Earlier this year, I confessed my failure, as a leftist politician in Scotland, to engage properly with trade unions. I was an early example of the breed whose social science training led it arrogantly to assume that they (and their officials) had become a brake on progress. One of the books in the latest Amazon package to arrive this week – Paul Mason’s Live Working or DieFighting - is a powerful and exciting coverage of key events in labour history. As business correspondent for BBC's Newsnight (and the author of subsequent Meltdown) Mason 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.
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.
‘[This] history needs to be rediscovered because two sets of people stand in dire need of knowing more about it: first, the activists who have flooded the streets in Seattle, Genoa and beyond to protest against globalisation; second, the workers in the new factories, mines and waterfronts created by globalisation in the developing world, whose attempts to build a labour movement are at an early stage. They need to know…that what they are doing has been done before…Above all they need to know that the movement was once a vital force: a counterculture in which people lived their lives and the main source of eduction for men and women condemned to live short, bleak lives and dream of impossible futures.’ (x)
The various chapters compare mutilated workers in Shenzhen, China, today and the Battle of Peterloo, Manchester in 1819; silkworkers in Varanasi (Benares), India now and in the Lyons, France, revolt of 1831; the casual labourers of a Lagos slum in 2005 and the Paris Commune of 1871; oilworkers in Basra, Iraq in 2006 and the invention of Mayday in Philadelphiain 1886; and immigrant office cleaners in London’s East End in 2004, and the Great Dock Strike of unskilled workers in London’s East End in 1889. If we eventually reach the globalisation of unskilled workers’ unionism in 1889-1912, we are later confronted by ‘wars between brothers’ amongst miners in Huanuni, Bolivia, today and German workers’ failures to condemn the war of 1914-18 and to bring about a revolution at its end. There are several more such stories in this panoramic work, often expressed in the words of the men and women activists involved.
“Politically, the labour movement has debated strategy in terms of reform versus revolution. Practically, to the frustration of advocates of both approaches, workers have been prepared to go beyond reform but settle for less than revolution.’ (xiii)In his concluding chapter, Mason does go into interpretation, offering an explanation for the Post-World War Two loss of working-class independence, and incorporation into two ruling-class projects, one in the West, the other in the East. However:
‘It is very different now. Today the transnational corporation is the primary form of economic life. In addition, global consumer culture is breaking down all that was local, insular and closed in working-class communities. There is, for the first time, a truly global working class. But it has not yet had its 1889 moment,’ (page 280)