Labor History and Its Challenges: Confessions of a Latin Americanist

by Charles Bergquist
Labor History and Its Challenges: Confessions of a Latin Americanist
Charles Bergquist
The American Historical Review
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AHR Forum
Labor History and Its Challenges:
Confessions of a Latin Americanist


ASKEDTO PLACE THE TWO ACCOMPANYING ARTICLES on Latin American labor history in the broad context of the field, I began reflecting on what may first appear as a paradox. On the one hand, the world labor movement is arguably at its lowest ebb in this century. Rates of unionization, to take one important index, have been declining in many capitalist countries, most significantly in the United States, where union density today stands at roughly 16 percent of the nonagri- cultural labor force, down from about 29 percent as recently as 1975 and only half of the all-time high of 1953, when it reached 32 percent.' The collapse of the so-called "workers' states" of Eastern Europe, especially the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself, has involved far more than the elimination of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War. Ideologically, it has placed socialist goals and Marxist philosophy itself decidedly on the defensive.2 For more than a century, Marxist socialism inspired much of the world labor movement and informed, or deeply influenced, much of the scholarship on labor, especially the field of labor history. Now, however, neo-liberalism, not Marxism, is the philosophy that is sweeping the globe. In the "new world order" of free trade and privatization, market forces are to unleash the productive potential of all human beings and sweep away inefficiencies of the bureaucratic, interventionist, social welfare state. In this new world, unions, the subject of traditional labor history, have no theoretical or practical place.

On the other hand, as this extraordinary historical transformation has been unfolding, Western Marxists have been fashioning a large body of innovative work on labor that ranks among the best scholarship of recent decades. Most historians, regardless of specialization, are aware of the contributions of British labor scholar Edward Palmer Th~mpson.~

His work, in some sense a response to the Stalinist revelations of the 1950s, influenced a generation of Western social and labor historians. They have focused on the experience of unorganized as well

David Brody, "The Enduring Labor Movement: A Job-Conscious Perspective," Working Papers in Comparative Labor History, no. 1 (July 1992), Center for Labor Studies, University of Wash- ington, Seattle, p. 1.

The magnitude of the crisis of the Marxist Left in Latin America is revealed in two remarkable and moving recent books by long-time labor scholars and activists: Francisco C. Weffort, Qua1 democracia? (Sio Paulo, 1992); and Nicolas Buenaventura, ~QuCpasd, camarada? (Bogota, 1992).

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1963).

as organized workers, incorporated study of workers' private, family, and community life into the story of labor's public activities, shifted the focus of labor history from economics and politics to the social and cultural spheres, and complicated the traditional preoccupation of labor historians with issues of class by emphasizing ethnic and gender perspectives. The quantity and quality of this "new" labor history shows no signs of abating. Recent studies in U.S. labor history, for example, have been showered with prizes by the historical profe~sion.~

And in my own field, Latin America, labor history has been judged to have "come of age," its conceptual and methodological contributions worthy of emulation by histori- ans working in otherwise far more developed fields.5

The paradox is, of course, artificial, and it is easily explained. Labor historians have always empathized with the democratic struggles of working people.6 In the post-World War I1 era, however, their optimism about the progressive gains made by organized labor in this century gave way to growing appreciation of the ways those advances were being distorted and even subverted in capitalist and socialist societies alike. By the 1960s, they had turned their historical attention to questions of "what went wrong," "what might have been," or "what still could be." As they did so, they challenged traditional labor history in ways that have implications far beyond that field. It can be argued, in fact, that these challenges contain within them clues to a new, post-Cold War democratic politics, one capable of confronting the ideology of neo-liberalism and its claim that the interests of capitalists are coterminous with the interests of humanity.

Generally speaking, the new social and labor history, as commonly understood in the profession, has not had this political effect. Its concern with the working majority in society and its claim to write history "from the bottom up" have been largely depoliticized and painlessly incorporated into mainstream liberal text- books and the basic guides and syntheses distributed by the American Historical Association.7 The challenges to traditional labor history to which I refer are more specific than this, and they are not well known outside the specialized field of labor history. The four sketched here-I will call them the challenges of control,

Alex Keyssar, Out of Work: The First Century of Unemployment in Massachusetts (Cambridge, 1986); Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge, 1990).

George Reid Andrews, "Latin American Workers," Journal of Social History, 21 (1987): 31 1-26; Emilia Viotti Da Costa, "Experience versus Structures: New Tendencies in the History of Labor and the Working Class in Latin America-What Do We Gain? What Do We Lose?" International Labor and Working Class History, 36 (Fall 1989): 3-24. See also the responses to Viotti Da Costa's essay in the same issue of ILWCH by Barbara Weinstein, Perry Anderson, Hobart A. Spalding, and June Nash. For an idea of the quantity of recent work on Latin American labor, see the bibliographies compiled by John

D. French in 1989 and distributed as typescripts by the Center for Labor Research and Studies, Florida International University, Miami: "Latin American Labor Studies: An Interim Bibliography of Non-English Publications"; and "Latin American Labor Studies: A Bibliography of English Publications through 1989."

By democratic, I mean greater participation in, and control over, decisions about production, reproduction, and distribution by the majority in society.

7 Latin American labor history is an exception to this generalization. The best of the "new" labor history keeps questions of national political power at center stage. See, for example, the recent studies by Daniel James, Resistance and Integration: Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946-1976 (Cambridge, 1988); John D. French, The Workers' ABC: Class Conpict and Alliances in Modern Sdo Paula (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992); Peter Winn, Weavers of Revolution: The Yarur Workers and Chile's Road to Socialism (New York, 1986); and Jeffrey L. Gould, To Lead as Equals: Rural Protest and Politzcal Consciousness in Chinandega, Nicaragua, 1912-1979 (Chapel Hill, 1990).

gender, globalism, and postmodernism-are in some sense interrelated and mutually reinforcing, and each bears on the question of constructing a democratic politics for the future. I subtitle these reflections "Confessions of a Latin Americanist," because, like our colleagues in other fields of labor history, Latin Americanists have failed to realize and convey the full implications of these challenges for reconceptualizing labor history, for revitalizing the labor move- ment, and for constructing a viable democratic politics in the world today.

Control. This challenge emphasizes the centrality of the struggle between capitalists and workers over control of the labor process. Harry Braverman discussed this issue in powerful Marxist philosophical and theoretical terms in 1974. Following Marx, he argued that the ability to do purposeful, meaningful work is what defines us as human beings. Capitalist organization of production, he claimed, progressively shatters the unity of conceptualizing tasks and executing them, the unity of mind and hand. It then subdivides tasks into their simplest components, substituting cheap unskilled labor (often women or children) for skilled. Braverman argued that this dehumanizing process, inherent in capitalism, was no less characteristic of the Soviet organization of production, which had incorporated these principles in its effort to match Western standards of produc- tivity.8

Labor historians have used the concept of control to fundamentally revise our understanding of worker protest in nineteenth-century Europe. It now appears more as resistance to proletarianization and loss of control over the labor process than it does, as orthodox Marxists would have it, a consequence of either.9 Focus on the issue of control has also led to a radical recasting of the meaning of workers' struggles in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.lo This same perspective has demonstrated the similarities of the organization of production in industrial capitalist and socialist societies and probed the ways in which authoritarian factory regimes in both induce worker consent.

Yet the full revisionist potential of the issue of control for labor studies is far from realized, and its importance for contemporary labor politics can hardly be overemphasized. Focus on the struggle for control over the work process blurs the conceptual categories that have customarily defined labor studies. Following Marx, labor history has traditionally defined its subject as the industrial proletar- iat, propertyless wage workers in manufacturing industry. Control issues force us to question the supreme utility of distinctions among workers based on access to

Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capitalism: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1974).

9 See, for example, in addition to Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, William H. Sewell, Jr., Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Reffme to 1848 (Cambridge, 1980).

lo Most notably in the works of David Montgomery, Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (Cambridge, 1979); and The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (Cambridge, 1987). A marvelous case study of control issues is contained in Paul Krause's analysis of labor's struggle at the Carnegie-owned Homestead steelworks, The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel (Pittsburgh, 1992).

l1 Michael Burawoy, The Politics of Production: Factory Regimes under Capitalism and Socialism (London, 1985).

property. They ask us to rethink the usefulness of the binary opposites that structure traditional labor history--of free versus coerced labor, urban versus rural labor, industrial versus agrarian labor. The drive for control links motives and goals of artisans, so-called "peasants," small producers, blue-collar and white-collar workers; it helps historians make theoretical sense, for example, of the remarkable unity of rural workers across property divisions documented by Lawrence Goodwyn in his study of Populism in the United States.lZ Students of Latin American labor have likewise documented the unity of workers' struggles across these conventional dichotomies,l3 but they have yet to develop the issue of control to explain phenomena as diverse as the persistence and competitiveness of smallholder production in agriculture and the explosive contemporary develop- ment of the "informal" economy in urban areas.14 Ideologically, emphasis on the issue of control subverts the normative bias against rural, preindustrial, "tradi- tional" workers or "peasants" that informs much liberal and Marxist labor history.15 Politically, control issues provide a labor perspective on the crisis and demise of the socialist experiments of this century. They also offer democratic concepts to recast current debates, dominated by neo-liberal assumptions, over productivity and international competitiveness. Control issues can thus contribute to a rethinking within the labor movement of how to construct a viable coalition politics (both domestic and international) able to contest the neo-liberal logic of the capitalist market in the world today.

Gender. Propelled by the development of the women's movement and women's studies programs in Europe and the United States in recent decades, work on gender calls into question the dichotomous privileging of production over reproduction and the public over the private in traditional labor history. In focusing almost exclusively on work in the formal economy of patriarchal societies, and on the public expressions of workers' experience, consciousness, and action, traditional labor history effectively defined itself as men's history. In marginalizing women, it virtually eliminated half its subject matter and deprived itself of crucial tools for analyzing some of its most important-and vexing-problems. These tools include the function of households in mediating conflicts between productive and reproductive imperatives, and the role of the family and the community in investing individual experience with collective meanings. Finally, gender perspectives yield patterns for analysis (such as the ebb and flow

l2 Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (New York, 1976).

l3 For example, Florencia E. Mallon, The Defense of Community in Peru's Central Highlands: Peasant Struggle and Capitalist Transition, 1860-1940 (Princeton, N.J., 1983); June Nash, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mine.5 (New York, 1979).

l4 Clues for this kind of analysis of smallholder production can be found in Michael T. Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980); and Nola Reinhardt, OurDaily Bread: The Peasant Question and Family Farming in the Colombian Andes (Berkeley, Calif., 1988). The voluminous literature on the informal economy largely obscures the issue of control. See, for example, Alejandro Portes, Manuel Castells, and Lauren A. Benton, eds., The Informal Economy: Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries (Baltimore, Md., 1989).

l5 Although he often celebrated worker resistence to capitalist imperatives, the influential United States labor and social historian Herbert G. Gutman was very much under the influence of this liberal modernization theory paradigm. See his Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America (New York, 1976). For a corrective, see James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, Conn., 1985).

of women's participation in the industrial labor force) that cut across the periodization schemes of traditional labor history.16

But the issues posed by gender analysis for traditional labor history do not end here. As Joan Wallach Scott has demonstrated so convincingly, male historians, even the likes of E. P. Thompson himself, have often projected onto workers' actions gendered understandings that distort historical evidence. And historical evidence itself, even the seemingly "hard" data of, for instance, an industrial census, may be invested with gender perspectives that confuse categories of workers and their conditions of work.

The promise of gender analysis in labor history has been easier to articulate than to practice, however, and it is revealing that, for the most part, application of these ideas has been the work of women. Moreover, both promise and reality are far more developed in European and U.S. scholarship than in Latin American studies, where historians have been slow to follow the lead of social scientists working on contemporary issues.'' Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the power of gender perspectives in addressing the traditional concerns of labor history-and providing clues to a democratic politics for the future-is the study of the intersection of work place and community mobilization.18 Latin American- ists have long grasped the importance of these issues in the mining enclaves and company towns of the region, but there are no historical studies emphasizing the role of gender in articulating union and community mobilization in cities. As Latin American social scientists have demonstrated, it is just this confluence of productive and reproductive issues that explains the phenomenal growth and political success of the Worker's Party in Brazil, an anomaly, to say the least, in the generally grim world of labor politics today.19

Globalism. This term refers to the interconnectedness of labor and its struggles in a world capitalist system. Emanating from theories of capitalist development pioneered by Latin Americanists in the post-World War I1 era, globalism questions the definition of labor history as solely the experience of workers in manufacturing since the advent of industrial capitalism in the late eighteenth century. It posits instead a definition that encompasses the experience of workers since the beginning of the capitalist transformation of the whole modern era (1500 to the present). Globalism thus challenges the definition of labor history as a simple story of free wage workers who emerge first in Europe, arguing instead that their history is inextricably bound up with that of coerced labor in Europe's colonies. In the era of industrial capitalism itself, this perspective questions the

16 Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1988); Mari Jo Buhle, "Gender and Labor History," in J. Carroll Moody and Alice Kessler-Harris, eds., Perspectives on American Labor History: The Problem of Synthesis (DeKalb, Ill., 1989); Viotti Da Costa, "Experience versus Structures."

l7 This social science literature is synthesized in June Nash, "Gender Issues in Latin American Labor," International Labor and Working-Class History, 36 (Fall 1989): 44-50.

l8 A fine example is Elizabeth Faue's study of labor struggles in Minneapolis, Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915-1945 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991).

'9 Gay Willcox Seidman, "Labor and Community Mobilization in Contemporary Brazil and South Africa," forthcoming, University of California Press; Sonia E. Alvarez, Engendering Democracy in Brazil: Women's Movements in Transition Politics (Princeton, N.J., 1990); Margaret E. Keck, The Workers' Party and Democratization in Brazil (New Haven, Conn., 1992).

idea of a labor history focused on the industrial working class in geographical regions such as Latin America whose primary function in the liberal international division of labor was to produce primary agricultural and mineral commodities for export. In the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, workers in export production played a primary role in the making of labor movements outside the industrial core of the world ec0nomy.2~

The promise of this approach to labor history is far from realized. It is nevertheless clear that the integration of world manufacturing production under the aegis of multinational corporations in recent decades and growing pressure for the liberalization of international trade and investment (on a world or regional basis) will impel labor historians, like the labor movement itself, to forge analytical concepts, and informational and organizational networks, that transcend their traditional focus on the nation-state. The two accompanying articles on Latin American labor in this issue of the AHR illustrate this trend and reveal the rich analytical possibilities of this kind of research. Jonathan Brown shows how the racism of U.S. workers and Thomas O'Brien how U.S. corporate visions deeply influenced the nature and outcome of workers' struggles in Mexico and Cuba in the early twentieth century. The international dimensions of these two case studies are obvious and straightforward-they flow directly from the reality of

U.S. foreign investment in Latin America. It is a measure of the parochialism of traditional labor history that, as both authors rightly point out, studies of this kind are still so rare.

Less obvious are the ways in which thinking about labor in global terms raises fundamental theoretical and interpretive questions. For example, labor-based theories of economic development-particularly the idea that in a world of relative capital mobility and labor immobility, trade between high-wage and low-wage economies is inherently unequal-challenge both classical liberal and Marxist assumptions and need to be tested through historical analysis.21 Contrary to the ethnocentric cultural assumptions (and covert racism) that pervade much scholarly and popular understanding of American history, it is the legacy of coerced versus free labor that seems best to explain the divergent development of the European colonies of this hemisphere.22 Lenin notwithstanding, the origins of imperialism, and of the global expansion of capitalism generally, may have their primary locus in the democratic struggles of working people.23 The contempo- rary debate among European historians over the concept and timing of the Industrial Revolution, which turns on the notion that long before the late

Z0 Here I will cite my own work, which can serve as a guide to that of many others: "Latin American History in World Perspective," in Georg G. Iggers and Harold T. Parker, eds., International Handbook of Historical Studies: Contemporary Research and Theory (Westbrook, Conn., 1979), 37 1-86; Labor in Latin America: Comparative Essays on Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia (Stanford, Calif., 1986); "Latin American Labor History in Comparative Perspective," LabourlLe Travail, 25 (Spring 1990): 189-98.

2' Arghiri Emmanuel, Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade (New York, 1972).

22 Despite a formal commitment to liberal development theory, Ralph Davis, The Rise of the Atlantic Economies (Ithaca, N.Y., 1973), provides much information and analysis to support this argument. See especially chaps. 15 and 16.

22 I try to make this case for the United States in "The Social Origins of U.S. Imperialism, or, Linking Labor and LaFeber," in David M. McCreery, ed., Latin American Labor History, forthcoming, University of Alabama Press.

eighteenth century, Western Europe experienced a "proto-industrialization," including the proletarianization of labor, has developed as though the Atlantic trading system, built on coerced labor, virtually did not exist.24 Labor historians could find inspiration to participate in this debate in the classic 1944 study by Caribbean scholar Eric Williams. Williams found the origins of British capitalism in slavery, and although his specific arguments have been much revised and amended, his initial vision remains remarkably intact.25 To establish the links between the development of free labor in ~uro~e

and the history of labor degradation in the Third World is more than an exercise in establishing historical truth. Ideologically, it undermines the cultural chauvinism and racism that continue to divide world labor.

Postmodernism. "Historical truth" is a notion discordant with the postmodern assumptions that today challenge traditional labor history. Postmodernism decon- structs discourse to reveal the historically contingent, the contextual, the con- structed, indeed, the autobiographical nature of all knowledge. For historians, these are not new ideas in themselves; in fact, they form the core of our disciplinary logic.Z6 But many postmodernists carry historicism to the point of denying the possibility of knowing in any universal sense. More specifically, they deny the assumption of progress, including democratic progress, embedded in both of the "master narratives," liberalism and Marxism, that emerged out of the nineteenth-century European experience with industrialization. Not surprisingly, labor historians, whose field lies at the core of these master narratives, are often extremely chary of postmodernism and its implications.27

Clearly, however, postmodernism can have a democratic face. Its emphasis on discourse can be employed to discover and decenter the social bias in hegemonic discourse and legitimize understandings of the past generated by groups of the oppressed-workers, women, non-Westerners, ethnic and religious minorities, and gays. But to the extent that it denies the possibility that some stories about the past might be "better" or "truer" than others, postmodernism creates seemingly insoluble problems for a politics of the oppressed. What one otherwise sympa- thetic historian called the "terrifying relativist consequences" of postmodern assumptions28 seem to lead to a politics and a history of unmediated, selfish group interest.

That some stories about the past prove to be "better" or "truer" over time than others may be clearer to historians of the Third World than it is to historians in the developed West. The experience of the oppressed reveals more starkly the reality of exploitative social relations than does the experience of their oppressors. Whose story about slavery proved, over time, to be accepted as truer? That of the

z4 See, for example, Charles Tilly's synthesis, "Flows of Capital and Forms of Industry in Europe, 1500-1900," Theory and Society, 12 (March 1983): 123-42. 25 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1944); Barbara L. Solow and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric William (Cambridge, 1987).

Z6 John Toews, "'Historicizing': Is the Historical Turn in the Human Sciences History's Turn?" typescript, May 1992; Charles Bergquist, "In the Name of History," Latin American Research Review, 25 (1990): 156-76.

2' Bryan Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia, 1990). 28 Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 54.

slave or the slaveowner? Whose story about European colonialism? In this sense, the history of the modern world is one of democratic progress. Will the fate of women's story about patriarchy be different? Or that of labor's story about capitalism or about the socialism we have known?

All of the challenges I have described work to democratize traditional labor history by exposing its urban, male, Eurocentric bias. As they decenter labor history, and question the binary opposites that have been used to define it, they mirror postmodern precepts. But the labor history described here need not renounce the idea of democratic progress in the modern world. In fact, it can provide essential elements for the renewal of democratic struggle.

Democratic struggle will prove futile, however, unless it challenges the other notion of progress embedded in the master narratives of the past, the idea of unlimited economic growth. Capitalism's great virtue, its awesome capacity to expand economic production and consumption, is also its great defect. Capital- ism's health depends on expansion. And economic expansion (which, for all its human benefits, has always entailed great social and environmental costs) now obviously threatens our collective health and that of the planet itself. Clearly, the issues of production and consumption have different meanings for the developed and underdeveloped societies of the world and for the privileged and underpriv- ileged classes within them. But as long as returns to labor are predicated solely on the logic of economic productivity and we continue to define human progress as ever greater consumption of material things, struggles for greater social equity and responsible environmental policy in a world of infinite capital mobility are destined to failure.

The history of workers' struggle for control over the way they work is replete with clues to a different, more democratic and sustainable, vision of human progress. Historically, workers have mixed labor and leisure and have resisted the fragmentation of production and speed-ups that capitalists pursue in the name of productivity and competitiveness. They have aspired to do a "fair day's work for a fair day's payM--enough of each to allow them to enjoy and control other aspects of their lives. They have found satisfaction in the fruits of their labor and in doing a job "right." That for too long these attitudes were associated with free, white, laboring men need not deter us from recognizing their universal, democratic, and timely significance for the politics of working people today.

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