Robert D. Johnston. The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 416 pp. $37.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-09668-1.
Reviewed by Adam Hodges (Department of History, University of Houston--Clear Lake)
Published on H-Urban (July, 2005)
The Beginning of a "New Middle-Class" History?
From the first paragraph of the preface, Robert Johnston makes it clear that his book is not merely a case study of populist democracy in an intriguing, oft-overlooked western city. "This book has a large ambition," he opens, "to reorient our thinking about the American middle class." By reorient, he seems to mean dismantle: "Scholars' belief in such a creature has been unwise and inaccurate at best" (p. xi). His interest is primarily in reclaiming the progressive, even radical, politics of the urban lower middle class, asserting that small property holders have been too long either maligned as reactionary or just ignored by scholars.
Johnston's exhaustive and illuminating critique of the historiography of the petit bourgeoisie reaches the depressing conclusion that this group has been portrayed as little more than alienated robots and bewildered bureaucratic drones bereft of authentic community and politics who remain disengaged from, or are even a threat to traditions of, democratic struggle. The author asserts that leftists and liberals alike have long been convinced that the producerist republicanism of the nineteenth century disappeared with the onset of a supposedly thorough corporate hegemony at the dawn of the twentieth. Johnston demonstrates that the lower middle class did not become either increasingly marginal or decreasingly engaged in democracy at the moment scholars seem to lose interest in it as a democratizing force. Rather, as the last century began, this group, at least in Portland, was pushing the boundaries of democracy wider than it perhaps had ever done before while leading the charge against the excesses of corporate capitalism.
Johnston grounds his study of lower middle class radicalism in Portland partly because the city has a historical reputation for having sidestepped the ethnic and racial heterogeneity and the explosive industrial conflict that often accompanied urban growth in the Progressive Era. He asserts that the city was, in fact, host to a tremendous amount of working- and lower-middle-class radical activism, with the two groups often working in tandem, that engaged contemporaries across the nation even though historians would later largely forget them. Like the lower middle class itself, Johnston argues, Portland has been mischaracterized as sleepy and shoved aside; surely the action must be elsewhere. However, because of the "Oregon System," the author's most important reason for choosing his locale, Portland seems to have been the most important urban center of Progressive Era experimentation with direct democracy in the nation.
Johnston is quite influenced by the notion of class formation set forth by E.P. Thompson in his 1963 classic, The Making of the English Working Class. He refuses to construct a static definition of the lower middle class, even for a particular period. Like Thompson, Johnston argues that class is a process, something that is made by individuals acting in concert over time, rather than a descriptive group category that assesses the relationship of various population sectors to the means of production regardless of their own expression of identity. This notion led to a revolution in labor history, inspiring a host of productive studies on urban working-class activism. It is perhaps Johnston's most important assertion that this proactive, fluid, and historically contingent class formation paradigm should be extended to middling Americans. In fact, he shows that the boundary between the working and lower middle classes was fluid, which did not produce a downward-directed resentment, but rather a bridge to anticapitalist solidarity.
In World War I era Portland, less than 1 percent of the population of Multnomah County took in 63 percent of the taxable income, and that elite had enormous political clout in a city that never developed ethnic machine politics. It was also a commercial elite, one that largely became wealthy from speculating on land. Its provinces were real estate, transporting goods, banking, and utilities. Much of Portland's elite did not seem to produce anything, opening the way for an oppositional producerist movement; and the city had lots of small producers. In 1909, almost 90 percent of Oregon manufacturers employed less than twenty workers and over 70 percent had noncorporate ownership. No firm employed over a thousand and only three had more than five hundred workers. Before World War I era shipbuilding dramatically changed Oregon's industrial economy, at least temporarily, small business defined the working experience of Portlanders. Johnston has found that the lower middling section of this public, during the Progressive Era particularly, maintained a broad-based sense of fairness about what those who "worked" for a living were due. They often supported working-class protest and in turn the local labor newspaper often expressed solidarity with small business. But this symbiosis was not a sign of cozy conservatism, the author maintains, because both groups were surprisingly tolerant of socialism before World War I and actively created together a grassroots anticorporate politics.
Johnston's study is divided into twenty-two chapters over six sections and continues to engage historiography throughout, but it rarely meanders because he has anchored the structure in four sequential biographies, each representative of different aspects of lower-middle-class radicalism: Harry Lane, Oregon senator and articulator of an anticapitalist moral economy for the middle class; Will Daly, local political hero of the working and lower middle classes and himself part of both; William S. U'Ren, the father of direct democracy in Oregon; and Lora Little, an antivaccination advocate who asserted the rights of "the people" against "the experts." The argument of the book relies heavily on evidence from voting results, a process of looking at the election returns for Harry Lane or Will Daly, or the direct initiative causes of William U'Ren or Lora Little, and then extrapolating support for their politics, for which Johnston has significant written record, from the votes of neighborhoods about which he can know economic level but often little else from this period. Time and again the author demonstrates, with helpful precinct maps, that areas of the city dominated by skilled workers and the lower middle class consistently confronted elites and were a bulwark of radical direct democracy. He mounts a powerful challenge to the historiography of middle-class politics as either moribund at best or antidemocratic at worst.
Unfortunately, we still know very little about the radical petit bourgeois men and women who supported organized labor and a host of candidates and initiatives aimed at redressing an imbalance of power between "the people" on one side and both capitalist elites and upper middle class experts on the other. When Harry Lane decried his state's treatment of Native Americans, or Will Daly encouraged Portland socialists, do these sentiments give voice to the radicalism of their constituents? Perhaps they do, but Johnston's greatest challenge comes in explaining the shift in Portland politics after World War I, the rock which broke the careers of both Lane and Daly, which saw Oregon become one of the several most solid Ku Klux Klan states in the nation with a strong power base in Portland. This section near the end of the book is quite brief, perhaps due to an unfortunate lack of records, but the reader is left wondering how skilled workers and the lower middle class, key urban constituencies for the 1920s Klan, could have moved so far so quickly from leaders like Harry Lane.
Johnston has to struggle with this transformation because he is still mainly reliant, beyond voting patterns, on the pronouncements of leaders. William Woodward, who led a drive to make public schooling compulsory for all children, does seem part of moving Portland's democratic populism away from attacking corporate capitalism directly, as Johnston claims, which would explain why it became a much more muted force in the 1920s. Johnston finds Klan leaders in Portland to be corrupt, antidemocratic, and procorporate. They are absolutely not the heirs of the four Progressive Era radicals he chronicles in most detail, and their movement is dead after 1925. Still, it remains difficult to explain why Portland would provide exceptionally fertile soil for, according to the author, both the highly democratic "Oregon System" and the very undemocratic Klan. Did high levels of support for the public schooling initiative come from populist hopes for a classless youth without elite private schools or from anti-Catholic bigotry? Johnston presses the former explanation but why not emphasize both? In recovering the radical democratic politics of the lower middle class, there is no reason not to acknowledge that this group was likely often divided against itself over the extent, direction, and meaning of this drive for reform and, like all other social classes in the United States, could also be susceptible to racist appeals.
Johnston has convinced this reviewer that we need to know much more about this crucial middling group and the impact it has had, and continues to have, on U.S. politics as both a local and national force. Historians need to take the lead this book provides and seek out petit bourgeois social movements that have left significant records, for these coalitions and organizations are so often the crucible of the class formation process, as the "new labor history" has amply demonstrated. How did the lower middle class articulate its own politics of reform in other cities, without access to the "Oregon System" of direct democracy by ballot initiative? How can we learn more about the grassroots and what will we find? The future research that pursues these unknowns may well establish Johnston's book as the foundational text of a "new middle-class" history.
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Adam Hodges. Review of Johnston, Robert D., The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon.
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