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  • Forging Political Identity: Silk and Metal Workers in Lyon, France 1900-1939
  • George J. Sheridan Jr.
Forging Political Identity: Silk and Metal Workers in Lyon, France 1900-1939. By Keith Mann (New York, Berghahn Books, 2010) 264 pp. $ 95.00

Forging Political Identity uses silk workers and metal workers of Lyons, France, in the period of the Second Industrial Revolution, to explain political identity as an outcome of opportunities presented by a broad political context and of transformations in industrial relations centered on the notion of skill. This work of historical sociology is especially attentive to the role of technical factors in reshaping the circumstances in which the mobilization of workers trended in either of two competing political directions—"class independent, antinationalist" or "class collaboration, nationalist" (33). Revolutionary syndicalist militancy before WorldWar I and support for the French Communist Party after the war embodied the former, whereas alliances with left-leaning bourgeois parties and affiliation with reformist socialism marked the latter. The altered "political opportunity structure" of the anti-fascist Popular Front led the erstwhile rival tendencies to rally around a common banner of citizen and worker, celebrating patriotic republicanism and reaping the gain of historic social legislation (217-220). The Communist Party was the main [End Page 461] beneficiary, emerging as a mass party with broad appeal to silk and metal workers otherwise differentiated by occupational specialty and gender.

The strength of this study is the attention given to skill as an explanatory factor of political identity and worker mobilization, and as a problem of empirical specification and analysis. Skill categories and their transformation as a result of capital-intensive technologies, productivity-enhancing rationalization of work process, and nontechnological means to control labor—such as new payment schemes—structure the core argument about differential political identities among workers in the two industries of Lyons. De-skilling of the traditional craft system, and a corresponding attack on control of labor recruitment through apprenticeship, occurred over time but at a different pace and intensity for different sectors and occupational specialties in both industries. This difference preserves a skilled-worker element with an established tradition of organization and allegiance to syndicalism and class-independent politics. Not only did this group resist and therefore slow down or partially subvert the de-skilling movement, but it also facilitated the shift of politics and labor action of the increasing numbers of semiskilled silk and metal workers toward a more militant agenda after 1933. Skilled workers, albeit a minority, provided "the seasoned and highly organized labor militants" to galvanize the newly recruited, organizationally inexperienced, and more readily controlled semiskilled majority that, in the past, favored reformist politics and negotiated settlement of labor issues (207). The close empirical assessment of levels of skill and paths of change in skill composition buttresses and enriches this finely nuanced argument. The use of sources to read behind the vague or ambiguous occupational classifications in government records is a model for studies of skill in other historical contexts.

The argument works best with regard to the metal workers, for whom all of the elements of change and differentiation occurred within the city. For the silk workers, the argument applies readily to the dyeing and finishing sectors, both concentrated in the city, but less so for weaving, in which the crucial shift to semiskilled work occurred primarily in the surrounding region, despite mechanization touching some parts of urban production. Social historians would also appreciate a more textured elaboration of neighborhoods, historically key contributors to worker identity in Lyons, along with shop-floor relations and party and union politics. Attention to gender throughout the study and articulation of the French Communist Party's strategic use of factory cells and the press to remain close to the shop-floor concerns of Lyons' workers are among the notable merits of this laudable work. [End Page 462]

George J. Sheridan Jr.
University of Oregon


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