Work, Class, and Social Democracy in the Global Age of August Bebel (1840-1913)

25.-27.05.2023, Seminar, DHI Washington, vor Ort (Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto)

Conveners: James Retallack (University of Toronto), Simone Lässig (GHI Washington) and Swen Steinberg (GHI Washington) | Partners: Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Bonn); Institute for Social Movements (Bochum)

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All events on the program are free of charge and open to the public.

The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of labour history, and not only for historians of Germany. There was a marked turning-away from both labour history and workers' history after 1980, due in part to new interest in the German and European bourgeoisies, in part to the "cultural turn" and other scholarly trends. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1991 and the decline of Marxist historiographies. In 2010, a forum of scholars acknowledged that "class," as an analytical category, had largely lost its appeal. But now we are more than ten years further on, and scholars have recently been telling us that histories of work, of labour movements, and of capitalism are all back "in." Are they really?

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that work and the concept of work are central to our existence and self-worth. And scholarship has not stood still since 1980. Histories of work have embraced the history of capitalism, class, race, ethnicity, religion, language, migration, and locality; of gender construction, the body, and emotions; of education, life-cycles, and generations. The study of labour movements has also revealed important connections between cultures of commemoration, memory studies, and the role of "citizen workers" in civil society. The time seems ripe for another stocktaking on these interrelated themes, bringing history into conversation with other disciplines.

Including the iconic figure of August Bebel provides focus in another way. Was the leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) a worker, a craftsman, a manufacturer, a merchant, an entrepreneur, even perhaps a Bürger? Was he the embodiment of Social Democracy, as Lenin once claimed? Either way, the collapse of capitalist society that Bebel foresaw as early as the 1880s never occurred, and within a year of his death his legions were marching faithfully to the front for Kaiser and Fatherland. Karl Kautsky's assessment of Social Democracy was closer to the mark: the SPD was a revolutionary but not a revolution-making party.

While the focus of this conference falls on the pre-1914 period and on Central Europe, this conference presents contributions that consider transnational or global comparisons and suggest how historians of nineteenth-century social movements can speak to those studying or participating in more modern ones.

 Program (pdf)

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