5 On Polemics and Provocations Bryan D. Palmer vs. Liberal Anti-Marxists
Historians in general, and radical scholars in particular, are deeply indebted to Bryan D. Palmer’s body of engaged scholarship. Together, his works have done much to help us understand the past and, for those of us with polemical impulses, have served as indispensable tools of intellectual ammunition in scholarly and political debates. Simply put, Palmer has educated countless readers about labour and leftist movements in Canada, the United States, and beyond. Combining a Marxist worldview with an imaginative, Thompsonian approach to the study of the working classes, Palmer has explored their many struggles both in and outside of workplaces. That he continues to write insightful and original studies exploring the many dimensions of class struggles decades after earning his doctoral degree is noteworthy. It is striking, above all, when we compare his impressive scholarly output, his wide-ranging historiographical and theoretical fluency, and his principled political commitments to many others in the profession. Palmer, a proud and unapologetic Marxist, has never sought to follow the latest academic trends for careerist reasons or to achieve institutional respectability.
It is in this spirit that Palmer has entered, and sometimes sparked, scholarly and political controversies. He has done so for honourable reasons, and has continuously taken strong positions, which has helped to clarify many issues of importance. This chapter examines how Palmer has challenged various studies that have downplayed the significance of class and class struggles since the late 1980s, a decade marked partially by the development of an avalanche of anti-Marxist interventions from mostly liberal quarters. First, I will explore the nature of these debates, highlighting both the issues raised by Palmer’s detractors as well as his critical responses. In this period, he sought to defend Marxist positions against the emergence of the so-called cultural/linguistic turn. Its rise, and the popularity of cultural studies generally, was clear in numerous academic departments throughout the 1980s, and the practitioners and promoters of these scholarly tendencies, characterized in large part by the widespread enthusiasm for mostly French theorists, have tended to downplay, or reject altogether, Marxist approaches to the study of the past. In response, Palmer has offered unyielding and thorough responses that have been widely read and digested by numerous scholars.
The excessively theoretical tendencies found in the 1980s were less present in history departments at the turn of the latest century. But a climate characterized by a general dismissal of radical interpretations of the past, combined with a broad discomfort with Marxism, has persisted. The second part of this chapter focuses on Palmer’s studies of left activists and the limitations of establishment liberalism in the US, and I highlight the tensions between Palmer and others in the US. We can identify this influence in places where even some labour historians have marginalized class as a category of analysis; compared to their peers in other parts of the world, US historians are a relatively conservative cohort, often reluctant to place class struggles at the centre of their studies even though the nation itself witnessed some of the most dramatic conflicts and eruptions of corporate and state repression. Many have insisted that late nineteenth-century workers were principally interested in defending a pre-industrial form of artisanal republicanism, at a time when wage earners enjoyed greater dignity and control over the labour process. Historians focusing on the twentieth century have shown similar tendencies; they continue to downplay cases of class radicalism and combativity, contending that workers wanted, as prominent historian Lizabeth Cohen maintained in her study of Chicago during the 1930s, “moral capitalism.”1
While much of Palmer’s scholarship reveals its debt to the so-called “new labour history,” as a scholar-activist, he has not been satisfied with merely exploring oppositional forms of working-class cultural activities in communities or informal acts of resistance in workplaces. Furthermore, with respect to politics, Palmer’s inspiration comes not from the spirit that guided the Popular Front of the 1930s or from the rise of social welfarism in the post–World War II years, but from the classical Marxist tradition that takes seriously the revolutionary activities of working-class movements. This tendency respects the practice of socialism from below; it means honouring working-class struggles and achievements carried out by workers themselves. It is best expressed by the Russian revolutionaries in 1917. In a stark alternative to the prevalent liberal anti-Marxism found in the academic world, Palmer wrote forcefully about their accomplishments in 2003, noting the important “contribution of Lenin and Trotsky in actually implementing a Marxist program, advancing theoretical premises in a changed 20th-century context, building a revolutionary movement and, above all, a disciplined party capable of establishing the proletariat in power, holding, for a time, the transitional reins of state power.” This minority position cuts sharply against the grain of popular academic opinions, and Palmer is well aware of his relative isolation: “Almost nobody in academic circles in the year 2003 is willing to stand the ground of the original Bolshevik tradition.”2 One could make the same claim today.
How have non-Marxist historians responded to Palmer’s studies? Simply put, some have engaged with his work in good faith while others have not. Many have overlooked him. But we do not need to look far to find debates that Palmer helped to launch and intervene in during the late 1980s and early 1990s. These debates generated illuminating and often heated exchanges at conferences and in the pages of academic journals. In this period, he made interventions that had a meaningful impact on the profession. In general, his readers, including many of his critics, took his scholarship seriously; in many cases, critics have replied fairly, engaging with his arguments constructively. On other occasions, his detractors have been somewhat dismissive, faulting him for the supposed misdeed of embracing Marxism, while unfairly suggesting that he has failed to appreciate non-class related identities and divisions. As I demonstrate below, Palmer’s hard-hitting examinations of postmodernist scholars, complementing the work of other critics, may have played a part in slowing down the production of postmodern scholarship. Indeed, few of today’s historians embrace the once fashionable discourse theories.
While Palmer participated in a series of often lively and sometimes prickly debates with fellow scholars in the 1980s and 1990s, his scholarship has been subject to less back-and-forth in more recent times. Over the past couple of decades, fewer scholars have written as postmodernists, but many have made their peace with institutional liberalism while continuing to demonstrate discomfort with various strains of Marxism. Some have re-discovered political economy by labeling themselves political historians, while others identify as “new historians of capitalism.” But most of these historians have shown little appreciation for Marxism or even labour struggles. This is unfortunate for the profession, since Palmer’s studies of labour and politics clearly illustrate the shortcomings of establishment liberalism and the cruelties embedded in industrial capitalism. Palmer’s 2013 analysis of the dramatic 1934 Minneapolis strikes, which I discuss in the second part of this chapter, demonstrated the anti-union actions taken by self-identified labour supporters, including the Minnesota Farmer–Labor governor as well as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Palmer’s descriptions of cases of liberal anti-unionism have been met with mostly silence from professional academic quarters. Presumably, many of today’s scholars of twentieth-century politics have preferred to ignore rather than to engage, showing little interest in underscoring independent forms of working-class radicalism and Democratic Party treachery.
Academic trends and the allure of increasing one’s professional status may provide an answer for the overall lack of engagement in recent years. Over the past quarter century, numerous US historians, including one-time labour historians, have opted to focus chiefly on official politics, illustrating the various conflicts between the two mainstream political parties. Rather than explore the intensity and rawness of class conflicts inside workplaces or on picket lines, these scholars have shown a sustained interest in the so-called “rise and fall” of the New Deal order.3 In general, these historians embrace an all-too-common and rather orderly narrative about the history of the twentieth-century US, one that primarily involves conflicts between liberals and conservatives. It goes something like this: a cross-class coalition of liberal reformers secured major reforms in the Progressive era, the World War I period, the 1930s, and during World War II. While conservative forces undermined labour movements following World War II, ordinary people nevertheless experienced another round of victories during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. But right-wing forces were well organized, ultimately leading to a series of frontal assaults on labour and social welfare programs during the presidency of Republican Ronald Reagan. This marked the high time of neoliberalism, which has been characterized by privatization schemes, the decline of high-paying unionized jobs, and a growing gap between the rich and poor.4
While Palmer likely agrees with the broad outlines of this basic narrative, he is considerably more critical of establishment liberals than many of the US’s most prominent historians.5 He has pointed out the very real tensions between liberal politicians and militant working-class activists, which are illustrated in his treatment of the so-called Progressive era and his analysis of the repressive activities of the so-called “friends of labour” politicians in the 1930s. Above all, he has kept his eyes on class tensions, recognizing that the ruling classes, not simply “the right,” have been the chief impediments to working-class emancipation. While many of the US’s political historians have shown an almost-obsessive interest with right-wing organizations, activists, and politicians, Palmer has cast a much wider net by demonstrating the ways conservative and liberal forces have often lined up on the same side to undermine the interests of the working-class masses. His studies, expressed most plainly by his examinations of strikes, Marxist-inspired labour activists, employer thuggery, and state repression in the first few decades of the twentieth century, reveal there is very little that is “moral” about capitalism.
In the 1980s, a decade when Palmer established himself as a prolific labour historian, a growing number of others began to question the overall usefulness of class as a unit of analysis. This critique was most pronounced outside of history departments, but plenty of historians, including those who had established their careers writing about labour, began to embrace a new wave of hyper-theoretically infused cultural studies that were mostly dismissive of labour and class. Writing in 1990, Palmer was rather blunt: “Few terms elicit the skepticism and condescension reserved for class in the 1980s.”6 He wrote that this decade was distinctively hostile to traditions of historical materialism: “What is new in the 1980s is the wholesale retreat from class among those ostensibly linked to the socialist project.”7 His targets—many of whom were comfortably situated in tenured positions at expensive universities—had argued that class analysis and historical materialism were somehow unfashionable and lacked explanatory power. In his view, they were guilty of focusing on textual analysis without properly evaluating material conditions. Palmer has called this “the linguistic turn, or, more polemically, the descent into discourse.”8
Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History, a polemical, six-chapter book published in 1990 in response to what the late historian Ellen Meiksins Wood called the “retreat from class” within academic departments in Western Europe, Canada, and the US, provoked much debate and discussion in the 1990s.9 Indeed, for those interested in obtaining lessons in the ways academic departments in the 1980s were shaped by this trend, there is perhaps no better guide than Palmer’s critical examinations. During this period, scholars questioned the relevance of Marxism as an analytic tool and incessantly labelled the Western working classes as hopelessly reactionary. Numerous social science and humanities departments had become echo chambers, places where one frequently heard comments that Marxists were too narrowly focused, unable to properly explain a variety of historical events, such as the dynamics of the French Revolution or the characteristics of the Western working class. Some insisted that Marxists were simply insufficiently attentive to other divisions and identities, including gender, race, and culture in general. Based on Palmer’s critical engagement with an array of sources, this book serves as a useful model for those interested in understanding and confronting these academic assaults.
But first we must ask: did the postmodernist/cultural studies advocates, including former labour historians, have a point? It is worth considering the larger context both in and outside of the academy. For those traditionally interested in finding inspiration from the industrial working classes, conditions in the advanced industrialized countries seemed rather bleak in the 1980s. Thatcher and Reagan were in positions of power, and both had played their own reprehensible roles in fighting labour movements and shattering livelihoods in their respective countries. Plant closures across the industrialized world led to high levels of unemployment and wage cuts, generating profound feelings of despair in many working-class circles. Some, including auto workers, responded xenophobically, lashing out at people of Japanese descent and at Japan itself, a country whose auto manufacturing sector was becoming dominant. And far too many labour leaders, the majority of whom were white men, promoted a nationalistic “buy American” narrative rather than encouraging working-class mobilizations against bosses.10 In this context, numerous veterans of 1960s-era social movements began to write off the working classes, which many implicitly defined as white men in unions.
A few high-profile labour history controversies also contributed to a backlash against class analysis. The most meaningful ones broke out at a 1984 conference held at Northern Illinois University. Here, dozens of historians engaged in a series of debates that, according to reports, led to more heat than light. Scholars interested in gender history expressed a sense of frustration, annoyed that prominent labour historians had not recognized or prioritized gender relations. Writing about the conference as a participant, Alice Kessler-Harris noted that “tensions in the group rose high whenever the issue of gender entered the conversation.”11 In short, labour history, some critics charged, had a gender problem. Others accused it of having a race problem.12
Academic tensions lingered into the late 1980s, when a steady stream of once radical scholars began to embrace discourse theory and reject class analysis. In this context, Palmer played a critical part in promoting the enduring significance of Marxism. In the pages of Descent into Discourse, Palmer makes a strong case for taking class analysis seriously without losing sight of other divisions, including gender, race, and political institutions. In his view, many critics had gone too far, and he points out that the academics behind attacks on historical materialism, combined with their marginalization of class analysis, have not always acted in good faith. Some have insisted that Marxists have traditionally been inattentive to language and cultural forces in general, a claim that Palmer, reminding us of the work of Christopher Hill, Asa Briggs, E. P. Thompson, and influential Trinidadian Marxist C L. R. James, demonstrates is simply untrue. James, for example, was an important literary voice, cultural critic, and historical materialist who, Palmer points out, “has received so little attention from the critical theory community.”13
Some anti-Marxist critics have challenged the new labour history popularized partially by E. P. Thompson, inarguably one of the most significant twentieth-century historians and an important influence on Palmer’s intellectual development. Consider the case of Joan Wallach Scott, a one-time labour historian and the scholar who Palmer suggests has gone further than any other gender historian in “advocating the value and importance of borrowing from poststructuralist thought.”14 Her influential articles, especially “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” which was first published in the American Historical Review in 1986 and then republished two years later in Gender and the Politics of History, are filled with theoretical references and in places suffer from her overuse of the passive voice.15 A theoretically infused gender analysis, she has maintained, “is at once threatening and difficult.” Incorporating gender, in her view, is difficult because “it requires the mastery of philosophically complex, often abstruse, theories and a willingness to shift the way one thinks about history.”16 In an attempt to radically revise our approach to the study of labour history in particular, she has offered a stinging critique of Thompson and the scholarly tradition he helped to establish, including studies of Chartism, the English workingmen’s movement from the late 1830s and 1840s. Inspired by Gareth Stedman Jones’s controversial study of Chartism, Scott has declared that “there is no social reality outside or prior to language.”17 Historian Lenard R. Berlanstein understood the stakes involved: “Scott struck at the heart of the new labor history by arguing that political language and ideas shaped the Chartist movement far more than did industrial experience.”18
Palmer has been especially pointed in his evaluation of what he calls “The Scott Files.” In his view, Scott’s problem is not merely that she overstresses the importance of language, though, in Palmer’s eyes, this is a shortcoming. She has also not been fair to her targets. Palmer reminds us that Scott challenged Thompson for the sin of gender blindness, but she herself was mostly silent on gender-related matters in her own earlier studies. “It is,” Palmer writes, “more than a little unsettling to see her address Thompson’s problematic account of women and class formation without once alluding to her own writings of the 1970s and 1980s, which were, if anything, far less attentive to realms she now regards as pivotal than was The Making of the English Working Class.”19 Here he compares Scott’s labour history scholarship to Thompson’s magnum opus, reminding us of her selective approach in an essay she co-wrote with the late historian Eric Hobsbawm: “the words wife or woman appear three times—in passing—in the text, while he/his, craftsmen, tradesmen, and journeymen are marched through the pages incessantly.”20 Moreover, Palmer points out that it was unfair that she had challenged Thompson for failing to properly assess gender years before the emergence of the second wave feminist movement. Scott’s critique of Thompson, as Palmer puts it, “rests on a troubling method of selective instancing that is itself undercut further by obvious misreading and overt distortion.”21 Above all, “Scott’s appraisal of women in The Making of the English Working Class thus tilts too problematically toward the determining power of discourse.”22
Descent into Discourse reveals some of the ways that Scott’s anti-materialist and hyper-theoretical tendencies extend beyond criticisms of Thompson. Palmer assesses much of Scott’s work, including her numerous papers published in American Historical Review, Feminist Studies, and International Labor and Working-Class Studies. From Scott, we encounter the eyebrow-raising claim, “There is no social experience apart from people’s perception of it.”23 Palmer has little tolerance for such claims, maintaining that one cannot honestly accept the “reduction of historical process to the perception of meaning.” Scott is guilty of, in Palmer’s words, a “problematic reading of power as language.”24 Above all, Palmer has criticized Scott for “overstating language’s importance.” Overall, “she has left aside too much, spiraling downward in the descent into discourse.”25
Palmer’s painstaking critique of Scott is found in the chapter called “Gender.” This chapter, with its 154 endnotes, examines much more than what he considers Scott’s excesses. Here he makes a case for the enduring importance of gender as a category of analysis, reminding us of the relationships between feminist movements and the various scholarly works that have helped us understand these developments. But the explosion of poststructuralist scholarship, he explains, represented an unwelcome departure from those radical traditions. Scott’s focus on “identity” and personal experience are no substitutes for confronting what Palmer has called “structures of oppression.”26 He concludes by calling for more rigorous and materialist gender studies, concluding that “Gender, like politics and class and their respective, related relations to discourse, demands a different interpretive agenda.”27
Palmer has identified somewhat similar problematic trends in US labour historiography, though these historians have generally shown less interest in adopting excessive forms of poststructuralism. More than a few have distanced themselves from Marxism, downplaying the radical and class consciousness of the country’s working classes, while overlooking what he calls “an almost elementary appreciation of material life and its structures.”28 This has been especially true of historians’ approaches to labour politics from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. We are reminded that numerous US labour historians, many of whom show a debt to Thompson, have displayed little interest in classical Marxism. Palmer illustrates at least two trends that have helped to marginalize the topics of class and class consciousness: a tendency to overstate the enduring significance of republicanism in the consciousness of the working classes, and labour historians’ inclination to uncritically champion Popular Front forms of social organizing.
Consider the case of the “many supposedly radical historians” who have argued that US workers have historically been more inclined to embrace republican ideas and patriotism than to think in class terms. Palmer has strenuously disagreed with these interpretations, pointing to contradictory evidence and thus challenging these historians for abandoning “class consciousness as a meaningful historical process and presence.”29 “The language of labor republicanism,” Palmer points out, “has been read at its word, accepted as a positive force mobilizing American labor on its own cultural terms.”30 But we can also locate evidence of more radical language employed by wage earners. Palmer mentions the inconsistencies of his targets, noting, for example, that growing numbers of urban-based labourers in the 1880s, inspired by Marxist and anarchist ideas, sometimes spoke the “language of revolution.” Such evidence has been frequently ignored by a cohort of “new” labour historians more interested in highlighting examples of labour’s struggle for “dignity” in the workplace than in showing its revolutionary potentials.31
Palmer could have extended his critique further, documenting how many scholars have marginalized the roles of powerful forces in suppressing expressions of working-class radicalism. After all, the language of republicanism and patriotism has been most vehemently used by bosses and their agents in the context of labour struggles. Throughout much of the early twentieth century, employers demanded that working-class people honour the American flag in the context of union-busting activities and during wartime. The most antagonistic anti-labour activists in the Progressive era in the US celebrated the aggressive picket-line activities of scabs, calling them heroic figures similar to the American revolutionaries.32 During World War I, employers demanded that immigrant labourers take part in hyper-patriotic Americanization campaigns, and some working-class flag-wavers showed deeply reactionary tendencies: they flew the American flag during brutal vigilante campaigns against socialists of various stripes.33 After World War I, employers launched a highly repressive open-shop campaign under the banner of “the American Plan.” These were thinly disguised class movements from above designed to destroy labour and leftist campaigns.
These are not the types of labour-related dramas—high-stakes disputes that pitted class-conscious workers against repressive flag-waving bosses, scabs, and vigilantes—that liberal historians generally like to tell. For them, America’s ethnically diverse working classes viewed the nation warmly, believing that it offered its citizens many promises. These historians have found virtues in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Popular Front years, when sizable numbers of working and middle-class Americans supposedly embraced New Deal–style liberalism at home while championing anti-fascist movements abroad. Consider the case of Michael Kazin, who initially established his career as a labour historian but now identifies as a scholar of politics. Kazin has routinely gone out of his way to lecture leftist activists about how, in his view, social movements can succeed while marginalizing class as a category of analysis. He has repeatedly insisted that other divisions are more explanatory when considering US politics and the history of activism. For Kazin, American protesters have historically seen themselves as “representatives of the American ‘people,’” rather “than as members of a class.”34
Yet the rich historical record of labour–management confrontations—which have been exceptionally violent in the US context—contains numerous stories of struggling class-conscious workers, various expressions of radicalism, and militant socialist organizing. One must be honest about this history, and Palmer has shown little tolerance for what he considers Kazin’s inexcusable omissions and interpretative selectiveness, pointing out that one of his articles “is nothing more than a highly selective, one-sided reading of the episodic contours of American labor politics.”35 Why might one suppress such evidence? Palmer suspects that Kazin’s selective readings have more to do with his own academically ambitious career goals and desire to achieve institutional respectability than with honestly assessing the extensive evidence of class struggles: “Kazin’s proclamation of the death of class is little more than an advertisement for himself, an intellectually dishonest misrepresentation of the history of the working class aimed at promoting a politics of classlessness orchestrated by the new social movements and their often university-ensconced proponents.”36
Palmer’s hard-hitting critique of Kazin, made in 1990, has held up considerably well over the last several decades, reinforced by other labour historians. In his 2019 analysis of the language most frequently used by late nineteenth-century union members, Kim Moody, for instance, discovered overwhelming evidence that nineteenth-century rank-and-file unionists, in fact, saw themselves in unmistakable class terms, recognizing that they had separate interests from their bosses, and sometimes even from their union leaders. Moody is rather pointed: “The term that was most commonly used to describe this new social reality was ‘wageworker.’ Michael Kazin is mistaken when he argues that the word most used in the rhetoric of the Knights of Labor was ‘producer.’” Complementing Palmer’s scholarship, Moody has not only highlighted what workers said, he has also demonstrated their involvement in militant, class-based conflicts on the rails and inside the factories and mines.37
Why were so few scholars writing honestly about such struggles in the 1980s? Palmer seeks to make sense of the reasons for the widespread popularity of discourse theories and the abandonment of historical materialism in Descent into Discourse’s conclusion. Here we are treated to his wittiest, most piercing, and most memorable phrases. He first offers a few parting provocations: “Much writing that appears under the designer label of poststructuralism/postmodernism is, quite bluntly, crap, a kind of academic wordplaying with no possible link to anything but the pseudo-intellectualized ghettos of the most self-promotional avant-garde enclaves of that bastion of protectionism, the University.”38 This statement helps us to identify this cultural phenomenon and the motivations behind what Palmer has observed as its most shameless architects and advocates. The overall retreat from historical materialism found in many quarters in conjunction with their embrace of language as its substitute offers what Palmer has called “certain conveniences, practical and political.”39 What does he mean by conveniences? This probably refers to access to professional opportunities, including securing posts at prominent higher educational institutions and grant money. Whatever the case, the passages above signal the work of a historian who prioritizes evidence gathering and truth telling over practicing the academic rules of decorum.
Palmer’s provocative book has generated much attention, and the initial responses to it were predictably mixed. Writing in the widely read liberal publication, The Nation, Jane Caplan was largely unimpressed, suggesting that the book would likely only be read by a “limited circle of Marxist historians.”40 Others were more charitable. David Hollinger, a leading intellectual historian and no Marxist, praised Palmer for discussing ideas in ways that were “cogent, accessible, and honest.” “What makes Descent into Discourse fun to read,” Hollinger continued, “is Palmer’s frank display of his own delight in telling certain of his historian colleagues that their theoretical presuppositions are dangerously close to being, as he puts it with characteristic rhetorical calculation, ‘crap.’”41 Another prominent intellectual historian, Thomas Bender, was also somewhat complimentary, recognizing the book’s timeliness: “Such a critical view is much needed just now, and one cannot but profit from Palmer’s scholarship.” Yet Bender was more critical than praiseworthy, challenging Palmer for employing an angry tone, for showing, in Bender’s opinion, very little “playful curiosity” about non-historical materialists, and for the supposed sin of lumping too many dissimilar texts together.42 And the late European labour historian Lenard R. Berlanstein—recognizing that “Palmer is always feisty and, occasionally, strident in defense of historical practices to which he is deeply committed”—saluted Palmer for respecting “his opponents” and showing a sincere desire to “reason with them.”43
Interest in the book was not limited to reviews in scholarly and liberal publications. A couple of years after its publication, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) annual conference featured a roundtable about it. Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd, Palmer sparred softly with a few notable fellow panel members, including Linda Gordon and one of his targets, Michael Kazin. Gordon, according to a report of the meeting, “supported a ‘weak program of Poststructuralism.’”44 An audience member, Marjory Murphy, later wrote that Gordon “was kind yet direct in condemning Palmer’s understanding of discourse theory and discussing how this theory had introduced new ways of understanding women in history.” Apparently, Palmer was subdued in this setting, which surprised Murphy. She was taken aback by his relatively mild replies to what was a generally hostile reception by the panel’s mostly tenured liberals, explaining that he “seemed remarkably agreeable, uncharacteristically semi-apologetic, and notably uninspired by the debate.” Murphy added, “Personally, I missed the old Bryan Palmer.”45
This 1992 OAH panel helped to provoke much interest in the debate. Shortly after, the Chronicle of Higher Education featured an article about poststructuralism and its critics, including Palmer. Reporting on the popularity of discourse theory, Palmer repeated the book’s core arguments in his interview, noting that numerous historians remained “hostile to historical materialism and to class as a subject of study.” And while Palmer highlighted the ways anti-Marxists “have a theoretical cover for their hostility in discourse theory,” he nevertheless admitted that “historians can gain something from reading discourse theory.” The central point he wanted to convey, both in Descent into Discourse and in his Chronicle interview, was that he had no tolerance for the extremes of numerous poststructuralist writers. “There is nothing to be gained,” he insisted, “by claiming that everything is discourse.”46
Interviewed in the same Chronicle essay, Linda Gordon, somewhat of a fence-sitter on the question of discourse theory, lashed out at Palmer for what she viewed as his failure to take gender seriously. Here she implied that Palmer was partially responsible for flirting with anti-feminism: “There is an anti-feminist theme in a lot of these attacks.” She went on: “To people like Bryan Palmer, the left should be concerned with class and Marxism, but I would argue that the left is changing, and feminism is a central part of its core.”47 This is an ill-informed statement, one that reveals Gordon’s highly selective reading of Descent into Discourse. Historians must base their assessments on evidence, and the record is clear: Palmer did not place feminism outside of the left, and he never rejected discourse theory altogether. In this context, Gordon refused to recognize Palmer’s nuanced approach to the topic of gender, especially his call for a “different interpretive agenda”—that is, he called for more studies that grapple with gender issues, though he meant studies grounded in historical materialism. Needless to say, discourse theory is not synonymous with feminism, a point that someone who occasionally identifies as a socialist feminist must certainly understand. It is unfortunate that Gordon, one of today’s most accomplished professional historians, put forward such an easily disprovable statement.
While Gordon expressed hostility, others found the book explanatory, and it attracted scholars working in and outside of labour and social historiography. Robert Buzzanco, a US historian of diplomacy, for instance, has found the book valuable for his own critiques of cultural historians of US foreign policy. Palmer, together with fellow historian E. M. Wood, Buzzanco informed readers of the journal Diplomatic History in 2000, has produced “effective and powerful rejoinders to [the new cultural history] in the academy.”48 More significantly, surveyors of general historiographical trends routinely engage with Descent into Discourse, another sign of its importance. Indeed, the sizable crowd at the 1992 OAH roundtable, the attention it received in the Chronicle, and the broad engagement with it from different historical subfields reveals the incorrectness of Jane Caplan’s 1990 prediction that the book would only appeal to a “limited circle of Marxist historians.” Historians from many subfields, including Marxists and non-Marxists, have engaged with this book.49
Cited in more than five hundred scholarly works, Decent into Discourse has aged well decades after its release. Reading Palmer’s take-no-prisoners critiques of the different scholars responsible for dismissing class, while insisting that one can substitute discourse theories for historical materialism, is a rewarding experience for those of us who have found his targets disconnected from reality, arrogant, and, frankly, silly. A glance through its pages reveals the intellectual labour of a principled scholar intolerant of an academic culture plagued by fuzzy thinking, incomprehensible prose, shallow careerism, and self-important posturing. And although it is hard to measure with any degree of certainty, it is probable that, given the book’s role in sparking many feisty debates and discussions, its release helped to gradually slow down the pace of the unintelligible, theory-driven scholarship found in many departments throughout the 1980s. Palmer seems to agree. In his 2010 survey of Canadian labour historiography, he observed that “‘the linguist turn,’ while certainly influential, has perhaps slowed of late.”50 Seven years later he was more emphatic, writing that “postmodernism” has been “downgraded to a post-status.”51 This seems true. After all, what was academically fashionable in the 1980s is today no longer trendy.52
Yet, the publication of Descent into Discourse did not mark Palmer’s last involvement in this controversy. In the mid-1990s, when hardcore poststructuralists continued to disseminate their fashionable theories, Palmer made another scholarly intervention. Seven years after the publication of Descent into Discourse, Palmer reminded us, in an essay in an edited volume called In Defense of History, of the enduring significance of class divisions and the importance of Marxism for deepening our understandings of the base–superstructure relationships. The stubborn postmodernists uncomfortable with the topic of class, he illustrated, needed reminding that “Marxism has always been attentive to the relationship of ideas, dominance, and social transformation.”53 There was, he declared at this moment, a political urgency to take more radical interpretations of the past seriously; this was a time characterized by unrelenting capitalist offensives and working-class retreats. History offered a guide out of the mess by illustrating the emancipatory possibilities of confident and combative working-class movements: “The legacy of Marxism in general, and of historical materialism in particular, is to challenge and oppose this obfuscation, providing an alternative to such material misreadings, building an oppositional worldview that can play some role in reversing the class struggle defeats and weakening of the international workers’ movement that has taken place as capital and the state have been in the ascent over the course of the last thirty years.”54
Palmer’s statement about capitalism and the state in the above paragraph is significant. Following the classical Marxist tradition, Palmer has never viewed the state as a “neutral” player; rather, he perceives it as allied with the ruling class. These close connections are clear in the context of countless numbers of labour–management confrontations throughout world history. While social activists can certainly win concessions from the state, Palmer’s scholarship reminds us that we must not lose sight of its sinister roles during heightened periods of class struggles. And such repression does not merely emerge at times when conservative politicians hold office. Importantly, Palmer has spotlighted many cases of liberal establishment duplicity, showing that nominally progressive politicians have often used pro-labour language in election seasons, though they have acted in ways that have harmed the working class during confrontational periods. Above all, the rich history of class struggles that scholars such as Palmer have shed light on illustrates the rather outlandishness of the claims made by others, including American labour and political historians, that class and class struggles have been marginal to the country’s history. Over the last two decades, Palmer has continued to provide academics and activists with useful tools in debates with anti-Marxist liberals, a cohort that continues to hold considerable sway in the profession. His interventions here are not as polemical as he demonstrated in Descent into Discourse, but they nevertheless cut against the grain of dominant historiographical trends. Sadly, too few scholars have sought to debate Palmer or Marxist scholars in general in recent years.
Why is this the case? How should we categorize life in the humanities and social sciences? Historians appear much less interested in postmodernist theories, but many remain intolerant of radical interpretations of the past. Labour history as a topic of study, for instance, took additional hits in the 1990s and 2000s. Jobs have remained scarce and conferences have been poorly attended. Above all, prominent academics have continued to downgrade class as a category of analysis, with many choosing to simply ignore, rather than engage with, Marxist historians. The result has been the development of new scholarly echo chambers, where leading historians—most of whom are slightly left-of-centre politically—have established relatively narrow research agendas. While Marxists played crucial roles in launching and participating in debates before the 1990s, they became increasingly marginalized after that decade. In this atmosphere, Palmer felt some nostalgia for earlier periods, when, as he explained in 2008, “Marxism and its meaning was seldom far from the surface of these interpretive dialogues, which never reached any satisfactory conclusion or resolution.” He has bemoaned this loss, writing that debate “ceased in the 1990s.”55
Palmer’s comments here are a bit overstated, though there is some truth to them. Historians continue to debate matters of significance, though Marxists, and radicals more generally, remain in the minority. For example, the US-based journal Labor, established in 2004, contains a regular section called Up for Debate that features book symposiums and reflections on meaningful anniversaries, including a roundtable about the significance of the Russian Revolution published in 2017.56 Other signs suggest that Palmer may be on firm ground. The recent buzz about the so-called “new” history of capitalism, generated at conferences, in the pages of academic journals, and even in the mainstream press, features few Marxists or self-identified labour historians. This is unfortunate because labour scholars, including Palmer, had demonstrated much interest in matters related to political economy, broadly defined, decades before Harvard and the New York Times decided that the subject deserved widespread attention and approval. Most of its most boosterish practitioners have distanced themselves from the Marxist label, though some have admitted that they find Marx and Marxist writers illuminating.57
The contrasts between Palmer and the profession’s more centrist scholars are as clear today as they were when he published Descent into Discourse. This is illustrated when we consider his approach to the intersection of class and politics. While Palmer insists that we must focus on the ways capitalists and governmental officials have collaborated with one another at the expense of the working classes, many of today’s historians take a narrower and less radical approach, emphasizing the ways conservative politicians and programs have hurt ordinary people and halted the progress of liberalism. A number of both self-identified labour historians as well as those who examine the topic in passing have embraced what Ira Katznelson called “the new institutionalism.”58 Rather than focus on class or labour, they have devoted most of their attention to the dynamics of the state, showing how mainstream political forces have shaped it. Their studies of high politics seek to demonstrate that the state has functioned in benevolent ways under liberal administrations, while playing a punishing and nefarious role under conservatives. This scholarly tendency represents a fundamental break from the Marxist-oriented “history from below” style of scholarship that once inspired so many.
Some, having internalized Katznelson’s 1994 call, became political historians, and many of these scholars identify as liberals or social democrats. In the US case, they continue to romanticize earlier periods, including the Progressive era and the mid to late 1930s, when labour–liberal coalitions and Popular Frontism emerged, helping to shape official policies and the character of American political culture more broadly. They often tell a basic rise-and-fall narrative, which starts with a labour movement that secured social reforms in the first decades of the twentieth century. After facing major defeats in the 1920s, organized labour went on to win extraordinary victories in the 1930s. This was a time, the story goes, when ethnically diverse workers joined highly inclusive organizations and demonstrated a sincere respect for American institutions; these were, numerous historians have told us, reformers not revolutionaries, and some embraced what one historian has called “working class Americanism.”59 And they supported the New Deal state, one headed by Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a supposedly visionary leader who offered needed relief to millions of ordinary people. Roosevelt was, these interpretations generally insist, an imperfect friend of the working man, someone willing to challenge the captains of industry and endorse labour rights, such as union organizing and collective bargaining. This was, these scholars believe, “moral capitalism” in practice.
Palmer rejects these core assumptions, and he has produced much scholarship since releasing Descent into Discourse demonstrating why. From him, we learn about the successes and failures of labour and leftist movements, the conniving activities of the ruling classes, and the disruptive—rather than ameliorative—role of the state in the context of social unrest. Above all, Palmer has produced studies that reveal the clear limitations of liberalism, broadly defined. We learn that Keynesian economic policies, Popular Frontism, and even Farmer–Labor Party politicians have all failed to provide genuine emancipatory paths forward for ordinary people.60 In fact, Palmer’s scholarship teaches us that institutional liberals have actively stood in the way of struggling workers. Importantly, Palmer’s role in documenting these tensions is not a matter of left-wing sectarianism; instead, it is about properly assessing the historical record at key moments of class struggles.
Take Palmer’s voluminous scholarship about working-class Marxists and labour conflicts in the US. Here, he not only outlines the limits of liberal interpretations, but also distances himself from a variety of studies written by unrepentant Cold Warriors, bemoaning what he has called “the historiographical overproduction” of conservative-oriented spy scholarship on the history of American Communism. Yet, he is not chiefly interested in the American Communist Party; rather, he has focused primarily on the ideas and conflicts of its revolutionary rivals, Trotskyists.61 Palmer’s interest in the set of ideas developed and articulated by Russian revolutionary and theorist Leon Trotsky contrasts sharply with others motivated by an assortment of New Left social movements; they have shown, as Palmer puts it, a general “indifference” to the history of the Trotskyist movement in North America.62
Identifying a historiographical entry point and harbouring an urge to intervene politically, Palmer stepped in, producing a near-encyclopedic account of socialist James Cannon’s formative years, a book about the Trotskyist-led 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, and numerous articles for academic and popular audiences. His 500-plus-page and award-winning James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890–1928, which explores Cannon’s drama-filled life in the years before his involvement in the establishment of US Trotskyism, reveals much, including the oppressive and exploitative climates of the so-called Progressive era, when a young Cannon—a “working-class autodidact” in Palmer’s words—developed class consciousness and revolutionary commitments after learning about the government’s relentless crackdowns on members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which he joined in 1911.63 Cannon was also troubled by what he saw as the widespread monotony and joylessness that characterized daily life in industrial America, what Palmer calls “the harsh rigors of alienating labor.”64 Indeed, Palmer provides a step-by-step account of the economic forces, the various local political climates, and the colourful personalities that influenced Cannon’s worldview, which, taken together, convinced Cannon to become “a professional revolutionary.”65 “Long live the revolution!” Cannon exclaimed to a crowd of Duluth, Minnesota strikers in 1913.66
Cannon’s commitment to class struggle unionism, illustrated partially by the revolutionary ideas he articulated on picket lines, reveals that he was no American labour reformer yearning for some harmonious artisanal republicanism from the country’s early national period or that he sought to defend a patriotic form of “working class Americanism.”67 Palmer’s evidence points instead to a principled activist, reflective thinker, and budding Marxist, a genuine revolutionary with an eye toward building a future society based on working-class justice and power. And many around Cannon found his words and activities inspiring. This was true both before and after the Russian Revolution, an event that captured the imaginations of capitalism’s most passionate adversaries throughout the world. Class-based anger and a desire to follow in the footsteps of the Russian revolutionaries, Palmer shows, was present in left-wing activist circles in many parts of the nation, a critical point that sizable numbers of American historians have ignored or failed to appreciate. Palmer tells us that “Cannon hailed labor’s triumph in creating a workers’ republic in Russia and called for sustained resistance against the capitalist offensive, in which Chambers of Commerce, Employers’ Associations, and the courts had launched a wage-cutting initiative and an open-shop drive.”68
Neither Cannon nor Palmer considered the twentieth century’s first couple of decades “Progressive.” This period saw the expansion of racist Jim Crow laws throughout the South, the escalation of US imperialism, numerous deadly industrial accidents, the emergence of the employer-led open-shop movement, and a state that reliably protected employers during disputes by arresting, beating, and even preventing labour activists from giving public speeches. It was a time when high-profile labour militants faced imprisonments, beatings, and, in the case of the IWW’s Frank Little, murder. Palmer has no illusions that the state or the era’s prominent middle-class reformers offered any sort of meaningful solutions for the majority of the country’s residents.
Furthermore, neither Cannon nor Palmer viewed American political leaders or high-profile reformers during the World War I period as genuine champions of the nation’s working classes. The reason is obvious: policymakers used wartime as an excuse to unleash a wave of repression against an assortment of syndicalists and socialists. Palmer is unambiguous on this point, noting that the period saw “a blurring of officially sanctioned state repression and informal, ‘citizen’s committee’ actions that created a climate of lynch-mob coercion directed against all forces of the Left, particularly the scapegoated Wobblies.”69 The class conflicts continued in the immediate postwar period, and Palmer, reinforcing the observations of labour historian David Montgomery, notes the naked reality of “class conflict in the United States in the period from 1916 and 1920.”70
To find an example of liberation, one needed to look outside the US borders. Cannon found it in Russia, where he participated in Comintern meetings, highly stimulating activities that allowed him to rub shoulders with revolutionary leaders, including Leon Trotsky. 1922 Russia was a very different place from the US during the same year, when business leaders and the state had joined forces to crush a major railroad strike.71 And a few years earlier, US authorities had deported thousands of immigrant anarchists and socialists as part of the Palmer raids, named after US Attorney General A. Mitchel Palmer (no relation to Bryan). Russia was a place that showed the potential for emancipation, and the individuals in the vanguard of that movement deeply impressed Cannon. He viewed them, Palmer tells us, as “the most enlightened cosmopolitan thinkers and doers.”72 Palmer succinctly captures the significance of Cannon’s deepening relationships with fellow revolutionaries: “This was his apprenticeship in revolutionary internationalism.”73
Cannon, profoundly inspired by the Russian Revolution’s far-reaching achievements, played a critical role in leading the revolutionary socialist movement in the US. Cannon went on a series of speaking tours, introducing audiences to revolutionary ideas, including lessons he learned while visiting with the Russian revolutionaries. He spoke to hundreds of workers in various union halls and on picket lines, and audiences received him well; in many circles, there was a generalized thirst for class politics that extended beyond the confines of narrow trade unionism. At the same time, Palmer describes the difficulties of building a mass revolutionary party, in light of the presence of spies at meetings and what he calls “the fragility of the revolutionary ranks, who were spread thin and had insufficient roots in the organizations of the working class.”74 This should hardly surprise us given what we know about the brutal fierceness of the far-reaching open-shop onslaughts of the immediate post–World War I period. These repressive activists were the most passionate flag-wavers, insisting that people across class lines embrace the reactionary “American Plan.”
Palmer never loses sight of the larger global forces that confronted revolutionaries in the years after the successful Bolshevik Revolution, informing us about the forces of repression that beat back socialist movements in the Western world. Anti-revolutionary movements and tendencies came from many corners, and Palmer describes the particularities of American conditions and the rise of Stalinism following Lenin’s death in 1924. Factional debates were commonplace. A sober reader of events, Palmer is not uncritical of his subject, suggesting that Cannon often “adopted rather easily and uncritically the Comintern directives, paying little attention to the price that would be paid in an intensified labor anti-communism.”75 In the US, revolutionary socialism competed with other ideas and organizations, including the presence of moderate forces in politics and in the trade union movement. In this context of international and domestic tensions, the Communist leadership expelled Cannon, and soon he became one of the most committed Trotskyists.
Palmer’s biography combines fascinating details about Cannon’s dynamic political life with penetrating insights into his personal pursuits. It is a useful guide to a time when a committed core of activists discovered Marxist ideas and sought to put them into practice, a point often overlooked by many US-based labour historians. And it is a captivating story of enormous struggles followed by minor victories and serious defeats in the face of a ruthless ruling class and its governmental allies. Palmer takes these struggles seriously, acknowledging the relentless cruelty of early twentieth-century capitalism, not simply the regressive activities of institutional conservatives.
While the 1920s marked a low point for working-class struggles in the face of ruling-class and state-generated forms of propaganda and repression, the 1930s witnessed some of the century’s most important victories. And Palmer has written an important account of labour conflicts in 1934. In this year, strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, Minneapolis, and up and down the East Coast rocked the nation, forcing Americans of all classes to take seriously what Palmer has called an “explosion of class-resentment.”76 Revolutionary Teamsters—put out by two different publishers, Brill and Haymarket—tells the extraordinary story of the roles played by Trotskyists, a group that far too many historians have written off as disconnected from trade union politics and working-class struggles, in Minneapolis. Palmer is somewhat defensive about this point, noting that such powerful work stoppages challenged popular assumptions “that Trotskyists were ineffectual in the real world of politics and labour-struggles because they could only relate to workers as abstract agents of revolutionary-transformation.” This was obviously not the case, he points out, noting that “the coming together of teamsters and Trotskyists in Minneapolis in 1934 provides a concrete case of just what can be accomplished by workers guided by those who have a revolutionary perspective, even if the outcome achieved was never conceived as revolutionary.”77
The Minneapolis victories are especially impressive when we consider the broader context. These revolutionary teamsters, organized in Local 574, helped to shut down commerce in “a city,” Palmer explains, “that was infamous as a bastion of the open shop.”78 Defended by the most economically powerful individuals, open shop promoters sought to ensure that trade unions lacked power in politics and at the point of production. Established in 1903, the Minneapolis Citizens’ Alliance was one of the nation’s most uncompromising anti-union organizations. Modelling itself on similar employers’ and citizens’ associations in Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Evansville, and others, the Minneapolis Citizens’ Alliance remained a long-term foe of the working-class masses: it fired union supporters, maintained a blacklist of activists, established tight relationships with police and local officials, and coordinated with union fighters and strikebreaking agencies in other parts of the nation.79 The seasoned class warrior James P. Cannon called this city “the worst scab town in the Northwest.”80
Palmer introduces us to revolutionaries such as Farrell Dobbs, Swedish immigrant Carl Skoglund, and the Dunne brothers—all of whom looked to the working-class masses, rather than to the American Federation of Labor leadership or to the emerging liberal New Deal state, as venues for transformative social change. They had confidence in themselves, calling for, as Skoglund put it in May 1934, a broad movement involving “all the sections of the trucking industry acting together.”81 The city’s working class overwhelmingly supported the Trotskyist-led strikes. In the words of one, “We couldn’t have done it without a disciplined revolutionary party.”82
These revolutionaries recognized the necessity of mobilizing large numbers, including women activists, against the 166 trucking bosses and the region’s ruling class. One of Palmer’s strongest chapters explores the activities of the Women’s Auxiliary. This organization was greeted by some men with skepticism, since, in Palmer’s words, “They wanted their ‘night out’ with the union-boys to be untainted by women’s presence.”83 Indeed, Palmer is honest about the presence of casual forms of sexism, but he points out that strikes offered important opportunities to address gender issues in progressive ways. Several of Minneapolis’s women activists made their cases to the male strikers, noting that they could, as Palmer explains, employ “their domestic and occupational skills” for the cause.84 The result was the formation of more progressive gender relations within the local, since men and women discussed strategies and struggled together. Plenty of women walked picket lines, where they enjoyed the pleasures of class solidarity and experienced the pains of police repression. As one activist proudly stated, a woman’s place “was ‘Into the Class Struggle.’”85 And male activists recognized their critical roles. Cannon was especially clear: “To involve the women in the labor struggles is to double the strength of the workers and to infuse it with a spirit and solidarity it could not otherwise have. This applies not only to a single union and single strike; it holds good for every phrase of the struggle up to its revolutionary conclusion.”86 Women activists were fully committed to this struggle, which was expressed in meetings and on picket lines. As one Women’s Auxiliary speaker explained, they would “fight side by side with the men to the finish.”87
With an eye to detail, Palmer’s accounts of picket-line scuffles and the strategic decision-making activities that occurred at strike headquarters give us a profound sense of the strike’s difficulties. This was far from a non-violent conflict, and those who had experienced police and Citizens’ Alliance repression recognized the necessity of self-defence. They were unwilling to back down, which, on one particularly important occasion, resulted in the retreat of the police from a major centre of the city. By late May, workers in other industries had declared their support and staged sympathy strikes. At one point, more than twenty thousand workers, many of whom were armed with lead pipes and baseball bats, assembled at the city market in an excellent show of solidarity. Here the protesters fought bravely, which led to clear results. As Farrell Dobbs observed, “there wasn’t a cop to be seen in the market.”88 “The Battle of Deputies Run,” as the strikers famously called it, was a bloody, but ultimately successful, confrontation, illustrating the enormous power of disciplined and well-organized protesters.89 Seeking to put a stop to the turmoil, the bosses offered many concessions, leading to de facto union recognition in some workplaces and significant union growth; the General Drivers’ Union’s membership reached seven thousand.90 Their inspiring examples of solidary and militancy illustrate, most significantly, the continuing importance of “history from below” as well as the indispensable role of Marxists in Minneapolis’s labour movement.
These revolutionary teamsters won a key battle but continued to face formidable challenges. Most employers remained committed to the open-shop principle, and Minnesota’s Farmer–Labor governor, Floyd Olson, wanted to see the re-establishment of industrial peace; genuine justice for the workers was not at the top of the governor’s priority list. In this context, Cannon came to Minneapolis, where he offered insights and illustrated an unwavering commitment to building the most inclusive form of working-class unity possible. This was necessary, since stubborn employers provoked another skirmish in July. We learn that the Trotskyists were consistent: they built strong militant unions, prevented scab trucks from moving, and rejected the idea that the liberals in government were sincere allies. Palmer quotes from the Trotskyist newspaper, The Militant: “the workers involved [in the strike] received a valuable lesson and gained a real understanding not only of what the role of the capitalist state is—and more specifically the capitalist state with a farmer-labor governor—but they also received a lesson and an understanding in the first fundamentals of how to begin to cope with that state.”91
Revolutionary Teamsters challenges several tendencies present in contemporary academic circles. The first is the somewhat commonplace failure to properly identify the tensions between union leaders and rank-and-file members. Historians were far more inclined to highlight these distinctions in earlier periods.92 The extraordinary strikes of 1934 showed many conflicts between the head of the Teamsters, Dan Tobin, on the one hand, and the local Trotskyist leadership and rank-and-file activists in Minneapolis on the other. Tobin, as Palmer explains, “had never wanted Local 574 to organize all of those involved in the trucking industry.”93 The Teamsters hierarchy even punished Local 574 after the strike by revoking its charter and establishing a rival local. Meanwhile, Tobin attacked Dobbs for staging “strikes for racketeering and propaganda purposes” and anti-Trotskyists aligned with Tobin physically attacked Local 574’s leadership.94 The militants pushed back and received a renamed local, Local 544. During these internal conflicts, the Trotskyist leadership understood Tobin’s regressive roles, denouncing him at one point for “helping the bosses.”95 The takeaway from these internal struggles is clear: we must not assume that top level union leaders reflected the rank-and-file’s interests.
Second, Palmer’s study contrasts starkly with those who have insisted that American protesters were, above all, deeply patriotic, supportive of capitalism, and profoundly uneasy with Marxist ideas. Some protesters carried American flags and held on to anti-Communist ideas. But the thousands who joined with the Trotskyist leadership, even during periods of intense, employer-generated, red-baiting actions, demonstrate that many were, at a minimum, open to Marxism. It has become somewhat popular in a few circles to claim that anti-Communist ideas, broadly defined, were developed and popularized from below. This was certainly not the case in Minneapolis. Importantly, Palmer explains that the anti-Communist campaigns had little influence, noting, “the Red-scares concocted in the midst of intense class-struggle had so little effect on rank-and-file teamsters and their supporters.”96 The point cannot be made strongly enough: one of the most important labour breakthroughs of the decade was led by unapologetic anti-capitalists committed to building working-class power.
Additionally, Revolutionary Teamsters demonstrates that the American Communist Party, an organization that has captured the attention of many, was far from the only important Marxist organization in this decade. In fact, Palmer shows that, unsurprisingly, its members were largely hostile to Trotskyists, including those in Local 574. In numerous areas, its members, as Palmer explains, employed “tactics of physical disruption” designed to break up Trotskyist meetings.97 Most damaging was the American Communist Party’s support of the government’s clampdown on Minneapolis Trotskyists under the banner of the Smith Act in 1941, a year after it was passed.98
The passing of the Smith Act in 1940 with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s support, often ignored or downplayed by many historians fixated on the rise of conservatism, is an important development that further shows the tensions between establishment liberalism and radical unionism. Named after Virginia Congressman Howard Smith—a long-time friend of members of the open-shop National Association of Manufacturers—the draconian act was an anti-sedition law that criminalized radical speech articulated by both the far right and the far left. Leftist organizations bore the brunt of the repression. The first victims were twenty-nine members of the recently formed Socialist Workers Party, including those who had played a critical part in the 1934 Minneapolis strikes.
While many historians would like us to direct our attention to the anti-unionism expressed by conservatives in power, which has found the sharpest political formation in the Republican Party, Palmer’s discussion of the Smith Act’s repressiveness illustrates evidence of the clear limitations of the Democratic Party’s progressiveness. Franklin D. Roosevelt was no friend of those most active in Minneapolis’s labour movement. Lengthy books about Roosevelt and the New Deal often minimize, or leave out altogether, his involvement in fighting these and other militant labour activists. Consider the prize-winning book Fear Itself by Ira Katznelson, a writer who called on labour historians to take political institutions seriously in 1994. Fear Itself and Revolutionary Teamsters were published in the same year and both cover the New Deal state—but they are very different studies. Katznelson’s book identifies very few conflicts between Roosevelt and organized labour: Roosevelt never lacked “ambition or interest” in advancing “union interests.”99 That state authorities under Roosevelt helped to undermine the most committed union activists by enforcing the Smith Act is perhaps something that Katznelson and his liberal fellow travellers would rather not highlight. Fear Itself, like numerous other recently published books about Roosevelt and the New Deal, illustrates the acceptability of spotlighting conflicts within the relatively narrow parameters of mainstream politics, while largely ignoring the liberal state’s involvement in weakening radical movements, the regressive roles played by union officials, and the short-lived accomplishments achieved by revolutionary Marxists.
The limits of progressivism in high politics were especially apparent in Minneapolis during the summer of 1934. Minnesota’s Farmer–Labor governor, Floyd Olson, for instance, often employed pro-worker language, but his actions during periods of labour unrest were far from radical. Olson, Palmer writes, “was committed to keeping the lid on explosive class-relations, using moderate reform to effect ‘orderly constructive change.’”100 In the face of rising class conflict, this so-called friend of labour declared martial law and dispatched National Guardsmen in July, seeking to, as he put it, make the city streets “as quiet as a Sunday School picnic.”101 This meant a ban on mass picketing and the arrests of Trotskyist leaders Max Shachtman and Cannon—both of whom were in town to observe and write about this class conflict—for the “crime” of “vagrancy.” By late August, 167 picketers had been held in a military stockade, which some called “Olson’s Resort.”102 Needless to say, the Farmer–Labor governor hardly acted like a champion of working-class emancipation.
Coming to terms with Olson’s betrayals was a hard and quite literally painful lesson for those injured by state violence. “Bloody Friday,” a case of police thuggery during a very hot day in July, constituted the harshest expression of such repression. Unlike the Battle of Deputies Run, police here had the upper hand, and aggressively shot protesters. Local 574 executive committee member Harry DeBower explained that the police “went wild. Actually, they shot at anybody that moved . . . There were several pickets in the truck and they all got shot.”103 Picketers were forced to defend themselves, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the police. Dozens of strikers and supporters received injuries, including DeBower. And the police killed one striker, Henry B. Ness, a father of four.104 The police and militia repression illustrates the fiction that the state behaved “neutrally” or “autonomously” in the context of labour–management relations. Protesters, Palmer explains, viewed “the state as an instrument of class-domination.”105
Palmer reveals that level-headed activists, who were indeed victims of state terrorism, understood that Olson was primarily an adversary, someone who, in practice, was little different from the most reactionary anti-union ideologues behind the local open-shop movement. At a mass rally in early August, union leader Bill Brown called the Farmer–Labor administration “the best strikebreaking force our union has ever gone up against.”106 In a meeting with the governor in August, one strike leader asked Olson sardonically, “Why don’t you start a school for strikebreaking governors?”107 These were rather sharp assessments of the liberal establishment, especially coming from those who had experienced many confrontations with the far-right Citizens’ Alliance and fascists in earlier years. These observations, learned in the context of industrial struggle, are important to contemplate at a time when many present-day scholars are inclined to overlook the involvement of powerful liberals in fighting organized labour, while focusing most of their attention on right-wing organizations and individuals. Olson’s activities demonstrate that the conservative establishment was far from organized labour’s only opponent.
Did Revolutionary Teamsters receive the same level of attention that Descent into Discourse earned? From the perspective of the academy, not even close, and Palmer must have been disappointed by the ways that university-based political and labour historians responded. The book simply failed to spark meaningful discussions at conferences or in the pages of journals, even though many remain deeply interested in the tumultuous and transformative events of the 1930s. While reviews in left-wing and scholarly journals have been largely favourable, few historians of labour and politics in the early to mid-twentieth century have grappled with Palmer’s core discoveries and analysis.108 This 2013 book, according to a Google Scholar search conducted in late 2020, has been cited a mere seventeen times. The contrast with Descent into Discourse, which triggered enlightening and sometimes rancorous debates in various academic settings almost immediately after its release, is rather stark.
We can speculate about why this is the case. The decision of many historians to largely disregard Revolutionary Teamsters, while overlooking Marxists like James P. Cannon and paying only scant attention to the intense class conflicts of 1934, Roosevelt’s use of the FBI against leftists, and the repressive Smith Act, make sense when we consider that Palmer’s evidence of liberal duplicity unavoidably muddles their efforts to write orderly narratives about the disputes between official political parties. For most historians—who have stubbornly chosen to view establishment liberals like Roosevelt and Olson as flawed progressives, not as proponents of capitalist stability or as occasional strikebreakers—the era’s principal villains were obvious: employers’ associations and right-wing politicians, the menacing figures responsible for mounting sustained ideological and political assaults against the New Deal order. Many undoubtedly share the opinion articulated by prominent historian Jefferson Cowie, who proclaimed in a 2017 interview, “I am a big fan of the New Deal.”109 For writers like Cowie and the large cohort responsible for bombarding us with studies about the historical ills of right-wing ideas and organizations, the New Deal state was a progressive triumph and rare instance of “moral capitalism” in practice—a period they want us to remember for offering needed protections to society’s most vulnerable citizens, including the working classes. But, as Palmer has shown, for labour activists forced to endure blows to the head from police and National Guardsmen and incarceration stays, the state, even during periods when it was led by organized labour’s so-called friends, remained “an instrument of class-domination.” Many workers understood this point even as they elected to vote for politicians like Olson and Roosevelt.110 Moreover, the New Deal labour and welfare-related reforms were rather modest, amounting to, at best, what Palmer called in 2019 “an incomplete welfare state.”111 When considering the evidence, we must conclude that many historians are guilty of viewing New Deal era policymakers and the modest reforms they enacted through rose-tinted glasses.112
While not mentioning the general silence that greeted Revolutionary Teamsters, Palmer has continued to express irritation about the overall lack of debate in academic settings. In 2019, echoing his 2008 words, Palmer made a strong case for researchers to abandon their comfort zones by challenging popular interpretations and “questioning research orientations and the relationship of evidence and argument.”113 He noted that, regrettably, attempts to take up debates continue to be met “with the nonchalant rejoinder, ‘why bother?’”114 On this point, Palmer could have been more forceful, recognizing that some of those who make the “nonchalant” rejoinders are out to protect their brand and remain fundamentally allergic to the intrusive Marxists responsible for documenting hard truths about their liberal heroes. Far too many early twentieth-century US labour and political historians have failed to grapple fairly and honestly with the well-documented examples of liberal treachery and Democratic Party limitations. Rather than confront examples of liberal complicity in undermining popular labour and left-wing movements, many have instead retreated to their echo chambers and safe spaces, reassured by exaggerated claims about Roosevelt’s progressiveness made by both scholars and left-leaning politicians, including self-identified socialists like Bernie Sanders. Unfortunately, the “big fans” of the New Deal routinely pass up opportunities to spar with the “big fans” of the Russian Revolution.
While numerous academics have ignored Palmer’s scholarship out of what appears to be professional convenience, popular socialist publications have found his insights worth disseminating. The lessons we learn from his study of Minneapolis Trotskyists in the 1930s—the thuggery of Communist Party members, the de-radicalizing actions of trade union bureaucrats, and the repression of the liberal state—stand out. Above all, Palmer wants today’s socialist activists to learn from this labour history. Writing in the popular left publication Jacobin, Palmer explains that the Trotskyist union activists won the respect of large numbers of workers by engaging in “actual battle with the bosses” and creating “an infrastructure that could nurture and sustain rank-and-file militancy.” Repression, which was unleashed most pointedly by local police forces, was met “not with submission, but with resistance.”115 We can see some echoes of these types of struggles today. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement against unaccountable police abuses and the expansion of teachers’ strikes, often conducted without the approval of official union leadership, illustrate the enduring power of working-class resistance.
Palmer’s work is a refreshing alternative to much mainstream scholarship. It teaches us a great deal: the value of working-class combativity, the explanatory power of Marxism, the limitations of institutional liberalism and social democracy, and the impossibility of genuine emancipation under capitalism—even its “moral” versions. Palmer has taught these invaluable lessons in the context of occasionally hostile and often indifferent academic and political climates. His interventions over the last several decades have been met with mixed results. In the 1990s, he pushed back strongly against the excesses of cultural and linguistic approaches, compelling defenders of discourse theories to engage with him. We can appreciate this time for its informative and often bitter back-and-forth dialogues, in which cultural theorists and their defenders were forced to contend with Marxist ideas. Decades after these exchanges, the once fashionable discourse theories have mostly vanished from history departments. Though it would be an overstatement to suggest that Marxism and rigorous debates have also disappeared, most observers would likely agree that today’s academy is not especially hospitable to radical interpretations of the past. Careerist-oriented scholars, many of whom are drawn to official politics, continue to downplay the history of class conflicts, insisting that working-class Americans were deeply patriotic and respectful of the nation’s political institutions. Many also ignore Palmer and radical scholarship that exposes the revolutionary possibilities of working-class activism, the class collaborationist instincts of trade union leaders, and the repressive role of the state—irrespective of what political party leads it. How much longer can sizable sections of the profession continue to overlook this history? It is difficult to predict, but what we can say is that Palmer has played a principled role in challenging those who have suggested that class oppression, class consciousness, and class struggles have been only marginal to North American history or that Marxist activists were unimportant to the labour movement. Above all, Palmer’s politically engaged scholarship offers vital lessons about how today’s workers and leftists can respond to the demands of our current period—one shaped by precarious employment options for many, growing class inequality, and rising class struggle.
- 1. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). A group of mostly liberal historians have found the phrase “moral capitalism” useful. See Robert H. Zieger, For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America Since 1865 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007), 6; Michael B. Katz, The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 174; and Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2010), 277.
- 2. Bryan D. Palmer, “Communist History: Seeing it Whole. A Reply to Critics,” American Communist History 2, no. 2 (December 2003): 204. Contrast Palmer with Meg Jacobs, a scholar of consumerism, labour, and official politics. Writing in 2005, Jacobs said that the Russian Revolution illustrates that sometimes “labor could go too far.” See Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 53.
- 3. This tendency is most forcefully articulated in a 1989 collection of essays written by two scholars who first established themselves as labour historians. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).
- 4. It is almost impossible to keep up with this always-growing body of literature. For an analysis and critique of it, see Chad Pearson, “Scholarship on the Rise of the Right: Liberal Historians and the Retreat from Class,” Monthly Review 70 (February 2019): 40–55.
- 5. He has drawn contrasts between what he calls the “meaner and leaner agenda” of the conservative Stephen Harper government and more progressive moments in Canadian history. See Bryan D. Palmer, “Imagining Politics,” Labour/Le Travail 73 (Spring 2014): 235.
- 6. Bryan D. Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 120; emphasis original.
- 7. Ibid., 121.
- 8. Ibid., 3.
- 9. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism (London: Verso, 1986). Also see Neville Kirk, “In Defense of Class: A Critique of Recent Revisionist Writing Upon the Nineteenth-Century English Working Class,” International Review of Social History 32 (1987): 2–47; Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990); and Alex Callinicos, “Whither Anglo-Saxon Marxism?” in Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism, ed. Jacques Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 84–85, 91.
- 10. Dana Frank, Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).
- 11. Alice Kessler-Harris, Gendering Labor History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 137.
- 12. Nell Irvin Painter, “The New Labor History and the Historical Moment,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 2 (1989): 367–70.
- 13. Palmer, Descent into Discourse, 56.
- 14. Ibid., 172.
- 15. Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review 91 no. 5 (December 1988): 1053–75; and Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
- 16. Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 67.
- 17. Ibid., 56. On Jones, see Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832–1982 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
- 18. Lenard R. Berlanstein, “Working with Language: The Linguistic Turn in French Labor History. A Review Article,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 33 (April 1991): 428.
- 19. Palmer, Descent into Discourse, 79.
- 20. Ibid.; emphasis original. See Eric Hobsbawm and Joan W. Scott, “Political Shoemakers,” in Eric Hobsbawm, Workers: Worlds of Labor (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 103–30.
- 21. Palmer, Descent into Discourse, 85.
- 22. Ibid.
- 23. Scott quoted in ibid., 180.
- 24. Ibid.
- 25. Ibid., 183.
- 26. Ibid.
- 27. Ibid., 186. As a young activist in New York City, years before completing his undergraduate degree, Palmer showed an interest in a variety of different feminist publications, including those written by Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone. See Bryan D. Palmer, Interpretive Essays on Class Formation and Class Struggle, vol. 1, Marxism and Historical Practice (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 2.
- 28. Palmer, Descent into Discourse, 117.
- 29. Ibid., 113. Palmer mentions a number of scholars who embraced this tendency. See Leon Fink, Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 21; and Leon Fink, “Labor, Liberty and the Law: Trade Unionism and the Problem of the American Constitutional Order,” Journal of American History 74 (December 1987): 904–25. Also see Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984); and Richard Oestreicher, “Urban Working-Class Political Behavior and Theories of American Electoral Politics, 1870–1940,” Journal of American History 74 (March 1988): 1257–86.
- 30. Palmer, Descent into Discourse, 117.
- 31. Ibid., 115.
- 32. Several anti-labour union figures, including novelist and Citizens Industrial Association of America member Owen Wister, labelled scabs as being as heroic and patriotic as the American revolutionaries. See Owen Wister, “The Land of the Free,” Saturday Evening Post, 29 October 1904, 7.
- 33. Consider the case of Robert Paul Prager, a German immigrant murdered at the hands of reactionary flag-waving miners for embracing socialism and opposing the US’s intervention in World War I. See Carl R. Weinberg, Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005).
- 34. Kazin quoted in Palmer, Descent into Discourse, 122.
- 35. Ibid.
- 36. Ibid., 124. This was not the first time Palmer challenged Kazin. A year earlier, Palmer criticized him for writing “a methodological and political mess” of an essay. See Bryan D. Palmer, “The American Way of Seeing Class,” Labour/Le Travail 24 (Fall 1989): 245.
- 37. Kim Moody, Tramps and Trade-Union Travelers: Internal Migration and Organized Labor in Gilded-Age America, 1870–1900 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019), 30.
- 38. Palmer, Descent into Discourse, 199; emphasis original.
- 39. Ibid., 205.
- 40. Jane Caplan, “The Point is to Change It,” The Nation (13/20 August 1990): 174.
- 41. David A. Hollinger, “Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History, by Bryan D. Palmer. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990),” Journal of American History 77, no. 4 (March 1991): 1320, https://doi.org/10.2307/2078265.
- 42. Thomas Bender, “Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History, by Bryan D. Palmer. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990),” Journal of Social History 25, no. 2 (Winter 1991): 407–8, https://doi.org/10.1353/jsh/25.2.407.
- 43. Berlanstein, “Working with Language,” 438.
- 44. Gordon quoted in John Pettegrew, “From Radicalism to Perspectivalism: US Feminist History, 1970–2010, and the Example of Linda Gordon,” Journal of Women’s History 30 (Spring 2018): 137. Gordon was once a Marxist, but has since abandoned the radicalism of her youth. We can track the stages of her mild shifts to the right by comparing her statements over the course of decades. In 1981, she was an unambiguous Marxist scholar: “Frankly, I cannot grasp how one can learn to think historically without reading Marx”; see Linda Gordon’s interview with Carol Lasser from June 1981, titled “Linda Gordon,” in Visions of History, ed. Henry Abelove, Betsy Blackmar, Peter Dimock, and Jonathan Schneer (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 78. Close to a decade later, Gordon expressed some sympathy for the theoretical approaches adopted by Scott, writing in 1990, “I remain unconvinced by Scott’s most ambitious theoretical claim.” Yet, she nevertheless expressed “admiration for [Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History]”; see Linda Gordon, “Gender and the Politics of History. Joan Wallach Scott,” Signs 15, no. (Summer 1990): 858. More recently, in 2016, Gordon made a case for rejecting Marxism in light of major economic changes: “Identifying classes in the Marxian sense is difficult if not impossible today, in the USA in particular, as deindustrialization and union-busting have decimated a working class and forced so many workers into a precariat of casual, impermanent jobs.” See Linda Gordon, “‘Intersectionality,’ Socialist Feminism and Contemporary Activism: Musings by a Second-Wave Socialist Feminism,” Gender and History 28 (August 2016): 348. It is difficult to understand her logic, especially when we consider the massive size of the international working class and the uninterrupted history of employer-led union-busting throughout the industrial world. In fact, Marxism can help us make sense of these developments.
- 45. In addition to Kazin and Gordon, the panel included Lawrence Levin, John Diggins, and Nancy Isenberg. Diggins was a conservative historian; the others are liberals. See Marjorie Murphy, “Chicago Before the Flood,” Radical Historians Newsletter 66 (May 1992): 13. My thanks to Jim O’Brien for providing me with a copy of this document.
- 46. Palmer quoted in Karen J. Winkler, “Debate Among Historians Signals Waning Influence of ‘Discourse Theory’ Outside Literary Studies,” Chronicle of Higher Education 38 (22 April 1992), https://www.chronicle.com/article/Historians-Debate-the/78879.
- 47. Gordon quoted in ibid.
- 48. Robert Buzzanco, “Where’s the Beef: Culture without Power in the Study of US Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History 24 (October 2000): 631.
- 49. For a sampling, see Robert Gregg, Inside Out, Outside In: Essays in Comparative History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005); Geoff Eley and Keith Nield, The Future of Class in History: What’s Left of the Social? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007); Daniel Woolf, A Global History of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and Joel Pfister, Critique for What? Cultural Studies, American Studies, Left Studies (London: Routledge, 2016).
- 50. Bryan D. Palmer, Interventions and Appreciations, vol. 2, Marxism and Historical Practice (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 92.
- 51. Bryan D. Palmer, “‘Mind Forg’d Manacles’ and Recent Pathways to ‘New’ Labor Histories,” International Review of Social History 62, no. 2 (August 2017): 9.
- 52. Consider the evolution of Joan Wallach Scott. Decades after championing poststructuralism as an alternative to historical materialism, Scott spent much of the 2010s producing clearly written articles and books defending the principle of academic freedom, which has been especially needed at a time when administrators, responding to outside pressures, have fired scholars for voicing anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist views. Scott has been a principled champion of these victims. See Joan Wallach Scott, Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).
- 53. Bryan D. Palmer, “Old Positions/New Necessities: History, Class, and Marxist Metanarrative,” in In Defense of History: Marxism and the Postmodern Agenda, ed. Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), 67.
- 54. Palmer, “Old Positions/New Necessities,” 72.
- 55. Bryan D. Palmer, “Fin-de-Siècle Labour History in Canada and the United States: A Case for Tradition,” in Global Labour History: A State of the Art, ed. Jan Lucassen (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008), 218.
- 56. See, for example, Suzi Weissman, “One Hundred Years since October,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 14, no. 3 (September 2017): 11–16; Tony Michels, “The Russian Revolution and the American Left: A Long View from the Twenty-First Century,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 14, no. 3 (September 2017): 17–21; and John D. French and Alexandre Fortes, “Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and the Dream of Revolution: October 1917 in the Trajectory of a Brazilian Metalworker of African Descent,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 14, no. 3 (September 2017): 23–34.
- 57. Important labour historian David Montgomery, an influence on Palmer, wrote in 1981 that he was chiefly interested in the “history of capitalism”; see Mark Naison and Paul Buhle, “Interview with David Montgomery,” in Visions of History, ed. Henry Abelove, Betsy Blackmar, Peter Dimock, and Jonathan Schneer (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 176. None of the participants in the Journal of American History roundtable on the topic mentioned Montgomery’s influence. See Sven Beckert et al., “Interchange: The History of Capitalism,” Journal of American History 101, no. 2 (September 2014): 503–36.
- 58. Ira Katznelson, “The ‘Bourgeois’ Dimension: A Provocation about Institutions, Politics, and the Future of Labor History,” International Labor and Working-Class History 46 (1994): 7–32.
- 59. Gary Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). Almost two decades after dismissing the importance of class and class struggle in US history, Michael Kazin teamed up with historian Joseph McCartin to make a case for the progressiveness of liberal flag-waving. In their words, “In our opinion, the ideals of Americanism deserve not just to endure but to be revived and practiced as the foundation of a new kind of progressive politics”; see Michael Kazin and Joseph A. McCartin, “Introduction,” in Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal, ed. Michael Kazin and Joseph A. McCartin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 16.
- 60. Palmer and co-writer Gaétan Héroux have exposed the limitations of Keynesianism in addressing poverty in Canada in Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016), 250.
- 61. Bryan D. Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890–1928 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 10. A number of liberals and leftists have written important studies of the American Communist Party. See Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980); Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983); Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); and Randi Storch, Red Chicago: American Communism at Its Grassroots, 1928–35 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).
- 62. Palmer, James P. Cannon, 18.
- 63. Ibid., 44–45.
- 64. Ibid., 49.
- 65. Ibid., 56.
- 66. Quoted in ibid., 73.
- 67. Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism.
- 68. Palmer, James P. Cannon, 148.
- 69. Ibid., 87–88.
- 70. Ibid., 93.
- 71. Colin Davis, Power at Odds: The 1922 Railroad Shopmen’s Strike (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
- 72. Quoted in Palmer, James P. Cannon, 153–54.
- 73. Ibid., 154.
- 74. Ibid., 174.
- 75. Ibid., 228.
- 76. Bryan D. Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 25.
- 77. Ibid., 4.
- 78. Ibid., 3.
- 79. In 1903, the secretary of the open-shop National Metal Trades Association, Robert Wuest, sent O. P. Briggs of the Minneapolis Citizens’ Alliance eleven different sets of booklets and bylaws authored by different union-busting employers’ associations. See Robert Wuest to O. P. Briggs, June 29, 1903, Citizens’ Alliance of Minneapolis Records, 1903–1953, M465, Roll 1, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. For a comprehensive treatment of the Citizens’ Alliance, see William Millikan, A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor, 1903–1947 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001).
- 80. Cannon quoted in Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters, 33.
- 81. Skoglund quoted in ibid., 66.
- 82. Unnamed teamster, quoted in ibid., 73.
- 83. Ibid., 76.
- 84. Ibid.
- 85. Quoted in ibid., 79.
- 86. Cannon quoted in ibid., 80.
- 87. Quoted in ibid., 145.
- 88. Dobbs quoted in ibid., 102.
- 89. Ibid., 101.
- 90. Ibid., 110.
- 91. Quoted in ibid., 118.
- 92. Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step: The First Twenty Years of the CIO: 1936–55 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1964); Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Boston: South End Press, 1972); Alice Lynd and Staughton Lynd, eds., Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); Stanley Aronowitz, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973). There are, of course, recent exceptions. See Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland and the Tragedy of American Labor (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999).
- 93. Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters, 129.
- 94. Tobin quoted in ibid., 228.
- 95. Ibid., 145.
- 96. Ibid., 179. Contrast Palmer with Jennifer Luff’s central claim that trade union anti-Communists practiced “common sense.” See Jennifer Luff, Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties Between the World Wars (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). And in her study of the Smith Act trials, Donna T. Haverty-Stacke makes a case for the significance of anti-Trotskyism from below. There was indeed a movement, though it constituted a very small percentage of the local, roughly 1 percent. See Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, Trotskyists on Trial: Free Speech and Political Persecution since the Age of FDR (New York: New York University Press, 2015).
- 97. Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters, 277.
- 98. Ibid., 240.
- 99. Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2013), 399. Also see Robert Dallek’s most recent book about Roosevelt. He, too, ignores the 1940 Smith Act. See Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life (New York: Viking, 2017).
- 100. Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters, 64.
- 101. Quoted in ibid., 179.
- 102. Quoted in ibid., 215–16.
- 103. Quoted in ibid., 162.
- 104. Ibid., 165.
- 105. Ibid., 133.
- 106. Quoted in ibid., 187.
- 107. Quoted in ibid., 193.
- 108. Consider the case of Joseph Fronczak’s article about fascism, which includes examples of anti-unionism in Minneapolis. Fronczak devotes a couple of pages to the fascist strikebreakers in Minneapolis during the 1934 strikes, but he ignores how the fascists complemented the work carried out by the liberal government. And he ignores Palmer’s study. See Joseph Fronczak, “The Fascist Game: Transnational Political Transmission and the Genesis of the US Modern Right,” Journal of American History 105 (December 2018): 571–72.
- 109. Christopher Phelps and Jefferson Cowie, “Taking Exception,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 14 (May 2017): 98.
- 110. Palmer, Revolutionary Teamsters, 133.
- 111. Bryan D. Palmer, “The New New Poor Law: A Chapter in the Current Class War Waged from Above,” Labour/Le Travail 84 (Fall 2019): 57.
- 112. A few contributors to the 1989 Fraser and Gerstle collection re-grouped more than a quarter century later and released a collection of essays reflecting on the original book’s significance as well as scholarship released since it came out. In the introduction, the editors simply ignore books, including a number published in recent years, that highlight the ways New Dealers, Roosevelt, and the Democratic Party generally undermined the interests of labour. To be fair, they mention the significance of the rise of the carceral state in the late twentieth century, but are silent about examples of labour repression during the 1930s and 1940s. See Gary Gerstle, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Alice O’Connor, “Introduction,” in Beyond the New Deal Order: US Politics from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, ed. Gary Gerstle, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Alice O’Connor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019): 1–14.
- 113. Bryan D. Palmer, “A Left History of Liquorice: What It means to Write ‘Left’ History,” Left History 23, no. 1 (2019): 15.
- 114. Ibid.; and Bryan D. Palmer, “How Can We Write Better Histories of Communism?” Labour/Le Travail 83 (Spring 2019): 232.
- 115. Bryan D. Palmer, “Red Teamsters,” Jacobin, October 14, 2014, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/red-teamsters.