Capital and labor on the move

To some new publications on the history of capitalism, the world of work, the labor movement and the trade unions

Capital and Work on the Move

A Review of Recent Publications on the History of Capitalism, Labor History, the History of Labor Movement and Labor Unions


This article deals with current trends in the history of capitalism, the history of work and the history of the labor movement — especially the labor unions. Having been marginalized for quite some time, these fields of research have undergone a renaissance since the economic crisis 2007/08. The increased interest in social discourse for issues such as economic inequality has led to more attention being paid to these subjects in the field of history, too. By discussing publications with different approaches and methodologies as well as from a range of areas and disciplines, the article illustrates the broadening and the differentiation of the historiographical debate. It sums up the results of current debates and offers suggestions on how to combine the findings reached in different fields. Finally,

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The 2007/08 crisis triggered by a speculative inflated real estate market caused global and European upheavals on an immense scale.Footnote1 The extensive collapse of the economy and social infrastructure in some countries, the impoverishment of large parts of the population in southern (eastern) European countries, the massive rise in unemployment and the associated lack of prospects for the younger generation have still not been completely overcome.Footnote2

This first global economic crisis of the new millennium not only required diverse (economic) political reactions, it also changed the social debate. It was not uncommon for comparisons to be drawn with the Great Depression of 1929 – with very divergent assessments.Footnote3 In addition, the growing social inequality in many western industrialized countries has been discussed as intensely as the discrepancy to the Global South and the global effects of the capitalist mode of production.Footnote4 The severity of the crisis shook the very foundations of the system in several ways. In particular, the belief in the superiority and lack of alternatives of capitalism, which had been widespread since the collapse of the real socialist states, was shaken and scientifically put to the test.

The success of Thomas Piketty’s extensive study “Capital in the 21st Century” is closely related to these (discursive) shifts.Footnote5 The book, translated into numerous languages, has sold more than a million copies.

Piketty argues that inequality is not an accidental accessory, but an essential feature of capitalist societies. The period between the Great Depression of 1929 and the end of the post-war boom in the mid-1970s was an exception. Especially after the Second World War, a state interventionist economic and tax policy redistributed social wealth for the benefit of the majority of the population. In addition, a sharp rise in wages allowed the majority of employees to participate in the consumer society for the first time. This development has since been gradually reversed through a policy of privatization and deregulation. Social inequality has increased noticeably.Footnote6th

The New York Times Nobel Prize laureate and columnist Paul Krugman named Piketty’s study the most important book of the year, if not the decade.Footnote7 The author had made an invaluable contribution to the public debate. This discussion in the academic context was by no means limited to economics. History also increasingly turned to these topics.Footnote8 Stimulated by the contemporary crisis of the capitalist system with its manifold effects, its development is moving back into the focus of historiography.

Having been on the decline since the 1980s, historical social science and labor movement history have been experiencing a renaissance for several years.Footnote9 Especially the genesis of the capitalist social formation, the history of work (world), but also the trade unions enjoy renewed scientific attention.Footnote10 In this respect, the debate initiated by Lutz Raphael and Anselm Doering-Manteuffel about the end of the ‘boom’ and the character of the 1970s marks a milestone.Footnote11 The theses of the two authors aroused much approval and disagreement. This intellectually demanding controversy deserves an independent treatment and is therefore only touched on briefly here.

The tendency described in historical studies is no longer only reflected in isolated projects, but also institutionally. The International Humanities College “re: work. Work and curriculum vitae from a global historical perspective ”at the Humboldt University.Footnote12 The Institute for the History and Future of Work was also recently founded in Berlin.Footnote13 At the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, the research group “History and Theory of Global Capitalism” headed by Friedrich Lenger has been researching since 2016.Footnote14 In addition, since 2017 the Hans Böckler Foundation has financed the graduate college “Social Consequences of Change in the Working World in the Second Half of the 20th Century”, which is held at the Leibniz Center for Contemporary Research in Potsdam, the Institute for Social Movements in Bochum and the Institute for Contemporary History is located in Munich.Footnote15 Not least because of these institutional contexts, numerous studies on the above-mentioned topics have been published in recent years. Some should be discussed at this point.

The presented publications can be divided into three areas, which also structure this article:

  • The history of capitalism
  • The history of work (world)
  • The history of the labor movement and the trade unions

A brief conclusion is drawn after each area in order to synthesize the research tendencies at the end.

History of capitalism

For a long time, the term capitalism was considered to have a clear political connotation. It was mostly used by Marxist scholars. With the end of the system confrontation, the term was stripped of its political corset and can again be used primarily as an analytical category. Its widely varying use is evident in the current historical debate.

This also names a problem in dealing with the history of capitalism. It lacks a generally accepted definition and consensus on the basic structural features of capitalism. This difficulty also results from the fact that abstract theoretical determinations, for example from a Marxist perspective about private ownership of the means of production, do not (cannot) fully do justice to the diverse reality. On the other hand, empirical case studies tend to avoid more general assumptions in general. The debate will certainly better convey these two levels in the future. The transdisciplinary exchange is likely to be of outstanding importance for this.

For all the differences in the theoretical reference points and the empirical objects of investigation, the publications discussed here undermine common assumptions about normality in capitalism. Rather, by means of the historical-comparative perspective, the exceptional character of the post-war upswing in the western industrialized countries is clearly in focus. Many of the phenomena that have spread in recent times – keyword precariousness – appear more like a return to normal capitalist conditions. Christian Kleinschmidt provides a concise overview of the genesis of the modern economic order in “Economic History of the Modern Age. The world economy 1500–1850 ”.Footnote16

The long-term perspective makes it possible to understand the development of modern industrial capitalism in Europe. This concern is all the more urgent given that Asia has been the world leader in economic terms for centuries. India and China were by far the most populous countries and their economies were more productive than that of Europe. In addition, Muslim traders in particular had promoted the exchange of goods within Asia. The European continent, on the other hand, played a negligible role in global terms.

At the center of the book is the question of why, from the 16th century onwards, there was a profound change towards an absolute dominance of Europe. The controversial debate about Kenneth Pomeranz’s thesis of the “great divergence” forms the background music.Footnote17th

The author does not want to contribute to a history of global capitalism, but rather to examine the “growing together of different economic areas into a world economy” (p. 8). In his opinion, the central factors structure the structure: 1. “Population development”; 2. “Ideas and worldviews”; 3. “The exchange of technology and knowledge”; 4. “Politics and Violence” and 5. “The Role of Institutions”.

Initially, Portugal and Spain played the role of protagonists in the impending change. The spice trade with Asia and especially the gold and silver influx from America turned out to be decisive. The transatlantic expansion and the violent appropriation of work and foreign soil consequently represented the premises for the rise of the European trading powers. Together with the beginning of protoindustrialization in some European regions in the 15th and 16th centuries, an international division of labor emerged which, simplified as transatlantic triangular trade is called. The rise of the Netherlands, France and especially England from the 17th century onwards consolidated European supremacy for centuries. An important reason for the developing “Great Divergence” is, says Kleinschmidt, the increasing intercontinental integration of the markets. Ultimately, it was primarily a “geographic coincidence” (p. 46) – large hard coal deposits – that caused Great Britain to break through as a world power. Its use and the developments associated with it would have advanced the country at an immense speed.

Industrialization also ended the age of the “Malthusian economy” with stagnating per capita income and a largely constant population.

The social and economic liberalism that developed in the course of the 19th century formed the intellectual foundation of technical progress. Its genesis, however, is not linear, but has been full of detours. The increasingly institutionalized knowledge production provided the basis for scientific inventions. As a result, the technical and military superiority of Europe was consolidated, “which was based on the interplay of violence and spirit” (p. 90).

Kleinschmidt provides a brief overview of the dissolution of the long-standing polycentric equilibrium and the development of global economic dominance in Europe since the 16th century. This “proto-globalization” marks the prerequisite for the emergence of the capitalist economy. Kleinschmidt also underlines their often hidden centuries of violence.

Friedrich Lenger’s “Global Capitalism Thinking” chooses a more theoretical approach.Footnote18 In the first volume of the “Studies on the History and Theory of Capitalism” by the Giessen working group of the same name, he discusses how capitalism can be conceptualized from a global historical perspective. There will also be thought about overcoming it and alternative forms of socialization, as Lenger explains in the research report – the first part of the book. He criticizes the two-volume “Cambridge History of Capitalism” published in 2014.Footnote19 It offers a large number of non-systematic individual studies that are not based on a consistent concept of capitalism. This means that the manual does not capture the historical dynamics of development. In a next step, Lenger deals with Immanuel Wallerstein’s world system theory, the more recent debate about the connection between slavery and capitalism and the theories about its different forms.Footnote20 The author warns against starting with the diagnoses of the 1970s in a moralizing way. A critical historiography must reflect the historical genesis in all its ambivalence. In the second part, Lenger takes a new look at Adam Smith. The Scottish moral philosophy forms the basis of his thinking. By no means had Smith naively believed in the market and pleaded for a steady expansion of foreign trade. Instead, he attached greater relevance to the internal market than is commonly assumed.

In the third part, Lenger traces the as yet little researched journal “Archive for Social Science and Social Policy” as an expression of a German social science emerging in the late 19th century.Footnote21 As a follow-up project to the “Archives for Social Legislation and Statistics” founded by Heinrich Braun, the magazine was published from 1904 by Max Weber, Werner Sombart and Edgar Jaffé. It has developed into one of the most influential social science periodicals. Their claim was nothing less than the recognition of the general cultural significance of capitalist development.

Not only did almost all of Max Weber’s articles on the sociology of religion appear there for the first time, but also preprints of Werner Sombart’s and Walter Troeltsch’s works. Karl Mannheim, Nikolai Kondratieff, Joseph Schumpeter, Hans Kelsen and Carl Schmitt were also among the authors. Lenger traces the development of the magazine on the basis of important articles and debates up to its discontinuation in 1934. For today’s problem constellation – the relationship between democracy, globalization and capitalism – it is insightful to make sure of this tradition.

Lenger presents a stimulating treatise on the current research discussion on capitalism with two individual studies. One can certainly argue about the focus. In his review, Roman Köster, for example, criticizes the detailed treatment of Wallerstein’s world system theory, whereas more recent research is dealt with incidentally.Footnote22 Regardless of this, the article on the “Archive for Social Science and Social Policy” offers numerous insights. The author works out the importance of the magazine convincingly and shows points of contact for today’s discussion.

Unfortunately, the connection between the individual parts is not immediately apparent when reading. A systematic afterword could easily have remedied this ambiguity and at the same time explained the agenda of the series of publications. Nonetheless, the other studies that appear in their context can be awaited with great interest.

The importance of slavery for the genesis of capitalism illuminates the anthology “Slavery’s Capitalism.” Edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. A New History of American Economic Development “.Footnote23 For a long time capitalism and slavery were viewed as opposites – especially in a Marxist reading.Footnote24Although research has already established that the United States was a “slaveholder republic” between its founding in 1776 and the Civil War of 1861–65, the economic significance of slavery has only recently been explored. The editors understand the United States of America as “slavery’s capitalism” (p. 1). This thesis is illustrated by the collected contributions. The first part, “Plantation Technologies”, to a certain extent focuses on the everyday center of slavery. Edward Baptist shows how brutal methods were used to increase production on the plantations (pp. 31–61). These disciplining technologies were refined more and more in the first half of the 19th century. Caitlin Rosenthal then discusses the application of modern management methods (pp. 62–86).

In the final article, Daniel Rood uses the example of the grain trade between Virginia and Brazil to illustrate the transnational origin of American grain cultivation, which is not, as is often assumed, in the Midwest, but on the plantations in the southern states (pp. 87-104).

The next section, Slavery and Finance, deals with the financial basis of the plantation system. For example, the credit system, which is often based on local relationships, and the integral role of slavery in the North Atlantic trade in cotton, capital and the textile manufacturing industry are discussed. The contributions of the third part “Networks of Interest and the North” show that the slave-free northern states were also integrated into the inhuman system in many ways.

The last section “National Institutions and Natural Boundaries” works out how state institutions ideologically legitimized slavery. The justifications arose from legal discussions about property rights or the claim that slavery was necessary for economic progress.

The anthology highlights the great importance of slavery for the genesis of modern industrial society in the United States of America. There was no clear demarcation between the capitalist northern states and the slave-holding southern states. Rather, the economic systems were more closely linked than was commonly assumed. The contributions reveal the hidden basis for the rapid economic development of the United States: slavery. Research into this connection is only just beginning, but we must agree with the editors: “This book marks a beginning” (p. 27).

So that this discussion is not limited to North America, from a European perspective it would be welcomed if the transcontinental entanglements were made the subject of research. In addition, comparative studies on unfree work in Europe and the system of slavery should promise new insights. Even if there was no plantation system in Europe comparable to that of the American southern states, various forms of unfree work can also be found on the continent. This debate should at the same time follow up on the knowledge about the survival of modified slavery under similar conditions in traditional slave societies.Footnote25th

The anthology “Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century “.Footnote26 The editors combine an environmental and an economic perspective. The three contributions of the first part “The Big Picture” are devoted to the fundamental questions of the research field. Adam Rome appeals to environmental historians to deal more intensively with the numerous efforts made by companies to make economic activity more ecological (pp. 3–12). Critics wrongly dismiss these initiatives as “greenwashing” (p. 12). Environmental historians should leave their previous comfort zone and contribute productively to the current discussion about the future of capitalism.

Berghoff works out that companies produce ecologically in very different ways (pp. 13–32). “Green” is not simply “green”, but has innumerable shades. Even if the economy turns to the ecological question out of profit interests, its role is central to getting environmental problems under control. A historical perspective helps to understand what ultimately drives companies to do so. That is why Berghoff calls for a “critical eco-cultural business history” (p. 32).

In “Conservation before Environmentalism,” the essays look at corporate efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to regulate air pollution, waste of resources in the American South, and the effects of electrification on the environment.

The following articles deal with interesting paradoxes. David Kinkela describes the invention of the plastic six-pack-ring (pp. 115-131). Patented in 1959 by Ougljesa Jules Poupitch, it was considered an ingenious solution for transport at the time. Since he saved packaging, he initially appeared environmentally friendly. Today, these barely rotting plastic rings have become a difficult environmental problem to deal with.

Leif Fredrickson traces the development of the Ford Ecostar, an electric vehicle tested in the early 1990s with a sodium-sulfur battery (“Sodium-Sulfur-Battery”) (pp. 132–146). Ultimately, this innovation did not catch on. The example nevertheless proves that companies invest in order to consolidate a technical and informational lead. The developed dynamics prove the “potential of green capitalism” (p. 145).

The contributions of the final part “Going green” discuss empirical findings from different areas from Swedish mining companies to wind energy and energy saving campaigns. In addition, Roman Köster discusses how private companies developed solutions for the rising mountains of rubbish in (West) Germany at an early stage based on profit motives (pp. 172–186). In combination with legal regulations and specifications, the modern recycling infrastructure was created. The state has created a new market in which private companies compete and ultimately contribute to environmental protection.

The anthology provides a lot of impetus for the debate about capitalism, business and the ecological question. The role of companies is described as more complex than in one-sided business and economic critical interpretations. As early as the late 19th century, companies had often played a leading role in environmental protection measures for reasons inherent in the system.

Entrepreneurial activity was and is certainly more complex and ambivalent than it may appear at first glance from a strictly ecological perspective. The anthology thus emphasizes an extremely important aspect, but nevertheless shows a certain one-sidedness itself. As important as the role of companies in environmental protection may have been in detail, private companies also caused the greatest environmental disasters, hushed up their environmentally harmful behavior and sabotage stricter regulations to this day. For example, the behavior of the German auto industry in the emissions affair is hard to beat in terms of chutzpah.FootnoteDiscussing these two sides would be a worthwhile undertaking. Nonetheless, against the background of the debate in the United States over a “Green New Deal”, the anthology is very topical and gives the current political debates a historical depth of focus.Footnote28

Because the economic system cannot be discussed without determining the role and character of (wage) work, the magazine Geschichte und Gesellschaft took up the topic of “work and capitalism”.Footnote29 The focus seeks to fathom the relationship between national and global historical access in workers’ history, as Jürgen Kocka and Jürgen Schmidt put it in the foreword (pp. 181–196). The overlaps, points of friction and differences are illuminated by means of several thematic blocks, more precisely with the concepts of wage labor and the working class as well as with the perspectives of the history of the labor movement in its global expansion.

In the first contribution, Thomas Welskopp discusses the importance of free labor in capitalism (pp. 197–216). Free labor played a central role in both Karl Marx and Max Weber’s theory. While for Marx the “doubly free wage worker” is a system-logical necessity of a capitalist society, Weber assigns an important meaning to the variously motivated, individual efforts to use his labor. Historically, the contractual relationship based on the sale of freelance work has only slowly gained acceptance. Not only the workers but also the entrepreneurs in North America and Western Europe opposed this process. Thus existed (and existed), as Welskopp explains, numerous forms of forced labor even after the global implementation of capitalism. In her essay “Temporary Service?” On domestic workers, Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk spans a wide range of time and geography (pp. 217–239). Until the early 20th century, this activity represented a transition phase for many young (mostly female) people of rural origin in Europe. The boundary between structural constraint from economic necessity and direct violence was often blurred. But also in other parts of the world from Asia to Africa to North and South America, enslaved people often did the housework. In the 19th century, this activity represented a transition phase for many young (mostly female) people of rural origin in Europe. The boundary between structural constraint from economic necessity and direct violence was often blurred. But also in other parts of the world from Asia to Africa to North and South America, enslaved people often did the housework. In the 19th century, this activity represented a transition phase for many young (mostly female) people of rural origin in Europe. The boundary between structural constraint from economic necessity and direct violence was often blurred. But also in other parts of the world from Asia to Africa to North and South America, enslaved people often did the housework.

In colonialism, aspects of racial and gender-based discrimination were superimposed, with repercussions up to the present day. The author explains that this past still influences today’s migration flows. It is no coincidence that women from former colonies work as domestic servants in the countries of former colonial powers. The number of domestic workers has increased significantly since the 1990s.Footnote30 For the first time, however, these workers would no longer only organize themselves locally or nationally, but supranationally. They demanded recognition as wage workers – with all associated rights.

The tendencies outlined by van Nederveen Meerkerk are a good example of the emergence of a new global division of labor, which results both from the colonial past and from the greater participation of white women in the labor market that developed in the post-war period.

Heinz-Gerhard Haupt discusses the importance of informal work and the parallelism of different activities among wage earners in his contribution “Ownership and independence as part of worker strategies in the 19th and 20th centuries” (pp. 240–263). The working population has never been homogeneous, but has been highly differentiated internally.

This observation applies both to a nation-state and especially to a global approach. The proletarianization of the working population has never been completed. More recent research on gender history in particular would show that women also played a central role in the working-class family beyond the reproductive sphere. It was seldom the sole responsibility of the “male breadwinner” to provide for a living. Rather, several parallel activities were widespread and had already determined the lives of the majority of working people in the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society. Out of sheer necessity, many wage earners would have farmed a small piece of land, produced small goods for sale at home, or carried out small trades. These individual strategies made it possible to survive difficult economic phases such as unemployment or a strike. From the middle of the 19th century, these forms of employment declined in most European countries, albeit without disappearing entirely.

With the dismantling of the welfare state, so Haupt, these activities would increase again. He therefore advocates taking them more into account in research. This would also bring the résumé perspective back into focus. The Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), an annual survey of randomly selected 14,000 private households that has been carried out since 1984, is an extensive data set that historical research has only just begun to develop. In general, Haupt’s plea that history should work more intensively with such data sets for all methodological challenges. However, Lutz Raphael has been following this path for some time and has worked out the cognitive power of a reference to the SOEP for historical research.Footnote31

Nicole Mayer-Ahuja takes up the debate about precarious and informal forms of work in “The globality of insecure work as conceptual provocation” (pp. 264–296). Such forms of work are no longer limited to the Global South, but have spread to industrialized countries in recent decades. Nevertheless, the debate on informal work in the Global South and precarious working conditions in the North is still largely independent of one another. Mayer-Ahuja therefore pleads for a “transnationalization of labor research” (p. 265). This broadened perspective makes it possible to peel out the similarities and differences more precisely. To gain a deeper understanding of the present, the changed working conditions in the industrialized countries since the 1970s should be taken into account and the entrepreneurial strategies and the consequences of technical rationalization should be examined. For this, a historical with a transnational perspective would have to be combined.

In a comment, Andreas Eckert sums up the relevance of a global historical approach (pp. 297–307). In this way, new questions could be addressed and previous self-evident questions could be questioned. Let us take the first steps in this regard: “The intellectual de-provincialization is taking place” (p. 307).

The thematic booklet is well worth reading and sheds light on a possible future direction of investigations into the history of labor and capitalism in order to lead them out of their previous methodological and geographical limitations. The volume also builds a bridge from the early phase of capitalism to the present.

An anthology from the field of (work) sociology concludes the first part of the review essay on publications on the history and development of capitalism.

His reading makes it clear how important it is to receive the debates from the neighboring disciplines. The publication “Capitalism and Labor. Towards Critical Perspectives ”brings together numerous contributions, including by Christoph Deutschmann, Kerstin Jürgens, Hartmut Rosa and Hans-Jürgen Urban.Footnote32The total of 22 contributions plus introduction and conclusion are divided into four areas that discuss the relationship between work (sociology) and criticism of capitalism from different perspectives. This also indicates the decisive difference to the historical publications: the editors explicitly intend to empirically support the necessary criticism of the prevailing economic system and to further develop it theoretically. In view of the effects of the crisis since 2007 and the global rise of right-wing populist forces, the possibilities of acting in solidarity should be explored. Theoretically, the ground should be prepared for political movements “with an anti-capitalist agenda, striving for a democratization of economy and society” (p. 12). The essays therefore include reflections on theories of capitalism,

In their conclusion, the editors advocate merging the three possibilities of a sociological criticism of capitalism: the immanent criticism based on everyday life and work experiences, the pragmatic criticism located at the meso level of the company or the industry, and the (still) largely marginalized radical criticism aimed at a fundamental social upheaval. In this way, an urgently needed discussion about a “new economic democracy” (p. 421) could be initiated.

Even if one does not share the political premises of the editors, reading it stimulates critical reflection on the economic status quo and the social role of science.

Interim conclusion

The collaboration across disciplinary boundaries is already evident in the publications presented. The general trend in historiography towards a global approach and overcoming the nation state can also be seen.

This project is more important than ever when examining capitalism as a global, almost all countries pervasive and structurally expansive economic system. In this way, interdependencies between states and continents can be worked out and viewed from a new perspective. The historical genesis of capitalism has by no means been fully explored. It is well known that what Marx called the original accumulation was based on brutal violence. However, the empirical studies suggest that this process was extremely ambiguous. The overall picture of the genesis of capitalism is clearly differentiated.

It is noticeable that the majority of the presented publications are anthologies. It is to be hoped that in the foreseeable future there will be more monographic studies in the institutionalized contexts mentioned. In addition, the historical findings on the history of capitalism and the instructive more recent studies on the world of work and the company level should be linked to one another in order to better grasp the effects of the capitalist mode of production in everyday business life.Footnote33 The theoretical examination of the specifics and the historical development process of capitalism should be complemented by a micro-historical (everyday) perspective without considering the methodological and source-related difficulties as insurmountable hurdles from the outset. If this project succeeds, new insights into the past and present of capitalism should result.

Without an examination of the world of work and the working people, any history of capitalism as an economic system must remain incomplete.

History of work

The importance of work as an existential activity of any form of human coexistence underlines the first publication to be presented in this section. The sociologist and ethnologist Gerd Spittler examines in “The anhropology of work. An ethnographic comparison “their manifold forms within different countries and cultures.Footnote34 He intends to resolve the dichotomies between industrial and pre-industrial and between capitalist and pre-capitalist labor. By means of a differentiating comparison of different working methods and conditions, insights into work in today’s society can be gained. The first section on the general anthropology of work deals with work theories, different work environments and time constraints, as well as work in housekeeping and power relations in the work context.

Basically, Spittler understands work not as instrumental action, but as interaction. This observation applies not only to traditional, but also to modern industrial societies: “The work equipment and objects of work appear to the worker as independent, idiosyncratic or stubborn” (p. 5). As a result, workers do not simply use the objects according to their will, but the manner in which they are used is dictated by the objects themselves. This performance of the work also depends not only on action, but is embedded in spatial and temporal structures.

Furthermore, in most societies, work does not take place predominantly in factories or separate companies, but in one’s own home and in a family context.

In the second part, the author examines these theoretical aspects on the basis of ethnographic observations by hunters and gatherers in Botswana and Namibia, by Achuar gardeners in the Amazon rainforest, clearing by the Bemba in today’s Zambia, farmers in Gobis in Niger and in Atany, Hungary, by camel herders and goatherds with the Kel Ewey Tuareg, but also from early capitalist home work in the Zurich Oberland and from modern service work.

Systematically linking this impressive number of examples back to the theoretical foundations is the book’s great strength. The selected cases go back to decades of research. Spittler shows convincingly the “institutional diversity” (p. 283) of work. The ethnological method of participatory observation makes it possible to get involved in foreign working environments and understandings without pre-established patterns in mind. The examination of other societies and cultures in turn changes the view of one’s own social environment.

Jürgen Schmidt approaches the subject in “Workers in the Modern Age. Working conditions. Lifeworlds, Organizations ”on the social figure of the worker from the pre-industrial 19th century to the present day.Footnote35 Despite all terminological ambivalences, he considers the term useful to describe those population groups “who do physical, dependent (wage) work for the purpose of securing life and who share common socio-cultural characteristics” (p. 14). The book deals with the living environment and milieus, working conditions and relationships, the culture of work (s) and the various forms of organization of the labor movement.

Regardless of the loss of importance of physical work in the course of structural change and the associated changed socio-cultural position of the worker, wage labor still determines the everyday life of the majority of the population in Western countries. Only their forms have differentiated and become more precarious. In addition, the demarcation from other activities is difficult, especially if the focus is on non-European parts of the world. However, Schmidt puts the focus on the situation in Germany from the 19th century onwards. Tracing the major lines of development on almost 300 pages enforces a certain superficiality. A systematic narrowing at the end of the individual chapters would, however, have clarified their connection and made the transitions more fluid.

A decade ago, Marcel van der Linden launched “Workers of the World. Essays towards a Global Labor History “wrote a milestone in the history of work. The book was published in German translation in 2017.Footnote36 The aspirations of the former research director of the Amsterdam Institute for International Social History are high: a global history of work, as the subtitle of the German translation reads.

Much of the book is based on previously published articles. The contributions are rearranged into four areas: “Concepts of work”, “Mutualistic variants”, “Forms of resistance” and “Findings from neighboring disciplines”.

Van der Linden notes in the foreword that the historical approach “with regard to drudgery, misery, but also the achievements of workers and labor movements” (p. 15) took an interesting turn at the beginning of the new millennium. The objects of investigation are no longer primarily the working conditions of male proletarians in heavy industry or in mining in Europe and North America. Other parts of the world have come into focus. The working class is no longer (and in reality it has never been) mostly white and male, but female with darker skin. The author examines informal activities, subsistence farming, housework and labor migration. The boundaries between free wage labor and forced labor are fluid.

Over time, the diverse working conditions produced various forms of solidarity, which the author describes in “Mutualistic Variants”. Insurance, consumer and production cooperatives each represent forms of mutualism. But mutual support was by no means the only way to counter the exploitative conditions. Open resistance in the form of strikes, consumer protests, but above all through unions in trade unions will be discussed in the next part. Here, too, van der Linden includes different countries and different epochs. Finally, the author discusses sociological theories and the world system theory of Immanuel Wallerstein.

The book offers a fascinating wealth of historical examples from Brazil in the 16th century to the present day in continental Europe. Van der Linden skilfully combines various thematic complexes and jumps between spaces and times. He formulates the claim he has set himself as follows: “I think I have achieved my goal when I have succeeded in credibly showing that a different historiography of the working poor of this world is possible and worth striving for” (p. 417).

“Global Histories of Work”, the opening volume of the series “Work in Global and Historical Perspective” edited by Andreas Eckert, opens up a similar perspective.Footnote37 In the introduction the editor points out the renewed interest in the history of the work. Numerous conferences, research projects and publications exemplify this trend.

The numerous investigations into the various forms of precariousness are evident. Because informal work does not only occur in a certain region of the world, its analysis requires a global perspective. Furthermore, the expanded concept of work no longer exclusively includes regulated wage labor. The volume brings together articles that have already been published and which have initiated the realignment of the Global Labor History . It is divided into four sections, each with three contributions.

The prelude, “The Promise and Challenge of Global Labor History” by Marcel van der Linden, provides an overview of the research area, defines the subject as well as the time and geographic framework (pp. 3–22). The following essays on the (forced) labor of prisoners and the role of South African labor history in a continental and global context apply van der Linden’s conception.

The next section, “Varieties of Work”, deals with, among other things, Indian seafarers from 1870 to the 1940s, the similarities and differences between work in capitalist societies and (warlike) activities in the military. The following section, “Dynamics of Labor Relations”, uses the example of Brazil, colonial India and Tsarist Russia to show the fluidity of labor relations. They were negotiated in the national context, depended on the balance of power and had to be rebalanced over and over again. The last section, “The End of Wage Labor”, takes up the debate that arose in many industrialized countries in the 1980s about the end of wage labor.Footnote38 According to Michael Denning, under capitalist conditions everyone is forced to sell their labor (pp. 273–290). This behavior is not based on free decision, but on structural coercion. But instead of criticizing such conditions, as Kathy Weeks explains, wage labor, for example, is valued more highly in American society than all other activities (pp. 291–326). Unfortunately, the everyday experiences and political framework conditions of wage labor only played a subordinate role in science.

In the concluding contribution, Rina Agarwala discusses the strategies used by women workers in the informal sector to improve their wages and working conditions (pp. 327–376). The importance of the institutional arrangement, ergo of the state, should not be overestimated.

The anthology sets the framework for the current debate on global labor history . He emphasizes two central aspects for a disciplinary realignment: the importance of both the Global South, especially India, and a more comprehensive concept of work. The white male worker with regular activity in a factory has always been the exception from a global perspective. The empirical examples underline the need to overcome a perspective that is fixed on the North Atlantic area.

Jörn Leonhard and Willibald Steinmetz pursue a conceptual historical approach in the anthology “Semantics of Work: Diachronic and Comparative Perspectives”.Footnote39 You are interested in the “meanings and the change in meaning of the vocabularies that together constitute the meaning field of what we call work today” (p. 10).

The 15 essays by well-known authors are divided into two areas. The first section “Concept of work and worlds of work” approaches the complex socio-historically, ethnographically and historically-semantically. The second part, “Struggles for definition of work and non-work in the industrial and post-industrial world” deals with the historically changing, often unclear demarcation between work and non-work.

The contributions date back to the 15th century, but also establish a connection to the present. The spatial horizon exceeds the national or even continental framework. European countries are treated as well as Asian, the Ottoman-Arab region as well as African and South American colonial societies.

The anthology shows the productivity of semantic-historical access. The strongly changing ideas and concepts were not only dependent on political and economic power relations, but were also subject to a (interpretive) struggle between different social groups, as Thomas Welskopp demonstrated in the second half of the 19th century on the basis of the work ideas in social democracy (p . 249-268). The conceptual historical individual studies show how difficult it is to maintain generalized narratives about work.

Toni Pierenkemper shows with “Employment and the labor market. Origin and development of the modern commercial society in Germany (1800–2000) ”.Footnote40 He examines working conditions and relationships in Germany over two centuries. After an introductory section on terms and concepts of work, the book is divided into three main areas. They follow the socio-political turning points in German history. The first chapter covers the period from 1800 to 1914, the next the period from 1914 to 1945 and the last the phase after the Second World War up to the new millennium.

Finally, Pierenkemper discusses the implications of the fundamental labor market theories and positions himself on the occasion of the current debates about the future of work.Footnote41 The three chapters each deal with the extent and structural change in employment, developments in the labor market, determinants of development and changes in framework conditions.

Pierenkemper describes the transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society and the fundamental political and social reforms that preceded it in the 19th century.

The second phase was marked by numerous crises, disasters and the two world wars. Some reforms, such as the eight-hour day and the introduction of unemployment insurance, laid the foundation for longer-term development, but in general, time had to be “seen as a lost epoch for improving the living and working conditions of German workers” (p. 184).

Only then did not only a stable democracy develop, but also a prosperous society, after overcoming the economic devastation surprisingly quickly. In view of full employment, the normal employment relationship eventually developed into the social norm. However, the author emphasizes, the period of full employment between the 1950s and the 1970s was a special case.

In the final reflections, Pierenkemper opposes dramatizing the effects of digitization. A historical perspective prevents hasty conclusions and makes it possible to weigh the sometimes diverging processes against one another: “Despite all the problems, there is no reason for pessimism” (p. 284).

Interim conclusion

The publications consistently emphasize the diverse forms of work and thus expand the concept of work. The new research on the history of work also advocates overcoming the Eurocentric perspective by means of a global perspective. In non-western countries in particular, a wide range of different activities beyond traditional wage employment ensures livelihood. But also in the industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America, reproductive or care work, which eludes the temporal and spatial logic of wage labor, has a central function.Footnote42 The publications show that the boundaries between the various types of work cannot be clearly drawn. This finding applies not only to the difference between wage labor and non-wage labor, but also to the difference between free and unfree work.

The historical-comparative perspective also makes it clear that current phenomena such as the spread of precarious employment relationships only appear extraordinary if the working conditions from the phase of the economic boom in the post-war period are used as a benchmark. In the longer term, however, they are the exception in capitalism.

Various methodological approaches such as the conceptual history, but also the ethnological approach, prove to be insightful for the history of work. In future, the social areas and norms related to the concept of work should be included even more closely in the analysis of the concrete world of work.Footnote43

History of the labor movement and the trade unions

The history of the labor movement in its various forms is a constituent part of the history of capitalism and work. This is why the interest of historical research in the history of the labor movement, the trade unions and other social movements has increased.Footnote44

Willy Buschak offers a variety of suggestions with the document volume “Workers’ Movement and Europe in the Early 20th Century”.Footnote45 As early as 2013, the author published a monograph on the courageous commitment of the trade unions, socialist parties and pacifist organizations to European unification at the beginning of the last century.Footnote46

The most recent publication extends, so to speak, the source basis of the first book. In the 30-page introduction, Buschak emphasizes that the European labor movement believed that it could only realize its hope for a better world and a more just society on a united continent. Activists from all western, central and eastern European countries therefore submitted concrete proposals on how Europe should be united economically and politically. Various reasons would have motivated the socialists to strive for this goal. In addition to the desire to avoid wars and the expectation of increasing prosperity in a common economic area, the author names another aspect: “The decisive and overarching keynote of the debate was: all of Europe is a cultural community” (p. 20 f .).

In general, the organizations of the labor movement have drawn up comprehensive ideas, from infrastructure and a common currency to a coordinated trade policy and uniform laws. The United States of Europe usually conceived it as a parliamentary democracy.

Buschak’s volume of documents shows the importance of the debate about the unification of Europe in the labor movement. The diverse voices make it clear that it was by no means exclusively the social elite who pursued European unification.

The volume comprises a total of 180 texts from the years 1901 to 1949, with a focus on the 1920s and early 1930s. The texts come from authors from European countries and the United States of America, from various parties, trade unions and peace organizations. In addition to newspaper and magazine articles, excerpts from brochures, books and speeches are printed. The editor divides the documents into nine thematic units, from the situation in Europe after the First World War, the relationship with the United States of America, questions of economic unification to the political structure of the newly created federal government. The book also comes with a CD with a comprehensive bibliography. It would be desirable

Marco Swiniartzki also deals with the early history of the labor movement. With “The German Metal Workers Association 1891–1933. A trade union in the field of tension between workers, the company and politics ”the author has not written a pure organizational history, but rather linked the development of the largest trade union of its time with the history of the company as a place of social tension and the history of work and workers in an interesting way.Footnote47 Mechanical engineering in Chemnitz and ironworks in the Ruhr area serve as a comparison level. While the Ruhr area has been relatively well researched, Swiniartzki points out that the economic and social history of Saxony, despite its fundamental importance for industrialization, has astonishingly large gaps.

The book pervades the tension between the organization’s own logic and the actions of its members. With reference to the concept of Alf Lüdtke, the author emphasizes in the introduction: “For the question of this work, the self-sense of workers, union members and also union secretaries is of decisive importance because the acts of such behavior define the individual boundary between self-determined space and ‘objective ‘Mark unreasonable’ (p. 25).

In a consistent comparative perspective between Chemnitz and the Ruhr area, the book is divided into five large sections. After the manual phase until 1900, the author deals with the importance of migration, then the operational phase until 1914, the orientation phase until 1924 and concludes the investigation with the rationalization phase. It is a great achievement to have examined in detail the constellation of diverse actors with different, sometimes adversarial interests over a period of four decades using the example of two industrial sectors in different regions.

Since the vast majority of research on trade union history in recent years covers the period since the 1970s, Swiniartzki’s study stands out. He demonstrates that it is worthwhile to cast a new perspective on trade union history from the period of high industrialization up to National Socialism. If you combine the history of the German Metalworkers Association (DMV) with the operational level, it becomes clear that the association’s development was not only determined from above, but followed informal processes.

Knud Andresen examines the youth policy of the DMV successor organization in “Braked radicalization: IG Metall and its youth from 1968 to the 1980s”.Footnote48 In the first section the author provides an overview of union youth policy up to the late 1960s. In the second chapter he describes the general politicization of youth in the course of the extra-parliamentary opposition and the emergence of new youth cultures. The youths and young adults politicized in this process encountered no small obstacles in the stuck organizational structures. For this circumstance, the author chooses the title-giving formulation “Braked radicalization”. In the third section, Andresen deals with the ‘after the boom’ phase with rising (youth) unemployment and widespread political resignation. The final chapter revolves around the challenges of the early 1980s.

In general, Andresen interprets the 1970s as a decade full of ambivalences. While the trade unions were at the height of their influence with the election of Willy Brandt as Federal Chancellor in 1969 and the reforms initiated by the social-liberal government, the oil price crisis put an end to this development. In addition to these socio-economic aspects, the unions had to deal with a politicized youth. Until the late 1960s, IG Metall viewed youth policy as merely preparing the apprentices for the work situation in the factories, while other unions had already integrated more general political problems. According to Andresen, the apprenticeship movement plays an important role in this respect.

The K groups founded after 1968 saw the trade unions and especially IG Metall as a field of agitation. In contrast to the revolutionary postulates of these groups, IG Metall Jugend and the apprenticeship movement fought for pragmatic goals. They wanted to improve the living and working conditions of the wage earners, strived for recognition at the company level and demanded to be involved in decision-making. The apprentices clashed with older colleagues and union officials over cultural issues or simply because of their clothing and haircut. Despite the temporary alienation between the functionaries and the youth of the trade union, their demands were ultimately integrated into the politics of IG Metall. Everyday business life remained more important than revolutionary ambitions for the union youth. After the oil price crisis in 1973, the fight against rising unemployment became the union’s main concern. The areas of conflict described perpetuated themselves into the early 1980s, when the conflict with the peace movement preoccupied the trade unions. In principle, IG Metall shared the political goals, but feared communist influence.

The study offers an insight into the ambivalent politics of the largest industrial union in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s. Andresen locates his work in the context of the ‘After the Boom’ debate, but refuses to use the trade unions’ narrative of decline. Rather, he emphasizes their continuing influence. Andresen not only offers a differentiated perspective on the 1970s, but also works out the importance of the trade unions for the entire history of the Federal Republic. No history of work, no history of industrial relations and thus of modern society can be written without trade unions. In this way, it would be hoped, union history could also find its way out of its niche disciplinary position.

The anthology published by Detlev Brunner, Michaela Kuhnhenne and Hartmut Simon, “Unions in the German Unification Process. Possibilities and limits in times of transformation ”.Footnote49 It gathers essays by scientists and trade union witnesses. On the one hand, this diversity of perspectives is a great strength of the publication, which is not only aimed at a scientific audience. On the other hand, this exploratory approach leaves the contributions largely unconnected. However, this statement does not change anything in the merit of the volume for a social history of the reunified Germany, namely the importance of “bringing the German trade unions and their actions more into the focus of research” (p. 9).

All contributions show that the West German trade unions were surprised by the rapid development. They were forced to react to the changes without much preparation. In doing so, they improvised sometimes more and sometimes less successfully.

The essay by Stefan Müller deals with the German policy of the West German umbrella organization German Trade Union Federation (DGB) and its East German counterpart, the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB) (pp. 17–44). The DGB had supported the détente policy of the social-liberal government since the early 1970s and sought cooperation with the FDGB on an equal footing. At the end of 1989, carried away by the events, the DGB spoke out clearly in favor of overcoming the division of Germany. At this point in time, the umbrella organization considered reunification to be realistic.

Wolfgang Uellenberg-van Dawen, who in 1989/90 headed the trade union education department in the DGB federal executive board, states the failed attempt to “build a democratic trade union organization from below and cooperation from above” (pp. 45–68, quote: p. 66) . Renate Hürtgen, co-founder of the “Initiative for Independent Trade Unions” (IUG) in the GDR in 1989 and has been doing research for decades, emphasizes the role of operational activities in East Germany during the period of upheaval. However, their influence waned as soon as the established structures were imported from the Federal Republic.

After an informative overview of the state of research by Detlev Brunner (pp. 95–108), Markus Böick sheds light on the relationship between the trade unions and the Treuhandanstalt (pp. 109–130). He understands this “changeable relationship” (p. 122) as a probe for the contradictions of the trust. The West German trade unions wanted to establish themselves aggressively as representatives of East German workers’ interests – especially as an alternative to the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). In the turbulent change process, they ultimately followed the well-known paths of the Federal Republican social partnership.

Then Roland Issen, at the time the chairman of the German Employees’ Union (DAG), describes his experiences as one of four union members on the administrative board of the Treuhandanstalt (pp. 131–150). The sociologist Ingrid Artus, in turn, deals with the transfer of the West German tariff system to the new federal states (pp. 151–168). Due to specific traditions in East Germany, this process did not go smoothly. For example, numerous company agreements undermined the collective agreement system. The volume closes with a contribution by the former IG Metall functionary Lothar Wentzel (pp. 169–180). As the person responsible for Wismar, he was involved in the violent disputes over the shipyard closings.

The return of biographies to historical studies in recent years is also reflected in trade union history. Various studies on prominent trade unionists have been published in recent years, two of which are presented.

With “Union power and its limits. The ÖTV and its chairman Heinz Kluncker 1964–1982 “presents Karl Christian Führer with far more than a biography.Footnote50 It connects the organizational history of the second largest DGB union at the time in the context of the political circumstances of the time with the life story and the role of its chairman. In the social imagination, Kluncker embodied the prototype of the powerful trade unionist. It is primarily associated with the civil service strike in February 1974. Many politicians rejected the double-digit increase in income as disproportionate and economically nonsensical. The actions of the public services, transport and traffic union (ÖTV) even contributed to Willy Brandt’s resignation shortly afterwards. This labor dispute made Kluncker a symbol of union power.

The extensive book is divided into several large parts. In the first chapter, Führer first describes the special feature (s) of the ÖTV. It united very different groups of wage earners in its organizational area. This structure brought not only internal difficulties, but also a permanent conflict with the German Employees’ Union (DAG) and the German Association of Officials (DBB).

Führer then traces the rather atypical path of Kluncker. He was born in 1925 into a social democratic family in Wuppertal. Looking back, he deeply regretted his temporary enthusiasm for National Socialism. As a deserted soldier at the front, Kluncker was taken prisoner by the British and eventually by the United States. He spent some time in the United States. After various activities and studies at the “Academy of Community Economics” in Hamburg, he was employed in the head office of ÖTV in Stuttgart in 1952. In 1964 he came to the top of the organization.

In the second chapter, Führer deals with the time until the social-liberal coalition came into power in 1969. The focus is on internal association conflicts, reform efforts and collective bargaining disputes. The author emphasizes the importance of collective bargaining policy as a core trade union business. Nonetheless, it is rarely addressed in historical research.

The following chapter discusses the ÖTV in the 1970s at the height of its influence. Contacts with the GDR and other real socialist states, the dispute over the so-called radical decree and the growing generational difference are discussed. Because of the inflation, the federal government pushed for low collective bargaining agreements, while the ÖTV insisted on unrestricted collective bargaining autonomy. This simmered the basic conflict that culminated in the strike in the spring of 1974. Führer explains the causes of the labor dispute, the organizational preparation, the concrete process and the economic policy implications. The ÖTV finally implemented an eleven percent increase with a minimum payment of 170 D-Marks. However, many members had hoped for more. The result of the negotiations was only just accepted. Leading social democrats, on the other hand, viewed it as a tragedy for the state.

The second half of the 1970s was characterized by internal organizational restructuring. The emerging rise of the service industry was reflected in the social structure. The year 1975, as Führer argues, marked a turning point for the civil service. The rationalization and early privatization debates received a new boost.

Kluncker’s last years as chairman until 1982 were marked by intensified controversies and heightened collective bargaining disputes. Despite his poor health, he hardly allowed himself to rest. As his successor, he proposed, surprisingly for many, Monika Wulf-Mathies and thus paved the way for the first woman to become the union leader.

In the treatise “Citizens and Trade Unionists. Ludwig Rosenberg. 1903 to 1977 ”Frank Ahland traces the life of Rosenberg, with the years as DGB chairman from 1962 to 1969 taking center stage.Footnote51 The book follows the turning points in life history and is divided into seven chapters. In this way, the author connects the individual’s path of life with the history of the trade union movement.

Rosenberg was born in Berlin in 1903. He came from an assimilated family of the Jewish bourgeoisie. After his father’s death in 1924, he took over the cloth business. Despite the cultural liberality in the German capital at the time, Rosenberg was often attacked by anti-Semitic agents. He became a member of the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold to defend the Weimar Republic. He also joined the SPD. His union career began in 1928 with the white-collar union. Rosenberg rose to the position of deputy district manager, but was dismissed in early 1933 due to his Jewish origins. A little later he fled into exile in England. In London he supported the Allied war effort. Among other things, Rosenberg was the spokesman for the BBC program “Arbeiterstunde”.Office of Strategic Servicesin contact. In 1946 he took over the trade union zone secretariat in Bielefeld and soon headed the main economic policy committee of the trade union council. In the umbrella organization newly founded in 1949, Rosenberg was appointed head of the main department responsible for foreign countries. He advocated the integration of the Federal Republic into the Western community and hoped that this would lead to a fundamental democratization. He gave the trade unions an important role in this. After the DGB founding program of 1949 and the action program of 1955 had postulated the socialization of the means of production, the Düsseldorf basic program in 1963 recognized the social market economy. In this dispute, the IG Metall chairman Otto Brenner and Ludwig Rosenberg were the opponents. Ahland formulates this constellation as follows: “If Otto Brenner was the driving force behind the action program, Rosenberg was the initiator of the new program, which was finally adopted in 1963” (p. 201). The new basic program is generally regarded as the trade union counterpart to the Godesberg program of social democracy. Shortly before the adoption, Rosenberg was elected DGB chairman.

As a result, the DGB was the first mass organization in the Federal Republic to elect a Jew to lead. The New York Times commented on this decision as follows: “West Germans Elect Jew To Head Trade Unions” (p. 239). Anti-Semites vilified the umbrella organization as a “Jewish shop”. His origins did not play an important role for Rosenberg himself. He was never a member of the Jewish community, but campaigned for Christian-Jewish reconciliation and the commemoration of the Nazi crimes. The DGB organized exchange programs with the Israeli trade union Histadrut at an early stage and in the early 1960s spoke out in favor of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

At the 1969 trade union day, Heinz Oskar Vetter replaced Ludwig Rosenberg as chairman. Until his death on October 23, 1977, Rosenberg was politically active – especially for European unification.

The biography unfolds a panorama of Rosenberg’s eventful life. In this respect, it represents a profound contribution to the history of the Federal Republic of Germany’s trade unions, and yet it is more at the same time. Rosenberg’s outsider role in the German labor movement as a Jew from a middle-class background and a remigrant opens up a perspective on the history of the 20th century far beyond the trade union movement. In general, the relationship of the labor movement to Judaism and the role of Jews within the labor movement still offer a lot of research subjects.Footnote52

The anthology published by Michael Ruck, “Opponent – Instrument – Partner. Union understanding of the state from industrialism to the information age ”.Footnote53

In the first three parts, authors such as Klaus Schönhoven, Detlev Brunner and Wolfgang Schroeder deal with the history of the German trade union movement from its beginnings to the present. It recapitulates the emergence of the first professionally oriented groups of workers after the revolution of 1848, the founding of the first trade union associations and the formation of the unions that were predominant up to National Socialism.

In the initial phase, at least the socialist trade unions were hostile to the state of the German Empire. They sought a fundamental upheaval in social conditions. This attitude changed in the Weimar Republic. After the turning point of National Socialism, the structure of the trade union movement that still exists today developed. With all the changes since 1945, the real break in the relationship between the unions and the state occurred in the early 1990s, as Schroeder explains: “The various transformations in society, economy and politics since the turn of the century in 1989/90 have substantially changed the relationship between the state and the unions “(Pp. 161-180, quoted: p. 178). The structural change in the labor market, the emergence of a low-wage sector and the erosion of the collective bargaining system weakened the social role of the trade unions. Above all, the introduction of the Hartz reforms by the red-green federal government shook the traditionally close relationship between the trade unions and social democracy. This shock continues to this day. Without them, the founding of the party “Die Linke” as an all-German organization cannot be understood.

In an interesting final part, the horizon is broadened beyond Germany and the situation of the unions in France, Great Britain and the United States of America is discussed. The editor rightly points out that international comparative studies are “still a desideratum of trade union historiography” (p. 16). Their difficulty results from the extremely different origins and structures of the respective national trade unions. The three contributions by Wolfgang Uellenberg-van Dawen (pp. 183–214), André Keil (pp. 215–244) and Julia Angster (pp. 161–180) work out the respective national understanding of the state, which is fundamentally different from the statistic attitude of German trade unions.

The highly fragmented trade union movement in France traditionally stood at a great distance from the state and the parties. Instead, for a long time it cherished a system-transforming claim to overcome capitalist property relations. In Great Britain, on the other hand, the trade unions followed a reformist course from the start. They called for wage earners to be integrated into the existing system. While the labor movement exerted a strong influence on the expansion of the welfare state in the decades after the Second World War, this situation changed with Margaret Thatcher’s militant anti-union policy. Also the socio-economic policies of New Laborunder Tony Blair further undermined the unions. In the United States, the trade unions have traditionally been among the proponents of the existing situation. According to a deeply rooted historical tradition, they defended pluralistic liberalism.

The anthology provides an overview of the German trade union movement and its relationship to the state. The essays on the other countries in particular underline the importance of transnational comparative trade union research.

Interim conclusion

The more recent studies on trade unions show that their history is no longer primarily written as organizational history. Although it still represents a necessary framework, it is no longer the focus. Instead, the organizational history is embedded in a broader interest in knowledge and current research debates. In doing so, it loses its sometimes self-referential character.

The more recent biographical treatises contextualize the respective life path sufficiently in the historical circumstances, but at the same time attach the necessary individual relevance to the functionaries. Despite all the existing biographies of important trade unionists in the Federal Republic of Germany, there are still some studies to be done, for example on the former IG-Chemie chairman Hermann Rappe, the former IG-Metall chairman Franz Steinkühler and the former DGB chairman Dieter Schulte.

Likewise, a European or transnational trade union history is still largely waiting to be realized. Due to the specific national structures of the trade unions, this project is truly no easy undertaking. Nevertheless, trade union historiography must not ignore the postulate of a global perspective, if only because of the internationalist claims of the labor movement. The first important steps in this direction have been taken. Such an expansion of the history of the workers’ movement should not be limited to the last third of the 20th century, but should also include its early phase.

With all global, transnational and European perspectives, the research should also emphasize the importance of the trade unions for the history of the Federal Republic.Footnote54 The trade unions were not only important democratic actors in terms of their self-image.Footnote55 Further studies on the role of trade unions in the process of reunification and in the 1990s will certainly appear in the near future.Footnote56


The fields of research on the history of capitalism, the labor (labor movement) and the trade unions have definitely left their long niche existence within historical studies behind them. You have noticeably returned to the academic agenda. The presented publications reflect the diversity of the content focus and methodological approaches. Despite all the differences, some common trends can be distilled out.

Many authors call for a global historical perspective. A Eurocentric or even nation-state perspective has to be overcome, a demand that can be heard from almost all subdisciplines of historical studies. Such a broadening of the horizon would be very welcome, but so far it has mostly remained with the postulate. Its implementation proves to be methodically and dramatically difficult. A global historical perspective should encompass more than include insightful essays on countries in the Global South in an anthology. This does not mean that the nation-state is no longer used as a frame of reference; the reference is merely geographically shifted and diversified. Nevertheless, this development is an extremely important step in the intended direction. Especially the writings of Marcel van der Linden show how a global history of the work (movement) could be approached. Building on the publications presented, the debate on how to write such a story is likely to become even more intense in the years to come. Not least for this purpose, theGerman Labor History Association founded in Bochum.Footnote57

A second trend is to break up existing dichotomies by means of a variety of methodical approaches and new questions to old objects. For example, research on the genesis of capitalism and the history of work has highlighted the (sometimes contradicting) complexity of the respective objects of study more clearly than before and shaken previous certainties: For example, the dividing lines between capitalist and pre-capitalist or between work and non-work are evident empirical studies as fluid. In this respect, the cooperation with related disciplines is proving to be extremely fruitful. The cooperation of historical studies with sociology, ethnology or political science should be further promoted, to get a comprehensive view of the diverse aspects of a history of work. The objects of investigation in this review article are particularly suitable for transdisciplinary cooperation. Work as an existential category of human coexistence and capitalism as an almost global system that structures all areas of society necessarily require varying methodological access that cannot be managed by a specialist discipline alone.

Last but not least, all thematic complexes are of particular importance both for understanding the general historical development of the modern era and for the state of the present. The relevance of the history of capitalism for today is just as self-evident as the significance of the history of work for all human coexistence. However, the publications on trade union history presented no longer follow the path they have trodden. They no longer represent classic organizational histories with an end in themselves. They convincingly reflect the socio-political role of the trade unions and make it clear that a history of the Federal Republic must remain incomplete without them.

The marginalized position of research on the history of capitalism, labor and the trade unions within the field is over, but its zenith is certainly far from being reached. The new findings and empirical insights of the coming years can be eagerly awaited.

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