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A Contest of Ideas

Capital, Politics, and Labor

Nelson Lichtenstein

Publication Year: 2013

For more than thirty years Nelson Lichtenstein has deployed his scholarship--on labor, politics, and social thought--to chart the history and prospects of a progressive America. A Contest of Ideas collects and updates many of Lichtenstein's most provocative and controversial essays and reviews. These incisive writings link the fate of the labor movement to the transformations in the shape of world capitalism, to the rise of the civil rights movement, and to the activists and intellectuals who have played such important roles. Tracing broad patterns of political thought, Lichtenstein offers important perspectives on the relationship of labor and the state, the tensions that sometimes exist between a culture of rights and the idea of solidarity, and the rise of conservatism in politics, law, and intellectual life. The volume closes with portraits of five activist intellectuals whose work has been vital to the conflicts that engage the labor movement, public policy, and political culture.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: The Working Class in American History


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4


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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Since the essays and interventions in this volume reach back, in some instances, more than thirty years, an acknowledgment of those who have helped along the way constitutes something close to a list of all who have influenced my view of history and politics during those years. Some have been in the academy and others not; ...

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pp. 1-12

In 1983 I visited Clark Kerr, whom Governor Ronald Reagan had fired from his post as president of the University of California some sixteen years before. Kerr still had an office on Channing Way in Berkeley, in the building that housed the UC Institute of Industrial Relations, where I had done much research for my dissertation, ...

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Part I. Shaping Myself, Shaping History

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pp. 13-14

The essays in this section are biographical in orientation, exploring how I have written about the relationship between labor, capital, and politics and why my ideas have often changed over the years. “Writing and Rewriting Labor’s Narrative” explains how, along with so many others in my New Left generation, ...

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Chapter 1. Writing and Rewriting Labor's Narrative

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pp. 15-28

In the years after 1970 my New Left generation inaugurated a remarkable probe into the character, meaning, and history of the working class and its institutions. Two events in particular seemed to crystallize my decision to write a history of unionism and the state during the 1940s. ...

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Chapter 2. Supply-Chain Tourist; or, How Globalization Has Transformed the Labor Question

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pp. 29-37

I’m not much of a tourist, but I’m proud to think that I have visited what are, arguably, the three most important nodes of capitalist production during the last hundred years. When I toured the huge Ford production complex at River Rouge during the winter of 1978, “Detroit,” as both organizational metaphor and industrial city, was already well past its prime. ...

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Chapter 3. Historians as Public Intellectuals

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pp. 38-44

What’s great about writing history is that everyone likes a good story, that academic jargon can often be kept to a minimum, and that a big readership, of a book or a blog, is rarely sniffed at as pandering to the crowd. Many historians find an audience far larger than that of their own professional discipline. ...

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Part II. Capital, Labor, and the State

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pp. 45-46

In order to reform capitalism it is necessary to know where the power to reshape it lies, from the commanding heights of Wall Street and Washington to the gritty combat over authority and pay in thousands of factories, offices, and stores. This seems obvious, but too often social historians have ignored any serious probe into the changing character of U.S. enterprise, ...

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Chapter 4. Tribunes of the Shareholder Class

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pp. 47-55

It is surely a coincidence that the tragic destruction of the World Trade Center, located just a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange, and home to so many stock, bond, and currency traders, was followed within the same decade by two other events that had significant impact on America’s financial industry: (1) the self-destruction of Enron and WorldCom, ...

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Chapter 5. "The Man in the Middle": A Social History of Automobile Industry Foremen

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pp. 56-78

The study of frontline supervisors—in the factory, office, hospital ward, and academic workplace—is once again making waves. The quest for a more efficient, and perhaps more humane, workplace all too often begins with advice and admonition directed toward those who are charged with supervising the daily work lives of the dozen or so individuals ...

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Chapter 6. From Corporatism to Collective Bargaining: Organized Labor and the Eclipse of Social Democracy in the Postwar Era

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pp. 79-99

In recent years the decline of the trade union movement and the eclipse of the liberal ideology it long sustained has thrown into question the political assumptions and organizational structures upon which the New Deal system of social regulation has rested. ...

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Chapter 7. Communism on the Shop Floor and Off

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pp. 100-106

Communism, of the capital “C” variety, hardly exists in the world today, and in the United States it is an idea and a movement that is increasingly part of a distant past, more contemporary than Populism or Prohibition, but of seemingly less twenty-first-century relevance than evangelical Protestantism or environmental activism. ...

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Part III. The Rights Revolution

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pp. 107-108

These essays demonstrate how the rise of a civil rights consciousness during the middle decades of the twentieth century was both organically linked to the rise of the New Deal–era trade unions while at the same time this new rights consciousness provided a set of legal and ideological structures that helped weaken those same institutions. ...

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Chapter 8. Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement

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pp. 109-128

Most historians would agree that the modern civil rights movement did not begin with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Yet all too often the movement’s history has been written as if events before the mid-1950s constituted a kind of prehistory, important only insofar as they laid the legal and political foundation for the spectacular advances that came later. ...

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Chapter 9. The Lost Promise of the Long Civil Rights Movement

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pp. 129-143

In the fifteen decades since the demise of Reconstruction, the two most consequential political transformations that have taken place in U.S. history are those that arose first out of the New Deal impulse of the 1930s and then, just thirty years later, the new set of laws and mores that are identified with the triumph of the civil rights movement. ...

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Chapter 10. A New Era of Global Human Rights: Good for the Trade Unions?

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pp. 144-154

A great paradox embodies the relationship between human rights and labor rights in the world today. Institutional trade unionism is not doing so well. This is most obvious in Anglo-America, where union density has declined dramatically during the last quarter century, and where unionism’s influence, under both Labour and Democratic Party administrations, has been less than potent. ...

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Part IV. The Specter on the Right

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pp. 155-156

Historians on the left now study the rise of the right. In this section I examine the origins of that conservative turn in politics, law, and culture that has so fascinated contemporary scholars. Here I not only explore the conservative triumph of the last three decades, but I also probe those weaknesses within the social democratic order, at home and abroad, ...

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Chapter 11. The United States in the Great Depression: Was the Fascist Door Open?

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pp. 157-166

Was fascism a realistic possibility in the United States during the Great Depression? Certainly if one seeks to measure that possibility in terms of the depth and severity of the crisis, both in economic and political terms, the United States was in the same league with Germany and other European nations that were devastated by the Great Depression. ...

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Chapter 12. Market Triumphalism and the Wishful Liberals

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pp. 167-184

In the decade that followed the end of the Cold War, a triumphalism of the free market seemed to characterize much social thought and commentary, mainly on the right and within the Republican Party, but among many erstwhile progressives as well. The idea that capitalist markets are essential to, or even define, the democratic idea has always been present in the West, ...

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Chapter 13. Did 1968 Change History?

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pp. 185-196

Before we can ask if 1968 changed history we must first define it. Of what are we speaking and remembering? What does it mean, these magical numbers, 1968? First, of course, it can stand for the entire 1960s, which accommodates quite a bit: the civil rights movement, of course, and the legislation that flowed from it, ...

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Chapter 14. Bashing Public Employees and Their Unions

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pp. 197-206

When he was still President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, later mayor of Chicago, famously quipped, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.” Republican governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, and other states certainly took that advice to heart following the 2010 elections. ...

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Part V. Intellectuals and Their Ideas

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pp. 207-208

Here the reader will find portraits of five activist intellectuals as well as some thoughts on why academics, as both a social group and as individuals, have become more important to the conflicts that engage the labor movement, public policy, and the political culture in our own day. C. Wright Mills was a university sociologist; ...

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Chapter 15. C. Wright Mills

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pp. 209-221

The New Men of Power is a study of trade unions and their leaders, the American political scene, and the prospects for a radicalized democracy in the years just after World War II. When C. Wright Mills published the book in 1948, it identified a newly empowered set of strategic actors who led the nation’s most important progressive institutions, ...

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Chapter 16. Harvey Swados

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pp. 222-229

Harvey Swados died in 1972, just as Americans began to rediscover the world of work. But he helped prepare the way. His novels, stories, and spirited reportage in the last decade and a half of his life helped uncover the political and social drama that unfolds in the daily routine of every American workplace. ...

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Chapter 17. B. J. Widick

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pp. 230-234

In the annals of American labor and its committed partisans, Branko J. Widick, who died on June 28, 2008, at the age of ninety-seven, is not a well-known figure. He deserves much recognition and admiration, however, because Widick was not only an activist at the very epicenter of the great strikes that launched the industrial unions in the 1930s, ...

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Chapter 18. Jay Lovestone

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pp. 235-241

The Cold War is long gone, but the ghosts of that era still walk among us. This is because so many of the political and ideological battles of the twentieth century depended, and still depend, upon our evaluation of a set of regimes whose ideology, for those on the left, was seductively anticapitalist but whose authoritarian statecraft proved reprehensibly brutal. ...

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Chapter 19. Herbert Hill

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pp. 242-248

Thurgood Marshall once described Herbert Hill as “the best barbershop lawyer in the United States.”1 That he was, and a whole lot more. Hill was a warrior, a strategist, a polemicist, a man who identified himself as “an unreconstructed abolitionist.”2 ...

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Chapter 20. Do Graduate Students Work?

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pp. 249-253

Hundreds of thousands of graduate students grade millions of papers and blue books every year. The work is absolutely vital to the “product” put out by just about every American university, and of course they get paid for it, though not very much. ...

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Chapter 21. Why American Unions Need Intellectuals

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pp. 254-260

Sixty-five years ago, in The New Men of Power, C. Wright Mills made a perceptive observation about the troubled relationship between labor leaders and radical intellectuals during an era of Cold War militarism and conservative advance. Wrote Mills: “To have an American labor movement capable of carrying out the program of the left, ...


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pp. 261-304


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pp. 305-314

E-ISBN-13: 9780252095122
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252037856

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: The Working Class in American History