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Book Review: Alex Gourevitch: From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century

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I don’t read much, or really any, political theory at this point in my life. It’s an important field but I have little background in it and the start-up cost of time and energy to read difficult texts is high. But political theorists can often add a great deal of context to the ideological framework of political movements. And so I was quite interested in reading Alex Gourevitch’s From Slavery to Cooperative Commonwealth, which is an exploration of how the Knights of Labor and other workers’ movements of the 19th century reframed ideas of republicanism in order to demand Independence from exploitative captialism.

Because of my lack of a background in political theory, I am writing this review in the context of how the book is useful for the U.S. historian. Framing his story with the biracial organizing of the Knights of Labor in Louisiana, which led to the Thibodaux Massacre, Gourevitch argues that the Knights created a rhetoric of freedom that could appeal to African-Americans because it was about not having masters of any kind. This brought together African-Americans’ lived experiences and memories of slavery with working people of all races who had new demands for emancipation from their employers. Ideally, the Knights hoped workers could create cooperative institutions that would allow them to be truly independent and avoid the tyranny of capital altogether.

This master-slave language was a significant transition in the history of republican thought. The two key points for Gourevitch is a) republicanism had largely been an elite language in the past and b) slavery was a real live thing in the United States and when it was gone, workers could then use that language to serve their own purposes. On the first, 19th century workers appropriated this elite language around independence and virtue to describe the world of labor relations. Slavery and elite republicanism had been tied together from the Greeks and Romans to the Founding Fathers in Virginia. Life in the United States challenged this in a number of ways, creating not only working class definitions of it, but most prominently, abolitionists who tried to disconnect the need for chattel slavery from American republican thought. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison completely rejected workers’ claims to be slaves, often in vociferous terms, because workers were not unfree like slaves and therefore the comparison were not apt. Economic dependence was not unfreedom.

But the defeat of slavery then solved the abolitionist objection to worker use of this language, or at least made that appropriation less of a threat to their political project. With one form of slavery undone, workers sought to use republicanism to undo what was becoming a new and increasingly powerful form of unfreedom: the employer-employee relationship of the Gilded Age. The issue of independence was at the core of labor’s critique of this new system. The changes in American work developing before the Civil War began to create widespread changes to workers’ independence and freedom. If they labored for 12 hours but only made enough money to buy goods that took 4 hours to produce, that was 8 hours a day being stolen from them by their employer. And even if contracts were enforced fairly, the conditions of control had become so bad after the Civil War that workers were still oppressed. They didn’t make enough money to withhold their labor from employers, so the system was already unequal. Then the contract ceded total control of the workplace to the employer. Ultimately, only cooperative workers organizations could allow workers to escape this system of capitalism and regain their independence. A cooperative republic would challenge the dominant system of production and give workers control over their lives again.

This book gets at another key issue in American history, which is how a Republican Party that ended slavery and sought rights for free blacks during Reconstruction could then turn around and not only crush workers movements, but talk about unions in apocalyptic terms. But these two things were not contradictory in the mindset of Republicans. Garrison himself could celebrate black freedom in terms of “independent laborers by voluntary contract.” But what did “voluntary” mean? For mainstream Republicans, it was the conditions an employee agreed to when he (most likely) agreed to take a job. This construction of freedom did not have any room for other forms of compulsion like the need to eat or put a roof over your head. Freedom did not have to extend any farther than compulsory labor at the point of a lash. The Supreme Court itself roundly rejected the idea of alternative forms of tyranny in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 when white New Orleans butchers said a new law forcing them to work at a single private institution violated the 14th Amendment by violating their economic independence and placing them in servitude. From there through Lochner, Gourevitch takes readers through how the courts routinely found that freedom of contract was true freedom, ignoring the increasingly unequal realities of Gilded Age society that led to the rise of the Knights in the 1870s and 1880s as a response.

Gourevitch also helps us understand the Knights’ unfortunate position toward immigrants, especially the Chinese and eastern Europeans. Labor republicans held themselves and other workers to very high standards because they believed the cooperative republic would have to rest on the morality of its members. These standards could easily not be fulfilled. They would them blame workers for their own failings. Given the racial milieu of the late 19th century, blaming workers for their own problems could easily morph into racial characterization. However, Gourevitch doesn’t really get into how the Knights managed to include African-Americans into this system when the Chinese and eastern Europeans could not be. That’s a weakness of the book, but you can read Joseph Gerteis’ Class and the Color Line for an understanding of that. Unfortunately, that book is not cited in Gourevitch’s bibliography, even though it was published in 2007. Interestingly, the two books use the same image for their cover.

Gourevitch does not shy away from the modern implications of his study in the New Gilded Age, noting that “who is subject to whose will” is a key question today. (177) Like in the 19th century, employers are using unnecessary power against workers to hurt their lives, such as cracking down on bathroom breaks to use Gourevitch’s example. He suggests the positives of using labor republicanism rhetoric and moving toward cooperative enterprises today. Personally, I’m really skeptical that cooperative enterprises can succeed on any large scale. But as I have argued before, one of the similarities between the two Gilded Ages is that in both cases, working people were smacked in the face by a radically transforming capitalism that left them figuring out just what the heck happened to their lives searching for any alternative to that system. So any alternative should be on the table today.

Ultimately, Gourevitch wrote a book that goes a long way to explaining some of the trickier and most often misunderstood intellectual trends in American history.

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