Nelson Lichtenstein on a Half Century of Labor HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: labor history
Nelson Lichtenstein is research professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most recent book is A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism, forthcoming in 2023.
Micah Uetricht is the editor of Jacobin. He is the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity and coauthor of Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism.
Nelson Lichtenstein is among the greatest living American labor historians. In a long conversation with Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht covering his life and career, Lichtenstein discusses his life and education at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, in the midst of that campus’s many eruptions in the 1960s; the intellectual and activist influence of his membership in the International Socialists (IS), a Trotskyist organization; his years studying the early United Auto Workers (UAW) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); his later turn to studying Walmart and international supply chains; his continued appreciation for radical politics and radical activists organizing, despite leaving Trotskyism behind; his thoughts about the state of labor history; and much more.
You write in your essay collection, A Contest of Ideas, about being the son of a German Jew who fled the Nazis during World War II and an American mother who fled Mississippi around the same time. You came of age during the civil rights movement era. Is that how you were first politicized?
At the dinner table, my father was sort of a social democrat. My mother was hostile to the Gothic South even before the civil rights movement, but yes, the civil rights movement was a defining moment for everyone in my generation. I didn’t go to Mississippi in ’62 or ’63 but I did end up in Alabama in the summer of ’66. It was extraordinarily important.
My father ran this five-and-dime store in Frederick, Maryland, which is sort of a border state. And you could see the racial dynamics of the clientele and the sales staff. The town was segregated. I came of age just as desegregation was taking place.
I went to Alabama to work for a newspaper called The Southern Courier, which was funded by Northern liberals. We were trying to break the media boycott of the civil rights movement, even that late in ’66. I was posted to Selma and Mobile, Alabama, and Lowndes County, Georgia. It was revealing. I remember seeing Stokely Carmichael speak in a small southern church. I saw a social movement in reality, and that’s an extraordinary experience. It stays with you for life.
Three or four years earlier when people were in Mississippi in ’61, ’62, their lives were in danger. That was not the case at all with me. But I could see the nature of the struggle, and also I could see what success was. I remember one day in Selma, it was hot, and I thought, “I’m going to go to some air conditioned restaurant and have a nice breakfast, just take a break.” I go in, and there’s a placemat, which already, by the summer of ’66, included details of the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as one of Selma’s historic events. The march had already naturalized and been made part of the history, eighteen months later. I remember thinking this is what happens when a social movement wins.
Shortly after that you started graduate school in history at UC Berkeley, and you joined the Trotskyist group, the International Socialists [IS], shortly thereafter, right?
It took two years or so. I was an activist in the movement of that moment. A lot of my friends were in it already, but I didn’t know about it right away. Some people went to Berkeley from places like New York or Madison or Chicago. They knew exactly what they wanted to do when they got there. That wasn’t the case with me.
I was very impressed with the fact that every organization had a leaflet, and the leaflets of the IS were like legal size, single space, no margins — kind of an entire thesis from 1917 to the present and what we do about it. I was impressed by that. A lot of people in the history department were in the IS, and so I came around that group and began to participate in their activities.