The radical dimensions of mass consciousness, part 2

Here's the sequel to this post, on my preference for anti-Gramscianism. It's from the last chapter of my Ph.D. thesis. I'm putting it on the blog because I want to counteract notions of people's timidity, apathy, indoctrination, ideological irrationality, consent to being ruled over, and so forth. It's time the working class united on the basis of its shared values. –We can do it, dammit, if we can only overcome our imposed atomization!


Historical scholarship since the 1960s has established that during the Great Depression the long-term unemployed were capable of remarkable militancy, on a broad and sustained scale. Roy Rosenzweig, an expert on the subject, says—in what is likely a considerable understatement—that “easily two million jobless workers engaged in some form of activism at some time in the thirties.”[1] Mark Naison’s 1983 study Communists in Harlem during the Depression shows that the Communist Party was a major force in Harlem the entire decade, in fact in New York City as a whole. James Lorence’s Organizing the Unemployed (1996) makes it equally clear that across the state of Michigan, from Keewenaw County to Detroit, the jobless actively protested the indignities and hardships that were imposed on them. Late in the decade the Workers Alliance was still a “dynamic force” in many counties, and by the spring of 1938 over 80 percent of Michigan’s WPA workers were members of the UAW. The same was true in some other industrial states: majorities of relief workers organized into unions, in a trend that evidently reflected sentiment among a larger pool of the unemployed than merely WPA workers. If they thought they had a chance of success, people were eager to fight for their demands. Demonstration after demonstration in cities across the country—and Chicago in the first five years of the Depression had well over 2,000 such—saw upwards of ten or twenty thousand people, or even fifty thousand, clamor for action by political authorities, risking police brutality in order to force leaders of business and politics to remember the forgotten man.[2]

At the same time, however, social historians since the 1960s (and even more so before) have often been at pains to deny that in these years the masses had much interest in radical ideologies. An image is painted of Americans that sometimes comes perilously close to the old Consensus school of thought, by seeming to attribute to them a sort of cultural inertia, political passivity, a stubborn clinging to individualism and the American political system, and a lack of “class consciousness.” Melvyn Dubofsky’s paper “Not So ‘Turbulent Years’: A New Look at the 1930s,” quoted in the Introduction, is a classic statement of this perspective. In explaining why (so he argues) “durable working-class radicalism” did not emerge in the Great Depression, Dubofsky invokes the supposed “inability of most workers and their leaders to conceive of an alternative to the values of marketplace capitalism, that is to create a working-class culture autonomous from that of the ruling class.” Workers did not become “a class fully aware of their role, power, and ability to replace the existing system with ‘a better, firmer, more just social order [than] the one to be torn down.’” Of the long-term unemployed, Anthony Badger’s perspective is not unusual: “the unemployed seem to have been neither rebellious nor the deferential victims of bourgeois hegemony… [E]mployment gave workers many of the values they cherished: status vis-à-vis their fellows, economic security, and a reputation as a good provider. The goal of the unemployed was [nothing more rebellious than] to restore those values.” Badger even goes so far as to say, “there was no constituency waiting at the grass-roots for more radical action than Roosevelt offered.”[3]

Such interpretations are dramatically oversimplified, if not wholly false. Their premise that “radicalism” or “rebelliousness” is measured by the character of one’s ideological consciousness, specifically by the degree to which one identifies with Socialism/Communism or has the sort of revolutionary class consciousness of which a Marxist would approve, is flawed. It is an expression of the intellectual’s characteristic focus on “consciousness” rather than “social being,” to use Marx’s terms, particularly of the left-wing intellectual’s valorization of his own theoretical understanding of systemic oppression and (perhaps utopian) belief in the possibility of a very different social order. If the masses do not subscribe to the intellectual’s or militant’s ideology, or to his valorization of rebellious collective action at all costs, they are thought to be rather conservative or confused or perhaps the victims of bourgeois hegemony, as Dubofsky implies in his article. More sensible, though, would be to follow the precept of Marx to concentrate on social being, the social context in which people live and which structures their resistance to authority. From this perspective, one can see that “ordinary people” are frequently rebellious in the ways that are most rational given their situations. As James C. Scott says,

To require of lower-class resistance that it somehow be “principled” or “selfless” [i.e., “idealistic,” ideologically driven] is not only utopian and a slander on the moral status of fundamental material needs; it is, more fundamentally, a misconstruction of the basis of class struggle, which is, first and foremost, a struggle over the appropriation of work, production, property, and taxes. “Bread-and-butter” issues are the essence of lower-class politics and resistance.[4]

It is a confusion to contrast (as does Badger) rebelliousness or radicalism with the commitment of the unemployed—and everyone—to such “conventional,” “conservative” values as status and economic security. These are precisely the values that constitute the basis of class struggle, which, as we have seen throughout this study, is waged even by that “atomized” group of people the long-term unemployed.

It can certainly be useful for the sake of achieving greater economic and political power to have a lucid class consciousness, indeed to have a basic Marxian understanding of the world, so that one is not misled by elite propaganda. On the other hand, it is unclear what we ought to conclude from the fact that millions of workers in the U.S. during the Depression were not as class-conscious as a Marxist might have liked. Does this mean they were not opposed to rule by big business, to the fiscal austerity preached by conservatives, or to violent suppression of labor unions? Surely not. Does it mean they did not have social-democratic values or did not desire a society in which the rapacity of capitalism was tamed and ordinary workers had determining input into the political and economic process? No (as we’ll see). The alleged half-heartedness of workers’ commitment to left-wing politics—insofar as this allegation has any truth—can be seen as implying, instead, nothing more significant than the obvious truth that organizations of the Left had been, and continued to be, effectively trampled down by the forces of capital, such that many Americans were subjected to barrages of business and nationalist propaganda virtually unopposed by countervailing institutions.[5] Similarly, when in large swathes of the country the Left’s organizational resources were very limited, it is no surprise that workers and the unemployed did not always consider it worthwhile to join a union or to get actively involved in politics (possibly with negative consequences for their job and their family). It made more sense to struggle on one’s own, with the help of one’s relatives, friends, and neighbors.

So, while the question of which ideology masses of people are swayed by can be of great moment, it is quite possible for scholars to focus too much on this issue and not enough on the concrete structural, economic conditions that set the context for workers’ political behavior. From the former perspective many people might seem deceived and somewhat passive, mere victims of mainstream indoctrination (since they are thought not to be radical enough), while from the latter their behavior and beliefs—in context—might seem reasonable or even rebellious. And their lack of interest in “ideology” might be the most sensible response possible—because what does ideology matter when one is fighting for survival, or when the Left has been so beaten down that one sees only futility in Socialist or Communist politics? We will see shortly that for many workers it was the perceived futility of left-wing politics, not its fundamental wrongness, that prevented them from embracing it.

In his Utopia of Rules (2015), David Graeber goes so far as to suggest (implicitly, at least) that the common historiographic question of whether the unemployed in the Depression tended to blame themselves for their hardships—a tendency that is supposed to equate to a lack of class consciousness or radicalism—is largely misguided. He constructs a scenario to illustrate this:

Imagine, if you will, some warlike tribe (let’s call them the Alphas) that sweeps out of the desert and seizes a swath of land inhabited by peaceful farmers (let’s call them the Omegas). But instead of exacting tribute, they appropriate all the fertile land, and arrange for their children to have privileged access to most forms of practical education, at the same time initiating a religious ideology that holds that they are intrinsically superior beings, finer and more beautiful and more intelligent, and that the Omegas, now largely reduced to working on their estates, have been cursed by the divine powers for some terrible sin, and have become stupid, ugly, and base. And perhaps the Omegas internalize their disgrace and come to act as if they believe they really are guilty of something. In a sense perhaps they do believe it. But on a deeper level it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ask whether they do or not. The whole arrangement is the fruit of violence and can only be maintained by the continual threat of violence: the fact that the Omegas are quite aware that if anyone directly challenged property arrangements, or access to education, swords would be drawn and people’s heads would almost certainly end up being lopped off. In a case like this, what we talk about in terms of “belief” are simply the psychological techniques people develop to accommodate themselves to this reality. We have no idea how they would act, or what they would think, if the Alphas’ command of the means of violence were to somehow disappear.[6]

This scenario recalls one of the points made in the Introduction: far more significant than culture or “discourses” in explaining “conformist” mass behavior—acquiescence, apparent submission to power—is violence and the threat of violence, and more generally various physical sanctions on “improper” behavior (such as starvation or homelessness if one refuses to submit to the hierarchies of the workplace). We may investigate whether the long-term unemployed ashamedly blamed themselves, but we should remember that this question and others like it, such as whether people identified with a particular class and were aware of common interests with others in that same class, are not as meaningful or momentous as they might appear. For in the absence of an institutional context that allows workers to effectively act on the basis of class solidarity—a context that, after the “fall of the house of labor” in the 1920s, was lacking in most, or all, of the country[7]—it is not of much practical interest whether people have a sophisticated understanding of class oppression. It becomes mainly a private affair. If some do, fine; if others don’t, that is in no small part precisely because of the repression of an organized Left that could propagate such ideas.

The main purpose of this chapter, in short, as of the whole dissertation, is to challenge the still-culturally-dominant myth of “ordinary people’s” ideological conservatism/centr-ism/apathy—or, insofar as historical scholarship no longer subscribes to this myth as much as it once did, to argue that people were (and are) in fact quite radical, though sometimes only in implicit (ideologically un-self-conscious) ways. I will start out by considering general questions that have received much treatment in the literature, such as the question of whether large proportions of the unemployed blamed themselves rather than “the system” for their joblessness. (I will continue to argue against the significance of this question, but it has received so much attention from historians that I cannot ignore it.) More interesting is the subject of people’s political and social views, which I briefly investigate—as a prelude to the more in-depth chapter-long discussion—through polls and Depression-era sociological studies. While, for reasons mentioned in the Introduction and below, polls are a flawed source of knowledge, they can at least be suggestive.

I also consider the question of why working-class Americans tended to identify themselves as hostile to Communism, and argue that ideological disagreement was secondary to other causes. This is certainly not the received wisdom or the most obvious interpretation: it would seem, and has generally been assumed by historians, that if people rejected Communism (and even Socialism, in the form, e.g., of the Socialist Party) it was mainly because they rejected the views of Communists and Socialists. This interpretation, however, is challenged by statements like the following, from a writer who interviewed members of the famous Bonus Army in 1932:

A paradox of the Bonus Army is the virulence of their curses at both the bankers and the Communists. They treat the latter roughly whenever they can lay their hands on them. They have to be content with using words to lambast the former. These veterans denounce Hoover, insist it is the right of every citizen to have a job and that the government should take over the industries of the country to make that possible and then, in the next breath, they swear vengeance on “the reds who come in here trying to stir up trouble with their Marxism, Leninism and Bolshevism.”[8]

From this observation one should already suspect that popular opposition to Communism and Socialism (to the extent that there was such opposition) was often a rather superficial thing. Apparently even these hard-bitten, patriotic veterans embraced some of the most radical ideas of the far-left, including, at least implicitly, absolute denial of the sanctity of private property. It was essentially the foreign-sounding names ‘Marxism,’ ‘Leninism,’ and ‘Bolshevism’ to which working-class white Americans objected, and the taint of foreignness that clung to certain leftist political parties. When ideas similar to some of the prescriptions, and even the analyses, of Communists and Socialists were put forward by Huey Long, Charles Coughlin (at least early on, when his anti-semitism was subdued), Upton Sinclair’s EPIC movement, the La Follette brothers, and Farmer-Labor parties in the Midwest, millions of Americans became enthusiastic adherents. In fact, from 1930 to 1936 a mass movement even coalesced around a Workers’ Unemployment Insurance Bill that Communists had written, and that was much more radical than comparable provisions in the Soviet Union. Later I’ll discuss this movement in some depth, because historians have largely ignored it.[9]

An implicit theme of the chapter, then—which I’ll make more explicit in the dissertation’s Conclusion—is that historians have tended to draw unwarranted conclusions about Americans’ political values and beliefs from the fact that most have in name rejected Marxism and derivative “foreign” concepts. Names, and even the analytical niceties of an intellectual system like Marxism, are relatively superficial. On a deeper level, the majority of Americans shared the values of Communists, notably collective resistance to the power of the rich for the sake of making society more democratic, egalitarian, and indeed “socialistic” in the sense of radical government interference with the market economy to protect human rights and well-being. Already in 1930 and ’31, millions of people were demanding massive social-democratic statism.

Most of the chapter consists of an analysis of the two major unemployed organizations in Chicago, the Unemployed Councils and the Chicago Workers Committee on Unemployment. The former has received more attention from scholars, but the latter—including its offshoot the Illinois Workers Alliance—was arguably just as successful and important. My focus is not on the structure or the leadership of the two groups, since other historians have treated of these subjects. Randi Storch, Harvey Klehr, Roy Rosenzweig, Daniel Leab, and others have described the elaborate organizational structure of the Councils, and Rosenzweig has discussed the same topic in relation to the Workers Committee. Instead, I am interested in the participation of “ordinary people” in these groups, the attitudes and actions of the rank and file. While not everyone endorsed the ideology of Communism, even self-declared anti-Communists were the exact opposite of individualistic and anti-statist.

In the long concluding section on “popular radicalism,” I consider several phenomena that more generally illustrate just how “radical” people were in their attitudes towards relief, politics, and the economy. The Workers’ Bill is the primary case-study I use, but I also touch on the Long and Coughlin movements, arguing against Alan Brinkley that they were in fact profoundly opposed to dominant institutions and ideologies. Even aside from such articulate dissidence, however, millions of relief clients had by 1933 and ’34 (if not earlier) embraced the Communist teaching that anyone who could not find a stable and well-paying job was entitled to a comfortable existence at the government’s expense. This is to say that people desired a fundamentally different social order, a hybrid socialistic capitalism such as would be achieved on a less ambitious scale in certain Western European countries in the postwar era. The Social Security Act, largely a response to the revolutionary mood of the masses, was but a shadow of this ideal social vision, although in combination with the Works Progress Administration it did somewhat restore the disaffected multitudes’ wavering faith in Roosevelt.


In the second chapter we briefly discussed the shame that many people felt after being without a job for long stretches of time. It would seem that implicit in shame is self-blame, even if consciously the ashamed person recognizes that his misfortune is due at least in part to other factors besides his own ability or worth. The fact that shame was rather common is no surprise, not only because of the natural psychological impact of being without a job but also because of the atomized social fabric of the U.S., including the weakness of organized labor and the absence of a political party comparable to the Labor party in Britain. On the other hand, even in Britain and Europe, the jobless were very susceptible to the same shame, “passivity,” and “apathy” that were thought to characterize Americans. In Britain, Poland, Austria, and elsewhere, writers concluded that the unemployed were “scattered, loose, perplexed and hopeless…a mass only numerically, not socially,” to quote two Polish sociologists. We should be wary, therefore, of drawing the usual contrasts between “individualistic” attitudes/behavior in the U.S. and “collectivist” or “radical” attitudes/behavior in Europe.[10]

But how common were shame and self-blame in the U.S.? Until at least the 1980s, it was widely assumed among historians that—to quote a textbook published in 1973—“the average worker in the 1930s blamed his economic hardships on himself and not on the capitalist system.” (The next sentence makes the implication explicit: “Socialism and Communism failed, therefore, to develop a mass base during the Great Depression.”)[11] More recent scholars have avoided such categorical statements, but general histories still emphasize (understandably) the shame of unemployment. What are interesting, however, are the many cases of non-self-blame. One study published in 1936 had surprising findings: its survey of 2,882 residents of Minneapolis found less feeling of inferiority among the unemployed than among employed workers. Those in the former group blamed the economic system, not themselves, for their plight. A study in 1932 of lodgers at the Shelter for Transient Men in Palo Alto, California found that almost exactly the same proportion (38 percent) blamed the economy for their condition as admitted that they personally bore some responsibility (42 percent). In 1934, interviews with 100 relief families in St. Louis revealed the following attitudes: 44 men said unequivocally that they deserved help; 14 asked for more work to cover the deficits in their budgets; ten took relief as a matter of course, saying that since others received help they too expected it; seven were very demanding; and the remainder were either timid or unclear in their attitudes. Still another researcher found in interviews with more than 500 relief cases in Seattle (in 1935) that 49 percent voiced disapproval of or resistance towards “the system,” 12 percent accepted what they could get without thanks or protest, and 39 percent appeared to accept or in some cases approve of the system. Other studies similarly indicated that large proportions of Depression victims did not blame themselves.[12]

Some did, of course. Yet, again, few historians appear to have asked what exactly this means. For one thing, people do not have static or one-dimensional self-conceptions: it is perfectly possible, and doubtless very common, to blame both oneself and broader social forces, and to change one’s opinions on this matter over time. Even day to day, one might have a different opinion about who or what is to blame, or one might feel less and more shame depending on circumstances and mood. (For such reasons, every poll or survey on any topic ought to be viewed with some skepticism.) Richard Wright wrote of the burning shame he felt when he thought of going into one of Chicago’s relief stations, as if he were making a public confession of his hunger, yet he was certainly aware that his unemployment was not straightforwardly his own fault. In fact, the sociologist E. Wight Bakke observed that even when men found some reason to blame themselves, their perceived personal shortcomings were “robbed of their sting” by the knowledge that others who had presumably not made mistakes had lost their jobs as well. Impersonal forces were therefore blamed as much as or more than personal faults.[13]

Secondly, self-blame did not necessarily indicate deep adherence to “individualism,” as is often assumed, or thoroughgoing indoctrination with the values of bourgeois culture, for the simple reason that in many cases there was rational justification for the belief. To my knowledge, no scholar has made this point; all have interpreted “self-blame” not as a rational reaction but as a culturally manufactured one. And yet there is no doubt that in many cases the man was partly right: he had acted irresponsibly in his youth, he had failed to get a good education, he had squandered his earnings on drink and women, he had had too many children or had inadvisably married before settling into a lucrative career. After all, while it is true that he was far from alone in being out of work, a lot of people still had jobs. Evidently, or so it seemed, many of them had made smarter choices, had taken more secure jobs. It was perfectly natural and rational to have regrets, in itself not at all a reflection of ideology.

In extreme manifestations, to be sure, shame and self-blame could, like the emotional depression or lassitude that was often a result of long-term unemployment, interfere with the aggressive defense of one’s interests, whether in joint action with others or on one’s own. This is clear from the descriptions of emotional fatigue in the second chapter, and it was an important factor militating against participation by the unemployed in large-scale popular movements. The historian John Garraty has argued for this point:

The effects of prolonged joblessness, and particularly its psychological effects, go far toward explaining why unemployment did not generate more political protest, let alone revolutionary activity, among its victims. [He means victims in both the U.S. and Europe.] Many practical considerations combined to keep the unemployed from revolting, some of these being the international character of the Depression, which made it difficult to believe that any one government was responsible for it; the lack of intellectually convincing suggestions as to how unemployment could be significantly reduced; the fact that the unemployed were everywhere a minority; fear of repression (which the majority seldom hesitated to apply when the jobless did make trouble); even gratitude for the aid which every society [i.e., every country] did provide for those without work. But the numbing effect of prolonged idleness, partly no doubt a result of diets low in proteins and also partly psychological, was also involved.[14]

On the other hand, even this debilitating malaise could not prevent, for example, the famous Bonus March in 1932, in which 20,000 or more veterans descended upon Washington, D.C. to demand early payment of the World War I “bonus” they were due in 1945. These men were certainly no revolutionaries: as Mauritz Hallgren observed, they were all in or beyond middle age and had been “thoroughly whipped” by their economic circumstances. “There is about the lot of them an atmosphere of hopelessness, of utter despair,” he said, “though not of desperation.” Hoover considered it necessary to send in the military to destroy their camp at Anacostia Flats, but to Hallgren these men were “weary, footsore, and bedraggled”: “there is in these bonus-seekers no revolt, no fire, not even smoldering resentment; at most they are but an inchoate aggregation of frustrated men nursing a common grievance.” Nevertheless, even without direction by any central organizing body, these harassed and discouraged people had been able to come together from all over the country in pursuit of a common goal. On smaller scales, this phenomenon was constantly occurring in the Depression decade, in cities and towns from California to Maine.[15]

With respect to ideological beliefs and values, the data from polls and studies conducted at the time are mixed. They do not indicate extreme “class consciousness” among workers and the jobless, but they do not indicate much “individualism” or conservatism either. In their article “Unemployment, Class Consciousness, and Radical Politics: What Didn’t Happen in the Thirties” (1977), Sidney Verba and Kay Lehman Schlozman present the results of two national polls that were conducted in 1939 for Fortune Magazine. Each survey had 5,214 respondents, over two hundred of whom listed their occupation as “unemployed”—not nearly the same proportion as the unemployed in the general population, but sufficient to allow us to meaningfully distinguish between their attitudes and those of the employed. The following table includes some of the more interesting findings:[16] [deleted]...

These data are even more interesting in light of the fact that, for methodological reasons, Verba and Schlozman chose to exclude African-American respondents. Had they been included, the percentages in the last two columns surely would have increased. Thus—according to these surveys—near the end of the 1930s probably a third or more of the jobless thought the government should confiscate wealth, perhaps almost two fifths were willing to countenance the end of capitalism, and nearly all thought the government should, in effect, guarantee people a living wage. These are strikingly “socialistic” attitudes.

They accord with the findings of a poll of New Haven workers in 1932, before the dramatic entrance of the federal government into the field of relief and social service. Sixty-eight percent of American and Italian workers polled favored “government regulation of wages and hours,” and 88 percent favored “other government protection.” This is in contrast to the 29 percent who thought that “more individual initiative and thrift” could be a solution to workers’ difficulties. In fact, only 13 percent of Americans (as opposed to 45 percent of Italians) agreed with the individualistic solution. Government action was favored by approximately equal percentages of skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers: 89, 87, and 91 percent respectively. (It should be noted, however, that only 19 percent of workers wanted “socialism,” a word that business and conservatives had demonized for decades, to some effect.) In another national survey, a quarter of unemployed workers thought that “a revolution might be a very good thing for this country.”[17]

A study published in 1936 found similar attitudes among people on relief in Los Angeles. To the question, “Do you believe in (1) co-operation of members of society for the common good, or (2) do you feel that each individual’s financial and social problems are his own?,” 89 favored the first option, 34 the second. Likewise, 86 supported production for use (the plan associated with Upton Sinclair’s EPIC campaign), compared to 36 who did not.[18]

National polls found evidence of support for truly radical government action. A poll in 1935 found that 41 percent of the upper-middle class, 49 percent of the lower-middle class, and 60 percent of the poor thought the government should not allow a man to keep investments worth over $1 million. In fact, as late as 1942, 64 percent of people (the poll did not break down respondents in terms of class) thought it was a good idea to limit annual incomes to $25,000. A 1936 survey of 600 Chicago residents found a marked “tendency for the middle-income group to agree with the lower group on questions pertaining to the present distribution of wealth and influence.” Thirty-three percent of skilled manual workers and 56 percent of the unskilled and semi-skilled favored government ownership of large industries. In 1942, almost 30 percent of the nation’s factory workers thought “some form of socialism would be a good thing…for the country as a whole,” while 34 percent had open minds about it—which means that only 36 percent thought socialism would be “a bad thing.” Given the resources and energy the ruling class had dedicated to vilifying socialism, these findings are striking.[19]

In the same year as the Fortune surveys, 1939, Harry Hopkins’ staff compiled the results of various polls since 1932 on the WPA and unemployment. While their report does not disaggregate the polls and says almost nothing about sample sizes, some of the information it presents is at least suggestive. Among the respondents to a national Gallup poll in January 1938, 69 percent said the government had a “responsibility to pay the living expenses of needy people who are out of work.” Another poll that month found that 85 percent of people would favor a plan for the unemployed in their geographical region to “make some goods for their own use”—i.e., an anti-market production-for-use plan. In a 1937 survey of 13,500 youth in Maryland, nine out of ten respondents said that relief should be on a “health and decency” level rather than a “bare subsistence” level (as it most often was—when it was not below subsistence). A Gallup poll in May 1937 showed that people on relief were surprisingly optimistic about the long term: 72 percent thought that the problem of unemployment could be solved, compared to 65 percent of all respondents. Regarding the WPA, which was constantly under attack by conservatives and some sectors of big business for being inefficient, costly, ineffective, laziness-enabling (among relief workers), and socialistic, support—at least in May 1937—was strikingly broad: 79 percent of Americans did not think that the government should do away with the WPA and give only cash or direct relief. On the whole, it seems that most Americans had left-wing attitudes on a number of issues, even after conservatives had launched their powerful counteroffensive in the last years of the thirties.[20]

Of course, such leftist inclinations among the public are precisely one reason why “big business” has, since the era of World War I, had to devote colossal resources to indoctrinating people with the proper nationalistic, jingoistic, and capitalistic values. If people already agreed with such values, there would be no need to try to instill them. Much of the public relations industry would be redundant and senseless: its project would be comparable to obsessively trying to convert to Christianity someone who is already Christian. It is people’s basic anti-capitalism and anti-nationalism—their commitment to values such as compassion, generosity, democracy, local community, social welfare, peace and not war—that has made necessary ubiquitous political and economic propaganda.[21]

Returning to the Fortune polls, questions were also asked about people’s class consciousness: specifically, what class they thought they belonged to, and whether they thought the interests of employers and employees were essentially in opposition or essentially the same. The first question was open-ended: respondents were asked to use one word to describe their class. An abundance of answers was provided, such as middle, upper, lower, poor, laboring, average, American, and liberal. To correlate the results with respondents’ objective economic status, Verba and Schlozman constructed the following table: [deleted]...

Thus, approximately equal percentages of the unemployed identified as middle-class and working-class.[22] But a fuller class consciousness in the Marxian sense requires that one be aware of the antagonism of interests between employer and employee. To measure this more robust class consciousness, Verba and Schlozman presented the data on how many respondents believed in class conflict while controlling for subjective class identification. In the following table, then, the percentages are of people who saw management and workers as being in opposition. [Again, deleted.]

Combining these two tables, one can see how many people in the white workforce were “fully” class-conscious (in Verba and Schlozman’s definition of the term): only 12 percent of wage workers and 10 percent of the unemployed. These are the proportions of people who both saw themselves as working-class and believed in class conflict. As for whether this sort of class consciousness correlated with left-wing views, the authors have this to say: “The data indicate that full class consciousness did result in more radical economic views; and it did so to a greater degree when it was coupled with unemployment. Furthermore, the data make clear that working class self-identification was associated with a more radical set of political attitudes only when it was coupled with a perception of conflict among the social classes.”[23]

Class consciousness did matter, then, and it was not as widespread as a Marxist would have liked. While many people who did not identify as working-class or believe in class conflict had radical economic views, it is not surprising that the first two traits were associated with the third. Again, though, we should be careful what conclusions we draw from polling, especially from polling as far back as the 1930s (when modern methods were still being hammered out). The temptation to fetishize an inherently atomized and superficial method of understanding popular dispositions just because it deals in easily classifiable quantities ought to be resisted. The historian Martin Glaberman criticizes an article by Tom Langford on “strikes and class consciousness” on these grounds:

In the first place, [in Langford’s article] consciousness is defined by verbal statements of belief. This may be appropriate to debates among intellectuals but it is totally irrelevant in ascertaining the dialectical and contradictory nature of working-class consciousness. The nature of working-class consciousness is not easy to document in ways that would be acceptable to academic social science. But occasionally there is a clear-cut example. One such example was a referendum vote in the auto workers union in the waning months of World War II in Canada and the United States. The subject was whether or not the union should retain or abandon its pledge not to strike during the war. The members voted approximately two to one to retain the no-strike pledge. One could easily conclude that workers put patriotism above their own class interest. The problem, however, was that an absolute majority of auto workers went out on wildcat strikes during the very time that the referendum was taking place. Was working-class consciousness reflected in individual thought as each worker filled out a ballot in the privacy of his or her home? Or was working-class consciousness reflected in collective action on the shop floor? There is no way that Langford’s methodology [which is that of academic social science] can even begin to deal with that question.[24]

Glaberman also criticizes the very project of “divid[ing] workers up according to the way they think,” and notes that the workers who have made or attempted revolutions from Russia’s in 1917 to Hungary in 1956 and France in 1968 have, as isolated individuals, had very conservative attitudes (of sexism, chauvinism, anti-semitism, etc.). Evidently people who are in many respects “conservative” are capable of acting in radical ways, and of having their consciousness transformed thereby. It is no surprise that a majority of people in a country (the U.S.) whose small Communist party, under constant attack by authorities, had far too few resources to effectively indoctrinate the public with Marxism would prefer to believe in the possibility of harmony between employers and employees—at least while filling out a survey in the privacy of their home. To what extent this belief influenced their values and actions, however, or discouraged them from acting collectively in defense of their economic interests, is unclear.

The very concept of class consciousness is so problematic that an enormous body of sociological literature exists to try to explicate it.[25] Verba and Schlozman’s survey-based conception is quite thin and impoverished, given its unavoidable individualist bias, its “exclusive focus on ideation” rather than practice (to quote Rick Fantasia), its oversimplified character, and its hypostatizing assumption that class consciousness is a static thing, something that either exists or doesn’t exist, instead of being a dynamic and interactive process of shared understanding that is manifested in the various realms of culture, politics, trade unionism, and the workplace. The richness and ambiguity of the notion of class consciousness is shown by the fact that E. P. Thompson’s gigantic Making of the English Working Class can be called simply an exploration of the class consciousness of England’s working class in its formative decades. The multiple valences of the concept include both expressivist and cognitivist dimensions, individual-focused and group-focused dimensions, elements of subjectivity and of objectivity, of ideas and of practices. It may, in fact, be such a nebulous and multiply interpretable idea, so prone to dissolving away upon analysis and therefore so difficult to “operationalize” in a strict and precise way, that it is up to each author to give it whatever meaning he wants—provided the meaning has some relation to the intuitive core of awareness of class conflict and willingness (given the right circumstances) to fight collectively against economic oppressors.

In any event, more productive than to dwell on the meaning of a concept that Marx, who is supposed to have been its progenitor, did not even use is to consider the in-depth observations of investigators.[26] With regard to the unemployed, E. Wight Bakke was one of the best. In his 1940 study Citizens Without Work he observed that most of the unemployed in New Haven, as in other cities, did not get actively involved in radical politics, whether Communist, Socialist, or any other variety. In a sense, he found this puzzling. As all across the country, agitators in parks and on street corners received sympathetic hearings and garnered large crowds. In Cleveland, for example, the journalist Len De Caux wrote in retrospect, “In hundreds of jobless meetings, I heard no objections to the points the communists made, and much applause for them. Sometimes I’d hear a communist speaker say something so bitter and extreme I’d feel embarrassed. Then I’d look around at the unemployed audience—shabby clothes, expressions worried and sour. Faces would start to glow, heads to nod, hands to clap. They liked that stuff best of all.” Urban workers and the jobless tended to be quite aware of class: their lives were one long demonstration that the working class was separated by a vast gulf from the upper class, and that the two groups had very different outlooks and interests. As the New Haven machinist quoted in the Introduction said to Bakke, “Hell, brother, you don’t have to look to know there’s a workin’ class!” The class divide was, if not the air they breathed, at least an element of it. So why, after a speech by a Communist whose “every word rang true to the experiences men had had,” did only a few listeners join him in a march on New Haven’s City Hall?[27]

From Bakke’s account it seems that, contrary to the general thrust of postmodern scholarship (which foregrounds the discursive realm of the “imaginary”), ideology was not of primary significance. Several factors were more important. First was the very smallness and perceived ineffectiveness of radical political circles. It was thought futile to dedicate oneself to far-left activism, whether Communist or Socialist, when it was bound to have little or no political success. Bakke suspects that a rubber worker was speaking for most men when he said, “I tell you my reason for steering clear of any radical party… I fought enough losin’ battles in my life, and, by God, in politics I’m goin’ to play a winner if I can. A man can be a Democrat or a Republican and be able to get drunk once in a while on election night because he won. But the Socialists—when do you think they’re going to have the chance to get drunk?” There were, after all, very real benefits to being either a Democrat or a Republican: one could receive political patronage through personal connections or from voting the right way; one could socialize and make friends relatively easily on the basis of shared institutions and common interests; one was thought to “fit in” and not be an outsider, which reinforced one’s self-esteem. It is odd that few historians have made these points when discussing Americans’ supposed lack of radicalism in the 1930s, since they are of enormous importance. Whatever one believed politically, in a time when radical activists constituted a demonized and violently repressed minority the pressures of sociality were, for most Americans, very much on the side of not participating in their movements.

Many thousands of people in Chicago and other cities did join the Communists’ Unemployed Councils or even the Party itself, for at least a short time. But the historian Daniel Leab is surely right that large numbers “abandoned them when they found out that instead of a larger relief ticket or settlement of their grievances, all their ‘radical militancy’ got them was a crack on the skull from a police club.” As soon as they saw no hope of changing their circumstances through association with Communists, they very sensibly ended such association. Ideology was of no relevance here.[28]

Reinforcing and to some extent coinciding with the pressures of sociality and the belief that radicals were fighting a losing battle was fear of the consequences of joining their ranks. When Bakke asked some men where the Communist office in New Haven was, a Greek immediately warned him to stay aware from there. “This is what happens,” he said. “If you are working in a restaurant, dishwashing, and somebody sees you, they will go and say to your boss, ‘He’s a Communist.’” And the boss will fire you. Whether at work or outside of work, “the realistic judgment of the worker is that radicalism is a ‘sure fire demoter,’” Bakke reported. “He has observed this fact in his working days… The warnings of administration officials about what will happen to ‘dissatisfied radicals’ do not fall on deaf ears… He may know some of the men who ‘lost what little they did have’ because they ‘wouldn’t listen to reason.’” Likewise, people were unwilling to riot, even when they felt angry enough to do so, because of the probable consequences. For one thing, “You don’t have any confidence that if you did riot it would do any good,” a textile worker said. “How would you get anything better than what you have?” According to a laborer, “There will be no riots as long as there is charity enough to support the men. If that were not there, there might be trouble, but the men are afraid, in the first place, to riot because they might lose what little they have left of security.” Even passing out Communist leaflets could get one arrested, as happened often in Chicago.[29]

Perhaps more important than anything else was the fact that “the poor [were] used to being poor,” were used to the old ways of dealing with adversity: “put up with it, grin and bear it, and use the common sense and experience you have to pull out.” The ruling class’s old and ongoing war against the Left had prevented radical collective action from becoming one of the standard tools that people used in their efforts to survive and improve their circumstances. Instead, they naturally continued to draw on the repertoire of more realistic strategies that had always served them well, which we discussed in the third chapter. Their lives had consisted of “adjustments to the inevitable,” which were even more necessary during unemployment. Indeed, people who were suspicious of the possibility or even desirability of radical change arguably showed more intelligence and realism than the Communists who made a leap of faith into the unknown, being willing to risk personal security for the sake of ideological dogmas and dreams that surely never had much chance of coming to fruition. The sort of idealism and even recklessness—not to mention passionate interest in politics—that it takes to try to build a major political movement out of nothing in a society more than willing to violently repress it is a trait that most people lack, having families to worry about and little experience in ideological training. Nor are they inclined to take seriously utopian dreams of a workers’ state or a classless society if everything in their experience tells them these dreams are impossible or meaningless, mere figments of feverish imaginations. Richard Wright’s judgment would have commanded widespread assent: “I liked [Communists’] readiness to act, but they seemed lost in folly, wandering in a fantasy.”[30]

In addition to these fundamental “material” and “self-interested” reasons for not joining the Communist party or participating in collective protests were the secondary ideological reasons. To a large degree these were probably mere rationalizations for one’s disinclination to join a marginalized and maligned minority that demanded extreme ideological and existential commitment in the service of an unrealistic cause, but ultimately we cannot tell how much weight they carried. In any case, historians have amply related these reasons, which included, first and foremost, the hostility to Communists’ Russophilia. A boilermaker spoke for probably the majority of white American workers when he said of Communists, “Now suppose they could set us up in that kind of a heaven they tell about. Suppose they could I say, because one look, and you know they couldn’t. But if they could, would it be America—or would it be Russia? And who the hell wants to live in Russia?” An eminently rational argument, especially considering the conditions in Russia at the time.

Historians’ argument that the working class in the U.S. was ideologically opposed to Communism is tendentious insofar as it implies that workers were not left-wing enough to be Communists. There is more truth to the opposite way in which Mauritz Hallgren framed the matter in 1933:

In traveling around the country I talked with thousands of jobless workers. I found them increasingly sympathetic with the activities of the Communist Party, at least to the extent that those activities dealt with their own immediate problems. In large cities like Chicago and New York the Communists experienced no difficulty at all in persuading entire neighborhoods to take part in demonstrations against evictions and relief cuts. Yet a vast majority of the unemployed with whom I talked were utterly cold to communism as a way of life… [When the Communists] sought recruits for the party, they promptly dropped into a jargon unintelligible to the average American worker. He could have no idea of the meaning of “rightist deviation,” “agitprop,” and “theoretical levels.” The use of such language invariably frightened him off. The Communists were revolutionists who lacked the courage to discuss revolution in straightforward, realistic terms.[31]

The italicized sentence turns the common historical argument on its head: the point is not that people were opposed to radicalism but that Communists were opposed to comprehensible and indigenous American radicalism. Historians have, of course, demonstrated that in fact the Party was aware of many of its inadequacies, and that it tried to address them. For instance, the district organizer Clarence Hathaway wrote in September 1930 that one of the reasons why organized Unemployed Councils were “almost non-existent” (probably an exaggeration) was that Party members were in the habit of abstractly sloganeering about revolution, dialectical contradictions, defense of the Soviet Union, and a workers’ government, rather than dedicating themselves to the concrete actions and demands that alone would make sense to people. But in fact no amount of self-criticism without structural changes in the Party could have been sufficient, because, as Hallgren goes on to say, the source of the problems was in the Party’s subordination to the Comintern and its absolute adherence to Leninism and Stalinism, which were far from appropriate to American conditions (as well as British, French, and German conditions). Communists’ obsessive sectarianism, especially during their Third Period in the early 1930s, likewise seemed absurd to most Americans, who were clear-headed enough to see that the defenders of the poor should unite and not squabble among themselves.[32]

A study published in 1941 that analyzed the attitudes of citizens of Akron, Ohio concluded that, despite the presence of significant “rebellious discontent,” radical activists were likely to fail for one main reason: “they show that they have interests and aims beyond that [sic] of the mass organization in which they are working. They do this by pushing issues that have nothing to do with the immediate purposes of the workers [and by other actions] which mark them off as a tightly organized, determined, unscrupulous, alien body within the larger mass.” Again, Richard Wright’s opinion of African-American Communists in Washington Park was in all likelihood shared, albeit perhaps in a more moderate and less lucid way, by observers of white Communists: “An hour’s listening disclosed the fanatical intolerance of minds sealed against new ideas, new facts, new feelings, new attitudes, new hints at ways to live.” The ideological disagreements that people could claim to have with radicals—involving issues such as patriotism, religion, attitudes toward Russia, and the (un)desirability of revolution—were secondary to, or seen as merely another manifestation of, the viscerally off-putting behavior of the fanatic.[33]

Nevertheless, despite all the considerations of rationality and humanity—as opposed to historians’ usual invocations of mere ideology and cultural indoctrination—that militated against popular acceptance of Communism, in staggering numbers people came to manifest a radicalism of both thought and deed. Let us turn now to an examination of this popular radicalism....

[1] Given the high turnover of participation in Communist and other radical unemployed organizations, and the many hundreds of thousands of people who attended large or small relief demonstrations at least once or twice, the overall number may well be triple or quadruple Rosenzweig’s estimated minimum. [2] Roy Rosenzweig, “‘Socialism In Our Time’: The Socialist Party and the Unemployed, 1929–1936,” Labor History, vol. 20, no. 4 (Fall 1979): 486; James Lorence, Organizing the Unemployed: Community and Union Activists in the Industrial Heartland (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 177, 211; Harold D. Lasswell and Dorothy Blumenstock, World Revolutionary Propaganda: A Chicago Study (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970 [1939]), 44. [3] Melvyn Dubofsky, “Not So ‘Turbulent Years’: A New Look at the 1930s,” in Life and Labor: Dimensions of American Working-Class History, eds. Charles Stephenson and Robert Asher (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), 205–223; Anthony Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933–40 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), 40, 41, 298. [4] James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 296. [5] The Lynds’ classic study of Middletown in the mid-1930s describes such a context. And yet even in this Midwestern town, as they show, leftist dissent was not absent, despite the near-total absence of institutions to encourage or sustain it. Thus, Dubofsky’s reading of their work (see the Introduction) can be turned on its head: it can seem impressive how much political and economic dissent there was, given the social context. [6] David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2015), 58, 59. [7] Organized labor was stronger in some parts of the country than others, but the absence of a major labor or leftist party foreclosed certain possibilities of militant class action. It can hardly be doubted that a large proportion, probably a significant majority, of workers would have liked there to be such a party, or would have supported it had it existed. We’ll see evidence for this (albeit indirect evidence) later. [8] Gardner Jackson, “Unknown Soldiers,” Survey Graphic, August 1, 1932, 343. [9] For instance, in a book called Voices of Protest (published in 1983), Alan Brinkley does not devote a single sentence to it. Nor does Robert McElvaine in his standard history of the Depression. David Kennedy devotes half a sentence to it in volume one of his 2004 history of the Depression and World War II. [10] Quoted in John A. Garraty, “Unemployment during the Great Depression,” Labor History, vol. 17, no. 2 (Spring 1976): 155. Italics in the original. [11] Peter N. Carroll and David W. Noble, The Restless Centuries: A History of the American People (Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Co., 1973), vol. II, 499. [12] Bernard Sternsher, “Victims of the Great Depression: Self-Blame/Non-Self-Blame, Radicalism, and Pre-1929 Experiences,” Social Science History, vol. 1, no. 2 (Winter, 1977): 137–177. [13] Richard Wright, American Hunger (New York: Harper & Row, 1977 [1944]), 42. E. Wight Bakke, The Unemployed Worker: A Study of the Task of Making a Living without a Job (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 101. [14] Garraty, “Unemployment during the Great Depression,” 151, 152. [15] Mauritz Hallgren, “The Bonus Army Scares Mr. Hoover,” Nation, July 27, 1932; Franklin Folsom, Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808–1942 (Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1991), 310–322. [16] Sidney Verba and Kay Lehman Schlozman, “Unemployment, Class Consciousness, and Radical Politics: What Didn’t Happen in the Thirties,” Journal of Politics, vol. 39, no. 2 (May 1977): 302. [17] Bakke, The Unemployed Worker, 98–100; Bernard Karsh and Philipps L. Garman, “The Impact of the Political Left,” in Milton Derber and Edwin Young, eds., Labor and the New Deal (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972 [1957]), 83. [18] Friendly Sumner Rogers, “The Attitude of the Unemployed: A Survey of Three Hundred Families on Relief” (M.A. thesis, University of Southern California, 1936), 30, 33. On the EPIC movement, see James N. Gregory, “Upton Sinclair’s 1934 EPIC Campaign: Anatomy of a Political Movement,” Labor, vol. 12, no. 4 (December 2015): 51–81. [19] Robert S. McElvaine, “Thunder Without Lightning: Working-Class Discontent in the United States, 1929–1937” (Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 1974), 73, 92–96. [20] “Results of Various Polls Concerning WPA and Unemployment,” February 21, 1939, Harry Hopkins Papers, box 55, FDR Presidential Library. [21] Scholarship cited in previous chapters provides support for these ideas. Again, see Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986); Patricia Cayo Sexton, The War on Labor and the Left: Understanding America’s Unique Conservatism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc., 1991); Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945–60 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994). One might argue that values such as compassion and generosity have no ideological or political content, but that is not entirely true. Popular support for social welfare programs, like popular opposition to imperialistic war, is an outgrowth of basic human values that are in conflict with structures of capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism. [22] It is likely that more respondents would have described themselves as working-class had the question not been open-ended but instead asked them to choose between upper-class, middle-class, and working-class. Indeed, Richard Centers’ classic The Psychology of Social Classes: A Study of Class Consciousness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949) reported that, when presented with the option, 51 percent of white men in the U.S. whom the author surveyed regarded themselves as working-class. [23] Verba and Schlozman, “Unemployment, Class Consciousness, and Radical Politics,” 304–312. [24] Martin Glaberman, “Marxism and Class Consciousness,” Labour/Le Travail, vol. 37 (Spring 1996): 233–237. [25] A few examples include Rick Fantasia, “From Class Consciousness to Culture, Action, and Social Organization,” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 21 (1995): 269–287; Bertell Ollman, “How to Study Class Consciousness, and Why We Should,” Insurgent Sociologist, vol. 14 (1987): 57–96; Gordon Marshall, “Some Remarks on the Study of Working-Class Consciousness,” Politics and Society, vol. 12 (1983): 289–293; Erik Olin Wright, Classes (London: Verso, 1985); Douglas M. Eichar, Occupations and Class Consciousness in America (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989); Rhonda Zingraff and Michael D. Schulman, “Social Bases of Class Consciousness: A Study of Southern Textile Workers with a Comparison by Race,” Social Forces, vol. 63, no. 1 (September 1984): 98–116; Alejandro Portes, “On the Interpretation of Class Consciousness,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 77, no. 2 (September 1971): 228–244. The first two articles make the same points Glaberman does, and many more, in a more richly theoretical way. [26] On Marx’s non-use of the concept of class consciousness, see Rick Fantasia, “From Class Consciousness to Culture,” 272. [27] Len De Caux, Labor Radical: From the Wobblies to CIO, A Personal History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), 163; E. Wight Bakke, Citizens Without Work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 57. This latter book, pp. 55–70, is the main source for the next six paragraphs. [28] Daniel J. Leab, “‘United We Eat’: The Creation and Organization of the Unemployed Councils in 1930,” Labor History, vol. 8, no. 3 (Fall 1967): 314. [29] Interview of Emil Luchterhand by Kubet Luchterhand, 3, 13, Roosevelt University Oral History Project in Labor History. [30] Richard Wright, American Hunger, 39, 40. [31] Mauritz Hallgren, Seeds of Revolt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933), 336. Italics added. [32] Clarence Hathaway, “An Examination of Our Failure to Organize the Unemployed,” Communist, September 1930. Standard histories of the Communist Party substantiate these arguments; see, for example, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (New York: Frederick Praeger, 1962) and Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism (New York: Basic Books, 1984). [33] Alfred Winslow Jones, Life, Liberty, and Property: A Story of Conflict and a Measurement of Conflicting Rights (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1941), 286, quoted in Sternsher, “Victims of the Great Depression,” 148; Wright, American Hunger, 38, 39.

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