Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation

By Edward N. Saveth | Go to book overview

Karl Marx and Samuel Gompers

by JOHN R. COMMONS

[From Political Science Quarterly, XLI ( June 1926), 281-286. Reprinted by permission.]

It was not until 1918that a comprehensive history of the American labor movement began to appear. In that year, Professor John R.Commons of the University of Wisconsinand his associates ( David J. Saposs, E. B. Mittleman, H. E. Hoagland, and Selig Perlman, together with Helen L. Sumnerand John B. Andrews) published the first two volumes of the History of Labour in the United Statesfrom colonial beginnings to 1896. A third volume by Don D. Lescohierand Elizabeth Brandeis, and a fourth by Selig Perlman and Philip Taft, bringing the story of the American labor movement to the advent of the New Deal, were published in 1935.

Even as Turnerstressed the uniqueness of American political institutions as a consequence of the impact of the frontier, so Commons, who was Turner's colleague at the University of Wisconsin, wrote of the American labor movement as distinct from its European counterpart -- the result of the impact of uniquely American conditions. Among the factors shaping the distinctive character of the American labor movement, Commons included the existence of the frontier and free land, political democracy, the vast market available for capitalist exploitation, and the resultant high social and economic mobility that prevented the growth of class- consciousness among American workers. While European labor, continued Commons, was class-conscious, American labor was jobconscious, and job-consciousness rather than class-consciousness was the key to a proper undertanding of American labor history.1

While this thesis has been amplified by Common's disciples,2

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