When Gordon Brown, a Labour history PhD, became British Prime Minister in 2007, it was perhaps a sign that labour history had come of age, though one tempered by New Labour’s perceived ahistorical tendencies in government. Perhaps a more relevant sign of the discipline’s contemporary weight is the existence of a Wikipedia entry for ‘labor’ history.
The origins of the modern subject can be dated to 1960, the year when the Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH) was formed and first published its bulletin – now Labour History Review – in the UK, and Labor History (its US equivalent) also started.
Labour history journals for Scotland and Wales followed,and later in the 1960s and 1970s still extant labour history journals covering the north-west and north-east of England emerged.
Marcel Van Der Linden, in a magisterial survey, has argued that the origins of labour history can be dated back to the third quarter of the 19th century when the first labour and working-class movements were active internationally.
Van Der Linden notes that although the subject has always been internationally based, many of the most authoritative figures in labour history – Royden Harrison, Eric Hobsbawm, John Saville, E. P. Thompson – are British, and many of the categories of the subject are characterised by British origins.
Key people such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb and G. D. H. Cole provided parameters for the discipline, and Essays in Labour History, edited by Asa Briggs, supplied some important indicators for the development of the subject. That volume contained E. P. Thompson’s essay about the birth of the British Independent Labour Party in the north of England in the 1880s, ‘Homage to Tom Maguire’.
In his opening paragraphs Thompson laid down some ideas about where and how he would like labour history to develop. He suggested that histories that focused on institutional developments in trade union head offices in London did not reflect the real labour movement, noting that ‘the national historian … tends to have a curiously distorted views of goings-on in the provinces’.
In the 1960s Thompson did a huge amount to shape a view of labour history which was not focused on General Secretaries and trade union machines. His landmark Making of the English Working Class led to Thompson becoming the first head of the Centre for the Study of Social History at Warwick University.
However, this raises an important issue of definition. Van Der Linden notes that only in English is it possible to deploy the term ‘labour history’ to cover what in other languages is differentiated as Marxist history, people’s history, working-class history, and so on. Hence there is no fully agreed remit for what labour history does or does not cover. It remains a subject whose boundaries are comparatively fluid.
In his edited volume People’s History and Socialist Theory Raphael Samuel included labour history as one part of the whole, but later in the same decade Eric Hobsbawm wrote about it as a distinct and separate subject. Hobsbawm argued against any trend for labour history to be antiquarian and underlined that while recovering the history of working people is important the resulting research must still be robust, asking awkward questions of the subject matter where necessary
Writing in Social Science History Harold Perkin raised a sharp criticism of the way the subject had grown, heavily influenced, he suggested, by Marxist historians focused on the cadre of the labour movement with a certain view of how working-class movements should develop and how they should not.
Yet as Ian Birchall and Norah Carlin note in a review of the work of Eric Hobsbawm, understanding how labour movements become revolutionary, or why they do not, is an important historical question for the labour historian. Hobsbawm focused on the same issue in an earlier and influential essay, ‘Trends in the British labour movement’, published in the (at the time largely unproblematically gender-specific) collection Labouring Men. In the same volume Hobsbawm reviewed his pioneering work on the concept of a labour aristocracy as one explanation for the failure of revolutionary hopes.
Perkin argued for a labour history that was written by worker historians, something which was encouraged by the History Workshop movement from the mid 1960s, and history written about workers who were not necessarily revolutionary and perhaps even reactionary. A landmark text here was the edited volume by Raphael Samuel, Village Life and Labour, where in an extended essay he wrote about working-class life in an Oxford suburb which was based on quarrying.
By the 1970s the subject of ‘labor’ history was also making significant inroads in the US and Canada, influenced by the British historians, but promoting a new layer of authoritative figures such as Herbert Gutman and David Montgomery.
With the collapse of official communism during the 1980s and defeats for labour movements in much of the world the old certainties of labour history were questioned and post-modernist categories began to have an influence. Questions of identity, ethnicity and gender started to have a more significant presence, but historians like Neville Kirk were able to demonstrate how these could be effectively encompassed in a Marxist approach to the subject.
More recent times have seen the boundaries of the subject expand further. Historians like John Breuilly and Rick Halpern have pioneered a comparative approach to labour history, which has led to studies that look at labour movements in the US, South Africa, the UK and elsewhere. Meanwhile historians such as Peter Alexander, writing on miners, and Ralph Darlington, on syndicalism,have produced pioneering works.
The future for labour history may well include further moves away from its previously Anglocentric base, but there remains work to be done on this terrain. Histories of trade unions, and what general secretaries, union executives, head offices and labour parties got up to, have become deeply unfashionable. There is a need for historians who can address these not as the Webbs or G. D. H. Cole might have done but with the new insights that E. P. Thompson, and feminist and comparative historians have brought to the subject over the last 50 years.