Richard Hyman: an assessment of his industrial relations: A Marxist Introduction.

Author:Gall, Gregor
Position::Critical essay


Richard Hyman's Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction is a seminal work in the study of labour unions, the employment relationship and industrial relations within Britain and western capitalist societies, and extant radical and Marxist approaches to the analysis of those selfsame topics. This article is both an appreciation and a critique of it, assessing its strengths and contribution, its longevity of salience and influence, and its weaknesses.


Richard Hyman, Marxism, unions, industrial relations


Published in 1975 by Macmillan, Richard Hyman's Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction (hereafter, IRMI) can, it is argued, be categorised as a seminal work in a number of arenas--those of the study of labour unions, the employment relationship and industrial relations within Britain and western capitalist societies, and extant radical and Marxist approaches to the analysis of those selfsame topics. This is in spite--indeed, possibly because--of its being explicitly presented as a general introduction to the subject matter, albeit 'an integrated [one] rooted in more general Marxist theory' (IRMI: ix). Written by a then young and politically engaged academic, (1) it is a considerable achievement, building upon his earlier important works, which had a narrower focus and were slimmer volumes. The obvious examples are the books Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism (Pluto, 1971) and Strikes (Fontana, 1972), although there were also important papers on wide-ranging issues like his 1974 piece in the British Journal of Industrial Relations on inequality, ideology and industrial relations.

One key component of the seminality of IRMI is to be found in its majestic sweep across the whole terrain of industrial relations and its systematic and powerful approach in doing so. (2) IRMI presents a clear and forceful analysis of the interests, dynamics and ideologies of workers, employers and the state under capitalism as well as the power relations between them. Thus the pursuit of profit as the raison d'etre of capitalism and the structured antagonism to which this gives rise in capital-labour relations is accorded full centrality. But another component of the seminality of IRMI is to be found in the fact that there have been no attempts before or since to provide such a holistic, synthesised and overarching single, unitary work on the application of a Marxist approach to the employment relationship and industrial relations. The one exception is John Kelly's Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism and Long Waves (Routledge, 1998; hereafter RIR). This seminality allowed IRMI to not only set a benchmark for Marxist scholarship in the study of the employment relationship and in the field of industrial relations, but also to become a standard bearer for Marxism and radicalism within these arenas. Not to put too fine a point on it, IRMI provided a rallying call for the radically minded who were sympathetically concerned with insurgent industrial relations at a time of worker insurgency in workplace relations and wider society. As such, IRMI has provided a number of generations of activists, union officers, students and scholars with a robust foundation in Marxist ideas as they pertain to the sociological study of work, employment and the employment relationship. (3) Looking back on Hyman's full and extensive body of work, IRMI is undoubtedly the pinnacle of his overall contribution to the Marxist study of industrial and employment relations, and a sizeable one at that. It is arguably also one of his most longlasting and powerful gifts to scholarship in the field of industrial relations per se.

None of this is to consciously or unconsciously set up a scenario of a 'straw man' thesis which is then to be carefully but painstakingly and consistently knocked down--and where criticisms and differences of opinion are held to outweigh purchase and contribution--for this essay is both an appreciation and a critique of IRMI, comprising four sections assessing the book in terms of a) its strengths and contribution, b) its longevity of salience and influence, c) its weaknesses, and d) a concluding overview. (4) But before this, two tasks need to be undertaken. The first is to justify the examination of IRMI as a standalone piece of work. The second is to substantiate the initial assertion of its seminality.

Stand-alone study

Treating IRMI as a piece of work separate from Hyman's other voluminous work on similar and related topics per se (or even just that of the early 1970s) has several justifications. The most obvious one is a practical one, namely that doing so is a more manageable and achievable project, and this comprises several aspects. That IRMI is a single piece of work in book form, which is relatively short while also being holistic in scope, means that the challenge of trying to measure and assess its impact and contribution is that bit easier, especially when considering the world outside academia. By contrast, examining the impact and contribution of all of his (primarily academic) work in any of the particular subject areas contained within IRMI is a task of a different nature, because it would necessarily conform to a compartmentalised view of his contribution and impact, and its location most often in journal form would inevitably focus upon examining its contribution and impact amongst academics and in academia. (5) The second is that IRMI is his greatest piece of grand theory, as argued above, and on this basis a wider impact is more identifiable. Moreover, in some ways, any of the subsequent contributions he made could be said to always, thus, remain at the foothills of this mountain (notwithstanding the point made below on the deficiency of the approach of treating IRMI separately). Third, because of the size and nature of the breadth of the contribution represented by IRMI, and the period in which it was published, unlike other pieces individually or collectively, it is possible to cast one's gaze over both the periods of upswing and downswing in working-class and oppositional insurgency and to try to discern its contribution in both academic and the outside world.

Of course, treating IRMI in this way carries the deficiency that others of Hyman's works that potentially complement, augment and develop the arguments and analysis in IRMI are neither considered nor appraised. For example, and in regard of an argument made below vis-a-vis the relationship between the book's 'theory and practice' (i.e. praxis understood as theoretically informed practice), consideration is not given to, for example, his article called 'Workers' control and revolutionary theory' in Socialist Register (1974, 11: 241-278), nor his piece in Capital & Class in 1979 ('The politics of workplace trade unionism: recent tendencies and some problems in theory', 8: 54-67). Yet this is believed, in the main, to be a deficiency worth bearing, and especially because it does not come without its own problems of shifts in Hyman's thought, analysis and argument, which may not fit well or easily with 11041. (6)


For many works, it can be claimed that they are seminal in terms of their content and their intellectual contribution. This is a matter, ultimately, for a consensus on the validity of the claim to be reached or rejected through evidence, argument and debate--and, in this regard, a case is made for IRMI being such a work. However, it is worth noting at this point that in their introduction to the symposium in honour of Richard Hyman in the June 2011 issue of British Journal of Industrial Relations, Frege, Kelly and McGovern commented that IRMI was among the small number of books that 'encouraged generations of students, researchers, and activists to view the employment relationship in its wider social and political context'. Part of this argument concerning seminality will effectively be made in subsequent sections of this essay, but one likely--if not necessary but in itself insufficient--aspect of seminality that is less open to interpretation and contention is some sense of the extent of influence of IRMI with regard to citation and reference, readership, and sales.

Before moving to examine the evidence of these, several caveats must be made. First, it is impossible to provide an assessment of the readership for IRMI for while we assume, as with most books, that each book is read by more than one person (especially library copies), we do not know by how many, by whom in particular, and how often. Nor do we know for what purpose they are read or with what effect. What can be suggested, however, in the case of IRMI is that it is likely to have been more often--if not better--read outside the standard and conventional (higher education institution and university) academic environments than many other books on industrial relations since 1975. Notwithstanding that IRMI was publisher longer ago than many other such texts and in a more favourable political and educational environment, this is because it is likely to have been read by a) students who were also union activists and union members, given the kinds of courses it was used on, such as those in further education, adult education, some (non-skills based) trade union education and specific courses like Masters of Arts in industrial relations at the likes of Keele, the LSE and Warwick; and b) union activists who were not students, for not only were there greater numbers of these back in the day, but they were more politically engaged and of a higher level of oppositional consciousness. From both groups, many individuals are likely to have gone on to play increasingly important roles in the labour and union movement in Britain, especially as employed union officers and as senior lay activists. This would seem to be a particularly notable outcome in that those within the union movement in Britain, outside the far...

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