That’s the real question behind John Laslett’s book about coal miners, Colliers Across The Sea. (This is a partial draft which I’ll add more to later, before revising the whole thing. So far it covers just under half the book.)

    John Laslett’s interest in the fate of socialism in the United States spans more than forty years. Colliers Across the Sea continues this preoccupation. While the book spend most of its time and pages on coal miners, the fate of socialism and third parties in the U.S. in the 1910s and 1920s is Laslett’s primary interest in this book. Laslett rejects the conservatism or lack of class consciousness on the part of the U.S. working class as an explanation for the failure of the Socialist Party of America and other third party efforts. This thesis, Laslett writes, takes one country or type of country as “the normative case, while all others are seen as deviant.” (4.) Furthermore, according to Laslett, proponents of this thesis pay insufficient “attention to the societies with which the United States is being compared.” (5.)
Laslett approvingly quotes Sean Wilentz, arguing that exceptionalism should be replaced with a “truly comprehensive comparative history of American labor, one that is as open to analogies between events and movements in this country and those abroad as it is to the differences.” (Wilentz, quoted in Laslett, 5.) True to this sentiment, Laslett takes up comparative history to address the specific differences between midwestern and Scottish coal miners in regard to socialism. Laslett focuses on coal miners from 1865-1924 in three towns in Lanarkshire in southern Scotland and three towns in Illinois.
    Laslett writes that “[t]ransnational comparisons with rather small differences in outcome are what provide the most illuminating case studies, not those were the differences are great.” (8.) True to this point, Laslett spends most of the book demonstrating in painstaking detail that coal miners in the two areas were similar. The coal industry in both locales went through similar changes in industrial technology, division of labor, and economic expansion. Both groups of miners had similar workplace experiences, workplace culture, community life, industrial militancy, and use of legislation to secure improvements in the mining industry. Miners in both locations obviously share the same industry and the same time, and many shared a common heritage. In 1870 9% of miners in Illinois were from Scotland. (64.)
    Against all the similarities, Laslett finds that it was “in the area of electoral politics (…) that the two groups of miners diverged most sharply.” (11.) The Lanarkshire miners remained staunch supporters of the Labor Party, and this support helped make the Labor Party into a successful political entity. The Illinois miners, however, became less and less supportive of the Socialist Party of America and failed to support other parties than the Democrats and Republicans, which in turn contributed to the decline of the SPA and the failure of third parties as a viable option.
    While Laslett aims to establish similarities between Illinois and Lanarkshire miners, his recounting of miners in the two areas argues against views which flatten out complexities and differences among the miners. These views include what he calls “the isolated-mass hypothethis” and the “archetypal proletarian” stereotype. (20 and 24, respectively.) Both hypotheses hold that the miners were homogeneous and therefore predisposed to militancy. Laslett shows that as the towns of Wishaw and Larkhall gradually transformed from rural farm communities into mining communities, driven in part by the growing industrial importance of nearby Glasgow, both towns saw large in-migrations of men who worked as miners, from other towns and from Ireland. (20-22.) The miners also moved around a great deal, with only 9-14% staying in the same place of residence for ten years at a time. (23.) Many miners lived in or near large towns side by side with trades workers, small business owners, professionals, and workers in other jobs than mining. (21.)
    Mining as an occupation also varied across location and over time based on the technology and division of labor in the industry. Between 1850 and 1870, the majority of miners were skilled independent producers who did contracted mining at piece rates per ton, and who often raised a sizable portion of produce by cultivating small crops. (24 -25.) The independent miners were not the only type of worker in coal mining, and as mining technology improved and the division of labor expanded, the proportion of other types of workers grew. In addition to independent miners, there were groups of miners employed as crews working – and supervised – together on a section of a mine, instead of as individual contractors in individual rooms within the mine, as well as the workers who took extracted coal up to the surface. Both of these groups were paid piece or tonnage wages. There were also engineers, mine custodial and maintenance workers, and mine safety inspectors, paid hourly time wages. (30-31.) Laslett groups these workers into independent and often unionized artisan-colliers, younger immigrant newcomer-rebels who were often excluded from union membership by their status as apprentices, and semi-proletarians, a group consisting of miners without the independence or social and financial mobility of the independent artisan miners. (33-34.)
    These different groups of workers had different work experiences, varying workplace and organizational cultures, and sometimes conflicting interests on the job. They did, however, often act in solidarity and experience camaraderie with each other. When they did so, it was as the result of “a historically contingent process that took place over time,” not an automatic result or historically invariant given. As the make up of the workforce changed, the forms in which solidarity was expressed and the relationships with the mine owners also changed.
The independent miners tended to exercise a high degree of control over how their work was done and its rate, and to hold to a belief in mutual interests with mine owners. (27.) When the independent miners did act to exert pressure on the owners, it was by limiting their output of coal – effectively, working more slowly, a practice which, by keeping coal scarce, kept up the price of coal to the relative benefit of both miners and mine owners – and by limiting the supply of labor in mining primarily to the children of miners. (28-29.)
    Other miners and mineworkers experienced less control on the job than the independent miners, and all the mineworkers tended to experience less and less job control as new technology and workplace discipline were introduced. At the same time, mine owners and public officials sought to “exert new forms of social and political control over the miners in their communities” off the job (37), regulating behavior such as drinking, hunting, animal husbandry, housing (through the entry of many mine owners into the business of home construction and renting), schooling, and the use of company stores. (38-43.)
    The miners reactions to different issues varied. Miners generally accommodated owners on issues of alcohol and temperance, which affected the safety of miners on the job. The miners tended toward anger and opposition in other cases, particularly to the use of company stores, choice of schoolteachers, and continuing political disenfranchisment. (43.) These grievances contributed to a gradual decline in the class harmony view of the mine owners as partners in a common enterprise. An even greater factor in this decline was the introduction of new production methods, including greater workplace discipline. These changes reduced the privileges and prerogatives of the independent miners, as well as reducing the importance of these miners in the production process. (49-50.) Reactions to these changes varied across job classes, and in many cases miners in different job classes sought to defend their existing privileges alone, in a way which deepened divisions of job class, religion, and ethnicity between the miners. Laslett points out these ethnic and religious divisions which are sometimes thought to have been unique to U.S. working class were present among the Lanarkshire miners. (55.)
    Just as Laslett works against a flattening picture of the miners, he discusses multiple factors which contributed to Scottish miners’ migration to the U.S and Illinois. The pressures from mine owners on miners and mining communities discussed in chapter two were some factors. The prior practice of regulating labor supply was another factor. Miners’ leaders encouraged emigration of miners, believing this would lead to a tighter labor market and higher pay. Improvements in conditions of sea travel also helped remove one barrier to emigration. (59-62.)
Better wages, low land prices, active recruitment by U.S. companies, and letters from Scots living in the U.S. were some of the reasons miners migrated to the United States in particular. Laslett also notes that many radical Scots were predisposed toward migration to the U.S. because of their positive assessments of U.S. democracy and labor republicanism, a view similar to the independent miners’ idea of class harmony discussed in chapter one. (63.)
    Illinois in particular was attractive to some miners. Skilled miners were generally more scarce in Illinois because the mines were newer. Many miners from Illinois had enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War, which made miners even more scarce. These two factors raised wages for skilled miners from Scotland. Land was cheap as well, which meant that the buying power of these high wages. Finally, miners who migrated to Illinois wrote positive assessment home in letters and and accounts published in the Glasgow Sentinel, depicting Illinois as a good place for relocation. (65-67.)
    U.S. history only really enters Laslett’s book in depth with his discussion of the arrival of Scottish migrants in 1865. Laslett details the growth of mining communities and the mining industry in Illinois, and demonstrates general similarities between their analogs in Lanarkshire. Laslett looks at divisions by income, job class, religion, and ethnicity, and finds that none of them “threaten[ed] working class solidarity there more than” similar conditions did in Lanarkshire. Laslett identifies factors which prevented diversity within Illinois mining communities from being an obstacle to collective action. There include initiatives to establish publicly funded schooling for all children, cross-ethnicity campaigns to elect sheriffs and judges who would behavior favorably toward miners during strikes, the common membership in mining unions, and social bodies and fraternal orders which spanned ethnic groups or which cooperated with fraternal orders of other ethnic groups. (87-89.)
    While the above named differences did not retard organization and cooperation among miners, Laslett finds that Illinois mining communities initially saw less conflict between miners and owners on the job and in the community. Laslett attributes this to better housing, greater levels of home ownership, greater access to land to farm in order to supplement wages by farming, higher wages, and greater social and economic mobility. In short, Laslett finds that conditions were better in Illinois. (90-93.) In addition, miners initially enjoyed job control and lower levels of workplace discipline in mines in Illinois than in Britain. (94-97.) This helped foster the prevalence of the idea of common interests between independent miners and mine owners, mixed in with U.S. ideas of republicanism. (97-100.)
    In his discussion of 1872-1882 Laslett begins to move back and forth more frequently between his two sites of comparison, as the idea of common interests between miners and owners eventually broke down in both Illinois and in Lanarkshire. Technological changes and market expansion in the coal industry between 1850 and 1870 created an increasingly competitive environment for firms in Illinois and Scotland. At the same time, absentee owners – and with them, management on behalf of absentee owners – became more common in the industry. This helped undermine the vision of owners  and miners as having common interests, which in turn both reinforced and was reinforced by trends in management behavior: downward pressures on wages, increases in workplace discipline, and less willingness to negotiate in a conciliatory fashion with miners. (103-106.)
    Changes which caused grievances for miners coupled with inability to resolve workplace issues led to more conflictual responses by miners. In 1873-4 and again in 1877-9 a series of strikes broke out in both Lanarkshire and Illinois. The first series of strikes, in response to wage cuts ended largely in defeat, with only minor defensive victories for some of the miners. The second series, also in response to wage cuts were a resounding defeat for the miners. (106-108.)
    These strikes had a significant impact on the miners’ view of the owners. The owners refused to recognize miners’ unions, imposed worse pay, and refused to arbitrate disputes, which amounted to a refusal of the doctrine of class harmony. The miners began to follow suit particularly in the bitter aftermath of these lost strikes, by abandoning the view of a common interest between owners and miners, and developing ideas of class relations as involving conflicting interests. (111.)
    In the 1880s and 1890s technological changes intensified which further eroded conditions for the formerly independent miners. The division of labor was extended, which meant dividing the workers thereby creating an obstacle to shopfloor solidarity, skill became less important, and the mines became more dangerous due to new technologies. (130-131.) At the same time, expansion of mining created new jobs which attracted migrants who had come to the United States. Companies built rental housing for these migrants, just as Scottish mining companies rented homes to miners in Lanarkshire. This housing was poorly built, and company stores became more prevalent. (131-134.)
    British and U.S. born miners initially responded negatively to newer Slavic and Italian migrants in Illinois and Slavic and Irish migrants to Scotland. (135-137.) Union leaders pushed for admitting the newer miners as members, however, which helped breakdown barriers, particularly when these newer miners took active part in strikes. (137-140.)
    The late 1880s and mid 1890s saw another series of labor unrest, including a major lockout in 1889 in Illinois and national miners’ strikes in Scotland and the U.S. in 1894. Immigrant workers took part in labor unrest, which helped ease divisions among the miners. These strikes demonstrated the new sensibility of class conflict instead of class harmony and deepened it, involving destruction of property by miners on both sides of the Atlantic and violent police and militia mobilizations in response at the request of mine owners. Unfortunately for the miners, this series of unrest also ended with victories for mine owners. (145-146.) In response to these defeats, the miners began to discuss new ways to respond. The divergence in this response is the subject of the third and final part of Laslett’s book. (147-148.)
    The late 1890s again saw unrest in the mining industry. In Illinois, the United Mine Workers of America, District 12, emerged from the 1897 national coal strike a powerful body with many improvements such as union recognition and an eight hour workday codified in contracts with management. In Scotland, in 1899 a Joint Conciliation Board was established whereby miners’ and owners’ representatives could meet to negotiate wages. (156.) Success helped the unions grow bigger and provided them with resources. Unions in Lanarkshire and Illinois both pressed legislators to enact more laws on mine safety and supported pro-miner candidates.      Scottish miners, enfranchised in 1884, embraced a specifically worker centered separate political party more enthusiastically than their U.S. counterparts. (167.) In addition, Scottish miners more enthusiastically embraced calls for state ownership of mines. U.S. miners tended to call upon the state to enact laws which gave miners control on the shop floor – safety and work hour limits, for example – but they were less vocal about calls to nationalize industry. (170.) Still, for Laslett these differences are not the significant ones. He sees the miners’ leaders on both sides of the Atlantic as having similar goals and a similar legislative pressure strategy. "The parting of the transatlantic political ways had not yet seriously begun" prior to 1900. (172.)
    From 1900-1914, miners in both Illinois and Lanarkshire supported the Socialist Party of America and the Labour Party, respectively. (178, 184.) Many of the miners’ leaders were active in the party in their location, including rank and file militant Adolph Germer and UMWA district 12 president John H. Walker. (184, 186.)  The Socialist Party was an active force in local politics with much support among miners, but still had only one representative in the national legislature. (189-190.) The Labour Party, by contrast, had elected almost 40 politicians to Parliament. Still, it is not until 1914 that Laslett sees "a distinct difference" within "the process of class formation among the miners on each side of the Atlantic – a difference indicating that their politics had begun to part ways."  The quote is significant, in that it indicates that the "parting of the ways" Laslett sees was not present prior to 1914, and that other differences up to this point between the Lanarkshire and Illinois miners had not yet become particularly significant.
    The gap between Lanarkshire and Illinois miners in terms of their socialist leanings widened after 1914. (196.) While the fortunes of the Labour Party improved, the Socialist Party declined from receiving 22 percent of miners votes in 1912 to 17 percent in 1914, 9 percent in 1918, and 7 percent in 1920. The Socialist Party was never to recover and no third party replaced it as a viable political entity. (204.) By 1922 Laslett sees the Lanarkshire and Illinois miners as having definitively split to follow separate paths. (217.)
    Laslett identifies three reasons for this difference between Lanarkshire and Illinois. First, World War I had a greater impact on Lanarkshire. Conditions were worsened due to greater food rationing in Scotland, and the Scots had less access to farm land. Also, more Scottish miners fought in the war and so the Scots saw more casualties. (206-207.) Second, the U.S. saw a greater push for patriotism and greater suspicion over resident non-native ethnic workers, which shaped the views of U.S. miners and limited their willingness to undertake actions associated with either trouble-making or foreignness. (209-210.) Third, representative government differed in both locations. In 1916 the Liberal Party split, and in 1918 Britain expanded the vote to all adult men and many women, which allowed the Labour Party to rise in importance. No corresponding change occurred in the U.S. (211-212.) In the end, Laslett attributes the differences between his two cases to two main factors. These factors are World War I and the U.S.’s two party system. (228-234.)
     Laslett closes his book by arguing against seeing the lack of support for socialism among U.S. miners as deriving from conservatism. He argues that doing so obscures other forms of radicalism, such as shop-floor militancy among miners. Instead of bringing in their own biases or judging workers in one country by the history of another, Laslett argues to “study [of] the goals laid down by the workers themselves” and of “how far they were able to fulfill [these goals] within the means they had at their disposal.” (233.) Laslett finds that the Lanarkshire and Illinois miners did not have “contrasting visions of social progress for their countries” so mush as they employed “different means by which those visions were to be achieved.” (234.)


Notes for further discussion:

1. Gender and women. Women are almost entirely absent from the book, as is discussion of gender roles.

2. Race and ethnicity. While ethnicity does appear in the book, Laslett primarily underplays its significance. Race and racialization are hardly present at all. For instance, Laslett does not discuss how different groups were or were not perceived as white, and how those perceptions changed and what difference being white did or did not make.

3. Sources. Laslett draws extensively on government documents, union documents, newspaper articles, the papers of union and political leaders such as Keir Hardie and Adolph Germer, and on secondary sources. Journals or letters or other documents from ordinary rank and file miners and miners’ wives appear hardly at all in Laslett’s book. This is probably a contributing factor to the above named absences, but I also get the impression that Laslett wasn’t looking for these themes in his material, whereas another historian might have found those themes in the sources Laslett used.

4. Indicative- or exemplary-ness. Laslett spends no time on detailed comparison of his two samples – Lanarkshire and Illinois – with other examples in Scotland or the U.S. in the mining industry or elsewhere. At the same time, he clearly believes that his cases are representative in some fashion. On page 217, for example, he moves from the voting habits of miners in downstate Illinois to a claim about American and British miners. It’s hard not to read Laslett as offering his two cases as national archetypes for Scottish and American miners or workers. This is particularly so given that Laslett emphasizes World War I and national political structures in explaining the differences between the two locations, factors which operate at the level of the whole nation, not only on the regional level. Laslett also spends little time discussing how the effects of these two factors might have differed across regions in the U.S. and Scotland.

5. The SPA and the IWW. I find myself skeptical of Laslett’s attributing the differences in the directions of the Lanarkshire and Illinois miners to the two party system and World War I. Given that Laslett is concerned with the fate of the Socialist Party of America, he could have spent more time on the history of that party. Laslett spends a great deal of time throughout the book detailing factors which he repeatedly concludes do not account for differences between his two samples. He could have done the same with the SPA, comparing its history with that of the Labour Party only to conclude that those differences did not matter. Laslett does spend time on the history of the Labour Party, but spends almost no time on the history of the SPA. This is a strange absence.
     Laslett clearly knows this history. In 1974 he exchanged critical remarks with Philip Foner about this subject. Foner argued that the dual unionism and sectarianism of the Socialist Labor Party along with the inadequate trade union program of the SPA were crucial factors inhibiting U.S. socialism. Laslett argued instead that these were effectively negligible, with structural factors being of decisive importance. (Foner, “Comment” in reply to Laslett’s “Socialism and American Trade Unionism,” and Laslett’s “Reply” to Foner. In Laslett and Seymour Martin Lipset, _Failure of a Dream?: Essays in the History of American Socialism_, Berkelely: University of California Press, 1974, pages 151-169.)
     At its 1912 convention the Socialist Party of America put forward an amendment to the party constitution which eventually resulted in the expulsion of IWW members who were also members of the SPA, something proponents of the amendment actively argued for as they pressed for passage of the amendment. (Foner, _History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 4: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1915_, New York: International Publishers, 1965, page 406.) The amendment was adopted by a referendum in which only 11 percent of the SPA’s membership voted. (Foner, 408.) Shortly thereafter, “Big Bill” Haywood was recalled from the SPA’s National Executive Committee. The amendment and Haywood’s recall were matters of great controversy with the SPA escalated and membership fell dramatically from 150,000 members before the May 1912 convention to 78,000 by June of 1913 (Foner, 408-410, 413. See also documents from the SPA from 1913 discussing the controversy, online at
     This was also a matter of controversy within the UMWA on at least one occasion. Harold Houston, an official of the SPA and of the UMWA said to striking coal miners in Holly Grove West Virgina in August 1912, “I have become in recent years what they call a `Haywardite.'[sic] Some of my friends in the State say I must be removed from office because I believe in direct action. Gentlemen, I believe in action that gets results, and, as Bill Hayward [sic] says,`The more direct the better’.” (Quoted in Roger Fagge, “Eugene V. Debs in West Virginia, 1913: A Reappraisal”, West Virginia History, Volume 52 (1993), pp. 1-18, online at . Fagge’s article opens with a discussion of a West Virginia fact-finding mission which Debs, Germer, and Victor Berger – an outspoken critic of the IWW and opponent of Haywood – took for the SPA. Fagge writes that the three found “an environment where local socialists and the United Mine Workers of America were at loggerheads.”)
     Of course, this too might not be important to the differences Laslett is concerned with, but it bears mention. It bears particular mention given that several people Laslett cites were part of the national leadership of the SPA during and immediately after the 1912 convention, such as John H. Walker and Adolph Germer. Germer said at one point, for example, that the SPA needed “to set Haywood outside . . . so that we would not be required to bear the responsibility of his idiotic tactics.” (Quoted in Nick Salvatore, _Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist_, chapter 8, online at .) A few years after the controversy within the SPA Walker was appointed by President Wilson to a labor dispute mediation body in 1917, which Melvyn Dubofsky argues was implemented in order to undermine the IWW. (Dubofsky, _We Shall Be All_ 415-17.)
     Interestingly enough, Germer attended the founding convention of the IWW in 1905 in Chicago, as a representative of UMWA Local 728 from Mount Olive, Illinois. Other UMWA locals sent representatives to the founding convention, from Belleville Illinois; Red Lodge, Montana; and Pittsburg, Kansas. The representative from the Pittsburg local, John Graham, was empowered to enroll his local or at least 40 members thereof into the IWW, which he did. (_Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the IWW_, page 600, 602, 604, 614.)
     These matters may well prove insignificant. Without addressing them, however, Laslett is silent on either their significance or insignificance. Addressing the different agendas and controversies of groups and individuals would have allowed Laslett to address the agency of miners in groups and as individuals in relation to the structural factors which Laslett finds at the heart of the differences between U.S. and British workers.