I began this book because my reading of the new labor history of the 1970s and early 1980s suggested that the traditional explanations offered for America's weak and conservative labor movement had been discredited. No longer was it tenable to argue that workers in the United States have historically been incapable of or felt no need for class-based collective action. Instead, labor historians published study after study demonstrating instances of class-conscious activity in nineteenth-century America that rivaled that of working- class movements in Europe.
At the same time, it was clear to me that the new labor history was not itself producing a compelling alternative account of the distinctive evolution of the American labor movement. Many scholars felt they had accomplished their task when they uncovered new examples of American workers behaving in class-conscious ways while others issued appeals that we simply banish the question of exceptionalism altogether. I found both of these approaches unsatisfying: the intellectual return on each community study seemed to grow progressively smaller over time, and I thought it premature to dismiss the question of exceptionalism before we had dealt convincingly with the puzzle of how radical attitudes and actions on the part of American workers were eventually transformed into a weak and conservative labor movement.
Thus, I set out to construct a new explanation of the development