Workers go global, second time round

Submitted by Anon on 9 June, 2007 - 10:52

Paul Hampton reviews Live working or die fighting: How the working class went global, by Paul Mason, (Harvill Secker ÂŁ12.99)

THIS book is an ambitious attempt to bring some of the great events from working class history to a new generation of youth. Paul Mason argues that as the working class in the “global south” has expanded, so new workers’ movements are emerging with strong similarities to those that arose during the first wave of globalisation, which began in the 1870s.

Each chapter of the book takes a current episode or struggle and juxtaposes it to an earlier class battle. For instance, the Peterloo massacre in 1819 is compared with Chinese sweatshop workers in 2003, the silk weavers’ revolt in Lyons 1831 with Indian textile workers in 2005 and so on.

The modern cases are generally based on Mason’s own first-hand investigations as a Newsnight journalist. The historical examples come from a wide reading of labour history. The result is highly readable book, even where some of the parallels are a little forced — and even where some were not really part of the first wave of globalisation at all.

A distinctive feature of the book is the way Mason tells stories of collective action through the lives of those who led them. Thus we learn about Samuel Bamford’s role in worker organising building a movement during the infancy of the English working class.

Jean-Claude Romand, who coined the phrase “live working or die fighting”, is the principal figure in the Lyons revolt. In the Paris Commune, bookbinder Eugène Varlin and teacher Louise Michel are the central characters. In the US movement for May Day, Martin Irons and railworker Terence Powderly are the principal figures. Irons remarked that it was the principle of solidarity, that “an injury to one is the concern of us all”, which turned him from a drifter into a militant union organiser.

In the fight to organise unskilled workers before the First World War, Tom Mann, Victor Griffuelhes, Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn are the key actors. This chapter summed up what it meant to be part of the “union way of life”, in Griffuelhes’ phrase. The Industrial Workers’ of the World (IWW) drive for “one big union” included the story of the 1912 US textile workers’ strike, which coined the slogan,“We want Bread and Roses too”.

The socialist way of life in the millions strong German SPD and its successors is told through Oskar Hippe and Toni Sender, although Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg are not overlooked.

The rise of the Chinese workers’ movement is told through the eyes of Li Qi-han, though the story of the crushing of that movement by Chiang Kai-shek in 1927 is more conventionally described.

The closing chapter centres on the tremendous wave of sit-ins during the inter-war period.

Mason told Mark Osborn in Solidarity 3/111 (3 May) that he was reacting to “the lessons of history” approach in much left-wing literature. Yet he draws “two big truths” from the narrative himself. He argues firstly that workers faced with rapid industrialisation organise unions, and secondly that, when there is a globalised economy, a global labour movement begins to take shape.

I think these conclusions are essential in today’s conditions of neo-liberal globalisation. They are certainly important against those who have retreated from class and from the labour movement.

But Mason also seems to draw more specific “lessons”, with each chapter appearing to contain a quite explicit message. The Peterloo massacre demonstrated the need for a working class political movement. In the silk workers’ revolt, the importance of the revolutionary newspapers, L’Echo de la Fabrique and L’Echo des Travailleurs, stand out. And from the Paris Commune, the need to fight for a workers’ government.

Personally I see no shame in extracting “lessons” from history for today’s struggles, providing the parallels are not drawn mechanically. One of the jobs of Marxists is to act as the memory of the working class. What matters is the manner of our selections; not per se, the desire to learn from the past.

The history is also pertinent at a time when the working class is a growing power in the world, in terms of its numerical strength and potential power in the global production chain. In the last 20 years, the 460 million workers in the advanced economies have been joined by over one billion workers in the third world and since 1990 by a whopping 1.4 billion from China, India and Russia that previously were largely outside the circuit of capital. Today the waged working class is the largest class in the world, with greater social weight than at any other time of human history.

Bolivia, Argentina and Iraq certainly merit the prominence they are given. But most of the individuals Mason refers to, with the exception of Hassan Jumaa, are not widely known. Surprisingly, important figures such as Dita Sari in Indonesia and Mansour Ossanlou in Iran are absent. The militant unions in Korea and Mexico are not discussed at all.

The highpoints as well as the defeats a generation ago in places like Brazil and South Africa are also passed over, although they illustrate comparable issues of political representation, the relationship between unions and political parties and workers’ control. In advanced capitalist economies, the recent militancy of French workers is surely worthy of note.

Mason is realistic about the obstacles to the revival of the labour movement, including the stratification of the working class and the emergence of a new kind of (neo-liberal) social reformism. He is critical of Stalinism, both in historical writing and in actual history for cauterising independent workers’ organisation. He is less convincing in attributing a “culture of individualism” as a key factor holding back the labour movement revival.

I think Mason also goes too far in describing the level of organisation as “pre-1889”. Globally, there are still over 200 million trade unionists. And we have far greater experiences to draw on than workers did back then — as well as over a century of Marxist ideas. Nor does he point to the socialist forces that might help turn the situation around. Yet this subjective factor is also necessary if the new possibilities are to be realised.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.