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Socialist historian and novelist John Tully’s well-researched history of rubber shines a spotlight on a material most of us take for granted. The result is an accessible, well-written and absorbing account of rubber’s blood-soaked history, from the plunder of the Amazon and the Congo basin to slave labour in Nazi work camps. At first glance, a 360-page book on a single commodity might put off a potential reader. However it soon becomes clear why rubber is such a worthy subject. An essential commodity in the development of industrial capitalism, the drive to acquire rubber was central to European imperialism – with its catastrophic effects for indigenous populations.
Later, rubber manufacture in ‘rubber’s home town’, the US city of Akron, became a site of workers’ struggles. Rubber giants such as Goodyear and Firestone were some of the world’s first transnational corporations.
The book is brought to life by Tully’s humanist approach. By drawing on primary sources such as the poems and songs of the ‘coolies’ who tapped rubber on plantations in Indochina he makes vivid the violent reality of such colonial regimes. He achieves the same personalisation of the perpetrators: from the quiet scientist who oversaw the death camps at Monowitz, to the British upper-class plantation assistants whose days mixed brutality, boredom and alcoholism in the heat of the jungle. The chapters on workers’ attempts to unionise in Akron have a more typical academic tone and it’s only here that, although still interesting, parts become slightly bogged down in acronyms.
Needless to say, this book is not an uplifting read. The tales of the inspirational campaigners who had the forward thinking to challenge racism and colonialism – such as Roger Casement, who documented British atrocities inflicted on Indian rubber workers in the Congo – provide the only brief interludes of hope
in a story characterised by shocking cruelty.
The whole book serves to corroborate Tully’s assertion in the epilogue that: ‘There is no room for morality or social responsibility in the corporate boardrooms.’ This statement on the inhumanity of such capitalist accumulation, and the prioritisation of resources over human life, is a powerful point still relevant today.
Marienna Pope-Weidemann explains why decades of occupation and oppression have led some people to call Israel an apartheid state.
International Women's Day is set to be marked by strikes from "paid work in offices and factories, or unpaid domestic work in homes, communities and bedrooms."
Laurie Laybourn-Langton writes that measuring the economy is political - and economic measurement dominates politics.
David Scott argues that our prison system represents a human rights disaster, and reformist solutions can't tackle the root problems.
A deeper engagement with culture can strengthen our democracy, taking political projects beyond electoral impact and festival memes into a whole new world of radical, lasting change.
Ruth Tanner writes that revelations about Oxfam's behaviour in Haiti are shocking, but not surprising.
The actions of Oxfam officials are horrendous - but gutting foreign aid funding just puts more people at risk, writes Daniel Gibson.
Dr Laura Basu explains that the media allowed politicians to re-write history, erasing the true causes of the economic crisis.
Outsourced cleaners are on the front lines of the battle for workers' rights. By Emiliano Mellino
Power to our beloved comrade and friend, Mehmet Aksoy, a hero of Kurdistan and the internationalist struggles against capitalism, colonialism and fascism. This tribute was authored by Mehmet’s family and friends.
For All, By All
The latest issue of Red Pepper asks - how do we invite, support and nurture greater public participation so that our cultural capabilities are empowered beyond the crushing logic of market fundamentalism?
‘We are hungry in three languages’: The forgotten promise of the Bosnian Spring
Ruth Tanner looks back at a wave of protests which swept through Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014.
It’s time for a cultural renewal of the left
Andrew Dolan writes that we need to integrate art, music, films and poetry into our movement, creating spaces where political ideas are given further room to breathe.
Jeremy Hunt is poised to flog the last of the NHS
Peter Roderick sounds the alarm on an 'attack on the fundamental principles of the NHS'.
Viva Siva, 1923-2018
A. Sivanandan, who died this week, was a hugely important figure in the politics of race and class. As part of our tributes, Red Pepper is republishing this 2009 profile of him by Arun Kundnani
Sivanandan: When memory forgets a giant
Daniel Renwick calls for the whole movement to discover and remember the vital work of A. Sivanandan, who died this week
A master-work of graphic satire
American Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley’s comic commentary on America, the US Jewish diaspora and Israel is nothing if not near the knuckle, Richard Kuper writes