Cold War Labor

Robert W. Cherny, Ed.
American Labor and the Cold War: Grassroots Politics and Postwar Political Culture

A collection of essays, looking at the period from 1945-1960. The editor says central question is, “what kinds of relationships existed among the labor unions of the AFL and CIO, the radical left and the conservative right, business and other interest groups in American communities.” (4) Really, this can be boiled down to: what was the relationship between the American communist party and labor leaders, and did McCarthyism impact the development or retardation of the labor movement?

These are interesting questions, in the sense that they suggest there was both a “genuine and principled” communism and anticommunism “in the working class communities of the nation,” and that what went on in front of TV cameras in Congress was in some way related to the grassroots conflict. (5) But even so, they are very narrow questions, and the detailed narratives and oral histories related here need to be understood as a special case. It might even be a stretch to imply that these types of things were happening in working class communities across the nation, much less that they represent some type of broad social event that mobilized large groups of regular people.

In the first article, Ellen Schrecker points out that most labor leaders who joined the communist party “felt it would help them build a strong labor movement. None of them…tried to transform their unions into revolutionary organizations.” (9) If they were indeed focused on building organizations that would be effective in promoting the agenda of actual workers, it stands to reason that they would have become disillusioned with the CPUSA after time; since it pretty much failed to deal with the reality of American society the same way it failed to deal with the reality of the Soviet Union. Schrecker criticizes the AFL and CIO for being “so thoroughly co-opted that its leaders provided cover for the CIA, and its conventions endorsed the war in Vietnam.” (19) Clearly, the leaders of these unions do seem to have “enlisted in the Cold War” to some degree; but the framing of the discussion avoids the larger issues. Who was the labor movement supposed to turn to, for guidance? The CPUSA was useless. The rank and file were, in many cases, conservative working stiffs who
did support the war in Vietnam. Remember “America, Love it or Leave it”?

Gerald Zahavi’s oral histories of Schenectady GE workers are very interesting. They suggest ethnic and religious dimensions to the working-class encounter with communism that make the picture much richer and more satisfying, while at the same time suggesting that communism was not as central on the streets of company towns in upstate New York as it has become on the pages of histories. This is the type of thing I’d like to see more of, and I think the book succeeds when it focuses on actual people and lets them tell their stories. The outline of labor and church leaders interacting with government and business leaders was tedious and didn’t leave me feeling I understood what had really happened.

Artisans Into Workers

Bruce Laurie, Artisans Into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America, 1989

Synopsis: The introduction begins with Werner Sombart’s 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” Laurie defines the socialism of the question as “both class consciousness and a socialist party speaking for the working classes.” (3) After tracing the high points of labor historiography (repeated in greater detail in a final, bibliographic essay), he suggests that “the ideology of radicalism persisted longer than in any continental nation” and that this “durability of radicalism...[which] never completely repudiated the old republican axiom that active government was corrupt government...inhibited the transition to socialism.” (12) Laurie’s radicalism is admittedly ambiguous: “it harbored both individualism and collectivism and before the 1850s it was the universal language of skilled workers on both sides of the Atlantic.” (13) The transatlantic nature of radicalism is rendered even more interesting by Laurie’s claim to find both it and “capitalism in the countryside as well as the city.” (14)

Ultimately, Laurie says, radicalism split into two incompatible “strands of thought.” “Political radicalism told the artisan he was a citizen and...could eliminate economic inequality through political action.” But “economic radicalism pointed the worker toward unionism,” by emphasizing self-reliance, cooperation, and distrust of parasitic accumulators, monopolists, and the government privilege that made them possible. (213-4) This split was fatal to the movement’s viability, but even so, radicalism “remained the language of North American labor long after European working men had learned more modern social vocabularies.” (152) “That radicalism did not realize its transcendent vision,” Laurie concludes, “should not tarnish its principles.” (220)

The long transition from yeoman self-sufficiency to industrial wage slavery is outlined in the book’s first three, antebellum chapters. Laurie tells this story using demographic, wage, and financial data, as well as the comments of workers and activist/journalists. Unfortunately (possibly the book was envisioned as an undergraduate text or popular history?), he does not cite any of his sources, and the bibliographic notes at the end of the book, while giving useful hints, are not comprehensive. Along the way, he mentions several historians whose books I should find and read, as well as a long list of labor and radical activists I should research (including of course, William Heighton). The narrative places these names in context with one another, which is extremely helpful. It also identifies missing links that might benefit from further study, such as the British-American links between early radicals (Robert Dale Owen is mentioned briefly twice, once suggestively alongside Heighton) or the later incarnation of Marx’s International in America (after leaving London in 1872 following a run-in with still-very-influential radicals there) and its influence on unionism.

The second half of the book deals more with the stuff of labor history: unions, strikes, business/government repression, the failure of the Knights of Labor and the success of the AF of L. Along the way, Laurie notes the radical language used by Terence Powderly as he led the K of L (152), and the way this radicalism moved to the country when “in 1891 Powderly joined with Alliancemen in calling the meeting that spawned the Populist party.” (175) In several places, he offers reasons why socialism did not come to America: the persistence of radicalism (152), the fact that “small employers did not think of themselves as capitalists,” (153), disagreements among leaders of the International (179), and the “ferocious anti-unionism of government and corporate America,” (219) which ultimately led to what Laurie calls “prudential unionism...[which] gradually embraced a contracting vision of what was possible or desirable.” (14) Although it’s difficult, 104 years after Sombart’s question, to see how scholars could have considered America’s “evolution” to socialism inevitable, it is interesting to consider how ideas contained in radicalism fragmented and possibly damaged the movement to organize workers and others against industrial capitalism. It would be interesting to track down those ideas, to see where they ended up and whether they continue to influence our ideas about work, individuality, history, and politics.

One of Laurie's reviewers criticized Artisans slightly for focusing on the "declension" of artisanship to wage work.  The reviewer suggested this focus encourages forgetting about the vast numbers of people who became wage workers, but had never been artisans.  In addition, I think it adds an unnecessary tragic quality to the story.  There are certainly enough tragic elements to the story of labor -- but the shift from complete self-sufficiency to being part of a market economy doesn't have to be part of that.  It leads to broad statements using loaded language (such as the passage where division of labor and a little technology reduces proud artisans to mere "cogs" in the industrial machine).  Maybe this is why radicalism lasted so long in the US: American workers didn't really want to see themselves as victims, or the system as irremediably broken.



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Edwin T. Freedley, Leading Pursuits and Leading Men
Thomas Spence

William Thompson

John Gray, “Essay on Human Happiness”

Langton Byllesby, Observation on the Sources of and Effects of Unequal Wealth

Cornelius Blatchley

Seth Luther

John Commerford

William Gilmore

John Ferral

Thomas Skidmore, The Rights of Man to Property!

William Heighton

George Henry Evans

William Field Young, Voice of Industry

Mike Walsh, Subterranean

John Windt

Thomas Devyr

Henry Brokmeyer, A Mechanic’s Diary

John B. Gough, Autobiography and Personal Recollections, Sunlight and Shadow


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James Henretta, “Families and Farms: Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America”

Michael Merrill, “Cash is Good to Eat: Self-Sufficiency and Exchange in the Rural Economy of the United States”

Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism

Richard Hofstadter, “The Myth of the Happy Farmer”

James T. Lemon, The Best Poor Man’s Country

Charles Danhof, Change in Agriculture: the Northern States, 1820-1870

John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie

Christopher Clark, “Household Economy, Market Exchange, and the Rise of Capitalism in the Connecticut Valley, 1800-1860”

John Modell, “The Peopling of a Working-Class Ward: Reading, Pennsylvania, 1850”

Peter Knights, The Plain People of Boston, 1830-1860

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Edward Pessen, “Thomas Skidmore, Agrarian Reformer in the Early American Labor Movement”

Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America

Edward Pessen, Most Uncommon Jacksonians: The Radical Leaders of the Early Labor Movement

Paul G. Faler, Mechanics and Manufacturers in the Early Industrial Revolution

Bruce Laurie, The Working People of Philadelphia

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Carl Wittke, The German Forty-eighters: Refugees of Revolution in America

Kathleen Niels Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836-1860

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Ray Boston, British Chartists in America

Charlotte Erickson, Invisible Immigrants,

Helene S. Zahler, Eastern Workingmen and National Land Policy, 1829-1862