Labor’s Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life
by Tobias Higbie
University of Illinois Press, 2019, 234 pp.
To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice
by Jessica Wilkerson
University of Illinois Press, 2019, 280 pp.
Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in the Durban and San Francisco Bay Area
by Peter Cole
University of Illinois Press, 2018, 310 pp.
I didn’t know David Montgomery, but I feel connected to him. A leading scholar of American labor history in the 1970s and 1980s, Montgomery shaped the whole field of which I’m a junior member. He wrote classics on workers’ control of production and the sources of class consciousness at the turn of the century. He mentored dozens of graduate students, many now prominent historians. He was a Marxist, an internationalist, and an ally of the workers’ movement all his life—someone who only went to graduate school after the FBI hounded him from factory to factory through the 1950s, stamping out the pockets of solidarity he left behind.
When he died, I had the chance to go to his memorial in January 2012, because I was a couple years into graduate school at Yale, where Montgomery had closed out his career as a happy class warrior. I’ve still never been to any event quite like it. Half of Yale’s Battell Chapel was full of eminent academics; the other half, working-class New Haveners who knew Montgomery as a perennial presence on their picket lines. One older eulogist came to the pulpit in his T-shirt from the International Association of Machinists (IAM), which had been Montgomery’s union before his academic career. With apparent frustration, the machinist said something like, “The worst mistake our union ever made was red-baiting out guys like Dave. The only reason he went to graduate school was because he was forced out of the IAM. But it wasn’t particularly his desire to be an academic or to be associated with you. He didn’t belong to you all. He belonged to us.” The machinist then slyly repeated a story Montgomery had told him once, a narrative from the early twentieth century that the historian had reconstructed: a scientific management engineer has come into a metal shop to time the workers and speed them up. And the workers, of course, are hassling this college boy however they can. Then, the engineer climbs up on a catwalk to look at something, slips, and tumbles into a vat of molten metal. Seeing him vaporized, the workers on the floor give up a cheer: “Hurrah for the time man!” When the punch line landed, half the chapel gasped; half erupted in laughter.
At the reception in Yale’s Graduate Club after the memorial, I repeatedly overheard senior scholars acknowledging ruefully that we’d never again see the likes of Montgomery. Labor history in his day had been at the vanguard of a revolution within the historical profession, rewriting American history by casting ordinary working-class experience as a politically meaningful phenomenon: sailors who resisted their captains helped spark the coming of revolution in 1776; the origins of the Civil War lay partly in the struggles of journeymen craftsmen against industrialization; the reforms of the Progressive Era were efforts to contain the revolutionary energies of immigrants who refused to assimilate, farmers who hated the railroads and banks, and workers who insisted on their own control of the workplace.
Now, though, the élan seemed to be gone. The experiences and memories that had fueled the field’s ascent in the 1970s were vanishing with Montgomery’s generation. Without this common purpose, the ability to force attention from the academic establishment, too, had drained—and with this loss of attention and prestige, out went professional and economic opportunity for younger practitioners.
Inside the Graduate Club, radical scholars reminisced about Montgomery, mourned labor’s fate, and munched on hors d’oeuvres. Across the street, not fifty yards away, stood Occupy New Haven’s encampment—still hanging on, weeks after Zuccotti Park had been cleared. Inside the staid room, it seemed that our best years were behind us. But outside in the freezing mud, something new and exciting was being born. Certainly, this was an attractive perspective for a young graduate student increasingly cynical about the fate of the profession.
Were the tenured radicals only relics, and the occupiers the future? Almost a decade later, it looks more ambiguous to me. What one makes of the prospects for socialist reinvention today depends on how one sees the working class in the American past, and years of marginality have forced labor historians to grapple with problems that were bound to emerge on the left after the failure of the classical socialist vision of the twentieth century. The challenges of orienting ourselves for collective action in our vertiginous moment may be seen as questions about how to understand the social transformations that have made, unmade, and remade experiences of social inequality—that is, as historical questions. And for their period in the wilderness, labor historians have something to share about these.
Montgomery was one of a cohort of American historians who entered the profession in the 1960s and 1970s with deep connections to the working class. David Brody, the great historian of the rise of mass production in meatpacking and steel, was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant vegetable peddler in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Herbert Gutman, who shattered the idea that workers eagerly absorbed the Protestant work ethic, was first-generation offspring of the Yiddish-speaking, left-wing world of New York City. Alice Kessler-Harris, who pioneered women’s labor history, was the daughter of Czech-Jewish communist refugees.
In the Cold War years, American historical discourse had gathered around a liberal consensus, emphasizing the upward mobility of immigrants, the durability of American political traditions, the rarity of conflict, and the marginality and danger of protest. The historical profession was overwhelmingly led by and composed of WASP men. It greeted the clamorous outsiders of the 1960s and 1970s with some hostility—and the challenges came not just from labor history, but also from parallel scholarly insurgencies in women’s history and African-American history, activated together by 1960s movements. In his 1962 presidential address to the American Historical Association, Brown University’s Carl Bridenbaugh warned of younger historians who “are products of lower-middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past.” Even two decades later, the historian Linda Gordon observed, “Many colleagues see only a caricature of me—someone doing women’s history, which is not really history at all but a kind of complaint, and a Marxist, only known by the code word ‘dogmatic.’”
It was precisely because they came from historically marginalized backgrounds and defended embattled traditions that these scholars—not just labor historians, but also women’s historians and African-American historians, collectively the “new social historians”—were positioned to pierce the fog of postwar historical complacency. To this day, the historical profession has not experienced anything like the revolution it underwent beginning in the late 1960s. It now accommodated, and with time increasingly began to honor, scholars who had initially been greeted as interlopers and vandals. In direct consequence of the professional struggle and advance of this cohort, the idea took hold as never before that American history was a history of dissent and resistance. The historical consciousness of past injustices and struggles that is visibly ascendant on today’s left—manifest, for example, in the conversation about reparations for slavery—owes a tremendous amount to this scholarship. If one is inclined, it is possible to trace the progress of Ta-Nehisi Coates in the late 2000s and early 2010s as he worked his way through the historiographical legacy left by the new social historians, en route to his landmark pieces of writing on African-American history and politics.
Starting in the late 1970s, the revolution was institutionalized, as hundreds, then thousands, of radical social historians gained employment and tenure. Their books worked their way onto graduate examination fields, and their arguments filtered down into lectures and textbooks. “Like a flood,” wrote Kessler-Harris, “the new social history shifted the course of the profession’s mainstream.” It gained its first major popularization in 1980, with the publication of Howard Zinn’s now-classic A People’s History of the United States.
In labor history, the University of Illinois launched a new book series in 1978, “The Working Class in American History” (WCAH), edited by Brody, Gutman, and Montgomery—a marker of the field’s coming of age. The fortieth anniversary was just observed—quite a long life for such an enterprise. A glance through its 140-book catalogue now should bring a smile to anyone with an appreciation for these kinds of things: dozens of titles like The Mechanics of Baltimore; The Electrical Workers; Once a Cigar Maker; Glass Towns; Down on the Killing Floor. As historian Nelson Lichtenstein observed, the distinctive specialty was fine-grained reconstruction of local working-class worlds. “I got my one-way bus ticket from Herb [Gutman],” recalled the late Roy Rosenzweig, “and ended up spending two years in Worcester.”
Despite this pointillist quality, they together told a story that seemed to have an arc. Workers, especially skilled craftsmen, had a coherent experience of industrial capitalism as an infringement on their autonomy and staged a century of rearguard resistance to intensifying work-discipline and capitalist authority, until finally their struggles were joined in the early twentieth century in increasing numbers by the unskilled masses of migrants arriving to work in the new mass production industries. At last, in the crucible of the Great Depression, vastly disparate social experiences of white, black, native-born, immigrant, skilled, and unskilled workers coalesced into unity. As socialists, communists, and the new industrial union movement of the 1930s agitated and organized, the New Deal extended democracy into industry and incorporated the proletariat into the mainstream of American life.
Most of these historians were critics of the New Deal from the left, but they were still its unmistakable product: children of factory workers and migrants who went to college, then graduate school, because of the egalitarian social transformation of the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. The rise of affordable mass public higher education created student interest in the field, as millions of baby boomers from working-class backgrounds came into the university in the 1960s and 1970s. More important, it generated the basis for the student rebellion, the fulcrum on which the historiographical revolution pivoted. The history of America expanded to include the working class because American society had done so. The changing campus indexed this transformation.
It should be no surprise, then, that after the scholarly triumph of the 1970s, things became uncertain quickly in the 1980s. The labor movement, of course, was collapsing, and Marxism falling into crisis. History majors had begun to decline with the end of the postwar economic boom. As the old proletarian attachments weakened on one hand, the pressures of professional success drew some number of scholars toward more traditional subjects on the other. The grounding of the field had lain in the social democratic state, which rested in turn upon the industrial economy and labor movement—widely seen as coterminous with labor history’s area of inquiry. As factories closed and the New Deal political regime disintegrated, the field began to lose its sense of a coherent project.
The new social historians, with labor history in a prominent role, had broken apart the narrow-minded postwar liberal consensus. But the new generation couldn’t establish a new consensus to replace the one they had shattered. “What is disturbing,” observed Eric Foner—a fellow traveler of labor historians, if not quite one himself—“is that, despite the wealth of recent material, no new synthesis has emerged to fill the void.” What did all the points on the map—all the Worcesters—add up to?
Synthesis proved hard to find not just because of the sometimes-parochial quality of the research, but also because it was hard to tell a story that culminated in the New Deal while encompassing the whole working class. Could labor history really comprehend the experiences of those oppressed millions who had not been part of the union movement that triumphed in the 1930s? Could the thin universalism of this class analysis—often conducted by older Jewish socialists from working-class New York—speak meaningfully to social difference and incorporate it into the analysis? Was a warmed-over version of the New Deal—an increasingly unappealing reference point with the appearance of the blue-collar conservatism of the Reagan Democrat—the best they could offer?
In the 1980s, the idea dawned that it might be impossible for the new social history to build a complete historical picture of the working class, brick by brick. Try to add a bit to the picture over here, and you found you were pushing something else out over there. As W. E. B. Du Bois had observed decades earlier, the proletariat had never existed as a single thing that could be represented fully within one un-contradictory story. Around this problem, the field split.
Some of the sharpest attacks came from erstwhile labor historians. Joan Wallach Scott, whose first book, published in 1974, had examined glassworkers in a town in southern France, assailed the mainstream of labor history through the 1980s on two related methodological problems: “experience” and gender. On the first, she pointed out, labor historians seemed to assume that “experience” worked in some straightforward way to connect economic forces to collective action. A given economic situation in a given historical context could only really produce one kind of experience and one appropriate ideology—the class consciousness whose historical reality the field was dedicated to unearthing.
Relatedly, Scott pointed out, the field had a profound gender problem. Labor historians’ central commitment to class made attention to gender basically additive—a point to remember to mention before concluding. Under a kind of “popular-front mentality,” labor historians would acknowledge gender as a subject that was legitimate for someone else to study (a woman, presumably), “but they didn’t have time for it” themselves. Scott here was perhaps overly harsh: a whole generation of historians of women’s labor, many more sophisticated than her account would suggest, were publishing their first books as she wrote this critique. Nonetheless, the point stung. Everyone called Kessler-Harris a “women’s labor historian”; no one called Montgomery a “men’s labor historian.” The point, for Scott, was not that women workers in the past demanded more special attention: it was that one could not approach class outside of gender, whether studying waitresses or machinists.
There was an analogous critique of the field’s handling of race, voiced most forcefully by Nell Painter. It was not good enough to remember to mention black people, to teach about black experience, to be a political ally of black struggles, or even to devote special research focus to black workers. The point wasn’t just that black people needed to be added to a story already told. Rather, class in America couldn’t be seen properly if it was thought to be prior to, or more real than, race. While many figures in labor history had also played important roles within African-American history, even slavery had not fallen within the field’s self-assigned historical territory—a quite astonishing fact given that slavery was, of course, a labor regime.
In response to this criticism, one approach worked to synthesize historical class analysis with feminist and anti-racist thought. The idea here was that it would be possible to draw on new theorizations of race and gender developed in the 1970s and 1980s to show how the capitalist economy created and required structures of patriarchy and white supremacy. This allowed historians in the 1990s and 2000s to recognize the working-class presence in spheres beyond the factory, and to see everything from minstrelsy to laundry to tuberculosis as sites of racialized and gendered class formation.
Another section of the field took a turn toward the traditional methodology of plurality, which is liberalism. Liberalism’s animating question is how to live together in a society in which there is never just one story to tell. Its answer, the liberal state, is where inevitable social differences are managed and temporarily reconciled. In this view, culture and experience were basically the wrong place to look to understand class inequality and social power. “The recent welcome extension of our understanding of what constitutes ‘the political’ to such spheres as the family,” argued Ira Katznelson in 1994, “has had the paradoxical effect of obscuring the specificity of state power.” Don’t scale down to the molecular level of subjectivity, went this argument; scale up to the level of major social institutions, where conflicts go to get resolved.
By the late 1990s, many historians who once might have gotten one-way bus tickets to industrial towns instead wrote stories at the national and global levels about changing structures of law, state, and markets. Where did the legal regimes governing wage labor, legal and illegal immigration, and marriage come from? Why was so much of America’s welfare state administered through the private sector? Why did the New Deal discriminate along lines of race, gender, and sexuality? Through what institutions did slavery interact with free-labor economies? These kinds of questions could not be answered by close study of a neighborhood.
From this branch, too, sprouted the whole new field of the “history of capitalism,” which began from the assumption that political institutions produced markets. Where labor history’s orienting context came from the New Deal, “history of capitalism” as a subfield grew out of the high-neoliberal, end-of-history moment. Why study the working-class gravediggers of capitalism, when they had died out themselves before getting the job done? It was capitalism that was the survivor, and thus deserved attention. Only at this higher scale of analysis could phenomena like the historical ascent of finance and global trade be understood—newly important questions in the 1990s and 2000s.
Now, though, we are again in a new phase. Spiraling inequality, disintegrating representative democracy, and looming climate disaster require militant and collective response. If the end of industrial employment and the collapse of the social democratic state mean that the hour of the proletariat has passed, then we should expect labor history to be exhausted as a field of inquiry—and we might also have to give up looking for points around which exploited people might build power collectively. If, on the other hand, the working class is constantly undergoing recomposition and taking new and heterogeneous forms, then it makes little sense to equate the defeat of the New Deal with the end of class politics. On this count, we ought to expect that the reemergence of social conflict in the twenty-first century would bring with it a reimagined narrative of the working-class past, freed of some of the limits that constrained historians who struggled to see beyond the horizon set by midcentury social democracy.
To test this theory, we can look to the recent output of the WCAH series. Three new books in the series, emblazoned with a “40th anniversary” marker, reflect a field remade by the structural transformation of the working class. Neoliberalism has caused a new process of class formation, and the fractious debates of the 1980s and 1990s within the field reflected the transition from a residual working class to an emergent one.
Today, a growing consensus identifies three promising sites for workplace action. The first is found in the caregiving and social reproduction industries, traditionally organized by gender subordination. Here we have seen a rapid increase in militancy in recent years. Another is the logistics industry (movers of goods from production to market), where surveillance and racism hold workers in compliance. Workers’ struggles in this sector have been more limited, but the potential seems vast, given how decades of increasing global trade have generated tremendous demand for labor to move goods to market over ground, rail, air, and sea alike. Finally, the contraction of economic prospects for professionals and so-called “knowledge workers” has led to a rapid upsurge of union activity among workers with high levels of cultural and human capital and disintegrating career paths. The three new books from WCAH are about these three questions in various historical guises.
Jessica Wilkerson’s To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice lands at a time when white, rural working-class people have been conscripted into a distinctive and toxic role in American political discourse. Whether as pathologized addicts or ignorant racists, an image of people in small deindustrialized towns has stood in as the emblem of the precipitous unraveling of America’s social fabric and the frightening political dangers it portends. Since the figure at the heart of this narrative is the laid-off coal miner, it has remained a particularly male story.
Wilkerson instead establishes a history of “Appalachian women as political actors.” Appalachia was more or less a one-industry region, but this did not mean there was only one kind of work being done. Harsh extractive capitalism demanded laborious care work from women to hold things together while hunger, sickness, and hazard assaulted their families. But the position of mother and wife—and the labor it entailed, often called “social reproduction”—also empowered women to make demands so they could carry out those roles, and potentially transcend them. Working-class women in the mountains mobilized to support War on Poverty programs. They fought for recognition of black lung, formed the Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Organization, resisted mountaintop removal mining, and founded clinics to serve their communities. They walked coal mine picket lines when courts enjoined their husbands from picketing—as famously captured in Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County, USA, the story of which Wilkerson explores at length. Cumulatively, her account offers a view of class grounded fundamentally in gender, making it possible to imagine a working-class movement based in sources other than mining minerals and shaping metal—the kind of movement now taking shape in Appalachia, which has been the site of a dramatic upswing of working-class protest by women in care jobs over the last year.
What Wilkerson’s book does for social reproduction, Peter Cole does for logistics in Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. Focusing on two major port cities on the edges of capitalist empires—where America meets the Pacific, and South Africa’s Indian Ocean port—Cole begins from the simple proposition that workers on the waterfront have historically enjoyed a unique form of leverage. As international shipping lanes bound global capitalism together, a tremendous quantity of value passed through the hands of the men who loaded and unloaded the ships. For decades, longshore work was lumpen, dangerous, menial labor: when they had nowhere else to go, men with a strong back could go down to the docks. Often drawn from countries across the globe and connected by the cosmopolitanism of ports everywhere, these workers were always differentiated by race, but also bound to mix cultures, learn new ideas, and get word of struggles elsewhere. While dockworkers’ movements played key roles everywhere in national movements for social democracy, dockworkers themselves were oriented outward toward the working-class planet.
Even better, they had power. In San Francisco, the “Big Strike” of 1934 sparked a general strike that propelled the entire New Deal and labor movement into a new phase. When the unskilled lumpenproletariat on the docks showed that they could lead the working class as a whole, the left wing of the labor movement gained confidence and advocated a break with the exclusionary and conservative traditions of the American Federation of Labor—leading to the founding of the CIO and the more radical “second New Deal” of 1935–1938, when most of the social legislation was passed. In Durban, dockers struck constantly through the postwar years for better wages, less casual working conditions, and against apartheid. Indeed, Cole argues that the boldness of the Durban dockworkers, who staged a work stoppage in 1972, triggered the famous 1973 Durban mass strike—a key moment in the escalation of the struggle against apartheid.
Each phase of capitalist globalization both divides the world’s workers again along national and racial lines—as we can see easily today—and simultaneously empowers some of those, at least potentially, who work the nodes of the global system. Huge flows of global commerce still pass through surprisingly few discrete points. For example, a vast portion of the goods imported to the United States from Asia comes through the port of Long Beach and into the warehouses in the Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles. Tens of thousands of workers, largely Latinx and many undocumented, work in this complex under casualized and oppressive conditions. The short-haul port truck drivers are systematically misclassified as independent contractors and work in relationships of debt peonage to their employers. Warehouse workers are heavily subcontracted, constantly surveilled, face serious workplace hazards, and are often paid below subsistence wages. Tent cities are not unheard-of for workers’ housing. And as Amazon’s rapid growth continues, these conditions are proliferating across the country. Dockworker Power suggests that the rising global white supremacist menace cannot be defeated without a confrontation at today’s docks—the mechanized ports, trucking networks, and warehouses where racial capitalism does its work.
Like the resistance of teachers or warehouse workers, the rising radicalism of “knowledge workers”—in journalism, technology, higher education, and related industries—both represents something new and follows an old tradition. This past is uncovered by the third of the WCAH anniversary books: Tobias Higbie’s Labor’s Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life.
“Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn,” declares “Solidarity Forever.” Yet the image of the working class propagated by labor’s allies and enemies alike has largely been the brawny hammer-swinger. (Readiness to accept this assumption was basically the problem with much of the older generation of labor historians.) In reality, working-class life in the early twentieth century sustained a robust culture of reading and debate—theoretical as well as practical. A vast world of foreign-language newspapers circulated in the working class. Labor colleges educated young working-class radicals. Once the Communist Party and the John Reed Clubs were founded, they too developed literary programs for workers, though they were far from alone. All of them contributed to a working-class public sphere that was often more vital and critical than the official one, which frequently led the formally educated to seek out proletarian intellectual institutions. As a young college graduate, Ella Baker found herself drawn to the lectures and debates at the library on 135th Street in Harlem, where she helped start a Negro History Club. Chicago’s Dill Pickle Club, founded and run by a Wobbly miner named Jack Jones and Dr. Ben Reitman—a former ally and lover of Emma Goldman—hosted events for audiences of workers and academics. “It was fun to listen to the world-famed physicist gravely debating his specialty with a boxcar bum who had wandered in,” one frequent spectator remembered.
These institutions and the cross-class, radicalized public sphere they bred, in turn, played a key role in the workers’ uprising of the 1930s. In that time, unions formed only part of what was called the “workers’ movement,” which also was understood to include institutions like the labor colleges, the radical theater, and the Trade Union Educational League. When politically committed writers, artists, theorists, and scholars mingled with intellectually inclined radical workers, they produced nothing less than the culture of the CIO itself.
The triumph of the labor movement during the 1930s and 1940s undergirded the democratization of American society, and with it, the rise of mass higher education. “In a lightly bureaucratized society,” observes Higbie, “the line between formal and informal education was less stark than it is today. Universities were one part of a more diffuse field of educational practices that included popular lectures and home study.” Gradually, after the 1940s, the life drained from the autodidact tradition of the proletariat. In postwar America, if you wanted to learn, you went to school.
It was exactly out of this transformation that modern labor history was born in the 1960s—to try to replicate within the bureaucratic strictures of the university the spirit of working-class ingenuity that animated the movement in earlier generations, which the founding cohort had all known firsthand or nearly so. No wonder this lodestar faded with time, and labor historians came in for the criticisms they did in the 1980s and 1990s. How much could the forms of agency and creativity that had inspired the field’s beginnings continue to inform it, when their historical endpoint—the New Deal—was itself a fast-diminishing legacy?
When Alice Kessler-Harris began her graduate work at Rutgers in the early 1960s, she had an encounter in the archive that stuck with her. “I’ll tell you the bottom line,” she recalls. “I’m reading all of this microfilm [at the New York Public Library], and I come across Emma Goldman. It’s 1893 and she’s standing on a platform in Union Square and orating in Yiddish, saying, ‘If you want bread, go take it.’” Goldman was a member of the crowd—she spoke the language, she trusted its collective capacity—but she also helped make the crowd something more, something that could act.
Graduate students who came to Columbia to study with Kessler-Harris in the last decade played a key initial role in their union’s historic victory, one of the most significant advances for organized labor in this century. In West Virginia, teachers on strike wore red bandanas in imitation of the garb of their coal miner forebears who rebelled a century before. When journalists at the Los Angeles Times organized, they did so in full knowledge of their employer’s famously bitter hostility to unionism for more than a century (unionists once even bombed the Times building), and they recognized accordingly what they faced from their boss. “They’re using scare tactics,” a Times staffer told LA Weekly. “It’s old-fashioned stuff you’d see at factories and loading docks. It’s complete bullshit.”
Resonances across the generations are a fundamental part of class formation. Workers must recognize themselves and their antagonists as inheritors of long histories if they’re going to understand the confrontation enough to see it through. Once, during a hotel workers’ organizing campaign, I saw a Haitian organizer climb on to a table and address a group of housekeepers in Kreyol. I don’t speak Kreyol, but I could make out, at the emotional height of the speech, the words “Toussaint L’Ouverture.” Yiddish anarchism, the Coal Wars, the Haitian Revolution, and countless more—do these make up one inheritance we may share, or must we divvy it up like squabbling siblings? The answer to this question is never given in advance.
Struggle requires self-transformation, as we learn to practice solidarity and comradeship. And self-transformation—individual or collective—always means crafting a new understanding of one’s own past. Renewal of collective struggle thus must entail the sharing of our histories, as we try to build a new collective identity. As Sara Nelson, the militant president of the Association of Flight Attendants, recently put it, “This year America’s workers have learned—we have taught ourselves—that we are as brave and strong and creative as our forebears, that we can hold our heads high with Memphis sanitation strikers, Flint sit-down strikers, the martyred dead of Pullman and Haymarket and Cripple Creek, Colorado, with the mill girls of Lowell, and the rebel slaves of Charleston—that if Eugene Debs came back today and went to an L.A. classroom or a Chicago hotel or a flight attendant union meeting, he would know where he was.”
Debs himself said much the same. “The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement,” he exclaimed in his famous 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio. “It has taught me the ecstasy in the handclasp of a comrade. It has enabled me to hold high communion with you, and made it possible for me to take my place side by side with you in the great struggle for the better day; to multiply myself over and over again, to thrill with a fresh-born manhood; to feel life truly worthwhile; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glorious vistas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs.”
For Debs, defeat in the great 1894 rail strike had smashed his lingering preindustrial vision of republican social harmony, derived from his origins in small-town Indiana. When the U.S. Army broke his union and threw him in prison, he saw that the history of the republic did not mean what he once had believed it did, and he walked out of prison a socialist. A generation later, immigrant socialists in New York saw in the transformed Debs the point where their trajectories might converge with that of the native-born citizenry, and they loved him for it: the Jewish Daily Forward’s radio station was called WEVD, after him.
The labor historians of the 1960s were the children of WEVD and the world that Debs helped make. They were born into the culture of unity forged in the working-class movement’s classical phase, between 1890 and 1945. In one form or another, they told the story of this process, not realizing how radically it might come undone. How could they have known that the handclasp would weaken, the glorious vistas would fade, and the process of multiplication would give way to division?
From our vantage point, it is clear that it is never possible to see, in the experiences of this or that community, the whole. Neither, however, can we abandon the effort to tell a story with a place for all of us—a story reminding us that, when overwhelming forces throw us apart, there is always a possibility we may find each other again and clasp hands.
Gabriel Winant is a historian, currently writing a book on care work in the Rust Belt.