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Published by EH.NET (January 2000)

Gerald Friedman, State-Making and Labor Movements: France and the United

States, 1876-1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. xiv + 317

pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-2325-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Melvyn Dubofsky, Departments of History and Sociology,

Binghamton University, SUNY.<

dubof@mailbox.cc.binghamton.edu>

Gerald Friedman, an associate professor of economics at the University of

Massachusetts-Amherst, has written a book that resonates with the spirit of the

last decade of the twentieth century. Although his subject is the growth,

character, and composition of the French and U.S. labor movements in the era of

the Second International, the apogee of Marxism, Friedman views the past

through the lens of the present, a time when labor retreats,

Marxism has been declared dead, and “there is no alternative (TINA)” in sight

to a voracious global capitalism. Based on his comparison of the U.S. and

French labor movements between the 1870s and World War I, Friedman concludes

first, that workers cannot advance their interests without non-working-class

allies and a sympathetic state, and, second, that “orthodox” Marxists, then

and later, were wrong in their economic determinism (historical materialism)

and revolutionary teleology.

Friedman uses the comparative history of U.S. and French labor movements to

make his case. Not only that; he also attempts to reverse the conventional

portrait of the two national labor movements. He suggests that an increasingly

radical and militant French labor movement led by revolutionary syndicalists

grew more rapidly than its U.S. counterpart;

better served the material interests of its members; and succeeded in

organizing the “towering heights” of the French economy, its mass-production

enterprises. By way of contrast, after 1904, a

“conservative” “pure and simple” U.S. labor movement failed to advance; did

little or nothing for the great mass of workers; and failed absolutely to

penetrate the dominant “Fordist” sector of the economy. How does Friedman

explain the relative success of French labor and failure of U.S. labor?

Simply put, he argues that trade unions and the labor movements in both

countries were too weak alone to counteract the greater power of capitalists.

In France, however, Republicans could not defend the Third Republic against

Monarchists and reactionaries (with whom businesspeople allied) without the

support of labor. Hence the French state protected unions against attacks by

capital and encouraged public mediation in place of private or public

repression. In the U.S., however, a liberal state faced no challenge from

anti-Republican reactionaries, hence had no need to build alliances with labor,

and thus enabled employers to crush unions and,

on occasion, used public power to the same end. Put another way, as Friedman

does, the dynamics of French politics and state-making enabled labor to drift

left and remain rhetorically revolutionary while the political process in the

U.S. left labor no choice but to practice

“prudential unionism” and the principle of sauve qui peut.

Does Friedman establish his case? Here I remain less convinced. As an

economist trained in the use of statistics and quantification, Friedman deploys

a variety of data bases, tables, graphs, standard deviations, and regression

analyses to prove his points. A review of this length is not the place to

engage in a debate over the validity of such quantifiable evidence. Suffice it

to say that the meaning of Friedman’s numbers can be interpreted in more than

one way. I prefer to focus on more substantial shortcomings. Are

France and the U.S. actually a good comparison, and is it true, as Friedman

claims (p. 12), that the economic and political differences between the two

nations “were relatively small.” Yes, the U.S.

and France were both capitalist economies and republican polities. Beyond

that, however, it seems to me that enormous differences loomed. One nation was

a centralized, unitary state administered by a trained bureaucracy and governed

by codified legal principles under Roman law. The other was a decentralized,

federal state lacking a trained cadre of administrators and governed by a

common law regime that gave judges enormous autonomy and authority. One nation

had a relatively, large and stable agricultural sector characterized by

small-scale peasant farming and a manufacturing sector dominated in the main

by relatively small enterprises dependent on skilled craftsmen adept at

small-batch production. The other had an agricultural sector that declined

quite rapidly relative to the non-agricultural sector and in

which large holdings increasingly characterized the dynamic staple-producing,

export-driven side of farming;

it also had an industrial sector increasingly characterized by gargantuan

enterprises employing armies of machine operators to mass produce capital and

consumer goods. Should one expect comparable trajectories for labor movements

in Fordist and pre-Fordist economic regimes?

And what of Friedman’s portrait of the histories of the French and U.S.

labor movements? Was the French movement relatively successful as compared to

the one in the U.S.? Did French unions really succeed before World War I in

unionizing among employees in large-scale, mass-production enterprises?

Were U.S. unions as loath to organize the less skilled and as disdainful of

workers in the mass-production sector as Friedman claims? Friedman’s own

statistical and written data fail to answer those questions. If typical French

locals were as small as Friedman’s data indicate, indeed on average far smaller

than U.S. union locals, how could they be characterized as examples of

successful industrial unionism? For an economist trained in quantification,

Friedman provides precious little data in the way of comparative wage rates,

annual earnings, hours of work, working conditions,

and consumption standards, to judge the relative impact of French and U.S.

unions on the lives of their members. Did U.S. unions fail to organize less

skilled mass-production workers because their leaders were narrow-minded,

selfish, chauvinistic, and sexist individuals or because their adversaries

were too powerful, as Friedman’s own evidence suggests?

Does Friedman’s explication of comparative business history and politics in the

two nations work any better? His businesspeople on both sides of the Atlantic

proved equally anti-union but were French entrepreneurs more reactionary, even

Monarchist, hierarchical paternalists than their U.S.

republican, individualistic brothers in capitalism? Did French employers seek

to keep their employees out of unions by playing the “good father” to

obedient, deferential workers, while U.S. employers designed welfare capitalism

to encourage competitive individualism among their more skilled employees? I

suggest that Friedman read carefully the testimony of leading

“welfare capitalists” before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations

(1913-15) to see how they perceived their loyal workers as children who

preferred not to think or to act on their own. Or that he visit Binghamton,

New York, the home of one of the most notable practitioners of welfare

capitalism, the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company (mistakenly called

Endicott-Peabody in the text, p. 197, and index) and view the statue of George

F. Johnson erected in George F. Johnson Recreation Park which features the

patron patronizing two adorable children, or the two arches erected by local

shoe workers to honor their patron. Finally, what of politics? Was the French

state and its republican majority more dependent on working-class votes and

more solicitous of working-class interests than its U.S. counterparts? Again I

find Friedman’s evidence problematic. One of French labor’s friends in power,

Georges Clemenceau, as described by Friedman, in 1906 sent troops to the Nord

and the Pas de Calais to break a coal miner’s strike and

repress riotous behavior by the strikers. Yet in Friedman’s words, Clemenceau

“restrained labor militancy…to preserve republican order, to protect the

Republic. But he never acted merely to bolster capitalist authority, never

acceded to the demands of

employers and the right that he crush organized labor or reject the right of

workers to form unions and to strike. Instead he continued to support labor

organization and to promote collective bargaining as the basis for social peace

and a new republican order (p. 202).” How did this differ from Theodore

Roosevelt’s logic four years earlier during the strike of anthracite coal

miners in northeastern Pennsylvania, when he threatened to send troops not to

repress labor but to seize the mines? Or from the lab or policies of Woodrow

Wilson on the eve of World War I or Herbert Hoover in the 1920s? Workers voted

in the U.S. as well as in France; their leaders also sought to practice

coalition politics; and some, if not all,

office-holders sought labor’s votes.

Friedman also might have done well to temper his criticism of Karl Marx and

“orthodox Marxism.” After all, Marx’s voluminous writings are like scripture,

subject to multiple interpretations and open to the principle that “seek and ye

shall find.” Moreover,

in his haste to make a case for historical contingency and human agency,

Friedman might have done well to recall Marx’s sage words from the

Eighteenth Brumaire, that man indeed makes his own history, but only

“under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain

of the living.” In his neglect of that astute advice, Friedman misconstrues

Marx’s faith in human agency as well as his “third thesis on Feuerbach.” In

that thesis Marx did not write declaratively, as Friedman cites him (p. 297)

“that it is men who change circumstances and that it is essential to educate

the educator himself.” Rather, Marx asked in response to those who believed

that education could alter society, “Who educates the educator?”

Lest I appear too critical of Friedman’s effort to make us think more

critically about the past and also to remind us about paths not taken as a

result of human volition, let me close by suggesting that this is a book well

worth reading and pondering. Whether its author is right or wrong in many of

his claims, he does make readers consider carefully significant historical and

contemporary issues. And he is certainly right that labor cannot advance its

material and moral interests without non-working-class allies in state and

society, a truth perhaps more to the point today than ever in the past.

Melvyn Dubofsky is Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology at

Binghamton University, SUNY. This spring the University of Illinois Press will

publish a collection of his essays titled Hard Work: The Making of Labor

History. It will also publish a new abridged paperback version of his

history, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of

the World.