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review 2020-09-23 12:46
Eugene Debs and the arc of American socialism
Eugene V. Debs: Citizen & Socialist (Working Class in American History) - Nick Salvatore

In the first two decades of the twentieth century the Socialist Party appeared to be a growing force in American politics. As Socialist agitators and newspaper editors denounced the evils of the expanding capitalist system, organizers mobilized laborers into unions and Socialist candidates throughout the country won offices at the city, state, and even federal level. Yet by the early 1920s the Socialist Party was in a decline even swifter than their rise, with its membership riven by infighting and marginalized by the increasingly conservative mood of the nation.


No figure better personified the trajectory of the Socialist Party’s fortunes during this era than Eugene Victor Debs. As the party’s five-time nominee for the presidency of the United States, Debs was buoyed by rapidly increasing voter numbers during his first four campaigns for the office. When he ran for the final time in 1920, however, he did so from a federal penitentiary in Atlanta thanks to a wartime conviction for sedition. It was a testament to Debs’s appeal that even while incarcerated he received over 900,000 votes, though as a percentage of the vote is was little more than half of the total he had received in his last bid for the office. No subsequent Socialist party candidate was ever able to improve upon that result, however.


In his biography of Debs, Nick Salvatore makes it clear that a major reason why none of Debs’s successors could duplicate his achievement was because none brought what he did to the party. As a longtime labor leader, Debs possessed an unmatched credibility with working-class Americans, his sacrifices on behalf of whom was part of his appeal. Yet as Salvatore explains, the basis of Debs’s approach to socialism was far more complex than that. The son of French immigrants, Debs left school at an early age to work for one of the local railroad companies. In 1875 he joined the Brotherhood of Local Firemen, and quickly distinguished himself with his tireless activism on the organization’s behalf. It was as a union leader that Debs became nationally famous, as he worked to establish an industrial union in response to the growing centralization and corporatization of the railroad business in Gilded Age America.


The demise of the American Railway Union (ARU) in the aftermath of the Pullman Strike in 1894 convinced Debs of the inadequacy of unionization as a response to business concentration. While in jail for violating a federal injunction, Debs began reading texts advancing socialist ideas. Upon his release, Debs pushed the remnants of the ARU to join with others to create a new political party advocating for socialist policies. Debs’s prominence as a labor activist made him a natural choice as their presidential candidate in 1900, a task he accepted reluctantly but threw himself into with determination. Salvatore devotes as much attention to history of the Socialist Party during this period as he does to Debs himself, detailing the infighting that shaped its development. As he had as a labor leader Debs stayed clear of factional disputes, preserving his appeal within the fractious party but at the cost of allowing the personal and ideological disagreements to fester.


Though Salvatore describes the issues that divided Socialist Party leaders, he emphasizes that these were of secondary concern to Debs. Unlike the doctrinaire approach of many of its members, Debs grounded his Socialist advocacy in the Protestant theology and republican ideology he had inculcated since his youth. By positing socialism as the path towards realizing the nation’s democratic and egalitarian ideas, he made it far more appealing to American voters than abstract theories ever could have been. Coupled with Debs’s bona fides as a labor leader and his earnest and effective style of speechmaking, he became the party’s greatest asset for advancing its vision for a better tomorrow.


Yet Debs was far from the only critic of industrial capitalism in these years. As Salvatore notes, other presidential candidates were also denouncing its excesses and offering political solutions in an effort to win voters. While each election seemed to bring the Socialist Party closer to a breakthrough, the 1912 presidential election proved a high-water mark for their fortunes. As Progressive era reforms and the outbreak of war in Europe shifted the public discourse to other matters. Debs’s criticisms of the Wilson administration eventually resulted in his arrest and conviction, while his subsequent prison term proved detrimental to his frail health. Released after President Warren Harding commuting his sentence, Debs spent his final years as a shadow of his former self, trying to navigate a fractured socialist movement that struggled for relevance in the Roaring Twenties.


By situating Debs’s life within the context of the developing capitalist economy, Salvatore conveys insightfully the factors in his subject’s own transformation from a respected trade unionist and promising Democratic politician into the leading Socialist figure of his age. As a result, Debs goes from being a marginal political figure in the nation’s history to one at the heart of the choices faced by millions of Americans as values and social structures evolved in response to industrialism and the changes it brought. It makes for a book that is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in learning about Debs, and one that is unlikely ever to be surpassed as a study of his life and times.

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review 2020-07-08 21:54
The ceaseless labors of a trade union leader
The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

When he died in 1951 Ernest Bevin was eulogized by many for his decade-long service as a cabinet minister. As Minister of Labour in Winston Churchill’s wartime government, he presided over the mobilization of the British workforce for the war effort, while as Foreign Secretary in the postwar Labour government he worked for the reconstruction of Europe and shaped the West’s response to the challenge posed by the newly-dominant Soviet Union. Yet this remarkable period came after a long career as a labor organizer, during which he played a pivotal role in the growth of British unions during the first half of the 20th century.


It is this period of Bevin’s life that is the focus of the first book in Alan Bullock’s three-volume account of his life and achievements. An academic best known for writing the first complete biography of Adolf Hitler, Bullock was invited by Arthur Deakin, Bevin’s successor as the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGUW), to chronicle Bevin’s multifarious achievements. Bullock rose to this challenge by authoring one of the great works of modern political biography, one that details Bevin’s lifelong efforts on behalf of the workers and the nation he held so dear.


As Bullock details, Bevin’s life of labor began at an early age. Growing up in rural Somerset, Bevin was forced at a young age to quit school and seek work as an agricultural laborer. After moving to Bristol, Bevin was employed in a number of different jobs before finding his calling as a labor organizer for the Dockers’ Union. Bullock shows how Bevin’s work as a labor leader was not just a career but a passion, one in which he invested an enormous amount of his time and energy, often to the point of exhaustion.


Such commitment was necessary given the challenges facing the labor movement in Britain at that time. One of the many strengths of Bullock’s book is in how he sets Bevin’s life in the context of an era, one in which unions struggled against numerous challenges to their existence. He credits Bevin with much of their success during their period, thanks to such achievements as his contributions to the postwar Shaw Inquiry and his key role in the formation in 1922 of the TGWU, his position in which cemented Bevin’s place at the forefront of Britain’s labor leadership.


While Bullock spends the bulk of the book describing Bevin’s many activities, he also draws from them a deeper understanding of his views and motivations. Though Bevin was a committed socialist from an early age, Bullock notes his longstanding ambivalence towards the Labour Party and particularly towards the intellectuals who shaped much of its ideology. In his view, their ideas all too often lacked a grounding in the realities facing the British working class. These Bevin was all too familiar with, as his duties as general secretary often took him across the length and breadth of the country and brought him into direct contact with the circumstances workers faced. Informed by such experiences, Bevin often found the political party claiming to be working on their behalf to be far too detached from problems they sought to address.


Nevertheless, Bevin became more invested in political solutions to these problems over the course of his career. As Bullock shows, this was a consequence of the setbacks facing the labor movement in the interwar era. With Britain’s global economic dominance eroding, workers often experienced the effects of this in the form of reduced wages and high unemployment. Despite his success in organizing workers, Bevin emerged from the famous General Strike of 1926 with a painfully-earned lesson in the limits of direct action. In its aftermath, he increased his involvement in politics, participating in Labour’s victory in the 1929 general election and helping to rebuild the party after their setbacks two years later. Though Bevin was periodically offered opportunities to stand for Parliament during the interwar era, he preferred to work from outside as a union leader, and it was only the demands of war in 1940 that compelled him to abandon his longstanding reluctance to serve in government and accept Winston Churchill’s offer to become Minister of Labour.


By the end of the book, Bullock has left his readers with a thorough grasp of Bevin’s accomplishments as a labor leader. Had he retired as general secretary in 1941 as he intended Bevin still would have lived a life deserving to be written about. As a prelude to his even more noteworthy achievements, though, it is even more worthy of study. Though clearly an admirer of Bevin’s, Bullock is critical enough to draw out key insights that provide a better appreciation of his subject’s views and motivations. His immersion in it results in a text that is often dense with details, but no less readable for it. It’s a book that is absolutely indispensable for anyone seeking an in-depth understanding of one of the greatest figures in modern British history, and it stands as a monument to his lifetime of ceaseless effort.

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review 2019-09-06 18:04
A eulogy to a bygone era
Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers - V. John Barnard

John Barnard’s biography of Walter Reuther is a book about both a man and a moment. Though Reuther’s name may be largely unknown today to most people, as the president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union in the 1950s and 1960s he was in many respects the dominant labor leader in postwar America and a figure of national stature. His ascension to this position paralleled the rise of the UAW as a union representing the workers in one of the key sectors of the mid-20th century American economy, a rise that as Barnard demonstrates Reuther deserves no small share of the credit and which forms a key part of his short study of the man.


In many respects, Reuther’s life of labor activism was a family inheritance. The son of a German immigrant and union member, Reuther grew up in a household in which beliefs in union activism and social democracy ran strong. Even before he graduated from college Reuther went to work as a die maker in a West Virginia steel company before moving to Detroit to find work in the newly established auto industry. When he was laid off at Ford during the Depression, Reuther spent nearly three years abroad with his brother Victor, where he witnessed firsthand the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany and worked in a Russian factory before returning to the United States in 1935.


Reuther arrived at a propitious moment in American labor history. With the start of the New Deal in 1933 American unions enjoyed greater latitude in organizing workers. Though the American Federation of Labor chartered the UAW in 1934 in an effort to make inroads in the largely unorganized automobile industry, the craft-dominated AF of L’s efforts to preserve the prerogatives of craft unions within the industry led the industrial unions to break away the following year to form a new coalition of unions focused on manufacturing, which soon became known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Upon his return to the States Reuther joined the UAW as an organizer, and soon proved himself in the sometimes bloody clashes to organize auto workers throughout the industry in the late 1930s.


With many of the UAW’s organizational gains solidified by the Second World War, the union entered the postwar era in a position of strength. Though Reuther’s hopes for a more coequal industrial partnership with management were quickly frustrated, he won election to the presidency of the UAW in 1946. Reuther quickly established himself as a prominent figure of postwar American liberalism, helping to found the Americans for Democratic Action and later becoming a prominent advocate for the civil rights movement. Yet it was his role as a labor leader during an era of unprecedented prosperity in the American industrial economy for which he became best known, as through his successful bargaining with automobile manufacturers he ensured that his members enjoyed high wages and other benefits that dramatically improved their standard of living.


Reuther’s death in a plane crash in 1970 spared him from facing the challenges posed by the changes the automobile industry faced in the decade that followed. It also has the effect of making Barnard’s book a eulogy to a bygone era in the American economy. With his descriptions of the pre-unionized automobile workforce, the generous contracts they negotiated with profit-flush automobile companies, and the central role they enjoyed in postwar American life, Barnard’s book becomes about more than just Reuther’s life but an account of a unique moment in the nation’s history, one that, even while within living memory, nevertheless seems impossibly distant from us today.

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review 2018-09-20 15:51
The essential study of a longtime labor leader
John L. Lewis: A Biography - Warren Van Tine,Melvyn Dubofsky

Given the erosion of organized labor in America today, it can be difficult to conceive that there was a time when labor leaders were national figures who exerted considerable economic and political influence. Perhaps the best example of this was John L. Lewis. As president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) for four decades, he led a union which played a critical role in the American economy, while his differences with the American Federation of Labor led him to disaffiliate from the body and create the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) instead, which played a leading role in organizing industrial unions in the late 1930s. Such was his stature that at his height people spoke of him as a potential president of the United States.

Such a figure deserves a well-researched and penetrating biography, which is what Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine have provided. Theirs is a rigorous account of Lewis's life, beginning with his early life in Iowa, through his initial work as a labor organizer, to his ascent to the presidency of the UMW in 1920 and his long struggles on behalf of his workers. Lewis became president of a union at a time when many workers were drawn to the appeal of socialism and communism. Lewis asserted his control of the union to suppress radicals, cementing his position over the course of the 1920s. While his dictatorial approach engendered criticism from other UMW leaders, by the end of the decade his dominance of the union was complete.

Yet Lewis's personal triumph contrasted sharply with the state of his union.  Despite the modest successes they enjoyed early in his tenure, the UMW was declining well before the Great Depression inflicted even greater poverty on thousands of miners. Yet President Franklin Roosevelt's administration gave unionization efforts a new life. A committed Republican, Lewis nonetheless supported Roosevelt's early New Deal, and sought to make the most of the opportunity provided by the administration to strengthen organized labor in the country. As the authors demonstrate, Lewis's efforts contributed greatly to the organization of workers in the steel and automobile industries during this period, though in the end Lewis found himself unable to work harmoniously with his counterparts in the CIO and he broke with the organization over the CIO's support for Roosevelt's bid for a third term as president.

Lewis spent the remaining two decades of his presidency denouncing the federal government's presence in labor relations and continuing his fight for the members of his union. Even after his retirement in 1960 he enjoyed an enormous degree of respect from the UMW's rank-and-file members up to his death, as well as a legendary reputation afterward. Reading Dubofsky and Van Tine's book give readers an appreciation as to how he earned it. Their detailed study recounts the numerous battles he fought on the behalf of his members to a degree that can be exhausting but which together provide a thorough understanding of his actions as their leader. By the end of the book it is difficult not to be impressed with all that he accomplished, particularly given the broader problems facing the coal industry at the time (ones which provide a valuable context for many of the issues facing it today). Because of this, Dubofsky and Van Tine's book is essential reading for anyone seeking to learn about Lewis, his impact upon the country, and the history of the American coal industry — and, thanks to their labors, it is one unlikely to be bettered as a study of their subject.

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review 2018-09-02 16:59
An excellent introduction to the famous labor leader
Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor In Amer - Harold C. Livesay

From the mid-1880s until the early 1920s Samuel Gompers dominated organized labor in America. As the longtime president of the American Federation of Labor (AF of L), he played a major role in creating the first enduring national labor organization, an achievement even more remarkable given the considerable challenges facing such efforts during that era. In this short overview of his life and times Harold Livesay credits Gompers's success in his efforts to his pragmatic approach to the problem, one that, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, sought to create a labor movement that conformed to contemporary society rather than seeking to remake it according to a utopian ideal.


As Livesay explains, Gompers came to this conclusion after years as a laborer and union activist. Born in London, he learned the trade of cigar making before emigrating to the United States with his family. As a member of the cigar makers union, Gompers flirted with socialism but was steered away from it by Karl Laurrell, a former Marxist whose cynicism about the movement rubbed off on his young protégé. Nevertheless, Gompers advocated a more inclusive vision of unionism then he would pursue later in his career, encouraging unions to accept workers of all skill levels as well as women and African Americans into their ranks.


What limited Gompers's advancement of these views was his belief in local control. At a time when many labor organizers pursued the chimera of a nationwide union of laborers, Gompers preferred to create a national association of local unions. A firm believer in the "federation" in the AF of L's name, he accepted their autonomy as necessary for their flexibility of action in response to their particular circumstances. While this contributed to the AF of L's success, it came at the price of limiting their scope mainly to craft-dominated trades, where workers were less endangered by industrialization than their counterparts in industries where automation led to the replacement of highly skilled craftsmen with unskilled laborers. Because he did not threaten the ability of manufacturers to control their labor force, Gompers was tolerated by the leaders of the new industrial order, with the benefits brought by unions restricted to a skilled minority of the American workforce.


Livesay describes the events of Gompers life in a narrative rich with analytical insights. A business historian rather than a specialist in labor history, his situation of Gompers's activities within the context of the broader currents of the Gilded Age American economy is a particular strength of his book, one that helps to explain both his subject's achievements and the limitations he faced. Though the work is dated and marred by a few errors, this book nonetheless remains a first-rate introduction to the famous labor leader, one whose life reveals the possibilities and constraints American workers faced during a transformative era in their nation's history.

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