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Publication Date: Jan 24, 2023

432 pp

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ISBN: 978-1-63542-010-4

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Struggle and Mutual Aid

The Age of Worker Solidarity

Preface to the English-Language Edition

Can the workers of the world ever join forces to defend their rights, improve their condition, and break the monopoly of capital? Just a few years ago, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the very suggestion might have seemed absurd, with the words “worker,” “solidarity,” and “internationalism” sounding at best like whispers from a distant past.
But times have changed. Today, the social and economic turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the return of global inflation, have upended everything.
Never before did frontline health-care workers prove so critical to society than during the months of COVID confinement from 2020 to 2021. As productive activity faltered across the board, governments began to spend colossal sums to stop the spread of the virus, and this in turn radically modified the rapport de force between workers and employers. By the fall of 2021, twenty million American workers had quit their jobs in what came to be known as the “Great Resignation.” This fleeting phenomenon made headlines; it looked like ordinary workers really were determined to withdraw from the job market for as long as the wages and conditions on offer failed to meet their expectations. For a while, this new, mute brand of strike action disrupted the supply chains of many industrial sectors, forcing salaries upward and fueling inflation. For the first time in decades the balance of macroeconomic forces appeared to be tilting toward work — and away from capital.
This was a serious setback for the kind of unbridled capitalism that had dominated the previous thirty years. In addition, there came a reawakening that was as sudden as it was unexpected. Union and strike action broke out within a political context that had been made more favorable by the election of a Democratic U.S. president, Joe Biden, in November 2020. American workers, whose recent militant tradition was negligible, rediscovered the virtues of collective action. Conflicts broke out in Starbucks coffee shops and Amazon warehouses in 2021 and early 2022, in sectors hitherto bereft of collective solidarity. Alarmed, the managements of these companies spent plenty of effort and money to stamp out their workers’ attempts to organize, which they saw as threats to employer omnipotence and worker subordination. With the economic recovery and the glaringly unequal apportioning of gains that followed, not only workers in publishing and mass-market retailing but also young university graduates formed unions and resorted to strike action to obtain better wages and a fairer appreciation of their status.
Although they were fragile and limited, these mobilizations marked a fresh drive for collective solidarity and mutual aid among workers of widely differing social origins, qualifications, types, and ethnicities. This was all the more necessary inasmuch as the voices of nationalist populism had persisted in stigmatizing refugees, immigrants, and foreign workers ever since the crisis of 2008, accusing them of provoking a fall in salaries, finagling welfare benefits, and perverting the cultural homogeneity of societies in Europe and the United States. Among the middle and working classes, frustration with unequal globalization fueled an increasing sense of distrust toward democratic values and institutions.
For all these reasons, there is an urgent need to look back on the long history of past efforts to unite and defend the workers, over and above their differences and divisions. We need to rediscover exactly what the promises and difficulties of collective action really are. For a century, from the 1860s to the 1970s, socialist, anarchist, communist, and otherwise unionized workers, each with their own sets of beliefs, carried forward an internationalist project of colossal power. Their objective was not to close frontiers and restrict exchanges, but to build a globalized system of worker solidarity overarching any national or linguistic differences.
In the past, it was understood that the defense of the popular classes could not be achieved by withdrawing into isolation, building walls, or rejecting others. It could succeed only if the struggles and demands of all could be channeled into a single titanic effort. This vast project, in which few people believed at its outset, was often chaotic, conflictual, and contradictory. It had its own failures, dark sides, divisions, and antagonisms. But it left an indelible mark on the last years of the nineteenth century and on the century that followed. In the United States as in Europe, workers and ordinary people obtained new rights, better protections, and decent wages as a result of mobilizations supported by mass organizations and the internationalist structures that gave them sense and meaning.
The history of all this was absolutely not one of an enchanted world of sovereign nations and social progress, followed by a lawless interlude beginning in the 1970s of financial globalization, mass unemployment, and deregulation. On the contrary, from its origins in the 1860s, the workers’ movement sought to act within and through globalization, precisely in order to prevent globalization from benefiting only the rich and powerful.
In their confrontation with the global circulation of capital, the workers will always be on the losing side if they cannot join forces. To build a fairer, more supportive, and inclusive world based on struggle and mutual aid: the formula has never been more relevant and necessary. This book is dedicated to rediscovering the grandeur of this ideal and its troubled history, in the certainty that the fervent hopes of the past are still useful resources in planning the struggles of tomorrow. For neither the workers of America, nor the citizens of Europe, nor the people of China will ever improve their respective conditions — or the state of the planet — by degrading the lives of others and barricading themselves behind national borders.

Introduction

The ambition to unite workers across national frontiers emerged in the 1860s at a time when exchanges, migrations, and political cultures were starting to spread across the world. Revolutions in humankind’s means of transportation and communication were leading to the growth of a globalized market in which goods, people, and information could circulate at a hitherto undreamed-of rate. The expansion of the telegraph, the growth of the great merchant shipping companies, and the emergence of London as a world center of finance and free markets, inaugurated the first phase of globalization as we know it. Thereafter, powered by technological and economic innovation, the creation of new links between different parts of the world led to even wider consequences, transforming political organizations and cultures everywhere. The globalization of the nineteenth century, like the one of the late twentieth century, changed power balances as well as human aspirations. Its converts and opponents were agreed on one thing only: that they were all living in a completely new era, one — paradoxically — in which nations were becoming more like one another, and at the same time more protectionist.

THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY GLOBALIZATION

The globalization process of the nineteenth century went hand in hand with the growth of capitalism and European imperialism, and within this context the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was founded in London in September 1864. The IWA, which later came to be known as the “First International,” was born as a result of contacts made in London between French and British workers. The occasion was the 1862 Universal Exhibition, organized to celebrate the triumph of progress and industrial capitalism; but this event, perhaps unwittingly, also offered a golden opportunity for the enemies of capitalism to exchange views and build projects. Two years later, French and British workers were reunited at a meeting in support of an uprising in Poland, which was being brutally suppressed by the Russian Empire. From this second encounter grew a project with the far broader ambition of setting up an international workers’ association, whose goal was to unite the workers of the world under a single banner.
London, the capital of the British Empire, was both a temple of liberalism and a haven for thousands of European political exiles fleeing the persecutions and censorship of tsarist Russia, Bismarck’s Prussia, and Napoleon III’s Second Empire. The Chartist effort for greater democracy in Britain had run out of steam in the aftermath of 1848, the “year of revolutions”; for the time being the country’s parliamentary system considered itself secure in London. In consequence large numbers of republicans, democrats, socialists, and anarchists flocked to the British metropolis, all of them militants of one kind or another — Poles, Irish Nationalists, the 1867 partisans of Garibaldi in Italy, among many others — who roundly rejected authoritarian politics. Yet the defense of oppressed nations was not the only goal of radical protest and action. Socialist and anarchist ideas had been gaining ground since 1848, despite severe repression. There was a general outcry against the ravages of industrialization: inequality, wretched living conditions, exhausting labor. More and more workers dreamed of changing this economic system for the better, though it was praised to the skies by the liberal establishment.
Karl Marx, himself an exile in London, had not yet completed the first volume of Das Kapital. But already many like him were denouncing the profound inequalities engendered by the commercial reach and internationalization of capital: with the lowering of transportation costs and the intensification of migrations, workers found themselves caught in a competitive spiral that the captains of industry and manufacture exploited for profit. The more the globalization of capital forged ahead, the farther the globalization of work fell behind. Although they were physically involved in markets that were ever more closely connected, the workers coordinated very little beyond the frontiers of their own countries. This fact weakened the collective defense of their interests. Clearly the globalization of working conditions was far from tempered by a globalization of the struggle for social justice. The militants who gathered in London at the end of September 1864 were determined to do something about this, despite the differences in their ideological affiliations.
The general council of the association, which was held every week between 1864 and 1872, brought together militants of all stripes and nationalities. Their attitudes to capitalism and bourgeois democracy ranged from extreme radical to moderate. Their divisions, which were real and deep, did not stop them from reaching a first unanimous agreement that it was vital for the workers of Europe and the United States to join forces across the frontiers that separated them. In the United States, the Civil War was raging; the North was fighting for the principle that freed slaves should be able to work in freedom just like everybody else. At the same time, immigrant workers from European countries like Germany, Sweden, and Ireland were beginning to mobilize for the betterment of working-class conditions. A first union, the National Labour Union, was created in the United States in 1866, at the very moment when, for the first time, European workers were also resorting to strike action and unionization. In 1869, the IWA finally took root on American soil among immigrant workers and local radical militants. Within a year it had attracted some four thousand adherents.
What was at stake was the construction of authentic international worker solidarity, so that economic and financial globalization could benefit everybody, not just those who had capital. The famous call to arms that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had issued to proletarians of all nations in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, published in the beginning of 1848, was still largely unanswered. Even if there had been projects for international worker unity before, the experience of the IWA was something new on account of its sheer ambition, breadth, and durability, so much so that, within a few years, new sections of the association had been opened in England, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the United States, and Argentina. Roughly 150,000 workers were said to have joined up, a figure to be treated with caution given that contemporary estimates tended to be wildly exaggerated. In London, Marx and Engels sat side by side on the general council with English radicals and unionists; French and Belgian disciples of Proudhon; Swiss, Polish, and German emigrants; and libertarians thrilled by the ideas of Bakunin. Very soon the IWA became known for the strikes it supported, its appeals for solidarity, and its numerous sections in different countries. Its aura reached a zenith during the Paris Commune in 1871, which its opponents accused it of having plotted. Even though the association was not directly involved at the start, the damage was done: after the early 1870s, governments perceived the IWA as a worldwide revolutionary threat.
The shared ambition of the founders of the IWA was more modest but ultimately more ambitious. Their plan was to bring the workers of Europe and America together under a single banner. Some of them dreamed of world revolution, but the main priority was to develop capacities for concerted organization and struggle against the globalizing of capital. The IWA was by no means opposed to the mechanics of globalization — far from it. More rapid exchanges of information, cheaper travel between countries and continents, and simpler ways of transferring funds were welcomed by its members, who sought to enable workers to compete successfully with the bourgeoisie, the workers being, if anything, more thoroughly imbued with the values of freedom, mobility, and emancipation than the bourgeoisie. Obviously such values fed the logic of abolishing national frontiers. The seeds of workers’ internationalism sown by the IWA were neither the opposite nor the negation of globalization; rather, they pressed globalization into the service of those men and women who were busy creating it. The IWA was not an anti-globalization movement. It was globalization in an early, alternative form, and today the history of its aspirations, uncertainties, accomplishments, and failures can help us to understand what the world might have been and why it has become what it is.


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