[OPE] My talk on "Workers of the World" at the IIRE, Amsterdam on 25 November 2008

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Sun Dec 07 2008 - 10:08:47 EST

(In case you are interested, here are the speech notes of a talk I was asked to give on 25 November 2008 at the IIRE http://www.iire.org/ in their seminar series "Returns of Marxism", concerning Prof. Marcel van der Linden's new book "Workers of the world" (Brill, 2008) which I edited and partly translated. I spoke for half an hour after Marcel explained the main themes of the book. The IIRE is a research institute in Amsterdam, associated with the Mandelista Fourth International http://www.marxsite.com/).


Greetings. Marcel’s book is a book written primarily for labour historians but I am myself not a labour historian, I translate and edit texts for Marcel, and if anything, I am more concerned with the future (for which of course you do need to know about the past). Also, I am not a Marxist. So when I was asked by Dr Sara Farris to talk here about this book, I really wondered what I should talk about.

When I work on a text like this, I do it because I think it is worth publishing, but not necessarily because I agree with all of it. If I only worked on jobs that I completely agreed with, I wouldn’t get many jobs.

Practically speaking, I still owed Marcel some, and therefore agreed to translate and edit, but beyond that, I do actually think it is a great and useful book, and I was very happy to work on it, though I hope for a cheaper paperback edition that lots more people will read.

I lived a couple decades in New Zealand which had an international labour history from the very beginning, so I can certainly identify with what Marcel is saying.

When Marcel writes a text, I always notice two things.

Firstly, it is provocative, it tries to reframe a problem and asks new and difficult questions. But secondly, it does not pretend to give any complete answer to any questions raised. This book is just the same. It satisfies, because it stimulates the mind to think of old controversies in a new way. But it dissatisfies, to the extent that it gives you the feeling that a lot more needs to be said and researched to really get the answer.

No doubt this is also exactly Marcel’s intention, in his capacity, he tries to stimulate and provoke people to do more research in labour history, using theory as guide to complex realities, but not as dogma. He is inspired by Marx, but he also wants to get rid of the myths and traps of Marxism. I am certainly sympathetic to that approach.

In the time I have available it is impossible to do justice to all the different issues and implications of this book, and so I will limit myself to four things which I personally think are particularly valuable, and four things that I am critical of in the book.

The first valuable idea is that we cannot truly understand the labour history of a nation or a people without understanding its connections with other nations and peoples, and more broadly the state of the world at that time. This is true also of the Netherlands itself.

For example, Professor Brugmans writes in his history of the Dutch working class in the 19th century, that many of the first industrial workers here were actually foreign workers. English workers built railways and waterworks at that time. From 1830, the Haarlem textile industry began with Belgian, German and Swiss workers. There were also many Belgian and German seasonal workers crossing borders all the time. Just as an aside, Brugmans has a rather interesting explanation for why that happened - he blames, quote, the “laziness, weak physique and lack of skills of the Dutch workers” at this time.

So anyway if capitalism was international from its origins, the working class was also international from its origins. Linguists can also prove this absolutely, if you look at the evolution of languages.

The second valuable idea is that the forms that paid labour take are in reality often much more complex than academic people schematize. They can range from fully independent contractors to semi-slavery, with all sorts of gradations, and all sorts of deals.

Karl Marx, who himself could not get a paid job except journalism, never made any comprehensive analysis of the labour market and the variegated modalities of the trade in human work, although he intended to write “a special book about wage labour”. Given Marx’s enormous intellectual influence, this created a very serious ideological distortion in historical analysis, which has only more recently begun to be corrected scientifically at the level of historical theory.

The third valuable idea is that the workers created their own, original mutualist and cooperative forms of organisation, to counteract the weaknesses and alienation of their market position in bourgeois society. Marcel investigates those forms without silly “workerism” and he shows that these organisational forms were often very sophisticated, that they both utilised market principles and negated market principles. Marxists will often talk about “social ownership” or the “socialization of production” but Marcel tries to analyze realistically how exactly the workers themselves tried to do this in real history.

The fourth valuable idea is that labour history can usefully interface with, and borrow insights from, related disciplines, although this does not absolve you from the need to define what the purpose and use of your own discipline is. I would include not just international political economy, sociology and ethnology, but also anthropology and archaeology. History without theory is just as bad as theory without history, as we can see nowadays with the grotesque intellectual disasters of modern economics.

Now to the criticisms.

The first criticism I have links to what I just said, it is that Marcel does not really explain satisfactorily why you should be interested in labour history as such, why you should study it, if you like, the rationale and direction for a global labour history, what the main questions are and why those questions are important. It remains implicit. Who are the labour historians, and why do they do labour history? There are two aspects to this: what motivates you to study it, and who do you write this stuff for ?

In some ways, this omission is very excusable, because obviously people study labour history for many different reasons, and also Marcel has to stay modest, and not exclude interested people able to do or fund research.

Nevertheless I think he could have made a much stronger and explicit case in the book for why this stuff is important. Marcel very often alludes to arguments without making them precisely explicit, which I find problematic myself, and his magnaminious endorsement of “methodological pluralism” doesn’t really do the trick for me.

I have another book here, on the same subject, by an English guy called Paul Mason http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/newsnight/3094397.stm, and he states explicitly on p. 10 that workers:

“need to know what happened to the original labour movement during its long upward sweep not in order to relive it or piously ‘learn lessons’ form it. They need to know, quite simply, that what they are doing has been done before, where it can lead and what patterns of revolt, reaction and reform look like when you view them over decades. Above all, they need to know that the movement was once a vital force: a counterculture in which people lived their lives and the main source of education for men and women condemned to live short, bleak lives and dream of impossible futures.” (from “Live working or die fighting: how the working class went global”, p. x).

What I miss in Marcel’s book is a more vigorous, confident statement of this type, or at the very least a clearer elaboration of why international labour history is important and useful - an elaboration which I am sure he could give.

The second criticism I have is about Marcel’s definition of the “who the workers are”. I fully accept his argument that the academic schemas about social classes do not apply in reality, and that there are in reality many more gradations in social status than Marxist theory says there are. But I do not share his concept of what class means, and what you use that concept for. There are two main parts relevant to this issue.

(A) Marcel defines the working class much more broadly than has traditionally been done, but he does not really discuss in more depth the ownership of property (assets) by the workers, and what this means for their social position. The workers whom Friedrich Engels described in his book “The Condition of the Working Class in England” were really propertyless, most of them owned nothing but a few personal belongings. But workers today, at least in richer countries, do own houses, cars and substantial savings. That puts them in a different position from workers in previous centuries, and also makes their position very different from workers in poor countries.

(B) Although slaves are obviously workers I do not include slaves in the “working class” because I think what defines the working class is, partly, precisely the ability to trade in your own labour, an ability which even beneficiaries potentially have, but slaves normally do not have that ability. That partly explains why they are slaves.

The fact that you can trade labour, does not mean it is necessarily a “free trade”, but then, at least in my own theory, market trade can occur in all sorts of ways, some more forced, and some more voluntary and freely willed. My own theoretical focus, compared to Marcel's, is accordingly much more explicitly on the real meaning of human freedom, of effective freedom.

If Marx referred rhetorically to “wage-slavery” he does so precisely to emphasize an inability to escape from exploitation, oppression and dependence despite the "civil right" to trade in your own labour. Marx does not say the workers "are" slaves, but that they should not be "like" slaves. The more substantive point is that Marx himself does not explicate systematically what is progressive about wage-labour, as against what is not, and there he does not fully clarify what it is that the workers have to be emancipated from..

Actually, althout Marcel does not mention this, there are more slaves in the world today in absolute terms than there ever were before in history at any time, Kevin Bales estimates the total at 27 million people – according to Benjamin Skinner, the price for a slave has actually got vastly cheaper as well. The commercial value of a human life seems to get cheaper all the time these days.

This leads to a third criticism, which is that the new middle class, or if you like, the labour aristocracy of salaried workers, drops out of Marcel’s definition of “who the workers are”. His assumption is that “the workers” are the “the world’s labouring poor” (p. 378) but this does not strike me as accurate. Middle class workers and active managers are also workers, and at least in richer countries, they are a large fraction of the working population. The question is then raised, of how much property you must own, or how much income you must have, to be excluded from Marcel’s very broadly defined working class?

It is one thing to argue that, if we study the history of “the workers”, we must include more different kinds of people than we thought of before. I can agree with all that. But it is another thing to imply that politically they all have common interests, and are just one big class, because that is I think not necessarily the case at all, for example because the high consumption of some depends on the low consumption of others.

Is "class" a real personal experience, a real force in history, a cultural status syndrome, a bureaucratic categorisation, or is it an academic analytical instrument?

The fourth criticism I have is that in portraying the life of the working class, Marcel almost totally ignores sex and religion, even although he quotes Foucault etc. This is not a personal criticism of Marcel, and you may laugh about it, but consider for instance the original meaning of the word “proletariat”. From Roman times onwards, “the proletariat” meant those people who had no wealth except their sons, or more pejoratively, “those paupers who were only fit for procreation, for breeding more workers”.

Sex, religion and procreation were vital aspects of working class life through the centuries, with gigantic demographic consequences, which have often been difficult to control and repress by the elites. Typically, also, wage-workers had much more sexual and religious freedom than slaves. Therefore, I think that global labour history must also include the analysis of workers’ sex lives and religious cultures, even if only to explain the numerical growth of the working class in history.

In a recent speech I read, deferring to the slavery issue, US President Bush emphasized explicitly the Constitutional doctrine that “all men are created equal”. That may be true morally or legally, but in reality it has rarely been true, and that also has a lot to do with how sex and religion are organised in society.

This is all I have time for - thank you again, Marcel, for writing this book.

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