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

Bruce Laurie was a social historian at UMass when I was a graduate student there. I nearly took his historiography section, but opted for David Glassberg’s at the last minute. I think Laurie was offended, but that’s water under the bridge. He began the introduction to this book with Werner Sombart’s 1906 question, “Why is there no Socialism in the United States?” Laurie defined the socialism of the question as “both class consciousness and a socialist party speaking for the working classes.” After tracing the high points of labor historiography (repeated in greater detail in a final, bibliographic essay), he suggested 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.” Laurie’s radicalism was 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.” The transatlantic nature of radicalism was rendered even more interesting by Laurie’s claim that he had found both it and “capitalism in the countryside as well as the city.”

Ultimately, Laurie said, 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. This split was ultimately 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.” Laurie concluded, “That radicalism did not realize its transcendent vision, should not tarnish its principles.”

The long transition from yeoman self-sufficiency to industrial wage slavery was outlined in the book’s first three, antebellum chapters. Laurie told this story in the way one would expect of a social historian, using demographic, wage, and financial data, as well as the comments of workers and activist/journalists. Unfortunately (possibly because the book was envisioned as an undergraduate text or popular history?), he did not cite any of his sources and the bibliographic notes at the end of the book, while giving useful hints, were not comprehensive. Along the way, he did mention several historians whose books I found and read, as well as a long list of labor and radical activists I could research. The narrative placed those names in context with one another, which was extremely helpful. It also identified 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 William Heighton) or the later incarnation of Karl Marx’s International in America (Marx left London in 1872 following a run-in with still-very-influential radicals there) and its influence on unionism.

The second half of the book dealt more with the stuff of labor history: unions, strikes, business/government repression, the failure of the Knights of Labor and the success of the American Federation of Labor. Along the way, Laurie noted the radical language used by Terence Powderly as he led the K. of L. and the way this radicalism moved to the countryside when “in 1891 Powderly joined with Alliancemen in calling the meeting that spawned the Populist party.” In several places, he offered additional reasons why socialism did not come to America: the persistence of radicalism, the fact that “small employers did not think of themselves as capitalists”, disagreements among leaders of the International, and the “ferocious anti-unionism of government and corporate America,” which ultimately led to what Laurie called “prudential unionism...[which] gradually embraced a contracting vision of what was possible or desirable.” 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.