Rich and sinuous in details and interpretation, Workers’ Struggles, Past and Present: A “Radical America” Reader offers a glimpse of the best in American labor’s social history. It also marks the effort of a generation to understand blue-collar life in a fresh way and to make that story available to ordinary readers. The volume might also be properly described as a tribute to its editor, the extraordinary “public intellectual” James R. Green (1945–2016).
The essays (and several interviews) herein are drawn from one source: the journal Radical America, the 1967 to 1999 publication of which can be said to have constituted an extension of contemporary social movements into scholarship and into print. Founded by history graduate students, it had a political purpose rooted in the belief that history “mattered,” and that within the multi-racial, multi-cultural saga of working-class life, new and useful truths could be explored. Its particular penchant for labor history also challenged the complaints heard at the highest bureaucratic levels of the AFL-CIO that campus activists were anti-labor, indifferent to blue-collar life and blue collar institutions.
Radical America lay outside of the usual institutions and orthodoxies of labor or the American Left. Its precursor was arguably the journal Studies on the Left (1957–1965), published in Madison, Wisconsin for much of a foreshortened life. Some of the same scholars who influenced Studies also influenced Radical America, most especially William Appleman Williams, a University of Wisconsin historian widely regarded as the key scholar of American Empire. But while the main driving intellectual concern of Studies might be described as a sophisticated analysis of corporate liberalism—the means by which an emerging elite had come to dominate the former New Deal state apparatus and use it for their own ends—Radical America started its concern at the other end, from below. There is another important distinction to be made. Previous generations of left-wing historians, as a group, had tended to provide lessons through staking out the territory of great leaders, great institutions (principally unions), and great personalities. Radical America was, if no less politically committed, often more interested in the questions. Better said, real answers could be found, but only by digging deeper.
The acceleration of social movements through the 1960s and early 1970s had stirred these inclinations. The contents of this anthology bear out the appropriate, emerging sensibility. The lead essay, on the political economy of racism and the rise of a massive, intensely exploited African American working class, filled a large part of an issue. Accompanying essays in the volume on women’s labor may be said to have explored another side of an issue vital to the magazine’s editors: the workforce had never been overwhelmingly male and white, and was becoming ever less so. Sexual harassment on the job, so much in the headlines now, had already become a pressing issue for historical investigation.
Past socialist and communist movements in the United States, as abroad, had looked mainly if not only to the white, male worker in the heart of production to bring about social change. Radical America editors and readers, in tune with the times and their own political experiences, looked with great hope at the emerging multiracial and multicultural working class. More than that, bearing the heavy influence of the civil rights, feminist, and other contemporary movements, they sought to insist that forms of restlessness and rebellion here would ripple outward with tremendous and perhaps revolutionary effects in transforming and democratizing American life.
Essays throughout the volume carry the thread of this notion through a century of social movements. Historian George Rawick named this grassroots tendency within labor “working-class social activity,” a Hegelian-like phrase better understood in moments of intense struggle than within the soon-consolidating structures of unions or political parties. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), hailed in the early pages of the book by Mike Davis’s essay, offered an extraordinary example of visionary hopes for untrammeled workplace democracy. Later examples, sometimes based on intense personal experiences, highlighted possibilities that took shape perhaps only for a moment or two, in one workplace. It is notable that Stan Weir, the fictionalized protagonist of Harvey Swados’s novels about blue-collar life, would speak for himself and his generation, at times explosively militant and then driven into silence. The struggles against the “No Strike Pledge” during the Second World War (covered in this volume by Nelson Lichtenstein) had impelled Weir and his small Marxist group—at least in this way successors to the IWW—into grand expectations destined to be disappointed. Later on, Teamsters and black auto workers, among others, traced here by Staughton Lynd, John Lippert, and Ernest Allen, Jr., returned to a kind of guerilla warfare against the union bureaucracy as well as against the corporations.
For erstwhile New Leftists, active on and around campuses where, often enough, administrators described an ideal liberal atmosphere even while servicing and literally depending upon the war economy, this association with blue-collar rebelliousness would have been inevitable. The high level of strikes during 1969–1971, encompassing postal workers and other sectors heavily influenced by the demographic changes in the workforce, reinforced the sense of identification. Young working people, including those within long-familiar factories as well as schools, hospitals, and offices, were themselves often disillusioned with the work process. Unwilling to accept the seemingly passive lives of their parents, they were more likely to smoke marijuana, feel the influences of women’s liberation and sometimes gay and lesbian influences or apparent dilemmas in their own workplace lives, and to choose a future beyond suburban home ownership.
The final two essays may have successfully, for the time of their writing, caught a sense of the spirit of the magazine’s editors. Back in Madison, newspaper strikers failed in their strike but established a worker-owned daily paper with the spirited politics of the 1960s carried over into the next era. One of the strike leaders, himself a former Radical America editor, may be said, in a sense, to have stood in for the rest of us, activists and intellectuals. The rebel newspaper failed after a mayoral campaign that put the local business class firmly back into power. But it had been a hopeful and useful experiment. In a final note, the contemporary dean of United States labor history, David Montgomery, offered up lessons at large.
Arguably the life and work of James R. Green had epitomized the wider intent of the effort, especially after he joined the Radical America editorial board in 1972. The very definition of a public historian or public intellectual, Yale-educated Green taught the blue-collar students at the University of Massachusetts Boston by choice, devoted himself to the many lives but especially the histories of the Boston-area labor movement, and in his last years, helped prepare the script for a major public television documentary of labor history. Meanwhile, his several history volumes and many essays and reviews bore out his sincerity in practice. Radical America was an editorial democracy; like all true working democracies, it had its ups and downs and Green was the perfect democrat. Unlike most of the journals of the New Left, it survived, found readers in newer generations, and carried on its chosen work until the dawn of the Web seemed to pass the task to others in a wider field.
Founder and first editor of Radical America, PAUL BUHLE remained on the editorial board through 1973 and later served as an Associate Editor. He is the author or editor of numerous scholarly works and a dozen nonfiction comic art volumes. He retired from Brown University as a Senior Lecturer in 2009.