Live Working or Die fighting--How the Working Class Went Global.

AuthorJackson, Ben
PositionCritical essay

Paul Mason


E. P. Thompson wrote his epic study of working class formation, The Making of the English Working Class, in the years 1959-62, a period in which the left was grappling with profound social change and an economic boom that seemed to have taken the edge off the brutal pre-war confrontations between labour and capital. The book was, among many other things, a riposte to those who imagined that in this new social context the concept of class had lost its relevance and a tribute to the heroism of those workers who had struggled to humanise industrialisation but were now subject to 'the enormous condescension of posterity'. As Thompson observed at the very end of his book, working class resistance to the development of a capitalist Britain should not be seen as 'backward-looking or conservative' but rather as the expression of a republican desire for freedom and democratic control that remained of crucial political significance.

As the twenty-first century begins, the left finds itself once again grappling with profound social change and a resurgent economic dynamism. The response of many leading politicians and commentators has been to fix on the allegedly unprecedented character of these developments, and insistent on the deep-seated conservatism of any left-wing criticism of their distributive consequences. But as Paul Mason points out in this wonderful book, this betrays both an impoverished understanding of the complexities of labour history and a complacent assessment of what is actually happening today.

Mason, better known in his guise as the Business Correspondent of BBC2's Newsnight, has written what is in effect a journalistic extension of The Making of the English Working Class: recounting with great sensitivity crucial episodes in labour history in order to rescue trade unionists, working class radicals, and socialists of various hues from the condescension of posterity. Like Thompson, Mason also wants to draw parallels between these earlier attempts to construct labour movements and contemporary struggles to build unions, co-operatives and workers' parties. Mason's approach is necessarily less detailed and scholarly, but it does cover a wider chronological and geographical range. While Thompson focused on the years 1780 to 1832, Mason takes the period from 1819 to 1943 as his subject matter. His book opens with a the Peterloo massacre in Manchester before moving on to examine such decisive events as the 1871 Paris Commune; the drive to unionise unskilled workers across the industrialised world in the late nineteenth century; the use of factory occupations to advance union recognition and

workers' control in Italy, France and the USA in the inter-war years; and the creation of sophisticated working class cultures by the German SPD and the Polish Jewish workers' party, the Bund, in the same period. The destruction of these latter achievements at the hands of the Nazis forms the final act in Mason's narrative, the heroic last stand of the...

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