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Labor history and the Left

Will Stratford

Platypus Review 149 | September 2022


LABOR HISTORY HAS SHOWN ITSELF to be a patently counterrevolutionary field of study, despite its radical bona fides. How one understands the field’s object, labor, is largely determined by one’s understanding of capitalism. Increasingly, however, labor historians conceptualize capitalism in a frivolous manner. They tack on “capitalism” as a loose signifier of wrongdoing, a kind of catchword with diminishing returns, secondary to more fashionable commentary on race, gender, and sexual identity. By appraising labor history’s treatment of class, women, race, capitalism, and revolution, we can better appreciate just how much the field has diverged from classical Leftist and Marxist conceptions of these issues, as they relate to labor in capitalism. We can also specify just how the vicissitudes of labor history reflect those of the contemporaneous Left. As the Left has adopted ideologically, so have labor historians entrenched intellectually: despair with the working class, anti-capitalist moralism, the conflation of bourgeois society and capitalism, the disavowal of social revolution, and particularist identity politics.

State of the field

What is the current state of labor history, and how did it get here? As Geoffrey Field and Michael Hanagan explain in their 2012 retrospective of the previous forty years, labor history reached a worldwide peak in the 60s and 70s, when “Old Labor History” made way for new “social” labor history, which sought to place historical labor in the context of society as a whole, not just labor institutions like unions and parties.[1] But by the 90s, labor history was in serious crisis and under theoretical attack from several directions. The postmodern “linguistic turn” and its deconstruction of meta-narratives were replacing so-called male-oriented and point-of-production based approaches, dismantling many of the field’s longstanding frameworks of modernization, industrialization, and proletarianization. Historians became more comfortable talking about structures of meaning than social or economic structures. This all coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the associated retreat from Marxian approaches in the human sciences. Concretely for labor historians, the glaring reality was that significantly fewer grad students were attracted to the field.

Yet, labor historians remain largely in denial of how the field’s ongoing cultural turn has mirrored contemporary developments in Left-liberal politics, particularly the fractured relationship between the Left and the working class. Neville Kirk has been one of the few to observe that “the fluctuating successes, failures, and appeal of labor history have been closely related to the question of its intellectual and public/political relevance,” especially to avowed radical movements.[2] Similarly, William Sewell writes, “women’s history has retained an intellectual vitality that labor history has lost,” since it “remains far more lively, self-confident, and aggressive than the contemporary labor movement.” Disappointingly, Sewell suggests as a remedy that labor historians pay more attention to the most quickly expanding forms of work today— service and clerical work, information, consulting, etc. — which would only reinforce historians’ presentism.[3]

The cultural turn in labor history expresses the Left’s contemporaneous shift to identity politics. As John Womack rightly laments, labor history has come to serve as a progressive bastion of the culture wars, particularly the crusade to champion inclusion and multiculturalism. As the students of E. P. Thompson have become the new leaders of the field, writes Womack, labor history has grown obsessed with moral stories of right and wrong, while questions of industry and technology have gone unasked. “These labor historians practically redefine the field as a general history of injustice,” namely by conflating work with feelings, as part of an effort to make the field relevant within the neoliberal “intellectual marketplace.”[4] At the other end, Sewell argues that labor history should demonstrate the interlacing of culture and politics with the otherwise “reductive materialist rhetorical paradigm” of production and exchange, while for Marcel van der Linden, the explosion of methodological perspectives since the 80s lacks cohesion and creates the impression of fragmentation. As a remedy, van der Linden proposes a “global labor history” that reveals connections between “world regions” and broadens our definition of the working class to include all “commodified labor.”[5] Prasannan Parthasarathi suggests, however, that while methodological issues are important, they cannot bring the field to life. In its place are needed “questions in labor history that lead organically to a global framework” — namely, questions about historical causality via comparative economic history, which “requires abandoning capitalism as a category of historical analysis,” due to its “Eurocentric” and “anachronistic” character.[6]

As these dialogues make clear, labor historians have abandoned Marxism in favor of today’s default frameworks for grasping class and labor: communitarianism and neo-empiricism. They call for the abandonment of the concept of capitalism and question the value of class as an analytic tool compared to “other forms of identity.”[7] As a consequence, the field has increasingly assumed a positive-affirmative characterization of work, which van der Linden defines as “the purposive production of useful objects or services.”[8] Such a reification of work reinforces bourgeois-capitalist ideology in its half-truth, leaving out the fuller proletarian perspective of work as alienating under capitalism. Labor historians commonly assume work to be a transhistorical public good over which identity groups must continuously fight for a greater share, betraying a bias for multi-cultural capitalism — neoliberalism — rather than socialism. Effectively, the enduring cultural turn and neo-empiricism of labor history tails the Left, whose own engagement in culture wars and fact-checking tails the exigencies of capitalism itself.

Labor and class

The naturalization of labor as “good” brings us to the issue of how labor historians treat class as a category of historical analysis, and what academic discourse on class eschews. Today, the most entrenched assumptions about class center on what the Hungarian Marxian philosopher G. M. Tamás calls the “angelic view of the exploited.” The angelic treatment, popularized by both Karl Polanyi and E. P. Thompson, recovers the working class on the basis of “a proud self-representation through a legitimizing ethic.”[9] We see this explicitly in Thompson’s attempts to revise our views of “the crowd” in pre-industrial England as not just mechanical responses to economic stimuli but as “historical agents.” As he contends in “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” the contemporary economy was “moral” precisely because (bread) prices were in some degree set by the crowd’s organized pressure to abide the traditional “moral” price, not simply by “paternalist” authorities or the market. Thompson helps color in the cultural details of an otherwise quick-and-ready generalization of the “direct popular action” involved in price-setting and bread riots, but his New Left revisionism unleashed a torrent of moralistic motives for recovering historically marginal peoples that has continued to this day, and at some cost.[10] Ever since his monumental project to rescue the unenlightened working class “from the enormous condescension of posterity,” a sentimental, fundamentally affirmative agenda has crept in through the backdoor of labor history.[11] Historians now reappropriate the working class in a conservative manner — as a virtuous, self-createdcultural object to be preserved.

Unlike labor history’s “angelic” ideal of a positive and moral working class, notes Tamás, the “demonic” view of Marxism foregrounds the negative, dialectical character of the working class in capitalism, in its abject, propertyless “proletarian” condition. Labor history expresses the Left’s conflation of the working class and the proletariat by glossing over the epochal distinction between the rise of “bourgeois society” and its subsequent disintegration into “capitalism.” Bourgeois modernity heralded the emancipatory, enlightened ideal of “labor” — the social valorization of anonymous, objectified productive activity, independent of bloodline — against thousands of years of antiquity, during which concepts of work (as bondage) and freedom (of the noble caste) diverged. The pre-capitalist bourgeois era, roughly from the Renaissance through the Age of Revolution (1789–1848), was defined by the conflict of bourgeois “rebellious universalism” versus aristocratic “particularism.”[12] The bourgeois-democratic revolt of the Third Estate served to abolish caste society, not to pit a particular class interest against another. As the intellectual historian Martin Burke observes, it was not until the mid-19th century that “‘class’ went from being a relatively neutral to a rather contested term.”[13]

What changed? Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the machine production of capital has undermined human labor, meaning that “free labor” ideology has taken on the deceitful character of bourgeois ideology in denial of capitalism — and thus class — itself. Unlike labor historians, Tamás acknowledges the historical proletarianization of the working class, no longer characterized by its “excellence, superiority or merit” but “its being robbed of its very humanity.” The newly proletarian working class, he writes, is marked out by the “demonic” simultaneity of its contradictory interests: “one, to preserve itself as an estate with its own institutions (trade unions, working-class parties, a socialist press, instruments of self-help, etc.); and another one, to defeat its antagonist and to abolish itself as a class.” That is, “the truth of class is of its own transcendence.”[14] Indeed, this was always the historical significance of dialectics for the Marxist Left, from Engels to Trotsky. It is precisely the workers’ alienated condition in capitalism that historically made the goal of socialism possible and desirable.

Labor historians today simply cannot abide what the classical Marxist Left grasped plainly: modern class relations stem directly from industrial capitalism, not the Bourgeois Revolution. The trajectory of labor history mirrors what Tamás refers to as the increasingly counterrevolutionary character of the historical Left in the 20th century: “the abolition of caste leads to equality; but the abolition of class leads to socialism. Yet, as we have seen, the retreat from socialism to egalitarianism . . . from critical theory to ahistorical moral critique . . . has been the rule rather than the exception.”[15] Instead of addressing these considerations, labor historians have either reappropriated the working class in a moralistic-affirmative manner or subsumed it into postmodern discursive subalternity.[16] Since the late 20th century, Martin Burke notes, historians “continue to disagree over its [class’s] salience in their analytic triumvirate of race, class, and gender.”[17] Today more than ever, in the era of woke capitalism, class as a category of historical analysis would need to be made more uncomfortable and “demonic” if we were to begin dreaming of classlessness the way that historical socialists once did.

Labor and women

Having gravitated toward the two banal questions, “Did women work?” and, “Was this good or bad for women?,” recent historians of female labor have fluctuated between manic celebrations of women as heroic agents of their own history and sermonizing chronicles of women’s perpetual suffering. Both are one-sided oversimplifications. These revisionist histories distort the two-sided nature of capitalist development — simultaneously spreading and restricting bourgeois freedom. Furthermore, they fail to distinguish between embourgeoisement and proletarianization, confounding our understanding of how women’s relationship to labor has changed over time.

Numerous works on the pre-industrial bourgeois era occupy themselves with how women’s work compared unfavorably with men’s. Over one hundred years ago, Fabian socialist Alice Clark raised the question, did the epochal shift to modern bourgeois society diminish women’s autonomy and procreative capacities? In short, her answer was yes: the supplanting of feudal-yeoman relations by early manufacture dissolved the mutually dependent husband-wife relations of “family industry.”[18] Yet, Clark’s question lacks the historical awareness that the very criterion of individual autonomy is itself a historical product of bourgeois modernity, rendering her question anachronistic. As Barbara Hanawalt notes, while the pre-bourgeois family economy appears to have provided more security and dignity to women’s work, it also restricted their sphere of activity.[19] Nevertheless, most recent monographs seek to revise traditional liberal and Marxist historical accounts by denying the significance of bourgeois emancipation from rural caste society altogether. Looking back at the Renaissance, Natalie Zemon Davis suggests that the patriarchal character of society actually increased during early embourgeoisement, as women were dealt a “thinner occupational identity” than men, as though this were commensurate to a patriarch’s absolute dominion over his wife and daughters in traditional society, which included the right to abuse or kill them without repercussion.[20]

In the scholarship of the industrial capitalist era, the most sophisticated histories underline how the changing role of women’s labor has reflected the self-contradictory character of capitalism itself, as simultaneous embourgeoisement and proletarianization. Angelina Chin’s history of early 20th-century South China examines how women’s emancipation (jiefang) developed in a dialectical manner. Millions of young women gained unprecedented social autonomy through their income and urban identity as domestic servants, waitresses, singers, and prostitutes, even while their increased visibility triggered new forms of female population control by the capitalist state, such as prostitution licenses and citizenship requirements that disenfranchised lower-class women. That is, the expansion of social freedom and domination developed inseparably in capitalism.[21]

Leaders of the field, however, fall back on prevailing neoliberal tropes of anti-Enlightenment despair, postmodernist particularism, and cultural identity formation. Joan Scott and Louise Tilly, for instance, seek to refute any connection between women’s modern identity as workers and their newfound political rights.[22] Amanda Vickery’s essay “Golden Age to Separate Spheres?” debunks hyperbolic stories of women’s disempowerment following an imagined golden age of women’s work before bourgeois modernity, but her postmodernist scythe cuts down all grand narratives, especially Marxism.[23] Her own research aims to deny that class society has ever existed, and rewrites local elites as culturally inclusive.[24] Alex Owen’s feminist history of Victorian spiritualism argues that the gendering of the female sex as spiritually gifted was at once “liberating and restricting.” While on the surface a dialectical thesis, her book ultimately trades in women’s socio-political disenfranchisement for their newfound status as repositories of divine communication, concluding that spiritual mediumship could sabotage gender power dynamics and “infringe culturally imposed limits.”[25] Celebrating women’s cultural power amidst their limited social power represents a rather low bar of emancipation. The inverse — recognizing a culturally marginalized practice as a socially productive practice within capitalism — offers more insight. In her history of colonial Nairobi, Luise White situates prostitution as constitutive of male wage-labor, serving the “reproduction of male labor power and family formations” by “restoring, flattering, and reviving male energies.”[26] Prostitution is revealed to be a contributor to the total production of capital rather than an isolated moral taboo, as capitalism has come to commodify all labor, including the most feminized social roles in bourgeois culture. As Joan Robinson once wrote, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”[27]

Labor and race

The neoliberal culture wars have moved race to the forefront of the Left’s political imagination, reaching ever-higher points of absurdity up to the present. As race has come to dominate our academic and political vocabulary, dogmatic appeals to political correctness have often replaced critical thinking. In this case, labor history has not only mirrored the degenerationof the Left but deliberately mimicked it, cashing in on the vogue of wokeness. Reflecting the Left’s race-first view of capitalism, “whiteness” and “history of capitalism” scholarship has committed to a racial essentialist and moralizing view of the past, obscuring how class processes have operated organically within and across racially identified populations.

In the 1990s, David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness (1991) launched the whiteness paradigm in labor history, explicitly motivated “in reaction to the appalling extent to which white male workers voted for Reaganism in the 1980s,” as admitted in the book’s afterword.[28] As Eric Arnesen recounts in “Whiteness and the Historical Imagination,” whiteness scholars have championed the politics of racial identity and diminished the significance of historical cross-race alliances.[29] Labor history has exhibited mounting disquietude around the field’s traditional subject, the working class, as a function of the Left’s political relinquishment of American workers going back to the New Left. But the Millennial Left has made a virtue out of competing neoliberal interest groups by consecrating their cultural identities and ritualizing white guilt and black victimhood. The racialist turn in scholarship expresses a symptom of this trend.

As Barbara Fields explains, “race studies” scholars generally reinforce the “biological reality of race,” contributing to the American practice of “creating and re-creating race.” In their use of racial prejudice as an explanation for historical events, these scholars assume race itself as a natural cause existing outside of history. Fields, following David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (1975), traces how the “ideology” of race was first constructed in the American Revolutionary era, when in the context of ascendant universal inalienable rights, the condition of slaves began to appear as a patent anomaly, leading advocates and opponents alike to surmise that such a lack of freedom stemmed from some innate incapacity of the slaves themselves.Thus, in the context of creeping social transformation, contemporaries rationalized slavery via the modern tendency to overestimate individual temperament and underestimate social context, or, what social psychology calls “fundamental attribution error.” Although many historians contend that black Americans have been repressed because they were viewed as inferior, this actually gets it backwards: blacks were eventually viewed as inferior by virtue of having been repressed.[30] Regrettably, many labor historians still operate in the racialist paradigm, such as Jacqueline Jones, who argues that black women have experienced capitalism in a fundamentally different way compared to whites and men because of their greater victimhood.[31] Such oppression-one-upmanship of racial identities foregoes the need to overcome race. Doing penance replaces the unfinished struggle for universal liberty.

The increasingly tendentious character of Left-liberal scholarship has culminated in the “history of capitalism” field that emerged after the Great Recession of 2008. As Erik Mathisen observes, this new literature has come on the scene “at a moment when a profound pessimism about the all-encompassing and immutable power of race has charged the public discussion.” On the whole, this new field emphasizes slavery’s constitutive role for the development of American capitalism. Rather than merely acknowledge that the slave-based cotton industry helped fuel America’s industrial revolution, these historians assert that plantation slavery made modern capitalism possible in the first place, by generatingvast profits to finance early industry and innovating forms of labor exploitation that have dominated the globe ever since.[32] Although “most recent historians of American capitalism have shown little interest in theory,” the emplotment is clear: the original sin of the present is located in Americans’ historic racism and greed.[33] These historical revisions explicitly deny the import of the Civil War and the emancipation of African-Americans, who apparently had no hope to succeed in post-war America.

But the crux of their methodological nihilism is the denial of human agency as a source of historical change. Hence, the Civil War did not result from slavery and its detractors but from infighting between Northern and Southern capitalists, who were otherwise essentially the same. Bourgeois revolution, free labor, civil society, and abolitionism are omitted from the historical record. All in all, the field’s reiteration of the limitations of blacks and the moral culpability of the rich legitimizes and is legitimized by the impotent identity politics of the Left today.

Labor and capitalism

Even more than class, sex, and race, the category of capitalism — precisely as an “ism” — involves all sorts of contested meanings and significances as it relates to the history of labor. In recent decades, scholars have searched for capitalism across the longue durée, thus missing its historical specificity as a post-industrial condition. Semantically, Jürgen Kocka points out, “capitalism” is really a product of the 19th century, when opponents began specifying the object of their criticism, “capitalism,” as a polemical concept.[34] These initial critics of overproduction, unemployment, and the self-destruction of value recognized capitalism as a sui generis crisis of bourgeois society, the latter itself only a few hundred years old. Despite its name, notes Jonathan Levy, “history of capitalism” scholarship lacks a theory of capitalism, and concerns itself primarily with tracing particular commodities through space and time.[35] Two prominent examples include David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2010) and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014). Common to both works is the condemnation of not only capitalism but laboring, or, “bourgeois” society more generally, maligned as inherently violent and imperialist.

“History of capitalism” scholarship’s indictment of modernity rests on a conflation of pre-industrial and post-industrial bourgeois society, both collapsed into “capitalism.” According to Graeber, modern market economies based on barter and money encouraged non-trustful exchange, reducing moral obligations to a financial value and destroying the “baseline communism” that was the foundation of ancient social relations — echoing Alain Badiou’s transhistorical “communist invariant.”[36] Graeber’s rose-tinted view of premodern societies thus elides the historically specific consciousness of bourgeois society, whose “unsocial sociability” 18th-century contemporaries grasped as an emancipation from feudalism.

Beckert’s book, tracking the rise and fall of the European-dominated modern cotton empire, argues that “war capitalism” was the foundation for later industrial capitalism. Yet, defining war capitalism as the combination of slavery, imperial expansion, armed trade, and entrepreneurial sovereignty begs the question, why call this “capitalism” at all? So defined, this type of regime pertains more to premodern empires than to modern bourgeois ones. By identifying mass expropriation of land and forced labor as the “crucial preconditions” for Europe’s economic world dominance by the 19th century, Beckert cannot account for how the empires based on tributary conquest and extractive slave-labor economies — the Spanish and Portuguese — fell behind, while those based on free labor and colonial market autonomy — the Dutch and English — led industrialization.[37] The conflation of pre- and post-industrial bourgeois society also obscures the changed, brutalized character of colonization and slave labor as a function of capitalism in the 19th century.

Conceptualizing “capitalism” also turns on our clarification of the capitalist state. At one end of the spectrum, Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990 (1990) defines the modern state with extreme breadth, drawing attention to supposed continuity across the last millennia. Tilly argues that diverse states eventually converged on the modern nation-state model, based on the confluence of capital and military coercion, because these were historically the most overpowering. However, his definition of capital as “tangible mobile resources, and enforceable claims on such resources,” along with his assertion that “capitalists” have worked as merchants, entrepreneurs, and financiers for most of human history, betray methodological anachronism. Such a “generously” conceptualized historical account of the capitalist state precludes historical accuracy altogether.[38]

Conversely, Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward’s Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (1971) helps spotlight what is distinctive about the capitalist state in human history. The modern state, they argue, must be grasped as a function of the larger social and political order peculiar to the capitalist era. The modern welfare relief system, unique to capitalism, reveals some of its qualities. U.S. welfare has historically expanded during periods of social unrest, such as the Great Depression and the 1960s, and contracted during subsequent stabilization. As this cyclical pattern shows, periodic welfare expansion is “designed to mute civil order,” and welfare contraction to reinforce work norms. Such a critique of the welfare state concretizes capitalist “creative destruction” by showing how state relief functions as a palliative for inherent instabilities of capitalism. The specific role of the capitalist state comprises the “regulation of marginal labor” and “maintenance of civil order.”[39] While all societies have coerced their members into social contribution, only capitalism relies mainly on mechanisms of market — promise of financial reward or penalties — to do so.

Labor and revolution

Leftists have traditionally distinguished long-term social revolution from more acute political revolution, the latter involving regime change but not necessarily a change in social practice or basis. Against revisionist histories that conflate social and political revolution, reducing for instance the French Revolution to a discrete political event disconnected from ongoing social revolution, Neil Davidson reinstates the revolutionary status of the “bourgeois revolutions,” whose early theorists James Harrington, Sir James Steuart, and Antoine Barnave — not to mention Locke, Rousseau, and Smith — had already developed a materialist understanding of revolutionary social change before their corresponding political watersheds of 1688, 1776, and 1789.[40] Revisionist histories purporting to debunk the Bourgeois Revolution assume a narrow sociological definition in which industrialists, bankers, and other representatives of the “bourgeoisie” played leading roles, eschewing the more substantial criterion for bourgeois revolution: the replacement of feudal, patrimonial fetters with the bourgeois mode of production based on free labor and an autonomous realm of civil society, all of which could exist where autocratic political forms still persisted, such as in the central European states of the 19th century.[41] Even if, as William Sewell suggests, workers’ values and ideals from the Old Regime to 1848 featured the continuity of an “artisan ethos” — preservation of social order, pursuit of the common good, insistence on the value of one’s trades, pride in work — by the time of the French Revolution, these values constituted bourgeois ideals of cooperative social production more so than the hierarchical cosmology of medieval “estates.”[42] The persistence of corporatist language signaled a superficial vestige masking a more substantial social transformation.

In the American context, Eric Foner frames the Civil War as a relatively late but unmistakable instance of bourgeois revolution, as the new Republican Party of the 1850s developed an explicit “free labor” ideology in opposition to the slave labor of the South. If thepresidential victoryof a party dedicated to free labor precipitated Confederate secession and ensuing civil war, support for Abraham Lincoln had been made possible by the gradual social revolution of the preceding decades — the decline of indentured servitude, the end of live-in journeymen with their employers, and what Gordon Woods called the overall “transvaluation of labor,” whereby freedom to labor replaced freedom from labor as a social basis. This process was tantamount to the maturation of bourgeois society in the North, sharpening the contradiction with the manorial, aristocratic South, based on unfree labor. But by the late 19th century, decades after the Civil War, American society had clearly developed the same new contradiction between capital and labor that had marked out the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, as wage labor no longer appeared as a temporary condition leading to economic independence but as a fixed feature of industrial society.[43]

The period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries represented the highpoint of not only the trade-unionist “labor movement,” but also of the non-identical but deeply intertwined socialist movement, represented globally by the Second International (1889–1916). In the American context, David Montgomery traces the rise and fall of the labor movement, which was in decline by the 1920s, when strike activity fell to an all-time low, labor radicalism became isolated, workers’ attention turned inward to family and ethical ties, and trade unions definitively made peace with the undemocratic exigencies of capitalism.[44] But it was in Russia that the socialist movement’s revolutionary potential finally materialized in 1917. Most Western historiography of the October Revolution has projected a Cold War “totalitarian” framework back onto 1917, drawing a straight line from Lenin to Stalin. Sheila Fitzpatrick in part reminds us that the Bolsheviks undoubtedly won the moral authority of the working masses in the first years of the revolution.[45] While Montgomery and Fitzpatrick recognize the gradual decline of the international socialist movement beginning as early as the 1920s, Eric Hobsbawm’s student Donald Sassoon insists that the “epic struggle between socialism and capitalism” lasted from the 1889 establishment of the Second International to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.[46] However, by conflating the earlier revolutionary socialist movement with later social democratic and communist European parties, increasingly focused on national welfare policies and parliamentary coalitions, Sassoon covers up how the movement failed based on its own original goals of social, not just political, revolution.


By and large, neither labor historians nor the Left possess a revolutionary imagination today, and increasingly neither professes to. Capitalism’s revolutionary potential remains obscure to its would-be annihilators, who fall back on the shallow “anti-capitalism” of progressives who form its loyal opposition. Labor history, by tailing contemporary political shifts of capitalism, has adopted the moralistic personalism inaugurated by the anti-party New Left and crystallized by the identitarian Millennial Left. Increasingly, labor history fails to distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive definitions of labor — how labor should be defined versus how it was defined and valorized historically. By simply keeping this straight, they could identify as false problems the disputes surrounding “who” the bourgeoisie or the proletariat were. Tailing the vulgar identity politics of our time, historians often presume a demographic meaning of categories pertaining to labor, whether of class, sex, or race. Such profiling takes the individual as the reified unit of what are in fact social changes — the embourgeoisement, proletarianization, gendering, and racializing of laboring society — all very much historicalprocesses and each a function of capitalism, the historical process of modernity, for Marxists. |P

[1] Geoffrey Field and Michael Hanagan, “ILWCH: Forty Years On,” International Labor and Working-Class History 82 (Fall 2012): 5–14.

[2] Neville Kirk, “Taking Stock: Labor History During the Past Fifty Years,” International Labor and Working-Class History 82(Fall 2012): 157.

[3] William H. Sewell Jr., “Toward a Post-Materialist Rhetoric for Labor History,” in Rethinking Labor History: Essays on Discourse and Class Analysis, ed. Lenard R. Berlanstein (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 15–17, 26.

[4] John Womack Jr., “Doing Labor History: Feeling, Work, Material Power,” Journal of the Historical Society 5, no. 3 (2005): 266, 269–70, 275, 277.

[5] Marcel van der Linden, “Editorial: The End of Labour History?,” International Review of Social History 38, no. S1 (1993): 2; Marcel van der Linden, “The Promises and Challenges of Global Labor History,” International Labor and Working-Class History 82(Fall 2012): 62, 66.

[6] Prasannan Parthasarathi, “Global Labor History: A Dialogue with Marcel van der Linden,” International Labor and Working-Class History 82(Fall 2012): 108–11.

[7] Field and Hanagan, “ILWCH: Forty Years On,” 8.

[8] van der Linden, “The Promises and Challenges,” 65.

[9] G. M. Tamás, “Telling the Truth about Class,” Socialist Register 42 (2006): 230, 254, available online at <>.

[10] E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present 50 (1971): 76, 78, 126.

[11] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: V. Gollancz, 1963), 14.

[12] Tamás, “Telling the Truth,” 254–55.

[13] Martin J. Burke, The Conundrum of Class: Public Discourse on the Social Order in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 53.

[14] Tamás, “Telling the Truth,” 229–30, 243–44, 254–56.

[15] Ibid., 245.

[16] For a thoughtful example of the latter, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal, 1890–1940 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[17] Burke, The Conundrum of Class, xi–xii.

[18] Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd, 1919).

[19] Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe, ed.Barbara A. Hanawalt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

[20] Natalie Zemon Davis, “Women in the Crafts in Sixteenth-Century Lyon,” in Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe, 169.

[21] Angelina S. Chin, Bound to Emancipate: Working Women and Urban Citizenship in Early Twentieth-Century China and Hong Kong (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 240.

[22] Joan Scott and Louise Tilly, “Women’s Work and the Family in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 17, no. 1 (1975): 36–64.

[23] Amanda Vickery, “Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History,” The Historical Journal 36, no. 2 (1993): 383–414.

[24] Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[25] Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 9, 11.

[26] Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 11.

[27] Joan Robinson, Economic Philosophy (Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1962), 45.

[28] David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1999), 188.

[29] Eric Arnesen, “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination,” International Labor and Working-Class History 60 (Fall 2001): 4–5.

[30] Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America” New Left Review 181 (May/June 1990): 95–97, 101, 106.

[31] Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 2010 [first published in 1985]).

[32] Eric Williams’s Capitalism & Slavery (1945), arguing that Atlantic slavery bankrolled British industrialization, serves as a touchstone work for the recent field. For a self-defense and exhibition of the new “history of capitalism,” see American Capitalism: New Histories, eds. Sven Beckert and Christine Desan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

[33] Erik Mathisen, “The Second Slavery, Capitalism, and Emancipation in Civil War America,” Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 4 (2018): 683, 690. For a criticism of the field and its lack of theory, see Scott R. Nelson, “Who Put Their Capitalism in My Slavery?,” Journal of the Civil War Era 5, no. 2 (2015): 289–310.

[34] Jürgen Kocka, “Writing the History of Capitalism,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 47 (Fall 2010): 9.

[35] Jonathan Levy, “Capital as Process and the History of Capitalism,” Business History Review 91, no. 3(Autumn 2017): 483.

[36] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn: Melville House), 99; Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London: Verso, 2010), 35. See also Chris Cutrone, “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis,’” Platypus Review 29 (November 2010), available online at <>.

[37] Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), xv–xvi.

[38] Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990 (Cambridge: B. Blackwell, 1990), 17.

[39] Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971), xiii, xvi, 4.

[40] Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), xii, 4.

[41] Early examples of revisionism include François Furet, “Le catéchisme révolutionnaire,” Annales: Histoire, Science Sociales 26, no. 2 (1971): 255–289, and J. C. D. Clark, English Society, 1688–1832: Ideology, Social Structure, and Political Practice during the Ancien Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[42] William H. Sewell Jr., Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 13.

[43] Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), xiii–xiv, xxxii, xxxvi; Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1992), 277.

[44] David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 7–8.

[45] Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017 [first published in 1982]), 43–44.

[46] Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century (New York: New Press, 1996), xix.