One Historian’s Journey

Against the Current, No. 172, September/October 2014

Dan Clawson

A Contest of Ideas:
Capital, Politics, and Labor
By Nelson Lichtenstein
University of Illinois Press, 2013, 336 pages, $25 paper.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN REPORTS that “My real education came from Berkeley’s [1960s] radical student milieu, especially from my political sect of choice, then labeling itself the International Socialists.” (4) As a result of that, and his work on labor history in the 1940s (then only 25 years in the past), “it is not surprising,” he tells us, “that my academic career went nowhere in the years after I got my Ph.D. in 1974. I could not land a permanent teaching post.” (5)

He couldn’t get his work published, even by a second or third tier publisher, until Steve Fraser, “whose political and academic career was even more checkered than mine” (6), helped him turn his dissertation into a book. (Labor’s War At Home: The CIO in World War II, reissued in paperback by Temple University Press, 2003 with a new introduction by the author — ed.)

It’s been quite a distance from that beginning to Lichtenstein’s current stature as America’s leading labor historian, MacArthur Foundation Professor in History at the University of California Santa Barbara, and frequently quoted author of op-eds in leading newspapers.

A Contest of Ideas is a collection of Nelson’s essays, mostly those of the last dozen years or so. It’s always difficult to review a collection of essays, so I will focus on a couple of main themes rather than attempting to summarize all the essays, which are grouped in five sections.

Part I, “shaping myself, shaping history” has the most autobiographical focus. The second, “capital, labor, and the state”, is the closest to the labor history to be found in Nelson’s first two books, both archival studies of the auto industry.

Part III, on which I’ll concentrate here, looks at “the rights revolution” with a special focus on civil rights, but combined with provocative attention to global human rights. Part IV looks at “the specter on the right” from the 1930s (“was the fascist door open?”) to today, and the fifth and last part looks at a set of intellectuals and their ideas — C. Wright Mills, Harvey Swados, B.J. Widick, Jay Lovestone, and Herbert Hill.

I don’t always agree with these essays — Lichtenstein doesn’t always agree with himself — but I frequently find them stimulating. Time and again Lichtenstein gives you a new way to think about an issue, or draws on history to show what is surprising and new (or old) about a situation or development.

As one among dozens of examples, what do we make of the fact that when Reagan broke PATCO, this was followed by numerous attempts to break private sector unions, but not (at the time) by a sustained assault on public sector unions?

The Rights Revolution

One of the most important and provocative ideas developed in a number of these essays is a discussion of the rights revolution, a sea change in ways of thinking about and trying to solve problems, and one that in some sense has become the taken-for-granted of almost everyone today.

The middle decades of the 20th century gave rise to a rights orientation — civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, human rights. As Lichtenstein states:

“…. The rights regime that did emerge in the second half of the twentieth century proved enormously liberating, not only in the US but throughout the world as well …. But for both workers and citizens, an orientation that privileges individual rights above all else can also function as both a poor substitute for and a legal subversion of the institutions that once provided a collective voice for workers and other subaltern strata.” (107)

The focus on rights targeted a range of issues that should have been central to the labor movement, but that labor often neglected, from race to gender to sexual orientation. (The most curious omission throughout the book itself is any sustained attention to gender.)

The assertion and recognition of a right provides power and validation. Although rights claims are typically made on behalf of a group (e.g. African Americans), they are often contested around individuals and specific acts. Instead of trying to raise wages for autoworkers or tobacco workers as a class, instead of addressing inequality in the society, the focus tends to shift to acts of discrimination against a specific person, for example where an individual has been denied promotion on the basis of race or gender. (138)

The emphasis on global human rights may be the most important current instance of this. As Lichtenstein points out, “in no other large country is rights consciousness of greater potency” than in the United States, but at the same time, “in no other large nation, aside from those that are outright dictatorships, has unionism lost so many members and so much political and economic leverage.” (147)

When Shoney’s restaurants actively discriminated against their African American workers, the NAACP won a $132 million settlement, the founder “was forced to pay nearly half out of his own pocket,” and Wall Street drove down the price of the company’s stock until the board kicked the founder out of the company.

On the other hand, when Sprint had equivalently severe violations of its workers’ right to form a union, even though “the NLRB slapped the company with more than fifty different labor law violations” and ordered Sprint “to rehire the workers and pay them back wages,” the company paid no attention and ultimately was able to get away with its behavior. (148)

Understanding this difference, and thinking about how to respond, is central to the possibilities for change. (And, to my mind, the response can’t be “let’s just focus on rights.”) Lichtenstein points out that “solidarity is not just a song or a sentiment but requires a measure of coercion that can enforce the social bond when not all members of the organization — or the picket line — are in full agreement.” (152)

Today, the courts increasingly insist on the individual’s (“free speech”) right to do whatever they wish, and not to be bound by collective decisions. Note, however, that if this is a contest of ideas between rights and solidarity, the struggle is not simply between the left and the right — but also very much a struggle within the left.

Younger vs. Older

A shift in approach has taken place not just in our society, but also in Lichtenstein’s thinking. In his own words, in these essays you can sometimes “find a younger Lichtenstein and an older Lichtenstein arguing with each other” (14), with the early Lichtenstein focusing on working-class self-activity at the point of production, and the later focused on ideology, culture, and the larger context.

As the book’s title suggests, Lichtenstein now stresses “a contest of ideas.” To my mind, that shift denies the left much of the potential contribution of one of our smartest and most creative thinkers. It would also be important to acknowledge that if the issue is a contest of ideas, academics and intellectuals are losing about as badly as unions are losing: Right-wing ideas are everywhere, even loony tunes notions that are demonstrably false; left ideas are largely invisible, and even unions talk in business language (we need to get “buy-in” or “we need workers to take ownership”).

A key problem, to my mind, is the lack of equivalence between the two Lichtensteins. Lichtenstein the younger was grounded in detailed accounts and analyses of specific contests, of the bases and forms of daily struggle. Those virtues are evident in Nelson’s first book and, in this collection, a terrific essay on mid-1940s foremen’s unions, which at one point included an estimated 100,000 foremen (74), prior to being shut down by the Taft-Hartley Act.

But Lichtenstein the elder gives us nothing equivalent about the contest of ideas. We get stimulating thoughts and insightful observations. We do not get detailed historical research or material grounding (or a plan for such future work).

We may learn about the origins of ideas, but we are not shown how and why an idea spread, much less the struggles this involved. Was the battle won in contests among academics, where their side was simply smarter and more creative than ours? (Does that explain, for example, why Americans today are so much less likely to believe in global warming than was true a dozen years ago?) Or was it differences in foundation funding and who had the resources to fully develop, ground, and support their ideas?

Did the victory of some ideas have little to do with the actual level of their plausibility and support, but instead relied on media publicity? Or did the ideas win not as ideas, but because those with wealth and power structured them into the material practices of people’s daily lives — so that whatever you thought about (say) solidarity, in practice you “knew” that competition was key to survival and a decent life? Is it academics, or foundations, or the media, or ALEC, or your company’s “just-in-time” scheduling? What’s the mix?

Does success for our side rest in a necessarily limited imitation of what the right has done, or does it rely on alternative approaches and drawing on differing sources of strength?

Answers to such questions have major implications for how we should proceed, as intellectuals and as activists. The elder Lichtenstein throws out interesting thoughts and observations, but has not yet given us the kind of detailed study that was so revelatory from the younger Lichtenstein. Marx (the younger) wrote “It is clear that the arm of criticism [that is, ideas and intellectuals] cannot replace the criticism of arms [that is, police forces and termination notices].”

Although ideas by themselves were not enough, and a contest of ideas as such could not change capitalism, Marx went on to stress the potential of ideas: “Material force can only be overthrown by material force; but theory itself becomes a material force when it has seized the masses.”

We look to Lichtenstein the elder (or, for that matter, to others) to produce such a study; what are the (detailed, lived) conditions under which theory (our theory or theirs) seizes the masses?

September/October 2014, ATC 172