An interview with Luca Baldissara (November 2012)



The establishment of an Italian Society of Labour History (SISLav) is a response to the fall of interest in the themes of social history, which occurred in the last decades. In what sense the crisis of labour has triggered a crisis of Labour History?

In Italy, Labour History has never had a fully and autonomously defined methodological statute. Whether this is convenient or not, it is certainly a matter of discussion. However, there is no doubt that labour itself has never been specifically investigated, ie it has never been the subject of a dedicated study. If we were to track down the studies of Labour History in Italy, we would be forced to mention a various mix of works drawing on the history of workers’ movement, of Trade Unions and of single economic enterprises.

The weakness of Labour History as an autonomous discipline has left the subject of labour at the mercy of the profound changes that have shaken Italy – together with Europe and the United States – from the end of 1980s up to the present political, economic and social crisis of Western capitalism. The downfall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet system have cancelled the communist perspective, but they have also called to an end the principles of solidarity embedded in the socialist and catholic traditions. As a result, the impossibility of an alternative to the capitalistic system has been strongly affirmed, along with the dismissal of any interventions aimed at confining the effects of social injustice and at promoting a more equal distribution of wealth.

The ‘naturalization’ of the economic processes, which, as a cultural discourse, has come along with the conservative turn of the 1980s has led to the proclamation of the autonomy of economics from politics. The productive dynamics and the logic of free-trade system have been accordingly depicted as a response to laws of nature, as if the actual capitalistic system was an organism bound to its own mechanisms of life and reproduction, independent of any human interventions.

Hence, phenomena like the profound crisis of politics and of the Nation-State, the dismantlement of the institutions of social protection comprised in the ‘Welfare State’, the centralization of wealth and the increase of social disparities, the crisis of the Fordist model, the deregulation of the labour market, the disintegration of ‘labour’ in less paid and more precarious ‘labours’ have been propagated as fatal occurrences, that cannot be confronted in terms of public policies, but must be favoured, as if they were uncontrollable weather-like events and not the results of precise political and economic choices.

Within this framework, labour, which was already lacking its autonomy as a subject of research, by no means could now re-gain it. The crisis of the history of workers’ movement, both at the level of political and social history, together with the ‘floppy’ and ritual repetition of the canon of the Trade Union history has brought to the decline of research on labour and labourers in the 1990s. Paradoxically, labour history has found more developments in the studies devoted to the history of single economic enterprises, which have progressively widened their horizons, eventually focusing on the enterprises’ workers.

However, in the last years, the worsening of the economic and social crisis, on the one hand, and the disappearance of cultural and historiographic divides between various disciplines, on the other, have nurtured a new interest in labour history. This has led to various initiatives for the safeguard of archives, to the creation of groups and associations working on the memory of labour, to the spread of researches, often carried out by young research students for their doctoral thesis, but sometimes even by established researchers, who re-discovered an interests on the subject of labour or were determined to value some of their past experiences.

The foundation of the SISLav is somehow the result of this renewed attention to the subject of labour, but it also embodies the intention of actively contributing to its development, by holding together various experiences of study, by providing information on the sources for the history of labour and addressing the problem of how to access them, by promoting the teaching of labour history, by calling for reflections on its methodology and fostering the debate among scholars (between historians of different generations, but also between historians and economists, jurists and social scientists), by opening up channels of discussion and acquaintance with scholars of other countries.

Despite being considered ‘unfashionable’, Labour History has produced extremely valuable research works even in the last decades. What themes have been particularly investigated?

It is not easy to identify the prevailing trends of the new interest in labour history. As it always happens when a topic of study attracts a renewed attention, the research field is scanned in various and often new directions. The recent ‘hybridization’ and dialogue between the history of single economic enterprises and Labour History seem very productive, and in my opinion they are the most fruitful and interesting approaches.

I would like to make a few examples. I am thinking about some books, published ten years apart, but written by scholars belonging to the same generation. The first is one of the earliest works of Giulio Sapelli, Organizzazione, lavoro e innovazione industriale nell’Italia tra le due guerre (1978). The second is a book written by a scholar who sadly died young, Duccio Bigazzi’s Il Portello (1988). The third example comprises two works of Giuseppe Berta: Mirafiori (1998) and Fiat 1919-1979 (1998).

But I could also refer to contributions of younger scholars, such as the history of the ‘nationalization on two wheels’ written by Andrea Rapini (2007), that is a history of the Italian firm Piaggio and its renowned scooter, la Vespa. I should also mention a very recent study of Valentina Fava on the automobile firm Skoda from 1918 to 1968, published in 2010. What is most interesting in these studies is the relationship they draw between internal and external factors of the industrial work, the interplay between various dimensions of production. Rapini’s analysis, for instance, comprises Piaggio’s organization of production, the management of warehouse and labour conflicts, the policies of marketing which created the Vespa-myth and the recasting of the relations between the sphere of production and that of consumption. This last theme, in particular, is crucial to the understanding of the re-organization of the productive plants after WWII, of the dialectics between individualism and solidarity, between ‘planism’ and free-trade, between State intervention and free-trade policies. Valentina Fava deals with these questions focusing on the extremely peculiar and interesting case of the Skoda, at the time of its transition from a US-model of enterprise to a Soviet one.

Furthermore, I cannot avoid to mention the interesting work of Andrea Sangiovanni Tute blu (2006), which reconstructs the cycle of the ‘factory worker’ figure in postwar Italy, from the perspective of subjectivity, identity and collective representation. I would also mention the original and eccentric contribution of Germano Manfreda La disciplina del lavoro (2007), a work of Foucaultian tones, but undoubtedly influenced by Bigazzi and Sapelli’ studies; a work – I should add – which resembles Lanaro’s Nazione e lavoro and its enquiry on how the control of discipline in Italian factories in the 20th century has been used to obtain docility and squeeze utility from workers.

The attention to empirical facts, ‘the data of life nobody cares about anymore’ – as Fernand Braudel once put it – may lead to potential developments of great interest. This approach may be applied in studies on the history of the concrete modalities of work, between time of life and time of work. How do the concrete forms of labour evolve, in act? How is the sociability of workers and among workers developed? How are the multiple identities of workers intertwined? These questions, as I reckon, will shape our research in the next few years and they should be extended to the agricultural work, as well as to other forms of factory work. They may stimulate us to bring labour history back to its original field of research: the concrete conditions of life and work, the relations of production, the forms of mobilization, the modalities of work organization, its effects on the social composition of the working class and its correspondent social reaction.

Accordingly, I reckon we should go back to the lesson and legacy of Simonetta Ortaggi’s work. More systematically than others, Simonetta Ortaggi addressed the topic of the workers at work and in their workplace. I should like to point out the richness and potentiality of Ortaggi’s approach. She addressed such problems as the mechanization of the relations of production and the centrality of the social conflict, which stems from the transformation of the industrial production. She investigated the development of social conflict both in terms of the workers’ reaction to change and alienation, and in terms of the stimulus towards a labour organization which could allow them to manage conflictuality and industrial struggles. In this way Simonetta Ortaggi explored the relationship between spontaneity and organization and showed particular sensibility in researching the social origins of political mobilization. In this she was driven by the conviction that the social conflict could generate a progressive renovation of class relations only through the interplay between social spurs and the capacity of figuring wider political targets.

In your manifesto you argue that Italian historiography has continued to work on subjects of Labour History also thanks to its participation to international debates and the interdisciplinary dialogue with other social sciences. Would you elaborate this point?

Simonetta Ortaggi’s works are a clear mark of this interest for the extra-national debate. Her acquaintance with David Montgomery, her constant reference to Anglosaxon literature, show that Ortaggi constantly dialogued with the acquisitions of the research performed outside Italy.

The attention to international research has been particularly high in the 1980s and 1990s, in the internal debate of the Italian social history on the formation of the working class, reinterpreting and sometimes criticizing Edward P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm’s models. Today, we look with great interest at the discussion within the horizons of Global Labour History, as the anthology edited by Christian De Vito clearly testifies.

These are only a few examples. Despite what we often maintain, Italian historians have a good knowledge of the historiographic literature produced in other countries and our best studies – such as those I mentioned before – have dialogued and keep dialoguing with researches carried out abroad. We should try to understand why, on the other hand, Italian historiography is not so well known outside Italy. Surely, language constitutes a barrier. However, the picture of Italian scholars delving into their own small community, conventionally prone to their private interests and – conversely – that of foreign scholars devoted to the international debate is a myth that must be discredited.

What are the tasks that the SISLav is committed to perform?

Our society considers its own function in terms of service. We want to promote the circulation of information among scholars and produce a survey of the existing studies on labour, in order to outline the ‘state of the art’ of Labour History in Italy. We want to strengthen our bonds with foreign institutions and scholars, for a wider circulation of their studies in Italy, but also in order to foster the knowledge of our studies abroad. This is why we have already become members of the International Association on Strikes and Social Conflicts, and we are now developing further contacts.

Moreover, the SISLav aims to stimulate the debate among scholars on ‘how to make Labour History today’. This is why we want to promote seminars all over Italy involving historians – and not only those interested in contemporary history – and experts whose research relates to the subject of labour: jurists and experts of the history of law, economists and experts of economic history, social scientists and anthropologists. Our target is to promote the study of Labour History in all possible ways, as a field of research and as a subject of teaching. Eventually we aim to release Labour History from the narrows of sectoral specialism and establish it as a part of general history.

What initiatives is the SISLav executive working on?

We are organizing presentations of the SISLav everywhere on our National territory, particularly in the form of subject-related seminars. We are also promoting groups of correspondents. Moreover we are working on a website in order to promote the activities of our Society. Eventually, we aim to create a telematic portal where studies and presentations may be uploaded, where material and sources may be presented and where debates and discussions may take place.

We are also organizing work groups within the SISLav, in order to explore various aspects of Labour History. These studies will converge in periodical seminars. Finally, we are discussing the organization of a conference in 2013. More information will be soon provided, along with our scientific program which we are now developing, on our website:

Luca Baldissara is Associated Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Pisa. He is the author of many volumes on the history of WWII and the Resistance, on the Italian political system and on social conflict in Italy. He is vice-president of the SISLav, the Italian Society for Labour History.