Chicago's working people in two eras
By STEVE ROSSWURM
Lizabeth Cohen. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pp. 526 with photographs, notes and index. $27.95 (cloth).
Eric Hirsch. Urban Revolt: Ethnic Politics in the 19th-century Chicago Labor Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Pp. 253 with bibliography and index. $39.95 (cloth).
Making a New Deal and Urban Revolt are both about Chicago's working people, but here their similarities end. The former, a historian's prize-winning study of the 20th century, deserves a readership far beyond labor history circles. The latter, a sociologist's examination of the 19th century, adds little to the rich existing literature on the topic.
Cohen's primary purpose is to explain how Chicago's working people became "national political participants" in the 1930s, despite their overwhelming defeat in the 1919 strike wave and their quiescence during the 1920s. To do this, she knows that she must study more than the 1930s. Therefore, Making a New Deal is as much about the 1920s as it is about the subsequent decade. Furthermore, Cohen realizes not only the importance of working-class culture, but also the difficulty of separating 20th century labor history from the history of popular culture.
Making a New Deal, therefore, often tells us as much about working Chicagoans' taste in radio, movies and popular music in the 1920s as about the city's factories and the work done there.
In brief, Cohen's argument is this: Racial, ethnic and political divisions within the working class were primarily responsible for the crushing defeats in 1919; little happened in the 1920s to bridge these divisions. Ethnicity remained paramount as community leaders successfully adapted to challenges from mainstream institutions, as working people incorporated mass culture into their own lives on their terms and as ethnic neighborhoods staved off the threatened invasion of chain movie theatres as well as chain stores. Toward the end of the decade, however, the "aggressive expansion" of chain enterprises and the commercialization of radio effectively "undermined" these "local alternatives."
Welfare capitalism provided the final experiential base for Chicago's working people as they entered the Depression. On the one hand, Cohen argues, Chicago's capitalists were not terribly successful in their efforts to dissolve their workers' sense of community and loyalty and reconstitute it around themselves. On the other hand, "enlightened industrialists provided workers with a new set of standards for evaluating a good job."
Cohen's explanation for the working class's successful creation of industrial unions in the 1930s hinges upon a transformed rank and file. Having more in common during the Depression than they had in 1919, working people responded decisively to their abandonment by both ethnic leaders and welfare capitalists, turning to the federal government and the unions they had built to create "moral capitalism." The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), moreover, increased this "new common ground" through its efforts to create a "culture of unity."
This argument, from Eric Hirsch's perspective, is an intellectual and political flim-flam right from the start. Hirsch's preliminary investigations uncovered a post-Civil War Chicago labor movement deeply divided by ethnicity, occupation, religion, level of skill and politics. It is the political differences, ultimately, that Hirsch believes require explanation. Why did the Chicago working class divide along the lines of reform unionism versus revolutionary unionism? Why did so few Chicago workers develop "coherent revolutionary politics" — specifically, a commitment to anarchism? Hirsch tests a variety of sociological theories and finds all of them inadequate as explanations. What accounts for the lack of "revolutionary class consciousness" on the part of Chicago workers is "solidarity theory" and the concept of "havens." Working-class Germans, whatever their skill or wage level, adopted anarchism because they were set apart from the rest of Chicago by occupation, residence, ethnicity, language and electoral exclusion. Their ethnic enclaves not only "insulate[d]" them "from the rationalizing ideologies normally disseminated by the society's dominant group," but also gave them the space to "develop innovative ideas about the nature of the system, to identify those responsible for the subordinate groups' plight, and to discover what action was needed to resolve their common problems."
Hirsch's goal here, of course, is to explain the Haymarket riot of May 4, 1886, which resulted in the bombing deaths of seven police and the subsequent execution of four rioters, the suicide of a fifth and the imprisonment of three others. Why did so few workers join the anarchists? Why did so few Chicago working people come to their defense? Why did so many condemn the anarchists in the strongest terms? His answer is alarmingly simple: Those most excluded were the most radical; those most exploited were the most strongly committed to the revolution. Bourgeois society is so corrupting that only those who remain totally outside it maintain the purity necessary to overcome it. '' [H]egemonic ideology'' had infected the minds of some workers, while others found slight amelioration of their living and working conditions within the system.
This is goofy. Hirsch's bad history and bad politics produce not a theory of social change, but rather a morality play, a struggle of good against evil, of those opposed to capitalism against those corrupted by it. It matters not at all to Hirsch that it was, in his words, "unlikely" that the anarchists would recruit any non-Germans. It matters not at all, as he acknowledges, that the very circumstances that produced the anarchist movement confined it "to a minority of the working class." What matters is that his heroes remained uncon-
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laminated in their "[s]ocial structural havens."
The great irony here is that the period Hirsch covers, from about 1865 to 1890, is now one of the best-studied in Chicago labor history. Since his book is not in the same league as others' work, interested readers should start with: Bruce Nelson, Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago Anarchists, 1870-1900 (1988); Harmut Keil and John Jentz, eds., German Workers in Industrial Chicago, 1850-1910 (1983); and Dave Roediger and Franklin Rosemont, eds., A Haymarket Scrapbook (1986).
In contrast, Cohen has contributed a great deal to one of the least-studied periods of Chicago labor history. Making a New Deal is well written and well researched; it also offers good maps, clear tables and nice illustrations. The standout chapter is the one on popular culture. Since Cohen has refused to buy the line that mass culture corrupted those who came in contact with it, her investigation of working people's reception of phonograph records, chain stores, radio and movies is stunning. Her discussion of how African Americans responded differently to popular culture is sensitive to important racial and social distinctions, even as it is aware that the Black Belt was not a "haven" in Hirsch's terms.
On several important points, though, Cohen is less than convincing. Her argument that working people derived their definition of a good employer from welfare capitalist programs is not persuasive. Her discussion of 1930s labor organizing, moreover, is less cogent than her examination of the 1920s and underestimates the Communist Party's critical role. Finally, the discussion of Catholicism is thin, especially given the wealth of material at the local Archdiocesan Archives, and is weighted almost entirely toward the functional.
Scholars will be coming to grips with Making a New Deal for decades. In the meantime, it is an important and appealing book that covers much more than just labor history. Moreover, it is priced right. How many good buys do we get these days?
Steve Rossvmrm, who teaches history at Lake Forest College, is the author of Arms, Country, and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and the American Revolution and the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays on the ClO's left-led affiliates.
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