Tuesday May 22

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I received a note from Fred Ross, Jr. and Mike Miller seeking support for this campaign to recognize, posthumously, Fred Ross, Senior, one of the great organizers for lower income families of all races and ethnicity, for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Over the years while I was at ACORN whenever I was asked if I was an Alinksy-organizer, I would often reply, "No, I was a Ross-organizer!" Fred Ross's commitment to house meetings was instrumental in the role "organizing committees" played in the ACORN Model.

Below you will find the letters that Fred and Mike have helped distribute that have been signed by several Congresspeople and sent to the White House. Hopefully, you will join us in adding your name in support of this call for recognition for those who work in the vineyards of the freedom fight.


Dear Colleague,

As President Barack Obama considers candidates for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I write to you today to join me in a letter that urges the President to award posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the legendary organizer, Fred Ross, Sr.

Since 1963, the Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes those individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." Fred Ross Sr.’s enduring legacy an organizer who built collective action, citizenship engagement, and leadership development has never been more relevant or important to our democracy.

Last year, when Dolores Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom she recognized Fred Ross Sr. as the organizer who mentored both her and Cesar Chavez. Cesar once described his relationship with Fred Ross by saying “I learned quite a bit by studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer I know, Fred Ross Sr….he changed my life. “For nearly half a century, Fred educated, agitated and inspired people of all races and backgrounds to overcome fear, despair and cynicism. He was a pioneer who fought for racial and economic justice.

To join this letter, please contact Christina Partida (Grijalva) at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Raúl M. Grijalva  Member of Congress

George Miller Member of Congress

Lucille Roybal-Allard Member of Congress


Dear President Obama,

We, the undersigned, are writing to ask you to award posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the legendary organizer, Fred Ross, Sr.

Last year, when Dolores Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom she recognized Fred Ross Sr. as the organizer who mentored both her and Cesar Chavez. Cesar once described his relationship with Fred Ross by saying “I learned quite a bit by studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer I know, Fred Ross Sr….he changed my life.”

For nearly half a century, Fred educated, agitated and inspired people of all races and backgrounds to overcome fear, despair and cynicism. He was a pioneer who fought for racial and economic justice.

In the thirties and early forties, he organized “Dust Bowl” refugees in the migratory worker camps that John Steinbeck wrote about, helping them form camp councils and self-governance. In the mid-forties, he worked with Japanese Americans during World War II. He organized community support to combat wartime hysteria and prejudice. He helped newly released “internees” find employment and housing in Cleveland and San Francisco.

After WWII, in the midst of KKK activity, he organized eight Civic Unity Leagues in California’s Citrus Belt, bringing Mexican Americans and African Americans together to battle segregation in schools, skating rinks and movie theatres. In Orange County he organized parents to fight the practice of segregation in local schools and successfully integrated School Boards across the Citrus Belt through voter registration drives and civic engagement. One of the most dramatic outcomes of his work in Orange County occurred when parents sued the School Districts and prevailed. (Mendez et al vs. Westminster School District, et al. 1947) , creating the legal precedent for the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision.

In 1947 Saul Alinsky hired Ross to organize the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Los Angeles’ Eastside Barrio. In 1949 the CSO helped elect Ed Roybal, the first Hispanic ever elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

In the early 1950s, Ross met Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. He recruited them to become fulltime organizers with the CSO and became a lifetime mentor. Together with CSO leaders across California and Arizona, they successfully overcame voter suppression efforts and passed landmark legislation on behalf of immigrants. Ross recruited and trained many other Hispanic leaders, including Cruz Reynoso who was later appointed the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice in California, and who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. Later he recruited and trained young farm worker, Eliseo Medina, who dedicated years to the UFW, became the Secretary Treasurer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and is a leading advocate for comprehensive immigration reform today.

In 1965, as part of the “War on Poverty,” Ross worked through Syracuse University and trained many of the organizers who went on to be leaders in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the deep south.

Perhaps, Fred Ross Sr. is most remembered for his work with America’s farm workers and their struggle for justice and dignity during the 1960s and 1970s. He trained close to 2,000 grape and lettuce boycott and strike organizers in every major city in the United States and Toronto, Canada. The powerful pressure that resulted from massive collective action led to the passage of the historic California Agricultural Labor Relations Act signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown in 1975.

In 1983 Fred Ross Sr. joined his son, Fred Ross Jr., and trained organizers to defeat the unfair Recall election of San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein who had been targeted because of her support for tough gun control regulation in the aftermath of the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Fred Ross Sr.’s house meeting method was instrumental in recruiting the hundreds of volunteers who turned out to defeat the Recall by an 80% margin.

In the mid-1980s, Fred Ross Sr. joined his son, Fred, to train yet another generation of organizers to challenge the Reagan foreign policy in Central America. He died in 1992 at the age of 82.

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “Fred Ross Senior left a legacy of good works that have given many the courage of their convictions, the powers of their ideals, and the strength to do heroic deeds on behalf of the common person.”

Jerry Cohen, former UFW General Counsel stated, “Fred fought more fights and trained more organizers and planted more seeds of righteous indignation against social injustice than anyone we’re ever likely to see again.”

That Fred remains an unsung hero, despite decades of unselfish work and achievements, is largely his own fault. Carey McWilliams may have put it best when he wrote: “(Fred) is a man of exasperating modesty, the kind that never steps forward to claim his fair share of credit for any enterprise in which he is involved.”

The late Los Angeles Times Associate Editor, Frank del Olmo, called Ross “one of a small cadre of underappreciated people who saw the potential in the Mexican American community long before anyone else did, literally generations before anyone else did, and helped nurture it and bring it along at a time when there was really no certainty that the potential they saw would ever come to fruition. I’m enough of an historian to believe that this kind of quiet heroism should not be forgotten.”

Fred Ross Sr.’s enduring legacy an organizer who built collective action, citizenship engagement, and leadership development has never been more relevant or important to our democracy.

In recognition of this unsung hero we urge you to confer the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously upon Fred Ross, Sr. This recognition would be a beacon of hope for living and future organizers committed to social justice.


Members of Congress



Although we acknowledge the deep support President Obama received from many groups and from the American people generally, African-Americans were a critical constituency both nationally and in battleground states such as Ohio, where African-American turnout increased from 2008 and whose vote share was greater than its share of the electorate as a whole.  Congratulations and thanks to us all for helping re-elect the President and for all the other progressive changes that we helped usher in on Election Day. The entire world will benefit from our actions and the future will be brighter for all.

Before you turn away from the long and sometimes exhausting political season, there is one more thing we must do.  It is vital that we state and more forcefully insist that President Obama and Congress begin to address the critical needs of the black community.  There has been a deafening silence from both the White House and Congress about the needs of our community as well as from us.

With few exceptions, we have not been vocal or organized as to what we as citizens and strong supporters of the President should require or even expect from our government.

We should not expect President Obama to be responsive to us just because he is black, but rather because he is president.  The fact that we supported him to become president just adds to the strength of this position.

In a democracy, the government must be responsive to the needs of the people.  People have different needs.   It should not strike us as strange that the LGBT community expects the president to be responsive to their demands.  Nor should we be surprised when he responds favorably.   The same is true for Latinos, labor and other groups.   While the president and Congress need to respond to all Americans, there is often an expectation and understanding that supporters of policy makers will be given at least an audience and serious consideration, if not more.  Detractors often refer to this as advocacy for special interests, but our motto e pluribus unum, “one out of the many,” recognizes that each distinct part of our country is essential to the whole.

As President Obama is the first African-American president, much of the country is more than a little excited when talking about race or more particularly African-Americans.   The right wing can talk about Obama as a food stamp president or how he may not really be American.  We knew such attacks on the president and the black community often had serious racial overtones.  Yet, if this observation was made, not only would they deny these accusations, they would cry foul: that critics were playing “the race card.”  With the heat turn up we would, too often, shrink from the conversation.

Many African-American leaders worried that if Obama or we join the public discussion of race, it would make it more difficult for the president to get re-elected or govern.  While there may have been some support for this concern, one need only recall the flak the President received following his comments on the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates.  Some believed this concern was overstated, but, in any case, we are now beyond the election. We should no longer let the right-wing control the racial narrative about us or the president while we quietly express frustration, but remain publicly invisible.  We must talk about race and other issues that affect us, but in a skillful manner.  But we also need to go beyond talk and move to action.

Some policy makers and at times even the president have suggested that the best way to address black needs is to bury them in universal strategies, assuming that we will benefit without drawing attention to race.  While this may have some political appeal, too often it does not work. Researchers have concluded that universal strategies too often miss the mark.  The simple reason is that different groups are situated differently.

Consider the goal of moving everyone from the first floor to the fifth floor of a building, and that the means of conveyance is an escalator.   For most people, an escalator will suffice.  For a person in a wheelchair, an escalator is useless.  Nor would anyone insist that tide walls built for New York also be built in Kansas.  The strategy employed must be mindful of how people are situated in the world.   Universal approaches fail in this regard.

For more than 50 years experts have known that neighborhood conditions influence life chances.  African-Americans are more likely than their white counterparts to live in neighborhoods where the majority of people are low income.   This creates multiple challenges that are not experienced as much or in the same degree as other groups.  A simple universal policy that does not appreciate or attend to these differences will as likely exacerbate as reduce inequality.

There is another problem with the apparently race-neutral universal approach: it acquiesces to anxiety about race, and in practice, is likely to have a negative racial impact.  While many Democrats have tried to avoid discussions of race, some Republicans have been stoking white racial anxiety for political gain.  This has been the most extreme in the South, so much so that at one point the chairman of the Republican National Committee acknowledged that they were deliberately stoking racial anxiety and resentment toward blacks to activate their base and generate support.   This approach has been labeled the “Southern Strategy”, which has been used to drive the South into the right wing camp of the Republican Party since the ‘60s.  More recently, the approach has been called dog whistle racism, where coded phrases are used to transmit signals to a right-wing, resentful white base that politicians are sensitive to and even supportive of their racial resentment, while at the same time having a position of deniability for more moderate whites.

President Reagan gave his the first post-convention speech of his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers had been killed, promising to restore “states rights” and local control.   Similarly talk of food stamps, welfare, government dependence and the inner city have all been used as a dog whistle to resentful whites.  Democrats have too often felt the need to move away from the concerns of blacks -- even if those needs were found to be legitimate and good policy -- in order to try to hold on to support of white resentful voters.  When one looks at the solid red south on an electoral map it is clear this Republican strategy is built on racial anxiety, and that resentment has been effective in winning the South.  The good news is that those strategies are no longer enough to win the White House.   The Republican Party knows it must look for more voters and be more inclusive.  They have not looked our way.

There is little doubt that race continues to define many aspects of American life including where we live, go to school, severity of criminal laws and employment, notwithstanding Obama’s impressive achievements.

If universal strategies do not usually work, what is the alternative?  What we usually turn to are targeted strategies.  But this is also a very limited approach.  This approach is likely to be seen as requesting special treatment, ignoring the needs of others and divisive.   But an even more important reason that targeted strategies fail is that they usually do not command the political support to get them enacted or see them sustained over time.

During the current downturn, there was a period when unemployment went down for the general population and increased for the African American population.   At one point the Congressional Black Caucus tried to get President Obama to focus on central cities and the black community.  The President responded that he was President of the entire country and could not focus on the black community.  The President’s response does not acknowledge the unique situation and disparate position of the black community.

Policymakers too often adopt a universal strategy instead of a universal goal.  The Congressional Black Caucus could have asked for a universal goal while acknowledging that there were hard hit areas being underserved or central cities that were being left behind by a universal, national strategy.  The goal could be to get unemployment below 6%, with no community having an unemployment rate of 50% higher than the national average.  Still, some may protest that this is an approach targeted to help the black community.  The response should be that this approach is designed to help everyone, and to ensure that no group is left behind, including the black community.

There are exceptions to the limitations of targeted strategies, and we may be witnessing such an exception with Latinos and the issue of immigration. Latinos are currently viewed by both Democrats and Republicans as a critical constituency in both this election and in elections to come.  Even though blacks still make up a larger percentage of voters than Latinos (13% and 10%, respectively) we are not seen as important.  There are a number of reasons for this.  On the Democratic side, for more than a half century, we have been the most loyal group to Democrats.  Groups that support a party are often given an audience and particular consideration.  But this is not always the case, especially if the group can be taken for granted.

Another reason is that part of the successful Southern Strategy by Republicans was to point out to whites that Democrats were responsive to blacks in the ‘60s, playing on white resentment.  Democrats effectively decided to create distance or at least ambivalence toward the needs of the black community based not on the ‘ask’ of the black community, but on concern for possible white resentment.  We have not fully moved beyond the politics of resentment by Republicans and silence by Democrats.  But this election suggests the country is changing.  So even though Romney won the white vote by more than 20%, he lost the election.  It is no longer an effective strategy at the national level to rely entirely on the white vote, nor will stoking the fires of white resentment produce a majority in national elections.

Let us turn to our ‘ask’.  It is important that we advance our requests in a way that creates a focused list of priorities that can be framed as important for the entire country.  This does not mean that these requests need a universal strategy, but they do require universal goals.  The strategy to achieve these goals and implementation should be based on our situation and needs.  We call this targeted universalism.  The goal is universal, but the strategy is targeted and tailored to our circumstances.

What might this targeted universalism be?  There are a number of possibilities.  Here we suggest a few, but it is more important that we come together as part of a network and movement to address this question.  The ask must be part of a movement of sustained pressure on the administration and the Congress, and must bring us together.   Two possibilities for targeted universalism are employment and housing.  Note that employment has already been singled out as a national issue.  It is therefore easy to make the case that the goal of addressing employment is universal.  What is missing is the understanding that unless employment solutions are also targeted to communities that are most impacted by high unemployment, we may have a strategy that works for the majority of Americans and leaves blacks with double-digit unemployment.   A targeted universalism approach to unemployment is likely to benefit other groups also left out by universal strategies, such as rural whites, young people, and others.

Targeted universalist strategies are likely to include other groups as well as blacks, and this is a good thing, but it is critical that African-Americans not be left out for political or other reasons.  The possibility of exclusion suggests that we not only make an ask, but that we organize and have a seat at the table.  We must communicate our needs to the President, Congress and our statehouses, but we might start with black organizations and leaders already charged with representing our collective interest.  These discussions have already begun.  So let’s move beyond the celebration, and tell the President and Congress that we will not allow them to take us or our vote for granted, and that we are more than a political pawn.  We, too, are Americans.



john powell,

Executive Director

Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society,

University of California, Berkeley


Paul Hudson,

Managing Director,

Hudson & Holland Advisors, LLC


Eva Paterson,


Equal Justice Society


Roger A. Clay, Jr.,


Insight Center for Community Economic Development

An interesting reflective piece by Peter Rachleff, Professor of History at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Peter is writing an assessment of the impact of the battles of Wisconsin on the elections of 2012 for our fall issue.

Learning From David Montgomery: Worker, Historian, Activist

By Peter Rachleff

On December 4, 2011, the labor movement, the left, the academy, and the historical profession lost a leader and friend.  Eighty-four years young, David Montgomery had remained active and vital until his passing, giving an address at a labor history conference at the University of Iowa in July and speaking at a fall AFL-CIO workshop (with his son, labor economist Ed Montgomery) in Washington, D.C.; he continued to research transnational labor activism, and that research has inspired a panel at the November 2012 American Studies Association conference in Puerto Rico.  David’s death occasioned many reflections among colleagues, his former students and fellow workers as far back as his pre-academic organizing days.  Numerous eloquent obituaries have detailed David’s accomplishments and testified to his impact.1

David had particular connections to Minnesota’s labor movement and labor history, the place I have called home for the past thirty years.  After graduating from college and serving in the military in the 1940s, he and his partner Martel (better known as “Marty”) moved to Saint Paul in the 1950s, and he went to work as a machinist at Honeywell, where the United Electrical Workers was still the union.  David was a shop steward, and his reputation as a militant organizer of his fellow workers soon spread throughout the sprawling plant.  He lost his job when Honeywell closed his entire department, and the UE soon lost its foothold there in a raid by the Teamsters.  He soon found machinist work on the Saint Paul side of the Mississippi River, where he became known and respected within IAM 459.  David’s activism also extended to electoral politics – he worked in Joe Karth’s remarkable 1958 congressional campaign (as president of an OCAW local, Karth ran on an anti-nuclear platform) – and to local labor history, where he assisted Meridel LeSueur and a cohort of former Farmer-Laborites and Communists in the production of the booklet, THE PEOPLE TOGETHER.  This remarkable publication at once commemorates Minnesota’s centennial and protests against the Minnesota Historical Society’s disregard for the roles played by working people in the state’s first one hundred years.

Given the worsening Cold War political climate, it became more and more difficult for David to continue playing a visible role in the labor movement.  He later explained to an interviewer:  “I was driven out of the factory; I was blacklisted.  Becoming a historian was not my first choice.  I had to do something, so I took the second best choice that was around then.”   As a graduate student in History, David brought important lessons from his shopfloor and political experience into the University of Minnesota’s department, where he found an eager mentor in David Noble.  In reflecting on his grad school days, David declared:  “Being in factories…involved in struggles along with other workers there persuaded me that most of what was written in academic literature about the inherent passivity or conservatism of American workers in fighting to change anything was simply untrue.”2 The Cold War’s impact on the labor movement might have prevented him from developing further as a factory organizer, but it was driving him to transform the field of labor history.

By the mid-1960s, the energies of the civil rights, women’s, and peace movements were turning the study of American history upside down.  New historians – many of them participants in 1960s movements – unearthed the roles of artisans and sailors in the American Revolution, the slaves’ resistance to the “peculiar institution,” and the struggles of women for the right to vote.  The new labor historians, led by David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and David Brody, developed new ways of constructing the history of working women and men that questioned the more institutional analysis that had been dominant in the field since the rise of the “Wisconsin School” of John R. Commons and Selig Perlman in the 1910s and 1920s.  The new labor historians insisted that the workplace was a site of struggle, that workers acted in collective fashions whether they belonged to unions or not, and that communities and local politics bore the mark of the struggles of working people for a better life.3

I’d like to use the space allotted me here to highlight what I think are some of his most valuable themes for those still seeking to work within the labor movement today.  Some of you may disagree with my selection of key ideas, or my presentation of those ideas, and I invite you to weigh in with your own perspectives.  Nothing would have pleased David more, and nothing is more useful for the ongoing vitality of our field and our movement.

Theme #1: Marxism Provides Key Insights for Labor History

David’s engagement with Marxism informed his scholarly work.  Without didactically insisting on the value of a Marxist critique of capitalism, his books and articles analyzed labor history within a complex, well-constructed framework which incorporated key Marxist insights.  David understood capitalism as an historical product and an unstable system, and he realized it posed collaboration versus competition as key issues for workers and employers alike.  Not only did capitalism set a defining context for workers’ lives and struggles, but their struggles forced changes in the institutions, politics, and culture of capitalism, in the United States and throughout the world.

Class conflict lay at the heart of capitalism, and it manifested itself in workplaces, in politics, in race and gender relations, and in the formation of ideologies and cultures.  His first book, BEYOND EQUALITY: LABOR AND THE RADICAL REPUBLICANS, 1862-1872, suggested that we could not understand the failure of Reconstruction without examining the changing nature of class conflict in the industrial and industrializing North.  The more that capitalist manufacturers in the North were challenged by the organizations and demands of their workers, the less willing they were to promote an agenda of social transformation in the South.  Similarly, in CITIZEN WORKER: THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKERS IN THE UNITED STATES WITH DEMOCRACY AND THE FREE MARKET DURING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, David demonstrated fundamental contradictions between political democracy and market-driven economics, contradictions which fueled restrictions on grassroots expressions of political discontent, from northern workers seeking the eight hour day and Midwestern farmers challenging banks and railroads to southern African Americans confronting Jim Crow.  Capitalism, David argued, ineluctably bound economics and politics, the workplace and the ballot box, corporate institutions and the state.4

But these bound forces did not prevent workers from organizing and struggling, and their struggles often changed the course of American history.  In WORKERS’ CONTROL IN AMERICA and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF LABOR: THE WORKPLACE, THE STATE, AND AMERICAN LABOR ACTIVISM, 1865-1925, David traced workers’ struggles for a shorter working day, for an end to exploitative payment practices, against unsafe working conditions, for more control over the pace and nature of the work process, for the democratization of communities (such as mining camps and Minnesota Iron Range “locations”), against racism and nativism, and for peace in international relations.  In a remarkable public address on “Labor and Antiwar Activism in Minnesota,” delivered in March 2002 to a labor conference in Saint Paul, David discussed workers’ struggles to prevent World War I, their support for mobilization against fascism in World War II, and their opposition to nuclear proliferation in the late 1950s.  “In all three instances,” he argued, “[workers] had a tangible influence on the course of national politics, though in none of them did they succeed in reshaping the world the way they hoped and intended.”  Although workers and their organizations often did not win (indeed, they rarely won) such battles, there were consequent adjustments and shifts in economic, social, and political institutions and policies.  And later struggles tended to build on the achievements of the earlier ones, even the defeats.5

Theme #2: Montgomery’s “Syndicalism”: The Struggle in the Workplace

For David, the workplace itself was the primary site of class struggle.  In the workplace, workers and employers (or their representatives) fought over how work was organized, how it would get done, and how much would get done.  He frequently referenced Carter Goodrich’s notion of the “frontier of control,” that “invisible dividing line” where management’s authority ceased and the scope for workers’ decision-making began.  David understood technology as a tool in management’s campaigns to expand its decision-making power, and he also saw unions as tools in workers’ campaigns to expand their power and authority.  This theme came up again and again in his lectures and seminars, whether he was discussing slaves’ use of songs to set a humane pace in the cotton fields, Welsh and Irish miners’ efforts to teach eastern European immigrants to refuse to work when foremen came around, or machinists’ strategies to use piece rates to control their pace of work.  While some labor historians paid particular attention to artisans’ use of traditions and skills to resist the capitalist reorganization of work, the re-division of labor, and the introduction of time discipline, David was more interested in the new strategies, tactics, and solidarities employed by new generations of factory workers, who were being reorganized by their employers not only to produce but also to join together to resist production.  Here, David’s engagement with Marxism and his experiences on the shopfloor combined to enable him to see how capitalism, in its own development, generated working class resistance.6

In a dialectical fashion, unions grew out of the shopfloor struggles, while they also served the needs of these struggles.  Workers organized themselves into unions in order to codify their work practices and rules, to institutionalize the solidarity necessary to enforce them, and to provide the means to socialize new workers into them.  Unions linked workplaces in local markets, regions, nations, and even transnationally, and they enabled workers to disrupt employers’ efforts to interject competition across workplaces, competition which Jeremy Brecher has so aptly labeled a “race to the bottom.”7

For David, then, workers’ power in the workplace was indissolubly linked to workers’ power at the bargaining table.  They fed each other.  And the logic of capitalism suggested that this dialectic would continue to unfold.

Theme #3: What Is The Labor Movement?

The struggle over the “frontier of control,” the struggle to embody positions of strength in contracts, job descriptions, work rules, and recognized past practices is only part of the story, part of the labor movement whose past, present, and future occupied David Montgomery’s heart and imagination.  My appreciation for such issues began in the fall of 1974, my first semester in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh.  One afternoon, in his crowded labor history lecture course, David Montgomery dropped a bomb.  “Do you realize,” he asked his students, “that if you said ‘labor movement’ in late nineteenth century America, you would have been talking about five different kinds of organizations?”  As our pens stood erect over our notebook pages, he proceeded to name them: trade unions (of course); fraternal and benefit societies (the embodiment of what he called “working class mutuality”); co-operatives (both producer and consumer); reform associations (like Eight Hour leagues); and political parties (mostly at the local or, occasionally, the state levels).  If you were studying the 1880s and wanted to be precise, he hastily added, you might want to add a sixth organizational form, the mixed local assemblies of the Knights of Labor.  Within them, workers from various occupations and industries came together to support strikes, boycott nefarious bosses, and promote local political issues, from restrictions on convict labor to the construction of public buildings with union labor.  We furiously took notes, then caught our breath.  Then, he dropped another bomb: “If you were to say ‘labor movement’ today [1974], you’d be talking about only one kind of organization, the trade union.”8

There we were, “we” being, particularly, the labor history graduate students who wanted not only to write about labor history but also, from within the labor movement, to help make labor history, and our mentor, was serving notice – more than a decade before scholars and activists would begin to decry the “decline” of the labor movement – that the “labor movement” of our era, the last quarter of the 20th century, was a profoundly narrowed, diminished, and restricted shadow of its historical self.  We might not have understood all the implications of such an historical assessment at that moment, but it has certainly haunted my awareness as I have witnessed plant closings, the contracting out of jobs, defeats of strikes, collapse of union organizing campaigns, the firing of union activists, and the passage of anti-union legislation.9

David’s work and that of many of his graduate students explored the complex organizational infrastructure of the labor movement from the last quarter of the 19th century through the passage of the Wagner Act (1935) and the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), and the construction of the modern American system of collective bargaining.   In books like THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF LABOR: THE WORKPLACE, THE STATE, AND AMERICAN LABOR ACTIVISM, 1865-1925, and CITIZEN WORKER: THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKERS IN THE U.S. WITH DEMOCRACY AND THE FREE MARKET IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, and many scholarly and popular articles, David researched, analyzed, and documented how working women and men organized themselves outside as well as inside workplaces, how these organizations were inter-connected through shared values, ideologies, and leaderships, and how they ebbed and flowed historically in strength and influence.

His students’ explorations have added many layers of richness and complexity to this scholarship, and their contributions – and their teaching of subsequent generations  – suggests that David’s legacy will continue to shape our understanding of capitalism, class relations, the workplace, working people, and the labor movement.  Consider this selection of examples, drawn from some of the dissertations David supervised which then became books: Bruce Laurie’s attention to volunteer fire companies and other neighborhood organizations in the struggles of Philadelphia artisans and first generation factory workers; Shel Stromquist’s research into community support for railroad workers’ struggles in the late 19th century; Jim Barrett’s examination of Chicago’s “back of the yards” communities’ support for immigrant packinghouse workers in the era of THE JUNGLE; Eric Arnesen’s exploration of both black and inter-racial organizing on the New Orleans docks and its waterfront neighborhoods; Peter Gottlieb’s and Kimberly Phillips’ reconstructions of the peregrinations of southern African Americans into and out of Pittsburgh and Cleveland steel mills and the relation of these migrations to black communities north and south; a range of investigations of working-class communities and independent labor politics, including Reeve Huston on small-town political activism against a regional landed gentry in antebellum upstate New York, Julie Greene on political activism by the supposedly “apolitical” American Federation of Labor, Grace Palladino on anthracite miners’ quest for government regulation of conditions in their workplaces in 19th century Pennsylvania, and Cecelia Bucki on the working-class base for socialist municipal politics in Bridgeport, Connecticut; and then there are the studies of race and gender as sources of bonding and organization as well as division and competition, including Iver Bernstein’s painful retelling of Irish immigrants’ involvement in the New York City “draft riots” in the midst of the Civil War, my own study of African American workers’ organization, on their own behalf and with white workers, in post-Civil War Richmond, Virginia, Tera Hunter’s appreciation of African American working women’s struggles to control laundry and domestic labor in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction urban South, Dan Letwin’s exploration of interracial organizing among Alabama coal miners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Priscilla Murolo’s exploration of working girls’ clubs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gunther Peck’s excavation of class struggles within immigrant and ethnic communities in the early 20th century West, Ileen DeVault’s investigation of the roles played by gender in the construction of white collar work at the turn of the 20th century, Dana Frank’s documentation of working-class women’s use of consumer organizing to buttress the post-general strike (1919) labor movement in Seattle, Dorothy Fujita-Rony’s reconstruction of Seattle’s Filipino working class within a transpacific framework.  And I fear having given offense to those scholars I have left out.10

David Montgomery’s Living Legacy

Learning from the key themes which I have discussed – the value of Marxism in analyzing capitalism, the centrality of the workplace as a site of class struggle, and the variety of institutions which make up a labor movement – can serve us well today, not only as labor historians but also as labor activists.  The 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing “Great Recession” remind us that capitalism is an unstable system.  Struggles by nurses to control patient staffing ratios, by teachers to control class size and curriculum, and by manufacturing workers to challenge the logic of the products they make remind us that the workplace continues to be a site of class struggle.  In the “Madison Uprising” of 2011 (and the larger and ongoing Wisconsin struggle) workers, students, social justice activists, immigrants, welfare recipients, and even Democratic politicians created a veritable soviet in that capital city, inspired by struggles for democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, and inspiring broad-based struggles against the right-wing agenda in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and more.  True, the much bemoaned current percentage of the workforce in unions (perhaps 10%) is well below that of 1974 (when the percentage was closer to 20%) or the great unionized decades of the 1940s-1960s, (when it was 30% or more), and such figures reflect a shift of the frontier of control in the workplace towards management and a consequent shift in bargaining table clout in the same direction.  But capitalism’s instability, on the one hand, and the 1%’s efforts to make the 99% bear its burden, on the other hand, has provoked working-class resistance of an order not seen in decades.

At the same time, working class organization has spread a thicker and thicker web.  Particularly due to the massive influx of immigrants since 1990, diverse forms of working class organization – fraternal and benefit societies, reform organizations (especially on behalf of immigrant rights),  and worker centers (which provide services, teach English, maintain hiring halls, and mobilize protests) – are emerging.  There has been a multiplicity of local political organizations (the Working Families Party in New York, Greens, Independents of various stripes), many of which include significant working class voices.  There are food co-operatives aplenty, plus community supported agriculture (CSA) networks, with working class participants, and growing interest in building the infrastructure of local food movements.  There are a range of local, national, and international media and communications, from “Labor Radio” to “Labour Start.”  And then there is the Occupy Movement, its presence, its impact on political discourse, and its widening web reaching into issues of foreclosures, healthcare, the environment, education costs and content, and more.

In all these ventures, even in their inchoate forms and despite the suppression from without, are all of David’s themes about capitalism, the workplace, and the labor movement.  I see in the determination and the ferocity of these developments, both in their local depth and in their international connections and inspirations, their creativity and militancy, the great fierce spirit of David Montgomery: restless, indefatigable, strategic, and propelled by the lived agonies and desires for freedom in those all around.

Peter Rachleff is a History Professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.   This piece appeared in New Politics in April, 2012 and is reprinted with the Permission of Peter and New Politics (www.newpol.org). In the mid-1970s, Peter pursued a Ph.D. in labor history under David Montgomery’s supervision, which he completed in 1981.  He has continued to be David’s student ever since.



  1. Among the many obituaries, eulogies, and appreciations, I would call your attention to: Jon Wiener, “David Montgomery, 1927-2011,” THE NATION (http://www.thenation.com/blog/164954-david-montgomery-1927-2011); Eric Foner, “Obituary for David Montgomery,” THE GUARDIAN (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/11/david-montgomery); Dana Frank, “David Montgomery, Grand Master Workman,” THE NATION (http://www.thenation.com/article/165235/david-montgomery-grand-master-workman); Bruce Weber, “David Montgomery, 84, Dies; Chronicled Lives of Workers,” NEW YORK TIMES, December 8, 2011; and Pohla Smith, “David Montgomery: Scholar Had Longtime Passion for Labor Activism,” PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, December 5, 2011.
  2. “Once Upon a Shopfloor: An Interview with David Montgomery,” conducted by Paul Buhle and Mark Naison, RADICAL HISTORY REVIEW, 23 (Spring 1980.  He was a founding editor of INTERNATIONAL LABOR AND WORKING CLASS HISTORY, president of the Organization of American Historians, 1999-2000, and the recipient of the Distinguished Service to Labor and Working Class History Award of the Labor and Working Class History Association (2007) and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Working Class Studies Association (2009).
  3. Shelton Stromquist, “Perspectives on the New Labor History: The Wisconsin School and Beyond,” INTERNATIONAL LABOR AND WORKING CLASS HISTORY, 39 (Spring 1991); Leon Fink, PROGRESSIVE INTELLECTUALS AND THE DILEMMAS OF DEMOCRATIC COMMITMENT (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).  In addition to Montgomery’s work, which is discussed and cited below, also see Herbert Gutman, WORK, CULTURE, AND SOCIETY IN INDUSTRIALIZING AMERICA (NY: Vintage, 1977), and POWER AND CULTURE: ESSAYS ON THE AMERICAN WORKING CLASS (NY: The New Press, 1992); and David Brody, STEELWORKERS IN AMERICA: THE NON-UNION ERA (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998 [1960]), and WORKERS IN INDUSTRIAL AMERICA (NY: Oxford, 1993).
  4. BEYOND EQUALITY: LABOR AND THE RADICAL REPUBLICANS, 1862-1872 (NY: Knopf, 1967);    CITIZEN WORKER: THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKERS IN THE UNITED STATES WITH DEMOCRACY AND THE FREE MARKET DURING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY (NY Cambridge, 1993).  Also see “Radical Republicanism in Pennsylvania, 1866-1873,” THE PENNSYLVANIA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY, 84:4 (October 1961); “The Shuttle and the Cross: Weavers and Artisans in the Ke3nsington Riots of 1844,” JOURNAL OF SOCIAL HISTORY, 5:4 (Summer 1972);  “Labor and the Republic in Industrial America, 1860-1920,” LE MOUVEMENT SOCIALE, no. 111 (April – June 1980); “Wage Labor, Bondage, and Citizenship in Nineteenth Century America,” INTERNATIONAL LABOR AND WORKING CLASS HISTORY, no 48 (fall 1995)
  5. WORKERS’ CONTROL IN AMERICA: STUDIES IN THE HISTORY OF WORK, TECHNOLOGY, AND LABOR STRUGGLES (NY: Cambridge, 1979);   THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF LABOR: THE WORKPLACE, THE STATE, AND AMERICAN LABOR ACTIVISM, 1865-1926 (NY: Cambridge, 1987).    Also see “Strikes in Nineteenth Century America,” SOCIAL SCIENCE HISTORY, 4:1 (Winter 1980); “Immigrants, Industrial Unions, and Social Reconstruction in the United States, 1916-1923,” LABOUR/LE TRAVAIL, volume 13 (Spring 1994); “Presidential Address: Racism, Immigrants, and Political Reform,” THE JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY, 87:4 (March 2001); “Labor and Antiwar Activism in Minnesota,” Saint Paul, 2002, posted on www.workdayminnesota.org.
  6. Carter Goodrich, THE FRONTIER OF CONTROL: A STUDY OF BRITISH WORKSHOP POLITICS (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009 [1920]); David Montgomery, WORKERS’ CONTROL IN AMERICA, ibid.
  7. Jeremy Brecher, GLOBAL VILLAGE OR GLOBAL PILLAGE (Boston: South End Press, 1999, second edition); David Montgomery, “Dignity and Democracy,” NEW LABOR FORUM, no. 5 (Fall-Winter 1999); Montgomery, “STATE OF THE UNION: A CENTURY OF AMERICAN LABOR by Nelson Lichtenstein,” review, INTERNATIONAL LABOR AND WORKING CLASS HISTORY, no. 63 (Spring 2003).
  8. David Montgomery, “Spontaneity and Organization: Some Comments,” in “Symposium on Jeremy Brecher’s STRIKE!”, RADICAL AMERICA, 7:6 (November-December 1973); David Montgomery, “Introduction,” to Montgomery and Horace Huntley, eds., BLACK WORKERS’ STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY IN BIRMINGHAM (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004)
  9. See my “Rebellion to Tyrants, Democracy for Workers,” SOUTH ATLANTIC QUARTERLY, 111:1 (Winter 2012); “Organizing Wall-to-Wall: The Independent Union of All Workers, 1933-1937,” inm Staughton Lynd, ed., “WE ARE ALL LEADERS”: THE ALTERNATIVE UNIONISM OF THE EARLY 1930S (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996); HARD-PRESSED IN THE HEARTLAND: THE HORMEL STRIKE AND THE FUTURE OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT (Boston: South End Press, 1993);
  10. Bruce Laurie, THE WORKING PEOPLE OF PHILADELPHIA, 1800 – 1850 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983); Shelton Stromquist, A GENERATION OF BOOMERS: THE PATTERN OF RAILROAD LABOR CONFLICT IN NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICA (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993); James J. Barrett, WORK AND COMMUNITY IN THE JUNGLE: CHICAGO’S PACKINGHOUSE WORKERS, 1894-1922 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002); Eric Arnesen, WATERFRONT WORKERS OF NEW ORLEANS: RACE, CLASS, AND POLITICS, 1863-1923 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Peter Gottlieb, MAKING THEIR OWN WAY: SOUTHERN BLACKS’ MIGRATION TO PITTSBURGH, 1916-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996); Kimberly Phillips, ALABAMANORTH: AFRICAN-AMERICAN MIGRANTS, COMMUNITY, AND WORKING-CLASS ACTIVISM IN CLEVELAND, 1915-1945 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Reeve Huston, LAND AND FREEDOM: RURAL SOCIETY, POPULAR PROTEST, AND PARTY POLITICS IN ANTEBELLUM NEW WORK (NY: Oxford University Press, 2002); Julie Greene, PURE AND SIMPLE POLITICS: THE AFL AND POLITICAL ACTIVISM, 1881-1917 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Grace Palladino, ANOTHER CIVIL WAR: LABOR, CAPITAL, AND THE STATE IN THE ANTHRACITE REGION OF PENNSYLVANIA, 1840-1868 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990); Cecelia Bucki, BRIDGEPORT’S SOCIALIST NEW DEAL, 1915-1936 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Iver Bernstein, THE NEW YORK CITY DRAFT RIOTS: THEIR SIGNIFICANCE FOR AMERICAN SOCIETY AND POLITICS IN THE AGE OF THE CIVIL WAR (NY: Oxford University Press, 1990); Peter Rachleff, BLACK LABOR IN RICHMOND, 1865-1890 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989 [1984]); Tera Hunter, TO ‘JOY MY FREEDOM: SOUTHERN BLACK WOMEN’S LIVES AND LABOR AFTER THE CIVIL WAR (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Dan Letwin, THE CHALLENGE OF INTERRACIAL UNIONISM: ALABAMA COAL MINERS, 1878-1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Priscilla Murolo, THE COMMON GROUND OF WOMANHOOD: CLASS, GENDER, AND WORKING GIRLS’ CLUBS, 1884-1928 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Gunther Peck, REINVENTING FREE LABOR: PADRONES AND IMMIGRANT WORKERS IN THE NORTH AMERICAN WEST, 1880-1930 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Ileen DeVault, SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF LABOR: CLASS AND CLERICAL WORK IN TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY PITTSBURGH (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); Dana Frank, PURCHASING POWER: CONSUMER ORGANIZING, GENDER, AND THE SEATTLE LABOR MOVEMENT, 1919-1929 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994);  Dorothy Fujita-Rony, AMERICAN WORKERS, COLONIAL POWER: PHILIPPINE SEATTLE AND THE TRANSPACIFIC WEST, 1919-1941 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, India

Using the term mutant in the context of modernity, even if metaphorically, calls for qualifications. Mutations are random changes in genes that can produce new traits in an organism. Genetic changes can arise spontaneously and randomly during the normal genetic processes of replication, or they can be induced by external factors present in the environment (viruses, chemicals, radiation etc). A mutant is a member of a species that is physically different from the typical members of the species, the difference resulting from the new traits arising out of mutation. In the natural world of organisms, then, a mutant can be treated as a deviation from the typical. In the metaphorical usage of this term in the context of modernity, one may ask, which of the modern societies are to be considered as the typical?

This can be a controversial issue. There can be views which would equate the typical with the original. Modernity, whichever way it is defined, did emerge in the Northwestern Europe before anywhere else. One may think of the West European model as the original model. The trouble is that this model is not one. Countries of the Western Europe, despite recent moves towards integration of one kind or another, show significant variations around the general theme of modernity. If the examples are expanded to include other industrially developed societies, such as in North America or in Japan, then the variations are much more pronounced.

But the story does not end there. Societies of most countries on this planet have become modern, and each one of them is modern in its own specific way. Their histories cannot be traced to an original or a classical model; their typology cannot easily be systematized. Despite famous theories of convergence, which expected all societies of the world to become progressively like those in the west, the spread of modernity, even after the onset of so-called globalization, has not been able to homogenize the world. This has been taken by some as a grand failure of the project of modernity, while others have come to believe that one can talk about modernity only in the plural. The latter position would hold that there are as many modernities as there are modern societies; one can say that the contemporary world contains multiple modernities.

I argue in favour of a position that falls somewhere in between, although it may appear to be indistinguishable from the latter position. In the case being made here, there are no typical members of the species. All embodied and actually existing modernities will be taken as mutant modernities. What, then, is to be gained from using this metaphor? Why could one not just go with the usage of the term “Multiple Modernities”?

At the descriptive level, it would perhaps make no difference. The purpose behind using the term “Mutant Modernities”, however, is to emphasize the process through which the generative features of modernity – whichever way they are identified – give rise to different embodiments Nagarjuna University Lecture Ravi Sinha of modernity. The emphasis here is on the processes, structures and environs through which the genetic code, so to speak, gives rise to the specific traits of the embodied organism.

This is far from being a case of definitional hairsplitting. It is important substantively as well as methodologically, and it has important political implications. For example, at the substantive level one might ask, what is it that mutates when modernity takes various embodied forms? Methodologically, can one decipher the genetic code from analyzing a mutant or from comparing different ones? Can one construct, at least theoretically, the shape of the perfect organism that should emerge from the code and compare a mutant form against the ideal one? At the practical and political level, one may ask, does this give us a way to choose what would be a better system, society or way of life?

Classical theories of modernity did attempt to decipher such a genetic code. In these analyses, the role of base molecules, so to speak, was played by two concepts that were taken to be entwined in this code – autonomy and rationalization. Autonomy referred to the emergence of humanity from the shadows of religion, tradition, custom and communities. Rather than thinking as religion would have them think, humans began to think for themselves; rather than living as tradition would prescribe, they began to live in newer ways; rather than remaining subsumed in the community, they began to emerge as individuals. Immanuel Kant described it as humanity’s gaining of maturity.

Rationalization, on the other hand, referred to reorganizing the society and the way of life according to the principles of reason. Philosophers differed about the nature, the source and the seat of reason, but there was enough agreement about what it was and how it could be contrasted with dogma, faith and superstition. More importantly, the understanding of reason kept evolving through the history of modern philosophy. Cartesian paradigm of subject centered reason, with the solitary thinker as the source of trustworthy knowledge, continued as the dominant paradigm all the way to Kant for whom knowledge, in spite of its connections to the external world, remained grounded in the consciousness of the individual self. Hegel questioned this subjectivist orientation and argued that structures of consciousness are socially and historically constructed. Reason, of a given era or at any given time, is the historical and social achievement of humanity and it is going to continually improve through the dynamics of history driven dialectically by the defects of contemporary reason as compared to the perfect one – the latter, according to Hegel, being encoded in the Absolute Idea waiting for humanity at the end of history. Discounting Hegel’s philosophical idealism and his political conservatism flowing out of a method in which history always justifies the present, his contribution was to put real flesh on the emaciated subject centered reason of Descartes and Kant which could hardly keep standing.

In the story of reason, if Kant brought in the individual endowed with the critical faculties and freed from custom and community and Hegel brought in society and history as the makers of the social individual, then Marx completed the picture by bringing in Nature and the entirety of the material world. He insisted that “mind is not the ground of nature but nature that of mind; he Nagarjuna University Lecture Ravi Sinha stressed that human consciousness is essentially embodied and practical and argued that forms of consciousness are an encoded representation of forms of social reproduction.” The individual is social and, in part, socially constructed; society is coming together of the socialized individuals (social relations of production) to deal with Nature and with the material world to ensure reproduction of material and social condition of life at a progressively higher level (development of productive forces); the material world, the society and the individual are ceaselessly interactive and operative in making and remaking each other; and in this process the totality, through its own internal dynamics, keeps constituting and reconstituting itself. The philosophical discourse of reason would continue after Marx and long after the classical era is concluded, and it would continue to glean fresh insights into the nature of reason from a variety of sources,13 but, after Marx, there is hardly anything big to be added to the big picture.

In all this, a point of methodological importance needs to be kept in view. When one is trying to decipher the genetic code of modernity through philosophical toil, one is engaged in something akin to post-mortem; one is reading history backwards. This is very different from making history or influencing it in any big way. The fruits of such philosophical toil may feed into live history – history in the making – but its influence will at best be minor and indirect. Modernity has unfolded in history the way it has and taken its multiple embodied forms that we actually see not because of Descartes, Kant, Hegel or Marx. It has unfolded as a result of the generative mechanisms arising out of modernity’s own genetic code. Those legendary philosophers did not will into existence what has been described as autonomy and rationalization. They merely saw these at work in the life processes of embodied modernities.

The practical implications, therefore, of “roads not taken” while they were philosophically available should not be blown out of proportion. It would not have, for example, made much difference to history if the philosophical tradition of Spinoza and Marx that spurns the Cartesian section and does not drive a wedge between Body and Mind were to prevail intellectually over that of Descartes and Kant that does so. Or, to put it another way, there were substantive reasons in history for the latter to prevail over the former. Modernity, although a concept or entity very different from capitalism, was nevertheless conjoint with it at birth and its unfolding so far has happened in a world that has been capitalism’s playground. The worship of individualism, private property, market, bourgeois democracy and in general of bourgeois liberal ideology has arisen in the course of actual history and not from taking the wrong philosophical turn. Similar comments would apply if one were to imagine that replacing the subject-centered understanding of reason by the inter-subjective one, or taking up “a hermeneutic dialogue with other cultures and epochs about the common concerns of human life; or, perhaps, a genealogical unmasking of any pretense to universal validity” would in any significant way change the future course of history.

It is instructive to note, in this context, that Marx, after making his seminal contribution to philosophy and after realizing the relative disempowering of philosophy brought about by empirical and scientific investigations of the social systems and of Nature – a development not Nagarjuna University Lecture Ravi Sinha unconnected with flowering of modernity and development of capitalism – moved away from philosophy to the study of the capitalist system. This study was inspired by his theoretical and philosophical framework, but it was not a philosophical discourse. It was a concrete investigation of a concrete system. One may ask, why did he choose to study a system, rather than, say, a culture, a country, or history of technology? The answer lies in the special role played by system in the social totality.

System has not always been sufficiently differentiated and separately identifiable within the social totality. Such a differentiation is a characteristic feature of modernity. If it is often seen as a characteristic feature of capitalism, that is because capitalism is often equated with modernity. Even among those critics of capitalism who would like to replace it with socialism, such a conflation of capitalism and modernity leads to a viewpoint that the social differentiation characteristic of modern societies must be undone and, under socialism society must once again become an integrated and organic whole. The relatively integrated character of the social totality in the pre-modern times comes in clear view when compared to the increasingly differentiated make-up of a modern society. This differentiation is a much studied subject. From Hobbes, Smith and Marx through Durkheim and Weber to Adorno, Parsons and Habermas have all studied it in its different aspects and from their different perspectives.

One illustrative way to describe the complex process of differentiation has been to compare the organic character of Community (Gemeinschaft) with the rational and contractual character of Association (Gesellschaft). The transition from society as community to society as coordinated network of associations and institutions has been seen variously as a loss, as a progress, and as something in between about which one can only have an ambivalent attitude. Alex Callinicos refers to Ferdinand Tonnies as a typical example of the first kind, “Tonnies regarded the transition from one kind of society to another as essentially a process of loss: individuals in pre-modern Gemeinschaft were bound into the social whole by a series of primarily affective connections; social relationships in modern Gesellschaft are cold and egoistic, based on individuals’ rational calculations of their interests.”

Comte, Spencer and Durkheim, on the other hand, considered this differentiation to be at the root of a progressive social evolution leading to better social arrangements, although there were important differences among them. In Comte’s schema establishment of consensus was key to prevent the danger of social disintegration posed by differentiation, whereas Spencer held the system of free market as the best way to have a society ensuring individual freedom. Durkheim, on the other hand, was far from being an unthinking importer of evolutionary theory into the social realm. In his thinking, division of labour and the resultant social differentiation give rise to a new kind of organic solidarity in the society. In fact, division of labour simultaneously creates conditions for increased independence of the individual and of increased social solidarity.

Marx had a very complex and often ambivalent attitude, evidence of which is scattered in different places in his writings. His trenchant criticism of capitalism for its barbaric conduct Nagarjuna University Lecture Ravi Sinha while destroying pre-modern forms of life coexists with his disdain for Asiatic inertia and rural idiocy. At a much later time, a comparable ambivalence is witnessed in Jurgen Habermas who proposes to view society simultaneously as a system and as a lifeworld and locates the pathologies of a modernity that dwells on subjectivist reason and flourishes under capitalism in the processes of system’s colonization of the lifeworld.

The complex and long-winded intellectual history of the study of social differentiation under modernity cannot be summarized satisfactorily in the time and space available here. Taking a practical approach reasonably informed by this history, one can say that the modernist social differentiation, in its broad outlines, is roughly based on making a distinction between economy, polity and society – society being used here not in the sense of social totality but representing only the part left over after economy and polity are separated from it. This differentiation of the society into three separate, though interconnected, spheres is actualized through emergence of corresponding sub-systems and institutions. These take clearly identifiable definite shapes mainly in the economy and polity parts, although the residual social part is not altogether devoid of its own kinds of institutions. Taking this practical approach further, the system part of the social totality – what has been called the system without defining it thus far – can be taken as comprising of the economy and the polity. This may not be fully accurate or consistent as both economy and polity are inextricably entangled in the social totality. In a more careful analysis one may have to distinguish the rational-formal-legal-institutional parts of the economy and polity from the parts that are soluble in the social fluid and take the former as playing the constitutive role in the differentiation of the system from the rest of the society. But, for the argument I am going to make here the present level of care will suffice.

In the Marxist political economy, understanding of system is correlated with the understanding of the term, mode of production. A system arises out of a mode of production and corresponds to that mode of production. Capitalist system, for example, is based on the capitalist mode of production. However, just as in the case of modernity, there is a serious dose of abstraction involved here. A capitalist mode of production is an abstract category distilled from manifold embodied forms of capitalism that may appear very different from each other. Capitalism, or any other mode of production for that matter, never gets a clean slate to write its rules on. Even in cases where it may be implanted from outside, it must grow in the womb of the host society. The make-up and the history of the pre-existing society co-determines, along with the genetic code of capitalism, the shape of the embodied capitalism as it grows in that society. In a way, all capitalisms too are mutant capitalisms.

Marxist method has often been vulgarized by Marxists themselves. When Marx chose to move away from the philosophical discourse of consciousness that is socialized and naturalized at the same time, and embarked on an empirical-scientific study of the capitalist system, he did not do so in order to derive the society from the mode of production, or to derive the organism from the genetic code. There was a dual reason behind this choice – one methodological and the other practical-programmatic.

The methodological reason lies in the fact that if one wishes to study social formations and gain insights into the forces animating the flow of history, the best place to start is the system part of the social totality. System is the more active part; the non-system part mostly plays the role of environment for the system. Marxist method is especially successful in the study of the system part. Within the system, the role of the economic-material is taken to be the basic one, on which rises the political superstructure that can be shown to be in dialectical relationship with the economic-material base. One can, perhaps, also identify a part of the ideological superstructure that falls within the system and corresponds to the given economic-material base. But this should not be confused with the non-system part which contains most of the cultural and civilizational domain of a social totality. It is a misuse or vulgarization of the Marxist method when one puts the system and the non-system parts in as tight a dialectical embrace with each other as one does for the material and non-material components within the system. The system part does interact with the non-system part. After all they are part of the same social totality. But this dynamics is much weaker and of its characteristic time-scale is much longer as compared to the dynamics within the system. The constituents of the system live in a far tighter dialectical embrace with each other. This is the main reason behind civilizations retaining their distinct identities over historical periods much longer than the lifetimes of systems they envelope and harbour. Systems change faster than civilizations do.

The practical-programmatic reason for undertaking the study of the system is related to the methodological one. First of all, it is far easier to intervene in a system than in a culture or a civilization. More importantly, intervening in the system is a far more effective way to intervene in history and change its direction. History is made by throwing a spanner in the works of a system that has exhausted its historically progressive role and can be replaced by a better system. This will create ripples, at times strong ones, in the non-system part too. The cultural-civilizational domain will not remain unaffected. A progressive and emancipatory transformation of the social totality would have been triggered from within.

How does one decide in which direction history is to be nudged or pushed? How does one envision and design the new system? This brings me to the main argument I wish to make.

By Peter Olney

My son Nelson has been studying at the Univerisdad Complutense, the largest public university in Spain with 75,000 students. He has been in Madrid since October of 2011 enrolled in a University that was founded in the 13th Century. My wife and I decided to spend a month in Madrid visiting him and his girlfriend Sarah Ribbers. Life comes full circle when your children start to take care of you. Nelson has mastered Castellano and he knows Madrid inside out so he was our caretaker and guide to the sights and the Tapas bars!

It was a long overdue and much deserved holiday, but I could not resist taking part in a home defense in the working class neighborhood of Carbanchel. Early on a weekday morning the barrio committee of “los Indignados”, Spain’s version of Occupy that kicked off on May 15th of 2011, gathered a crowd to defend the home of Vicente a 73 year old man facing eviction at the hands of Citibank. Posters and signs covered the walls of his building, and Vicente’s grandson leaned out of the window of his condominium shouting support. The chants that pierced the cool morning air were familiar to anyone in the USA who has participated in foreclosure fighting. The action was successful and well covered in Spain’s major newspaper, El Pais. Vincent was able to keep possession of his home. These types of neighborhood actions are a daily occurrence throughout Spain. Usually they are successful although they have been met with violent police repression in some regions. The website is a great resource to track actions in Spain and the development of the movement to Stop Desahucios (Evictions).

This kind of adversarial action has been the story of my life in the trade union movement. I have dedicated 40 years of my life to organizing and strengthening trade unions in the United States as a means to improve the lives of workers in the context of building a broader revolutionary movement for radical social change. I have always maintained that workers need unions to battle the boss to improve their wages, hours and conditions.

Therefore I approached my visit to Mondragon, the largest worker owned worker run cooperative in the world with great interest and a good deal of skepticism. Mondragon is a small town of 20,000 nestled in the Basque region equidistant from the two port cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao. Since the 1940’s Mondragon has been the home base for an experiment in worker management. This is not a neighborhood food cooperative or a boutique bakery, but rather a multifaceted enterprise employing 93,000 people. Mondragon is the umbrella for the largest company in the Basque region and the 7th largest company in all of Spain. Mondragon operates a large retail supermarket chain Eroski, a social service provider Lagun Aro, heavy industrial manufacturing and a savings bank, the Caja Laboral. The Universidad de Mondragon graduates scientists and engineers and managers many of whom become part of the cooperative.

Mikel Lezamiz, Mondragon’s director of Co-operative Dissemination and my guide explained that the Cooperative had capped the manager to worker pay ratio at 9 to 1! The CEO of the Savings bank, Caja Laboral only earns 7 times the salary of the cleaning lady. He then took me to a factory that manufactures washing machines under the brand name, Fagor. I watched giant metal stamping presses shaping the tubs for the washers. I realized that I was in the midst of something very significant on a scale that I could not have imagined existed in a capitalist world, owned and managed by the workers .

Spain is experiencing a huge housing construction bust after an intensive speculative boom. Obviously the demand for washing machines has dipped drastically. The workforce voted in general assembly to do job sharing to avoid layoffs and the worker assembly voted to take a 7% pay cut up and down the employment ladder to preserve the vitality of the enterprise.  What then is the role for unions, if any, if the workers make decisions about their work lives and elect their managers? Mikel explained that while workers are welcome to join any of Spain’s many trade union federations, very few Mondragon workers do.

I left Mondragon intrigued and interested in this mode of industrial organization and control that was an affront to many of my guiding paradigms. I had viewed cooperatives as small scale boutiques that could never reach the scale necessary to transform the lives of workers and whole communities. Often in the USA worker ownership is associated with lemon socialism, workers giving up their life savings to rescue an unfeasible manufacturing concern in the rust belt. Now I was confronted with a living breathing example of a different model.  I need to reflect, read and learn more about Mondragon and its applicability to our reality.

Well, that was how I spent my vacation on a Spanish holiday!

Author's note: Peter Olney is the organizing director for the International Longshore Workers' Union (ILWU) based in San Francisco. He has a piece coming in the fall issue, Volume 42 #3.

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