Q&A with Matthew E. Stanley, Author of Grand Army of Labor

Matthew E. Stanley, author of Grand Army of Labor: Workers, Veterans, and the Meaning of the Civil War recently answered some questions about his new book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book? 

I became interested in the connections between the American left and Civil War memory during my graduate school training at the University of Cincinnati, where I worked with a cohort that contained some terrific social, cultural, and radical historians of the era, including Chris Phillips, Wayne Durrill, and Mark Lause.  Specifically, seeing the amount of Civil War content in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century worker newspapers, farmer-labor campaigns, and socialist publications really kickstarted my thinking about the nexus between identity, collective memory, cultural politics, and materiality as they related to workers and the Civil War during the Long Gilded Age. 

So as someone who was trained in Civil War history and collective memory, I was consistently surprised by the frequent absence of organized labor and the overall dearth of class analysis in Civil War memory studies.  In addition to the sectional and racial identities of Civil War veterans, hundreds of thousands also possessed identities as “mechanics,” “workingmen,” and “unionists.”  Many others self-identified as “socialists,” “anarchists,” “internationalists,” and “revolutionaries.”  I wanted to explore their stories, including their efforts to reconcile with their former enemies along class (rather than purely sectional or racial) lines by depicting the postwar labor movement—the fight against “wage slavery”—as a continuation of the Civil War.

Although it often creates a firestorm of debate among left and Marxist scholars, the question of how class connects to culture—the relation between the base and the superstructure, between “economic forces” and “ideology”—seemed especially relevant to our current political moment.  The resurgent interest in socialism and unions, combined with a growing climate movement and the mass organization around Black Lives, appeared to offer an opportunity to think about how the left historically attempted—or not—to create and employ cultural interracialism and radical narratives of the past in the service of class struggle.   

Q: Who were your biggest influences? 

In addition to being simultaneously a labor, cultural, and Civil War history, Grand Army of Labor draws on scholarship from a range of subfields.  These include the working-class histories of W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, Bernard Mandel, Philip S. Foner, David Montgomery, and Alice Kessler-Harris; the whiteness studies of Alexander Saxton, Theodore Allen, David Roediger, and Noel Ignatiev; the Civil War memory studies of Stuart McConnell, Barry Schwartz, Nina Silber, David W. Blight, and Caroline Janney; the movement histories and scholarship on radicalism of Eric Hobsbawm, Leon Fink, Robin D. G. Kelley, Mark Lause, Jane Dailey, Jaqueline Jones, and Charles Postel; and the works concerned with configurations of racial capitalism by Eric Williams, Cedric Robinson, Gerald Horne, Keri Leigh Merritt, Walter Johnson and others.  There are SO many more, of course (and I apologize to those I omitted), but these are the first few who came to mind.  

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book? 

I am continuously amazed by the ways in which people hold multiple identities as well as the capacity of common people to shape the past to meet their immediate needs.  In terms of self-identification, my book, like all works of history, deals with historical actors who a scholar like myself might be inclined to immediately pigeonhole as a member or representative of a particular political party or racial category or gender group, and then assume that they prioritize the interests of those identities.  The reality is always more complex.  In addition to being a white man and a Republican, for example, my source might also exhibit himself to be a proud, self-described, and highly invested husband, father, Rhinelander, brickmaker, Lutheran, St. Louisan, member of the Turnverein, and avid reader of the Westliche Post.

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Matthew E. Stanley is an associate professor of history at Albany State University. He is the author of The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

As far as I’m concerned, no scholarship can be too invested in de-mystifying and de-naturalizing capitalism and race.  Even pundits, intellectuals, and academics too often present these concepts in ahistorical terms—race as static and timeless or capitalist relations as assumed and perpetual.  This sense of detachment from or complacency with the material roots of oppression is also evident in the logic of neoliberalism, including how neoliberalism structures and shapes the political proclivities of academia.  We see it in the corporatization and stratification of higher education, the ease with which its spokespeople separate race and gender from class, and how politicos and even historians weaponize the “ugly side” of labor or radical history in the service of austerity and incrementalist economics.  Such logic includes, for instance, condemnations of so-called “class reductionism” or citing examples of racism within Debsian socialism or the New Deal (which, like racism in the broader societies that produced these movements, are very easy to find) in order to attack redistributive, universal, and social democratic programs today.  

My task as an activist-scholar/educator is not to defend, say, the Readjusters, the Knights of Labor, or the Industrial Workers of the World.  Rather, it’s to contextualize them—to explore both the contradictory and emancipatory elements of their programs—as to remind readers that their schemas don’t have to be our schemas while at the same time reiterating that social liberation must be grounded in movement-driven, majoritarian strategies (i.e. class struggle).  I am by no means hostile to individual-consciousness raising or to gender, racial, or ethnic diversity.  Indeed, I strongly support those initiatives.  However, the diversification of existing hierarchies is not liberation and cannot be a means in and of itself.  I hope that Grand Army of Labor both advocates for cultural diversity and inclusion as a true reflection of the whole working class while also reminding readers that identity representation is not a substitute for—indeed, it must exist atop—a foundation of class politics and common struggle in the pursuit of shared material goals.  

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book? 

A sense of optimism.  Although it’s easy to emphasize the structural limitations of historic left labor movements and the concomitant shortcomings and contradictions of their cultural politics (I devote many words to this in the book), Grand Army of Labor is also a story of incredible possibilities, encouraging “could-have-beens,” and inspirational redefinitions of what it means to be “free.”  At the risk of losing my “realist” credentials (I don’t give a damn about having lost my “pragmatic” ones), I see similar prospects all around our current political moment.  I hope Grand Army of Labor will in some infinitesimal way contribute to the growing movement of Americans against structural racism, whether expressed through policing or environmental crisis, and in favor of labor rights and unionization.  

This optimism stems not only (and not even primarily) from the high-profile electoral campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and the rest of the democratic socialist “Squad,” but from mass movements including the 2018-19 education workers’ strikes, Fight for $15, the Democratic Socialists of America, Black Lives Matter, and the Sunrise Movement, all of which have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to challenge the neoliberal consensus and both situate race within a class framework and highlight how the oppression of specific groups of workers.  They are doing—and in some ways improving upon—the political work (and the cultural work) of Old Left industrial unionism.  Although union density remains tragically low, the capacity of workers to make substantial and permanent gains within the corporate capitalist Democratic Party is dubious, and the short-term prospects of a viable worker’s party in this country appear virtually non-existent, these movements continue to add new dimensions to the long struggle for liberation in part by broadening our understandings of “freedom” and “democracy.”  There’s a lot of hope in that.  

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I’m almost—almost—ashamed to admit that, in terms of TV, my wife and I watch more than our share of Bravo.  It’s mindless, fun (in its own way), and, intended or not, offers a fascinating reveal into the absurdity and moral rot of the ruling class.  It’s not “good” programming in a traditional sense, but it’s sure to dispel any illusions one might possess about the positive correlation between wealth and merit.   

We also have a one-year old daughter, and I’ve spent A LOT of quality time with her during the pandemic.  Our music time often consists of Disney favorites followed by, say, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, or Rage Against the Machine.  I’ve been compromising with her when it comes to TV shows, which means plenty of cartoons, including the Bill Melendez Charlie Brown movies (my childhood favorites) as well as her current preference, Sesame Street.  She owns and enjoys (OK, we both enjoy) a wide variety of books, but there’s positively no substitute for a good scratch ‘n sniff.      I’ve “expanded” her exposure a bit more when it comes to movies.  In addition to revisiting the classics—sometimes in bits and pieces—by Eisenstein, Chaplin, Welles, Godard, Kubrick, Coppola, Lumet, Malick, Scorsese, and Carpenter, we’ve also run through much of the catalogs of some of my favorite current filmmakers: P. T. Anderson, Denis Villeneuve, Boots Riley, Bong Joon-ho, Jordan Peele, the Coen brothers, etc.  On second thought, I probably shouldn’t be admitting to this…