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From Peterloo to Michigan
on 20 July 2008
This book is mostly a history of working-class movements from the early C19th to the start of World War II. It opens with Peterloo, then looks at the loom-workers of Lyon, the Paris Commune, the American Knights of Labour, London dockers, Limoges ceramicists, Argentine conventillos, Wobblies, the pre-1914 German SPD, Shanghai communists, the Jewish Bund in Poland and ends with Turin and Flint car-markers of the 1920s and 1930s. These wide-ranging narratives often use the perspective of an `ordinary' individual caught up in the events to lead into a story of an industrial and social battle. They're gripping and sometimes shocking. The recurring themes interestingly include the conflicts between skilled and unskilled workers, and between workers who wanted merely better working conditions and those who wanted a whole new society. The book describes the development of various forms of resistance (factory occupations, sabotage, sit-down strikes, full-scale insurrections...) and tactics (the Flint auto-workers using half-made cars as barricades); and the varying claims and practices of syndicalists, socialists, communists, anarchists and social democrats. The other consistent factor is the extremely brutal repression by the ruling elites to such resistance - commonly involving use of a nation's troops against its own people and, not uncommonly, mass murder. The `Die Fighting' in the title of the book isn't mere rhetoric.
The author argues that workers firstly tend to `create the new society from within the old' - a pre-welfare-state `union way of life' with services like education and health run by themselves - before confronting corporate power, and predicts a forthcoming global labour movement to match globalised capitalism. Compared to the dramatic historical narratives, the sections dealing with present-day worldwide workers are much shorter and, despite being based on first-hand reporting, seemed a little flat to me. The examples are taken from Shenzhen in China, Varanasi silk workers, Nigeria, Iraq, Bolivia (twice) and New Delhi. If I have a criticism, it's that I'd have liked a bit more about how today's third-world workers are attempting to confront the immense power of multinationals. But, if the book's thesis is right, maybe the most dramatic episodes from that struggle have yet to happen.