Scholarship on the Rise of the Right
Liberal Historians and the Retreat from Class
by Chad Pearson, Feb 01, 2019
Studies of American conservatism appear practically everywhere. Focusing chiefly, though not exclusively, on the post–New Deal decades, this body of scholarship, most of which has been produced by liberal academics, has deepened our understanding of Republican politicians, religious and racist campaigns, tax-cutting activists in the South, West, and Southwest, and the often-secretive forces behind the erosion of the nation’s social safety net. We have learned about business assaults on labor, well-funded think tanks like the American Enterprise, Cato, and Hoover Institutes, and magazines like National Review. Historians have provided us with studies of boogeymen like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, James McGill Buchanan, and the Koch brothers, as well as examinations of boogeywomen like Ayn Rand, Phyllis Schlafly, Sarah Palin, and Margaret Thatcher. Scholars have written decade-specific studies, underlining the conservative 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. A consensus has evolved around the idea that the last four decades mark the emergence of neoliberalism. We have collections of essays, primary source readers, and history departments offer courses called From Roosevelt to Reagan and the Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order.
While the explosion of these studies has undoubtedly enriched our understanding of these powerful forces and individuals, we are due for critical assessments of these studies from the left.1 This article is one such attempt, focusing on some of the blind spots that plague this scholarship and on the arrogant dismissals of class-based interpretations of the past. Over the past few decades, these dismissals, expressed by some of the profession’s most institutionally privileged members, have led to a narrowing of discussions and debates by limiting studies to the tensions between liberals and conservatives and by downplaying or ignoring leftist critiques of liberalism. This is unfortunate, since many of these same gatekeepers have exaggerated the differences between Republicans and Democrats, refusing to acknowledge what establishment liberals and institutional rightists share. Although there are obvious differences between conservatives and liberals, there are also meaningful similarities, particularly regarding education, financial regulation, foreign policy, policing, trade, and labor.
This article explores the development of this scholarly fad while offering a critical analysis of its writers and boosters. These historians, distancing themselves from leftist interpretations, tell us almost as much about their own moderate values as they do about their subjects’ illiberal activities. In fact, they have helped marginalize the histories of class struggle by insisting that we focus our attention on the conflicts between conservatives and liberals rather than between ordinary people and capitalists or between activists and politicians from both mainstream political parties. Indeed, these studies constitute part of a political project designed to draw attention away from establishment liberalism’s various shortcomings. This piece will mostly focus on these historians and the issue of labor.2
The New Left, Labor, and “History from the Bottom Up”
The uptick in studies of conservatism, dating from the early 1990s to the present, represent a departure from the more radical historiographical tradition of the 1960s and ’70s that was shaped by the social movements of the time. The period’s radicalism—expressed by the antiwar, civil rights, women’s liberation, and gay liberation movements, as well as by the widespread popularity of Marxist study groups—helped influence scholarship in two fundamental ways. First, there was the development of what the late historian Jesse Lemisch famously called, in 1967, “history from the bottom up.”3 During this politically and intellectually exciting time, public and professional historians wrote diverse histories of ordinary people rather than studies about kings, presidents, and business leaders. Second, recognizing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s numerous shortcomings, Harry S. Truman’s destructive Cold War polices, John F. Kennedy’s foot-dragging on civil rights, Lyndon B. Johnson’s murderous campaigns in Vietnam, and the unwillingness of establishment liberals to challenge structural inequality, New Left scholars were deeply distrustful of the Democratic Party, institutional liberalism, and U.S. capitalist society.
Many leftist historians openly disdained the Democratic Party, viewing it as an enemy of the working classes. As activist-historian Robert Brenner put it in 1984, “few radicals [during the New Left period] would have been caught dead inside the Democratic Party.”4 In 1973, historian Howard Zinn wrote about the Democrats’ tendency to hoodwink the public in Postwar America, 1945–1971. Unlike today’s political historians, many of whom look favorably on those years by noting the widespread presence of a suburban (white) middle class, high unionization rates, and programs like the GI Bill, Zinn focused on the persistence of inequality, corporate hegemony, and the deceitfulness of institutional liberals. “Roosevelt, in one of his boldest speeches, had denounced the ‘economic royalists’ of America,” yet neither he nor his administration, Zinn wrote, acted to “dislodge them from power.”5 Liberal spokespeople were insincere: This was
“the free society,” “the democratic state,” “the affluent society”; these were “the people of plenty.” Truman spoke of a “Fair Deal,” Kennedy described a “New Frontier,” Johnson bragged of a “Great Society.” Yet the resources of the richest nation on earth were still irrationally allocated to the production of war goods and luxury goods; urgent social needs, like housing, health care, schools, were considered secondary in importance.6
Others supplemented Zinn’s analyses with their own. The introduction to a 1975 edition of Radical America noted that establishment liberals have traditionally “stood in the way of a revolutionary working-class socialist movement.”7 Historian Mike Davis wrote in 1980 that organized labor suffered from a “barren marriage” with Democrats.8 Zinn, the author of the popular 1980 A People’s History of the United States, had faith in the working classes, not the politicians, famously stating that “what matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but ‘who is sitting in’—and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”9 Moreover, this generation appreciated the theoretical insights that helped them understand the past. As historian Linda Gordon explained in 1981: “Frankly, I cannot grasp how one can learn to think historically without reading [Karl] Marx.”10
Many of the New Left’s most innovative scholars were labor historians interested in exploring what George Rawick termed “working class self-activity.”11 Rather than focusing on unions as a single entity, they investigated the often-militant activities of rank-and-file members while pointing to the bureaucratic, tepid, red-baiting, and imperialist tendencies of numerous union leaders. Labor historians certainly recognized Reagan’s punitive antiunionism, but they were also candid about the periodic bouts of antiunion hostility expressed by Democrats. Furthermore, many illustrated the continued unwillingness of labor leaders to mobilize the membership while spotlighting their cushy relationships with Democratic (and sometimes Republican) politicians. In doing so, they offered multiple reasons for labor’s failures.12
In the 1970s and ’80s, university-based historians ensured that labor history—the study of workplace conflicts as well as of working-class life both in and outside of workplaces—was firmly planted in the academy. Few U.S. labor historians were as influential as David Montgomery, a former machinist and Communist Party member. Over the course of his life, Montgomery took class struggle seriously as a scholar and activist. His books, such as Beyond Equality, Workers’ Control in America, The Fall of the House of Labor and Citizen Worker, shed considerable light on the richness of working-class struggles in a variety of different settings and involving a diverse set of individuals and groups.13 For him, class as a category of analysis remained central—a point he stressed in the first page of his masterful 1987 The Fall of the House of Labor: “It remains not only possible but imperative to analyze the American experience of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in terms of conflicting classes.”14
Montgomery enjoyed a fruitful academic career, securing employment first at the University of Pittsburgh and then, in the late 1970s, at Yale as a distinguished professor. But he repeatedly demonstrated that he was not a self-important historian simply interested in advancing his own career. Rather, during his tenure, he spoke at union halls, offered history lessons to strikers on picket lines, inspired many social justice-oriented aspiring professors to study with him, and showed considerable amounts of generosity to, in the words of Henry Heller, “countless other historians who were not his students.”15 His impressive contributions to the study of labor and his overall importance to the profession were spelled-out clearly in an obituary written by historian Eric Foner in late 2011: Montgomery “was one of the most prominent historians in the US and the model of a scholar-activist.”16
Rather than give credit to middle-class reformers or state actors for workplace improvements and social reforms, Rawick, Montgomery, and Davis, like Zinn, spotlighted the various solidarity-building roles played by workers from below. Labor activists, rather than benevolent politicians, were in the forefront of campaigns against excessive forms of managerial surveillance and exploitation. In fact, Montgomery expressed annoyance at mainstream historians and labor leaders for suggesting that “Franklin D. Roosevelt changed all that.”17 To understand the establishment of labor-related New Deal reforms, he insisted, one must acknowledge, first and foremost, the combative activism of union builders. While the federal government under the New Deal offered needed protections by “lifting the suffocating burden of absolute managerial control from the working lives of Americans,” the state also played a co-optive role, helping to tame the new unions by subjecting them “to tight legal and political control.”18
This generation of class-conscious leftist scholars stood with ordinary people and their fights, never ignoring managerial exploitation, state repression, or the historic injustice of capitalism.19 Montgomery understood clearly what he called in 1979 “the awesome power which a company wields over its employees” and “the coercive authority of government.”20 For this generation, capitalists, their managers, and both main political parties that have historically served the interests of big business, deserved the primary blame for the problems faced by the diverse, working-class masses before, during, and after the years of the New Deal.
“If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em”: Privileged Academics, Careerism, and the Return of History from the Top Down
Some of the leading writers and promoters of “rise of the right” scholarship, including former labor historians, began distancing themselves from labor history and attacking radical interpretations of the past around the same time they started producing histories of conservatism. The cases of Princeton University’s Sean Wilentz and Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin, two scholars who had established their careers as labor historians but now identify as political historians, are instructive. In the 1990s, Wilentz, the author of a book about New York City’s working class, became a political historian as well as an enthusiastic supporter and colleague of the Clintons.21 In the introduction to his 2008 book on Ronald Reagan, Wilentz admitted that his “views have ripened over time.”22 Kazin, who left his first major academic mark in 1987 with a study of San Francisco trade unions in the Progressive Era, has expressed regret about parts of his past.23 “Despite claiming to be hard-headed Marxists,” Kazin wrote in 2013, “our analysis of American society was more emotional than rational.” Kazin tells us that he and his comrades were strategically wrongheaded for referring to the police as “pigs” and for spelling America with three Ks.24 Kazin has since distanced himself from what he considers an irrational period tarnished by counter-productive ultraleftism. Nevertheless, he remains politically active and was partially responsible for launching Historians for Obama in 2007.
These liberal historians of conservatism have responded to writers to their left in one of two ways: disregarding them altogether or outright hostile engagement. While they generally ignore Marxist writers, viewing their arguments as more of an annoying distraction than as a set of ideas worth engaging with, some Marxists, including Montgomery, Davis, and especially Zinn, have made too big of a splash to be overlooked.25 All three, in Kazin’s opinion, overstated the significance of class in U.S. history. Zinn, given his popular reach, deserved special scorn from these formerly class-conscious scholars. After Zinn’s 2010 death, Wilentz faulted him for writing for a broad audience: “he’s a popularizer, and his view of history is topsy-turvy, turning old villains into heroes, and after a while the glow gets unreal.”26 In 2004, Kazin wrote the first of several articles and speeches criticizing A People’s History of the United States, calling it “simplistic” and “bad history” because Zinn, in Kazin’s view, exaggerated the power of elites without recognizing “the real choices our left ancestors faced and the true pathos, and drama, of their decisions.”27
For Kazin, “the real choices” include voting for one of the two mainstream parties. Zinn may have believed in the capacity of ordinary people to make meaningful changes from below, but Kazin—a former editor of a University of Pennsylvania Press series publishing books on conservatism—criticized him for failing to understand that the most reasonable option for the broad left is voting for the Democratic Party, which he understands as the only political force capable of protecting Americans from Republican reactionaries. If left-leaning Americans, broadly defined, elect enough Democrats and apply pressure, Kazin insists that the Party will work to solve the nation’s race, gender, diplomatic, environmental, and class problems. “Short of revolution,” Kazin writes, “a strategic alliance with one element of ‘the Establishment’ is the only way social movements ever make lasting changes in law and public policy.” Such pragmatism is, according to Kazin, essential given conservatives’ ruthlessness, which Zinn supposedly never grasped: “‘Conservatism’ itself doesn’t even appear in the index [of A People’s History of the United States].”28
Younger scholars have joined Wilentz and Kazin in promoting respect for and the study of mainstream politics. Princeton University’s Julian Zelizer, too young to have been involved in the New Left, has written that our contemporary historiographical moment, shaped partially by studies of conservatism, is superior to earlier periods when old-fashioned labor historians were drawn to the question, “‘Why No Socialism in America?’ with the implicit assumption that socialism should have happened.”29 For the record, many, if not most, labor historians were not focused on this question. Yet, it would be wrong to claim that Zelizer’s comment signals intellectual laziness. Instead, it likely reflects his desire to promote the study of official politics over the subject of class struggle. For example, in 2012, Zelizer, writing with New York University’s Kim Phillips-Fein, observed that policymakers in governmental institutions were unfairly criticized and often overlooked by a generation of class-conscious historians: “They downplayed the ability of government to produce genuine reform” and focused “instead on grassroots efforts.”30 Zelizer, an editor of a Princeton University Press political-history series, wants readers to perceive liberal scholars like him as more sophisticated than the New Leftists, maintaining that “the best scholarship about conservatism has been written by liberals.”31 His comments about socialism and the New Left generation are primarily designed to delegitimize radical critiques of power relations while highlighting the virtues of more politically moderate scholarship.
The smug dismissals of labor history, and the attacks on radical history more generally, play an institutionally policing role that sets clear boundaries between different scholarly trends, while simultaneously building liberal scholarship and sustaining its echo chambers. The underlying message is rather clear: these earlier labor historians—hopelessly out-of-touch radicals—were guilty of placing too much emphasis on class struggle and thus failed to acknowledge most Americans’ appreciation for the nation and its institutions, particularly its two mainstream political parties. Most Americans, according to their assumptions, were religious, law abiding, and patriotic. And these historians want their colleagues to recognize, in short, that the New Left is now old and it is not coming back. Their boundary-setting agendas are meant, above all, to convince fellow scholars to acknowledge that the most meaningful conflicts have taken place in the context of official politics, not between antagonistic classes. As editors of university-press books and journals as well as faculty members at elite universities, they enjoy the academic prestige and institutional power to call many of the shots and thus secure political moderation from career-oriented junior historians.
Indeed, the popularity of scholarship on the rise of the right has coincided with the removal of labor historians from much of the academy. The most obvious opponents of labor history are the intellectually incurious university administrators and conservative politicians who have sought to defund or altogether eliminate labor studies departments at public institutions in places such as Alabama, California, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Missouri.32 There are also less blatant, but no less significant, opponents: departmental research-committee members, many of whom harbor an uneasiness with the subject of class. Indeed, hiring committees on college campuses, consisting mostly of liberal historians, have played a critical part by refusing to advertise labor-history jobs after the retirement of labor historians. Some professors even discourage their graduate students from identifying as labor historians. Through their actions, such individuals have essentially helped stigmatize the study of class. The contrasts with other areas of study, including race, gender, and political history—all important topics—are easy to identify.33
But life appears relatively comfortable for the prominent liberal historians of conservatism, a number of whom are based in the country’s most exclusive and highly priced universities. These individuals generally participate in elite and semi-elite social and professional circles, and are more inclined to hail examples of expertise from above than to praise confrontations from below. They have taught us how conservative policies have hurt ordinary people, but show no desire to promote movements that are independent of liberal establishment organizations and involve the combative “self-activity” of the working classes against the right or any other oppressive forces. Instead, they write favorably about, and in some cases have established relationships with, highly educated policymakers and Democratic Party politicians—people who propose so-called pragmatic solutions to the world’s ills. Their values are aligned with upper-middle-class coastal “professionals”; individuals active in liberal and moderate think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, the New America Foundation, and the Council on Foreign Relations; prominent news outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio; and the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) leadership.34 Some even receive funding from think tanks and mainstream publications.35
The generational contrasts are easy to identify. An earlier, activist-oriented cohort of academics looked to Marx; today’s liberal scholars of conservatism are inspired by John Maynard Keynes. While previous radical scholars denounced capitalism altogether, today’s liberals—and even many leftists—focus more narrowly on neoliberalism. Earlier writers like Montgomery highlighted the deradicalizing roles official liberalism had on class-conscious workers; today’s liberal historians see these same policies as empowering. This political shift is also reflected in stylistic differences. Earlier scholars wrote much about struggle and conflict, while today’s historians prefer words like negotiated and contested. While Marxists have illustrated the ways in which the ruling classes have established considerable control over both mainstream parties, today’s liberal scholars generally ignore or downplay the tight relationships between Democratic Party politicians and capitalists while drawing our attention to stories of “labor-liberal” electoral campaigns—carefully managed coalitions led by moderate union and Democratic Party leaders.36
Above all, these historians like to tell tidy, rise-and-fall stories that focus on voting behavior, official union activities, politicians, and state institutions while often ignoring or marginalizing the role of radicals. These well-ordered narratives begin with the Progressive Era’s various reforms and reformers, climax with the labor victories of the 1930s and the civil rights triumphs of the 1960s, and end, dramatically, under Reagan’s presidency, a time characterized by tax cuts, deregulation, and crass union busting.
Furthermore, they tend to romanticize earlier periods, when unions built coalitions with establishment liberals, Democrats won elections, and politicians enacted progressive policies. They celebrate features of the Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society. Duke University’s Nancy MacLean, author of the best-selling Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, identifies individuals from the past whom she considers honorable, including Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Keynes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and progressive luminary Louis Brandeis, whom she calls an “extraordinary figure” because he repeatedly voiced support for democracy, transparency, and unions.37 These historians see much to applaud in the 1930s and those interested in conservative forms of antiunionism often use this decade as their starting point, illustrating the ways reactionaries challenged prolabor New Deal policies—top-down policies that, in MacLean’s words, “empowered working-class Americans.”38 Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor and political historian with a Marxist past, wrote in 2013 that the “Wagner Act system looks a lot more attractive today” than it did when he criticized it in the 1970s and ’80s.39 And while these scholars are honest about the postwar era’s gender and racial shortcomings, many nevertheless find virtue in the job security and prosperity that numerous Americans experienced before the neoliberal onslaught gutted thousands of factories and decimated once-prosperous cities.40
Like Donald Trump, liberal scholars of conservatism yearn for a time when “America was great.”41 But they are usually vague about precisely how America’s so-called greatness emerged. Although most look approvingly at the role of unions and acknowledge labor’s part in establishing good wages for industrial workers, many fail properly to describe the bitter and militant struggles involved in building unions, the role of far-left groups in organizing campaigns, and the state repression that frequently characterized picket-line confrontations. Perhaps this is because many liberals fetishize nonviolent protests and find details of tire slashing, window smashing, and skull cracking unpleasant. But such events were often necessary to win union recognition and labor battles, even decades after the passage of ostensibly pro-union developments like the Wagner Act.42
While Franklin Roosevelt may have liked the idea of responsible labor leaders engaging in give-and-take bargaining with management, these historians typically deemphasize his discomfort with labor militancy and his disdain for radicalism. In fact, they have told us more about Roosevelt’s support for the Wagner and Fair Labor Standards Acts than, for example, about his indifference to the police murders of steelworkers in Chicago in 1937 or his embrace of the Smith Act, the 1940 law named after Congressman Howard Smith that helped destroy leftist unions, including Minneapolis’s Trotskyist Teamsters responsible for the successful 1934 general strikes in that city.43 MacLean has written about Smith’s opposition to numerous progressive polices, but neglects the Smith Act—a glaring omission.44 Perhaps she made this decision because, like others, she wants us to consider Roosevelt a champion of the working class instead of someone responsible for helping bosses ensure labor subordination while establishing capitalist stabilization. Roosevelt’s Smith Act authorization—like his Second World War demand for a no-strike pledge and his involvement in the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans—was also an example of placing “democracy in chains.”
The near erasure of independent, working-class radicalism—that is, mostly leftist activists of various stripes who mobilized outside of official labor-liberal coalitions—from so much scholarship has led some historians of conservatism to mischaracterize the left. Take, for example, Benjamin Waterhouse, a historian of business and conservatism. In his 2013 book, Lobbying America: The Politics of Business from Nixon to NAFTA, which was published as part of a Princeton University Press series partially edited by Zelizer, Waterhouse refers to free trade opponents as the “far left.” “On the far left of the spectrum,” Waterhouse writes, “some labor and public interest groups called for reciprocal tariffs, trade quotas, and other measures frequently demonized by opponents as ‘protectionist.’”45 It is doubtful that AFL-CIO officials—a handsomely compensated group far more willing to deliver speeches announcing their desire to defend “middle-class America” than actually to encourage militant mobilizations of rank-and-file members—ever saw themselves in this way. But Waterhouse, like more senior historians, appears to have no interest in exploring the ideas of the true “far left,” who are anticapitalists, not merely anti-free traders. It appears that, for him, the left’s limitations extend only to the liberal lobbyists who call for government regulatory programs, not to those who champion the end of capitalism itself. When we consider that radical interpretations of labor and politics used to be commonplace, it is astonishing to see how far the left has been pushed back in the historical memory.
Numerous like-minded political historians remain interested in antiunionism. But while earlier writers examined the reactionary activities of Republicans, liberalism’s limits, and the missteps and tepidity that characterized the actions of numerous union leaders, many current scholars focus almost exclusively on one explanation for the failures of organized labor over the past several decades: the rise of right-wing forces (and, of course, the pushback from employers). We cannot ignore or deny these forces, but if that is the most significant answer given by liberal writers, how do they make sense of the many union failures that have occurred under Democratic leaders? In the introduction to their 2012 edited collection, The Right and Labor, Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer express disappointment that Barack Obama, the “union friendly” politician, did not secure the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have made union organizing easier. Revealingly, they fail to mention that Obama, enjoying Democratic majorities in both houses during his first two years in office, hardly even discussed the EFCA. They say, simply, that its passage “was not to be.” They argue that conservatives sidelined it, although they say nothing of Obama and his congressional allies’ unexerted agency. Of course, making this point would have undermined one of their cherished assumptions—namely, that the Democrats are flawed labor allies, not outright adversaries.46
After eight years of Obama, what progressive policies can we celebrate? Many liberal scholars of conservatism had hoped for a “new New Deal,” which we obviously did not get.47 The labor movement saw little in return for the dues money it invested in Obama’s 2008 campaign as union density continued to fall under his presidency and the number of antiunion right-to-work states increased. There are currently twenty-eight right-to-work states, including several that were traditionally union strongholds. Obama had promised to wear walking shoes and join picket lines during protests, but was missing in action when unions mobilized against attacks by bosses and Republican legislators in Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Yet Obama managed to spend a lot of time with his obscenely rich Wall Street friends, protecting them from any sort of punishment for launching a corporate crime wave. Immigrants, Muslims, and journalists were less fortunate: Obama oversaw more deportations than any previous president, bombed seven countries during his final year in office, and cracked down on whistleblowers. Obama defenders, including scholars of conservatism, often point to the Affordable Care Act as a worthy accomplishment, even though it was based on a health care model first hatched by the conservative Heritage Foundation and secretly written by former health care-industry lobbyists.48
The Deep History of Liberal Antiunionism
The liberal establishment’s indifference to the plight of labor is not surprising if we look honestly at the deep, politically flexible history of antiunionism. The various narratives on the rise and fall of the New Deal lack the explanatory power to account for antiunionism’s depth and elasticity. The antiunion open-shop movement emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This powerful movement consisted of sizable numbers of self-identified liberals, powerful people in and outside of industrial relations settings who frequently proclaimed their willingness to protect the rights of unionists and nonunionists—an unsustainable position because it undermines the practice of working-class solidarity. Nobody was more important than Theodore Roosevelt, who liberal-leaning historians insist was prolabor.49 Briefly, Roosevelt had established a commission to respond to the massive coal strike in northeastern Pennsylvania in 1902. Its final report legitimized the open-shop principle, which Roosevelt called the Square Deal, since it supposedly protected the rights of unionists, business owners, consumers, and scabs. Many employers, inspired by this outcome, formed numerous Square Deal associations after the report’s release, and the Citizens’ Industrial Association of America, the biggest employers’ association, named their monthly publication the Square Deal. Employers’ associations from the Progressive Era to the New Deal years celebrated Roosevelt’s pro-open shop “Square Deal.”50
Theodore Roosevelt was joined by other well-known reformers. Mainstream figures like journalist Ray Stannard Baker, Holmes Jr., Brandeis, and U.S. Senator Robert L. Owen, best known for the 1916 Keating-Owen child-labor law, supported union-breaking campaigns in the early twentieth century.51 Indeed, none of the period’s elite reformers endorsed the core ingredients necessary for a healthy labor movement: militancy, solidarity, and independence from capitalist political parties. While MacLean and others want us to remember Brandeis as an advocate of business and political transparency, as well as a union supporter, he hardly practiced what he preached. He spent much of the Progressive Era representing several highly secretive antiunion associations.52 Additionally, many employers in the vanguard of anti-labor union activities were Civil War veterans and proudly cited Abraham Lincoln and his defense of “free labor” over slavery during workplace disputes.53 These details are usually absent from the trendiest studies of the rise of the right, which ordinarily begin after the New Deal and contend that antiunion ideas and actions emerged as part of a right-wing movement. The reality, however, is more complex.
A Return to Radicalism?
Recently, a growing number of leftist scholars have offered much-needed critiques of establishment liberalism and, in the process, have shown the limitations of focusing largely on the Republican Party and its ideological backers. This is true of historians of both domestic and foreign affairs. Scholars of race, for instance, have done excellent work in highlighting the ways liberals such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton have aggressively promoted the politics of law and order and thus helped set the stage for the nation’s excessively high incarceration rate, which disproportionately punishes African Americans and Latinos.54 Others have taught us much about the deceitful roles establishment liberals have played in selling U.S. wars under the banner of humanitarian intervention.55 Indeed, those seeking an honest account of the rise of the carceral state and the vicious nature of U.S. imperialism must grapple with the repressive actions of both conservatives and institutional liberals.
Class-conscious historians have honored the tradition of writing the type of radical working-class history fought for by Lemisch, Rawick, Montgomery, Zinn, and others by producing their own multidimensional studies of labor militancy. This has been true for postwar scholars, some of whom have taught us about the deradicalizing and solidarity-breaking nature of the National Labor Relations Board while pointing to the emancipatory potential of confrontational rank-and-file activism on the local, national, and even international levels.56 And in the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, several writers have produced scholarship that identifies the key source of our problems: the 1 percent, which maintains the dominant influence on politicians from both parties, including Chicago’s labor-hating Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel.57 These are encouraging developments. As most Democratic Party politicians of all levels continue to disappoint by prioritizing the interests of the 1 percent over the working-class majority, new generations of scholar-activists will discover the enduring value of applying a class analysis to the past and the usefulness of spotlighting the structural ills of capitalism itself.
How much influence these more critical monographs will have on the public’s understanding of the past remains a question. Yet, at this point, we can safely say that this more radical scholarship has not caught up with the rapid pace of scholarly output about the various dimensions of conservatism. Indeed, there is a long history of right-wing activism and powerful conservative forces that are clearly different from mainstream liberalism. It is important that we know about the activities of the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Chicago school of economics, and countless think tanks, as detailed in books and articles written by liberal historians. Yet it seems that the ex-leftists behind some of this scholarship, who routinely display irritation at the latest reactionary outrage while remaining mostly silent about the comprehensive threats posed by both parties and capitalism itself, are somehow compensating for their own shifts to the right. Whatever the case, we should not allow them or their followers to bamboozle us into believing that the Democrats somehow offer genuine solutions to our problems. The Democratic Party and its salaried accomplices in think tanks, journalism, and academia share the blame with employers and Republicans for the labor movement’s decline, extreme class inequality, and the country’s persistent poverty. What Zinn, Davis, Montgomery, and many lesser known radicals stated in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s about institutional liberals protecting ruling-class interests at the expense of workers was true then and remains true today. Fortunately, many of today’s scholar-activists, reinforcing the sharp insights of those from the New Left generation, recognize that we cannot simply criticize the rightists. Indeed, we must take their words seriously and reject the bar-lowering goals set by today’s historians of conservatism.
https://monthlyreview.org/2019/02/01/sc ... the-right/
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