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The globalisation of the working class

Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global by Paul Mason
Vintage. Review by Mark Derby

The 1831 massacre of silk workers in Lyon by the French National Guard.

‘History never repeats’ makes a catchy lyric for a Split Enz song but a flawed premise in daily life. Labour history in particular – the history of the labour movement and the social and cultural development of working people – seems to repeat generation after generation. New products and markets are constantly developed but wage earners face the same old struggles over wages, conditions, workplace harassment, tedium and layoffs. Unless they’re aware of the history of those earlier struggles, they may be forced to reinvent tactics and strategies to counter them, and fail to learn from past successes and failures.

I’ve never seen the cycle of exploitation and resistance better addressed than in this riveting book by a British TV journalist. Paul Mason, the grandson of Lancashire miners, describes a series of working class movements from the Peterloo massacre of Manchester weavers in 1819 through to the sit-in strikes in car factories in Flint, Michigan in 1936. In between are brief, superb accounts of other labour landmarks, some well known like the Paris Commune of 1867, the first London dock strike of 1889 and the rise of the Wobblies from 1905 to 1914. Other struggles were less familiar, to me at least, and therefore even more rewarding to read. The craft silk-weavers of Lyon took over their city in 1830 when a merchants’ cartel forced their price down. Workers in Shanghai’s huge foreign-owned factories formed unions in the 1920s that grew into a nationwide nationalist and then a communist liberation movement.

Most startling of all for me was Mason’s account of the workers’ movement in pre-WW1 Germany, when powerful unions provided their members with everything from gyms to choir festivals, libraries, theatres and tramping clubs. This was the ‘union way of life’, embracing millions of workers both in factories and at a national level through the Social Democratic Party. But as this book recounts, a split between right and left SPD factions erupted into the murder of leaders like Rosa Luxemburg and crushing defeat for the anti-war movement.

These are not dry, exposition-heavy historical narratives. Mason tells his stories from the perspective of singular individuals in the thick of the action, and often in their own words. They include the Paris Communards Eugène Varlin, a bookbinder, and teacher and barricade-fighter Louise Michel. Martin Irons was a drifter and minor agitator until the principle that “an injury to one is the concern of us all” turned him into a pillar of the turn-of-the-century US labour movement.

What lifts this book above any other similar work I’ve read is Mason’s shock tactic of matching each historical period with a modern-day labour struggle, often in the developing world. So the auto strikes in 1920s Turin are juxtaposed with worker-run factories in present-day Argentina. The Bund, the Jewish worker’s organisation that fought Nazism in the Warsaw ghetto, is contrasted with the tin miners who helped overthrow Bolivia’s government in 2003. On the spot where Tom Mann led the London dockers’ strike, un-unionised migrant workers now clean the high-rise offices of Canary Wharf.

Nothing makes the point more effectively that labour history is not nostalgia. Instead, Mason shows us that the hard-won battles of the past must be refought in the present, in distant countries and different societies with no knowledge of those earlier campaigns. He has written his book, he says, particularly for the vast new workforces created by globalisation in the developing world, and also for the many anti-globalisation activists who have remained largely ignorant of labour history.

New Zealand barely rates a mention, unfortunately, although Australia features several times. But in a Radio NZ interview in October 2010, Mason noted that the “Hobbit strike”, then attracting keen interest in the UK, occurred almost exactly a century after the emergence of syndicalism, and that both events were trans-national labour movement responses to forms of international capital.

This is a marvellous book to read – it’s doing the rounds of my entire extended family – and an inspiration for anyone faced with a neo-liberal economic consensus, a divided and disillusioned opposition and a union movement managing its own decline.

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On 24 October 2010 Radio New Zealand journalist Jeremy Rose talked to Paul Mason about Live Working or Die Fighting and the Hobbit dispute, and to labour historian Peter Franks about trans-Tasman union co-operation in 1889. You can listen here.

Paul Mason’s BBC Website

And there’s some background on the Lyon silk workers here.

Mark Derby is a Wellington writer and reviewer. His most recent book was The Prophet and the Policeman

1 comment:

  1. Paul Mason, 23. December 2010, 1:19

    Mark thanks for that review. Readers may like to know there is an updated edition, with new material on China, published this year by Haymarket, USA. Thanks again – Paul Mason