Saturday, May 28, 2011

Workerism and gay scholarship

Workerism is a term applied to several trends in left-wing political discourse and politics, especially anarchism and Marxism. In principle it stems from the recognition that in emerging capitalist economies a key economic role has been played by blue-collar workers, often termed simply the working class. For their part, white-collar employees are not usually regarded as workers in this sense. With the spread of the information-based economy and the decline of industrialism, the role of the working class in the older acceptation has necessarily diminished.

The corollary, especially on the Marxist left, is the idealization or glorification of manual workers, who are assumed to have acquired through experience--the school of hard knocks--some special wisdom that is denied to the intellectuals who idolize them. Yet much of this idolization is simply pro forma, as left-leaning intellectuals continue to communicate in jargon that is incomprehensible to the working class.

The glorification of the working class is the mirror image of the mainstream adulation of the aristocracy. Neither view seems well founded, even though both persist.

At one time, Socialist Realism ranked as one manifestation of cultural workerism. Now that that trend is gone, the notion occasionally pops up here and there.

A recent example is the spin leftist gay writers are currently giving to the work of the important gay historian Allan Bérubé, who died in 2007 at the age of sixty-one. A postumous collection of his writings has just been published by the University of North Carolina Press: My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, edited by John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman.

Bérubé made his mark some twenty years ago with Coming Out Under Fire, a pioneering study of gay men in World War II. Subsequently, he received a “genius award” from the MacArthur Foundation, an honor he well deserved.

However, I don’t think that Bérubé’s memory is enhanced by his left-leaning friends who claim that he was raised in an insalubrious trailer in New Jersey. Entirely self-taught (according the this view), he is an icon of “community history.” This appears to be a new wrinkle on workerism.

In reality, Bérubé lived in the trailer with his family only briefly. Assisted by a scholarship, he went to a fancy prep school in Massachusetts. He attended the University of Chicago, only to drop out just before getting his degree to work against the war in Vietnam.

I knew Allan Bérubé. He emphatically did not have a “working-class” accent or habits. He was, as far as I could tell, nonideological. (He did pronounce his surname "Beeruby," though.)

Of course, Bérubé did not teach in a college or university: he was an independent scholar. However, that status has characterized many, if not most of the founders of gay history (see my account at One need only think of Heinrich Hoessli, a milliner, or K.H. Kertbeny, a journalist. During the twentieth century important pioneering work was done by Donald Webster Cory (Edward Sagarin) and Jim Kepner, to name just two examples. Eventually, Cory-Sagarin did get a Ph.D., but only after he had published his magnum opus entitled The Homosexual in America. Kepner never went to college at all.

In this way Bérubé continued a long, very substantial tradition. For this reason, his important contribution should not be distorted by enrolling him posthumously in the ranks of workerist heroes.

UPDATE (June 9). I have read the essay collection. Unfortunately, it is rather slight. After his major book came out, he never quite seemed to find his footing as a scholar.



Blogger Stephen said...

Though lacking even a BA, Bérubé did have some academic gigs, including at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He claimed the trailer park roots and to be "working class," and was I think more a leftist ideologue than your posting suggests. Whether he ever did blue-collar work, I don't know. He certainly does not seem to have used the Macarthur money to support gay (or whatever) research.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Now that I have read the book, I think that you are right, Steve.

Allan B. was a product of a particular period that generated disgruntled radicals, an effect that is not to be despised since it caused Gay Liberation to go into high gear. However, that era is now over, and few young lefties are appearing. To all intents and purposes, that type has gone out of production.

The very notion that there is something wrong with living in a trailer is revealing. My favorite aunt lived in one until she died; I visited her there several times and it was very pleasant. Now my oldest friend is enjoying living in a trailer in LA.

The memorial book contains a depressing essay on how dreadful it is to be white. Apparently, the working-class roots, whether real or imaginative, were not enough to erase this primal horror.

It is possible that the creative blockage Allan B. experienced in later years reflected a sense that the ideology he and his friends subscribed to was ebbing. At all events it has ebbed.

2:20 PM  

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