For the seasoned and principled organizers who have been a fixture in the movement or the teetering leftist who has only recently made their foray into politics, Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance & Rebellion is a must-read. In contrast to other review texts, Working Class History explores the rich and storied past of class struggle by offering highlights from the history of peasant and labor movements that date as far back as 1157 BCE and up to the modern era. The text is structured in an easy-to-read time-line format. More precisely, the authors provide examples of noteworthy historical events from each calendar day of the year, such as the October Revolution or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
While this is not in itself a comprehensive text or guidebook to revolution and organization, it can be used to refresh your knowledge or serve as a jumping-off point for future independent and group research. From the well-known to the arcane, Working Class History is brimming with rich threads of knowledge to tug on and unravel at your leisure—you will be fed introductory background on each historical (or current) event and the rest is only a Google search away.
Industrial Worker recently spoke with John Lasdun, a key contributor to the Working Class History Project. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Industrial Worker: What inspired this work?
John Lasdun: Basically, we were inspired by stories of thousands of struggles, and the ordinary working class people who took part in them, which are responsible for many of the gains in living standards which we in the West take for granted today, which are almost forgotten, or deliberately erased from history.
How do you intend for readers to use this text?
People can use it any way they like. It’s not written as a narrative book, it’s a diverse collection of stories from our archive, with two stories from each day of the year in history. So, for example for today, 1 November, we have short stories about the beginning of the Algerian war of independence against France for 1 November 1954, and a strike of Indian workers in Loughborough, England, on 1 November 1972. We’ve been told that some teachers and parents have been using it each day to start conversations with their pupils and families. Alternatively, people can browse through it according to dates that are important to them, like birthdays, anniversaries etc.
Each story contains sources and further reading at the back of the book. In total there are 56 pages of sources, which people can use to learn more about any of the stories featured. A lot of those sources could also be used as initial material for people starting reading groups to study past movements and struggles.
You note key revolutionary elements and themes throughout the text–which themes do you consider to be foundational to the history of revolutionary movements and why? Alternatively, which themes do you consider to be a detriment to labor and/or class struggle and why?
Looking at huge numbers of struggles you can start to see patterns in terms of which are more likely to be successful, and which are more likely to fail. And so, a clear pattern which emerges is that the more workers ourselves are in control of our own struggles, the more likely we are to win. Whereas struggles which are directed from above by union leaders or other supposed “representatives” of the working class are more likely to fail. Similarly, struggles in which participants follow the letter of the law (whether that be laws on strikes, or on civil disobedience more widely) are more likely to fail than those where participants are prepared to break the law, and do so in large enough numbers to avoid individual legal consequences for the most part.
Also, learning about large numbers of struggles around the world, you can see how complex they and their participants are. So, you can see that no singular political ideology or tradition can claim to be the genuine or legitimate standard-bearer or vanguard of the working class. The most militant end of the workers’ movement and other liberation movements have always been made up of many different people, of many different ideologies (and no ideologies at all). And there is no political tradition which has been flawless, and can claim to have never acted as a brake on or demobilized struggles. People possessing a revolutionary ideology is no guarantee that they will not act to demobilize mass movements, if rank-and-file participants in the movement do not have the level of organization to prevent it.
What can we learn from these events in particular?
From these events in particular we can see that the power of the employers, their states, and their armed forces, is ultimately illusory. Because in the end they are relying on other working class people to do their bidding. And we can choose to refuse to do so, and instead fight for our own interests if we wish to, and are well organized enough to do so.
Do you think that this text is appealing to the sensibilities of individuals from all contingencies on the left?
We try to avoid emotive language in general in our writing, and instead just write clearly and let the facts speak for themselves. It is unfortunate that for some on the left, who would prefer to either ignore or deny our past mistakes rather than face up to them and reject them, that the facts make them uncomfortable. But that does not change the actual historical facts.