Today’s socialists are not longing for the days of Jim Crow. But, as Dustin Guastella of Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia argues, neither should they throw out the idea that the 1950s was a great time for the American worker. Viewing the 20th-century through the eyes of class may cause us to think differently about this period. Guastella writes: “A dive into mid-century American history uncovers how a strong labor movement was pivotal in building social unity, equality, and advancing civil rights. While nostalgia might seem like a dead end, the past holds valuable lessons for shaping a better future.”
Here is a taste of his piece at Jacobin, “Is Nostalgia a Dead End?“
“…in 2016 the New York Times published the results of a Morning Consult survey that asked “When Was America Greatest?” The results confirm a particular fondness for the mid-century. Republicans tended to laud the 1950s (and Ronnie Reagan’s 1980s) as the halcyon days. Curiously, however, among Democrats, the Times notes that “Mr. Sanders’s voters were more likely to pick a year from the 1960s, and more of the Clinton supporters chose best years in the 1990s, when her husband was president.”
Surely these Sanders supporters aren’t pining for Jim Crow. The reality is that a substantial portion of people across the political spectrum and across the generational divide feel a strong pull of nostalgia for those decades. Even when they hadn’t lived through them!
For those who did live through the period the affection seems even more profound. In his book Stayin’ Alive, Jefferson Cowie quotes the son of a Pennsylvania steelworker: “If what we lived through in the 1950s was not liberation, then liberation never happens in real human lives.” The liberation referred to is the “complete transformation in his family’s life — from their material well-being to his father’s bearing toward supervisors on the shop floor.” As Cowie notes, the decade really was a revelation for the working-class, with workers’ wages increasing by almost 62 percent between 1947 and 1972. By comparison, between 1998 and 2022, real median household wages only increased by 13.88 percent. As much talk as there is about the impressive growth of the Clinton years, and despite the resurgence of the show Friends, the 1990s was nothing like “liberation.”
Whatever else nostalgia for the mid-century represents, it is hard to argue that popular affection for the period is merely aesthetic, subjective, or simply reactionary. There were aspects of society that were functioning better. For the Left, this is an especially important point to absorb for a few reasons. Firstly, studying periods when society appeared to be, in some profound respects, healthier can teach us a lot about the characteristics of a thriving society. Secondly, by acknowledging, rather than denying, that some aspects of social life might have been better in the past, we can better understand the vast political divide we face today. Such an acknowledgement doesn’t imply endorsing conservative politics or policy positions…
Understanding the mid-century era can help us break free from the frighteningly narrow vision of the future that prevails today. After all, envisioning a better society becomes easier when we are aware of our past achievements and, even more so, when we understand the ambitious possibilities our predecessors imagined.
Read the entire piece here.
Historian Daniel J. Clark offers a different view.