By Tobias Higbie

University of Illinois Press.  213 pages. $25. ISBN 978-0-252-08402-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I never saw my father read a book. He did read a newspaper, The Daily Herald, which was pro-Labour in its political leanings, and each Friday there was Thomson’s Weekly, a magazine which had been started in the 19th century and was aimed at the artisan class. It published articles and puzzles, and what I remember most, a series of short crime stories featuring Inspector Dandy McLean. They intrigued me because they managed to say everything within the confines of a single page.  There were a few books in the house, Sunday School prizes and things like that, but my father never touched them.

I mention this because I think he may have been typical in some ways of many men of his age and background. Along with his lack of interest in books, he didn’t have any great devotion to political ideas or ideals. He voted Labour at election time, and had what might be called an underdog’s distrust of anyone in authority, which I suspect extended to union leaders almost as much as to politicians. He kept clear of policemen and would have nothing to do with priests. The school of hard knocks (twelve years at sea, jobs as a steeplejack, docker, labourer) had been his education beyond the basics the state had provided before the age of fourteen. I can’t say that he imparted any great pearls of wisdom about life or anything else to me beyond the observation, as we passed the local prison,  that the really big criminals weren’t in there. I inherited that notion from him, along with his misgivings about those with power, and their tendency to be corrupted by it.

The observations about my father’s life were triggered by reading Tobias Higbie’s Labor’s Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life. Leaving aside the obvious fact that Higbie is writing about an American situation, and my father lived in England, I couldn’t help thinking about how and why some people might come to social and political activism of one kind or another. My father’s experiences could have taught him about the iniquities of the capitalist system, but beyond expressing the underdog resentments I referred to earlier, I doubt that he reflected too much on them. Any militancy he nursed was more likely to come out as a desire for shorter hours and higher pay, or as anger against a bullying foreman, not as a demand for an overhaul of the entire system of exploitation.

The people Higbie discusses did have higher aims when they set out on journeys to improve their minds and use their new-found knowledge for political purposes. Unlike Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2001) which took in a wide range of reading material, much of which wasn’t in any way concerned to educate readers in terms of socio-political awareness, Labor’s Mind focuses on activists and what inspired them. It’s true that they may have come to reading through an early encounter with popular fiction, and even comics. Reading a writer like Jack Conroy, author of the autobiographical novel, The Disinherited (Seven Seas Books, Berlin,1965), brings home how any kind of printed word was seized on by those with an imaginative bent who thought there might be more to life than the drudgery of the coal camps and industrial towns they grew up in.

They soon turned to books and magazines that could offer them wider intellectual fields to explore, and to works that laid down policies and prescriptions for social change and, perhaps, even revolutionary aims. Higbie is keen to emphasise how so many of those he deals with wanted to rise with their class and not out of it. This could lead to problems as, inevitably, their improved educational status frequently gave them the opportunity to move into areas of employment and social mobility not often open to most working-class people.  Becoming a teacher or writer, for example, set one apart from people one may have grown up with and who had inclined towards traditional working-class jobs. But the fact of having intellectual interests, in literature, music, art, could in itself be a barrier that was likely to set up a distancing from fellow workers and even family members. I‘m talking in terms of the past, but I wonder if the situation is very different now?

In saying that I’m not intending to doubt the sincerity of the people Higbie is concerned to credit with attempting to widen the scope of working-class life. Reading about how the men and women  whose lives he chronicles struggled to find their way through to a  deeper involvement in intellectual pursuits, while at the same time participating in social and political activities designed to benefit other people, can be very moving. Whatever we may think of the later involvements of someone like William Z. Foster, who became head of the American Communist Party, his early adventures, as recounted in Pages From a Worker’s Life (International Publishers, New York, 1970), are a chronicle of hard times on land, and at sea, and the development of a political consciousness that grew out of direct experience and not books.

There are other examples of individual lives in Higbie’s book, and they are well worth reading, but what a lot of it concerns is the general outline of intellectual activity, as when he refers to the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World) as “as much an educational organisation as a union”, and points to the variety of newspapers it published, some in languages other than English, and their contents, which covered “reports from rank and file organisers, commentary on current events, theoretical debates about unionism, and book reviews”.

There were also several colleges where activists could pursue their interest in political theory, practical organising, and cultural matters which mostly connected with social concerns. Art for art’s sake was not a priority in these establishments: “There is no one road to freedom. There are roads to freedom. So workers’ education will include elementary classes in English, and entertainment for the crowd. But the road for leaders of the people will be straight and hard. Only a few thousand out of the millions will take it. It is different, a new way of life to which the worker is being called”.

That statement by a radical journalist, and circulated widely in the labour movement, according to Higbie, might well have summed up how many activists felt. It might also have raised a few doubts in the minds of the anarchist-inclined when it referred to “leaders of the people”. The Wobblies had a term, “pie-card artists”, which described those who had become “leaders” and union and other bureaucrats, and no longer earned their bread in the factories and fields.

Brookwood Labor College in New York State was probably the most famous of its kind, though several others, such as the Highlander Folk School and the Pacific Coast Labor School, were also in existence in the 1920s and 1930s. They all came under attack from establishment sources, with Brookwood particularly a target of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) because of its alleged radical programmes. The AFL represented various American craft unions and was seen as conservative in its relationship with business interests, and opposed to socialist and communist involvements in labour organisations. But Brookwood did have an impact and helped prepare some later union leaders for their battles with management. The Reuthers, who became well-known for their determination to unionise the auto industry, are perhaps among the more-famous products of Brookwood. It’s of interest to note that Nicholas Ray, who was in due course a well-known director in Hollywood, had briefly worked with the drama department at Brookwood.

Not all working-class education revolved around places like Brookwood, and there were lessons to be learned in more-spontaneous and loosely-organised locations. Chicago’s Bug House Square was a kind of open forum where proponents of various ideas and organisations gathered to push their various methods for bringing about change of one kind or another. It wasn’t all just economic or political, but encompassed a wide selection of cultural interests. Along with the Dil Pickle Club in Chicago, and with a strong Wobbly influence, the hobohemia centred around Bug House Square represented a free-wheeling American radicalism that attracted its fair share of oddballs and eccentrics along with the “serious” activists. It’s worth noting that this tradition has been carried on through publications from the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company which was founded in 1886 and dedicated to circulating a range of radical literature. There could be some value in having a look at Franklin Rosemont’s Joe Hill, the IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Culture (Charles H.Kerr, Chicago and PM Press, Oakland, 2015) for an insight into what might be called an “alternative” approach to “working-class intellectual life”. 

One thing that occurs to me in connection with the whole question of “working-class intellectual life” is what frequently appears to be an assumption that it automatically implies a link to radical politics. It sometimes does, I agree, but it may not be true in the majority of cases. We simply don’t hear too much about people who, in their activities outside their working lives, have a serious interest in ornithology, Egyptology, and the Peninsular War (I’m using three examples from my own encounters) but who, though possibly being kindly and liberal in their attitudes, have no desire to participate in effecting major changes in the overall structure of society. They will be criticised by radicals because of this, but it’s wrong to assume that they don’t have an “intellectual life” of any kind. But they are not self-satisfied, just not dissatisfied. Nor do they want to be academics.

There is an interesting short passage in Labor’s Mind where Higbie mentions Eric Hoffer, the American longshoreman and philosopher. I read Hoffer some years ago and was intrigued by the fact that he’d worked on the San Francisco waterfront and also established a wide reputation for his observations about life, society, and other subjects. As far as I could tell, he had no leanings towards radicalism and, in fact, condemned systems which were likely to result in tyrannies. It seems obvious that Higbie doesn’t approve of Hoffer: “Hoffer’s analysis of contemporary politics was a balm for political leaders who were eager to defuse the era’s volatile social movements. For many radicals, Hoffer’s performance was confirmation that prosperity had drained the unionised working class of its fighting spirit”.  There is perhaps an irony implicit in that assumption. The “fighting spirit” had been, for most people, essentially aimed at modifying working conditions and achieving prosperity, and surely it was inevitable that it would wane when the required situation was arrived at?

Higbie’s summing up of the current situation refers to a time when “Universities were one part of a more diffuse field of educational practice that included popular lectures and home study. It was only after World War II that modern universities sought to claim the field of higher education as their exclusive domain”. Prior to that “Higher education was also a more diffuse and less bureaucratised social field”, which took in open forums, labour colleges, university extension programmes, not to mention personal reading habits, the school of hard knocks, and much more.

I’ve raised some questions with regard to aspects of Labor’s Mind, but in general it strikes me as an extremely informative and stimulating book. For readers outside the United States, and perhaps even inside that country, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives and activities of many spirited individuals, as well as details of organisations they were involved with. From the Appeal to Reason to Julius Haldeman’s “Little  Blue Books”  in the nineteenth century and on to IWW publications and communist-inspired John Reed Clubs in the twentieth, Higbie provides a broad picture of how numerous “working-class intellectual lives” were supported and shaped.