An Anthology of Radical America

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Kent Worchester

Workers’ Struggles, Past and Present:
A ‘Radical America’ Reader
Edited by James Green
Temple University Press, 1983, 410 pages, $9.95 paperback.

WORKERS’ STRUGGLES presents us with twenty-one articles culled from the pages of Radical America, the quintessential journal of the American new left. Professor James Green, a contributor to Labor Notes and author of The World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth Century America, has supplied an introduction, one that situates the articles in this historical (maybe cultural is a better word) context. Many of the articles have either been reprinted elsewhere or issued as pamphlets.

As Radical America readers no doubt know, the subjects of labor history, Black workers, trade unions, and working women have been central to the journal’s concerns. It is safe to say that Workers’ Struggles will be of interest to many radical Americans.

In many ways, Workers’ Struggles stands as a better introduction to the politics of Radical America than the 1982 anthology, Fifteen Years of Radical America, edited by the journal’s founder Paul Buhle. This collection excerpted almost one hundred articles squeezed between poems lacking capital letters and advertisements for new socialist and feminist books. Our favorite pieces, the ones genuinely worth rereading, appeared only as fragments.

By contrast, Workers’ Struggles reproduces its material unabridged. For this reason alone, it is to be preferred. In addition, its articles refer to, and build upon, each other. The articles share a set of common assumptions, and whereas reading Fifteen Years of Radical America simply demonstrated the journal’s new left roots, this book develops a number of specific and interesting arguments about workers and politics.

The first of these assumptions has to do with the working class as the subject, the maker, of its own history. In Workers’ Struggles there is a search for expressions of self-organization, independent activity, from people who are not union leaders, labor lawyers, or graduate students. Much of this history-stories of union drives, workplace study groups, mobilizations against sexual harassment, radical newspapers, riots and wildcats-seems neglected not only by disinterested professional historians, but by traditional and especially Communist left-wing historians as well. As George Rawick notes:

“academic labor scholarship has been institutional history focusing on the trade union, and like all institutional orientations has been quite conservative. ‘Radical’ labor history has been similarly little concerned with the working class because of its concentration on another institution, the radical political party.” (p. 141)

Rawick, writing in 1969 on “Working-Class Self-Activity” argues that the history of laboring people and unemployed workers during the depression of the 1930s should focus not on “how many workers organized into unions and parties,” but

“how many man-hours were lost to production because of strikes, the amount of equipment and material destroyed by industrial sabotage and deliberate negligence, the amount of time lost by absenteeism, the hours gained by workers through the slowdown, the limiting of the speed-up of the productive apparatus through the working class’s own initiative.” (p. 145)

I think that this quote illustrates how potentially radical an orientation towards this thing called “self-activity” can be. Rawick’s work suggested an avenue of research that proved incredibly rewarding from the standpoint of understanding American history-not counting the payoff in terms of the political conclusions that could be made more or less manifest. The second assumption of the historians published in Radical America is that men and women engaged in paid work at the point of production–understood in a broad fashion–are inclined to create “primary” or “informal” work groups. These groups have both a social, and political, i.e., oppositional, character. The concept of the primary work group was articulated in various places by Stan Weir, whose “Conflict in American Unions and the Resistance to Alternative Ideas from the Rank and File” is reprinted here.

In “The Clerking Sisterhood,” Susan Benson describes the primary work group created by department store employees in the early part of this century. Women clerking in close proximity to each other made sure that new hires were socialized so that historical lessons were passed on, productivity levels equalized, etc. Benson shows how these groups would act to prevent store managers and owners from harassing their members. Benson concludes:

”sales work provides an example of an enduring work group in the face of rapid turnover, a high incidence of parttime and temporary work, and women’s supposed primary identification with home and family rather than paid work.” (p. 115)

The third assumption is that political activity by oppressed social groups within the working class does not require the approval of all workers in order to be deemed worthwhile or effective. Ernest Allen, in “The League of Revolutionary Black Workers,” discusses how the League organized Detroit Black workers in the late 1960s. He says that accounts of the League have often underestimated the centrality of Afro-American nationalist sentiments in “fueling” the organization.

Race, Culture, Strategy

Quite a few of the articles in Workers’ Struggles develop this theme of sectoral organizing within the working class. One of the few to examine the interconnections between the capitalist economy and oppression is Harold Baron’s “The Demand for Black Labor: Historical Notes on the Political Economy of Racism.” This piece was widely circulated as a New England Free Press pamphlet in the 1970s, and it holds up decently. Baron jumps between two levels of analysis-an outlined history of U.S. capitalist development, from the perspective of how this development conditioned the patterns of industrial employment; and the independent organization of Black workers, in order to theorize about the character and contradictions of Black consciousness.

Baron’s conclusion summarizes his viewpoint, and is quite dramatic a well:

“Amelioration of once absolutely exclusionary barriers does not eliminate the Black work force that the whole web of urban racism defines. Even if the capitalists were willing to forego their economic and status gains from racial oppression, they could not do so without shaking up all of the intricate concessions and consensual arrangements through which the State now exercises legitimate authority …. The racist structures cannot be abolished without an earthquake in the heartland.” (p. 56)

The fourth, and final, assumption about workers and politics is that popular culture is as vital to defining, deepening, and inculcating working class self-activity as other contradictory features of class society, such as conflict at the point of production, or the development of new organizational forms of radical social movements. A number of the Radical America historians seek to depict the “life” of the modern factory, reporting not only on the cultural practices of primary work groups, but on the broader culture of blue-collar America.

There are two articles that deserve special mention. The first is Manning Marable’s “A Philip Randolph and the Foundations of Black American Socialism.” Marable gives us a convincing portrait of Randolph the porter union’s leader, opponent of segregation, and eventually the sincere ally of the Democratic Party heavies in the 1950s and 1960s. Marable argues that there is less of a discontinuity between Randolph’s youthful radicalism and his later liberalism than others have suggested–his radicalism was in crucial respects flawed, and his liberalism retained some “hard” edges.

Marable concludes his quite sympathetic biographical account with a number of criticisms regarding Randolph’s politics. But the criticisms are effectively divorced from the narrative, and so Marable’s theoretical concerns are disjoined from his historical account. The result is a form of article writing that pleases all readers–the less-radical have Randolph the historical figure; the more-radical have Marable’s “correct” conclusions. Marable’s work often betrays this schematic divide, this disjunction of summary from narrative.

The second article is “Where is the Teamster Rebellion Going?” by Staughton Lynd. Observant readers of ATC will have seen Norm Diamond’s review of Lynd’s The Fight Against Shutdowns in an old series issue. Diamond called Lynd’s book “important because it focuses on people’s political responses to shutdowns.” What is nice about “Where is the Teamster Rebellion Going?” is that it offers strategic alternatives. As Lynd says:

“it is right to run for the offices of steward and local union president … Their aspiration, in substance, should be a ‘parallel central labor union,’ or, in rare situations, control of the official central labor body” (p. 32)

Whether Lynd is correct or not, he has suggested a strategy. It can be debated, tested, discarded, or revised. The assumption on Lynd’s part is that there are teamster members, and other unionists, who are worried about political changes in their union and are interested in radical ideas. It is not that every Radical America (or ATC) article on labor or labor history should only address trade unionists, or that political advice and strictures can be substituted for the project of historical research. The point is that Lynd’s approach is refreshing in its (to coin a word) “politicalness.”

It should come as no surprise that most of the readers and writers of Against the Current &share the Radical America assumptions about workers and politics, even if perhaps some points need to be made clearer or more nuanced in theoretical terms.

Against the Current has been generally more concerned with the relationship between the labor movement (both leadership and rank and file) and politics at the national and international level. This has translated into something of an obsession with the contradictions of social democracy, and the question of the state in capitalist society and trade unions. Yet Workers’ Struggles reminds us that there are electric currents of proto-political activity that are generated well below the refined levels of electoral politics, union conferences, and political ideology.

I recommend this book enthusiastically. It is available at a reduced rate of $6.50 with a year’s subscription to Radical America. The combined price comes to $21.50, from Radical America, 38 Union Square, Somerville, MA 02143.

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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