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Book reviews: Durruti, Utopia, Workers' Control, and The Death Ship

 

The Man Who Killed Durruti, by Pedro de Paz

Why worry about an man who died in November 1936, or about the man who killed him? Perhaps the more important question is 'who is Durruti and why be concerned about him?'. In this intriguing book both of the questions are addressed in two parts. The first is an investigative historical novel about the death of Buenaventura Durruti, in the form of a detective novel that leads to a conclusion about his killer. This section of the book won the 2003 Spanish Jose Saramago International Short Novel Award. The second part is a more straight historical account of Durruti, his actions and ideas, during the Spanish Revolution, and is by Stuart Christie. This second part covers more about Durruti as a person, a militant anarchist worker, an anarchist militia leader, and, overall, a partisan of the Spanish people with an internationalist vision. His death was a turning point in the Spanish Revolution and one of the events that lead to the defeat of the revolution. Half a million people turned out for his funeral in Barcelona, a tribute to the place he held in people's hearts.

 

The Anthropology of Utiopia: Essays on Social Ecology and Community Development, by Dan Chodorkoff

This is an interesting book which is a collection of essays that have been printed in various places over the years. What brings them together is a series of important themes: an exposition of the work and ideas of Murray Bookchin, examples of how some of Bookchin's ideas have already (and can be now and in the future) be put into practice, the importance of action to (re-) build community as part of the long term revolutionary project and a defense of Bookchin against the poorly thought-out ideological assaults of his post-modern/'post-anarchist' attackers. All this is wrapped in a major theme of looking at ourselves anthropologically. The parts that I liked the most were about Chodorkoff's and a participant and activist in the Lower East Side of New York, in helping to build community among poor Puerto Ricans in what was then a desolate part of New York. Also, how an academic can support and be a part of change, although admittedly he did this when in the Institute for Social Ecology - a radical/anarchist institute if ever there was one. So many lessons to learn, both positive and challenging, that I've got notes scribbled all over the copy that I read. Well worth getting into.

 

Ours to Master and to Own: Workers' Control from the Commune to the Present, Edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini

This book is so inspiring and so annoying in so many ways! The various authors come from widely different backgrounds in terms of work, geographic and  cultural location, and ideology. The best aspect is that many examples of attempts at workers' control are covered, from all over the world, although with a less than needed entries from non-European (and its offshoots) areas. So it's a rollikin' read going from workers' revolt to insurrectionary event to factory takeover, and is enjoyable if you don't look too closely into the ideological limitations and biases of many of the authors. So many are just stuck in the nonsense of marxist apologia, here is one example from a look at Russia, 1917-1920: "Some anarchist called for the takeover of factories, but a Bolshevik delegate replied: "control is not yet socialism, nor even taking of production into our hands....Having taken power into our hands, we should direct capitalism along a path such that it will outlive itself..." But no where, in this chapter, in a book about Workers' Control, is there the obvious critique of this marxist nonsense: if marxism is about 'directing capitalism' then it is not revolutionary, and certainly not about workers' control. One look at Simon Pirani's book The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-1924: Soviet Workers and the new Communist Elite, should dispel the illusions that some of these authors have. So, if a reader can keep the rose coloured glasses off, and look critically at its limitations, then the book is a good read.

 

The Death Ship, by B. Traven

Traven, not his real name (which was possibly Ret Marut) was a mystery man who shunned fame and notoriety. He always insisted that his work should stand alone and be judged for what it was worth. This novel, his first after escape from his activities during the post WW1 Bavarian German Revolution of 1919, was probably a part biography of his experiences in the deep and dark holds of cargo ships. While the story itself is a great read, like all his other novels, the politics underlying the narrative is not hidden, but not always explicit. He attacked rampant authoritarianism in the form of the state, the boss, the military, religion, and any other of its manifestations that came across his path, or the paths that developed in his stories. Having read it 30 years ago and again recently, I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style and the pace of the action, while giving cause and pause for thinking of the meanings within. An easy read, but a provocative and stimulating one. Am now looking forward to re-reading The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which was made into a great film with Humphrey Bogart.

 

Book Review: Wages So Low You'll Freak

Wages So Low You'll Freak, by Mike Pudd'nhead

Book Review by Chris

Wages So Low You'll Freak

I gave this book to a friend as a late Christmas present. “Just read the first chapter,” I said, “then see if you can stop.” By 3am the next day he’d read the whole thing cover to cover in one marathon all-night session.

Wages So Low You’ll Freak deserves to be a small classic. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages. It covers radical politics and workplace organising in a way that’s honest, often extremely funny, and is totally relatable for young, early 21st century workers bouncing from one precarious, poorly paid job to the next.

The book is a sprawling, four-year-long, first-person narrative of Mike Wilklow’s attempts to organise a union at Jimmy John’s – a chain sandwich store with about 1,000 outlets throughout the US. At 22, fresh out of college and a recent signup to the Industrial Workers of the World, Wilklow joins his best friend in getting a minimum wage job at Jimmy John’s and sets to work.

Unlike most conventional unions, the Industrial Workers of the World preaches an ethic of “solidarity unionism.” Rather than aiming exclusively for formal membership and legal bargaining rights, the IWW emphasises collective direct action on the shop floor to build workers’ confidence and win small, concrete improvements, followed by progressively larger actions over more ambitious goals.

Thus within a few months, despite representing only a miniscule fraction of the workforce, Wilklow and his co-workers are already taking action. When someone is arbitrarily fired for phoning in sick, dozens of IWW members call up the store to complain, jamming its phone lines and causing chaos while a handful of workers confront the boss together. When a new store manager takes over and begins sexually harassing staff, workers start a petition and get him fired. And when a supervisor in one shop punches out a union supporter for cutting a sandwich diagonally rather than straight across, every single person in the store stops work and gets that supervisor fired as well. Between 2007-2010, the battle on the shop floor rages back and forth until each of the ten Jimmy John’s stores in Minneapolis – where Wilklow is living and working – have a large number of union supporters in them ready to publicly declare their IWW membership and take on the company on a much larger scale.

There’s so much that I liked about Wages So Low You’ll Freak. For one thing, it’s just a great story. While the emphasis is on Wilklow’s attempts to organise a union, it also reads as something of an autobiography of four years of his life, bouncing around between demeaning minimum wage work, basement punk gigs, hook-ups, breakups, protests, parties, binge drinking, gambling and bike culture. The writing is really sharp and accessible, and the book is consistently entertaining and funny.
Wilklow is also pretty honest about himself and his own flaws. The book opens with a bizarre piece called “Why Happiness?” which he wrote as a 23-year-old, and each chapter includes a short entry from the diary he kept during the campaign. He also does a good job of depicting himself as an inexperienced, often immature early-twentysomething: he stuffs up repeatedly, says the wrong things, does the wrong things, can’t hold relationships together, is stubborn, talks too much, and is constantly hung over. But he has no trouble admitting all of this and is relentlessly self-deprecating.

Probably the most valuable thing about this book, though, is that it’s one of the only accounts of a union organising campaign that I know of which has been written not by an academic or a labour scholar or a paid union organiser, but by an actual participant who was there every day on the shopfloor. Union membership in Australia has plummeted from 56% of the workforce in the mid-1970s to less than 15% today, and the experience and cultural memory of rank-and-file workplace organisation has been almost totally lost. For that reason alone, Wages So Low You’ll Freak is incredibly useful and important: you can learn a lot about how to organise your own workplace just from reading it, not mention gain a lot of confidence about what it’s possible to achieve.  In this light, the book’s setting in the unorganised, minimum wage service industry is pretty perfect, and the author solidly emphasises workplace organising that is under the control of workers themselves, without the interference of paid union organisers or bureaucrats.

For all these reasons I think Wages So Low You’ll Freak is a really enjoyable and valuable read. You can order it online from Microcosm Press and copies are also sold here at Jura Books in Sydney.

 

Anarchism, Marxism, and Economics

Anarchism, Marxism, and Economics
(Based on a Red & Black Forum talk by Paul Rubner, 25 Oct, 2015.)

Although not a Marxist, I consider Marx’s writings as classics of revolutionary thought. Hence, coming to terms with Marx’s ideas – whether one agrees with them or not -- is important for anarchists, and left libertarians generally. Familiarising ourselves with Marx’s ideas through on-going study of the primary sources is, or should be, an essential part of our continuing self-education. In my view, this is just as important as studying, e.g., Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Bookchin, etc.

Red and Black Forum: Anarchism, Marxism and economics

Sunday, October 25, 2015 -
2:00pm to 4:00pm

Red and Black Forum: Anarchism, Marxism and economics – a discussion of Ronald Tabor's "The Tyranny of Theory: a Contribution to the Anarchist Critique of Marxism." Presented by Paul Rubner and Sid Parissi.

Anarchists have sometimes accepted Marx's economic analysis, though not Marxist politics. In recent years, especially since the GFC, there has been renewed interest in economic matters, and by some anarchists, in 'Marxist economics'. This has polarised opinion among anarchists as to the validity of Marx's critique of political economy, and its relevance to anarchism. This Forum will be a discussion between Paul Rubner and Sid Parissi of these matters, with reference to Tabor's book.

Reading Tabor’s book is recommended, however not absolutely necessary. You’ll still get a lot out of the discussion if you haven’t read the book. It is available at Jura for $45.

 

 

 

Direct Action - Series 2, No. 3, 3 June 1928

Direct Action - Series 2, issue number 3, published 3 June 1928 p. 1, 4

Miscellaneous: 

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