What happened to class? New histories of labour and collective action in Britain
Recently, my family called me a ‘labour historian’. A ‘labour historian’ is one of the last epithets I would give to my thoroughly bourgeois self, so I considered why they made that association. In 2005, I published an article rethinking Luddism, the machine-breaking outbreaks of 1812. It stuck out somewhat incongruously as an old-fashioned topic, although I had reworked it with a postmodernist nod towards the agency of language. In the heyday of labour history in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a natural assumption to connect the study of trade unions and the Labour Party with labour’s more troublesome sister, social movements and popular protest. Yet over the past couple of decades, labour history has changed. Many of its historians no longer regard the labour (and Labour) movement as the be-all and end-all of the history of the working class. Their interests have diversified, shedding new light on identities and activities that are not completely subsumed by a narrative of class. Perhaps, indeed, I had mistaken myself for a labour historian of the old sort, even though methodologically and culturally I was far from being so. Although I did not realize it at the time, however, protest history had begun to be rethought and revived in a new direction.