Working class theory is something to read

Issue: 133

Jamie Woodcock

Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World: Essays Towards a Global Labor History (Brill, 2010), €137

Marcel van der Linden embarks on an ambitious project with Workers of the World. The book collects essays that aim towards the creation of a global labour history. He argues that this history must be freed from Eurocentrism and methodological nationalism.

The book is expansive. It covers issues ranging from wage labour to chattel slavery, mutual insurance to producer cooperatives, strikes to consumer boycotts, and even includes insights from different disciplines. The book’s scope means it is formed of disparate parts. Nevertheless, it contains interesting examples: from the first recorded strike in Egypt in 1158 BC to what was perhaps the first attempt to form a trade union in Italy in 1345.

The first chapter is of particular significance. Marx defined workers as “doubly free”, in terms of workers being free to sell their labour power, but also free from ownership of the means of production and subsistence. The author argues for a definition of the global working class which departs from this by looking at the distinction between the carrier and the possessor of labour power, and that there are multiple ways in which labour power can be commodified. The definition is therefore broadened to “subaltern workers” with the “coerced commodification of labour power” as the key feature of the global working class. This echoes the trend in sociology for claims that the traditional working class is being replaced by precarious forms of labour.

The section on “forms of resistance”, and within that the chapters on strikes and unions, moves the discussion on to class struggle. It contains a detailed discussion of strikes, the forms that they can take, and the factors that can influence their outcome. It is unfortunate that the part on factory occupations was not developed further. While the author discusses workers running occupied factories, there is no discussion of workers’ councils. This is a missed opportunity to consider political forms of resistance that can begin to pose an alternative. The chapter on unions is full of details about how they can emerge and what forms they take. The author analyses how full-time officials emerge with their own particular material interests and the way in which this diverges from the interests of the rank and file. This is seen as a structural result of union growth, and does not take into account the influence of the rank-and-file, viewing the move towards centralisation as a one way process.

Marcel van der Linden uses the metaphor of “rebuilding the ship of labour history”. This is based on the idea that theory, like a boat adrift at sea, cannot be rebuilt from scratch but instead has to be reconstructed through a synthesis of old and new. The author has proposed a broader conception of the working class to guide the “navigation room”, collected “driftwood” about forms of collective action, and taken on board advice from the “crews of other ships”. He admits that “we still lack a lot of timber” in the project.

Workers of the World is a thought-provoking attempt to outline the potential for a global labour history. I would recommend reading this book if you are interested in the area, but the problematic definition of class should be taken into consideration.