Podcast episode in which we talk about our new book, Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance & Rebellion, with our friends at the Coffee with Comrades podcast, which they edited and put out as their episode 114. They kindly shared the audio with us, which we have lightly edited for brevity and include here as our latest episode.

In it, we discuss the book, the WCH project, the nature of people’s history, our approach to class and its intersection with other forms of oppression. Our conversation also touches on lots of stories of rebellion, including the fight for the weekend, and tea breaks, opposing the Ku Klux Klan, resisting the police and more.
Copies of the first printing of the book are still available in our online store here.
And for our lovely patrons, depending on your level you may be entitled to a free e-book version ($10/month and up), paperback ($20/month and up) or hardcover ($50/month and up). For patrons at other levels you can get 20% off it and every other book in our online store using an exclusive discount code.

Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory

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Acknowledgements
Thanks to our generous patrons for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Ariel Gioia, and Shae.
Photo courtesy https://www.instagram.com/katyeross/
Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here.  Or stream it here.

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Transcript

WCH: Hi and welcome back to the Working Class History podcast. We’ve got something a bit different for you today, because I recently sat down with our friends at the Coffee with Comrades podcast to discuss our new book, Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance & Rebellion, which is available now in our online store at shop.workingclasshistory.com, link in the show notes.

So after the theme music what follows is their interview with me, which they then edited into an episode of their podcast, and they kindly shared the audio with us to release as an episode as well. So if you enjoy it, make sure to check out the Coffee with Comrades podcast and subscribe. Enjoy.

[Intro]

Pearson:

Welcome on Coffee With Comrades, buddy.

John:

Hi, thanks for having me. Great to be on your show.

Pearson:

Yeah, absolutely, bud. Can you tell the listeners, who may not be aware, a little bit about Working Class History? What was the genesis of the project? How did it come into being? Where are y’ all at now?

John:

In general terms, we’re a collective of people who are basically dedicated to researching and promoting people’s history, the history of social movements and struggles with the intention of helping educate and inspire our organising efforts and our struggles today. We got started basically posting ‘On this day in history’ anniversaries on social media because we thought that that might be a good way of helping radical history go a bit viral because people like anniversaries. They’re totally arbitrary but …

Pearson:

We’ve passed this arbitrary point around the sun. Yipee! [Laughter].

John:

No, exactly but at the same time, they do draw a connection with the present that might not otherwise be there; that this random thing happened 250 years ago but it was a day kind of like today. That was how we started by just doing social media posts and that was more viral than we anticipated. It worked out being a lot more popular than we thought and so we started developing in other areas. The main thing being that we started a podcast a couple of years ago to look into these stories in more detail and capture people’s experiences of people that took part in these movements wherever possible. Obviously, sometimes historians prefer stuff where there are no longer participants around. It’s where we can get into everything in a bit more detail.

Pearson:

That’s awesome.

John:

Yeah, and now we’ve just published our first book, Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance and Rebellion, as a way of putting something more into the real world and in a real physical thing – you know, stuff! Remember when there used to be stuff?

Pearson:

[Laughter]. It’s definitely different having it just be like a post online versus a thing like a book that’s sitting on your shelf or a podcast in your ears. It’s cool to hear about how the project has developed from being viral social media posts into a podcast delving into more depth and into the book. We’re going to talk about the book here in just a little bit and I’m really excited about it but before we get there, I did want to first ask you about how you got into radical politics yourself, John. It’s a question I find endlessly fascinating and I love asking guests about it when they come on the show because everybody has a little bit of a different story. I’m curious. How did you get onboarded to radical politics?

John:

I think it was a long process and I think it’s hard to tell when it started exactly. I come from a pretty apolitical family and there wasn’t really talk about politics in the home and I didn’t ever really think about it. As a kid, there were some things that I learned about that made me think there was something seriously wrong, particularly stuff to do with the destruction of the environment, climate change, the burning of fossil fuels and all that sort of thing. There was that on one side and then I remember one particular article that I read in the news as a kid. There had been a coffee glut because people had grown too much coffee. Coffee growers had been too effective and so that meant that the price of coffee had gone down too much and so they put millions of tons of coffee in a big pile and burned it all.

Pearson:

Jesus [laughter].

John:

I thought, ‘Now it’s great. Now the price of coffee has gone back up again. Obviously, that doesn’t make any rational sense.’ It was just little things like that. I remember being in geography class where we learned about the European food mountains and how there were all these mountains of additional food that was being grown but wasn’t being eaten, essentially, because way more was made than was eaten like now. I was a kid and I put my hand up. We’d also obviously learned about famines in these places and so many people being malnourished around the world. I remember putting my hand up and asking, ‘If we have all this extra food and there’s a whole load of people that don’t have enough food, why don’t we share the food with those people?’ The teacher said, ‘That would destroy the economy by giving them free food.’

Pearson:

It’s okay for people to starve because if they don’t, we’re going to crash the economy [laughter].

John:

Exactly! As a kid, with environmental destruction setting us on course for catastrophe, I just thought, ‘The world is stupid, essentially, so I’ll just go and live my life.’ But then reading about the criminal justice system and about mental health, I ended up meeting a group of socialists doing a street stall thing and they sold a magazine. I said, ‘I’ll have a look at that.’ The magazine kept talking about neoliberalism and I no fuckin’ clue. I didn’t know what neoliberalism was and it didn’t explain it anywhere. I got the idea that it was bad but I didn’t really know what it was. I put that to one side but then I started going to some demonstrations about different things, like against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and things like that. I picked up leaflets, read them and took things from there really. I think that’s where I encountered radical ideas and then started to think, ‘This actually makes sense.’ This tied in with the stuff that I thought already; that capitalism is the reason that we’re destroying the planet and not because everything is stupid. It’s because certain people are making huge amounts of money. People are making profits from the use of fossil fuels and things like food are grown for profit and not for human need. That’s the cause of these problems and that’s how we can change them. I think that’s where it came from. Although I know I’ve gone on for quite a bit now but I think I got into radical politics from an ideological perspective and also, at that time, there was the anti-capitalist movement. Yeah, one thing I forgot to mention, which I think is really important, was that it was the time of what was called either the anti-capitalist movement or the anti-globalisation movement in the early 2000s. It was all over the news and so that was something which I think helped radicalise a large number of people getting into that around that period of time. It was that and the Iraq War as well.

Pearson:

I was going to ask you, did you go to any of the anti-war protests during that period?

John:

Yeah, that was my first experience, apart from the anti-capitalist movement as such. Was it a social movement or was it not? It was more a series of big demonstrations rather than a real movement. The movement against the Iraq War was my first experience with a real mass social movement and I think that helped me learn a lot of lessons, especially in terms of what doesn’t work and what doesn’t achieve anything. Obviously, as part of that movement, in the UK where I was, there was the biggest demonstration ever of 1.5 million people but it was just completely ignored by the powers that be because we didn’t threaten anything. We didn’t disrupt anything. We just peacefully marched in a circle and waved some placards around saying, ‘Please don’t do this,’ and then they did and then everyone went home. Some people tried voting for different parties which didn’t change what happened either and so I think it was a good set of lessons on what not to do and what type of social movement doesn’t achieve anything. I then did some more reading and learning about social movements that did achieve things.

Pearson:

Yeah, it’s always interesting thinking about some of those early moments where you look back retroactively and you think, ‘Man, if I had known then what I know now, what would I have done differently?’ It’s always interesting looking back in retrospect and thinking through some of those larger demonstrations, or movement, or as you put it, maybe not totally a socially a movement with the anti-globalisation protest but a series of protests. I’m thinking about how they could have been more effective. I think it’s really easy to get caught in that mindset of the rose-coloured glasses where you look back and you think, ‘Man, I could have done this differently.’ I think one of the things that is really urgent is to instead of just looking back and thinking about what could be different, taking that critical lens and then pushing it to what we’re dealing with now and saying, ‘These are the lessons that I’ve learned. How can I actually begin to act upon them in a way that makes sense?’ I think that your project, as a whole, really is all about that. I really love what you said earlier, John, about the idea of Working Class History not just being something that is in the past but giving it a concrete connection that tethers it to the today with ‘On this day in history …’ I think that that really resonates with this overall project that y’all have been working on now for over half a decade. I wanted to turn now to talking about the book itself but in order to get a good idea of what Working Class History is as a book, as it’s distinct in many ways from the viral media posts and it’s distinct from the podcast, I thought I’d first have you read the passage for today. We’re recording today on December 12th and so I was wondering if you’d be so good as to read that passage to our listeners. I’m going to flip over to it myself.

John:

Sure. Unfortunately, December 12th is a bit of a depressing day.

Pearson:

 [Laughter]. It is. I realised that as soon as I wrote down this question for you and I thought, ‘Well, it still serves the purpose.’ [Laughter].

John:

Yeah, exactly. Is it worth pretending it’s a different day? [Laughter]. I appreciate your commitment to honour – we’re going to talk about stuff that’s depressing or bad but apologies …

Pearson:

It’s bleak y’all [laughter]. Buckle in [laughter].

John:

On 12th December 1948, the Batang Kali massacre took place in Malaya, now Malaysia, with British troops massacring 24 unarmed villagers as part of a campaign against the communist insurgency in the British imperial colony. None of the murderers was charged with any offences. Twenty-one years later, on 12th December 1969, after months of workers’ and students’ strikes, a bomb exploded at a bank in central Milan killing 16 people and wounding 88. It was initially blamed on the extra-parliamentary Left and it led to numerous arrests and the police murder of an anarchist rail worker, named Giuseppe Pinelli. It was later discovered that the bombing had been carried out by the far-right in concert with the state, as part of what would become known as the Strategy of Tension, a counter-insurgency campaign, and three fascists were eventually jailed for the attack in 2001.

Pearson:

Again, I know that these two things are really bleak [laughter] and I want to talk about that here in just a little bit because rest assured, dear listener, the book is not just filled with macabre, sad, despairing history. But before we get there, John, walk us through the book. How do y’all decide to format and approach the monumental task of trying to catalogue people’s history in a single tome?

John:

I think first, a bit of a disclaimer that we make no pretence at trying to catalogue or give a full account of people’s history through history. We’ve got an archive of historical events that we’ve written up over time. This archive has a few thousand stories in it. This book is a curated selection of stories from that archive. We chose two from each day of the year. Our archive isn’t comprehensive. It’s just got the stuff in that we have found out about or that we’ve read about and that then we’ve written up. Because of that and the type of content it is, there’s a bias in it, principally, about the kind of sources that we have access to and the sources that we’ve seen. They’re biased towards the topics that those people have written about in ways that we can access. Primarily, these are things like language. So stuff that’s written in English or French, Italian and Spanish, which are the languages that we can read between us, is disproportionately about either those countries or former colonies of those countries. Also, in almost all historical sources, they are biased towards the history of straight, white men. We’ve endeavoured to rectify that as much as possible and make the book as diverse as possible in terms of geography and countries, types of people, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and that sort of thing. It is an arbitrary selection of what we happen to think are the most interesting on a given day. We are not trying to be comprehensive or tell the whole story of everything, which would beyond the scope of a single tome, I believe [laughter]. In terms of the idea for this specific book and it being a curated selection of our archive, it basically came from our publishers, PM Press, who are an independent radical publisher based in the UK and US. They publish a lot of other great titles. They saw our social media accounts and they contacted us and suggested compiling some of our stuff into a book. This is very much the product of PM Press contacting us and making that happen and so we are grateful to them for that.

Pearson:

What’s interesting about Working Class History as a book is that it’s doing something very specific that y’all have done for the entire duration that Working Class History has been a thing. It’s just now put into a book which I think is a particular medium and affords readers a particular tool that they can use to educate one another or to educate themselves. You mentioned how you guys started to select things. Each day from history only has two different snippets from history. Just a moment ago, you talked a little bit about how you were intentional about trying to get a diverse cast of characters throughout history and give their stories throughout the text but was it ever challenging for y’all to determine which two segments should be included on a given day? If so, was there maybe one of the stories or one of the days that you guys particularly had to scratch your heads over and argue or say, ‘This is the one that has to be in here. Here are all the reasons why’?

John:

Yes, it was definitely very difficult to narrow down because picking stuff by the date it happened is an arbitrary way of picking stuff. We haven’t picked the most important. There are a lot of super important events that aren’t in the book at all. We’ve often tended to choose stuff that was maybe less well-known but the primary justification for choosing one thing or another was just generally to keep the content interesting and different and make it as representative as possible of different geographical areas and groups. It was very difficult to leave some things out. In terms of any specific dates, if you give me a second, I can have a quick look.

Pearson:

For the archive, do you guys have a shared Google? How do you do it? What does the repository look like for y’all?

John:

At the moment, it’s a Google spreadsheet – a very large Google spreadsheet [laughter].

Pearson:

I can imagine [laughter].

John:

Longer-term, our intention is to turn the whole archive into a big website with browsable timelines and maps of everything that’s in it. People will be able to look it on their smartphones and view stuff that happened near them.

Pearson:

That’s so fuckin’ cool.

John:

Yeah, I think when it’s done, it will. It’s been really fun doing the actual mapping because we may have to find out some really specific and exact spots where things happened. One that I found the other day that was quite fun was – I don’t know if you know about it but the Metropolitan Police in London was the first modern police force in the world. They were deeply unpopular in London, particularly in working-class communities. In the first couple of years of them existing, one of their officers was murdered by a member of the public, a bloke in  King’s Cross, in London. The jury determined that the murder of the police officer was justifiable homicide and that the officer had contributed to his own death, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘by being a dick’.

Pearson:

 [Laughter]. That’s incredible.

John:

They determined that even though the coroner locked the jury in the room to get them to change their verdict, they didn’t. That’s just one example. Nowadays, the police are everywhere and people think that they’re natural and people think that they’re to protect us but when they were first introduced, nobody had that opinion of them. In places like the UK and Western Europe, they were there to police working-class people’s lives and also, in particular, to police and break up their demonstrations without killing them; to beat them up rather than murdering them, which had the tendency to make more people angry. They just beat them up with sticks and then hoped that they would go away. Obviously, in the US, it’s a slightly different history. There was that side of things in the North and then in the South, they emerged from slave patrols. They were groups that would terrorise and harass Black Americans and catch escaped enslaved people. That’s just a small example. With the map, I just found the exact spot where that happened by looking at some of the original papers …

Pearson:

That’s so interesting.

John:

… and that is now in King’s Cross Station in London by a sandwich shop on the concourse.

Pearson:

 [Laughter]. That’s so cool.

John:

But … there we are. Sorry, that was a little aside. I was supposed to be trying to find stuff. I’ve got one example here. A lot of interesting stuff happened on 21st May. On that day, we had suffragettes in Scotland fighting for women’s right to vote. They planted a bomb which exploded at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. The suffragettes left a note there indicating that they were responsible. The same day, there was also a strike of workers at the port in Falmouth, Jamaica. There was a strike against Nazi occupation by actors in Norway. In 1945, the US government took over bituminous coal mines to try and break a miners’ strike. In 1979, there was also the White Night riots in San Francisco when LGBT+ people were furious at the murder of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the US. His murderer wasn’t convicted of murder, despite the fact that he was clearly a murderer and so there was a riot there in San Francisco. On just one day, a whole bunch of events and there’s some other stuff there too.

Pearson:

Yeah, I can only imagine how fuckin’ daunting that must have been to just say, ‘We can only choose two. Can we just change it? Can we have three?’ It’s an interesting framing of history by looking at days and specific events rather than narratives because so much of history, especially history that you read in books, is a narrative. This text specifically does something different which I think is really intriguing. I wanted to ask you about it because when I first got the text, I immediately started thumbing through it and looking at the different dates. I looked at my birthday. It struck me that this is like a really excellent tool for homeschooling. My partner homeschools our kids and we’ve made it a ritual to start reading the two passages from Working Class History aloud to them each morning at breakfast which has been really awesome. So I want to, first of all, say thanks for that but I also wanted to ask you, broadly, about what sort of applications y’all see this text serving as an educational tool, specifically because it is doing something really unique and different from a lot of other historical texts that you might find in your local library or sitting on the shelf of your local bookstore.

John:

First off, that’s so cool that you’ve found it useful to use in that way. That’s really cool and it really means a lot that it’s been helpful in your life like that. That’s amazing. I think a way it’s useful is that the teaching by educational establishments at school level of anything to do with social movements, resistance, the crimes of colonialism and capitalism and that sort of thing is pretty appalling. Certainly, in some areas, things have got better in some parts of the US. Some parts are now being taught at a school level but again, it’s generally pretty specific and it’s more about a US setting. I think this book could be helpful to a lot of people simply because its breadth is very wide. There’s a smattering of everything with loads of different kinds of social movements in loads of different countries. In the back, there are sources and references that people can go to and obviously verify the information that we’ve put there and also to start finding out more. We hope that people then will take them as a jumping-off point, basically, to explore other types of movements and things in certain parts of the world and also to explore different questions about our world and our society, where we came from and where we’re going. I think it’s kind of useful from that perspective as well. Some things that we’ve put in there, we just put in one story about one thing on a day but we hope that it raises questions and issues that are bigger than that, like the existence of the weekend and things which just seem relative natural. Most people still think that Monday to Friday is work time and then Saturday and Sunday, there’s a weekend. Obviously, that’s not anything which is natural. That’s a socially created construct and one which many people fought and died for. Everyone used to have to work seven days a week for 360 days a year plus for 10, 14, 15, 16 hours a day. It’s struggles by people that came before us who have fought for a shorter working day, fought for a shorter working week and things like that which, at some level, we take for granted today. Of course, they’re constantly under attack as well from employers now. It’s also something which gives a glimpse into things about our world now which seem natural and obvious but aren’t natural or obvious at all. They were created and they were contested. People fought over these things and people were killed over them. There’s almost nothing natural at all about human society. It’s all stuff that we’ve made, including, at the core of it, the fact that most of us have to work for a living for other people. [Laughter]. It seems like the most natural thing in the world. You wake up with the alarm clock and then you to work to earn money and then buy stuff. That’s not a natural state of affairs at all.

Pearson:

I mean it is interesting thinking about how the text invites people to become active in the learning process. It doesn’t give you everything. It gives you this small, tiny snippet and then it invites you to go and learn more. It’s funny too because I was looking through the book when I first got it and I realised that a significant chunk of it – maybe upwards of a third of it – is your sources. First of all, that’s impressive in and of itself. The text shows these two different things that happen every single day and it makes sense that you’d have a long list of sources but what’s interesting about it is that it does really give the reader the opportunity to either immerse themselves in a quick, little snippet of history and just think, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting. That’s cool,’ and then go about the rest of their day or it gives them the tools to say, ‘Here’s the first step that you can take to begin investigating this,’ and thinking through it and applying the lessons from it to your own life, to your own struggle, to your own community or whatever it might be. It’s a really fascinating approach that you have taken that I think is divergent in many ways. In some ways, it’s sort of like an anathema in certain sense. Correct me if I’m wrong because by no means am I a history scholar but my understanding is that a lot of historical scholarship tends towards those narratives rather than focusing on specific dates and looking at larger stories and struggles that contribute to major world events. So it’s really interesting that you guys take that different approach and do it in a way that doesn’t just fixate on the date but instead, really does invite people to investigate, to learn, to grow and to think critically about these events. I just wanted to commend y’all on that. It’s a really interesting approach to history telling.

John:

Thanks. In terms of what you say about historical scholarship, you may be totally right. We’re not people who are historical scholars, by any means. I know, personally, I haven’t got a degree, let alone a PhD or anything like that. In the UK, you start choosing subjects and specialising quite early. History was an optional subject and so I dropped it at the earliest age I could possibly drop it.

Pearson:

And here you are helping to contribute to the Working Class History coop [laughter]. Oh, it’s so strange what paths life leads us down.

John:

No, exactly. I think I dropped it either at 12 or 14. I can’t remember the age I could drop it but history in school was so tedious. The stuff that we learned about was very tedious and boring and it didn’t really seem to have anything to do with me. I think you may be right. I don’t really know much about academia but I know that, say, if people want to do a PhD, it has to be one thing which is really detailed and not something that someone has done before. Obviously, that will shape what comes out of it. That wasn’t really something that we have any connection with and our main thing was that we wanted to make learning about history fun, as interesting as possible, open to the widest possible audience and make it seem immediately relevant and understandable to anyone in a second, regardless of their level of education. We want to write in language which isn’t patronising but is straightforward and doesn’t use jargon words without explaining. It’s not about talking down to people but if you use long words or specialist terms – people are happy to use complex words but they have to know what they mean. Any kind of acronyms or terms needs to be explained the first time and that sort of thing. That’s our intention and hopefully, to some extent at least, we’ve been successful in that to a point.

Pearson:

Yeah, absolutely. You guys absolutely have. I might be asking you to spill a bit of the tea because before we jumped on the mic, you mentioned some of the hurdles that it took to actually put the book together. Initially, y’all put this book up for preorder on Kickstarter. As soon as I found out, I was like, ‘Hell yeah! I’m going to immediately back this project.’ I’m a bit of a sucker for a Kickstarter. I don’t know how closely you follow Coffee With Comrades, John, but I love table-top roleplaying games and talk about them all the time. There’s a hotbed of games that pop up on Kickstarter and so I am a bit of a sucker for Kickstarter. I’m curious because you guys have the book through PM Press, this publisher, and so I was curious about what made you guys decide to take the approach of using Kickstarter after being approached by PM Press. How did that work out? What was the process like? What were some of the hurdles, or pitfalls, or bureaucracy trying to actually take the germination of this really awesome idea and turn it into this physical artefact that people can now carry around, put on their bookshelves and use to educate their kids?

John:

Firstly, thank you so much for your support for backing it and helping make it happen … and everyone else who did as well. It is massively appreciated. Basically, crowdfunding initial publication of books is what our publisher, PM Press, has started doing recently with most of its titles, where that would be appropriate and where it’s first editions of something. That’s a model that they have adopted. Being a small, independent, radical publisher in the current climate, which is difficult [laughter] in a lot of ways …

Pearson:

That’s a massive understatement [laughter].

John:

Yeah, and especially for things like for print publishing as an industry. It’s a model which they’ve adopted. Just to be clear, this hasn’t been spelt out to me exactly by PM Press but my interpretation of it is it essentially mitigates any risk for them in publishing new works because they ensure that they cover the cost of printing before they do, so that whatever happens, they won’t make a loss by printing it. They cover the initial printing cost. It was their idea and it’s what they’re doing with their new works. It’s really fantastic because it does mean that small publishers that don’t have huge amounts of capital can get new works printed and can be a bit more daring. PM Press has always published daring stuff but it is a way of essentially minimising risk and meaning that you don’t need large amounts of capital at the beginning. You can open it up to people and if enough people believe in it, then it can happen. It was really great seeing the amount of response it got which was very surprising and heartwarming. It did create logistical difficulties because, obviously, it requires a large amount of communication from a large number of people. That’s something which is tricky to deal with in itself just because it takes time to read emails and messages from people and reply to them. Logistically, I think that was the only issue really. It’s just managing all the communication. Obviously, PM Press has done all of the shipping, fulfilment and the sending out everything. That was a considerable piece of work as well [laughter] but that wasn’t something that we at WCH had to worry about. I know that people in the PM warehouses in the UK and US worked extremely long hours and still are packing orders, printing labels, putting them on and getting them out. They’ve just done an absolutely – [laughter] if they worked for a capitalist employer, you’d say that they should probably organise and do something about having to work the kind of hours that they have [laughter]. They’ve really taken on the brunt of the most difficult stuff.

Pearson:

Shout out to PM Press for that. Just as an aside, have you heard about the podcast that catalogues Kickstarter’s unionisation efforts and the oral history podcast that goes through their unionisation effort?

John:

Yeah, because I know you said have I heard about their unionisation efforts and so I was going to mention the oral history podcast that’s been done and is really fantastic. We’ve been sharing that on Twitter and hopefully, we can pop a link to it in the show notes …

Pearson:

Absolutely.

John:

… for people because it’s a great thing to organise but a big problem with the history of working-class people is that a lot of our history isn’t written down. This isn’t written down but it’s spoken and recorded. It isn’t recorded and so it’s really great that that’s being done, so other workers can learn from their experiences. We had some contacts with current and former Kickstarter workers, for example, Clarissa Redwine, who has been doing the oral history podcast. We got some nice messages from other Kickstarter workers and so it was really fantastic that that was going on and they got union recognition while we were doing the Kickstarter campaign.

Pearson:

Obviously, people should absolutely check it out because it’s a really well-produced and well cut together podcast. I actually have some comrades who work for Kickstarter. I don’t want to name names but they were pretty crucial to the unionisation efforts and so shout out to them if they’re listening to this edition of Coffee With Comrades or Working Class History.

John:

Yeah, definitely. Kickstarter also kindly designated our book as a ‘Project We Love’ and so obviously, I don’t know who at Kickstarter was responsible for that decision but whoever the person or people it was, we’re very grateful to that, so thank you.

Pearson:

Yeah, that’s beautiful. John, I was struck by the fact that a lot of the working-class history y’all include in this book is pretty fuckin’ bleak [laughter]. We kind of mentioned this at the top of the episode but I wanted to say that I really do appreciate the fact that alongside victories and successful struggles, y’all also chose to include the heartbreak and the setback. I was curious as to whether this was an intentional and active choice that you made with the book or was it something that was simply a by-product of the very real history of working-class people and the trauma and turmoil that we have endured in order to make the world suck a little bit less.

John:

Yeah, I think firstly, I want to apologise for that, in a way, because it would be great to just be inspiring and uplifting but unfortunately, that’s just not how everything always is. I think one day, we definitely want to do a book which is just good news but that’s not this one. Basically, this book takes a look at all the types of content that we have in our archive, including the happy stuff and the absolutely horrific and awful stuff. Apologies about that. It is partly deliberate because part of our mission is not just to inspire our organising efforts and learn from the tactics of past struggles but it’s also a broader mission to show the reality of capitalism, and colonialism, and racism, and sexism, and fascism, and Nazism and all types of oppression and exploitation and just how dark our world often is but we also show why that is. We do show some of that stuff. Especially in former or current colonial powers, like the UK or US, a lot of people don’t know a lot about their own country’s brutal history either in colonies, in places like the UK, or in the US, within the country itself. Taking a couple of examples, in the UK, a big part of national identity is people thinking, ‘Oh yeah, we fought the Nazis. We saved Jewish people from the concentration camps,’ but hardly anyone knows that the Holocaust happening was not a single part of the justification for Britain entering World War Two.

Pearson:

Of course.

John:

Britain could not have cared less. At the same time, Britain was rounding up Jewish people and putting them in concentration camps during the war themselves and deporting some Jewish people to other camps elsewhere in the empire, like Canada or Australia, and making them do forced labour and that sort of thing. Straight after the war, the great, democratic Britain, again, set up networks of concentration camps in colonies like Malaysia and Kenya, where Britain, again, threw hundreds of thousands of people into concentration camps, brutally murdered and tortured tens of thousands of people in the most disgusting and horrific ways imaginable. That’s not really part of our sense of national identity and understanding. A lot of people simply don’t know about that sort of thing. That sort of thing is partly deliberate and also, I think it’s partly a result of the sources which are available to us. Particularly violent or terrible events, like massacres or things where people have died, they’re more likely to have been reported at the time. There’s more likely to be documentation, like official reports, inquests, court cases and just general paperwork about them which historians can access. That’s one bit. The final thing, which is something that we struggle with and I think it’s a difficult thing with storytelling, is that almost any story with people’s history and even the ones that are really great and inspiring, depending on how much of the story you tell, can end up being depressing in the end anyway.

Pearson:

[Laughter]. That’s so true. Oh my god! [Laughter]. That’s so true. Oh god, that’s a bleak statement [laughter].

John:

No, I know. That’s partly a choice because there are lots of examples of places, like the US auto factories where there was lots of amazing organisation done and really inspiring mass militant struggles that achieved big improvement in conditions and work-life and really transformed a lot of workers’ everyday lives. That’s obviously a good story but then you can fast forward a bit further in the future and then the reaction to that is a lot of those plants were closed down and started up instead in other places where there were military dictatorships in Brazil. There, if people organised, it would be easier to jail or kill them and so some of those plants got shut down. It kind of depends on where you stop or when you stop telling the story [laughter].

Pearson:

I think, in many ways, John, it speaks to the cyclical nature of struggle. Angela Davis has that axiom that ‘freedom is a constant struggle’ and that no matter how much we fight to break the forces of oppression and capital, there are insidious ways that they keep coming back. I’ve talked about this before on Coffee With Comrades that, in many ways, it’s not like the most despairing thing in the world. In many ways, it’s a beautiful thing because it means that we’re always working towards greater and greater degrees of emancipation and liberation. We’re constantly becoming more and more free at rooting out more and more oppression. It can seem bleak and it can seem nihilistic but I see it almost this sort of Sisyphean struggle and there’s this sort of existential fight against the absurdity of hierarchy and of oppression. In many ways, I think it speaks to the indelible heart of humankind’s struggle against oppressive forces that exist in the world and our collective effort to try and get free. In many ways, that’s a really cogent thing and something that we shouldn’t run away from and something that we should wrestle with in a very real way but genuinely celebrate as something that is worthy of remarking upon. It’s not something that we should hide from. As soon as we reach the top of one mountain, there’s another mountain beyond it. If freedom really is a constant struggle and if the horizon of our collective liberation is constantly receding into the distance, then that’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a really encouraging thing because it means that we’re reaching ever greater heights of freedom and of voluntary association, and of spontaneity and creativity. It allows us to become more self-actualised than we were before, if that makes sense.

John:

Yeah, I agree and also I think an attitude that we come across a lot, say, on our social media pages when we talk about something that happened in the past – recently, we posted something about a strike of banana workers in Colombia, where up to 2,000 strikers were massacred by the army and other things like the Ludlow Massacre in the US, where troops and militia machine-gunned and murdered dozens of strikers. People comment things like, ‘Nothing changes.’ It’s not that nothing changes. Obviously, bad things still happen but the things that happen today are not mirrors of the past. They’re kind of echoes. Terrible things do happen but because of the struggles and sacrifices people have made in the past, a lot of the stuff that we highlight, like the Ludlow Massacre in the States – police do horrible things now in demonstrations, like beat and violently injure people or shoot them, especially in the recent Black Lives Matter protests where a large number of people have been permanently disabled and maimed by violent police actions, which is really terrible. However, things like the mass machine-gunning of dozens of workers, their wives and children hasn’t happened recently because of these struggles that happened in the past. In other countries, again, these military massacres of hundreds or sometimes thousands of striking workers is not something which has happened more recently. Yes, bad things do happen but because of the struggles that have happened in the past – it’s not like authorities wouldn’t want to do things like that [laughter]. They would happily come out and kill whoever if it would make their lives easier but they know that, depending on where they are, they can’t get away with that kind of behaviour as much as they were able to in the past. It’s not worth nothing. That means something. I think it’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve got to go but also we do need to think about how far we have come because some things are worse than ever now but other things have got better and that is because of those struggles in the past.

Pearson:

No, I think that’s well said. Whether consciously or not, I think people often too literally interpret Marx’s axiom that ‘history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.’ That’s not a literal statement. I think the term you use of ‘echoes’ is a much better and much more appropriate term for these kinds of patterns that we see emerge in history. For better or worse, human beings are specially equipped at pattern recognition and sometimes, it can feel really heavy to just see these patterns and recognise that these same struggles are still playing out. But I think it really does depend on how we contextualise them, like you just said, and how we see them progressing forward and to also recognise that history is not some linear thing that is always progressing. There is no moral arc of the universe. It is something that is much more dynamic, fluid, can change at the drop of a hat and doesn’t always get better. In fact, as you put it [laughter], there are things that are much worse today than there were in decades and centuries past. I do think that it’s worthy of thinking critically about history as more than just some static progression or some sort of nihilistic regression. It’s much more dynamic and emergent than either of those pictures. One of the things that I always wanted to ask y’all at Working Class History is if there is an appreciable difference between people’s history (to use Howard Zinn’s term) and working-class history. I’ve heard you guys use those terms, more or less, interchangeably and I was curious if there was something that distinguishes working-class history from people’s history or if they’re just synonymous.

John:

Howard Zinn, and his work, have been a huge influence on us, especially his work, People’s History of the United States. We actually did think about calling ourselves People’s History when we were starting out. I think we’re a bit torn on whether that would have been the best move or not. I think maybe it would have been more popular [laughter] if we had but we chose the name that we did for political reasons and I think they were two-fold. On the one hand, we wanted to really be clear to get across the class nature of capitalism and that capitalism is dependent on the existence of a class of people who’ve been dispossessed of a means of survival by ourselves. Land, factories and all that, we don’t own and so we have to work for someone else for a living. That happened in the Western European countries by enclosures of common land and then that was spread around the globe by colonialism. That creates this class of people who are then forced to work for others. We don’t have property that we can live off and so we are then forced to work for a wage for people who do own property. As workers, we are paid less than the value that we produce and so that additional value that we create, the difference between the value we create and the wages that we’re paid, that’s how the wealthy make profits and that’s how they accumulate capital. That’s how companies grow and that’s how economies grow. That’s with our life activity that’s been taken from us. We’re all kind of exploited by that system and we all, therefore, share a common interest in getting rid of that system; that system which exploits all of us. We thought that was really important to get across. On the flip side of that, by the type of content that we talk about and the type of stories that we highlight, we really wanted to stress the interconnectedness or intersectionality of all other types of oppression and exploitation with class. This is really something which needs to be challenged. I’ll just take a couple of examples. On our social media pages, because we’re called Working Class History – it does seem to be happening less and less, which I think is a positive sign, but it still happens all the time that if we post something, say, about LGBT+ history, almost always some white bloke will comment, ‘This is LGBT history. This isn’t working-class history.’ They’re totally ignoring the fact that things like homophobia or transphobia are always going to be worse for working-class and poor people than wealthy people. For example, if you’re so rich that you don’t have to work for someone else for a living, then, say, employers being able to discriminate against LGBT people isn’t of direct personal concern for you. All those struggles are related. Similarly, when we post stuff about colonialism and indigenous struggles, sometimes, again, your white socialist bloke comments, ‘This is indigenous history and not working-class history.’ These are generally lefty, socialist people or anarchists and they’re not racist or anything like that but, at the same time, no one ever says anything about that when we talk about enclosures in England, which was how people were dispossessed of the land. They don’t say, ‘That’s not related to working-class history,’ because that’s obviously how the working class got created. Whereas, colonialism overseas and the genocide of Native Americans was very much about the same thing; destroying common ownership, seizing land and resources and then either forcing people to work for a wage or wiping them out. Clearly, they’re all part of the same story. Clearly, there’s a deep interrelatedness there. If we post something about the suffragettes in the UK fighting for the right to vote, again, the guy comes on and says, ‘This isn’t relevant for working-class history because the suffragettes supported World War One.’ But most trade unions in Europe supported World War One as well but they don’t say that talking about unions at the same time isn’t related to working-class history because of that. We thought it was really important to get across both of those things. In terms of whether there’s a difference to people’s history, I think we kind of use the terms pretty much interchangeably. One thing that might be a specific difference is that although we never saw Howard Zinn do this, a number of other outlets that talk about people’s history may celebrate people from different oppressed groups who have achieved some sort of personal position of power within capitalist or existing power structures, like the first women politicians in a particular area or something like that. That’s not something that our project does because, for us, the key thing is conditions for the majority of working-class people and not particular individuals who’ve managed to do well against all the odds. An example of this is Margaret Thatcher becoming the first woman prime minister in the UK.

Pearson:

[Laughter]. Thinking of that like it’s people’s history is repugnant to me [laughter]. I was thinking you were going to go with something like Ruth Bader Ginsburg or someone like that but … [laughter] oh my god, saying Margaret Thatcher is a champion of people’s history is making my skin crawl.

John:

Exactly, because her being in that position didn’t do anything to help other women and working-class women, in particular. Quite the opposite, in many cases. For working-class women, particularly in places like mining communities, many of their lives were completely destroyed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative policies. That’s an extreme example but an example nonetheless. Some of the examples we’ve got in the book look at this question. In 1977, in Atlanta, there was a strike of Black sanitation workers in the city. They went on strike for a very modest pay increase and the mayor was the first Black mayor of Atlanta, who had been elected with widespread support from the civil rights’ movement and the Black Power movement. He sacked all the sanitation workers in the city and he did this with the support of civil rights’ leaders, like Martin Luther King Snr and not Martin Luther King Jnr (to be noted) who, of course, was previously assassinated while supporting a strike of Black sanitation workers in Memphis. Some of the examples in the book look at this question of representation within capitalist and colonialist power structures and if that necessarily translates to material improvements for working-class people.

Pearson:

You would think that, ostensibly, something like Working Class History would shy away from an intersectional look at different sorts of oppressions. Obviously, anyone who’s followed Working Class History knows that that’s not the case but it’s interesting that part of the thought process that went into choosing that name was intentionally trying to highlight the class connections that these intersectional oppressions highlight and demarcate amongst various types of identities and various types of oppression.

John:

I think we can’t underestimate how important this question is because another thing that we try to challenge, and there are examples of this in the book, is the times when white working-class people have undermined their own class unity by siding with their racial identity as opposed to their class identity and how that’s been disastrous for the working-class movement in different places. That’s a really important thing to challenge and it’s something which continually rears its head on the Left when wannabe populists on the Left, in the UK, start talking about slogans like ‘British jobs for British workers’. In the US, there are obviously similar things with people talking about ‘America First’ and even figures on the Left talking about the threat that migrant workers pose to ‘American workers’ and their conditions, which is a completely upside way of looking at what is happening and is extremely dangerous; not just because it’s morally repugnant, completely counterproductive for working-class people and it just encourages us to fight amongst ourselves instead of organising together against those who are really exploiting and screwing us over. We try and highlight examples where that has occurred and how completely disastrous that has been.

Pearson:

That’s awesome. Well, before we part ways, John, I did want to ask you, real quick, did your favourite bit of Working Class History end up in the pages of the book?

John:

There are so many little snippets of radical history bouncing around in my brain that I can’t really identify any particular favourites because I can’t keep track of them all at one time [laughter] but certainly, there are some things that I really love in there, obviously. I don’t know about you but I really hate Nazis [laughter]. I fuckin’ hate Nazis.

Pearson:

I don’t think that’s a controversial opinion on this podcast.

John:

I’m sorry if this is controversial but it might not be PC to say that in these times with these snowflakes but I don’t care. I fucking hate Nazis. There are some good stories about Nazis getting fucked over and I think one of my favourites is one from North Carolina in 1958 where the Ku Klux Klan were very unhappy with a group of Native Americans called the Lumbee. They were, in particular, very unhappy with Lumbee women having sexual relationships with white men and so they started trying to organise to stop this horrific race-mixing. They started trying to intimidate Lumbee women by doing things like cross burnings and then they called for a mass rally which they said would end race mixing once and for all. They declared that thousands of Klansmen would be there. In the end, not that many of them actually showed up but 500 Lumbee people did show up, led by World War Two veterans armed with shotguns, shovels and picks.

Pearson:

Fuck, yeah!

John:

They attacked the Nazis and opened fire on them. The Klan tried to shoot back but they didn’t hit anyone and they were forced to flee in abject defeat and had their Klan flags and banners nicked off them. They had to flee off into the night with their tails between their legs. The Lumbee anti-Klan protestors then just had a bit of a celebration and that became an annual celebration every year after that, celebrating the rout of the Klan. That’s a particular favourite bit of mine. There’s a lot of cool stuff that we weren’t able to fit in and so hopefully, we can put it in a future book. I suppose there’s one fun little thing that we put in. We put something in touching on it but we were not able to go into that much detail. It’s something that I’ve been reading and thinking quite a lot about recently which are struggles over tea breaks at work, especially in the UK. It’s a stereotype about British people drinking tea but it’s also true. I’m British, for anyone who doesn’t know my accent. A lot of people in the US think I’m Australian or whatever but I’m not. Personally, I fucking hate tea…

Pearson:

[Laughter]. Tell me how you really feel, John [laughter].

John:

… but a lot of Brits do love their tea. The British workers having tea breaks was something which was won after many years of struggles. There were strikes over it and people would stop work and drink their tea. There are some really funny examples of how business owners from other countries would come and they’d encounter that and just think, ‘What the hell is going on?’ One example I always think is really funny is George Lucas doing the Star Wars movies which were shot in the UK. He couldn’t believe the fact that they were shooting Star Wars, they were in the middle of a scene and Harrison Ford is doing this, that and the other. It doesn’t matter if it’s mid-shot, at whenever time it was – I think around 11am and then in the mid-afternoon – the crew just puts down their stuff and goes and has their tea [laughter]. Regardless of what’s happening, it’s tea break time. That’s it!

Pearson:

That’s awesome [laughter].

John:

Stuff down. Harrison Ford can just sit there and wait [laughter], they’ll have their tea and then they’ll come back and resume afterwards. When it’s the end of the day, that’s it – boom! – and they’re gone. People like George Lucas obviously just have to put up with that. Obviously, that was in the ’70s and then part of the capitalist counteroffensive after the ’70s was a real concerted attack on things like tea breaks. There were lots of struggles where employers would try and take the tea breaks away and then workers would try to defend them either by going on strike or by deliberately taking the tea breaks against policy and making them really long and stuff like that. There’s a mention of tea breaks in there but that’s also a personal favourite aspect of things. Stopping work to have a tea or a coffee is just a really normal thing, depending on the type of work that you do. I’ve mostly done office jobs which have particular privileges like the ability, most of the time, to do things like that relatively freely which you don’t get if you’re working in an Amazon warehouse or if you’re working outside. It’s fun seeing all these little things and that there’s history and struggle in these tiny, little aspects of life.

Pearson:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think that tea and coffee breaks are absolutely something we can support here on Coffee With Comrades [laughter]. John, thank you so much for this lovely conversation, my friend. I’m really glad that we could sit down and pick your brain. Thanks for reaching out and I’m glad we could collaborate and have this conversation about the book. Before we part ways, could you let listeners know where they can go to pick up a copy of Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance and Rebellion and can you also let folks know where they can go to support Working Class History’s educational efforts online?

John:

Yeah, and first, just to say again, thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be working together and on your podcast, which is great. It’s great that you’re doing it and providing this space for these types of conversations. I know it’s a lot of work, even though it’s just chatting and then putting the audio out. I know how much work goes into that [laughter], so it’s really impressive. Especially being weekly is absolutely incredible. Our podcast isn’t close to that, so that is a real testament to your dedication. It’s been great. Yeah, if people want to get the book, it’s in our online store at shop.workingclasshistory.com. You can also check out our podcast which is called Working Class History and probably wherever you’re listening to this one, it will be on that or on our website at workingclasshistory.com. We’ve got a Patreon at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. If you want little daily reminders of people’s history in your face and through your phone or whatever, you can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr … we haven’t got a Snapchat yet [laughter]. I don’t think we’ll be doing a Snapchat [laughter], so don’t hold your breath for that [laughter]. You can check all those out. I think that’s it.

Pearson:

Fuck, yeah. Awesome. Seriously, thanks again. This has been super fun. Solidarity, my friend.

John:

Yeah, thanks and sorry if I’ve rambled on a bit too much.

Pearson:

No, not at all [laughter]. That’s the glory of these conversations is that the rambling is usually the best parts.

[Outro music]

So that’s it for this episode, hope you enjoyed it, and if that made you want to check out our book, which we hope it did, just a reminder that it’s available in our online store at shop.workingclasshistory.com, link in the show notes.

In terms of the book right now, there are still copies available from our first print run. Paperback copies are available in the US, but have nearly sold out internationally, but you can still get one of the last copies available. Hardback copies have now sold out in the US, but you can preorder one and get it sent out as soon as the new print run is done, and as we are putting this podcast together there are still a couple of hardback copies left outside the US which you can get. There is also an e-book if you prefer that format.

this episode was edited by Coffee with Comrades, so again do check them out and subscribe, link in the show notes. It was then lightly edited by us.

Thanks as always to our patreon supporters who make our work possible, with special thanks to Conner Canatsey and Ariel Gioia. If you can, please consider supporting our work on patreon, where depending on your level you can access exclusive bonus episodes, get early access to episodes and get free gifts, like the WCH book, posters, stickers and the like. If you can’t, absolutely no worries, please just give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts, or tell your friends about us!

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