As I grew up in the 1950's and 1960's, two facts about my personal future haunted me. The first was the likelihood that I, my family and friends would sooner or later be killed in a nuclear war we felt powerless to prevent. The second was that even if we escaped this fate, we would probably have to spend most of our lives tied to jobs we found onerous, boring, and stunting; working not for ourselves but for someone else; doing work which, far from meeting real needs, would likely be useless if not positively harmful; wasting our lives away, angry, frustrated, and unable to do much of anything about it.
Like many of my contemporaries, I wanted to understand and change the situation in which I found myself. But American history as we were taught it was worse than useless for that purpose. The history of our country, we were told, was the story of continuing progress toward ever-greater freedom, well-being and perfection. And throughout that history, ordinary Americans wanted nothing else but to go along for the ride.
This view makes the problems we face today incomprehensible. For if American history is such a success story, why are we in such a mess? Further, this view allows us no alternatives to our present predicament-alternatives rooted in our own past. For if ordinary people throughout American history merely went along with the course set by the powerful and were incapable of acting on their own, where can we look for alternatives?
But gradually I discovered that we have been told anything but the whole truth about American history. The reality of the American past is quite different. Looking back, we can see the roots of our current problems developing through the years. And equally important, we can see that ordinary Americans have not acquiesced in that development.
This book is the story of repeated, massive, and often violent revolts by ordinary working people in America. It gives a picture far different from the usual high school or college history course. The story includes virtual nation-wide general strikes, the seizure of vast industrial establishments, guerrilla warfare, and armed battles with artillery and aircraft. I was myself amazed as I gradually uncovered the various strands of the story.
The main actors in the story are ordinary working people. Most historians, whether radical or conservative, tend to consider ordinary workers a mere "rank and file," controlled and directed by unions and labor leaders. Strikes are presumably the work of these organizations and leaders. I have found, on the contrary, that far from fomenting strikes and rebellions, unions and labor leaders have most often striven to prevent or contain them, while the drive to extend them has generally come from a most undocile "rank and file." Indeed, the most important lesson I learned in preparing this book is the extent to which ordinary working people, acting on their own, have through the decades thought, planned, drawn lessons from their own experiences, organized themselves, and taken action in common. Much of the time these abilities have had no chance for expression; they were suppressed in a society which believed ordinary people should distrust one another and obey their superiors. But when "looking out for number one" and "getting along by going along" no longer worked, people discovered that together they had powers they never suspected.
This is important because the greatest problem we face today is our powerlessness. It underlies every particular problem we face: war, pollution, racism, brutality, injustice, insecurity, and the feeling of being trapped, our lives wasting away, pushed around by forces beyond our control. The source of all these problems is not some cruel decree of fate; everyone of them results from the fact that we do not control the life of our own society. The fundamental problem we face- and the key to solving the more particular problems-is to transform society so that ordinary people control it.
Most people feel powerless to affect what goes on in our society. The official channels through which they are supposed to be able to do so-elections, pressure groups, unions, public discussion - appear more and more useless. And yet ordinary people - together- have potentially the greatest power of all. For it is their activity which makes up society. If they refuse to work, the country stops. If they take control of their own activity, their own work, they thereby take control of society.
Of course, the kind of power which would result if they did so would be far different from that with which we are familiar now. Today, power means the power of some people to tell others what to do. The power we see rising in this book is the power of people directing their own action cooperatively toward common purposes. Ordinary people can only have power over social life when power as we have known it-power of some people over others-is dissolved completely.
This book shows ordinary people developing such a new form of power. Needless to say, it has so far only been expressed in partial, limited forms. But even from these we can learn a great deal that is helpful in solving our own problem of powerlessness. We can see the real forces blocking the transformation of our society. We can grasp the process by which people discover how to rely on each other and not on their superiors. And we can see the results of different forms of organization and action.
All historical writing is a matter of selecting a limited number of significant facts from an infinity of others. In this book, far from trying to present a general history of labor in the United States, I have deliberately focused on those aspects of the story which can help us in the tasks we face today.
The Prologue of this book gives the background of how ordinary people came to be so powerless. Part I, Chapters One through Six present six peak periods of strikes and related actions - what I have called periods of mass strike. In Part II, Chapter Seven analyzes the significance of these events and the factors that have limited them. Chapter Eight discusses the situation we face today and the actions working people are taking right now. Chapter Nine tries to project these actions beyond the limits they have reached so far, to see how they could lead to a transformation of society.
The actions recounted in this book grew out of the daily problems of ordinary people. What happens when we go to work or school, make a home, shop, try to make a life, may seem at first glance far removed from making history. But in trying to solve the problems of their daily lives, people sometimes find they must act in ways which also challenge the whole organization of society. I started work on this book in response to problems in my own life - problems most of us share. The book is dedicated to those who would likewise share in the solutions.