Our readings over the past several weeks in Radical Movements have covered the history of various labor movements and considered many different places and actors. The time period covered has been from the May Day demonstrations of the 1880s, to the integrated, powerful Local 8 in Philadelphia in the 1920s. Despite the seeming difference between all of these disparate experiences of labor movements, they do have some things in common. They were largely made up of immigrants reacting to the experience of working in industry in the United States, and they exported ideas born in their adopted country back to the places they came from. The power of oral, face-to-face experience brought the often-illiterate workers together as a working-class community and informed the ideas they exported back using literacy and the technology of print.
Walter Ong’s 1985 essay, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” outlines his ideas about the affordances of written communication and those of oral communication (Walter Ong, 23-50). While these workers were all from literate societies, and indeed moved into another literate society, they were not all literate. They relied on those who could read and write to bring them news of distant happenings, while using oral communication to form their ideas, and their identities, as working people with common cause (Michels, Loc 1325).
There is no better example of this process than the Yiddish working class experience described by Tony Michels in A Fire in Their Hearts. This was a community that had to negotiate even the common language they would use in oral communication in order to survive as a community (Michels, Loc 1325). Initially, some who spoke German allied with the extant German labor community and passed these ideas onto the Yiddish workers using a hybrid Yiddish language that most could understand, even if they did not at first whole-heartedly embrace its use (Michels, Loc 104, Loc 2295) When they wanted to write, in order to formally analyze and communicate over time and distance, to bring in Ong’s ideas regarding writing, they disagreed over the structure of the new Yiddish writing, in part because less formal writing felt less intellectual (Michels, Loc 2292 and Ong 39). This less intellectual writing would make the kind of “intensive linear analysis,” that Ong argues is tied to writing, seem less analytic, and more informal in its arguments (Ong, 29).
The making of a Yiddish language in the United States from whole cloth points up Ong’s idea that the creation of a written language from disparate spoken dialects, as in the case of the Yiddish immigrants, increases the number of words available for use, even orally, exponentially. The increase in words is necessary to convey context outside of the environment from which ideas spring. In order to communicate with the larger, global community about Yiddish identity, new words had to be invented (Ong, 42). This in turn inalterably shaped the community, as evinced in the struggle for control of the written Yiddish language (Michels, Loc 1342).
Cole’s Wobblies on the Waterfront seems like a different situation, but I contend that black workers from the Great Migration and others from the West Indies, were as unfamiliar with industrial work in northern cities as immigrants from other nations. And they, too, used spaces and face-to-face meetings and demonstrations to form their unique, interracial Local. When they wanted to communicate with the IWW, they did so in writing. When the IWW communicated to them in writing, their lived experience overcame their intellectual alliance with the larger union, and they rejected what they did not like (Cole, Loc 2746).
While industrial, and by extension government, interests wanted to denounce the laborers as terrorists, they did so by appealing to the larger American populace though newspapers. But labor had the power of the demonstration, which allowed their movements to be seen by the outside world even though most were not literate. The problem with this was reach. As Ong argues, literacy has the advantage of distance over orality. But orality has the advantage of immediate feedback. If one does not like what the speaker is saying, they can confront them on the spot (Ong, 42, 39). Of course industry liked having a one-sided narrative that told their side of the story blasting like a fire hose to non-immigrant, middle-class Americans.
Green’s Death in the Haymarket shows how the demonstration, and competing narratives of what happens at them, can be manipulated by the press to serve capitalists needs. The bombing was used to paint labor groups as terrorists, even though the facts of the events are contentious and fuzzy. The people who were there, however, disagreed strongly with the official explanation, and Lucy Parsons spoke of the executed men’s innocence for decades afterwards in face-to-face meetings that used orality’s immediacy to convince her audience. Telling, too, is the impulse to claim the space of the Haymarket for the police in the form of a police memorial. In the end labor reclaimed the space as hallowed ground for their movement – a place where a community came together and asserted its right to gather, as well as a place that marked the spot where their members were martyred (Green, 9, 236, Loc 5232, Loc 5367, Loc 5429).
The ability to demonstrate, or to even gather in saloons or meeting halls, was unique to the United States. Bismarck made labor gatherings illegal, as did Russia (Goyens, 56-57 and Michels, Loc 449). Once immigrants from these regions came to work, they found welcoming spaces where those who had gone before could inform them of how to survive as workers (Michels Loc 548). Black workers subject to strict Jim Crow loitering laws had a similar experience once they came north. These spaces gave a community based on orality and face-to-face experience a chance to blossom.
Ong states in his essay that writing is essential because, “to live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance (Ong, 32).” Print materials allowed immigrant workers this opportunity. Ideologies could be passed back and forth between countries of origin and local situations. And these materials could be accessed by illiterate members of labor groups by being read aloud in the very spaces that allowed the community based on orality to come into being. In these spaces the community could discuss the ideas presented, even if they could not speak back to the writer directly. German workers in the United States could keep the nascent labor movement in Germany vital, even though it was actively politically repressed, via newspapers produced in the U.S. (Goyens, 67)
Literacy is a vital component of modernity, and as an adjunct, industrial capitalism. Ong points out that writing was first used “in urban environments for use in recording ownership and related uses (Ong, 35).” It is not surprising that government and industry turned to writing in defending their right to property and labor. That labor groups coopted the technology of writing and used it for subversive purposes did two things. First, as stated above, it kept ties to distant workers intact. Second, using writing gave the workers access to the rhetorical device that comes with analytic argument. In this way they leveled the playing field with industrialists to some degree. That they could use capitalism’s own tool against itself is remarkable.
Of course philosophy is strongly tied to writing and analytic argument, too, and Marx and Lassalle are no exception (Ong, 43). It stands to reason that the intellectuals in the labor movements who admired these thinkers would like to participate in a similar, analytic fashion. That their participation allowed movements to change in the face of contemporary and local circumstances, and have those changes argued and examined across the globe is a bonus to the global movements.
Ong points out that “writing distances the source of the communication (the writer) from the recipient (the reader), both in time and space (Ong, 39).” While this is effective for communicating over distances, it lacks the immediacy of oral communication. Would Emma Goldman’s in person confrontation of Johann Most, whip in her hand, been as effective if they had had a written back in forth in letters or newspaper articles (Goyens, 131)? Likely not. This kind of in person debate is still valued in our culture today. We like to watch political debates, even though we know ahead of time what the candidates’ positions are, because we want to see how they handle in person confrontations. We like to see their ability to form community through oral persuasion. Conversely, writing gives the writer the power of voice over time and distance. It is no wonder that Johann Most valued his control over the German laborers main newspaper (Goyens, 202).
Another affordance that writing gave the labor movements is the ability to set the parameters of their organizations through administration. Ong states that in wholly oral cultures, “leaders interact non-abstractly with the rest of society in tight-knit, often rhetorically controlled configurations (Ong, 40).” And this certainly did happen in the labor movements; Goldman was making a rhetorical move when she confronted Most (Goyens, 131). But written administration, while contentious in these movements, did allow the group to understand the purpose and goals of the groups very clearly.
Labor groups in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century made use of both orality and literacy to form the bonds that turned them into international communities. Literacy was a new tool for many of them, but the structures of high capitalism, and its multinational nature, required its use. This turned out to be of great benefit to the workers as they were able to analyze and exchange ideas over time and distance. However, literacy was also a tool used against labor as capitalist power used the press to discredit the labor movements as terrorists, and ultimately un-American. Labor was so thoroughly discredited that the May Day holiday, which originated in the United States, soon perceived to be a foreign import, if it was remembered at all. But it is writing that allows the historian to fix the erasure, to bring the laborers ideas back to the present, and to reclaim the power they once had for others to use in their present lives.
Cole, Peter. Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Goyens, Tom. Beer and Revolution: The German Anarchist Movement in New York City, 1880-1914. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.
Green, James. Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America. Anchor, 2007.
Haverty-Stacke, Donna. America’s Forgotten Holiday, n.d.
Michels, Tony. A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Walter Ong. “Writing Is a Technology That Restructures Thought.” In The Written Word: Literacy in Transition, 23–50. Oxford: The Alden Press Ltd., 1986. http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/centers/boisi/pdf/f08/ong_article.pdf.