The working class needs its next Kurt Vonnegut

The "Slaughterhouse Five" author was a tireless champion of union workers -- and believed capitalism was inhuman

Topics: Jacobin, Books, Labor, us history, Kurt Vonnegut, Socialism, ,

The working class needs its next Kurt Vonnegut (Credit: AP/Serge J. F. Levy)
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinThere can be no doubt that Labor Day is a lapsed holiday in America. It was a once proud tradition celebrating, as the US Department of Labor website puts it, “the social and economic achievements of American workers,” and a “national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” From its roots in the 19th century, it has, by the 21st century, become an opportunity for barbecues, a much-needed three-day weekend, and a convenient capstone to the summer season.

In a move emblematic of the troubled state of Labor Day celebrations, last year Eric Cantor had the inane audacity to tweet the following: “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” Somehow in the warped logic of American conservative ideology “labor” and “workers” translates to “entrepreneurship” and “business owners.” The sacrifices, blood, and courage on the part of workers that toiled, often in poor conditions for little to no pay, does not figure into such a paltry imagination and indifferent political understanding of labor movements in the United States.

The lapsed state of Labor Day is surely indicative of the lapsed state of labor movements themselves, which have fallen by the wayside in American political rhetoric. Once strong labor organizations have been slandered and gutted by opponents and too often fallen prey to corruption, infighting, and political ennui in this directionless cultural landscape. National statistics indicate that private-sector union membership is at historic lows while Republican leaders such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan have become revered by their conservative colleagues (and reviled by their foes) for infringing on basic collective bargaining rights.

Though only once a year, Labor Day once had the capacity to ignite hopes for workers that through tireless efforts to organize and demand fairness, they could one day achieve justice. Now, however, Labor Day is seen through the political lens of the Eric Cantors of the world. The holiday has been whitewashed and nearly scrubbed entirely from the history books. The US Department of Labor’s own website provides a false depiction of the history of Labor Day by avoiding a discussion of socialism, corporate greed, and state violence against striking workers. The actual history of Labor Day is more complicated than the government’s explanation that Labor Day was once a small-scale holiday that naturally grew in importance and gradually attained its federal status. And it is certainly less to do with business owners than with socialists.



The Real History of Labor Day

America’s Labor Day has roots in the Pullman Strike of 1894. The main event that precipitated the strike was the Panic of 1893, a series of bank failures followed by a severe depression. The Panic was largely caused by a railroad bubble: railroad overbuilding coupled with suspect financing, not unlike the real estate bubble that caused the Great Recession. In the wake of the Panic demand for new passenger cars dropped and the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages for factory workers to compensate for decreased revenues. Most workers who built Pullman cars lived in Pullman, a planned worker community set 14 miles south of Chicago. George Pullman, the factory owner himself, had designed the community and turned it into a profitable enterprise unto itself. To do so, however, he ran the town with a feudalistic authority, severely limiting the constitutional freedoms and sources of leisure and recreation for the town’s inhabitants (a national commission sent to investigate after the Pullman Strike called the town “un-American”). So when Pullman cut wages for workers, he characteristically did not lower rents in the town of Pullman. George Pullman sometimes reads more like a Dickensian villain than an actual historical figure.

The workers simply could not suffer the decreased wages and the unaltered rent, so they organized a wildcat strike, since there was no existing union there. Nearly 4,000 factory workers walked off the job on May 11. Looking for an opportunity to make a political statement and strengthen labor rights, a young Eugene V. Debs, who was just beginning his long and illustrious labor-organizing career, led the American Railway Union (ARU) in signing up disaffected Pullman workers and formalizing their strike, despite resistance from powerful other labor organizations such as the Railroad brotherhoods and the American Federation of Labor. The official boycott began the next month on June 26, 1894, and within days roughly 125,000 workers on 29 railroads had showed their solidarity by refusing to handle Pullman cars.

In the ensuing days Pullman and other railroad companies around the country called in strikebreakers to replace the workers. A planned peaceful rally on June 29 in Blue Island, Illinois hosted by Debs in support of the strikers turned violent, with riots breaking out and angry workers destroying railroad property. Such outbursts occurred around the country wherever workers were refusing to handle Pullman cars, leading to roughly $80 million worth of damage to railroad property (an enormous sum for that era). These events made the strikes worthy of national attention, and President Grover Cleveland himself sided with Pullman and the railroad companies against the strikers. President Cleveland ordered a federal injunction that union leaders step down and cease their support for the strike. When Debs and the ARU refused to comply, federal troops were sent in to enforce the injunction. Thousands of US Marshals and Army troops were sent to every city that had striking railway workers and reinstated railway traffic. In the ensuing struggles that took place 30 people were killed and dozens more injured. In the Aftermath of the events, workers known to have participated in the strike were blacklisted while Debs were arrested and went to prison for violating the federal injunction issued by President Cleveland.

Debs, as it would happen, would spend his 6 months in prison reading the works of Karl Marx, adding an intellectual foundation to his labor-organizing and opposition to capitalism. After his time in prison he became an outspoken socialist and frequent third-party candidate for president of the United States. To this day Debs remains one of the most successful third-party candidates in American history.

Though public opinion was largely against the strikers – many unions did not even support it – there were heightened tensions after the scattered violence sown by the boycott. Labor organizations were fragmented and numerous businesses and industrialists feared backlash by inspired workers. In an effort to placate workers, heal ties between labor organizers, and show sympathy from corporate interests, President Cleveland and Congress quickly promoted the idea for a national holiday to celebrate workers across the country. Because of the state of anxiety among all parties involved, it took only 6 days for Congress to unanimously pass legislation to establish this federal holiday, which they called Labor Day. In order to avoid aligning the holiday with communism, legislators chose not to set the holiday on International Workers’ Day on May 1 (also known as May Day). Instead they selected the first Monday of every September for the national observance of Labor Day.

Vonnegut’s History of Labor

The Pullman Strike of 1894 was a historical nexus that produced Labor Day and set Eugene V. Debs on a historical course of socialism. It also deeply influenced Kurt Vonnegut, who was an admirer of Debs and a trenchant support of labor throughout his life. His most extensive exploration of labor comes in his ninth novel, Jailbird, published in 1979. The novel begins with a long preface by Vonnegut which contains various non-fiction musings but also a detailed and fictional account of a labor strike that closely matches the real-life Pullman Strike of 1894. In Jailbird he calls the strike the “Cuyahoga Massacre,” writing that while it is an invention of his imagination, it is “composed of bits taken from tales of many such riots in not such olden times.” That the fictional strike (and ensuing Massacre) takes place in 1894, as did the Pullman strike, is not the only indicator that it is a thinly veiled retelling of history. Vonnegut’s Cuyahoga massacre also takes place in the Midwest, (his is set in Cleveland, rather than Chicago), it is exacerbated by unfair rents in a nearby worker community owned by the factory, it involves a wildcat strike that blossoms to a larger strike around the country, federal troops are sent in to quell the mass of workers, and, the most unfortunate of inevitabilities, protesters are killed during the boycott.

Of all his novels, Jailbird is perhaps Vonnegut’s clearest articulation of sympathies with the labor movement. He writes autobiographically about his early involvement in the socialist movement, believing that “socialism would be a good for the common man” and that “unions were admirable instruments for extorting something like economic justice from employers.” He recounts a time in which as a young man, recently finished with his military service in WWII (famously documented in Slaughterhouse-five), he met with Powers Hapgood, a famous labor-leader and a masterful storyteller in his own right. In fact, Hapgood was late meeting the young Vonnegut because he had been testifying in court in favor of some labor movement or other and the judge kept encouraging Hapgood to go on telling stories of his bravery on the frontlines of the labor movement. The judge was particularly keen on learning why Hapgood, a Harvard graduate and a man of great intelligence, would spend his time working alongside laborers with practically no education or cultural sophistication. Obviously bemused by this question, Hapgood responded, “Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

This deep affection for the working class – a core component of Vonnegut’s humanism – can be found in various guises throughout his oeuvre. His first novel, Player Piano, is explicitly concerned with the fate of workers in an increasingly automated society. This dystopian near-future is a corporatized and quasi-fascistic society that “learned to get along without their men and women.” All human labor was replaced with machine labor to provide “less waste, much better products, cheaper products with automatic control.” Vonnegut ironically refers to this as workers being “liberated” from production to indicate just how un-liberated the workers are. Perhaps the workers are freed from having to labor, but they are never free from a class system that categorizes them as former laborers. Unemployment is not synonymous with liberation, evidenced by the fact that “dope addiction, alcoholism, and suicide went up proportionately” with the increasing automation of society. Published in 1952, it expressed Vonnegut’s very real concerns about the state of labor and technology in the post-WWII world.

Vonnegut’s concern for the working class eventually blossomed into a full-scale political outlook that was inspired by a combination of Midwestern populism and home-grown American socialism – particularly that of Eugene V. Debs. He dedicated his 1990 novel Hocus Pocus to Debs and even named a character after Debs: Eugene Debs Hartke, a class-conscious professor at a small college in western New York. Vonnegut was particularly inspired by Eugene V. Debs’s proclamation in solidarity with the working class: “While there is a lower class I am in it. While there is a criminal element I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.” Vonnegut often included Debs’s meditation in his own speeches, lamenting that such a moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount can be perceived as outdated, wholly discredited horsecrap.”

The Eugene Debs Hartke of Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus gets himself into a world of trouble and is fired from his post as a professor after a conservative TV personality has him secretly recorded expressing supposedly anti-American sentiments such as the fact that Vietnam was a colossal mistake and there is a Ruling Class in America that must be dismantled if we want to avoid self-inflicted political, ecological, and economic annihilation. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater Vonnegut tells his honest opinion of the American class system: it is “savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless.”

Vonnegut’s opposition to capitalism was not born from a sense of ideological allegiance to Marxism, but simply an impatience with free enterprise and a desire to try out a political-economic system not obsessed with profit reaped from the labor of an entire class of subjugated people with a sociopathic indifference. In his inspired 1970 commencement address at Bennington College Vonnegut told graduates to “work within the system” but also direct civilization in such a way so that “human beings might stop treating each other like garbage, might begin to treasure and protect each other instead.” He bemoans capitalism and militaristic thinking, Vonnegut which “treats man as garbage.” The best way to do that, Vonnegut suggested, is to “become less selfish than we are” and systematically “work for a socialist form of government.” Free enterprise, he argued, “is much too hard on the old and the sick and the shy and the poor and the stupid, and on people nobody likes.”

Thirty-five years after that commencement address, in his quasi-memoir A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut was still obstinately imploring readers to reconsider their politics and embrace humanism and socialism. In that book he again lists Eugene V. Debs as a personal hero, along with another socialist, the American poet Carl Sandburg. “I would have been tongue-tied in the presence of such national treasure,” he admits. Socialism, he writes, is just the idea that “there could be more economic justice in this country.” All it calls for “is a better country, that’s all.” Vonnegut was despondent that so few were aware of the great achievements of socialism, whose impact is felt even in America, a supposedly devout capitalist country and bastion of anti-socialist sentiments. “Most Americans don’t know what the socialists did during the first half of the past century with art, with eloquence, with organizing skills, to elevate the self-respect, the dignity and political acumen of American wage earners, of our working class.”

Vonnegut’s celebration of labor flows from an ethical foundation cultivated by Marx. As Vonnegut implores repeatedly in his narratives, his principal objection to capitalism is that it is inhuman. It is a social, ethical, political, and economic system more heavily invested in the accumulation of capital than it is in the human. People are starving, laments Vonnegut, so the wealthy few can collect meaningless “pieces of paper.” The alienation engendered by capitalism is a defining trait of Vonnegut’s narratives, which attempt to communicate Vonnegut’s deep sense of rupture and unease, which he at times calls “schizophrenia.” Capitalism is an inhuman and dehumanizing system. Moreover, Vonnegut’s celebration of the laborer echoes Marx’ own valorization of unalienated work (as distinct from alienating labor). Vonnegut suggests in some speeches that each individual be cared for and given meaningful work at a living wage, proposing that these two demands should be enshrined in the Constitution as Articles XXVIII and XXIX. Vonnegut imagines meaningful work as a creative act that imbues life with meaning. Vonnegut and Marx are both committed to restoring the unity of “species-being,” and this existential sympathy for the laborer impels Vonnegut’s ethics. Vonnegut, like Marx, marries a vicious critique against capitalism with a deep reverence for the oppressed human. Vonnegut’s desire for humans to live meaningful, unalienated lives echoes Marx’ famous formulation in The German Ideology that the unalienated human may “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind.”

Vonnegut likens socialism to Christianity, which he argues are quite similar, though they are sometimes pitted against each other. According to Vonnegut, both institutions “prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.” In Timequake, Vonnegut even identifies the Sermon on the Mount, along with Robin Hood, as a piece of “subversive literature” that is powerfully “disrespectful of established authority.” Vonnegut aspires to adopt this same revolutionary mantle with his humanistic fictions, which are always foregrounded in his sympathy with the oppressed. In Jailbird Vonnegut writes extensively about the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two labor organizers who, after upsetting one capitalist too many, were framed for murder. Their innocence was so obvious that many were shocked that they could have been found guilty on the trumped-up charges. They were executed in 1927, even after the actual murderer confessed to the crime. Vonnegut truly thought their deaths would be a modern crucifixion, one to get as upset about as that of Jesus. It would, he believed, be a potent tale that could inspire people to become active in favor of the working class and the abuses against laborers. “I expected the story of Sacco and Vanzetti to be retold as often and as movingly, to be as irresistible, as the story of Jesus Christ some day.” But this was not to be.

Vonnegut laments: “I believed that the story of their martyrdom would cause an irresistible mania for justice to the common people to spread throughout the world. Does anybody know or care who they were anymore?” History’s forgetting of the tragic case of Sacco and Vanzetti and society’s failure to draw a lesson from it is part of the same tradition of forgetfulness that Labor Day and the labor movement generally finds itself in. It also speaks to the power of literature to rehabilitate such traditions, something Vonnegut never stopped striving for.

Brushing History Against the Grain

Why is it necessary to consider the words of a fiction writer when considering history and politics? Why not consult a historian, particularly a dispassionate history given to writing objective facts rather than entertaining readers as Vonnegut does so well? To take an argument from the 20th-century German philosopher and literary theorist Walter Benjamin, there is no such thing as objective or ideologically resistant historicism. In his essay “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin argued that all writing has “the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes” because historicism inevitable sympathizes “with the victor” of history – that is the monarchs, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and never the working classes. What is needed, suggested Benjamin, is a new type of historian who “dissociates himself” from the perpetuation of histories of exploitation and domination and “regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.”

By this Benjamin meant that so-called objective and dispassionate historicism too easily parrots the dominant ideology of its time. The whitewashed history presented by sources such as the United States Department of Labor is a perfect example, but by no means of the only endeavor to obfuscate the suffering of laborers or the struggles of socialists fighting for justice. This history of the ruling class is found in different guises in even so-called progressive sources. If history and historicism has such characteristics flaws, literature can be said to present something like a counter-history, where instead of objective facts, key moments are decided by monumental suffering, passion, woe, and struggles for justice. Vonnegut is a key figure in this counter-history that attempts to locate the genuinely important moments in history and present them imaginatively and compassionately. His writing can be said to brush history against the grain, as Benjamin stipulated.

A counter-history is perhaps not as reliable as traditional historicism, but it has less potential to dip into banality or ideologies of power and exploitation. Vonnegut is by no means the only exemplar of this tradition, and many authors write masterfully in this tradition. Faulkner’s illustration of the interwar-era South, Steinbeck’s writing of Western laborers, Joyce’s poetic recreation of Ireland, Proust’s depiction of high-society France, Fitzgerald’s account of the new American aristocracy, Virginia Woolf’s interrogation of British collective psyche, García Márquez’s mythological and magical retelling of the history of Columbia and Murakami’s similar endeavor in Japan are just some other examples of how this tradition is carried out, particularly within modernism.

Such authors may traffic in fiction, but what they tell through invented stories – revolutionary mythologies one might call them – is sometimes truer than so-called objective truth itself. In Mother Night Vonnegut conceded that “no one is a better liar than a man who has warped lives and passions” through his fictions. Fiction writing necessarily calls for a sort of lying, an attempt to deceive the audience or reader “for the sake of artistic effect.” But he also added to this that such lies, lies told for artistry, for fiction, “can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.” Vonnegut’s fictions, a counter-history, a poetic and imaginative historicism, may be constructed of the lies of artistry, but they posses a higher and more beguiling form of truth. This is the truth that, unlike the dispassionate list of facts and received wisdom presented by traditional historicism, moves readers and perhaps even compels them to action, something the socialist Vonnegut greatly desired of his readers. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways,” proclaimed Marx, the quintessential thinker on all things labor, “the point, however, is to change it.”

Literature’s Dream of Labor

Literature can do its part in rehabilitating the labor movement and injecting empathy and political imagination into sympathetic readers. Vonnegut’s preternatural combination of literary skills and political aptitude make him a prime candidate for leading literature’s charge for renewed labor rights in America. The time has never been riper. While Americans are still reeling from the blow leveled by the Great Recession, there is enough political interest and skepticism towards the status quo for people to expand their political and literary horizons and be bold enough to envision a world that is fairer, more just, and more equal than the one we currently live in.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut describes a conversation between Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim in which Rosewater underscores the potential counter-history of literature. The creation of new aesthetic forms, such as Vonnegut’s “telegraphic schizophrenic” narrative style, can cultivate critical consciousness in readers. Rosewater shares that “everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. But that isn’t enough anymore.” Vonnegut’s fragmented narrative attempts to fill the existential and ethical void of late capitalism, which has, as Rosewater claims, stripped life of meaning. Vonnegut’s narratives hope, through their fissures and gaps, to inspire a radical new consciousness in his readers. Rosewater claims that a new narrative form is required for a new existential age, a form that will allow readers to “re-invent themselves and their universe.” Vonnegut’s telegraphic schizophrenic literary mode emphasizes this palpable state of rupture and unease of the contemporary world, but also sees in the redeemed human the creation of a new self and a new history. Literature’s dream of labor, then, is a salve for the nightmare of history.

This Labor Day 2013 coincides nicely with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That monumental protest for interracial harmony, social equality, and economic justice speaks to the very same needs as the labor movement. Fifty years on Dr. King’s goals have not been fully realized, and it is up to the labor movement to help further those goals. The March on Washington was not just the demand for racial equality and integration, but also one for jobs and economic justice. Protesters carried signs declaring: “we march for higher minimum wages, coverage for all workers,” “civil rights plus full employment equals freedom,” “we march for jobs for all, decent pay now,” “we demand decent housing now.” Labor was central to their civil rights protests, though that history too has been whitewashed in favor of bourgeois staples of racial harmony.

Leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were not shy in proclaiming their socialist allegiances and Dr. King himself insisted that we must “question the capitalistic economy.” In 1963, the year of the March on Washington, the unemployment level was 10.8% for blacks and 5% for whites. In 2012 it was 12.6% for blacks and 6.6% for whites. It is entirely appropriate at this moment in history to revitalize that once-proud American tradition of the labor movement that flowed through Debs, Sandburg, Vonnegut, Randolph, Rustin, and Dr. King.

Literature is not – and cannot – be the only force in this fight for economic justice, but its potential contributions should not be understated. Vonnegut is such a potent example of this literary-labor nexus because of his immense popularity. Readers treasured Vonnegut’s literary imagination not just for his stance on politics and economics, but his masterful storytelling, his inimitable wit, and his humanistic compassion. Binding these literary qualities together with his political outlook makes him relevant more than ever today. There is great potential for counter-histories that inspire and impel. So make this Labor Day 2013 be a literary one. Such an attitude may carry more weight than you realize. With such inspiration as Vonnegut and company, the cry for justice is that much stronger. As he told that crowd in Bennington back in 1970, “It isn’t moonbeams to talk of modest plenty for all.”

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