LIZABETH COHEN. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919 – 1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. 570. $99.99. Hardback. ISBN: 9780521887489.

Lizabeth Cohen is the current dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies at Harvard University. Making a New Deal was her first published book, adapted from her doctoral dissertation “Learning to Live in the Welfare State: Industrial Workers in Chicago between the Wars, 1919-1939,” submitted in 1986 at UC Berkeley. Published in 1990, Making a New Deal was widely celebrated, receiving both the Bancroft Prize and the Philip Taft Labor History Book Award, and becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The book is a New Labor History and Social History that uses Chicago as a case study to trace the interwar transition of industrial workers from unorganized, isolated, and divided ethnic communities in the 1920s to a homogeneous, unionized, and politically active class of common laborers—dependent upon the levers of the New Deal welfare state—in the 1930s. The book places mass culture, evolving notions of welfare, economic hardships of the Depression, and attitudinal shifts among working-class people at the center of the New Deal state’s creation. Contrary to scholars of Old Labor History, Cohen locates the origins of working-class consciousness in processes of assimilation, “Americanization,” and popular consumption rather than workplace production.

Cohen downplays the roles of union leaders, national politicians, and social reformers in the creation of the New Deal state. Instead, she emphasizes industrial, working-class people in Chicago from such job sites as steel mills, agricultural-tool factories, and meat-packing plants. From roughly 1919 to 1929, these workers were largely divided along geographical, skill, ethnic, racial, and cultural lines. Ethnic workers were isolated in separate, parochial neighborhoods with distinct cultures that were preserved through an array of local, culturally specific institutions, like parishes, storefronts, groceries, newspapers, movies, sports teams, and more. The boundaries between these communities—be them Irish, Afro-American, Slavic, or Mexican—precluded the ability for them to unite into a common working class. Over the course of the late 1920s and early 1930s, however, at least three changes occurred in these isolated neighborhoods. First, groups experienced the shared devastation of the Great Depression, making their conditions as part of a common working-class more evident and urgent. Second, newer technologies, assimilation-based organizations, and common habits of consumption eroded cultural and skill differentials between enclaves. Third, laborers embraced the paternalistic rhetoric of “welfare capitalism,” espoused by their corporate employers, and the labor policies of the New Deal, to demand labor rights.

By the mid-1930s, industrial laborers in Chicago had ostensibly embraced a common culture of consumption, and they united across ethnic and racial differences in order to espouse a new brand of “moral capitalism” for the collective, working-class. This “moral capitalism” was based in the legislative promises of the New Deal (collective bargaining in The Wagner Act, for example), the labor tactics of national unionization (embodied by the CIO), and a firm belief in the Democratic Party (demonstrated by the reelection of FDR in 1936). In Making a New Deal, Cohen argues that the rise of industrial unionism and faith in a big, central federal government in the 1930s should be primarily attributed to the agency of the working-class, their cultural exchanges and their gradual assimilation to mass culture.

Unfortunately, there are many causal flaws in this otherwise brilliant cultural study. Most importantly, if the working-class deserves credit for making the New Deal state, then what about all the other actors whom we commonly associate with this process? Where are the representatives of state and federal government in this narrative? Where are those who actually write and pass legislation, and where is a discussion of their relationship to working-class people in grassroots struggles? What are we to make of working-class agency when Cohen states that the working-class appropriated all of their labor ideas from the unfilled promises of their capitalist employers? Do not the employers deserve credit then, as well as the heritage of Chicago labor activists who came before 1919 (especially those of the 1880s)? And what about the union leaders who entered Chicago from outside the state and lobbied for change? Finally, anyone unsatisfied with the extent of racial progress during the greater New Deal era will likely feel that Cohen has downplayed existing racial and ethnic conflicts and over-estimated the cohesion of the working class across these lines.

In general, Cohen’s biggest weakness is in suggesting that cultural changes among the industrial working-class—from insular ethnic polities to one homogeneous group, united by such common cultural elements as religion, language, movies, food, sport, radio, et cetera—are determinate and not accessory. Rather than being only one element in a broader set of national changes that drove the New Deal transformation of the 1930s, popular consumption among the working class becomes the engine of the New Deal itself. But if Cohen has over-exaggerated both the agency and cohesion of working-class peoples during the 1930s, then it is obvious that those scholars who have come before her have greatly under-estimated them. Cohen’s work is still a compelling analysis. At the very least, it should prevent future labor historians from overlooking the changing cultural dimensions of the New Deal state.