Newsletter #62: Studying American Capitalism to Transform It, w/ Nelson Lichtenstein

by Benjamin Feldman

Few historians have been as instrumental in informing the study of labor in the United States as Nelson Lichtenstein. In a wide-ranging discussion with guest host and Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht, Lichtenstein discusses his work and his political and intellectual biography over nearly six decades. Beginning as a Trotskyist at the University of California–Berkeley in the wake of the Free Speech Movement, he has written or edited eighteen volumes on the history of American labor, attempting to understand both the changing structure of US capitalism and how the US working class has responded to these shifting conditions. Lichtenstein has written pioneering studies of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the United Auto Workers and its leader Walter Reuther, the fall of the New Deal Order, investigations into Walmart and global supply chains, and more. Lichtenstein has sought to understand American labor in its fullest context, emphasizing that to be a historian of working people, one must also be “a historian of capitalism, and culture, and politics, and everything else.”

Studying the world of labor in order to transform it requires starting with what Lichtenstein refers to as “the commanding heights” of capitalism. This approach has led him to focus on both Detroit, the paradigmatic example of the successes and subsequent decline of mid-century Fordist capitalism, and Shenzhen China, the Chinese port-city whose explosive growth has been fueled by massive inflows of international capital, and which has become integral to the functioning of the global supply chains on which mega-corporations like Walmart rely.

*Listen to *The Dig’s interview with Nelson Lichtenstein here. **

Approaching the study of work and workers in this way is an essential undertaking for anyone trying to grasp the possibilities inherent in each historical moment. This does not mean, as Lichtenstein notes, turning into something like “a politician,” a cynic who confuses their own political exhaustion with realism. Rather, it means understanding that, as Lichtenstein tells Uetricht, “consciousness is episodic” and is shaped by modes of production and consumption. If the primary goal of social movements is to take a moment of heightened consciousness and to “institutionalize it in some way,” then one approach for the politically committed student of labor is to study dominant modes of production in order to better understand working people’s consciousness as they organize in response. These inquiries lead us to better understand what is politically possible in a given moment.

Of particular interest in this week’s conversation is that unlike so many former radicals, Lichtenstein feels no need to self-flagellate over his earlier engagement with revolutionary politics. For over a century, one-time leftists — from Max Eastman around the time of the Russian Revolution to the mid-century New York Intellectuals to New Leftist Todd Gitlin — have fallen victim to the same cliché, first excoriating their own youthful excesses and then dedicating themselves to policing future generations of radicals lest Bolshevism, Stalinism, or Guevarism sneak back in.

A leitmotif of political deradicalization, the “god that failed” is usually politically unhelpful (not to mention somewhat tedious). It is also ahistoric. Though he does not refer to it as such, Lichtenstein’s Marxian influences keep him focused on the actual material conditions of capitalist production and engaged with how working people are critiquing and organizing against those conditions right now. His work is thus both a model of careful scholarship and a prophylactic against falling victim to a generational trap — no doubt a large part of the reason he has nurtured the careers of so many younger historians. Nelson Lichtenstein offers not just an invaluable body of historical writing and research, but a guide to how to think about capitalism and how to work together to organize against it.

Further Reading

Nelson Lichtenstein’s contributions to American labor history are far too numerous for an inclusive list. Among his most influential books are Labor’s War at Home: the CIO in World War II, The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business, and the essay collection A Contest of Ideas: Capital, Politics, and Labor, all of which are discussed in this interview. This September, A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism, by Lichtenstein and the late Judith Stein, will be published by Princeton University Press.

For a recent shorter pieces by Lichtenstein on the politics and history of American labor see Lichtenstein in Jacobin on forty years of Labor Notes, on unionization drive at Starbuck, and with Andrew Elrod on the Railway Labor Act; in Dissent on the recent graduate worker strike across the University of California’s campuses; and in The Nation on unionization at Amazon and on the recent UAW election. Or really, just search his name in the archives of your favorite left magazine.

The Dig’s archives feature dozens of hours on American labor and American labor history. Check out Gabe Winant on the shift from industrial labor to care work, Jimmy Williams on the PRO Act, Jane McAlevey on the strike as a first step on the long road to democratization, and Lane Windham on the labor militancy of the 1970s.