Sunday, February 14, 2010

The new Brandeis biography and the importance of Zinn

I am about halfway through Melvin Urofsky's magnificent biography of Louis Brandeis. I put it down for awhile as I was doubled over by the brilliance of--and simply had to read--a novel entitled "The Rosendorf Quartet" by Nathan Shaham, written in Hebrew in 1987, and translated a couple of years later. The novel contains the greatest description of the power and sound of music I have ever read. I could do without the eroticism, but that's my personal taste. Shaham's understanding of the politics of Europe and Palestine in the 1930s is also very insightful and compelling, which adds to the emotional power of the work.

But anyway, I digressed.

Despite my deeply positive conclusion about Urofsky's biography of Brandeis, I have to say it is often wincing to read Urofsky's corporate capitalist and elitist understanding of macroeconomics. Urofsky primarily sees the world, as unfortunately Brandeis did, as being made up of the small shopkeeper, the large conglomerate executive and the "consumer." Urofsky rarely notices employees or workers, and sees the poor even more abstractly than "consumers."

I was initially struck by Urofsky's anti-worker perspective of the Great Labor Strikes of 1877, despite his footnote that shows he at least glanced at Philip Foner's outstanding book on the subject. The way he describes the wildcat strikes that could have led to a second American revolution--and required corporate capitalists to push the Hayes administration and various governors to call on American troops to shoot workers and subdue them--one would think the violent reaction to the strikes were mostly the workers' fault. He ignores the hardships that led to the wildcat strikes and the way in which the violence often started on the management side, particularly with the initial use of armed strikebreakers and/or the local police, who tended to get riled up against workers who went on strike in those years. He used the passive voice as in violence "breaking out" and when specific, highlighted the violent actions of labor. Now I realize one should take the biography subject's side, and Brandeis definitely was not on the side of the workers at that point in his life, but there should have been a better understanding of the circumstance of that important series of events, which have been obliterated from our collective memories.

Throughout the book thus far, there has been a continued sprinkling of this lack of sense of the plight of workers. This lack of sympathy for workers reached a dispiriting and obvious level in Chapter 13 of the book, which takes its title from a famous Brandeis formulation, "The Curse of Bigness." In this chapter, Urofsky leads the reader to think there was a consensus among the American people in favor of "laissez faire" capitalism in the late 19th Century. He reaches this conclusion without giving his readers any understanding that millions of workers disagreed with that formulation, and that there was a continuing struggle by workers against an economic elite tightening its grip on workers' lives. He finds Brandeis' belief in smallness a bit on the naive side, that much is acknowledged. But Urofsky again can't seem to get his mind past a battle over prices between monopolists and consumers. Labor starts to come into the foreground in his discussion, but is quickly pushed back again. He fails to see the depth of Brandeis' own ignorance and naive world view when Brandeis wrote that the "greatest danger" to American society is for the American people to become a "class of employees." No, the greatest danger to American society is an unfair distribution of wealth generated by the monopolists that beggars and oppresses workers physically and monetarily.

I am not saying that Urofsky should be as pro-socialist as Eugene Debs or the left side of the progressive movement, as exemplified by Robert LaFollette. It is, however, sad that he can write a book that does such a great job in dealing with the intricacies of Brandeis' battles for US Forestry service icons like Gifford Pinchot against lumber barons, and yet, in his discussions, miss an important element such as the rights and dignity of labor.

It is here that I am most vociferous in promoting Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States." Through Zinn's focus on workers, social reformers and the like, Zinn restores a balance against the corporate capitalist viewpoint of American history that Urofsky assumes is correct, but is itself highly ideological. When people nitpick at Zinn for taking minority viewpoints in particular passages, particularly with respect to the last few chapters of Zinn's book, they miss the richness and diversity of the points of view Zinn expresses, and how most of the information Zinn imparts that was obvious to those who lived during the time Zinn described has been deleted from our discourse. Zinn recognized that the lack of balance in the historical sweep presented by corporate media and people like Urlofsky is precisely what limits the ability of our discourse to embrace various alternative solutions or move us forward in terms of public policy.

Urofsky is no fool, however. He is a retired professor of History who was once the chair of the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University and has an intimate knowledge of the American Zionist movement, and the Progressive Movement in the United States during the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Still, I wonder how he much he recognizes the profound differences between labor-oriented progressives like LaFollette and Florence Kelley, and business oriented progressives like Brandeis, Andrew Carnegie in his last years, and Teddy Roosevelt. I also wonder how he views Gabriel Kolko's insightful attack on the fundamental conservatism of the business progressives or Edwin Black's "War Against the Weak," which reveals how eugenics was the rage of elite (including business oriented) American opinion from progressive to conservative.

Urofsky's biography, however, remains a compelling portrait of Brandeis and an outstanding description of his life struggles. Most importantly for me, Urofsky exhibits deftness in describing for the lay reader the legal arguments for and against various propositions that were hot button issues of the time--and their relevance for today. I heartily recommend the book and am enjoying the prose and information imparted--and I expect to finish it with joy.

But, if you are a music fan, please click on the right side of this blog (scroll up or down a bit, depending upon where you are in this blog page) to Amazon or Powell's to order "The Rosendorf Quartet", and prepare to be amazed at the richness of that novel.



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