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
'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.

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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.

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