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Reviewed by:
  • Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States
  • Bill Shields
Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. By Sharon Smith . Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2006. 377 pp. $16 paper.

In Subterranean Fire, Sharon Smith gives us a greatest-hits recounting of upsurges in U.S. working class and labor struggles. She takes us through several periods of labor movement growth, the reasons for them and the role of the organized left in each. For readers dealing with the political realities of 2006, this is bracing, even inspiring stuff. We need to be reminded that it has not always been so much about neocons and WalMart. For that reason, I recommend the book. However, like other such attempts to remember and thus help revive worker militance, it reveals too little about the long slow periods in between upsurges and needs to be complemented by studies that paint a fuller portrait of historical context and the whole array of class forces, such as Who Built America, a two-volume U.S. history written from a "bottom up" perspective.

Smith starts by addressing the issue of America Exceptionalism. She argues that, while frontier land availability and working-class complexity blunted class-consciousness, these factors had faded in importance by the 1920s. Smith makes good points here, although recent struggles over immigration and racism show how working-class divisions continue to be relevant today. Over the course of the book, Smith argues that the U.S. working class was as militant as any and that it was primarily conservative mis-leaders and misguided radicals (read the Communist Party) that prevented workers from achieving greater political power. Basically the book is a meditation on why no enduring Labor Party was ever established in the United States and an argument for why one is needed now.

A series of short sections walks the reader through familiar high points of history—the Knights of Labor, the Eight Hour Movement, the Populists, Pullman, the Socialist Party, and the Wobblies. She takes a careful look at the 1930s and lingers here long enough to lightly praise and mainly bury the [End Page 97] Communist Party, in favor of what might have been if only partisans of the Fourth International had been dominant on the left. She begs the question, though, of why they did not prevail, which may be attributed to whose program made more sense to active workers, particularly African-Americans.

Smith's treatment of the post-war period describes betrayals and sell-outs by labor leaders, including collaboration with the CIA abroad and a self-destructive reliance on the Democrats at home. Most importantly, she asserts that McCarthyism was responsible for destroying the long-standing presence of an organized left in labor, which continues to cripple us even today. This ignores the large number of Civil Rights/Black Power and New Left veterans who went into the movement, but, perhaps, the fact that labor progressives are not rolled up into one hegemonic cadre group is what she is talking about.

There is not enough room here to thoroughly praise and criticize her main points. I will conclude with an observation on her main concern. The lack of a labor party has at least as much to do with the passage of anti-fusion laws and the consolidation of Jim Crow segregation as with a lack of left-labor vision. Once the new regressive voting regime was in place by the 1920s, workers were left in most states with getting something from the Democrats or nothing at all. This is an important political fact, and we're still dealing with this conundrum today.

Which do you think is more likely, for instance—a progressive takeover of the Democrats or changes in the political system that allow minor parties to compete successfully for power? There is no easy answer, although interesting experiments are in progress, like the Working Families Party in New York and the Instant Runoff Voting in San Francisco. Of course, we do have a Labor Party; it has just taken them ten years to actually run candidates for office! It is instructive that they are...


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pp. 97-98
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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