[2008, 304pp] £9.00.
Contrary to the publicity, this is not a book of explanations – more a series of accounts of insurrectionary activity collected from the last 200 years. The author, a television journalist, has carried out – or had carried out - a lot of research from a wide range of periods and countries. He presents them as a series of stories and links them together over the years to justify the subtitle about the working class globalisation . The result is a unique volume of chapters or sections which follow on one another to provide an impressive sequence of an introduction to socialism in action. Nothing looked at in full, but a broad brush picture is painted , well worth your time and effort - a real initiative.
Paul Mason is becoming known as an activist in “left “ circles and this is an important book so a substantial review would be appropriate. The style and method will be examined , then the delicate question of his selection of items for inclusion. More comprehensive treatments of the subject can then be mentioned and finally something about the author would round up the document. Because the whole point of both the book and certainly this review is to encourage people to carry on reading to get more information, recommended publications are listed at the end, after being identified in the text by [square brackets].
The new approach
What is new with this publication is not the academic research – much of his information comes from existing books, albeit it in several languages - but the re–writing of the stories in a journalistic style into small readable chapters. Much of the subject matter will be familiar to experienced readers, like the Paris Commune, and London dockers strike of 1889 but some is relatively new to this reviewer at least. This includes important details of the General Union of Jewish Workers or the Bund and its communities in East Europe after the turn of the century. The vibrant Jewish mini world was erected in the old Poland area in general but in particular in the town of Brzeziny. Destroyed by the NAZIs with the loss of thousands of lives , it was painstakingly resurrected afterwards into a unique narrative. This section ends with the desperate fight back in Warsaw.[Edelman]. A valuable addition.
Two other studies in particular are outstanding. The nationalist revolt of Sun Yet Sen in colonial China from 1911 until the repression by Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang, or KMT, in 1927 is virtually forgotten. Getting information requires much sorting, ferreting out , reading obscure published sources until the hidden histories are revealed. Behind the familiar tale of national liberation degenerating into totalitarianism, there is the story of a very strong anarchist movement, largely unknown due to general and academic neglect.
The powerful libertarians were crushed in the treacherous killings in the cities 1927 by the ambitions of Chiang and his war lords/ landlord reactionaries. It must be said that many had been previously integrated into the nationalist movement The emergent Russian state capitalism under Lenin, then Stalin, were also victims of the military Right but lived to fight another day with Mao Zedong’s peasant army. The massacres and betrayals are horrifying ! [ Dirlik ] You will only get the bare bones of this from Mason but take my word the story of the Chinese anarchism is fascinating, with all its pluses and minuses. Somebody will have to write it all up one day.
Nearer home but from the same period , the two red year’s in Italy of 1918 –20 are the subject of a good deal of myth and speculation . Thanks however to a conscientious and imaginative old style communist, [Gwyn Williams], the real story behind the mass insurrections is already known, though similarly neglected. The cast is much the same - a militant working class , a strong anarcho syndicalist movement , emerging “ communism” and a worried ruling class willing to call in the military forces for oppression , in this case in the form of the fascists
The difference here is the existence of a group of socialists who, having learnt the lesson from Britain and Germany, were determined to try to influence the workers councils and push them towards the collective society. Antonio Gramsci and his New Order journal, openly critical of the two prior experiences in the war combatants, were astonishingly effective in generalising , collectivising and organising the shop stewards councils in north industrial Italy into a force for socialism
The later details of the two year crisis are again fairly well known : deserted by the official trade union and Labour leadership, and also the sectarian marxists, the workers fought vigorously in their own interests Eventually the ruling class tactic of calling in the fascists proved successful, as it was also to be in Spain, German , etc. The model of the socialist group, working with workers councils , remains an example for the future. Situations rarely repeat themselves but the example of the NO group is well worth copying – thoroughly recommended. [Levy]
Coming now to a different scene and a point of criticism which can serve as a general one for much of the book. This concerns the astonishing resilience of the French silk workers against the overwhelming power of the advancing mechanisation of capitalism. Chapter two examines the Lyon insurrections in the years after 1830 and again reads like a well informed journalist’s report. We read of Jean-Claude Romand, Joseph Benoit and the rest, ranged against the 400 silk manufacturers ; rationalisations and a cut in tariffs are on the agenda , and the textile community took three significant steps . They set up a Workers Commission , joined the National Guard and established the first workers newspaper in history. Mason describes the events , and the slogan “Live working or die fighting” which are quite inspirational.
However the implications of the struggle are not examined . These momentous happenings were of extraordinary significance for the workers movement . To discover this we need to turn to the works of [Daniel Guerin]. His interesting little book which attempts a form of unity between the conflicting ideas of libertarianism and marxism, both of which he had experience, summarises the conclusions subsequently listed by Proudhon, based initially on the Lyon events
Its essential features were an overall association of labour and: every associated individual to have an indivisible share in the enterprise, each worker to take his share of heavy , dirty, or dangerous work, in the workplace and /or society, each to be trained for, and to do, all the operations of the workplace or industry,remuneration to be proportional to skill and responsibility of the job, profits to be shared in proportion each to be free to set his own hours,work as defined and leave the association at will,management and technicians to be elected, and work regulations to be subject to collective approval,
office holders to be elected.
Most of the ideas of industrial and political liberation can be implied from the demands, though Proudhon’s strong opposition to strikes – the most likely means of achieving these – was just one of many contradictions in his theories.
For the ongoing success of the struggle against capitalism, not only must there be fight backs and victories but these must become public knowledge.Only by a process such as Proudhon organised and Guerin has publicised , can this be done and the limitation of the journalistic approach in the generalisation procedure be recognised. This criticism applies to the Mason project overall.
These paragraphs hopefully give some idea of the wide scope of Mason’s offering, and the limitations of his writing. This is the big picture approach and an innovative approach it is too. We can conclude these opening paragraphs by re-stating their unusual value as an introduction and source of inspiration.
What’s in it
We now come to a different examination - of the content, concerning the delicate question of the orientation of the writer. It is a sad fact that what you read in books is generally not the truth , the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Writers are for practical reasons in any case required to select their material and they do this from what they consider is important. Going right back to pre-history, both the spoken and written word has been used for a variety of purposes but the main one has been to advance self interest, or specifically the wealth of leaders or kings . Some have given social explanations, or supernatural ones, often relating to “ the gods “ and so on, and the careful citizen has been wise to examine the evidence as best as he or she can. We have to do likewise here.
In modern society, there are conflicting schools of thought that seek to explain the world. The motive is basically the same - self interest – and that is especially true of the main set of ideas which evolve from and propagate the value of capitalism. This set of ideas has aided the transformation of a largely agricultural and fractured world into a predominantly industrial one. But many have the definite opinion that private ownership, the automatic priority of wealth , the inevitable competition that results in disastrous wars , discrimination , hierarchy and privilege has run its course. A change is due , with Karl Marx being the most consistence critic from 1840.
Marxism is a theory about a new society coming from the action of political representatives , using popular discontent as their justification. It reduces political activity to theories of planned action , often grossly inadequate , but has been the centre of resistance for more than a century. It proposes a replacement structure or State, which then progresses onto the final objective, “ communism”. New worlds like Russia , etc , have been based on this hope .[ Wolff ]
An alternative theory was proposed most eloquently by Mikhail Bakunin. His point was that Marx’s replacement regime was almost certain to erect a new dictatorship and that real change would only come from citizens ignoring the political perspectives and taking over first workplaces, then society, by themselves - with no mediating group. :Libertarians believe that Bakunin’s ideas are at least as important as Marx’s and point triumphantly at the massive Russian revolution and its degeneration into the farce of state capitalism. [Maximoff 1964 ]. In the interests of integrity, the writer declares his support here for Bukharin.
These two ideas have been in conflict with each other , and with the more modest sets of ideas which accept capitalist reforms , for decades . Within the world of opposition,. most activity involves the propagation of the alternative viewpoints and “chauvinism “ for the respective corners dominates much space and time. Attempts to encompass all three areas of activity have been very few indeed We comment on these below.. Hence the first question asked of a new publication is – is this libertarian , marxist or a modest reform of capitalism, that is being
So called neutrality
Some readers will retain a faith in the disinterestedness of academic writers . Libertarians like the writer of this review , believe that in reality and to put the issue crudely, academics still pursue the interests of those that pay them - capitalists . This is too large a subject to pursue here but doubters should consult Noam Chomsky’s Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship [Chomsky]. The major point of this is a summary of the real events in the Spanish Revolution 1936-39 , which he contrasts in exact detail with the book of a leading liberal American writer. His criticism is a thorough demolition job, not just on political grounds because he says he respects the author’s liberal principles (?) but on the academic grounds of unsubstantiated statements, neglect of the evidence, selection of facts, avoidance of awkward events and such like.
We should also note that Chomsky’s own references are to such hostile writers as Leon Trotsky, but that he also uses Pierre Broue’s highly recommended book, despite that author’s well known leninism [Broue] . In summary, he uses a methodology which cleverly exemplifies the subject of the text.
We can conclude that this academic bias is the rule rather than the exception , which experience bears out , and replenish our cynicism. Of course , not all documents can be categorised in this way and a minority are more reliable. Finding such authors before their books are relegated to be “out of print” or they are promoted , integrated , bought off or otherwise subverted, is the trick and it is not always apparent how to do it. Some independent writers whatever their background, especially from groups like Solidarity for workers power, Chris Pallis, etc , need to be sought out and their books acquired for present or future use . For now we can say that, as an absolute minimum, if other writers want to continue with their partisan approach they should be open about their views and opinions in both academic and other aspects, even regarding so called “neutral” documents. This is probably impossible in the present world, it must be admitted.
So back to the case in point . We can recap on the chronological details of the content : -
~ the Peterloo massacre , Manchester, England 1819 ~Lyons and the south of France textile workers struggles from 1830 ~the Paris Commune 1871 ~unskilled workers USA post 1860
~USA Fight for the 8 hour day, and May Day , 1886 ~the Dockers tanner-an-hour strike , London 1889 ~Jewish struggles for organisation inn Eastern Europe 1895 ~German workers movement against the totalitarian government 1905 ~Shanghai workers in the nationalist revolution of 1911 –27 ~Turin and the Italian workers factory occupations, etc , 1918 –20; ~French workers and the popular front struggles , 1934 –39 ~the workers industrial insurrections in the US car factories, 1933- 40,
which Mason links to the current struggles in -
~the Argentinean factory occupations, 2001 onwards ~Shenzen factory workers , Canton , 2003
~the Nigerian slums of 2006 ~Basra oil workers 2005 ~Delhi silk workers fighting for their jobs in 2005 ~El Alto , Bolivia, 2006 as the ethnic peoples gather their strength against entrenched interests ~Canary Wharf cleaners 2006, migrant employees battle with the privatised interests that the Labour government gives so much power to. [references to these multiple sources can be found in Woodward 2003]
Coming to the work in hand, it is therefore necessary to assess the standpoint of the author. In the present case Paul Mason is a journalist. He may regard it necessary to observe certain customs to protect his own professional reputation. Regardless of these superficial procedures, libertarian socialists would be advised to dig a little deeper and make a more realistic assessment.
This involves not just the usual admissions and confirmations, but also finding the sources of the
the writers ideas, to better identify them. In this case, after listing the contents, we must now list his omissions, which turn out to be almost as impressive .
There is nothing at all about the long Spanish revolution from 1931 to 1939; nothing about the massive experiments in workers councils, workers’ co operatives and the collective economy in the Republican areas . This great and brave resistance , a forerunner for the second world war has been obliterated from history, much a Stalin might have done.
Nor is this example of air- brushing an isolated example. There is plenty on the eastern European lands where anarchism was widespread in the early years of the century but the briefest of paragraphs only on the libertarian workers councils of Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine. This is one of the truly hidden examples of history which is astonishing in modern society. Of course he is mot alone in this neglect , many marxist reference book just exclude non-marxists sources , what GP Maximoff has called the sectarian “dry guillotine” of leninism that has been used to divide up the labour movement since 1895 [ Maximoff 1940].
Any history of the libertarian movement from Max Nettalu’s classic to Peter Marshals modern encyclopedia will find a whole chapters ignored by Mason. . While there are many references to marxists of one form or other, there is nothing from libertarian sources . No mention of the classic writers like PJ Proudhon Michael Bakunin , Peter Kropotkin and Errico Malatesta, and we are led to infer that they had nothing of any value whatsoever to say ? Even the marxists who became libertarians - Murray Bookchin and Daniel Guerin - are totally excluded. You may also be amazed that the oppression of Russian labour, from days after 1917 , through the Kronstadt killings and the east European revolts after 1956 + are nowhere to be found in this book on liberation.. [ again Woodward 2003]
It remains only to conclude that despite Paul Mason’s lack of formal political affiliation and a hint of an assumption of libertarian socialism, or rank and file marxism of some form , the reality is a quite sectarian publication. We can reject out of hand the pretence that the differences aren’t there, in the manner of the mass media of our day, and have to locate the present publication within the organisational chauvinism that is widespread today. Having clarified these basic facts, readers will be in a position to assess the information accordingly.
We can now move onto further sources for readers requiring more information. Apart from the
general reference list below, we can include a short note both on the facts of insurrections in history and the process of learning something by our study, If the purpose is to celebrate our history but avoid repeating our mistakes, both elements are necessary.
For the factual survey, on the subject of insurrections , and revolutions in history , we have no choice but to turn to Murray Bookchin’s colossal The Third Revolution – popular movements in the revolutionary era. This is 4 volumes or 65 chapters and a total of 1,385pp, His publications on this are unequalled and, while not without faults, stand above the rest. [Bookchin]
The project is by far the most easily understood general introduction to the theory and practice of revolution A note here about the title of the book . The third revolution refers to the domination of initial insurrections by various forms of state dominated political parties and that only a third revolution, or stage in an insurrection, gives a chance for more libertarian forces to seriously influence the proceedings. This observation can be made from any of the larger uprisings and is recognised by Bookchin in his heading.
We cannot examine the content at length but note that its scope runs from 1620 to 1940 and covers Europe , Russia and America. Its early cut off point does exclude the whole of recent history but it is the nearest thing to an encyclopedia. Note however that the books are expensive, with the last two being hardbacks , costing £75 each. Best use a library or a photocopier.
Bookchin is a significant choice for another reason. He was an early marxist with the Communist Party of USA , and then became a trotskyist. Finally his patience with the revolutionary party project was exhausted and he became a libertarian. There is much debate to be had about the wisdom of this decision but he made it , while retaining some belief in some parts of marxism.
This pattern is much the same for Daniel Guerin whose little introductory volume on anarchism has been referred to above. Guerin who had an exemplary career in writing about the NAZI menace , tried consciously to bridge the gap between the two main theories of opposition thought. His critique is a model for the general analysis of social theory, and on his death, both side claimed his soul ! An important publication . [Guerin] Those who want more are referred to his two volume anthology of anarchist writings No Gods, no Masters [Guerin 1998]
Finally we can mention the old council communist movement from just after the Russian revolution in 1917. The founders, Anton Pannekoek and Herman Gorter, old Bolsheviks of widespread and international fame, had fallen out with the Russian Bolsheviks over the dominance of the soviet leaders. They argued that the situation in the west was quite different and therefore the industrialised working class societies needed the independence to develop their own perspectives. [Gorter] . When Lenin and co disagreed , stressing the leadership of the Russians, and had them thrown out of the German party and the Communist International, they set up their own German Workers Party . Later, after Hitler, they reverted to their native Holland and a shell of members did survive Nazism, a relic of earlier optimism
In the fight against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war, 1936-38 , the libertarian Friends of Durruti group tried to salvage something of revolutionary organisation from the looming defeat of anarchism, engineered by the betraying Stalinists, by re-stating the old council communist idea of the construction of a political organisation. It did not prevent defeat, but was a form of amalgamation of th two ideas. There were only ephemeral unions of the ideas apart from the above initiatives. We await future developments.
Background , etc
The author, Paul Mason, is a member of the National Union of Journalists , one of two open to broadcasting journalists. His book contains details of his upbringing in industrial Lancashire , his grandad a miner and his father a manufacturing worker. In 2009 , he is employed as economies editor of the BBC2 news programme , Newsnight. He is known on the left , at Housmans bookshop for example and was associated with the People before Profits Charter
In conclusion, the reviewers’ assessment is that this is a valuable introduction to direct action. It follows the tradition of the popularisers from the early days of Penguin Books. The limitations of the book have been explored above but it can be recommended as a cheap popular paperback that everyone can dip into with profit, or even read straight through. Buy one today.
Bookchin, Murray : The Third Revolution – popular movements in the revolutionary era, 4 volumes [one 1996, 406pp ; two 1998, 351 pp ; three 2003, 350pp; and four 2005, 289pp ].
Broue , Pierre and Emile Temime The Revolution and Civil War in Spain [1970, 591pp] ;
Chomsky, Noam ; editor Barry Pateman : Chomsky on Anarchism , contains Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship [2005, 241pp] ; one of many recommendations ;
Dirlik Arif : Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution [1991 USA, 326pp], incisive book on a little known subject ;
Edelman , Marek : The Ghetto Fights , [1990, 119pp] ; an inspirational story ;
Gorter, Herman : An Open Letter to Comrade Lenin [1921, 1995, 41 pp] still in print , a manifesto where the old activists out argues the master apparachnik ;
Guerin Daniel : Anarchism - from theory to practice [1970, 166pp] page 46, an ex marxist who attempts to relate the two ideologies and provides a comprehensive introduction to Russian, Italian and Spanish council movements ;
Guerin, Daniel editor ; No Gods, no Masters - an anthology of anarchism, 2 volumes, translated by Paul Sharkey [1998, 294pp and 276pp] in English at last, an extremely useful resource. ;
Levy, Carl : Gramsci and the Anarchists [1999, 272pp] ; sheds light on a neglected period ; the same writer provides longer perspectives in a chapter [54pp] covering 1870 to 1926 in David Goodway’s For Anarchism – history theory and practice [1989, 279pp] ;
Maximoff , Gregory Petrovich : The Political Philosophy of Bakunin – scientific anarchism [1964, 434pp] complete with index ! ! , unique volume by experienced libertarian but ignore the subtitle ;.
Maximoff , Gregory Petrovich : The Guillotine At Work, 2 volumes, [1940 & 1975 USA , 555 pages ] details exposure of the destructive tactics of Lenin and Bolshevism
Williams, Gwyne A : Proletarian Order - Antonio Gramsci, factory councils and the origins of Italian communism 1911-21 [1975, 370pp] outstanding popular book by a veteran communist ;
Wolff, Jonathan : Why Read Marx Today ? [2002, 136pp] what can be salvaged from the sectarian excesses ;
Woodward, Alan : Readers Guide to Workers Council Socialism [2003, 30pp] ; perhaps outdated reading lists but useful introductory booklet