New History of an Old People

Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America by Herbert G. Gutman Alfred A. Knopf; 343 pp.; $12.50

A FRIEND OF MINE is doing some research in the archive in Ferrara, Italy, aimed at finding out more about the city's overall design in the Renaissance and the role peasants and the middleclass played in its formation. The reason she's doing primary research in an area already pretty-well covered is quite simple: she believes that not all decisions about Ferrara's layout were based on the abstract, aesthetic principles espoused by the city's ruling elite and the artisans they patronized. She's not sure what role the middle-class merchants and peasants played but, unlike most historians of the period who concentrated on the elites, she believes they were in some ways significant.

While my friend was in the archives she wrote me that she came across a bit of a problem with documents and the archivist: "Pretty soon the man comes tottering back wiping cobwebs off a sort of cardboard box with hinges. Inside are piles of documents from the 1400s coated with dust and encased in rubber bands, bits of strings, etc. As you look through them the edges fall off--the archivist says 'eh beh' (so?) and shrugs. I couldn't get them all back in the cardboard box so he came and helped, that is, he jammed them all in and jammed the cover on, smashing several wax seals from say 1430 in the process. E beh? As the archivist said later--these things have lasted 500 years, how much longer do you want them to last?"

America's history is not like Italy's, nor does the U.S. have an urban history over 500 years old. But the story does illustrate two broad points. First, that historians trying to fashion a "history from the bottom up" encounter problems elitist historians rarely encounter: the elites of the past could afford the time, money and energy to carefully preserve their lives and times from their perspective; the members of the lower classes had none of these advantages and historians concerned about them are waging a long and difficult struggle to set the facts of history aright. Moreover, as the attitude of the archivist points out, most members of the working class have seen no reason for saving useless documents or even, for that matter, translating their experiences into words. Their concerns have always been more immediate as, I suppose, the archivist's were when he destroyed valuable documents in an effort to get on more quickly with whatever it is he was doing.

HERBERT GUTMAN IS a social historian, who for the last 15 years has been waging the seemingly losing battle of writing American history 'from the bottom up. And his new book, Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America, affirms more strongly the need to preserve and reexamine primary sources in American labor history from its very beginning. For Gutman has begun the difficult and long-awaited task of constructing a sound, workable historical analysis of American labor.

In that task, Gutman does not tread new ground. At least two schools of thought have developed theories of the origins of the American labor movement. At the beginning of this century John R. Commons led the Wisconsin school of labor history in creating a standard interpretational framework that, as Gutman says, even later-generation Marxists and New Left historians rarely questioned. To summarize and hopelessly simplify, Commons theorized that unions were economic institutions founded by workers in response to their loss of control over local markets due to rapid industrialization and specialization. Craftsmen's local markets and skilled laborers were threatened by competition, wage cuts and exploitation. Trade unions met these threats, according to this theory, through attempts to regain control over just the labor market. Commons's theories have met with much criticism by historians, particularly for their failure to anticipate unionization outside craft and skilled labor industries, that is, in mass-production industries.


More recently, Harvard's own John T. Dunlop along with others has proffered an elitist theory of labor organization development. Again, briefly and simplistically, Dunlop in Industrialism and Industrial Man (1960) outlined a theory of industrialism controlled by management elites--labor movements were explained as conditioned responses to the nation's developing economy. It seems obvious, in retrospect, that Dunlop, Ford's former labor secretary, would develop a theory useful to management and unacceptable to historians.

But it is not simply the theories of men like Commons and Dunlop that Gutman questions. He seriously disputes the very assumptions upon which their theories are based, assumptions built into terms such as "labor movement." For Gutman, no such term can be used meaningfully to encompass all of the American working population. Indeed, Gutman says of the Wisconsin school that because prior to 1940, few workers belonged to permanent trade unions, "its overall conceptualization excluded most working people from detailed and serious study." (italics mine). "More than this," Gutman writes:

its methods encouraged labor historians to spin a cocoon around American workers, isolating them from their own particular subcultures and from the larger national culture. An increasingly narrow "economic" analysis caused the study of American working-class history to grow more constricted and become more detached from larger developments in American social and cultural history...

IT IS THE LARGER developments that Gutman describes and documents in his title essay, the most theoretically ambitious in the collection of reprinted articles. In "Work, Culture and Society," Gutman presents his most striking case for the reexamination of labor history, at least during the industrializing process in America in the 19th century. He concentrates on three important phenomena among the working class populations: the different work habits and expectations workers brought to new factories from their diverse backgrounds; the social and cultural continuities in the lives of craftsmen and artisans during America's industrializing period; and similarities between forms of American working-class collective protest and those of their "premodern" European counterparts.

What Gutman sees in each of these separate phenomena is the powerful way in which older cultural and societal norms continued, even in the midst of vast economic growth that, from the time Lincoln was elected to 1894, saw the U.S. move from fourth place in terms of the value of its manufactured product, to first and a net total worth almost exceeding that of the sum-total of the three previous leaders, France, Britain and Germany. Sex, religion, nativity and prior rural and village cultures still meant something to workers caught up in an all-encompassing industrialization and its pressures to conform to management's demands for "normal" work habits, to break up the nuclear family in the face of unemployment and sometimes even to give up benefits ceded to one's own ethnic group (at the expense of others) and unionize.

Gutman describes how New York cabinet-makers, ship-builders and other self-employed artisans followed a pattern of "alternate bouts of intense labor and idleness," as they had in their respective old crafts and, as E.P. Thompson has pointed out, wherever men were self-employed. But these older traditions associated with work were replaced by machines and met by management demands for regularity in work habits. Occasionally men would continue with their older work-habits knowing it led to their impoverishment. But Gutman is interested in the tensions industrialization created for these older lifestyles when they were faced with inevitable change. An one of his tentative conclusions is that while "suffering and plain poverty cut deeply into these ethnic working class worlds...Family, class and ethnic ties did not dissolve easily."

Economic imperatives, Gutman thus concludes, were not the sole determinants of 19th century workers' way of life or even of their collective actions as a movement. But he also emphasizes how much more research has to be done. In an essay on Protestantism and the American labor movement, he only outlines the "relationship between religious sentiment and rhetoric and everyday behavior." He calls the relationship a "risky" theoretical construct, and asks for more study. In another essay on black mineworkers and the miners' union he traces; the still sketchy life of one of the first black union organizers, Richard Davis, to demonstrate how later middle-class blacks such as Booker T. Washington--who once said that trade unionism was "that form of slavery which prevents a man from selling his labor to whom he pleases on account of his color"--were not the sole representatives of blacks. Again, he says that while Washington has had his biographers and critics, "the world of men like Richard Davis awaits its historian."

GUTMAN ACKNOWLEDGES his indebtedness to historians like Thompson, who have forged ahead with much the same task across the Atlantic in Britain, and Thompson's mark is everywhere present in Gutman's book. But even in Britain, where Thompson's work has begun to create a great deal of new historical investigation, the forces of established history still exist. One of the so-called classic reference textbooks in modern English history, R.K. Webb's Modern England, written five years after Thompson, is quite openly "based on an old-fashioned but still lively assumption--that the people in power are and will remain the principal stuff of history."

It is from Fernand Braudel, the French historian, that Gutman may get his greatest inspiration. He quotes Braudel, who once wrote that "victorious events come about as the result of many possibilities," that "for one possibility which actually is realized innumerable others have drowned." These others, according to Braudel, usually "leave little trace for the historian. And yet, it is necessary to give them their place because the losing movements are forces which have at every moment affected the final outcome." American history still awaits such a perspective, but Gutman renews the hope that historians can study all people, in or out of power, who are and will forever remain the principal stuff of history.