Labor history (discipline)


Labor history (discipline)

Labor history (or labour history) is a broad field of study concerned with the development of the labor movement and the working class. The central concerns of labor historians include the development of labor unions, strikes, lockouts and protest movements, industrial relations, and the progress of working class and socialist political parties, as well as the social and cultural development of working people. Labor historians may also concern themselves with issues of gender, race, ethnicity and other factors besides class.

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.' (M. Savage and . A. Miles, The Remaking of the British Working Class, 1840-1940, p. 1).

In the 1950s and 1960s, 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. Thompson and Hobsbawm were both Marxists and were critical of the existing labor movement. 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' organisations, 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, emphasising the importance of language and questioning whether classes could be so considered if they did not use a 'language of class'. Other historians emphasised the weaknesses and moderation of the historic labor movement, arguing that social development had been characterised more by accommodation, acceptance of the social order and cross-class collaboration than by conflict and dramatic change.

See also

*New Left
*Communist Party Historians Group
*Subaltern Studies
*New labor history


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