1 Bryan D. Palmer, Labour Historian
Bryan D. Palmer is the most prolific and one of the most celebrated Canadian labour historians of the past half century. He is also the most controversial Canadian labour historian, a subscriber to “orthodox Trotskyism” while also a champion of history from below.1 This chapter begins with a portion of the controversies because they provide important clues to Palmer’s location in the labour history canon. It is a canon that, in his case, embraces Canadian, American, and British labour history.2 A discussion of his major labour works follows, informed by what these controversies reveal of Palmer’s approach to working-class history and how that approach has evolved over time. We finish with an interrogation of the long-term impact of Palmer’s research and analysis on labour history scholarship, particularly in Canada.
Palmer first became an object of controversy early in his publishing career as part of the first group of social historians of working people that emerged in the 1970s. He was a founding member of the journal Labour/Le Travailleur, and his article on nineteenth-century artisans was the lead article of the first issue.3 So Palmer was a predictable target for a campaign by traditional scholars of labour against “culturalism” in labour history. They used that term to refer to any discussion except in passing of ordinary or radical workers as opposed to successful labour institutions within capitalism and their leaders. Conservative labour historian David Bercuson, who would later pan Palmer’s book with Gregory S. Kealey on the Knights of Labor in the American Historical Review, was co-editor of the Canadian Historical Review when it invited the patrician social democrat Kenneth McNaught to comment on recent trends in labour history.4 It was the first time that the major historical journal in the country, which had never demonstrated much interest in the history of workers, chose to print such an article. McNaught was the sympathetic biographer of J. S. Woodsworth, the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, and can be viewed as more supportive of left-wing ideas and left-wing figures than his postwar cohort of academic historians.5 But, like most of the others, he was a Cold Warrior and an elitist who believed that the study of history must focus on the thoughts and actions of “great men.” An opponent of both Communists and the New Left, with its anti-hierarchical demands regarding universities and workplaces alike, McNaught was aghast at the socialist libertarianism of the Young Turks and their emphasis on an international and interdisciplinary Marxist literature. He granted begrudgingly that the new social historians of the 1970s had researched subjects that earlier historians had ignored and had added useful empirical knowledge. But he rejected their efforts to recast Canadian labour history from a focus on the progenitors of the modern labour movement that was well integrated into the capitalist system and parliamentary democracy toward both workers themselves and leaders and members of supposedly less successful, dissentient workers’ movements. His contempt for the new social historians of labour and the people whose stories they told is clear in this passage that extols economist H. Clare Pentland’s depiction of “the smart union leadership” of the 1930s and 1940s: “That smart union leadership was not the product of any autonomous working-class culture. It grew out of an increasing sophistication and education. And its goal was not to defend an Archie Bunker-charivari culture, but, rather, to liberate those who had been entrapped by the economic-cultural constraints imposed by political capitalists.”6
Disgusted that the social historians appeared to “accept an essentially revolutionary goal as the inner purpose of historical research and writing,” McNaught unsurprisingly singles out the social historian least reluctant to deny such a goal. Palmer, he writes, is the “most overt amongst the celebrants of ‘the rich and vibrant culture of the artisan.’” He dismisses Palmer’s evidence as “almost anecdotal” and then demonstrates the closed mind of those who insist on a history limited to great men and institutions by adding: “In a sense it fills in some of the interstices and provides a more detailed background than was previously available for understanding our social history rather than providing any convincing new interpretation of the role of the working class and its spokesmen.” Somehow the inclusion of the grassroots workers themselves changed nothing about the interpretation of working-class history. To add insult to injury, he complains about Palmer’s “turgid neo-Marxist theoretical framework.”7
By the time of the McNaught article, Palmer had already debated an even more dismissive critic of so-called “culturalism,” political scientist Terry Morley, who asserted a restrictive view of policy and society in which any discussion of working-class efforts to assert their right to control what they produced was “romantic.”8 But Palmer had bigger fish to fry as he inserted himself into a debate on the British Left regarding E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, the single most influential work for social historians of labour throughout the English-speaking world. An important group of left-wing British scholars was at war with alleged “culturalists” for a reason quite opposite to that of Canadian social democrats: they regarded culturalists as anti-revolutionary, anti-Marxist, and anti-Leninist. Their ranks included Perry Anderson, historical sociologist and editor of the influential New Left Review.
Palmer’s defence of Thompson, with whom he nonetheless had political disagreements, revealed much about his own approach to the history of the working class. In Palmer’s view, the debt that historians of working people owe to Thompson is “the significance and place of agency and experience.”9 Thompson emphasized “the process of class struggle.”10 Countering those on both right and left who viewed that focus on the bottom-up self-organization of working people as a rejection of broader social forces that had an impact upon working people, Palmer comments: “None of this should be taken to mean that class is essentially cultural, the political dimension of its existence obliterated, the objective aspects conditioning or setting the limits of its existence ignored.” Indeed, he argues that The Making of the English Working Class meticulously blends the economic, political, and cultural “history of common and not so common people, those living the experience of class formation.” The Thompson book rescued them at once from the right-wing structural functionalism of Cold War American sociologist Talcott Parsons and the vulgar Marxists who proposed theories of social change in which rank-and-file workers were pawns of forces bigger than themselves.11
But for all his commitment to telling the story of rank-and-file agency while examining the economic and political forces within which that agency occurs, Palmer soon had his Canadian critics from among the social historians to add to his raging opponents on the right. The latter, little by little, abandoned labour history altogether, indirectly conceding victory to the social history group.12 The social historians, though all to some degree influenced by Marxism and the New Left, were no more united than the British Marxists in whose debates Palmer did not flinch from intervening. An unspoken united front had been maintained against the institutionalists, as issues of control inevitably occurred over the Canadian Committee on Labour History (formed in 1970 as an all-inclusive subcommittee of the Canadian Historical Association to promote the sharing of research among historians interested in working-class history) and the CCLH journal, Labour/Le Travail (which first appeared in 1976 under the name Labour/Le Travailleur and then was renamed in 1984 because French-speaking women increasingly described themselves as travailleuses, rejecting an older convention that privileged masculine nouns when more than one gender was described).13
With the common enemy gone, the social historians of labour were free to air disputes among themselves. For the most part, like feminist historians in English Canada, who were increasingly also historians of the working class, labour historians preferred to minimize their differences. That was partly because of strong personal and professional friendships that their research and dissemination of research had created and partly because they remained united against the old guard of male establishment historians focused on “great men” and Whig history. Such unity seemed to many even more necessary in the era of neoliberalism that began in the late 1970s, and was characterized by a call for a partial return to an earlier stage of capitalism in which state interventions and non-interventions alike focused on creating a huge imbalance in the rewards won by capital over labour. That perspective gradually replaced the postwar compromise in which capitalism survived challenges from below by granting concessions to the working class and incorporating trade unions at least partially into the system. One-time welfarist liberals like Jack Granatstein, David Bercuson, and Michael Bliss became fierce neoliberals and poured contempt on scholars whom they regarded as radicals, which increasingly meant egalitarians of all kinds.14
The left, in turn, for the most part, dampened its expectations, including the academic left. Faced with austerity policies even from NDP governments and a labour movement that mostly responded with a deer in the headlights immobility to capitalist plans for neoliberal restructuring, many progressive scholars focused on saving what could be saved of postwar gains rather than on a forward program. The discursive turn, which tended to replace scholarship wedded to activism with an introverted “postmodernist” scholasticism, provided some solace for many. It provided a distance between the scholar and everyone else that allowed the former to gaze dispassionately on the latter, supposedly to explain mass attitudes and behaviours that New Left activists lacked the proper tools for understanding. Palmer, the orthodox Trotskyist, was not alone in rejecting any thought of anti-materialist analysis overtaking the “culturalist” project. While historical materialists might disagree in their explanations of working-class consciousness, all regarded the injuries of class as real and brutal rather than a product of discourses. While others were content with implicitly lamenting the abandonment of class conflict and social structures in favour of competing, floating discourses, Palmer waged an open battle with adherents of the postmodernist trend.
Palmer’s increasing willingness to make explicit his disagreements with other labour historians predictably produced some sharp responses. When Palmer’s second, renamed edition of his survey text on Canadian labour history appeared, Craig Heron, who had collaborated with Palmer in 1977 on an important article on the strike wave in Ontario before World War I,15 provided a largely negative review in Left History in 1993. The review began by acknowledging that “in his long series of books and articles, and through his penchant for confrontation and debate, Palmer has played a major role in defining what the rest of the historical profession (and many others) thought Canadian labour historians were up to.”16 The rest of the review suggested that Heron believed that Palmer’s prominence was undeserved. In particular, he objected to what he regarded as a preoccupation in Palmer’s survey with why Canadian workers did not embrace a socialist rejection of capitalism. Heron called this “an analytical trap in writing the social history of the working class,” adding, “We need to get beyond the polarity of acceptance or rejection of capitalism to a subtler understanding of how they struggled to survive, to express themselves, to assert individual and class pride and power.”17
But an objective reading of Working-Class Experience reveals plentiful evidence and subtle analysis of how workers in various periods struggled in all those various ways. Indeed, early in the text Palmer notes:
For all of the cultural inertia of the working class, however, its apparent fragmentation, acquiescence, and accommodation could change with the drop of a hat or, more precisely, the drop of a wage, the demise of a skill, or the restructuring of a job. In confrontations that turned on such developments, cultural experiences might resurface and be moved beyond the passivity of a way of life to articulate a rejection of acquisitive individualism or affirm class identity in demonstrations of mutuality and collective aspiration.18
Palmer may have invited the wrath of Heron and others by singling them out for criticism in his text. He assails both Heron and Laurel Sefton MacDowell for “presentism,” the former because his The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History is particularly brief on pre-1900 working-class history, and the latter, a historian with a favourable focus on modern trade union leaders, because she had critiqued his first edition for giving as much attention to movements that failed as to enduring institutions. Palmer insists that a history that digs deeper into the past and that places Canadian developments in international contexts allows for broader theoretical understandings and challenges presentism with knowledge “of what kinds of possibilities, lived out in various historical contexts, might exist in the changed contours of the here and now.” He charges those whom he regards as “presentists” with a lack of understanding that “possibility is never simply and only determined by the obviousness of the conjunctures of the current moment.”19 That longue durée approach is hardly consistent with charges of a kind of action freakiness focused on whether a particular group of workers at a given moment was interested in overthrowing capitalism.
Heron explained in other forums that his intention was not to provide a competing comprehensive text to Palmer’s and that he was complying with a publisher’s request for an introductory, short work. So, he no doubt regarded Palmer’s attack against him within a textbook as rude and unjustified. Still, while Palmer’s comments seem unfair in the context of Heron’s overall impressive oeuvre, they are not unwarranted in terms of The Canadian Labour Movement. By contrast, Heron’s comments regarding Working-Class Experience are misleading, though he is correct in identifying Palmer’s obsession with the potential of the working class to make a revolution that will end class-based societies forever. That was Karl Marx’s obsession too and it did not prevent him from doing excellent historical and sociological research. I would be concerned as well if Palmer’s commitment to a working-class overthrow of class society coloured his ability to explore fully working-class lives. But as the balance of this chapter will suggest, I see abundant evidence of the opposite. Indeed, I think that Palmer’s teleology, annoying as it may be to those of a different ideological bent, makes him far more willing to critique aspects of worker culture in different times and places—misogyny, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and acceptance of imperialism—than historians focused on celebrating the working class with all its blemishes might be willing to tackle. He is not a vulgar Marxist and he calls for a Communist society without subordination of workers to elites, private or state. So, he is hyper-aware of the ways in which bourgeois society co-opts workers and distorts their values. His search is for evidence of how working people, because of the injuries to body and spirit that capitalism inflicts upon them, manage at various times to emphasize their class solidarity to win victories and advance the ultimate creation of a post-class society.
Debates between Palmer and other scholars on labour subjects demonstrated his opposition to both the “descent into discourse” and left-wing versions of liberal pluralism that may have a dissentient feel about them but which understate or ignore the roles of social class and class struggle.20 Palmer’s comments also demonstrated close attention to detail and an unwillingness to be silent when others appeared to be basing their opposition to the class struggle point of view on what Palmer regarded as flimsy research and questionable extrapolations. He proved to be one of the few historians of the working class willing to challenge an emerging consensus for a need for solidarity of a broad left against establishment-oriented historians. Palmer ended up in at least two controversies that caused six labour studies scholars from outside the editorial board to ask the board in 2002 to remove him as editor of Labour/Le Travail, a position that he held from 1997 to 2014 after having served as English-language book review editor for the journal from 1981 to 1997. Though neither controversy involved the journal that he was editing, the complainants suggested that Palmer was too aggressive in his debating style in other journals and that that might cause junior scholars to give pause before submitting articles to Labour/Le Travail. Of course, it might also have caused junior scholars to feel that they would get a closer, critical reading of their work from Palmer compared to editors of other journals. But, in any case, the editorial board determined that Palmer’s scholarly activities outside the journal had not compromised his work as editor.21
The first controversy involved a wide-ranging article by Palmer in Histoire sociale/Social History in which, among other targets, he raised serious objections to two otherwise favourably received books: Gender Conflicts, edited by Franca Iacovetta and Mariana Valverde, and Lynne Marks’s Revivals and Roller Rinks. The article begins by noting that he wants to deal with “tensions that connect as well as separate labour and gender historians.”22 Both books, in his view, carry too much of the freight of the discursive turn, and deal too little with either the material lives of their subjects or the political economic framework that shaped those lives. He asks pointedly: “in this settlement have we not given up the fight for a transformative history, content instead to advance inclusivity within the seemingly unalterable structures of oppression and exploitation?”23 He suggests that Gender Conflicts is a mix of essays that have no concern about class at all and that there are those that exaggerate their differences from labour history in order to be seen as part of a new paradigm.24 As for Revivals and Roller Rinks, while he offers some praise for Marks’s efforts to trace the role of religion in small-town Ontario in the late nineteenth century, he claims that her book lacks “a convincing depiction of the economic structure, demographic make-up or cultural tone of this milieu.”25 Marks’s book takes Palmer and Kealey to task for failing to deal with religion in their study of the Knights of Labor. But Palmer argues that the statistical evidence provided by Marks to suggest overlap between the Knights of Labor and the Salvation Army proves nothing of the kind. He suggests that her comparisons between messages from the pulpit and messages from Knight leaders, both in terms of form and content, obscure discussion of the oppressions that the Knights were fighting.26
Histoire sociale/Social History permitted Marks to respond to Palmer’s comments, and she attacked what she regarded as “blind spots” on the part of some labour historians who have “a resolutely secular world view.”27 She contended that she did not assert an overlap of Salvationists and Knights, but only called for this to be considered, suggesting that Palmer’s alleged opposition to such a consideration was the consequence of his antipathy to religious feeling as opposed to a fair reaction to her statistical evidence.28
Valverde also got her licks in on Palmer in a piece that appeared in the same issue as Palmer’s critique of her book with Iacovetta. Proudly proclaiming her complete break with materialism and issues of social class, Valverde blasted the entire historical profession for its limited willingness to follow a trail that she, as a sociologist, had followed. But she then proceeded to blame Palmer alone for the historians’ failure to follow the sociologist guru who was showing them the shining path of scholarship that would transcend their fetish with analyzing people’s material lives and interests with a sophisticated examination of a competition of discourses stripped from any connection with real lives. Palmer had made a “career” of “invective,” she charged, in a rather invective-filled passage in which she accused him of using “vitriolic” attacks that bullied historians “from any discussion of theory for fear of being embroiled in polemics.” Two pages later, she added: “I tried to do my bit to rectify the situation and generate a more level-headed debate among progressive historians and other Canadian scholars in two review essays for Labour/Le Travail commissioned by Bryan Palmer” (the emphasis is mine; Valverde ignored the glaring contradiction between that fact and her statement that Palmer was blocking discussions of discourse theory). The two essays that Palmer commissioned likely had more influence on historians than Valverde suggested. But even if they did not, her blaming Palmer’s takedowns of her work for her failure to influence the historical profession had strategic value. Rather than having to denounce the practitioners of an entire discipline, she made a final appeal to them by assuring them that they had been unable to see the light because of bullying from an evil fellow historian steeped in historical materialism.29
The second controversy involved the Canadian Historical Review’s unprecedented decision to have five reviewers comment on a book called On the Case: Explorations in Social History, an edited collection produced by Franca Iacovetta and Wendy Mitchinson from papers for a conference dealing with finding and analyzing huge qualitative data sets of individual “cases.”30 The introduction to the book promised that the collection offered groundbreaking theoretical and practical perspectives. Three of the reviewers seemed generally to agree with that claim. Conservative but very courteous historian Doug Owram demurred, questioning why a book of essays, some new but all somewhat recycled from earlier work by its authors, had become the first book ever to be the subject of a multi-reviewer feature in the Canadian Historical Review. Palmer was the fifth reviewer, and, while sharing Owram’s view that the book was a rehash of existing work, was not polite at all. He interrogated the book in terms of the labour process for Canadian historians and suggested that chumminess among a certain group of social historians that included the editors of On the Case and the editors of the Canadian Historical Review had caused the latter to allow themselves to be misled by the former. Unsurprisingly, an effort to raise issues of social relations of production among historians themselves as opposed to the objects of their study was uncomfortable for many historians. The editors of the journal would have pleased the editors of On the Case if they had refused to publish the Palmer review, but having solicited it, they included it despite its accusations against the editors themselves. Iacovetta, at least twice criticized in print by Palmer (though also sometimes praised by him), believed that she was being singled out unfairly and that her gender, rather than her writing or actions, had caused his hostility. She had support from some feminist colleagues with whom she had worked closely, who regarded Palmer’s critique as an unwarranted attack by a male senior scholar upon a more junior female scholar. They noted that Palmer’s work to that point, like most of what male labour historians had produced, was overwhelmingly male focused. I certainly would rank Palmer’s contribution as a writer to the history of working women as mediocre, if not negligible. On the other hand, as the editor of Labour/Le Travail, he did encourage a growing gender balance in both the composition of the editorial board and the articles that the journal published.
The bias in labour history toward the world of working men was certainly something that needed to be debated. But it was tangential to the issues of anti-materialist discourse analysis and the social relations of production of historical work that Palmer was raising. Palmer, something of an iconoclast in his writings, rejected the notion that either the works or the professional schemes of left-wing scholars were off limits for scholarly analysis. Willing to lambaste in print his close friend and sometimes writing partner, Gregory S. Kealey, when he saw problems with his work,31 he disliked the implicit arguments of his detractors that it was bullying and male chauvinism to subject the work of female junior scholars to the same scrutiny that he applied to the work of fellow senior scholars. While his survey textbooks generously embrace the work of all of the social historians of labour, he believed strongly that our own labour as working-class historians is strengthened not by mutual self-congratulation but by ruthless mutual interrogation. Some of his opponents, in my view, were not so much partisans of indefensible theoretical and empirical positions as “debatophobes.”32
Certainly the zeitgeist among Canadian social historians did not welcome his approach, which some viewed as one-upmanship and destructive in the effort to create a collective scholarship that would replace the old paradigm of privileged white male, imperialist, militarist, flag-waving scholarship that predominated before the 1970s and certainly still had vestiges within the profession. Ironically, Canadian historiography had been characterized by more real debates in that period of stultifying elitism than it was in the period when egalitarians had mostly replaced the old, conservative farts. Whether or not one is comfortable with Palmer’s overarching concerns about finding revolutionary moments in working-class history and tracing their evolution—a concern that, though his critics may overlook it, causes him to spend at least as much time as they do in searching out and analyzing accommodation of workers to capitalist hegemonic forces—they offer a vantage point for judging other work in working-class history. Though he is the first to concede that his vantage point enjoys only minority support among historians of working people in Canada, I would argue that he has played the major role among such historians in keeping alive questions of how and not just why workers have at different times challenged capitalist hegemony in various ways. More than most working-class historians, Palmer has put special emphasis on what kind of leadership emerges in various labour struggles and its impact on both short-term successes and the long-term building of movements of resistance.
So, with this background of the passions of Palmer as he has attempted to shape debates on how the working class is treated—or ignored—in historical and other scholarship, it is time to look at his major labour history works to interrogate how well his own work lives up to the principles that he has enunciated and how his work has changed over time in terms of emphasis and conclusions. His first book, A Culture in Conflict, which appeared in 1979, lays out his notions, based on a combination of the insights of E. P. Thompson, Karl Marx, and his own broader readings as a young scholar, about how the working class should be studied.33 He was already cementing his reputation as a controversialist by having repeatedly denounced the approach of another historian of Hamilton workers, Michael B. Katz, on the subject. Katz, who would eventually become a distinguished social theorist of American poverty, was in a stage of his scholarship in which he focused almost exclusively on what was quantifiable. His obsession with numbers, overlaid on an assumption of particular fixed social structures that reflected Parsonian structural functionalism, reduced the working people of Hamilton to an undifferentiated mass of individuals whose attitudes, institutions, and resistance to employers’ dictates were of no interest.34
By contrast, Palmer maintained: “it is the way in which culture is used, adapting to the changed environment of industrial capitalism, that predominates in much of this examination of skilled workers in Hamilton. Indeed, if there is a central concern in this study it is with the way in which working-class culture sustains a persistent protest against industrial-capitalist disciplines and development, enriching the process of class conflict, bringing workers and employers into battle with one another, despite the apparent inevitability of working-class defeat.”35 To this, he added: “Class . . . is inseparable from class struggle. The process of confrontation conditions an understanding of class and of people’s place in the larger social order, an understanding mediated by a particular cultural context. Class is thus defined by men and women as they live through the historical experience. It is class struggle and culture, not class itself, as an analytical category, that are the primary concepts upon which classes themselves arise and assume importance.”36
The first quotation emphasizes that the cultural and economic spheres of daily life are closely intertwined. The economic position and the cultural values of skilled workers are to be viewed as interdependent rather than separate phenomena. The second quotation refutes economic determinism to suggest that the term “social class” is largely meaningless as an analytical category until members of this class demonstrate, by their collective behaviour, that they regard themselves as having interests distinct from other classes. For Palmer, that understanding of their class position comes through their experience of conflict and struggle with the bourgeoisie and consequent recognition of the opposed interests of the two classes.
The book traces the organizations and events that skilled workers created and imbued with their particular values, including friendly societies, mechanics’ institutes, baseball teams, and processions. Palmer demonstrates how an apartness created by workers’ sense of having somewhat separate interests from employers—he is careful to note that for some time “producerist” ideology linked workers and owners—gradually produced the Knights of Labor, which worked to free workers from employer domination in the short run but had a vision, however hazy, of creating a new society in which workers were owners. Earlier social historians noted the defensive aspect of unionism, which Palmer acknowledges. He goes beyond that to emphasize skilled workers’ efforts to maintain and expand their control over the labour process, in response to employer attempts to transfer such control to owners via new techniques of managing the labour process that reduced owner dependence on skills of particular groups of tradespeople. The powerful worker campaign for a nine-hour day in the 1870s exemplified workers’ views that too much of their time was stolen by employers. The movement for a legislated shorter workday, the brief flowering of the Knights of Labor, and then sympathy strikes and boycotts that characterized the “new unionism” emerging in the 1890s and early 1900s united skilled and unskilled workers in defence of common working-class interests. It also sent Allan Studholme, a stove mounter and former Knights activist, to the Ontario legislature from 1906 to 1919 as an Independent Labour MLA. Palmer, while clear about his own skepticism regarding the parliamentary road to socialism, provides a sympathetic portrait of Studholme, whom he views as relatively typical in his thinking of Hamilton’s skilled workers.
Palmer, contrary to what his later critics would say, recognizes in the book that gaps in its analysis include a failure to deal in any depth with family life, religion, and partisan politics. He points out that source materials on these questions are either scarce (particularly for religion) or so abundant as to merit separate studies (particularly for the family). Though McNaught and other defenders of the historical status quo attacked his methods and his political engagements, Palmer’s first book established his commitment to empirical rigour—rather early in his career, the phrase “a Bryan Palmer footnote” came to mean a lengthy footnote for a particular claim that included both meticulously cited primary sources and vast references to an international body of literature.
Kealey’s study of workers in Toronto in the latter half of the nineteenth century, published shortly after the Hamilton book, covered similar ground to Palmer’s manuscript.37 Kealey and Palmer worked closely together on Labour/Le Travail and shared support for the historical approach of E. P. Thompson. The main difference between the two books was that Palmer began his book with a chapter of fairly explicit Marxist theory, while Kealey chose to embed the Marxist thrust within his book. I therefore chose to use Palmer over Kealey when I had the pleasure of offering the first labour history course ever to be offered at an Alberta university. Kealey certainly has had an equally distinguished career as a labour historian as Palmer, and, in addition to his own published works, he has left an indelible mark on the fields of Canadian labour history and labour studies as the founding editor of Labour/Le Travail. Ultimately, he would generally play a rather more diplomatic role among working-class historians and within the historical profession than Palmer and become a significant university sector bureaucrat. But both were initially viewed as “bad boys” in the profession, and it made sense in the early 1980s that the two of them worked together to produce a book on the Knights of Labor, whose role in Hamilton and Toronto each respectively had pursued in their study of urban labour. Dreaming of What Might Be studied the Knights across Ontario and placed its research in the context of broader American studies of the Knights, though curiously made only passing references to the Knights in Québec, where their history proved to be of longer duration than in Ontario.
Though a joint effort, the spirit of Dreaming seems similar to that of the authors’ respective books on Toronto and Hamilton. The language of the book seems a mix of class conflict references and more toned-down reflections. It opens with rather vague reformist formulations, such as the following:
The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor saw a different way forward, glimpsed another kind of social system. They failed to bring it into being and their conception of what might be was certainly flawed, but their critique of the new industrial order prefaced other attacks and helped to establish a tradition of dissent that continues to this day. Without that tradition, without the many challenges it has raised, we might well be in worse shape than we are. To look at the origins of that long history of opposition, then, is to make ourselves aware of important critical insights.38
By contrast, later in the book, the Knights are credited with an “attempt to forge a culture in which workers saw themselves as a class, and in which members of that class could see past the mystifications of a bourgeois domination to the promise and potential of a better world.”39 Further, they “built upon a class culture to create a movement culture, taking the differences in ways of life that had existed for so long and channeling them toward the demand for change.”40 The wide-ranging book challenges earlier notions that the Knights were authoritarian because of the secrecy vows that both bound members together and provided a degree of protection against employer hostility. It also provides evidence against claims that the Knights opposed strikes or that they limited the ability of skilled workers to protect their turf because of the presence of many workers deemed unskilled. Its materials on the Knights’ inclusion of women and black people, though the Order failed to struggle against strong white working-class prejudices against Asian people, are also significant. They might look to be too brief a portion of the book by 2020 standards, but by 1982 standards, when virtually all employed Canadian historians were white males, they were something of a breakthrough. Willingness of the Knights to organize at least some women and non-whites is part of the Kealey and Palmer complicated story that blows away the myths that skilled workers were a “labour aristocracy” without concerns regarding fellow workers. While skilled workers were indeed trying to defend artisanal control in workplaces, they did reach out to other workers, and the Knights had a vision of a cooperative society where ownership and working could be blended. Neither the decline of the Knights nor the eventual success of the conservative, crafts-oriented Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, with its business unionism and aristocracy of labour ideal, were foreordained. Finally, the emphasis on the development and decline of a producerist ideology as earlier competitive capitalism moved toward bigness and eventually monopolies helped the authors to depict a changing class consciousness.
Interestingly, in the introduction to the book, when the authors imagined playfully whose identity among the characters in their book they best saw in themselves, “Kealey found himself shoved into Powderly’s chair,” that of the natural leader of an organization. But “Palmer unassumingly identified with Tom O’Reilly,” a minor character in the Knights’ playbook, but one who was a strong critic of opportunist leaders within the movement, particularly A. W. Wright, who became the head honcho of the Ontario movement in the early 1890s as the organization was falling apart.41 About all we learn of O’Reilly is that he regarded Wright as either indolent or uncaring about the members. At one point he wrote that “if every man did as little work as A. W. Wright, and all were paid for it there would be no industrial question to solve as everyone would be contented and happy.”42 Symbolically, while Kealey seemed a natural leader, Palmer viewed himself as a rank-and-filer willing and able to critique working-class leaders and their strategies objectively and witheringly.
Palmer’s iconoclastic position among the new social historians of labour was somewhat in evidence from the start, as McNaught’s singling him out for condemnation demonstrated. But it would grow during the 1980s. There were certainly hints, in A Culture in Conflict, of his taking a harder line than others took on the need for a focus on strengths and impediments in working-class life and institutions regarding the goal of overthrowing class society. That was true as well in his E. P. Thompson book in 1981, and in his first edition of the text Working-Class Experience: The Rise and Reconstitution of Canadian Labour, 1800–1980 in 1983.43 The latter was a direct competitor for Desmond Morton’s Working People: An Illustrated History of Canadian Labour, which was released two years earlier and exemplified the perspectives of the social democratic defenders of the trade union status quo at the time that the social historians were interrogating.44 Palmer’s text was characterized by his having read virtually everything that had been written about Canadian labour and by a broad focus on workers’ lives, values, and struggles that contrasted with Morton’s steadfast emphasis on pragmatic trade union leaders and ridicule for more radical movements and leaders. Instructors and readers interested in the radical possibilities of workers’ movements, including the Knights, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Communist Party, found the Palmer text to be a breath of fresh air after the Morton text, which relied on conservative accounts of such organizations and dismissed their importance altogether.
By the time that Palmer published the revised version of the textbook in 1992, both the literature on working-class history and Palmer’s personal experiences resulted in important shifts in emphases. Though the focus on workers’ struggles remained, he devoted more analysis to workers’ accommodation to capitalist structures. The new text built on the feminist literature of the 1980s to take a critical stance toward a labour literature that assumed, uncritically, the “family economy.” It also embraced the 1980s literature on regulation of trade unionism.45 Palmer placed an even greater emphasis than in the past on leadership, making clear his disagreements with other labour historians who drew their punches when discussing the class collaborationist enthusiasms of the post–World War II labour leaders. Following on the work of Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz, among others, on the postwar compromise by capitalists and the state that attempted to co-opt the labour leadership to placate a working class that demonstrated great militancy during the war and the early postwar period, Palmer stressed the gradual collapse of that ruling-class willingness to compromise. For him, that raised serious questions about the character of the union leadership. He wrote: “Intellectual trends, which focus on ‘history from the bottom up,’ and a deeply entrenched quasi-syndicalist belief that leaders themselves are only a product of what the rank-and-file produces, coincide to shield labour leadership from serious scrutiny.” That leadership is focused on defending the postwar settlement “in spite of the blunt reality that the settlement has been gutted by capital and the state in the recent past.”46
Palmer’s increased attentiveness to the paralysis of the postwar union leadership as the postwar compromise that had given them respectability and big salaries crumbled had much to do with his experiences during the 130-day Solidarity movement in British Columbia in 1983. He was a participant-observer in Solidarity, and as a professor at Simon Fraser University had a vested interest in the outcome of a fight to at least preserve existing education, health, and social programs. His book, Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia (1987), is an angry but closely argued book about how the trade union and NDP leadership worked to dampen, then eliminate, a grassroots movement toward a general strike in response to Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett’s effort to impose a harsh, neoliberal budget in 1983. In retrospect, we know that the trade union and NDP establishment suppression of a workers’ revolt in British Columbia encouraged the bourgeoisie, not only in that province but right across the country, to believe that they could tear up the postwar compromise with little fear of successful reprisals from the working people who were the greatest victims of a concerted global capitalist effort to further redistribute wealth from labour to capital. But at the time, both the unions and social democrats were either oblivious to the imposition of a new capitalist paradigm or too wedded to their comfortable ways of operating to risk yielding any power to the masses, or both. As Palmer notes, the social welfare measures granted begrudgingly by governments and capitalists in the 1940s were a response to “capital’s long-term interests,” including the undercutting of left-wing challenges.47 Once those challenges decreased, capitalists and the state tested the waters to see how much they could increase capital’s share of national income.
State sector workers were horrified by the Bennett government’s proposed sweeping legislation to cut jobs, services, and pay. A Solidarity Coalition arose to unite all organizations and individuals who would suffer from the Bennett legislation, either as workers or as service recipients or both. Communists seized the initiative to create the Operation Solidarity movement. But their intention, notes Palmer, was only to get the Federation to act. “Stalinism, with a record of half a century of reformist practice and conditioned by decades of red baiting and the suppression of revolutionary will, aspired to be nothing more than an introduction to a more mainstream reformism, a butler for the bureaucracy.”48 While that characterization of the role of the Communists from the time of the Popular Front onwards is much challenged by labour and party historians, it seems appropriate for the 1980s, by which time the Communist movement in Canada in particular had shrunk, aged, and become objectively as cynical about a socialist overthrow of capitalism as the social democrats.49
Operation Solidarity was indeed taken over by the mainstream labour bureaucracy, who generally ignored the far larger Solidarity Coalition, which claimed the allegiance of about 950,000 people. While the latter demanded the withdrawal of the entire package of Bennett cuts and privatizations, the former just wanted workers to sit on their hands until the next election, when they could all go out and work to put the NDP back in power. Of the NDP, Palmer writes forcefully: “The NDP in British Columbia, as elsewhere in Canada, epitomizes the worldwide capitulation of social democracy to electoralism in the twentieth century. It has no sympathy for nor conception of struggle outside of the parliamentary forum.”50
So, while many groups of public workers had walked off the job and were promoting the idea of a general strike to force the Bennett government to beat a retreat, their leaders were mostly concerned about getting them back to work. The new president of the British Columbia Federation of Labour (BCFL) was Arthur Kube, a “consummate social democrat, the perfect bureaucrat.”51 Kube described himself as “a Steel heavy” who fought the Communist-led Mine Mill union. “I did work in immigrants. There was the whole anti-Communist thing. No question there was redbaiting.”52 But Palmer resists the temptation to attribute the eventual sell-out of the BCFL leadership to Kube or to Jack Munro, the gruff BC leader of the International Woodworkers of America – Canada, who served as the public face of the weak accord that the union leaders reached with Bennett and that largely preserved Bennett’s policies. They were, in Palmer’s view, symbols of a larger malaise within the Canadian trade union movement. “Events were thus not guided by individual choices and decisions, either conspiratorial or democratic, but by an implacable structure of bureaucratized authority, reformist agendas, and limited conceptions of what it is possible to do.”53
Palmer concludes Solidarity by claiming that his experience “taught me some hard political lessons.” Though he had already been suspicious of trade union officials, “I, too, was guilty of slighting the critical importance of leadership and program, trusting implicitly if uneasily in the momentum of the movement to carry the struggle forward.” As a committed Trotskyist, that led him to Lenin’s statement in 1906 regarding the soviets: “How inadequate a temporary nonpartisan organization is, which at best may supplement a stable and durable militant organization or a party, but can never replace it.”54 Palmer’s experience of the Solidarity movement and the efforts by the trade union leadership to dampen grassroots revolt contributed to his critical review in 2018 of On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement by journalist Rod Mickleburgh. The book’s production was heavily funded by the International Woodworkers of America, the long-time leader of which, Jack Munro, was the public face of the trade union leadership’s sell-out of Solidarity, whose ghost Palmer finds throughout the book, which is dedicated to Munro’s memory.55
Another book project of Palmer’s before the second edition of Working-Class Experience appeared involved his working with Communist Party renegade Jack Scott on the latter’s memoirs about his life as a Communist within the workers’ movement. While Palmer clearly respected Scott’s spirited life of sacrifices for the Communist cause and his efforts to keep the Marxist faith after parting with the Communist Party, his introduction to Scott’s book makes clear his own perspective that Stalinism was a tragedy for the workers’ movement. Palmer notes that there are two main schools among historians of the working class regarding the Communists. For one group, mainly social democrats, they were simply a foreign element inserted in national working-class movements. For the other group, which focused on the social history, Communist militants were local actors in local movements whose formal connection to Stalin and the Comintern exercised little impact on their working-class activities. Palmer regards both views as lacking in nuance and calls for a “two-sided appreciation of the Communist experience, attentive to Stalinism’s capacity to structure thought and action in deforming ways and appreciative of the limited possibilities for political activity open to people like Scott.” While suggesting that “international developments and the importance of leadership” must be stressed, Palmer also argues that the party rank-and-file activities do need to be studied, “if only to appreciate the ways in which Stalinism squandered so much human material, subverted the course of revolutionary communism, and provided the formative political experience for so many class conscious workers who managed to find their way out of the trap that the CP had become.”56
His political work and subsequent publications in the 1980s having sharpened Palmer’s focus on the importance of leadership within the workers’ movement and the largely negative role that both Social Democrats and Communists had played in terms of responding to workers’ complaints, his anger with the discursive turn, reflected in Descent into Discourse in 1990, is unsurprising. It was a dress rehearsal for the revision of Working-Class Experience and then the dressing down he received from colleagues such as Heron. Palmer was unrepentant and his work after the revising of that book demonstrated a continuing historical focus on workers’ class consciousness and the potential for revolutionary action, as opposed to the pluralist-influenced celebration or at least examination of everything about workers’ everyday lives that some social historians of labour preferred.
Indeed, Palmer’s shift in emphasis toward big “P” political issues regarding working people and revolution was evident in his second book on E. P. Thompson in 1994, which, while a homage to his late mentor who had recently passed, was also far more openly critical of the shortcomings in Thompson’s work even as Palmer defended his oeuvre overall. For example, Palmer writes:
Yet in the end it matters far less that Thompson’s claims for the working class of early nineteenth-century England rest too lightly on an understanding of accumulation and capitalism’s uneven march, privilege artisanal debasements and efforts to deflect proletarianization, focus attention on the resisting side of experience . . . and understate accommodation, elevate unnecessarily the question of consciousness to the detriment of an appreciation of socioeconomic structure, reproduce and valorize the masculinist understanding of the politics and workplace meanings of class, and overstate the level of class cohesion in a chronologically premature insistence that the working class was in fact made by 1832, than that the book opened interpretive eyes to a new way of seeing class.57
He adds quickly that Thompson did try to respond to his critics by investigating the themes that they accused him of ignoring or treating too lightly, but that he did so without surrendering his emphasis on the lives and institutions of working people themselves. But the extent to which Palmer concedes that the complaints of Thompson’s critics, while perhaps missing the whole point of his work, had merit suggests also a degree of self-criticism for some of his earliest work. But we are not by any means talking about something close to a retreat. He continues to defend Thompson’s contribution to the study of working people as one of immense importance and warns against any efforts to toss out the baby with the bathwater: “If the study of class can best be appreciated by historians sensitive to the structural and economic dimensions of class experience as well as the social, political, and cultural context of class formation, it is rather difficult to imagine what gains are to be made (in terms of our appreciation of class) by returning solely to the analysis of forms, tendencies, and laws of the capitalist system.”58 This was a message directed at fellow Marxists as much as or more than anyone else, since it was Marxist structuralists who had denounced Thompson’s humanistic Marxism for straying from a narrowed focus to those important, but in their hands often mechanistic, concerns.
That same year, in a case study of Goodyear, Palmer attempted to apply his overall appreciation of both Thompson and the concerns of his critics in a study of Goodyear in Ontario and its relocation of a plant from Etobicoke to Napanee. “This is a study of ‘the manufacturing of consent,’ and examination of just how, in the context of specific human needs, capital manages to extend its needs into the realm of universal need, to bury its own interests in an avalanche of ‘benevolence,’ highlighting not the inequities of social relationships but their supposed reciprocities.”59 It is a close examination of the behaviours over a century of both sides in the class struggle that demonstrates the imbalance of economic and social power of the capitalist and the workers. It also explores why and how, at times, the workers tried to assert their class interests collectively. The book also provides an important commentary on how capital, at times confronted by working-class organization in the cities that threatens capital’s share of income, turns to the countryside (or for that matter to other countries where labour is deemed cheap and weak in its ability to organize against capital).
In this case, Goodyear had excellent reason to believe that the Napanee plant, unlike the Etobicoke one, would not be successfully unionized, and it wasn’t. Palmer notes that the Knights of Labor, while they had 185 members in the local assembly, faced great resistance in efforts to grow in the region. The Order’s organizer commented: “This section of the country is sadly in need of organization . . . but fear of the money kings (the Rathbuns) keep the working class in slavery.”60 Even by the mid-1960s, only four of sixteen major Napanee and district employees had been organized. Unemployment levels cautioned against unionism; they were higher in the area than the Ontario average when Goodyear moved to Napanee in 1988, and in double digits in the early 1990s. A wage increase also helped to fend off an effort by the United Rubber Workers (URW) to organize the Napanee plant. The company’s anti-union efforts extended to the builders of the new plant. The Carpenters’ Union protested that local carpenters were excluded from making forms for the plant foundations in favour of non-union general labourers from outside the region. Goodyear feebly claimed neutrality, indicating that decisions about who was hired for construction were in the hands of the Oakville contractor that Goodyear had hired. Even the unionized workers often lacked basic safety protections. Polydore St. Jean, an ironworker and member of the United Steelworkers of America, was not wearing a safety belt when he fell to his death. The coroner denounced the Ontario ministry of labour’s failure to require safety measures in structural steel erection.61
It was not as if the URW were revolutionaries who refused to cooperate with plant owners and managers. While the Etobicoke plant workers certainly protested the move, they and their union had been drawn earlier into support of the current owners from a takeover bid. Of course, there were class differences in their motives. For the workers, the issue was job security.62 When they lost their jobs, a counsellor to the laid-off operatives noted: “Their work defined them. They thought, ‘I’m a rubber worker. I’m a Goodyear worker.’” They lost the team members who had become friends and though they had abundant skills, “they’re getting the impression from the world around them that they’re worth nothing.”63 That was consistent with what a later literature would find regarding plant shutdowns generally.64 Palmer notes that the workers produced a play called Shadowboxers that celebrated their work and outlined what the workers believed they were losing.65
Before the URW organized the plant, Goodyear had attempted to co-opt workers with welfare and recreation programs and the establishment of a company union. The latter collapsed in the 1930s when the company refused to return to the eight-hour day in the mid-1930s. But policies of placating the workers continued. In all of his relating of worker–company relations, Palmer attempts to be sensitive to the strategies and attitudes on both sides of the class divide, and to the ways in which workers’ options were limited by capitalist economic structures. He is interested in workers’ resistance, but also in the restrictions that particular sets of circumstances placed on them.
While the Goodyear book is compact, Palmer attempts to place the experiences of that company’s workers in southern Ontario within an international framework of capitalist restructuring and the limits that worker resistance faced as the postwar compromise gave way to neoliberalism and a ruthlessness on the part of international capital as it attempted to regain and exceed earlier income shares relative to labour as well as its uncontested power over workers in all workplaces. This was in line with his concerns in the second edition of Working-Class Experience that studies of workers’ lives in particular locales be integrated with an international viewpoint, emphasizing not only class conflict but changing economic structures that influenced both capital’s momentary strategies and the kinds of resistance by workers with any chance of success at the time. Palmer indeed conceded in 2000 that the right-wing critics of social history had a partial point in their critiques that those with left-wing objectives needed to heed, if not for the reasons that caused the laments of the reactionaries.
Social history, notwithstanding its necessary direction and positive impulse, has indeed led toward the privatizing of historical inquiry, immersing us in a fetishization of the particular that has an inevitable consequence of depoliticizing historical practice. This was never the intention of the social historians of the working class, who opted to study class formation in the particularities of nineteenth-century place. Because our research and writing were consciously articulated against the routinization of labour history’s respectable institutional and social democratic face, however, we tilted our arguments too forcefully in ways that immersed us in the local to the detriment of the appreciation of larger settings, where provincial and national state power and policing were ensconced. At a more conceptual level, although we wrestled with the meaning of relationships that were developed at the interface of agency and determination, our accent was understandably on the former, to the point that we at times underestimated the latter.66
Both rebellious and revolutionary workers continued to be a focus for Palmer as his outpouring of books and articles after the Goodyear study demonstrated. In 2007 came the first of two intended volumes on James Cannon, a lovingly constructed, well-written biography. The first book is a model of working-class history, placing as much emphasis on the personal to explain the evolution of Cannon’s ideas as on the political debates of the period themselves. Perhaps Palmer had taken the Heron criticism somewhat seriously, but was determined to continue to focus on workers’ revolutionary prospects, while providing as fully textured a history of working-class life as possible. Cannon emerges as both a symbol of the kind of revolutionary that a deprived, working-class life could produce as well as an individual whose trajectory was very different from those of his fellows, since most of his childhood friends barely considered walking in the revolutionary working-class path that he took. From the Socialist Party to the Industrial Workers of the World to the Communist Party to the Left Opposition, first inside and then independent from the Communist Party, we see the evolution of a revolutionary worker.
At times, necessarily, the focus in the book is well away from the shop floor and is instead in the rooms where political parties met, or in Moscow where committed Communist Internationalists were treated as if they were to be no more than ciphers for the latest political flavour of the Stalinist gangsters. But Palmer always keeps in sight Cannon’s work with various groups of workers and his effort to make Marxist ideas supple enough to meet workers where they were at in terms of their particular level of class consciousness, their lived occupational and community situations, and their choices of unions and political organizations. That made remaining in the stifling Communist Party with its pseudo-scientific notions of Marxism and subordination to Stalin’s perceived domestic and international needs at given moments impossible. Cannon’s commitment was to workers and he could not accept the notion that he should park his brain at the front door when he attended CP meetings and think and do what Stalin’s stooges ordered. As Palmer concludes in the conclusion to Volume 1, as Cannon mulled about how a revolutionary working-class party should conduct itself, he grasped that the American working class was
of a monolithic, homogeneous mass, a proletarian essence marching inevitably to class victory and ultimate power. Rather, the working class was divided, layered in differentiations of ethnicity, race, skill, and region (gender, too, we might add, although Cannon, like so many of his time, paid too little attention to this realm). Such heterogeneity was also reflected in the organizational forms adhered to by workers (industrial vs. craft unionism), and Cannon, in contrast to most early communist leaders, was insistent that revolutionaries approach and interact with the plethora of working-class mobilizations in the United States astutely rather than dogmatically: he would countenance no routinized dismissal of any body of workers, organized or unorganized, IWW-affiliated or American Federation of Labor–led.67
In line with that suggestion of the Stalinist dismissal of trends in working-class organizing other than their own, Palmer provides a much more problematic approach to the labour defence movement, which the Communists led, than most labour histories document. Palmer confirms that literature’s suggestion that the International Labor Defense (ILD), formed in 1925, involved far more militants than the Communist Party as such. While the CPUSA enrolled no more than 7,500 people in 1926, there were 20,000 individual members and 75,000 affiliates in 156 branches of the ILD that year. The ILD represented a united front that led protests to free class prisoners, to fight racism and lynching, and to expose terror against workers worldwide. It mailed class-war prisoners monthly donations, and its newspaper saluted the struggles that had led toward their incarceration. With Cannon taking much of the lead, the ILD fought cases such as the celebrated framing of revolutionaries Sacco and Vanzetti with demonstrations, telegrams, mass meetings, and more. Throughout all of this, Cannon took seriously the notion that the ILD was both fighting for the rights of all working-class tendencies the authorities were trying to suppress and involving their militants in its efforts. But in his discussion of Cannon’s leading role in the ILD, Palmer finds that an important section of the party, with Comintern support, objected to Cannon’s efforts to make the ILD a true united front, as opposed to simply a Communist-controlled recruitment agency with disdain for other working-class groups.68 The distinction that Cannon made between the party as the vanguard of the working class and as a defender of struggling workers and all their organizations was not appreciated by an increasingly Stalinized party.
For Palmer, the point of recovering the struggles of James P. Cannon, who some might dismiss as just another fellow the CPUSA decided was unable to accommodate its ever-shifting, Soviet-dictated lines, is that he, though not he alone, represents an important “fusion of theory and practice” that a revolutionary left, if it is going to re-emerge, needs to understand and recreate.69 He has an interesting observation about Cannon’s eclectic political life and why it might explain why he has been so ignored despite his crucial role in establishing the early CPUSA.
Because Cannon was a Wobbly who insisted that he had learned something from the Russian Revolution, he is not championed in circles where the Industrial Workers of the World remain much in vogue, but the legacy of 1917 is regarded with loud disfavour. The anarchist tradition within which Cannon conducted much united-front work, especially in defence of class-war prisoners, at the same time as he polemicized against it in debates on the left, has little time for such an unambiguous Leninist. A Stalinist school of falsification has managed to write Cannon out of the history of the Communist Party in the 1920s, which takes considerable effort. Most New Left scholarship in the United States has a deeply ingrained hostility to Trotskyism, so much so that Cannon is remarkably absent in accounts of the American radical tradition emanating from this quarter.70
While Palmer’s work on Cannon is an examination of leadership among insurgent workers through the life story of one American working-class revolutionary, Revolutionary Teamsters tells the story of a collective leadership in a set of famous strikes, unlikely led by Trotskyists: the Minneapolis teamsters’ strikes of 1934. “If the latter [teamsters] are the leather-jacketed, cigarette-smoking clique gathered in the corner, demanding that all others give them a wide berth, the former [Trotskyists] are the proverbial wallflowers, metaphorically sitting alone on the sidelines.”71 His goal is to analyze these strikes and their leaders’ successes and failures “within the framework of the uneven and combined development of class relations in Minneapolis and the United States.”72 Comparing these strikes to the Toledo mass strike of the same year led by pacifist A. J. Muste and the Communist Party leadership of the San Francisco mass strike, he notes that all three were spontaneous strikes to which politically oriented groups came to provide leadership and that all three demonstrated the way in which workers were poorly served by the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor. But, in his view, the Minnesota Trotskyist leadership distinguished itself from the leadership of the other two strikes in originating more directly from the industry than the other two, being more resolute and visionary, and being better able to battle both the red-baiters and the AFL bureaucracy with which strikers in all three cities were forced to contend.73
The Minneapolis strikes began with the organization of a coal-yards strike in February 1934 that succeeded in winning recognition of the union and a slight wage increase. Mass picketing, picket-line fights with police, and sympathy strikes by ice wagon drivers prevented movement of coal in the city. Next came support for an upholstery workers’ strike. The Trotskyist leaders, whose background Palmer outlines, had worked for several years in a program to mobilize workers within the Communist League of America. In 1934, they created rank-and-file committees across all facets of trucking, so that there was full involvement in all developments by “the coal-yards, drivers and helpers, gas and oil-workers, market and food-store workers, warehousemen, shipping-room employees, packers, checkers and weighers, dispatchers and counter and platform workers.”74 They trained younger militants as speakers and agitators.
Strikes in May led to considerable gains and a massive influx into Local 574, despite reactionary attacks against the local strike organized by International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ leader Dan Tobin. In July, twenty-five hundred workers voted to strike, facing better organized trucking companies and a police chief committed to providing police protection for companies insisting on moving goods during a strike. The strikers also once again faced the opposition of their national leadership, while the AFL bureaucracy, though claiming support for the strikers, refused to call workers into the street to support Local 574. Meanwhile, the Communist Party proposed a workers’ takeover of the city, which Palmer labels as “ultra-leftism” that led to “state-victimisation” of the Trotskyist leadership.75 Militancy and a politically astute leadership won the strike. Palmer then analyzes why the strike gains were gradually whittled away in an atmosphere where the workers had the entire ruling class organized against them, while the AFL also remained committed to their defeat.
While his two American labour history books of the first decade of the twenty-first century focused on leadership and political organization within the labour movement, the working-class component of Palmer’s chief Canadian monograph of the period had a very different focus: wildcat strikes. Palmer’s well-crafted collage of 1960s events and social changes, Canada’s 1960s, traces the growth of rebellion against Cold War conformity, demonstrating the ways in which cultural values shifted in a changing economy. After describing the emergence of a New Left on campuses committed to anti-imperialism and a rejection of every type of authoritarianism, Palmer devotes a chapter to the study of the impact of an emerging youth culture on young people who did not go to university, but who brought some of the same attitudes to workplaces that their middle-class counterparts were bringing to the halls of post-secondary learning. Young workers rejected hierarchical, bureaucratic structures, both within management and unions. They scoffed at the legalistic arrangements that the union leaders defended, including the Rand Formula trade-off between guaranteed union check-offs for all workers in unionized workplaces and the union promise that no labour actions would occur during the tenure of a collective bargaining contract. Workers were supposed to seek justice through grievance procedures that often took months or even years to come to conclusion, rather than striking, working to rule, or otherwise using workers’ collective potential power to respond to owners’ law-protected privileges.76 The result was that “segments of labour were placing limits on how much they would be contained by the bureaucratic legalism of modern class relations.”77
Violence during the Inco strike in 1966 and in the Québec longshoremen’s strike the same year was evidence of this rising of working-class anger. This was after almost two decades of Cold War quiescence orchestrated by managers and union leaders working in tandem to protect an employer–union–state compromise effected in the late 1940s, and meant to give workers a share of an increasing capitalist economic pie in return for their agreement, enforced by their unions, to give all power in the workplace to owners and the management teams they assembled. Class and nation combined in many strike actions in Québec, while there were also some nationalist uprisings in Canadian unions, motivated as much by resentment at a lack of union democracy in many American union subsidiaries in Canada as anything else.78 But this moment of revolt, like many before it, proved relatively short lived.
Around the corner of the wildcat wave of 1965–66 was a growing left workers’ challenge. Had it co-joined the youth of the university and the unions, the result could well have reconfigured the nature of twentieth-century Canada. Class difference is a difficult hurdle to leap, however, and as campus youth, women, and Indigenous advocates of “Red Power” joined the unruly workers of the 1960s in an explosive embrace of dissidence and opposition, they did so, ultimately, divided from one another, in separate and unequal mobilizations.79
Palmer’s next major Canadian book marked a return to the longer view of working-class struggles that marked his survey texts on Canadian labour, though this time with an emphasis on wageless workers rather than skilled, waged workers. Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History, co-written with Gaétan Héroux, a long-time anti-poverty activist with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, traces the struggles of the poor from the 1830s to the present.80 The book constitutes a history of Toronto from its earliest days to the present, seen through the lives of its poorest citizens, the reserve army of labour. It underlines the constant resistance of those who have been victimized by the unjust logic of the capitalist mode of production that requires an underclass whose degradation serves to intimidate those in work from fighting for greater power and income within workplaces. The latter are constantly made aware that they could fall into the underclass if they do not mind their Ps and Qs and accept the rule of their supposed betters. But the authors show that cooperation between those in work and those without has been common, particularly when socialist radicals were available to make the link between the interests of those in work and those out of it, in order to work together to fight the capitalists who oppress both groups. Palmer and Héroux demonstrate that the early history of Toronto and Ontario involved the proletarianization of waves of immigrants and the disciplining of those who demanded worker human rights through carceral means, along with the unemployed. Toronto’s House of Industry, with its work test, exemplified the cruelty of capitalism to its victims: it created unemployment and then put the unemployed in a prison-like institution where it forced them to work and live under inhuman living conditions.
But the struggles of the wageless against this mistreatment were constant. Both in 1908 and 1909 there were rebellions involving about one thousand wageless individuals, with the more militant uprising of 1909 being led by socialist agitators. Police and court interventions guaranteed their defeat, but strengthened the cause of the unemployed in the minds of the working class. When the depression of 1913–14 struck, both waged and unwaged workers were left with unlivable incomes. After the war, Communists and other radicals organized the unemployed into a fierce force of opposition to the capitalist system. In more recent years, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty has played a similar, radical role and attempted to unite waged and wageless workers to fight against the capitalist system.
Throughout his scholarly career, Bryan D. Palmer has, in various ways, asked the same questions regarding working people both in Canada and the United States, and to some degree beyond: what were the circumstances of their lives in various periods, how did they assess those circumstances, and what did they do to try to change them? As a Marxist, he has placed his main focus on class struggle, and as a Leninist, he has shone a spotlight on the vanguard of organizers for social change. As a product of the New Left, that spotlight has been a critical one that has assessed whether the leadership that has arisen at various points has been democratic, anti-authoritarian, and sought the full liberation of workers, as opposed to simply reformist change, or change more deep-seated, but with a tendency to favour a bureaucratic, authoritarian, “Stalinist” vision of socialism. In his early writings, under the influence of E. P. Thompson’s work, the emphasis is mostly on the strengths of working-class communities in creating resistance to the dictates of capital. Over time, he has provided equal emphasis on capital’s ability to impose a degree of ideological hegemony that has weakened the working-class desire for the overthrow of capitalism, but also the creation of organized socialist movements and parties and their efforts to rekindle that anti-capitalist spirit.
Throughout it all, Palmer has been a fairly lonely voice for real ideological debate among social historians of labour in Canada, many of whom have preferred to avoid or at least understate debates in order to preserve a social circle that their work has created, as well as to provide the appearance within the historical profession of a united front against old guard, bourgeois historians. In the long run, if that spirit of debate can widen, it will save Canadian working-class history from appearing to be a collection of stories, discourses, and personal narratives without clear, connecting threads. Of course, we need to know as much about what was happening among working people in different periods as possible. But mere chronicling, as Palmer has always demonstrated, is not enough. If working-class historians are politically engaged scholars who seek to contribute to a project of creating a socialist society, then Palmer’s combination of historical detail, theoretical rigour, and revolutionary commitment provides a model for what our scholarship of the working class needs to build upon. His own optimistic comments in 2018 on the potentialities of working-class historical research and debates provide a fitting ending to this chapter:
Over time, and within any given period of contested class relations, there will inevitably be a diversity of oppositional possibilities, and labour history has always been a field where liberal, social democratic, feminist, Marxist, anarchist and other voices of dissenting analysis clash interpretively. A part of labour history’s robust and resilient nature is precisely that it contains this analytic and political diversity, spawning serious debate. This has always leavened and enlivened the intellectual nature of an oppositional field.81
- 1. Bryan D. Palmer, ed., A Communist Life: Jack Scott and the Canadian Workers Movement, 1927–1985 (St. John’s, NL: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 1988), 1.
- 2. Palmer never shies away from controversy, but word limits required some discretion about what controversies to include. So, for example, I have ignored his interesting response to a left-nationalist critique of the English Canadian working class by political economist Daniel Drache, since the issues debated, while crucial to political debates of the 1980s, have seemed less crucial to recent scholarship. See Bryan D. Palmer, “Listening to History Rather Than Historians: Reflections on Working Class History,” Studies in Political Economy 20, no. 1 (1986): 47–84; Daniel Drache, “The Formation and Fragmentation of the Canadian Working Class: 1820–1920,” Studies in Political Economy 15 (1984): 43–89.
- 3. Bryan D. Palmer, “Most Uncommon Common Men: Craft and Culture in Historical Perspective,” Labour/Le Travailleur 1 (1976): 5–31.
- 4. Bercuson’s review appeared in Business History Review in 1983. He wrote that Dreaming of What Might Be was “dry, boring, and devoid of any feeling for the workers.” See Bryan D. Palmer, “Writing About Canadian Workers: A Historiographic Overview,” in Bryan D. Palmer, Interventions and Appreciations, vol. 2, Marxism and Historical Practice (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 73. At the time, Bercuson was one of several relatively recent labour historians who claimed to lack the ideological and partisan commitments of both the old guard social democrats and the Young Turk, left-minded, social historians of labour. But a decade later, he was a strident defender of neoliberalism and an activist in the Progressive Conservative Party. He became part of the so-called “Calgary school” of influential right-wing professors at the University of Calgary. Thomas Flanagan, the best known member of that school and the campaign manager for Stephen Harper’s run for prime minister in 2004 and for the far-right provincial Wildrose Party in 2012, wrote the following of Bercuson and his close colleague, Barry Cooper, in 2015: “For two decades, David and Barry have worked tirelessly to push public opinion in the direction of fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense, close cooperation with our allies, resistance to Quebec separatism, and fair treatment for Western Canada.” See Thomas Flanagan, “Legends of the Calgary School: Their Guns, Their Dogs, and the Women Who Love Them,” VoegelinView, 25 January 2015, https://voegelinview.com/legends-calgary-school-guns-dogs%E2%80%A8and-women-love/.
- 5. In practice, McNaught attempted to make Woodsworth and the early CCFers acceptable to a Cold War audience, as the CCF did itself during the postwar period, by making the party activists and first leader appear to be middle-class reformists motivated by Methodism. James Naylor has suggested that, in fact, the majority in the early days were working-class activists motivated by Marxism. See Kenneth McNaught, A Prophet in Politics: A Biography of J. S. Woodsworth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959); James Naylor, The Fate of Labour Socialism: The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the Dream of a Working-Class Future (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).
- 6. Kenneth McNaught, “E. P. Thompson vs Harold Logan: Writing About Labour and the Left in the 1970s,” Canadian Historical Review 62, no. 2 (June 1981): 169.
- 7. McNaught, “E. P. Thompson vs Harold Logan,” 150.
- 8. Terry Morley, “Canada and the Romantic Left,” Queen’s Quarterly 86, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 110–19; Bryan D. Palmer, “Working-Class Canada: Recent Historical Writing,” Queen’s Quarterly 86, no. 4 (Winter 1979): 594–616.
- 9. Bryan D. Palmer, The Making of E. P. Thompson: Marxism, Humanism, and History (Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1981), 14.
- 10. Ibid., 70.
- 11. Ibid., 71.
- 12. Palmer, “Writing About Canadian Workers,” 80.
- 13. Gregory S. Kealey, “Editor’s Note,” Labour/Le Travail 13 (Spring 1984): 5.
- 14. Granatstein’s attack was the most definitive. See J. L. Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1998). Michael Bliss’s equivalent denunciation of the efforts of social historians was “Privatizing the Mind: The Sundering of Canadian History, the Sundering of Canada,” Journal of Canadian Studies 26, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 5–17.
- 15. Craig Heron and Bryan D. Palmer, “Through the Prism of the Strike: Industrial Conflict in Southern Ontario, 1901–14,” Canadian Historical Review 58, no. 4 (December 1977): 423–58.
- 16. Craig Heron, “Towards Synthesis in Canadian Working-Class History: Reflections on Bryan Palmer’s Rethinking,” Left History 1, no. 1 (1993): 109.
- 17. Ibid., 121.
- 18. Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800–1991, 2nd ed. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992), 21.
- 19. Ibid., 17.
- 20. Bryan D. Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).
- 21. Material on this incident is based on my personal files as the book review editor of Labour/Le Travail at the time and as a member of the editorial board. I am hardly objective since I took the lead in defending Palmer against what I regarded as an effort to censor a scholar for publishing articles that the editors and reviewers of the other journals had deemed acceptable for publication in a journal other than the one he edited.
- 22. Bryan D. Palmer, “Historiographic Hassles: Class and Gender, Evidence and Interpretation,” Histoire sociale/Social History 33, no. 65 (May 2000): 106.
- 23. Ibid., 116.
- 24. Ibid., 123–28.
- 25. Ibid., 129.
- 26. Ibid., 128–41, particularly 130, 132, 134.
- 27. Lynne Marks, “Heroes and Hallelujahs – Labour History and the Social History of Religion in English Canada: A Response to Bryan Palmer,” Histoire sociale/Social History 34, no. 17 (May 2001): 171.
- 28. Ibid., 176.
- 29. Mariana Valverde, “Some Remarks on the Rise and Fall of Discourse Analysis,” Histoire sociale/Social History 33, no. 65 (May 2000): 59–77. The quotations are from pages 64 and 66.
- 30. Mariana Valverde et al., “On the Case: Explorations in Social History: A Roundtable Discussion,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 2 (June 2000): 266–92.
- 31. In the same article where he critiques Marks.
- 32. I am not suggesting that Palmer could not have been more courteous in the pieces where he dissects the works of Valverde, Marks, and Iacovetta, or that a subsection of feminist scholars were completely wrong in closing ranks to defend their friends. I am, however, lamenting that the substantive scholarly disputes that were involved among the various players were trivialized in the process. Palmer’s critiques of these three scholars are valid, and I find troubling the notion that they should have been spared close, critical analysis of their work because, at least theoretically, they were struggling minority scholars confronted by an alleged icon. Palmer’s attacks on them were little different from his earlier attacks on Craig Heron and other male scholars, and the implicit suggestion that Valverde, Marks, and Iacovetta could not hold their ground because women scholars were still a minority is actually an insult to them. They all defended themselves vigorously and their supporters’ focus on power relations and politeness, rather than on joining the argument and demonstrating what, if anything, Palmer was so wrong about, strikes me as an indication that many Canadian historians of that period embraced the questionable stereotype of Canadian politeness to the point of resisting serious scholarly debates. I do not understand how any field can develop when social relations among scholars and concerns about the career prospects of poorly represented groups in the profession take precedence over uninhibited theoretical and empirical debates.
- 33. Bryan D. Palmer, A Culture in Conflict: Skilled Workers and Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860–1914 (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1979).
- 34. Katz had published a number of articles on his Hamilton work before producing his book on the subject: The People of Hamilton, Canada West: Family and Class in a Mid-Nineteenth-Century City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975). Palmer’s angry critiques of Katz’s work began in various CCLH Bulletins in 1975, and in 1984 he provided his fullest assault on the methodologies of Katz, who had, in the interim, become interested in structural Marxism; see “Emperor Katz’s New Clothes; or with the Wizard in Oz,” Labour/Le Travail 13 (Spring 1984): 190–97.
- 35. Palmer, A Culture in Conflict, xi.
- 36. Ibid., xvi.
- 37. Gregory S. Kealey, Toronto Workers Respond to Industrial Capitalism, 1867–1892 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980).
- 38. Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan D. Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 22.
- 39. Ibid., 278.
- 40. Ibid., xiii.
- 41. Ibid., 279.
- 42. Ibid., xiii.
- 43. Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: The Rise and Reconstitution of Canadian Labour, 1800–1980, 1st ed. (Toronto: Butterworth, 1983).
- 44. Desmond Morton, Working People: An Illustrated History of Canadian Labour (Ottawa: Deneau and Greenberg, 1981).
- 45. Palmer, Working-Class Experience (1983), 16.
- 46. Ibid., 370.
- 47. Bryan D. Palmer, Solidarity: The Rise and Fall of an Opposition in British Columbia (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1987), 17.
- 48. Ibid., 31.
- 49. A recent Canadian defence of the Communists of the 1930s as makers of their own local policies to protect workers, as opposed to puppets of Stalin, is Stephen Endicott’s Raising the Workers’ Flag: The Workers’ Unity League of Canada, 1930–1936 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).
- 50. Palmer, Solidarity, 53.
- 51. Ibid., 25.
- 52. Ibid., 26.
- 53. Ibid., 84.
- 54. Ibid., 105.
- 55. Bryan D. Palmer, “The Ghost of Jack Munro,” Review of On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement, by Rod Mickleburgh, The Ormsby Review 348, 22 August 2018, https://bcbooklook.com/2018/08/22/bc-labour-movement-history/.
- 56. Palmer, A Communist Life, 7.
- 57. Bryan D. Palmer, E. P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions (London: Verso, 1994), 93–94; emphasis original.
- 58. Ibid., 114; emphasis original.
- 59. Bryan D. Palmer, Goodyear Invades the Backcountry: The Corporate Takeover of a Rural Town (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994), 16–17.
- 60. Ibid., 32.
- 61. Ibid., 32–33, 102, 104, 128, 132–34.
- 62. Ibid., 75–77, 82–83.
- 63. Ibid., 90.
- 64. See, for example, Steven High and David W. Lewis, Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of Deindustrialization (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2007); Steven High and Lachlan MacKinnon, eds., The Deindustrialized World: Confronting Ruination in Post-Industrial Places (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017); and Jefferson Cowie, Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy Year Quest for Cheap Labor (New York: The New Press, 1999).
- 65. Palmer, Goodyear Invades, 90.
- 66. Palmer, “Historiographic Hassles,” 115.
- 67. Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890–1928, vol. 1 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 361.
- 68. Ibid., 254–67.
- 69. Ibid., 361.
- 70. Ibid., 367.
- 71. Bryan D. Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 1.
- 72. Ibid., 6.
- 73. Ibid., 8, 25.
- 74. Ibid., 68.
- 75. Ibid., 209.
- 76. Bryan D. Palmer, Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 216–17, 219, 221, and 225.
- 77. Ibid., 229.
- 78. Ibid., 231–40.
- 79. Palmer, Canada’s 1960s, 241.
- 80. Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux, Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016).
- 81. Bryan D. Palmer, “Canada and the United States,” in Handbook Global History of Work, edited by Karin Hofmeester and Marcel van der Linden (Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018), 127.