1st Edition

The New Helots Migrants in the International Division of Labour

By Robin Cohen Copyright 1987

    Originally published in 1987 and now reissued with a substantial introduction by Robin Cohen, this wide-ranging work of comparative and historical sociology argues that a major engine of capital’s growth lies in its ability to find successive cohorts of quasi-free workers to deploy in the farms, mines and factories of an expanding international division of labour. These workers, like the helots of ancient Greece, are found at the periphery of ‘regional political economies’ or in the form of modern migrants, sucked into the vortex of metropolitan service or manufacturing industry. The regions of Southern Africa; the USA and the circum-Caribbean; European and its colonial and southern hinterlands, are systematically compared – yielding original and, in some cases, uncomfortable analogies between countries previously thought to be wholly different in terms of their political structures and guiding values. The New Helots has been written with both an undergraduate and professional readership in mind. Students of history, sociology and economics as well as those interested in patterns of migration and ethnic relations will find it of interest.

    Introduction. 1. Six Frontiers of a British Identity 2. Expulsions and Deportations: The Practice of Anthropemy 3. Asylum: The Shrinking Circle of Generosity 4. The Detention of Aliens and Asylum-Seekers 5. Sanctuary and the Anti-Deportation Movement 6. Inclusion and Exclusion: Britain in the European Context 7. Theoretical Implications and Conclusion.


    Robin Cohen is Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at the University of Oxford. For the first decade of his academic career, he worked on comparative labour issues. His books included Labour and Politics in Nigeria (1974) and the co-edited collections The development of an African working class (1975), International Labour and the Third World (1987), African Labor History (1978) and the current title, Peasants and Proletarians. He subsequently wrote on the themes of migration, globalization and diasporas. His best-known work is Global diasporas: An introduction (3rd edition, 2022).

    Reviews of the original edition of The New Helots:

    ‘…a dramatic and esciting work, linking together an extraordinary wide range of themes…It opens up a vast array of opportunities for further work to refine and discipline the insights with well-grounded empirical tests and demonstrations.’ Nigel Harris, New Society.

    ‘A wonderfully stimulating and synoptic new book ... Cohen’s analysis raises with a rare degree of clarity the conceptual problem of distinguishing “voluntary” and “involuntary” population movements. ... a formidable piece of comparative sociology and history.’ – Jeff Crisp Journal of Refugee Studies, 1 (1) 1988.

    ‘[The book] provides a refreshing antidote both to the productionist determinism of some neo-Marxist accounts and to the mindless atomism of the neo-classical human capital theory of labor migration. Cohen shows how various states differ in their ways of policing their frontiers and controlling migrant labor once it is admitted.’ – Stephen Castles International Labour Relations Review, 42 (1) 1988.

    ‘The book concludes with a well-thought-out critique of the theory of the “new international division of labour”. Through the course of the discussion, Cohen displays an impressive grasp of historical and contemporary patterns of migration within the world economy.’– Vic Satzewich Ethnic and Racial Studies, 11 (1) 1988.