In the cartoons, an astonished character will at times need to grab his eyeballs as they come flying out of his head. Something like that happened to me a few months ago while going through the fall catalog of Columbia University Press. Buried deep in its pages – well behind all the exciting, glamorous titles at the bleeding edge of scholarship – was the listing for Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy by Richard D. Kahlenberg. (It has just appeared in hardback.)
This was a title one might reasonably expect to see issued by a commercial publisher: Shanker, who died in 1997, was for many years the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which he helped build into one of the strongest unions in the AFL-CIO. It now has more than a million members, including about 160,000 who work in higher education; even if only one in a hundred were interested in the union’s history, that is quite a potential audience.
At the same time, it was a surprise to find the book published by a press better known for titles in cultural theory: works embodying a certain abstract radicalism, several miles in stratosphere above the labor movement. And Shanker, besides being a union bureaucrat, was something of a hardboiled ideologue – a fierce Cold Warrior, but no less ardent a Culture Warrior, denouncing both affirmative action and multiculturalism in tones that were, let’s say, emphatic.
Such “tough liberalism,” as his biographer calls it, made the labor leader a punchline in Woody Allen’s post-apocalyptic comedy "Sleeper" (1973). A character explains that no one is quite sure how civilization ended, but historians think it all started when “a man named Albert Shanker got his hands on an atomic bomb.”
A lot has changed since the days when a new movie by Woody Allen was a major event. And in any case, no labor leader has emerged in recent decades with quite the cultural and political profile that Shanker once had. Yet his name still has the power to provoke. There are Shankerites and anti-Shankerites.
Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, DC, admires Shanker and gives him the benefit of the doubt, more often than not. That tendency comes through, I think, in the IHE podcast we recently recorded. But Kahlenberg is not totally uncritical of Shanker. As we talked following the taping, Kahlenberg mentioned the passions stirred up by the leader's memory.
Some followers remain convinced that “Al” was right about more or less everything -- including the Vietnam War, which Shanker supported. Kahlenberg also looked into charges by Shanker's opponents that he received funds as part of the American intelligence community’s activity within the labor movement.
That accusation is hardly a surprising or implausible. All things considered, it would be surprising if Shanker were not connected with "the AFL-CIA” (as certain networks within the intelligence and labor communities were sometimes called). But Kahlenberg says critics haven’t offered solid evidence to back up the accusation. There is a difference between firm conviction and real proof. This is a matter some historian will eventually need to revisit, nailing things down with serious documentation.
Tough Liberal is not the first book about Shanker. But the previous volume, Dickson A. Mungazi’s Where He Stands: Albert Shanker and the American Federation of Teachers, published by Praeger in 1995, was not really a biography. Nor was it much of a contribution to labor history, given that Mungazi identifies Samuel Gompers (who died in 1924) as the first president of the CIO (established in 1935).
So Kahlenberg has made a real contribution by telling the story of this charismatic and/or megalomaniacal labor leader’s career. I say that as a reader who did not pick up the biography with any admiration for its subject – nor put it down converted to Shanker-style “toughness.” (Actually it made me think maybe Woody Allen was right.) But it’s an engaging book, and essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Cold War liberalism and its complicated legacy.
Further reading (and listening): An excerpt from Tough Liberal is available at Columbia UP's website. An early review of it appears in the latest issue of Washington Monthly. An extremely favorable treatment of the biography and of Shanker himself has recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal. For something altogether less laudatory, see the essay appearing ten years ago in the socialist journal New Politics. And by all means, lend an ear to the interview with Richard Kahlenberg, available as an IHE podcast.