Are Labor Historians Closet Marxists--Or Do They Just Have Closed Minds?
If you like the service HNN provides, please consider making a donation.
Labor historians are deeply involved in the race to politicize the academic world. From the ivory tower they march and Marxism is their guide. They are embittered by the absence of socialism in America and the low level of union membership. They desperately comb the past in search of proof that America is an unjust land ruled by reactionary corporate chieftains and conservative politicians. They write of a past that has no semblance to reality. They cling to murmurs of militancy and insist on the widespread existence of class hatred and union solidarity. In their America, workers resisted capitalism by engaging in industrial sabotage and work slowdowns, and by joining unions and radical political parties. Their history is one of conflict, of workers who bravely held out the promise of a new world, only to be crushed by political repression, racism, sexism, or some other hobgoblin. It is simply inconceivable to most labor historians that workers have and continue to embrace capitalism, that they relish the opportunity that democracy provides to pursue their individual goals of career advancement and home ownership. Freedom and private property, not socialism, is what workers have always desired.
To confirm my hypothesis on the state of labor history, one could examine the goals of the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA). Composed of the most renowned labor historians, it is an organization that is blithely unconcerned with conflicts of interest. Hence, its constitution states that it seeks to develop mutually supportive relationships with .the AFL-CIO, its affiliated trade unions, [and] independent labor unions and organizations . For further confirmation of my hypothesis, one could also -- as I recently did -- turn to the H-Labor discussion network.. H-Labor has subscribers from around the world including union officials, radical activists, and labor historians. Over the past three weeks I engaged all of them in a debate on Marxism and its pervasive influence among labor historians. In the face of an overwhelmingly hostile reaction (albeit with numerous emails sent to my personal email account thanking me for opening up some real discussion), I criticized labor historians for their devotion to Marx and their admiration of such Marxist historians as Philip Foner, Herbert Aptheker, and Eric Hobsbawm. Marxs theories are wicked and wrong, said I, and Foners, Apthekers, and Hobsbawms scholarship is irreparably marred by their communism.
Foners multi-volume History of the Labor Movement in the United States, for example, is predictable and sectarian. He demonstrates little understanding of workers or of capitalism, and attacks all other historians who are not sufficiently supportive of Soviet communism. Foner was also a plagiarist and may even have destroyed historical documents to prevent other researchers from viewing them. Aptheker, in turn, shared Foners admiration for Soviet communism. He cherished Lenin and Stalin; he argued that the Korean War was the consequence of a North Korean attack; he defended the 1956 crushing of the Hungarian uprising in his book, The Truth About Hungary, and he endlessly attacked Americas democratically elected leaders for having the morals of goats, the learning of gorillas and the ethics of racist, war-inciting enemies of humanity. Quite a scholar.
These uncomfortable facts did not stop H-Labor subscribers from lavishing Foner and Aptheker with so much undeserved praise. Up first to their defense was Norman Markowitz, professor of history at Rutgers University. Markowitz, who boasts that I write and teach from a Marxist perspective, is not shy about his politics or about using quotes from one of historys most barbaric leaders, Mao, to offer political strategy. What is needed today, he has recently written, is what American revolutionaries in the 1770s, abolitionists in the 1850s, and Communists in the 1930s provided in the past -- strategies to organize, coordinate, and advance class and social struggle. In this sense, he continued, a slogan of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse-tung deserves to be taken up by Communists and all progressives in the U.S. today: Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win. On H-Labor, Mao admirer Markowitz gushed over Foners enormous contribution to labor history and attacked me for name-calling and ad hominem attacks. Similarly, Brian Kelly, professor of history at Queens University in Belfast, blasted me for my free market triumphalism and insisted that little controversy should surround the placement of Foner on a short list of influential labor historians. Mr. Kelly did admit that Foner may have borrowed (such a kind word) some material from others without citation. He also conceded that Foner was a Stalinist. But he still insisted that Foner deserves a place in labor historys hall of fame. Stalinist? Yes. Plagiarizer? Probably. Weak defense? Indeed! Not content with defending the indefensible, Kelly wrote me a warm personal email, fulminating against my pathetic, boring, and completely out of touch arguments.
Apthekers and Foners Stalinism was also of no concern to David Roediger, the author most recently of Colored White and a writer for the journal Race Traitor (a journal that proudly announces that it seeks to abolish the white race by any means necessary). In one H-Labor post, Roediger jumped to Foners defense by calling him an indefatigable colleague and a pioneer in the field. Roediger also lauded Apthekers American Negro Slave Revolts as the equal of any first book produced. Finally, Michael Honey, the Harry Bridges Chair of Labor Studies at the University of Washington, sought to remind H-Labor readers that Foner and Aptheker wrote books to reach a broad audience, particularly workers, people in the freedom struggle, and unionists. Thus, Honey concluded, to subject them to the standards of academic historians as if that were the only criteria for excellence is .to dismiss their main contributions. Harry would be so proud.
Such adamant defenses of Foner and Aptheker by leading labor historians illustrates the radical political priorities of todays academic community. As long as a scholar has the correct leftwing politics, one need not worry too much (if at all) about their scholarship, or their support and/or denial of communisms monstrous crimes.
The same can be said of labor historians reaction to Eric Hobsbawm, the famous British Marxist. Virtually all labor historians are enthralled with him. Mention his name and they will go into rapture. Thus, in one H-Labor post that garnered much praise, Melvyn Dubofsky, author of a widely used book on the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), wrote that Hobsbawms scholarship and writings stand on their own. All we labor historians, he continued, are greatly in debt to him. Another respondent to the debate asked who -- in any field -- has covered more ground more scrupulously at so consistently high a scholarly level...? Stunning statements, particularly after one closely examines Hobsbawms work as well as his admission that if provided the opportunity, he would have acted as a spy for Stalin! (See Richard Pipes, Corruption of the Intellect.)
Hobsbawms communism, as David Pryce-Jones has noted in a recent article in the New Criterion, destroyed him as a thinker or interpreter of events. Consider, for example, Hobsbawms history of the 20th century, Age of Extremes. In it, he wrote that Soviet development in the 1930s and 1940s (when Stalins economic policies and political purges were killing millions) meant the opening of new horizons, the escape from darkness and ignorance to the city, light and progress, not to mention personal advancement and careers.... Hobsbawm also made a perverse comparison of Stalin to Churchill: the breakneck industrialization of the first Five-Year Plans... he insisted, generated support by the very blood, toil, tears, and sweat it imposed on the people. As Churchill knew, sacrifice itself can motivate. Hobsbawm proceeded to argue that Stalin almost certainly enjoyed substantial support.
The devotion of labor historians towards Foner, Aptheker, and Hobsbawm is inextricably tied to their larger fealty to Marx. I urged H-Labor subscribers to break free of their enslavement to Marxism and the Marxist idea of class conflict, to chart a new course, to embrace, or at least investigate, some new theories as to how capitalism operates. I observed that Marxs ideology was the ideology Lenin embraced and Stalin employed to carry out their ghastly crimes. In response, Professor Dubofsky argued that Marx should not be blamed for the sins of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Should the parent, he asked, be condemned for the sins of his figurative children? Dubofsky says no; I say yes. Marx was no democrat. He was not interested in pluralism, tolerance, diversity, or freedom. He dreamed and fought for the day when one group of people would be violently eliminated by another group of people. He advocated the abolishment of private property and the establishment of a dictatorship. He argued that the slow and often difficult process of democratic reform was a sham. Was it, I asked Dubofsky, any wonder that when communism collapsed, workers just as vigorously defaced monuments to Marx as they did monuments to Lenin and Stalin? To this question, I received no response. Instead, Dubofsky fired off one last angry post in which he stated that he had grown tired of the conversation. As for the sins of the old man Marx, he huffed, I dont want to fight about those . So much for scholarly debate.
Labor historians are so enthralled with Marxism that they are incapable of even considering the work of Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, whose interpretation of U.S. economic history revolves around the story of an economic miracle and a political miracle, both made possible by individual initiative. They are, as well, incapable of considering the America that Abraham Lincoln saw and fought for; an America that offered workers opportunity; an America that permitted them to follow their individual dreams and pursue their own forms of happiness. And try as labor historians do to deny it, Lincoln had strong reasons to believe that his America was the real America. Nineteenth century capitalism was embraced by farmers and workers alike. It helped bring to America more schools and colleges, terrific technological and scientific advances, improved diets, better housing and clothing, and a growing number of employment opportunities. This progress, the Great Depression notwithstanding, continued into the 20th century with an expanding GDP, ever rising levels of home ownership, rising levels of family income, declining poverty rates, better medical care, and improved sanitation. For millions of workers, of all colors and religions, America has been and still is a land of opportunity. It is the land they love and the land they have fought for and died to preserve.
It is this sense of dynamism, of positive growth, achievement, and patriotism that is simply lost among labor historians. It is lost because of their militant political inclinations, because of their unwillingness or inability to recognize the dynamic power of American capitalism. They emphasize class conflict and solidarity even though workers have always studiously avoided radical politics, never joined unions, and never went on strike. Indeed, at most times throughout American history union membership has typically been no more than 10-20 percent of the workforce. So much for solidarity.
My H-Labor foray demonstrated that labor historians are an insular bunch. But they could hardly care. In responding to a post of mine that called for a greater diversity of viewpoints, Robert Weir, professor of history at Bay Path College and the author of a book on the Knights of Labor, asked: what does Lewis expect to find on H-Labor, an Adam Smith lovefest? Similarly, Joseph McCartin, professor of history at Georgetown University, admitted that there are not many conservatives in labor history, but insisted that I see no evidence of a thought police driving such scholars from our midst.
One wonders if McCartin and his fellow labor historians ever bother to ponder how they can be so out of step with their fellow Americans. Safely enthroned in comfortable academic positions, they pretend to be concerned with diversity and alternative views but they invariably hide from challenges and seek to avoid or even squash real debate.
On June 8, I received an email from Seth Wigderson, H-Labors moderator. He informed me that he decided not to post a response to my critics that I sent him. He argued that unfortunately, your most recent post is full of personal challenges. Shocking indeed, but there is more. For instance, Wigderson continued, you demand to know if Mel Dubofsky disagrees with Richard Pipes about Marx and mass murder . Such questions, he informed me, are inappropriate for H-Labor. In fact, he continued, your contribution is full of accusations of complicity with mass murder, domination of the field, and historical blindness .. In response, I wrote:
Sorry you feel the need to limit debate. What a shame, particularly when you admitted that this discussion had set a record for posts. You and I
certainly disagree about our nations past but I -- unlike you -- am a firm believer in serious, academic discussion. True, I do like to call a spade a spade. Aptheker and Foner were Stalinists. Marx was wrong. Hobsbawm is an apologist for mass murder. And yes Seth, we are talking about mass murder. Read Conquest. Read Solzhenitsyn.
And yes again, I would like to know what Dubofsky and all other H-Labor readers think are the connections between Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. This goes to the very heart of the field of labor history. Sadly, however, you evidently find it too hard to even ask these difficult but important questions .
Thus ended several weeks of debate on H-Labor. I was not surprised. In 1999,
I met Wigderson at a labor history conference in San Francisco. Shortly before
I was to deliver a paper defending the Cold War anticommunist policies of the
American Federation of Labor (AFL), I saw him thumbing through a copy of my
paper with a friend of his. Not knowing I was behind him, he laughed at the
idea that the fight against communism was a fight for freedom, a fight to liberate
millions from tyranny. What an idiot, he said. Now, thanks to Wigderson,
H-Labor readers will no longer have to confront their historical myopia. Instead,
they can carry on in their merry way, raising hell and fighting the good fight,
all in the name of solidarity.
This article first appeared on Frontpagemag.com and is reprinted with permission.
comments powered by Disqus
James Jones - 8/14/2003
It's hilarious to watch the cranky old lefties squirm and thrash in their evaporating pools of self-righteousness blindness.
Thank you Bill.
Mark Lause - 7/30/2003
Lewis' accusations are simply the pot calling the kettle black. On H-LABOR mostly entailed serious historians trying to evaluate the clearly mixed record of Phil Foner. There may have been some (not historians, if memory serves), who were uncritical of Foner, but I suspect this was due to their lack of exposure to much more. On the other hand, those like Lewis who think Foner's views about Russia in the 1930s precluded his doing solid original work in 19th century American race relations are, in fact, the parties with the ideological blinders. The implication that discussion was cut off is entirely misrepresented. Political discussions are rarely welcome on an academic list because they are a diversion from what the list is there to discuss...precisely because we labor historians disagree with each other very much over such matters.
john horse - 7/2/2003
With a title like "Are Labor Historians Closet Marxists--Or Do They Just Have Closed Minds?" I was expecting a expose of all the "closet Marxists" in the field of labor history. Unfortunately, Anders Lewis fails to name names. Enquiring minds want to know.
Hepatitus - 7/2/2003
I thought it was the left that was always supposed to play the victim card and complain about unfair treatment. "Oh they all disagree with me.. My voice is silenced." Less time whining and more time working would be a good strategy.
Roxman - 6/30/2003
"Let(')s get back to making sure no ideas we disagree with are allowed to flourish in labor history!"
I believe we already have that - the left-leaning tenured faculty allows practically no conservatives to be appointed in this and similar fields.
Vin Rosa - 6/28/2003
Red Jaundice sez:
"Lets (sic) get back to making sure no ideas we disagree with are allowed to flourish in labor history!"
He shoots for sarcasm but bags only irony.
Josh Greenland - 6/28/2003
I have to agree. This article is too typical of the type of hysterical, hyperbolic, intellectually sloppy rightist diatribe that HNN has been foisting on us lately. Herodotus is of the opinion that HNN is nothing more than some weird graduate student project and we are essentially the rats in the HNN maze. Instead of trying to goad and poke us into reacting by sticking us with this type of garbage, I hope HNN could actually make a serious effort to find articles by intelligent, rational conservatives. Such people do exist.
hermit - 6/26/2003
Here, here Nigel! Glad to see your posting on this faulty and misleading article by Lewis. I too wonder what happend to Lewis while at U of F! And to those readers who will be quick to say, I should have read the article more closely--whooo Ha! as Al Pacino would say! I did, so he don't like Marx, his isms-children, and some labor historians for their affinity for such theories.
In addition, Mr. Lewis' overgeneralization and slash/burn approach, would not even get the passing grade from one of my college freshman! "All of them" did he contact every person on H-Labor individually? I saw no emails from him in my files--I read his postings to the list, but he did not get the opinions of all Labor Historians. On Marx and the "isms" which sprouted from his ideas--any of those isms takes on disease-like characteristics when approached by those from the center or right. The current political/cultural climate only serves to spread the fears of this disease (ala monkey pox)! Mr. Lewis also implies that Labor Historians are the only folk interested or enamoured still with Marx and his isms-children, which only serves to demonstrate his purpose, attacking Labor Historians (sounds to me like one who believes Labor Historians are/were out to get him--and that 1999 incident sounds like he has internalized it and let it fester, I'm sure old Sigmund Freud, another bad boy, would have something to say about Mr. Lewis' Marxist anxieties!).
I find his generalization of Labor Historians and Marx an easy way out--same thing happend when I studied anthropology, religion, and education (in earlier graduate work, yeah a couple of MAs). I know many folk, who would likely consider themselves labor historians, who do not fit into Mr. Lewis' typology. Personally, my theoretical basis comes from the philosophy/science of cognition and I try to leave sociological stuff to everyone else--as that was my theoretical training prior to hitting the labor history path!
And yes, to all the nay sayers, labor history is both needed and relevant! People work, capitalism and the laboring classes are still in conflict (otherwise, my buddies on the line in Detroit would not be complaining!), and not all labor historians study the working class! And yes, Nigel, and others, I too got a nasty chill up my spine from Mr. Lewis' repetitive use of "truth"--as if he has sole/special access to a supernatural agent out there running the whole sh-bang!
Well, let it be said, that this labor history student, hopes the likes of Mr. Lewis and associates--do not call for the extermination of Labor History departments--just because they don't approve of their theoretical/political positions. Oh, and last but not least:
hermit the grad student
hermit - 6/26/2003
The Foner to which Lewis was referring was NOT Eric, but Philip! They are not the same person, I guess if they were "Philip Eric" Foner would be somewhere around 100+ years old! One, Eric, is the author of "Short History of Reconstruction", while Philip focused on Labor and African American stuff (much to the chagrin of the esteemed Mr. Lewis). So, keep that Eric shrine if you must, and set up a smaller-side shrine for Philip, who I recall was his uncle! In that case, I guess Mr. Lewis, would probably say that Eric too is a commie, guilt by genetic association--cause we all know that communism is a disease, as that is how the "militant right-wing apologists" characterize anything left of Cheney/Pipes/fill in your favorite rightie idealogue here--
hermit the grad student, American Labor History (oh, but a cognitivist, I leave the sociological for the rest)
Charley - 6/25/2003
How unfortunate that BL slept through the article by Anders Lewis rather than understand it. Scholars that continue to extole the Marxist line should have long ago lost the title of scholar. The evidence of the failure of the socialist scheme is overwhelming. Some who have adopted the failed theories of the socialists are unwilling to admit their error. It does not seem reasonable that this inability to change should cause them to be held with regard by members of any faculty.
JT Faraday - 6/25/2003
It *is* getting tiresome. You'd expect more from the "History News Network."
JT Faraday - 6/25/2003
"Nineteenth century capitalism was embraced by farmers and workers alike. It helped bring to America more schools and colleges, terrific technological and scientific advances, improved diets, better housing and clothing, and a growing number of employment opportunities."
"Capitalism" did all this? I find it a little hard to believe, so some supporting evidence is required. Unless it's supposed to be one of those things that "everyboy knows."
Nigel Sellars - 6/25/2003
Frankly, I would have expected better of a former graduate student of the eminent labor historian Robert Zieger. (I might even say that to have Zieger guide Mr. Lewis through the dotoral process is prima facie evidence that labor hisotirans are not as narrow-minded as Mr. Lewis claims, or as he himself appears.) He would have us believe he was a victim of these narrow-minded labor historian Marxists, who derided him in H-Labor. I can say that Mr. Lewis was treated politely and that his approach was intellectual slash-and-burn, besmirch Phil Foner and Eric Hobsbawm because he believes their CP membership renders them non-intellectuals who should be read out of academe. This is monolithic non-thinking and name-calling on Lewis' part, neglecting to deal with these scholars as individuals. I'm less worried about Foner's party line Leninism than about his alleged plagiarism, which is more to the heart of his credentials as a scholar.
Mr. Lewis seems to have the zeal of a convert to Neo-Conservatisim. His essays on H-Labor were clearly intended not to promote his viewpoint on labor history but to promote the on-going Neo-Conservative effort to rewrite history to fit their agenda. Much of this is undoubtedly attributable to both Leo Strauss' students (many of whom were former Marxists -- and especially Trotskyites -- who dumped their Communist ideals but kept the Stalinist political attitudes) and to the followers of late conservative father-figure Russell Kirk, who would have liked to roll back the twentieth century (and probably the nineteenth, too.) Not surprisingly, Mr. Lewis is a contributor to the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal 's journal Continuity, which is dedicated, in its own words, to the "truth" as conservatives see it and to the accumulated wisdom of the ages (which sounds sadly occultist rather than rational.)
Mr. Lewis' sea-change toward the field apparently occurred in April 1999 at the Southwest Regional Labor Studies Association conference in San Francisco, where he saw himself as the lone voice defending AFL-CIO anti-Communism against more veteran historians who argued that the purging of Communists from CIO unions after 1947 undermined the labor movement of the era. Among those he opposed was Sean Wilentz, hardly a Marxist scholar. Even non-Marxists have noted that many CP members were also effective labor leaders, sometimes to the chagrin of the party which saw many as giving in to bread&butter issues and not pushing the "Revolution" hard enough.
More important, Mr. Lewis has committed an intellectual sin akin to that which he accuses labor hisorians of: that of overgeneralization. Labor historians since the beginning of the field during the Progressive Era have focusedon the conflict between capital and labor (and how can one deny that this conflict doesn't exist even today?) Certainly this has led the overwhelming majority of labor historians ( myself included) to take a position that is less than favorable to business and the so-called "free market." Mr. Lewis can call that Marxist, if he likes, but I believe he is quite wrong to do so because being opposed to corporate capitalism as it has and does exist does not make one a Marxist or a Communist. Populists held similar attitudes. The history of American socialism is also surprising for its non-Marxist approaches and for its anti-Communism ( or, rather, Communism as Stalinism, which the Right in general and Neo-Cons in particular, are still obsessed with even a half century after Stalin's death.)
Marxist has recently, I think, become a synonym for "anti-American" and "liberal," of which it is most certainly not the case. Just as "fascist" was a buzzword for Sixties radicals, so has "Marxist" become the unthinking, knee-jerk label of the Neo-Cons. As I noted earlier, the Neo-Cons have maintained their Stalinist approach to those who disagree with them even as they tout "free institutions" and "free markets," as long as only the Neo-COns are free to operate within them.
BL - 6/25/2003
The petulant, childish article by Anders Lewis is one of so many pieces of crank, right-wing ranting that HNN chooses to publish, apparently for no other reason than for their sensationalist character, or perhaps to prove its "even-handedness." But if for the latter reason -- are there really no more interesting, thoughtful conservative historians than the gaggle of red-batters that HNN chooses to reprint week after tiresome week?
Thomas Hagedorn - 6/24/2003
This lies outside my academic area of interest but it affects me because so many historians seem to use group conflict/tension ala Marx as their foundational framework. Too much of the work seems to spring from the subjective "I", and the "I" is far to the left of America. Of course it is irrelevant. Being a socialist in America is much like being a capitalist in Cuba, without the repression. Almost everyone is singing in a different key. Labor historians may feel they have it right, but their voices are drowned out in a sea of free markets.
Hepatitus - 6/23/2003
I hadn't realized there were people "worshipping" foner. I have taught GFoner's excellent and faultlessly researched "Reconstruction," but now I see that I must renounce him. Citing him is apparently a crime or a sign of closeminded-ness
30%, eh? Nice work--but have you nothing better to do than tabulate this information? What enables this idleness?
Locking up capitalists, eh? I'm for it--Bernie Ebbers, Martha Stewart, What's his name Waxall, the whole top management of Enron, hey remember that accounting firm? The one that cooked the books to make it look like enron was profitable! Lock them up! I have no problem with it. Just close minded, I guess
Lets get back to making sure no ideas we disagree with are allowed to flourish in labor history!
spelling the way he likes:
Bill Heuisler - 6/23/2003
Mr. Liver Inflammation,
Your categorical ennui is impressive, but a little overdone.
30% of posters to this site quote Aptheker, Chomsky or Zinn for obscure anti-American points they consider clever. In search of profundity they reveal their barren superficiality. In fact, many HNN Savants worship Foner to an oddly embarrassing degree. Markowitz comes to mind; he wants to take over the US and deport or imprison Capitalists. Zinn urges young people not to vote or participate in Democracy. Closed minds? No, studied ignorance. These acolytes of failed Socialism and musty Syndicalism ignore history to retain pathetic significance in their lives.
Perhaps Anders Lewis' lecture will introduce real scholarship and historical reality into pedantic minds. But I doubt it.
Speaking of tiny minds, you're spelling your disease wrong.
NaughtyPundit - 6/22/2003
Is labor history still relevant? That is the real question that needs to be asked. Why should anybody pay attention to labor history if it is just going to be a mere hobby for some old lefties? How can it be taken seriously if everything is tainted by politics? How is the field going to survive if it's going to become so irrelevant?
I think Marxist Dinosaurs are killing labor history. And until their influence declines, the field will be dragged kicking and screaming into extinction with them.
Feel free to visit my blog: http://naughtypundit.blogspot.com
Or to yell at me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hepatitus - 6/22/2003
A dumb title and a fake question. He we go again, some right winger sees fit to police the content of an entire field becaue he disagrees with it. Yawn. Just write some damn labor history and stop whining
- German Historian: Rich Greeks Evade Taxes Since 1830
- UK teaching "invented" history as EU propaganda, says Cambridge professor
- The move accelerates to show that black people have a history
- Eric Foner says he insisted on his MOOC on the Civil War being free
- Ellen Schrecker backs “National Adjunct Walkout Day” as a brilliant tactic