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Remembering David Montgomery (1926–2011) and His Impact on Working-Class History
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[T]he study of history is a collective and cooperative endeavor, not a competition for personal academic eminence.

David Montgomery, 2004

David Montgomery was the most influential historian of the United States working class and one of the most influential labour historians internationally over the past generation. Given the role of the “new labour history” in the broader transformation of historical writing, this is saying a great deal. In developing his approach to the subject, Montgomery clearly drew on his own experiences as a trade unionist and a Communist Party militant in the 1950s. A skilled machinist; a brilliant researcher, teacher, and writer; a labour and civil rights activist, Montgomery died suddenly on 2 December 2011. With his death, the field lost not only one of its most creative practitioners but also its most prolific mentor. Montgomery produced scores of his own doctoral students at Yale and the University of Pittsburgh, but perhaps more importantly, he nurtured the work of hundreds of others throughout the United States, in Canada, and around the world. A dedicated internationalist, Montgomery worked closely with the British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson and social historians from numerous other societies. His Canadian connections were deep. He contributed to Labour/Le Travail and lectured many times to students and scholars at Simon Fraser, Memorial, Queen’s, Trent, and other universities.1

Montgomery’s Mystique

Montgomery’s own research was characterized by both a rigorous empirical approach and a relentless effort to demonstrate the pervasive influence of class on politics and society in the United States and elsewhere. Wherever possible, he got his historical subjects to speak for themselves and he urged his students to do likewise. The result was a richly textured picture of working class life in all of its realms – a finely-grained portrayal of not only the work-place but of working people living their lives in all of their complexity. Although Montgomery was known particularly for his research on the social relations of work and working-class protest behaviour, he ranged widely over other topics including radical political ideology and practice and race and ethnic relations in working-class populations. His collection of essays, Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (1979), stimulated a generation of scholarship on workers’ agency on the shop floor, while The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (1987) stands as the most important study of working-class life and struggle in the industrial era. In it, he evoked an oppositional working-class ethic based on mutualism and class solidarity and he transformed our understanding of the social and political implications of industrialization. Among other innovations, he was one of the first to consider masculinity as a meaningful category of analysis for labour historians.

While he emphasized the variety and complexity of working-class lives, he took special care in documenting the story of the politically engaged labour radicals, reminding his readers that, “Class consciousness was more than the unmediated product of daily experience. It was also a project.”2 At the time of his death at age 84, Montgomery was still working, now on a study of the role of workers in imperialism. He had already produced a series of papers which he presented as lectures in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the US. This work, which focused on sailors, dock workers, and others in the capitalist metropoles as well colonial ports, displayed his remarkable erudition and conceptual reach, and we hope that it will eventually reach a broader audience.

David Montgomery was particularly known for his lectures and his ability to achieve the impossible – to synthesize complex conference discussions full of ideas coming from all different angles. Somehow David brought it all together in ways that acknowledged the efforts of all and still made sense of the various debates and our occasionally feeble attempts at generalization. His sometimes spontaneous conference summations were often a matter of his sum adding up to far more than our parts.

The speaking experience he had gained as a union militant often showed through in public lectures that were far more than...

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