1886 was a momentous year in United States labor history. The great eight-hours movement had swept across the nation, and the Knights of Labor were in full flower. Working class politicial parties were forming, and the American Federation of Labor had been founded. In that year, Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, and her partner, Edward Aveling, toured the United States, giving lectures and meeting comrades as guests of the Socialist Labor Party. They then returned to England and wrote about their trip. The first book under review is a timely reprint of the original. In addition to the reprint, it includes a useful introduction by Paul Le Blanc (including a fine annotated labor history bibliography) and interesting essays by historian Lisa Frank on Eleanor Marx and by writer and labor activist Kim Moody on aspects of working class life the two visitors failed to see.
Marx and Aveling were remarkably optimistic about the prospects for radicalism among US workers. No doubt, the remarkable events of the time would have led any sympathetic observer to be similarly hopeful. As they take pains to show, through careful reading of various government reports, from which they quote copiously and effectively, workers were terribly exploited and class polarization was on the rise. In a manner reminiscent of the famous chapter on “The Working Day” in Capital, they describe the abysmally low wages, soul-destroying hours, horrific working conditions, unsanitary and unsafe housing, and the awful circumstances of working women and children. Yet, working people were rapidly becoming conscious of their class position and organizing to improve their lives and even abolish the wage system. Workers and their allies had begun hundreds of labor newspapers and journals, formed unions, built and joined labor political parties, and constructed cooperatives. Labor was on the move, and Marx and Aveling foresaw a bright future. They were impressed with the freshness and militance of the US working class. Even the cowboy they interviewed described his life and work in class conscious terms, completely debunking the myth of the romantic Wild West.
With more than one hundred years of hindsight, we can see that optimism was not completely warranted in 1886. As Le Blanc and Moody point out in their companion essays, The Knights of Labor did not deserve as negative nor the AFL as positive an evaluation as Marx and Aveling gave them. The Knights, for example, embraced black workers, while the AFL mired itself in racism from the beginning. Moody notes that Marx and Aveling show limited understanding of the debilitating effects of racism on the labor movement and the constant immigration that continually divided and disorganized the working class. They also failed to grasp the trajectory of capital as it systematically destroyed craft work and degraded labor through the theory and tactics of Taylorism.
Marx and Aveling bring to life some of the country’s working class heroes, notably Captain William Black, Civil War fighter and lawyer for the Haymarket martyrs. Black and many others are now forgotten, as are, in fact, most of the momentous events of the period. And this fact of forgetting our past, or better, never knowing it in the first place, is something that struck me as I read this book. It seems that every progressive social movement in the United States must pretty much start from scratch because there is so little collective memory.
This is probably due to the demise of working class culture in the mass consumer society that developed in the decades after the Second World War. This development was not entirely fortuitous. The intentional destruction of the left wing of the labor movement played a critical role. A vital left culture, including an understanding and memorialization of the struggles of the past, helps to create a collective memory essential to any movement. When the right succeeds in defeating the left, it not only destroys human beings, it dismantles the organizations (for example, newspapers and magazines, social clubs, summer camps, and athletic teams) essential to the maintenance of that memory. Then, when circumstances once again favor the organization of the working class, new movements have to recreate what previous generations had already done.
Can anything be done to keep history alive? One thing radicals can do is write articles and books for working people. Millions of words are written about workers, but not many are written for them, that is, written in a style and with a passion attractive to the rank-and-file. One reason for this is that most of the scholars of the working class are not themselves engaged with workers—as teachers, as organizers, even as neighbors. Progressive academics often do not think of themselves as workers, despite the continuing transformation of their schools into ordinary workplaces. Some radical professors at Yale were actually opposed to the unionization of their own graduate students. All of this means that what they write is too much aimed at other academics rather than the people who must be the agents of radical social transformation.
One hopeful sign is the growing number of radical scholars who, themselves, come from the working class. Paul Le Blanc is one such person. Paul grew up in a working class family in a working class community, and he has sought through his political work and his scholarship to connect with workers, to think of himself as a worker, and to write for workers. He has achieved a fine success in his new book, A Short History of the US Working Class. In just 133 pages of narrative, it has thoroughly distilled more than three hundred years of US labor history and one hundred years of labor history scholarship, and done it in a manner and style that will engage the workers who actually make the history. Le Blanc takes us on a compelling and exciting whirlwind tour of labor unions and workers’ movements in the United States: the European conquest and theft of native lands, slavery and its class-dividing legacy, revolution against British colonialism, the birth of the working class, the Civil War or second American revolution, the industrial revolution, labor revolts, the American Federation of Labor, the formation of radical labor organizations and political parties (the IWW, the Socialist Party, various communist parties), the Great Depression and the CIO, the Second World War and its conservative effects upon the labor movement, the Cold War and the destruction of labor’s left wing, postwar prosperity, economic stagnation, the civil rights and women’s movements, and recent attempts to reorganize and rebuild the labor movement.
The key theme of Le Blanc’s book is that the working class majority makes our history. Workers erect our buildings, grow our food, build our roads, mine our coal, teach our children, heal our sick, and in doing so create our society. Modern history, then, must begin with the workers. If we begin with workers, we see right away that it is their struggle for a better world that generates social change. What would our sacred notions of freedom and democracy mean, for example, without the arduous and often dangerous efforts of ordinary working men and women? Would we have had a second American revolution and a civil rights movement without the struggle of slaves and then of black laborers? Would we have had unions and all of the good things they bring without the heroism of workers? Workers have, of course, often been divided in many ways, but when they have managed to overcome these divisions, our society has come closest to realizing the ideals political leaders always talk about but seldom defend.
Like Marx and Aveling, Le Blanc displays a radical optimism throughout his book, despite his knowledge that the US labor movement has had far more failures than successes. He does not shirk from an examination of labor’s many defeats, some of which were self-inflicted, in order to find out what we might learn from them to build a stronger movement in the future. He finds that successes often could not be sustained because of the unwillingness of white workers to support people of color and men to show common cause with women, as well as the willingness of labor’s leaders to wage war on working class radicals, typically the very people who were trying to build a radically democratic and “rainbow” labor movement. He suggests that only such a movement can challenge what now seems to be the unassailable power of capital.
Today’s labor movement, despite recent positive changes, is farremoved from the one Paul Le Blanc hopes for; it is still clotted with an entrenched, undemocratic, and occasionally corrupt bureaucracy. The author is hopeful that the new leaders in the AFL-CIO, pushed and prodded by the ranks below, will at least open up enough space for the rest of us to forge a “Third American Revolution,” an upheaval aimed at “ending the power of wealthy corporations and consolidating a radically democratic social order.” Perhaps the protests against the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund are the opening salvos in a renewed class war.
In addition to his compact text, the author has included five valuable resources for his readers: an excellent bibliographic essay, including works of fiction, art, and photography; an extensive annotated listing of films and videos (some of which are referred to in the text); a useful glossary of terms; a time line of US history; and a chronology of US labor history.
Paul Le Blanc is what might be called an “organic labor intellectual.” Labor historian and theoretician of the labor movement, Selig Perlman, condemned the role of intellectuals in the US labor movement. They were outsiders, guilty of leading workers astray in pursuit of utopian (that is, communist) visions. Perlman did not believe that people from the working class who became intellectuals would be taken in by the likes of Marx and Engels. Labor’s real, “home-grown” or “organic” intellectuals, were pragmatic, accepting of capitalism and content to win for workers as much as they could gain within its framework. But Perlman was profoundly wrong. Le Blanc and many others before him were “home-grown,” but they were radical too. And, in alliance with radical “outsiders,” they were critical to the building of the labor movement. The truth is that the heart of every labor movement beats with a radical pulse, and while the pragmatists (like John L. Lewis or the young Samuel Gompers) sometimes achieved much, they almost always did so in periods of radical ferment. Organic working-class radicals like Peter McGuire, Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Leo Huberman, and A. Philip Randolph helped push the US labor movement to the left, and it was this that allowed the pragmatists to be successful. It is from the lives and works of such radicals that workers can come to know who they are and what they must do. Paul Le Blanc’s book is a good teacher; it is our duty to see to it that the right students read it.