Southern Insurgency

Issue section: 

Many years ago there were those on the left who argued that the working class in the US, Japan and Europe had to be written off politically and that the agency of revolutionary change was now the peasantry in what was then called the Third World.

These people invariably also wrote off the working class in the Third World as a labour aristocracy. Most but not all of the adherents to this position were Maoists of some kind.

With this book we can see that this species of left politics has mutated. The working class in the US, Japan and Europe is still written off.

Instead of the peasantry being the agency of revolutionary change, however, today it is the massive industrial working class in what is now called the Global South. This is a step forward.

As Ness insists, the industrial working class “has not disappeared but has been relocated and reconstituted in the South in larger numbers than ever before”. These workers are fighting back — 2014 saw “a wave of unprecedented mass strikes in strategic industries in China, India and South Africa”.

He chronicles the struggles of car workers employed by Maruti Suzuki in India. Strikes and occupations in 2000-2001 were “reminiscent of the sit-down strikes at Flint in the United States in 1937”. In 2011 there were three major sit-downs at the company’s new plant in Manesar.

He examines the struggle in the mining industry in South Africa, the Marikana massacre and the great strike wave in the platinum industry that “peaked in January 2014” — “a defining moment for the South African labour movement, symbolising the power of rank and file workers”.

In China he looks at Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings, “the principal manufacturer of shoes for Adidas, Asics, Nike, Reebok, Salomon, Timberland”. In April 2014 some 30,000 workers walked out on strike. Their struggle inspired other Chinese workers into action.

For Ness the way forward is syndicalist organisation along the lines of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). This rather ignores the somewhat crucial fact that for all its courage and militancy the IWW was a failure.

It was the very different mass struggles of the 1930s that saw US workers successfully unionise.

And there is an exception to his syndicalist prescription — China. Here, he seriously argues that independent trade unions were not necessary when Mao Zedong was in power because “safeguards were provided by the Communist state”.

Even today Chinese workers “do not necessarily require an independent trade union” because somehow the giant Communist-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions, with its 258 million members in 2012, can still be of service.

This sort of crass apology for the Communist dictatorship in China is particularly grotesque coming from someone who elsewhere champions rank and file organisation.

There is much for us to learn from workers’ struggles in the South and we urgently need a book that celebrates their militancy. This, however, is not that book.