Title: Workers’ Movements
Date: 2009
Source: Retrieved on 9th October 2021 from lucienvanderwalt.com
Notes: Published in Akira Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier (eds.), The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, Palgrave Macmillan, London, New York, pp. 1121–1128.


Overviews the movements and struggles of the popular classes over the last 3–4 centuries, covering slaves, serfs, servants, workers and unemployed, free and unfree. Stresses the importance of global processes and connections, with close attention to the periods of proto-globalisation (17th and 18th centuries), the first modern globalisation of the 1880s into the 1920s, the “deglobalisation” that followed, and the second modern globalisation from the 1970s onwards. Rejects narratives of neat “north” versus “south” and identity politics models, stressing divisions across and within societies, between those above and those below, based on common processes of class formation and experience globally, and highlighting remarkably wide solidarities, from the “Atlantic working class” of proto-globalisation era to the anarchists and socialists, to the struggles today.

The current vogue of ‘globalization’, popularly used to describe a wide range of contemporary phenomena of international integration ranging from free trade to cosmopolitan cultures to current workers’ movement responses, has the singular merit of directing attention to the importance of international processes in the making of workers’ movements. Global interconnections are a decisive element of modernity and capitalism, and contemporary globalization is only one phase in a larger historical trend in the last four centuries. This suggests the importance of understanding popular class formation as an international process shaped by global forces, whose significance varies over time. It is useful to reconsider workers’ movements from the perspective of what Marcel van der Linden calls ‘transnational labour history’, which questions the use of the nation-state as basic unit of analysis for understanding labour history.

In relativizing and historicizing the nation-state, transnational labour history directs attention towards examining workers’ movements from a global perspective, stressing the role of transnational processes and interconnections in shaping labour history and the importance of comparative analysis. A national focus was characteristic of both old labour history, focused on institutions and leaders, and new labour history, which examined cultures and identities. Thus, E. P. Thompson’s masterwork took the ‘English working class’ as its focus; it did not really examine the imperial and international context that Thompson’s own material indicated was an important influence. Thus, without discounting the importance of ‘national’ factors in workers’ movements, transnational labour history questions assumptions that workers’ movements necessarily develop into nationallevel movements, or are primarily shaped by forces operating within the boundaries of the nation-state, and thereby raises questions about the standard practices of framing labour histories as a series of national narratives. Transnational workers’ movements are not, we argue, the exceptional moments of interconnection in a history of workers’ movements which supposedly normally and naturally assume a national form. On the contrary, transnational workers’ movements are a central, recurrent and, at times, primary feature of the history of the popular classes.

It is important, then, to situate the development of workers’ movements within the context of transnational, national as well as local, dynamics and developments. Transnational labour history also raises fundamental questions about the class categories and conceptual repertoire used in understanding labour movements. A global perspective, by drawing attention to a wide variety of evolving labour processes and labour relations over the last few centuries, and in suggesting that these multiple arrangements form part of a global division of labour within an evolving capitalist system with an evolving global character, transnational labour history points to the need for a wider understanding of basic concepts like ‘labour’, ‘workers’, and the ‘working class’ itself. A transnational labour history for the modern period should, arguably, include the history of slaves, tenant farmers, independent artisans and peasants, as well as of wage earners, both free and unfree.

In line with these points, this entry examines transnational workers’ movements from the perspective of the longue duree of modernity, with particular attention to the role of transnational connections, solidarities and organizations. It does not restrict itself to a classical Marxist understanding of the working class as simultaneously ‘free’ of both ownership of the means of production and extra-economic coercion. The routine use against wage labour of direct coercion, debt-bondage systems and indenture militates against such an understanding, while workers have continually overlapped with classes like peasants and independent artisans.

Linked by flows of people, ideas, models of organization and repertoires of struggle, located within evolving international and regional political economies and labour markets, transnational workers’ movements have been a recurrent development, often surging forward during international crises, when pulses of revolt have swept through the popular classes and accelerated connections across the borders of provinces, colonies, empires and nation states, as well as of those of nationality and race. Our approach problematizes setting up neat binaries between so-called ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds, or their popular classes, or assuming Eurocentric diffusion models of intellectual history. It draws attention to the importance of multiple and overlapping, yet often international, proletarian public spheres.

Modifying A. G. Hopkins’ schema of historical globalization, it is useful to distinguish between the proto-globalization in the 17th and 18th centuries (marked by the rise of the Atlantic economy of maritime enterprise, the plantation system and early manufacturing), the ‘first’ modern globalization in the late 19th and early 2oth centuries (associated with industrialization and revolutions in communications and transportation), a period of relative deglobalization from the 1920s into the 1970s, and the ‘second’ modern globalization that followed.

Workers’ movements in protoglobalization

The ‘protoglobalization’ of the 17th and 18th centuries was characterized by the development of an Atlantic economy centred on the slave trade in Africa, the plantation system in the Americas and elsewhere, and expanding if generally preindustrial manufacturing in Western Europe. Agricultural products like cotton, tea and tobacco were central, and there was mass migration across the Atlantic by African slaves to the Americas and the Caribbean, as well as by indentured and free Europeans, with indentured Europeans a large part of plantation labour.

Unfree labour dominated this configuration. The sailors working the Middle Passage were largely unfree, as were most Whites sent to Australia. Besides plantations worked by unfree labour, there were the haciendas of Latin America, supplied with labour through coercive systems like the repartimiento, debt bondage and various forms of tenant farming. Khoisan indentured servants, African and Asian slaves, and bonded Europeans provided the labour supply in the Dutch East Indies’ Cape colony in Africa.

Slaves, unfree and free workers in Europe and the Americas, poor White peasants driven to the margins by the plantations, and the naval and military proletariat, constituted the key components of what Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker call the ‘Atlantic working class’ in their path-breaking study. Organized around the world of maritime labour, agriculture, manufacturing and long-distance trade, this was involved in events like the English Revolution, Bacon’s Rebellion, the American War of Independence, naval mutinies, the riots of the London mob, and Irish uprisings. Linebaugh and Rediker focus on the North Atlantic, but their arguments can be usefully extended to the larger world. There was, for example, a wave of slave risings across the British Empire after the slave trade was ended, in the Caribbean, Latin America and southern Africa; the successful anti-colonial revolts in Latin America can, likewise, be located within the great pulse of revolt of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Of great interest for this period are interracial connections, exemplified by figures like Robert Wedderburn, the former Jamaican slave active in extremist circles in early 19th-century London. C. L. R. James’ study of the slave revolt in Haiti in the 1790S, for example, argued that the revolt was part of the larger moment usually labelled the ‘French’ Revolution, that the risings in Haiti and France radicalized one another, and contributed directly to the end of slavery in the French Empire. Linebaugh and Rediker, likewise, stress the multiracial character of the ‘Atlantic working class’ and its revolts. It was the circulation of ideas and activists across this world, linking struggles by sailors, slaves, soldiers, workers and peasants, and the common experience of authoritarian rule and unfree labour, that provided the basis for this remarkable popular interracialism.

Can we speak of labour internationalism in this period? Not if we mean a formal international of unions and parties. This was a period before such organizations became common; the characteristic forms of protest were violent, insurrectionary, sometimes informal, sometimes conspiratorial. This was partly the consequence of an inability of non-proletarian groups to establish ongoing, point-of-production organizations, as well as of the routine use of coercion and terror in the structuring of class relations.

If we look, however, at other forms of organization, such as Maroon societies, cooperatives, and radical clubs and corresponding societies, and the networks between them, made by a radical press and circulation of activists, it is possible to think of informal internationalism(s) and the development of a popular public sphere spanning countries, empires and continents. In this preindustrial period, the labouring classes were multiple and overlapping: this was a period of plebeian solidarities expressed in identities like ‘the people’. An important case was popular abolitionism, which in Britain (for example) found its strongest support amongst the lower classes.

Workers’ movements in the first modern globalization

The industrial revolution of the late 18th century ushered in a new period of rapid global interconnection and accelerating proletarianization, culminating in the first modern globalization of the late 19th century. The ‘Great Acceleration’ described by C. A. Bayly, based on expanding and cheap steam and rail transport, the proliferation of telegraphs and newspapers, and of growing global flows of populations, was underway. European imperial expansion and the growth of international trade and migration laid the basis for new forms of global politics.

At the same time, the popular classes were restructured by the emergence of full-fledged, if unevenly developed, capitalism, and by changing patterns of migration. The independent artisans and peasantry (the focus of much of Thompson’s study of the ‘working class’) were undermined by industrialization in town and country. Slavery was largely abolished by the 188os, and wage labour – both free and unfree – assumed an ever-increasing weight worldwide. As slavery declined, so did African migration; as proletarianization increased in Europe and Asia and southern Africa, and as late industrialization took hold outside of Northern Europe, millions of Asians and Europeans migrated between, and within, the Americas, Australasia, East Europe and parts of Africa. Indentured labour from the Indian subcontinent and China was widely used throughout the world as a source of cheap labour, especially in agriculture.

Rapid proletarianization and urbanization were associated with the rise of new forms of organization, notably unions and mass political parties appropriate to the new period, and a growing proletariat. Other forms of popular organization nonetheless persisted or developed: the spread of early women’s movements internationally, and the importance of rent strikes and community struggles caution against conflating working-class movements with unions and parties in this period.

Unlike the earlier period, this was a time of increasingly formal international linkages, with efforts going back to the 183os culminating in the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA) in 1864. Within the IWMA, a critique of Marxism (which emerged in the 184os, placing its hopes in the factory proletariat, mass parties and state power) fostered the emergence of a new ‘anarchist’ tradition (which elaborated revolutionary unionism, or syndicalism, sought to organize peasants, and championed self-management). Both traditions promoted universal symbols and rituals, like May Day, and were associated with new repertoires of struggle, such as strikes, petitions, sabotage, go-slows, and, where the franchise was available, classbased voting. A third tradition of moderate pro-labour reformism was also evident in the IWMA, helping lay the basis for the third major ideological strand within the workers’ movement: Labourism or social democracy.

The IWMA was remarkable for uniting popular class organizations in the West with those in Latin America and North Africa, and also included affiliates that spanned countries, like the Slavic section founded by Mikhail Bakunin. The rise of unions and parties did not, however, simply supplant informal connections and linkages: on the contrary, the popular press, travelling agitators and migrant workers all played a key role in spreading the new organizational models and struggle repertoires across the globe.

Transnational networks of activists and a radical press, moving within international flows of people and ideas, were critical: Italian anarchists, for instance, linked movements in Argentina, Brazil, Egypt and Greece, while Chinese networks linked anarchism in China, France, Japan, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam.

After the IWMA collapsed, there were various moves to form a new international. The anarchists launched a short-lived Black International in 1881, followed by repeated attempts to form a stable international, finally succeeding with the formation of the syndicalist International Workers’ Association / Asociacion Internacional de los Trabajadores (IWA/AIT) in 1922. It was, however, largely at the level of the network that anarchism and syndicalism developed as an international movement that linked its local, national and regional organizations. The Marxists and social democrats were more successful in terms of formal internationalism, forming [“leading” is a better term: anarchists were co-founders of the Socialist International – LvdW] the Labour and Socialist International as well as the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centres, later renamed the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).

The different wings of the workers’ movement in this period took an overtly formal character, yet the parties and unions were often embedded in more informal structures. Sections of the Labour and Socialist International, for example, were organized as parties, but in Germany and elsewhere, the larger parties also established significant countercultures, including neighbourhood groups, bars, sports clubs and popular libraries and schools. This development had its parallel in the anarchist and syndicalist project of developing revolutionary countercultures and counterpower, culminating in dense networks of insurgent popular associational life in the movement’s great strongholds, such as Argentina and Spain.

A formal commitment to internationalism was important in this period, yet international aspirations were rarely realized in practice. The Labour and Socialist International was primarily a labour international for Greater Europe, and strikingly absent elsewhere. Anarchists and syndicalists, on the other hand, were an important force in parts of Europe and North America, played some role in the Middle East and Africa, and the dominant force on the left in East Asia and Latin America before the 1920s.

The gap between international rhetoric and sectional reality had various causes. The ideological divisions in the workers’ movement of the times (like the Marxist dictum that socialism was only feasible in advanced capitalism) played a role, while rivalry between the wings of the workers’ movement made it difficult to form an inclusive international.

The non-denominational Atlantic ‘working class’ of the protoglobalization period was fractured by the rise of nationalism and racial ideology, and by official moves to reconstitute or create specifically ‘national’ working classes identified with particular states. This was given a powerful impetus from above by the rise of institutions like mass schooling, by the racialization of imperial structures, as well as by the national oppression that imperialism often entailed. From below, the struggle to democratize the state also had the effect of increasing the identity of working classes as actors on a primarily national stage, while nationalism also infused large sections of the workers’ movement. To the extent that national states became viewed as potential vehicles for class as well as national and racial liberation, so too did aspirations for nation states grow.

The common experience of unfree labour, which had played a role in the interracial solidarities in protoglobalization, was undermined by a growing racial division of labour (in which free labour was often White, and unfree labour was generally not), and employers pitted free against unfree labour. As proletarianization proceeded, labour market competition became sharper, providing an ongoing basis for ethnic, national and racial antagonisms within the international working class. International connections could, then, also lead workers and workers’ movements to become more aware of, and more loyal to, national and other non-class identities, cultivating these as well as expressing them within international organizations as bases for particularistic claims.

In these ways, the international character of the working class, and its tendency towards a transnational workers’ movement, were undermined by the pressures towards sectionalism. These developments were the backdrop for the rise of segregationist White Labourism in the British Empire and the United States of America, which combined social democracy with racial exclusion. Garveyism, with its ‘race first’ policies and plebeian base, could be regarded as expressing a similar tendency to combine race and class demands, although the ‘Negro State’ to which it aspired was never constituted. In both cases, rhetorics of labour internationalism overlapped with racial politics: in South Africa, for instance, the (White) Labour Party advocated socialism plus segregation, while in the (African and Coloured) Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, Garveyism coexisted uneasily with syndicalist ideas derived from the Industrial Workers of the World, with its vision of One Big Union of workers.

If the lived experience of transnationality helps account for the appeal of internationalist ideas amongst mobile workers in the first modern globalization, then, it does not follow that there was any simple linkage between transnational lives and internationalist politics. Nationalist networks amongst Africans, Cubans, Germans, Indians, Irish, Jews, Koreans, Poles and others also flowed within the human rivers of labour that straddled the globe; doctrines such as Garveyism, pan-Africanism, nascent pan-Islamism and White Labourism, which stressed national, racial or religious solidarities, were as common as truly internationalist outlooks. Flows of activists, people and ideas could easily spread exclusive, rather than inclusive, forms of organization.

Workers’ movements and deglobalization

Starting with the First World War (1914–18), a period of deglobalization began, taking hold in the 1920s with the rise of closed national economies as well as the spread of nation states with imperial collapse after 1917 and again after the Second World War (1939–45). The world wars, which drew in millions of working-class people, also played a role in fostering national and racial antagonisms, undermining internationalism (as demonstrated by the collapse of the Labour and Socialist International in 1914), and in socializing great masses into nationalist ideology.

On the eve of the end of the first modern globalization, however, the world was rocked by a massive pulse of proletarian and colonial revolt: this started in Ireland and Mexico in 1916, surged forward with the Russian Revolution, swept around the globe, and was drowned in repression by 1924. If the Labour and Socialist International had failed the test of its formal commitments to anti-militarism and international solidarity, important new workers’ internationals emerged in the postwar period: the Communist International (Comintern), the IWA/AIT, and the Communist Workers’ International. The horrors of the war, the socialist hopes engendered by the Russian Revolution, and the international economic crisis, led to popular radicalism on an incredible scale, with the biggest strike wave ever, and a series of revolutionary uprisings.

When this upsurge ended deglobalization took place in earnest. Nationalist regimes imposed economic protectionism in Latin America, parts of Eastern Europe, as well as in southern Africa; fascists created authoritarian regimes stressing the virtues of nation and race; socialism became increasingly identified with the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, rather than with the international workers’ movement; radical labour movements like those grouped in the IWA/AIT were crushed; workers’ movements generally were repressed, or brought into national-level class compromises; the relatively laissez-faire immigration system was replaced with a universal passport regime.

The Great Depression, and the subsequent rise of demand-management policies in the West, accelerated the trend towards national economies, as did the collapse of the remaining empires and the rise of scores of new states, identified with nationalism or the Soviet model. As nation states spread and their power over everyday life increased, as nationalism became the dominant ideology, and as socialism became identified with loyalty to the Soviet bloc and its allied ‘progressive’ regimes, the space for transnational workers’ movements and internationalist imaginations declined.

Deglobalization was, of course, relative: in the global boom of the 1950s and 196os, world trade increased 8oo per cent, commodity production expanded 40 times, and the modern multinational corporation first emerged. The boom entrenched the trend towards national-level class compromises, enabling rising real wages and welfare reforms in the context of a declining peasantry, rapid urbanization, and a new wave of industrialization, the latter expressed dramatically by the Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs) (including those of the Soviet bloc [meaning Poland and similar satellite states – LvdW). There was, meanwhile, substantial if highly regulated international immigration, often into the Middle East and Greater Europe (by 198o, as Ronaldo Munck notes, there were 22 million economically active migrants not possessing citizenship in their country of employment), as well as significant migration within regions.

If the number of the world’s workers grew dramatically in both absolute and relative terms, the possibilities for workers to unite across borders were undermined by the lived reality of national life and by the absence of internationalist bodies of the sort that had proliferated in the first modern globalization. The International Labour Organization (ILO), formed in 1919, acted as a forum for developing global labour standards, but it was a tripartite body, rather than a workers’ international. The Comintern provided a rallying point for radical workers, and was more successful than its Marxian predecessor in drawing the popular classes of Asia and elsewhere into alliances with Western labour, but its use as an instrument of Russian foreign policy, its dissolution in 1943, and the acceptance of ‘national’ roads to socialism limited Communism’s ability to foster internationalism and transnational organizing.

Other international bodies provided few alternatives. The IWA/AIT was in crisis and decline by the end of the 1930s, like anarchism and syndicalism more generally. The IFTU and the International Trade Secretariats (ITS) dating back to the 189os developed as moderate bureaucratic bodies whose internationalism was generally feeble and largely diplomatic; affiliates tended to concentrate on national-level issues. The revived Labour and Socialist International was primarily a loose body of parties with a national focus. As the Cold War set in, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) formed in 1945 fractured, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) was established on Western initiative. The bureaucracies of both internationals were deeply embroiled in the activities of rival state blocs.

Active internationalism was largely found outside of formal international structures, in the cross-border networks of migrant workers and activists pushed into exile by authoritarian regimes, in popular campaigns like anti-apartheid, and in the global diffusion of protest in 1945 and 1968. The latter took place towards the end of the great economic boom and just before the new globalization, a great pulse of struggle on both sides of the Iron Curtain in Europe, as well as in Japan, the USA, and parts of Africa and Latin America, triggering a massive strike wave into the 1970s. Overall, however, deglobalization limited space for internationalist praxis, and when the working classes of NICs like Brazil, Poland and South Africa began to organize on a large scale in the 1970S, their politics were heavily coloured by nationalism.

Globalization and labour movements today

The mediated international integration of deglobalization began to fall apart in the 1970s. Nation states played a key role in creating the new globalization, particularly through neoliberal policies, as did multinational corporations. New communications technologies and falling transport costs facilitated integration, the boom ended, nationallevel class compromises broke down, and international labour markets and migration expanded sharply. The economic crisis of the 1970s, followed by structural adjustment policies, hit agromineral countries especially hard, devastating many labour movements, but the retreat of the workers’ movement was an international phenomenon.

The world’s working class is both relatively and absolutely larger than ever before: there are more industrial workers in South Korea today, says Chris Harman, than in the entire globe when the Communist Manifesto was issued. However, while workers are linked through international labour markets and trade relations, wide variations in wages between regions provide the basis for serious conflicts. The omnipresence of nation states and nationalism prompts many labour movements to call for renewed protectionism and makes labour exclusion very tempting. Tied to the notion that contemporary labour must ‘defend’ the nation-state against globalization, such policies ignore the role of nation states in promoting globalization, and undermine the prospects of workers’ internationalism.

Moreover, contemporary workers’ movements are characterized by the absence of definite radical alternatives, partly because of the Soviet collapse. This situation does, however, allow for more experimentation than before 1989.

One labour approach, associated with sections of Australian labour, is the ‘progressive-competitive alternative’, where labour consciously seeks to promote national competitiveness through pacts, skills development and active policy intervention. An alternative is represented by ‘international social movement unionism’, which argues for globalization-from-below through international solidarity for global labour standards and rights.

The older international structures have also attempted to reposition themselves. The ILO has tried to foster the ‘governance of globalization’, the WFTU has declined dramatically, while the growing ICFTU has struggled to shed its bureaucratic and Cold War past. Newer bodies like the European Trade Union Confederation have been formed, yet have tended to replicate the bureaucratic character of the ICFTU.

A different, perhaps more important, tradition of current workers’ internationalism is to be found outside of these formal structures, and dates back to the 1970s: international ITS campaigns, shop-steward-to-shop-steward links in industries, campaigns for multinational collective bargaining and cross-border solidarity, and initiatives for a new type of internationalism like the Southern Initiative on Globalization and Trade Union Rights, which stresses campaign-based activism through networks in Africa, Asia and Australia. More recently, unions like the Service Employees Industrial Union of the US have initiated international organizing campaigns in multinational corporations, arguing for global unions. Meanwhile, independent union movements have revived in Africa, countries of the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere.

Significant syndicalist unions have also emerged in a number of countries since the 1970s. The Shack Dwellers’ International emerged in the mid 198os. The Seattle protests of 1999 marked a new phase for counterglobalization activity, followed by the World Social Forums and the Argentinean factory occupations. The current period has also seen the rise of rural internationalism, as in the International Peasant Movement launched in 1993, which includes the Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil. Contemporary globalization, in short, is characterized by the formation of transnational networks of activists and action, in which workers’ movements have played an important role, at the same time as cleavages along ethnic, national, racial and religious lines have thrived.


An examination of transnational connections in modernity raises substantial questions about the definition of the ‘working class’ itself, as well as highlighting the point that workers’ movements should not be reduced to union movements. A transnational perspective on labour history challenges the assumption that secure, waged jobs are the normal employment relationship: a wider view of workers’ history shows that rather than secure, waged employment making unions possible, it is the reverse that seems true.

Our overview also raises important points about the relationship between class, nationality and race, indicating a history both of deep divisions, as well as of interracial and multinational solidarities. When Cedric Robinson posits ‘black collective identity’ as the negation of capitalism, or David Roediger treats White identity as equivalent to White Labourism, both ignore the wide range of ways in which racial identities are deployed and reworked in workers’ movements and solidarities. Finally, globalization is not a novel challenge for workers’ movements, but a recurrent feature in the development of the working class.


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Munck R. 1988. The new international labour studies: an introduction. London and Atlantic Highlands: Zed.

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Related essays [in this reference volume]

1848; 1g6os; Abolition of Forced Labour Convention; abolitionism; African liberation; anarchism; anti-racism; capitalism; class; Cold War; Comintern and Cominform; Commission on International Labour Legislation; Communist Manifesto; consumer cooperation; contract and indentured labourers; convergence and divergence; diasporas; empire and migration; empires and imperialism; ethnicity and race; executives and professionals; exile; fascism and anti-fascism; freemasonry; Garvey, Marcus Mosiah; Ghose, Aurobindo Ackroyd; globalization; guestworkers; human mobility; individual identification systems; information economy; international migration regimes; labour standards; Little Red Book; nation and state; new man; nonviolence; pan-isms; Romanticism; Russian Revolution; slavery; socialism; trade; transnational; women’s movements