U.S. Labor’s Subterranean Fire

— Charlie Post

Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States
By Sharon Smith
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006, xvii + 377 pages, $16

THE BROAD OUTLINES of the crisis of the U.S. labor movement -— sharply declining union density, concession bargaining, failures to organize the growing non-union manufacturing and service sectors, the labor officialdom’s reliance on institutionalized labor-management cooperation schemes — are familiar to readers of Against the Current. The roots of this crisis — the dominance of bureaucratic business unionism and the weakness of rank-and file-led reform movements from below — are also well-known.

Sharon Smith’s Subterranean Fire is a popularly written introduction to these issues that synthesizes recent labor history and Smith’s labor journalism in Socialist Worker (U.S.), CounterPunch and other left publications.

Smith approaches the contemporary crisis of the “house of labor” through the lens of the rise and fall of U.S. working-class radicalism. Smith focuses on the essential role of radicals — anarchists, syndicalists, socialists, pro-Soviet Communists, Trotskyists and others — in key junctures of working-class militancy. The historic divorce between radicalism and the working class is central to understanding the decline of U.S. labor since the Second World War:

“One of the key arguments of this book is that this decline in union membership coincided with a dramatic fall in working-class radicalism — the direct consequence of the anticommunist witch-hunt in the 1940s and 1950s known as ‘McCarthyism’ ... The witch-hunt, initiated at the highest levels of government, purged radicals from the labor movement, permanently uprooting radical traditions from their historical base inside the working class.” (xv)

Smith begins with a vigorous critique of mainstream theories of the “American Exceptionalism” — the claims that U.S. workers enjoyed higher standards of living and/or experienced higher rates of individual upward mobility than workers in the rest of the capitalist world, making collective class action unnecessary. Smith demonstrates how, despite relatively higher wages and greater opportunities for individual advancement, U.S. workers in the 19th and 20th centuries were capable of exceptional workplace militancy and organization.

Drawing on the work of Mike Davis and Duncan Hallas (1), Smith argues that three features of U.S. capitalist development fueled industrial militancy, while shortcircuiting the emergence of an independent, mass working-class social-democratic or labor party in the 19th century. The first was the establishment of universal, white male suffrage before the emergence of an industrial working class.

While “[a]ll women were denied the vote, and America’s Black population lacked any rights of citizenship ... U.S. workers had no immediate class-wide impetus to form independent workers’ movements to struggle for democratic rights.” (7) The early conquest of the ballot for white men precluded the emergence of a U.S. version of Chartism as emerged in Britain — a workers’ movement that combined the struggle for economic and political democracy.

The rapid expansion of U.S. capitalism after the Civil War — the geographic spread of both capitalist industry and agriculture across the North — provided unique opportunities for individual advancement. The growth of industry and the multiplication of urban centers allowed a minority of workers to move into supervisory and managerial positions and open small businesses.

In addition, the availability of inexpensive or free land in the west after the forcible expropriation of the Native American populations promoted widespread property ownership among household-based commercial farmers. “Migration to the Western frontier contributed to a turnover among workers who might otherwise have stayed and fought for better conditions.” (7) (2)

Finally, the massive European migration to the United States — peaking in the 1840s and 1850s, and again from the 1890s until the First World War — constantly divided and redivided the US working class along ethno-religious lines. The U.S. working class was thus continually “unmade,” to paraphrase E.P. Thompson, over the course of the 19th century, undermining its capacity to create an independent and united political organization.

Openings for Labor Politics

While these factors explain why a substantial layer of workers would “seek individual, rather than collective, solutions during the second half of the 19th century,” Smith points out that they were “temporary, not permanent features of American society.” (7)

The 20th century saw a number of openings for the creation of an independent working-class political organization in the United States — in particular, the growth of the Socialist Party (SP) and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) before World War I; and the explosion of industrial militancy in the 1930s that established the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and fueled attempts to create a labor party.

For Smith, the roots of the U.S. labor movement’s failure to create its own political party are not to be found in early universal white male suffrage, the expansion of the agro-industrial frontier or immigration. Instead, three factors prevented the realization of the historic opportunities for independent labor politics before the First World War and in the 1930s and 1940s:

“A degree of racism and racial segregation exceeding that of every other industrial society, with the exception of South African apartheid.

“A political system based upon the shared rule of two corporate parties, the Democrats and Republicans, in which one of those parties — more recently the Democrats —successfully masquerades as an ally of the downtrodden.

“Reliance on extraordinary levels of political repression, including a combination of armed violence, high levels of incarceration, execution, and legal and ideological warfare to suppress oppositional movements.” (17)

Smith gives special emphasis to the role of racism in “dividing and conquering” the working class. She details the role of plantation slavery in promoting the growth of U.S. capitalism, and how southern planters and merchants defeated the democratic struggles of African Americans during Reconstruction and imposed segregation and disenfranchisement “from above.”

Smith describes how northern industrialists and bankers appropriated racist ideology to justify capitalist rule at home and imperialist conquest abroad. The cancer of racism also wracked the labor movement, as conservative union bureaucrats, closely allied with employers, systematically undermined multi-racial industrial unionism in favor of “whites only” craft unionism before the CIO upsurge.

Smith uses this framework to analyze how the opportunities for independent working-class political action and organization were undermined in the 20th century.

Before the First World War, the revolt of the mostly Eastern and Southern European immigrant industrial proletariat fueled the growth of the SP and the IWW. However, the political and ideological weaknesses of the SP and IWW, the conservatism of the Gompers leadership of the AFL craft unions, and government repression during and immediately after World War I isolated the radical wing of the labor movement.

From Upsurge to Bureaucratism

The “labor left” survived wartime repression and the postwar red scare, and was able to play a central role in the unemployed struggles of the early 1930s as well as the mass strike wave of 1934–37 that established industrial unionism in the United States. Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists and other radicals led the most important industrial battles, impelling a wing of the AFL officialdom around John L. Lewis of the mineworkers to break with the craft unionists and launch the CIO.

The CIO opened its doors to all workers — Black and white, native-born and immigrant, men and women — on an industrial basis. The new industrial unions were also the centers of agitation for a labor party in the mid-1930s.

Smith describes how the emerging bureaucracy of the industrial unions, in league with the Roosevelt administration, was able after 1936 to derail both industrial militancy and the movement for a labor party. After 1935 the CIO officialdom found an unexpected and crucial ally in the U.S. Communist Party.

As the Soviet bureaucracy sought “collective security” agreements with the western capitalist democracies against fascist Germany and Italy, the Communist parties adopted the “popular front” strategy. By late 1936, the Communists were allying themselves with Lewis and Roosevelt, moderating the strike wave and promoting the CIO’s subordination to the Democratic Party.

The Second World War marked the turning point for the CIO and the U.S. labor movement. The CIO bureaucracy willingly surrendered the right to strike for the duration of the war in exchange for state-sponsored recruitment of workers into unions in the defense industries.

The ranks of the CIO, however, did not passively accept the labor officialdom’s embrace of the war time no-strike pledge. Unauthorized wildcat strikes across the war industries, and organized opposition caucuses in the UAW and other CIO unions, challenged the no-strike pledge. Again the CIO bureaucracy found an ally in the Communist Party, which was the most active defender of labor peace during what the Communists called the “democratic war against fascism.”

As the industrial unions gave up the struggle against the employers, they were unable to either defend their existing members’ standard of living (as wages fell behind the rate of inflation) and working conditions or effectively integrate the millions of African Americans and women who were entering the industrial workforce during the war.

The Price of Labor Peace

In the late 1940s the U.S. capitalist class, with the active cooperation of the officials of the AFL and CIO, used its dominant position in a reviving world economy to secure détente in the workplace and physically remove radicals from the working class. In exchange for accepting unions in basic industry, the creation of “private welfare states” (pension and health benefits tied to unionized jobs) and wages that kept up with inflation, the CIO officials agreed to capital’s right to manage (control the organization and pace of work) and to abandon any attempt to organize the south.

The federal government, with the help of the labor leaders and their liberal allies in the Democratic Party, launched a witch hunt that targeted labor radicals of all stripes — anti-Stalinist radicals and pro-Moscow Communists alike.

Smith points out that the postwar social contract — peace on the shop floor in exchange for rising wages and benefits — led to rising working-class living standards, but at “the price of a drastic rise in the rate of exploitation.” (208)

The labor movement’s abandonment of the South and increasing reliance on the grievance procedure to settle workplace disputes (rather than “quickie strikes” and other forms of direct action), routine collective bargaining and occasional top-down run strikes, and their alliance with Democratic “friends of labor” would undermine the unions’ capacity to resist the new employers’ offensive, spurred by falling profits and the long-wave of economic stagnation, that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The destruction of the working-class left during the anti-communist purges undermined the capacity of rank-and-file workers to resist the corporate offensive independently of their leaders. The wave of wildcat strikes that shook U.S. industry between 1965 and 1975 dissipated in the face of rising unemployment in the late 1970s, and was unable to coalesce a new layer of workers’ willing and able to lead a continued struggle against capital.

The result of the consolidation of bureaucratic business unionism and the absence of a layer of radical and militant workers has been the one-sided class war of the past three decades — with the consequences we know all too well.

Role of Restructuring

Subterranean Fire is a concise, well-written history of U.S. working-class struggle and radicalism, both a useful introduction for new activists and a thought-provoking synthesis for more experienced militants. In my view, however, the book suffers from three weaknesses.

First, Smith does not analyze the restructuring of capitalist production — the spread of lean production (3) — since the late 1970s. While describing various aspects of the employers’ offensive (multiple tiers of pay and job security, part-time and contingent employment, etc.), Smith does not explore how these changes in work undermined the social foundation of the post-World War II bureaucratic business unionism.

According to labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein (4), the inability of the UAW to maintain the dense network of shop stewards (one for every 25 workers) and their replacement with a weaker “committeemen” system led the labor officialdom to surrender any direct control of the nature and pace of work during and after the Second World War.

While preserving seniority as the basis upon which workers could move between jobs, the UAW sought to strengthen workers’ “property rights” in their job through the codification of an elaborate system of job classifications. The UAW and other industrial unions used the grievance procedure to effectively defend these rights through the 1970s.

The ability of even the most bureaucratic unions to defend seniority (limiting managerial favoritism) and job classifications (limiting what tasks workers were expected to perform) was central to maintaining the passive loyalty of rank-and-file members during the 35 years after World War II.

At the heart of lean production is the undermining of seniority rights and job classifications in the name of managerial “flexibility.” In most workplaces today, elaborate and clearly defined job classifications have been abolished. Instead, workers are expected to be “multi-skilled”— willing and able to do a large number of simple and repetitive tasks.

As job classifications are eliminated, seniority rights become less important and management is able to continually reorganize work to increase output with a minimum of new and expensive machinery and technology. The union officialdom, faced with employers who were no longer willing to play by the rules of job classifications and seniority, had little option but to surrender these hard-won gains.

Since 1980, the labor bureaucracy has abandoned the legalistic adversarial grievance procedure and embraced various labor-management cooperation schemes — which further increased managerial power and intensified exploitation.

As bureaucratic business unionism became less and less effective in defending workers’ rights, the ranks were unprepared to organize their own resistance, having relied on the grievance procedure for almost four decades. The historic divorce of radicalism from the working class— and the elimination of a layer of workers who kept alive traditions of direct action on the shop floor — further undermined the ability of rank-and-file workers to defend themselves from the employers’ offensive.

The second gap in Smith’s analysis concerns rank-and-file and reform movements in the unions since the mid-1970s. There is little discussion of the oldest and largest rank-and-file reform movement in the U.S. labor movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which played a central role in winning the right of Teamsters to directly elect their international officers, in the election of the reformer Ron Carey, and in the preparation and leading of the UPS strike and dozens of contract rejections and strikes over the past three decades.

Nor does Smith analyze the rise and fall of the New Directions Movement in the UAW, or various attempts to build rank-and-file reform movements in other international or local unions.

Reform from Below

The lack of a systematic discussion of successes and failures of rank-and-file reform movements in the unions may be related to Sharon Smith’s understanding of the development of working-class consciousness and activity. In her conception, the working class is basically divided into a mass of rank and filers who generally lack organization and class consciousness, and a minority of workers who are self-consciously anti-capitalist and are part of self-defined revolutionary organizations.

This leads her to underestimate the importance of both the minority of rank-and-file activists who are ready to fight the bosses and of the workplace and the organizations they create, and what Kim Moody has called “transitional” organizations in the labor movement historically and today. (5)

The militant, yet not necessarily anti-capitalist (at least not consciously so) minority of rank-and-file workers develop their own organizations — rank-and-file and reform caucuses, newsletters, stewards committees, non-majority unions in unorganized workplaces, workers’ centers, etc. — because the labor officialdom is generally incapable of organizing effective struggles against capital.

Transitional organizations — the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) in the early 1920s, and on a smaller but important scale Labor Notes and various rank-and-file groupings in the unions today — are in part attempts to bridge the gap between the fighting minority of worker militants and self-conscious revolutionaries. Both the rank-and-file and transitional organizations are necessary conditions for the revival of independent class activity and class consciousness — the social foundation for the revival of anti-capitalist and revolutionary radicalism in the U.S. working class.

The third and perhaps most serious flaw in Subterranean Fire is Smith’s analysis of racial divisions in the working class.

Smith’s argument that racism primarily benefits the capitalist class by dividing and weakening workers, and that white workers have a material stake in fighting racism, offers a necessary corrective to the variants of “whiteness theory” that influence much of the U.S. left today. Her critique of David Roediger’s early writings is also insightful — teasing out the crucial differences in his conceptions of the “psychological wage” and “white privilege” from that of W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction in America. (6)

She does not provide, however, a consistent materialist explanation of racism among white workers.

Material Base of Racism

It is incontestable that the capitalist class is the primary instigator and beneficiary of white racism. By giving preference to white (and male) workers over non-white (and female) workers, capitalist divide workers along the lines of race and gender. The result is that workers and their collective organizations are weaker, and the living standards and working conditions of all workers are lowered.

Yet how can we explain why white workers, despite the prices they pay in deteriorating working conditions and falling living standards, time and again embrace whiteness over class solidarity? Smith recognizes that in the absence of effective working-class organization and activity, “competition between groups of workers can act as an obstacle to the development of class consciousness, and encourage the growth of what Marx called ‘false consciousness.’” (46)

The notion of false consciousness is extremely problematic. Most theories of false consciousness argue that the dominant ideas in any society are those of its ruling class. Certainly capital, through its control of the media and the educational system, systematically promotes ideas — individualism, nationalism, competitiveness, racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, etc. — that are compatible with its rule.

The question remains, why do working people embrace these ideas? I would argue that this is not simply a matter of indoctrination. Workers embrace reactionary, pro-capitalist ideas because they are, at most times, what the African-American Marxist Barbara Jeanne Fields called realistic “mental road maps of lived experience.” Put simply, workers embrace reactionary ideas because they “make sense” of their actual practice — how they act and live. “False consciousness” as an explanation slides too easily over this hard reality.

Workers experience capitalism in contradictory ways. (7) On the one hand, workers are drawn together as producers in the workplace. It is as collective producers that workers can directly experience their collective strength. The experience of workers acting collectively as a class against capital is the social basis for the development of radical, democratic and collectivist ideas — class and socialist consciousness.

However, “workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production. They are also individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions, etc.” As competing sellers of labor power, workers are open to the appeal of individualism, including the idea that family is the only appropriate basis for solidarity.

Workers also fall back on already existing forms of solidarity — race, nationality, gender, sexual preference — that do not pit them against the employers, but against other workers, especially workers in a weaker social position:

“It appears possible for the stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions by organizing on the basis of already existing ties against weaker, less-organized sections. They can take advantage of their positions as Americans over and against foreigners, as whites over and against blacks, as men over and against women, as employed over and against unemployed, etc. In so doing, working people may act initially only out of what they perceive to be their most immediate self-interest. But over time they inevitably feel the pressure to make sense of these actions and they adopt ideas which can make their actions reasonable and coherent. These ideas are, of course, the ideas of the right.” (8)

When unions and other forms of class organization are weak and ineffective — when struggle against capital seems unrealistic — it is perfectly realistic for different groups of workers to attempt to defend their relative position against other groups of workers. White (or native-born and male) workers have privileged access to more stable, better paying jobs and all the social advantages that come with them — living in generally safer neighborhoods, sending their children to better public schools, etc.

Changing Consciousness

If a collective class response does not appear to be possible, it is perfectly sensible for white (or native-born or male) workers to attempt to defend their relative position against African Americans (or immigrants or women) — even as the working conditions and living standards of white (and native-born and male) workers decline in the face of the capitalist offensive.

While revolutionary Marxists understand that such strategies are self-defeating, we should not confuse our scientific understanding of the world with the common sense of most workers much of the time. Clearly, racism coexists in everyday working-class consciousness with anti-racist impulses, and some minority of white workers do become anti-racist activists even at low points in the class struggle.

However, anti-racist, anti-nativist, anti-sexist — radical, class ideas — only become the common sense of most white workers when they, together with workers of color, act as collective producers, rather than competing sellers of their ability to work. Socialists strive to promote effective, collective class organization and activity. However, we must recognize that collective class organization and activity — especially following decades of defeats and retreats by the organized labor movement — do not develop spontaneously and automatically.

David Roediger’s analysis is more subtle and important than Sharon Smith recognizes. Roediger and most whiteness theorists correctly reject explanations of white working-class racism that rely on direct competition between workers for specific jobs. In a recent essay, Roediger and Betsy Esch correctly point out that “most white places in society are untouched by multi-racial labor market competition.” (9) They point to how whiteness is reproduced not only in the workplace and labor market, but in communities, schools, households, etc.

Thus white workers who have little or no contact with African Americans and other workers of color at work or in their neighborhoods are often committed to defending whiteness against any and all incursions — whether from affirmative action at work or school, the integration of neighborhoods or interracial relationships.

Roediger and his co-thinkers wrongly conclude that white working-class racism is not rooted in the structure of capitalist relations, which push workers together as collective producers and pull them apart as competing sellers of labor power. This conclusion flows from their restricted notion of “competition among workers” — where specific groups of workers are competing for specific jobs in a specific location.

Instead, we need to understand how the constant reproduction of the reserve army of labor — the unemployed and underemployed — creates generalized competition for jobs, housing and educations and generalized insecurity in the working class. The threats of unemployment resulting from the business cycle, mechanization and outsourcing reinforce insecurity and anxiety in the working class. (10)

In the United States and most other industrialized capitalist societies, the reserve army is racially defined — it is disproportionately workers of color. Thus, when collective, class-based responses to the insecurities of life under capitalism appear impractical, white workers will seek defend themselves as whites against the racialized threat of the reserve army of labor — even when they do not work or live with people of color.

Self-Organization of the Oppressed

Finally, understanding that racism and other reactionary ideologies among workers are not reducible to “false consciousness” also points to the necessity of self-organization and self-activity among people of color, immigrants, women, LGBT and other oppressed peoples.

Given the reality of competition among workers, it is unrealistic to expect white (or male, straight or native-born) workers to initiate struggles against racism, sexism or homophobia in the absence of collective struggle against the employers.

The struggles of the oppressed appear, in the absence of effective unions and other class organizations, to undermine the minimal social and economic security they have carved out as whites, native-born, men or heterosexuals. But that is exactly why socialists must never retreat from solidarity with those struggles, both because we are supporters of basic rights and because we aspire to represent the interests of “the working class as a whole.”

White workers’ participation in class struggles alongside workers of color creates the conditions for, but does not automatically lead to, a decline of white racism. The oppressed will initiate and build their own organizations to advance these struggles and challenge white workers —including organizations that will be, at points, exclusively people of color, women, LGBT and other oppressed peoples.

Socialists need to unconditionally support the self-organization of the oppressed as a necessary condition of class unity and independence.



  1. Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso, 1986), Chapters 1–2; Hallas, The American Working Class, Socialist Review (Britain), 88 (1986).
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  2. Smith’s discussion of the effects of the geographic expansion of commercial family farming on the urban working class is based on outdated historical research on the availability of cheap or free land before and after the US Civil War. Most of the historical literature since the 1940s has demonstrated that most urban workers were incapable of “escaping” wage labor by becoming farmers after 1840. A review of the literature is presented in C. Post, The American Road to Capitalism, New Left Review 133 (May–June 1982).
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  3. For a detailed descriptions and Marxian analyses of lean production see K. Moody, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (London: Verso, 1997), Part I; Charlie Post and Jane Slaughter, Lean Production: Why Work is Worse Than Ever, and What’s the Alternative? (Detroit, MI: Solidarity Working Paper, 2000).
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  4. The Union’s Early Days: Shop Stewards and Seniority, in M. Parker and J. Slaughter, Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept (Detroit, MI: Labor Notes Books, 1988), 65–73.
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  5. The Rank and File Strategy: Building a Socialist Movement in the U.S. (Detroit, MI: Solidarity Working Paper, 2000).
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  6. However, Smith does not acknowledge that Roediger has distanced himself from his early formulations concerning the “wages of whiteness.” In both the Afterward to the revised edition of his the Wages of Whiteness, published in 1999, and in his more recent works, Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (1994) and Working Toward Whiteness (2005), Roediger recognizes that racial divisions within the working class weakens the class’ ability to struggle against capital.
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  7. The following discussion of the material roots of conservative ideas among workers is drawn from the seminal essay by Johanna Brenner and Robert Brenner, Reagan, the Right and the Working Class, Against the Current (Old Series) 1, 2 (Winter 1981).
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  8. Op. cit., 30.
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  9. Non-Racialism Through Race, New Socialist (Canada), 56 (April–June 2006).
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  10. I am indebted to Mark Nelson (Personal Correspondence, June 25, 2006) for this insight.
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ATC 131, November–December 2007