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Russell: The 1919 strike wave has always been portrayed as America’s revolutionary moment, that these were essentially socialistic strikes aimed at seizing control of industries. And in fact, not one of them was intended to do that. The leaders of many of the strikes were socialist. There’s no question about that. But the strikes were waged for higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours. Period. These were not Bolshevik demands. These were bread-and-butter issues: more stuff and more leisure. That’s completely consistent with the rising consumer culture at the time, and not consistent with socialism.
reason: A 1970s labor historian might push back by saying there were experiments in grassroots democracy, with Seattle becoming the American version of the Paris Commune for a week. You had people setting up committees to take care of garbage collection, things like that. That can be portrayed as an example of people trying to administer their society themselves.
Russell: Show me the evidence that it was more than a tactic. If the rank and file was really interested in taking over industry, why did the strike last exactly one week? And also, I should say, Seattle was the only such strike at the time.
There is simply no evidence. And this is borne out by the history of radicalism in the United States. There’s a famous essay by Werner Sombart called “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” That’s something the New Left historians have been beating their heads against since the 1960s, basically trying to invent a socialism in the United States where there simply has not been one.
reason: The idea that American workers are more interested in higher wages and more leisure than in any sort of industrial democracy is also a theme of your Hoffa book.
Russell: The aspirations of the working class are demonstrated in their behavior. Hoffa represents that. There’s clear evidence that he was enormously popular. There’s clear evidence that he was more popular than pretty much any other labor leader within his union. Walter Reuther was fairly popular but never achieved that kind of status with his own rank and file. There were huge factions opposed to Reuther throughout his career, and that goes for every one of the major CIO unions.
I’ve been called a champion of Hoffa. I’m not at all. I’m just saying he was a vehicle for working-class aspirations, and those aspirations were material. He himself was simply interested in holding onto his job, and he understood that holding onto his job meant getting better wages and shorter hours and better conditions for his constituents, and that was it. He was a nonideological human being who was therefore very useful for a nonideological working class.
reason: Sometimes, in the more recent book, it felt to me that you were taking a traditional hero of the left, such as Franklin Roosevelt, and recasting him as an authoritarian villain. Other times, as with the abolitionists and the civil rights movement, I felt like you maintained an appreciation for the ways they extended freedom while exposing their less emancipatory side.
Russell: I don’t know where you got that. I don’t have any kind words for those guys.
reason: But there’s always a “to be sure” statement—you criticize the leaders, but to be sure, you’re not defending slavery or Jim Crow. Martin Luther King was fighting a particular set of restrictive rules that people were better off without, in addition to supporting these restrictions you don’t like.
Russell: Yes. I distinguish between desegregation, which means achieving access to space and to the privileges of whites, and integration, which for King and the leaders of the civil rights movement meant assimilation into the dominant white culture. I’m all for desegregation. King was for integration. But to get to integration, you have to go through desegregation, so he of course had to champion that along the way. Which was a wonderful thing.
reason: I don’t see anything comparable in the New Deal chapter. Maybe I’m missing something.
Russell: There’s nothing. Well— (pauses) I don’t know. This gets to a deeper conversation about the welfare state, and this is something where libertarianism has forced me to think hard, and I’m still working through it. Is Social Security a good thing? Well, I’ll be glad to take it.
Basically my position is—and this is where I part ways with libertarians, not in principle, but as a practical, utilitarian position—if the state is going to give me something, I’ll take it. If it’s a road or a bridge or a check in the mail, I’ll take it. The problem I have is the individual’s identification with the state, merging one’s identity with the state. That’s what I find to be dangerous.
That’s the problem with the left for me. That’s what I’m critiquing. And that’s what the New Deal was all about, culturally: getting the American people to merge their own identities with the nation-state.