Labor's Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life
As a card-carrying social historian, I’m pleased to be part of a dialogue with the S-USIH community and have already learned a great deal. I am grateful to Tim Lacy for suggesting this forum, and to Peter Cole, Janine Giordano Drake, and Leilah Danielson for their thoughtful engagement with Labor’s Mind. Rather than respond to each review in turn, I will organize my comments thematically in hopes of sparking more debate.
Let’s begin with the book’s subtitle. When I began researching the lives and institutions that would eventually appear on the pages of Labor’s Mind, I quickly understood that I did not want to write the definitive study of working-class intellectuals in the United States, a la Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Instead, I wanted to capture the variety of ways workers’ intellectual life–reading, writing, and teaching—were central in the past and present of organized labor, and rendered invisible by the dominant modes of labor history, historical sociology, and popular commentary. Thus, Labor’s Mind is very consciously a history rather than the history of working-class intellectual life. There are other histories, and I hope the book—either through inspiration or omission—will led more scholars down this path.
Labor’s Mind looks backward over a great education divide in 20th century America. As late as 1940, only 14% of American adults had completed 4 years of high school. Today over 80% are high school graduates and more than half of have some college experience. The expansion of formal education has touched nearly every aspect of our society, but we have yet to retool many of our underlying assumptions about the intersection of class, intelligence, cultural expression, and authenticity. Evidenced by innumerable mainstream media commentaries on the 2016 presidential election, the dominant voices in our culture define “working class” through the lens of education and race. The so-called “white working-class voter” who receives the most attention is defined more by lack of a college degree than any other factor. Meanwhile, millions of college graduates weighed down by college loan debt, saddled with rising rents, and working multiple part-time jobs are axiomatically not workers.
There is, of course, a literature on late-modern class structure, the professional-managerial class, and other formulations. When looking for the roots of the identity politics of contemporary class, however, I think we do well to cast our view farther back to the early twentieth century, especially the 1920s and early 1930s. It was then that 19th century cultures of popular self-education collided with the emerging Taylorist modernity that demanded a more rigid divide between head and hand. This was also a period when the power of trade unionism was at a low ebb. Accordingly, Labor’s Mind focuses on a broad organization context that included unions, cooperatives, political parties and tendencies, and community organizations. As Danielson points out, this associational world was extremely broad and varied—much broader than Chicago’s near northside. That said, Chicago offers a useful counterpoint to the better studied case of New York City. The organizational and intellectual life of working-class Chicago had the potential to link across immigrant and racial groups, and beyond the city to the many midwestern industrial centers. Labor’s partisans knew the working class was far from united. The task was to organize within class segments, and then to find common cause across them. As Peter Cole’s own work on the IWW shows, labor militants were often pragmatic organizers who fully understood to monumental task before them. Much more than middle class progressives who tended to circulate in largely white, English-speaking environments, radical organizers’ daily life was multicultural and multilingual.
As Janine Giordano Drake suggests in her review, a key problematic for the book is the question of authenticity. These activists were deeply invested in ideas because, as the coal miner and union leader John Brophy put it, “ideas are a power.” Of course, there was plenty of disagreement about which ideas were truly powerful, but most of the successful organizers settled on ideas that were close to the daily experiences of working people. For Brophy, a devout Catholic who went to work at the age of 12 and authored studies on mine nationalization, the most powerful ideas were the miners’ “consciousness of the power of numbers” and that miners were “entitled to the best the industry can afford.” In contrast, the labor economist Selig Perlman who often taught at the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers, considered schemes like mine nationalization a variety of “mysticism” typical of middle class “ethical intellectuals” who had no real purchase on the working-class mind.
Behind many ideological and tactical arguments within workers’ movements were assertions about what counted as real thinking and true working-class experience. As high schools and universities graduated greater numbers, the distinction between book-learning and street-learning grew ever more powerful as a mode of distinction. For many who lacked formal education, invoking the “school of hard knocks” was both a statement of the value of their experience and a useful rhetorical tool to be used against their formally-educated rivals. But this rhetoric could distort the very record we rely on to account for the history of American workers. As life story became and popular and powerful genre of agitational communication, the demand to shape one’s life story to the needs of the movement were strong. James Maurer, a Socialist champion of workers’ education who grew up poor in a Pennsylvania industrial town, wrote in 1922 that he became a radical “not from what I read [but] what I lived.” If we are to believe the much more detailed account he gave in his autobiography, however, the opposite was true. Maurer was illiterate and ignorant of labor politics until his coworker, a member of the Knights of Labor, taught him to read. He later started a reading group with friends and together, as they worked their way through Marx, they became Socialists. Was it reading that made Maurer and his comrades a radical? Was it experience? No doubt it was both. But in the politics of 1922, it had to be experience alone.
Organized religion, faith, and secularism also feature into this dynamic. I’ll stipulate that there is much more to say about working-class religious life as Giordano Drake and Danielson have shown in their own work. However, the world of working-class reading that centered on Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books and Charles H. Kerr publications was decidedly anticlerical. Many activists found a replacement for traditional religion and devotional community in the context of their organizational relationships: some with the Socialist or Communist Party, some with their unions, and a few with their educational networks. As the garment worker Sarah Rozner noted, Sidney Hillman was her rabbi and Brookwood Labor College was “the place of the development of our souls.” But most of these activists had soured on the “meek shall inherit the earth” message of their religious leaders and turned to Little Blue Books and other radical literature to justify their own journey into non-belief. Armed to the teeth with these ideas, they produced imagery like the Mr. Block cartoons that Cole mentions. A symbol the gullibility of workers who embraced patriotism and employers’ ideals of productivity, Mr. Block’s head was literally made of a wooden block and was often split open by the wedge of experience. This kind of condescending self-assurance was primarily pitched to the already converted.
To reach those who were unconvinced, organizers needed more subtle strategies. Some of these new strategies would come from working-class intellectuals like William Z. Foster who wrote a widely reproduced organizing manual. Others developed by trial-and-error in the field. Still others emerged from ideas hatched in labor colleges and field tested in the forgotten, often losing campaigns of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Labor’s Mind argues that the workers movement benefited from its porous boundaries that created spaces of interaction with progressive middle-class activists. The value proposition in these interactions was not all one way. Workers like Rose Pesotta benefited from the advice and mentorship of teachers like A.J. Muste. Middle class intellectuals gained valuable insights into the nature of industrial modernity. Muste, for instance, had a wide-ranging correspondence with Brookwood alumni, which he would weave into his commentaries in the journal Labor Age.
Provocatively, Drake asks, “In the alternate universe where the labor movement retained its relationship with public intellectuals, would the labor movement have also lost some of its independence?” Isn’t it better for workers and their organizations to forge their own intellectual world? To be sure, as industrial unions became a fixture in the U.S. economy after World War II, they developed much more robust internal education programs that spoke to the deeply felt needs of their members to be effective organizational leaders. But some number of workers wanted more than training in trade union administration, as we can see in the lives of Cleophas Williams and Herb Mills that Peter Cole shared. The prewar workers education movement made up a parallel educational network beyond the walls of the soon-to-expand system of university campuses. Publications and talks circulated ideas, participants compiled personal and institutional libraries to support their own learning and that of their colleagues. Groups of like-minded people coalesced around shared questions, methods, and passions. Most importantly, within this distributed system of higher education, working-class learners could be both students and workers. Lost with the demise of this system was a more democratic way of approaching the life of the mind and, just as important, the spaces that welcomed irregular and uncredentialed intellectuals.
In some ways, we can see a new culture of self-education sprouting online, in the proliferation of book-based podcasts, in reading groups, in the popularity of public libraries, and in support for strikes of public teachers. I’m hopeful. Maybe to a fault. The structures of online surveillance limit the potential for a revived culture of self-education. On the other hand, the global financial crash of 2008 and the 2016 election have transformed popular perceptions of the economy. As a university professor, I’ve seen the change in consciousness. More of our students are working long hours to pay for their education, and to support their families. They see themselves as workers, even if the university imagines itself generating intellectuals. We should help them to feel comfortable in both roles.
About the Reviewer
Tobias Higbie is a Professor of History, chair of Labor Studies, and Associate Director of the Institute for Research on Labor & Employment at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He teaches classes on labor and social movement history, and migration history. Higbie is the author of Labor’s Mind: an Intellectual History of the Working Class (University of Illinois Press, 2019) and Indispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880-1930 (University of Illinois Press, 2003). He is also author of articles on migration, print culture, working-class education, and robots. Higbie is contributing editor for contemporary affairs at the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois, and is a member of the American Federation of Teachers.