Ed Falkowski felt a pang of remorse as he walked to work at a Pennsylvania coal mine in the fall of 1916, two weeks shy of his fifteenth birthday. Months earlier, in a detailed “self-analysis,” the grandson of Polish immigrants had confidently declared himself to be well educated and ready for work. He enjoyed reading books of science, he explained in the neat cursive of a public school student, and “the best novels,” including those of Dumas, Hugo, Tolstoy, Poe, and the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz. He knew that work was the more practical and manly path, but he felt his resolve weakening as he parted ways with his former schoolmates and, like his father and grandfather before him, went to work in the local mine. As he wrote in his diary that night, “I felt kind of queer today because I missed school. However, the greatest education a young man can get is that gotten by earning his own living, so I see I am attending the High School of Life, and not that of Shenandoah, Pa. And more—a graduate of the H[igh] S[chool] of Life is much more respected than a graduate of H[igh] S[chool] of Shen[andoah]. I am satisfied as far as that part is concerned.”
The lessons of book learning and everyday life were never as far apart as many would insist.
Falkowski’s enthusiasm for what he called “industrial education” did not survive its encounter with the monotony and danger of coal-mining work. Reading and fellowship with other readers became a precarious refuge from the darkness—literal and psychological—of his underground labor. He carried books down into the mine to read on his breaks and at night struggled through dense volumes with a dictionary close at hand. On days off he hiked into the hills with friends. They spent hours telling jokes, reading aloud from their favorite books, and holding impromptu debates. Over the next few years, Falkowski and his friends launched a chapter of the Young People’s Socialist League, put on plays, and edited a literary journal in their little town. Falkowski nurtured “lofty dreams of literary success,” filling journals with handwritten poems, stories, and essays. The final pages and back covers of each volume were filled with long lists of books he had read, “rescued from the slumbers of second-hand bookstalls, borrowed from public libraries, or paid for with sweaty dollars.” He sent some writing off to Frank Harris, editor of Pearson’s Magazine, who wrote back admonishing him not to romanticize the life of a writer. Chastened by his hero’s words, Falkowski kept most of this writing to himself. “Would these studies open a little avenue to self-mastery?” he worried in a particularly dark journal entry. “Or would the torrential burdens of each succeeding day wash away the effects of the evening’s devotion to my studies?” His plans to finish high school and go to college proved elusive, but ten years after he first went into the mines, his union sponsored him for a two-year term at Brookwood Labor College. There he learned from leading labor intellectuals and forged lifelong friendships with workers from all over the United States. The wide world seemed to spread out before him once more.
You could hardly miss the talk in the working-class neighborhoods of North American cities during the early twentieth century. Barkers stood in front of theaters, grocery stores, and bars; drivers yelled to, and at, one another; and newsies called out the headlines several times a day. In the parks and on the busy corners of working-class districts, especially on warm summer nights, voices exhorted passersby to come to Jesus, fight capitalism, embrace free love, or demand the single tax. Every large American city hosted at least one center of public speech and debate. Union Square, Washington Square, and Rutgers Square in New York City were in constant use for organized and impromptu protests, as were Pioneer Square in Seattle, Pershing Square and La Plaza in Los Angeles, and Boston Commons, among others. Chicagoans knew their city’s two most prominent open-air speaking forums as “the Bugs,” reflecting a common association between heterodox ideas and insanity. Washington Square Park on the city’s North Side—known as Bughouse Square—and weekly meetings of the South Side Washington Park Forum—known as the Bug Club—drew the curious, the bored, and the committed to listen, debate, and relay ideas about the emerging social order.
“There was a great deal of ‘bull’ at Bughouse Square … and to me, at least, as a young boy it was a very colorful and very rich area.”
The very wildness of speakers’ claims and the variety of topics addressed captured the imagination of many young people, judging from their vivid memories recorded decades later. The poet Kenneth Rexroth, who spent his weekends as a teenager at Bughouse Square, described the park as a venue for “every variety of radical sect, lunatic religion, and crackpot health panacea.” Studs Terkel, whose family ran a residential hotel in the neighborhood, recalled, “There was a great deal of ‘bull’ at Bughouse Square. There was a great deal of all sorts of wild, impassioned talk and conversation of all variety, from all strata of our thought, and to me, at least, as a young boy it was a very colorful and very rich area.”
John Brophy believed in the power of ideas. A coal miner since the age of twelve, he rose through the ranks of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to lead one of its key districts in the anthracite coalfields of eastern North America. Inspired by his Catholic faith and what he had seen the miners do in Pennsylvania, he rejected both materialism as explanation and force as strategy. “There are people who think that ideas are of little avail,” he told a national conference of trade unionists and educators in April 1921. The wars, revolutions, and counterrevolutions unfolding across the globe convinced some people that force and violence were the only effective tactics. But Brophy told them, “My experience in Central Pennsylvania has convinced me that ideas are a power.” Over three decades of organizing, the miners of his district had established the eight-hour workday, banished the company store from their communities, and raised income significantly. In the union, “organization and ideas were joined,” creating “a consciousness and desire for a better life” among the miners and their families. Together, organization and ideas “have instilled into them a consciousness of the power of numbers. They have made them aware of the fact that they are working in an essential industry, and that because the miner is doing necessary work he is entitled to the best the industry can afford.”
“You begin to see and hear things that have always been there, but to which you have been deaf, dumb and blind.”
Brophy’s influence was deeply felt in the labor movement and across American industrial society, even without the nationalization of the coal industry. His vision of unionism as a moral power, shared and amplified by activists such as Fannia Cohn and A. Philip Randolph, would come to fruition in Labor’s upsurge of the 1930s. The vehicle for developing this moral power was a program of workers’ education: the cultivation of social movement skills and consciousness among working-class adults. During difficult times of political reaction, trade union retrenchment, and ideological schism, workers’ education was the glue that held together a divided and often-defeated union movement at the grass roots. La- bor colleges forged networks of like-minded militants and distributed the tools that could effectively contest economic inequality. They also linked trade unions to a wider pool of activism and cultural capital among journalists, writers, and academics. In the process, they built a more secure perch from which working- class activists could effectively engage the public sphere. The main impulse of the movement was toward the development of local activists who would become self-directing nodes in a social movement network. Key to the activation of this network was the seemingly simple task of seeing reality for what it was. As the garment worker Sadie Goodman put it, for the worker who attends a labor college, “the world begins to stretch out. You begin to see and hear things that have always been there, but to which you have been deaf, dumb and blind.”
In the summer of
1922, the radical Labor Herald published a series of autobiographies
under the title “How I Became a Rebel. A Symposium.”1 In his editor’s introduction, the
radical trade unionist and future Communist Party leader William Z. Foster
noted, “A fundamental part of the general revolutionary program is to make
rebels; to develop men and women who have definitely broken with capitalism and
who are looking forward to the establishment of a Workers’ Society.” In the
interest of making future rebels, the symposium highlighted the lives of eight
prominent radicals to explain “just how, why, and under what circumstances,
they became convinced that capitalism had to be done away with.” As conversion
stories, the autobiographies shared a number of elements: difficulties
overcome, enlightenment gained, battles joined. They also stumbled upon a
curious tension surrounding the origins of class consciousness: did rebellion
spring more from experiences of deprivation and injustice or from reading,
reflection, and debate? California machinist William Ross Knudsen attributed
his radicalism to study and reflection: “I investigated. I read all the
literature I could get. Reading and thinking produced the result—a Red.” The
veteran Pennsylvania socialist James Maurer, a champion of workers’ education,
told a very different kind of story: “It was not from what I read, because I
was active in radical circles long before I could read. It came from what I
Did rebellion spring more from experiences of deprivation and injustice or from reading, reflection, and debate?
What makes people
rebel? The question has preoccupied countless radicals, trade unionists,
managers, and internal security personnel. The leaders of the American
Revolution answered it in pamphlets and newspapers that appealed to the
republican virtue of independent farmers and artisans. Southern planters pondered
the origins of slave rebellions and responded by dividing families, meting out
personal punishment, and censuring abolitionist propaganda. J. Edgar Hoover
built a surveillance empire in order to disrupt the creation of communist
cadres, and today national security operatives monitor cell phone metadata,
social media, and online games to discover and disrupt the radicalization of
Muslim youth, environmental activists, and many others. We celebrate some
rebels and arrest others, but the question of how individuals decide to cross
the boundaries of acceptable political and social discourse—how they become
rebels—remains fascinating as a feature of historical change, a reflection of
the human condition, and a way to talk about the tension between individuality
and our common fate.
Pennsylvania coal miner Edward Falkowski watched as his fellow workers stormed the factory office. Years of slave-like working conditions, monotonous food, and lives cut short by industrial accidents had stirred little action in the past, but now the workers were on the verge of crushing those who tormented them daily. Something had changed in the way they saw the world and one another. They sensed their collective power and would no longer waste their lives in toil for someone else’s profit. By force of numbers they overcame the last resistance and killed their former bosses, sparing only the one they considered a fellow worker. Standing over the lifeless bodies of the factory managers, flanked by his comrades, their leader addressed the victorious crowd from a high window in Marxian tones: “Robots of the world! The power of man has fallen! A new world has arisen: the rule of Robots!”
Falkowski was no murderer, of course. He and his comrades at Brookwood Labor College were merely acting out the climactic scene of Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), for a visiting group of educators. Performed hundreds of times on stages across the industrial world in the 1920s and 1930s, the play introduced the term “robot” and the narrative of robotic revolution now commonplace in science fiction.
Deprived of the good things in life by their low wages and long hours of labor, it was feared that working people were becoming little more than machines.
The Robots of R.U.R. introduced the world to the compelling story of robotic self-consciousness, later glossed as the “singularity.” Once set loose in the world, however, the story and its imagery were free to be attached to a confusing range of social ills, technological innovations, and political villains. What started as an analogy for workers’ revolution became a symbol of factory automation, recorded music replacing human musicians, and the acquiescence of conservative unionists to employer power, among other things. Uniting these and other social ills Americans associated with the robot was the perception that modernity denied working people the fullness of their humanity. The iconography of workers’ education imagined the reversal of this process in various ways. Images of workers reading or longing for knowledge evoked the reproductive subplot of R.U.R. In the play the Robots face the slow death of their kind because they are unable to reproduce without a formula that their human masters had destroyed before their own demise. Their fate was not unlike that of wageworkers, labor’s partisans argued. Deprived of the good things in life by their low wages and long hours of labor, it was feared that working people were becoming little more than machines.