- Class and Other Identities: Gender, Religion and Ethnicity in the Writing of European Labour History
For the past ten years, American labor history has been involved in a prolonged state of reflection (or crisis depending on whom you ask). Labor historians have struggled to respond to the cultural turn in history and the perceived challenge it offered to the notion of class, that bedrock concept of labor and working-class history. With reactions ranging from an enthusiastic embrace of language and representation to a stubborn affirmation of the primacy of economic and material forces in history, most US labor historians have ended up somewhere in between. This collection, Class and Other Identities: Gender Religion and Ethnicity in the Writing of European Labour History, offers an account of the situation in Western European labor history, written mostly by historians working in England or continental Europe. The book ends with a series of invaluable bibliographical tools, including lists of all periodicals dealing with Western European labor history, of bibliographical essays in this field since 1965, of relevant biographical dictionaries, of websites, and of recent monographs in the field.
As the essays in this collection reveal, European labor historians have dealt with very similar issues as their American colleagues. Is class dead? Does accounting properly for gender, ethnicity or religion mean an end to the predominant role labor historians accorded to class? Without such a dominant role for class, can there be such a thing as labor or working class history? What methods or theoretical insights could allow labor historians to get a grip on the complex interaction of social, cultural, and economic forces in the creation of the multiple identities we now accord workers in the past?
This collection, edited by Marcel van der Linden and Lex Heerma van Voss, is organized in a straightforward fashion to engage these questions. Two introductory essays outline the current state of the field, analyzing the causes of crisis and assessing potential cures. The editors’ introduction offers an overview of the major phases of Western European labor history from its nineteenth century origins through the 1990s. The second essay, by Jürgen Kocka, “New Trends in Labour Movement Historiography: A German Perspective,” contrasts the sense of crisis in labor history with the continuities found in published scholarship and weighs proposed new directions for the field. The next four essays take up the question of class and its main competitors. Mike Savage writes on “Class and Labour History,” followed by Eileen Yeo on “Gender in Labour and Working-Class History,” John Belchem on “Ethnicity and Labour History, with Special Reference to Irish Migration” and Patrick Pasture on “The Role of Religion in Social and Labour History”. Outside assessment of this collective act of reflection is provided in the form of critiques by Alice Kessler-Harris (“Two Labour Histories or One?”) and Janaki Nair (“Paradigm Lost? The Futures of Labour History”).
Although the scholars collected here (leaving aside Kessler-Harris and Nair for the moment) offer contrasting perspectives and emphases, they agree to a large extent on the state of their field and the possibilities for future development. As a group, they accord blame for the erosion of class analysis to factors both [End Page 224] outside and inside the academy: on the one hand, an increasingly conservative political climate, accompanied by the decline of workers’ movements and, on the other hand, rising interest in alternate sources of identity (gender, ethnicity, race, religion) and the turn to linguistic and symbolic analysis. On the whole, these scholars accept the legitimacy of new directions encouraged by “identity politics” while rejecting or resisting the linguistic turn and (not surprisingly) deploring the broader political situation. Hope for the future therefore seems to lie in new ways of conceiving class and of assessing its interaction with other forms of identity. Gender (usually meaning women but sometimes men and masculinity too) emerges as the frontrunner among these categories...