The concept of class, and the term working class, were addressed early on in LABR 2P93, a history course in Brock University’s labour studies program. Part of how students learned about this concept from a historical perspective was through assigned readings, which included E.P. Thompson’s “Preface” to his The Making of the English Working Class (1963), and Marx’s and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). The former is a classic text in the field, and the kind of work that graduates of a labour studies program should know about. The latter, of course, is historically significant as a foundational text for socialist and communist movements, some of which fought revolutions and founded states in the twentieth-century. It’s the sort of work that many students in labour studies already know about.
In addition to offering a social and political outlook on workplace issues, the concept of class provides a tool for historical analysis. Marxism’s claim that relations of production, or economic relations more broadly, determine the political structure of society over time is laid out in bold terms in the Manifesto. Though overly simplistic as an encompassing theory of historical continuity and change, the idea is still a valuable theory for insight into the past. Thompson defined class as a relationship between social groups embodied in the thoughts and behaviours of people historically, and observable retrospectively. I find this an excellent explanation of class for historical analysis, because of its flexibility. You can take this idea and apply it to different contexts, including non-industrial ones, and that’s what Marx proposed, and what Thompson suggested with his use of “plebeian” and “patrician.”
The Communist Manifesto still makes thrilling reading, even though the opening line reads a bit like an overly zealous undergraduate essay: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The writing wins you over by staying in character. Plus, the thesis statement comes right away, so there’s no messing around. As they and the communists who commissioned the work intended, it’s terrifically communicative. Thompson’s “Preface” is a little miracle of analytical writing. It’s probably best known for declaring that the book aimed to “rescue” history’s losers and forgotten figures from “the enormous condescension of posterity.” There are other lovely and moving phrases in the piece, but it also flows elegantly from discussing theory, to the book’s historiographical contribution, the study’s focus and limitation, and, finally, to acknowledgements. Captured in about 2,000 words, the brevity of the preface contrasts to the sometime long-windedness of the subsequent chapters.
These and other Marxist and neo-Marxist works helped inspire researchers and establish the field of working-class history within the academy in the 1970s in Britain and the US. Initially, though, work in the field failed to provide the sort of inclusive picture of the past promised by Marxism’s sweeping assumptions.[i] In fact, these two texts reveal a narrower perspective on human experience than the authors likely understood, for both normalize masculine experience. In a section discussing the nature of the proletariat, Marx and Engels wrote: “The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations …”[ii] Thompson normalized the male perspective with lines such as this: “Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.”[iii]
Historians of women and of racialized minorities, who created their own fields in the academy, used additional lenses to capture the historical experience of inequality. By the 1990s many were articulating what has become known as “intersectionality” as an alternative approach to understanding the historical experience and significance of social inequality. The term “intersectional” was introduced, apparently, by feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Krenshaw in 1989.[iv] I think I first encountered the concept in Gender Conflicts, edited by Franca Iacovetta and Mariana Valverde,[v] and the idea, if not the term necessarily, was certainly something graduate school colleagues and mentors talked about.
Today, the term is fairly common within the humanities and social sciences, and I occasionally notice it in news about social justice issues and activism. In September of 2015, The Washington Post published an online run of articles on the idea, including this piece by Crenshaw. Christine Emba’s introductory post, “Intersectionality,” explained that:
The term “intersectionality” was used to describe how different forms of discrimination can interact and overlap, and why it was necessary for feminists to take into account the needs of women from a variety of backgrounds when considering social questions and issues to advocate for.[vi]
It can be challenging to account for the nuanced realities of social inequality from a global historical perspective, but the main text for LABR 2P93, World Histories from Below,[vii] does offer this kind of perspective. Its contributors show that historical inequality was shaped by multiple relations of power, not just ones defined in terms of political-economy. In my experience, students do not find the inter-related nature of inequality and discrimination a difficult concept to grasp. For many of them, this is part of how they have experienced the world, and others already accept that discrimination is a widespread social, and historical, problem. Recognizing the compatibility of class analysis and intersectionality for the study of the past is fairly straightforward, but I do stress that the complexity of social experience and thought is not always reflected in historical sources. That, of course, leads into another key issue in the study of working-class history. More on that another time!
Nathan Smith, “Class and Intersectionality,” HIS241.com, 29 January 2018, http://www.his241.com/?p=497
[i] For some insight into the evolution of working-class history, see: Bryan D. Palmer, David Frank, Todd McCallum, Jacques Rouillard, “Working-Class History,” Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Canada, 2006, last edited 2015), http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/working-class-history/; Emma Griffin, “Working-Class History,” History Today 65, 2 (February 2015), http://www.historytoday.com/emma-griffin/working-class-history; Alice Kessler-Harris, “Reframing the History of Women’s Wage Labor: Challenges of a Global Perspective,” Journal of Women’s History 15, 4 (2004): 186-206; Eric Arnesen, “Passion and Politics: Race and the Writing of Working-Class History,” The Journal of the Historical Society 7, 3 (September 2006): 323-356.
[iii] (Pelican Books edition, 1974): 11
[iv] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidsicrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 139-167
[v] Franco Iacovetta and Mariana Valverde, eds., Gender Conflicts: New Essays in Women’s History (University of Toronto Press, 1992)
[vi] Christine Emba, “Intersectionality,” 21 September 2015, The Washington Post, online at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/21/intersectionality-a-primer/?utm_term=.1f43eaf3382f
[vii] Antoinette Burton and Tony Ballantyne, eds., World Histories from Below: Disruption and Dissent, 1750 to the Present (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)