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Introduction to my forthcoming book

If all goes well, I'll be publishing a book sometime in the not-too-distant future. It'll be called something like Popular Radicalism and the Unemployed in Chicago during the Great Depression. I thought I'd copy here the draft of its Introduction, based on the longer and more diffuse Introduction to my PhD thesis. I don't know how interesting the arguments are, but at least they have the merit of insisting on the fundamental importance of class struggle in a time when most academics (supposedly "leftist," according to critiques from the far right) still prefer not to make such sweeping statements of Marxist common sense, instead subordinating class to gender or race, when not avoiding semi-leftist commitments altogether.

Excerpts from a couple of other chapters, which I posted months ago, are linked below, for any readers with a streak of masochism. Later I might also post an excerpt from chapter five, on the brutal inhumanity of the Illinois and Chicago governments in the 1930s.


Capitalism and mass unemployment are inseparable. Ever since the destruction of the English handloom weavers following the introduction of the power loom in the early nineteenth century, the presence of a “reserve army of the unemployed” has been a permanent feature of capitalist society. Through perpetual structural change and business cycles, capitalism has manufactured unemployment no less reliably than industrial innovation, environmental degradation, and class conflict. The subject of this book is the collective suffering and struggles of the long-term unemployed during one of the great upheavals in American history, the Great Depression.

Unemployment during the Depression is hardly a novel subject of historical inquiry, so the question immediately arises, why return to a topic that has already been studied by historians? Can anything new be said? In part, my interest in this old topic has been motivated by ominous parallels between the political economy of the present-day United States and the political economy that eventuated in the Depression. The most obvious parallel, for example, is the extreme income and wealth inequality of the two eras. “U.S. wealth concentration,” the economist Gabriel Zucman wrote in 2019, “seems to have returned to levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties.”[1] This parallel is rooted, to some extent, in the comparable weakness of organized labor in the 1920s and today. Similar stock-market bubbles, too, have helped cause the wealth inequality of the two analogous eras. The income of the working class has, in both cases, stagnated as expansions of consumer credit have been necessary to keep the economy growing. In 1929, the weakness of aggregate demand that had been covered up by massive extensions of credit was largely responsible for the greatest economic contraction in the history of capitalism. It would be reasonable to conclude, in short, that we have a bleak future ahead.

But this fact in itself is hardly sufficient justification to write another social history of the unemployed. Rather, the justification, I hope, is that my interpretation differs from that of earlier scholars. Instead of simply describing the history for the sake of describing it, I want to use it to support a certain point of view about the nature of society. In particular, I want to defend some simple, even vulgar Marxian and anarchist ideas relating to capitalist institutional functioning and, conversely, anti-capitalist tendencies in human behavior. As for the choice of Chicago as the city to study, the fact that it was a major site of unemployed activism in the 1930s—being one of the cities hit hardest by the Depression—was what elicited my interest. Given the gallimaufry of ethnicities, races, classes, and political persuasions that constituted Chicago in these years, it would be hard to find a more fascinating and revealing object of study than this city. A local study of such a metropolis—central to the American political economy—would, it seemed, permit a sharper focus and greater depth than if I had undertaken a diffuse study of the entire country.

The social history of the jobless and underemployed masses, an ever-shifting group of people who, despite their teeming numbers, are often invisible and forgotten, is of interest in itself. It provides a lens through which to view some of the most adverse social consequences of capitalism, and it offers insight into how people and communities react to devastating loss—loss of income, loss of identity, loss of stability, loss of modes of sociability and self-expression. It needs interpretation, however; and here is an opportunity to add further interest to the subject.

The interpretation that guides the book amounts to a rejection of the sort of attitude that is all too easy to adopt with regard to scattered and atomized millions of unfortunates like the long-term unemployed. It is expressed in historian William Leuchtenberg’s judgment that “most of the unemployed meekly accepted their lot,” that the jobless man in the 1930s “spent his days in purposeless inactivity.” Society is inclined to sweeping condescension toward those who have lost their livelihood, who have consequently, in a sense, been socially outcast. It is as if they have been rendered passive, hopeless, apathetic, even apolitical. “These are dead men,” an observer wrote early in the Depression. “They are ghosts that walk the streets by day.”[2] They drift along aimlessly, pitifully acquiescent, the flotsam and jetsam of a turbulent society tossed by economic gales.

Instead, throughout this book I emphasize the realism and resourcefulness, the active resistance, of the millions of families who were, to a large degree, cast aside by an unfeeling world. While despair and “acquiescence” were hardly absent, I prefer to focus on the element of what one might call spontaneity in the consciousness and behavior of the Depression’s victims—the element of creativity, freedom, resilience, adaptability, and resistance to dehumanization. That is to say, I emphasize the old Marxian theme of struggle, indeed class struggle. My application of this concept of class struggle to the long-term unemployed, a group of people who have rarely been of much interest to Marxists, may seem perverse, but I think it is defensible on the basis of a few elementary considerations. First of all, as the historian G. E. M. de Ste. Croix argued long ago, there is no reason that class struggle need entail a lucid class consciousness or explicitly political action, or even collective action at all.[3] Class conflict, and therefore struggle, is implicit in the very structure and functioning of economic institutions, which are manifestly grounded in the subjugation and domination of one class by another. It is perfectly reasonable to have an “objectivist” understanding of class struggle, and it is in this sense that Marx made his infamous but broadly correct declaration that the history of all hitherto existing society (meaning class societies, not small-scale tribal ones) is the history of class struggle.[4]

Furthermore, the very efforts of the poor and the unemployed to survive in a hostile world can themselves be called a manifestation of class struggle, being determined by one’s location or non-location in a set of economic structures. One naturally adopts an antagonistic (or else a prudentially obedient) stance vis-à-vis economic and political authorities; correlatively, efforts to survive and adapt frequently involve collective solidarity, the solidarity of the poor with the poor. I take the feminist slogan “the personal is political” seriously: there can be a kind of political content in the most mundane day-to-day activities. In contexts of severe deprivation, the mere fact of tenaciously surviving can be a type of resistance to dominant social structures, a way of asserting oneself against realities of class and power that are, in effect, designed to crush one under the boot of the ruling class or even to erase one’s existence. And out of this mundane resistance can easily emerge more consciously political action: mass demonstrations for expansive unemployment insurance, marches on relief stations organized by Unemployed Councils, alliances between employed and unemployed workers or farmers and industrial workers. Whether individual or collective, these fights for dignity and survival are all in the mode of class struggle, a concept that thereby becomes of much broader applicability than it might have seemed.

Said differently, in this book I apply James C. Scott’s “weapons of the weak” framework to the study of the unemployed. In his 1989 paper “Everyday Forms of Resistance,” for example, Scott refers to such acts as “foot-dragging, dissimulations, false compliance, feigned ignorance, desertion, pilfering, smuggling, poaching, arson, slander, sabotage, surreptitious assault and murder, [and] anonymous threats” as characteristic forms of resistance by relatively powerless groups. “These techniques,” he observes, “for the most part quite prosaic, are the ordinary means of class struggle.”[5] Against the charge that he makes the concept of class resistance overly inclusive, Scott marshals a number of arguments, for instance that when such activities are sufficiently generalized to become a pattern of resistance, their relevance to class conflict is clear. Thus, even when workers shirk on the job or when the poor dissimulate to authorities in the hope of obtaining more unemployment relief, class resistance to dominant institutions and inegalitarian values is occurring.

In fact, however “hegemonic” values of capitalism (such as individualistic acquisitiveness), nationalism, and submission to authority may appear when one casts one’s glance over a seemingly well-ordered society, implicit opposition to such values and structures is nearly ubiquitous.[6] And it would be a fruitful terrain of study for historians, sociologists, and anthropologists to excavate such latent or explicit opposition. If capitalism, for instance, means private ownership of the means of production, private control by a “boss” over the workplace, production for the single purpose of accumulating profits that are privately appropriated by the owners, and such tendencies as ever-increasing privatization of society, the mediation of more and more human interactions through market processes, and commodification of even human labor-power, nature, and ideas, then it can be shown that the large majority of people are profoundly ambivalent or outright opposed to it. Much of labor history has this implication, though it is not always made clear.

Even apart from empirical analysis, considerations of a more transhistorical nature support the perspective being sketched here. The late anthropologist David Graeber argued that, notwithstanding appearances of social atomization and cutthroat competition in capitalist society, on a deeper level nearly everyone frequently acts in a “communistic” way. He called it “baseline communism.” For, if communism means “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (as Marx defined it), then it simply means sharing, helping, and cooperating—giving to others in need what you’re able to give them, even if it is only advice, assistance, sympathy, or some money to tide them over. Friends, coworkers, relatives, lovers, even total strangers continually act in this way. In this sense, “communism is the foundation of all human sociability”; it can be considered “the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace,” as Graeber says.[7] Society is held together by this dense anti-capitalist fabric, into which the more superficial patterns of commercialism, the profit motive, and greed are woven. Capitalism is thus parasitic on “everyday communism,” which is but a manifestation of human needs and desires.

Lest the reader object that Graeber’s conceptualization is an inadmissible politicization of the innocuous, un-ideological facts of spontaneous compassion and altruism, I would reply, again, that to some degree “the personal is political.” The altruistic, democratic, and anarchist ideology of communism, elaborated by such thinkers as Peter Kropotkin, is little but an elevation and generalization of deep-seated “moral” tendencies—propensities of “mutual aid”—in human nature.[8] When socialists or less politically conscious people object to the brutalities of capitalist society, they are doing so on the basis of “un-ideological” impulses of sympathy and compassion, values of individual self-determination and group cooperation, which are, historically speaking, the heart of anarchist communism. It is therefore hardly far-fetched to perceive the seed of political radicalism in some of the most quotidian practices and emotional impulses of ordinary people, just as radicalism is latently or consciously present in the class struggles of the poor or the relatively powerless.

While everyday communism may, informally, be widespread even in the higher echelons of corporate America, historically it has been especially pronounced among the lower classes—the peasantry, industrial workers, struggling immigrants, the petty-bourgeoisie—who have relied on it for survival in hard times and even in normal times. Moreover, these classes have simply not been as deeply integrated into commercial structures and ideologies as the upper classes have. Social history has done much to illuminate the “communism” (without calling it that) of the American working class during its many formative decades, through description of the thick networks of voluntary associations that workers created among themselves, and of the “mutualist” ethic to which they subscribed in the context of their battles with employers, and in general of the vitally public (anti-capitalist, anti-market, anti-individualistic) character of much of their shared culture up to at least the 1940s (in fact beyond).[9] The long-term unemployed as such, however, have tended to be overlooked in this historiography, so I try to remedy that lacuna in the later chapters of this book. For unemployment did not produce only atomization, as is commonly supposed; it also gave rise to the opposite, community and solidarity. And that is what is most interesting to study.

My “agenda” with this book, then, is to highlight the brute material realities and imperatives that structure social life. Rather than focusing on cultural discourses, mass political indoctrination, ideological consent, or the hegemony of the ruling class as forces of social cohesion, I emphasize the more basic facts of class conflict, economic and political coercion, and ruling-class violence (or its threat) as fundamental to containing the struggles and strivings of subordinate groups. This was true in the 1930s and it is true today, notwithstanding the tendency of contemporary humanistic scholarship to privilege discourses over the role of violence and institutional compulsion. (Graeber makes an apt comment in The Utopia of Rules (2015): “graduate students [are] able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on the fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required.”[10]) It was force, first and foremost, that contained the Depression’s mass groundswell, anchored initially in an unemployed constituency, of opposition to basic norms and institutions of capitalism. As we’ll see—contrary to liberal verities that have reigned since the postwar era—the popular movements of the early 1930s were in effect quasi-socialist and collectivist in their goals and practices.[11]

It is doubtless true that we all have a “divided consciousness” on questions of social and political organization, commitments to contradictory values—commitments not always conscious but revealed in our behavior—and are susceptible to indoctrination by institutions in the media, politics, and the corporate economy. Scholarship has established this fact beyond doubt.[12] Since at least the time of World War I and the Creel Committee on Public Information (dedicated to “manufacturing consent” in favor of America’s participation in the war), government and big business have devoted colossal resources to molding the public mind in a way friendly to the power of the ruling class. And their efforts have often met with considerable success. On the other hand, the very fact that it is necessary to constantly deluge the public with overwhelming amounts of propaganda, and to censor and marginalize views and information associated with the political left, is significant.[13] Why would such a massive and everlasting public relations campaign be necessary if the populace didn’t have subversive or “dangerous” values and beliefs in the first place? It is evidently imperative to continuously police people’s behavior and thoughts in order that popular resistance does not overwhelm structures of class and power.

What is interesting about the 1930s is that the ordinary methods of mass regimentation and indoctrination—methods that at the best of times are only partially successful (as shown, e.g., by polls[14])—substantially broke down and the working class had an opportunity to collectively fight for its interests and achieve some limited versions of its goals. Insofar as society in the coming years may see a similar breakdown of established norms and hierarchies, it is of interest to reconsider that earlier time.

The fact is that the political program of a remarkably broad swath of Americans in the 1930s would, if enacted, have constituted a revolution without a “revolution.” Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California campaign, Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth program, Father Charles Coughlin’s overwhelmingly left-wing radio broadcasts in 1934 and 1935 (“Capitalism is doomed and not worth trying to save”), and the immensely popular though forgotten Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill, introduced in Congress in 1934 and 1935 in opposition to the more conservative Social Security Act, all amounted to full-on class war against the rich.[15] Again, this is not the received interpretation among historians, who have often preferred to emphasize (and puzzle over) Americans’ supposed individualism and conservatism relative to, say, the “socialistic” and “class-conscious” Europeans, but in chapter six I will defend my unorthodox interpretation at some length.[16]

The book is organized as follows. In chapter one I provide a brief overview of the Great Depression and its effects on Chicago, and then, at the end, summarize again some of the main arguments I’ll make in later chapters. The second chapter is different from the others in saying nothing about the agency of the unemployed, consisting instead of a litany of the woes they had to endure. While not much is said explicitly about the machinations of Chicago’s political and business elite, in its totality it serves as an implied critique of the class priorities of this elite that was happy to sacrifice the well-being of hundreds of thousands on the altar of “lower costs.”

The third chapter explores some of the dimensions of people’s “activeness,” specifically the ways they coped with the tragedies that had befallen them. Having been virtually outcast from many of society’s dominant institutions, the long-term unemployed had to reconstruct their lives even in the midst of their collapse. In most cases this would not have been possible if the poor had not been munificent in aiding one another—a feature of Depression life that scholars have still not exhaustively analyzed. In addition, I examine the many ways in which the Depression’s victims constructed their own modes of recreation, from sports to gambling to dancing.

The fourth chapter is devoted to “the unattached,” who often had to live in flophouses or public shelters because they could not afford their own rooms. Not until late 1935 did Chicago’s relief administration provide outdoor relief, or home relief, to most of the unattached, and even then thousands still used the free shelters that remained open or the cheap flophouses in the Hobohemian district. I describe the miserable conditions in which “shelter men” lived, conditions that reveal much about the class-determined priorities of the economic and political elite. Shelter clients, it seems, tended to be well aware of class structures and the conflict between rich and poor that shaped U.S. politics, even organizing with the help of Communists to press for changes in shelter administration. I focus on what these men thought of their situation, and on how they adjusted to being the objects of inhumane policies.

In the following chapter I discuss three types of institutions that had an impact on the unemployed: governments, unions, and churches. With regard to the first, I demonstrate what a low priority the well-being of the poor was to the Chicago and Illinois governments by recounting the dreary story of relief financing from 1930 to 1941, which is to say the story of how political authorities singularly failed to provide for the millions of Illinoisans thrown out of work. As a wealthy state that periodically even had budget surpluses, Illinois certainly could have afforded to be more generous than it was in the funds it diverted to relief. (In general, historians have not sufficiently highlighted the degree to which niggardly relief policies were a political choice rather than an economic necessity.) Unions and churches, on the other hand, frequently showed striking compassion for, and solidarity with, the unemployed, although their inadequate resources prevented them from being as effective as they might have been.

The picture I delineate in this chapter might seem too clear-cut, the contrasts (between government and voluntary associations) exaggerated, as if I am simplifying or caricaturing the reality. Such a criticism, indeed, is often made of Marxian accounts: they are said to be reductive, oversimplifying, too class-focused or one-dimensional. Liberal historians, say, are apt to criticize a work like Howard Zinn’s famous People’s History of the United States for its one-sidedness or “oversimplifications,” unaware that in order to understand the world at all it is necessary to simplify it a bit and explain it in terms of general principles.[17] This is what science does, for example, abstracting from the infinite complexity of a given natural phenomenon in order to formulate a few dominant laws that provide a basis for understanding. There is little point in simply reproducing reality in all its many-splendored complexity; this is mere description for its own sake, not much different from data collection, as opposed to explanation or understanding. While complications must be allowed for and introduced, the writer who “reduces” a confusing mess of phenomena to the principle of class conflict is (if he can support his arguments with evidence) proceeding in a properly scientific way, simplifying the world in order to understand it.[18]

Thus, while I try not to romanticize the functions of unions and churches in relation to the unemployed, I do draw a rather stark contrast between the behavior of local and state governments that were substantially in thrall to the business community and the behavior of more “popular” institutions that to some extent succeeded in breaking away from the values and priorities of the ruling class. The record of unions and churches in Chicago was far from morally spotless, but in their aggregate they made a difference in the lives of the economically insecure. I am also interested in how these oppressed people, such as Blacks on the South Side, used their religious life as in part a sublimation of struggle, of opposition to dominant values and institutions.

The sixth chapter follows this account of the politics of relief with a discussion of the politics and activism of the unemployed. My main concern, again, is to highlight the realism and frequent militancy of ordinary people, to challenge the notion of their easy acceptance of what Marxists have sometimes called “bourgeois hegemony.” Especially when material comforts fall away and people sense that they are being treated unfairly, radicalization can happen very quickly. The “self-blame” of the unemployed, for example, was not such a universal reaction as historians have implied.[19] And even when there was self-blame, anger at an unjust society was not infrequently present as well. Such anger helped motivate the radicalism that emerged on local and national scales, a radicalism of both “form”—including widespread occupying of private property, sit-ins at relief stations and legislative chambers, continual demonstrations and hunger marches, collective thefts—and “content,” which is to say the policy goals many of which were in essence revolutionary.

The question of why these “revolutionary” policy goals, despite their popularity, nevertheless failed can be answered in a number of ways, but what they all boil down to is that the ruling class had far more resources than oppositional movements. Through force, media censorship, and the lack of sympathy of national and state-level power centers (Congress, the Roosevelt administration, state legislatures, etc.), it was possible to suppress movements that in fact, because of their insufficient resources—itself a result of their being contrary to the interests of the owning class—even had difficulty organizing nationally in the first place.

Throughout the book I try to make distinctions between subcategories of the unemployed, such as different ethnicities and income levels. The most obvious distinctions are between Blacks and whites, especially native whites, because the hardships of Blacks were more acute than those of whites. Not surprisingly, then, the former were more frequently militant and “class-conscious” than the latter. However, what I found in the course of research was that, despite my attempts to differentiate between groups, having similar class positions tends to homogenize experiences, values, and ideas. I am reminded of what the historian Susan Porter Benson argued in her analysis of working-class family economies in the interwar years: “when it came to confronting the market, ethnicity became a kind of second-order influence; some groups, in some places, turned more to one strategy than to another, but the difference was more one of degree than of kind, and all drew on a common array of strategies.”[20] Class was supreme.

It may seem odd for a Marxist to write a somewhat positive account of the long-term unemployed, who have traditionally not been of much interest to Marxists. The actively working industrial proletariat has been seen as the most revolutionary class, the unemployed more akin to the despised “lumpenproletariat.” In fact, in Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States [summarized here] I have argued that the focus on the industrial working class was always rather limited, that any collective agent of “socialist revolution”—a revolution, incidentally, that would have to be gradual rather than insurrectionary or completely “ruptural”—would surely include a variety of groups relatively disempowered or exploited by late capitalism, including service-sector workers, the young, the jobless, many peasants and farmers, etc.[21] It isn’t creditable or sensible for Marxists to be scornful of a large and permanent subcategory of the working class (viz., those without work) that will likely continue to grow in numbers in the coming years and decades. On the other hand, no group of “the oppressed” should be romanticized either. While I have found it more interesting to try to “problematize” conventional dismissive or negative stereotypes of the unemployed, I hope I have not romanticized or homogenized a very diverse group of people. By reconceptualizing class struggle, for example, I have not meant to ascribe certain conscious ideological beliefs to people many of whom doubtless remained, at least in their own eyes, politically conservative. I have simply tried to apply a more objectivist and, I think, defensible understanding of the concept than the collectivist and subjectivist (involving something called “class consciousness”) understanding that tends to prevail.

If nothing else, I hope to have partially rehabilitated a category of people who, despite the very real impact they made on American history, have generally elicited far less interest than the industrial workers who a few years later built the Congress of Industrial Organizations. This lack of interest is ironic, for it was the struggles of the jobless in the early 1930s that provoked the most fear among authorities and most threatened the stability of the social order.

[1] Quoted in Jesse Colombo, “America’s Wealth Inequality Is At Roaring Twenties Levels,” Forbes, February 28, 2019.

[2] William Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940 (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 119. See also the various adverse judgments scattered in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919–1933 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003 [1957]), such as his statement that Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration finally awoke a nation from “apathy and daze” (p. 8).

[3] G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 44, 57.

[4] It is puzzling that generations of intellectuals have found problematic the Marxian claim that economic relations (or production relations), incorporating class conflict, are the foundation or the “base” of society while politics, culture, and ideologies are the “superstructure.” One would have thought this statement—admittedly a crude metaphor, but a useful one—to be mere common sense. After all, culture and politics are not somehow the product of spontaneous generation; they are brought into being by actors and institutions, which need resources in order to bring them into being. The production and distribution of resources, in particular material resources, takes place in the economic sphere. So, the way that resources are allocated according to economic structures—who gets the most, who gets the least, how the structures operate, etc.—will be the key factor in determining, broadly speaking, the nature of a given society with its culture and politics. The interests of the wealthy will tend to dominate, but at all times individuals and groups will be struggling by various means, implicitly or explicitly, to accumulate greater resources and power for themselves. –This simple argument, which grounds historical materialism or “the economic interpretation of history” in the overwhelming importance of control over resources, strikes me as compelling.

[5] James C. Scott, “Everyday Forms of Resistance,” Copenhagen Papers, no. 4 (1989): 33–62. See also James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

[6] The historian Rick Fantasia rebukes “progressive critics of American cultural life [who] tend to sustain the hegemonic myth of culture. Individualism, narcissism, and class subordination read as personal failure,” he says, “are often seen as dominant values absorbed and reproduced by the powerless with little recognition of problematic, indeed counterhegemonic, cultural practices and impulses.” Rick Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action, and Contemporary American Workers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 15. For a thoughtful critique of the Gramscian concept of hegemony, see Nicholas Abercrombie et al., The Dominant Ideology Thesis (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980).

[7] David Graeber, “On the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations: A Maussian Approach,” Journal of Classical Sociology, vol. 14, no. 1 (2014): 65–77. See also Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011).

[8] See Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2006 [1902]) and The Conquest of Bread (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2011 [1906]).

[9] See, among countless others, Herbert Gutman, Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class, ed. Ira Berlin (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987); David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Leon Fink, The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Susan Porter Benson, Household Accounts: Working-Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007).

[10] David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2015), 58. For critiques of postmodern idealism, see my Notes of an Underground Humanist (Bradenton, FL: Booklocker, 2013), chapters 1 and 2.

[11] On the “liberal verities”: Lizabeth Cohen, for example, in her classic Making a New Deal, argues that workers wanted nothing more radical than a somewhat stronger state and stronger unions. See Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), chapter 6. Jefferson Cowie, following Alan Brinkley and other historians, espouses an even more conventional liberalism with his insistence on the durability of “individualism” even at the darkest moments of the Depression. Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), chapter 4.

[12] See, e.g., Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945–60 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 1988); Patricia Cayo Sexton, The War on Labor and the Left: Understanding America’s Unique Conservatism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc., 1991); Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).

[13] See the works cited in the previous footnote. To take just one example out of thousands, the fact that such a world-famous intellectual as Noam Chomsky has rarely been allowed to appear on mainstream American television or invited to write columns for establishment newspapers and magazines is extremely telling, in fact an eloquent confirmation of his well-known arguments regarding media propaganda and corporate self-censorship.

[14] See Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro, The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Even in the 1980s, a time of conservative ascendancy, most Americans thought big business and the wealthy had too much power, environmental and safety regulations should be strengthened “regardless of cost,” the wealthy should pay more in taxes, etc.

[15] See Robert McElvaine, The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941 (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 238–240.

[16] For a persuasive argument against this sort of American exceptionalism and in favor of the idea that “there is a history of class consciousness in the United States comparable to that of working-class movements in Britain and on the Continent,” see Sean Wilentz, “Against Exceptionalism: Class Consciousness and the American Labor Movement, 1790–1920,” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 26 (Fall, 1984): 1–24. See also Rick Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity. Michael Denning reconstructs the extremely broad cultural appeal and influence of communism, socialism, and Marxism during the 1930s in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997).

[17] The celebrated liberal historian Jill Lepore, for instance, expresses misplaced condescension toward Zinn in her New Yorker article “Zinn’s History” (February 3, 2010). See Nathan Robinson, “The Limits of Liberal History,” Current Affairs, October 28, 2018 for a brilliant evisceration of Lepore’s own attempt at a national history, her bestselling These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018). Among other weaknesses, she has forgotten that the country has a labor history. This is the kind of oversight predictable when one denies the fundamental importance of class.

[18] Karl Kautsky said the same thing when he wrote, “[T]he task of science is not simply a presentation of that which is, giving a faithful photograph of reality, so that any normally constituted observer will form the same image. The task of science consists in observing the general, essential element in the mass of impressions and phenomena received, and thus providing a clue by means of which we can find our bearings in the labyrinth of reality.” Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity: A Study in Christian Origins (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972 [1908]), 12. See also Adam Jones’s interview with Noam Chomsky entitled “The Radical Vocation,” February 20, 1990, at, where Chomsky explains that being somewhat “black and white” in one’s analysis—e.g., dividing the world (to a first approximation) between, crudely speaking, the rulers and the ruled or the oppressors and the oppressed—is exactly the rational method, the method that’s necessary in order to have a modicum of understanding of how society works.

[19] See, e.g., Cowie, The Great Exception, 100: “The supposedly collectivist ‘red decade’ actually featured a long line of individual declarations of self-blame, guilt, doubt, and despair. Given the massive economic failure, the ways in which working people internalized the blame for their situation bordered on the pathological.”

[20] Benson, Household Accounts, 7.

[21] Chris Wright, Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States (Bradenton, FL: Booklocker, 2014), chapter 4. See also my article “Marxism and the Solidarity Economy: Toward a New Theory of Revolution,” Class, Race and Corporate Power, vol. 9, no. 1 (2021). Both the book and the article are available for free online.

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