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Labor in White Skin: Race and Working-class History


The reality, the depth, and the persistence of the delusion of white supremacy in this country causes any real concept of education to be as remote, and as much to be feared, as change or freedom itself. What Black men here have always known is now beginning to be clear to the world. Whatever it is that white Americans want, it is not freedom — neither for themselves nor for others.

‘It’s you who'll have the blues,’ Langston Hughes said, ‘not me. Just wait and see.'

James Baldwin (1980)[1]

Despite the fact that the nineteenth century saw an upsurge in the power of the laboring classes and a fight toward economic equality and political democracy, this movement . . .  lagged far behind the accumulation of wealth, because in popular opinion labor was fundamentally degrading and the just burden of inferior peoples . . . It was bad enough to have the consequences of [racist] thought fall upon colored people the world over; but in the end it was even worse when one considers what this attitude did to the European worker. His aim and ideal was distorted. . . . He began to want not comfort for all men but power over other men. . . . He did not love humanity and he hated 'niggers'.

W.E.B. DuBois (1946)[2] 

“Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.”[3] That line from an 1866 letter to François Lafargue, and repeated in Capital, is perhaps the most quoted of Karl Marx’s observations about the United States. But the work of our labor historians, past or present, has done little to illuminate why Marx's aphorism not only has the ring of truth but that of a ringing truth, though one Marx did not pursue much in later years.

The scholarship which most ambitiously attempts to conceptualize the history of workers in the United States continues to ignore Black workers and, as critically, to ignore the effect of attitudes toward Blacks (and toward Indians, Chinese, and Latinos) on the consciousness of white workers. George Rawick’s call for a history which recognizes slavery as “a fundamental part of the history of the whole American people,”[4] was pioneered by W.E.B. DuBois [5] and is continued today by Alexander Saxton, Herbert Hill, Richard Slotkin, Gwen Mink, Manning Marable, Peter Rachleff, Mike Davis, and a few others.[6] But in the structuring of the debates which most preoccupy labor historians, race moves quickly and decidedly to the wings. 

Criticisms abound of lack of attention to race and slavery in US labor history in particular, and in Western scholarship generally, with such leading scholars as Eugene Genovese, Immanuel Wallerstein, and David Montgomery all sounding warnings in recent review essays.[7] And the many recent studies by sociologists, political scientists, and even occupational folklorists showing the staying power of racism as a pole around which white workers' consciousness takes shape give added urgency to the comprehension of these themes in history as, of course, do the starkly contrasting patterns of white and Black working-class voting in the 1980 and 1984 elections.[8] 

Nonetheless, the new labor history has yet to find an approach worthy of the problems being examined or even to acknowledge that such problems must be consistently examined. The recent comments on Sean Wilentz's Chants Democratic by the historian Christopher Clark are instructive on this score:

While Wilentz does not ignore women or Black workers, they are not central to his notion of a New York working-class movement, which at times . . . achieved heights of class consciousness and even insurrectionary potential . . . he has not written a thorough history of New York workers, but only of the most prominent and perhaps the most class conscious. Future studies will have to assess how far this slants his conclusions.[9]

This assessment comes in a review of a book which, while it ignores Black workers and the national context of slavery even more than Clark allows, is still of great value. But the assumption remains, even as the issue of race is raised, that the Black worker enters the story of American labor as an actor in a subplot which can be left on the cutting-room floor, probably without vitiating the main story. What if race is instead part of the very lens through which labor's story must be filmed?

The Old Labor History: Problems Right and Left 

The original seminal works of labor history shared the racism of most scholarship on America written in the early twentieth century. The approach of the Wisconsin School of John R. Commons and his pioneering associates betrayed what Melvyn Dubofsky recently termed “evident” measures of “chauvinism and racism.”[10] Alongside the more active racism of Commons and his associates was the benign neglect typified by Werner Sombart's influential 1906 essays collected as Why is There No Socialism in the United States? 

Sombart does not discuss racism and Black labor at all in a chapter on “Politics and Race,” where race is used to refer to ethnicity. The same silence characterizes the entire study despite at one point, the rather extreme and flat assertion, never pursued, that the “Negro question has directly removed any class character from each of the two parties. . . .”[11] But the most durable heritage of the original masterworks, especially from the Wisconsin School, has been the idea that in the normal course of things class alone, rather than race and class together, ought to be at the center of labor history. In an extravagant passage on Chinese exclusion, for example, the Wisconsin School’s History of Labor in the United States holds:

The anti-Chinese agitation in California, culminating as it did in the Exclusion Law of 1882, doubtless was the most important single factor in the history of American labor, for without it the entire country might have been overrun by Mongolian labor, and the labor movement might have become a conflict of races instead of one of classes.[12] 

Rare is the modern labor historian who does not recoil from regarding Chinese exclusion as the historic victory of the American working class or from the image of the “overrunning” Chinese. But almost as rare are historians who would focus their objections on the final words in the quoted passage and emphasize how often the struggles of labor were about both race and class and how thoroughly racism shaped and narrowed the conceptions of class of some unionists recently celebrated for their “Americanism.”[13]

In practice, neither the Marxism of the Old Left nor the populism and neo-Marxism of the new labor historians has managed to sustain a sharp break from the Commons tradition where race and class are concerned. Indeed in many ways the traditions of labor history in the last twenty-five years have reinforced the Commons approach. 

By a long distance, the Old Left scholarship of Philip S. Foner comes nearer to an effective treatment of race and labor than any other of today's labor historians. Even Melvyn Dubofsky, whose “Give Me That Old Time Labor History” is an almost relentlessly hostile review of Foner's work, allows that in his writings, “one can . . . find . . . as nowhere else, the full story of the nation's minority and oppressed peoples.” Foner, whether in books specifically on race, labor and radicalism or in his general history of US labor, never misses a chance to narrate fully the story of Black workers or to detail instances in which racism undermined strikes and, more rarely, labor political action. Nor, as is so often charged, is his work “mere narration.” As Harold Cruse, certainly no ideological friend to Foner, has observed, American Socialism and Black Americans breaks exciting new ground not just in its narration but in terms of Foner's method and the framing of questions. [14] Much the same could be said about Organized Labor and the Black Worker, especially in its insistence that Black self-organization, far from balkanizing the labor movement, was often the precondition for united struggle. 

If, in the aphorism which begins this article, Marx had meant just that white labor would be oppressed by virtue of Black labor's remaining branded because labor unity would therefore be breached and strikes undermined, Foner’s work could be considered a full history drawing on the analytic and predictive powers of Marx's brief words. Foner's stance is spelled out in his approving quotation of an 1865 editorial in the Boston Daily Evening Voice in the preface to Organized Labor and the Black Worker, as an illustration of the “crippling effects of racism on organized labor.” The editorial compares cooperation of Black and white workers with that between “the clerk [and] the coal heaver.” It adds that if any element in the labor force stands aloof “there is the end of hope for the labor movement.” Commenting specifically on the recent emancipation of four million slaves, the editorial warns it would be “blind and suicidal” to fail to make common cause with the freedman because lack of unity would make “the Black man . . .  our competitor. He will underwork us to get employment and we have no choice but to underwork him in return.” Foner traces the bleak scenario of Black-white disunity and recounts the rarer and inspiring instances when the slogan which graces a placard on the book's cover became real: BLACK AND WHITE/ UNITE AND FIGHT! [15] He has found a large and important theme, I would argue, but one less grand than that suggested by Marx's aphorism or by the words of DuBois and Baldwin which begin this article. 

In that passage on the deleterious effects on white workers of the “branding” of Blacks, Marx might have had in mind cracks in the front of labor unity, but that could hardly have been his foremost consideration. At about the same time Marx wrote to Lafargue, he and Engels apparently still thought that ex-slaves “will probably become small squatters, as in Jamaica,” and thus would not be a great force in the industrial labor market. Moreover, Marx's famous comment came in the context not of an assessment of trade-union possibilities but of praise for Northern white workers who had helped to defeat politically President Andrew Johnson's forces in Congressional elections. 

Most importantly, the passage links the overcoming of the branding of Black workers with no mere piecemeal gains in either the trade-union or political realm, but with the possibility that labor might “emancipate itself,” that most broadly visionary of Marx's prophecies. This and other evidence, including Marx's 1869 comment that the Civil War and emancipation “gave to [the working] class [a] moral impetus,” suggests that Marx, at least for a time, saw the stakes in the battle over racial oppression as involving matters quite beyond trade-union unity.[16] Only DuBois, with his brilliant framing of Black-white unity within the broader issue of white labor's willingness to sacrifice its possibilities for the spurious public and psychological wage of petty and not-so-petty racial privileges, begins to develop fully an approach which transcends the narrow parameters of “Black and white/unite and fight.”[17] 

The point is obviously not that Marx knew best about America or that Foner has led us away from the truths laid down by the great teacher. Marx's own follow-up of the insights in his aphorism proved quite uncertain in the years after 1866. And in any case, Foner's approach, essentially that of Popular Front communism with some sympathy for Black nationalism, has few followers among the new labor historians.[18] But few manage to improve on this approach. 

Class and Race: Base and Superstructure Revisited

Curiously, another aspect of Old Left Marxism — overemphasis on the point that class and not race is the central consideration in the history of white and Black workers — has found a place in the new labor history, with not entirely happy results. The privileging of class over race, which Foner largely abandons, was a consistent theme in early Socialist Party thought and is given more sophisticated expression in Barbara J. Fields's recent and sometimes scintillating essay, “Ideology and Race in American History.”[19] Fields reminds readers that race is no biological fact but a social construct and argues that it is therefore an “ideological” category in a way that class is not. Though she makes the invaluable points that racism is not “transhistorical” and not, at a given time, understood in the same way by different classes, her essay is open to caveats and serious criticisms. 

While it is true that racism evolves in a context of class relations, class is also defined by workers in partly racial terms. Thus David Halle’s recent work on white New Jersey chemical workers describes men who, as David Montgomery has observed, cherish the notion that “whites are ‘working men’,” while Blacks who live “in nearby Elizabeth [and] are far more likely to be members of the AFL-CIO than the neighbors of the white chemical workers' are counted as ‘intruders’.”[20] In addition, Fields treats the formation of a “Black” racial category almost exclusively as a process occurring among whites and underplays the extent to which it reflected a process of nation-building by the various African ethnic groups undergoing forced emigration. A full discussion would have to organize itself around the categories of nation, race and class rather than only the latter two.[21] 

But even if we grant in good orthodox Marxist fashion that class is a theoretical category more basic than race “in the last instance,” Fields's approach generates problems. The overall burden of the essay is to distance class from race by putting the former above (or in the older Marxist schema of base and superstructure, below) the latter in a design of historical causation. Thus, we are treated to flights of fancy like “the reality of class can assert itself independently of people's consciousness.”[22] (Race, in Fields's essay, cannot; in the real world, neither can.) 

Ironically, this emphasis on class comes very close to reproducing a version of Foner's “Black and white/unite and fight” view of history. Fields finds those “moments” of Black-white unity in the South, which she acknowledges to be “rare,” to be of signal importance in that they show class relations could be the “solvent of some of the grosser illusions of racialism.” She then cites New Orleans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with its alternation of impressive integrated strikes and racist violence, as proof that racial prejudice is sufficiently fluid and at home with contrariety to be able to precede and survive dramatic instances of interracial unity in action.[23] Quite so, but whether outcroppings of strike unity could survive in an atmosphere of terror against Black workers is only one issue and one not more important than whether an impetus toward self-emancipation of the working class could so survive.

If we look at the words of a leader of the interracial New Orleans strikes, we find indications that race can perhaps not be distanced very far from class and that, although the city's waterfront labor movement displayed laudable unity on the picket line, it was perhaps far from challenging politically the racist order of the city. As Oscar Ameringer recounts the words of Dan Scully, the Irish-American head of the longshoremen's union, testifying before a committee of the Louisiana legislature during a 1907 strike:

I guess before long you'll call us nigger-lovers too. Maybe you want to know next how I would like it if my sister married a nigger?... I wasn't always a nigger-lover. I fought in every strike to keep Black labor off the dock. I fought until in the white-supremacy strike your white-supremacy governor sent his white-supremacy militia and shot us white-supremacy strikers full of holes. You talk about us conspiring with niggers . . . But let me tell you and your gang, there was a time when I wouldn't even work beside a nigger ... You made me work with niggers, eat with niggers, sleep with niggers, drink out of the same water bucket with niggers, and finally got me to the point where if one of them ... blubbers something about more pay, I say, “Come on, nigger, let's go after the white bastards.”[24] 

Here both racism and class feeling are utterly “at home with contrariety,” and as utterly bound up one with the other. Moreover, the white-supremacy strikes, strikebreaking by white supremacists and white attacks on Black communities in Louisiana during this period illustrate that what Fields acknowledges could happen did regularly happen: “an ideological delusion [race] . . . once acted upon . . .  may become as murderous as a fact.”[25] Racism, in its many varieties, often gave rise to actions murderous not only of Black workers but of the highest aspirations of labor. Its status as an ideological construct (though one reinforced by material facts like violence, job competition and segregation) therefore in no way disqualifies it, as Fields supposes it does, from being a “tragic flaw” in the history of the South and the nation.[26]

Whatever the weaknesses of Fields's stance, her essay captures the logic which undergirds some of the best of the new labor history. In Wilentz's Chants Democratic, the murderous anti-Black, anti-draft New York City riots of 1863, which weave together so many strands in the book that they might have been a fit subject for its final chapter, receive five lines of attention in which we learn that the disturbance “still manifested (with all its racism) the hatreds and collisions of class” before the paragraph turns to “more disciplined” wartime trade-union actions. Admittedly we are here dealing with a short summary of events beyond the scope of the book, but DuBois’s summary of the same event, which emphasizes that “it was easy to transfer class hatred so that it fell on the Black worker,” is significantly more exact and suggestive.[27]

Similarly, failure to treat the Black working class and its culture impoverishes the sections on working-class culture generally in Chants Democratic. Wilentz's discussions of vital cultural forms sometimes tell us little more than that class was more important, and race less so, than we had ever thought. For example, the short section on minstrel shows begins from the premise that these mass entertainments “took racism for granted.” Wilentz finds that “the real object of scorn in these shows was less Jim Crow than the arriviste, would-be-aristo” and that the minstrels “turned from racist humor to mocking the arrogance, imitativeness and dimwittedness of the upper classes.”[28] But it is precisely the coexistence of racism and a partial class criticism which makes the minstrel shows, especially in the work of Alexander Saxton, such fascinating sources regarding white working-class consciousness, its assertiveness and its debasement. Although Wilentz cites Saxton in support of his position, the emphasis in the latter's “Blackface Minstrelsy and Jacksonian Ideology” is rather different: 

The ideological impact of minstrelsy was programmed by its conventional blackface form. There is no possibility of escaping this relationship because the greater the interest, talent, complexity and humanity embodied in its content, the more irresistible was the racist message of the form . . .  Blackface minstrelsy's dominance of popular entertainment amounted to half a century of inurement to the uses of white supremacy.[29] 

Nor, in the absence of a full discussion of racism directed against Indians and Blacks, can Wilentz explore the rise of the penny press and its impact on New York City working-class culture with the subtlety and brilliance characteristic of Saxton's[30] and Slotkin's recent work.[31] 

Racism and Self-Activity 

Wilentz's work is of special interest because it merges the Old Left privileging of class over race with the largely New Left passion, laudable in its origins, to avoid condescension toward working-class subjects, to eschew determinism, and to end the fruitless practice of preaching to people long deceased about what they should have done.

Just as Wilentz, like many young historians, consciously models his work on Herbert Gutman's, Gutman consciously attempted to write history in which “the essential question for study . . . is not what has been done to men and women but what men and women do with what is done to them.”[32] This emphasis, drawing variously on anti-Stalinist Marxism, a populist emphasis on the role of the people in making history and, perhaps, elements of modern liberalism, may also gain adherents because, as Eric Hobsbawm has put it, “historians . . . are naturally more concerned with what actually happened . . .  than they are with what ought really to happen.”[33] The result, as Montgomery has recently observed, has been that many of the best new labor historians have chosen to dwell upon “working men and women as agents of historical change” rather than “the structures of social power that have historically divided workers, frustrated their collective undertakings, limited their objectives and secured the hegemony of capital.”[34]

Some of the writing which stresses the self-activity of American workers has emphasized, from a more-or-less revolutionary socialist position, the radical potential which can be glimpsed in such activity at certain junctures. Influenced by C.L.R. James, those arguing for this view have praised the ability of “workers in motion” to take actions which transcend the possibilities envisioned by union leaders, which lay aside past prejudices of the workers themselves and which express the alternative, resistant culture present in daily working life — indeed born of experiences at work.[35]

More frequently, especially recently, the emphasis on workers “making their own history” has had a distinct reformist spin in its ideological stance and its political implications. Such scholarship has reflected what Geoff Eley calls, in a comment on recent European historiography, “the scaled-down defensive expectations resulting from . . . the world economic recession and the rightward political shift in Britain, the US, and other capitalist countries.”[36] In this context it is the capacity for survival with dignity, for limited political influence, for compromise and for giving a twist to hegemonic ideas, which occupies center stage. There is little sense that the class expressions being described symbolize or presage greater things. Instead, especially in Wilentz, we find an increasingly shrill impatience with those “essentialists” and “American exceptionalists” who expect too much from the working class and therefore miss the “class perceptions that did exist in the US.”[37]

Obviously much, politically and otherwise, separates the revolutionary socialist approach to self-activity of workers from that of Wilentz and others. However, what is worth comment within the confines of this article is that both approaches reinforce tendencies to minimize the role of racism and of Black workers and can, therefore, leave their practitioners unable to penetrate some of the deepest problems their work raises. Deficiencies in each approach are best criticized through an examination of the body of scholarship they most thoroughly inform. 

In the case of the “revolutionary socialist” perspective, that is the upsurge of American labor, often in wildcat strikes, in the 1940s. That upsurge is arguably the best-studied process in the twentieth-century history of US labor. It has attracted the attention principally of those interested in the revolutionary implications of rank-and-file action.[38]

Writing before much of this literature had been published, Joshua Freeman issued a challenge it has too often failed to meet. He observed that during World War Two, Black workers were often the victims of wildcat strikes and argued that racially-based strikes must not be segregated from others by historians. The week-long 1943 strike in Detroit at Packard Motors, making thousands of workers idle over the promotion of two Black workers, and the 1944 “hate strike” by white Philadelphia streetcar workers over Black employment were only, according to Freeman, two of the most famous of many such usually unauthorized strikes which occurred in the auto, armaments, aircraft, electrical, shipbuilding, rubber, and transport industries during the war. In one three-month period of 1943, over 100000 man-days of war production employment were lost to “hate strikes.”[39] Freeman, having noted their prevalence, raised an urgent question about these racially motivated wildcats: “Were the same workers, or types of workers, involved in the racial and non-racial strikes?”[40] One might ask further whether the racist wildcats set limits on the sweep of the goals of later unauthorized strikes? On their moral claims? On the participation of Black workers? 

The newer studies take us very little distance toward answering these questions, but content themselves with observing that white workers sometimes overcame racism. Glaberman does not treat the hate strikes, except to say that Black workers were among wartime wildcat strikers in auto but did not, and this is hardly surprising, join walkouts to protest their own employment. Glaberman, in a footnote, also underlines the fact that in 1945 the same Packard plant which witnessed the massive 1943 hate strike saw an unauthorized strike in which some whites supported a grievance of three Black workers.[41] Lichtenstein's shorter and more critical account of the wildcats emphasizes that racially motivated strikes declined in numbers in the later war as “many white workers did accept Blacks as part of the factory work environment.”[42] 

If we are to understand the joyous scene on the cover of Glaberman’s book — in which Black workers, some in zoot suits, lead an integrated crowd starting a 1943 wildcat at Detroit Chevrolet — we need a far more penetrating discussion of race and shop floor actions and, perhaps, of the complex connections between Black cultural radicalism and rank-and-file insurgencies. If we are to account for the pattern of wildcats in those plants, in which, as George Lipsitz has noted, separate white and Black wildcats occurred, sometimes in response to each other, we obviously need to look deeply at racial issues. Similar study is necessary if we are to account for the failure of the wildcats to develop a lasting insurgent movement in the unions, or in politics.[43]

If we are to place the auto wildcats in the context of race relations in Detroit during the war — and to determine why sometimes neighborhoods and sometimes (though decreasingly) workplaces served as sites of racial violence — full discussion of the hate strikes must be on the agenda.[44] The more we are attentive to all of these costs and complexities, the less we can assume that the subjective views of white workers are unimportant, that “the question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat, considers its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.”[45]

In contrast to the lines quoted above, in most of new labor history workers are not seen as “compelled” to do anything by capital, by the state or by their class experience and destiny. But healthy as the push against determinism begun by Gutman and others has proven in some ways, it cannot be said to have given rise to a body of literature which has addressed the issues of class and race in a new, penetrating or even a sustained way. Indeed, if we look at the scholarship which perhaps represents the most sophisticated expression of what I have called the “reformist” approach to working-class self-activity — the best works on labor and republicanism in the nineteenth century and especially those of Sean Wilentz and Steven J. Ross[46] — we find silence or extreme caution where vital issues such as the impact of slavery, racism, and settler colonialism are concerned. To the extent that such gaps help keep these meticulously crafted local studies from placing the processes they describe fully in the context of the best historiography on republicanism, free labor, popular culture, and national politics, they keep labor history isolated and unable to nurture works of broad synthesis. 

It is a tribute to the ambitious agendas of Wilentz and Ross that they call to mind the finest insights regarding republicanism and the meaning of the American experiment. But insufficient attention to race makes comparisons of their work unfavorable with that of our best novelists and historians. Wilentz, for example, invokes Herman Melville. But while Melville's work constantly reminds us that people of color were central to the culture of those who worked on or near water in nineteenth-century America, New York City's Black workers — during part of the period discussed one New Yorker in eleven was Black — appear twice in Chants Democratic, once in a footnote and once as victims of prejudice. The abolition of slavery in New York, and artisanal perceptions of abolition, are ignored. Nor does Ross give us much more than population figures for Cincinnati’s Black community, small in size but important in the waterfront working class.

For Melville, a river between slave territory and the free states was an opportunity to explore the relationship between liberty and slavery (not just symbolically but referring concretely to Black slavery). Even when writing about northern workers on dry land, he never let slip from view the national reality of slavery, and all the manifold comparisons which workers and others must have drawn. In the best of the new labor history the idea that white workers were “wage slaves” is almost purely metaphor, connected not at all, or in only the simplest of ways, to the actual practice of slavery, present across the river from Cincinnati and in New York City through 1827. For Melville, the experiences of settler colonialism and the “metaphysics of Indian-hating” were central to the development of an America “intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in externals but a savage at heart — a country which may yet be the Paul Jones of nations.” Jacksonian Indian policies and the connection of native Americans to the labor agitation over the land question are not broached in the studies of Ross and Wilentz.[47]

Of course, if we judged modern historians against the sweeping insights of Melville, none of us would get tenure. But if we adopt a somewhat less daunting standard, using the work of those historians offering the most challenging analyses of the growth of republican and free labor ideas as a yardstick, we would again note that sparse coverage and caution where racial matters are concerned keep even the best analyses of labor republicanism from drawing upon and enriching the debates begun by those outside the labor history field.

For example, in a lengthy survey of ‘The Formation of the American Working Class,” Wilentz observes: “Of course, the history of proletarianization can be traced back to the first European settlements and to the confiscation of land and labor from the indigenous population. See, for a start, Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom.” But he then adds: “For simplicity's sake, I have concentrated here on the period of sustained growth of a ‘free labor’ working class.” And several pages later slavery is also noted as being largely beyond the scope of the article.[48]

Whether Wilentz is right to concentrate on antebellum northern urban workers, especially artisans, in writing the history of class formation in the US is an open question. If he is wrong, he makes an error reproduced in my own recent work. But allowing his choice of emphasis, can we understand the consciousness of that northern urban working population, again especially artisans, without sustained reference to the existence of slavery as a national “nightmare” which charged every debate over republicanism and the manly independence of craftworkers? Morgan's work, though concerned with an earlier period and a southern colony, is so replete with subtle connections between slavery and white popular consciousness that it suggests the need for extreme caution in deciding to achieve simplicity by foreshortening discussion of racial matters.[49] 

Or, to take a problematic within the time period of Wilentz's and Ross's works, we might consider the debate initiated by David Brion Davis's monumental studies of anti-slavery thought. Davis argues that abolitionist critiques of chattel slavery “unwittingly” bolstered capitalist hegemony by acting as “selective responses[s] to capitalist exploitation.” For Davis, the focus is on middle class reform leaders, but his arguments open a range of questions vital to labor historians. As Thomas L. Haskell has recently written:

What remains unclear, in spite of much recent discussion of the relationship between abolitionism and the labor movement, is the exact basis of the labor critique [of abolitionism]. Did labor leaders work from a more advanced humanitarian perspective that really assigned equal importance to all varieties of exploitation, whether slave or free labor ...? Or did they simply assign a higher priority to the problems of wage laborers (nearby and racially similar) than to those of enslaved laborers (far away and racially different)? To what extent was the working man's criticism of abolitionism a pragmatic tactic for drawing attention to his own cause rather than a considered judgment of the equivalence of exploitation in the two cases?[50]

Haskell's questions are cast somewhat moralistically and will be refined by further research, but they are none the less vital. They must be supplemented by questions about whether many workers did not consider themselves “free” largely in contrast to the Black and enslaved population to the south and therefore limited their protests. In Davis’s terms, if the existence of slavery served to justify wage labor to abolitionist reformers, did it also do so to workers at some times and in some ways? These are urgent questions not much addressed in existing treatments of labor republicanism. 

Concretely, we ought to ask what was meant, for instance, in 1836, when New York City’s journeymen tailors protested conviction of their fellow-workers in a conspiracy case with a handbill featuring a coffin and declaring, ‘The freemen of the North are now on a same level with the slaves of the South.” If, as Ross’s and Wilentz's discussions of “wage slavery” and similar constructions imply, the language was metaphoric, was it not also an extravagant metaphor and one given to collapsing upon itself at the first sign of amelioration. (In the 1836 incident, a more favorable court decision in a similar case came days later and, as Wilentz puts it, “the journeymen's fury abated.”)[51] If so, the high-republican and class-conscious ring of the many antebellum pronouncements of artisans that “We are not slaves,” might bespeak self-satisfaction, even in worsening conditions, as well as self-assertion. That self-satisfaction might derive in part from the negative reference point of Black slavery. With emancipation, the phrase for a time more often carried the implicit meaning, “And, by God, we won't be treated like slaves”[52] but it is at least arguable that even in postbellum years American labor rhetoric was impoverished rather than enriched by quick-and-easy invocations of “slavery” as a metaphor not backed up by any thoroughgoing critique and therefore quickly abandoned.[53] We hear little these days, for example, about the Taft-Hartley “Slave Labor Act” although its provisions still apply in ways little softened since organized labor fastened that epithet on it. 

Similar issues pervade Wilentz's discussion of Mike Walsh, a central figure in Chants Democratic and the leader of antebellum New York City’s “shirtless democracy.” Walsh emerges as a tragic figure (“destined for the ignominy of a penny dreadful”), who between 1842 and 1846 developed “a radical anti-capitalist republicanism” and took that philosophy “out of the workshops and meeting halls and into the streets,” but who succumbed in the 1850s to the lures of office in Congress, to a Napoleonic fascination with his own flamboyant image, to alcohol, and, above all, to such a fixation on pro-slavery politics that contact was lost with labor issues in his own district. But Walsh became a pro-slavery demagogue not in the 1850s when his labor interests were waning, but in the 1840s, when his anti-capitalist rhetoric was reaching white heat. His critique of the “slavery of wages” developed hard by his sympathies for pro-slavery Calhoun Democrats and, even in Wilentz's account, by the mid-1840s Black slavery was for Walsh already the dominant issue. Thus it seems overly generous to preface praises of Walsh’s “anticapitalist variant of artisan republicanism” with “If his radicalism did not extend to the question of slavery and race,” as though the two were separate and racial egalitarianism might have been grafted on to his ideas. Indeed his racism, much like that of the minstrel stage, made possible extravagant criticisms of the North's aristocrats but simultaneously undercut those criticisms.[54]

Walsh's tragedy should also give us pause before accepting all of Wilentz's passionately stated strictures against approaching US labor history from an “essentialist” or an “American exceptionalist” standpoint. Wilentz warns against “essentialist reasoning — measuring American working-class ideas and actions against some abstract orthodox Marxist model of what would have been” and against idealizing the European working classes.[55] But Walsh need not be measured against the Paris Commune to be seen as lacking in the recoil against exploitation necessary to preach maturely the possibility of a thoroughly transformed America. It is enough to set his career against the finest American bourgeois radicals, such as William Lloyd Garrison or Wendell Phillips or Abraham Lincoln, who were his contemporaries.

In fact, were race and slavery considered, Wilentz could not portray the “essentialist/exceptionalist” framework with such sweeping caricature. If historians argue that the colonial settler experience in the US (and its attendant racism) and the singular experience of undergoing the “making of a working class” at a time when the slave population nationally dwarfed that of wage workers (and again with the racism attendant) influenced class consciousness in the US in ways which discouraged the development of a revolutionary tradition, it is not clear why they should be charged with engaging in outmoded Marxist theology, as Wilentz would have it.

It would be more charitable to say that such historians are establishing the context for what Wilentz call “American class consciousness.” They are weighing from another angle the ways in which slavery was, as Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese put it, the “world’s burden,” while adding that in the US that burden carried added dimensions and particular weight.[56] To explore how, whatever their racism, American workers made class-conscious choices within the parameters open to them, is of undoubted importance. To explore how racism shaped those parameters is also profitable. To join both concerns, or to realize that they are joined in a tragic history, is one of the key areas of unfinished business for the new labor history.



1. James Baldwin, ‘Dark Days' in Price of the Ticket (New York, 1985), p. 666. Thanks to Jean Allman, Eli Zaretsky, Herbert Hill, Steve Watts, Mike Davis, George Rawick, and Robin Blackburn for comments on this article.

2. W.E.B. DuBois, The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History (New York, 1965),pp. 18–21.

3. As translated in Saul K. Padover, ed., Karl Marx: On America and the Civil War (New York, 1972) p. 275; Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy 3 vols (New York, 1967), vol. I: p. 301.

4. George Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (Westport, 1972), p. xiii.

5. See above, note 2 and W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York, 1935), esp. pp. 17–31, 125, 237; also W.E.B. DuBois, “Dives, Mob and Scab, Limited", Crisis 19, March, 1920.

6. See esp. Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley, 1971); Alexander Saxton, “George Wilkes: The Transformation of a Radical Ideology", American Quarterly 33, Fall, 1981, pp. 437–58; Alexander Saxton, “Blackface Minstrelsy and Jacksonian Ideology", American Quarterly 36, 1984, pp. 211–35; Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization (New York, 1985); Herbert Hill, "Race, Ethnicity and Organized Labor: The Opposition to Affirmative Action", New Politics 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 31–82; New Politics 10, Spring, 1982, pp. 5–78; Gwen Mink, "The Alien Nation of American Labor" (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University 1982); Peter Rachleff, “Black, White and Gray: Race and Working Class Activism in Richmond, Virginia, 1865–1890" (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1981); Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (Boston, 1983); Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London, 1986). That Saxton is not widely recognized as among the most important of American historians is a fair index of our backwardness in discussing race and class.

7. By far the sharpest criticism is found in Wallerstein’s "Basil Davidson's African Odyssey", Third World Book Review 1, 1985, p. 9, which contrasts Davidson's work with the otherwise dismal state of affairs. See also David Montgomery, “America's Working Man", Monthly Review 37, November, 1985, pp. 1-8; Eugene Genovese, “Outgrowing Democracy", Salmagundi 67, Summer 1985, p. 203; and Michael Frisch, “The Northern Illinois University NEH Conference", International Labor and Working Class History (ILWCH) 27, Spring, 1985, p. 102.

8. See, e.g. David Halle, America's Working Man: Work, Home and Politics Among Blue-Collar Property Owners (Chicago and London, 1984); Ira Katznelson, City Trenches (New York, 1981), esp. p. 12; Edward Greer, “Racism and US Steel" Radical America 10, Sept-Oct 1976, esp. pp. 60–63; Robert Emil Botsch, We Shall Not Overcome: Populism and Southern Blue Collar Workers (Chapel Hill, 1980); Robert S. McCarl, “You’ve Come a Long Way and Now is Your Retirement: An Analysis of Performance in Fire Fighting Culture", Journal of American Folklore 97, 1984; Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream, pp. 256-300. Of course the recent work by economists on segmented labor markets also raises sharply the question of race but does not much discuss the consciousness of white workers. Some attempts in that direction are found in David M. Gordon, Richard Edwards and Michael Reich, Segmented Work, Divided Workers (Cambridge, 1982), esp. pp. 206–14.

9. Christopher Clark, "Politics, Language, and Class", Radical History Review 34, 1986, p. 80.

10. Melvyn Dubofsky, "Give Us That Old Time Labor History: Philip S. Foner and the American Workers", Labor History 26, Winter 1985, p. 128.

11. Werner Sombart, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? (New York, 1976), pp. 27–8, and p. 49.

12. John R. Commons and Associates, History of Labor in the United States, 4 vols (New York, 1918–35), vol. 2: pp. 252–3. The passage was written by Selig Perlman. For a good account of ethnicity, class and the making of the Wisconsin School, see Bari J. Watkins, “The Professors and the Unions: American Academic Social Theory and Labor Reform, 1883–1915" (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1976).

13. Sean Wilentz, “Against Exceptionalism,” International Labor and Working Class History (ILWCH) 26, Fall, 1984, esp. pp. 17–18; see also Wilentz's "The Formation of the American Working Class: A Survey" (paper delivered at the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Future of Labor History Symposium, Northern Illinois University, 10–12 October 1984, esp. p. 63 and 71). Note the gingerly treatment of Samuel Gompers’ racism in Nick Salvatore's introduction to his excellent abridgement of Gompers' Seventy Years of Life and Labor (Ithaca, 1984), esp. p. xxiv. A mirror of the tendency of labor historians to minimize race and racism is J. Sakai's The Mythology of the White Proletariat (Chicago, 1983), an unforgiving account of white working-class racism, though ultimately unconvincing in its attempt to collapse class into race.

14. Melvyn Dubofsky, "Old Time Labor History”, pp. 136 and passim; Cruse, "Review”, Journal of Negro History 63, July, 1978, pp. 253–7, treating Philip S. Foner, American Socialism and Black Americans (Westport, 1977).

15. Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, pp. x and passim.

16. In Saul K. Padover, ed., On America, pp. 274, n. 1–275 and 244. The Marxological claims here are advanced quite modestly. They do not pretend to settle what Marx “really thought on these matters.”

17. W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction. pp. 700–1 and passim. 18. But see Michael Honey, “The Labor Movement and Racism in the South", in Marvin J. Berlowitz and Ronald S. Edari, eds., Racism and the Denial of Human Rights (Minneapolis, 1984); David Roediger, “Racism, Reconstruction and the Labor Press", Science and Society 42, Summer, 1978 pp. 156–78 and to some extent, Herbert Gutman, “The Negro and the United Mine Workers of America", in Julius Jacobson, ed., The Negro and the American Labor Movement (Garden City, 1968), pp. 149–77. On Marx's later weaknesses in analyzing race and other matters in the US, see Mark Lause's forthcoming work on splits in the First International.

19. Indeed Foner dissects this overemphasis in Black Americans and American Socialism, pp. xii-xiii and passim; see also Barbara J. Fields's “Ideology and Race in American History", in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds., Region, Race and Reconstruction (New York and Oxford, 1982), pp. 143–78, esp. 150–6.

20. David Montgomery, “America's Working Man".

21. Barbara J. Fields, “Ideology and Race", pp. 44–5 broaches this dimension of the problem but in a very imprecise and foreshortened manner.

22. Ibid, p. 150. See Michael Burawoy, The Politics of Production: Factory Regimes Under Capitalism and Socialism (London, 1985), p. 39.

23. Ibid., pp. 159 and 174, n. 37. 24. Oscar Ameringer, If You Don't Weaken (Norman, 1983), pp. 218–19. See also David P. Bennett, “Black and White Workers: New Orleans, 1880–1900" (Ph.D. diss., 1972) and Daniel Rosenberg, "Race, Labor and Unionism: New Orleans Dockworkers, 1900–1910" (Ph.D. diss., CUNY, 1984). In the face of such very complex interaction between race and class, we may wish to review Eugene D. Genovese's excellent essay “Black Experience, White Historian", in In Red and Black (Knoxville, 1984), esp. p. 70: “Racism in America has grown out of a complex conjunction of historical forces and cannot be viewed as a class question except in a special sense – namely, that its destruction demands the destruction of bourgeois hegemony over the American people."

25. Fields, “Ideology and Race', p. 159. See also Jeffrey Gould, “Sugar War', Southern Exposure 12, Nov-Dec, 1984, pp. 45–55; William Ivy Hair, Bourbonism and Agrarian Protest (Baton Rouge, 1969); Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, pp. 66–9, 88–92 and 113–14. Gould's article begins rather artificially by criticizing those who focus on racism in explaining the 1887 Sugar Strike and does succeed in showing how social relations in the industry influenced racism. But in his excellent narrative it can hardly be said that racism does not loom as the main factor in the defeat of the strike. His early formulation, “If white workers were “racist”, why did they join the [Knights of Labor], which admitted blacks and whites, and initially participate in the strike movement?” neatly illustrates the tendency to view willingness to cooperate in a union setting as proof against racism. In this instance trade-union cooperation proved quite ephemeral and its end bloody.

26. Fields, “Ideology and Race', p. 43 and passim.

27. Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (Oxford, 1984), p. 395; W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction p. 103.

28. Wilentz, Chants Democratic, p. 259.

29. Saxton, “Blackface Minstrelsy', p. 27. See also p. 23. Emphasis original. For another view, see "Irish Mornings and African Days on the Old Minstrel Stage: An Interview With Leni Sloan", Callahan's Irish Quarterly 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 49-53. a penetrating discussion of race and popular culture in New York City in those years is Alessandra Lorini, “Festive Crowds in Early Nineteenth Century New York: Republican Virtues in the Evil City", (Unpublished paper presented at the Conference on Time and Space of Work and Leisure in Pre-industrial America, University of Paris VII, June, 1987).

30. Saxton, “George Wilkes" and “Problems of Class and Race', passim; Slotkin, Fatal Environment, pp. 438 ff.

31. Whether the work of David Montgomery and Eric Foner, perhaps the very best of the new labor historians, also overstresses the primacy of class over race and ends with thin discussions of racism, is open to question. I have hesitantly argued elsewhere that Montgomery's Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republican (New York, 1967) underplays working class racism in its discussion of the failure of labor – Radical Republican cooperation during Reconstruction. (See David Roediger, "Racism, Reconstruction and the Labor Press", Science and Society 42, Summer 1978, pp. 77–8. But the choice of a subject – indeed the opening up of the vital new subject of class and Radicalism – perhaps accounts for his emphasis. Foner's Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge, 1983) has been both criticized and praised by reviewers for its re-orientation of the debate over Reconstruction toward class and away from race. Compare Dan T. Carter, “Politics and Power", Reviews in American History 12, September, 1984, p. 396; also Judith Stein's review in In These Times, 19–25 September, 1984. My own view is that the brief essays in Nothing But Freedom show a line of thought, and a debt to DuBois, which in Foner's longer study of Reconstruction could underpin a set of arguments which consider both the racial and class dimensions.

32. Herbert Gutman, Visions of History (New York, 1983), p. 203, paraphrasing Jean-Paul Sartre.

33. Eric Hobsbawm, "Notes on Class Consciousness", in Workers: Worlds of Labour (New York, 1984), p. 17.

34. Montgomery, "Labor's Long Haul", The Nation, 243, 19–26, (July, 1986), p. 52.

35. See Martin Glaberman, Wartime Strikes (Detroit, 1980); George Lipsitz, Class and Culture in Cold War America (South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1982), esp. chapters 1 and 6; Stan Weir, “American Labor on the Defensive", Radical America 9, July-August, 1975, pp. 163–85; C.L.R. James, Grace Lee and Pierre Chaulieu, Facing Reality (Detroit, 1958).

36. "Response to David Abraham’s “Labor's Way”, ILWCH 28, Fall, 1985, р. 27.

37. Wilentz, Chants Democratic, esp. pp. 15–16; "Against Exceptionalism", esp. pp. 1–4 and 17, and "Wilentz Answers His Critics", ILWCH 28, Fall, 1985, esp. p. 53; see also Eric Foner, “Why Is There No Socialism in America?”, History Workshop Journal 17, Spring, 1984, esp. p. 67.

38. See n. 34 above; Ed Jennings, “Wildcat! The Wartime Strike Wave in Auto", Radical America 9, 1975; Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor's War at Home (Cambridge, 1982) pp. 121–35, 189–94 and 234–44. Not sharing this approach but giving a good narrative account are August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW (New York, 1979) pp. 162–74.

39. George Lipsitz, Class and Culture, pp. 14–25; Eric Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, pp. 255–7 and 265–8; Joshua Freeman, “Delivering the Goods: Industrial Unionism During World War Two", Labor History 19, Fall, 1978, pp. 585–7. For a superb recent account of race, class and the CIO in the steel industry in Birmingham, see Robert J. Norrell, “Caste in Steel: Jim Crow Careers in Birmingham Alabama", Journal of American History 73, December, 1986, pp. 669–94.

40. Freeman, “Delivering the Goods", p. 587.

41. Glaberman, Wartime Strikes, pp. 32 and 57. Cf. Lipsitz, Class and Culture, p. 20.

42. Lichtenstein, War at Home, pp. 125—6.

43. Glaberman, Wartime Strikes, p. 126 and Lipsitz, Class and Culture, p. 20.

44. See Freeman, “Delivering the Goods', pp. 586–7 and Dominic J. Capeci Jr., Race Relations in Wartime Detroit (Philadelphia, 1984); Lipsitz, Class and Culture, pp. 14-29.

45. Glaberman, Wartime Strikes, p. 125 quoting Marx and Engels from The Holy Family (Moscow, 1956), p. 53. See also “Letters: C.L.R. James and Martin Glaberman', in Paul Buhle, ed., C.L.R. James: His Life and Work (Chicago, 1981), pp. 79–80; and Wartime Strikes pp. 27 and 31 for Glaberman and Frank Marquart's interesting observations on southern white immigrants as “among the most militant" in the wartime auto industry and the failure to explore the interaction between racism and such militancy.

46. See Wilentz as cited in n. 13 and, esp. Chants Democratic, passim; Steven J. Ross, Workers on the Edge: Work, Leisure, and Politics in Industrializing Cincinnati, 1788–1890 (New York, 1985).

47. Wilentz, "Formation of the American Working Class", p. 1. On race and class in Melville, see Carolyn L. Karcher, Shadows Over the Promised Land (Baton Rouge, 1980); Ron Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America (New York, 1979); Michael Paul Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville (New York, 1983); C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (Detroit, 1953). For Wilentz and Ross on the issues discussed here, see Chants Democratic, pp. 48n and 264ff (Black workers) and esp. pp. 186 and 332–4 (wage and chattel slavery); also Ross, Workers on the Edge, pp. 6, 72, 74, 197 (Black workers) and esp. p. 199 (wage and chattel slavery). Cf. Howard B. Rock, Artisans of the New Republic: The Tradesmen of New York City in the Age of Jefferson (New York, 1979), esp. p. 311 for a more promising treatment. For an account of popular politics in antebellum New York City in which these issues disappear still more thoroughly, see Amy Bridges, A City in the Republic: Antebellum New York and the Origins of Machine Politics (Cambridge, 1984). The Melville quote is from Israel Potter (New York, 1974, originally 1855), p. 159. On Indians and Jacksonian politics, see Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (New York, 1975).

48. Wilentz, "Formation of the American Working Class", p. 63, n. 3; p. 71 n.58.

49. Edward S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1976). I borrow "nightmare" from F. Nwabueze Okoye's provocative extension of Morgan's arguments, "Chattel Slavery as the Nightmare of American Revolutionaries", William and Mary Quarterly 37, January, 1980, pp. 3–28. Ross, quoting Holt, Workers on the Edge, p. 199.

50. Thomas L. Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of Humanitarian Sensibility, Part I", American Historical Review 90, April, 1985, pp. 350, n. 29 and passim; David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Ithaca, 1975), esp. p. 251. See also William E. Forbath, “The Ambiguities of Free Labor: Labor and Law in the Gilded Age", Wisconsin Law Review 1985, pp. 782ff.

51. Wilentz, Chants Democratic, pp. 293 and 286–94 passim; Eric Foner, "Workers and Slavery", in Paul Buhle and Alan Dawley, eds., Working for Democracy (Urbana, 1985), p. 22.

52. David R. Roediger, “Ira Steward and the Antislavery Origins of American Eight-Hour Thought", Labor History 27, Summer, 1986, pp. 410–26. For a consideration of this issue in psychohistorical terms, see the important observations of Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (New York, 1970). p. 197.

53. On postbellum usages, see Barry Goldberg, “Beyond Free Labor" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1978).

54. Wilentz, Chants Democratic, p. 334 and 327–35, 356.

55. Wilentz, "Wilentz Answers His Critics", p. 53. For a brilliant brief treatment of the overblown "essentialism" debate, see Cornel West, "Rethinking Marxism", Monthly Review 38, February, 1987, pp. 52–6.

56. Wilentz, "Wilentz Answers His Critics", p. 53; Eugene Genovese and Elisabeth Fox-Genovese, "Slavery: The World's Burden", in Fruits of Merchant Capital (New York, 1983). For Wilentz's dismissal of racism, along with a laundry list of other factors, in shaping American working class consciousness, see his "Against Exceptionalism", p. 2.