This discussion started out as a review of Jonathan Parry, Jan Breman and Karin Kapadia eds The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour (Sage, 1999), a collection of case studies by anthropologists, sociologists and historians. Parry’s introduction and Breman’s summing up provide contextual bookends that partly compensate for the absence of a shared and coherent set of questions. The collection does not situate its cases within a framework of Indian capitalism as a whole, even less in neoliberal globalization. It is animated by nostalgia for an era, now past, when an alliance of nation-states and industrial unions was politically powerful. The world has moved on since Marx and Engels envisaged a revolutionary future for the Western working class.
This collection is nevertheless a major event. It poses an important challenge to Indian scholarship; and offers a chance to revisit a tradition of social theory, history and politics that was already moribund then. Apart from providing a varied window on India's industrial labour, the book affirms that fashionable Western social theories should be reassessed in the light of a resurgent Asia. Working class history is booming in India. In the 1990s, a deregulated Indian capitalism was supposed to reinvigorate the world economy from the periphery. These authors are not optimistic for any speedy improvement in the lives of most Indian industrial workers. Our intellectual task is to identify the social forces shaping the world today, in order to determine whose side we are on and to do our best for our side, drawing on the most suitable analyses at our disposal.
I then break with the habit of juxtaposing empirical case studies with worn out theories of labour history. Rather I turn for comparison to the concrete history of 19th century Lancashire, the cradle of the industrial revolution. This leads to a critique of what Marx and Engels inferred from their experiences there. Is it plausible that just working in a factory turns the inmates into potential revolutionaries? Lancashire’s workers were Celtic migrants whose lands were never feudalised. They operated a flourishing informal economy and self-organized associations. Their core institutions were the chapel, union and cooperative; each combined collective and individual interests. Marx and Engels’ class contrast between proletariat and petty bourgeoisie was invalid then and has not fared well since. An alliance of Lancashire’s owners and workers underpinned the national success of the Liberal Party before and after 1900.