Jim Mamer Labor Missing Links Original

Missing Links in Textbook History: Labor From World War I Through the New Deal

“Eugene Debs mug shot” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1912 – 1929.

By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost

“The capitalists tell us it is patriotic to fight for your country and shed your blood for the flag. Very well! Let them set the example.” 
– Eugene Debs
National Rip-Saw Editorial
August 1914 

In the first part of my examination of missing information on labor history in high school history textbooks, the focus was on the years preceding World War I beginning with the exploitation and inevitable revolts of enslaved Africans and African-Americans to the abusive conditions of workers which lead to thousands of strikes.

This second part begins around WWI. By that time, opposition to the conditions of the working class in American industrial capitalism had taken different forms. The struggle led some to call for reform within capitalism while others, identifying as socialists, anarchists, or communists, preferred more extensive change. 

Defining Terms or Not

I found no real attempt, in the textbooks, to examine what these different ideologies stood for. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, for students to understand why laborers and their leaders identified as they did. I have to believe that neglecting to define these various positions is deliberate because it avoids any controversy. 

Even simple explanations, such as those below, would help students understand labor history. I encourage readers who are also teachers, to use these definitions with their students and to invite them to look up the material for themselves in order to develop definitions they are comfortable with.

In textbooks, socialism is most often defined as an economic system “based on government control.”

In the United States, socialism came to encompass a wide range of economic policies that demanded government take action to improve the economic and social conditions of the working class. Socialism also became an umbrella term for those who felt that labor had been cheated out of its share of newly created wealth. The socialist leader and five-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs wrote that he had been influenced by thinkers like Edward Bellamy and Karl Kautsky. Others were influenced by the utopian socialist Robert Owen.

In the textbooks, anarchism is often defined as a rejection of all governments. And, contrary to popular opinion, anarchism never advocated chaos.

In the real-world anarchism has more than one definition and these sometimes overlap. 

Individualist anarchists stress the isolation of the individual and emphasize the individual’s right to own their tools and the products of their labor. They were variously influenced by the American Josiah Warren, the Italian Luigi Galleani or the American Henry David Thoreau

Social anarchists encourage collaboration through mutual aid and advocate non-hierarchical forms of organization. They were influenced by the French writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Russian born Emma Goldman.

Communism developed out of the socialist movement in 19th-century Europe. In reaction to the Industrial Revolution, communists blamed industrial capitalism for the misery of the working class. In general, communists were influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky or the Russian Revolution itself.

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Among labor leaders who accepted capitalism, Samuel Gompers is probably the most well-known. For years he was the leader of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was composed of a collection of craft unions. 

Gompers had no desire to unite the working class and instead advocated for “pure and simple” unionism of skilled workers focused primarily on economic rather than political reform. He insisted labor organizations work for reform within capitalism.

Defining capitalism is more complex. Outside the world of textbooks, its roots are attributed to Adam Smith who, in his 1776 book, “The Wealth of Nations,” describes early competitive economies upending what he labeled mercantilism: a system in which monopolies and trade guilds controlled much of the economy.  

Smith never used the term capitalism; he wrote about what he called “commercial society.” 

It is within this commercial society that he wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Smith opposed conglomerates, monopolies, guilds and unions because they can manipulate, along with their allies in government, both supply and price.

The textbooks suggest definitions of capitalism that are both limited and impossibly static over time. One text defines it as a system where, “producers and consumers are motivated by self-interest.” And another as “a system in which factories, equipment and other means of production are privately owned rather than controlled by government.” 

Most textbooks never mention the name of Adam Smith and rarely use the word capitalism, preferring to talk about a “free market” or “free enterprise.” Students ironically? would learn more by reading Wikipedia

If textbooks are to help students understand history, that is, if they are to educate, they must purposely define terms that are, in most cases, very poorly understood. 

For any textbook to assume that high school students understand what capitalism, socialism, anarchism or communism are is negligent. And assuming that students understand how these ideas have evolved over time is absurd.

Labor During and After WWI

Ridiculous as it may sound, high school texts are expected to cover almost everything important or interesting in U.S. history. Every textbook I’ve seen chooses to attempt that in chronological order, forcing the narrative into jarring jumps from subject to subject.

Thus, too many textbooks begin to explore the subject of labor in early industrial capitalism and then drop it completely to discuss immigration or American imperialism (1898). Then, thirty or forty pages later, the discussion shifts to WWI, the Espionage and Sedition Acts or Women’s suffrage. Over and over, one thing is forced to follow another.

The fact that historical events are interrelated is not easy to explain when they are discussed in self-contained sections or when inconvenient information is simply left out. 

All textbooks, of course, discuss the United States entering WWI, three years after the war began in Europe, in 1917. And most texts mention that, in the same year, the communist Bolsheviks won the Russian Revolution. This is unusual because American history textbooks focus almost exclusively on events in the United States.

Nevertheless, all the texts I’ve worked with mention the Bolshevik Revolution and they assign it a domestic purpose. 

It is almost always discussed within the context of rising labor tensions within the United States. Thus, linking poorly defined and unexamined domestic political ideologies to the Russian Revolution. Here are two examples:

In November 1917, a group of revolutionaries, who called themselves Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir I. Lenin [sic], seize power and eventually establish a state based on the social and economic system of communism…. Two years after the revolution, in March 1919, the Third Communist International meeting was held in Moscow. Under the banner of their symbolic revolutionary red flag, communist speakers advocated worldwide revolution – the overthrow of the capitalist system and the abolition of free enterprise and private property.

This cartoon, drawn by Sid Greene and published in 1919 in the New York Evening Telegram, illustrates the attempt to link labor strikes to Bolshevism and chaos.

In “The Americans,” immediately following the paragraph above, it is reported that “70,000 radicals joined the newly formed Communist Party in the United States.” In “History Alive!,” the long simmering revolution is introduced by reporting that, “American communists drew inspiration from the Russian revolution of 1917.”

Despite reports of victory, the revolutionary government in Russia was not stable. The new government faced economic pandemonium, food shortages, military disorder and increasing popular demands that the country withdraw from the battlefield. 

By 1918, the Russian government began to pull out of the war. Although conveniently absent from every text I have seen, the Russian withdrawal from WWI seemingly inspired President Woodrow Wilson to order American armed forces to Siberia to join an attempt to remove the new communist government.  

The Espionage and Sedition Acts used against Labor

Back in the U.S., in an increasingly anti-immigrant atmosphere, Congress passed a new Espionage Act of 1917 which was said to protect the American effort in WWI from “disloyal European immigrants.” 

Although it is rarely mentioned in textbooks, the Bolshevik victory evolved into a justification for an increase in anti-labor policies in the U.S. It became common, oftentimes without reason, to accuse labor activists of being Bolsheviks or, if you will, Russian agents. 

In 1918, Congress then passed the Sedition Act which expanded the crimes defined in the Espionage Act “to include any expression of disloyalty to, or contempt for the US government or military.”

Both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were originally directed at socialists, pacifists and anti-war activists most of whom were also labor rights activists. Some argued that these acts clearly violated the First Amendment, but the Wilson Administration argued that they were necessary to the war effort. 

When these acts were used to prosecute more than two thousand anti-war activists, the Supreme Court upheld those convictions. In 1920, the Sedition Act was repealed by Congress, but the Espionage Act remains in effect to this day. Both whistleblower Edward Snowden and the publisher Julian Assange have been charged under its, seemingly flexible, provisions.

The Anti-Labor Red Scare

Textbook coverage of the Russian Revolution is usually followed by section titles like “The Red Scare in the United States” and “The Red Scare Leads to Raids on ‘Subversives’.” 

The climate of repression established in wartime continued. “The mobilization of the municipal police forces, state militias, and federal courts against strikers was but part of a larger post war business–government offensive against radicals and labor militants.”

The hunt for subversives climaxed with the Palmer raids under the direction of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his assistant, a young J. Edgar Hoover

In November 1919, Palmer’s agents arrested 250 members of the Union of Russian workers, beating up many though recommending only 39 for deportation. The next month 249 aliens were shipped off to the Soviet Union. Most of never been charged with a crime. Some, like the well-known anarchist Emma Goldman, had been in the United States for decades.”

But Palmer overplayed his hand. He warned that the nation faced a wave of violence by revolutionary communists May 1, 1920. Police were mobilized, buildings guarded and politicians protected, but when nothing happened on May 1st, the anti-red drive began to die down. Until 1924, however, the Department of Justice continued its antilabor activities.

Eugene Victor Debs

If there is one link between the strikes in the 1890s, World War I and the period after the war’s end, it is the socialist, activist, union leader Eugene Debs. In the years after Debs emerged from a 6-month prison sentence in 1895, he ran for president five times (in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920) as the candidate of the American Socialist Party. He did not win, but each time he ran, he got more popular votes than the time before. 

Fortunately, Debs’ role as a presidential candidate is mentioned in most textbooks. In 1920, he ran while he was in prison for his opposition to WWI. He had been convicted of having violated the Espionage Act by, essentially, urging American workers not to kill European workers. This is from the speech, for which he was jailed. It was delivered in Canton, Ohio on June 16, 1918: 

In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords . . .concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street, go to war… The working class has never yet had a voice in declaring war. If war is right, let it be declared by the people – you, who have your lives to lose.

When the jury found him guilty, he was sentenced to ten years. “Newspaper editorials across the nation cheered his conviction. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1919 that expressing sympathy for men who resisted the draft made Debs himself guilty of the same offense.” 

To understand the history of American labor students must know the life and legacy of Debs.

Post WWI

After the war, the ceaseless efforts to maximize revenue by the owners of capital continued just as workers continued to demand union recognition, shorter hours and better conditions. According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute, “Over 4 million workers – one fifth of the nation’s workforce – participated in strikes in 1919, including 365,000 steelworkers and 400,000 miners.”

But conditions had changed; production levels were falling and millions of men who had been in the military reentered the workforce. Racism, fear of immigrants and fear of radicals played into the hands of capital and business was able to turn back the 1919 labor offensive. 

As the working-class labor movement lost momentum and industrialization boomed , the attention of the textbooks turns almost exclusively to other issues, some caused by that rapid industrialization: unsafe consumer products, environmental damage and corruption in public life. 

Labor Issues Leave Center Stage

In the 1920s, about 25 percent of jobs were in agriculture, 40 percent were in manufacturing and many were in other blue-collar fields including mining and construction. Only about 5 percent of workers held what were considered professional jobs. 

Nevertheless, virtually all textbooks shift attention seamlessly as if “reformers” simply got tired of dealing with labor. This reflects, at least in part, the problem of chronological history jumping from one thing to another. The result is that students seem encouraged to be finished with one topic and move on to another.

Every textbook I’ve seen labels the years between 1901 and 1921 the “Progressive Era” with a focus on “three progressive presidents.” 

Historian Jill Lapore writes that “Progressivism had roots in late 19th century populism; Progressivism was the middle-class version: indoors, quiet, passionless. Populists raised hell; progressives read pamphlets.” Rest assured that history textbooks never contain sentences that entertaining.

The populist movement began before the 20th century. It favored the common person’s interests over those of the wealthy and argued that the federal government was complicit in the consolidation of power in the hands of big banks, big business and big railroads. Most populist support came from western farmers.

Progressives, who drew support from a middle class interested in furthering social and political reform, championed many of the same causes as populists, but while populists generally wanted less government, progressives wanted more, seeking solutions in reform legislation and in the establishment of bureaucracies, especially government agencies. 

While some of the reforms pushed by progressives did make conditions of the working class better, that was never their focus. No dramatic overhaul of the distribution of wealth or control of the economy was high on their agenda. 

The greatest failure of both the populists and the progressives was in mutual “acquiescence in the legal and violent disfranchisement of African Americans.” In general, both were uninterested and unwilling to address Jim Crow.

Turning from Labor to “Normalcy” and Popular Culture

In 1921, Warren Harding became the President. According to one textbook, he understood that “Americans overwhelmingly desired peace and quiet.” 

Then, after mention of Harding’s election the next thirty-five pages drift to Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, temporary isolationism, Henry Ford, business consolidation, consumer culture, social trends, the Charleston and the stock market crash in 1929.

As a summary of that same decade nothing is more fitting than a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby,” “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Depression and the New Deal

Once I built a railroad, made it run, made it race against time. 
Once I built a railroad. Now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

– Yip Harburg 
“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

The programs of the New Deal are extensively described in every text I’ve worked with. There is no reason to go into those details here, but a summary might be of use. In the early years, the most prominent include restructuring the banking sector and increasing business regulation. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) was meant to help farmers by reducing crop production and raising prices.

Then, in 1935, the Administration introduced more legislation which included the Works Progress Administration (WPA), putting millions of workers to work. The National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) was also introduced, guaranteeing the right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively.

Of course, it is essential that FDR get credit for breaking with the American tradition of government hostility to workers and unions. But workers all over the country also deserve credit for remaining militant.  

Lorena Hickock was a reporter hired by FDR’s administration to report on social conditions. She warned of a problem if action was not taken and she cautioned that, “vast numbers of the unemployed in Pennsylvania are ‘right on the edge’ …  it wouldn’t take much to make Communists out of them.” 

Howard Zinn observed that the New Deal’s early program, “was aimed mainly at stabilizing the economy, and secondly at giving enough help to the lower classes to keep them from turning a rebellion into a real revolution.” And he posed an interesting question when he wondered if “Roosevelt and his advisors were aware that, in 1933 and 1934 measures had to be taken quickly to wipe out the idea that the problems of the workers could only be solved by themselves?”

John Burke, head of the Pulp and Paperworkers’ Union, reported in 1933 that he had “never known a time … When there has been so much discontent among the working people in our industry.”

The actions of various elements of this working class helped push the Roosevelt Administration in the right direction. They are what is missing from textbooks. Here are a few examples:

In the early years of the Depression, people all over the country organized spontaneously to stop evictions. In Seattle, the fishermen’s union caught fish and exchanged them with people who picked fruit and vegetables, and those who cut wood exchanged that. 

Perhaps the most remarkable example of self-help took place in the coal District of Pennsylvania, where teams of unemployed miners dug small mines on company property, mined coal, trucked it to cities, and sold it below the commercial rate. By 1934, 5 million tons of this “bootleg” coal were produced by twenty thousand men using four thousand vehicles. When attempts were made to prosecute, local juries would not convict, local jailers would not imprison.”

Unfortunately, it is also important to recognize that more could have been accomplished. Even state approved textbooks recognize that the New Deal did not offer an equal deal to minorities and women. 

According to “History Alive!,” the New Deal may have offered some hope to minorities, but agencies “…continued to practice racial segregation, especially in the South, and FDR himself failed to confront the evil of lynching.” After all, Black soldiers continued to be segregated in the military.

And it was President Roosevelt who signed Executive Order 9066 forcing the internment of Japanese during WWII.

What Should be Done?

As I have mentioned, in order to do justice to the history of labor, textbooks must take the time necessary to define terms carefully and explore issues in depth. This argues against a strict chronological structure. 

In simple terms, a comprehensive exploration of important subjects, like the labor movement, should not be interrupted by prohibition, flappers or the Charleston. Those fighting for justice, no matter what their ideological identity, should not be dismissed by being swallowed up by a “Red Scare.”

Perhaps the publishers of new high school textbooks might consider breaking up the chronological outline to include short essays by individual historians that could develop a theme without interruption. 

Perhaps the textbook narratives could be supplemented with an interactive searchable timeline that would allow students to visualize the connections between and among these topics and allow access to primary source documents and media.

All that would introduce a real sense of continuity which would greatly enhance the ability of students to understand subjects that stretch over decades like labor, immigration, systemic racism, the political use of Red Scares and immigrant baiting, the treatment of the Indigenous tribes, or the evolution of women’s rights.

None of what I’ve suggested has been unnoticed. In 1935 Langston Hughes wrote a poem suggesting what ought to be done:

Let America be America Again

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, 
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. 
I am the Redman driven from the land, 
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek – 
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

O, let America be America again – 
The land that never has been yet 
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.

This is part two of Jim Mamer’s Missing Links in Textbook History Labor series. Check out part one, which focuses on labor events prior to World War I here.

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Jim Mamer

Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher.  He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).


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