Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives

November 11, 2010

Most historians will recognise the back cover of this book: it shows a worker with a stick and a basket, smoking and walking, with an early steam train in the background. It is the picture that used to be on the cover of the Pelican edition of E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. Seminal works by Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm were among the best-read products of British new labour history of the 1960s, and their writings were exported globally, as Histories of Labour shows.

But before the 1960s, there was only old labour history. It typically took the form of institutional and political histories of trade unions, socialist parties and tendencies, biographies of their leaders and histories of socialist thought. What converged in the 1960s was a political swing to the Left and the rise of social history. The swing to the Left turned the interest of historians, the majority of them young, to the labour movement, and somewhat later also to the history of feminism or the green movement.

The rise of social history added a whole new approach. Political questions were supplemented with social ones. Who were the workers, where did they come from, how did they live, and under which circumstances did they rise in revolt? Old labour history had often been descriptive, taking the life of the individual or the organisation as the logical thread in the story being told. New labour history asked questions about class structure and class formation, and about the lives of the working class. It was often bottom up, interested in the lives of ordinary workers. It supplied the context that the old labour history had taken for granted, and had sometimes neglected as a factor explaining the fortunes of the movements and leaders it described.

New labour history was successful, both intellectually and in the number of scholars it attracted. Organisations of labour historians and journals devoted to the topic sprang up. In Britain, the Society for the Study of Labour History was founded in 1960. In the opening pages of this book, Eric Hobsbawm recalls how he travelled from London to Leeds, wearing "a stylish yellow sheepskin jacket", to ask Asa Briggs to head the Society. Hobsbawm was too closely associated with the Communist Party to head the new association himself. He recruited Briggs, and the Society was founded, but the air in Leeds in those days still contained so much soot that it ruined his jacket.

This volume, written on the occasion of the Society's 50th birthday, looks at the development of labour history in the past half-century in Britain, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, India and Japan. In some of these countries, old labour history has been the preserve of economists or other non-historians, but all underwent the rise of new labour history.

After the initial surge, critical voices grew within the discipline. Workers were not all white males, and attention shifted somewhat to consider identities other than class. Gender, ethnicity, race and religion were competing identities, both within working-class reality and history, and in scholarship. Some labour historians were able to integrate these new approaches, while others moved gradually to fields such as gender or migration history. By the end of the 1980s, new labour history lost steam. This has often been explained by a political swing to the Right and the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. For several countries, this book lays the second explanation to rest, and rightly so.

If all these countries - even India and Japan, which are in some ways the outliers of the set - display similarities, including the fact that labour history as a discipline did not follow the linguistic turn, there are also interesting differences. The institutionalisation of the discipline differed from country to country. In some cases the organisation retained strong links with the labour movement and was reluctant to start a scholarly journal. Elsewhere, links with the academy were strong from the start.

Authors who look at labour history as a potential separate specialisation of history have a different assessment of the health of the discipline to those who look at it as a sub-field of social history. In this way, this volume is of interest not only to labour aficionados, but also as the comparative history of a discipline with a large interface with society.

Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives

Edited by Joan Allen, Alan Campbell and John McIlroy. Merlin Press, 399pp. £50.00 and £18.95. ISBN 9780850366860 and 6877. Published 1 May 2010

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