Workers of the world—past, present, possible

“In the process of globalization, a culture that took 200 years to build was torn apart in twenty.” The motivating context for Paul Mason’s moving and powerful book about working-class struggle past and present is the dismantling of the most powerful labor traditions at the end of the twentieth century. The working-class culture of Mason’s childhood in the North of England was shattered with the destruction of the once-powerful miners’ union in what became a global trend following the worldwide recession of the mid-1970s.

Mason continues: “There is no point mourning that but it means the new working class of what campaigners call the ‘global south’ is being born unconscious of the stories of the past.” As the centers of manufacturing have shifted, the working class has become truly global, but the “transmission mechanisms” of working-class resistance have been broken.

Mason, a BBC correspondent, traveled across the world to talk with workers in countries as far apart as Bolivia and China. This is real history from below, recording the voices of factory workers, miners, and slum dwellers. Each chapter begins with an account of a contemporary workforce in the early stages of organizing and then jumps back to a moment in the original formation of working-class struggle—from the beginning of the nineteenth century up to the 1930s.

He begins in Shenzhen, China, where he met with sweatshop workers in 2003: One had a leg sliced off by a machine after working twelve hours without a break; another lost an arm when someone turned on a mattress ma?chine while he was loading it; all of them had a missing limb or other permanent disability.

They were all young, they were all migrants, they were all sacked. They are part of the new Chinese workforce which has been scraped together so quickly and cheaply that, in the space of 20 years, it has changed the world. Yet they have so few rights and so little freedom of expression that the world has hardly heard from them.

He goes on to describe a showcase factory complex, BYD, in the industrial suburb of Longang, where 17,000 workers toil in five giant, identical and virtually windowless units. They are mostly women aged seventeen to twenty-four, they live on site, and all have ID cards “bearing barcodes and digital photos…they are scanned in and out of every sector of the site.” This one plant produces one in seven of the world’s mobile phone batteries.

Mason explains that this is part of China’s “modern management” system, but in many ways it resembles the old factory towns of nineteenth-century England: heavily disciplined and surrounded by slums.

He then tells the story of that earlier generation of industrial workers whose demonstration in Lancashire, England, was cut down by the Manchester Yeomanry—“the city’s business mafia on horseback”—in 1819 in the Peterloo Massacre, an event made famous by Shelley’s poem “The Masque of Anarchy.”

“In the months leading to Peterloo the workers of the Lancashire cotton industry built a network of organizations so sophisticated that they foreshadowed anything achieved by the labour movement in the next 200 years.” Mason argues that today “Shenzhen’s workers are to global capitalism what Manchester’s workers were 200 years ago. What they do next will shape the century.”

Another chapter begins with the new migrant workers, Somalis, Kurds, Colombians, some undocumented, who clean the buildings of Canary Wharf, one of London’s financial centers dripping with international wealth. Juan, a worker from Spain, describes the challenges of organizing a diverse workforce:

“In the beginning it’s difficult, but you start to know each other. We are coming together from all parts of the world but we come together because someone wants to make our life not easy. This means we must be together to fight against this and not fight each other—against injustice.”

What this new generation of workers does not know is that this area was the site of the Wapping strike of 1986, a yearlong struggle that ended with the defeat of the powerful print workers union and a crucial victory for the union-busting Thatcher government. Mason tells Juan about this history: “‘This information you are telling me is very powerful information,’ he nods, still stunned.”

Another chapter begins in El Alto, Bolivia, and then switches to Brzeziny, Poland, a town that was obliterated, and its Jewish population brutally murdered, by the Nazis in 1942. The history of the town was recorded in a memorial book in 1961, and includes the remarkable growth of the Bund, the General Union of Jewish Workers that offered an alternative to Zionism and that went on to play a leading role in the heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Following an election victory in 1938, Bund leader Henryk Erlich gave this speech:

Jewish unity cannot involve cooperation with reactionaries.… Zionism has become an ally of anti-Semitism. The worsening situation of Jews throughout the world is exploited by the Zionists. The Zionists regard themselves as second-class citizens in Poland. Their aim is to be first-class citizens in Palestine and make the Arabs second-class citizens.

The book contains many more such rich and detailed stories, of heartbreaking defeats and inspiring victories, that collectively offer a larger narrative of the ups and downs of class struggle and place our current moment in much-needed perspective. As Mason puts it, “You have to stand back to look at what you’re doing.”

Mason begins by saying that both young global justice activists and the new global working-class movements “need to know that what they are doing has been done before, where it can lead and what patterns of revolt, reaction and reform look like when you view them over decades. Above all they need to know that the movement was once a vital force.”
Mason acknowledges starkly different possible futures: The new global movement may fail; or the current struggles may turn out to be just the preface to a more militant global working-class movement that surpasses any in history.

One of the strengths of the book is what one reviewer calls its “cinematic quality”: it paints vivid pictures and takes a panoramic view. But one of its weaknesses is that it remains descriptive and is hesitant to take a critical perspective about past struggles or draw political conclusions for the present.

The Afterword is disappointing because it seems to take a step backward, with only a vague reference to the hope of antiglobalization social-reformism, and no sense of how to achieve the epic tasks of rebuilding a radical political tradition and connect the disparate global working-class struggles.

But the book is essential reading, because of its wealth of information, but also because it poses key questions in fresh ways and can inspire exactly the kinds of debates that will be a necessary part of a revitalized global working-class movement.


Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

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Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John