Republic of Labor

Republic of Labor

At its most radical, labor republicanism envisioned not only freedom from wage slavery but cooperative self-organization. It also challenged women’s domination in the home—something Alex Gourevitch’s new history misses.

U.S. Marshalls attempt to start a train in St. Louis during the great Southwest railroad strike of 1886. The strike’s failure contributed to the dissolution of the Knights of Labor. (Wikimedia Commons)

From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century
by Alex Gourevitch
Cambridge University Press, 2014, 220 pp.


In October 2010, workers at a McDonald’s restaurant in Canton, Ohio opened their pay envelopes to find political leaflets, printed on the McDonald’s letterhead, warning about the upcoming midterm election:

If the right people are elected we will be able to continue with raises and benefits at or above our present levels. If others are elected we will not.

The leaflet named three Republican candidates—John Kasich for governor, Rob Portman for Senate, and Jim Renacci for Congress—who would help McDonald’s “business grow in the future.”

The purpose was clear: to intimidate voters exercising their right of franchise by highlighting their economic dependency as workers. A spokesman for McDonald’s U.S.A. apologized for the leaflet campaign, explaining that the tactic did not reflect company policy. A week later, Kasich, Portman, and Renacci were elected.

Nationwide, more than half the families of fast food workers, whose pay hovers near the federal minimum wage, depend on public assistance programs to survive. Food stamps, earned income tax credit, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) offer a lifeline to employees like those at McDonald’s, according to Fast Food, Poverty Wages, a 2013 report produced by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Low wages and lack of benefits “come at a public cost”—about $7 billion a year, which is what is required to fund these aid programs.

The public cost of economic dependency is nothing new in the American polity. As Thomas Jefferson wrote of the urban working class just after the American Revolution, “dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” His concern was not with poor relief but with the loss of freedom rooted in property ownership. “The mobs of great cities,” he observed, “add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” The problem was the decay of republican government due to the declension of a citizenry lacking economic independence and therefore subject to political coercion.

Today, workers earning poverty wages are at risk of the unfreedom feared by the founders: equal pursuit of happiness seems barely possible for makers of Happy Meals scraping together a living. The McDonald’s pay envelope stuffed with a political message made all too explicit the abuse of economic power. More common are captive audience meetings behind closed doors, where employers speak of topics ranging from union representation to religious belief to political partisanship. Surveillance of employee speech on social media has become widespread as well. Such efforts in private domination—whether overt or subtle—attest to the tension between relations of dependency and formal rights of equal citizenship that has long troubled theorists of republican freedom and civic virtue in the United States.

That tension is the centerpiece of Alex Gourevitch’s history of American political thought, From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century. Gourevitch explores a dissident republican tradition that developed in the century after the American Revolution, amid the contest over chattel slavery and the ascendance of industrial capitalism—a time when freedom was universalized, ex-slaves became equal citizens under the rule of law, and the wage system of labor prevailed throughout the country. And in this history he discovers a usable past for critics of modern forms of economic domination that erode public life. “Who is subject to whose will. Here is where we find continuity with the past,” he argues. “Freedom to form political views, use the bathroom, engage in leisure activities, determine what counts as a safe environment . . . are some of the many issues that explain why economic domination is such a concern.” What persists in the workplace is a “basic structural problem of unequal power relations.”

A principle aim of Gourevitch’s intellectual history of republicanism is transforming our contemporary political imagination by bringing to light conceptual innovations that challenged dominant assumptions about self-government and wealth creation. “We recover lost ways of thinking so as to denaturalize the present,” Gourevitch writes. By “labor republicanism” he means the ways of thinking invented by workingmen who denounced wage labor as an unjust relation of dependency inconsistent with popular sovereignty. Central in their rethinking was the displacement of the ideal of the independent, individual property owner with the vision of a cooperative commonwealth in which all would possess “a roughly equal measure of control over their daily activity.” This vision remains “profoundly compelling,” finds Gourevitch, not least because it entails “democratic faith in the capacities of all workers.”

In recovering lost ways of thinking about freedom, Gourevitch is indebted to a school of “neo-republican” scholars who trace republican thought back from the age of the American Revolution through the Renaissance to ancient Greece and Rome. His view of “non-domination” as the core ideal of republicanism—as opposed to liberalism’s preoccupation with “non-interference”—owes especially to the arguments advanced by the political theorist Philip Pettit in Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (1999). Likewise, he follows Pettit’s lead in revealing how theory “transcends its origins.” Gourevitch also draws deeply on the work of the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, who points out in Liberty before Liberalism (1998) that studying the past offers a method for opposing a “hegemonal account” of the present.

The originality of Gourevitch’s work begins with his focus on transformation in the nineteenth century and on the ideas of workingmen. He disputes the view that “nothing conceptually meaningful” emerged in republican theory after the American Revolution. “The nineteenth century was a period of intense self-reflection for the republican tradition,” he argues, “because of internal class challenges to some of its deepest assumptions.” His project departs from scholarship that traces how the classical republicanism of Aristotle and Cicero was embraced by Renaissance civic humanists such as Machiavelli, and how it was transmitted to English republicans such as John Milton, and to American rebels such as Jefferson. Rather than letting “the curtain fall on the drama of modern republicanism” at the end of the eighteenth century, Gourevitch reveals how the drama continued. He shows how new ways of thinking about political economy arose in the nineteenth century, other than the development of liberalism and Marxism, and how the “needs of poor workers” came to take center stage in the recasting of republicanism.

Precisely because Gourevitch’s account is not of the creation of the American republic but of the ideological conflict fueled by the rise of industrial capitalism and the downfall of slavery, his protagonists are working people. As Americans fought an “intellectually productive battle” over freedom and bondage, he writes, “artisans and wage-laborers seized the language of republican liberty and civic virtue,” exposing essential “paradoxes and puzzles” and developing new “conceptual possibilities.” It was they who created a republican tradition that both condemned the traffic in free labor as “wage-slavery” and vindicated the alternative of a cooperative commonwealth.

The Knights of Labor—a broadly inclusive union founded after the Civil War—played a central role in rethinking republicanism so that it would address the domination involved in a modern market economy. At its peak in 1886 the Knights represented about a million workers, opening its ranks to all members of the producing classes, from railroad workers to ex-slaves on southern plantations to housewives. The Knights talked of an “irresistible conflict” between wage work and the republican system of government in deploring subjection to the will of another under ostensibly voluntary labor contracts. Consider an entry on “Slavery” that appeared in the Knights’ newspaper, the Journal of United Labor, in 1882:

The weight of chains, number of stripes, hardness of labor, and other effects of a master’s cruelty, may make one servitude more miserable than another; but he is a slave who serves the gentlest man in the world, as well as he who serves the worst; and he does serve him if he must obey his commands and depend upon his will.

Notably, the entry reproduced a passage from a seminal republican treatise of the late eighteenth century, Algernon Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government. The Knights’ theorists—men such as the machinist, Terence Powderly, or the labor editor, George McNeill—do not appear in the annals of modern political thought. Nor do earlier labor republicans: for example, a Philadelphia shoemaker, William Heighton, who orated in 1828 that the “sacred sounds of LIBERTY and EQUALITY” had no “actual existence” in workshops or on plantations. Their role in the making of the American working-class has been documented by generations of historians. Brilliantly, Gourevitch establishes their place in the remaking of republican thought.

At its most radical, labor republicanism moved beyond a critique of wage dependence to culminate in a program of cooperative self-organization. The Knights of Labor organized thousands of cooperatives across the nation, a plan designed to eliminate, as Gourevitch explains, “relations of mastery and subjection in economic life.” Workplace activity as well as speech acts made for labor’s reinterpretation of the republican tradition.

Gourevitch makes a convincing case for the lasting value of labor republicanism in speaking to “experiences of domination in the modern economy.” It not only countered a new creed of “laissez-faire republicanism” that associated the wage contract with liberty, but responded to a fundamental paradox: the opposition between egalitarianism and a tradition of republican liberty that presupposed the subjection of a dependent laboring class. Gourevitch terms this a “paradox of slavery and freedom.” The paradox originated in ancient city-states, where the liberty of citizens rested on a foundation of slavery. And it figured in the design of American self-government, most notably in the three-fifths clause of the Constitution. “Independence for a particular class, dependence for another class,” Gourevitch observes, “logically conflicts with the universalism of the commitment to human equality.” Slave emancipation forced a reckoning with the republican paradox, enshrining the ideal of freedom as a universal condition, and making a virtue of wage labor. Meanwhile, however, class conflict in workplaces across the nation exposed the wrongs of what labor republicans decried as “wage-slavery” while envisioning economic independence based on cooperative production. Gourevitch examines the labor question of the nineteenth century as a “struggle over the fate of the republican tradition itself.” His approach powerfully enables “a new, more global appreciation” of labor republicanism as a theory that reshaped the “analytics of servitude” and illustrated how “liberty could be universalized in industrial conditions.”

As reinvented by workingmen, then, republicanism transcended its origins in slave society to become a theory of freedom that defined non-domination as a universal condition while unmasking the coercions of the market and proposing cooperative industry to end the dependence involved in labor contracts. It was labor republicans, Gourevitch claims, who reconceived the opposition between servility and citizenship, “developing an analysis of the structural and personal forms of domination specific to permanent wage-labor.” Their way of thinking was “no mere American exception” at a peculiar moment but formed a turning point “in modern political thought.”

The innovations of labor republicanism spoke to activity in the public sphere as well as to the logic of universalism. From “cooperative thinking” flowed new ideas about political agency and proprietorship, Gourevitch shows. Labor republicans transformed civic virtue founded on individual ownership of landed property into “a politics of solidarity, in which those who suffered from servitude were also expected to be the agents of emancipation”: redeeming the republican polity must be the work of “the dependent classes themselves.” Notably, too, creating the cooperative commonwealth was a project of universal freedom that extended not just to workingmen, whether born enslaved or free, but to women—even though labor republican ideas of equality presumed sex difference. The Knights of Labor organized women as members of a dependent working class—recognizing the value of their paid and unpaid labor—but also accepted the dependence of wives at home. Labor republicanism tended toward the “masculine and fraternal,” taking for granted “women’s natural difference,” Gourevitch writes. Still, women joined Knights assemblies and formed cooperatives—they were seamstresses and domestic servants, factory operatives and teachers and housewives—and the Knights advocated both women’s suffrage and equal pay for equal work. Its members included the feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Together the vision of freedom as non-domination and the practical commitment to equality defined labor republicanism as a distinctive theory of politics, according to Gourevitch. Although defeated by the end of the nineteenth century, the effort to “universalize economic independence was, for a time, a serious project with real bite,” he writes, “not just some defensive attempt to defend the craft privileges of white male workers.” His account is not meant to review the contest between liberalism and republicanism, or to return to the debate on liberty as negative or positive—as entailing the absence of restraint or enabling the realization of ends. Instead he is interested in the theoretical payoff of the “struggle for equality,” arguing that the “key intellectual puzzle revolves around how to universalize republican liberty” while finding answers in “historical voices.”

This makes it all the more puzzling that Gourevitch is so insightful about the republican paradox of slavery and freedom but so blind to the perplexities of the marriage bond and to feminist ways of thinking about universalizing liberty as non-domination. His own analysis of republicanism does not fully transcend its origins. Curiously, it reiterates the division between public and private, the civic sphere and the household, the speech of the citizenry and the silence of the servile—the Aristotelian distinction between the polis and the oikos, between men and women. Gourevitch approaches the problem of republican liberty as the province of men alone. It is as if marriage were not a relation of economic mastery and subjection, both a labor contract and a sex contract. It is as if the equal right to freedom and the wrong of dependence, in the era of slave emancipation, were debated by workingmen and by statesmen but never by women. Where the intersection between the labor question and the woman question does enter into the account, Gourevitch explores it through the eyes and words of spokesmen for the Knights of Labor. Labor republicanism seems not to have been women’s work. It appears as though women did not venture to rethink the republican tradition.

But of course they did. And they voiced their ideas in public—ideas that Gourevitch overlooks. Consider the paradox of slavery and freedom as interpreted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. “The wife,” she argued to the legislature of New York State in 1854, “holds about the same legal position that does the slave on the southern plantation. She can own nothing, sell nothing. She has no right even to the wages she earns; her person, her time, her services are the property of another.” Consider the protest of the free-born black woman, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, against her subjection as a laboring wife due to the rules of coverture. At an 1866 women’s rights convention, she described having no title to the “very milk-crocks and wash tubs” with which she earned money. And consider the egalitarian ideal of liberty set forth by Susan B. Anthony in an 1869 address to a Working Women’s Association proclaiming the wife’s right to “her own person, and her own earnings.”

A dissenting feminist tradition of republicanism remains obscure in From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth. Labor republicanism must be viewed in light of a modern line of thought running from Jefferson and Madison through Lincoln to contemporary neo-republicans such as Pettit and Skinner, explains Gourevitch. At the same time, he notes that “key feminist works” (though citing only Women and Socialism by the German writer August Bebel) were promoted by the Knights of Labor, to which belonged “leading feminists of the day.” But a feminist intellectual tradition never comes to light in his account—a tradition running from Mary Wollstonecraft through Harper, Stanton, and Anthony, to a host of contemporary theorists such as Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Nancy Fraser, Nancy Hirschmann, Martha Nussbaum, Linda Zerilli, the list could go on and on. Surely the revolution of feminism has something to say about the problem of domination in a free market society and the puzzle of universalizing republican liberty.

The matter lies deeper than the particular historical voices and schools of theory that shape Gourevitch’s tale of labor republicanism as a lesson for today. It lies in the very conceptualization of domination and dependence—in the absence of sustained inquiry into the bearing of sex difference on capitalist transformation and economic inequality. Take, for example, the relationship between housework and wage labor. The invisible value of the unpaid labor owed by wives to husbands helped create surplus value by allowing the sale of labor at wages below subsistence. In the age of the industrial revolution, housework was the lifeblood of capital accumulation. As a contract involving the most private forms of structural and personal domination, marriage was inseparable from the coercions of wage slavery. Was this why women embraced the cooperative commonwealth, seeking freedom at home and at work?

The point, therefore, is that social domination that seems specific to the labor market incorporates relations of power between men and women. Of the figures who wrestled with the paradox of slavery and freedom in the nineteenth century, Gourevitch reminds us: “their problems were not radically different from our own.” He stresses that “domination in the workplace and in the wider economy remains a deep and problematic issue”—a claim well supported by the status of American workers dependent on poverty wages and public aid programs. If a tradition of labor republicanism is to offer any enlightenment “as a contribution to our own ideas,” as Gourevitch writes, it is worth recalling how women’s vindication of their own rights figured in aspirations for universal republican liberty.

Amy Dru Stanley is a history professor at the University of Chicago, where she works on the history of slavery and emancipation, capitalism, and human rights.

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