Building Identify Through Struggle

Against the Current, No. 158, May/June 2012

Charlie Post

Forging Political Identity:
Silk and Metal Workers in Lyon, 1900-1939
By Keith Mann
New York: Berghahn Books, 2010. xiv +
264 pages, $95 hardcover.

SOCIALISTS SEEKING TO win support among working people in the United States today face twin obstacles. A conservative, pro-business officialdom, tied to the capitalist Democratic Party and opposed to any manifestation of working class militancy, dominates the labor movement.

On the other hand, the majority of U.S. workers, facing a highly successful employers’ offensive after decades of union officials encouraging their passive reliance on routine collective bargaining and the grievance procedure, believe that “there is no alternative” to deteriorating working and living conditions. A minority of working people have even embraced the politics of the right; seeking to improve their situation at the expense of other workers.

The U.S. socialist left that attempts to orient to working people’s organizations and struggles has been divided over where to begin the process of rebuilding independent working class organization and struggle.

Some believe that the conservatism of the labor officials and segments of the working class flow from higher wages derived from sharing “super-profits” with their employers. Others reject the notion that better paid workers constitute a “labor aristocracy,” and argue that workers in strategic industries — transport, telecommunications, heavy industry — have greater social potential, when organized and active, to change the relationship of forces with capital and in the process become open to radical and revolutionary ideas.(1)

Until the 1930s, significant minorities of workers in the industrialized countries identified with radical and revolutionary politics, while other workers identified with the more conservative, reformist politics of the mainstream of the labor and socialist movements. What, if any, social basis was there for the formation of different political identities among workers?

Keith Mann’s study attempts to answer this question through a detailed historical analysis of the formation of political identities among relatively poorly paid silk workers and relatively better paid metal workers in Lyon from 1900 through 1939.

For Mann, “the intersection of the prevailing political opportunity structure in France at that time and evolving industrial social relations” (9) shaped whether workers would tend to identify with revolutionary or reformist trends. The former was represented, before World War I, by the Confédération générale du travail (General Workers Confederation, CGT) and after the war by the new Parti communiste français (French Communist Party, PCF) and CGT Unitaire (CGTU). The reformist trend was represented by the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (French Section of the Workers’ International, SFIO, subsequently the Socialist Party) and the postwar CGT.

Working from the late historical sociologist Charles Tilly’s theoretical framework, Mann defines “industrial social relations” as “the relations between workers and the productive process, between workers and employers, and among workers themselves that are shaped primarily by the productive process as well as the structure of labor markets and the balance of forces between workers and employers.” (9) The “political opportunity structure” includes:

“the ways the structure of politics in a given social formation renders some courses of collective action more or less possible or efficacious… (1) the relative openness or closure of the institutionalized political system, (2) the stability or instability of that broad set of elite alignments that typically undergrid a polity, (3) the presence or absence of elite allies, and (4) the state’s capacity and propensity for repression…the availability of political….programs… historical traditions and myths.” (11)

Mann is able to provide a vigorous materialist account of the formation of political identities among different groups of working class activists, rooting their political world-views in their experience of work and the state, without falling into simplistic “base-superstructure” arguments that have marred previous Marxist analyses of class formation and consciousness.

While industrial relations systems and political opportunity structures limit the range of possible political identities, workers actively forge their world-views — “the mental road maps of lived experience”(2) — in the process of organization and struggle. Mann also successfully integrates gender into his analysis of class-based political identity, again avoiding reductionism and fashionable notions that reduce identity formation to “discourse.”(3)

Industry and Labor Transformed

The “second industrial revolution” of the 1880s through the 1930s, the completion of the mechanization of older branches of production (textiles) and the emergence of new, highly capitalized branches of industry (steel, machine-making, auto, electrical power, chemicals, etc.), transformed industrial social relations throughout the capitalist world. A combination of mechanization and the imposition of “scientific management” or “Taylorism” in new and old industries, with its attendant deskilling of work and replacement of skilled with semi-skilled and unskilled workers, shaped workplace relations and struggles, including among Lyon’s silk and metal workers.

Lyon’s silk industry had its roots in early modern “proto-industrialization,” with merchant organized spinning, weaving and dyeing of silk by skilled workers laboring in their urban apartments. Even after the mechanization of weaving and dyeing of silk in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, silk production remained relatively small-scale and labor-intensive compared with the metal working industries.

The decline of handloom weaving in small shops and the rise of mechanized factory production, and the mechanization of dyeing and finishing, undermined the militant craft unions which controlled apprenticeship and the work process in the silk industry. The defeat of a wave of strikes in 1903-1906, most of which contested the increasingly arbitrary authority of foremen to impose factory discipline, sealed the fate of the craft unions.

Growing conflicts between skilled and unskilled workers contributed to these defeats, as skilled men were unable to win the support of growing numbers of unskilled women in their struggles against the employers. Silk remained a labor-intensive industry, which could easily relocate to areas of labor-surplus, undermining the effectiveness of slowdowns, small-scale strikes and other forms of shop floor direct action.

While metalworking factories varied in size, there was a clear trend toward larger enterprises in steel, machine-making, and auto production. These highly mechanized industries included a large portion of skilled workers — the machinists who set up and operated metal-cutting machinery. The power of the machinists was the main target of the employers’ drive to deskill work in the industry through “scientific management” and mechanization.

The increased authority of foremen, the imposition of piece-work and attempts to replace skilled with unskilled and semi-skilled workers sparked a wave of strikes in Lyon’s metal industry between 1900 and 1914. The relatively capital-intensive metal working plants were much harder to relocate, giving greater leverage to skilled and semi-skilled workers and creating strong traditions of effective workplace direct action among metal workers.

The skilled machinists were able to forge industry-wide unity in action, including the semi-skilled and unskilled before and during the First World War.

Mann’s analysis of the political opportunity structure in France transcends the traditional historiographic division of the French labor movement into “political” (SP) and “industrial” (CGT) wings. While recognizing that the mainstream of SFIO (shaped by the politics of the “Marxist” Jules Guesde and “Left Republican” Jean Juares) and the CGT (shaped by the politics of revolutionary syndicalism) defined the poles of political identity for radical French workers, Mann places greater emphasis on the politics of the SFIO and CGT.

On the one hand, the pre-war CGT championed “autonomous working-class culture and a focus on class independence in social and political struggles. The emphasis on proletarian solidarity across trades and borders, coupled as it was to a rejection of the Jacobin tradition of a centralized state governed by a republic resting on a multiclass alliance, had as a corollary a hostile stance toward patriotic nationalism. The better-paid, predominantly skilled, male metal workers became the backbone of what Mann labels the “class independence, antinationalist current.” (33)

By contrast, the SFIO anchored the “class collaboration, nationalist current” of the French labor movement. Pre-war French Socialists advocated reliance on parliamentary electoral politics, including alliances with the middle-class Radical Party in defense of the “republican” national tradition. The lower paid and less skilled silk workers, a growing proportion of whom were women, were the main social base of this current in Lyon.

Mann ties the political identity of the metal and silk workers to their specific workplace and political experiences. Skilled workers, accustomed to controlling the nature and pace of their work, were the mainstays of the left-wings of socialism and syndicalism in the industrialized countries before 1914. The metal workers’ ability to disrupt production, and the inability of capital in these industries to easily move production, cemented their commitment to workplace militancy. The experience of strike-breaking by the Radicals in government in Lyon and across France deepened their hostility to parliamentary politics, cementing their support of the “class independence, anti-nationalist” current.

The silk workers had experienced a rapid decline of skilled work, the destruction of craft unions, divisions between skilled and unskilled and a lack of workplace power flowing from capital’s ability to easily move their labor-intensive enterprises. Not surprisingly, the SFIO’s politics of legislative reform and cooperation with Radical Socialists in a “Republican bloc” against the far right proved quite appealing to silk workers.

Impact of War and Revolution

The First World War accelerated the restructuring of industrial relations through the intensification of Taylorist methods and mechanization, and transformed the political opportunity structure in Lyon. At the beginning of the war, the majority of French workers followed the leadership of both the SFIO and CGT in supporting the French capitalist state against Germany and its allies.

By 1916-1917, falling wages, longer hours and sharpened attacks on workers’ skill and power in the workplace led to increased strike activity. These strikes, centered in the metal working industries, helped revive an anti-nationalist/anti-war, class independence current in both the SFIO and CGT. Together with the Russian Revolution of 1917, these strikes led to a profound alteration of political organization and representation:

“By the end of the war… most workers had rejected the Sacred Union and the war, and a majority had repudiated the class collaborationist union leadership in the CGT and SP that continued to support the war. In other words, the promoters of class collaboration, nationalist politics enjoyed near total hegemony for the first part of the war, while the isolation of supporters of class independence, antinational politics was never greater. By the end of the war, the balance of forces between the two currents had sharply shifted in favor of the latter. This changing balance of forces found an organizational expression in the split within the SFIO in 1920 that led to the formation of the French Communist Party (PCF) and the CGTU. The PCF and CGTU represented the continuation of the class independence, anti-nationalist current. The SFIO…and the CGT continued to embody the class collaboration, nationalist program.” (146-147)

In the aftermath of the war, a new political opportunity structure emerged. The “anti-nationalist, class independence” trend regrouped in the newly formed PCF and the CGTU (CGT Unitaire), while the “nationalist, class collaborationist” current came to dominate the SFIO and the CGT in the 1920s.

The PCF and CGTU combined working class, independent electoral activity with workplace militancy, while the SFIO and CGT sought electoral alliances with the Radicals, electing the Cartel de Gauche in 1924, to promote legislative reform and cooperative workplace relations. Although the PCF and CGTU remained a minority current in the French labor movement, the SFIO and CGT’s hopes for political and workplace reforms proved utopian as French capital launched an offensive against labor in the 1920s.

In the postwar years, the reformist currents in the workers’ movement continued to enjoy the support of silk workers in Lyon. Two developments in the silk industry reinforced the silk workers’ allegiance to the “nationalist, class collaborationist” political identity. First, the 1920s saw a radical decentralization of mechanized weaving and its movement from Lyon to the suburbs and countryside. Second, the mechanization of dyeing and finishing was completed.

The near complete deskilling of labor in the silk industry — the growing dominance of semi- and unskilled workers — shifted struggles from issues of managerial authority to wages and hours between 1914 and 1935. According to Mann:

“SP and CGT influence among these workers in the 1920s and early 1930s was partly an extension of the success that reformist socialist and trade union forces enjoyed in the prewar period…prewar developments had nearly wiped out the skilled worker element, and developments in the industry after 1914 accelerated this trend…At the same time, the PCF and CGTU strategy of militant strike action was far less suited to the silk industry than to metallurgy because enterprises with low rates of capital investment are less susceptible to strike action than those with heavy capital investment (as in metallurgy). When faced with militant labor forces, silk employers had the option of moving operations to the countryside.” (179)

By contrast, the continued Taylorist assaults on skill and the temporary success of workers in preserving skill and shop-floor power reinforced the skilled metal workers of Lyon allegiance to “anti-nationalist, class independence” current represented by the PCF and CGTU. In the metal industry, even semi-skilled machine operators retained significant shop-floor power:

“While management hoped that the institution of machinery would strip workers of the specialized knowledge over the labor process that was the source of much of the shop floor power of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century skilled workers, employers were often disappointed to find that maximum output from these machines was only attained by those who knew them most intimately, and nobody knew them as well as the workers who spent all day working on them. Workers used this knowledge in a variety of ways, including limiting output.” (203)

Skilled and semi-skilled metal workers engaged in numerous struggles over piece-rate, attempting to restrict output in order to push up piece-rates and reassert control over the pace of work.

Semi-skilled workers were the “glue” uniting skilled and unskilled in industrial action in metal working industries. The workplace power of skilled and semi-skilled metal workers made the PCF-CGTU strategy of workplace action and class independence more attractive than “nationalist/class collaborationist” approach of the SFIO and CGT.

Shifting Political Winds

The PCF’s adoption of the “popular front” strategy in 1936 would radically transform the political opportunity structure in France in general and Lyon in particular.

In the wake of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 in the face of a divided German workers’ movement, the ranks of both the Socialist and Communist parties internationally had pushed for joint action against the employers, state and fascists. The first successful united mobilizations took place in France in February 1934, as members of the PCF and SFIO took to the streets against French fascists.

But the “popular front against fascism” proclaimed in 1935 by the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International, dictated collaboration with middle-class liberals, labor bureaucrats and social-democratic parliamentarians to defend the institutions of the democratic capitalist state.

Such coalitions would not only provide a bulwark against domestic reaction in the capitalist countries, but encourage the capitalist democracies to enter into “collective security” agreements (military alliances) with the Soviet Union against fascist Germany and Italy.

In France, the PCF was able to enter an electoral coalition with both the SFIO and the middle-class Radical Party, leading to the elections of a Popular Front majority in parliament and the socialist Leon Blum as prime minister. For many French workers, the victory of the Radical-SFIO-PCF coalition was the signal for renewed, militant struggles at the workplace. In the spring of 1936, a wave of factory occupations shook French industry, demanding the nationalization of industry and workers’ control over hiring, firing and the pace of work.

The newly reunited CGT leadership, including the PCF, derailed this mass movement, forcing an end to the strikes in exchange for union recognition and the establishment of a 40-hour work week. But ending the sitdown strikes did not lead to more pro-working class reforms, as the PCF leadership had predicted, but a sharp shift to the right in French politics. Employers began to attack collective bargaining, in particular the networks of shop stewards established after the sitdowns, and the 40-hour week.

Within the workers’ movement, while the Lyon silk workers’ embrace of the popular front was a continuation of their traditions of allegiance to “nationalist, class collaborationist” current, the metal workers’ support marked a sharp shift in their political identities. Prior to 1936, metal workers in Lyon and across France were the backbone of “anti-nationalist, class independence” politics. After 1936, they embraced the PCF’s “new Jacobinism” — the identification of the revolutionary workers’ movement with the national-Republican traditions of the French revolution.

Mann attributes the shift in metal worker political identity to an influx of semi-skilled workers into the metal working industries, arguing that these workers did not have a stake in the shop floor and political strategies of the “anti-nationalist class independence” current:

“For decades workers in many industries had experienced a slow loss of skill and control over the labor process as craft labor markets gave way to capitalist ones. This had an overall effect of weakening the shop floor power of such workers. By 1936 semiskilled workers, lacking the shop floor strength and political culture of a previous generation of skilled workers, had come onto the industrial scene in big numbers. This was significant for political identity formation because the class independence, antinationalist current had long promoted shop floor struggle. Such a strategy was less effective, and therefore less attractive, given the new industrial social relations prevailing in that industry. At the same time a political opportunity structure characterized by openness, elite allies, and the possibilities of real social reform arose in France. This, coupled with two mass working-class political parties promoting class collaboration and nationalism, combined to create a favorable climate for a new political identity for workers in a number of occupations. The mass strikes, mobilizations, and cultural imagery used by pro-Popular Front labor leaders served as catalysts for the formation of this new identity.” (243)

Mann does a masterful job analyzing the social basis of working class political identity in Lyon — and beyond — between 1900 and 1935. Hopefully, Forging Political Identity will be part of a renaissance of Marxist, materialist labor history. While historical materialism informed the most important studies of workers and their organizations and struggles from the 1960s through the mid-1980s, the decline of militant workers’ struggles in the late 1970s and the collapse of the bureaucratic “socialist” regimes in the late-1980s and 1990s undermined Marxism’s influence in labor history.

In its place, post-modernist and some feminist scholars argued that attention to material-structural factors — the workplace, unions, political parties, etc. — was inherently reductionist. Only an approach that privileged the autonomous development of language and discourse in the formation of political identities could avoid such pitfalls.(4) Mann’s work demonstrates the continued power of historical materialism in the analysis of workers’ self-activity and organization.

The Popular Front Disaster

Mann’s explanation of the restructuring of political identities after 1936 is, however, unsatisfactory. First, he presents no evidence that there was, in fact, a sudden influx of semi-skilled workers into the metal industries, workers whose lack of shop-floor power made the “class independence, anti-nationalist” strategy largely irrelevant to their experience.

Mann’s own analysis of semi-skilled machine operators’ role in the metal-working labor processes directly contradicts his later claim that they lacked significant shop-floor power. Their knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of their machines gave them significant leverage in the workplace. In addition, the capital-intensive character of the metal working factories, and the resulting difficulties in relocating production to newer areas, gave all metal workers significant clout in the production process.

Nor does a new “political opportunity structure characterized by openness, elite allies, and the possibilities of real social reform” explain the shift in metal workers’ political allegiance. It was the factory occupations in the spring of 1936, tactics long advocated by the PCF and CGTU, that had shifted the political opportunity structure.

The possibility of real social reforms, in particular collective bargaining rights and the 40-hour work week, were the direct result of the sitdown strikes of 1936. But the end of the mass strikes saw a rapid closing of these opportunities for reform, as the employers’ renewed their offensive against labor and the popular front government weakened both union rights and the legal limitation of the work week.

I would argue that the roots of the metal workers’ embrace of the politics of “nationalism and class collaboration” are found in the shifting politics of the bureaucratic rulers of the Soviet Union, and the leaderships of the Communist International and the PCF, a factor Mann recognizes but does not give its proper weight.(5)

The new Soviet ruling group prioritized international isolation and stability during the collectivization of agriculture and rapid industrialization of the first Five Year Plan (1928-33). However, the Nazi seizure of power renewed the possibility of western imperialist military intervention against the Soviet Union. After 1934, the Soviet bureaucracy’s foreign policy shifted from isolation to “collective security” — military alliances with the western capitalist states against the fascist powers.

Worker members of the PCF and other Communist parties had long been passive members of increasingly undemocratic, top-down parties, who deferred to the “superior knowledge” of the leaders of the Soviet Union, the Comintern and their own parties.

French metal workers followed the PCF leadership’s abandonment of revolutionary for reformist politics because they genuinely believed that the new popular front strategy would advance workers’ struggles in France and help defend the “socialist motherland” in Russia. The result was quite different.

On the one hand, the demobilization of the mass strikes of 1936 led to the rollback of pro-worker reforms and a political opening to the right — culminating in the French capitalist class’ willingness to surrender to Hitler in 1939-40 rather than face a new wave of workers’ struggles.

On the other hand, the popular front strategy resulted in the political liquidation of the militant minority of French workers who defended class independence, militancy and internationalism. Both before and especially after the Second World War, the PCF and other mass Communist parties in the advanced capitalist societies would become recruiting grounds for “progressive” trade union and parliamentary officials, beginning these parties’ slow transformation into reformist parties.

Worse, unlike the period of the First World War when the revolutionary minority of workers became isolated but continued to organize, the popular front essentially destroyed this militant minority in the working classes of the capitalist world.(6)


  1. For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see C. Post “The Myth of the Labor Aristocracy, Part I” Against the Current 123 (July-August 2006) [] and “The “Labor Aristocracy” and Working-Class Struggles: Consciousness in Flux, Part 2” Against the Current 124 (September-October 2006) [].
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  2. See Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the USA, New Left Review, I: 181 (1990), 110.
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  3. Matthew Perry’s review of Mann’s work in the American Historical Review (June 2011) fully appreciates this aspect of Forging Political Identity. Unfortunately, Steve Zdatny’s review on H-France ( rehearses the standard post-modernist claims that any materialist analysis is necessarily reductionist. See Mann’s very effective response on H-France (
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  4. For an excellent survey and critique of these notions, see Bryan D. Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990).
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  5. A more detailed analysis than can be summarized here can be found in Fernando Claudin, The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, Part One: The Crisis of the Communist International (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), Chapter 4.
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  6. This argument is made in much greater detail in C. Post and K.A. Wainer, Socialist Organization Today (Detroit: Solidarity Pamphlet, 2006) [].
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May/June 2012, ATC 158