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Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts.

Writing a compelling "socially oriented, comparative" history of labor in Barcelona and Paris during the Popular Fronts era, Michael Seidman challenges the way most historians have understood work and the experience of the worker in the twentieth century. Historians have made fundamental assumptions about the importance of work that have distorted recent historical analysis and caused a generation of historians to overlook the obvious fact that workers have not shared the work-myths of intellectuals and politicians. Uncritically accepting modern work as one of history's final goals and meanings, historians have been led--perhaps dominated--in this area by Marxist and labor historians who harbor the True Faith in a utopia of the workplace, by modernization theorists who expect workers to adapt fully to modern work and find perfect freedom in doing what they have to do--The Job--and by culturalists who claim that the "workers find meaning" mainly in work in a work culture and that "labor |is~ literally meaningful". Believing in such things, labor historians have largely overlooked workers' continuing resistance to work and "the consequent coercion needed to overcome it," ignoring the discovery that E. P. Thompson made years ago that worker resistance was the sine qua non of the original imposition of industrial work discipline.

Against the ubiquitous work mythology, Seidman sets the "lived experience," deeds, and words of workers in Barcelona and Paris during the 1930s, finding a parallel confrontation in which politicians' and intellectuals' faith in work was challenged by workers' experiences and aspirations. The same "workplace utopianism" that befuddles historians today misled the leaders of the Popular Front in Paris and the anarcho-syndicalists in Barcelona and resulted, at least in part, in their downfall. The naive beliefs that workers would be brought to "consciousness" and to class action by the experience of freeing work, that workers would naturally sacrifice themselves to work for the Party and common good, and that workers wanted nothing more than to work for fair wages were brought up short by what workers in the two cities actually did and said. Glorifying work as emancipating, anarcho-syndicalists in Barcelona called on workers to "identify" with their vocation, take over the factories, and begin working "joyfully" for "the good of the patrie." The workplace would become the "locus of liberation" as workers built a new social order "based on work," proving that work could be both productive (responsive to human need) and free. Thus uniting freedom and necessity, work would emerge as "the source of life," a "sublime song." "Love of work" would replace social coercion and the state would be superannuated. Anarcho-syndicalists failed to realize that they were in effect asking workers "to participate willingly in their own bondage as wage earners". Thus instead of joyful, liberating work, they found widespread resistance, apathy, indifference, absenteeism, and sabotage. In Paris, "the Popular Front was popular because of its expansion of leisure, and it is hardly surprising that its end was provoked by workers' actions to resist more worktime".

In both Barcelona and Pans, resistance to work characterized workers' response to class issues and radical politics. "Workers expressed their class consciousness by avoiding the space, time, and demands of wage labor". Instead of following the Marxist vision of liberation through work, workers in the two cities "expressed" their own utopian ideal: liberation from work.

In both cities, the Left had to take action to reimpose work discipline. In Barcelona, the anarcho-syndicalists used terrorist tactics and labor camps. Seidman points out that "the Spanish revolution was, in part, a crusade to convert, by force if necessary, both enemies and friends to the value of work and development". In Paris the Popular Front turned to coercion as well, using "police, military, dismissals, legal proceedings, and court trials--to make workers labor harder and produce more. The weekend vanished . . .". Seidman concludes that such resistance and reaction point to "a theory of state in modern industrial society--|and~ to the conclusion that one of the most vital functions of the state is to make workers work . . .".

Seidman's book has its flaws; he ignores Gary Cross's A Quest for Time (1989) and other historians who have recently written about worker resistance to work in the form of shorter-hour movements. His comparative approach also would have been greatly enriched by including the works of William Chase and Lewis Siegelbaum concerning worker resistance in the former Soviet Union--the October Revolution may have set a kind of "work-thermidor" pattern that Barcelona and Pans followed. Seidman's discussion of Stakhanovism would certainly be improved by Siegelbaum's 1988 study. He also accepts too uncritically company records and judgments of businessmen and government officials regarding what workers did and thought.

Still Seidman's analysis is exciting and challenging. NOt only does he explore a largely neglected field of historical investigation, but he also presents an alternative way of viewing labor history, free from presuppositions about work's importance and "meaning." The discovery that for workers in Spain and France, work was not an end in itself or a vehicle for meaning--that for them the less of it the better--opens a broad field for historical exploration.

Benjamin Hunnicutt is a professor at the University of Iowa. He has written about the history of work and work reduction in the United States including Work Without End (1988), an analysis of the end of shorter hours and the inauguration of the politics of work creation during the New Deal. At present he is working on a history of the politics of work creation since the Second World War, "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs," and the rise of the supporting culture and ideology of work.
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Author:Hunnicutt, Benjamin
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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