Ellis Goldberg, Tinker, Tailor and Textile Worker: Class and Politics in Egypt, 1930-1952 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986).
The critique of modernization theory that began in the late 1960s had an especially significant impact on a new generation of Western scholars who rejected the prevailing academic focus on political elites to the exclusion of other political forces. Not only were elites largely studied in isolation from the masses they dominated, but the masses themselves were not attributed any role in the political process. Today, this younger generation of scholars, working in the political economy paradigm, is beginning to publish the results of its research on the role of the masses in politics.
Ellis Goldberg’s book is one such study. Although he asserts that his is “not really a book about Egypt,” Goldberg does in fact provide a wealth of new information about the structure and politics of the working class in five sectors of the Egyptian economy: traditional trades and artisan production, sugar, tobacco, oil and textiles. He demonstrates that the Egyptian working class was far from monolithic; rather, each group developed organizations and ideological orientations to cope with the conditions particular to its own work environment. Goldberg raises a number of key questions. First, why did workers in different industrial sectors express different ideological preferences? Why were certain sectors more militant than others? How did the form of labor organization adopted by the workers affect both their ideology and behavior? Finally, how did conditions peculiar to a particular industry influence worker attitudes towards collective, political action directed against capital and the state?
Artisans and tradesmen tended to be the least class-conscious sector of the working class, reflecting instead a corporatist view of capital-labor relations. Their beliefs were strongly influenced by the guilds to which they often belonged, the small size of the production unit in which they worked, and their limited expectations about upward mobility. Sugar plant workers — peasants who, due to seasonal work in the plant, had not broken their ties to the surrounding villages — established a labor organization and ideology informed by a distinctly Islamic idiom.
Tobacco and oil workers, whom Goldberg calls “labor aristocrats,” were somewhat more militant. Tobacco workers were pressured by mechanization of cigarette factories. As they moved from craftsmen to assembly line workers, their sense of class consciousness increased. Oil worker militancy seems to have been very much a nationalist response to foreign control over Egyptian petroleum production. Goldberg argues, not entirely convincingly, that “cultural differences” between Egyptian oil workers and foreign owners influenced major strikes during the late 1940s despite the relatively good wages and working conditions in the petroleum industry.
Goldberg’s study is at its best in its analysis of the textile workers, which provides some of the sharpest insights into Egyptian working class organization and politics. For example, workers in the smaller plants of Shubra, near Cairo, were most radical and most prone to adopt a Marxian ideology. Goldberg attributes this to two key factors.
First, firms in Shubra were privately owned and relatively small. In contrast, the large, centralized Misr firms in al-Mahalla al-Kubra were critical to the national economy. While successive governments helped management repress worker radicalism in Mahalla, Shubra firms could not depend upon the state to help discipline workers. Whereas blacklists were circulated in Mahalla, lack of coordination among owners in Shubra prevented systematic purging of radical workers. Second, textile manufacturing required workers to learn distinct skills and entailed an erratic and unstable market. The fact that skilled workers frequently faced the possibility of being replaced by new trainees or losing their jobs to slack demand made them more prone to radical politics than fellow workers in other sectors of the economy. Third, Shubra was a newly created suburb of Cairo. Workers here were cut off from village and family relationships and thus had fewer ties to “tradition” that might temper their radicalism.
Goldberg’s study makes a number of important contributions. First and foremost, it suggests that the working class must be viewed as internally differentiated. In many Third World societies where capitalist relations of production are still in an embryonic stage, it is problematic to speak of the working class. In this sense, Tinker, Tailor is an important corrective to some leftist Arab and Western analysis that tends to romanticize the historical role of the working class in the Arab world. In what often seems a rush to locate revolutionary agency, such romanticization only serves to reify and trivialize the political impact of workers and the conditions under which they must struggle.
Goldberg also highlights the complex interplay of factors that influenced working-class politics. He convincingly argues that workers are not radicalized simply by the fact of entering the production process. The social characteristics of workers (have they broken their peasant ties — do they still maintain a craft or artisan mentality?), the size of the firm and its relationship to the state (what are the possibilities for disciplining workers and repressing radical labor organizations?), and the nature of the production process (what types of skills does it require? to what extent do various skills segment workers?) are all key variables in explaining worker radicalism or lack of it. An example of the complexity of working-class politics can be seen in the frequent ability of Muslim Brothers to supplant communists in leading the textile workers following World War II. Rather than a reflection of worker ideology, this process can be better explained by the Brothers’ close ties to the Egyptian state and its cooperation in repressing communists within the labor movement.
Goldberg could have more sharply focused the broader theoretical context of his work. In the introduction, he seems to adopt a rational choice approach. In discussing the state, he argues for a Weberian approach. In the conclusion, class analysis dominates the discussion. Theoretical eclecticism is not necessarily a shortcoming. Still, this study demonstrates that considerable conceptual work still remains for a fuller comprehension of the political impact of workers in Third World societies.
Ellis Goldberg has made a major contribution to our understanding of what motivates workers to become actively involved in politics and the obstacles that often prevent them from achieving their ends. The author has laid out the key issues that need to be addressed. All future research of working-class politics, not only in the Arab world but in the Third World in general, will significantly benefit from this study.