You are on page 1of 16
Review: Working with Language: The Linguistic Turn in French Labor History. A Review Article Author(s):

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

information about JSTOR, please contact Cambridge University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to

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 Turnin French Labor History. A Review Article




The University of Virginia

Gender and the Politics of History, by Joan WallachScott (New York:Columbia


WorkandRevolutionin France. The

Languageof Laborfrom the Old Regime to 1848,

by WilliamH. Sewell, Jr. (Cambridge:CambridgeUniversityPress,1980).

The Rise of MarketCulture. The TextileTradeand French

Society, 1750-1900, by

WilliamM. Reddy(Cambridge:CambridgeUniversityPress,1984).



Liberty in Modern Europe. A Critiqueof Historical Understanding,by



Lanuitdes proletaires,byJacques Ranciere (Paris: LibrairieArtheme Fayard, 1981).



NaturalLaw, Politics, and the

Eighteenth-Century French Trades,

by MichaelSonenscher (Cambridge:CambridgeUniversityPress,1989).

Descent into Discourse. The Reificationof Language and the Writingof Social Histo- ry, by Bryan D. Palmer (Philadelphia:TempleUniversityPress, 1990).

The shifting directionsin labor history over the pastthirtyyears lendcredence


1960s spawned the "new labor history" that eschewed the study of institu-

tions and formal ideologies in laborhistorians explore wage

ments (the family, community, workplace), but the majorpreoccupation is discovering the direct experiences that mobilized workers for class-based protest andled to higher levels of class-consciousness. Today,practitioners of that specialty seem to be on the wrong side of history. Their confidence in class analysis, assumptions about the potential for radicalization among the

masses, and emphasis on the disruptiveimpact of capitalism accord poorly

with world-historicalevents in Eastern Europe

excessively dramaticto equate the crisis of the new labor history with thatof

Marxist-Leninist ideology, but the field is simply no longer the vital, self- confident area it was in the 1970s.

to the adage thateach generation mustrewriteits own history. The

searchof workers'authentic experiences. New earners'lives outside formal political arrange-

and elsewhere. It would be



$5.00 ?

1991 Society for ComparativeStudy of Society and History







One way thatcurrentaffairsfail to mirrorthe directionof historical thought is thatthe faltering of the new social history does not marka shiftto the right. New laborhistoriansonce claimedthe mantleof the new, the iconoclastic, and the progressive. Their work was going to uncoverthe "worldwe 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 approaches reveal just how much common ground therehadbeen between new laborhistoriansandthe old guardagainst whom they rebelled. Both assumedthere was an empiricalreality knowable through the facts discoveredin the sources.Both implicitly took history'sgoal to be discerning cause-effect sequences. Both assumedeconomic forceswere relevant, if not central, to the analysis of conflict. Today's revisionistsdraw on philosophy and languagetheory to question these fundamental premises. They arenow the scholarswho are making us strangers in a worldwe thought we understood.It is hardto believe thatthe old guard of the 1960s would find their work congenial in any way. One of the odditiesof revisionistlabor history is thatthe same scholar, Joan Wallach Scott, sets the termsfor bothextremesof the debate.Her 1974 study, The Glassworkers of Carmaux, was a major contributionto the new labor history and established proletarianization-the workers'loss of controlover


brilliantly chroniclesthe decline of artisanallaboras the resultof mechaniza-

tion. Originally,bottle-making had been a craft in the steadfastcontrolof a hierarchicallyorganized team of workersheaded by the blower (souffleur). The craft was life-organizing, and it took fifteen years to progress from apprentice to blower. Because of their skills, the glassblowers dominatedthe 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 productionprocess, no longer had to

depend on a

threatto the craftbasis of work, glassblowersbegan to unionize and take an interestin socialist politics. 1 Among the conclusions Scott drew fromthe emergence of a class struggle in Carmauxwas the centrality of the shop-floorexperience. The glassblowers did not come to identify with other wage earners, nordid theyjoin class-based movements in quest of higherpay or shorterhours. Threatsto theirdomina- tion over the work process in the craft radicalizedthem. In an especially interestingpassage, Scott notedthat syndicalist andsocialist notionshad long been availableto the craftsmen, but they did not find the ideas relevantuntil

the dominant explanatory mechanismfor protest. The book

teamof glassblowers to make standardizedbottles. In face of the

1 JoanWallach Scott, The Glassworkers of Carmaux.French Craftsmen and Political Action in a Nineteenth-CenturyCity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974), chs. 2, 4.





theirskilled statuswas in peril. The broadlesson for labor history was clear:

Craftsmenled the class struggle, and the threatof proletarianization was the process that mobilized them for class-basedaction.2 Two influenceshave produced a thoroughgoing redirectionin Scott'sthink-



and the Politics of History, a collection of previouslypublishedessays, Scott

explains that poststructuralisttheory, especially the thought of

Foucaultand JacquesDerrida, haveconvincedherthat language is prior to all

social reality and forms all knowledge of that reality. Thus, class, pro- letarianization, and consciousness cannotbe self-evident categories available for conventional use in labor history. Furthermore, Scott's commitmentto feminism brought her to recognize that women's history could not be more

than an appendage to a "universal" history of males as long as

categories of analysisprevailed. These two influencesturnedScott's attention

to how those categories had emerged in the first place, and she challenges historiansto pursue thatline of questioning ratherthan liningup "facts"to fill

the received

and reconstructed through a

conceptualizations. Hercontentionis that meaning is constructed

They have brought hernot only to turn away fromherlandmark study but to proposenothing less thana reorientationof the discipline. In Gender


the received

play of oppositions,especially masculineversus

feminine associations. This conviction makes the task of integratinggender into labor historyurgent becausesexualdifference"becomesso implicated in the concept of class that there is no way to analyze one withoutthe other"

(p. 60). Scott's review of GarethStedmanJones's ostensibly iconoclasticbook on Chartismreveals just how uncompromising is her revisionism.3Jones struck

at the heartof the new labor history by arguing that political language and


shaped the Chartistmovementfar more thandid industrial experience.


applauds his rejection of socioeconomic causality but charges thatJones

still uses termslike "class" and "radicalism"as if they had universalmean-



entails questions aboutthe role of gender andclass in creatingmeaning: How were categories of class formulatedat specific moments?How did appeals to sexual difference figure into the process?Why did a particular definition gain prominence at a particular moment?The answers, Scott believes, point to a process in which discourses produce interests by excluding oppositional

categories. The article "Work Identity for Men andWomen"on the Parisian garments trade in 1848 puts these daring notions into practice. In Glassworkers,the shop floor experiencedproved to be the structuring force. Scott now claimsto show that the work experience for tailors and seamstresses had no fixed

Scottwouldhavehistoriansdeconstructthediscourses (texts) that people to define themselves and their interests. Her agenda for labor history

2 Ibid., chs. 4, 5.

3 Languages of

Class: Studies in English Working Class

CambridgeUniversity Press, 1983).

History, 1832-1982 (Cambridge:







meaning otherthanthat given to it by their politicallyproduced rhetoric.Male tailors campaigned for the abolition of domestic work by associating the

workshop, skilled labor, andthe integrity of the crafts. They portrayed home- based sewing as a curseon family life. Seamstresses,however, did not make the location of work an issue but did try to preventdecliningpiecework rates

through a collective wage agreement. Gendered opposites-work

workshop and home, producer andmother-structured the workers' programs for reform. The programs, Scott contends, mustbe 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 "provided individualswith formsof social consciousnessbasedon commontermsof identity and provided the meansfor collective action" (p. 94).

and family,

The challenging essays in Gender and the Politics of History are bound to

unsettlethe discipline. Only Scott's radical skepticism aboutthe literalmean- ing of texts, so nicely demonstratedin "A Statistical Representation of Work," is easily assimilableintoconventional practice.Otherwise, she would have historian rethink what they do in a fundamentalmanner. Scott puts

gender, not socioeconomic or political causality, at the centerof history. She portrays discourse as having no predictable referent beyond it. Even Scott is uncertainthat her agenda will find its way into a mainstream, for it will

require "the mastery of philosophicallycomplex,

a willingness to shift the way one thinks about history" (p. 67). Is such a

thoroughgoingreconceptualizationabsolutely necessary? Are there areas of compromise with the new labor history? Scottwould notthink so, but perhaps her own work suggests there are bridges to be build. To be sure, Scott demonstratesthatthe connectionbetweenworkconditionsandthe interpreta- tion of interestsis far more complex thanGlassworkers originallysuggested,



reflectionof the working conditionsand low piece ratesin the needle trades.

Perhaps her earlier masterpiece has more of a shelf life than the author, herself, would acknowledge.

often abstruse, theoriesand

it is hardto deny thattherewere connections. The seamstresses'demand higherpiecework ratesseems less a discursivelyproduced interestthana

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 questioning the primacy of socioeconomic causality

and carving out a place

prepared the way for the linguistic turn. His inspiration was less poststruc-

turalist theory thancultural anthropology,especially thatof CliffordGeertz.4 Sewell began his inquiry into the origins of class consciousness with a

for ideology and symbolic understandings, Sewell


Fora useful explication of Geertz's thought, see Aletta Biersack, "Local Knowledge, Local

Cultural History, Lynn Hunt, ed. (Berkeley: Univer-

History: Geertz and Beyond,"

sity of California Press, 1989), 72-96.

in TheNew





theme that new laborhistoriansclaim as their own: that artisansratherthan

factoryproletarians were the activistsfor most of the nineteenth century. The proletarianization model presumablyexplained that point, butthe precepts of

Geertz's anthropology-"all

Sewell suspicious of the generalization. He reasonedthatclass consciousness

and socialism could not have arisen,pure and simple, out of economic devel- opment if workerswith preindustrial traditionsinventedthe two. He supposed that artisansdrew upon theircultureto constructboth class and an ideology

equating laborand citizenship. Sewell interprets the continuity of corporatelanguage,practices, andrituals across the FrenchRevolution and well into the next century to mean that craftsmencarriedforwardan ideology of work as part of an orderedmoral community that subordinatedindividualintereststo the public good. How- ever, the Revolution swept away an official corporate frameworkand replaced it with individualism, liberty, and private property. The transformationof publiclanguage left artisanswith a painful dilemma.The capitalistic mutation of the handicraftsmadetrade organizationincreasinglynecessary;yet, it was now illegal. When artisanstried to defend them in the discourseof the Old Regime, their words had no official standing. The FrenchRevolution had incorporated an ambiguity intothe notionof property thatworkerswouldhave to expose to defend their interests. The Revolution had borrowedan En- lightened concept of property as amassed labor. Yet many laboredwithout accumulatingproperty, while a few had property and did not labor. The culturalcontradictionsfound a resolutionsoon afterthe Revolutionof

1830. Seeking to establisha public statusfor corporateorganization, workers

hit upon the notion of association-individuals

furthershared goals. Associationreconciled corporatelanguage withthe revo- lutionary tradition. Furthermore, the turmoilof the early 1830s and contact with republicangroups allowed workersto expand the concept of association

to include all trades. Class consciousness was born. Thus, corporategroup- ings createdto defend workers'interestsbecame revolutionary vehicles for a new social orderbased on labor. Although insisting on an autonomousrole for culture in this and other works, Sewell has not deniedthe relevanceof economicforces. He joins Scott

in problematizing the

terpretation of reality, but he would allow language to refer to something beyond itself. Sewell's work is assimilableinto the new labor history because

he finds class consciousnessa categorygeneratedby the workers themselves, not externallyimposed, as Scott would have it. Moreover, Sewell anticipated Scott's call to examinehow workersestablishedtheir identity without finding genderedconcepts. She would probablysay thatwas only becausehe did not look for them. William Reddy's two recent books share in Scott's quest for a thorough

experience is construed experience"-made

freely coming together to

relationbetween the subjects' conditionsand their in-







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


been thoroughly misled by rhetoricalconventions. Reddy's TheRise of Mar-

ket Culture portrayslanguage as an autonomousforce that has oppressed workers, doomed efforts to communicatewith them, and confoundedthose

who would speak to, for, or about thatworkers'interestsarenot solely

that those interestsare poorly described by conventionalclass analysis.

Reddy has chosen well to examine the "classic" factoryproletarians, the textile operatives, in MarketCulture.Thereis suchextensive commentary on

them and such strong images-even

all thathas particularirony.Turning on its headthe conventional portrait of the

demoralized, atomized uprooted masses

satanic mills, the authorassertsthat "a whole human community moved into the mills" (p. 165) and insists on the centrality of family, honor, andcustom to the operatives' lives. They wantedto be treatedas independentproducers, free of all but self-generateddiscipline, freeto organizedfamily life according to customaryguidelines. A metaphor thatilluminates Reddy'sthoughtequates work and cooking, both of which entail a complex bundle of rewardsand costs. The authoris committedto exposing the multidimensionalnatureof labor that, he claims, makes all efforts to subject it to contractualrelations futile. 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 interpretation of realityorganized aroundthe propositions that gain is the basic humanmotive andthat competition maximizes profit, hasbeenthe conqueringforce, and the authorinsists on the impoverished view of reality

inherentin the culture. All the disparities between the simplifying assump- tions of classical economics and the complex ways workingpeople live and

assign values bringReddy to proclaim that "market society did

being in Europe in the nineteenth century"(p. 1). Nonetheless, factory work- ers had to deal with marketcultureas an imposing force.

Reddy treats the IndustrialRevolution largely as a cultural phenomenon:

Factoryproductionbroughtemployers to adopt marketcultureand give work- ers options stated in its terms. The operatives never accepted the validity of market language but reluctantly learnedto calculate "the value in monetary terms of every move of the finger" (p. 136). Ironically, the workers' self- proclaimed leadersandliberatorsused the same language as mill owners and, therefore, could not articulatewhatthe operatives wantedandneeded. 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

initiated by nineteenth-century laboractivists and socialist thinkers.

with empirical social history, for he believes

that social historianshave

wage earners. Reddy appears to assume the creationof language, buthe contends

popular ones-that

Reddy's critique of

marchinghopelessly into the dark,

not come into

continues discourses





The authorattributesto workersa taken-for-granted universeof daily ac-

Habermas's "life-worlds"-based on preindustrial habits.


The mill operatives were determinedto maintainthemin the face of corrosive pressures from marketculture. Reddy uses the laborers' strike activity to confirmthis interpretation. He finds thattheirstrikesdid not entail bargaining for higherwages or even better working conditions. They were often rawacts

of rebellion, rich in symbolic gestures. Spontaneity and the absenceof prag- matic demandswere centralfeatures.

perhaps be described as a potent

combinationof the impulse inherentin the new labor history to find "authen- tic" and rich humanvalues among the oppressed andthe theoretical learning of the post-Marxist era. His perspective raises fundamental questions about Marxism and historical materialism.In Money and Liberty in Modern Eu- rope, Reddy gives his vision more explicit theoretical grounding.Money and Libertysuggests the shape thata poststructuralist Das Kapitalmighttake, for Reddy has the ambitionto replace historicalmaterialismwith 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'sview. In keeping with postmodernprecepts, his vision is not tele-

ological, and he does not foresee the ultimate triumph of

Reddy's consummate originality might

social justice.

Readersof MarketCulturewill not be surprised to find Reddy again pro-

nouncing capitalistsociety an impossibility. It would

"the full and free convertibility of all objects of humandesire into money

equivalents" and the full separation of social, economic, political, andmoral sphere (p. 154). What the late eighteenth century did inaugurate was the classical liberalism's language to describe timeless inequalities. "The new society of the nineteenth century was not so very new after all," Reddy


new set of clothes."

Not class struggle but "asymmetricalexchangerelationships" constitutethe principaldynamic in this illusionary liberal society. By that, Reddy means that the rich and the poor enter into contractual arrangements under very unbalancedterms. For a worker, a job is a matterof existence; for an em- ployer, it means only a marginal increasein output.Asymmetryplaysroughly the same role in Reddy's notions as the labor theory of value played in

classical Marxism; it is

tion. Because the poor need money to survive, the richer party is able to exercise power over the improvished individual.Thereis an "extraeconomic" disciplining, inference, and intimidationthathas no place in the ideology of capitalism. For Reddy, this explainswhy it is not possible to constructa stable society basedon "the liberalillusion." Inevitably, the laboringpoor mobilize against extraeconomic power. Reddy argues that working-class communities develop a formidablecode of "male honor,"partly in reactionto disciplining

require,by definition,

"A very ancientform of authority and social deferencewas given a

the concept that transforms exchange into exploita-







from above, partly in a spontaneous manner.The authorsees evidenceof such comportment in the strikesof textile operatives, but he means his analysis to apply to the preindustriallaboringpoor as well as the new factoryproletariat. His attempt to underscorethe similaritiesin striketacticsbetween semifeudal

Silesian linen

weaver and mill workers in Manchesteris very much to the


The audacity of Reddy's reinterpretation is a faithfulreflectionof the con-

fusion created by the

dy's revisionism will

agenda for diffusing poststructuralisttheory. The problem with Reddy's for- mulationis its generality.Asymmetrical relationsand 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 persevere withoutthe totalizinganalysis thatMarxism (of what- ever sort) provided. Reddy's perception that language has the capacity to obscureand mislead those who seek workers' authentic experience receives reinforcementfrom Jacques Ranciere'sLa nuit des proletaires of 1981.5 Ranciereexamines the lives and thought of working-class writerswho inventedthe language of class during the 1830s and 1840s. Most adheredto utopian socialist projects.They spent their days at laborandtheir nightsdefending theircause with their pens. The loosely structuredbookjuxtaposeslong citationsand sparsecommentary in which rhetorical questions are as common as declarativestatements.One finds the ruminationsof dreamerswho talked past one another, the thoughts of one schemer after another reflecting on lost struggles. Ranciere wants his readersto takethe autodidactworkers seriously as politicallyengaged writers. He seeks to stimulateinterest, not in their programs for change, but in their rhetorical strategies for addressing workersand 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 boundaries. Most relevantto the debatewith social historiansis Ranciere's position on the socialism of skilled workers.The autodidactauthorsexaltedthe dignity of skilled labor. Their writings made the pride of the craftsmancentralto the


been pleased to cite their texts as evidence that socialism grew out of the

workers'own cultureand values.6 In doing so, Rancieremaintains, scholars

foundering of class analysis. For many scholars, Red- appear at least somewhat more palatable than Scott's

of class feeling. Laborleadersandlaborhistoriansever since have

5 The work has recently been translatedas The Nights of Labor. The Workers'Dream in

John Drury, trans. (Philadelphia:TempleUniversity Press, 1989).

Nineteenth-Century France,

The new version begins with an excellent introduction by Donald Reid.

6 Especially

subject to Ranciere's critique

The Socialism of

is BernardMoss, The Originsof the FrenchLabor

Skilled Workers (Berkeley: University of California

Movement, 1830-1914.

Press, 1976).





have perpetuated a myth. These were not at all

skilled workers calling for a social revolutionin orderto makethe world safe

for craftsmen. The working-classintelligentsiabelonged to degraded trades andwere actually demeaned by theirwork. They createda legend of the proud artisan beset by troubling forces and determinedto save his way of life. Perhaps, because the writersknew only too well the alluresof the bourgeois life, they used the legend as a counterweight to theirdemoralizationas work- ers. At night, enjoying an all-too-brief respite fromtheir gruelinglabor,they

imagined a working class Like Scott and Reddy,

thatwould reshape the world aroundskilled work. Ranciere points out that laborhistorianshave per-

petuatedpolitically motivateddiscoursesaboutworkersratherthan breaking down those discourses. A philosopher, Ranciere warns historiansthat 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 partly on texts thatRanciere exposes as being unsuitablefor the purpose. New labor historians must squirm as well because their goal was precisely to explore workersas they actually lived and thought.

the authentic spokesmen for

Perhaps the lesson to drawfrom Ranciereis not the futility of

seeking the

workers'authenticvoice but the need to exercise enormouscare. It would be well to recall that Ranciereis a philosopher who puts history to use for his own purposes. He bears the same relationto the discipline as anotherhistor- ically minded philosopher, Michel Foucault.Justas historiansshouldnot read Foucaultto learnabout insanity in the early moder period, so laborhistorians shouldnottakeRanciereas a seriousstudentof 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 problematize the relationbetweenwork experience and ideology, but he offers no commanding reason to abandonthe line of inquiry. Of all the books discussed so far, Michael Sonenscher's study of eigh-

teenth-century artisansis potentially the most devastating to the claims of the new labor history because it does not rely on a theoreticalorientationthat materialists can reject or ignore. Sonenscher challenges socioeconomic

causality on

many social historianstake as a markof seriousnesswould be an understate-

ment. His commandof archivalsourcesis awesome. Moreover, Sonenscher attacks labor history where it is conceptually the strongest and meth-

its own grounds. To say thathe has done the hardarchivalwork

7 For a critical evaluation of Foucaultas a historianof insanity, see H. C. Erik Midelfort, "MadnessandCivilizationin Early Modem Europe: A Reappraisal of Michel Foucault," in After the Reformation.Essays in Honor of J. H. Hexter, BarbaraC. Malament, ed. (Philadelphia:

University of PennsylvaniaPress, 1980), 247-65.

history, see Allan Megill, "Foucault,Structuralism, andthe Endsof History," Journal of Modern History, 51 (1979), 451-503.

For an assessmentof Foucault's

approach to







odologically the weakest. If Sonenscheris correct, new laborhistoriansmust admitto having been naive and ill-informed-and not just from a poststruc- turalist perspective.


labor history has always had a programmatic weakness in that it

made powerful assumptions about preindustrialworkers, but little research was actually carriedout on the subject. New labor historydeveloped arounda conceptualizationinvolving preindustrial workers coming into conflict with the emergingcapitalisteconomy of the nineteenth century. The proletarianiza- tion model presupposed a linear deteriorationof work experience as market forces undermineda more privileged laborsituationthathadbeen guaranteed by custom. Labor historians typically examined craftsmenat a moment of

crisis in the nineteenth century and accepted the workers' depiction of their

plight, if not at face value, then with uncharacteristic credulity. Before

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-century urbanartisansseizes on this weaknessand uses it to topple the explanatoryapparatus that makes capitalism the master force in creating a class society. Students of nineteenth-century labor have long recognized that the eigh-


extent to which work and workers were "traditional"-that is, guided by ancient norms and not subject to marketforces. Sonenscheris on target in challenging several key assumptions: that legal restrictions protectedeigh- teenth-century artisansfrom intense competition, thatartisansidentifiedwith theirworkbecause they madea whole product, thatcraftsmenhada local and particularisticperspective on their world, andthat they willingly worked long hours because their was no separation between laborand social life. Above all, there is the premise that custom served as a unifying force between

century was a transitional period but have implicitly emphasized the


mastersand journeymen and gave the latter protectionagainst marketforces (not yet powerful in any case) thatwould subsequently reduce pay andthreat- en work conditions. Sonenscher attempts to show that work life before the Revolution was closer to the mid-nineteenth-century situationthan the new labor history has ever recognized.

Sonenscher'sexhaustiveresearch points to a hurly-burly worldof


tion, markets, and mobility existing already in

He argues that work was quite subdivided and specialized, even without

factories. Sonenscher develops the concept of

plain how workshops could segmentjobs among severalmasters.Ratherthan the reign of paternalism between mastersand journeymen, Sonenscherdocu- ments rapid laborturnoverand ephemeral relations.Ratherthana standardiz- ing "custom"thatharmonizedworklife by settingpay and hours, therewas a high degree of uncertainty andintense disputes over the issues. In an interest- ing chapter on journeymen's associations (compagnonnages), Sonenscherar-

the eighteenth-century trades.

"productive networks"to ex-





gues that they were notvehicles fortimeless corporateideals, as Sewell would have it. Instead, they had a golden age between 1750 and 1830 precisely because their ritualscreateddifferences among tradesmenwhen the law and marketswere eradicatingprivileges and skills. The conclusion Sonenscher

drawsfrom this portrait of prerevolutionary workis that capitalism could not

have caused the

century because marketforces had alreadyreshaped labor. Whatdid produce a working class? Turning to the same sortof publically validateddiscourses that Sewell treated, Sonenscher gives his argument an intriguing twist. "What changed in France between 1748 and 1848," he

rise of class-based society andclass conflict in the following


"was not so much

the immediate circumstances in which produc-

tion was carried out, as the identity of the public to which actorsin conflict appealed andthe mannerin which those appeals were couched" (p. 375). We

are back to Scott's notion which bear little relationto

of identity established by conflictual discourses a prior socioeconomic reality. Sonenscher points

out that prerevolutionaryjourneymen existed in a legal institutionalframe- work sanctioningguild organization, so they spoke in the language of privi- lege and corporateparticularism. Because journeymen addressed mainly law- yers and civil courts in the defense of their interests, referencesto custom were an importantweapon in theirarsenalof arguments. Afterthe Revolution created a regime of individualismand liberty, workershad to invent a lan- guage of solidarity to challenge their employers.They eventually hit upon the class concept. WhetherSonenscheris correctaboutthe eighteenth-century work experi- ence is obviously a crucial question,probably the question for labor history at the moment. Not only is the historiography of the last two decades at stake, but revisionists, too, must reassess their work in light of Sonenscher'sfind- ings. On the whole, Languageof Laborholds up well, especiallyconsidering Sewell's relianceon secondary sourcesthatSonenschernow supersedes. It is truethatSonenscherwould not accept Sewell's claim thatthe corporate idiom reflecteda communal understanding of workand property. The formerwould

portraycorporatelanguage as a means of struggling for position within the legal frameworkof the ancien regime. On the other hand, Sewell's interpreta- tion does betterthanSonenscher'sin accounting for 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 realitieseven as language andcultureshifted. Ranciere'svision

of the state of craftsin the

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-nineteenth century was essentially the same one as that in the mid-

nineteenth century receives forceful support from







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.

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

The reservation is especially

relevant because



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 proletarian families is Michael Hanagan, Nascent

Post-Revolutionary France (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

Proletarians. Class Formationin

9 As Sociology Meets History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UniversityPress, 1985), 1.





tion is the Canadian Marxist, Bryan Palmer. His Descent into Discourse

avoids being simply an emotional, ideologically narrow response to the crisis in materialist history. To be sure, Palmeris always feisty and, occasionally, stridentin defense of historical practices to which he is deeply committed. Yet, it is also true that he respects his opponents and wishes to reason with them. Much to his credit, Palmeris fully capable of examiningpoststructuralist

theory from the inside-indeed,

weak grasp of theory. The book begins with a learned survey of the evolution

of the ideas, from Neitzsche to Derrida. The emphasis is on the internal disagreements and historical contingencies thathave shaped the development of languagetheory. In Palmer's view, revisionistshave been all too ready to accept it as revealedtruth.

The strongest objections to discourse analysis derive from professional, cultural, and moral concerns. Palmerfinds the scholarshipunsatisfying and occasionally sloppy,especially the critiques of class analysis. Palmeraccuses the revisionists of an arrogant exclusiveness. He contends that new labor historians have often been sensitive to language but finds the revisionists

turning their backs

Above all, Palmer laments that the linguistic turn is not up to

addressing the great issues of the past and present. His case

Derrida's commentary on the anti-Semitic and collaborationist writings

Paul de Man,

Belgiumduring the Naziera. 10 PalmeraccusesDerridaof

the moraldimensionof the case. He warnsthat "whenhuman agency is most urgently called on the historical stage, deconstructiontakes its leave of large

explanation, and ultimately moraland politicalauthority"(p. 198). His objec- tion might seem moreeven-handedif he had acknowledged JoanScott'suse of theory to addressone of the great issues of our day. Still convincedthathistoricalmaterialismis the best of all available explan- atory schema, Palmerclaims to be prepared to learnfrom poststructuralists.

He praises the

plicity of approaches.By contrast, he blasts Rancierefor producinghistory that is "enclosed within its own referentiality." Of course, his call for plu-

ralism may seem beside the point to those who areconvincedthat languageis, indeed, primary.

he occasionally faults revisionistsfor their

on every other perspective in a most unhelpful manner.

the task of in point is


the influential deconstructionist literary critic who lived in

failing to appreciate

work of Sewell and Sonenscherfor their openness to a multi-

Palmer's mastery of the

literatureand his comm