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From The Socialist newspaper, 16 July 2008

Live Working or Die Fighting: How the working class went global

by Paul Mason
Reviewed by Edd Mustill

The recent revelation that child labour has been used in the production of clothes bound for high street chain Primark proves that Paul Mason's book, published last year, is an important work that will only become more relevant as globalisation causes more acute class conflict.

Mason's central argument is that, to a greater or lesser extent, the working-class struggles of the 21st century are repeats of battles that have already been fought. In order for activists to prepare themselves better for organising in the present, the history of the labour movement needs to be revived and relearned.

With this in mind, each chapter is structured in the same way. They begin with a vivid description of contemporary working conditions somewhere in the world, be it a Nigerian slum or a Chinese factory, then jump back to a time and place where the working class faced similar problems.

Because of this, the book can never be more than a potted, selective history of labour struggles, and it never claims to be anything more. After all, a comprehensive narrative of the global working class's constant battles would require many lifetimes to complete. Instead, Mason looks for common threads that link present workers with their historical comrades; the garment workers of present-day India with the weavers of 19th century Lancashire, for example.

At times these attempts at direct comparisons can seem a little forced. For instance, one chapter begins with the divisions between co-operative and unionised miners in Bolivia, and jumps back to Germany after World War One, when the labour movement split between Social Democrats and Communists. The conditions and political differences surrounding these splits were very dissimilar. Nevertheless, the chapter highlights one of the recurring themes of the book: the development of working-class culture.

The author's description of the extensive effort that the German Social Democrats put into building vast cultural networks of libraries, gyms, and reading groups which all came to nothing because of the outbreak of the Great War can be read as a thinly veiled warning to Bolivia's workers that unless they seek the overthrow of capitalism now, their own distinctive culture will also be smashed.

Of course, it is not just labour activists in developing capitalist economies who would benefit from learning from the past. The book has in its sights an anti-globalisation movement which remained ignorant of, and in some cases kept itself isolated from, labour history. Largely, this has been due to an ideological offensive in the field of history that has gone hand-in-hand with the neo-liberal economic agenda of the last three decades.

In this climate, works of labour history that have attempted to tackle anything more than individual people or workplaces have become rarer, serving to make books like this one even more valuable.

Because the book is less a concrete handbook for action in the present than it is a window into the past, it offers more potential openings for further reading than conclusions or solutions. It serves as a reminder that there are workers who face incredible hardships every day.

It also forces us to recognise that, while we in the socialist movement strive to keep the memories of past struggles alive and learn from them, there are millions of ordinary workers kept deliberately in the dark by a system that does not want them to educate themselves and be inspired by the past, and that there is still much work to be done.

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In The Socialist 16 July 2008:

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Live Working or Die Fighting: How the working class went global


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