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Labor Historians' Infatuation with Marxism By: Anders Lewis
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Rumors of Karl Marx’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism, the Old Man is alive and kicking.  Indeed, among historians of American labor history, Marx is King and Adam Smith has never been heard of.  This will not come as a surprise to readers of Frontpage Magazine, who well know that much of the academic world is dominated by militant left-wing apologists for terrorism. These leftists deny the existence of truth or advocate for the study of anything but Western civilization (unless, of course, one proposes to study the evils of Western civilization).  Having lost the battle on the streets in the 1960s, these radicals are now taking the battle to our nation’s schools.  Their goal is to replace scholarship with revolutionary politics.

Labor historians are deeply involved in the race to politicize the academic world.  From the ivory tower they march and Marxism is their guide.  They are embittered by the absence of socialism in America and the low level of union membership.  They desperately comb the past in search of “proof” that America is an unjust land ruled by reactionary corporate chieftains and conservative politicians.  They write of a past that has no semblance to reality. They cling to murmurs of militancy and insist on the widespread existence of class hatred and union solidarity.  In their America, workers resisted capitalism by engaging in industrial sabotage and work slowdowns, and by joining unions and radical political parties.  Their history is one of conflict, of workers who bravely held out the promise of a new world, only to be crushed by political repression, racism, sexism, or some other hobgoblin.  It is simply inconceivable to most labor historians that workers have and continue to embrace capitalism, that they relish the opportunity  that democracy provides to pursue their individual goals of career advancement and home ownership. Freedom and private property, not socialism, is what workers have always desired.  

To confirm my hypothesis on the state of labor history, one could examine the goals of the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA). Composed of the most renowned labor historians, it is an organization that is blithely unconcerned with conflicts of interest. Hence, its constitution states that it seeks to “develop mutually supportive relationships with….the AFL-CIO, its affiliated trade unions, [and] independent labor unions and organizations….” For further confirmation of my hypothesis, one could also - as I recently did - turn to the H-Labor discussion network at: http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~labor/.  H-Labor has subscribers from around the world including union officials, radical activists, and labor historians.  Over the past three weeks I engaged all of them in a debate on Marxism and its pervasive influence among labor historians.  In the face of an overwhelmingly hostile reaction (albeit with numerous emails sent to my personal email account thanking me for opening up some real discussion), I criticized labor historians for their devotion to Marx and their admiration of such Marxist historians as Philip Foner, Herbert Aptheker, and Eric Hobsbawm.  Marx’s theories are wicked and wrong, said I, and Foner’s, Aptheker’s, and Hobsbawm’s “scholarship” is irreparably marred by their communism. 

Foner’s multi-volume “History of the Labor Movement in the United States,” for example, is predictable and sectarian. He demonstrates little understanding of workers or of capitalism, and attacks all other historians who are not sufficiently supportive of Soviet communism.  Foner was also a plagiarist and may even have destroyed historical documents to prevent other researchers from viewing them.  Aptheker, in turn, shared Foner’s admiration for Soviet communism. He cherished Lenin and Stalin; he argued that the Korean War was the consequence of a South Korean attack; he defended the 1956 crushing of the Hungarian uprising in his book, “The Truth About Hungary,” and he endlessly attacked America’s democratically elected leaders for having “the morals of goats, the learning of gorillas and the ethics of…racist, war-inciting enemies of humanity.” Quite a scholar.

These uncomfortable facts did not stop H-Labor subscribers from lavishing Foner and Aptheker with so much undeserved praise.  Up first to their defense was Norman Markowitz, professor of history at Rutgers University.  Markowitz, who boasts that “I write and teach from a Marxist perspective,” is not shy about his politics or about using quotes from one of  history’s most barbaric leaders, Mao, to offer political strategy. “What is needed today,” he has recently written, “is what American revolutionaries in the 1770s, abolitionists in the 1850s, and Communists in the 1930s provided in the past - strategies to organize, coordinate, and advance class and social struggle. In this sense,” he continued, “a slogan of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse-tung…deserves to be taken up by Communists and all progressives in the U.S. today: ‘Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win.’”  On H-Labor, Mao admirer Markowitz gushed over Foner’s “enormous contribution to labor history” and attacked me for “name-calling and ad hominem attacks.”  Similarly, Brian Kelly, professor of history at Queen’s University in Belfast, blasted me for my “free market triumphalism” and insisted that little controversy should surround the placement of Foner on “a short list of influential labor historians.” Mr. Kelly did admit that Foner may have “borrowed” (such a kind word) some material from others without citation. He also conceded that Foner was a Stalinist.  But he still insisted that Foner deserves a place in labor history’s hall of fame.  Stalinist? Yes. Plagiarizer? Probably.  Weak defense? Indeed!  Not content with defending the indefensible, Kelly wrote me a warm personal email, fulminating against my “pathetic, boring, and completely out of touch” arguments.

Aptheker’s and Foner’s Stalinism was also of no concern to David Roediger, the author most recently of “Colored White” and a writer for the journal “Race Traitor” (a journal that proudly announces that it seeks to “abolish the white race by any means necessary”).  In one H-Labor post, Roediger jumped to Foner’s defense by calling him “an indefatigable colleague” and a “pioneer” in the field. Roediger also lauded Aptheker’s “American Negro Slave Revolts” as the equal of “any first book produced.”  Finally, Michael Honey, the Harry Bridges Chair of Labor Studies at the University of Washington, sought to remind H-Labor readers that Foner and Aptheker wrote “books to reach a broad audience, particularly workers, people in the freedom struggle, and unionists.” Thus, Honey concluded, to subject them “to the standards of academic historians as if that were the only criteria for excellence is….to dismiss” their main contributions. Harry would be so proud.

Such adamant defenses of Foner and Aptheker by leading labor historians illustrates the radical political priorities of today’s academic community.  As long as a scholar has the correct leftwing politics, one need not worry too much (if at all) about their scholarship, or their support and/or denial of communism’s monstrous crimes. 

The same can be said of labor historians’ reaction to Eric Hobsbawm, the famous British Marxist.  Virtually all labor historians are enthralled with him. Mention his name and they will go into rapture.  Thus, in one H-Labor post that garnered much praise, Melvyn Dubofsky, author of a widely used book on the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), wrote that Hobsbawm’s “scholarship and writings stand on their own.”  “All we labor historians,” he continued, “are greatly in debt” to him.  Another respondent to the debate asked “who - in any field - has covered more ground more scrupulously at so consistently high a scholarly level...?”  Stunning statements, particularly after one closely examines Hobsbawm’s work as well as his   admission that if provided the opportunity, he would have acted as a spy for Stalin! (See Richard Pipes, “Corruption of the Intellect,” Frontpage, June 9, 2003)

Hobsbawm’s communism, as David Pryce-Jones has noted in a recent article in the New Criterion, “destroyed him as a thinker or interpreter of events.”  Consider, for example, Hobsbawm’s history of the 20th century, “Age of Extremes.” In it, he wrote that Soviet development in the 1930s and 1940s (when Stalin’s economic policies and political purges were killing millions) “meant the opening of new horizons, the escape from darkness and ignorance to the city, light and progress, not to mention personal advancement and careers....” Hobsbawm also made a perverse comparison of Stalin to Churchill: “the breakneck industrialization of the first Five-Year Plans...” he insisted, “generated support by the very ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ it imposed on the people. As Churchill knew, sacrifice itself can motivate.” Hobsbawm proceeded to argue that Stalin “almost certainly enjoyed substantial support.”

The devotion of labor historians towards Foner, Aptheker, and Hobsbawm is inextricably tied to their larger fealty to Marx.  I urged H-Labor subscribers to break free of their enslavement to Marxism and the Marxist idea of class conflict, to chart a new course, to embrace, or at least investigate, some new theories as to how capitalism operates.  I observed that Marx’s ideology was the ideology Lenin embraced and Stalin employed to carry out their ghastly crimes.  In response, Professor Dubofsky argued that Marx should not be blamed for the sins of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.  “Should the parent,” he asked, “be condemned for the sins of his figurative children?”  Dubofsky says no; I say yes.  Marx was no democrat. He was not interested in pluralism, tolerance, diversity, or freedom. He dreamed and fought for the day when one group of people would be violently eliminated by another group of people. He advocated for the abolishment of private property and the establishment of a dictatorship. He argued that the slow and often difficult process of democratic reform was a sham. Was it, I asked Dubofsky, any wonder that when communism collapsed, workers just as vigorously defaced monuments to Marx as they did monuments to Lenin and Stalin?  To this question, I received no response.  Instead, Dubofsky fired off one last angry post in which he stated that he had grown tired of the conversation.  “As for the sins of the old man Marx,” he huffed, “I don’t want to fight about those….” So much for scholarly debate.

Labor historians are so enthralled with Marxism that they are incapable of even considering the work of Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, whose interpretation of U.S. economic history revolves around “the story of an economic miracle and a political miracle,” both made possible by individual initiative.  They are, as well, incapable of considering the America that Abraham Lincoln saw and fought for; an America that offered workers opportunity; an America that permitted them to follow their individual dreams and pursue their own forms of happiness. And try as labor historians do to deny it, Lincoln had strong reasons to believe that his America was the real America.  Nineteenth century capitalism was embraced by farmers and workers alike. It helped bring to America more schools and colleges, terrific technological and scientific advances, improved diets, better housing and clothing, and a growing number of employment opportunities.  This progress, the Great Depression notwithstanding, continued into the 20th century with an expanding GDP, ever rising levels of home ownership, rising levels of family income, declining poverty rates, better medical care, and improved sanitation.  For millions of workers, of all colors and religions, America has been and still is a land of opportunity.  It is the land they love and the land they have fought for and died to preserve. 

It is this sense of dynamism, of positive growth, achievement, and patriotism that is simply lost among labor historians.  It is lost because of their militant political inclinations, because of their unwillingness or inability to recognize the dynamic power of American capitalism. They emphasize class conflict and solidarity even though workers have always studiously avoided radical politics, never joined unions, and never went on strike.  Indeed, at most times throughout American history union membership has typically been no more than 10-20 percent of the workforce. So much for solidarity.

My H-Labor foray demonstrated that labor historians are an insular bunch. But they could hardly care. In responding to a post of mine that called for a greater diversity of viewpoints, Robert Weir, professor of history at Bay Path College and the author of a book on the Knights of Labor, asked: what does Lewis “expect to find on H-Labor, an Adam Smith lovefest?” Similarly, Joseph McCartin, professor of history at Georgetown University, admitted that “there are not many conservatives” in labor history, but insisted that “I see no evidence of a thought police driving such scholars from our midst.” 

One wonders if McCartin and his fellow labor historians ever bother to ponder how they can be so out of step with their fellow Americans. Safely enthroned in comfortable academic positions, they pretend to be concerned with “diversity” and “alternative views” but they invariably hide from challenges and seek to avoid or even squash real debate. 

On June 8, I received an email from Seth Wigderson, H-Labor’s moderator. He informed me that he decided not to post a response to my critics that I sent him. He argued that “unfortunately, your most recent post is full of personal challenges.” Shocking indeed, but there is more.  “For instance,” Wigderson continued, “you demand to know if Mel Dubofsky disagrees with Richard Pipes about Marx and mass murder….” Such questions, he informed me, are inappropriate for H-Labor.  “In fact,” he continued, “your contribution is full of accusations of complicity with mass murder, “domination” of the field, and historical blindness…..”   In response, I wrote:

Sorry you feel the need to limit debate. What a shame, particularly when you
admitted that this discussion had set a record for posts. You and I
certainly disagree about our nation’s past but I - unlike you - am a firm believer in serious, academic discussion. True, I do like to call a spade a spade. Aptheker and Foner were Stalinists. Marx was wrong. Hobsbawm is an apologist for mass murder. And yes Seth, we are talking about mass murder. Read Conquest. Read Solzhenitsyn.

And yes again, I would like to know what Dubofsky and all other H-Labor readers think are the connections between Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. This goes to the very heart of the field of labor history. Sadly, however, you evidently find it too hard to even ask these difficult but important questions….

Thus ended several weeks of debate on H-Labor. I was not surprised. In 1999, I met Wigderson at a labor history conference in San Francisco. Shortly before I was to deliver a paper defending the Cold War anticommunist policies of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), I saw him thumbing through a copy of my paper with a friend of his. Not knowing I was behind him, he laughed at the idea that the fight against communism was a fight for freedom, a fight to liberate millions from tyranny. “What an idiot,” he said. Now, thanks to Wigderson, H-Labor readers will no longer have to confront their historical myopia. Instead, they can carry on in their merry way, raising hell and fighting the good fight, all in the name of “solidarity.”

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