Labor's Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life
I first discovered the workers’ education movement of the interwar period when I was conducting research for my book on A.J. Muste. I had assumed that 1921-1933, when Muste headed Brookwood Labor College, was a period of relative quiescence in his long life as a rabble rouser and that I could probably cover it in one chapter. Instead, to my surprise, I found that Muste was part of an incredibly dynamic and expansive social movement of labor progressives who created an innovative philosophy of workers’ education as part of a larger project to modernize the labor movement. The workers’ education movement was national in scope, embedded within unions, state federations of labor, central labor councils, and dozens of workers’ schools. It helped to produce the generation of working-class militants who founded and led the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and created the “culture of unity” so beautifully described in Lizabeth Cohen’s classic Making a New Deal. Instead of one chapter, Muste’s years at Brookwood turned into two chapters, and I easily could have added several more.
It was thus with great excitement that I read Tobias Higbie’s Labor’s Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life. Although his book is not exclusively focused on the workers’ education movement of the interwar period, he recognizes that it was the apex of working-class intellectual life in the twentieth century, a point that I will return to below. Higbie begins, appropriately, by challenging the common assumption held by workers and intellectuals alike that they are in separate categories. Workers often take pride in having learned through the “school of hard knocks,” and intellectuals give themselves away by expressing surprise whenever they encounter a learned laborer. Yet, as Higbie shows, most American workers in the early twentieth century were literate, albeit rarely educated beyond eighth grade, and they read voraciously, from pulp romance novels to Marx’s Capital. Their autodidacticism did not take place in isolation, but rather within a rich associational culture of union halls, settlement houses, fraternal societies, and urban open forums such as public parks and libraries. Radical publishers and a vibrant labor, immigrant, and black press facilitated this learning, in the process laying the foundations for the workers’ education movement of the 1920s.
The 1920s are often portrayed as the lowest point in the history of organized labor and as a time of intense and destructive factionalism on the left. Yet, as Higbie points out, it was also a time of innovation and creativity as progressive unionists and their radical intellectual allies developed educational institutions and programs to cultivate “social movement skills and consciousness among working-class adults.” (62) In a nod to Paolo Freire, Higbie terms their teaching philosophy “the pedagogy of the organized,” (63) because it focused on workers who were already committed unionists and because it rejected premises of liberal education such as universalism, objectivity, and self-improvement. Instead, the goal was to build the collective power of the working class.
In many ways, Higbie suggests, workers’ education was a victim of its own success. As the labor movement grew in power and prominence, public universities began to launch “labor education” programs to serve union leaders and wage earners. Meanwhile, the bureaucratization of unions in the postwar period created demand for education focused more narrowly on collective bargaining. Over time, as progressivism lost power in the 1950s, labor education evolved into “industrial relations,” a framework that appeased conservative regents and faculty with its language of “objectivity and intellectual integrity.” (82) At the same time, urban redevelopment schemes and suburbanization destroyed the city centers that had provided public spaces for workers to mix, speak, and debate.
Higbie’s final two chapters focus on the personal narratives and visual culture of these organic intellectuals, showing how they tried to imagine and construct identities that were both militantly class conscious and educated. Their struggles illustrate that the boundaries separating workers and intellectuals could be overcome, but that they were always fraught. The demands and realities of working-class life placed profound limits on workers’ access to education and the world of ideas, and many felt this loss deeply.
Labor’s Mind reminds us that, as Higbie puts it, “the separation of academia and everyone else has been a project.” (152; emphasis in original) The working-class may have gained greater access to public education since 1945, but it has been within the context of the declining power of unions and other working-class associations. As a result, the meaning and purpose of education for working-class adults has been dominated by hegemonic notions of individual upward mobility. The age of austerity has only made things worse, with online learning promising “a quick fantasy of personal salvation.” (150)
Labor’s Mind tells this important story in only 152 pages, which makes it ideal for undergraduate classes in labor history and intellectual history. For me, however, it was a bit too brief. Higbie’s discussion of working-class associational culture and public space, for example, is limited to the Chicago Open Forum and the city’s more bohemian Dill Pickle Club. He only mentions in passing labor temples, state federations of labor and central labor councils, the YMCA and YWCA, and individual unions like the ILGWU and the ACW, which played a crucial role in imagining the worker as a thinker. I also wanted to know more about the curriculum of the workers’ education movement, if only to compare it to what came later. We learn that writing classes emphasized autobiography, but nothing about courses in history, economics, drama, public speaking, and union organizing. And what about the teachers who did the hard work of theorizing a working-class pedagogy and curricular design? They are largely missing from Higbie’s narrative, even though their reconceptualization of the identity and allegiances of the teacher might serve as a useful model for socially conscious teachers today.
These critiques should not detract from Higbie’s success in showing that in the past there was a more dynamic overlap between formal and informal education and between “intellectuals” and workers. He concludes with a call for a vision of democratic life in which community empowerment and public education work together, though it is hard to imagine this happening anytime soon with shrinking education budgets, rising tuition, and rates of union membership declining to levels not seen since the 1920s. But perhaps that is Higbie’s point, and his story of an earlier time when such boundaries were crossed in a spirit of creativity and experimentation should inspire all workers, including academics, to do the same.
About the Reviewer
Leilah Danielson teaches recent American history and US/World at Northern Arizona University. She has published a number of articles on the history of the peace movement and the role of religion and race in American political culture. She is the author of the book American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of American Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) and co-editor (with Doug Rossinow and Marian Mollin) of The Religious Left in Modern America: Doorkeepers of a Radical Faith (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), which is coming out in paperback this spring.