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Labour History, the 'Linguistic Turn' and Postmodernism Author(s): Dick Geary Source: Contemporary European History, Vol.

9, No. 3, Theme Issue: Reflections on the Twentieth Century (Nov., 2000), pp. 445-462 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 13/08/2013 20:50
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Labour History,

the 'Linguistic

and Postmodernism



Prologue This paper is primarily concerned with changes in the nature of historical writing class in the late twentieth century, rather than with a about the European working over one hundred years (a decidely un-postmodern but the last of labour history its concluding section does propose distinction). However, meaningful a few brief and highly schematic theses about changing working-class identities from
the turn of the century to the present day.


Autobiographical Postmodern


that historians, theory informs us that there are no disinterested is always autobiographical and that, when we write history, we historical writing 'privilege' one historical narrative' at the expense of other possible narratives'. We
need to realise what we exclude, as well as what we include, in our chosen narrative,

and we
made. 'labour

Hence historian',

to recognise
I begin with if that

and in some way

a series I am, of and chose

seek to justify
to write about

the choices we
I became and conflict class

a in



is what

the 1960s, when

to expose social


for reasons which

and to destroy its



For me, as a student



in the mid-1960s, the study of labour and of Marxist theory (where I Cambridge an was to instrument of this politics of liberation. My first book, be really started) Labour Protest, 1848?1939, though it appeared much later (1981), still had its European to identify those factors which origins in this agenda and was primarily concerned Even bred collective working-class so, my narrative, like that of many of my protest. some of the commonplaces was of the contemporaries, capable of grasping postmodern



a teleology

labour history,
of class-consciousness.



in eco



related to only indirectly and problematically recognised that concepts in that they found first expression in artisan protest, that workers 'industrialisation', at the forefront of the most modern forms of industrial production were rarely labour protest before 1914, and that labour organisation was predominantly
Contemporary European History, 9, 3 (2000), pp. 445-462 ? 2000 Cambridge University Printed in theUnited Kingdom Press

of class were

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recruited period. used from Thus to be skilled there described that issues was as of males no

Contemporary European History

rather necessary than from 'in general' being a worker other generation in this

wage-earners between I also realised,



and what labour and

'class-consciousness'. ethnicity, religious

like many gender,



or destroyed 'class' solidarity; threatened, fragmented, locality and that where such solidarity did exist, itwas not necessarily there to stay. European Labour Protest was further convinced of the centrality of politics, of the role of the state rather than the market, in the production of class (as distinct from occupational) sometimes dissolved
identity and action. My awareness of the fragility of 'class', however, was not the

result of a disdain of'meta-narratives'

observation of labour movements that is, of attempts at comparison. Collective protest and class identity still formed my central narratives, and my work largely ignored, except most fleetingly, the issue of too It also said far little about distinct from agency (as gender. structure) and even less about the role of culture and community in the formation of identities.1 more I the had become concerned with the elements By early 1990s
? fragmented Issues more Catholic though of working-class ethnicity, than confession, they nationalist last case my had solidarity gender, in my workers, treatment for political, as well and as as academic, now nationhood did conservative and it was women elementary.

(? la Lyotard) but rather a consequence in different regions and different countries,

of the


reasons. featured workers, workers, That

generation earlier work,

strongly workers, in the

working-class was as cursory

Tories as



'class' (as distinct

than multiple before, and

labour nor workplace experience necessarily explained or local) solidarity was stated more from occupational
I had become identities. more Yet aware my views of the were simultaneous in no sense

or caused forcefully
of I

co-existence 'postmodern'.


was disgracefully ignorant of the 'linguistic turn', of the French postmodernists and of historians such as Hay den White, whose of all critique grand theory, but now strike me as rather familiar and ancient, especially of Marxism, despite their erstwhile (and now possibly demode) fashion. I still attempted to explain differences within

and between
terms ?






and primarily
systems of pay,


in skill, in residential and social structures, the various, often conflicting, at work, in the market place and experiences of young and old, men and women was not in the world But of this crucially politics. politics (pace Patrick Joyce or

Stedman Jones) construed as discourse; what concerned me were rather the concrete provisions of constitutions, the behaviour of regimes during strikes and the varied policies of employers towards their workers.2 Although I have recently paid more attention to the culture of the German classes, I still portray that working Gareth culture

as one



the spaces of real cities,

communities are not simply

in distinct





in spaces of bricks

and mortar


has been

a distinctive

aspect of

1 2

Dick Dick

Geary, Geary,


European Labour Protest, 1848-1939 (London: Croom Helm, 1981). Labour Politics from 1900 to theDepression (London: Macmillan,


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Labour History, working-class

the Linguistic Turn' and Postmodernism 447

of cartographers, pace daily life and is not simply an invention never I and have is that believed constructed Bourdieu); identity primarily or or these Yet are.3 culture, (to important independently by language though ? a are and identities claim that communities constituted by stereotype) it is in such rather than by structural realities cultural discourse, that the distinctiveness of much postmodern social history resides.4

Class In Britain,
has been

and the 'new

labour history' labour history has emerged, which

post-structural thought, expressed

France and the United

informed by currents

States a new

of postmodern


on the

in the work
of text

of Derrida
and language,

and Foucault.
and Foucault's


from Derrida's
that discourse


the subjects and objects it purports to represent, this historiography rejects positivist accounts of historical change and in particular historical accounts constitutes
rooted in an 'economic reductionism'. Following Jean-Fran?ois Lyotard, the

is postmodern displays incredulity History must about the unique and the contingent, and it thus leave questions of causality most unresolved historians influenced tend to forget (although by postmodernism this part of the rubric in their formulations of what cultural determinism). The new history, championed
La Capra and Paul Ricoeur, when these further are contests as interests, construed



all meta-narratives.

I later chastise as linguistic or by Hayden White, Dominick

couched some way in terms of and in

explanations being



is sceptical of all historical writing,

identities, such as gender, ethnicity,



class at the expense

and inter-class

of other



(Strictly speaking, rigorous

narratives of gender, race

and nation too.)

is - or should be - sceptical of the meta

History is no longer an account of the

past but
constructed social 3

a terrain of competing
autobiographically. independent of

Communities or

or narratives,
are culture. 'imagined', Classes

not and

are themselves
created communities by some are



Dick 'Beer and Skittles? Workers in Germany and Culture in the early Twentieth Geary, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 46, no. 3 (2000), 388-402. Century', 4 about history from the perspective of postmodernism turn (or about and the linguistic Writings Press, these) include Hayden White, (Baltimore: Metahistory Johns Hopkins 1973); idem, University Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins European Intellectual History University (Ithaca, NY: Press, 1978); idem, The Content and the Form University La Capra and Steven L. Kaplan, Modern Press, 1987); Dominick Cornell University Time andNarrative Press, 1982); Paul Ricoeur, The New Cultural History Press, 1984/85); Lynn Hunt, (Berkeley:

of Chicago (Chicago: University of California Geoff Bennington and Robert Press, eds., 1989); Derek University Attridge, Young, Poststructuralism and theQuestion ofHistory Press, 1987); Keith Jenkins, (Cambridge: Cambridge University The Condition (London: Routledge, 1991); David Harvey, Re-thinking History (Oxford: of Postmodernity History: Postmodernism and theCrisis ofHistorical Sequel to S. Roth, The Ironist's Cage: Memory, Press, 1992); Michael Trauma, and the Construction ofHistory Press, 1995); David D. Roberts, (New York: Columbia University of California Press, Nothing But History: Reconstruction and Extremity after Metaphysics (Berkeley: University Chartier, On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Language and Practice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins 1995); Roger Ermath, University Press, 1997); Alan Munslow, Deconstructing History (London: Routledge, 1997). Basil Blackwell, 1989); Elizabeth Deeds Time Princeton (Princeton: University

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than unity. Identities are forged from Diversity overlapping. engagement with cultural and political discourses and in the course of action; they are not social realities, which exist before and give rise to actions, language and is stressed rather
culture. Needless to say, such an approach drives a coach and horses through an

of begins antiquated teleology industrialisation and proletarianisation, and one of the prime targets or victims of the turn and has been the construction of labour history in theory linguistic postmodern an economically to the postmodernists) determined and (according as as of well which have class as their dominant outdated concept class, histories, narrative.5 It should be said, of course, that some of the French and British historians terms of whose is discussed below dislike the postmodern label, and few of them see as But their work has been strongly influenced by the history only autobiographical. scepticism. In particular they tend linguistic turn and certain aspects of postmodern work
to play down explanations couched in terms of socioeconomic structure and stress

of class formation,


and ends with

a narrative

the formative

role of language

and culture. They

are perhaps



as a

In French
massive tion and

labour historiography
and become consequences.

the narrative of class formation

detached for from the old has narrative identified

has undergone
of industrialisa the roots

transformation its




artisan solidarity in a pre-industrial language and in particular in the realm of law (an subject and one which might go some way towards admittedly much neglected divide in the starkness of the blue-collar/white-collar for example, explaining, Germany identity

in the early twentieth century). in France in the first half of

explanations and concentrates



the nineteenth to both the

study of radical artisan is sceptical of century

on pre-industrial lan

traditions, relating guage language of he which artisans and the discourse of the French Revolution, together regards as being of prime significance in the constitution of labour's identity in France in the too insists on the power and longevity of first half of the nineteenth century. Reddy and cultural pre-capitalist
him the market



of discourse

in French

labour before
than a mere

the FirstWorld



is a cultural





stresses the mythical

themselves, created class rather structure.6

the June Days

struggles socially 5

nature of artisan identity, while Traugott's analysis of of 1848 sees identities and solidarities being forged during the political
than as the product of some previous economically or


Chicago Michel

Things Practice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Press, idem, Counter-Memory, 1979); idem, Power/Knowledge: University Selected Interviews and Other Writings Press, 1980); Mark Poster, Foucault, Marxism (Brighton: Harvester and History (Manche Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition Polity Press, 1984); Jean-Fran?ois (Cambridge: ster:Manchester 6 Michael University Sonnenscher, Press, 1984). Natural Law, Politics, and the Eighteenth-Century French Trades

note. See also Jacques Derrida, Writing of and Difference (Chicago: University Press, 1973); 1978); idem, Speech and Phenomena (Evanston: Nortwestern University The Archaeology Foucault, 1972); idem, The Order of (New York: Harper & Row, of Knowledge and Civilization House, 1973); (London: Tavistock, 1973); idem, Madness (New York: Random the preceding Press,


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Labour History, In Britain

the Linguistic Turn' and Postmodernism 449

an equally impressive historiography has sought to remove the it has stressed cross-class solidarities and centrality of class from its narrative. Rather sees patriotism as a unifying non-class divisions. Thus Linda Colley theme of
eighteenthand early nineteenth-century Britain, Sonya Rose raises the significance

of gender


that of class, and Gareth

a class narrative with that

Stedman Jones, Patrick Joyce

of a more classless 'populism'.

and James


John Benson's
realm of workers


has emphasised
To look

the essentially
at two of


and non



closely: Stedman Jones, in his seminal study of Chartism, pays close attention to the language of its adherents and concludes that its ideology was rooted in a discourse of
populism as this and article radicalism is concerned that was a not primacy class-specific. of language He also in the claims crucially, of as far social construction

but actually reality: language in this account is not the product of experience Patrick Joyce similarly discusses a populist constitutes, gives birth to experience. rhetoric, and although he sees that this was never completely devoid of class tones,
he nonetheless asserts the autonomy of language and culture. Joyce recognises the

more properly

of different

and sometimes
workers, and, as

already noted,

does not

among British
deny the existence


of class. But he denies society before the dominant narrative

that class was War.

the First World

any more important than classlessness in British For Joyce, as for Vernon and Stedman Jones,

of English a labour before 1914 was radical populism, a rather than class-based rhetoric formed the political discourse, supposedly by experience of industrial wage labour. As in the case of Stedman Jones, the primacy of production
discourse replaces

in the construction
economic structure


as the


is disputed

and political
It is the




claim of the primacy

which forms the object

of language
of this essay.

and culture

in the determination
constitutes our

of identities
only access to


Cambridge Cambridge (Cambridge:

University University Cambridge

Press, Press,

1989); William 1980);


(Cambridge: Cambridge University G?n?rale of the Artisan', International Labour and Working-Class d'Editions, 1976); idem, 'The Myth Armies of the Poor idem, La nuit des prol?taires (Paris: 1981); Mark Traugott, History, Vol. 24 (1983), 1-16; Press, 1985). For surveys of this literature see Lenard Berlanstein, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Turn in French Labour History', 'Working with Language: The Linguistic Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 'Social History, "New Cultural History" 33, no. 2 (1991), 426-40; James F. Mcmillan, and the Rediscovery of Polities', Journal ofModem History, Vol. and the 66, no. 4 (1994), 755-72; to Lenard R. Berlanstein, introduction ed., Rethinking Labour History (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1993), 3-37. 7 Linda Britons: Forging the Nation Limited Colley, 1707?1837 (London: 1994); Sonya Rose, Livelihoods has qualified the significance Press, 1992). More (Oxford: Oxford University recently Rose of gender relative to other identities: 'Gender and Labor History', International Review of Social History, Vol. See also Gareth Stedman 38 (1993), supp. 1, 145-62. Jones, Languages of Class (Cambridge: Visions Press, 1984); Patrick University Joyce, of the People (Cambridge: Democratic Press, idem, 1991); University Press, Subjects (Cambridge: Cambridge University Politics and the People Vernon, Press, (Oxford: Oxford University 1993); John Benson, Consumer Society in Britain 1880?1980 (London: Longman, 1994). Specifically Joyce, Visions, Cambridge Cambridge 1994); James The Rise of 9.

H. Sewell, Work and Revolution in France (Cambridge: The men and Women idem, Structure and Mobility: of Marseilles M. Reddy, The Rise Culture Press, 1987); William of Market La Parole Ouvri?re Press, 1984); Jacques Ranci?re, (Paris: Union

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is not if this

Contemporary European History

self-evident, claim were as occulists true, it would and not out. reality In any apart case, from

'reality' even

neurologists mean that

might there

point is no

so far as

In fact those historians

to make to claim that


by postmodern

theory rarely, if ever, go

'out there', for such a

is nothing

claim would

render any distinction between history and fiction untenable and there as those who mark undergraduate essays know! The achievements of the new labour history after the 'linguistic turn' are in some a Its proponents have prevented labour history from becoming regards formidable. (John Saville), they have destroyed crassly reductionist 'eulogy for dashed hopes' is such a distinction,
theories the of class formation of non-class ever more identities rigorously, among and workers, they have although opened we our knew eyes about to





ago. Post-structural
as 'labour' or 'social'


and reject

of whom



into the social-historical the political dimension label) have rightly reintroduced more us to in our reading of the critical be have Above all they taught equation. 'texts' of labour, to ascribe proper significance and pay due attention to language, we or not and to be aware of the fragility and transience of ascribed identities. Whether has their work and of Stedman conclusions with the Sewell, agree Jones Joyce, as as in its theoretical underpinnings, and labour often been impressive in its detail a gut dismissal of the new once was. as as cannot it Nor will be unreflective history as 'faddish' or 'too-clever-by-half' empiricists by Anglo-Saxon historiography suffice to restore an unreflective

and positivist labour history, common though such a reaction is. (Imust confess I partly share this instinctive rejection, not least because an absorption of manual work, in the texts of labour can miss the physicality claims of Yet the and action.) methodological working-class play working-class
some postmodernists need to be contested on grounds other than the strong

desire to punch autobiographical constituted scarcely by language!).

them on the nose

(and thus give rise to a reality

The The conclusions identities


turn' and historical


to dispute the centrality of class and stress concerned labour history before 1914 are, of course, far from novel. Indeed there are times when Joyce (to a lesser extent), Stedman Jones, and Vernon as they rejoice in the shared values of (in particular) sound positively Whiggish, have for years recognised that income, historians Furthermore labour Englishmen. skill, occupation, locality, region, religion, political loyalties, tradition and consump of historians other in British novel

is of workers' tion all play a part in the differentiation thoughts and actions. What is the insistence of the new history on the primacy of language and culture. principles, (Strictly speaking, of course, such a claim itself falls foul of postmodern a causal explanation in their insistence on the which defy anything resembling unique and which reject a dualist distinction between the cultural and the material.) The first problem I have with the claim that language or text constitute amd do status. In what way is a claim not simply reproduce reality lies in its epistemological

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Labour History, of

the 'Linguistic Turn' and Postmodernism 451

different from a claim that linguistic or cultural primacy methodologically are economic structures? Both positions identities are primarily determined by us a can with method of unless enquiry, they provide philosophically disreputable, which could substantiate one claim as against the other. Neither has ever done this satisfactorily. At this level both claims are essentialist and locked in competition a diffuse linguistic/cultural/political reductionism on the one hand and a between on the other. Both claims (primacy of culture versus crass economic determinism primacy of economy) also rest upon the feasibility of making meaningful between the cultural and the material (a quaintly familiar mind/matter distinctions distinction), and thus result in a latter-day Cartesian dualism. Such a dualism, of course, itself contradicts postmodernism's critique of the untenable distinction between language and reality and was the central target of Foucault. But the trouble is that many of the


influenced by postmodern theory do end up claiming the primacy of an repertoire of understanding that end with and couched in is, culture, up language dualist terms. Furthermore, the study of a particular problem in a particular period in artisan Britain, (Chartism politics in France) could never in itself constitute a demonstration even of a universal proposition about the primacy of language and culture, if it did succeed in demolishing specific structural/economic/social explana tions of artisan radicalism or class identity. That some types of analysis based on
of economic and social structure fail to deliver satisfactory answers to


specific historical questions is clear (for example, the growth of mechanised factory production does not explain the emergence of the language of class and class-based politics). in general or the could be because such socioeconomic explanations are in But of class it could concept general inadequate. equally be because of a a stem from the fact that there are still specific rather than general inadequacy, could This
areas of material existence and experience or aspects of class as yet unor under


or because
For example,

the understanding
if class concepts

of social and economic

pre-date widespread


is itself in the
at least



as they do, this does not necessarily mean

realm of the of political discourse alone. is purely artisan and or culture, (And of non-economic that in the

that their origin resides exclusively

realms there of the non-economic, such of relations craftsmen, for thing or is no

in the course An or independent

as a structure/ structures power between certainly of

event/action dependence merchant

economic.) workplace,

analysis changing

changing of




turns out account

of John Breuilly, one of the few real comparatavists, shows, even if the old and simple narrative of industrialisation is inadequate.8 The emergence of similar
8 John Breuilly, Nineteenth-Century Merchants Gordon, (Alabama: University France 'Artisan economy, ideology in idem, Labour and Liberalism and polities', in See also David Press, 1992), 115-59. University and Provincial Politics in Nineteenth-Century France Hanagan, Press, Nascent Proletarians: Class Formation of Sewell in Post see B. H. 1989). For a further critique

changes as the work

of artisan socialism than any helpful to an understanding of industrial mechanisation and factory labour. Yet this still means that in the organisation of production were central to changing artisan identity, to be more

Europe (Manchester: Manchester and Capitalists: Industrialization of Alabama, 1985); Michael (Oxford: Oxford University


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artisan to the






of merchant


in Britain,



Germany formulated

in the first half of the nineteenth in purely cultural or linguistic I have with Sewell's

century cuts across any explanation terms that are nationally specific. This account of artisan radicalism in France; of English and German artisans, different from that of their French
to his essentially national?cultural

explains the problem for similarities in the discourse inhabiting


and behaviour and culture

are limits

a world


that there

explanation, with its focus on the language of the French Revolution. and Joyce do recognise and treat as important the continued Reddy
small-scale, contextualised non-factory in their labour, account.9 that is, the persistence therefore, of pre-industrial historians cannot In practice,

Furthermore existence
discourse and do not


simply start from text or language, whatever

or cultural primacy.

claims they might make

about linguistic

revolves around the view of language as independently problem constituitive of social reality. It may be true that we can only comprehend and construct reality through language and culture, although I should have thought that A second and without words. But this does not physical experience does exist neurologically mean that reality does not exist apart from language. Nor does itmean that there is no connection between the signified and the signifier. Language is not necessarily or always wilful. The historian who wants to deny that there is anything 'out there' beyond
and most

our cultural constructions

of us are aware of rules

should get out of history,

of evidence, which of

for history

is not fiction


kinds course,

even though they do not provide of interpretation, do go this far.) And despite few postmoderns
narrative does not constitute explanation.10

us with the

certainty. (Of conceit of some

a view may stem


from a particular French intellectual style, but it is only one style and one that is it came. The preference for French cultural arguably pass? in the world, from which and linguistic theory might almost be said to obscure other, possibly more profitable, There is more of understanding. great deal of'discourse analysis', especially avenues
world, not only does not claim the

than one kind


of critical

in corpus linguistics

theory, and a in the Anglo-Saxon

language/text but


actually finds
they are

'language' and 'texts' themselves

Indeed, for one school

of discourse

and problematical
analysts, even




also to both

forms are seen to relate not only

the immediate speech context

to the context
and other, more

of language

itself but coined


the term

of politics

and power


in 1952,

Zellig Harris, who

was concerned

in a seminal


'to correlate

"culture" with


(i.e. non-lingustic

and linguistic behaviour)'.

For Van Dijk,


France and the United of the Working Class in Britain, and the Making Socialism 'Republican not only stresses 35, no. 2 (1993), 402 ff., which States', Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. of new solidarities but also disputes Sewell's for the emergence of competition the significance reading of the texts of French labour in the 1830s and 1840s. 9 Rise of Market Culture. ; Joyce, Visions, 3 3 3 Reddy, 10 This is claim in Deconstructing History. Munslow's

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Labour History, itmatters

meaning communicate events'. constitutes In this and

the Linguistic Turn' and Postmodernism 453 is used but who

be dissociated: they do . . . and therefore, The

not just how

and context ideas corpus and

cannot beliefs of work, reality.

uses it and when

'people so as the case use part of of more Foucault,

they use it, that is,

in complex discourse order to social both


as in central



of Norman


the study of language, for example, has been to integrate discourse analysis with in his Now be social analysis of sociocultural change.11 Fairclough may misguided
enterprise, but for many discourse analysts language and its meaning are not

that Joyce and Stedman point are to of discourse learn from wrong (and they are analyses post-structural Jones about context) but rather to point out that many such immensely knowledgeable abstracted from external The here
analyses realm. point away from any primacy of language, text or autonomous cultural


is not

to language and texts ? in fact to give meaning to language and texts - is a central to give multiple, possibly competing meanings obviates the possibi conclusion of modern discourse analysis and methodologically The fact that context is required
lity of the autonomous primacy of language or text. What is more, use of the same,

inherited On


does not of itself indicate

this ground Dorothy Thompson reading of Chartist texts. Similarly Axel K?rner has demonstrated how a continuity in the language of French working-class 1840 and 1890, invoking songs between does not preclude the republican and popular (as distinct from class) terminology, to I of class their have increasing centrality meaning. argued myself that the adoption

a core and unchanging meaning. and others are able to dispute Stedman Jones's

of the same texts by the cultural organisations of German workers and those of the or Schiller) did not indicate an German middle class (as in the case of Goethe identity of understanding or preclude class, for their respective readings of the same texts were often different.12 This point brings us back once again to context and the social. The openness of texts precludes the kind of essentialist reading which informs the work of both those who read only class and those who read only populism
therein. When it comes to the populist reading of texts, historians need to



the injunction
can be deployed

to be more
as much



of populism,

that is, the same critical

as against a narrative

a narrative

of class. Stedman Jones


is certainly right when

he claims that the term 'class' should

Van Dijk, 'The study of 1997), 1-34; M. A. K. and R. Hasan, Halliday Language and Fairclough, Polity Press, 1992);

'Discourse Analysis', Language, Vol. 28 (1952), 1?30; T. A. Zellig Harris, as Structure and Process, I (London: in idem, ed., Discourse discourse', Sage, 1978); M. A. K. Halliday, Language as social semiotic (London: Edward Arnold, Press, 1985); Norman Language, Context and Text (Geelong: Deakin University Power (London: Longman, 1989); idem, Discourse and Social Change


idem, Critical Discourse Analysis 1995). (London: Longman, 12 The Chartists of Smith, 1984); idem, 'The Languages (London: Temple Dorothy Thompson, Class', Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, Vol. 52, no. 1 (1987), 54?7; idem, Outsiders: VT: Ashgate, Kirk, ed., Social Class and Marxism Class, Gender and Nation (1993); Neville (Bookfield, and Class (Manchester: Manchester Kirk, Change, Continuity Press, 1998); io96), 7; Neville University Axel Das Lied von einer anderen Welt K?rner, (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag, 'Beer and Skittles? Workers in Early Twentieth-Century and Culture Germany', Politics and History, 46, 3 (2000), 391 ff. 1997); Dick Geary, Australian Journal of

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454 be analysed in its linguistic

autonomous of other, not





but that linguistic

linguistic, contexts.


is neither
is not to

singular nor
say that the

populist reading is itself incorrect, and Stedman Jones is, of course, well aware of context. But it is to say that the dismissal of material or structural historical or cannot of of class narratives follow from this explanations identity linguistic or culturalist methodology alone. It is of some considerable that many significance historians of the cultural/linguistic bent have rarely engaged in any systematic status of the claims they make about primacy attempt to address the epistemological or causation (although in this they are scarcely alone), other than to point out the
limits of the crassest forms of economic reductionism and to unveil the often


past labour history. teleogies a this latter have Their work does makes us (On strong case.) point they certainly a major think about language and culture, and in this it has performed task in our of historical identities and the precariousness of domi refining understanding
narratives. To do this, however, is not to establish the explanatory, heuristic or

of class which



so much


primacy of language or culture. Nor does it mean that the concept of ontological or redundant either as a heuristic device or as a class is invariably wrong reality or actors. individual historical To substantiate such claims of negate experienced by a the of method of which could demon primacy requires discovery investigation,
strate about or negate such claims a of the autonomy would of look language like. But. and culture. . . I am far from clear what


'Amaterial I do not wish

'economic reality'.


(Madonna) identities are determined

as claims of

to claim
Such a

that class or other

position is as





cultural primacy; and there is no reality that is purely economic. I am in complete a was with Patrick he writes that 'class agreement Joyce when fairly late arrival and
was for long subordinate versions stressed of that, to other ways constantly overarching of seeing reproduce class the social order' and My occupational) that own 'ideological work has classlessness where an themselves'.13 from

(as distinct

it manifests identity does become historically significant and in particular where itself in the political arena, this usually relates to factors outside the workplace and
the realm of the production, attitudes in of other particular social to groups aspects and of above popular all culture, of residential the state, as structures, the nature


as the creative I recognise

the adoption

role of


cut across

the existence

and political parties. Like most labour of a host of concerns which militate against and
identities: concerns of



race, region
I am suspicious



at the most
'rush to culture'








claim is that many

to the cultural or

of the divisions
at least the purely

among workers
cultural, and

can be explained without

lie at least in part in the





8, 217.

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Labour History, nature of economic

rather than another can

the 'Linguistic Turn' and Postmodernism 455 and secondly

groups not

among often, specific although

that the dominance

as well related to as

of one discourse
the timing factors of its or

of workers, be



where conjunctures and the state, how employers indeed aworld



people live, the job they do, how these variables are changing/have

they are treated by changed. There is

of freedom, there are political choices to be made. But the world of not only by discourses but also by constitutions, is occupied armies, politics it is the behaviour of these and often agencies parties, parliaments, policemen,
which makes one discourse more meaningful than another. In short, choices and

It is possible to make informed guesses/ and rarely wilful. of about the European socialist parties before 1914 in likely membership predictions terms of gender, skill and place of residence, or about the likely incidence of strikes and power which take us out of the world of discourse to relations of exploitation discourses
across much national more boundaries. sense than the A Weberian nominalism comparative of postmodern methodology singularity can make of sense cross-cultural

are structured

the say, openness apparently


as the unique)
applies discourses couched in

in working-class
as much can terms be of to non-class open

as to class to class. or

and identity.
identities; the

that is to of not

discourse non-class

In short, social

inadequacy need





always lead to a rush to 'culture' to find the answer. been characterised by uneven Industrial growth, for example, has everywhere and localities. The different pace and between countries, regions development states in various industrialisation the of European timing produced and still produces national national bound labour forces with markedly different structures. Within of some regions has been and is being accompanied by the of others. To take some examples from the last century: despite de-industrialisation the growth of large-scale mining and metallurgical industries in the Ruhr and aries the industrialisation
industrial expansion in the cities of Saxony and Berlin, Germany's vast agrarian

largely untouched by this process, as did much of the provinces In France Languedoc de-industrialised, in contrast Main. south of the river country to Paris and the north-east; and in Italy the gulf that separated the mezzogiorno from in the east remained the Genoa?Milan-Turin
economic development

triangle grew
were if anything

even more

large. Differences
pronounced in

in regional
Spain, Russia

and Austria-Hungary.
industrial sector to


timing of technological
Germany, for


varied from one

highly capital


intensive the

electrical and chemical

industries but domestic

shoe manufacture

even into of

France had a large artisan sector but was 1920s, while automobile and synthetic textile production before European nisation was and its timing also varied within as true of knitting in Troyes as itwas
there existed simultaneously

at the forefront

1914. Such moder one and the same industrial sector. This of the Bielefeld engineering
very different






14 A


of Germany

is F. B. Tipton, Regional study of uneven development CT: Press, 1976). The (Middleton, University Weslyan

Variations theme

is also central

in the Economic History to Sydney

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456 These were

Contemporary European History

further fragmented by hierarchies of pay ? different forms of payment or skilled and unskilled labour, or payment for blue- and white-collar workers, by seniority and length of service. Some of these differences have become more and not less marked in the twentieth century. Additionally employers have adopted to set worker the strategies against worker, provision of welfare benefits including for particular groups of employees and the physical separation of different national
ities in segregated housing colonies. Thus the absence of a unitary and 'class

conscious' working class has been hampered not only by the presence of other, non class identities, not just by cultural factors, but also by the nature of the economy itself. The extent of solidarity has also tended to be greater in times of economic
upswing than periods of depression, which can set worker against worker, men

young against women, against old, and employed against or to to get jobs, aswas evident in the Depression struggle keep
been noted in the recession of the 1970s and 1980s.15

unemployed of 1929?33

in the and has and



this does not give the lie to linguistic/cultural

amongst labour. It does not, for example,

accounts of division
explain why workers


in similar jobs in similar factories were sometimes divided along lines of religious confession or ethnicity in imperial Germany (with Catholics and Poles staying away from the 'socialist' Free Unions and the SPD), or why others overcame the diversity of workplace
of class.

and occupational
that certain


to join amovement
informed the option


the language
socialist rather




Membership manual wage

that of being a workers

individualist, discourse, of virtually all European labour or socialist parties was dominated by labourers in the period before the 1960s. Admittedly this did not mean
was belonged ever sufficient to the to determine organised labour membership: movement, a majority although have never





is undeniable.



European discourse was


large numbers countries. It does usually not


1918 and 1950 in most that the choice of a particular political suggest, though, ? of social position. This perception the independent socialist between
to voting behaviour was even repeated by studies of

did vote

of manual

affluent workers national

case of

in the United


in the early 1960s and reinforced by cross Kingdom in working-class behaviour over long periods of time, as in the
workers. Union and socialist party members were almost


Pollard, developed

Peaceful Conquest (Cambridge: Cambridge in essays on France, Italy and Spain

Europe before 1914 (Cheltenham and A. Zollberg, eds., Working the uneven pace of modernisation Taylorsystems

of region is Press, 1983). The importance University in Dick Geary, in ed., Labour and Socialist Movements in I. Katznelson 1989), and further stressed by A. Cottereau Spa: Berg, Class Formation Press, 1986). On (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University

in specific industrial sectors see Heidrun Homburg, 'Die Anfange des in Deutschland', Geschichte und Gesellschaft, Vol. 4, no. 2 (1978), 170 ff.; Karl Ditt, in Bielefeld', und Strukturver?nderung inWerner Wandel der Fabrikgesellschaft 'Technologogischer Conze and Ullrich im Industrialisierungsprozess eds., Arbeiter 1979); Engelhardt, (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, The Logic of Solidarity (Champaign: University of Illinois Press; 1980), 3-27. Hanagan, are explored in J?rgen Kocka, hierarchies und Angestelltenschaft Unternehmerverwaltung und gewerkschaf Vetterli, Industriearbeit, Arbeiterbewusstsein 1969); and in Rudolf (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, tliche Organisation 1978). (G?ttingen: Vandenhoek, Pay

Michael 15

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Labour History,

the 'Linguistic Turn' and Postmodernism 457

skilled and male before 1945. They were also more everywhere predominantly likely to live in towns than in the countryside, though there were some significant Po variations and the French these variations (the Midi). However, valley regional
are market themselves and amenable spatial factors, to explanations that is, structural in terms as well of integration as more into specifically a capitalist cultural

variables. That and mortar regular


(as well distribution

culture in Germany before 1945 was built in bricks as a secularised Protestant culture) is indicated by the fairly towns of different sizes and of levels of support between

confessional and ethnic variables are held particular types of housing, where adherence to Catholicism was not sufficient to deter all constant.16 Additionally, in imperial Germany from support for socialist politics. It is true Catholic workers that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) made only slow inroads into the Catholic
vote from 1871 to 1914, but where it did so was not random. It was more successful



newcomers of the


to the Ruhr, for example, than that hold the of Catholic is, region,

in settled Catholic 'culture' was not

of such regularities which of other variables.17 It is the perception independent in terms of makes possible the activity of historical explanation. Weber got it right
comparative method, at least!

be the first to agree that this is not the end of the matter. People join unions and political parties for different reasons, while the discourse of many and company unions, liberal voting) was not (Catholic organisations working-class of class. Arguably dominated by considerations the greatest national variations in Iwould working-class precisely in the degree of support for the liberalism or independent working-class politics politics of class. The can of numbers of British workers be contrasted with the populism large strength in of SPD its the in Marxist and the daily Germany language of class, reproduced behaviour and its cultural organisations, and with the weakness of working-class in Germany before the First World War. Here, then, were significant differences in the political choices of industrial workers that seemed to override a discourse of liberalism
uniform identity as wage labourers. However, there were differences in the


to be found

labour, especially in terms of residence (the a 'modest domesticity', in the of United for example) and possibility Kingdom more success in in the market British unions much labour (with strength enjoying 'material' world of British and German

16 Geary, Ritter, Mann, Fricke, Ritter,

ed., Der Aufstieg 'Die SPD und

von Saldern, Labour Protest, 70-80; 'Wer ging in die SPD?' in Gerhard A. Adelheid der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1991), 163-71; Bernhard die preussischen in Ritter, 41; Dieter 1893 ?1913', Landtagswahlen Aufstieg, al., der Parteiorganisation der deutschen Sozialdemokratie', in the Class Structure, 3 vols. The Affluent Worker


'Die Entwicklung und Ausbreitung et 157; John Goldthorpe

Press, 1968-69). (Cambridge: Cambridge University 17 imWilhelminischen Karl Rohe, 'Die Ruhrgebietssozialdemokratie Kaiserreich', Ritter, Aufstieg, im deutschen Kaiserreich and Klaus Tenfelde, Arbeiter 325 ff.; Gerhard A. Ritter (Bonn: Dietz Verlag, and Working in Politics and Society, Vol. Class Formation', 19 1992), 598 ff.; Wilfried Spohn, 'Religion Dieter 109-32; Groh, (1991), Negative Integration und revolution?rer Attentismus (Frankfurt/Main: Propyl?en, (Colloquium 1973), Verlag, 282 ff; Gerhard A Ritter, Die Arbeiterbewegung im wilhelminischen Deutschland 1989), 73-78; Mann, 'SPD', 41 ff

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Contemporary European History

than their German go some way, struggles with employers equivalents), which no means the whole towards I agree, way, although by explaining these differences.
nonetheless, that an essential element of liberal or socialist choice, of class-based or

cross-class politics, lay in the political sphere. This political sphere was constructed, not just by a repertoire of discourses but by different political structures however, In the German and British case before 1918 this and different forms of government. involved a contrast of semi-authoritarian rule with limited but nonetheless real of great with relatively small state intrusions into private parliamentary government, and industrial relations, of relatively more with relatively less repression.18 It seems to me, of economic, social and political therefore, that it is in the comparison
structures and agents as well as of the ideologies or discourses, of different nations,

regions, that some kind



and social groups, that a solution to our problem can be found, of measure of the autonomy of language and culture can be that this is the conclusion of labour

It is no accident of the development

account local

of Ronald urban


in different


in his comparison in France. Taking into

he writes of 'the





importance actors.19 Another

of class relations

in shaping constraints and opportunities' historian of French labour, Michael Hanagan,

faced by agrees that

can only be understood context in a specific political and sees the importance and irrele significance of class as something held in a flux between to deny the centrality of class but vance.20 The point is not that it is always wrong as an organising construct of the lives of workers is rather that its significance language chronologically
terms language of differing and culture,

and spatially variable,

economic that and is, by means

and that the variability

structures of systematic or comparison

is often

as well reasonably




successful predictive variables can be derived. We noted earlier that discourses, which may
may nonetheless embrace class in both less

seem at first sight devoid

obvious ways. Thus

of class,

and more

Thompson Chartism.21

combine class-informed linguistic with readings of can of simultaneous identities further yet possibility multiple of the non-class identities. workers Catholic may in compound problem supposed social democracy; but many of them did join the main have rejected German and Neville The


in strike waves in the Ruhr in 1905 and in Upper together with socialist workers is more, the Silesia in 1913, as well as the socialisation campaign of 1919. What of imperial Germany, 'Christian' (largely Catholic) Unions initially chaired by
18 The role of these factors is explored in Dick Geary, Labour Protest, 47-70; idem, 'Class in

1850-1930', Germany, Bradford Occasional Papers, 9 (1988), 42-61. 19 Ronald Aminzade, Class, Politics and Early Industrial Capitalism 1981); idem, Ballots (Albany, NY: Princeton and Barricades (Princeton: Politics idem, 'Class Analysis, Press, 1993). Specifically University in Lenard R. Berlanstein, and French Labour History', ed., Rethinking Labor History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 95. 20 in Berlanstein, 182-200. 'For Reconstruction in Labor History', Michael Rethinking, Hanagan, 21 VT: Also Neville See n. 12 for Dorothy Kirk, Social Class and Marxism (Brookfield, Thompson. 7. 1996), Ashgate,

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Labour History,
and industrial

the Linguistic Turn' and Postmodernism 459

action, came to resemble their socialist




rivals in initiating
played workers a major voted part for

strikes and giving

in the creation conservative election

out strike pay.

of a fragile welfare candidates,

In the Weimar
state.22 yet proved

Mazamet of solid


In France capable

of company lengthy industrial conflict, and there is some evidence that members unions in Germany voted for the SPD when ballots were secret and that they were in 1920.23 later involved in ultra-leftist uprisings during the civil war in the Ruhr Poles in the same area formed to the cause of Polish support action and were Ruhr before and gave their political nationalism, yet they played a major role in strike aware of their class identity. In fact to be a Pole in the their own, separate union

certainly In this case national and class identity 1918 was to be a worker. reinforced each other, as they have in many colonial struggles subsequently.24 The by a reading of texts and cultures thus needs to be extended and complemented
study of actions, poets. male This workers, and there seems who are times when relevant lacked the actions to the speak history to louder than the words women organisa of and of many join workers'

worker unskilled

especially often


tions, yet played a significant and growing role in informal protest as well as in strikes. It was particularly true in the social and political upheavals of 1917-23, silent folk erupted on to the stage of when apparently quiescent and previously in numbers. Female labourers may have been put off by the protest unprecedented of class on the part of the dominant, male organisations gendered construction labour, but their actions indicate that they also knew that they were workers.25
the an study attempt of texts, cultures, actions silence and and organisations inaction. By needs to be complemented the circumstances to understand even

of So


of the different understanding


(and not just observing difference), we may insistence on difference which postmodernism's labour's discourse
of labour history. We



to an

and diversity may step in


So understanding
the reconstruction

is an important but far from sufficient

do need to know where people lived,

they did, how many of them did it. (Of course, Stedman Jones, Joyce, Sewell and do know these things, and that iswhy they can do what they do so well.) Reddy
From the linguistic turn we can and must learn many things. But save us from the

'hubris of wordmakers


claim to be the makers

of reality' (John Toews)!

Die Christlichen Gewerkschaften L. Patch, Jr, Michael Schneider, (Bonn: Dietz, 1992); William Christian Trade Unions in theWeimar Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985). 23 Klaus Die Gelben (D?sseldorf: Droste, 'The Industrial Bourgeoisie Mattheier, 1973); Dick Geary, and Labour Relations in Germany, and Richard 1871-193 3', in David Blackbourn J. Evans, eds., The German Bourgeoisie (London: Routledge, 1990), 140-61. 24 Polnische Bergarbeiter im Ruhrgebiet & Ruprecht, Kiessmann, Christoph (G?ttingen: Vandenhoek The Foreign Worker and the German Labour Movement 1978); John J. Kulczycki, (Oxford: Berg, 1991). 25 in Chris Wrigley, Dick Berlin', ed., Challenges Geary, 'Revolutionary (London: of Labour und Revolution, des Instituts idem, 'Rhein, Ruhr 1900-1923', 1993), 24-50: Routledge, Mitteilungsblatt zur Geschichte der europ?ischen Arbeiterbewegung, Vol. 7 (1984), 30-38.


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The European Up to this point to the sidelines

schematic points



in the twentieth


sought to contest an historiography which has relegated class in its understanding of labour. I now want to make a few, very I have
about 'class' and the working classes in twentieth-century Europe.

i. In the late nineteenth

European countries organisations

and early twentieth



there emerged
but more

in most


socialist), which

did speak the language of class and claimed

interests, that is, the collective interests of

to represent


all dependent

In some


Even in Germany,

these arguably became the dominant of political expression itself before 1914. identity, as in German Austria and in Germany
however, these organisations, and had to compete with Catholic,


and 'yellow'

Liberal opponents to speak for the whole places,

identities and rhetoric

(company) workers' organisations; in Holland with Catholic and within the working-class, and in general they could never claim

of organised, let alone for unorganised, labour. In some in France often and Scandinavia too, cross-class primarily Britain, though
remained as important as, if not more important than, class

specific attitudes, at least in the world of politics, while powerful unions rested on rather than on amore general class solidarity (especially evident in the occupational case of skilled engineers and miners in the United Kingdom before 1914). In all
places the values and dreams of the unorganised largely remained veiled in silence.

2. Variations

in the

universal working-class
not random or but

strength independent interest and an idea of difference

to factors such of as the



(awareness of a identity from other social groups)

and to nature recognise of the state the unions,





the willingness


strength or weakness of liberal political parties, the strength or weakness of religious or impossibility of a 'modest observance, patterns of residence (the possibility or a and the absence of commercial leisure presence domesticity') industry to
compete 3. For the edge with more class-based period ? forms of recreation. the rhetoric of class seemed to be revolutions on a short of victory in continental in the Russian, Europe Austrian,


and Hungarian

of 1917/18/19,
most massive

in land seizures and factory occupations

waves of strikes that Europe was to see before

in Italy in 1919/20,
1945, and in

in the


strength of the parties of labour and the membership of trade unions between this happened when the 1917 and 1922. Significantly were at traditional forces of social control the end of the First seriously weakened World in the labour market itself in a strong position in the and when numbers of previously postwar boom, (albeit temporarily) large as rural labourers, white-collar women, (such workers) joined unorganised workers the ranks of protest. For a short period class did appear as one of the forms, if not the of European workers. Even at this high dominant form, of identity for millions War, when labour found
point, however, counter-revolutionary forces were able to re-establish control, not

increases in both

the electoral

least because
first allegiance

labour was
even to

rarely united
some diffuse

and because many workers

concept of class, let

did not give





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Labour History,

the Linguistic Turn' and Postmodernism 461 they did, however,

versus interwar labour's Communists, France identity or

against alists), 4. worker


Even where

both versus Spain. 'class'


set worker


as inWeimar In the 1920s

Germany, and 1930s

republican separate

as a



than before might have broken with as is suggested by the electoral fortunes of many European labour bourgeois politics, parties, but processes of residential segregation and social housing presented some workers with the possibility of a private family leisure and segregated working-class
communities in new ways, while a popular leisure culture (one which was not class

and contested.


industrial workers

(and of young specific) made ever greater inroads into the daily life of workers in particular) between workers the wars, although its spread was still limited by real
poverty always was among precarious, advanced apace, many were at groups of European in new Europe, workers. ways. by The the The structures of of solidarity, threatened least in central process experience de-solidarisation of mass and long

tern unemployment, which hardened generation and gender divisions within the in and Fascist and In this class, Germany by working Italy regimes. period factory
labour's percentage of the workforce had already begun to decline, and an increase

employment Thus many of those factors which are held to have eroded the centrality of class in western Europe since the Second World War - the restructuring and re gendering of the labour force, the reduction in size of industrial labour, the arrival of observed. private
1945. standing

in both white-collar

and female

labour outside

the home

could be

leisure and consumerism,

and classless popular Postmodernism's of working-class

increases in welfare
culture on diversity therefore, were is at

already more points

and decent housing,

even to than before relevant in time an under at others,

a commercial


emphasis identity,

clearly some

but it should not obscure proletarian


the fact that 'class' remained of workers in many


for millions

the organising conception of European countries for half a it did. The

meta-narratives consumerism, de-industrialisation

or more.26

5. It was
class and other

no accident

that postmodernism
was located Privatisation, labour, female

arrived when
in a world in which



concepts untenable. casual

becoming tive affluence,

increasingly welfare,

commercialism, labour and

rela have

arguably done for the old working and homelessness unemployment

parts of Europe since 1945, though have generated a largely impotent and marginal underclass (not Marx's proletariat) in the post-industrial in turn countries, which on have become increasingly dependent the labour of the Third World. Previously upper-class percolated difference
working-class 26 Politics These bald

class inmany

down as well

tastes and opportunities the social scale, as economic

(for example, summarise of which tastes



international choices

although resource, while


specific what were

at soccer

cuisine) still reflect

have social


and primarily



Statements articles, 20-34.

and other

some Identities

the arguments of my European Labour Protest, European Labour are mentioned occurs above. Further elaboration in Dick 1850S-1930S', Australian Journal of Politics and History,

Geary, 'Working-Class Vol. 45, no. 1 (1999),

in Europe,

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At the same











in most


of the advertisement. Much of societies, especially through the pervasive medium the distinctiveness of working-class culture has been displaced by universal television In Britain (ormore precisely England), the accents and by car and home ownership. and language of class do still reproduce themselves daily. In eastern Europe it still
means something to be a worker. Life chances are far from equal, even in western


and they have become

where communist

less so in places where

regimes have been

replaced by

has held




But world.

in these cases it is clear that the residues of class lack an agenda to change the Indeed agendas themselves are increasingly formulated around issues that are
class-specific as but the its but which find animal primacy supporters welfare, most and gender). certainly opponents Class has, may not least across not social have environment, all-encompassing

necessarily (such

divides disappeared,


of labour is now global rather than national, and because the old enemy and yet simultaneously (materially and ideologically) (capitalism) ismore powerful more diffuse and less tangible, at least in the 'First than it once was. The World', nation and international between capitalism renders increasingly disjunction political the division marginal the national-political agenda of class, as it was classically formulated and in Europe between least for this reason 1850 and 1950. Not easily comprehended have we the Blairs and Schroeders of the present epoch.27

A Social History Kaelble, 1880-1980 of Western Europe, Affluent Worker; Hartmut Goldthorpe, E. Paterson and Alastair H. Thomas, Gille Macmillan, eds., The Future of Social 1990); William Press, 1986); Frances Fox Piven, ed., Labor Parties in Postindustrial (Oxford: Oxford University Democracy Societies (Cambridge: Press, (London: 1991); Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes University Cambridge the transformation of the and Chris Wrigley, Abacus, 1995), 302-9; Margaret Walsh 'Womanpower: (Dublin: UK on 'Comparative to a conference Labour since 1945', paper delivered labour force The and David Stefan of eds., 1999); (November Berger Broughton, University Nottingham History', and theWorking Classes (Oxford: Berg, Force of Labour. The Western European Labour Movement 1995). and USA


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