edited by Asa Briggs and John Saville Macmillan. 42 s.
the historiography of British Labour has been discussed twice in recent months in ULR (numbers 3 and 6), and it may therefore seem somewhat gratuitous to reopen the subject in this journal. But the central question with which one is left after reading these Essays is, What is Labour history all about?; or, more precisely, what should be the methods and content of this field of study? Should we agree with John Saville that “the study of working class history is a necessary corrective to present doubt and one of the guides to future action”, and rejoice that “in seeking to understand the dynamics of the British Labour movement we shall recreate within ourselves the traditions of those who, in the past, struggled and sacrificed for a better society?” Or should we, while accepting Eric Hobsbawm’s plea for the greater depth of insight that comes from commitment to the Left, seek to avoid the almost Victorian crudity of thinking of history as teaching by example? Surely the standards for the contemporary historian (whether of the Labour movement or any other field) must be those of Asa Briggs’ Age of Improvement, rather than the lectures of Charles Kingsley (even though he was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge).
To date, the bulk of writing on Labour history has dealt with organisations and economic conditions, leavened with details of the struggles and quarrels of working class leaders. Very few Labour historians have started from the position of G. M. Young, who held that history is not so much what happened as what people felt about it when it was happening. Yet the supreme aim of every historian, Labour or other, must be to strive to hear the people of a past age talking. No amount of economic analysis or tracing of trends can be a substitute for this. The weakness of much Labour history is that it has not yet emancipated itself from approaches and methods derived from economic history and biography; whereas the most exciting developments seem likely to be made by the social historians and the historians of ideas.
Only one of the essays in this collection—that on “The Language of ‘Class’ in Early Nineteenth Century England”, by Asa Briggs—adopts an original approach in this sense. The rest are highly competent professional studies in the best British tradition of Labour history which G. D. H. Cole (along with Harold Laski and H. L. Beales) did so much to establish in the inter war years. Intended originally to honour Cole’s seventieth birthday, this volume now stands as a memorial to him. Four short introductory essays by Ivor Brown, Hugh Gaitskell, Stephen K. Bailey, and G. D. N. Worswick recall memories of him, especially the warm friendship which underlay his shy, rational exterior. The remaining nine essays are specialist studies in different aspects of nineteenth century Labour history, ranging from the adventures of emigré Polish socialists after 1830, to the rise of the I.L.P. in Yorkshire in the nineties.
All the essays are scholarly and based on original research. This is very much historians’ history, and far removed from the broad popular sweeps in which Cole excelled. In fact, at times, there is a danger that some of the essays are little more than academic exercises, extended footnotes to the real stuff of history. If only there were a British Journal of Social or Labour History it would provide the appropriate outlet for such specialist monographs; but since there is no such
In his essay on Professor Beesley, Royden Harrison has gone outside the usual run of Labour history themes, and shows how middle class Positivism led to sympathy and support for the working class movement. The analysis of Beesley’s relationship with Labour on such issues as the American Civil War, the 1867 Reform Bill agitation, the Sheffield Outrages, and the Labour Laws agitation of the seventies, lead to the conclusion that “he was more closely identified with the labour movement and exerted more influence upon it than any other university teacher before G. D. H. Cole”.
As was to be expected from such experienced hands at the game, Eric Hobsbawm’s and John Saville’s contributions display a masterly touch and range easily over little-known parts of the field. Hobsbawm’s “Custom, Wages and Workload in Nineteenth Century Industry” draws on a wealth of material from French, German, Italian and British sources which can only be the envy of more parochial colleagues; while Saville in his “Trade Unions and Free Labour: the Background to the Taff Vale Decision” lifts the lid on British union-busting practices in the 1890’s which are reminiscent of the Chicago scene in the early years of this century. Sidney Pollard’s “Nineteenth-Century Co-operation: from Community Building to Shopkeeping” is a workman-like job, and shows the need for a thorough study of the later phases of Owenism.