Bryan D. Palmer, Marxism and Historical Practice, Vol. I & Vol. II

Bryan D. Palmer, Marxism and Historical Practice, Vol. I: Interpretive Essays on Class Formation and Class Struggle (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015), 526 pp., $206; 

Bryan D. Palmer, Marxism and Historical Practice, Vol. II: Interventions and Appreciations (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015), 360 pp., $175.

Bryan Palmer is a prominent Canadian historian whose books include Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (1990), E.P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions (1994), and James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (2007). While he is sometimes described as a “social” or “labor” historian, neither label quite captures the range of his scholarly output. Over the course of a career that began in the mid-1970s, he has written essays and books on intellectual history, Marxist theory, working-class politics, transgressive subcultures, political economy, and film. His research has tackled such disparate periods as the early 19th century and the 1960s. He deploys an enjoyably polemical writing style but he’s also adept at digging through the archives. I can’t think of very many English-language historians of his generation who switch back-and-forth as Palmer does between empirical investigation and the intellectual space that is sometimes referred to as Theory. Brill is to be congratulated for publishing this engaging two-volume collection of Palmer’s substantive yet provocative essays.

Palmer first made a name for himself with the publication of A Culture in Conflict: Skilled Workers and Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860-1914 (1979), which offered a carefully researched study of class politics at a critical juncture in the development of North American industrial capitalism. Rather than limiting its focus to trade union leaders, or labor-management relations, the book “showed how central the associations, institutions, and leisure activities of the industrial city were to the texture of workers’ everyday life.” Even before this book was published he had already written on Taylorism for the Review of Radical Political Economics and on “charivaris” for Labour/Le Travailleur. As Palmer explains in Volume 1, charivaris, also known as “rough music,” refers to “the horn blowing, pot banging, hooting and jeering assemblies of discordant men, women, and youths who gathered, at various venues, to show their displeasure to those who violated behavioral norms dictated by collective sensibilities about right and wrong.” These early articles, as well as his first book, were noteworthy for the way in which their author weaved together insights drawn from an eclectic mix of sources, from primary documents and unpublished dissertations to mainstream and radical social theory. As he notes in the first volume, his approach “broke out of certain constraints that had limited understandings of class to the respectable faces of a particular kind of institutional labor history.” In effect, his early work offered an atypical strand of cultural studies that emphasized working-class lived experience rather than cross-class mass consumption.

As it happens, Volume 1 of Marxism and Historical Practice recovers Palmer’s essays on Taylorism and charivaris, along with subsequent pieces on late 19th and early 20th century working-class militancy in Canada. The book also features an excerpt from his book on Hamilton, Ontario, as well as chapters on the Knights of Labor, dissent in 19th century Upper Canada, Toronto’s dispossessed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and “Wildcat Workers in the 1960s.” Another one of the reprinted essays, “British Columbia’s Solidarity: Reformism and the Fight Against the Right,” draws on the author’s immersion in the massive anti-austerity campaign that arose in western Canada in the early 1980s. “I was personally affiliated with this movement,” he reports. “I served as a delegate from the New Westminster Solidarity Coalition; a contributor to the newspaper of the movement, Solidarity Times; a figure often interviewed by mainstream radio, TV and press; a participant in rallies and demonstrations; and someone on strike for a time at Simon Fraser University.” But just as the movement was threatening to “break into a full-scale General Strike,” labor leaders issued the call for a hasty retreat. For Palmer, the experience confirmed his suspicion that “trade-union bureaucrats and social-democratic leaders” are “inherently accommodationist and capitulationist.” He argues that the movement’s all-too-meteoric rise and fall provides painful, real-world evidence for Robert Brenner’s thesis that, “to the extent that the official representatives of reformism in general and social democratic parties in particular have been freed to implement their characteristic worldviews, strategies, and tactics, they have systematically undermined the basis for their own continuing existence, paving the way for their own dissolution.”

While the theme of class formation and class conflict sits at the center of the first volume, Volume 2 exhibits a different albeit not unrelated set of preoccupations. This book is divided into four sections, taking up such topics as historical methodology, noir cinema, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, the music of Detroit’s Mexicotown neighborhood, and the development of American Communism. Questions of economics and politics are rarely far from the surface, but on the whole the second volume is especially sensitive to the power of ideas. Palmer arguably saves the biggest fireworks for the closing section, which surveys and assesses the life and work of three major radicals of the twentieth century: Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, and James Patrick Cannon, cofounder and longtime leader of the US Socialist Workers Party. The essay on Hobsbawm is if anything a little too tart: Palmer reluctantly acknowledges Hobsbawm’s virtues as a historian but expresses deep dismay over his political commitments, from his “blinkered Popular-Frontism” to his rejection of the Labour left and his subsequent embrace of Blairism. The pieces on Cannon and Thompson are rather more complimentary; he salutes the “continuity of Cannon’s revolutionary commitments,” and describes E.P. Thompson as a kind of paradoxical genius:

Thompson’s negotiation of the related processes of making and writing history, of living complex acts of refusal and translating them into both art and a form of dissenting, combating truth, has few modern precedents. He was in many ways sui generis and, to complicate matters, his uniqueness was often paradoxical. Thompson managed to translate his awkwardness into a kind of genius, his being difficult into appreciations and reverence. It was an alchemy no other figure of his generation managed in quite the same way or with the same intensity.

Brill is not exactly known for its reasonable prices, but hopefully Haymarket Books will consider publishing a single volume that combines the best material from the two hardcover collections. If it were up to me, I’d drop one or two of the pieces on 19th century Canadian history (specialists could presumably track down the hardcover editions in research libraries), along with the Hobsbawm polemic, which makes good points but is a little ungenerous in its remorselessness. The chapters on Thompson, Gangs of New York, charivaris, and the Knights of Labor are just some of the standout essays in my estimation. The article on the struggles in British Columbia, which is usefully informed by the author’s first-hand experiences, would be another obvious pick. An affordable volume aimed at students, activists, and general readers would obviously help bring Palmer’s boisterous and sometimes sharp-elbowed arguments and perspectives to the attention of a wider audience.

Reviewed by Kent Worcester
Political Science Department

Marymount Manhattan College, New York

This entry was posted in 73, Volume 31, No. 1. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *