Work, Class, and Social Democracy in the Global Age of August Bebel (1840-1913)

May 25, 2023 - May 27, 2023

Conference at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto | Conveners: James Retallack (University of Toronto), Simone Lässig (GHI Washington) and Swen Steinberg (GHI Washington)

Call for Papers

The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of labor history, and not only for historians of Germany. There was a marked turning-away from both labor history and workers' history after 1980, due in part to new interest in the German and European bourgeoisies, in part to the "cultural turn" and other scholarly trends. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1991 and the decline of Marxist historiographies. In 2010, a forum of scholars acknowledged that "class," as an analytical category, had largely lost its appeal. But now, more than ten years later, scholars have recently been telling us that histories of work, labor movements, and capitalism are all back in vongue. Are they really?

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that work and the concept of work are central to our existence and self-worth. And scholarship has not stood still since 1980. Histories of work have embraced the history of capitalism, class, race, ethnicity, religion, language, migration, and locality; of gender construction, the body, and emotions; of education, life-cycles, and generations. The study of labour movements has also revealed important connections between cultures of commemoration, memory studies, and the role of "citizen workers" in civil society. The time seems ripe for again taking stock of these interrelated themes, bringing history into conversation with other disciplines.

Including the iconic figure of August Bebel provides focus in another way. Bebel was the leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) a worker, a craftsman, a manufacturer, a merchant, an entrepreneur, even perhaps a Bürger? Was he the embodiment of Social Democracy, as Lenin once claimed? Either way, the collapse of capitalist society that Bebel foresaw as early as the 1880s never occurred, and within a year of his death his legions were marching faithfully to the front for Kaiser and Fatherland. Karl Kautsky's assessment of Social Democracy was closer to the mark: the SPD was a revolutionary but not a revolution-making party.

While the focus of this conference falls on the pre-1914 period and on Central Europe, the conveners invite contributions that consider transnational or global comparisons and suggest how historians of nineteenth-century social movements can speak to those studying or participating in more modern ones. The conveners invite submissions from researchers interested in the following topics and questions:

  • An ambivalence between "work as joy" and "work as burden" existed for centuries before 1800. Hegel and Marx transferred this ambivalence to the dialectic of alienation and emancipation, while capitalism's early theorists sidelined it into apologetics for progress. How did changing work discourses around the globe affect the emergence of an organized labor movement?

  • How useful to current research on transnational or global developments are conceptually paired categories of labor relations: independent/dependent, free/unfree, male/gendered, paid/unpaid, regulated/unregulated, secure/precarious? In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, an inclusive language of "solidarity" across classes emerged. But can we find alternative transformations or different timelines to help explain commonalities and divergences in labor relations?

  • Because of its conceptual imprecision, Karl Marx famously attacked the 1875 Gotha Program of the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany, which began: "Work is the source of all wealth and of all culture." Around the same time, "Der Volksstaat"proclaimed that "Only intelligent workers can be socialists." Christina Morina has recently ascribed the "invention of Marxism" to intellectuals like Kautsky, Jean Jaurès, and Rosa Luxemburg, prompting the question: Were skilled workers perhaps less central than we once thought to the early history of Social Democracy?

  • E. P. Thompson wrote that "Class is a relationship, not a thing…" Did a working class exist at all in Imperial Germany – or anywhere else in the world? Was a working class in Leipzig born in the 1860s and 1870s, as Hartmut Zwahr suggested long ago? Did German workers develop their own subculture or "alternative culture"? Were they "negatively integrated" into mainstream society?

  • A key social project of the German bourgeoisiewas to manage the divide between those who worked with their hands and those who did not. Social Democrats were lumped together with Catholics, Poles, Jews, and left-liberals as "enemies of the Reich." Even educated Africans living in Germany were cause for worry: imperial authorities feared they might discover themselves as proletarians and support the Social Democrats. How and why were socialists and other out-groups tarred with the brush of sedition, even as many workers found social integration within their grasp?

  • Is there a danger that histories of resistance, refusal, and self-assertion (Eigensinn) in the workplace might fall out of view? Many pioneers of labor history who addressed this issue left us too early (Dick Geary, Alf Lüdtke, Tim Mason, Detlev Peukert, Jean Quataert, Klaus Tenfelde, Thomas Welskopp). What topics, sources, or perspectives are on the horizon to inspire their successors, especially in global comparison?

  • August Bebel's "Woman under Socialism"(1879) was a core text for Social Democrats and one of the nineteenth century's best-sellers. Yet gender is still relatively neglected as a category of analysis in German and European labour histories. As well as supporting women's emancipation, Bebel has been credited with inoculating Social Democrats against the contagions of anarchism and antisemitism, and he was a fierce critic of militarism and colonialism. But was Bebel's stance perhaps less resolute on these questions than imagined?

  • Violent and gendered labor relations in Germany's colonies were one end of a trail of economic and political corruption that led back to the metropole. The entangled economies of race, sex, and labour are one way to demonstrate how labour was co-opted, transported, deployed, and disciplined in transnational and global settings. It nevertheless remains unclear how such violence percolated upward from the everyday worlds of work into the public sphere and high politics. Can these research paths be opened up further?

  • How do iconic individuals contribute to the memorialization of work, class, and social movements in a global perspective? Bebel spent more than four years of his life behind bars as Imperial Germany's first political prisoner. Is he comparable to more familiar martyrs from the twentieth century (e.g. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela)? The year 2023 is the 160th anniversary of the birth of the first modern labour party in history, and the 110th anniversary of Bebel's death. Updating conditions of work, social justice, and democratic reform for a global age continues to this day: How can we redouble our effort to understand their historical roots?

We plan this conference to be an in-person event, with an option for remote participation. Please send a brief CV and a paper proposal of no more than 400 words by August 31st, 2022, to Swen Steinberg ( Because we plan to publish a volume of conference proceedings, papers should present original scholarship. The papers will be pre-circulated on a secure website and will be presented only in summary form at the conference.