2 Bryan D. Palmer, Social Historian
In the first volume of Labour/Le Travailleur, published in 1976, Bryan Palmer opened the lead essay with the line, “History has not been kind to Karl Ungling.” Who? Ungling was an unknown printer who died in Detroit in 1859. Palmer thrusts him forward as an example of something larger—as emblematic of an artisan culture and of a struggle to retain tradition, and as a link between the ancient and modern, forged by the pride in craft and the destiny of strife and struggle.1 In some ways, Palmer’s piece on artisan culture in nineteenth-century Ontario contained all of the elements of labour history that would be derisively attributed to his work by critics. It was a new era for labour history in Canada, and in this brash new journal Palmer appeared as his critics would later cast him: devoted to the obscure, the radical, and the cultural. Palmer’s work has often been mischaracterized in this way that is a distortion of his larger contributions. But in this first illustration of Palmer’s approach to the topics of working-class culture, movement, and activism, we can find the seeds of what would become an essential body of work that has greatly expanded the field of Canadian social history. These are also threads that run through the entirety of Palmer’s work, from his early working-class history through to his groundbreaking cultural history at the turn of the century. There is much to discover in Palmer’s methodology.
This chapter explores Palmer’s social history to argue for a re-examination of his significant contribution and insight as a social historian. What can we learn? Here I highlight the essential relationships between historical materialism and social history throughout Palmer’s writing. Historical materialism is the theoretical foundation of Palmer’s work, and social history is the practice of using it to reveal insights about the formation of the working class, struggle and opposition, and the possibilities for change and liberation. For future students reading Palmer’s work, understanding some of the relationship between historical materialism and social history points toward an enduring methodology that still forms the backbone of a critically important way of understanding the past, and one in which students might reinvest future energies. I divide Palmer’s scholarship into three distinct eras. These are roughly divided by decades, commencing in 1976 with his first labour histories, moving to cultural critique and analysis, and culminating with the publication of Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression [From Medieval to Modern] in 2000.2 Exploring Palmer’s social history in these different eras prompts a rethinking aimed at existing scholars and charts a road map for new scholars who might look to Palmer’s work for a sense of how to proceed with social history that is empirically grounded, political, and emancipatory.
For the first decade of his career, Palmer was regarded as a labour historian first and foremost. This was natural given the topics of his early research and his involvement in the early days of Labour/Le Travail, and given that his contemporaries and collaborators were other young labour historians, including Gregory S. Kealey, Peter Warrian, Wayne Roberts, and Michael B. Katz. Influences also mattered. Palmer was trained at the formative moment of the emergence of New Left labour history, following in the footsteps of historians David Montgomery, Herbert G. Gutman, and Palmer’s doctoral supervisor, Melvyn Dubofsky. As a doctoral student at the State University of New York, Palmer studied craft culture and class conflict in Hamilton in the late nineteenth century (the same research from which the above example was drawn). With this pedigree in both the radical and the nouveau, one might expect Palmer’s early work to proclaim itself under the banner of historical materialism, but it does not. Palmer did not identify himself in writing as a Marxist historian in this era. He addresses this in the introduction to his 2015 two-volume collection of essays, writing about his commitment during his formative years to movement, discussion, and forceful argument. He continues, “I was nonetheless reluctant to decisively declare myself a Marxist. I felt I had a lot to learn and needed to earn the right to proclaim myself a Marxist historian.”3 This is not retrospective humility. Palmer’s early work and his first discussions of historical methodology are restrained on both polemic and politics. Instead, they reveal an attempt to study social history in a way that opens up new dimensions of class struggle and, in turn, working-class experience. Methodologically, they are helpful for the possibility of considering the interchange between labour history and social history.
What is Palmer’s social history? From his earliest work he was confident that social history would advance understandings of Canadian working people by expanding our view of what their lives included. It would also add new insight into where to find the experiences of working people. In a very early piece, Palmer writes, “what is needed in Canadian historiography is a sensitive appreciation of the social and cultural lives of men and women in the obscure and obscured settings of the past . . . For the historian who will probe local sources with diligence and imagination the potential and promise of a richer history slowly unfolds.”4 This idea is both simple and transformative. Taken on its own, it illustrates the young Palmer as isolated from polemics. He’s not talking here about working-class culture or experience in the ways that would define debates about labour history in the 1980s. The statement simply asks historians to do the work of understanding the lives of their subjects, and it points toward one direction that makes it possible. That Palmer’s critics would later politicize such a prescription says much more about the conclusions this method makes possible than the practice of social history itself. Palmer did arrive at different conclusions, and in time he would come to defend them polemically. However, the method is important, and in Palmer’s case it is often overlooked because of perceptions about his motivating ideology and politics. He would have more to say about these later, but in his early work Palmer’s theoretical orientations are more restrained and directed toward moving social history forward. In one of his first key statements on historical materialism, he identifies not this term but the “empirical Marxism” underlying A Culture in Conflict: Skilled Workers and Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860–1914 (1979). Palmer defines this as a tradition that “takes history itself as the basis of an inquiry that seeks to refine and reformulate theory, rather than positing theory as the basis of an abstract and general history.”5 This Palmer paired with E. P. Thompson’s maxim that history not only tests theory, it reconstructs theory.6 This is the essential and cautious nature of the relationship between theory and history in Palmer’s first decade.
Palmer provides a straightforward definition of social history in A Culture in Conflict: “Social history, based upon empirical research, uses the sharp detail of limited chronology or restricted region to illuminate the human dimensions of the past.”7 This he contrasts with sociological history, which is larger and concerned with understanding the transformation and social changes taking place on a much larger scale. Social history is more direct, more constrained, and empirical. This is a useful place to pause, as Palmer’s narrow approach was often the source of criticism—particularly when other labour historians considered the choices he made about where to direct his focus. In his first monograph, Palmer expands upon the possibilities that social history holds for understanding working-class experience. A Culture in Conflict focuses on skilled workers in Hamilton, Ontario between 1860 and 1914. The book has three aims: to establish the importance of skilled workers, to study their culture, and to use this study to understand the emerging patterns of class conflict in Hamilton. Can this goal be accomplished through the study of skilled workers? Palmer offers a compelling defence for his choice at the outset of the book. He writes, “Skilled workers were chosen as the prism through which to view these processes because they tended, in light of their workplace power and organization strength, as well as their history of cultural involvement, to serve as the cutting edge of the working-class movement as a whole.”8 But the possibilities of this social history are larger still. While critics suggested that Palmer was wrongly narrowing his view by focusing on skilled workers, he suggested that social history reaches beyond its focus on the specific. In A Culture in Conflict, Palmer argues that skilled workers cannot be analytically isolated from other sections of the labouring population, women, children, and the unskilled. This carries forth themes from his earliest work in which Palmer insisted on finding space to understand both the visible and hidden elements of class conflict.
One of the clearest examples of “the hidden” and how it emerged in Palmer’s early work is his treatment of women’s role in nineteenth-century class struggle. First, the absence of women in his own early working-class histories was plainly evident to Palmer, and he noted this. In “Most Uncommon Common Men,” he argues that one significant part of the culture of skilled craftsmen of the 1820s and 1830s was that it was a male culture and that it was often at women’s expense that opposition to the bourgeoisie was expressed.9 But Palmer’s social history was also wide-ranging in this period, and other writing featured women more prominently. A 1978 article on the enforcement of popular standards of morality through charivaris and whitecapping provides a stark contrast to other research from this era about skilled workers.10 This was a history of the sometimes violent undercurrent of rough culture, and a history that frequently embroiled women and families in conflict and its resolution. Palmer writes about charivari performances that served as a response to wide-ranging transgressions—everything from marital infidelity to domestic violence. Thus, the charivari ritual was in part a performance of moral regulation that both involved women and targeted them as subjects of community protection. Palmer’s investigation of these forms of working-class culture shines a light into areas of life that histories of skilled workers, law enforcement, or patrician life cannot reach—what he calls “the obscure corners of everyday life.”11 Palmer creates space for understanding what can and what cannot be seen. These methodological and historical assertions are a significant element of what Palmer’s work accomplishes, have been so often missed by his critics, and can be employed by new scholars. They also point toward the larger importance of his methodology. Social history’s limited scope can be used to point to larger conclusions and open new possibilities of understanding. Palmer makes this possible by looking at both cultural and structural forms. In a chapter on paternalist authority in Working-Class Experience: The Rise and Reconstitution of Canadian Labour, 1800–1980 (1983), he discusses the role of wage labour and family structures. Without using the same vocabulary, Palmer’s social history is linked to the separate spheres lens employed by historians Margaret McCallum and Bettina Bradbury and reaches similar conclusions. Understanding wage labour and its effect upon women in the workplace and the home reveals working-class life unfolding in a family rather than individual economy. His recognition of this in the same era that women’s history was fighting for space in the Canadian historiographical landscape shows that Palmer was attentive to questions of gender and family. This informed his larger view of how the working class lived. Palmer grounded his analysis of the working class in an understanding of the family as a central component of working-class life, concluding:
It was thus in families both fragile and resilient that the working class reproduced itself over the course of the nineteenth century, families in which cultural attachments and visions, ideals and a measure of autonomy were circumscribed by material realities and the pervasive influence of work. As such, the working-class family was a force that embraced the related currents of conscious human agency and structured social necessity.12
How does a social historian move from the specific to the general? There are multiple compelling examples from throughout Palmer’s first decade that illustrate his approach. First, an article from 1980 that considers the response of Kingston mechanics to the rise of the Canadian penitentiary in the 1830s.13 In this piece, Palmer focuses on opposition to the new penitentiary at Kingston as a way to introduce the early history of craftsmen, mechanics, and labourers. It was a first opportunity for working-class people in Upper Canada to express their common interest, and, in turn, develop a very early sign of class consciousness. The mechanics opposed the penitentiary for multiple reasons. They viewed the competition of labourers with convicts and “rogues” as a development to be resisted. It was unthinkable to many that the state should side with criminals and undermine the labour of honest men. In the very contours of this debate, Palmer unveils something about the character of the nascent class conflict of early Kingston. Not only did the issue of convict labour set workingmen against the aims of the Tory aristocracy who promoted the penitentiary, it revealed the divide between the working poor and the underclass they presumed to be the target of the new institution.14 Why focus on this very specific issue? In part because the history of plebeian life in this era is difficult to reconstruct. Palmer shines a light on a particular movement and political concern that reveals something about the values and behaviours of workingmen, and, in turn, allows for a discussion of class in early Canada. In the case of understanding the anti-penitentiary movement, this involved a painstaking recreation of how the movement unfolded in Kingston and beyond to other settings in Upper Canada. Through newspapers, Palmer tracked the mechanics meeting by meeting, often capturing the essential details of discussions, who attended each gathering, and, ultimately, the momentum that the cause attained. Palmer’s analysis of the larger meaning gains a similar momentum throughout the piece. Moving from the specifics of the mechanics’ meetings, he links the anti-penitentiary cause with the arrival of reform politics in Upper Canada and the ways its rise became linked to the penitentiary. And in the larger sense, understanding how and why these meetings took place allows Palmer to suggest the beginnings of an Ontario working-class movement that was larger than the boundaries of specific communities. The anti-penitentiary movement is both a local history and the beginnings of a movement culture that was larger than Kingston. Palmer arrives at these conclusions by connecting one context to another—a key component of his method. The movement was also proscribed by the unique social relations of Upper Canada politics in the 1830s, a history that Palmer analyzes through the lens of paternal authority as a means of coming to a more complex understanding of the larger meaning of the anti-penitentiary movement. Balanced against his account of the mechanics’ cause, Palmer details the political machinations of Christopher Hagerman, the Kingston member of the legislative assembly and key proponent of the Kingston Penitentiary. In this portrait of how Tory authorities quelled dissent and accommodated the mechanics, Palmer draws a fuller picture of the unique character of early class struggle and how it was stifled by the dominant social power of paternal authority of early Upper Canada.
Palmer again positions paternalism as a key category in understanding class as it existed in Upper Canada. He moves from the specific to the general by attempting to understand what such political moments said about the emergence of class. While other authors have argued that there was no definitive class structure in this period, Palmer adapts his perspective on paternalism into a deeper analysis that speaks to the emergence of class struggle through dissent like the anti-penitentiary movement. He does this in part through a discussion of paternalism as a way of understanding both authority and dissent. Palmer draws on H. Clare Pentland’s Labour and Capital in Canada, 1650–1860 and its assertion that productive and social relations before 1850 developed in a particular context of status, hierarchy, symbols, privileges, and loyalties.15 In Working-Class Experience, Palmer argues that paternalism was the dominant form of social relationship in this era:
As a prevailing ethos that defined relations of superordination and subordination in an age of commercial capital and nascent industrialism, paternalism grew out of the necessity to justify exploitation and mediate inherently irreconcilable interests. It rationalized inequality and provided for a hierarchical order, but did so in diverse ways. In its historical manifestations, it included kindness and affection of superiors toward subordinates, as well as cruelty, harshness, and gross insensitivity. But paternalism’s ultimate significance, regardless of its character, lay in undermining the collectivity of the oppressed by linking them to their “social superiors.”16
In this way, Palmer identifies paternalism not only as an outgrowth of economic relations but as politics itself, as a political practice. His understanding of paternalism is a way to understand resistance and accommodation in all sorts of settings and with groups that were caught in various levels of subordination throughout the nineteenth century.
In spite of the detail he employs in describing the anti-penitentiary movement, Palmer admits a particular ambivalence about what can be achieved in understanding the history of this era. This is a comment on what social history can and cannot accomplish. What does the movement teach us about class in early Upper Canada? Palmer notes that the divergent material conditions of those who opposed the penitentiary call into question their joint class interests. Both journeymen and propertied masters joined in this cause. Thus, according to different views of class, this agitation might look less significant. Those who view class only as a structural category will see these divisions and argue there was no cohesion in the movement. Analysis seeking class consciousness will also find this historical moment lacking. Palmer responds to both with a clear assertion of the meaning of class that he returns to repeatedly throughout his first decade of scholarship: “class emerges out of social cleavage, antagonism, and struggle. It has no meaning apart from the historical experience, and it is conditioned over time, as men and women come to react in class ways to class situations.”17 This active confrontation is partly what defines Palmer’s social history and is linked to his understanding of class throughout his first decade of scholarship. Social history can confront class experience by considering both conflict and culture in a historical discussion of class.18 This is not Palmer using one abstract concept to define another. It marks a return to his early calls for a sensitive appreciation of the past. He writes, “social history raises the possibility of a different kind of understanding, a ‘feel’ for the human context of historical development.”19 This approach advocates for a sympathetic understanding as a way of seeing cultural continuities and the lives of working people. This directs Palmer toward understanding culture and conflict as essential components of working-class experience.
Seeing class through the methods of social history led Palmer to a deeper analysis of the social and productive relations of early Canada.20 It would also inform his scholarship when it moved into analysis of the later decades of the nineteenth century and an era in which class divisions became far more pronounced. In 1982, Palmer and collaborator Gregory S. Kealey published Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880–1900. The book explores the emergence and decline of the Knights of Labor in Ontario, connecting local and international contexts in an examination of a moment of particular struggle and alternative. It is a positive reinterpretation of the accomplishments of the Knights and an attempt to understand and establish its class character and importance in Canadian labour history.21
Dreaming is curiously inverted, in that its most pressing analytical contributions follow multiple chapters of contextual detail that outline the rise and fall of the Knights in both small-town Ontario and the larger urban centres of Hamilton and Toronto. This establishes the Knights as a movement that seriously challenged the economic and political order of Ontario, even if the challenge was brief and ultimately unsuccessful. But these chapters of the book see the honourable order as something more than fleeting and worthy of celebration. Why? In the eighth chapter, titled “‘Spread the Light!’: Forging a Culture,” Kealey and Palmer unload the big guns and address multiple questions about the role of culture in understanding working-class experience. First, working-class culture becomes the object of historical investigation with the aim of understanding the nature of the opposition that the Knights represented. The title of the chapter speaks to the argument that there was a culture to forge and that it is revealed by the success and failure of the Knights. Second, and more importantly, the chapter considers the larger significance of what this culture means. If we are to understand opposition, the authors argue, we must look beyond the political and the economic and into “the sphere of culture.” Culture is essential, they argue, for what it reveals of the tension between the ruling class and its challengers. They write, “For it was there that the dominance of the ruling class expressed itself in a pervasive and generally unquestioned hegemony. A subordinate class must reach toward an alternative hegemony if it ever hopes to dominate the ethos of society.”22 This reveals both the nature of bourgeois hegemony and the possibilities of a response from an emerging working class. Kealey and Palmer see the Knights of Labor as forging a movement culture. It was an active challenge to ruling-class hegemony. It was a movement culture of alternative, opposition, and potential.23 Kealey and Palmer write, “The forging of a culture of solidarity and resistance, of alternative and promise, in which a class is drawn together in opposition to another class, thus stands as a point of departure for the revolutionary movement.”24 The potentiality of the movement is key, because the first half of the book illustrates the multiple ways that the Knights were unsuccessful. But the order held the possibility for alternative and challenge, and thus, for Kealey and Palmer, was at the very core of the making of class in Ontario between 1880 and 1900. The excitement and possibilities of this interpretive connection are palpable in the text as Kealey and Palmer arrive at it, and even forty years on the interpretation is powerful. These arguments about culture are also complex. Kealey and Palmer offer what may serve as a helpful note of caution for other scholars seeking to follow this method. They identify a working-class culture, but one often steeped in ambivalence and contradiction. Culture is complex, and it often reveals itself in ways that demand a dialectical view of how it appears in history. One of the most enduring ideas from Dreaming is Kealey and Palmer’s call to seek to understand the old and the new, the relationship between residual class culture and the emergent movement culture.25
The insights of Palmer’s early work, and particularly his collaboration with Kealey, were not always received enthusiastically by the labour history community in Canada, an issue explored in several other chapters in this collection. Years later, this is largely immaterial to the success or failure of Palmer’s method, unless we consider his method to be oppositional by design. It was always clear that Palmer courted a certain degree of opposition, or at least expected it as the natural response to his objections in the historiographical realm. Palmer’s critics mischaracterized his work or viewed it in a reductionist fashion, painting him as a “culturalist” or his contributions as “the new labour history.”26 This point bears some thought as it was deployed against Palmer’s early work to suggest that he was looking in the wrong direction, focusing on the wrong workers, and sending labour history into unimportant areas. Social historians of all stripes will readily recognize such criticisms, particularly those who study women, marginalized populations, and people of colour. These, too, were identified as the wrong subjects by critics who located important history elsewhere.
Palmer characterized this criticism in a 1986 article in which he felt compelled to respond to attacks upon himself and Kealey. The criticisms did not come from conservatives, but rather from conservative labour historians and social democrats like Kenneth McNaught, who saw Palmer and Kealey as going too far and too fast, and, in effect, as including too much in their analysis of the working class.27 McNaught argued instead for closer attention to the “smart union leadership” of a later generation that accomplished much of the twentieth-century social welfare program that characterized Canada in the mid-twentieth century. A second broad criticism was levelled by David Bercuson, who argued that the existence of ethnic and gender divisions in the decades covered by Palmer and Kealey negated the existence of a working-class culture.28 Palmer responded to the notion that divisions of any kind could repudiate working-class resistance and experience as it appears in his work. He wrote, “classes, as structural entities, exist in capitalism and, as social and cultural expressions, are made, unmade, and remade in particular historical periods.”29 Here, Palmer sets aside the presentism of both McNaught and Bercuson and argues simply that their view is not the entire history. What came later, he reminds us, was the dismantling of many of these victories. More importantly, what came before is surely just as important. The exclusivity of McNaught’s criticisms clearly bristled Palmer, who asked what was to be made of those studying other experiences—“the family, the work process, periods when social democratic leadership was not on the agenda.”30 Some of the many debates between factions of labour historians in the 1970s and 1980s will be of little interest to future social historians. This one matters. Palmer’s stance is a defence of social history itself and what it can reveal to us about the larger working-class experience—an experience that some labour historians have sought to marginalize as unimportant.
A central part of Palmer’s mid-1980s response to his critics drew on themes present through the first decade of his scholarship and that surrounded the methodological goals of totality. It is worth pausing on this concept as it formed the basis of much of Palmer’s responses to how others read his first decade of scholarship, his emergence as a Marxist scholar, and his defence of social history as the historical profession changed in the late 1980s. Palmer ultimately answered his critics and their instincts toward narrowly defined labour history by pointing at what is possible with a larger view. His work with Kealey, Palmer argued, offered “the promise of a history that can embrace capital and labour, production and reproduction, struggle and accommodation, culture and not culture.”31 This is one clear way to understand totality, a concept that Palmer drew from Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness. Lukács helped to move historical materialism away from economic determinism toward an understanding of history as the whole over its parts. In a chapter on Rosa Luxemburg, Lukács wrote:
It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science.32
This passage gives some grounding to Palmer’s historical materialism, which was always interested in the activist, subjective, and cultural elements of history and the discovery of these through a dialectical method of social history.
Social history was changing in the 1980s, and Palmer’s work intersected with this debate in a significant way. Palmer later labelled the explosion of critical theory as a period in which the cultural logical of late capitalism, labelled postmodernism, would strike repeated blows at historical materialism.33 After Working-Class Experience, he engaged in a protracted debate about the “linguistic turn” taken by working-class and social history. This debate began in the pages of International Labor and Working-Class History in 1987 in a roundtable discussion centred on an essay by Joan Wallach Scott. In “On Language, Gender, and Working-Class History,” Scott proceeds from the simple assertion that, as she sees it, gender has not been taken seriously for what it can provide in a reconceptualization of labour history. How can women be introduced as subject and gender as an analytical category? Scott points to theories of language contained in poststructuralism and cultural anthropology as directions that will bring language and gender forward as a way of understanding the “making” of a working class. Scott’s argument is a significant departure from historical materialism as she positions language as the key to this project. In turn, she argues, if we can understand how language constructs meaning, it will also be possible to find gender.34
Palmer’s response to Scott, appearing in the roundtable discussion in International Labor and Working-Class History, marks the start of a significant period of objection in his career.35 First, and in the confines of the roundtable discussion, Palmer notes that Scott’s call to attend to the gendered features of language is indisputable. This was consistent with Palmer’s own orientation toward gender in his labour history as well as his ongoing support for feminist labour histories in the 1980s. But how to arrive at this goal? Here, Palmer disputes the notion that the origins of class might be found in the language of political struggle because this method will break so fundamentally with historical materialism.36 Historical materialism has always been attendant to language, and Palmer notes that language plays a role in ordering working-class concepts of politics. But his objection begins with the point that language cannot exist independently of material contexts; it is not a structure unto itself. Palmer states this most effectively in the succinct statement: “To say that language matters is not to say it is all that matters.”37 His larger point in the response to Scott is more nuanced, but still only gestures toward the role that discourse might play: “Class is indeed a difficult development to grasp precisely because in both its subjective and objective guises it reproduces the social order at the same time as it challenges it. Language and gender figure in this decisively.”38
The 1980s was a difficult decade for social history in Canada and elsewhere, and Palmer would build upon his initial reactions to the linguistic turn with a more sustained and influential work of academic dissent. E. P. Thompson’s passage on opposition appearing in Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution nearly perfectly mirrors Palmer’s position. Thompson writes: “It is only to be expected that such people will run into misrepresentation of various kinds. This generally awaits those who have the temerity to object within the heart of swollen imperial consensus. Nor should this bother them much, since they know it is one plain part of their business to be objectionable.”39 Palmer was moving toward confrontation of a different type of swollen consensus as he confronted the linguistic turn of the 1980s and the ways it was changing social history. There is a pretty direct line between the roundtable response to Scott’s piece and Palmer’s next significant contribution, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History, published in 1990.
At the core of Descent into Discourse and its engagement with critical theory is a defence of historical materialism that will surely outlast the debates about literary theory that occupied Palmer at the end of the 1980s. This is not to say that the sparring between Palmer and his critics no longer matters, but it is of less utility than the enduring strength of his arguments about language and historical materialism and what future scholars can take as a guide to its methodologies for writing social history. These parts of Palmer’s argument in Descent into Discourse both look back at the origins of the Marxist approach to language and historical materialism and provide a guide for moving these insights forward. At the core, Palmer argues that historical materialism need not be cast aside to incorporate the insights of discourse analysis into social history. Marx and Engels both appreciated the need to incorporate multiple relations into an understanding of history. This included the political, ideological, and, in the last instance, the economic. Palmer cites Marx writing to Annenkov in 1846: “The social history of men is never anything but the history of their individual development, whether they are conscious of it or not. Their material relations are the basis of all their relations.”40 This Palmer pairs with the essential statement by Marx from the opening statement of “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.41
The point Palmer makes here is that social lives make up history, and our view of what that encompasses must be expansive. Palmer’s call is to recover the spirits of the past in our social history, a task he has excelled at throughout his own work and which he uses to great effect in Descent into Discourse to illustrate how language is essential but never enough on its own. In the conclusion of the book, Palmer writes a passage that echoes both Engels and Marx in their famous statements about how men make history, incorporating the question about language into his definition:
Historical materialism has no difficulty accommodating an appreciation of the materiality of texts and the importance of discourse. To the extent that it has always embraced a tension-ridden duality in which human agency and structural determination rub up against each other creatively, historical materialism is rooted in appreciation of the extent to which men and women make history and are made within it.42
The specific chapter on historical materialism takes this argument and supports it by pointing to authors and works of historical materialism that accomplish this task. Palmer argues that it is untrue that social historians have avoided a discussion of language in their work.43 Palmer might have cited his own earlier work more extensively to accomplish this task, but he points instead to C L. R. James and E. P. Thompson. Palmer’s discussion of Thompson is particularly useful in working through the role that language played in the social history of historical materialism a generation before the linguistic turn of the 1980s. What Palmer identifies in Thompson’s use of language also serves as an ongoing guide to how social historians can use Thompson’s insights into language to build their own methodological rigour toward sources and historical subjects.
One oft-cited example from Thompson’s work demonstrates the historical-materialist use of discourses and helps to make this point. Thompson’s work sought to illustrate in various ways how the language of radicalism contributed to the making of class. The realm of public discourse was essential in this making, and Thompson accented this through attention to tone and the rhythms of speech necessary to convey particular meanings. Language as meaning was also essential to understanding the subtleties of histories of the working class that would otherwise be lost. Palmer wrote about how Thompson’s talent as a linguistic historian of eighteenth-century speech allowed him to decode hegemony through the language of the oppressed. This is a point that Palmer would draw into his own work on the Upper Canada of the 1830s and a thread that would follow through to the Knights of Labor at the end of the nineteenth century. Thompson understood that deference and paternalism, particularly as it was performed and spoken, can encompass resistance and resignation—both conclusions that can only be reached by considering the materiality of texts. A useful passage for understanding this point is the brief passage by a radical in 1834: “Orphans we are, and bastards of society.” Palmer cites this line in two different texts, notable as it is due to appearing on the final page of The Making of the English Working Class.44 Thompson’s point was that this sentiment signified pride rather than resignation. Palmer reads it as both the evidence of Thompson’s facility with discourse and as the intensely political nature of radical history to stand against the failure of revolution in England. And the larger point in both interpretations stands: that the historical materialist can employ discourse on multiple levels but remain connected to the explanatory power of how class is made and remade.
Finally, Descent into Discourse is an emancipatory text because it stood in opposition to a moment in academic politics that desperately required objection. Palmer correctly identified this moment and stood in objection, unwilling to see social history dissolve and coalesce into the centre of the political spectrum. About Thompson, Palmer wrote that he “lived his objections openly,” and this is also a reflection of his own style on the publication of Descent into Discourse.
If Descent into Discourse was Palmer’s confrontation with post-thought on the terrain of intellectual history, his next objection to the changing directions of historical inquiry played out as a new and significant contribution. Palmer’s social history was swept into a confrontation not only with intellectual changes but with the changing scope of capitalist and imperial power at the end of the 1990s. The result was Cultures of Darkness: Palmer’s sprawling and brilliant six-hundred-page exploration of “the night.” The book is Palmer’s overture to understanding marginality and difference and the worlds that exist outside of capitalism’s ever-expanding hegemony. It is a social history unlike any other. Cultures of Darkness stands alongside Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class as a towering achievement in social history for pushing us forward again to an understanding of the making of class in radical ways that illustrate the revolutionary and emancipatory possibilities of social history and historical materialism.
In Cultures of Darkness, Palmer proves himself to be as adept at cultural analysis and textual interpretation as he was at the particularities of limited chronology and the restricted region of his earlier work. There is a tremendous irony at work, in that Palmer had made such a polemical objection about post-thought in Descent into Discourse, ruffling feathers (to put it mildly) and standing his ground in the world of historical materialism. But in Cultures of Darkness there seems to be an abrupt change of course. In the introduction, Palmer signals his intent to bring Michel Foucault and Marx together as a way of synthesizing a larger understanding of marginality. Palmer makes this admission: “What Marx missed was what Foucault, in a way, grasped. Marginality’s making was not just externally imposed, but also internally, subjectively, constituted.”45 In this synthesis of the two thinkers, Palmer makes marginality in history something bigger. He argues that it is simultaneously an identity/consciousness and a structure/place. It is both lived as an experience and socially constructed as a representation.46 Cultures of Darkness thus moves past the objections of Descent into Discourse and proclaims that Foucault’s insights are important but cannot be understood without Marx as our guide. In this duality between Marx and Foucault, it is clear that Palmer’s Cultures of Darkness is not a departure from historical materialism. The central objection of his critique of post-thought remains, and Palmer leverages this dissent into a methodology for understanding a different way to approach social history. He reiterates the essential argument of Descent into Discourse like this: “‘post’ thought denies the very importance of a systematic center of exploitation’s and oppression’s causality and issues its clarion call for pluralism and diversity, in which proliferating stories of class, race, and gender coexist in a discursive ensemble of meanings.”47 Palmer builds upon this point as he returns to the ideas that animated much of the debate about his earliest contributions in social history. The post-project, he suggests, had collapsed in a denial of understanding the experiential subject and locating it at what he calls, “the powerfully formative conjuncture of self and society where history is ultimately made and remade.”48 Thus, Cultures of Darkness makes a bold promise indeed: to understand identity, marginality, and the subject in the post-thought intellectual climate, but using the perspective and methodologies of historical materialism.
Using this method, Palmer made some fascinating choices about where to touch down in Cultures of Darkness. The book was conceived of as a history of marginality and transgression on a much larger scale than Palmer’s earlier historical work. The setting is capitalism itself, in seeking to find the places in which marginality is lived—in the darkness, the nighttime, and the hidden spaces yet untouched by the relentless exploitation of capitalism. Palmer touches on witches and monsters, devil worship, Jacobin revolution, Chicago bomb-throwers, jazz and blues clubs, pirates, and taverns—among many others. The scope of the text is enormous, truly covering darkness from “medieval to modern” and moving through the realms of literature, art, music, and histories, social, economic, sexual, and discursive. Palmer brings all these together with the goal of making “the coerced marginalities of history a viable force of transformative alternative.”49 This is a bold attempt at a new metanarrative constructed around alternative and opposition. The attempt is Palmer’s definitive objection, on the terrain of social history, to both the fracturing of the field and the theoretical disintegration that he first identified a decade earlier. Cultures of Darkness is perhaps the defining moment in Palmer’s social history—a startling intervention that displays all of the historical sensitivity of Thompson, Genovese, and Gutman. It also reveals Palmer as a prodigious reader and interpreter of a stunning array of textual sources that he draws into conversation with his historical interpretation. There is no book like it.
Unique as it is, the book reflects the themes from Palmer’s social history of decades before. First, it asks us, as Palmer did in the late 1970s, to look in new places for the history of struggle and class. He opens the book with commentaries on the metaphorical night, stating simply as an entreaty to enter into this world: “the night is different, its opposition to day marked by darkness and danger.”50 Here in the realm of the metaphorical night, Palmer takes us far beyond the early debates of union hall versus home, skilled and unskilled, and culture and not culture, and invites us to think about a different plane on which transgression unfolds. He explores transgression, “not just in time and place, but within metaphorical spaces where it is possible to see difference defined and lived, however obscured.”51 In these spaces, Palmer is reaching for “otherness” in a way that moves past the categories usually identified by post-thought histories of the 1990s dealing with class, racial, and gender exploitation. He gestures toward long histories of resistance and transgression that speak to the cultural interests of his early labour histories. The book introduces cultural histories of possibilities that push back against the constraints of the daytime worlds of capital. Palmer seeks to capture “quietly clandestine histories,” a task he acknowledges will be incomplete, difficult to accomplish, and possible only with the assistance of witnesses to the nighttime worlds that are hidden from view.52
This return to the hidden, a concept so central to his early work, allows Palmer to move in new directions and to arrive at new conclusions. It also illustrates Palmer’s ability to use social history for new purposes. Where are some of the hidden realms he uncovers? In some worlds, they exist in the realm of the conceptual, as with the chapter on devil worship. Palmer writes, “To travel from the centers of capitalist accumulation, with their exploitation of factory production workers, to the margins of proletarianization is to enter another world of inequality, subordination, and sociocultural imbalance.”53 In this inequality, Palmer finds the clash of old and new in the use of traditional cultures and “ritualized engagements and occult power.”54 In discussing proletarianization and the collision of colonial power with the underdeveloped world, Palmer expands his view of how capital has ordered the lives of the working class, in new settings that take us far from the heart of capitalist development in the metropolitan centre. In this spot, Palmer identifies devil worship as yet another form of resistance to subordination. Moving from cultural history of this kind, he makes similar conclusions about transgressive sexualities in the fourth part of the book about eroticism and revolutions. The questions Palmer raises about the dangers of eroticism build upon the earlier chapters on the dangerous classes and push our understanding of how to pair identity with the making of class. What are the transgressive possibilities of illicit and hidden sexual subcultures? In a chapter on homosexuality, Palmer traces the long history of gay sexuality in a way that delivers on his promised potentials of literary analysis and social history combined. Operating within the metaphor of night, the chapter illustrates the histories of transgression, resistance, and oppression that gay people struggled within and against through the centuries, ending with 1980’s New York City and the conclusion that the darkness is both liberating and oppressive. Palmer writes, “the nurturing darkness also suffocates; it is a night of long birth and slow death. Sexuality, like all sites of oppression, requires nothing less than a revolution to free it from its many fetters.”55
Palmer’s aim to reach for a new metanarrative of alternative may seem like a departure from the limited and specific constraints of his early social history. Cultures of Darkness is a big book and its breadth, even in the first handful of chapters, is overwhelming. Part 2 moves from peasant uprising (tracked over many centuries) through the history of witchcraft and arrives at the pornographic fantasies of the libertine aristocrats of the eighteenth century. While the limited chronology is abandoned, the chapters hold together through the bonds of the metaphors Palmer explores—for example, giving form to the peasantry and recovering their transgressive potential through the exploration of the nights they inhabited that pushed them beyond stoicism and toward bloody uprising. These are both the real and imagined terrors of the night—themes Palmer returns to again in later chapters dealing with monsters in the age of revolution. One can imagine the book, too, as a series of lectures in a course Palmer taught at Queen’s University as he researched and wrote Cultures of Darkness. The cohesion of each chapter as a discrete idea is connected to the larger arguments about night and transgression. Other chapters in the book are more concrete still, treading the ground of both ideological construction and the blood-and-guts history of working-class resistance. Take, for example, a chapter on the “dangerous classes,” in which Palmer explores the American class mobilizations of 1886 and returns again to the Knights of Labor in the United States context. Palmer probes the meaning of the construction of the criminalized poor in the nineteenth century. This occurred as the working class made itself and expanded rapidly in urban centres and the bourgeoisie recoiled from the dangerous potential of a homogenized other, one it frequently associated with the darkness. The necessity of darkness is also probed, from the veil of nighttime assumed by strike leaders and labour leaders, and specifically by the Knights of Labor in their secretive associational culture and activities. Palmer follows this potential through to the vanguard of working-class politics in the revolutionary actions of anarchist politics in 1886 and the Haymarket bombing. He also locates the making of the working class in unique settings, including jazz and blues clubs and the beat culture originating in the 1940s. Palmer travels across this terrain, locating the making of culture as an important element in the making of class and a narrative of opposition and alternative. This performance of estrangement, played out in the world of darkness, stood against the conformity of the capitalist day. In both jazz and beat culture, resistance could live in the avant-garde.56
Cultures of Darkness is also a unique work for how it wields cultural studies to grasp at the same elements of historical change that animate the best works of historical materialism. In this work we see class in new terms as Palmer pushes the boundaries of how we understand the making and remaking of class. It is a history still devoted to understanding class struggle and seeking to reveal what Palmer later calls “clashing social antagonists embedded in irreconcilable difference.”57 But it seeks to juxtapose these antagonists in new ways and on different terrains. And in Cultures of Darkness, perhaps more than in any other history by Palmer, he attempts to understand those elements of “sensuous practical human activity” that are at the core of historical materialism’s approach to class. The history that unfolds in this work is the history of human agency, resistance, and social life glimpsed in settings that must fall within the lens of social history. Palmer’s sensitivity to all of this, his ability to find and understand those elements of sensuous human activity, is often startling, but is reflective of the interests that have animated all of his writing.
And so, while Palmer ends Cultures of Darkness on the following skeptical note, his larger message is ultimately hopeful—as is all of his work. It is in the breakdown of identity politics that Palmer sees a way forward. Hope exists in the opposition to the impulses that capital exhibits in identifying and restricting otherness. There is the seed of something in the spaces created by this impulse. Palmer writes:
This book, then, is no postmodern celebration of fragmentation, ephemerality, and social indetermination. It does not so much champion marginalization and transgression as acknowledge their coerced being, explore their cultural resiliencies, and suggest that their historicized presence, constrained limitations, and capacities to articulate a challenge to ensconced power are never islands unto themselves. They are always reciprocally related to the material world of production and exchange, where oppression and exploitation are universal attributes of night’s freedoms and fears as well as day’s more transparent politics of inequality.58
Palmer sees difference as a possibility for social transformation, not an end point. Palmer’s social history, enacted on a grand scale throughout Cultures of Darkness, points to some of the ways that this transformation has existed in the “caves and crevices of capitalism’s powerful days of oppression and exploitation.”59 The hope that lies in this text is that Palmer dares to search in the darkness for the possibility for emancipation. If we can look for class in its emergence from struggle, we can continue to reach for multiple possibilities for freedom. This is the true potential for social history, realized in all of Palmer’s work.
- 1. Bryan D. Palmer, “Most Uncommon Common Men: Craft and Culture in Historical Perspective,” Labour/Le Travailleur 1 (1976): 6–7.
- 2. While this essay concludes its examination with Cultures of Darkness (2000), it was not Palmer’s final statement of social history. He would move from the cultural back to the political through the study of American Communist politics, resulting in a book on James Cannon and another related work on the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of 1934. Both works are addressed in a chapter by John McIlroy and Alan Campbell in this volume. In the midst of this research, Palmer also published Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) and later Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History with Gaétan Héroux (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016).
- 3. Bryan D. Palmer, “Introduction,” in Interpretive Essays on Class Formation and Class Struggle, vol. 1, Marxism and Historical Practice (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 3.
- 4. Palmer, “Most Uncommon Common Men,” 21.
- 5. Bryan D. Palmer, A Culture in Conflict: Skilled Workers and Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860–1914 (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1979), xiii.
- 6. Quoted in Henry Abelove et al., Visions of History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), 16.
- 7. Palmer, A Culture in Conflict, xiv.
- 8. Ibid., xii.
- 9. Palmer, “Most Uncommon Common Men,” 10.
- 10. Bryan D. Palmer, “Discordant Music: Charivaris and Whitecapping in Nineteenth-Century North America,” Labour/Le Travailleur 3 (1978): 5–62.
- 11. Ibid., 59.
- 12. Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: The Rise and Reconstitution of Canadian Labour, 1800–1980, 1st ed. (Toronto: Butterworth, 1983), 84.
- 13. Bryan D. Palmer, “Kingston Mechanics and the Rise of the Penitentiary, 1833–1836,” Histoire sociale/Social History 13, no. 25 (May 1980): 7–32.
- 14. Ibid., 9–10.
- 15. H. Clare Pentland, Labour and Capital in Canada, 1650–1860 (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1981).
- 16. Palmer, Working-Class Experience (1983), 14.
- 17. Palmer, “Kingston Mechanics,” 27–28.
- 18. Palmer, A Culture in Conflict, xvi.
- 19. Ibid.
- 20. Palmer notes in Working-Class Experience that H. Clare Pentland’s work was one of the few attempts to grapple with the character of social and productive relations in Canada. See Pentland, Labour and Capital in Canada.
- 21. Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan D. Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
- 22. Ibid., 277.
- 23. Kealey and Palmer attribute this phrase to Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).
- 24. Kealey and Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be, 278.
- 25. Ibid.
- 26. See Daniel Drache, “The Formation and Fragmentation of the Canadian Working Class: 1820–1920,” Studies in Political Economy 15 (1984): 43–89; Kenneth McNaught, “E. P. Thompson vs Harold Logan: Writing about Labour and the Left in the 1970s,” Canadian Historical Review 62, no. 2 (1981): 141–68.
- 27. Bryan D. Palmer, “Listening to History Rather Than Historians: Reflections on Working Class History,” Studies in Political Economy 20, no. 1 (1986): 47–84.
- 28. Bercuson’s criticisms appear in David J. Bercuson, “Through the Looking Glass of Culture: An Essay on the New Labour History and Working-Class Culture in Recent Canadian Historical Writing,” Labour/Le Travailleur 7 (Spring 1981): 95–112; and David J. Bercuson, Review of Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880–1900, by Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan D. Palmer, Business History Review 57, no. 4 (Winter 1983): 589–91.
- 29. Palmer, “Listening to History Rather Than Historians,” 54; emphasis original.
- 30. Ibid., 53.
- 31. Ibid., 78; emphasis original.
- 32. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 27–28.
- 33. Bryan D. Palmer, “Historical Materialism and the Writing of Canadian History: A Dialectical View,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 17, no. 2 (2006): 52.
- 34. Joan W. Scott, “On Language, Gender, and Working-Class History,” International Labor and Working-Class History 31 (Spring 1987): 3.
- 35. Bryan D. Palmer, “Response to Joan Scott,” International Labor and Working-Class History 31 (Spring 1987): 14–23.
- 36. Ibid., 19.
- 37. Ibid., 16; emphasis original.
- 38. Ibid., 22.
- 39. E. P. Thompson, “Preface,” in Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution: Ten Essays, by Staughton Lynd (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), xi; emphasis original.
- 40. Cited in Bryan D. Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 53.
- 41. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Selected Works, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968), 97.
- 42. Palmer, Descent into Discourse, 215.
- 43. Ibid., 64.
- 44. Cited in ibid., 78; Bryan D. Palmer, E. P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions (London: Verso, 1994), 96.
- 45. Bryan D. Palmer, Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression [From Medieval to Modern] (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 8.
- 46. Ibid., 6.
- 47. Ibid., 4.
- 48. Ibid.
- 49. Ibid.
- 50. Ibid., 13.
- 51. Ibid., 17.
- 52. Ibid., 19.
- 53. Ibid., 257.
- 54. Ibid.
- 55. Ibid., 300.
- 56. See ibid., chapters 16 and 17.
- 57. Palmer, “Historical Materialism,” 44.
- 58. Palmer, Cultures of Darkness, 457; emphasis original.
- 59. Ibid., 457–58.