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From Labour History to the History of the Working Class

by Terry Irving on May 22, 2017

When Raewyn Connell and I wrote Class Structure in Australian History the organised working class was in a militant mood. Today in Australia we are in a very different moment. Unions are smaller and corralled by the state, social-democratic corporatism has succumbed to neo-liberalism, revolutionary parties are as sectarian as ever, organised labour militancy is rare, and parliamentary democracy has been ‘hollowed out’. Consequently it is not surprising that the study of class is different, responding to different forms of struggle and a different kind of working class. Briefly, those differences are: (i) the working class has become global; (ii) work is precarious even in the core capitalist economies; (iii) the class struggle has broken out of its institutionalized straight-jacket and is now increasingly tumultuous and on the streets; and (iv) workers – especially those who are young, well educated and precariously employed – are a key component of a radical democratic movement, refusing representation by the political class and flirting with horizontalism and other alternative models of politics.

As a result, scholars of working class history are looking for new organising ideas. In the presence of the awakening working class of the Global South it is not enough to embrace transnational histories, as if the nations on different sides of the ‘trans’ were commensurate. Imperial relationships were clearly never of that kind. And, it is impossible now to imagine labour progressing through ever-stronger organisation and deeper penetration of the capitalist state to socialism, let alone social democracy. The abject submission of organised labour in the capitalist heartlands to neo-liberalism has dealt the final blow to that faded – not to speak of unintelligent and deceptive – vision of postponed liberation.

Among the theoretical developments, there are three that I find compelling, and I can sum them up in three words: informal, porous and autonomous, each of them describing an approach to the study of the global working class.

Informal labour is labour that is unregulated and precarious. It is now an increasing condition of labour markets under the sway of neo-liberalism in the countries of the North Atlantic tier, Japan and Australasia, but it has always been a feature of labour in the Global South. Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden argue that, as informal labour extends its reach, the “West” is becoming like the “Rest” of the world. Trade unionism and collective bargaining, seen by earlier theorists and labour movement activists as the typical forms of working class engagement with capital, and the acme of class formation for less mature working classes in the South, must now be recognised as atypical historical phenomena, confined to just a few countries for just a few decades. Can labour replace this ‘classical’ model? Breman and van der Linden see new forms of collective action emerging in response to the spread of informal labour.

Their work raises another question. In the West, prior to those few decades, is there a history of precarious labour relationships and informal collective behaviour in the working class? Should Western labour historians be looking for instances of workers striking without, or prior to, the involvement of a union, or striking in defiance of a union? Should we be looking for the go-slow, sabotage, organised pilfering, customary insolence etc on the part of workers? And if so, should we conceptualise working class collectivism in a different way, a way that releases it from the submerged teleology that dominated labour history in its formative period.

In Australia we have tended to date the origins of the working class to the unions formed after the gold rushes. My book, The Southern Tree of Liberty, put a dint in this lazy view by restoring working people to the story of representative government in the years before 1856, their contribution made possible by decades of grass roots organizing to obtain political rights and economic independence. I relied for part of the argument on articles by Michael Quinlan. Now his book, The Origins of Worker Mobilization: Australia 1788-1850, will appear in 2018 from Routledge. Having seen the manuscript I can say that this is a truly path-breaking study of the collective impulse among workers, with important pointers for the global historiography of labour.

The novel aspect of his study is that it reveals the extent of informal, that is non-union, collective organisation among workers, both convict and free. Certainly there were a handful of organisations pursuing collective bargaining, but their members were more likely to experience worker power outside of those organizations. When I read the manuscript Quinlan had discovered 1370 instances of worker mobilisation; now he tells me that the number has risen to over 6000 (he is still entering recently discovered data), and he estimates there are another 2000 instances to document. This staggering figure is the result of Quinlan’s three decades of digital computation of evidence of strikes, court actions, go-slows, demonstrations, mutual insurance schemes, petitions, mass abscondings, sabotage, political meetings etc, gained through painstaking reading of convict conduct records, police gazettes, court bench-books and colonial newspapers. When historians now talk about this period, how can they not call it a period of class struggle? When they talk about the coming of self-government how can they ignore its meaning for workers who had been struggling to gain some self-government in their lives since 1788 (yes 1788 – there were three instances of collective resistance by convict workers that year)?

Quinlan hopes his book will ‘act as a counter point to cultural/identity analysis that seems to have forgotten class as the critical category of social determination in capitalism (and you don’t need to ignore women, migrants or non-Europeans to do this)’. With that in mind we can answer questions about the meaning of workers’ actions – such as supporting a new constitution for the colonies – by revealing their material situation as well as their discursive world. Workers wanted parliamentary self-government to mean tight control of their representatives. They wanted legislation for an eight-hour day, land reform, and restricted immigration. That was what the ‘right’ to self-government meant to them, not just something philosophical, or a practice, such as voting, empty of content.

Turning now to porosity: by this term I mean the fact that workers were not typically defined by a life-time spent in a particular kind of labour – say waged, or unfree, or domestic, or self-employed. Rather, workers have always participated in various kinds of commodified and un-commodified labour, for the boundaries within and between them were porous. There have been several theoretical paths to this insight. Andrea Komlosy has produced a global history of work since the time of Classical Greece and Rome. Although her book is not yet translated from German, we can follow her argument from other sources, including her chapter in a book edited by Jurgen Kocka and Marcel van der Linden, Capitalism: The Re-emergence of a Historical Concept. She insists that working class history shows a blurring of the distinction between free and unfree labour, and warns that labour history’s blindness to non-waged work, assuming the primacy of the commodity form of labour, is leading us into intellectual and political dead ends. Consequently we need a more differentiated form of workers’ history.

Another path can be found in the work of Marcel van der Linden, of the International Institute for Social History. In his influential paper, ‘Conceptualising the World Working Class’ (in Sara R. Farris, Returns of Marxism: Marxist Theory in a Time of Crisis), he constructs a typology of the forms of labour commodification and concludes that in capitalist society the boundaries between ‘free’ wage labourers and other workers are ‘vague and gradual’:

In the first place there are extensive and complicated grey areas full of transitional locations between “free” wage labourers and slaves, the self-employed and the lumpenproletarians. Secondly, almost all subaltern workers belong to households that combine several modes of labour. Thirdly, individual subaltern workers can combine different modes of labour, both synchronically and diachronically. And finally, the distinction between different kinds of subaltern workers is not clear-cut. The implications are far-reaching. Apparently there is a large class of people within capitalism, whose labour power is commodified in various ways.

On the basis of this typological analysis, Van der Linden speaks of a class of subaltern workers rather than the working class. ‘It is the historical dynamics of this multitude’ that labour and social historians should try to understand. Those dynamics of course include how subaltern workers make themselves into a historical subject, a class, a process that typological analysis cannot, and does not aim to, grasp.

It is a process that autonomist Marxism places at the centre of its analysis. This is a strand of Marxist theory associated particularly with the theorist Antonio Negri who drew on his experiences as an anti-authoritarian Communist in the Italian operaismo movement of the 1960s and 70s.

The Australian historian and political scientist, Verity Burgmann, has recently promoted this strand of Marxist theory to labour historians, in an article in International Labor and Working Class History, and to political scientists in her just published book, Globalization and Labour in the Twenty-First Century. Autonomism is the latest in a long tradition of Marxist critiques of economic determinism, starting with Gramsci in the 1920s and including J-P. Sartre, and E.P. Thompson. Amongst recent historians, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker are often cited as contributing to this anti-determinism through their book, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Burgmann argues that although the earlier Marxist anti-determinism recognised the agency, subjectivity and class consciousness of the working class, it still worked with the ‘classical’ or ‘second international’ understanding that capital accumulation and exploitation shaped the existence of the working class. Workers might have agency but they would always be reactive.

But autonomist Marxism, in Burgmann’s words, ‘is more far-reaching’. Negri and his comrades placed ‘labor at the very beginning of the labor-capital dialectic. Labor can exist independently of capital, but capital needs to command labor to ensure profit; therefore capitalist development does not occur due to internal momentum but in reaction to labor’s tendency to unloose itself from capital.’  History written from an autonomist perspective would place labour history within the internal history of the working class, a process of composition (as it becomes a class for itself), of decomposition (as the ruling class seeks to disrupt working class solidarity), and re-composition (as the working class fights back by developing new forms of struggle).

These three paths all point in the same direction: towards a history that takes the working class, not the labour movement, as its subject. We need to move from labour history to working class history. A history of informal mobilisation widens the understanding of worker power, showing that it can be expressed collectively in many ways. Unlike labour history it would not produce studies that are merely institutional (ignoring the fleeting and peripheral) or social (if that means exclusive of social labour) or cultural (if that means exclusive of culture’s material context). The focus of working class history would be political, finding the common element of power in those studies. A history of subaltern labour that recognises that commodification takes many forms would make working class history global as well as open to current responses by workers to precarious uncertainty. And last, a history that adopts an autonomous perspective on the working class and its relation to capitalism would banish the idea that society is ‘an order’ and that the working class is subordinate. Capitalist exploitation and domination produce disorder, a dynamic of social struggles that is open-ended and complex. Working class history would approach capitalism as itself constructed historically through social struggles.

This is an extract from Terry Irving’s recent address to the Sydney Historical Research Network on ‘Histories of Class Now’. The full version is at

Terry Irving
Terry Irving is a radical educationist and historian. After teaching working class politics and history for many years at the University of Sydney he is now Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Wollongong. With Rowan Cahill he blogs at His webpage is See also

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