Judith Stein (1940–2017)

Remembering the life and legacy of the great historian Judith Stein.

Works by Judith Stein.

Judith Stein — who passed away on May 8 — left behind a body of work that stands as a model of uncompromising historical scholarship, as well as a compelling guide to politics today.

The broad sweep of her publications was impressive. She wrote insightfully about the political economy of Booker T. Washington, the class politics of the Garvey movement, the fate of the steel industry, the origins of neoliberalism, and most recently the politics of globalization. At every point Stein cut through the mystifications of economic orthodoxy and resisted the turn towards culture and the politics of identity.

Political economy and class conflict were her organizing premises, but for Stein that meant digging down into the nitty-gritty of political history rather than peering upward toward the abstract tendencies of the capitalist system.

Stein’s most important insight was that the policy — primarily economic policy — is a more reliable guide to class interests than rhetoric or ideology. When Republicans talk about health care they use words like freedom, choice, access, and efficiency. But that language tells us nothing about the actual policies Republicans are now pressing for — slashing Medicaid, abolishing subsidies for the poor, destroying the Obamacare exchanges. If anything, the ideology of health-care “reform” right now bears an inverse relationship to policy, a policy that has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with class war waged from above against those below.

Policy means politics, hence the nugget of wisdom in the familiar cliché about politicians: watch what they do, not what they say. It’s as true for history as it is for politics. If we judged historical actors by their rhetoric alone the slaveholders would rank among the most vocal advocates of “freedom” in America before the Civil War. White supremacist neo-Confederates still believe this. For Stein, putting rhetoric and ideology to one side and focusing instead on policy clears away much of the rubbish from recent American political history.

Judged by his rhetoric, Ronald Reagan was the great ideologue of the free market, and his victory in 1980 signaled the turn away from the politics of the New Deal and the Great Society. Stein never doubted that Reagan was a reactionary, but judged by economic policy it was Jimmy Carter who initiated the era of deregulation and Bill Clinton who was the more determined free-trader.

Stein was not arguing that ideology is irrelevant, only that it’s too fungible to stand in as a reliable indicator of anybody’s politics, whether of the left or the right. Racial ideology is a good example. In the late nineteenth century desperate white farmers — many of them no doubt racist — joined with black sharecroppers in assault on a brutally oppressive economic system. In contrast, liberal antiracism today often masks the elitist politics of the professional-managerial class.

In any attempt to recover the class interests at work in policymaking, Stein believed, social history is necessary but not sufficient. Like most of us who came of age in the sixties or later, Stein was influenced by E. P. Thompson’s call for historians to write history “from the bottom up.” One of the books she loved to assign in her African-American history course was All God’s Dangers, the remarkable oral history of Nate Shaw, a southern sharecropper.

Steel workers, labor organizers, tenant farmers — all were essential to the kind of history Stein wrote. Without them historians risk confusing elite interests with those of ordinary workers. But too many social historians fall into the trap of treating the ruling classes as if they were mere cyphers, as if the people with power did not actually use it effectively to advance their own interests.

For good reason, Stein spent as much time at presidential libraries as she did in the archives of labor unions. She once said to me that the problem with Who Built America? the impressive textbook-length summa of the social-history revolution — is that there was no bourgeoisie in it. Stein would surely have endorsed Eric Hobsbawm’s amendment to Thompson’s dictum. “What I would like to do is not simply, like Edward Thompson, to save the stockinger and the peasant,” Hobsbawm once wrote, “but also the nobleman and the king of the past, from the condescension of modern historians who think they know better.” It’s important to appreciate the weapons of the weak, but it’s a dangerous thing for people on the Left to underestimate the cunning of the powerful.

Stein was an early and tenacious critic of the mythology of a unified “black” community — what Cedric Johnson calls the ideology of “black exceptionalism.” Sensitive to class divisions among African Americans, she was equally attuned to conflicting interests within the capitalist class. Those conflicts were reflected, not surprisingly, in policy differences at the highest levels of government. One of the last pieces Stein published — it appeared while she was in the hospital — was an astute examination of the fundamental differences between the globalizers and the economic nationalists within the new Trump cabinet.

For similar reasons Stein argued that at the level of national economic policy there are many “capitalisms.” After World War II the Japanese implemented an industrial policy that “chose winners” and sealed off its own market to global competitors. The German state reconstructed its own postwar economy by protecting the interests of both capital and labor through a series of policies designed to secure social peace. Unlike Germany and Japan, the United States opened its domestic market to the world, leaving American workers at the mercy of foreign competitors who protected their industries while closing their own markets to American manufacturers. Stein was not launching a diatribe against free trade as such except to the extent that she saw “free trade” as an illusion, another species of ideology.

In recovering the history of various policy options Stein brilliantly exposed the mystification at work when policymaking elites wring their hands or shed crocodile tears over the sad but unavoidable consequences of globalization. There was nothing inevitable about many of those consequences. Rather, the foreign policy apparatus in Washington chose to destroy the American steel industry rather than enforce trade agreements that prohibited dumping. The Reagan administration chose an industrial policy that secured the viability of the American electronics industry. Bill Clinton chose to endorse a trade agreement he knew — because he was loudly warned — would destroy what was left of the American textile industry. For Stein, talk about grand historical tendencies obscures the choices politicians actually make.

This was Stein’s major objection to Thomas Piketty’s important history of wealth concentration, Capital in the Twenty-first CenturyHe explained the rise in inequality by reference to a theory — capitalism’s inherent tendency toward inequality. Stein was having none of that. The “great compression” of wealth in the middle of the twentieth century and the relentless rise of inequality since then were both the direct consequences of federal policy. By over-theorizing the problem of maldistribution Piketty threatened to isolate it from the realm of policy options. He depoliticized it.

Stein believed that there were always choices, policy choices that were — and are — the ultimate expression of class interests, the very stuff of politics. Ideology isn’t enough. Neither is “diversity” if the goal is parity rather than equality. As Adolph Reed has pointed out, the demands of diversity could be satisfied if the top one percent included black people, Hispanics, and women in proportion to their numbers in the population, but it would do little to alter the basic structure of inequality.

The surest means of achieving true diversity is by protecting workers — because the working class is substantially white, disproportionately black, disproportionately Hispanic, and disproportionately female. Start there and the policy options are clear. Defend social security and workers’ compensation and Medicare and Medicaid and OSHA. Invest more in jobs and schools and less in police and prisons. Support unions. Raise the minimum wage. Establish universal health care. Bend the economy to the interests of democracy, not the other way around. That’s democratic socialism, as Judith Stein understood it, and identified with, throughout her long and distinguished career.