Monday, 2 July 2007

Live working or die fighting

Live working or die fighting by Paul Mason
Author:Paul Mason


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.

Historical vignettes

Each chapter of the book takes a current episode or struggle and juxtaposes it to an earlier class battle. The contrasts are:

* The Peterloo massacre in 1819 with Chinese sweatshop workers in 2003
* The silk weavers’ revolt in Lyon 1831 with Indian textile workers in 2005
* The Paris Commune 1871 with Nigerian slums in 2005
* The early US labour movement 1869-86 with Iraqi oil workers in 2006
* Syndicalism 1889-1912 with Canary Wharf cleaners in 2006
* German workers against war 1905-1918 with Bolivian miners 2006
* The birth of Chinese working class 1919-27 with Indian auto workers in 2005
* The Warsaw ghetto uprising 1943 with neighbourhood uprisings in Bolivia 2003-2005
* Workers control in Italy 1920, France 1936 and the US 1937 with Argentina in 2006

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 strictly, some were not really part of the first wave of globalisation at all.

Working class heroes

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 - including military-style drilling - building a movement during the infancy of the English working class. The Peterloo massacre is also commemorated by Shelley’s poem, which urged workers to “rise like lions” because “Ye are many - they are few”.

Jean-Claude Romand, who coined the phrase “live working or die fighting”, is the principal figure in the Lyon 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 demand, “We want Bread and Roses too”.

The socialist way of life in the million’s strong German SPD and its successors is told through Oskar Hippe and Toni Sender, although Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg are not overlooked for the part they played. Jan Valtin is also used to spice the narrative, despite doubts about the authenticity of his memoirs.

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. More tangential to the main thesis of the book, but nevertheless a fascinating and moving account, is the story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, as told by Marek Edelman. Mason does a useful job in describing the Jewish workers’ organisations such as the Bund and Hashomer Hatzair youth movement that led the uprising. Edelman was one of the few to survive it, going on to help the Solidarnosz movement in the early 1980s.

The closing chapter centres on the tremendous wave of sit-ins during the inter-war period. In Turin, the half a million metalworkers who occupied their factories in 1920 is told mainly through Antonio Gramsci’s journalism. Simone Weil’s writings are the basis for the story France in 1936, when 1.8 million workers took strike action in 12,000 workplaces, three-quarters of which were occupied. The great workers’ sit-in at the Flint General Motors plant the following year is told through militants Bob Travis and the Trotskyist Genora Dollinger.

Lessons from history

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 because the same forces that make rival companies compete and managers cut costs 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.

From the early US movement, the importance of a shorter working day and from syndicalism, the importance of militancy for successful unionisation. From Germany, the importance of unity and of opposition to the government. From the early Chinese movement, the need to understand alliances with nationalists and their limits. From the Warsaw uprising, the need to fight for freedom even in impossible circumstances.
And from the sit-ins, the power of workers to control the economy.

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 new working class

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 1 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 – broadly defined – is the largest class in the world, with greater social weight than at any other time of human history.

However not all the examples of modern labour struggles in the book are indicative of the potential of the new working class. Bolivia, Argentina and Iraq certainly merit the prominence they are given. But most of the individuals Mason refers to, with the exception of Hassan Juma, 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 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 of 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 it is this subjective factor that is also necessary if the new possibilities are to be realised.

No comments: