Updated: December 22, 2009 13:08 IST

“New” historiography of labour

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The transcendental (to use Schelling’s term) grand theory of writing labour history fails to cope with the phenomenal rise of the finance capital coupled with the emergence of global value chains reinforcing the north-south dichotomy, which have led to the fading-out of the “formal-informal” duality.

The classical labour history was reserved for the West, the factory, and the urban, while the rest were treated as residual and derivative. So, this collection of 15 essays attempts to bring out “new issues of comparison” where labour matters: the multiplicity of labour forms found across the globe, within which the individual worker is embedded, provides important links to the “new” historiography of labour.

Role of state

The literature on state intervention in the labour market, while concentrating on the modern industrial sector, mostly reflects upon the formalising and legalising aspects of the network of industrial relations.

Chitra Joshi highlights the ways in which state legislation in fact sanctioned the coercive powers of private capital in relation to labour. The involvement of the state in the mobilisation of convict labour in public works in 19th century-India has interesting parallels in South Africa, where the role of the state as an instrument in the creation of coercive regimes of labour is more visible. In India, the colonial regime wanted to develop an agricultural colony in the Andaman Islands in the mid-19th century (Aparna Vaidik), but the region was unsuitable for locating even a naval station or a port of call or a convict station, unless a huge amount of labour was spent on it.

The British officials began moving convicts from the mainland to the Islands colony to work in the forests or as load-carriers, boatmen, gardeners, electricians, domestic servants, and so on. The paradigm that the nature of class consciousness is attributable to the underlying level of industrial development as well as the attempt to chart the history of labour mobilisation in evolutionary terms are contested by Prashant Kidambi in his piece on the workers of the Bombay cotton mills during the period 1898-1919.

For the South Asia labour historians writing on workers’ solidarity, migrant labour generally poses difficulties. To a band of economists, mobility is a voluntary, naïve, and apolitical act. However, Rafiul Ahmed in a study on the mobility of an oppressed community — the Musahars of the middle Gangetic plains — highlights how it helped labourers to break away from patron-client relationships and become free, moving up from a semi-free state.

Peasant-worker split

The reasons why the split household of the peasant-worker appeared as a phenomenon during the Russian industrialisation of the late 19th century are fairly well documented. But little has been done to systematically trace the subsequent evolution of the migratory pattern during the early 20th century, let alone the post-revolutionary period. Gijs Kessler has looked into the split household of the peasant-worker both before and after the 1917 revolution.

The orthodoxy claims that the rise of trade unionism — the intrusion of “outsider” — is the main cause of the higher incidence of strikes. It is necessarily a political phenomenon and so gives room for the political parties to intervene in the workers’ movement.

Subsequent fracture in the movement was not therefore unpredictable. Sandwiched between the state and the political parties, the ‘subaltern autonomy’ gets wrong attention in the general literature. Nitin Sinha’s study on the Jamalpur strikes of 1919 and 1928 suggests that the workers were autonomous enough to initiate agitation, but they were also aware of the importance of ‘outside’ influence.

On the whole, this is an excellent publication. What is lacking is an essay or a section that ties up the preamble with the rest of the articles to provide, by way of conclusion, a distilled overview of the core elements of the theme as discussed by the contributors.

LABOUR MATTERS — Towards Global Histories: Edited by Marcel van der Linden and Prabhu P. Mohapatra; Tulika Books, 35 A/1 (3rd Floor), Shahpur Jat, New Delhi-110049. Rs. 695.

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