Labor History

Dale McCartney: You have done considerable work on the IWW, and have pointed to them as an example of a radical movement that reflects the unique challenges of organizing in an American context. For many historians, the Wobblies legacy is more notable for its cultural impact than its political impact. How important is the cultural impact of the IWW? Was the IWW first and foremost a cultural phenomenon?

Paul Buhle : The cultural impact of the old IWW was, in some ways, as great as its industrial impact, but very different. As an inspiration to a politically-minded bohemianism, it prompted many middle and working class people, notably women, to embrace ways of living, thinking, carrying on their personal life, all contrary to accepted values. Premarital or extramarital sex with birth control information and devices were very important, but these also included interest in various kinds of modern art, modern dance, and a sense that the entertainments sought by ordinary working people (such as jazz and jazz dancing) were efforts to free themselves, find a fuller personal, in a process connected with the larger vision of political-economic liberation.

The IWW’s founders did not envision it becoming a cultural movement, but at least some were working class bohemians by nature, and the evolution of a relationship with anarchists, Greenwich Village and the little versions of Greenwich Village was in retrospect inevitable.

The IWW was also a real force among a wide population of the homeless, hobos of the first thirty years of the twentieth century, and several decades beyond that in Chicago. This stimulus helped to produce Wobbly institutions as centers of free speech for working class intellectuals and bohemians, most especially in the rundown North side. By 1930, bohemianism probably became the most attractive feature, certainly for young people, and led to a series of institutions bringing together jazz, poetry, and free speech, prefiguring the 1960s youth rebellion.

McCartney: You announced at the PNLHA conference that Wobblies! (our review is at is the first of several works you are going to work on in the same vein — including a graphic novel version of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. What has led you to embrace this form of work? Do you feel that Wobblies! is building on that IWW tradition of radical art? Have you made the decision to commit yourself to graphic novels as an issue of accessibility, to make radical history more broadly accessible?

Buhle: Around 1970, I received a friendly offer from Denis Kitchen, one of the publishers of underground comics, to script some comic stories. (Denis, like myself, had been in the DeLeonite Socialist Labor Party, so we understood each other very well. We are now beginning work together on a biography of the figure we admire most: Mad Comics founder, Harvey Kurtzman.) SDS had already collapsed, and I was beginning to try to move Radical America from Madison to the Boston area. I could not take on the task, which I regret.

I did write one of the first substantial essays on underground comix, did some interviews with the artists during the 1970s (for my magazine Cultural Correspondence) and by the 1980s-90s, had returned to writing about them, in places like the Nation, Tikkun, Village Voice and forgotten Jewish progressive publications, like my favorite one, Shmate (from Berkeley), for which (in 1983) I edited a special “Jewish Humor” issue. But what I learned about the slow pace of public recognition, the inability of comic artists with few exceptions to make a living at their art, was mostly depressing. Only slowly did things change, from the middle of the 1990s, then more so with the rush of (mostly mediocre) graphic novels into the bookstores and “Young Readers” sections of public libraries.

By 2000 or so, I began to look around for commercial and leftwing publishers interested in taking the plunge, also for artists and financing. I was fortunate to be able to gain a funder (like myself, a veteran of SDS), to renew an engagement for Verso (for whom I’d written the authorized biography of C.L.R. James, The Artist as Revolutionary, also Marxism in the United States), and most fortunate to connect with Nicole Schulman, an editor as well as artist of World War 3 Illustrated. These connections made Wobblies! a Graphic History possible.

I had already begun work on other projects as I saw how Wobblies! would be received. The idea of a graphic version of Zinn’s People’s History, or rather a section of it, was a natural outgrowth, and so was gaining my collaborator artists (labor cartoonist Mike Konopacki) and co-scripter (former blacklisted newspaperman and collaborator on my film books: Dave Wagner).

Other planned work–a graphic biography of Emma Goldman, by Sharon Rudahl, and a history of SDS, drawn by Gary Dumm–goes in the same direction. A large credit for encouraging me must go to my friend Harvey Pekar. Other artists who have encouraged me along the way include R. Crumb, Jay Kinney and Ben Katchor.

I have almost always been happiest doing collaborative work, so that comics suit me in that sense as well. Your readers may want to know that both of the journals I founded, Radical America and Cultural Correspondence, have now been scanned, and are available by link with the American Civilization Department at Brown University.

McCartney: Your work has always been politically committed, which has sometimes led to some vicious attacks by conservative historians (the recent criticisms of anti-Communists Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes is one example). How do you approach the process of writing politically engaged history? Do attacks by people like Klehr and Haynes indicate to you that you have succeeded in writing a politically provocative work, or are they simply evidence of the power of conservatives within history?

Buhle: First let me note that most of the political attacks from the Right are actually intended, like the repressive atmosphere generally, not to threaten me but to intimidate graduate students and young professors who might speak their minds, or join protest movements. That’s an important reason why I can’t go silent.

Second, it’s a curious thing, being attacked so frequently and so ignorantly. Some of it is highly personal: Harvey Klehr, with a background at the Hoover Institution, was coeditor of a “biographical dictionary” of the Left, a mediocre volume quickly forgotten; the prominence of the Encyclopedia of the American Left was obviously quite disturbing to him. So was my review, in the Times Higher Education Supplement, of one of his books on Communist conspiracy noting his wild speculation on disconnected elements: if X and Y were in an elevator together and Y once met with someone from the Soviet embassy, then X must have been a Communist spy or at least party to some sort of espionage. It was extremely silly and transparent.

But most of the attack is of course political, or a combination of politics and ambition. Eric Foner and I like to joke that we are the most attacked US historians, and that if either of us is in the lead for that dubious honor, the other is bound to catch up. Eric, as past president of both the major historical organizations, is somewhat more insulated from personal attacks. But many of the attackers, as in past phases of repression, are also enraged that I should be an “Ivy League professor”– while they, good patriots, are not. F.O. Matthiessen at Harvard is suffering various attacks with that evident motivation: how could an “enemy of America” be entitled to that status when others had so much less?

The butt of many, not all the attacks, has been the books that I co-authored on Hollywood, and for a good reason: these books upset the apple cart, proposed a very different and, for many invested in the usual ways of thinking, a threatening narrative in film history. Liberal supporters of the Cold War quite as much as conservatives have a vested interest in insisting that the victims of the Blacklist were talentless and that their loss to American film was incidental at best. If that were not true, then the dominant intellectual atmosphere of the 1950s, permeated with CIA operations, subsidized journals, subsidized conferences and so on, would seem poisonous rather than the Golden Age of the intellectual celebrity, before the Vietnam War and the youth rebellion soured everything. When ex-Communist cultural types admired young people and joined their causes where possible, and Cold War intellectuals as professors or deans found themselves criticized and ridiculed, it congealed the Culture Wars set-piece that remains today.

There’s another element in the attacks upon my writings: not Red Baiting but Goy-Bashing. The notion that a Gentile–even one who works in Yiddish and spends much time with Jewish audiences–could actually understand Jewish culture is annoying if not threatening. Also it is considered impossible. So I am attacked there as well, and not only by conservatives or even Cold Warriors.

McCartney: Finally, a sudden topic shift. You are very critical of the majority of the AFL-CIO leadership in your book Taking Care of Business, exploring especially the unethical and repellent behavior of George Meany and Lane Kirkland. The AFL-CIO is facing a serious challenge this summer, in the form of Andy Stern and the SEIU, which is threatening to withdraw from the AFL-CIO unless they see substantial policy changes. Is Stern’s plan any sort of improvement? Has John Sweeney been an improvement on his predecessors? How, in your opinion, does the main house of labor have to change to begin to rebuild after decades of retreat?

Buhle: Finally, the labor movement. By the time this interview is published, readers will know what has happened in the AFL-CIO: did it divide, how many unions left the federation with the SEIU, or was a compromise somehow worked out.

I’m surprised and not very pleased to see that the organized Left, from the Communists to my friends at Labor Notes and the Association for Union Democracy, all seem to take the position that “unity” overrides other issues, or that the bureaucratic nature of the shifts makes them either destructive or unimportant. I understand the anxiety, but I don’t take that attitude at all. The formation of the CIO was largely, at first, a bureaucratic shift–following an explosion at the bottom, mass strikes and actions led by radicals of all kinds. Events never follow exactly the same course, but the labor movement desperately needs a new beginning and perhaps this shakeup will mark that beginning.

The most worrisome factor may be the return of the AFL- CIO to the feeding trough of the CIA, by way of its sister organization, the NED. There have been several recent instances of AFL-CIO outrages along these lines, and it has certainly been the position of the rightwing union leaderships–those most bitterly in support of every war/invasion, and most bitterly against Affirmative Action–to return organized labor to the Kirkland-Shanker days of morally degraded, global business unionism. The variegated rump group left behind by the SEIU and others could very well be bullied by familiar bullies– the building trades and the United Federation Teachers clique that dominates the AFT–into that kind of policy. The Communications Workers, as a recently active and fairly progressive force, might well be isolated among unions with no capability and little interest in further organizing– and that would be a tragedy as well. I indicated in Taking Care of Business that the forced departure of many of the most corrupt and reactionary figures of AFL-CIO administration was a large gain of the Sweeney election. But in failing to stem the downward tide of membership, Sweeney seems to have accepted a significant degree of the old logic of domestic failure and global grasp, underlined by an emphasis upon electing Democrats at the expense of all organizing of the unorganized.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Only once before, in my political lifetime, has US foreign policy overstepped its own capacities to drown restlessness and rebellion in blood and dollars-and that was Vietnam. The war and occupation of Iraq has re-drawn familiar lines, with intellectual (among other) careerists eager to cash in for their loyalty to empire. But it has also exposed the weaknesses of the system from within, especially but not only for young people. It also prompts a revulsion against war that cuts across the usual political (or geographical) lines. Hundreds of thousands of antiwar activists, formal or informal, came from conservative families and neighborhoods, rather than liberal parents and regions. Now we are seeing that again. And a new era of radical art is now unfolding. The horror of empire in crisis prompts much despair as well as opportunistic flag- waving, but also inspires its opposite: the vision of freedom without empire.

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