From Harvard to the Ranks of Labor

Powers Hapgood and the American Working Class

By (author) Michael Robert Bussel

Paperback - £28.95

Publication date:

15 October 1999

Length of book:

280 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271018980

During the first half of the twentieth century, many young intellectuals and reformers sympathized with the aspirations of working people and supported the struggles of the labor movement. Powers Hapgood (1899–1949) was one of the most colorful and recognizable symbols of this crucial historical relationship. A Harvard graduate and the scion of a famous Progressive-Era family, Hapgood chose to devote his life to the working class. His fascinating political career, marked by a staunch commitment to workers' rights and civil liberties, also included important roles in the Socialist Party and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Robert Bussel's book is the first full-length biography of this prominent American Socialist, labor organizer, and social crusader.

Hapgood participated in some of the most stirring historical events of his time—an epic coal miners' strike in Western Pennsylvania, an insurgent attempt to oust John L. Lewis as president of the United Mine Workers of America, the defense of Niccolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and the electrifying victories of sit-down strikers in Akron, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan. In the latter stages of his career, he took unpopular stands on issues of racial justice, civil liberties, and union democracy that foreshadowed the fault lines along which the post–World War II labor movement would founder. Recording and reflecting upon these experiences in journals he kept throughout his life, Hapgood left behind an unusually rich chronicle of the American working class, the labor movement, and the practice of radical politics.

Hapgood's career illustrates important developments in the evolution of liberalism and radicalism, the industrial union movement, and the relationship between the middle and working classes in twentieth-century America. At a time when the American labor movement is attempting to recruit young people, forge a rapprochement with liberals, and reclaim its role as a voice for American workers, the appearance of a Hapgood biography is timely.

“In this well-written biography, Powers Hapgood emerges as a model political radical and organizer. Hapgood is principled, dedicated, intellectually vigorous, and willing to practice what he preaches. He respects the integrity of ideas and of the workers and radicals he calls comrades, even when it means he must suffer painful personal consequences. The reader celebrates Hapgood’s and labor’s successes, shares the pain of their defeats, and learns from this history of individual and social struggle.”

—Alan Singer, Hofstra University