The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century

By Kim Voss | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 7 The Decline of Solidarity

The weight given to the failure of the Knights of Labor in histories of the American labor movement is one thing that sets the "old" labor history apart from the "new." When earlier generations of historians and labor economists wrote of the Knights, they emphasized the failure of the Order, citing it as prima facie evidence that American workers lacked class consciousness.1. Practitioners of the "new" labor history, in contrast, tend to focus less attention on the Knights' failure, highlighting instead the Order's ideology, strike actions, and initial success at organizing broad sectors of the working class. For them, these provide clear proof that American workers were capable of acting collectively in ways that rival their supposedly more class- conscious European colleagues.2.

Both generations of labor historians make assumptions about the relationship between consciousness and organizations that, from a sociologist's viewpoint, are problematic. The "old" labor historians assume that it is possible to read backward from the lack of a successful working-class movement to a lack of interest in such movements. The "new" labor historians make the inverse mistake, implying that uncovering oppositional consciousness is as good as finding radical institutions.

____________________
1.
Perlman, "Upheaval and Reorganization"; Grob, Workers and Utopia.
2.
Wilentz, "Against Exceptionalism."

-185-

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