CfP: On the Freedom of Labour in Capitalism. First Congress of the German Labour History Association

Call for papers, deadline 30 April 2019

Bochum, House for the History of the Ruhr, Clemensstraße 17-19, 44789 Bochum, Germany
6-8 February 2020

Labour History in the last two decades has been characterised by two currents: On the one hand, it was interested in the construction of work and working subjects in the context of (large-scale) business, the nation and the welfare-state in the 20th Century global north. The research focused on processes of scientisation and national framing, on institutional and discursive inclusion and exclusion, on modes of leadership, on the establishment of social security systems and labour markets or on the relationship between work and consumption. On the other hand, Global Labour History has inspired scholars to analyse the variety of work arrangements in capitalism. They have put emphasis on the significance and persistence of the division of labour and – in the largest sense – “unfree” labour on a global scale: Covering from slavery over indentured labour to present-day household labour of irregular migrants. At the same time, they have examined practices of resistance and social movements in the context of these various types of “free” and “unfree” labour, taking into consideration their entanglements as well as contradictions.

Both trends share an understanding of labour in capitalism as a highly complex form of producing goods and providing services that is marked by multiple dependencies. Whereas the latter has shown that capitalism has always been based on the exploitation of “unfree” labour, the former has emphasised the preconditions and historical specificities of „free wage labour” systems in industrialised world regions in past and present. In both cases, freedom constitutes a vanishing point: In the first case, it serves as a counter-model, delimitating the object of research; in the second case it figures as a (never reached) goal of the observed institutions and practices. Labour History however has rarely discussed this function explicitly.

Against this background, the first congress of the German Labour History Association intends to analyse “free wage labour” and its relation to capitalism from the following three perspectives:

First, it asks for the role the concept of freedom plays in labour historiography: What notions of “free” work did historiography use with respect to different regions, historical periods and arrangements of production? What concepts of “unfree” forms of work did Labour History oppose to “free wage labour”? How did historiography analyse the interdependence of freedom and unfreedom in global capitalism?

Second, the conference aims at discussing the history of the freedom of labour empirically: What role did it play as a norm for the workers’ movement and other social movements? How have semantics of freedom changed during the last two centuries? How did the history of knowledge of labour and the categorisation of labour relations refer to the concept of “free wage labour”? To what extent has recent labour historiography altered and extended our knowledge of “free” forms of work on a global scale? Among others, contributions covering the following areas are welcome: the history of labour contracts and contract breaking, the emergence and negotiation of labour markets, the history of reproductive work, of “free professions”, of “free wage labour” as a frame in labour conflicts or of the relation between the freedom of work and inequality. They may follow perspectives of global, micro, social and/or cultural history

Third, with respect to the future of Labour History we welcome contributions focussing the advantages and disadvantages of more firmly theorising the freedom of work. To what extent does it allow to unveil blind spots of previous research? Does it enable us to bring together the different subfields of Labour History more closely? We also encourage reflections on other concepts that may advance labour historiography. To what extent does it make sense to take an unspecific notion of “work” as a starting point and to study “free wage labour” as one of its varieties? What advantages or disadvantages do alternative concepts such as “livelihood” offer?

Please send your abstract (max. 500 words) and a short biography (max. 200 words) until the 30 April 2019 to Anna Strommenger ( and Jan Kellershohn ( Conference languages are German and English. If possible, travel and accommodation expenses will be covered.



Peter-Paul Bänziger (Universitäten Basel und Konstanz), Andreas Eckert (Humboldt Universität Berlin), Bernd Hüttner (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung), Jan Kellershohn (Institut für soziale Bewegungen, Ruhr-Universität Bochum), Ilse Lenz (Ruhr-Universität Bochum), Anna Strommenger (Universität Duisburg-Essen), Thomas Welskopp (Universität Bielefeld)