Recent theoretical and historical studies of working class formation have raised important doubts about standard interpretations of the American working class. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the renewed debate over “American exceptionalism”, that unexpected combination of political conservatism and weak working class institutions in the nation that underwent the modern world’s first democratic revolution. Once it was popular to argue that American workers felt no need for collective action, either because of a classlessness that was firmly rooted in the psyche of the first new nation, or an innate job consciousness that was able to attain full flowering only in the United States, that most bourgeois of countries. But two decades of social history have documented such a rich diversity of militant working class activity that such explanations are now rarely invoked.
In place of the old orthodoxy, a new generation of labor historians have begun to fashion a “Thompsonian history of the American working class”, one that attempts to demonstrate “a history of class consciousness in the United States comparable to that of working-class movements in Britain and on the Continent.” For these labor historians the rhetoric of working-class republicanism lies at the heart of the numerous instances, uncovered in recent social history, of American workers expressing opinions or acting collectively in ways that rival their supposedly more class-conscious European colleagues. Working in this framework, they have reinterpreted everything from seemingly narrow wage demands to debates over public parks and drinking practices as actually a class-conscious attempt by workers to recapture control over their labor and their republic.
In a curious way this work runs the risk of reproducing, albeit inversely, the fallacious reasoning of the earlier work on American exceptionalism. The problem with the early arguments about classlessness or job consciousness is the assumption that we can read backwards from a lack of successful working class collective action to a lack of interest in such action on the part of American workers. Nowhere does this literature show a recognition of the reality that disposition is not action, that groups who share motivational constructs or dispositions to behave in certain ways will not automatically find ways to transform these dispositions into behavior. The mistake, in other words, is the use of radical institutions (or the lack thereof) as an index of class consciousness. The new labor historians, in contrast, turn this mode of reasoning on its head. They seem to be arguing that uncovering an oppositional consciousness is as good as having found the radical institutions, or, to put it another way, that then we have uncovered a class conscious American working class that rivals that of continental Europe. To the extent that such arguments represent a rejection of teleological assumptions about all capitalist societies pass through the same historical stages, they are a welcome departure from much of the work on the American working class. But to the extent that they invite us to put aside our investigations once we have uncovered oppositional consciousness or behavior, it distracts us from asking about the mechanisms by which a sometimes radical disposition was transformed into meek or non-existent action.
Such questions can best be answered, I think, by conceptualizing class formation as a social movement. Those who investigate social movements pay careful attention to the several steps that intervene between disposition and action, and adopting their analytical insights provides a way of developing an improved, historically sensitive explanation for the shape of the American working class. In minimalist outline, we need to recognize that it is through organization and mobilization that people constitute themselves as a class. This means that the factors that lead people to see the world in class terms may not be the same as those that sustain organizations created to act on such a vision; and we need to investigate the conditions which encourage both the world view and organizational longevity in critical moments of labor movement development. Secondly, we need to attend to the interaction between ideology and organizational development. One thing that a social movement organization does, as Scott McNall points out, is to explain past failures, current defeats and possible futures; the explanations offered affect members’ tactics as well as the growth of the organization. Moreover, the rapidity of organizational growth feeds back on this process, affecting both solidarity and commitment. Finally, just as protesters’ actions do not determine the outcome of a social movement, workers are not the only participants in the process of class formation: employers and the state play an equally important role in shaping the labor movement.
This paper uses a social movement approach to analyze the rise and demise of the Knights of Labor, America’s first mass-based working class organization. This case is of particular interest because it presents analytical problems for both older proponents of American exceptional ism and the newer labor historians who emphasize the class-consciousness of American workers. For those who view American workers as classless or job conscious, the Knights’ success in organizing broad sectors of the labor force, and the explicitly class-type arguments stressed in the Order’s constitutional preamble, are anomalies that must either be ignored or explained away. This is commonly done by exaggerating the shallowness of the Knights’ appeal or by emphasizing their evanescence.3 For the newer labor historians, the Knights’ success provides obvious evidence for their view of American workers as class-conscious, but here the analytical difficulty is the Knights collapse. If the American worker was sympathetic to class appeals, why did the Knights fail?
Taking seriously the distinction between disposition and action, this paper provides an explanation of the Knights collapse which recognizes both the class-consciousness of its appeal and the inability of its members to sustain local organizations initiated as an expression of that class-consciousness. It proceeds as follows: The next section provides some background on the Knights. It begins by discussing the comparative context and then provides a short account of the Knights’ growth and ideology. The third section takes up the issue of the Knights decline, briefly discussing the differing explanations for the Order’s collapse. The fourth and fifth sections report on two statistical studies of the Knights collapse in New Jersey, one which focuses on the demise of skilled locals and the other which concentrates on the failure of lessskilled locals. Both studies highlight the destructive impact of employers’ associations, a issue that is pursued in the sixth section where evidence on the relative strength of American, French and English employers associations is considered. Concluding that American employers’ associations were stronger, but that this alone is an unsatisfying explanation for the Knights failure, the seventh section examines the relationship between workers’ organization, Knights’ ideology, and employers’ actions in one New Jersey city, Newark. The final section draws out the implications of the statistical and case study.