You are on page 1of 16

Review: Working with Language: The Linguistic Turn in French Labor History.

A Review
Author(s): Lenard R. Berlanstein
Reviewed work(s):
Gender and the Politics of History by Joan Wallach Scott
Work and Revolution in France. The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848 by
William H. Sewell Jr.
The Rise of Market Culture. The Textile Trade and French Society, 1750-1900 by William
M. Reddy
Source: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 426-440
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL:
Accessed: 27/12/2009 00:47

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless
you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you
may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at

Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed
page of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Cambridge University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to
Comparative Studies in Society and History.
Working with Language: The
Linguistic Turn in French Labor
History. A Review Article

The University of Virginia

Gender and the Politics of History, by Joan Wallach Scott (New York: Columbia
UniversityPress, 1988).
Workand Revolutionin France. TheLanguage of Laborfromthe Old Regimeto 1848,
by WilliamH. Sewell,Jr. (Cambridge: UniversityPress, 1980).
The Rise of Market Culture. The Textile Trade and French Society, 1750-1900, by
WilliamM. Reddy(Cambridge: UniversityPress, 1984).
Money and Liberty in Modern Europe. A Critique of Historical Understanding,by
WilliamM. Reddy(Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1987).
La nuitdesproletaires,by JacquesRanciere(Paris:Librairie
Workand Wages. Natural Law, Politics, and the Eighteenth-Century
French Trades,
by MichaelSonenscher(Cambridge: UniversityPress, 1989).
Descent into Discourse. The Reificationof Language and the Writingof Social Histo-
ry, by Bryan D. Palmer (Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 1990).
The shifting directionsin laborhistoryover the past thirtyyears lend credence
to the adage that each generationmust rewriteits own history.The rebellious
1960s spawned the "new labor history" that eschewed the study of institu-
tions and formal ideologies in searchof workers'authenticexperiences. New
labor historiansexplore wage earners'lives outside formal political arrange-
ments (the family, community, workplace), but the major preoccupationis
discovering the direct experiences that mobilized workers for class-based
protestand led to higherlevels of class-consciousness. Today,practitionersof
that specialty seem to be on the wrong side of history. Their confidence in
class analysis, assumptionsabout the potential for radicalizationamong the
masses, and emphasis on the disruptiveimpact of capitalism accord poorly
with world-historicalevents in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It would be
excessively dramaticto equate the crisis of the new laborhistory with that of
Marxist-Leninist ideology, but the field is simply no longer the vital, self-
confident area it was in the 1970s.

0010-4175/91/2954-2975 $5.00 ? 1991 Society for ComparativeStudy of Society and History


One way that currentaffairsfail to mirrorthe directionof historicalthought

is that the falteringof the new social historydoes not marka shift to the right.
New laborhistoriansonce claimed the mantleof the new, the iconoclastic, and
the progressive. Their work was going to uncover the "world we have lost"
after generations of neglect at the hands of elitist diplomatic and political
historians. Today, the prestige of the novel belongs to revisionists who are
learned in poststructuralisttheory, cultural anthropology,and literary crit-
icism. Their new questions and approachesreveal just how much common
groundthere had been between new laborhistoriansand the old guardagainst
whom they rebelled. Both assumed there was an empiricalreality knowable
throughthe facts discoveredin the sources. Both implicitlytook history'sgoal
to be discerningcause-effect sequences. Both assumedeconomic forces were
relevant, if not central, to the analysis of conflict. Today's revisionists draw
on philosophy and language theory to question these fundamentalpremises.
They are now the scholarswho are makingus strangersin a world we thought
we understood.It is hardto believe thatthe old guardof the 1960s would find
their work congenial in any way.
One of the oddities of revisionistlaborhistoryis thatthe same scholar,Joan
WallachScott, sets the termsfor both extremesof the debate. Her 1974 study,
The Glassworkers of Carmaux, was a major contributionto the new labor
history and established proletarianization-the workers'loss of control over
production-as the dominantexplanatorymechanismfor protest. The book
brilliantlychronicles the decline of artisanallabor as the resultof mechaniza-
tion. Originally, bottle-makinghad been a craft in the steadfastcontrol of a
hierarchicallyorganized team of workers headed by the blower (souffleur).
The craft was life-organizing, and it took fifteen years to progress from
apprenticeto blower. Because of their skills, the glassblowersdominatedthe
productionprocess until it began to change in the 1880s with the installation
of the Siemens gas furnace and new types of molds. The factory owner,
heretofore a shadowy figure in the production process, no longer had to
depend on a team of glassblowersto make standardizedbottles. In face of the
threatto the craft basis of work, glassblowers began to unionize and take an
interest in socialist politics. 1
Among the conclusions Scott drew from the emergence of a class struggle
in Carmauxwas the centralityof the shop-floorexperience. The glassblowers
did not come to identify with otherwage earners,nor did theyjoin class-based
movements in quest of higher pay or shorterhours. Threatsto their domina-
tion over the work process in the craft radicalized them. In an especially
interestingpassage, Scott noted that syndicalistand socialist notions had long
been available to the craftsmen, but they did not find the ideas relevantuntil

1 Joan WallachScott, The Glassworkersof Carmaux.French Craftsmenand Political Action

in a Nineteenth-CenturyCity (Cambridge, Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press, 1974), chs. 2, 4.

their skilled status was in peril. The broadlesson for laborhistory was clear:
Craftsmenled the class struggle, and the threatof proletarianizationwas the
process that mobilized them for class-based action.2
Two influences have produceda thoroughgoingredirectionin Scott's think-
ing. They have broughther not only to turnaway fromher landmarkstudybut
also to propose nothing less than a reorientationof the discipline. In Gender
and the Politics of History, a collection of previouslypublishedessays, Scott
explains that poststructuralisttheory, especially the thought of Michel
Foucaultand JacquesDerrida,have convinced her thatlanguageis priorto all
social reality and forms all knowledge of that reality. Thus, class, pro-
letarianization,and consciousness cannotbe self-evidentcategories available
for conventional use in labor history. Furthermore,Scott's commitment to
feminism broughther to recognize that women's history could not be more
than an appendageto a "universal"history of males as long as the received
categoriesof analysis prevailed.These two influencesturnedScott's attention
to how those categories had emerged in the first place, and she challenges
historiansto pursuethatline of questioningratherthanlining up "facts"to fill
the received conceptualizations.Her contentionis thatmeaningis constructed
and reconstructedthrougha play of oppositions, especially masculineversus
feminine associations. This conviction makes the task of integratinggender
into labor historyurgentbecause sexual difference "becomes so implicatedin
the concept of class that there is no way to analyze one without the other"
(p. 60).
Scott's review of GarethStedmanJones'sostensibly iconoclastic book on
Chartismreveals just how uncompromisingis her revisionism.3Jones struck
at the heart of the new labor history by arguing that political language and
ideas shaped the Chartistmovement far more than did industrialexperience.
Scott applaudshis rejectionof socioeconomic causalitybut chargesthatJones
still uses terms like "class" and "radicalism"as if they had universalmean-
ings. Scott would have historiansdeconstructthe discourses(texts) thatpeople
used to define themselves and their interests. Her agenda for labor history
entails questions aboutthe role of genderand class in creatingmeaning:How
were categories of class formulatedat specific moments?How did appealsto
sexual differencefigure into the process?Why did a particulardefinitiongain
prominenceat a particularmoment?The answers, Scott believes, point to a
process in which discourses produce interests by excluding oppositional
The article "WorkIdentityfor Men and Women"on the Parisiangarments
trade in 1848 puts these daring notions into practice. In Glassworkers, the
shop floor experiencedprovedto be the structuringforce. Scott now claims to
show that the work experience for tailors and seamstresses had no fixed
2 Ibid., chs. 4, 5.
3 Languages of Class: Studies in English WorkingClass History, 1832-1982 (Cambridge:
CambridgeUniversity Press, 1983).

meaningotherthanthatgiven to it by theirpoliticallyproducedrhetoric.Male
tailors campaigned for the abolition of domestic work by associating the
workshop,skilled labor, and the integrityof the crafts. They portrayedhome-
based sewing as a curse on family life. Seamstresses,however, did not make
the location of work an issue but did try to preventdeclining pieceworkrates
througha collective wage agreement.Genderedopposites-work and family,
workshopand home, producerand mother-structured the workers'programs
for reform. The programs,Scott contends, must be examinednot as a reflec-
tion of conditions in the trades but ratheras product of contention among
workers and between workers and advocates of free trade. The conflictual
process of interpretingexperience "providedindividualswith forms of social
consciousness based on common termsof identityand providedthe means for
collective action" (p. 94).
The challenging essays in Gender and the Politics of History are bound to
unsettle the discipline. Only Scott's radicalskepticismaboutthe literalmean-
ing of texts, so nicely demonstratedin "A Statistical Representationof
Work,"is easily assimilableinto conventionalpractice.Otherwise, she would
have historian rethink what they do in a fundamentalmanner. Scott puts
gender, not socioeconomic or political causality, at the center of history. She
portraysdiscourse as having no predictablereferentbeyond it. Even Scott is
uncertain that her agenda will find its way into a mainstream,for it will
require "the masteryof philosophicallycomplex, often abstruse,theoriesand
a willingness to shift the way one thinks about history" (p. 67). Is such a
thoroughgoingreconceptualizationabsolutely necessary? Are there areas of
compromisewith the new laborhistory?Scott would not thinkso, but perhaps
her own work suggests there are bridges to be build. To be sure, Scott
demonstratesthat the connectionbetween work conditionsand the interpreta-
tion of interestsis far more complex than Glassworkersoriginally suggested,
yet it is hardto deny that there were connections. The seamstresses'demand
for higher piecework rates seems less a discursivelyproducedinterestthan a
reflection of the working conditions and low piece rates in the needle trades.
Perhaps her earlier masterpiece has more of a shelf life than the author,
herself, would acknowledge.
The disorienting Gender and the Politics of History is but the latest and
most systematic challenge to the new labor history. William Sewell's Work
and the Language of Revolution appeared in 1980, when social history was at
its height of prestige. By questioningthe primacyof socioeconomic causality
and carving out a place for ideology and symbolic understandings,Sewell
preparedthe way for the linguistic turn. His inspirationwas less poststruc-
turalisttheory than culturalanthropology,especially that of CliffordGeertz.4
Sewell began his inquiry into the origins of class consciousness with a
4 For a useful explication of Geertz's thought, see Aletta Biersack, "Local Knowledge, Local
History:Geertz and Beyond," in The New CulturalHistory, Lynn Hunt, ed. (Berkeley:Univer-
sity of CaliforniaPress, 1989), 72-96.

theme that new labor historiansclaim as their own: that artisansratherthan

factory proletarianswere the activists for most of the nineteenthcentury.The
proletarianizationmodel presumablyexplainedthatpoint, but the preceptsof
Geertz's anthropology-"all experience is construed experience"-made
Sewell suspicious of the generalization.He reasonedthat class consciousness
and socialism could not have arisen, pureand simple, out of economic devel-
opment if workerswith preindustrialtraditionsinventedthe two. He supposed
that artisansdrew upon their cultureto constructboth class and an ideology
equating labor and citizenship.
Sewell interpretsthe continuityof corporatelanguage,practices,and rituals
across the French Revolution and well into the next century to mean that
craftsmen carried forwardan ideology of work as part of an orderedmoral
community that subordinatedindividual interests to the public good. How-
ever, the Revolutionswept away an official corporateframeworkand replaced
it with individualism, liberty, and private property.The transformationof
public languageleft artisanswith a painfuldilemma. The capitalisticmutation
of the handicraftsmade tradeorganizationincreasinglynecessary;yet, it was
now illegal. When artisanstried to defend them in the discourse of the Old
Regime, their words had no official standing. The French Revolution had
incorporatedan ambiguityinto the notionof propertythatworkerswould have
to expose to defend their interests. The Revolution had borrowed an En-
lightened concept of propertyas amassed labor. Yet many labored without
accumulatingproperty,while a few had propertyand did not labor.
The culturalcontradictionsfound a resolutionsoon after the Revolutionof
1830. Seeking to establish a public statusfor corporateorganization,workers
hit upon the notion of association-individuals freely coming together to
furthersharedgoals. Association reconciledcorporatelanguagewith the revo-
lutionarytradition. Furthermore,the turmoilof the early 1830s and contact
with republicangroups allowed workersto expandthe concept of association
to include all trades. Class consciousness was born. Thus, corporategroup-
ings createdto defend workers'interestsbecame revolutionaryvehicles for a
new social order based on labor.
Although insisting on an autonomous role for culture in this and other
works, Sewell has not denied the relevanceof economic forces. He joins Scott
in problematizingthe relation between the subjects' conditions and their in-
terpretationof reality, but he would allow language to refer to something
beyond itself. Sewell's work is assimilableinto the new laborhistorybecause
he finds class consciousness a categorygeneratedby the workersthemselves,
not externallyimposed, as Scott would have it. Moreover,Sewell anticipated
Scott's call to examine how workersestablishedtheir identitywithoutfinding
genderedconcepts. She would probablysay that was only because he did not
look for them.
William Reddy's two recent books share in Scott's quest for a thorough

recasting of the discipline. Unlike Sewell, Reddy is not inclined to compro-

mise with empirical social history, for he believes that social historianshave
been thoroughlymisled by rhetoricalconventions. Reddy's The Rise of Mar-
ket Culture portrays language as an autonomous force that has oppressed
workers, doomed efforts to communicatewith them, and confounded those
who would speak to, for, or about wage earners. Reddy appearsto assume
that workers'interestsare not solely the creationof language, but he contends
that those interests are poorly describedby conventionalclass analysis.
Reddy has chosen well to examine the "classic" factory proletarians,the
textile operatives, in MarketCulture. There is such extensive commentaryon
them and such strong images-even popularones-that Reddy's critiqueof
all thathas particularirony.Turningon its head the conventionalportraitof the
demoralized, atomized uprooted masses marchinghopelessly into the dark,
satanic mills, the authorassertsthat "a whole humancommunitymoved into
the mills" (p. 165) and insists on the centralityof family, honor, and custom
to the operatives'lives. They wanted to be treatedas independentproducers,
free of all but self-generateddiscipline, free to organizedfamily life according
to customaryguidelines. A metaphorthatilluminatesReddy'sthoughtequates
work and cooking, both of which entail a complex bundle of rewardsand
costs. The author is committed to exposing the multidimensionalnatureof
labor that, he claims, makes all efforts to subject it to contractualrelations
The problem, according to Reddy, is that the forces of "progress"in the
West since the eighteenth century have aimed for that subjection. Market
culture, an interpretationof realityorganizedaroundthe propositionsthatgain
is the basic humanmotive and thatcompetitionmaximizesprofit, has been the
conqueringforce, and the authorinsists on the impoverishedview of reality
inherent in the culture. All the disparitiesbetween the simplifying assump-
tions of classical economics and the complex ways working people live and
assign values bring Reddy to proclaimthat "marketsociety did not come into
being in Europein the nineteenthcentury"(p. 1). Nonetheless, factorywork-
ers had to deal with marketcultureas an imposing force.
Reddy treats the IndustrialRevolution largely as a culturalphenomenon:
Factoryproductionbroughtemployersto adoptmarketcultureand give work-
ers options stated in its terms. The operatives never accepted the validity of
marketlanguage but reluctantlylearned to calculate "the value in monetary
terms of every move of the finger" (p. 136). Ironically, the workers' self-
proclaimedleaders and liberatorsused the same languageas mill owners and,
therefore, could not articulatewhat the operativeswantedand needed. Reddy
breakswith Sewell in denying that wage earnershad any role in constructing
class consciousness. In doing so, he questions the venerablehistoricaltradi-
tion stretching well beyond new labor history-which continues discourses
initiated by nineteenth-centurylabor activists and socialist thinkers.

The authorattributesto workers a taken-for-granteduniverse of daily ac-

tivities-Jiirgen Habermas's "life-worlds"-based on preindustrialhabits.
The mill operativeswere determinedto maintainthem in the face of corrosive
pressures from market culture. Reddy uses the laborers' strike activity to
confirmthis interpretation.He finds thattheirstrikesdid not entail bargaining
for higher wages or even betterworkingconditions. They were often raw acts
of rebellion, rich in symbolic gestures. Spontaneityand the absence of prag-
matic demands were central features.
Reddy's consummate originality might perhaps be described as a potent
combinationof the impulse inherentin the new laborhistoryto find "authen-
tic" and rich humanvalues among the oppressedand the theoreticallearning
of the post-Marxistera. His perspective raises fundamentalquestions about
Marxism and historical materialism. In Money and Liberty in Modern Eu-
rope, Reddy gives his vision more explicit theoreticalgrounding.Money and
Libertysuggests the shape that a poststructuralist Das Kapital might take, for
Reddy has the ambitionto replace historicalmaterialism with a novel critique
of capitalism. The startingpoint is the crisis of class analysis, which did not
even need a push from language theory to fall of its own weight, in the
author's view. In keeping with postmodernprecepts, his vision is not tele-
ological, and he does not foresee the ultimatetriumphof social justice.
Readers of Market Culture will not be surprisedto find Reddy again pro-
nouncing capitalist society an impossibility. It would require, by definition,
"the full and free convertibilityof all objects of human desire into money
equivalents"and the full separationof social, economic, political, and moral
sphere (p. 154). What the late eighteenth century did inauguratewas the
classical liberalism's language to describe timeless inequalities. "The new
society of the nineteenth century was not so very new after all," Reddy
asserts. "A very ancient form of authorityand social deference was given a
new set of clothes."
Not class strugglebut "asymmetricalexchangerelationships"constitutethe
principal dynamic in this illusionary liberal society. By that, Reddy means
that the rich and the poor enter into contractualarrangementsunder very
unbalancedterms. For a worker, a job is a matterof existence; for an em-
ployer, it means only a marginalincreasein output.Asymmetryplays roughly
the same role in Reddy's notions as the labor theory of value played in
classical Marxism; it is the concept that transformsexchange into exploita-
tion. Because the poor need money to survive, the richer party is able to
exercise power over the improvishedindividual.Thereis an "extraeconomic"
disciplining, inference, and intimidationthat has no place in the ideology of
capitalism. ForReddy, this explains why it is not possible to constructa stable
society based on "the liberal illusion." Inevitably,the laboringpoor mobilize
against extraeconomicpower. Reddy argues that working-classcommunities
develop a formidablecode of "male honor,"partlyin reactionto disciplining

from above, partlyin a spontaneousmanner.The authorsees evidence of such

comportmentin the strikes of textile operatives, but he means his analysis to
apply to the preindustriallaboringpoor as well as the new factory proletariat.
His attemptto underscorethe similaritiesin striketactics between semifeudal
Silesian linen weaver and mill workers in Manchesteris very much to the
The audacityof Reddy's reinterpretationis a faithful reflection of the con-
fusion created by the founderingof class analysis. For many scholars, Red-
dy's revisionism will appear at least somewhat more palatable than Scott's
agenda for diffusing poststructuralisttheory. The problem with Reddy's for-
mulation is its generality. Asymmetricalrelations and revolts in the name of
honor reduce social structureand social conflict to the lowest common de-
nominator. If Reddy is correct about the failures of class analysis, labor
history must perseverewithout the totalizing analysis that Marxism(of what-
ever sort) provided.
Reddy's perceptionthat language has the capacity to obscure and mislead
those who seek workers' authentic experience receives reinforcementfrom
Jacques Ranciere'sLa nuit des proletaires of 1981.5 Ranciere examines the
lives and thoughtof working-classwriterswho inventedthe languageof class
duringthe 1830s and 1840s. Most adheredto utopiansocialist projects. They
spent theirdays at laborand theirnights defendingtheircause with theirpens.
The loosely structuredbook juxtaposes long citationsand sparsecommentary
in which rhetoricalquestions are as common as declarativestatements. One
finds the ruminationsof dreamerswho talkedpast one another,the thoughtsof
one schemer after another reflecting on lost struggles. Ranciere wants his
readersto take the autodidactworkersseriously as politically engaged writers.
He seeks to stimulate interest, not in their programsfor change, but in their
rhetoricalstrategiesfor addressingworkersand nonworkers.Rancierewould
be the first to admit that the intelligentsia did not describe the underlying
realities of workers' lives but the unrealized possibilities of crossing class
Most relevantto the debate with social historiansis Ranciere'sposition on
the socialism of skilled workers. The autodidactauthorsexaltedthe dignity of
skilled labor. Their writings made the pride of the craftsmancentral to the
emergence of class feeling. Laborleadersand laborhistoriansever since have
been pleased to cite their texts as evidence that socialism grew out of the
workers'own culture and values.6 In doing so, Rancieremaintains, scholars

5 The work has

recently been translatedas The Nights of Labor. The Workers'Dream in
Nineteenth-CenturyFrance, John Drury,trans. (Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 1989).
The new version begins with an excellent introductionby Donald Reid.
Especially subject to Ranciere'scritiqueis BernardMoss, The Origins of the French Labor
Movement, 1830-1914. The Socialism of Skilled Workers(Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1976).

have perpetuateda myth. These were not at all the authenticspokesmen for
skilled workerscalling for a social revolutionin orderto make the world safe
for craftsmen. The working-class intelligentsiabelonged to degradedtrades
and were actuallydemeanedby theirwork. They createda legend of the proud
artisan beset by troubling forces and determined to save his way of life.
Perhaps, because the writersknew only too well the alluresof the bourgeois
life, they used the legend as a counterweightto theirdemoralizationas work-
ers. At night, enjoying an all-too-briefrespite from their grueling labor, they
imagined a working class that would reshapethe world aroundskilled work.
Like Scott and Reddy, Ranciere points out that labor historianshave per-
petuatedpolitically motivateddiscourses about workersratherthan breaking
down those discourses. A philosopher, Ranciere warns historians that they
will have to reflect more carefully on the connection between language and
reality. In doing so he administerssome embarrassingcorrections, even for
revisionists. Sewell, for example, based his analysis on workers' ideology
partlyon texts thatRanciereexposes as being unsuitablefor the purpose.New
labor historians must squirm as well because their goal was precisely to
explore workers as they actually lived and thought.
Perhapsthe lesson to draw from Ranciere is not the futility of seeking the
workers'authenticvoice but the need to exercise enormouscare. It would be
well to recall that Ranciere is a philosopherwho puts history to use for his
own purposes. He bears the same relationto the discipline as anotherhistor-
ically mindedphilosopher,Michel Foucault.Just as historiansshould not read
Foucaultto learnaboutinsanityin the early moder period, so laborhistorians
should not take Ranciereas a serious studentof work.7In fact, his pronounce-
ments on skill and work are simplistic. His fascinatingstudy is no substitute
for Scott's careful analysis of labor in Glassworkers. Ranciere challenges
historiansto problematizethe relationbetween work experienceand ideology,
but he offers no commandingreason to abandonthe line of inquiry.
Of all the books discussed so far, Michael Sonenscher's study of eigh-
teenth-centuryartisansis potentiallythe most devastatingto the claims of the
new labor history because it does not rely on a theoretical orientationthat
materialists can reject or ignore. Sonenscher challenges socioeconomic
causality on its own grounds. To say that he has done the hardarchivalwork
many social historianstake as a markof seriousnesswould be an understate-
ment. His command of archivalsources is awesome. Moreover, Sonenscher
attacks labor history where it is conceptually the strongest and meth-

7 For a critical evaluation of Foucault as a historianof insanity, see H. C. Erik Midelfort,

"Madnessand Civilization in EarlyModem Europe:A Reappraisalof Michel Foucault,"in After
the Reformation.Essays in Honor of J. H. Hexter, BarbaraC. Malament, ed. (Philadelphia:
University of PennsylvaniaPress, 1980), 247-65. For an assessment of Foucault'sapproachto
history,see Allan Megill, "Foucault,Structuralism,and the Ends of History,"Journalof Modern
History, 51 (1979), 451-503.

odologically the weakest. If Sonenscheris correct, new laborhistoriansmust

admit to having been naive and ill-informed-and not just from a poststruc-
Moder labor history has always had a programmaticweakness in that it
made powerful assumptions about preindustrialworkers, but little research
was actuallycarriedout on the subject. New laborhistorydeveloped arounda
conceptualizationinvolving preindustrialworkers coming into conflict with
the emergingcapitalisteconomy of the nineteenthcentury.The proletarianiza-
tion model presupposeda linear deteriorationof work experience as market
forces undermineda more privileged labor situationthat had been guaranteed
by custom. Labor historians typically examined craftsmen at a moment of
crisis in the nineteenthcentury and accepted the workers'depiction of their
plight, if not at face value, then with uncharacteristiccredulity. Before the
revisionism of Scott, Reddy, and Ranciere, it was easy to assume that the
workers' complaints reflected their actual conditions. Sonenscher's mag-
isterial study of eighteenth-centuryurbanartisansseizes on this weakness and
uses it to topple the explanatoryapparatusthat makes capitalism the master
force in creating a class society.
Students of nineteenth-centurylabor have long recognized that the eigh-
teenth century was a transitionalperiod but have implicitly emphasized the
extent to which work and workers were "traditional"-that is, guided by
ancient norms and not subject to marketforces. Sonenscher is on target in
challenging several key assumptions:that legal restrictionsprotected eigh-
teenth-centuryartisansfrom intense competition, that artisansidentifiedwith
their work because they made a whole product,thatcraftsmenhad a local and
particularisticperspectiveon their world, and thatthey willingly workedlong
hours because their was no separationbetween labor and social life. Above
all, there is the premise that custom served as a unifying force between
masters and journeymenand gave the latterprotectionagainst marketforces
(not yet powerful in any case) thatwould subsequentlyreducepay and threat-
en work conditions. Sonenscher attemptsto show that work life before the
Revolution was closer to the mid-nineteenth-centurysituation than the new
labor history has ever recognized.
Sonenscher'sexhaustive researchpoints to a hurly-burlyworld of competi-
tion, markets, and mobility existing alreadyin the eighteenth-centurytrades.
He argues that work was quite subdivided and specialized, even without
factories. Sonenscher develops the concept of "productivenetworks"to ex-
plain how workshopscould segmentjobs among several masters.Ratherthan
the reign of paternalismbetween mastersandjourneymen,Sonenscherdocu-
ments rapidlabor turnoverand ephemeralrelations. Ratherthan a standardiz-
ing "custom"thatharmonizedwork life by settingpay and hours, therewas a
high degree of uncertaintyand intense disputesover the issues. In an interest-
ing chapteron journeymen'sassociations (compagnonnages),Sonenscherar-

gues thatthey were not vehicles for timeless corporateideals, as Sewell would
have it. Instead, they had a golden age between 1750 and 1830 precisely
because their rituals created differencesamong tradesmenwhen the law and
markets were eradicatingprivileges and skills. The conclusion Sonenscher
draws from this portraitof prerevolutionarywork is that capitalismcould not
have caused the rise of class-based society and class conflict in the following
century because marketforces had alreadyreshapedlabor.
What did produce a working class? Turningto the same sort of publically
validated discourses that Sewell treated, Sonenscher gives his argumentan
intriguing twist. "What changed in France between 1748 and 1848," he
notes, "was not so much . . . the immediate circumstances in which produc-
tion was carriedout, as the identity of the public to which actors in conflict
appealedand the mannerin which those appealswere couched" (p. 375). We
are back to Scott's notion of identity established by conflictual discourses
which bear little relationto a prior socioeconomic reality. Sonenscherpoints
out that prerevolutionaryjourneymenexisted in a legal institutionalframe-
work sanctioningguild organization,so they spoke in the language of privi-
lege and corporateparticularism.Because journeymenaddressedmainly law-
yers and civil courts in the defense of their interests, references to custom
were an importantweapon in their arsenalof arguments.After the Revolution
created a regime of individualismand liberty, workershad to invent a lan-
guage of solidarityto challenge theiremployers. They eventuallyhit upon the
class concept.
Whether Sonenscher is correct about the eighteenth-centurywork experi-
ence is obviously a crucialquestion, probablythe questionfor laborhistoryat
the moment. Not only is the historiographyof the last two decades at stake,
but revisionists, too, must reassess their work in light of Sonenscher'sfind-
ings. On the whole, Language of Labor holds up well, especially considering
Sewell's reliance on secondarysourcesthat Sonenschernow supersedes.It is
true that Sonenscherwould not accept Sewell's claim thatthe corporateidiom
reflected a communalunderstandingof work and property.The formerwould
portraycorporatelanguage as a means of strugglingfor position within the
legal frameworkof the ancien regime. On the otherhand, Sewell's interpreta-
tion does betterthan Sonenscher'sin accountingfor the contentof socialism.
There are passages in Reddy's work that portraysociety before the rise of
marketcultureas organic, and Sonenscherwould have to question these. He
could, however, agree with Reddy's insistence on the continuity of so-
cioeconomic realities even as languageand cultureshifted. Ranciere'svision
of the state of crafts in the nineteenthcenturyreceives forceful supportfrom
Sonenscher, and the latter makes a brilliant empirical case for Scott's the-
oretical position.
Is there room to doubt Sonenscher'scontentionthat the work situationof
the mid-nineteenthcentury was essentially the same one as that in the mid-

eighteenth century? This key question must receive extensive treatment, for
there is much riding on it. If Sonenscher is correct, the role of capitalism as
the moving force in labor history has been vastly over-emphasized, and much
of the work in new labor history will have been rendered irrelevant. In antici-
pation of the attention this matter will undoubtedly attract, this reader would
suggest some crucial areas in which Sonenscher is not entirely convincing.
First, there is the question of skill. Sonenscher argues, more by assertion than
demonstration, that skill levels were fairly rudimentary in most trades as a
result of the division of labor. This position stands in stark contrast to the
literature on the nineteenth century, which stresses the deleterious impact of
mass marketing and ready-made production on the traditional crafts.
Sonenscher admits that most goods remained "made to order" in the eigh-
teenth century. There is at least the possibility that the specialization he finds
before the French Revolution was much less pervasive than the proletarianiza-
tion occurring in nineteenth-century crafts.
The reservation is especially relevant because Sonenscher is simply not
considering the same sort of "worker" that new labor historians are ac-
customed to discussing. For all his claims about the power of market forces in
the eighteenth century, joureymenship remained a stage in the life cycle of
the worker. Sonenscher's workers were largely single males between the ages
of 15 and 25, who would eventually become masters. The author neglects the
potential significance of this finding from the socioeconomic perspective. By
1848, wage-earning status had become a permanent way of life for several
million tradesmen. Proletarian families had appeared.8 What does this trans-
formation represent, if not proletarianization?
If such reservations continue to hold weight in the light of future research,
then they imply that the rush to replace socioeconomic causality with dis-
course may be premature. One could argue that the corporate language was
just as much a reflection of the social conditions of journeymen, who would
one day be masters, as it was a reflection of the legal-institutional framework
structuring their discourse. Likewise, it seems plausible that nineteenth-cen-
tury workers spoke the language of class because they had become, or were
threatened with becoming, permanent victims of a wage system. Conditions
of production by 1848 may well have been different in crucial ways from
those in 1748. Arguably, new labor historians after Sonenscher will still be
able to agree with Charles Tilly that "proletarianization is the single most far
reaching social change that has occurred in the Western world over the past
few hundred years."9
It is certainly a sign of the intellectual malaise within labor history that so
few practitioners have risen to the defense of their assumptions. One excep-
8 The most thoroughstudy of the creationof proletarianfamilies is Michael Hanagan,Nascent
Proletarians. Class Formation in Post-RevolutionaryFrance (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
9 As Sociology Meets History (Cambridge,Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press, 1985), 1.

tion is the Canadian Marxist, Bryan Palmer. His Descent into Discourse
avoids being simply an emotional, ideologically narrowresponseto the crisis
in materialisthistory. To be sure, Palmer is always feisty and, occasionally,
strident in defense of historical practices to which he is deeply committed.
Yet, it is also true that he respects his opponentsand wishes to reason with
Much to his credit, Palmer is fully capable of examining poststructuralist
theory from the inside-indeed, he occasionally faults revisionists for their
weak graspof theory.The book begins with a learnedsurveyof the evolution
of the ideas, from Neitzsche to Derrida. The emphasis is on the internal
disagreementsand historicalcontingenciesthat have shapedthe development
of language theory. In Palmer'sview, revisionistshave been all too ready to
accept it as revealed truth.
The strongest objections to discourse analysis derive from professional,
cultural, and moral concerns. Palmer finds the scholarshipunsatisfyingand
occasionally sloppy, especially the critiquesof class analysis. Palmeraccuses
the revisionists of an arrogantexclusiveness. He contends that new labor
historians have often been sensitive to language but finds the revisionists
turningtheir backs on every other perspective in a most unhelpful manner.
Above all, Palmer laments that the linguistic turn is not up to the task of
addressing the great issues of the past and present. His case in point is
Derrida's commentaryon the anti-Semitic and collaborationistwritings of
Paul de Man, the influential deconstructionistliterary critic who lived in
Belgium duringthe Nazi era. Palmeraccuses Derridaof failing to appreciate
the moraldimensionof the case. He warnsthat "when humanagency is most
urgentlycalled on the historicalstage, deconstructiontakes its leave of large
explanation,and ultimatelymoralandpolitical authority"(p. 198). His objec-
tion might seem moreeven-handedif he had acknowledgedJoanScott's use of
theory to addressone of the great issues of our day.
Still convinced thathistoricalmaterialismis the best of all availableexplan-
atory schema, Palmer claims to be preparedto learn from poststructuralists.
He praises the work of Sewell and Sonenscherfor their openness to a multi-
plicity of approaches.By contrast, he blasts Ranciere for producinghistory
that is "enclosed within its own referentiality."Of course, his call for plu-
ralismmay seem beside the point to those who areconvincedthatlanguageis,
indeed, primary.
Palmer's mastery of the literatureand his commitmentto pluralismmake
this an importantcritique. Nonetheless, the authoris perhapsless than per-
fectly suited for a role in formulatingthe desired synthesis, and his program
has a significant gap. Because Palmer does not, in the end, believe that

10 See Palmer's comments, particularlyon Derrida'sarticle, in "Like the Sound of the Sea
Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man's War,"Critical Inquiry, 14 (Spring 1988), 590-652.

discourse analysis has the potentialto transformlabor history profoundly,he

does not explore how social historiansmight use its insights. He leaves it to
the revisioniststo strikethe balance. It is far from clear thattheirbalancewill
be to his liking.


The revisionism produced by the linguistic turn has been stunning in its
ambitions. Indeed, the programs for recasting historical thought make the
debate far more than a tempest in a small subspecialty. Unfortunately,the
root-and-branchchanges Scott, Reddy, Ranciere, and otherspropose offer no
way to build upon past historical practice. To the extent that most historians
hold tightly to archival research as their quintessentialprofessional activity
and resist the exhortationto read philosophy, the linguistic turn carries the
threatof a furthercompartmentalization of alreadyspecialized subdisciplines.
Every field will contain those who "do theory" and those who do not. More
likely than not, the two communities will not communicatewith one another.
Ratherthan this unfortunateoutcome, one should prefereven the incorpora-
tion of theory into the mainstreamthrougha process of vulgarization(which
may already be under way, in any case). Sonenscher's scholarship stands
steadfastlyin the way of dismissing discourseanalysis as a passing academic
fashion. Pending the results of follow-up research, social historians should
prepareto interrogatethemselves on why they are so attachedto theircatego-
ries and methods.
Palmer's call for informed compromise and synthesis is surely welcome,
though the time may not yet be ripe for it. Revisionists are still deeply
engaged in the theoretical exploration of their position, which leads to an
exclusivist emphasis. New laborhistorianshave been disarmedby a disciplin-
ary revolution that presumes the same sort of superioritythey, themselves,
claimed a generationago. Social historianshave not yet clamoredfor grafting
a concern with causation and process on to a linguistic orientation.
Although synthesis will not happen easily, the grounds for a dialogue are
alreadyvisible. Historiansmust reconsiderthe links thatreside in the dichoto-
my between conditions and interpretationswhich addressboth approacheson
their weakest fronts. The revisionists have come to consider workers'condi-
tions as uninteresting(a backhandedtributeto the success of the new labor
history?),unknowable,or irrelevant.Should the revisionistsdesire to broaden
their agenda to deal more specifically with cause and change, their under-
standing of socioeconomic forces might take on a renewed urgency. New
labor historians, for their part, have scrutinizedthe work experienceand then
assumed that interpretationwas self-evident. Both sides must attend to the
ways in which the terms of the dichotomy connect. This will mean reviving
elements of poststructuralisttheory thatvalidate social context;Palmershows
such strandsare by no means negligible. Social historianswill have to drop

their presumptions about universal economic determinants and focus on the

specifics of each situation. For the moment, at least, the new labor historians
must take the defensive. They will have to struggle to demonstrate a role for
economic conditions in the creation of identity. They must do so with the
tenacity and ingenuity that comes from knowing that not only world events
but also the cultural currents of this century are against them.