BLAMING THE VICTIM
Psychological Reductionism in Class Theory
Our conclusions contradict most earlier research on working-class consciousness. How can we reconcile our research with the earlier results? Our first answer is that the earlier research offered surprisingly little true evidence denying class perceptions; its conclusions are often mere inferences based on the failure of socialist movements. In this chapter we review several examples of how readily past work has drawn these inferences without any direct evidence of the workers’ actual states of mind. Our second answer, which we take up in the next chapter, is that the research which did actually investigate workers’ consciousness has often been misinterpreted.
The error of inferring the absence of class consciousness from the failure of American socialism is so widespread and so easily committed that it has almost single-handedly wrecked the study of class consciousness. But conflict and consciousness exist at separate levels of social reality: socialism, unions, and protest movements (or their absence) are structural characteristics of a social system; class consciousness (or its absence) is a psychological attribute of individuals. The attempt to explain structural phenomena solely in terms of psychological attributes has been justifiably derided in social science as psychological reductionism. Movements such as working-class protest depend on many causes besides the workers’ own ideas, they require access to resources and opportunities that are entirely unrelated to the motivation or commitment of the actors themselves. Socialist movements can fail when structural opportunities are missing, no matter how class conscious the workers have become.
Despite the universal warnings against it, psychological reductionism is rampant throughout the literature on workers’ protest movements. From the flimsiest of evidence, firm conclusions are drawn about the workers’ psychological states. The readily available structural explanations for working-class defeats are often neglected. In many instances, no plausible level of class consciousness could have overcome the inherent weaknesses of the workers’ political and economic position, but these structural handicaps—even when acknowledged in telling the history—are glossed over in the construction of psychological explanations for the eventual failures.
We will review some examples to illustrate how easily, even with the best of intentions, investigators end up by blaming the workers for their own exploitation: “If only the workers were sufficiently class conscious, they would create the socialist movement that could transform the capitalist system.”1 In selecting examples for scrutiny, we have deliberately chosen works by scholars who are most sensitive to the exploitation of American workers. For example, a statement by the executive editor of Socialist Review is typical:
We have no objective guarantee that the American working class recognizes capitalism as the cause of the injustice and inequalities of American life. The recent history of the American working class clearly shows that it lacks the organizational and political capacity to struggle effectively for the fundamental transformation of society. (Escoffier, 1986:117)
In fact, not only does Escoffier blame workers for the failure of socialism, he tells how disturbing this conclusion is to American socialists today:
Profound disappointments and doubts have shattered our faith in the objective and strategic possibilities implied by Marxist interpretations of history. Many of us are now adrift. Is socialism a meaningful political stance? If so, how is it? How can we maintain our commitment and seek to realize our hopes politically? Our political crisis is experienced as deeply personal and demoralizing. (1986:117)
Critics of the capitalist status quo have little reason to portray workers as passive believers in the American Dream; indeed, for some, such a conclusion is “deeply personal and demoralizing.” But Escoffier only follows a long tradition of American radicals who have despaired of the working class ever acting as the agent of change (see Mills, 1963:237, 254–56; Marcuse, 1964; Sweezy , 1972; and Wachtel, 1974). The fact that even these critics have still recited the litany of workers’ conservatism attests to the strength of the prevailing myths and the temptations of reductionist inferences.
The Middletown Studies
Robert and Helen Lynd’s (1929; 1937) classic studies of Muncie, Indiana, begun in the 1920s, provide our first example of unsupported conclusions about American class consciousness. This work is an especially useful example because the Lynds were well aware of the problems faced by “Middletown” workers. They took the time to listen to the workers and to their frustrated union organizers, and the stories they recount document the human meaning of the workers’ deprivations. The Middletown studies have both shaped and reflected our beliefs about American class consciousness. They are an important part of the intellectual history of American sociology.
In 1935, the Lynds returned to the site of their previous research to examine the impact of the Depression on the Middle American optimism they had observed a decade earlier. The Depression had closed in on the town belatedly but inexorably. The big General Motors plant closed; the largest department store failed; and employment was cut in half. Wages were low throughout the town, even by Depression standards. Surely these were the conditions to incite radical protest. Instead, the Lynds found an enduring conservative culture: class conflict was stifled, and workers withdrew to cope as best they could. The Lynds took the opportunity to investigate firsthand the failure of American working-class protest.
Middletown’s history is revealing because working-class quiescence was not always a foregone conclusion there. In the first year of Roosevelt’s New Deal, a wave of union organization had swept over the town. Ten new unions were organized in 1933–34, and membership rose from 700 to 2,800. In the words of a local labor leader, “Men were coming in faster than we could handle them” (Lynd and Lynd, 1937:28). In January 1934 a drive was begun to organize the glass factory owned by the locally dominant Ball family. By March, 900 of the plant’s 960 workingmen had joined the union.
Yet within a year, this promising start had collapsed. None of the big plants had been organized; workers abandoned the unions already set up, and total membership fell to 1,000. In 1935, General Motors returned to the town but only after getting assurances of an open shop and official cooperation in resisting union organization. What had happened? Where did the causes of this failure lie?
The evidence assembled by the Lynds points directly at the effective opposition rallied by Middletown’s cohesive “business class.” The Depression itself gave employers an upper hand. The labor surplus encouraged dismissals and intimidated those workers fortunate enough to have jobs. As one worker put it:
Our people are nervous about their jobs and don’t dare kick about working conditions; I’ve been working fairly steadily at the D—plant for seven years, but I have been and still am afraid to let out my belt and buy anything beyond immediate necessities, for I might get canned any day. (Lynd and Lynd, 1937:40)
Suspected union sympathizers were replaced. Blacklisting was easy in a town of 50,000. Seriously threatened plants responded with plans to move to a new city. A work force made up of people who had often experienced recent unemployment themselves, surrounded by thousands of impoverished unemployed, responded with the intended emotion: fear. A local labor leader described the impact of this fear on attempts to organize the work force:
The men were pretty well scared to begin with, since General Motors had moved out of town and another auto-parts plant had closed. We tackled them anyway. We organized a bunch of men at the A plant, where they paid their machinists as low as twenty cents an hour before N.R.A. And then hell cut loose in the plant! The ax was swung right and left by the company and those who weren’t dismissed were scared to death. Finally, the men appealed to the Regional Labor Board for an election in 1934. The company fought against an election, carried the fight up to the top Labor Board through all kinds of appeals, until when the vote came in the spring of 1935, N.R.A. was so weak and the men so intimidated that they were afraid to vote. They’re still unorganized out there, and the plant remains a lousy place where men work only to keep from having to go on relief. (Lynd and Lynd, 1937:33)
Newspapers, police, clergy, and local politicians closed ranks behind the counterattacking businesses. Four days before an announced meeting to begin organization of automotive workers, the afternoon newspaper ran photographs of violent labor arrests in Oregon. The radio station scheduled, then canceled, the broadcast of a union speech. Police arrested a worker distributing handbills, trailed union organizers, and scared off incoming “undesirables.” The Lynds provide no evidence that any segment of the town’s elite split off to support the workers’ attempts to overcome their well-recognized deprivations.
As if the opposition weren’t sufficiently formidable, labor faced its own leadership problems. Middletown’s local labor leadership was inexperienced; the national unions sent incompetent organizers; and government patronage co-opted the few labor leaders who had risen to positions of influence. In these circumstances, the workers never stood much of a chance. Perhaps some extraordinary working-class leadership could have salvaged the situation, but in general, structural changes are engineered by ordinary people. Middletown proved to be an ordinary case: working-class opposition was overwhelmed. It is a wonder that workers risked any collective action at all in such a hostile climate. By 1935 the prevailing mood was a resigned but realistic hopelessness.
The Lynds, after documenting the initial enthusiasm for labor resistance and reviewing the effectiveness of a solidly united business class, only return to the tired theme of the failure of working-class consciousness: “Middletown labor in characteristic American fashion lacks any driving sense of class consciousness” (Lynd and Lynd, 1937:454). Their explanations are the familiar preconceptions:
He is an individualist in an individualist culture. (Lynd and Lynd, 1937:453)
He lives on a Middle Western farm, has moved in from the farm, or his father’s family moved to town from a farm. He is thus close to the network of habits of thought engendered by the isolated, self-contained enterprise of farming. (Lynd and Lynd, 1937:453—an obvious echo of Marx’s observations on the isolation of the French peasantry)
Car ownership stands to them for a large share of the “American Dream.” (Lynd and Lynd, 1937:26)
He is apt to want quick action, or his union becomes just another thing that bothers him needlessly. (Lynd and Lynd, 1937:454)
Having documented the impossible situation the workers faced, why should the Lynds attribute the result to a failure of class consciousness? Not only does their own evidence identify the structural obstacles; they also record many workers’ comments that are excellent examples of class consciousness.
At times, the Lynds misinterpret the quotations so dramatically that the reader is left wondering if something has been misplaced. For example, upon learning of the return of General Motors, one worker remarked:
We auto workers aren’t getting too excited about the return of General Motors. It means a job, and that’s important—for the months in the year they’re willing to hire you. Only the Chamber of Commerce crowd are optimistic, and they’re trying to fool us workers.
Not two sentences later, the Lynds conclude:
And yet, as noted above, this fear, resentment, insecurity, and disillusionment has been to Middletown’s workers largely an individual experience for each worker, and not a thing generalized by him into a “class” experience. (Lynd and Lynd, 1937:40–41; emphasis added)
Where, in the words of that worker, is there any evidence of an individualistic interpretation of his experience?
Perhaps the Lynds believe that an aroused class consciousness can triumph in any situation. But a belief in the irresistible power of class consciousness is just a radical inversion of the bourgeois belief in hard work and determination. Instead of hard work and determination, the radical inserts class consciousness; instead of an individualized bourgeois attainment, proletarian revolution. The social psychological emphasis remains the same. But success, whether bourgeois or proletarian, is a socially structured outcome and depends on the opportunities available. The Middletown described by the Lynds provides one of the worst imaginable situations for working-class protest. What is remarkable is that the workers attempted organized resistance at all.
Even as the Lynds were finishing their research, fresh attempts were underway to organize the automotive industry. Rather than a failure of class consciousness, such an attempt would appear to be a folly of unrestrained adventurism. Surely a new organizing drive would lead only to more dismissals of the potential leaders, more police harassment, and an even more cohesive and defensive ruling class. How could workers living on the margin of subsistence risk their families’ one chance for a stable livelihood in return for such a small probability of success? Weak class consciousness could hardly have been their problem.
The History of American Mobility
Stephan Thernstrom (1964) makes the same mistake in his widely praised study of social mobility in nineteenth-century Newburyport, Massachusetts. Acknowledging that the historian has a difficult task in studying the consciousness of nineteenth-century workers (“dead men cannot be interviewed”), he opts instead to study actual rates of mobility and infer from them “lower class attitudes about mobility opportunities” (1964:58–59). He then feels comfortable in concluding that “Newburyport residents in 1880 were still persuaded of the uniqueness of American social arrangements, which they regarded as the prime cause of the progress they gloried in. They saw a stark contrast between the Old World and the New” (1964: 186).
In fact, Thernstrom knows no more about working-class attitudes than when he began his research. He can only speculate about what Newburyport workers “gloried in.” His specific citations are from the conservative, middle-class newspaper—which Thernstrom himself admits had every reason to accept this self-serving ideology. What Newburyport workers believed is still hidden. Alan Dawley (1976:219) has correctly attacked Thernstrom’s conclusions about workers’ mobility beliefs as “one part pure speculation, one part consensus historiography, and no part of the actual ideas of Newburyport’s laborers.”
Thernstrom does turn up one record of working-class opinion. An irate worker in 1880 wrote the local newspaper in reply to editorials slurring the Democratic Party as based in the “slums, penitentiaries, and cock-pits.” Here is the worker’s story in his own words:
I was born in poverty and . . . have never known anything else. My radicalism and my democracy have been starved into me by long months of privation, by long hours of miserably paid work. . . . My feelings are bitter and my words are fierce on the subject of the non-producing class which lives on the earnings of productive labor in insolent superiority and keeps it in silent slavery. (Thernstrom, 1964:180)
One must applaud Thernstrom for his scholarly evenhandedness in preserving such a quotation, but one must also wonder what is left of his thesis. His only piece of direct evidence completely contradicts all his own conclusions on working-class consciousness. “Long months of privation” and “long hours of miserably paid work” hardly sound like the kind of progress Newburyport residents “gloried in.” What more class-conscious, even Marxian, attitude could the historian ask for? Here is a worker, bitter toward the “non-producing class which lives on the earnings of productive labor in insolent superiority.” The words defy us to maintain our belief in working-class acceptance of the American Dream.
What does Thernstrom make of all this? “It would be folly,” he warns us, “to consider [these fierce words] proof of the depth and sharpness of actual political conflict.” Instead, he advises, “a case for the opposite assumption might be made—that the extraordinary verbal violence of American politics in the post-Civil War period grew out of and served to conceal the relative absence of genuine issues, and that political contests were as much as anything else an elaborate game.” This is disingenuous and contemptuous of his historical material. We cannot believe that the “long months of privation” and “long hours of miserably paid work” was, for the worker, just a part of some elaborate game.
In fact, Thernstrom’s dodge of his own evidence is a telling reversal of Seymour Martin Lipset’s dodge of the evidence on the violence of the American labor movement. He, too, maintains a thesis of weak class consciousness; he attributes the failure of American socialism to the American values of individualistic achievement and egalitarianism (Lipset, 1963: 204). What disturbs his thesis is the extraordinary violence of the American labor movement—fierce action even beyond Thernstrom’s fierce words, violence that would seem to suggest a militant class consciousness. But Lipset tries to explain away the violence by arguing that such violent actions somehow actually confirm the American workers’ acceptance of individual achievement and egalitarianism and rejection of class solidarity:
Just as ideological conservatism and pursuit of narrow self-interests may be derived from the value system, so may the use of violent and militant tactics. . . . An open-class system leads workers to resent inequalities in income and status between themselves and others more frequently than does an ascriptively stratified system, where the only inequalities that count are class inequalities. (Lipset, 1963:204–5)
This line of reasoning would require us to reinterpret the violence of the labor movement not as an expression of class conflict but as a series of individualistic and even random outbreaks of personal frustration—but that is hardly consistent with the historical record.
What is most disturbing in both the Thernstrom and Lipset accounts is the dogged determination to maintain a belief in weak class consciousness despite obvious contradictory evidence. For Thernstrom, verbal violence is evidence against actual violence; for Lipset, actual violence is evidence against a violent class consciousness. Is there no fact and no opinion that they cannot assimilate to their theories?
U.S. Labor History
In a column written during the 1980 Republican convention, journalist David Broder (1980) sought to explain Ronald Reagan’s appeal to the voters of small-town America. Broder had been corresponding with Ruth Johnson, an especially ardent Reagan supporter and Republican party stalwart from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Coeur d’Alene, from what I know of it, is a good deal closer in spirit to the small town of Dixon, Illinois, where Reagan spent his boyhood in the second decade of this century, than it is to, say, the Detroit of 1980.
Reagan’s values—like Ruth Johnson’s—were shaped in a community where families were strong and unions were weak. It was a community where wives stayed home and took care of the kids, and teachers stayed in the classroom and didn’t worry about lobbying in Washington. It was a world where employers looked out for their employees! (Broder, 1980)
Coeur d’Alene, Mr. Broder has forgotten, was the site of two of the most violent labor conflicts in U.S. history. In 1892 armed miners attacked a struck mine defended by private guards hired to protect imported strikebreakers. The miners succeeded in dropping 100 pounds of dynamite into an operating mill, destroying it, and killing one strikebreaker while wounding 20 others. At another mill, company guards opened fire on the striking miners, killing 5 and wounding 14. The miners fought back, captured the mill, and sent the guards out of the county. This victory was followed by the capture of another operating mine, where the miners again forced the nonunion workers to flee the county.
As was to happen so consistently in American labor history, once class-conscious workers had achieved some success, the U.S. Army stepped in with overpowering force to reinstate the rule of capital. Martial law was declared, and the soldiers rounded up several hundred miners into outdoor “bullpens.” The union leadership was charged with contempt of court and sent to jail outside the county. Local police officials, elected by the votes of union miners, had been sympathetic to or neutral in the strikes; they were replaced with appointees who would appropriately knuckle under to the invading force. The army even engaged in some strikebreaking of its own when capitalists proved too timid: in one mine where owners had actually reached a working agreement with the union, the army forced the dismissal of all known union men.
The most class conscious of revolutionaries must recognize reality when faced with overwhelming force. The 1892 strike was broken by such a force. But even in jail, the miners organized a new and yet more militant union, the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM was to become the foundation for the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—the syndicalist “Wobblies”—who sought to overthrow American capitalism two decades later. And in Coeur d’Alene in 1899, only seven years after the first battle, the miners again struck to force the one remaining nonunion mine to accept union organization and union-scale wages. In a virtual repeat of the earlier conflict, 300 miners attacked and overran the nonunion mine, evicted the guards and scabs, and dynamited the mill. Two men died, one union and one nonunion. Five days later martial law was declared, and the acting secretary of war in Washington sent the needed troops. The army was even more thorough this time, remaining for two years and outlawing the employment of union members. The bullpens were resurrected; union leaders were sentenced to prison terms of up to 17 years; and the union, in Coeur d’Alene at least, was crushed (Perlman and Taft, 1935:169–88; Jensen, 1950).
Americans have a collective amnesia about their history of labor conflict. Coeur d’Alene is hardly Broder’s idyllic community where “families were strong and unions were weak,” where “employers looked out for their employees.” The actual history does not fit comfortably in the portrait of a complacent working class, so the history is often ignored.
Nor have labor historians succeeded in correcting the image of complacency; for many years, the dominant school of labor history helped perpetuate the conservative stereotype. According to this interpretation, American workers desired only the larger share of the pie that conservative trade unions promised them; workers were not willing to demand new socialist recipes to reorganize the control of production (see, e.g., Perlman, 1928: 169). But the only evidence these historians offer about workers’ actual desires is the outcome of the labor conflicts themselves—another example of reductionism. In most of the cases, it is easy to identify situational causes that explain the failure of labor radicalism without any resort to inferences about workers’ consciousness.
The consistent reappearance of the radical impulse in the labor movement belies the conservative interpretation. The president of the Western Federation of Miners, the union that arose from the Coeur d’Alene debacle, demanded “a complete revolution of present social and economic conditions.” The WFM’s goal was “to abolish the wage system which is more destructive than any other slave system devised” (Dubofsky, 1969:69). Eugene Debs, in leading the nationwide Pullman strike of 1894, called for nationalization of the railroads (a position endorsed by a new union in the strike wave of 1919–20). The International Workers of the World arose at the turn of the century as the radical alternative to the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Seeking to unite all workers in “One Big Union,” the Wobblies were so radical that they refused to sign binding contracts with employers because such contracts compromised future labor militancy. After the IWW was crushed during World War I, a new wave of union militance culminated in the Great Steel Strike of 1919. And as in Middletown, the Great Depression and some New Deal protection brought yet another wave of union organization and strikes in the 1930s.
These recurrent waves of militant union activity testify to the existence of a large reservoir of working-class consciousness, biding its time, waiting for the opportunity to break out. On each occasion when labor protest was incited by wage cuts or work redefinition, militant workers stood ready to guard their traditional rights or past economic gains.
What is used to bolster the conservative interpretation is the frequency with which workers lost these battles. The Pullman strike of 1894, like the Coeur d’Alene strikes, was defeated by an army of federal troops. Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party were crushed during World War I by Debs’s imprisonment and the Post Office’s confiscation of all Socialist Party mail. The most radical of American unions, the IWW, was subjected to vigilante justice and judicial hysteria, commemorated now in the ballad of Joe Hill. In 1917 the U.S. Department of Justice raided IWW offices across the country and arrested “almost the entire first- and second-line leadership” (Dubofsky, 1975:125). But these failures were not the failures of working-class consciousness; instead, they represent the successful application of political repression (Goldstein, 1978).
A second fact used to sustain the conservative interpretation of the American labor movement is that not only did the socialist and radical alternatives repeatedly fail, but the collaborationist non-political AFL succeeded. In the success of Samuel Gompers and the AFL, some labor historians have seen the embodiment of true working-class sentiments. In this view, the radicals and political reformers were only middle-class utopians or alienated intellectuals; real workers wanted only to protect their jobs and wages from employers’ greed; it was because the AFL trade unions limited themselves to these more modest goals that they were supported by the majority of workers.
Gompers and the AFL unions did deliberately modify their previously Marxist views in order to ensure their success. But that moderation was designed not to create greater appeal to the working class but to achieve greater toleration from business and the government (Dick, 1972:104). Gompers watched the suppression of more class-conscious movements and was appropriately intimidated. The decision to fashion a more limited trade unionist movement was a strategy calculated to minimize the probability of destruction at the hands of the ruling class (Gompers, 1925:97). It proved to be the safest course: Gompers stood aside and watched the organized power of a thriving capitalist class crush his more radical opposition. But that opposition was eliminated not because it did not appeal to the working class but because it aroused the unbridled wrath of American capital.
Selig Perlman, a major figure in the conservative interpretation of labor history, once described how he came to his belief in the weak class consciousness of American workers.2 Perlman had set out, under John Commons’s tutelage at the University of Wisconsin, to study the socialist movements of immigrant workers in the 1860s and 1870s. He discovered that these radical working-class movements were eventually transformed into the conservative AFL—exactly the reverse of the Marxist thesis that class consciousness would arise out of pure-and-simple trade unionism. From this “topsy-turvy order of things,” Perlman concluded, “Obviously, working people in the real felt an urge towards collective control of their employment opportunities, but hardly towards similar control of industry” (Perlman, 1928: viii). Obviously? Here is an apt illustration of the trap of reductionist reasoning. The inference about working people’s “urge” does not at all follow from the historical outcome he is describing. In fact, Perlman knew of Gompers’s fear of capitalist repression, but the alternative explanation is ignored for the simplicity of the reductionist approach.
The logic becomes even more convoluted in Perlman’s discussion of the suppression of “dual unions” and “outlaw” strikes. In America, the AFL itself ruthlessly fought radical splinter groups, at times even providing scabs to break the radicals’ strikes. The leadership of European unions, on the other hand, tolerated radical splinter groups and permitted dual membership. On the face of it, this divergence of the European and American labor movements should be attributed to different leadership strategies. But to Perlman, the difference in the behavior of trade union leaders is evidence of differences in the consciousness of workers. American trade union leaders suppressed radical alternatives, according to Perlman, because they feared the weakness of American class consciousness; British trade union leaders could afford toleration because they were confident that underneath the dual unions and outlaw strikes was a solid working-class cohesiveness. Perlman reinterprets the strategy of union leaders as evidence of working-class consciousness. When inferences such as this contaminate the theory, no amount of data will dislodge the conclusion.
It is important to realize why Gompers’s success does not per se establish the conservatism of American workers. Equally plausible structural explanations fit the same historical data. Given governmental repression of all radical working-class movements, the mass of workers were left with a choice between a class-conscious but thoroughly defeated radical movement and a conservative AFL that promised much less but at least was permitted some successes.3 In this environment, the workers’ decisions to align themselves with the more successful AFL says little about their lack of class consciousness; it reflects only a simple rationality in the face of given historical alternatives. Moreover, the terms of that choice were dictated by business, not by workers; workers never had a choice between the conservative AFL and a successful radical working-class movement. The radical alternative was crushed, while the conservative option flourished under governmental nurturance.4 In fact, even the AFL’s conservatism can be interpreted as a response to the governmental repression. Earlier socialist tendencies within the AFL and in Gompers himself were stifled when it became clear that radicalism entailed arrest and certain failure.
The Commons–Perlman portrait of a conservative working class has been challenged by contemporary labor historians. Dubofsky (1974), we noted, comes closest to resolving the puzzle by blaming the failure of the IWW and the Socialist Party on the strength of American capitalism rather than the weakness of the working class. Historians of the American Left should transfer their attention, Dubofsky recommends, from socialists and labor leaders to corporate magnates and their political allies.
But even Dubofsky fails to follow the logic through to a clear break with the concept of weak consciousness. What is it about American capitalists that Dubofsky asks historians to study? Their “hegemony” over the “values, attitudes and actions of the working-class masses.” Here Dubofsky falls back into the old habit: he assumes a hegemony over working-class consciousness that is nowhere demonstrated by the facts he has assembled. Where is the evidence that the values and attitudes of workers were so overwhelmed by the “preeminently business culture?” Evidence on cultural hegemony is, of course, harder to find for the labor historian of the first quarter of the twentieth century than for survey researchers of the third and fourth quarters. But the lack of evidence on attitudes counsels scholarly caution rather than a reaffirmation of conservative myths. The Coeur d’Alene miners, Dubofsky’s own beloved Wobblies, and thousands of other rebellious American workers have provided a lasting testament that their economic and political subordination was never consolidated into ideological surrender.5
In their widely influential book Poor People’s Movements, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (1977) have assembled a persuasive case documenting the structural constraints on working-class defiance. They recognize the inherent weakness of workers and the poor in any political conflict as a consequence of social position: workers and poor people have less wealth, less influence, less access to the media—in short, less control over almost every resource that is important for success in a political conflict. Their lack of resources has exposed workers to the single most important cause of their failure: physical and economic coercion by the ruling class. “Those for whom the rewards are most meager, who are the most oppressed by inequality, are also acquiescent. Sometimes they are the most acquiescent, for they have little defense against the penalties that can be imposed for defiance” (Piven and Cloward, 1977:6; emphasis added).
Here is a straightforward and eminently reasonable structural explanation of working-class acquiescence. There is a wealth of research to support the vulnerability of the poor to coercion; Piven and Cloward compile some of the best evidence themselves. The structural explanation is also logically sufficient. We need devise no other causes of working-class acquiescence to understand the paucity of class protests.
Nevertheless, even these authors soon lapse into a careless confusion of structural and psychological explanations:
Moreover at most times and in most places, and especially in the United States, the poor are led to believe their destitution is deserved. . . . In more modern societies, such as the United States, riches and power are ascribed to personal qualities of industry and talent; it follows that those who have little or nothing have only what they deserve. (Piven and Cloward, 1977:6; emphasis added)
They go on to quote approvingly the statement that “the guilt and self-concepts of the poor have kept them docile” (Edelman, 1971:56; emphasis added). Now it makes a great deal of difference whether one attributes the acquiescence of the poor to their “guilt and self-concepts” or to their vulnerability to coercion. The two should not be lightly mixed together in the same theoretical stew. Especially in an essay that so convincingly demonstrates the inherent structural weakness of working-class movements, why resort to psychological explanations? Is there any empirical evidence that guilt and self-concepts are significant inhibitions to working-class protest? To be sure, the poor are “led to believe” many things—the question is, do they follow meekly along? Dominant classes may assume that the poor have accepted the official line, but the scholar should seek sufficient evidence. Yet not a single quote, not even a haphazard and unscientifically sampled remark, is offered to document any “guilt and negative self-concepts.”
On the contrary, the four protest movements studied by Piven and Cloward suggest a large reservoir of class hostility. The unemployed during the Depression, industrial workers struggling to unionize, Blacks in the civil rights movement, and welfare recipients in the 1960s all demonstrated a readiness to take to the streets to demand redress. It was only when these movements tried to transform themselves into legitimate institutions that they slipped into ineffectiveness. Piven and Cloward’s insight is that formal organizations of the poor are necessarily weak; they are attempting to play a political game in which the dominant class holds most of the cards. Organizational work becomes a tactical disaster for the poor because it concentrates energy where the poor are most disadvantaged and ignores those resources that the poor do have—the most important of which is their ability to disrupt the smooth functioning of the exploitative system. Historically, the poor have been most successful when they have been most disruptive. Mobilization to demand justice requires only a commitment to social change, and this commitment was not lacking in any of the movements reviewed. So long as the movements relied on the workers and the unemployed themselves—that is, on their willingness to take to the streets—the movements won concessions from the authorities. But the impulse to create permanent, established organizations within “the system” is a shift toward weakness.
It is the irony of the Piven and Cloward thesis, an irony repeated again and again in the literature of the Left, that they have built a superb case against the class-consciousness explanations of American exceptionalism and yet repeat the same lack-of-class-consciousness homilies. Like the Lynds, they assemble evidence that documents a remarkable (alas, almost foolhardy) readiness among American workers to challenge the existing system. Unlike the Lynds, Piven and Cloward conclude quite explicitly that workers’ weaknesses are largely structural, not psychological. Still they do not take the logical next step of expunging the tired psychological explanations from the catalogue of working-class handicaps. Guilt and negative self-concepts are still cited, almost ritualistically. The issue is never confronted, and the received wisdom is left unchallenged.
The “New Left” in the 1960s
So far, we have reviewed examples of psychological reductionism in the social science literature. At least brief attention must also be directed to political activists. The “New Left” that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s has been as guilty as academe of blaming the failure of U.S. class conflict on American workers’ weak class consciousness. Interestingly, the leaders of the “Old Left,” who first organized the working class in massive and often violent resistance to U.S. capitalism, rarely fell into this trap. There are few laments about workers’ false consciousness in the writings of Eugene Debs (1948), “Big Bill” Haywood (1929), or William Z. Foster (1920).
The American New Left viewed the working class from a social distance that obscured its perception of working-class realities. The New Left had middle-class, often professional, origins (Flacks, 1971). It was largely a college student movement. The leading chapters of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were organized at the nation’s elite private universities (such as Columbia) or top state universities (like Berkeley). At first, the students viewed the working class with ambivalence. They recognized the historic role that Marx had allocated to the working class but did not see in American workers a potential for radical change. The establishment media were quick to reinforce this ambivalence by publicizing fights between “hard hats” and student protesters.
The New Left eventually adopted two attitudes toward the working class (see John Welch, 1979, for an excellent discussion of this history). Some decided that students were working class themselves. After all, they were not capitalists; most were preparing for wage-labor positions, and they too suffered from a lack of control over their lives. This “new working class” analysis allowed the students to maintain their comfortable position as a revolutionary vanguard without ever having to deal with the mass of American workers. A second approach insisted on organizing working-class communities. Workers had to be educated to abandon their false consciousness, and it was up to the students to show them how they were exploited by capitalism and oppressed by the state. This approach was transparently condescending.6 As one group of critics put it, “Nowhere do they speak of learning from the people they hope to work with” (quoted in Welch, 1979:181). The possibility that workers were already conscious of the class divisions in the United States seems never to have been seriously considered. And the theory that education was all that was necessary to make the revolution was naive at best.
But the errors are common errors. Americans are taught to believe in a conservative working class; foreign observers and middle-class radicals, people who have no access to working-class communities, cannot check these beliefs against daily realities. And so the myth is perpetuated.
In questioning the validity of mainstream social science research, we share the frustrations of Richard Hamilton (1975), who has worked some of these same fields ahead of us. Hamilton identifies several social and intellectual processes that reinforce what he calls the “restraining myths” and protect them against careful scrutiny. Some of these processes are endemic to scholarly work.
1. The conventional wisdom is so widely held that investigators are loath to undertake fresh research to test it; doing so would only “prove the obvious.” Thus, cross-national tests of working-class consciousness have hardly ever been attempted, despite everybody’s assurance of American exceptionalism.
2. Scholars have a “selective memory,” often citing the few but widely known studies that support the conventional wisdom, regardless of their scientific merit. Disconfirming studies, if they get published at all, are buried in the literature and written off as flukes. Thus, while most scholars recognize Richard Centers (1949) as the originator of class identification research, he is rarely studied today because he argued that U.S. workers were indeed class conscious. Instead, less radical treatments (for instance, Hodge and Treiman, 1968; Jackman and Jackman, 1983) are more widely cited now.
3. The organizations that claim to represent the views of some social group are invariably closer to the positions of the prevailing stereotype than is the actual population of group members. The high visibility of national labor unions distorts our impressions of the workers they represent. Americans have read about Samuel Gompers in their history books and have seen George Meany or Jimmy Hoffa on their television screens, whereas rank-and-file radicals are often known only to their work mates.
4. Hamilton notes that even if originally fallacious, the “restraining myths” can become self-fulfilling prophecy. Because U.S. workers are “known” to be complacent, progressives may never attempt to mobilize workers for radical change.
5. In studies supposedly confirming the conventional wisdom, enormous gaps can separate the data cited in the study and the conclusions the authors draw. This is exactly what we found in the Lynds’ study of Muncie and in Thernstrom’s study of Newburyport. In each case, the evidence collected from the workers’ own words mocks the conclusions about a passive and individualistic working class.
We find Hamilton’s analysis of “restraining myths” reassuring. He reinforces our view that something new can be said about “American exceptionalism” despite the decades of work already devoted to it. But if we are to get past the old restraints, we must keep distinct the observations of workers’ psychology and workers’ behavior, and we must demand independent evidence of each before we draw any conclusions about the link between them. To do this, we must next study workers’ psychology directly, even though the relevant literature is more limited than data on workers’ behavior.
1. Blaming the victim of any form of oppression usually begins with some recognition of the oppression (although it avoids such harsh words as “oppression,” “exploitation,” “classism,” “racism,” using instead less direct terms such as “inequality,” or “discrimination”) and acknowledging its consequences (e.g., “low status” or “low income”). Explanations for the oppression focus on hypothetical traits that are considered inherent to the groups biologically (e.g., low mental capacity) or due to inappropriate socialization (e.g., poor role models, “culture of poverty”) or to improper mental states, over which people are deemed to have some control (e.g., a lack of motivation, interest, imagination, commitment, self-esteem, or—in this case—“class consciousness”).
2. To be fair, we should note that Perlman acknowledged capitalist strength as a factor in the failure of working-class movements: his list of the causes of the AFL’s success accords capitalist strength equal position with the lack of working-class consciousness and the moderating effects of a widespread property-owning middle class. But he does not develop this explanation, nor have later commentators picked it up. It is the lack of working-class consciousness that Perlman dwells on and, by implication, promotes as the decisive factor (1928: 154–55, 162).
3. Indeed, because of Gompers’s support of World War I, he enjoyed access to President Wilson and could win some basic improvements in working-class life. Government-sponsored mediation boards promoted recognition of AFL unions, partly to avoid the threat of the more radical IWW. The state-sanctioned unions at that time succeeded in winning the eight-hour day, equal pay for women, better working conditions, and higher wages.
4. Repression is never a faultless tool; often it boomerangs to provoke greater protest. Without the AFL alternative, governmental repression would have appeared to be straightforward class warfare with the state unmistakeably hostile to labor. But the simultaneous encouragement of the AFL made the repression more ambiguous and permitted the state to define the issue as one of “responsible” unionism versus “violent” and “anarchic” Bolshevism. This openness to conservative unions helped solidify elite and middle-class opinion against the more radical unions.
5. But Dubofsky’s advice may sense something truly distinctive in American culture, even if he locates it incorrectly in the working class. What may be exceptional in U.S. ideology is not the capitalists’ hegemony over working-class ideas but the actual uniformity within the ruling class. Because recorded culture is typically ruling-class culture, what appears as interclass hegemony may be only intraclass conformity. What historians should study is the development of a remarkable consensus within the capitalist class, a consensus that was never achieved among European elites.
6. Again, the comparison with the Old Left is illuminating. Note Eugene Debs’s very different attitude toward leadership of the working class: “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourself (speech on “Industrial Unionism,” December 10, 1905, in Debs, 1970:124). However, some of the AFL hostility to the Knights of Labor and to later socialists derived from the class division separating Gompers from these middle-class reformers (see Gompers, 1925:97, 262).