WORKERS: Further Studies in the History of Labor by Eric J. Hobsbawm
Kirkus Star

WORKERS: Further Studies in the History of Labor

Email this review


Ten years ago, U. of London historian Hobsbawm (Primitive Rebels, Industry and Empire) was able to complain that the history of laboring people was largely the history of their trade unions and political parties. That such is no longer the case is partly due to Hobsbawm's proseletyzing among a younger generation of historians--as evident in this collection of 17 essays, eight of which have previously appeared (the others are lectures and conference papers). In the lead piece, ""Labour History and Ideology"" (1974), Hobsbawm gently castigates some of the newer, politically motivated history being written by Americans, noting that ""to dip into the past for inspiring examples of struggle or the like is to write history backwards and eclectically."" Hobsbawm is not disavowing political commitment; his point is that the political impulse should not cloud what one finds in labor history. Thus Hobsbawm, a Marxist, is constantly undermining overly simplistic Marxist tenets. He titles an essay on the bedeviling question of nationalism, ""What is the Workers' Country?"" The answer is complicated by the fact that the working class in most countries is made up at least in part of immigrants, while in many others language (Belgium) or religion (Northern Ireland) are powerful influences. Proletarian internationalism goes up in smoke and without regrets. Other essays deal with religion, labor markets, stratification of the working class, and labor and human rights; but Hobsbawm's range comes out best in his discussions of working class culture, rituals, or icons. One manifestation of the British working class's arrival as a self-defined class, in Hobsbawm's view, is the sudden appearance, between 1880 and 1914, of the typical worker's cap (the Andy Capp flat cap). Pictures of groups of workers in the 1870s show a variety of headgear; pictures in 1914 show a sea of caps (the school ties of the British upper class date from the same period). Another essay examines images of men and women in socialist art--from Delacroix's early, achetypal depictions of a naked or bare-breasted working woman, to late-19th-and early-20th-century images of a naked or shirtless working man. Hobsbawm makes some interesting observations (even in steel mills, men worked not only with their shirts on, but with pretty heavy clothing); his main point, however, is that the 19th-century working class became increasingly male (women worked until married, then became the wife and mother of workers). That view of the big picture steps on not a few historians' toes, but Hobsbawm is good-naturedly undaunted. Social historians and historians of other persuasions will find this must reading, but there's plenty here for everyone with an interest in history, culture, and politics.

Pub Date: March 6th, 1985
Publisher: Pantheon