The New York of 1945 was the victorious city of the New Deal and World War II, one that can barely be glimpsed today beneath postmodern towers and billboards for dot-com enterprises. New York was a metropolis with a strong manufacturing base that gave it economic muscle and a seaport that gave it a gritty yet cosmopolitan air. Its people were largely immigrants and the children of immigrants. Their sensibility, "savvy, opinionated, democratic," in the words of historian Joshua B. Freeman, "helped set the tone of the nation in the postwar years" through labor leaders such as Michael Quill of the Transport Workers’ Union and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
In a lucid, detailed and imaginative analysis, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II, Freeman shows how the city’s working class, in alliance with leftists, built an urban social democracy that enriched many lives before it fell to the forces of global economics and domestic politics. Anyone who wants to understand the changing fortunes of working people and the left in the nation’s largest city should read this book. In Freeman’s view the mortal blow to this city on a hill was not McCarthyism but the fiscal crisis of the seventies, which undermined New York’s miniature welfare state.
The fiscal crisis and the new politics that followed ravaged the public institutions that working people depended on, enshrining a lean and mean city government instead of one that helped cushion the inequalities of the market. "Public institutions once attractive to all sorts of New Yorkers," Freeman writes, "became subnormal institutions of last resort." As a result, all New Yorkers–but, most important, working people–live in a metropolis defined by stark inequalities.
The New York of 1945, Freeman argues, was fortified by a red subculture. The Communist Party, legitimated by the Popular Front and wartime antifascism, and represented everywhere from unions to the city council, held substantial power. In the late forties and fifties, this alignment shuddered under the blows of the cold war and McCarthyism. Classroom by classroom, block by block, union by union, Communists were driven to the margins of public life in New York City.
Nevertheless, as Freeman shows, New York’s political culture remained open to former Communists. Whatever the disagreements of Communists and liberals on international issues, on domestic questions–national health insurance, civil rights, the need to preserve the New Deal–they shared much common ground. For those who were willing to throw off what Freeman calls "the dead weight of Soviet allegiance," there was room for maneuver and even success.
In his effort to salvage the best of the New York Communists’ legacy, Freeman verges on understating the role of non-Communists, liberals and socialists in Gotham’s exceptional political culture. And the transition from Communist to post-Communist activism was not always as smooth as he suggests, either. The Communists, Freeman writes, believed in "class rule–or at least in their own rule in the name of the working class–both as a theoretical and practical matter." From the standpoint of democratic socialism, this perspective raised the fear of a party substituting itself for a democratic majority–and worse. Ex-Communists who became independent radicals or staunch liberals often had to confront such inheritances as part of a process of sorting through which ideas were worth keeping from their party days. The process was not easy, and the getting of wisdom after leaving the party could be as valuable as lessons learned in it.