- The Quest for "Just and Pure Law": Rocky Mountain Workers and American Social Democracy, 1870-1924
Of all of the fields and sub-fields of American history, U.S. labour history might be the most tangled and contentious. One reason for this is America's self-congratulatory claims of exceptionalism, and of being a society of haves and soon-will-haves. Another reason is the confusion over the meaning of terms-socialism, radicalism, syndicalism, social democracy, cooperative commonwealth, and so on. Ideological predispositions of many labour historians also contribute to the tensions and complexities of the field. Scholars often presuppose the existence of a worker class consciousness-even a revolutionary class-consciousness-and as a result assign preconceived historical roles and lines to be read in the acting out of those roles. There is great mischief in the belief that working people should have wanted to take over the means of production-preferably violently- and that when they did not, it was because something artificial, almost contrary to nature, had interfered with their natural instincts. In sum, the ghosts of Marx and Sombart still stalk the land of the labour historians.
One of the strengths of John Enyeart's book is that he avoids these traps; he does not overly concern himself with theories of working-class history. In a revealing sentence more than two-thirds of the way through his book he writes that his primary purpose was to discover "what workers actually wanted" (p. 200), not to frame an interpretation around what he and other historians may have wanted them to want. For the most part, he was true to his word. There are a few times when Enyeart seems really to want his Rocky Mountain workers to be "socialists." How else might one explain the author's definitions of both "social democracy" and socialism—definitions so broad that even the purely ameliorative aspects of [End Page 415] worker demands become at least a prerequisite to one or the other? But this is a minor point arising in large part from definitional imprecision and overload. Contemporaries were no more precise in their efforts to make sense of social democracy and socialism, and both had multiple and conflicting definitions, meaning barely any definition at all.
As Enyeart makes clear, what Rocky Mountain workers wanted was a living wage, safe work places, an eight hour day, education for their children, sewers on their streets, and a measure of respect. In Enyeart's apt phrase, they were "pragmatic radicals." By "pragmatic" Enyeart means that they were committed to working within the existing political and partisan structure of their states and localities. Rocky Mountain workers in Utah, Montana, and Colorado presented labour's demands, organized the labour vote, and kept a close eye on the politicians they had helped to elect. They understood that markets, including labour markets, were not self-regulating and did not arise out of some "natural order." Instead, they were the result of laws passed by legislatures. Workers reasoned that changing the law-makers would change the laws, which would in turn change the markets and improve workers' lives. Call that what you will-including "social democracy."
It would be hard-and meaningless-to argue against this central thesis of Enyeart's book, particularly given his assiduous research which resulted in numerous examples of the political potency of the "labour vote." Unionists had "faith that they could find justice within the confines of America's constitutional government" (p. 179); that faith, he insists, was not misguided, and "political action was working" (p. 203). "To most Rocky Mountain workers the class struggle occurred as a series of daily battles on multiple fronts" (p. 205). Enyeart's next argument, that these Rocky Mountain workers were better situated politically and more determined to use their political leverage than workers in other regions, is less convincing. It is also less important to his book. Indeed, the significant issue- and here might have been a place for Sombart and American exceptionalism-is...