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Global Labour History

Global Labour History: Approaches and Debates

Tutor: Aditya Sakar (

The purpose of this seminar is to introduce students to some of the major questions attending the development of labour and working-class history over the last few decades. There are two sets of ‘key readings’ for this session. In the first set, there are three articles which deal with the problem of understanding the impact of capitalist transformation upon notions of time in the lives of labouring communities. These include a 1967 classic by E.P. Thompson which introduced this problem in the specific context of eighteenth-century Britain, and two articles, written from within different historical contexts, which question some of Thompson’s emphases.

The second set of ‘key readings’ consists of two studies which explore labour movements and global connections in two very different contexts – Atlantic seafaring in the eighteenth century, and African decolonization after World War II. These explorations are supplemented by an essay by Marcel van der Linden which offers a broad historical and theoretical context to the question of labour internationalism.

Seminar Questions

1. To what extent was E.P. Thompson right to distinguish sharply between pre-industrial and industrial-capitalist notations of labouring time?
2. To what extent does Thompson actually claim a universal validity (something he has often been criticized for) for his ideas about the relationship between industrial capitalism and the transformation of experiences of working time?
3. Did capitalism transform the relationship between time and labour in basically similar ways across the world?
4. Are labour movements best understood within national contexts?
5. Should labour history ‘go global’? What might some of the fruitful ways of doing this be?
6. What sort of problem did decolonization and the attainment of national sovereignty pose for labour movements which had emerged in the course of colonialism? Discuss with reference to Cooper’s article on labour and politics in decolonizing French Africa.


While I’d certainly encourage students to read all the essays mentioned below if possible, you may also choose to focus more heavily on one set of key readings than another. The seminar itself will be conducted in roughly hour-long discussions of each set.

Key Readings – Set 1

E.P. Thompson, ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, Past and Present, no. 38 (December, 1967), pp. 56-97
Keletso E. Atkins, ‘ “Kafir Time”. Preindustrial Temporal Concepts and Labour Discipline in Nineteenth Century Colonial Natal’, The Journal of African History, vol.29, Issue 02, July 1988, pp.229-244.
Thomas C. Smith, ‘Peasant Time and Factory Time in Japan’, Past and Present, 111 (May 1986), pp. 165-197.

Key Readings – Set 2

Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World: Essays towards a Global Labor History (Leiden, 2008), chapter 12, ‘Labor Internationalism’, pp. 259-287
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, ‘The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves and The Atlantic Working Class in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Historical Sociology, vol.3, no.3, September 1990, pp.225-252
Frederick Cooper, ‘Labor, Politics and the End of Empire in French Africa’, in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2005), pp.204-243.

Further Readings

Marcel van der Linden, ‘The “Globalization” of Labor and Working-Class History and its Consequences’, International Labor and Working Class History, no.65, Spring 2004, pp.136-156.
Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World: Essays Towards a Global Labor History (Leiden, 2008), esp. ‘Introduction’
Frederick Cooper, ‘Work, Class and Empire: An African Historian’s Retrospective on E.P. Thompson’, Social History, vol.20, no.2 (May 1995), pp.235-241.