Workers of the Empire Unite: introducing book 15 in the Studies in Labour History series

Co-editor Yann Béliard introduces the latest volume in the Studies in Labour History book series.

In most studies of British decolonisation, the world of labour is neglected, the key roles being allocated to metropolitan statesmen and native elites. Instead this volume focuses on the role played by working people, their experiences, initiatives and organisations, in the dissolution of the British Empire, both in the metropole and in the colonies.

How central was the intervention of the metropolitan Left in the liquidation of the British Empire? Were labour mobilisations in the colonies only stepping stones for bourgeois nationalists? To what extent were British labour activists willing and able to form connections with colonial workers, and vice versa? Here are some of the complex questions on which this volume sheds new light.

Though convergences were fragile and temporary, they were not impossible, contrary to what certain theorists of postcolonial studies have argued. This book therefore makes a point of recapturing the sense of uncertainty that accompanied the final decades of the British Empire, a period when radical minorities hoped that coordinated efforts across borders might lead not only to the destruction of the British Empire but to that of capitalism and imperialism in general.

Exploiting rare primary sources and adopting a resolutely transnational approach, our collection makes an original contribution to both labour history and imperial studies. It will appeal to all those currently interested in the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in its radical critiques of Empire and Colonialism.

Focusing on common people and their initiatives, from tea plantations in Kenya (see Dave Hyde’s chapter) to the docks of Gibraltar (see Tom Sibley’s), our book revisits British decolonisation from below.

This collection of original studies, which explores the successes and failures of the British Left in its attempts to connect with colonial workers, also offers a novel approach to anticolonial activism, with an emphasis on transnational exchanges and connections between the metropole and the colonies, between the so called “core” and “periphery”.

Blending the study of collective and individual agency, the volume provides the reader with fascinating close-ups on the key role of female activists (e.g. Annie Besant, Sylvia Pankhurst, Ellen Wilkinson) and the experience of women labourers (notably in the Sudan).

We are very proud of the contributions made by each individual chapter, whether authored by well-known specialists of the subject (eg Nicholas Owen, Matt Perry, Evan Smith) or by younger researchers (eg Marie Terrier, Quentin Gasteuil, Gareth Curless). Together they bring new perspectives on working-class movements in Britain and her Empire, from party and union leaders to grassroots and the “unorganised”.

For all those reasons we feel the book should appeal to undergraduate and postgraduate students in history, social and political sciences, to teachers and academics specialising in British imperial, social and political history, and more generally to members of the general public interested in colonial and post-colonial issues, transnational networking and the labour movement including its trade-union and communist components.

Of course we look forward to discussing our findings and suggestions for further research in the weeks and months to come!

Buy Workers of the Empire, Unite from Liverpool University Press.

Series editor Neville Kirk introduces Studies in Labour History
The Studies in Labour History series offers the reader the most recent and high quality research in the field. Labour history is defined in its widest sense to embrace not only labour and related social movements, but also workers in general and their relations with other groups in society. As such the series covers race, gender and ethnicity as well as the more familiar topics of class, trade unionism and politics. While the key geographical focus rests upon the UK, the series is keen to publish research in the fields of transnational, global and comparative labour history. The current editor welcomes submissions from new researchers who are keen to publish their first monographs.