured totality’ of the social ‘order’), was modified and transformed into a modern approach combining Weberian and Marxian elements by Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Jurgen Kocka and others since the late 1960s.

Gradually, and especially since the 1960s, a broader approach to labor history has thus become widely accepted. The discipline started to incorporate studies of, for example, social mobility, migration, demography, labor processes, schooling, households, urbanization, social insurance, or sexuality. Race, ethnicity, and gender became generally accepted as essential elements of any analysis, but a full integration into mainstream historiography has not yet been accomplished.

Parallel to labor history’s thematic expansion its geographical scope has widened. Labor history originated in Western Europe and North America, though there have been important contributions from other parts of the world early on. From the 1920s it became established in the Soviet Union and later in other Communist countries, and gradually struck roots in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico especially), Africa (especially South Africa), the Middle East, India, and Australasia. Labor history’s present situation is uneven. On the one hand it has become an acknowledged and integral part of historiography in general and of social history in particular. But on the other hand, its academic conjuncture is strongly linked to political changes, like the collapse of ‘socialism’ in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the rise of new workers’ movements in Asia.

Both thematic and geographical expansions have made labor history an extremely rich and diversified field. By now, labor history overlaps into women’s history, urban history, agrarian history, cultural anthropology, folklore, social economics, history of technology, historical government theories, industrial relations, history of law, and the like. While this disciplinary expansion clearly embodies a wealth of intellectual opportunities, it also leads to a lack of orientation. Already in 1973, Thompson observed that ‘The central concern of history, as a relevant humane study—to generalize and integrate and to attain a comprehension of the full social and cultural process—becomes lost’ (Thompson 1973).

3. Conceptual Plurality

Labor history in the broad sense reached its peak during the 1970s when former student militants began to write their theses and books. The productivity of this generation was immense and impressive. Perhaps there will never again be written so much about labor history in so few years as at that time. Numerous substantive controversies enlivened the discipline: How should one conceptualize social classes? Are Karl Marx and Max Weber compatible? Is ‘‘labor aristocracy’’ a useful concept? Have ‘organized’ labor movements suppressed the interests of unskilled workers? How can one integrate women’s history and labor history? What is the societal, cultural, and political importance of the working classes? A wide range of issues were hotly debated, in professional journals and in the general media as well.

This peak period did not last long. Most importantly, the organizing categories of the 1960s and 1970s were increasingly called into doubt, partly because they contained continuities with the founding period. Frequently the teleology of the first phase had simply been reserved. While the ‘classic’ labor historians had been inspired by an optimistic perspective, celebrating the emergence of mass organization and stressing the dynamics of unity and/organization, the generation of the 1960s and 1970s tended to ask what had gone wrong with the movement. From a methodological point of view an ‘epistemology of absence’ became predominant: ‘Rather than seeking to explain the presence of radically varying dispositions and practices, [labor historians] have concentrated disproportionately on explaining the absence of an expected outcome, namely the emergence of a revolutionary class consciousness among the Western working class’ (Somers 1989, p. 325).

Ever since, many labor historians regard the state of their discipline as a protracted crisis. First, the emerging paradigms of women’s and ethnic history showed that there had been giant blank spots on labor history’s map and that the filling in of these spots made a complete rewriting of the old narratives unavoidable. And second, the unilinear conception of class consciousness that had been dominant for a long time was questioned. ‘Once it was established that class was a construction and not a predetermined consequence of structural forces, then the notion that it could be seen as the product of an autonomous culture reacting to certain political and economic circumstances ultimately had to be rethought. Class and class action, it became apparent, could work in many different and contradictory ways’ (Price 1991, p. 253).

As a result of the growing uncertainty about its organizing categories, labor history is beginning to lose its character as a ‘discipline.’ On the one hand, the distinction with contiguous disciplines, such as women’s studies, ethnic studies, anthropology, institutional economics, sociology, or social psychology, is beginning to dissolve. On the other hand, conceptual difficulties and political disappointments both have stimulated postmodern approaches, especially in the United States.

In North America and Western Europe, including Britain, the debate between labor historians is therefore dominated by a paradigmatic crisis—a crisis that, as a matter of fact, has apparently not always resulted in a strongly reduced output of the ‘older generation’ of labor historians, but has often caused a diminished interest among students. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the problems are even more serious. The collapse of so-called ‘socialism’ has led to the almost complete demise of classical labor historiography, since the latter is with justification perceived as a constituent of the old dictatorship; generally Communist regimes used a distorted ‘official’ history of the national workers’ movement as part of their ideology of legitimation.

At the same time, exciting new developments take place. In Latin America labor history is booming (French 2000), and in Asia it is rapidly advancing as well. After a group of Indian intellectuals had already published a series of very innovative collections of essays on the social history of the ‘subaltern’ classes, which focused especially on the peasants, now a generation of sophisticated labor historians has emerged in that country. Interest in labor history is increasing in several other Asian countries as well, parallel to the emergence of large groups of new wage laborers. Partly, these new labor historians grapple with the same conceptual questions as their colleagues in the rich countries, but that does not prevent their intense research activity.

4. Core Controversies

There seems to be four interconnected central issues dominating debates within the discipline.

4.1 Central Categories

The geographical and thematical broadening of labor history’s scope, plus a wider time frame (which now starts to include earlier periods, roughly from the thirteenth century on) makes it necessary to rethink elementary categories, including the discipline’s most central notion: labor. In the Anglo-Saxon world, this term has a double meaning. It refers simultaneously to work and to workers’ movements.

Labor historians have traditionally conceived ‘work’ as wage labor, performed by legally free individuals in factories, mines, ports, etc., thus reflecting occupational and gendered views of classical labor movements. Implicitly not included were (a) other forms of free waged labor like domestic service, office work or voluntary military and police service; (b) unfree waged labor of indentured or otherwise bonded workers; (c) hidden wage labor, for example, through self-employment; and (d) nonwaged labor for sub-sistance or market purposes. Labor history’s broadened perspective suggests a reconceptualization of ‘work’ as any human effort adding use value to goods and services; use value is understood here as ‘a good or service that could sustain any activity carried on by a person other than its producer—whether or not we approve of the activity’ (Tilly 1998, p. 22–3). This excludes ‘purely destructive, expressive, or consumptive acts,’ which might be considered as ‘antiwork’ (Tilly 1998, p. 23) Such a catholic approach makes it possible to overcome old fixations of an institutional or Eurocentric nature.

Traditional labor history has defined a workers’ movement as ‘all of the organized activity of wage earners to better their own conditions either immediately or in the more or less distant future. In all countries it has run along three lines—political, economic, and cooperative’ (Commons 1932, p. 682). A broadening of the concept of ‘work’ and ‘worker’ would imply that the notion of a workers’ movement has to be broadened as well, and that it should include collective survival activities of all previously excluded categories of workers, whether these are covered by political parties, trade unions, and cooperatives, or not.

4.2 Class/Gender/Ethnicity

The relationship between class, gender, and ethnicity has been discussed for several decades. While most labor historians originally considered ‘class’ as central, and ‘gender’ and ‘ethnicity,’ and ‘race’ as categories of a secondary nature, gradually a new consensus has grown which stresses that gender identity, race identity, and class identity have ‘shaped each other’ (Roediger 1993, p. 131) But despite this new understanding, the simultaneous historical analysis of the three identities has proved to be extremely difficult. Following Curthoys one is tempted to see a fundamental indeterminacy problem here: ‘Trying to keep just two of these concepts in play has proved extremely difficult. […] But if keeping two such concepts in play is hard enough, look what happens when the third concept, be it ethnicity or class or sex, is brought seriously into play. The system, the analysis, becomes too complex to handle’ (Curthoys 1991, p. 15).

4.3 Structure vs. Actor

A second fundamental indeterminacy problem has a strong influence on labor history debates as well: the relationship between the actor-oriented and the structure-oriented perspective. Classical labor history focused primarily on the agents of social changes: workers, their organizations, and leaders. More recent approaches have paid much attention to broader developments, like, for example, demographic shifts, socioeconomic structures, or governmental bureaucracies. Although few would contest that both modes of interpretation are essential for labor history, their integration is highly problematic.

Even authors who try to combine the two levels (e.g., by paying equal attention to the longue duree and short-term events), have to accept that they are in fact telling two separate but combined stories instead of constructing one integrated narrative. The more a scholar focuses on one aspect, the more he or she tends to lose sight of the other aspect. Elton once observed: ‘Despite attempts to deny this, it [quantitative history] can effectively operate only by suppressing the individual by reducing its subject matter to a collectivity of human data in which the facts of humanity have real difficulty in surviving’ (Elton 1983, pp. 118–9). The reverse could be said as well.

4.4 Great vs. Small Stories

Classical labor history interpreted the history of working classes and labor movements against the background of major long-term material and cultural changes, for example, the general process of modernization or the rise of capitalism. Since the 1970s this perspective has been challenged from at least two sides.

First, there has grown a strong tendency to critize such broad interpretative frameworks as ‘centrist.’ It has been argued that such a way of seeing ‘positions historical phenomena either to the center or the margins of the historical process, according to their supposed role in the ‘great transformation.’ Against this unilinear approach, the critics juxtaposed the emphasis on experiences and processes that do not fit in general schemes. Such a ‘de-centered’ research strategy is expected to lead to ‘a greater awareness of the uniqueness, difference, and otherness of historical phenomena, something which is rather obscured by the application of universalizing, passepartout categories (such as role, economic growth, bureaucracy)’ (Medick 1987, p. 82).

Second, classical labor history has been disputed by the so-called ‘linguistic turn.’ This point of view claims that the backgrounds and interests of the members of a workers’ movement cannot explain its development. Instead the language used by the movement’s members should be considered as the driving force, as ‘a complex rhetoric binding together, in a systematic way, shared premisses, analytical routines, strategic options, and programmatic demands’ (Jones 1983, p. 107, cf. Scott 1988, pp. 53–67). Discourse analysis therefore replaces the study of larger material and cultural developments.

Both challenges have directed scholarly attention to previously neglected aspects of labor history. But they have also contributed to the discipline’s fragmentation. If discourse is disconnected from its context and considered as ‘non-referential’ (Jones 1983, p. 22), or if the concept of historical master processes is contested, then labor history becomes the study of disjointed processes and texts, confirming the lack of a ‘central concern’ deplored by Thompson (1973). An alternative way of developing labor history further might be through maintaining the idea of master processes and of the contextual situatedness of discursive activities, but by simultaneously taking ‘noncentral’ and linguistic aspects seriously (Kocka 1997).

5. Globalization

While the development of labor history is so problematic and uneven, in addition and in connection to this, another trend is apparent: the strong increase in the need to go beyond the national boundaries. The more we know about the history of the working classes in an increasing number of countries, the more tempting it is to place the various national developments in a broader context. Two basic reasons for that can be put forward.

In the first place, we can only discover what is specific and what is generic in our own history by looking beyond national borders. A second important reason for the crossing of national borders is that the object of the investigation is hardly concerned with these borders. Working-class formation is not neatly restricted to certain national borders, but is a process in which voluntary and forced immigration and emigration have a great influence. Dramatic developments in one country may cause turbulences in other countries; strike waves often have a transnational character; new forms of campaigning are imitated elsewhere; national labor movements communicate with each other, learn from each other, and create international organizations.

The growing need for studies that look beyond national borders has resulted in a tremendous growth of the number of contributions to transnational labor history, which started in the 1970s. Yet the work of most labor historians is still characterized by a distinct ‘methodological nationalism’ which prestructures their writings, with an often rather strict separation of studies of the United States and of other countries.


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