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The state and social history.


As has been noted by many observers, social history emerged in the 1950s and 1960s out of two potentially contradictory impulses. On the one hand, social historians sought to recapture the lives and experiences of the working class and other dispossessed groups. Of course, this list was soon expanded to include women, with the rise of feminism, and later minority groups. This impulse has led to a vast and rich literature on many facets of life for laborers, women, minorities, and the poor, especially in modern Europe and North America. And from this understanding larger social processes were illuminated, including demographic change, social protest and social movements. A glance at the Journal of Social History gives some sense of the enormous territory that has been covered over the last several decades. Much of this makes for fascinating reading and is very often ingenious history as it is based upon painstaking reconstructions from the fragments that are often all that remain in the historical record about these groups.

At the same time, social history was connected by a number of its early practitioners with major political projects. It was very self-consciously part of a larger analysis of a capitalist system, but the final aim was not simply understanding but rather the transcendence of that set of economic, political and social relations and the establishment of socialism. As Jim Cronin has shown in a recent essay, the historical work of Eric Hobsbawm, for instance, was deeply informed by his political passions and his long connection to the Communist Party of Great Britain. For many early social historians, there was simply no disputing that politics, by which is meant the exercise of state power and the political organization of workers and others in order to capture the levers of the state, was crucial to their historical studies.

This political agenda is evident in The Making of the English Working Class, with its problematic of class consciousness as a prelude to political action. This theme was no less evident in the writings of Hobsbawm and other pioneers of social history, in whose work the state loomed large. In the case of Thompson, this became even more explicit from the late 1960s and his work at Warwick University, and the series of studies that analyzed the British state in the eighteenth century and used the vantage point of crime and law to rethink the contours of political authority.

The tension between a social history that sought to reconstruct the lives and experiences of the dispossessed and one that was politically engaged, and therefore undertook a serious analysis of the state, came to be resolved from the 1970s increasingly in favor of the former. This is clearly evident in historical scholarship on the Indian subcontinent, where from the early 1980s Subaltern Studies stormed the field with its version of Thompsonian and Hobsbawmian social history. The early volumes of the project (that is, before it took a more explicitly post-structuralist and post-colonial turn) contain brilliant and imaginative explorations of the lives of subaltern groups, ranging from peasant movements to the problem of working class identity. Despite the very high quality and intellectual caliber of these writings, as Rajnarayan Chandavarkar noted many years ago, Subaltern Studies largely left the state out of its analyses. According to Chandavarkar, "The Subaltern historians, concerned with the 'autonomous domain' of the people, often appeared to emancipate their own historical research from the intrusions of the colonial state." (1) This neglect of the state is a symptom of political disengagement, at least from the contest for state power.

This kind of political disengagement is not unique to India or historians of India, but is part of a global shift in political sensibilities over the last thirty-odd years. Several developments have transformed the domain of the political in this period with the result that the state is no longer seen as central to the political agenda.

First, the political realm has been vastly expanded to include many dimensions of private life that were earlier outside the pale of politics. With the rise of feminism, in particular, personal relations and interactions have been subjected to brilliant and blistering analyses and rightly been made to be seen as the domain of power and politics. This has been reinforced by studies of power in the Foucauldian vein, which have charted the micro-techniques through which power operates and creates subjects.

Second, there has been a flowering of civil-society-based politics, including the rise of new social movements and non-governmental organizations. While both of these political activities are oriented to some degree towards affecting and shaping state policies, neither takes as its primary purpose the transformation of political power. In fact, many strands of these civil-society based movements may be seen as anti-statist in that they see no possibility for profound political change.

This anti-statism stems from a final fundamental shift in the last few decades, which is the death of utopianisms, most critically Marxism. Despite Marx's monumental efforts to rest his interpretation of capitalist development and dissolution upon a scientific, not utopian, foundation, his writings gave rise to what may have been the largest utopian movements in human history. Nevertheless, the nineteenth-century optimism about the possibility for profound and radical change in humans and the human condition has been replaced by the relentless domination of rationalized, bureaucratic structures, with no hope for escape. In other words, we are hopelessly trapped in the iron cage of modernity.

Not coincidentally, it was Max Weber who issued an early death notice to utopianisms. In an essay entitled 'Socialism,' which was published soon after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Weber noted that a socialist regime with economic planning would combine two bureaucracies that under capitalism were distinct, those of the state and the modern corporation. Weber concluded that socialism would therefore mean even greater bureaucratic domination than under capitalism, where there remained some possibility of playing off state and corporate bureaucracies against each other. Weber's prescient observations, however, had little impact and were largely ignored for several decades.

The disappearance of the state has had profound consequences for the writing of social history. By ignoring the state, a false dichotomy is created between the private and the public, with the result that private life is often portrayed as autonomous of the state. Yet state actions and institutions have played a central role in shaping private life, especially from the sixteenth century as the growing reach of political authorities made them ever more powerful and important actors. Therefore, to ignore the state is to seriously distort our understanding of both past and present. This is in part why Michel Foucault, realizing the limitations of a purely micro-physics of power, turned his attentions to the state in the late 1970s and began to formulate his ideas on government rationality, which he saw as complementing his earlier work, especially that of Discipline and Punish, for a more complete understanding of modern power.

The purpose of this paper is to suggest some lines of enquiry that will bring the state back into social history. At the same time, it recognizes that ours is an increasingly global era, and that global connections shape both our lives, within the academy and without, as well as our historical practices. Likewise, more than two decades of the new cultural history has made all historians acutely aware of issues of culture, especially around the problems of meaning, practice, and representation. Therefore, putting the state back in cannot mean returning to some older and purer ways of approaching the past. Rather, the state itself must be conceptualized in a far broader, that is global and comparative as well as cultural, context. The rest of this essay will suggest some strategies for pursuing these goals.

Empire and Militarism

In the last twenty years there has been a tremendous revival of interest in the history of empire, particularly in the British Empire, and there are few signs that this interest will flag any time soon. In the British case, this turn towards empire is fundamentally different from an earlier tradition of imperial history for which the empire was largely something that lay outside the British Isles. The new brand of imperial history, however, is keenly interested in the ways in which the experience of empire formed and shaped the British themselves. Certainly some of this work takes up social historical concerns, in particular that of Kathleen Wilson, Linda Colley, John Mackenzie and Catherine Hall. The research of these historians has very much reshaped our understanding of British society and culture in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

At this historical moment, the study of empire should have great resonance in the United States academy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the United States has been taking on the role of global hegemon, and in the opinion of some, even imperial center. United States imperialism is of course not a new story, but its current reach and ambition are unprecedented. And this state of affairs has engendered widespread public debate and may be the most important political issue of our era.

The study of empire must necessarily include the state, whether in the center or periphery, as political authority plays a crucial role in the creation and recreation of the imperial system. Studies of Britain have shown that the state figured in countless ways to define what it meant to have an empire and to shape that experience. In the process the state itself came to be transformed in several respects.

One of the most deep-seated shifts in the nature of the British state came about with the ending of East India Company rule over India in 1858 and the crowning of Victoria as Empress of India in 1877. From this point, imperial power had to be displayed, most potently through the creation of the imperial monarchy. David Cannadine and others have traced this process with their studies of imperial pageantry and other royal rituals. Of course, the display of imperial power was not staged in London only. In India, as well as in other colonies, British supremacy had to be displayed in rituals of rule. In the Indian case, the British harked back to their understandings of Mughal political ritual, which indicates that the political display of imperial power did not originate with the British Empire. Nor did it end with the British case, as the recent state funeral for Ronald Reagan made evident. During that event it was never clear if the nation was mourning the death of Reagan or celebrating a new imperial presidency.

The celebration of empire brought with it loyalty and affection for it. In other words, empire fostered patriotism and national pride in the imperial center. In the British case, Kathleen Wilson and Linda Colley have illustrated the powerful patriotism that was an important feature of the eighteenth-century society and polity. By the late nineteenth century the connection of nation and empire was almost universal and was fostered in countless ways through education, children's books, advertising, novels and the entertainment industry. As a consequence, by the twentieth century there were few critics of empire in Britain, even from the left.

Finally, empire came to be closely connected to militarism: the maintenance of the British Empire required a massive military force, both at home and abroad. As a result, empire, nation and the military came to be fused in Britain with profound social repercussions. Mary Conley, for instance, has shown how imperial militarism led in the late nineteenth century to an idealization of the British naval man as the embodiment of masculinity. John Mackenzie has unearthed countless ways in which militarism and the valor of the British soldier and sailor were communicated to the British population in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The possession of a global empire was not the only source of militarism, as the case of Germany shows, but paradoxically may have reduced its impact. British military power in the nineteenth century is unimaginable without the Indian army, which came to be the largest standing army in the world. Indians paid for this military force: between 1860 and 1913 about half of the Government of India's spending went to the army. And the army was used to defend British interests from Egypt during Napoleon's invasion to China, sub-Saharan Africa, and Persia in the nineteenth century, to Mesopotamia and the Western Front during the First World War. The centrality of the Indian army to British global power is why David Washbrook has concluded that "the Indian army was the iron fist in the velvet glove of Victorian expansionism." (2)

The creation of a modern fighting force from Indian recruits required profound cultural changes on the part of the soldiers. Some attention has been devoted to analyzing the pre-colonial culture of warfare, but far less attention has been given to the cultural shifts that accompanied the creation of the British Indian army. At the same time, the modern Indian army was part of a new conception of the state. In late pre-colonial India, political authority was diffuse, with many centers of rule. This idiom of politics is perhaps best conveyed in the phrase Shah-an-Shah, or king of kings, which was the title for the Mughal emperor. As this title suggests, the Mughal emperor made no claim to be the exclusive ruler, but rather ruled in alliance with other kings who were entitled to the trappings of monarchy and kingship.

British rule brought to the subcontinent a far more unitary conception of the state, and the colonial state became the exclusive center of power and authority. Although there were certainly late pre-colonial antecedents for this colonial development and there was a process of state centralization in eighteenth-century India, these efforts had not advanced very far before the rse of the British.

The decentralized state of pre-colonial times was linked to a culture of warfare that was widely shared among military groups in the subcontinent. In this culture direct conflict was avoided whenever possible and military encounters were often stylized shows of force in which one side sought to overawe the other with the pomp, grandeur and size of its contingent. If this failed, kings often resorted to bribery in which opposing generals were induced to withhold or withdraw their forces. Several early British victories, including the famous battle of Plassey, unfolded according to this script. At Plassey, the British won the day because the leading general for the Nawab of Bengal had been paid off to not deploy his troops at a critical moment. Such tactics were viable in the Indian context because there was no need to vanquish an enemy or destroy a political competitor, which was the imperative with a unitary state. Unitary forms of political power cannot tolerate alternate loci of authority. In the decentralized pre-colonial system, the establishment of an alliance with a hostile king, along with his agreement to pay tribute, signaled victory.

The purpose of this digression into military culture has been to show that the study of the state in instrumental terms, which characterizes both the Marxian and Weberian traditions, is inadequate. The state operates according to codes of meaning and practices. This point will be taken up in more detail in a later section of this paper.

The Communist Historians' Group, which contributed so much to the development of social history, had only one member, Victor Kiernan, who took empire seriously and made it the subject of sustained enquiry. We are also indebted to Kiernan for producing the best single work on empire and colonial militarism, Colonial Empires and Armies, which was published in the early 1980s. The book is brimming with suggestions for fertile lines of historical research. Yet, many of the issues that Kiernan raised remain unexplored. This is an opportune moment for social historians to take up these questions, as they bring together culture, the state and the global context, issues that are becoming increasingly important for many today.


In the United States and Europe, the study of labor history no longer commands the attention or excitement it once did. In Asia and Latin America, by contrast, labor history is only now beginning to emerge as a major area of inquiry. The first conference in Indian labor history, for example, was held in the fall of 1995 (perhaps fittingly in the International Institute of Social History, home of the bulk of the Marx-Engels papers) and the meeting gave rise to the Indian Labour History Association. Similar associations have been formed in recent years in other countries in the 'south' through the efforts of local historians, at times with the assistance of the IISH, which is engaged in a major research program on global labor history.

Although many arguments may be provided for the centrality of labor history, this essay will not go in that direction. What is noteworthy, however, is that in North America the declining interest in labor history stands in stark contrast to the enormous popular interest in contemporary questions of work and labor. Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, a publishing phenomenon and the source for a recent play of that name, is simply one sign of the deep interest in these issues, and even more widely in economic issues, in the United States today. This concern has its origins in the deteriorating conditions of work in many occupations and professions in the last few decades. We in the academy have certainly not been immune from these changes as market principles are increasingly applied to the work we do: measurement of our productivity, of the cost-effectiveness of our teaching, and so forth. It is these market principles that have also given rise to the explosion of adjunct teaching, which may effectively undermine the tenure system in many colleges and universities.

Also contributing to the deep concerns about work for many is the stagnation in wages since the end of the post-war 'Golden Age.' On top of this, in the same period, there has been an astounding redistribution of income and wealth from the bottom to the top, giving rise to luxurious living for the gainers and increasingly hard times for the losers. These trends have if anything been made worse by economic globalization.

This disjuncture between the concerns of the public and the concerns of professional historians is one of the great contradictions of history writing in our time. The typical explanation for this paradox puts the blame squarely on the rise of 'identity' politics, which is believed to have diverted attention from class to race, gender and sexuality. The growth of the middle class academy, an argument that Aijaz Ahmed and others have used to criticize Subaltern Studies, is purported to have aided the growing prominence of 'identity' politics.

There are problems with these assertions. It is not clear that the academy is significantly more middle class today than it was thirty years ago. Furthermore, social backgrounds cannot be translated into political positions in any straightforward fashion. Finally, the contemporary public at large appears to have no difficulty maintaining commitments to issues of 'identity' as well as deep and abiding concerns about the conditions of work and pay. Why is this not possible for historians?

While the study of labor is essential in itself, it is also a route through which the state may be brought back into the historical picture. For labor history is inextricably connected to the study of the state and political power. Since at least the fourteenth century state actions have shaped and regulated the conditions of labor in Europe, most precociously in England. State legal intervention and coercive power defined property rights, enforced labor contracts, determined the conditions of apprenticeship, mediated conflicts between employers and employees, enforced the debt obligations of workers, and in countless other ways defined the everyday experiences of laborers. From the eighteenth century, these medieval and early-modern regulations came to be modernized to deal with the new realities of capitalism, but states continued to play a pivotal role in shaping work and workers. The formation of the modern state in Europe is very much linked with the labor question, a point that Thompson clearly understood. As he wrote in The Making of the English Working Class: "We can now see something of the truly catastrophic nature of the Industrial Revolution ... The people were subjected simultaneously to an intensification of two intolerable forms of relationship: those of economic exploitation and of political oppression ... at each point where he sought to resist exploitation, he was met by the forces of the employer or State, and commonly of both." (3)

The study of labor will force us not only to bring the state back in, but will also allow a rethinking of the state in non-instrumental terms. To do this, however, requires a widening of perspective and the development of a global labor history. If this is done, it will become evident that state regulation and intervention of the labor market were not universal and that states could equally define the experience of laborers through inaction. This was the case from West Asia to the Indian subcontinent, where states were constrained in their interventions into the lives of workers and peasants. In India, before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was no state oversight over contracts, debts, or apprenticeship. The failure to regulate, perhaps paradoxically, gave laborers enormous power, as it created intense competition for their services.

The reasons for why states in the subcontinent did not intervene in labor are complex, but appear to have their origins, on the one hand, in cultural ideals of statecraft and, on the other, in the power of communities. The former constrained states from limiting a variety of customary rights of laborers, especially the freedom to move, and the latter denied states access to important domains of social and economic life, most critically the definition of property rights. States had to respect these ideals and the rights of communities if they were to maintain the legitimacy of their rule, whether in Mughal north India or in the river valleys of the deep south. These cultural ideals, as well as community prerogatives, were destroyed in the Indian subcontinent with the establishment of British rule and supplanted by a European approach to these issues.

Therefore, even the study of labor and economic life, as was the case with warfare and militarism, must take into account the cultural ideas that shaped the exercise of political power. This argument builds upon, but significantly broadens, the work of earlier social historians, perhaps most importantly the work that E. P. Thompson commenced in the 1960s, which led to the publication of several essays, Whigs and Hunters, and culminated with Customs in Common. Of these, the most important may be his essay on the moral economy of the crowd. As Thompson showed, the actions of the crowd in eighteenth-century Britain were premised upon widely shared ideas on proper behavior for both grain merchants and political authorities. In part these ideas were deeply ingrained in English society as part of custom, but the moral economy was also institutionalized in the common law, which is why the shift from the moral economy to political economy was a long and complicated political and legal battle, as recently documented by Douglas Hay.

For our purposes, the significance of Thompson's work is that it combined the experiences and expectations of ordinary people with the ideals or customs of the state. In doing this, the state is not reduced to an instrument, whether of class rule, as in Marxian accounts, or of rationality, as in Weberian and even in Foucauldian accounts (government rationality or governmentality). Rather, political authority is infused with cultural meaning and informed by cultural norms.


Adopting a global and comparative approach to issues of empire, militarism and labor illustrates some ways in which the state is central to the study of major domains of social life in the past and also indicates some ways in which the state can be brought back into social history. These topics when examined globally also show that the state itself cannot be understood as either an instrument of class rule or as an instrument of rationality, but operates in a cultural world of norms, limits and conceptions of proper practice.

These cultural dimensions of the state are not the same as the ideology of the state. The culture of the state as used here describes not only discourses of the state, but also institutional practices. Furthermore, ideology suggests a set of principles that are articulated by state actors and filtered down. Several of the cultural ideals described in this paper, moral economy, shared sovereignty, free labor markets in the Indian subcontinent, emerged from the bottom, and the state had to abide by them. So the topic of culture and the state brings us back to history from below, the domain of social history. But a social history that has profited from the cultural turn of the last twenty years.

History Department

Chestnut Hill, MA 02467-3806


1. Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, "The Making of the Working Class: E. P. Thompson and Indian History," History Workshop Journal, 43 (Spring 1997), p. 182.

2. David Washbrook, "South Asia, The World System and World Capitalism," Journal of Asian Studies, 49 (1990), p. 481.

3. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1964), pp. 198-9.

By Prasannan Parthasarathi

Boston College
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Author:Parthasarathi, Prasannan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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