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Return to Marx? Histories of Class, Exploitation and Labour Movement in the 21st Century

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Marxist historical approaches, especially the once-important sub-disciplines of social history and labour history, were subject to significant theoretical and political critique. Post-modern and poststructuralist thinkers attacked what they perceived to be a reductive and economistic definition of class, challenging the idea that class was an objective economic category rather than a subjective identity or political perspective created by language/discourse. Feminist, postcolonial, anti-racist and queer scholars and political activists criticised the ways many Marxist-influenced historians assumed that the working class was homogenously white and male and imposed Eurocentric frameworks to assess the historical development of capitalism and class struggle in the global South. From the 1990s onwards, social history and labour history went into decline and, to put it bluntly, became seriously unfashionable. The last 10 years or so, however, have witnessed a renewed interest in the historical categories of class, exploitation and labour. This has been prompted by a range of intellectual and political developments, not least the global economic crisis that began in 2008. This lecture will discuss this ‘return to Marx’, examining new sub-disciplines such as the history of capitalism, global labour history as well as Marxist-feminist ideas of social reproduction. It will also discuss the new British labour history which, drawing upon rather than rejecting many of the critiques outlined above, has begun to develop an analysis of class and work as it intersects with gender, race and sexuality.


Core Reading

Laura Schwartz, Feminism and the Servant Problem: Class and Domestic Labour in the British Women’s Suffrage Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2019), pages 19-25 and Chapter 5 ‘The Domestic Workers Union of Great Britain and Ireland’


Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World: Essays towards a Global Labor History (Brill, 2010), Introduction and Chapter 2 ‘Who Are the Workers?’.


Questions and Truffle Hunt

The 2 core readings represent different types of recent labour history.
  • Schwartz's focuses on a very small time period in a single country, on workers in the private domestic sphere. As a result the focus is detailed and often individualised. What kinds of sources does she look at? What are the challenges facing historians who wish to write the history of domestic workers in particular? What kind of historical reading do sources derived from the private domestic sphere encourage?
  • van der Linden's essays look at global labour history and therefore at large-scale developments across a broad geographical range. What kinds of primary sources is he using? What are the challenges facing historians examining such a "large" subject? How does this compare to Schwartz's approach? What different insights/interpretations to his sources encourage?
  • Both of these historians are interested in materiality as well as culture and experience, or rather they are interested in how one shapes the other. How does this shape their choice of sources? How do they go about reading the sources to elicit insights on all three aspects of labour history?
  • After identifying the primary sources used in this week's reading, see if you can locate similar such sources.

Further Reading


Geoff Eley and Keith Neild, The Future of Class in History: What’s Left of the Social? (2007)


Karen Buckley, ‘The Making of the Global Working Class in Contemporary History’, Contemporary British History 28:4 (2014)


Karin Hofmeester (ed.) Handbook: the Global History of Work (Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018)


Jürgen Kocka, ‘Reviving Labor History on a Global Scale: Some Comments to Marcel van der Linden’, International Labor and Working Class History 82, (Fall 2012): 92-98


Jürgen Kocka (ed.), Capitalism: the Reemergence of a Historical Concept (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)


Henry Heller, A Marxist History of Capitalism (Routledge 2019)


Larry Neal, ‘Introduction’, in Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson (eds.) The Cambridge History of Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2014)


Aditya Sarkar, Trouble At The Mill: Factory Law And The Emergence of The Labour Question in Late Nineteenth-Century Bombay (Oxford University Press, 2018)


Tithi Bhattacharya , ‘Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory’ in Tithi Bhattacharya, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentring Oppression (Pluto Press, 2017)


Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk, Silke Neunsinger and Dirk Hoerder, ‘Domestic Workers of the World: Histories of Domestic Workers as Global Labor History’, in Dirk Hoerder, Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk and Silke Neunsinger (editors), Towards a Global History of Domestic and Caregiving Workers (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2015), 1-24


Selina Todd, The People: the Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910 – 2010 (John Murray, 2014)


Caroline Bressey, ‘Race, Antiracism, and the Place of Blackness in the Making and Remaking of the English Working Class’, Historical Reflections 41:1 (2015)


Satnam Virdee, Race, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Routledge, 2015)


Dairmaid Kelliher, ‘Solidarity and sexuality: lesbians and gays support the miners 1984-5’ History Workshop Journal, 77:1 (2014), 240-262


Jonathan Moss, Women, Workplace Protest and Political Identity in England, 1968–85 (Manchester University Press, 2019)