Labor History Seminar: Toby Higbie, University of California, Los Angeles

Center for American History and Culture Programs
Labor History Seminar
Friday, April 13, 2012

3:00 pm to 5:00 pm

Room 101

The School of Hard Knocks: Learning, Living and the Politics of Working Class Knowledge
Tobias Higbie, University Of California, Los Angeles

“In the summer of 1922, the radical journal The Labor Herald published a series of autobiographies under the title, “How I Became a Rebel. A Symposium.” In his editor’s introduction, the trade union radical and future Communist Party leader William Z. Foster noted, “A fundamental part of the general revolutionary program is to make rebels; to develop men and women who have definitely broken with capitalism and who are looking forward to the establishment of a Workers’ Society.” In the interest of making future rebels, the Symposium would look to the lives of eight prominent radicals explain “just how, why, and under what circumstances, they became convinced that capitalism had to be done away with.” As radical conversion stories, the autobiographies shared a number of elements: difficulties overcome, awareness of the hypocrisy of the American ethic of upward mobility, enlightenment gained and the battle joined. They also highlighted a curious tension surrounding the origins of radicalism and working class consciousness. Did rebellion spring more from experiences of deprivation and injustice or from reading, reflection and listening to speeches? The Pennsylvania Socialist James Maurer offered one extreme: “It was not from what I read, because I was active in radical circles long before I could read. It came from what I lived.” The California machinist William Knudsen offered the opposite extreme: “I investigated. I read all the literature I could get. Reading and thinking produced the result–a Red.” “

Commentators: James Barrett, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Scholl Center Seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically.  For a copy of the paper, e-mail the Scholl Center at scholl@newberry.org.  Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.