John tully’s new book on rubber, The Devil’s Milk, is part of a relatively recent trend: tracing the history surrounding a commodity. However, Tully’s work also falls very much into an “old school” Marxist tradition. Tully consistently relies on Marx and Engels in drawing out his broader analysis of the role of rubber in the development of capitalism. He often cites well-known statements by Marx as the final word on key issues. He also draws heavily on Franz Fanon in some sections on the impact of colonialism.
Tully’s clear theoretical position is mostly an asset, providing a clear analytical framework for the book. Moreover, an unabashedly Marxist approach is well suited to a study of the brutal working conditions and extreme exploitation of labour involved in both the extraction of rubber and the manufacturing of rubber-based goods. Indeed, Tully succeeds in [End Page 302] making his key argument, that Marx’s description of capital as emerging into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” is particularly applicable to the history of rubber. Some sections of the book – particularly those on mass deaths of workers harvesting wild rubber in the Putamayo in South America, the brutality of rubber extraction in the Congo under Belgium’s King Leopold, and the Nazis’ creation of a rubber factory in Auschwitz – are full of potent and horrific stories.
Tully actually states that his “book is written from a socialist-humanist and ecological perspective.” (15, emphasis added) But as the subtitle A Social History of Rubber suggests, the socialist-humanism predominates, and the ecological analysis, while present at times, remains relatively underdeveloped. Tully’s traditional approach may be one cause of this disparity: exploring the ecological issues in greater depth may have required some more recent theoretical frameworks than those Tully seems comfortable using.
The book seeks to be accessible to general readers while also engaging scholarly specialists. Tully does not try to build a comprehensive study covering all aspects of the history of rubber. Instead he tries to strike a balance between sketching broad trends in the history and focusing on particular settings where rubber-related industries took off.
Tully strikes this balance well in much of the book, describing the experiences of those who worked with rubber and putting these stories into historical context. Indeed, Tully’s ability to create compelling accounts of the experiences of workers in different settings is the greatest strength of the book. He does an especially admirable job in the chapters about workers in the tire factories in Akron (Chapters 9–11), and prisoners put to work by the Nazis, for many of whom “the only way out [was] up the chimney.” (Chapter 19) We also learn about some of the rubber barons; Tully’s portrayals of the business leaders that emerged in Akron – such as Goodyear President Paul Litchfield – make for absorbing reading (Chapter 9). To be sure, some stories are fresher than others. The atrocities committed in the Congo Free State (Chapter 7) have been the subject of a number of works, including one recent bestseller in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998). Tully’s account is engaging, but does not seem to offer a lot that will be new to some readers.
There are times when Tully does not achieve the balance between providing context and focusing on key episodes in his story. Part 4, exploring the development of plantation hevea (which became the main source of natural rubber in the early 20th century), is notably uneven. Tully gets bogged down in details, especially in the Part’s first two chapters (12–13) about the industry and the lives of planters and managers. This in turn makes Part 4 unnecessarily long at almost 100 pages. Part 5, exploring developments during World War II, includes three powerful chapters on the creation of the Nazis’ rubber industry, followed by two chapters that attempt to survey developments in the whole of the Allied world. Not surprisingly, these latter chapters seemed rushed and...