War and jingoism couldn't prevent the working-class of the early 20th century from lashing out against their oppressors at home. At this time, the working classes had an important ally: the Muckrakers, journalists who brought the public’s attention to working-class issues. In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a shocking novel about the harsh conditions in Chicago meatpacking plants. Ida Tarbell attacked the corruption of the Standard Oil Company, while Lincoln Steffens criticized the corruption of municipal planning. Partly as a result of these Muckrakers’ efforts, no amount of war could hide the truth: the American way of life wasn’t working.
Although he has shown that the media often supports the Establishment’s actions wholeheartedly, Zinn celebrates the achievements of journalists who challenged the Establishment’s authority and drew the public’s attention to Establishment corruption.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the early 20th century saw the continued dominance of capitalist leaders like J. P. Morgan. But even Morgan wasn’t immune from financial recessions. Partly in reaction to financial instability, the early 20th century saw the rise of management science, a field pioneered by Frederick W. Taylor. Taylor sought to simplify workers’ duties, dividing up the different “steps” in labor with a surgical accuracy. Industrialists embraced Taylor’s techniques because they helped to deskill the labor force and make employees more expendable. Factory conditions didn’t improve, but workers’ jobs became more repetitive in the interest of “maximizing efficiency.”
Taylor’s theories of management science were instrumental in establishing the assembly-line system in American factories, guaranteeing that workers’ jobs were as simple and easy-to-learn as possible. Deskilling the labor force was useful for wealthy factory owners, because it meant that the owners had to pay their employees lower wages, and that the labor force had less bargaining power in union disputes (in the event of a strike, factory owners often could hire new, deskilled laborers to replace the strikers).
There were thousands of horrific factory accidents in the early 20th century—indeed, it’s estimated that in 1914 alone, almost a million workers were injured in factories. In response, workers took to the streets to demonstrate and union membership grew. Most unions continued to exclude black members, and most excluded immigrants and women. However, other unions, such as the I.W.W., or International Workers of the World, aimed for total inclusion. In 1905, the I.W.W., held a huge meeting, headed by the legendary union leader Big Bill Haywood. Other famous attendees included Eugene Debs, who’d been released from prison after organizing the Railroad Strike. At the meeting, the I.W.W. expressed the need for equality, inclusion, and “direct action” against capitalism. Zinn argues that elites, recognizing that the I.W.W. was dangerous to their interests, attacked the I.W.W. with “all the weapons the system could put together.” I.W.W. members were harassed and local lawmakers passed ordinances preventing the I.W.W. from exercising its right to free assembly.
In reaction to the worsening conditions in American factories, and the increased disposability of the American worker, unions compensated by staging strikes and protests against capitalist greed. The I.W.W. was never a very powerful union—its membership never approached that of the Knights of Labor or the AFL. However, Zinn focuses on the history of the I.W.W. because it supports his argument that the American labor movement of the 19th century was inclusive, idealistic, and aimed for nothing less than the defeat of the capitalist elite. By the same token, Zinn focuses on the Establishment’s attempts to silence the I.W.W., even though capitalists probably devoted more energy to silencing larger, less idealistic unions.
In 1912, the I.W.W. organized one of the most ethnically diverse strikes in history in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Wool and textile workers, many of them immigrants and women, went on strike, and the I.W.W. used its membership system to send soup and money to support the strikers. In response, the Lawrenceville mayor sent in the militia, and militia members killed or wounded many strikers. However, the surviving strikers continued to demonstrate, and, in the end, the American Woolen Company (AWC) decided to offer modest raises to its employees—around ten percent.
The Lawrence Strike of 1912 is notable because it incorporated an impressively diverse group of strikers, including women and immigrants from many different countries. Even if the strike was only ever a modest success in practical terms (it only encouraged the AWC to dole out a minimal pay raise to its employees) it proved to other labor unions that a diverse coalition of unskilled workers could come together for a common cause.
In the early 20th century, the number of strikes was growing at a startling rate. An increasing number of moderate and middle-class people were embracing the idea that capitalists exerted too much power over the country. Around this time, Eugene Debs emerged as a national leader once again. Debs had become a Socialist during his time in prison; in the early 20th century, he became the president of the American Socialist party. Debs was an eloquent, charismatic speaker, and he traveled across the country, building awareness of Socialism. Women and immigrants played active roles in Socialism—indeed, one of the key Socialist organizers of the era was Helen Keller.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, Americans embraced non-capitalist economic theories and ideologies. Many people, including moderate, middle-class people, recognized the dangers of capitalism (thanks, in part, to the achievements of the Muckrakers) and wanted radical change. Zinn also uses this passage to pivot from a discussion of Socialism and economic unrest to a discussion of feminism.
The feminist movement of the early 20th century faced a dilemma. Many of the key feminist leaders of the period were committed socialists; however, it wasn’t clear if fighting for socialist ideals was an adequate solution to problems of sexism. Feminist leaders debated over whether they should focus on the socialist agenda first or prioritize gender equality. Some argued that, if socialism prevailed in America, gender equality would follow naturally. But many others believed that women’s suffrage had to come before socialism. Still others prioritized feminist ideals, but argued that earning the right to vote shouldn’t be the priority for feminists.
Early 20th century feminists faced a familiar problem: should they support a variety of populist causes, or should they support their own cause, gender equality? Zinn conveys some of the ideological debate within the feminist movement, between those who thought that Socialism could solve problems of sexism, and those who believed that Socialism—a program of social equality—could only take root in America if there was gender reform first.
The early 20th century is often known as the “Progressive era.” And yet, throughout the era, life for African Americans remained virtually unchanged. Lynchings continued to be common occurrences in the South, in no small part because the government “did nothing” about them. Some black Americans joined the Socialist party, but the Socialist party “did not go out of its way to act on the race question.” As a result, black activists formed their own political action groups. One of the key black organizers of the era was the intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois assembled leaders in Buffalo to discuss the role of African Americans in the country: the result was the “Niagara Movement,” a black activist movement that supported immediate racial equality.
The absence of racial reform during the Progressive era might illustrate the racial bias of the American labor movement—a topic that some historians have accused Zinn of not addressing in sufficient detail. Black leaders of the era, including Du Bois, worked together to assemble their own coalitions of activists. Over the next twenty years, Du Bois’s Niagara Movement formed the basis for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, an organization that would be at the forefront of the early Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.
There were, in short, many different political activist groups during the so-called Progressive era, each with its own set of ideals. The common thread between these groups was the belief that “they could not count on the national government.” During the Progressive era, the government passed some laws improving worker conditions and monopolism; however, Zinn argues that these laws were “reluctant measures, aimed at quieting the popular uprisings.” While it is true that ordinary people benefited from some reforms of the era (such as Roosevelt’s Meat Inspection Act, which ensured the sanitation of food), “fundamental conditions did not change” for the majority of the working class.
In this passage, Zinn makes an important distinction between reform and radical change. “Progressive” leaders acquired a reputation for being high-minded and idealistic in their politics; however, as Zinn sees it, most of these leaders were interested in passing superficial reforms that continued to leave the American worker underfed, underpaid, and ignored.
To this day, Theodore Roosevelt has a reputation as a progressive leader who fought for the “people’s interests.” In reality, he was a firm friend of the powerful elite, and he appointed advisers almost exclusively from the ranks of “representatives of industrial and finance capital.” He supported some limited reforms, but often “because he feared something worse,” and in many cases he did not prosecute businessmen who had colluded illegally to form monopolies.
In many ways, Theodore Roosevelt is exemplary of American history books’ bias toward the Progressive federal government. Roosevelt is too-often treated as a hero of the Progressive movement, when, according to Zinn, he acted out of fear of the masses, not moral commitment to their happiness. (However, Zinn doesn’t cite the hundreds of private letters and other writings in which Roosevelt voiced his sincere commitment to the American working class.)
The Progressive era represents a milestone in the way we understand the term “liberalism.” Arthur Schlesinger, the famous historian, defined liberalism as the movement to “restrain the power of the business community.” But in practice, Zinn argues, liberalism is the process whereby protesters see their calls for radical change diluted into smaller, more superficial reforms, enacted “with the tacit approval of the large corporate interests.”
“Liberal” has become such a common term that it’s difficult to arrive on a single definition for it. As many people see it, a liberal is someone who supports equality, human rights, and cooperation between the different segments of society. However, as Zinn sees it, a liberal is someone who claims to support these things, but doesn’t support them in practice.
One of the key organs of liberalism in the Progressive era was the National Civic Federation (NCF), an organization founded by a conservative journalist named Ralph Easley, with the stated goal of improving relations between capital and labor. In practice, the NCF was instrumental in placating the labor movement with minor reforms to the workday, compensation, and factory conditions. The NCF was characteristic of the Progressive era, Zinn argues, insofar as it presented itself as an agency of change, when, in fact, its purpose was to prevent radical change in America and, in particular, “fend off socialism.” Some Progressive leaders were sincere in their desire for change; others, Zinn argues, were “disguised conservatives” like Theodore Roosevelt.
One of the key words in this section is “placate.” Zinn isn’t saying that Progressive reform was wholly bad or good; rather, his point is that the minimal, more superficial reforms instituted by the federal government during the Progressive era, regardless of their motivation, had the effect of staving off real, profound social change. In essence, Progressivism was just conservatism by another name. Zinn has been roundly criticized for being too hard on Progressivism and paying mere lip-service to the role of sincere, committed Progressive politicians of the era.
Faced with Progressive reform, Socialist leaders faced a dilemma: they could support Progressive reform, or they could denounce it for not going far enough. Many Socialist leaders recognized the need to keep making “impossible demands” rather than accept mediocre reforms. From 1913 to 1914, coal workers in Ludlow, Colorado participated in a massive strike. The government sent in the National Guard to “maintain order,” and the National Guard set fire to strikers’ tents, ultimately killing eleven children. President Woodrow Wilson ignored pressure from workers’ unions to prosecute the troops responsible; instead, he sent more troops to break up the strike.
Zinn takes it as a sign of the insufficiency of government action during the Progressive era that unions and Socialist groups continued to strike and protest against the state of society. It’s notable that both Republican and Democratic presidents resorted to physical force in order to break up strikes: it’s a sign of the bipartisan consensus on the danger of the labor movement to the status quo.
Around the same time that Wilson’s troops were breaking up the strike in Colorado, American troops were attacking soldiers in Mexico, supposedly because the Mexican military had arrested American sailors and refused to apologize. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that news of the attack in Mexico coincided with news of the Ludlow strike. Or perhaps, Zinn writes, “it was an instinctual response of the system for its own survival, to create a unity of fighting purpose among a people torn by internal conflict.” Four months later, World War One began in Europe.
This passage is arguably exemplary of the limitations of Zinn’s approach to history. Zinn never comes right out and says that the government deliberately attacked a foreign power to distract attention from labor unrest, but he strongly implies that it did. In short, instead of weighing the facts clearly and directly, Zinn uses implication and the reader’s own paranoia to paint a picture of the government as a malicious, manipulative entity.