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University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
For the panel "Robert H. Wiebe's The Search for Order: A Thirty-Year Retrospective"
January 3, 1997
American Historical Association Convention, New York City
If The Search for Order did not set the standard by which an entire generation of historians judged turn-of-the-century American history (an ordering principle averse both to the temperament and economics of academic professionals) it did the next most powerful thing. It became the standard against which all other interpreters tilted. The inside jacket to my own weather-beaten copy of the book dating to graduate school at the beginning of the 1970s bears the simple, dismissive words: "little sense of actual conflict." At the time I was more drawn to the Workers' Search For Power (as my mentor Herbert Gutman had entitled his 1963 exploration of Labor's vision in the Gilded Age) than to any more encompassing "search for order." It certainly did not occur to me at the time that in singling out differences between small-town and big-city reactions to industrial capital, and in celebrating the communal values of preindustrialism vs. the relative fragmentation of metropolitan life, Gutman had temporarily adopted the same modernization framework that undergirded Wiebe's _magnum opus_.(1) Generally speaking, while many historians (including myself) preferred to swipe at Wiebe's grand synthesis, picking and choosing morsels to digest or to reject, no one to this day has dared to assume quite the challenge of comprehensive synthesis and emplotment of a large and complex era that the book's author took up.
The very fact that The Search for Order has maintained a scholarly prominence for three decades must necessarily affect the nature of our own retrospective discussion today. This is no forgotten classic whose main themes and arguments need restating; indeed, as Robert Wiebe has extended his stamp on American history with subsequent volumes encompassing the late eighteenth through the twentieth century, his peers have regularly honored the The Search for Order with retrospective reflection, analysis, and continuing criticism. The useful framing of the book began, in my view, with the series general editor's original forward. David Donald not only accurately and mellifluously summarized the book's major theme that "below surface ripples of rapid change...lay a deep-flowing current, which gave unity and meaning to the period as a whole." He also accurately credited Wiebe's description of "the actual workings of large businesses" and analysis of the "rise of the professions" as the most "strikingly original" themes in the book (though, to be technical, one might want to give Wiebe's earlier Businessmen and Reform more credit for the first theme), and he presciently recognized Wiebe's treatment of Progressivism as a function of the rise of a new, bureaucratically-oriented middle class as a likely flashpoint of scholarly controversy (vii-viii). From virtually the moment of publication to our own day, the issues in the text which David Donald circled have continued to attract scholarly attention. As early as 1970, Louis Galambos, citing "a shift" in Wiebe's America "from small-scale, informal, locally or regionally-oriented groups to large-scale, national, formal organizations characterized by a bureaucratic structure of authority," stamped The Search for Order as the harbinger of a new "organizational synthesis in modern American history."(2) Twenty-five years after its publication, in a rich, retrospective assessment for Reviews in American History, Kenneth Cmiel concentrated on the same elements in the book, placing them in the context of modernization theory of the 1950s as well as a tradition of social analysis and criticism with debts to Weber, Freud, and especially Walter Lippmann.(3)
Rather than any further retracing of these relatively well-trod paths of commentary, therefore, let me offer a few scattered shots occasioned by the pleasure of a renewed reading of this enduring historiographical treasure.
First, I am struck by the unspoken parallels between the mood of uncertainty, discontent, and unfocused rebellion of the mid-1960s when the book was written and the dilemmas that the author seizes on at the turn of the century. Rereading The Search for Order, I am tempted to import the soundtrack from the Temptations' end-of-the-decade hit, Ball of Confusion ["People moving out, people moving in, ..."] as a backdrop to descriptions of:
like so many free-floating particles, groups of worried citizens tossed about, attached themselves to a cause, then scattered again (66)
Like an updated Richard Hoftstadter, Wiebe turns on the superficial optimism and the moral certainties of American culture with a cool, even caustic irony and a critical, if seemingly detached, wit. (Among my favorite examples of the latter is the following: "In the infant electrical industry, for instance, where ambition far outran knowledge, innumerable firms expressed everyone's bright ideas during the late seventies and eighties.") In the process apparently self-confident historical actors are transformed by the historian into a groping "What's It All About, Alfie?" puzzlement before a world they cannot comprehend, control, or even fully communicate to each other.(4) Indeed, Wiebe's sensitivity to conflicts in language and communication is surely one of the most *timely* of his historiographic insights. Thus
"when Cleveland and Altgeld debated the events surrounding the Pullman strike, they spoke in private vocabularies. To the Democratic President 'Federal government' represented the natural, responsive agent of law and order, and 'business' the corporate protectors of social stability. To the Democratic Governor 'Federal government' referred to an alliance of monopolists and bosses bent upon wholesale oppression, and 'business' the legitimate pursuits of average men thwarted by that alliance. 'Republic' meant restraint of the masses to Cleveland and a local bulwark against national aggression to Altgeld." (97) (5)
The confusion, uncertainty, and ambivalence which cloaked the contempory liberal tradition by 1965-1966 Wiebe was able (consciously or unconciously) to turn to most useful effect in examining an earlier epoch of wrenching social change.
Secondly, in retrospect, I quickly withdraw my youthful charge that The Search for Order lacked real conflict. As Kenneth Cmiel noted, "Wiebe saw conflict and did not mince words about it....By the 1890s, Wiebe argued, the United States was a nation riven by its pathological' divisions."(6) Moreover, on the whole, I now find that even as he discountenanced class as a primary explanatory tool, Wiebe proved a pretty fair labor historian of the period. With regard to the Knights of Labor, for example, his local-national dichotomy helps to account for the special appeal as well as limitations of this quintessential social movement of the period. And he is especially acute in capturing the ideological animus of the Knights as a search for an "ethical substitute for the capitalism they believed was destroying opportunity, equality, and brotherhood" and quite original I think in his insight that "those ethnic groups, especially of Irish background, who had captured portions of the Knights behaved as if their organizations were a personal plea for recognition" (67-68).
To be sure, there remains for me a troubling feature to the treatment of social movements and non-elites in The Search for Order, but it is one that I think the author came to recognize (and at least partially correct) in subsequent work. Simply put, there is too much Hofstadter (of The Age of Reform and Anti-Intellectualism in America variety) in The Search for Order.(7) More than the garden-variety uncertainty attributed to the contemporary business classes and political elites, the characteristic outlook of American radical reformers and their followers, as portrayed in The Search for Order, partakes of a simple-mindedness at best and a dangerously deluded one-dimensionality at worst. This is in part, perhaps, a problem of over-ambitious generalities. The text rings with references to "the average farmer," "men from all walks of life," and universalistic "they felts" that a later, more particularistic (not to mention multi- culturally-inclined) age wants more carefully scrutinized for specific social context. But there is also a touch of the "benighted masses" syndrome that came all too easily to a synthesis offered without the aid of a coming avalanche of social historical studies "from the bottom up." Repeated reference, for example, to Southern Populism as a branch of "apocalyptic reform" (77, 85), an exaggerated way of thought borne of social marginalism, is a tip-off of 1950's "paranoid-style" analysis type of thinking.(8) It leads at once to an overemphasis on the racism of the North Carolina Farmers' Alliance (where reference to the Populist newspaper The Caucasion (72) overlooks the critical bi-racial Fusion political ticket of Populists and Republicans) and an underemphasis on the links between populism and progressive messages (similarities recognized by Wiebe (180) but never adequately incorporated into his rigidly bifurcated populist/progressive social framework). To my mind Wiebe's later works--I am thinking particularly here of The Opening of American Society (1984) and Self-Rule (1995) --effectively atone for his earlier dismissal of republican radicalism. Indeed, by the time of Self-Rule, the once-blinkered "island communities" of The Search for Order had become the robust center of a rough-and-tumble egalitarianism, the last gasp of a truly distinctive--if still delimited--American contribution to democratic practice. And Wiebe's opening to The Opening, although focused on the beginning rather than the end of the nineteenth century, offers a strikingly different attitude towards both power and social conflict. Stressing the "distance between the gentry elite and the people they purported to lead," Wiebe broadly attacks an historiograhic edifice he himself had helped to construct:
"We might all take pause from the accumulation of studies, now awaiting their synthesizeer, that employ some variant of an equation between social change and acute anxiety to explain human behavior in almost every decade from the middle of the 17th to the late 20th century. The history of a paranoid society? I believe that adjective and its near relations have lost their analytical value. To say of the early 19th century that Americans were participating in patterns of change that they did not understand simply consigns them to the human condition. To say that they tried to salvage values from the past implies that they might otherwise have cut loose from history and floated freely in the present, or perhaps selected values through a foreknowledge of the future. To say that with only fragments of information they envisaged groups of people scheming to aggrandize wealth and power suggests, on balance, that they understood their world reasonably well."(9)
Altogether, the passage suggests both a deeper class cleavage in American society and greater sympathy with traditions of plebeian thought than is apparent in The Search for Order.
In conclusion, let me turn to the discussion of the new middle class and progressive ordering of the twentieth century, the theme that David Donald and others have long highlighted as the book's provocative central thesis. Three points struck me in my re-reading. First, Wiebe implicitly fashions his story of the rise of the professions, technical expertise, education, and economic growth as his own creative answer to the famous Sombart Question: Why is there no socialism in America? The new class, in short, cut off a European-style polarization between rich and poor, or as Wiebe puts in conclusion: "The society that so many in the nineties had thought would either disintegrate or polarize had emerged tough and plural" (301).
Yet, just how the new class figures in the political resolution of the Progressive Era is elusive. Indeed, in terms of historical method, the book, to my mind, effectively divides in two between a "socially"-ordered first part (roughly chapters 1-7) and a "politically"-centered finale (chapters 8-11). In the latter section, Wiebe offers a competent and compelling but methodologically conventional view of politics, statecraft, and foreign policy. In this return to presidential synthesis the previously indomitable hand of bureaucratic rationalization is not merely invisible but comparatively incapacitated as an active force. Rather, for the first time in the narrative, decisions facing identifiable actors (esp. Roosevelt and Wilson) seem to rest on other considerations: partisan advantage, personal ambition, ethnic loyalty, interest-group negotiation, Supreme Court rulings, attitudes towards England and Germany, etc. Moreover, the one powerful and coherent social group introduced in these latter chapters--the foreign policy elite of John Jay, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, et. al.--fits at best uneasily into the earlier tripartite (island community defenders, old wealth, and new middle class) social structure erected by the author. To what extent the new national structures and governmental authority of the twentieth century represent the ordering principles of a new class versus the messier product of a concatenation of diverse groups and multiple contingencies congealed by the exigencies of war-time mobilization is never, to my mind, clearly sorted out.
Finally, there is the problem of just how "progressive" was the professional middle class. By tightly linking progressive reform ideas to the values and ambitions of the new urban professionals, Wiebe makes "progressivism" (unlike populism) at once a winning ticket and a rather obnoxious mixture of anti-democratic initiatives. What Kenneth Cmiel calls the "dark edge" of Wiebe's modernization theory encircles just this tendency towards control and order for its own sake--or at most for the sake of a new class of managers and engineers.(10) Here, however, I wish Wiebe had differentiated the new middle class on more than just occupational grounds (112). I think that in this case his own early acquaintance with the business progressives continued to dominate the interpretation of a very diverse set of thinkers. In particular, it makes sense to me to abstract what we might call the new intellectuals of the era--those who made their living primarily as social interpreters rather than as managers or political leaders--from the general category of new middle class. The ideas of the reformers neatly encapsulated in Wiebe's Chapter 6 ("Revolution in Values") are at once too ambitious and too internally diverse to be written off (as Wiebe seems to do) as the blueprint for a coming iron cage. Such a characterization, in particular, slights a generation of thinkers and activists as much intent on adapting industrial society to democratic values as vice versa.. For starters, adherents of industrial democracy (or an Americanized version of European-style social democracy) would surely include Jane Addams, Florence Kelley and much of the social settlement movement, the Wisconsin School labor economists (and many other early adherents to the American Economics Association), and labor-centered political organizers from Frank Walsh and A. Philip Randolph to organizers of the Socialist Party. Far better (and fairer) to console these members of the new class with the dignity of defeat than to incorporate them into a regnant political-economic order which largely ignored their counsel. In accounting for the falling-off of progressive reformers after the Great War, Wiebe explains that "above all, many of these one-time challengers had simply won too much to fight on." (292) To me such a judgment is at odds with the spirit of disillusionment and outright setback that I and others tend to see gathering in just this period among the intellectual reformers of the prewar era.
Though in my view perhaps too dismissive of this intellectual class, Wiebe, in fact, is not totally hostile. In the entire The Search for Order, a book defiantly sober and mincing in its appreciation of our historical forefathers (I choose the gender purposefully), one character, to my mind, stands out as an unadulterated good guy. Thorstein Veblen, Wiebe writes, "the most brilliant mind of his time, seldom spoke for anyone other than himself [yet] his intellectual wanderings provide one more example of how men of this era often thought in strange theoretical combinations. Early in life he fixed his gaze upon a society where individuals enjoyed a healthy, sensitive relationship with their work, and he never relinquished the vision." (153) Although he did not follow Veblen into the strangeness of an engineer's utopia, Robert Wiebe, like this hero of the The Search for Order, also examined American life with uncommon brightness attached to an unwavering moral compass. For his contributions as well as his continuing provocations, we remain most fortunate.
(1) _The Workers' Search for Power: Labor in the Gilded Age,_ in H. Wayne Morgan, ed., The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1963), 38-68; After empirically exploring industrial conflicts drawing on urban ethnic working-class sub-cultures, Gutman rejected his early town-city distinctions. Ira Berlin, _Introduction: Herbert G.Gutman and the American Working Class,_ in Herbert G. Gutman, Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), 16-17.
(2) Louis Galambos, "The Emerging Organizational Synthesis in Modern American History," _Business History Review_ 44:3 (1970), 279-290. On the organizational synthesis model, see also Wayne K. Hobson, "Professonals, Progressives and Bureaucratization: A Reassessment," _Historian_ 39:4 (1977), 639-58.
(3) Kenneth Cmiel, "Destiny and Amnesia: The Vision of Modernity in Robert Wiebe's Search For Order," _Reviews in American History_ 21(1993), 352-56.
(4) The film _Alfie_ with Michael Caine and Shelley Winters as directed by Bill Naughton was released by Sheldrake Films in 1965.
(5) On political language see also pp. 77, 161.
(6) Cmiel, 357.
(7) Wiebe cites Hofstadter with unstinting praise in his concluding bibliographical essay, including "special mention" of _Age of Reform_ in its treatment of populism and progressivism as "imaginative social history" at its finest. (315)
(8) See also characterization of reform thought as rationalizations from a "first cause" (62-63).
(9) _The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion_ (New York: Knopf, 1984), xiii-xiv. On class cleavages see also, _A Society in Halves,_ 321-52.
(10) Cmiel, 361.
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