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A Contest of Ideas

A Contest of Ideas: Capital, Politics, and Labor

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    A Contest of Ideas
    Book Description:

    For more than thirty years Nelson Lichtenstein has deployed his scholarship--on labor, politics, and social thought--to chart the history and prospects of a progressive America. A Contest of Ideas collects and updates many of Lichtenstein's most provocative and controversial essays and reviews. These incisive writings link the fate of the labor movement to the transformations in the shape of world capitalism, to the rise of the civil rights movement, and to the activists and intellectuals who have played such important roles. Tracing broad patterns of political thought, Lichtenstein offers important perspectives on the relationship of labor and the state, the tensions that sometimes exist between a culture of rights and the idea of solidarity, and the rise of conservatism in politics, law, and intellectual life. The volume closes with portraits of five activist intellectuals whose work has been vital to the conflicts that engage the labor movement, public policy, and political culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09512-2
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-12)

    In 1983 I visited Clark Kerr, whom Governor Ronald Reagan had fired from his post as president of the University of California some sixteen years before. Kerr still had an office on Channing Way in Berkeley, in the building that housed the UC Institute of Industrial Relations, where I had done much research for my dissertation, which, as it happened, was critical of the industrial relations regime that men like Kerr had helped to construct.

    I was not meeting Kerr to “interview” him. I had no agenda other than simply to talk with a celebrated figure whose writings, politics, and...


    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 13-14)

      The essays in this section are biographical in orientation, exploring how I have written about the relationship between labor, capital, and politics and why my ideas have often changed over the years. “Writing and Rewriting Labor’s Narrative” explains how, along with so many others in my New Left generation, I have reframed my understanding of those structures and social impulses that create the consciousness of the working-class as well its antagonists. At Berkeley in the early 1970s I was convinced that neither the law, religion, ethnicity, nor even race were as important as the work experience itself in shaping the...

    • CHAPTER 1 Writing and Rewriting Labor’s Narrative
      (pp. 15-28)

      In the years after 1970 my New Left generation inaugurated a remarkable probe into the character, meaning, and history of the working class and its institutions. Two events in particular seemed to crystallize my decision to write a history of unionism and the state during the 1940s. The first came on the evening of September 14, 1970, when a few dozen Berkeley students drove down to Fremont’s sprawling General Motors assembly complex to support rank-and-file workers when the United Automobile Workers (UAW) struck the company at midnight. Hundreds jumped the gun and rushed out of the factory a couple of...

    • CHAPTER 2 Supply-Chain Tourist; or, How Globalization Has Transformed the Labor Question
      (pp. 29-37)

      I’m not much of a tourist, but I’m proud to think that I have visited what are, arguably, the three most important nodes of capitalist production during the last hundred years. When I toured the huge Ford production complex at River Rouge during the winter of 1978, “Detroit,” as both organizational metaphor and industrial city, was already well past its prime. But the world of classical Fordism still cast an impressive shadow across the economic landscape and the social imagination. The Rouge then employed some thirty thousand workers in a highly integrated complex of seventeen buildings that sucked in iron...

    • CHAPTER 3 Historians as Public Intellectuals
      (pp. 38-44)

      What’s great about writing history is that everyone likes a good story, that academic jargon can often be kept to a minimum, and that a big readership, of a book or a blog, is rarely sniffed at as pandering to the crowd. Many historians find an audience far larger than that of their own professional discipline. Fulfilling such ambitions may be far easier today than two or three decades ago, because even if newspapers and journals of opinion are struggling, the Web, the blogosphere, and all the other social media have opened the door for just about anyone to be...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 45-46)

      In order to reform capitalism it is necessary to know where the power to reshape it lies, from the commanding heights of Wall Street and Washington to the gritty combat over authority and pay in thousands of factories, offices, and stores. This seems obvious, but too often social historians have ignored any serious probe into the changing character of U.S. enterprise, especially when they studied the structure of the firm in the years after the great merger movement at the turn of the twentieth century. Thus I have long been appreciative of the work of Gardiner Means and Adolf Berle,...

    • CHAPTER 4 Tribunes of the Shareholder Class
      (pp. 47-55)

      It is surely a coincidence that the tragic destruction of the World Trade Center, located just a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange, and home to so many stock, bond, and currency traders, was followed within the same decade by two other events that had significant impact on America’s financial industry: (1) the self-destruction of Enron and WorldCom, and (2) the 2008 world financial crisis, which did even more damage. These calamities are of vastly different meanings, but they do serve to illustrate just how naturalized, normalized, and pervasive giant corporations and their financial handmaidens have become in...

    • CHAPTER 5 “The Man in the Middle”: A Social History of Automobile Industry Foremen
      (pp. 56-78)

      The study of frontline supervisors—in the factory, office, hospital ward, and academic workplace—is once again making waves. The quest for a more efficient, and perhaps more humane, workplace all too often begins with advice and admonition directed toward those who are charged with supervising the daily work lives of the dozen or so individuals who fall under their direct authority. Many of the management handbooks for sale in this nation’s airport bookshops purport to explain how one can either get along with an irascible boss or, conversely, offer tips on making the staff work productively and harmoniously with...

    • CHAPTER 6 From Corporatism to Collective Bargaining: Organized Labor and the Eclipse of Social Democracy in the Postwar Era
      (pp. 79-99)

      In recent years the decline of the trade union movement and the eclipse of the liberal ideology it long sustained has thrown into question the political assumptions and organizational structures upon which the New Deal system of social regulation has rested. While the postwar generation of economists and social scientists once found the social and political “settlement” of the 1940s a bulwark of pluralist democracy and progressive economic advance, contemporary observers have been far more critical. Because of its very stability, the “labor-capital accord” that emerged after World War II may well have foreclosed the possibility of a more progressive...

    • CHAPTER 7 Communism On the Shop Floor and Off
      (pp. 100-106)

      Communism, of the capital “C” variety, hardly exists in the world today, and in the United States it is an idea and a movement that is increasingly part of a distant past, more contemporary than Populism or Prohibition, but of seemingly less twenty-first-century relevance than evangelical Protestantism or environmental activism. And yet this is a phenomenon that still generates the same kind of debates that divided the left, and the left from the right, more than half a century ago. In some instances, documents flowing out of the Moscow archives have helped shed new light on the politics and affiliations...


    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 107-108)

      These essays demonstrate how the rise of a civil rights consciousness during the middle decades of the twentieth century was both organically linked to the rise of the New Deal–era trade unions while at the same time this new rights consciousness provided a set of legal and ideological structures that helped weaken those same institutions. When in the mid-1980s Robert Korstad and I began to formulate the essay “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” the idea of a long civil rights movement that had its origins in the upheavals of the late New...

    • CHAPTER 8 Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement
      (pp. 109-128)

      Most historians would agree that the modern civil rights movement did not begin with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Yet all too often the movement’s history has been written as if events before the mid-1950s constituted a kind of prehistory, important only insofar as they laid the legal and political foundation for the spectacular advances that came later. Those were the “forgotten years of the Negro Revolution,” wrote one historian; they were the “seed time of racial and legal metamorphosis,” according to another. But such a periodization profoundly underestimates the tempo and misjudges the social...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Lost Promise of the Long Civil Rights Movement
      (pp. 129-143)

      In the fifteen decades since the demise of Reconstruction, the two most consequential political transformations that have taken place in U.S. history are those that arose first out of the New Deal impulse of the 1930s and then, just thirty years later, the new set of laws and mores that are identified with the triumph of the civil rights movement. Indeed, one might well argue that these two moments of remarkably inventive statecraft, so often put into separate historiographical boxes, are in fact part of the same mid-twentieth-century age of social reform, in which the dialectical interplay between social movements,...

    • CHAPTER 10 A New Era of Global Human Rights: Good for the Trade Unions?
      (pp. 144-154)

      A great paradox embodies the relationship between human rights and labor rights in the world today. Institutional trade unionism is not doing so well. This is most obvious in Anglo-America, where union density has declined dramatically during the last quarter century, and where unionism’s influence, under both Labour and Democratic Party administrations, has been less than potent. With some notable exceptions—South Africa, South Korea, Brazil—one can say the same for union membership and power all over the world. According to the International Labor Organization’s World Labor Report, trade union membership dropped sharply during the 1990s, falling to less...


    • [PART IV Introduction]
      (pp. 155-156)

      Historians on the left now study the rise of the right. In this section I examine the origins of that conservative turn in politics, law, and culture that has so fascinated contemporary scholars. Here I not only explore the conservative triumph of the last three decades, but I also probe those weaknesses within the social democratic order, at home and abroad, that opened the door to the emergence of a potent conservatism during even the most liberal decades of the twentieth century. This was apparent during the Depression, and in the inaugural essay for this section I pose the query...

    • CHAPTER 11 The United States in the Great Depression: Was the Fascist Door Open?
      (pp. 157-166)

      Was fascism a realistic possibility in the United States during the Great Depression? Certainly if one seeks to measure that possibility in terms of the depth and severity of the crisis, both in economic and political terms, the United States was in the same league with Germany and other European nations that were devastated by the Great Depression. Unemployment reached 25 percent, five thousand banks failed, and middle-class wealth evaporated almost as rapidly as in the Weimar inflation of 1923. From 1930 onward no year passed without a series of mass demonstrations by the unemployed or without violent confrontations between...

    • CHAPTER 12 Market Triumphalism and the Wishful Liberals
      (pp. 167-184)

      In the decade that followed the end of the Cold War, a triumphalism of the free market seemed to characterize much social thought and commentary, mainly on the right and within the Republican Party, but among many erstwhile progressives as well. The idea that capitalist markets are essential to, or even define, the democratic idea has always been present in the West, but the idea achieved a near hegemonic power after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Let us celebrate an American triumph,” thundered Mort Zuckerman in U.S. News & World Report late in the 1990s, “a triumph” based on...

    • CHAPTER 13 Did 1968 Change History?
      (pp. 185-196)

      Before we can ask if 1968 changed history we must first define it. Of what are we speaking and remembering? What does it mean, these magical numbers, 1968? First, of course, it can stand for the entire 1960s, which accommodates quite a bit: the civil rights movement, of course, and the legislation that flowed from it, as well as the rise of African American radicalism and nationalism in the streets and factories of Detroit and points south. The term “1968” can stand in for the Great Society, too, although by that year that reform was clearly showing signs of fatigue....

    • CHAPTER 14 Bashing Public Employees and Their Unions
      (pp. 197-206)

      When he was still President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, later mayor of Chicago, famously quipped, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.” Republican governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, and other states certainly took that advice to heart following the 2010 elections. By emphasizing, and in some cases manipulating, the red ink flowing through so many state budgets, they leveraged the crisis to strike a body blow at the public sector unions that represent so many teachers, professors, social workers, and other municipal employees. In Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Michigan, new laws curbed or ended...


    • [PART V Introduction]
      (pp. 207-208)

      Here the reader will find portraits of five activist intellectuals as well as some thoughts on why academics, as both a social group and as individuals, have become more important to the conflicts that engage the labor movement, public policy, and the political culture in our own day. C. Wright Mills was a university sociologist; Harvey Swados wanted to be a novelist when he could find the time and money; while Jay Lovestone, B. J. Widick, and Herbert Hill spent the most creative years of their work life within a set of highly partisan institutions. In their own contrasting ways,...

    • CHAPTER 15 C. Wright Mills
      (pp. 209-221)

      The New Men of Power is a study of trade unions and their leaders, the American political scene, and the prospects for a radicalized democracy in the years just after World War II. When C. Wright Mills published the book in 1948, it identified a newly empowered set of strategic actors who led the nation’s most important progressive institutions, “the only organizations capable of stopping the main drift towards war and slump.” But unlike his politically acute, agenda-setting volumes published during the 1950s, of which White Collar and The Power Elite are the best known, Mills’s equally expansive probe into...

    • CHAPTER 16 Harvey Swados
      (pp. 222-229)

      Harvey Swados died in 1972, just as Americans began to rediscover the world of work. But he helped prepare the way. His novels, stories, and spirited reportage in the last decade and a half of his life helped uncover the political and social drama that unfolds in the daily routine of every American workplace. Nothing he wrote accomplished this with more power and insight than the series of interconnected short stories called On the Line, which first appeared in the fall of 1957, a book, his wife remembers, that “Harvey dearly loved.” This humane and sympathetic portrait of the psychological...

    • CHAPTER 17 B. J. Widick
      (pp. 230-234)

      In the annals of American labor and its committed partisans, Branko J. Widick, who died on June 28, 2008, at the age of ninety-seven, is not a well-known figure. He deserves much recognition and admiration, however, because Widick was not only an activist at the very epicenter of the great strikes that launched the industrial unions in the 1930s, but he also remained a radical and an acutely honest observer throughout those postwar decades when the great organizations he had helped to build entered an era of stagnation and decline.

      Known as “B. J.” or “Jack,” he was born on...

    • CHAPTER 18 Jay Lovestone
      (pp. 235-241)

      The Cold War is long gone, but the ghosts of that era still walk among us. This is because so many of the political and ideological battles of the twentieth century depended, and still depend, upon our evaluation of a set of regimes whose ideology, for those on the left, was seductively anticapitalist but whose authoritarian statecraft proved reprehensibly brutal.

      The American labor movement was right in the middle of that fight, because the working class holds a special place in the political imagination of both leftists and reactionaries. Are the unions to be a strategically well-placed lever that can...

    • CHAPTER 19 Herbert Hill
      (pp. 242-248)

      Thurgood Marshall once described Herbert Hill as “the best barbershop lawyer in the United States.”¹ That he was, and a whole lot more. Hill was a warrior, a strategist, a polemicist, a man who identified himself as “an unreconstructed abolitionist.”² As labor secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he was a combatant in a war against men and women who, by history, politics, and religion, should have been in his camp. So when he found them to be laggards or opponents of the civil rights impulse, he struck back with a ferocity that was...

    • CHAPTER 20 Do Graduate Students Work?
      (pp. 249-253)

      Hundreds of thousands of graduate students grade millions of papers and blue books every year. The work is absolutely vital to the “product” put out by just about every American university, and of course they get paid for it, though not very much. Thousands of teaching assistants and research assistants are union members, and others would join if more statutes, on either the federal or state level, allowed. These unionized grad students negotiate with their university administration over pay, class size, and other working conditions. Sometimes they go on strike.

      At the same time, these graduate students are also “in...

    • CHAPTER 21 Why American Unions Need Intellectuals
      (pp. 254-260)

      Sixty-five years ago, in The New Men of Power, C. Wright Mills made a perceptive observation about the troubled relationship between labor leaders and radical intellectuals during an era of Cold War militarism and conservative advance. Wrote Mills: “To have an American labor movement capable of carrying out the program of the left, making allies among the middle class, and moving upstream against the main drift, there must be a rank and file of vigorous workers, a brace of labor intellectuals, and a set of politically alert labor leaders. There must be the power and the intellect.”¹

      It did not...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 261-304)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 305-314)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 315-326)