The Militant Minority: Untimely Meditations from David Montgomery

From David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor:

Nevertheless, to organize concerted action and to fashion a sense of social goals shared by all workers required deliberate human agency. Class consciousness was more than the unmediated product of daily experience. It was also a project. Working-class activists, and some individuals from other social strata who had linked their aspirations to the workers’ movement, persistently sought to foster a sense of unity and purposiveness among their fellow workers….Both “history from the bottom up” and the common fixation on great leaders have obscured the decisive role of those whom twentieth-century syndicalists have called the “militant minority”: the men and women who endeavored to weld their workmates and neighbors into a self-aware and purposeful working class.

. . . .

The becalmed and beleaguered trade unions of the 1920s had made their peace with a most undemocratic America, whose economic underpinnings were soon to give way. When working-class activists sought a path out of the depression of the 1930s, they revoked that settlement, reopened controversy over what had been considered accomplished, and began to organize anew on the basis of the ways America’s heterogeneous working people actually experienced industrial life.


  1. totalityordeath June 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm | #

    Sounds like a worthy read. Why are these meditations ‘untimely’? Just curious.

    • Corey Robin June 9, 2012 at 2:12 am | #

      Because thinking hopefully at this moment is almost impossible. Because Montgomery affirms the possibility of organizing, which despite a lot of the radical talk we hear, is something that’s actually quite difficult to believe in. Because Montgomery has a view of social movements that is neither romantically democratic nor hopelessly top-down…

  2. William Neil June 8, 2012 at 6:12 pm | #

    I have four recomendations for readers trying to come to grips with the troubles of American Labor, especially in light of Wisconsin, but also the interaction of labor and the Dems under the last three Democratic presidents: Carter, Clinton and now Obama.

    The first is Mike Davis’ first book: “Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and the Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class,” 1986 – Reagan era.

    The second is Jefferson’s Cowie’s “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970’s and the Last Days of the Working Class,” from 2010, a multiple award winner in labor and history.

    The third is not labor history in the traditional sense, but necessary to fill in the cultural troubles that the broader left must live with: David Harvey’s “The Condition of Postmoderity,” from 1990. But the ghost of the labor movement haunts the book, in the background

    And finally, the last Section from my mini book “The Costs of ‘Creative Destruction’: Wendell Berry vs. Gene Sperling; Part IV is titled “The American Left in the Second Great Crisis of Capitalism: 2008…????

    Just for a little bio detail, I have been, in a seeming different life, a Chief Steward and Lead Negotiator for a public union, AFSCME-2285 in Trenton, NJ. in the late 1970’s.

    It was incredibly difficult work and Corey Robin”s previous admonitions not to underestimate its difficulty are well given; certainly Mike Davis’ and Jefferson’s Cowie’s book also support that conclusion. Nonetheless, I’ve been publicly critical that the AFL-CIO under Trumka have not held out higher, tougher line for Obama, pass or not in Congress. The Kansas City School of economics – has advocated for a jobs for all policy and has done the technical work to back it up. It’s my understanding that they did not get very far with the AFL-CIO.

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