Every movement, every union, every protest is made up of individuals. It is when those individuals decide that it is time for things to change; for an injustice to end; for a tyrant to fall; that history is made. These seemingly simultaneous decisions are neither simultaneous or synchronistic. Instead, they are the result of grassroots organizing by an ever-expanding group of individuals who have decided that enough is enough and the time has come to do something about it. Eventually, a critical mass is reached and amazing changes can be made, at least until the authorities step in. In the immediate aftermath of the clampdown it is often not apparent that any forward motion occurred. Yet, with the passing of time, it becomes clear that there was some historical progress.
This is the lesson of author Paul Mason’s recently re-released book Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. By relating a series of struggles for worker and human rights over the past two hundred years and comparing them to current struggles, Mason has produced a history of the sturggle against the excesses of capitalism. The histories in this text include a story of the Paris Commune and the beginnings of May Day; a modern day labor struggle in Nigeria and a description of a factory taken over by workers during the collapse of neoliberal capitalism in Argentina. Mason writes about labor leaders like the Brit Tom Mann who helped organize London dockworkers in the late 1800s. He also tells the story of ordinary workers like Oskar Hippe of Saxony who rise to the occasion and take on tasks beyond their own expectations as they fought against imperial war and for working people’s liberation.
There’s a bit of anarchism in this book. There’s also socialism, communism, syndicalism and plain old unionism. The author contends that what most workers want is to organize in a way that he calls working-class republicanism. Simply put, this is a structure that represents all of the aforementioned strains while allowing them all to foster and ferment, thereby creating a true brew of workers’ democracy. While this vision has never realized itself to the point where it was able to consistently maintain power in a nation or even a workplace, it has existed in parallel structure like the Bund in pre-World War Two Poland and in the brief workers’ republic that was the Paris Commune.
No matter what Mason is writing about: the workers’ culture created by the Bund in early 20th century Germany; the May 4th Movement in China from around the same time, or the silk weavers’ revolt in Lyon, France in the 1830s, it is the regular folks that star. The financiers, bosses and the government never have the upper hand when it comes to their justifications. They only have it when it comes to the force they utilize to stifle the forward course of the workers and their allies. Of course, as so many have written and so many more have experienced, it is exactly that force which keeps those in power when all else fails. Nonetheless, progress is made. Mason’s history makes that clear.
Anger is present in the histories told here and so is hope. Mason’s writing is never heavy-handed or pedantic. The book itself would make a wonderful history text for high school and undergraduate college students should it make it past the censors that control education. In the same manner, it is appropriate for union organizers and others truly interested in making workers’ organizations more than agents of the capitalist economy. As for everyone else, perhaps its true intention is to inspire.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org