The first meeting call: the need for a national Society of Labour History

At the dawn of the twenty-first century a widely-shared historical view contended that labour history and the vital historical category of labour found themselves trapped up in a cultural and methodological cul-de-sac. In many cases, such a scholarly argument went so far as to posit the end of work altogether and that this was a distinctive sign of the times. This striking intellectual move took effect on two different levels. From a theoretical and conceptual perspective, this cultural setback purportedly manifested as: firstly, labour’s forward march—originating in the second industrial revolution alongside the rise of capitalist development and culminating in the second half of the twentieth century—had definitively halted; secondly, the setback revealed the end of history, with the resultant rise in fuzzy and poorly situated historical analysis. On the other hand, in terms of historical research, the history of labour and workers suffered from a sharp fall in scholarly interest. A wide range of research-oriented reconstructions and interpretations were premised upon challenging both the historiographical turn from political history to social history associated with the twentieth century, and the path-breaking labour history which accompanied that turn.
Nowadays, even as the history of labour regains momentum and labour history once more attracts growing attention amongst researchers, historical studies still fail either to pinpoint a clear-cut methodological approach to the subject, or provide labour history with a well-defined intellectual rationale. As a matter of fact, mainstream historical discourse at this time adopted new research and intellectual agendas. This trend led some to doubt the relevance of the previous historical turn from political to social history, and to question “economic and social history”, downgrading it from being a discipline in its own right. On the other hand, beyond this twentieth-century style economic and social history, the ascendancy of new historical paradigms have impeded both the growth of historical knowledge at a general discipline-wide level and historical research of a broad-ranging nature. Against this background, a truly orthodox political history returned with a vengeance, and a cultural studies perspective has taken a lead in countering this returning orthodoxy. As a result of this historiographical conjuncture in which cultural and political history are prevalent, the workers, their working and living conditions, as well as working-class movements and organizations were on the whole increasingly deemed to be outmoded and are crowded out of the historical debate.
Notwithstanding these tendencies, two features let us challenge this overall historiographical drift of the last forty years. On the one side, throughout the world labour history is at the forefront of historical research and the expansion of its reach is noteworthy. Its increasing popularity across the newly industrialising regions of the world results from the imbrications of the recent and recurrent waves of social conflicts with the latest stage of capitalist development. On the other side, it is worth stressing how even in Italy a young generation of researchers—trained during the twenty years’ retrenchment of the historical discipline—pushed forward a research agenda concerning labour and workers quite significantly. This upcoming generation trusted its sound international scholarly bonds and its recurrent cultural encounters with other social sciences.
Therefore, instead of running the risk of disappearing, both within and outside Italy, the history of labour is progressively turning itself into an “area study” of outstanding and increasing appeal to a wide variety of research communities. In fact, both the subjects of labour history research and the methodological paraphernalia have increased in number and perspective, and a wide-ranging approach to the discipline ensued. The objects of research, the periodization, as well as the geographical aperture have widened. As a matter of fact, the study of labour involved new forms of work and groups of workers well beyond the conventional focus upon industrial work (and the traditional working class, trade unions and associated political organizations). A substantial amount of scholars directed their gaze towards the world prior to the first industrial revolution. Thirdly, from a geographical standpoint, a truly transnational perspective came to the fore and made a great deal of sense for research into labour mobility and migration as integral to the experience of labouring subjects.
In Italy time has come to valorise scholarly studies and research into labour and to locate this at the very centre of Italian culture and historiography. However, these conditions for the ascendancy of labour history in Italy came about in a very opaque and fragmented way. Indeed, this move to resurrect labour history came about through a wide variety of different research endeavours involving scores of unconnected scholars. In other words, this remarkable move that allows labour history to strike back lacked in any kind of initial framework. As a matter of fact, none of these commitments to revive labour history on the part of individual researchers could rely on any kind of well-defined and recognizable organization or cultural network to facilitate communication, growth or links.
It is therefore time to set up both closer bonds among scholars trained in and coming from different disciplinary frameworks, research perspectives and intellectual stances, and among those from strikingly different generations, as well as among cultural institutions still committed to promote research and knowledge on labour history. In order to enhance cooperation among such a variety of perspectives, scholars and institutions, a cultural institution is much needed that would be conducive to coordination, mutual cultural exchange and fruitful scholarly debate, with the aim of nurturing cross fertilizing relations and exchanges among such a variety of individual research and cultural endeavours. In this respect it is necessary to forge a cultural setting of which the community of historians can take advantage not only to meet each other, but also to get in touch and develop intellectual bonds with scholars from other Humanities spanning from law to the Social Sciences through economics. Such a multi-disciplinary venue is conceived as a means to circulate and connect different scholarly methods, to enhance scholarly exchange and collaborative partnership among people coming from different disciplines, to offer a place to juxtapose even strikingly distant aspects of the subject of labour, in order to accumulate knowledge. This effort is here intended to take place against a broader aim to engage in a pursuit for a history of the present, of topical interest, focusing historical research on contemporary concerns and their contested issues situated within a long term idea of what the contemporary age is about.
A recognition of these current deficiencies and needs moves the cohort of scholars undersigned to propose the launch of an Italian Society for Labour History, analogous to the well grounded associations that exist in the Anglo Saxon scholarly community. The main aim would be to facilitate contacts, intellectual encounters and cross-fertilizing intellectual bonds among different research perspectives and experiences. As never before, the Internet age necessitates complementary occasions to gather together people and scholars from different cultures in the aim to disseminate historical and Social Sciences knowledge. Such a kind of society would seek to engage with remapping historical research, it would promote archival works, it would set up arenas and opportunities to stimulate debate among historians, it would nurture international ties among different national historiographies, it would broadcast and bring before the broader audience the best results of historical research into labour. A new society would be valuable for addressing these kinds of targets through fruitful encounters among a cohort of established scholars and a younger generation of early career researchers, doctoral students, and master students.
March 2012