Global Working Class in Focus: GRIP Annual Lecture Explores the Legacy of 200 Years of Socialism

The inaugural GRIP Lecture, delivered by esteemed global labour historian Marcel van der Linden on May 31, offered valuable insights into the historical trajectories of socialist and labour movements. Attendees had the opportunity to engage with the expertise of van der Linden, who shared his vast knowledge and research on the subject. Accompanied by insightful commentary from scholars Göran Therborn, Svati Shah, and Ernesto Semán, the lecture provided a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by these movements and the strategic choices they have made throughout history. By revisiting the past, the lecture aimed to shed light on the potential lessons that can be learned for the future.


Highlights from the keynote address

Marcel van der Linden delivered a keynote address that shed light on the paradoxical situation of the global working class and the challenges faced by labour movements. One of the central paradoxes highlighted by van der Linden is the simultaneous growth of the global working class and the crisis experienced by labour movements. Despite an increase in the percentage of wage-dependent employees, labour movements in many countries are struggling to maintain their influence and effectiveness.


It is important to note that the working class extends beyond the number of formal employees. It encompasses contributing family members and unemployed individuals as well as false self-employed workers who are economically dependent on one or a few main clients. Additionally, individuals engaged in domestic subsistence labour, particularly women, play a crucial role in enabling others to participate in the labour market. Thus, the working class encompasses a broader range of individuals and their contributions.



The lecture also emphasised the increasing interconnectedness of workers worldwide through global supply chains. The production of goods involves the assembly of components manufactured in different countries, a process commonly known as slicing up or unbundling supply chains. This phenomenon started in North America and East Asia in the 1960s and 70s, with Europe following suit. As a result, a significant portion of employees globally is involved in global supply chains, fostering economic connections between workers across national borders.


Migration plays a crucial role in intensifying economic connections among workers from different parts of the world. The proportion of international migrants in the global population increased from 2.8% to 3.5% between 2000 and 2020. South-north migration, specifically from developing to developed countries has seen a notable rise, while north-north and south-south migrations have declined in relative terms.


Challenges facing global labour movements

Van der Linden emphasised the challenges faced by traditional labour movements globally. Cooperatives, trade unions, and worker parties, considered the core social movement organisations representing the working class are all experiencing a decline, albeit with variations across countries and regions. Consumer cooperatives have been significantly affected by centralisation, capital concentration and the rise of supermarkets. These trends have led to a decline in the number of cooperatives and increased membership strength per cooperative, resulting in larger and more bureaucratic entities. Trade unions, originating in the 19th century have faced challenges in maintaining their influence. Union density, representing the percentage of the labour force organised in trade unions has generally been declining globally. However, significant variations exist between countries and regions.



Globally, union density remains relatively low, estimated to be around 5-6%. Independent trade unions organise only a small percentage of the global workforce, with the majority concentrated in the relatively affluent North Atlantic region. Labour, social democratic and communist parties have historically represented the political interests of the working class. However, these parties have faced electoral challenges in many countries. Communist parties have encountered difficulties, leading to dissolutions, splits, and mergers in various countries. Efforts to replace capitalism with a just and democratic society have not succeeded, leading socialist and labour movements to reach an impasse.  The decline of labour movements has coincided with the rise of the radical right, positioning itself as an alternative to traditional workers’ organisations. Concluding, Van der Linden underlined that understanding the history of socialist and labour movements can provide insights to prevent future mistakes and potential new cycles. Historical research and the study of pivotal moments can help identify choices that could have led to different outcomes. Reconstructing old choices is complex, requiring attention to mistakes, errors, and the avoidance of repetition.


Responses from commentators


Göran Therborn: Socialist Working-Class Movement: Unveiling Historical Contexts and Analytical Angles

Göran Therborn responded to Marcel van de Linden’s keynote address at the GRIP Annual Lecture, appreciating the historical overview of the socialist working-class movement. Therborn agreed with van de Linden’s approach of examining strategic choices within the movement but emphasised the importance of considering the broader social, cultural, economic, and political context of the past two centuries. He highlighted the influence of the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution in shaping the culture of modernity and the concept of revolution to achieve societal transformation. The emergence of socialism was not solely confined to industrial labour but also appealed to artisans, tenants, and agrarian subalterns, representing a belief in human emancipation and the possibility of an alternative world.



Therborn further discussed two analytical angles for understanding the socialist working-class movement. The first was the dialectic of industrial capitalism, which involved the conflicting relationship between the social nature of production and the private relations of production as well as the growth of the industrial working class. This dialectic contributed to the establishment of public infrastructure, political democracy, labour rights, welfare states and reduced inequality in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. However, tendencies of post-industrial capitalism since around 1980 have reversed these developments.


The second dialectic mentioned by Therborn was capitalist colonialism, where European colonialism and the emergence of a proto-national revolutionary intelligentsia in colonised regions drew inspiration from the anti-capitalist working class movement in the industrial world. While acknowledging that capitalism had outcompeted revolutionary and reformist socialism in terms of socioeconomic development by the end of the 20th century, Therborn believed that the demise of socialism was not predetermined and a new cycle of popular opposition and anti-capitalism could emerge in the future, albeit in different forms.


Unravelling Challenges and Possibilities: Svati Shah’s Insights on India’s Labour Movement and the Informal Economy

Svati Shah responded to Marcel van de Linden’s keynote address by focusing on the challenges faced by the labour movement and the prevalence of the informal economy in India. Shah reflected on the current state of the labour movement and the declining support for redistribution and a robust public sector. She provided examples from recent elections in Turkey and the U.K., where parties promoting personal responsibility and scepticism towards state-provided services gained popularity. In India, Shah observed a similar trend where welfare provisions were being replaced by charitable schemes that failed to address the core issues of unemployment and resource redistribution. These schemes served more as patronage than genuine redistribution.


Shah delved into the concept of the informal economy, drawing from Michael Denning’s essay, which defined it as wage-less life and the invisibility of the unemployed and marginalised within the political economy. Shah highlighted India’s significant informal economy, accounting for a substantial portion of the country’s GDP and its impact on the lives of 1.4 billion people.


Shah pointed out that the Hindu right-wing government in power viewed the informal sector as a resource, both for securing votes and extracting resources from land occupied by marginalised communities. They outlined the challenges faced by the left in engaging with the informal sector, which has effectively been captured by the current government. Shah stressed the need to grapple with this situation and find new approaches at a time when the idea of the public sector itself is rejected.


They also mentioned the crackdowns and repression faced by communities in tribal belts and their connection to left-wing activism and the origins of urban informal workers. They suggested that despite facing harsh measures, these spaces still hold potential for mobilisation and resistance. Shah concluded by contemplating the possibility of capitalism self-destructing before causing irreversible harm to the planet.


Unveiling Latin America’s Labour History and Identifying New Perspectives: Ernesto Semán’s Reflections

Ernesto Semán responded to Marcel van der Linden’s keynote address by focusing on two key points related to Latin America. Firstly, he discussed the role of the national question and the state in the history of organised labour. Semán highlighted that in the 1940s and 1950s, organised labour in Latin America experienced its peak during the consolidation of modern industrial economies in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. However, he noted that labour movements often operated separately from socialism and in some cases, even confronted socialist ideologies. Populist leaders, such as Juan Perón in Argentina adopted a nationalistic approach that advanced workers’ welfare while avoiding radicalisation. Semán argued that over time, scholars studying social history in Latin America recognised populism as a movement that expanded social, economic, and political citizenship for urban workers, despite initial concerns from the left.



The second point Semán raised was the need to identify what is new and not adequately addressed in the present. He agreed with Marcel van de Linden’s critique of the historical oversight of environmental, gender, and race dimensions within the socialist discourse. Semán acknowledged a perception of the symbolic closure of the horizon of progress and the end of the idea of universal justice and emancipation. He referred to the neoliberal reforms of the 1970s and 80s in Latin America, which dismantled union power, prioritised individual property rights and embraced open international trade. This shift towards neoliberalism put significant pressure on the environment and resulted in an all-encompassing consensus reliant on extractivism and commodity booms to address inequality. However, Semán argued that workers’ political organisations and the left often overlooked environmental concerns, focusing more on economic exploitation and political domination. He suggested that discussions about the Anthropocene and the relationship between humans and nature are often dissociated from workers’ struggles and remain confined to environmentalist contexts.


Q n A: session with the physical and online audience

The discussion round with the audience engaged participants into conversations about labour history, socialism, and broader social movements. The conversation began with an acknowledgment of the importance of exploring different perspectives and challenging established narratives. The failure of the French Revolution is mentioned as an example of a historical event that is often glorified despite its limitations in representing all sections of humanity.


The discussion touched upon the concept of bifurcation points and the need to analyse why certain movements turned against democracy. The inclusion of other social movements such as the ecological movement and women’s movement in the analysis was emphasised, recognising their relevance alongside the labour movement.



A question was raised regarding the framing of labour history and whether it is sufficient for understanding the challenges faced by humanity today. The need to consider both achievements and failures was reinforced in response, along with the exploration of alternative forms of organisation beyond the labour movement to address contemporary issues like environmental disaster and xenophobia.


The conversation also touched upon the simultaneous movements within progressive companies and the efforts to organise trade unions in those spaces, which offer hope for social change. The idea of a broader balance sheet, encompassing what has gone right and wrong was suggested as a way to understand the decline in membership of various organisations.


Another question was posed regarding the connection between the broader perspective of global labour history and the focus on the global North in the socialist narrative. The inclusion of non-wage workers such as chattel slaves and those involved in reproductive work in the understanding of the working class was also discussed. The challenges faced by different groups in organising and the concept of the labour movement itself were brought up for further reflection.


Overall, the Q And A session highlighted the importance of critically examining historical events, acknowledging both successes and failures, and broadening the analysis beyond traditional labour history to encompass a wider range of social movements and struggles.


The Annual Lecture was followed by a 2-day Academic Workshop, and you can read more about the Workshop by following this link!


You can also catch-up on the Annual Lecture by watching the video below: