Culture and the American Labor Movement

Franklin Rosemont
Joe Hill: The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture
Charles H. Kerr, 2003

Michael Denning
The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century
Verso, 1998

Moe Foner
Not For Bread Alone: A Memoir
Cornell University Press, 2002

Although what we would call modern culture began to take shape in the 19th century, it was not until the first half of the 20th century that it takes the form familiar today, where the main outlines of contemporary culture appear. Popular culture and the entertainment industry; later the contemporary university system and the state funding of art and scholarship; and mass movements and political culture; these all have their roots in the emergence of mass politics, industrial society, imperialism and the centralized state. Culture as a political problem has a long history, but it is not until the 19th century and into the 20th that the status of culture haunts political philosophy and movements.

It is not surprising that culture has been defined by political debates. Culture has often been a field of political struggle and inquiry. With the emergence of mass and popular culture, radical political thought increasingly began to see the cultural as a space where the often hidden conflicts and contradictions of social and economic life could be grasped and assessed. Two important tendencies emerged around this issue from the early 1900s to the 1950s in response to labor movements.

The first saw cultural expression and ideas as an important counterpart to talking about everyday people’s struggles for self-government. “Proletarian philosophy” was now considered a vital component of workplace and community organization as means to put forward people’s self-activity and subjectivity. This tendency emerged in the political struggle against social democratic parties (and later the Communist Party), trade union bureaucracy and the roles these played in the state-centralization of political life and the growing commitment of capitalism to labor-management peace.

The second tendency was to see culture as a space where the battle for hegemony over the working class was to take place. Here the goal was the radicalization of the cultural apparatus of the state, unions and entertainment industry through the Party, social movements, unions and friendly networks of artists and intellectuals. This conception saw the social democratic parties in Europe and the leftwing of the Democratic Party in the United States as well as the trade union bureaucracy as progressive agents of social change and revolutionary struggle.

Franklin Rosemont, Michael Denning and Moe Foner have written important books that address the intersections between political and labor movements and the meaning and role of culture. Each contain insights as well as significant pitfalls that should serve as a warning for all those who seek to tackle the role of cultural thought and practice in relation to labor movements and politics.

Movement Culture Without Intellectuals

As the subtitle of Franklin Rosemont’s Joe Hill suggests, it is not just a study of the famous singer, songwriter and poet. It is a portrait of the movement counterculture of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) during a period when they wielded a formidable influence in American society. The IWW equally influenced labor movements and political debates on organization and revolution in Europe and worldwide. This self-titled “One Big Union” distinguished itself by undercutting the conservative and racist American Federation of Labor (AFL) by not only propagating the idea of revolution and workers’ control within practical labor and political organizing, but also focusing on those workers that other unions ignored, the majority of whom were immigrants or unskilled.

Behind the “One Big Union” idea was a complete critique of existing society and a vision of its transformation rooted in the self-activity and capacity for self-government of working people. The IWW ideals implied a cultural revolution as a necessary part of this. As Rosemont writes, “Like the Haymarket anarchists who preceded them, but on a much larger scale, the Wobblies embodied not only a social and economic revolution but also a revolution in culture” (32).

Such a vision did not entail a state plan of removing backwardness from the workers and “revolutionizing” existing social relations. IWW cultural ideals at their best implied an understanding that the ideas, thinking and modes of expression of working people was the ground upon which fundamental change of society occurred. “From the start, creative self-expression was an important part of the IWW’s emphasis on education, organization and emancipation” (65). Such thinking about the importance of culture was rooted in the concrete project of everyday people taking control of political and economic life and governing them in their own interests. The popularity of poet, musician and organizer Joe Hill was emblematic of the ideal of the IWW as a means of working-class self-emancipation and cultural expression. In the words of Rosemont, “Exposing the irrationality of existing property relations and the whole grim comedy of the profit system, Hill’s songs—and his cartoons as well—spotlighted the ‘lower depths’ of social reality, helped working men and women realize their collective strength, and thus served as prime vehicles of working-class self-definition” (503).

Central to this cultural vision was the importance of breaking down the division between mental and manual labor, and that between the economic, the political and the social. In doing so IWW unionism propagated an awareness of the connection between oppressions in the community and in the workplace. Further, direct action in the workplace, but also the constant struggle over the conditions of work and social life was encouraged and highlighted in IWW songs, poetry and newspapers. It was not just strikes and free speech protests, but everyday living itself that was imagined within the scope of political life. The IWW movement was rooted in the cultural ideals and expressions of the working people who built it. Movement poets, songwriters, and political thinkers produced innovations in arts and political thought without a professional class of intellectuals.

As a cultural movement the IWW attempted to legitimize working-class identities, expression and activity as the basis of a new society. Cultural principles of creativity and spontaneity were seen as parallel principles for a vital political life of self-government based on everyday people’s critical engagement and self-activity. As Rosemont points out, the IWW was both a union and a social movement. Wobbly halls were community centers that represented the ideals of working-class self-education in a time where little education was available. IWW counter-culture cut across distinctions between high and low culture and between art and politics. Forms of popular criticism in music and humor were seen as central to the style of its organizing and literature. In all of these ways, IWW ideas and practice of organization sought to minimize the division between intellectuals and workers that is woven into the very structure of modern society.

The IWW has continued to be a signpost for a discussion of these issues. To grasp this it is only necessary to compare the Wobblies to their most important rival in labor organizing at the time. The Communist Party operated from very different premises pertaining to these questions. As Rosemont points out, Communist Party imagery celebrated the ideal of the “happy worker”. The IWW countered by a vision of work that was a source of personal and collective fulfillment and freedom, not duty to the state. “The IWW vision of life in the new society involved the supersession of ‘work’ as we know it” (29).

The difference between the two groups could equally be felt in the theory and practice of organization. Unlike the IWW, the Communist Party had a clear division between intellectuals and workers that was a product of its belief in democratic centralism, trade union bureaucracy and the state as vital for managing society towards a mythical socialism from above.

Rosemont writes, “The IWW—more concerned with ‘cultural’ issues than any workers’ organization in U.S. history—rejected the ahistorical goal of a ‘proletarian culture.’ While ‘clearing the road’ for a truly human culture, Wobblies instead sought to develop a revolutionary culture or, to use the more recent term: a counterculture” (508). While the Communist Party advocated a “proletarian culture,” the IWW saw the destruction of class society as an immediate goal. The culture it sought to encourage was the newly associated humanity and values arising within the old society that would not be confined by the category of “worker.”

However, there were potential problems with the IWW conception of culture and politics. There can be ambiguity in the promotion of a radical “counterculture” which can contain within it vanguardist elements. There has been a tendency—especially since the 1960s—to see counterculture either as a total rejection of the capacity of everyday people to be self-governing or as a utopian alternative society that hopes to culturally reeducate the majority of people in its own image as a precondition for their liberation. Rather than contradictory, both popular and working class culture in this view can be seen as false roads. Such an idea repeats many of the assumptions of economic and political theories that posit the false consciousness of people, which is ironic because it is these very ideologies that counterculture sometimes seeks to escape. The vanguardist danger of radical movement culture is that it can view working-class participation and creation of mass and popular culture in completely negative terms, instead of an expression of widely held anxieties, frustrations and contradictory desires of emancipation.

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