chapter  1
16 Pages

Introduction: class still matters: Laurajane Smith, Paul A. Shackel and Gary Campbell


This volume offers an international celebration of the heritage of the working class in its many and diverse forms. The focus is not so much on working class history – though that is discussed in various ways in the articles – but on the positive uses that heritage is being put to by working class people, communities and organisations in the present. By ‘heritage’ we mean not only tangible artefacts, buildings, places, sites and monuments, but also intangible traditions, commemorations, festivals, artwork, song and literature. We believe that it is important to stress the capacity for self-expression of working class people and communities, and the ways in which they draw on the past, and senses of place and tradition, to re-interpret and re-work contemporary identity, especially in the face of economic, social and political changes that have eroded long-standing bonds of class solidarity. These chapters show that working class people have a remarkable ability to avoid reactionary nostalgia and self-pity, and can build on their history, traditions and sense of place and community in novel ways. This leads us to reject the recent intellectual fashion of considering class a defunct, almost boorish interest, as it is a political position that is just that, a political position, but not one that captures the reality of modern working class life and culture. The question that often arises in any community is ‘which heritage is best

to preserve, and will the promotion of heritage have an impact on the local cultural resources, the community, and the environment?’ In his recent monograph that focuses on heritage development in the Chesapeake region, Erve Chambers writes that, ‘heritage has largely become an instrument that defines the disturbances, irregularities, and uncertainties of the present much more than it truly represents the past’ (Chambers 2006: 2). These disturbances and irregularities in the present are an opportunity for stakeholders to address current inequities, and it also leaves the door open to address the difficult pasts. We would like to stress, for all those who hold an interest in forms of

heritage, be they material or intangible, that there is a moral imperative to address issues of class and economic and social inequality (Sayer 2005) and its hidden injuries to self-respect and self-worth (Cobb and Sennett

1973). By revealing these inequalities it becomes easier to see how they were developed and are sustained, and we can choose whether we want to challenge these situations. Uncovering hidden injuries can set the tone for some form of justice and reconciliation within communities (ColwellChanthaphonh 2007). We would also like to make it clear, to those who think that any heritage

site or museum that references issues of class, work and de-industrialisation is anathema, that there are complex, authentic and genuine examples of working class heritage informing assertive reflexive projects of social memorymaking. There are two misinterpretations of the moral imperative of addressing class and heritage. The first is the simple fact that the Authorized Heritage Discourse (see Smith 2006; Smith and Waterton 2011; Waterton 2010a) that animates what is chosen as ‘heritage’ in the West, deifies the great and the good, the beautiful and the old, the comfortable and the consensual. It also ignores or distains people, places, artefacts and traditions that are not associated with the economic and cultural elite, or recall uncomfortable or dissonant heritage. Industrial heritage makes some appearances, especially in Europe, and particularly in the UK and Scandinavia, and to some extent in the US, but the people, communities, events and places that constitute working class heritage are underrepresented in national and international heritage efforts. Its interpretation also tends to stress physical fabric and technology over the social relations of production, labour process and class conflict. For instance, while UNESCO’s World Heritage List recognises over 900 sites, only 33 are related to industrial heritage (UNESCO 2010). In these few instances, working class heritage is often only indirectly commemorated, as the focus on industrial heritage is often void of people and class struggle. Nonetheless, these places have the potential to remember the human component of industry – working class life. England, known as the cradle of the industrial revolution, has more industrial-related sites designated by UNESCO than any other country. While European countries have the majority of UNESCO’s industrial sites, they are also found in China, India, Bolivia, Brazil and Mexico. The United States, known as an industrial power for about a century, has none. While the United States has several national parks that celebrate industrial heritage, many interpretations are void of working class histories. The second misinterpretation of the moral imperative is the tendency,

often informed by the ‘heritage industry’ critique of Hewison (1987), Wright (1985) and Lowenthal (1985), to construe any heritage or museum attempt to present working class issues, in the face of de-industrialisation and attacks on organised labour, as conservative triumphalism, commercialisation and trivialisation of working class life and experience. Indeed, Debary (2004:123) for example, argues that ‘wilful amnesia lies at the heart’ of attempts to remember lost industries. This sense of amnesia is often linked to critiques of ‘nostalgia’, which is characterised as an insatiable yearning

that, in regard to the working class, ‘cherishes the romantic memory of a time when the working class could more easily produce its own meaningful world-view: the unproblematic community of the “general interest”’ (Wright 1985: 22). As Smith (2006: 195f) argues, ‘nostalgia’ is often misidentified as being simply expressive of the ethos ‘it was better back then’, and fails to understand that nostalgic recollections can also involve critical and mindful memory work that recognises and engages with the emotionally painful. Discourses of ‘nostalgia’ and the ‘heritage industry’ critique work, as Robertson (2008) notes, to not only de-legitimise what he terms ‘heritage from below’, but also to obscure its inherently dissonant nature and the links it maintains to social protest. The chapters in this volume show that, contrary to assumptions embedded

in the ‘heritage industry’ critique, working class people, communities and organisations can speak for themselves. This is not to sweep the damage done to working class people, communities, organisations and political parties under the metaphorical carpet – they are real and profound – but to maintain Gramsci’s lively pessimism of the intellect allied with an optimism of the will in the face of adversity. There are numerous examples of more positive accounts of working class life and culture that inform the position we take. The influential work of Raphael Samuel (1994) shows that heritage, rather than being a commercial misrepresentation or simulacra that dishonestly stands in for a ‘real’ history, can be a theatre of memory where active, complex and nuanced representations of working class life have contemporary resonance. Likewise the international network of labour and working class museums Worklab ( also demonstrates that there are, in the heritage sector, attempts to display working class heritage in all its messy detail, complete with industrial and class conflict. One example in the United States is the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, which provides exhibits that are narrated by former factory workers. The stories of exploitation and oppression are prevalent throughout the museum. The work of Shackel (1996, 2009), Hayden (1997), Bruno (1999), Strangleman (1999, 2005, 2010), Dicks (2000), Linkon and Russo (2002), Bagnall (2003), Nadal-Klein (2003), Smith (2006), Rogaly and Taylor (2009) and West (2010) and the special edition of the journal International Labour and Working Class History (2009) amongst others, are at the forefront of what seems to be a re-awakening of interest in working class heritage. The chapters in this book are either informed by, or echo, the ‘new working

class studies’, which, according to Russo and Linkon (2005: 14-15) has:

A clear focus on the lived experiences and voices of working-class people; critical engagement with the complex intersections that link class with race, gender, ethnicity, and place; attention to how class is shaped by place and how the local is connected to the global … new working class

studies is multidisciplinary as well as interdisciplinary; it provides a site for conversation and opportunities for collaboration among scholars, artists, activists, and workers representing a wide range of approaches. New working class studies is about working-class people, but it also involves working-class people as full participants.