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Marxist historian looks at labor pains of Britain's working class

Workers of Labor, by Eric Hobsbawm. New York: Pantheon Books. 369 pp. $19.95 cloth, $11.95 paper. Perhaps nothing illustrates so well the equivocal position of the working class in the United Kingdom as the recent coal-miners strike. It was characterized by almost unprecedented violence and divisiveness, with more than one-third of the miners continuing to work and with those on strike adopting a strategy based more on the memory of earlier strengths and former glories than on present realities.

There are legitimate questions about the intentions of the leader of the union, Arthur Scargill, and about the violence of his supporters. But there was something very moving about the sight of the defeated strikers parading through their village streets with bands playing and banners aloft, aware that a way of life that had existed for generations in the coal-mining town was coming to an end and that the future seemed to hold little comfort or cheer.

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The working class, long regarded as the vehicle for reformation and revolution, has in recent years become divided, embittered, and hopeless about its future in postindustrial Britain. Eric Hobsbawm, an eminent English Marxist historian, has given us in ``Workers'' a close analysis of the working class's position, particularly in Britain, though there are frequent references to Europe and the United States. He discusses the composition of the working class, its periods of influence and subsequent decline, its impact on British politics, and its relationship to the subject of human rights generally.

His sympathies are clearly with the working class, and the essays are tinged with a nostalgia for that golden period in the mid-19th century, when, as Hobsbawm sees it, the skilled artisan took pride in his work, in his association with his peers, and in his ability to educate himself.

By World War I the working class had begun to fracture into disparate groups -- white-collar workers, semi-skilled factory workers, miners, artisans, craftsmen, and at the bottom the unskilled. Workers became more preoccupied with wages and what their money could buy than with the quality of their production. Revolutionary fervor, never very strong, was appeased by legislation that improved working and social conditions.

Hobsbawm acknowledges that ``few who lead substantial and politically effective parties of the left in the Western world any longer believe in victory by frontal offensive, whether peaceful or not. . . . A cautious and complex strategy may eventually transform capitalism into socialism, but it is fair to say that, at present, nobody has a clear idea how, let alone when.''

At times Hobsbawm sounds like an anthropologist as he describes the ``icons'' and ``rituals'' of labor. Certain rituals and celebrations like those of May Day and St. Crispin's Day were integral to the movement, as was the choice of the bare-chested laborer painted on so many walls and banners, because ``for most workers, whatever their skill, the criterion of belonging to their class was precisely the performance of manual, physical labor. The instincts of genuine labor movements were ouvrieriste: a distrust of those who did not get their hands dirty.''

This tendency to see the working class as some isolated entity with no connection of blood or association to the rest of their countrymen is a weakness in this collection. It is a tenet, of course, dearly held by Marxists, but even in a class-bound Britain there have been countervailing movements within the classes, and indeed many members of the working class have historically voted conservative.

Some essays in this book are more for an academic audience, but one that general readers and collectors of trivia will find most interesting is his discussion of the British working-class culture. The great professional soccer matches in Britain owe their origin directly to professional baseball in the United States. Similarly, he accounts for the neighborhood fish-and-chips shop and the flat-peaked cap -- the uniform of the British worker at leisure, as immortalized in the Andy Capp cartoon strip.

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Like so many Marxist writers, Hobsbawm sacrifices exact description to jargon, clarity to turgidness, and grace to an implacable pursuit of argument. But ``Workers'' is a serious and substantial book requiring concentrated reading, and it goes some way to explaining the class antipathies in Britain and the loss of a sense of purpose in the chroniclers of the working class.

Judith Chettle reviews books for the Monitor from her home in Washington, D.C.

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