By John ReesPaul Mason
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 314

How the working class went global

This article is over 14 years, 8 months old
John Rees talks to author Paul Mason about his book Live Working or Die Fighting and the importance of writing about workers' history
Issue 314

Q. You start off each chapter with a contemporary piece of reportage about the international labour movement and move on to historical comparisons. How did you come to that structure?

A. I’ve been going around for the best part of the decade reporting on business stories. When you get south of the equator you are seeing the untold story of the emergence of a new working class. It’s ironic really, because if you go back in history and look at the original emergence of the working class, it hit people in the face suddenly. The people who have got their heads round this are the economists, because they see it in absolute detail in every aspect of everyday life. The impact of that is massive cheapening of everyday goods for us in the developed world. I thought this was the time to document this change.

I also wanted to ask people I met if they knew about the history of the early labour movement. Sometimes they do. The leader of the Varanasi silk workers in India had heard of the Lyon silk strike, but he probably heard of it like I heard of it, through reading a book by, say, Karl Marx.

You tell these stories through biographies of figures such as the French Communard Louise Michel and trade union militant Tom Mann, or in part through people active today whose tales aren’t known. That must have been a deliberate choice.

The most frustrating thing about working class biographies is how they are always about self-justification, and two thirds of them are not really interesting because they’re about how “I was right and you were wrong”. The other third that isn’t like that reveals something. Louise Michel was a
fantastic character, and a cat lover. Why did she keep writing letters home about her cats while she was doing hard labour in prison? Her family wrote to her to say, “Stop writing about your cat!” That tells me something about the kind of person who made up the mid-century labour movement: she was a kind of hippy in a way. She also set up the first school in Paris for children with learning difficulties. We know that this is the same Louise Michel who owned a rifle. She became a symbol of terror and vengeance against the ruling class. People are complex characters. We sometimes look at them as one dimensional.

When I came into politics in the mid-1970s, there were rafts of books about labour history which captured your imagination. Today this type of writing is extremely rare.

There is something wrong with labour and social history right now. Modern labour history is obsessed with the micro story, and fears the big stories. I’ve drawn on the absolutely superb micro historical writing that exists, but I wish a school of thought existed to say, “Let’s take some of this micro historical writing and make sense of it.”

I recently had a discussion with some of the leaders of the Change to Win unions in the US and I said, “You’ve been through this three times – the CIO, the Wobblies and the Knights of Labour” – and the further back in history I went the more their eyebrows rose. They hadn’t made the connections.

People think the Knights of Labour were reactionary and passive. Far from it, they were closer to the modern anti-globalisation movement than I’ve ever seen in history, and I don’t think even the union leaders of the US realise that.

There’s a sense in which the labour movement begins in small areas, and the story of revolt from below emerges. When you come to not just labour movement forces, but global state structures, imperial structures and mass parties, is it more difficult to tell these stories from a worm’s eye view?

Yes, but I purposefully adopted that view. This isn’t going to be the only history written about the working class. When I’m writing the history of the Jewish Bund before and during the Holocaust, I am only writing it from the point of view of one town, which was not at the centre of the action. I just thought, “Let others write the fully contextualised scholarly work.”

In the 1970s workers became conscious through battles over wages and conditions, and as they confronted the police, the press and the authorities, they generalised politically. In lots of ways this is happening in the reverse now. People are concerned about global issues and involved in very large scale political movements. The effect of this is cascading down into industrial struggle.

I’m not sure how much it is cascading down into the industrial arena – but I would go even further. I think there is nothing wrong with asking if protest and consciousness is going through such a big change that we haven’t properly understood it – engagement with global issues and lack of urgency about the need for workplace organisation, for example.

In the modern workplace, you are part of the global system, you can be commanded quite quickly from the top, the middle layers mean nothing, and yet you almost have a personal space. More and more workers in the developed world have a space at work – don’t touch me; don’t harass me; don’t bully me. A century ago people would have marvelled at this. What does this do for the way people enter struggles to change the world? I don’t know – but it probably means the histories I’ve told will never be repeated.

Past, present, future

Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class went Global

Harvill Secker, £12.99

Paul Mason has written a first class book. As business correspondent for BBC’s Newsnight he is in a great position to use his knowledge of contemporary capitalism, and the working class it is creating, and marry it with his knowledge of labour history. And this is exactly what he has done.

Each chapter begins with a sketch of the conditions suffered by a group of workers subjected to the rule of globalised capital in the modern world. This leads us into the description of a moment from the creation of the unions, the annals of the left or a fleeting revolutionary upheaval shedding light on present problems.

In the first chapter the conditions of some of China’s new workers in Shenzhen in 2003 lead on to a fresh-as-paint account of the 1819 Peterloo massacre in Manchester. The second chapter raises the problems of Indian silk weavers in Varanasi in 2005, standing out in high relief against the background of the Lyon silk weavers’ revolt of 1831.

Like many good ideas this is a deceptively simple juxtaposition that contracts the time between these historical episodes and our own problems. These historical snapshots do piece together to form a rough narrative of working class revolt stretching forward through the chapters of the book. These examples range from the Paris Commune of 1871, to the rise of US labour from the Wobblies to the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, the Russian and Chinese revolutions, the Italian factory occupations and the rise of fascism.

Better still, both the contemporary accounts of labour organising and the historical accounts come alive because they are often told through the life stories of the workers and radicals doing the organising. Louise Michel in the Paris Commune, Tom Mann in London’s East End, Big Bill Haywood of the Wobblies and hundreds of others jump off the page agitating, being heroic, stupid, insightful and ridiculous by turns.

But perhaps the very best thing about this book is that it is an idea whose time has come.

Just as the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements need to root themselves more firmly in the labour movement, this book arrives to serve as a primer in both the current state of the global working class and in the history of the labour movement.

Any activist would immediately profit from spending a few enjoyable hours listening to the voices Paul Mason has assembled calling out to us over thousands of miles and hundreds of years.

I have a few arguments with the book’s analysis. The role of the anti-war movement in current radicalisation, compared to that of the anti-globalisation movement, is understated, as is, here and there, the role of party organisation as opposed to the role of movements or unions. And the “worm’s eye view” of history is less satisfying the more complex and global the problems of the movement become when it faces world war, international revolution and the rise of fascism in the first half of the 20th century.

None of this, however, should deter you from reading this book. In recent years books about labour history have become as rare as hens’ teeth. Paul Mason has brought the tradition back to life.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance