The history of rubber is a history of sweated labour, environmental destruction, and repeated atrocities. Tully’s account not only provides insight into these horrors but particular moments of modern social history around the world.

John Tully, The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber (Monthly Review Press 2011), 480pp.

What is a commodity? On the face of it, simply an object. Marx pointed out however that it is really ‘a very queer thing indeed, full of metaphysical subtleties and theological whimsies’. A commodity like rubber on the one hand contains all sorts of useful, non-reducible physical properties, and on the other, within a capitalist economy, is just the equivalent of a given quantity of money; it contains an abstract exchange value of a definite amount. Moreover, the individual commodity contains within itself all the natural and social processes which brought it into being as a discrete product, from the growth, in this case, of the rubber-producing tree, to its harvesting, transport and manufacture into commercial rubber.

In Marx’s words from Capital, which Tully quotes towards the beginning and at the end of this book, the commodity ‘mirrors for men the social character of their own labour, mirrors it as an objective character attaching to the labour products themselves, mirrors it as a social natural property of these things’ (quoted at pp.14, 20 and 359). The import of Marx’s words is demonstrated and explored in this thorough and detailed history of the rubber industry’s development across the world from the nineteenth century through to the present.

The history of rubber can be made to serve as a kind of history of capitalism over two centuries. Not only is the detail fascinating in itself, but seeing developments through the perspective of rubber allows all sorts of connections to be revealed that the standard frames of bourgeois history hide. The history of rubber is a history of sweated labour, environmental destruction, and repeated atrocities. Some of this, such as the horrors of the Belgian Congo, may be at least superficially well known, but Tully is able to unpack matters to show a deeper significance within the context of the rubber industry. In standard accounts, passages of horror and cruelty can appear as detached examples of the failings of human nature. They can even be passed over as simply unfortunate episodes in the development of human societies towards more modern and prosperous forms (read liberal and western). These comforting evasions are revealed for the illusions they are in the face of a complete account of this one industry. The extremes of injustice and atrocity are not unfortunate exceptions in the history of capitalism, but recur almost as regularly as the trade cycle.

Rubber is of course ubiquitous; as essential for road transport as oil, it is used in a vast array of forms, making it apparently essential to industrial civilisation. Tellingly, ‘by 1939, crude rubber was, in dollar value, the largest single import into the United States’ (p.18). Conditions in factories producing rubber products, dreadful and lethal in the nineteenth century, are still gruesome: the author himself had occasion to work in one some twenty years ago in Australia (pp.13-14). Apart from the familiar litany of child labour and inhuman hours in the nineteenth-century factories, there were the immediate physical effects. The chemicals plus the conditions of work caused workers to choke up ‘blue-coloured froth’, and caused a reaction known as ‘naphtha jag’. One worker reported that no sooner than emerging from the factory ‘into the fresh air than he has commenced staggering and reeling as if under the influence of strong spirits’ (pp.51-2). Yet before crude rubber is manufactured into an end product, it has itself to be produced, and here the history of genocide begins.

The demand for rubber by the late nineteenth century led to a rubber-taping boom in the Amazon basin which involved forced labour on a huge scale, and cruelties of astonishing brutality, not to mention the rapid and careless destruction of the trees which supplied the natural rubber. In all of this, British capital played a large role. To this day in Peru there are an estimated fifteen groups of indigenous people in the rainforest who avoid all contact with the outside world being ‘descendants of tribes contacted over 100 years ago, during the rubber boom, who fled the prospect of enslavement and decimation by new diseases’ (p.85). 

This colonialist terror was soon to be repeated, more famously, in the Belgian Congo, where it is now estimated that at least ten million died. Many of these died from disease, but the conditions of forced labour clearly lay the groundwork for the epidemics. Naturally there is an argument whether the worst examples, such as the hacking-off of children’s hands in the pursuit of higher quantities of rubber through terror, were ‘isolated aberrations or were they part of a pattern of systemic abuse?’ (p.113). Tully presents the evidence well in favour of the later (a longer account of the brutalisation of the Congo can be found in Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, 1999).

As uncompromising as Tully’s account is here, there is a problem with his conceptualisation of these events which undermines his larger picture of the nature of capitalism and the rubber industry. The issue concerns the presentation of labour conditions and practices in the Amazon and the Congo as amounting to ‘a primitive mode of extraction’, as if what was happening was actually something different and separate from the standard run of capitalism as such. Indeed in other contexts Tully refers to the ‘normal laws of capitalist economics’ (p.288), and seems to assume that where there is not free labour and a pure free market, this represents a departure from capitalism. Nonetheless, if only because capitalism forms a social totality, it is necessary to see the ubiquitous ‘exceptions’ to capitalist ‘normality’ as natural parts of the system.

Capitalism, in the right circumstances, does create ‘primitive’ conditions of labour, and the semi-slavery of the Amazon rubber boom, for example, is not therefore an issue of ‘the transition from pre-capitalist modes of production’ as some would have it (p.73). Tully does not explore the particulars of this debate in relation to the Amazon, and leaves the analysis open for discussion, but there is potential in some of his comments to allow western capitalism off the hook (p.127). In any case it needs to be recognised that the horrors of the natural rubber trade were made possible precisely by capitalism. Only because natural rubber could be treated as a capitalist commodity with a definite exchange value could extraction of that particular natural resource be concentrated in one region. The brutality was only viable because capitalists could extract the surplus value, while destroying natural and human resources in that region, and transfer their expanded capital elsewhere in the world to begin the accumulation cycle over again.

It would be wrong, however, to leave the impression that parts of the book are a mere catalogue of cruelties, as Tully documents the history of resistance and opposition as well. The atrocities of the wild rubber industry attracted notable international criticism, in particular from socialists, and not least from the Irish anti-imperialist Sir Roger Casement, later executed for his role in the Dublin uprising. Casement did much to expose British complicity in the crimes in Peru. The imperialist dimension of the rubber industry did not cease with the decline of the wild rubber sector, but only shifted form as plantations took the lead in supplying raw rubber. The British plantations in Malaya became key sites for resistance by the Malayan Communist Party, and African plantations also saw serious revolts. The American United Rubber Workers Union accused the rubber magnate Harvey Firestone of being a ‘virtual dictator’ of Liberia, and exposed the exploitative relationship imposed by his company.

Tully tracks the development of capitalism through the rubber industry from the days of small firms and laissez-faire capitalism in the nineteenth century, through to the era of monopoly capitalism in the twentieth century. Rubber, as a central material for industrial production, describes the trajectory of economic history very well. Yet this is a social history, and so there is an extensive history of the struggles to unionise the industry, centred on the American ‘rubber city’ of Akron, Ohio, but with comparative observations on other countries. One of the most important ‘heroic failures’ of the Wobblies (the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World) occurred in the 1913 strike in Akron. The problems faced by workers trying to unionise were severe, not least in the degree of violence sponsored by the rubber bosses, revealing again the harsh reality of capitalist normality.

The two world wars were the spur to the development of artificial rubber, desperately needed to supplement the supply of natural rubber for imperialist states in conflict, not least Germany during World War II, which had very little access to tropical sources of raw rubber. However, the American war machine also required additional supplies, and in both countries extensive state intervention and involvement in the industry was found to be necessary. Yet neither in the liberal United States nor in Nazi Germany did this state intervention impede the corporations’ drive for accumulation. Indeed, state action was the precondition for it. This is another case where there are in fact no ‘normal laws of capitalist economics’, as Tully puts it (p.288), that are being infringed. Bourgeois states have always acted to support accumulation in whatever way was appropriate for the time.

While the deep interdependence of corporations and the state is not conventionally controversial in the context of the United States, the role IG Farben, for example, played in relation to the Nazi state has attracted a good deal more scrutiny and opprobrium. This is for the very good reason that the death camp attached to Auschwitz was part of a much larger complex devoted to the development and production of artificial rubber, created and sustained by an intentionally murderous system of slave labour. In this place the annihilation of Jews, and other unwelcome members of society, was part and parcel of a more general war industry.

The fact that executives of IG Farben did not share Hitler’s pathological anti-Semitism did not stop them from exploring the uses of slave labour as early as 1935 (pp.291-2), but the point is not the moral failings of corporate leaders and managers. More important is the ease and naturalness with which advanced industry dovetailed with the exterminationist agenda of the Nazis. For all the special status of the Nazi genocide, and Tully is unsparing and informative in his account here, putting it into the longer historical context of the rubber industry’s regular atrocities, reveals the ‘normal’ tendencies of capitalism, rather than a unique and incomparable evil. Capitalism reduces everything to an exchangeable commodity, and human labour becomes just such a quantity of disposable labour power, making not just the genocides of the Amazon or the Congo, but also of Nazi Germany, systemically possible.  

Despite all the technical efforts driven by imperialist warfare across the twentieth century, artificial rubber has never attained the quality of natural rubber, as well as being very costly to the environment. Rubber plantations therefore continue in operation, not least in Liberia, where the American Firestone company still operates, and where plantation workers live in predictably appalling conditions (p.349). While the rubber industry in Akron has declined to the point of near extinction, the corporations themselves have merely shifted operations to ‘low-wage, non-unionized China’ (pp.352-4).

The Devil’s Milk is much more than a grim compendium of the horrors of the rubber industry. While there are indeed many harrowing passages, there is immense interest in both the technical developments, on which Tully is clear and fascinating, as well as insight into a number of particular moments of modern social history across the world. The examination of each of these societies in close proximity, where they are not normally found in conventional accounts, afford a sense of the depth as well as the totality of social relations under capitalism.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).