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The Promise and Challenges of Global Labor History 1

  • Marcel van der Linden (a1)


The idea that the histories of different regions in the world are interconnected is not particularly novel; it already existed several centuries ago. Thus, for example, when the German historian and playwright Friedrich Schiller was granted a chair at the University of Jena in 1789, he declared in his inaugural address that “the most remote regions of the world contribute to our luxury.” After all, he continued, “The clothes we wear, the spices in our food, and the price for which we buy them, many of our strongest medicines, and also many new tools of our destruction—do they not presuppose a Columbus who discovered America, a Vasco da Gama who circumnavigated the tip of Africa”?2 Nevertheless it took quite some time before professional historians began to consider these global connections seriously in their research. Colonial and “imperial” historians led the way. They were joined by economic historians. Labor historians became interested in intercontinental perspectives only more recently; until the 1970s, they typically locked themselves into the framework of individual nation-states. Even great innovators in the discipline, such as E. P. Thompson, thought mostly in terms of “national” working classes.



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I am grateful to my colleagues Ulbe Bosma, Karin Hofmeester, Jan Lucassen, Christine Moll-Murata, and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk for their comments on two earlier drafts, and to Jurriaan Bendien for translating this text from Dutch. For my earlier essays on this topic, with different angles, see especially Marcel van der Linden, “The 'Globalization' of Labor and Working Class History and Its Consequences,” ILWCH, 65 (2004): 136–56; van der Linden, “Labor History: The Old, the New and the Global,” African Studies 66 (2007): 1–12; van der Linden, “Labour History Beyond Borders,” in Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives, ed. Joan Allen, Alan Campbell, and John McIlroy Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives (London, 2010), 353–83.



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2. Schiller, Friedrich, “What Is, and to What End do We Study, Universal History,” in Poet of Freedom, vol. II., trans. Stephan, Caroline and Trout, Robert (New York, 1988).

3. Nowadays the ITH is called “International Conference of Labour and Social History.” See (accessed October 15, 2012). The activities of the IALHI can be followed via (accessed October 15, 2012).

4. I have tried to give an overview in A Bibliography of Comparative Labour History,” in Australian Labour and Regional Change. Essays in Honour of R.A. Gollan, ed. Hagan, Jim and Wells, Andrew (Rushcutters Bay, NSW [Australia], 1998), 117–45.

5. In the first projects, the comparisons were still mainly contrasting, that is, highlighting similarities and differences between instances, without trying to explain these similarities and differences. In later studies, much more systematic attention was given to explanations. See, for important examples: Davies, Sam, et al. , (eds), Dock Workers 1790–1970. International Explorations in Comparative Labour History, 2 volumes (Aldershot, 2000); and van Voss, Lex Heerma, eds., The Ashgate Companion to the History of Textile Workers, 1650–2000 (Aldershot, 2010).

Outside the IISH comparisons were organized as well, often for between six and twelve countries. See, for example, Geary, Dick, ed., Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe before 1914 (Oxford, 1989); Berger, Stefan and Broughton, David, eds., The Force of Labour: The Western European Labour Movement and the Working Class in the Twentieth Century (Oxford and Washington, 1995); Wikander, Ulla et al. , eds., Protecting Women: Labor Legislation in Europe, the United States, and Australia, 1880–1920 (Urbana, IL, 1995); and Pasture, Patrick and Verberckmoes, Johan, eds., Working-Class Internationalism and the Appeal of National Identity: Historical Debates and Current Perspectives (Oxford and New York, 1998).

6. Already prior to the Second World War, a few important contributions to labor history in the Global South were published. Das, Rajani Kanta, an employee of the International Labor Organization in Geneva, published three studies in one year: Factory Labor in India (Berlin, 1923); Factory Legislation in India (Berlin, 1923); and Labor Movement in India (Berlin, 1923). US historian Marjorie Ruth Clark wrote a pioneering work on Organized Labor in Mexico (New York, 1973 [originally 1934]).

7. van der Linden, Marcel and Mohapatra, Prabhu, eds., Labour Matters: Towards Global Histories (New Delhi, 2009).

8. See (accessed October 15, 2012).

9. van der Linden, Marcel, “ História do Trabalho: o velho, o novo e o global, Revista Mundos do Trabalho, 1 (2009), 1126. See (accessed October 15, 2012).

10. de Vito, Christian, “La proposta della Global labour history nell'era della ‘globalizzazione’,” Passato e Presente, no. 85 (January–April 2012), 177188 .

11. de Vito, Christian (ed.), Global Labour History. La storia del lavoro al tempo della globalizzazione, Verona, 2012 .

12. A number of papers are now available in Fink, Leon, ed., Workers Across the Americas: The Transnational Turn in Labor History (New York, 2011).

13. Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Part II, Ch. 12 (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1859).

14. Rodney, Walter, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast (City, 1970); Rodney, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881–1905 (Baltimore, 1981).

15. For more details, see chapter thirteen of my book Workers of the World (Leiden, 2008), 287–318.

16. Werner, Michael and Zimmermann, Bénédicte, eds., De la comparaison à l'histoire croisée (Paris, 2004); Werner, Michael and Zimmermann, Bénédicte, “Beyond Comparison: Histoire Croisée and the Challenge of Reflexivity,” History and Theory, 45 (2006): 3050 .

17. That is how I did it myself in Transnational Labour History. Explorations (Aldershot, 2003).

18. van Schendel, Willem, “Stretching Labour Historiography,” International Review of Social History, 51 (2006): 260–61.

19. Bruce Mazlish correctly argues that “all history is contemporary history in the sense that the perspective brought to bear on past events is necessarily rooted in the present. In this light, global history may simply be more conscious of its perspective and interested in focusing it more directly on contemporary happenings, as well as on the past. Serious problems of selectivity or documentation then remain, as they do with any history.” Mazlish, “Introduction to Global History,” in Mazlish, Bruce and Buultjens, Ralph, eds., Conceptualizing Global History (Boulder, 1993), 3.

20. I regard the Soviet Union, the Chinese People's Republic, and other “socialist” societies as elements of capitalist civilization, broadly speaking. They were, in my view, not “capitalist,” but their rise or decline can only be understood in a world capitalist context. I provide a definition of capitalism in Workers of the World (Leiden, 2008), chapter sixteen. My interpretation of Soviet-type societies can be found in Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (Leiden, 2007).

21. Marx, Capital, Vol. I (Harmondsworth, 1976), 272.

22. Referring to Africa, Vic Allen concluded some forty years ago that “[in] societies in which bare subsistence is the norm for a high proportion of all the working class, and where men, women, and children are compelled to seek alternative means of subsistence, as distinct from their traditional ones, the lumpenproletariat is barely distinguishable from much of the rest of the working class.” Allen, V.L., “The Meaning of the Working Class in Africa,” Journal of Modern African Studies, 10 (1972): 169–89, at 188.

23. Deutsch, Jan-Georg, Emancipation without Abolition in German East Africa c.1884–1914 (Oxford, 2006), 7172 .

24. Groundbreaking was the article by Lara, Silvia Hunold, “Escradivão, cidadania e história do trabalho no Brasil,” Projeto História, 16 (1998): 2538 ; See also the important case study by Reis, João José, “‘The Revolution of the Ganhadores': Urban Labour, Ethnicity and the African Strike of 1857 in Bahia, Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies 29 (1997): 355–93.

25. Tinker, Hugh, A New System of Slavery: The Export of India Labour Overseas, 1830–1920 (London, 1974).

26. An excellent overview is provided by Roberts, David Andrew, “The ‘Knotted Hands that Set Us High': Labour History and the Study of Convict Australia,” Labour History [Sydney] 100 (2011): 3350 .

27. See, for example, McKinlay, Alan, “From Industrial Serf to Wage-Labourer: The 1937 Apprentice Revolt in Britain,” International Review of Social History 31 (1986): 118 . Comparative perspectives are offered in Steinfeld, Robert J., The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350–1870 (Chapel Hill, 1991); Hay, Douglas and Craven, Paul, eds., Masters, Servants, and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562–1955 (Chapel Hill, 2004), and in Stanziani, Alessandro, (ed., Le travail contraint en Asie et en Europe: XVII–XXe siècles (Paris, 2010).

28. See, for example, Ramseyer, J. Mark, “Indentured Prostitution in Imperial Japan: Credible Commitments in the Commercial Sex Industry,” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, 7 (1991): 89116 ; Faure, Alain, “Sordid Class, Dangerous Class? Observations on Parisian Ragpickers and Their Cités During the Nineteenth Century,” in Amin, Shahid and van der Linden, Marcel, eds., “Peripheral” Labour? Studies in the History of Partial Proletarianization (Cambridge, 1996), 157–76.

29. Emsley, Clive, “The Policeman as Worker: A Comparative Survey, c. 1800–1940,” International Review of Social History, 45 (2000): 89110 .

30. This definition is essentially the same as that of Charles and Chris Tilly: “Work includes any human effort adding use value to goods and services.” Tilly, Charles and Tilly, Chris, Work Under Capitalism (Boulder, CO, 1998), 22. I prefer not to use the Marxian concept “use value” in this context since use values always exist in conjunction with exchange values (prices), and thus that definition is really only applicable to commodified labor.

31. Dick Geary, professor of history at the University of Nottingham (UK) has organized a so-called Leverhulme Research Interchange from 2002, with the topic “Labour in Slave and Non-Slave Societies: Brazil and Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries.” The aim was to establish a transcontinental dialogue between labor historians and historians of slavery. One resulting study was Libby, Douglas Cole and Furtado, Júnia Ferreira, eds., Trabalho livre, trabalho escravo: Brasil e Europa, séculos XVII e XIX (São Paulo, 2006).

32. Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth, 1973), 464.

33. Bhandari, Rakesh, “The Disguises of Wage-Labour: Juridical Illusions, Unfree Conditions and Novel Extensions,” Historical Materialism 16 (2008): 7199 , at 96. See also Bhandari, Rakesh, “Slavery and Wage Labor in History,” Rethinking Marxism, 19 (2007): 396408 ; Banaji, Jairus, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Leiden and Boston, 2010).

34. Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World, chapter two. Those whose labor power is not commodified, while they possess no other means of livelihood than labor power (all jobless in the broad sense), are regarded as part of the subaltern working class, as well as family members of subaltern workers who perform subsistence labor, or who, because of age or state of health, cannot work.

35. For example, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra.

36. Preliminary attempts in Bairoch, Paul and Limbor, J.-M., “Changes in the Industrial Distribution of the World Labour Force, by Region, 1880–1960,” International Labour Review, 98 (1968): 311–36; Bairoch, Paul, “Structure de la population active mondiale de 1700 à 1970,” Annales E.S.C., 26 (1971): 960–76; Filmer, Deon, Estimating the World at Work, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 1488 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1995).

37. The project recalls an idea by Jan Lucassen. It is coordinated by Karin Hofmeester and Christine Moll-Murata and financed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) as well as the Gerda Henkel Foundation (Germany).

38. A pioneering attempt was made by Immanuel Wallerstein in his Modern World System, vols. I and II (New York, 1974 and 1980). For an appraisal with respect to the concerns of labor historians, see van der Linden, Workers of the World, chapter thirteen.

39. Feldman, Gerald D. and Tenfelde, Klaus, eds., Workers, Owners and Politics in Coal Mining: An International Comparison of Industrial Relations (New York, 1990); Sam Davies et al., eds., Dock Workers; Heerma van Voss et al., eds., Ashgate Companion to Textile Workers. The projects on shipbuilding (coordinator: Raquel Varela), brickmaking (coordinator: Jan Lucassen), soldiers (coordinator: Erik-Jan Zürcher), and prostitution (coordinators: Lex Heerma van Voss and Magaly Rodriguez García) are initiatives of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.

40. Chase-Dunn, Christopher, Global Formation: Structures of the World Economy (Oxford and Cambridge, MA, 1989), 346.

41. van der Linden, Marcel, Workers of the World (Leiden, 2008), 372377 .

42. Selwyn, Ben, “Beyond Firm-Centrism: Re-integrating Labour and Capitalism into Global Commodity Chain Analysis,” Journal of Economic Geography, 12 (2012), 205226 , at 205.

43. Sternberg, Fritz, Der Imperialismus (Berlin, 1926); Emmanuel, Arghiri, L'échange inégal. Essais sur les antagonismes dans les rapports économiques internationaux (Paris, 1969).

44. At least in part, one could agree with the “split labor market theory” of Edna Bonacich and others. See the clear overview in Bonacich, Edna, “The Past, Present, and Future of Split Labor Market Theory,” Research in Race and Ethnic Relations 1 (1979): 1764 .

45. The groundbreaking article on this topic is McKeown, Adam, “Global Migration, 1846–1940,” Journal of World History, 15 (2004): 155–89. A good overview of the earlier global migration history is provided in Hoerder, Dirk, Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium (Durham, NC, 2002). Since 2005 there is a “Global Migration History” project, which strives “to include the full migration experience of the non-Western world.” See (accessed October 15, 2012).

46. Recent contributions include Balachandran, Gopalan, “Circulation through Seafaring: Indian Seamen, 1890–1945,” in Markovits, Claude et al. , eds., Society and Circulation: Mobile People and Itinerant Cultures in South Asia, 1750–1950 (New Delhi, 2003), 89130 ; Lucassen, Jan, “A Multinational and its Labor Force: The Dutch East India Company, 1595-1795,” ILWCH 66 (2004): 1239 ; Michael H. Fisher, “Working Across the Seas: Indian Maritime Labourers in India, Britain, and in Between, 1600–1857,” and Ahuja, Ravi, “Mobility and Containment: The Voyages of South Asian Seamen, c.1900–1960,” both in Behal, Rana and van der Linden, Marcel, eds., India's Labouring Poor: Historical Studies c. 1600– c.2000 (New Delhi, 2007), 2145 , and 111–41; van Rossum, Matthias et al. , “National and International Labour Markets for Sailors in European, Atlantic and Asian Waters, 1600–1850,” Research in Maritime History 43 (2010): 4772 ; Fink, Leon, Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World's First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011). About the history of railway builders and workers there are many country studies. It would be interesting to use this literature as the basis for an integrated global reconstruction.

47. Van Daele, Jasmien et al. , eds., ILO Histories: Essays on the International Labour Organization and Its Impact on the World During the Twentieth Century (Berne, 2010); Lespinet-Moret, Isabelle and Viet, Vincent, eds., L'Organisation internationale du travail. Origine, développement, avenir (Rennes, 2011); Kott, Sandrine and Droux, Joëlle, eds., Globalizing Social Rights: The ILO and Beyond (London, 2012); van der Linden, Marcel, ed., Humanitarian Intervention and Changing Labor Relations. The Long-term Consequences of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (Leiden and Boston, 2011).

48. Cooke, Bill, “The Denial of Slavery in Management Studies,” Journal of Management Studies 40 (2003): 18951918 ; Esch, Elizabeth and Roediger, David, “One Symptom of Originality: Race and the Management of Labour in the History of the United States,” Historical Materialism 17 (2009): 343 ; van der Linden, Marcel, “Re-constructing the Origins of Modern Labor Management,” Labor History, 51 (2010): 509–22.

49. Biernacki, Richard, The Fabrication of Labor: Germany and Britain, 1640–1914 (Berkeley, 1995), 471.

50. I borrow this example from Luxemburg, Rosa, “ Einführung in die Nationalökonomie ,” in Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 5 (Berlin, 1985), 524778 , at 557–60. An English translation is available in section IV of Luxemburg, Rosa, What is Economics? Translated by Edwards, T. (New York, 1954); reprinted New York, 1968, 39–44.

51. This description is taken from the introduction to Hausberger, Bernd, ed., Globale Lebensläufe. Menschen als Akteure im weltgeschichtlichen Geschehen (Vienna, 2006).

52. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (New York, 1791).

53. Sinha-Kerkhoff, Kathinka et al. , eds., Autobiography of an Indian Indentured Labourer: Munshi Rahman Khan (1874–1972) (New Delhi, 2005). Ravi Ahuja (University of Göttingen) is currently preparing a publication based on the memoirs of Amir Haider Khan (c. 1901–1989), a lascar (sailor) from British India.

54. van der Velden, Sjaak et al. , eds., Strikes Around the World, 1968–2005 (Amsterdam, 2007); van der Linden, Marcel, ed., Social Security Mutualism: The Comparative History of Mutual Benefit Societies (Berne, 1996); de Swaan, Abram and van der Linden, Marcel, eds., Mutualist Microfinance: Informal Savings Funds from the Global Periphery to the Core? (Amsterdam, 2006). A conference about the global history of mutinies was staged at the IISH in June 2011 (coordinators: Marcus Rediker, Niklas Frykman, and Lex Heerma van Voss); a large-scale project about consumer cooperatives is coordinated by the Swedish Arbetarrörelsens Arkiv och Bibliotek (Mary Hilson and Silke Neunsinger).

55. On the Chargola exodus, see Nitin Varma's forthcoming monograph.

56. Silver, Forces of Labor, 131–2.

57. Hobsbawm, Eric J., Worlds of Labour: Further Studies in the History of Labour (London, 1984), 60.

58. Phaedo, 109b. Trans. Benjamin Jowitt.

1. I am grateful to my colleagues Ulbe Bosma, Karin Hofmeester, Jan Lucassen, Christine Moll-Murata, and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk for their comments on two earlier drafts, and to Jurriaan Bendien for translating this text from Dutch. For my earlier essays on this topic, with different angles, see especially Marcel van der Linden, “The 'Globalization' of Labor and Working Class History and Its Consequences,” ILWCH, 65 (2004): 136–56; van der Linden, “Labor History: The Old, the New and the Global,” African Studies 66 (2007): 1–12; van der Linden, “Labour History Beyond Borders,” in Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives, ed. Joan Allen, Alan Campbell, and John McIlroy Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives (London, 2010), 353–83.

The Promise and Challenges of Global Labor History 1

  • Marcel van der Linden (a1)


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