Making of Western labor radicals: Denver's organized workers, 1878-1905.
ARGUMENTS OVER THE NATURE, origins and importance of so-called "western Labour radicalism" have long been a feature of working-class history both in the United States and in Canada. For more than three decades historians have debated the issue, arguing variously the case for Turner's frontier hypothesis, the structural impact of uneven national economic development upon the West, and the peculiarly harsh conditions experienced by workers in the region's resource extraction industries. One might be forgiven for thinking that there was little new to add to the matter. David Brundage comes perilously close to confirming this suspicion.
The Making of Western Labor Radicalism is a study of the evolution of labour organizations and ideologies in Denver, Colorado between 1878 and 1905. It argues that the radicalism of such organizations as the Socialist Party of America (SPA) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) did not derive from the "violence associated with frontier conditions or to the rapid emergence of an exploitative corporate capitalism in the mining West" but rather to the "traditions embedded in the world of nineteenth-century craft unionism and labor reform." (2) In this respect, Brundage's approach to the IWW differs from that of Melvyn Dubosky in We Shall Be All, in which the focus is on the economic and social changes that transformed the United States in the late 1800s. The SPC and IWW did not, Brundage suggests, represent a sharp break with labour's past practices and beliefs. Instead, they drew upon the legacy of the craft union movement of the 1870s and 1880s. As such, their support for internationalism, syndicalism, a movement culture centred on working-class opposition to the saloon, and for the militancy found in nascent industrial unions all placed the IWW and the SPC squarely within the mainstream of Denver labour's historical development.
Brundage provides a well-organized account of the above mentioned components of labour radicalism, dedicating a separate chapter each to internationalism, movement culture, syndicalism and the roots of industrial unionism. Brundage argues that craft unionists were key players in Denver's Irish National Land League in the years 1880-83, an organization that did much to ease Catholic-Protestant rivalries among workers and which offered workers the experience of fighting for a cause greater than the confines of a single trade or craft. As such, the Land League provided many Denver workers with a sense of mutualism that was crucial to the rise of the Knights of Labor (KOL), to which the author turns his attention next. Brundage focuses on the Knights of Labor in regard to the anti-saloon movement in Denver, a movement more commonly identified with the middle class. Brundage argues that the KOL's own opposition was based on its belief that the saloon was an institution that "hindered the growth of a unified labor movement and served as a key social base for a corrupt and antilabor political machine." He thus reads the KOL's desire to stamp out the saloon as part of its broader attempt to create an autonomous movement culture "within which Denver's organized workers could fulfill their needs for companionship, recreation, and education." (53-4)
In the remainder of the book, Brundage turns from culture to politics and economics. He explores the failure of the rise of trade unions in the late 1880s to translate into success for the local United Labor Party, and traces an interest in syndicalism among Denver workers to this period. Finally, Brundage notes the impact of the mid-1890's economic depression upon Denver's craft unions, notably their failure to protect their own members from the ravages of unemployment. At the same time, the depression heralded a new wave of organization and militancy among Denver's unskilled workers, culminating in the rise of the IWW after the turn of the century.
All this is fine, if Brundage's aim were simply to describe the evolution of organized labour in Denver during the late 1800s. It is less satisfactory, however, as justification for his choice of title: The Making of Western Labor Radicalism. Attractive in outline, Brundage's argument is less persuasive upon closer examination. Three criticisms in particular might be made.
First, Brundage goes too far in his desire to correct the emphasis of earlier historians upon discontinuities that resulted from changing material conditions in the West. Although launched in 1905, Denver's IWW did not make significant progress until almost a decade later. By then, the city's population was well in excess of 140,000, four times its size in 1880. During the same period, Denver's manufacturing sector had grown from 259 establishments to almost 1,500. Denver was a different city at the end of Brundage's study than at the beginning, and his constant emphasis upon the continuity of labour's experiences and response seems a little perverse. Brundage himself observes that "out-migration from Denver during the 1870s and 1880s was even higher than the national norm," which leads one to wonder to what extent (and by what process) Denver workers were able to establish traditions of any lasting impact. Against this background of rapid growth and shifting population base, there is ample room to question the relevance of working-class support for Denver's Irish nationalist movement in the 1880s to the rise of the IWW some twenty years later
This leads to the second criticism, the fact that on many occasions early strands of radical labour ideology either failed to win much support among Denver workers or simply died out altogether. As a result, it is difficult to see how they constituted influential components within the IWW in later years. For example, as Brundage himself notes, the anti-saloon battle failed to win the support of a majority of Denver's workers and even "greatly exacerbated emerging tensions within the [labour] movement." (54) As such, there is little justification for Brundage to conclude that labour's involvement in the campaign constructed "a movement culture ... [which] continued to live on among the city's labor activists, coming to the fore especially in early twentieth-century labor radicalism." (80) Brundage may be right in making this assertion, but he certainly fails to demonstrate the connection in his book. By a similar token, Brundage's analysis of labour radicalism rests upon the experience of a small minority of workers in Denver. This criticism does not, of course, deny the validity of Brundage's study, but it does challenge his opening remark that labour radicalism "had a powerful influence upon the local working-class movement." (6) At best, radicals represented a small segment of western labour. Brundage's text is full of qualifications that make this clear. "The Socialist Labor party had virtually no presence in Denver" (104); "Syndicalism was never more than a minority current in the Denver labor movement in these years" (111); "Like earlier radicals, the IWW remained a minority force in the Denver movement as a whole." (162) While labour radicals have always exerted an influence far beyond their numbers, the extent of this influence needs to be examined more closely and critically. This leads to a third criticism to be made of Brundage's study: his decision to revisit the question of western labour radicalism in the first place.
The notion that the West -- both in the US and in Canada -- was home to an unusually radical labour movement is one that has come increasingly under attack in recent years. Sean Wilentz and Aristide Zolberg have even rejected the whole idea of "exceptionalism," that there exists a "normal" pattern of development against which particular countries or regions should be measured. In Canada, the pioneering works on western labour radicalism by Martin Robin, David Bercuson and Ross McCormack have been revised in two ways in the past twenty years. First, studies of labour in other regions have demonstrated that radicalism was not so much a function of geography as of capitalist development. Second, even within the West scholars have found a wide range of responses to the conditions that confronted the working-class, many of which do not fit the label "radical." Studies by Allen Seager on New Westminster, Robert MacDonald on Vancouver and my own work on Calgary suggest that there was a sharp line dividing the experiences of western urban workers and those in the region's resource extraction industries. Recent work by Jeremy Mouat on British Columbia hard-rock miners also challenges the assumption that such workers were "naturally" inclined towards radicalism.
In this respect, The Making of Western Labor Radicalism marks a theoretical step backwards. Too readily Brundage accepts the existence of western radicalism as a historical phenomenon to be explained, rather than as a construct to be re-examined. Unfortunately, the two concepts central to Brundage's work -- class and radicalism -- receive little discussion or reflective examination, an absence that undermines Brundage's broader conclusions. His brief account of class formation, for example, is almost pre-Thompsonian in its static, structured appearance. A greater discussion of the voluminous literature on class formation might surely have benefited Brundage's examination of the evolution of working-class ideology and organization in Denver. As it stands, while the Making of Western Labor Radicalism tells us much about organized labour in Denver, it fails to advance the debate over class relations in western America.
Mount Royal College
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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