Thursday, December 1, 2022

Hidden Histories (2022)

Book Review from the November 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Working Class History. Everyday Acts of Resistance and Rebellion. Edited by Working Class History. PM Press, 2020. 328pp.

This book, described as a ‘history of grassroots movements’, goes through all 366 days of the year picking out and briefly summarising either one or two events that have taken place on each of these days in the last 200 years or more in which workers (or peasants) have in some shape or form rebelled against their masters. It does not claim to record all such events, but simply to ‘give a snapshot of the people and movements that have helped improve our world’ and to ‘counter dominant narratives that sanitize the history of capitalism and colonialism’. Given that several hundred of these are recorded, this does not present itself as a cover-to-cover read but rather a book to be dipped in and out of as the reader sees fit.

From the earliest stages of capitalism, workers began to unite in voluntary organisations to negotiate the built-in antagonism of interests between themselves and their employers. The idea was to resist the pressure of the capitalist class on workers’ pay and conditions and to enable workers to get as good a deal as possible (a larger share of ‘surplus value’) in selling their energies and skills to employers. Some examples recorded here, many of them little known, are: the mutiny (successful) of sailors of 15 Royal Navy ships in Plymouth to demand improved pay and conditions (April 26, 1797); the strike (unsuccessful) of 5,000 female cotton mill workers in Pittsburgh for a maximum ten-hour workday and an end to child labour (September 15, 1845); the walk-out (successful) by 1,400 women and girls at the Bryant and May factory in East London in solidarity with a worker fired for criticising appalling working conditions (July 5, 1888); the setting up of the Union of Rural Workers in Hungary which enrolled 75,000 members but was then banned after strike action (December 13, 1905); the strike by black African railway workers across the whole of French West Africa lasting 6 months and leading to numerous concessions from the employer (October 10, 1947); a Maori land occupation near Auckland which was attacked by police, who evicted the protesters, arrested many people and demolished buildings (May 25, 1978); a two-month occupation by 150 mainly female garment workers of Mansoura-Espaňa textile factory in Egypt leading to concessions on job losses and unpaid wages (April 21, 2007).

As can be seen from these examples, these largely untold stories (often reinforced here with stark images) present themselves as anything but simple triumphalism. There are certainly instances of relatively successful attempts to resist oppression or exploitation by workers or peasants but also details of many failed actions and of violence and atrocities carried out by the authorities or by the rich and powerful to counter or crush protests. Indeed the book warns of the ‘disturbing nature of much people’s history’ and that many entries ‘include descriptions of violence, racism, genocide, homophobia, torture and death, and some of them include mentions of sexual violence’.

This panoramic compendium of acts of resistance is accompanied by a foreword by Noam Chomsky and a brief introduction by the compilers of the Working Class History project. Chomsky sees it as part of the fightback for an area of study – labour history – that has been ‘virtually effaced’ in the American educational system and part of the lifting of a ‘veil from central parts of history that had been concealed or sidelined in the standard patriotic version’. The book’s introduction is notable for something rarely found in discussion of ‘class’ in society, that is it supplies a clear and correct definition of ‘working class’. There is no imaginary ‘middle class’ mentioned here but the working class described as referring ’to those of us who do not own factories, farms, offices or stocks therein (also known as “means of production”) and so need to sell our ability to work to people who do’. So we have the class struggle front and centre here, ‘history from below’ in its true sense. The introduction is also effective in highlighting the ‘myriad of ways’ in which the capitalist system seeks to divide workers (eg, employed v unemployed, one nation against another, ‘natives’ against ‘migrants’), to prevent them from uniting to exert their potential power.

It should be added, however, that most of the ‘hidden histories’ recorded here do not arise from the idea of transcending the class divide, ie, doing away altogether with paid employment and the employer-employee relationship and establishing the classless free access society that socialism must be. They are rather understandable (and often courageous) attempts by workers to resist the downward pressure on their pay and working conditions and if possible to make their conditions of life less harsh. The next step in human history is of course for workers to go beyond workplace resistance and beyond single-issue social protest or demands for ‘social justice’, and to organise, as Chomsky has it (and as is the goal of the Socialist Party), ‘to change popular consciousness and understanding’.
Howard Moss

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