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Response to Review no. 1041

John McIlroy and Alan Campbell write:

We want to thank Paul Pickering for his thoughtful and engaged comments about the collection we edited, Histories of Labour. This response clarifies several of the points that Paul raises about the text before discussing further two important issues: the nature of the problems currently confronting labour history and whether the adoption of transnational approaches can help to significantly resolve them. First, our title: Paul believes it is either a misnomer or there is a crucial word missing from it. The book, he suggests, should be more properly titled Historiographies of Labour. This is mistaken. In English, ‘history’ denotes both what happened in the past and how it is represented in the writings of historians. ‘Histories’ has a dual meaning and is interchangeable with ‘historiographies’. Employed in a title, it is simpler and, to our ears, more euphonious. Moreover, it follows recent usage by historiographers such as John Burrow (A History of Histories) and Richard Evans (‘The history of history’, chapter one of In Defence of History).(1).

Second, our intended audience: like Paul’s review, this response and most of our and his published work, the text is aimed primarily at academic historians. It is pitched at scholars and students with an interest or potential interest in the history of labour and more widely the discipline of history. In our experience, and in the context of specialization and the segmentation of the field, some labour historians demonstrate limited awareness of developments outside their own particular specialism, period and country. Not a few historians working in other fields of the discipline possess restricted understanding of what has been happening in labour history around the world since 1960. Contrary to Paul’s estimation, many are not yet converts to its cause. Consequently, we find no problem in historians talking to each other.

The book, Paul feels, ‘has less to offer the general reader than it might’. Writing for the general public is important. It is not without problems of pedagogic adaptation, not least the danger of simplification, elided in the ‘might’. Undertaking popularization properly would have entailed producing a different book for a different audience. Reviewers should surely be primarily concerned with the success of a text in relation to its intended readership. This sort of reproach is perhaps best levelled at academic history per se rather than particular volumes written in a reasonably accessible style and format. Paul records he learned much from it and believes it will interest many readers of this Review. If it attracts that constituency around the world we will be more than happy.

Third, our coverage: Paul regrets the absence of essays on Latin America and Africa, although he accepts silence does not bespeak judgement about significance. As we noted (p. 15) selection is inevitable in any global survey, certainly one which at 400 pages and 150,000 words is longer than many conventional and comparable volumes. As we observed (p. 25, n. 47), our knowledge of recent collections which embraced Latin America, North Africa and Russia constituted a further factor in difficult decisions regarding inclusion and exclusion. As with most such ventures, non-delivery of promised contributions came into it: that explains the absence of chapters on France and South Africa (noted on p. 15). Overall, we feel that our expressed purpose – to survey the development of labour historiography around the globe – was substantially realised in analysis of eight countries in four continents complemented by an exploration of transnational history. Given that the heartlands of labour history over our designated period were to be found in Britain, North America, Australia and, to a lesser degree, Japan, we think our selection justified.

It is consequently a little disappointing that the review is oddly skewed in its lack of any real address of the latter chapters, although they constitute most of the book. Only two of the country chapters, those on Germany and India, are considered in any detail. Fully a third of the review consists of critical discussion of Marcel van der Linden’s vision of one historiographical future, the coda to our text. Again, we could have done something different and edited a collection on the future rather than the past of labour history. There is a place among the burgeoning histories of different fields of the discipline for a history of histories of labour and this collection deserves consideration as such. Of course, it is a matter of degree: any review must reflect its author’s interests and preferences. But the lack of engagement with the four chapters on Britain and Ireland, the two on North America and more peripherally the chapter on Japan (as interesting, although that is only one criterion of significance, as India in its historiographical trajectory) arguably impairs execution of a brief to fully inform readers of the scope and substance of the text under scrutiny.

Much ink has been spilt in recent times on the crisis, real or alleged, of labour history. Yet the issues still require elucidation. Paul perceives a contradiction between our questioning (in the editorial introduction) of whether the subject in Britain is in crisis or terminal decline, and the evidence we assemble – fewer university courses, falling membership of societies, labour historians rebranding themselves, lack of labour movement support, and so forth – which suggests it is. The contradiction is at least diminished if we distinguish, as we endeavoured to do in our essay, between intellectual well-being and institutional health. Much of the literature locates crisis in intellectual trends hostile to, or competitive with, labour history. It cites the challenge of gender, ethnic history, cultural history and postmodernism on the one hand, and the decline of Marxism, often identified with the Soviet Union, on the other.

Yet if we look at the subject in recent years through the prism of the literature and with an equable eye, it seems to be in reasonable if not robust intellectual health. Looking back to the 1960s, ‘the historiographical progress’, McIlroy judged, ‘is unquestionable’ (p. 45). Our essay acknowledged reverses. It concluded, ‘but they are not intrinsic and therefore they are not terminal’ (p. 15). As Paul observes, ‘labour historians are the richer for having come to terms with other analytical categories (race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexuality …), as well as some of the lessons of postmodernism’. Of course, we may reach different conclusions if we indulge, as some critics do, in the caricatural equation: labour history = Marxism, usually fundamental Marxism. We took pains to demonstrate the frailties of this false equivalence. Labour history was and is more than that.

However, if we turn from epistemological matters to the construction, organization and dissemination of knowledge and its sites, issues relevant to the condition of any field, then, as we argued in the book, decline on the measures Paul notes is unquestionably marked. We need to specify and historicize its nature and provenance. In institutional, as distinct from intellectual, terms, labour history at its most popular never became a major player in university curricula (or, for that matter, from the 1960s in labour movement classes). It never emulated the post-war surge of economic or later social history and then, still later, cultural history. The Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH) never took on the perquisites of a fully-fledged learned society, even in comparison with its economic and social history coevals. The enhanced reach and enlarged audience the subject briefly enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s, inside and outside the academy, emanated substantially, although not completely, from the impact of the work of Thompson, Hobsbawm and others of that extraordinary generation. Intellectual progress never crystallised sufficiently in institutional armature. Labour history never achieved the critical mass of staff and graduate students in universities (it was marginal to union education) necessary to embed itself as a distinct subject across higher education, able to reproduce itself in the face of hostile changes in its environment. We stress we are writing about Britain.

Problems came not from autonomous intellectual developments. They stemmed fundamentally from political, economic and cultural innovation and its impact on the academy and the labour movement, mediated through the attitudes and actions of academics. Some evacuated labour history in favour of more fertile, relevant or more fashionable fields. Others indeed rebranded themselves as historians of this or that component of the field, whether gender, ethnicity, working-class culture, health, protest, Chartism, the Labour Party, communism or trade unions. The decline and transformation of the labour movement sundered what had at least partially cemented allegiance to an aspirational, incompletely realised, holistic labour history: belief in the progressive mission of the labour movement and the significance to that movement of labour’s present and past. These trends continued even as universities once more expanded in the 1990s. SSLH membership declined, the History Workshop movement disappeared, its eponymous journal entered the academic mainstream, and so on.

Histories of Labour, as Paul points out, is a commemorative volume and its tone is at times celebratory. We would maintain that, in comparison with much commemorative history, celebration is qualified and conditional. We freely concede that we may have been over-optimistic. The current state of play in Britain, with cut-backs in universities and retrenchment in history and the humanities, carries the threat of further deterioration in what has been, since the 1980s, an unprepossessing position, at least in institutional terms. If we think of crisis as a decisive moment or a turning point, it may not be the best way to characterize the situation. The implication in some accounts is that ‘the decisive moment’ has already lasted 30 years. What we are facing today in Britain is rather the result of a more prosaic, gradual process. Rather than a significant subject encountering a conceptual, analytical or methodological crisis, labour history found its limited growth and its practitioners’ sense of common identity cumulatively eroded by the consequences of neoliberalism. In today’s conditions of specialization, fragmentation and austerity, the very best we can look forward to is consolidation of a small field. Even that may prove over-ambitious. Paul mentions continuing work on labour by doctoral students and early career researchers who do not necessarily identify themselves as labour historians. He hazards that the continuation of the work itself may be more important than ‘the rubric’. But what is at stake, for better or worse, is not simply nomenclature but the existence of a discrete, integrated field of study. In that context and citing similar developments in North America, Bryan Palmer detects the danger: the subject becomes more even fragmented, dissolving itself into other fields that have little reticence in proclaiming their identity (p. 218). In Britain that process may be beyond arrest, to the detriment of any unified labour history.

In such circumstances, as distinct perhaps from healthier climes, can Marcel van der Linden’s prescription of a new, global labour history help to put the pieces back together and stimulate rebirth? If we begin from where we are, rather than from where we would prefer to be, the prospects do not appear auspicious. Few in this audience will question the cogency of a call for historians, particularly British historians, to overcome insularity, locate the parochial in interlocking global processes which influence labour in regions and nation states, conceive the particular as part of the whole and transcend Eurocentrism and methodological nationalism. E. H. Carr was saying as much 50 years ago. But what is being proposed here is a little more precise, a new paradigm, if still a little short of a full programme. Such histories, it is suggested, require analysis of the global economic, technological and political forces which impact on labour by utilizing and developing the approaches of Marx, Mandel, Wallerstein, world systems theory and developmental sociology. The writ of the new history runs from at least the 14th century. It authorises expansion of the field to include all forms – casual, untypical, waged and unwaged, bonded, servile, lumpen – of labour and the family, as well as the operation of capital in all its diverse and complex ramifications.

This is exacting. At least one advocate of global labour history excludes Hobsbawm’s world histories from its ambit. Its scale and grandeur recall but exceed ambitions for a histoire totale – ‘from social history to the history of societies’ – much talked of, less frequently practised, in the 1970s. It overlaps with recent aspirations to globalize other fields of history. To take one example, some imperial historians are engaged in broadening the geographical and social scope of their subject, insisting that it should reflect the voices of the oppressed around the world. Linda Colley goes to the heart of impediments in relation to that and similar projects: particularity is a stubborn problem, these things are difficult to do, or difficult to do well. Paul makes several sensible points about definitions and operationalizing the new paradigm as a means of unifying and broadening actually existing labour history. Thompson, the man, the historian, The Making, the attachment to depth, to detail, to difference, suggest the continued relevance of what is now, 40 years after he wrote, traditional labour history. As Carolyn Steedman’s recent work demonstrates, it can still act as a spur to innovatory local extension.(2) We remain dubious about the degree to which global labour history can adequately and equally penetrate and portray the intricacies and complexities of diverse, sometimes opaque, social formations. As well as the resulting quality and comparability of what multilingual, computerised teams, for they would often appear a necessary prerequisite, are assessing and synthesizing. We would question the extent to which the macro-sociological studies which seem to fit the bill are already to hand. Global labour history figures rarely in courses in Britain while Kirk’s admirable text fits more comfortably into conventional comparative history; even Behal, Joshi and Mohaptra’s citations in their chapter on India are dominated by studies of India.

Perhaps prospects are better in ‘the global south’. Our sense is that like Marcel’s crackling provocation to think things anew, the global paradigm remains very much prologue to a work just beginning and difficult to fully realise in research and publication. As with all good historiographical futurology, his efforts should stimulate striving which, if it falls short of the final objective, enriches our literature and understanding. In the end, as one of us wrote in Histories:

One route recipes are unhelpful. The subject will always constitute a site of diversity and pluralism in content and approach. There will always be room for localized narratives, for micro-histories, for Montaillou as well as La Mediterranée et le Monde … (p. 50).


  1. John Burrow, A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century (London, 2007); Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997).Back to (1)
  2. Carolyn Steedman, Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England (Cambridge, 2009).Back to (2)