Afterword: A Challenge to Historians

Submitted by Steven. on September 12, 2013

If there is anyone paramount characteristic of books on American history, it is that they are not histories of the people. Histories of the generals, the diplomats, and the politicos there are plenty; histories of the people - the plain people - there are few.

This is no accident. It is part of the great conspiracy which consists in drawing an iron curtain between the people and their past. The generals, the diplomats, and the politicos learned long ago that history is more than a record of the past; it is, as well, a source from which may be drawn a sense of strength and direction for the future. At all costs, that sense of strength and direction and purpose must be denied to the millions of men and women who labor for their living. Hence, the record of their past achievements is deliberately obscured in order to dull their aspirations for the future.1

These words are as true today as when they were written a quarter of a century ago. The very memory of revolt is a subversive force. Societies, like individuals, are adept at forgetting those aspects of their past which do not fit their present self-image. For it is just those aspects of the past which preserve the threat-and the promise - of possibilities different from the present. Historians, far from preserving those memories, have generally served as a filter by means of which they are screened.

For most of that quarter century, American history has been dominated by the so-called consensus school. Its basic argument, as David Donald summarized it, is that "most Americans throughout our history have been contented participants in the capitalist system."2 Such a view can be maintained only by systematically ignoring the events described in this book. Even when the verbally expressed values of ordinary working people seem to bear out such a view, the actual history of working-class action proves it absurd.

The "consensus school" turns out to be nothing but the purveyor of a conservative myth which we have seen dating back to 1888, when James Bryce wrote that in America, "There are no struggles between privileged and unprivileged orders, not even that perpetual strife of rich and poor. . ."3

It is more surprising to find similar views expressed among the so-called New Left historians who have emerged as the critics of the "consensus school." Yet so far they have done little to reveal the actual history of working-class action in America. For example, not a single paper in Toward a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History-a collection of self-styled "New Left" historical writings published recently - dealt with workers' own action. The only paper dealing with the industrial working class was entitled "Urbanization, Migration and Social Mobility in Late 19th Century America." It concluded, without the slightest discussion of the three great mass strikes within that period, that for all the brutality and rapacity which marked the American scene in the years in which the new urban industrial order came into being, what stands out most is the relative absence of collective working-class protest aimed at reshaping capitalist society.4

Such assumptions both grow from and contribute to the widespread New Left belief that the working class today is simply "part of the system."

But what about the few historians who specialize in labor history? On the whole, they have ignored the initiative and selfdirected action of ordinary workers. Where they have been unable to ignore it, they have treated it as an irrational aberration, an inability to relate to the reality of the existing system of society. They have generally assumed that the significance of labor history lay in the development of large-scale, centralized, bureaucratic labor organizations.

Traditionally, labor history has tended to deal almost exclusively with the development of trade unions, implying that the workers had no history but that of the unions. This is much the same as considering the history of a nation as identical with the acts of its government. Recently, labor history has begun to develop a less restrictive focus. Thus, for example, David Brody wrote in the preface to his Steelworkers in America, "The steelworkers themselves have been the focus, not one or another of the institutions or events of which they were a part."5 Similarly, Irving Bernstein wrote in the Preface to The Lean Years, the book "begins with the worker rather than with the trade union."6

But this approach seems to be largely accompanied by an assumption that, except for unionism, workers are passive victims of circumstances and events, not active human beings trying to shape their lives against overwhelming forces. Thus, Brody continued-

My aim has been to study the process by which their working lives in America's steel mills were shaped . . .7

And similarly, Bernstein wrote

I am, of course, concerned about the worker when he is organized and devote considerable attention to the manner in which his union bargains for him. But this is not all. I am interested in him when he is unorganized, in his legal status, in his political behavior, in his social and cultural activities, and in how the employer and the state treat him.8

Bernstein's "political behavior" and "social and cultural activities" hardly suggest the large-scale, spontaneous, and self-directed action independent of trade union direction, in which we have observed workers engaged decade after decade.

Historians of American trade unionism since John R. Commons have rightly emphasized the evolutionary adaptation of trade unions to the existing structure of American society. As they have pointed out, the success of trade unions as institutions within the present economic system has depended on their sloughing off aspirations that could not be achieved within that framework. This is often portrayed as an expression of American "pragmatism."

This powerful evolutionary perspective, however, is applied one-sidedly. It generally ignores the repeated breakdown of this trade union adaptation on behalf of the working class. In periods of crisis, trade unions have either collapsed altogether, or have at the very least lost the power to maintain workers' standard of life at a currently acceptable level. (Standard of life, of course, includes not only wage rates but security, level of misery in work, environmental conditions, war, peace, repression, and everything else that affects individuals' lives as well.) With this breakdown of adaptation, a new evolutionary process starts up as workers search experimentally for new forms of organization and action based on their own power rather than that of the system. Indeed, mass strikes are essentially the result of the breakdown of existing modes of adaptation and the attempt to find new ones. Thus they are not "utopian" but "pragmatic" - even when the power toward which they tend would mean dissolving the existing organization of society rather than adjusting to it.

The fault in most labor history does not lie with "pragmatism" per se, but with too narrow an interpretation of it. For one thing, pragmatism as a philosophy envisions adaptation not simply as an acceptance of the status quo, but as a tranformation of it. For another, trade unionism's tactics must be judged a failure of adaptation insofar as their result has been to leave workers virtually powerless over their lives. An approach to history based on pragmatism requires that past action be evaluated in terms of its contribution to problems we have not yet solved.

Historical debate about radicalism in the American working class has generally centered around the question: Why did the U.S. not follow the European pattern of a socialist party supported by socialist trade unions? This formulation of the question presupposes that the development of organizations holding socialist ideals is the key index of the radical or conservative nature of the working class. This assumption, however, is undermined by the experience of the past fifty years, in which the official Left organizations-whether liberal, socialist, or Communist-have consistently blocked the efforts of workers to take direct power over production. The European model of socialist parties and unions turns out not to be a revolutionary model at all, for when European workers acted in a revolutionary manner, they did so against these organizations.

Therefore, in judging the American working class it is the action of the workers themselves that must form the starting point of analysis, not the ideology of the organizations that developed to regulate their place in society. If that action challenged by force the right of owners to manage their property as they saw fit-and it has for the past century-then it is anti-capitalist in essence and revolutionary in trajectory.

Two strategies have helped historians to discount mass strikes. The first is to write them off as aberrations, unimportant because they do not reflect the normal functioning of American society. But as Charles Walker wrote,

Frequently more can be learned of the character of an individual, a class or a community in a few hours of crisis than in a lifetime of routine living.9

It is at such times that the veil of stasis is rent and the opposing forces maintaining and undermining the existing form of society revealed.

The second strategy is to treat various strikes and movements as separate, virtually unrelated events. Thus there is a book on the Homestead strike and a book on the Pullman boycott, a book on the Seattle general strike and a number on the steel strike of the same year, but I have found only one book dealing with a period of mass strike as a whole.

By ignoring the most serious challenges to the status quo, historians are enabled to ignore the central role of repression in American society. The threat-and employment-of private, police, and military armed force has been a constant factor moulding the so-called American consensus. Control by violence, as Marcus Raskin has pointed out, is often hardly visible but it is "the central fact of human relations in American society. It dictates the contours of the political structure and announces that no social contract exists."10 The assumption that American society is based on consent may be attractive, but it hardly fits the facts. Instead, we find that the realm of protected liberties is a small, circumscribed sector of society, surrounded by vast hierarchical institutions based on command and backed by force.

Repression is absent from American history only where the status quo is unchallenged.

These various attitudes have led historians to ignore vast areas of class conflict in the United States. Historians - even labor historians-pass over in a paragraph or two strikes involving hundreds of thousands of people, accompanied by armed conflict on a substantial scale, simply because they made no contribution to the development of collective bargaining. Even in those strikes about which entire books have been written, the action of workers outside of formal organized channels is usually largely ignored.

A change of perspective by historians would lead to a largescale investigation of this material, similar to the outpouring of research on black history which has recently begun to compensate for centuries of neglect. In preparing this book, I found that hardly a single aspect of class conflict in America has been adequately studied. I can assure anyone considering research in this area that large bodies of data untapped in the past and only rapidly surveyed here lie waiting to be explored.

A change in perspective by historians should be reflected also in their relation to contemporary material. Millions of dollars today are spent preserving the records of the Presidents and other "elite" figures, but great mass events like the 1970 student strike and the postal and Teamster wildcats will be as written on water, traceable only in newspaper clippings a dozen years hence. When historians recognize the significance of popular movements, academic history departments will begin to turn their resources-including the recently developed technology of oral history-to preserving data on the mass struggles that are going on all around us today. If professional historians fail to perform this task, those outside the club will have to undertake it themselves-for it is they who need the knowledge it will provide.

It is not only the subjects covered or the techniques employed which has tended to make history serve a conservative myth. Even more, it is the assumption that the past is significant only as it has contributed to the present form of society. This in turn is based upon the assumption that the future will be essentially a continuation of the present-that historical change, in short, has stopped.

But as E.H. Carr put it in What Is History?, the historian must not only ask the question "why?," but also the question "whither?"11 The culmination of the past - that which gives it significance - is not the present, but the future. The historian's work - as opposed to the mere antiquarian's-is important because it contributes to what we need to know to cope with the practical problems of the future.

Of course, if the future is simply a continuation of the present, then the "lost causes" of the past are indeed lost forever. But the long-term continuation of the present structure of human society is almost inconceivable today. The new threats of nuclear and ecological disaster, combined with the more traditional effects of economic, social, and military crisis, mean that humanity - if it survives at all-will do so only through fundamental changes of its way of life. But even if the present organization of society remains viable, is its continuation to be desired when it serves at every turn to block the potential for human freedom, creativity, and wellbeing which society itself has created?

The focus of the historian must change if he is to contribute to human survival and liberation. His responsibility is to find those social processes and structures which promise an alternative to the ones now dominant. He must show what factors advance and retard their development. He must clarify the weaknesses, faults, and limitations of the dominant structures which lead people to develop alternatives to them. In short, he must show what forces might prefigure a movement by the underlying population to assert their will over society.

  • 1 George F. Addes and R.J. Thomas, in introduction to Henry Kraus, The Many and the Few (Los Angeles: Plantin Press, 1947).
  • 2David Donald. New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1970.
  • 3James Bryce, quoted in Henry David, The History of the Haymarket Affair, A Study in the American Social-Revolutionary and Labor movements (N.Y.: Collier Books, 1963), p. 39.
  • 4Stephen Thernstrom, "Urbanization, Migration, and Social Mobility in Late Nineteenth-Century Amerca," in Toward a New Past: Disseming Essays in American History, Barton J. Bernstein, ed. (N.Y.: Vintage Books, Random House, 1969), pp. 172-3.
  • 5David Brody, Steelworkers in America, The Non-Union Era (N.Y.: Harper Torchbooks, Harper& Row, 1969), p. ix.
  • 6Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years, A History of the American Workers 1920-1933 (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), p. ix.
  • 7Brody, p. ix.
  • 8Bernstein, p. ix.
  • 9Charles R. Walker, American City, a Rank-and-File History (N.Y.: Farrar & Rhinehart, 1937), p. xiii.
  • 10Marcus Raskin, Being and Doing (N.Y.: Random House, 1971), p. xv.
  • 11Edward H. Carr, What's History? (N.Y.: Random House, Vintage Books, 1967), p. 143.