Essay: Labor and the Intellectuals

In the fall of 1996, Columbia University held a famous teach-in on the suddenly popular topic of relations between intellectuals and the labor movement, and because my name figured on the advertised list of speakers, the National Writers Union called me to express the hope that, somewhere in my talk, I might give the union a friendly mention. The National Writers Union? I was happy to comply. The teach-in got underway. My turn at the mike arrived. Instantly I proclaimed myself a member of the union in question. Better: a charter member. To be honest, I have never been an especially active or useful member of the National Writers Union, apart from paying my dues. I have even wondered about those dues, sometimes. The National Writers Union puts up a good fight, but it is not yet a very powerful force in the world of writing, and the benefits that come showering down upon its dues-paying rank and file are less than vast, relative to the dues. And when I tally up the short-term advantages in my membership—why not admit it?—I start to fidget.

But then, I didn't join our meager, struggling writers' union looking merely to the short term. In my family, we have been joining unions for what will soon be a hundred years, which makes me a wizened expert on the long term. My grandfather the tailor joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1902, meaning that in his own union, so much larger and brawnier than mine, he too was a charter member, or very nearly one. Grandpa served as the union steward at his factory for several decades, until his retirement, and was always proud of his activities and of the grand old labor leaders he had known. He thought the world of David Dubinsky. My mother the art teacher served in turn as the delegate of the United Federation of Teachers in her junior high in the Bronx for a number of years. In my case, during my student days I joined the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802, due to my exploits on the trombone, and when the exploits proved less than lucrative, I made my way to a taxi garage and ended up with a membership in the New York taxi drivers' union.

A few years later I went to work at the Village Voice and joined the oddly titled District 65, Distributive Workers of America, who did a very good job of distributing some of the Village Voice's profits to us employees. District 65 was a feisty little union, and when you visited the headquarters you saw framed photographs of the union's longtime leader with his sober Jewish face standing in comradely solidarity next to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the effect was cheering. Then I moved along to the writers' union, which, in the fullness of time, chose to affiliate with the United Auto Workers, meaning that, in the end, I have become an auto worker, organizationally speaking. And from these many affiliations and a stream of dues payments that have gushed outward from my family into the treasuries of one union after another from 1902 to the present, what exactly have I received?

By my figuring, a lot—some of it owing to the specific services that unions provide their members, some of it owing to the wider role that unions play in American life. The unions have always campaigned for more government benefits, more public education, more opportunities for those in short supply; and I was the beneficiary of those many campaigns long before I was born. I grew up in a home with college-educated parents because (on my mother's side) the ILGWU had helped her father survive the Great Depression without sinking into poverty, and because New York City, as a good labor town, had somehow maintained a free public college for both my parents to attend (which, in our current reactionary age, has ceased to be free, needless to say). My own education, at a private university, was munificently subsidized down to the last penny by the kind of state program that the unions have always supported, thereby rendering the private public. My teeth are wealthy with gold and porcelain because of the wise generosity of a variety of union dental plans. And so it has been with me—and with any number of beneficiaries of the labor movement who have similarly used their opportunities to take up an intellectual occupation.

I know that, to many people, the idea of any connection at all between labor and the intellectuals seems faintly ridiculous. I am always astonished at how many of my bookish friends, not excluding the true-blue liberals among them, innocently picture the labor movement in grisly colors as a Mafia-led mob of horny-handed bookless know-nothings, pursuing their own petty advantage and nothing else. The preamble to the old IWW constitution famously thundered, "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common"; and these dear friends instinctively make the same thundering declaration about labor and the intellectuals. Nothing in common. Different spheres entirely. Yet there is quite a bit in common. Family histories like mine are a main thread in American society. It's just that, when Americans speak about upward mobility, they like to puff themselves up with the slippery old phrases about hard work and rugged individualism and they forget that, for many millions of people, bootstrap self-advancement also comes in the highly efficient form of rugged collectivism.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

There is another, more theoretical, link between the labor movement and the intellectuals—though to see it you have to agree on a specific definition of an intellectual. In one sense, an intellectual is somebody—anybody at all—who takes a lively interest in abstract ideas and may even read books on the topic. In a stricter sociological and economic sense, an intellectual is somebody who makes a living by developing ideas or by communicating them to the world—certain kinds of writers, editors, teachers, scholars, scientists, and so forth. But there is also a third sense of the intellectual vocation, which is more of an ideal than a reality, easily embraced by people on the liberal-left side of political opinion, though not necessarily by everyone else—an ideal of intellectual life that stands midway between crusading liberalism and abstract reflection. An intellectual in this third sense is somebody who believes in truth and social justice, without squirming too much over words like truth and social justice; believes that, through rational analysis, truth and justice can be understood and advanced; believes that an intellectual's duty is precisely to achieve such understandings and advances. An intellectual, to put it another way, is someone, half activist and half savant, who recognizes a beloved and honored ancestor in Zola, the hero of the Dreyfus Affair—the Dreyfus Affair, during which people for the first time used the word intellectual in the liberal sense that I am discussing.

Now, from the vantage point of this kind of intellectual, the whole question of labor and its relation to the intellectuals is complicated by still another ideal or, better stated, a theory, older and more venerable even than the Dreyfusard notion of the activist-savant. It is a theory about the labor movement and its place in the world—a theory that labor is an interest group unlike all other interest groups; that labor fights on its own behalf, yet also on behalf of all society; that labor gazes upon the world with clearer eyes than do the other great social forces; that labor's goals are mankind's. The theory maintains that, like the liberal activist intellectuals, labor, too, stands for truth and justice, except that labor takes its stand in muscular, practical-minded ways that may actually make a difference in how the world is run.

There were always good reasons to be a little wary of certain grandiose elements in that very old and exalted theory, and we ought to acknowledge that, in recent times, the good reasons have fattened into better ones. To suppose that any group of people at all, in the labor movement or anywhere else, are inherently, by definition, fighters for the good and the true always did require a leap of faith. And what can prevent the theory about labor's inherently progressive quality from metamorphosing into a systematic lie, cleverly deployed to shine a flattering light on the bullying actions of a few? Bakunin, in the course of his debates with Marx in the 1870s, was the first to notice the malign uses to which such a theory could be put. According to Bakunin, the people who talk about the working class and its destiny to redeem mankind tend to be theory-besotted intellectuals, and what those intellectuals really mean is this: The intellectuals will rule. Which, as everyone has to admit today, was a very astute observation on Bakunin's part. For what was communism in its early, revolutionary years, before the bureaucrats took over—the years when many a person with the best of intentions still pictured communism as pure and idealistic? It was a dictatorship of the intellectuals, hidden under its proletarian coat and cap.

So—let us avoid reviving the creaky old belief in the grandiose and universal virtues of labor. And yet the notion that labor is not exactly the same as all other interest groups, that labor stands for a larger cause and not just for a narrow set of benefits—this ancient notion still seems to me, in spite of everything, to contain, deep within it, a limited truth. I say a limited truth because I don't want to suggest that labor's virtues, such as they are, genetically derive from some unalterable and invisible trait. But—this is my speculative thought—maybe the labor movement does contain, here and there, a few lingering inheritances from certain generous and imaginative worldviews of the past, which survive into the present the way old family customs sometimes survive half-consciously through the generations. There used to be, for instance, a craftsman's noble idea of work, according to which a diligent devotion to a useful trade conferred a special dignity and worth on the individual.

The labor movement in its early years considered itself the bearer of such a concept, meaning that, from the days of its founding era, the movement upheld principles about virtue and a good life that, at least in theory, applied to everyone, not just to the signed-up members of the labor guilds and organizations. In the case of our own American labor movement, it may be worth adding that, from Samuel Gompers on down to today, any number of people have come to their union work from a background in the socialist organizations—even though most of those people eventually shook off their sectarian affiliations and the more rigid socialist dogma. Or perhaps the generous quality that I am ascribing to labor is owed to other factors, maybe a combination of them—a social-minded heritage from Roman Catholicism, for instance, or the moral precepts of social-gospel Protestantism.

The American labor movement's record of standing for the interests of the larger society remains, in any case, quite impressive, if you tally up the achievements. There is the example of labor's aggressive role in making possible the New Deal—not just the legislation that benefited unions directly but also the social measures that, by affirming government's responsibility for society, benefited the unionists and the non-unionists and even the anti-unionists. There is the example of labor's role in the civil rights revolution—a revolution in which many individual white trade unionists stood to lose their narrow privileges of caste but in which, even so, organized labor provided a large part of the institutional support. Or to cite another achievement, there is American labor's record in battling against a frightening range of totalitarian movements of the left and the right, at home and around the world.

Whole epics of that particular story, American labor's war against totalitarianism, remain even now virtually unknown to the general public. The role of, for instance, the UAW—my own union!—in trying to undermine the Franco dictatorship in Spain through the distribution of handsome American subsidies to the underground persecuted Spanish anarcho-syndicalists—who knows anything about that? It hardly needs repeating that American labor's struggles against the totalitarianism of the left took a few wrong turns now and then. The American labor movement has never been immune to the zealotries and misconceptions that sweep across other parts of American life, and during the McCarthy era and again during the Vietnam War the labor movement, except for a few smaller unions, was not always the home of wisdom. Persecutions at home, complicity with all sorts of ghastly, pact-with-the-devil foreign policy campaigns abroad—yes, those were real enough, and there's no point in failing to acknowledge it.

Yet we also ought to acknowledge that communism did pose a danger to civilization, and the American labor movement was right in wanting to oppose it. The labor movement was right to oppose the communists within its own ranks (where the Communist Party did, for a while back in the 1940s, control 20 percent of the Congress of Industrial Organizations). And it was right to lend a fraternal hand to working people in other countries in their own battles against communism. The support that American labor gave to the democratic and libertarian unionists in Western Europe, in their competition against the communists, was high-minded, in my judgment, even if sneaky. To encourage the workers of France to support the noncommunist unions over the communist ones was a favor to France. As for the American labor movement's activities in encouraging the underground anticommunist unionists of the Eastern bloc, this epic, nearly unknown even today, has got to be one of the grandest of all.

Who in American society rallied around Polish Solidarity during the dismal years when communism seemed undefeatable? It wasn't the university activists, except for a very few. The AFL-CIO might well have looked on Eastern Europe's sufferings as a matter of no concern to America's unions—might even have worried that the workers of Eastern Europe, should communism ever be overthrown, might pose a competitive challenge to the workers of America. But, no: In regard to the oppressed proletariats of the Soviet empire, the American labor movement took the same enlightened view that it did in regard to the oppressed blacks of Jim Crow America. Labor interpreted its own interests in the context of society's, and figured that working people would prosper more surely in a democratic world, and American labor stood, as a result, for the universal cause—for the cause of freedom and justice everywhere, not just the cause of better pay and conditions for a small group of people in the short term. Right now we can see that same broad-visioned instinct at work in American labor's effort to support the trade unionists of Mexico and other countries in Latin America. Which is, by the way, yet another story that, even now, remains almost wholly unknown to the wider public.

Why the lack of knowledge about labor and its achievements? Why is it that, even among some of the intellectuals who take seriously the old ideals about truth and justice, labor's good name today remains submerged in a gray cloud of unexamined assumptions about bureaucratic selfishness, lack of imagination, me-first curmudgeonliness, mobster stupidity, and so forth? I agree with everyone who affixes blame on the Vietnam War. The painful slowness of the bigger unions and the AFL-CIO as a whole to wake up to the war's futility and human cost (not to mention the economic cost) was an error on the most enormous scale. And among the many disasters that resulted was a pitiful downturn in relations between labor and the intellectuals.

A good many younger intellectuals during the Vietnam years and for a long while after, veering sharply to the left, went about reviving the old-time Marxist-Leninist interpretation of American labor, according to which America's labor organizations are a mainstay of capitalist imperialism—as explained by Lenin himself in his dolefully influential pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. The younger scholars ended up adopting a strangely split feeling about the labor movement: a heartfelt nostalgia for labor's glorious, early, militant days, combined with a sinister view of what (in the eyes of Lenin's readers, and the readers of his readers) labor had become, especially in its foreign policy. And the labor movement responded to this calamitous drop in its prestige by sinking into a morose silence.

George Meany was a scary character. Lane Kirkland spent a long reign at the AFL-CIO in the apparent belief that nothing labor might say would influence public opinion. It is said that Kirkland's heart lay in Eastern Europe, as if he were the president of the AFL-CIO's foreign affairs committee and not of the federation itself. No one in the upper reaches of the labor movement seems to have been tempted to follow the example of the American Federation of Teachers, which took the trouble to expound its views to the outside world by purchasing weekly advertisements in the general press under a grainy photo of Albert Shanker's haggard face. Most of the labor press, judging from what I've seen, has been moronic for a long time now (though there was a time when labor papers routinely published first-rate journalism and even literature). And so, during the last few decades, the intellectuals, especially the intellectuals of the left who normally might have championed labor's cause, lost respect for the labor movement and played no part in helping labor express itself and sometimes even heaped abuse on it. And labor itself, like a sick and elderly person suffering a stroke, stared out at American society from its hospital bed with an anguished expression, utterly mute.

The idea behind the teach-ins of 1996 was to spark a new friendliness between labor and the intellectuals. The possible benefits that might accrue to certain kinds of writers and scholars from a warming of relations are easy to imagine. To mention a few: The writers and scholars may discover that, in American society, intellectuals don't have to be doomed to the lonely isolation that sometimes seems to be their fate. They may discover that there is life beyond the university. They may find themselves refreshed, stimulated, corrected—excited by new fields of inquiry and by new readerships.

On labor's side, the potential benefits come with a few dangers, too. Trade unionists should ask themselves what will happen if, as a result of improved relations, the university intellectuals and their most idealistic students come stampeding into the labor movement, and, like a herd of healthy-looking livestock, turn out to be infected with mad cow disease, in a university version. The labor movement has so far managed not to tear itself up in internal wars over identity politics (except in a few unhappy unions, such as the hospital workers of New York several years ago, before they were rescued by new leaders). But a general disaster is entirely possible. Any country can become Yugoslavia. All you need is a few people with a sophisticated ability to coat the crudest of ethnic and gender resentments in a sheen of glamour and brilliance, and not enough people to put up a contrary argument.

Still, I hope the labor movement will go ahead with its new friendliness with intellectuals. Many a decade has come and gone since anyone looked to the American labor movement for much original thinking or clear expression. But there is no reason why labor shouldn't be a for serious journalism. The labor movement has amazing stories to tell about its own achievements and about the conditions in which ordinary people find themselves today. There is no reason why it cannot learn to tell those stories more articulately than in the past. Establishing a new friendliness with the intellectuals and the universities is a good, modcenter for such things, for intelligent and open debate, andest way to begin. Everyone stands to benefit—not just the unionists and the friendly intellectuals but society as a whole.

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)