KCHR Online Repository on the History and Historiography of Labour


Labour History

History, as an academic discipline and an important way through which people preserve their common memories, has undergone tremendous transformations in the recent decades. One of the major reasons has been that people all over the world began to perceive their own past in different ways and these differing perceptions themselves led to the emergence of new research questions. The second half of the twentieth century particularly witnessed effervescence of new areas of historical research that tried to problematise history, leading to the constitution of new objects of enquiry. One may also recall that this was not unique, as the Annales School of historiography in the first half of the same century was instrumental in opening up a whole new area of historical research with greater reach transforming the historical profession. Marxist historiography— not to be taken as a monolithic perspective; but with several and even subtle differentiating understandings —contributed substantially in transforming our idea of history. Marxist historical perspective found labour as the prime mover in social change.However the second half of the twentieth century witnessed the issues of gender, race and caste becoming ubiquitous making possible new research questions. There were many issues that these historians opened up that transformed historiography. However, we are referring here to the history of labour and labourers as a particular area of specialization to be addressed.  Our aim is modest. We intend to bring together scholars specializing in the area of labour history to reflect on the state -of- the art in their area of specialization. Labour has acquired a very significant position in human history, as the production of wealth is central to human existence.   Production of wealth required a very special way of organising work using technology and machines.  Although philosophically there is a distinction between labour and work, it seems that they are integral to our understanding of the economy and society. In historiography we ask questions regarding the peculiar manner in which labour is organised and the structures of the society and economy that sustain it. Marxist and later Subaltern historiographies opened up very interesting historiographical debates in India problematising labour history among others. In the course of such debates, new histories of the rural labourers and urban working classes were written. We may here refer to various forms of labour, from slavery and bondage on the one hand to free wage labour -all sorts that are in existence even today.  Therefore, today when we talk about division of labour, we also think about the complexities of labour that are being played out locally, regionally, nationally and globally. In the neo liberal context, labour is subjected to an extremely high degree of restriction globally, with regard to its mobility. Within nation states labour still remains mobile in general, although there could be restrictions that might emerge from the differential skills that the real historical agents of labour—human beings—might possess and the particular situations arising out of their ascribed identities.  As historians we are faced with a number of questions when we reflect on labour history. From non-modern forms of labour through modern forms of labour we have to write histories of labour keeping in mind for example the dialectical relations between labour and capital in the capitalist context.  However, the manner in which they are historically played out could be very diverse. Therefore, it is imperative to consider intersectionality of labour with the other socially significant grids of power which inflects how labour process is evolved. It is here that questions of gender, caste, class, race, region and nation become important.

Our contributors to the history of labour would address these questions by exploring the nature of labour in pre-capitalist societies through colonial, capitalist, late capitalist and neoliberal societies. Labour forms that existed historically in the rural and urban societies should receive equal attention. Alongside this we would focus on the complexities of labour as they unfold through specific forms of historical articulation. It is here that we wish to locate, culture, power, consciousness and other important issues that are connected with the forms of labour in society.  



1. List of Selected works from the KCHR Library collection on “Labour History”