Hobgoblin 2008

Book Review:

Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global by Paul Mason

Reviewed by Richard Abernethy.

The two things I liked least about this book are the title and the ending. To live working or die fighting suggests an endless struggle with no positive resolution, and even though it was the slogan of rebellious silk workers in Lyons in the 1830s, it does not express the desire for a fully human life that is the motive force and reason of the workers’ movement.

The last paragraph, where the author declares “I have seen the young Louise Michel dancing to a samba band in a field outside the Gleneagles summit: her face was painted and she was wearing pink fairy wings”, struck me as a rather silly flight of fancy. (The original Louise Michel was a revolutionary who fought for the Paris Commune of 1871).

In between, this is a fascinating study of the global working class, past and present. Each chapter opens with a present day account of workers’ lives and struggles somewhere in the world: from there, the author makes a link to an earlier time, another country, where he finds a similar theme. The contemporary accounts from China, India, Iraq, Bolivia, Argentina – and London’s Canary Wharf, are written at first hand and are acutely observed. Mason has visited many of the hotspots of global class struggle and listened to some of the individuals involved.

The narratives of important periods or episodes of working class history comprise most of the book. Some of these deal with events that are likely to be well known already to many readers, such as Peterloo, the Paris Commune, or the New Unionism of 1889. Other chapters take us into less known territory, such as Lyons in the 1830s, Buenos Aires in the 1900s and Shanghai in the 1920s. The range of research is impressive and the writing is vivid and exciting. Often we are shown events through the different perspectives of individual participants who left written memoirs of their lives and times. For example, the Paris Commune is described partly through the eyes of the bookbinder and trade unionist Eugene Varlin, the housewife Victorine Brocher and the radical schoolteacher Louise Michel, three very different Communards.

Paul Mason is quite good at sketching, often in a few concise sentences, the complexities and contradictions of the movements and the situations in which they arose. What we may broadly call the labour movement has always contained widely differing political traditions and forms of organisation, sometimes overlapping, sometimes opposed and occasionally in violent conflict with each other. Co-operatives, unions, parties, workers’ councils; social-democracy, anarchism, syndicalism, communism – the book gives us a feel for why each appealed to certain groups of workers in certain times and places. Informal gatherings could be important too: before the Paris Commune, workers debated ideas in cabarets and co-operative cafes.

At certain periods, workers created a “world within a world” of alternative institutions. In Germany before the First World War, one could work out in a socialist gym, sing in a socialist choir, explore the countryside with a socialist rambling or cycling club, and so on. In Poland between the wars, the Bund (General Union of Jewish Workers) created its own set of institutions, closely associated with a flowering of Yiddish language and culture.

Such enclaves enhanced people’s lives while they lasted, but could not withstand the storms of the twentieth century, war and Nazism. Alternative structures today are more likely to be eroded by impersonal economic forces. In Bolivia, co-operative miners work the mines that the corporations have abandoned – without bosses, but also without machinery, ventilation, electricity and safety standards.

I happened to read this book and write this review during the fortieth anniversary of May 1968. One thing I learned was that the greatest wave of factory occupations took place in France a generation earlier, in 1936. Simone Weil described the transformation. Before the sit-ins, “nobody raises their head, never; nobody smiles; nobody says a word; how alone one feels”. When the workers occupy the factories, “what joy to enter the plant with the smiling authorisation of a worker guarding the gate. Joy to roam freely through the shop where we were chained to our machines… joy to hear laughter instead of the pitiless din of machinery… joy to walk near the foreman with our heads held high… to live the rhythm of human life among the silent machines…”

Mason informs us that “Industrialisation in the global South together with marketisation in the East has doubled the size of the global working class. A billion wage workers in the less-developed countries, together with 1.47 billion in India, China and the former Comecon states now dwarf the 460 million workers of the developed world.”

The most problematic part of the book is the Afterword, where the author offers some remarks on the latter part of the twentieth century (the interval between his historical narratives and his contemporary reportage). Inevitably, a certain over-simplification and one-sidedness creep in here. For instance, Mason characterises the labour movement across the developed world during the four decades after 1945 as “ubiquitous, passive, barely political, static”. At the time, Marxist-Humanists like Raya Dunayevskaya, Charles Denby and Felix Martin took a very different view. They held that the frequent wildcat strikes posed a philosophic question: what kind of labour should people do?

In his Afterword, Mason appears to identify the problem as “globalisation”. Of course, he is not alone in that – far from it! I would criticise this on the grounds that isolationist forms of state-capitalism, like Burma or North Korea, are even worse.

Criticisms notwithstanding, this is a fine work of labour history, and likely to become a classic.

May 10 2008