What might labour historians do with emotions?

In the first of an occasional new series on labour history and emotions, Dr Matthew Roberts looks at the relevance of emotions to labour history, and explains why he challenges the idea that the political sphere was an arena of reason in which feelings had no part to play

The history of emotions has taken off in the past decade. The central premise of its serious practitioners is that the experience of emotion is specific to time and place. For example, some cultures, past and present, do not have words for feelings that exist in other languages; some emotions have been ‘lost’ to history and only recently rediscovered by historians; and most significant of all, the rules governing the expression of feeling – of what is appropriate, and what isn’t – have not only changed but we now know that those very rules also play a significant part in how feelings are experienced. Even the way in which feelings are expressed vary; and they do not map themselves on to bodies in universal and unchanging ways. What might appear as an angry facial expression in one culture can mean something entirely different in another.

‘The Strike’, painting by Robert Koehler, 1886. The calm of the strike leader contrasts with the anger of the crowd and the fear in the face of the factory owner’s servant. Click for larger image

What this means in practice is that historians of emotion must pay careful attention to the language used by those in the past to describe their feelings. Failure to do so runs the risk of erasing the feelings of those in the past. But there is more to emotion than simply the language in which it is expressed. Historians of labour, and especially those who remember the debates about class, may be interested to know that one of the reasons for the growth of history of emotions was to try and recapture some of the experiential dimension of what it meant and means to be human. There was a feeling that this dimension had been lost in the wake of the ‘linguistic turn’ with its tendency to reduce everything to language. To paraphrase the historian Jan Plamper on the Russian Revolution – and to take as an example popular radicalism in the early 19th century (my own area of research): radicalism became known to the working classes not (just) through reading newspaper articles or listening to speeches at rallies, but also through the sights, sounds and smells of the mass platform, the tavern, and the coffee shop along with the attendant feelings associated with these spaces and places.

Feelings are central to what it means to be human. As such, there is no shortage of things that labour historians might do with the history of emotions. One thinks of just how important feelings were to the whole labour process: pride, dignity in one’s skill; the jealousy of one’s independence and privileges; fear of mechanisation; status-anxiety – to take just some obvious examples relating to skilled labour. The challenge for the historian, though, is to avoid imposing present-day understandings of these feelings on those in the past. The careful reading of autobiographies as a way of recreating the affective live of those in the past is one potential way around this thorny issue, though that, of course, privileges certain types of workers. But there are other ways to get at the feelings of the crowd – inscriptions and imagery on banners made and displayed by strikers and protesters can be re-read as statements of feeling. And the more historians begin to piece together different expressions of feeling in particular contexts, the closer we get to being able to recreate the feeling rules which governed the expression of feeling.

Once we realise that there are, in virtually any given situation, feeling rules in operation, we begin to appreciate just how much feelings are bound up with power: of who can feel what in a certain situation; of who gets to decide on what feelings are appropriate and how they ought to be expressed, and what the penalties are for those who transgress. While I cannot pretend to sketch out a full agenda for what labour historians might do with the history of emotions – the field is only in its infancy – I will take as a case study the recent research that I have been doing on British popular radicalism in the first half of the nineteenth century.

First, some observations about the relationship between power – especially political power – and feeling. Politics did not just revolve around ideas, power, organisation and practice but also feeling. Even abstract ideas and concepts often assumed sensorial form. Public opinion, political identities and loyalties, were based just as much on sentiment as they were abstract ideas or ideology. Late Georgian and early Victorian politicians were as likely to talk of ‘public feeling’, the ‘sentiments of the people’ or the ‘temper’ of the popular mind than they were of opinion. The very language of politics, particularly that surrounding the relationship between politics, protest and the people, often centred on feeling and bodily sensation: agitation, outrage, excitement, suffering, inflammation, distress, terror.

One of the assumptions that my research seeks to challenge – just as alive today as it was in the nineteenth century – is that the political sphere was an arena of reason in which feelings had no part to play. There is now a long-established view, associated with the German sociologist Jurgen Habermas, that the public sphere ought to be a rational arena in which feelings have no part to play, a view which, according to Habermas, gained ground with the rise of the public sphere in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But in practice, this has been neither possible nor, in some cases, desirable. Radical leaders were accused of inflaming the passions; the state and its propertied supporters were charged with callousness; and radicals grounded their claims to citizenship in the universalist assumption that workers had the same capacity for feeling as their social betters (denied at this time).

Drawing attention to the relationship between politics and feeling is important for understanding the evolution of democratic politics. This is because one of the key ways in which politicians have sought to legitimate their own politics is by claiming to speak in the name of reason, while denigrating their opponents as creatures of base passion. No doubt a similar dialogue of the deaf has taken place in relation to strikes. As historians and citizens, we need to be on our guard when historical actors and contemporary politicians juxtapose their self-proclaimed rationality against emotion as this has often served to delegitimate the politics of dissent. Recognising this, and laying bare the affective basis of politics, is vital to the health of democratic politics.

Turning to present-day protest, at this very moment the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is making its way through the English parliament. Feelings once again are prominent: anxiety, alarm and intimidation are each cited as justification for new sweeping police powers to clampdown on protest. This also suggests the need to reinterpret legislation and the law from the perspective of the history of emotions. Today’s protesters find themselves excluded from an emotional regime that is just as sensitive to what it views as inappropriate displays of emotion as the late Georgian and early Victorian political elite did in setting their faces against the base passion represented by radicalism. Times have changed, language evolves and feelings change, but the fundamental issue endures: feelings are political, and politics is, at root, about feeling.

Matthew Roberts is Associate Professor in Modern British History at Sheffield Hallam University. He works mainly on nineteenth-century British political and cultural history, especially the history of popular politics and protest, the visual and material culture of politics, and more recently the history of emotions. His book Chartism, Commemoration and the Cult of the Radical Hero was published by Routledge in 2020, and is now available in paperback. He is currently completing a book, Democratic Passions: The Politics of Feeling in British Radicalism, 1809–1848, which will be published by Manchester University Press in May 2022.

Emotions run high on the hustings at Tower Hamlets during the 1852 general election. Illustrated London News, 10 July 1852.