On Election Day, it’s never a bad idea to revisit the larger consequences and historical stakes behind our democratic sweepstakes. Jane Addams (1860–1935)—sociologist, author, philosopher, suffragette, Nobel Peace Prize–winner, and founder of Hull House—felt frustration during the Progressive Era, in part because of the conditions affecting the working class, women, and children, but also because of the moral failings of industrial capitalism, which she attributed less to the system and more to the foibles of individual capitalists. She strove to view the labor movement not as a one-armed political struggle, but as a lens through which we might attempt to unify our sympathies for the suffering of others. In this excerpt from Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, Louise W. Knight explores how Addams’s experience with the Pullman Strike in 1894 led her to question—and later, so eloquently articulate—the dangers of moral absolutism to democratic citizenship.
Jane Addams’s contribution to Maps was her essay “The Settlement as a Factor in the Labor Movement.” Her intention was to give a history of Hull House’s relations with unions as a sort of case study and to examine why and how settlements should be engaged with the labor movement. The piece is straightforward in tone, nuanced, not polemical. In it she settles fully into the even-handed interpretive role she had first attempted in her speech on domestic servants eighteen months earlier.
But the essay also burns with the painful knowledge she gained from the Pullman Strike. She wrestles with the tension between the labor movement’s loyalty to its class interests and her own vision of a classless, universalized, democratic society. And she probes the philosophical question she and [John] Dewey had been debating: Are (class) antagonisms inevitable? Are antagonisms useful? The resulting essay was the most in-depth exploration of the subject of class that Addams would ever write. She was trying to find her way back from the edge of the cliff—class warfare—to which the Pullman Strike had brought her and the nation.
On the question of what the strike accomplished, her thoughts had shifted somewhat. Although she had told Dewey that antagonism was always useless, she argues in “The Settlement as a Factor” that strikes, which were certainly were a form of antagonism, can be useful and necessary. Strikes are often “the only method of arresting attention to [the workers’] demands”; they also offer the permanent benefits of strengthening of the ties of “brotherhood” among the strikers and producing (at least when successful) a more “democratic” relation between workers and their employer. Perhaps Dewey had been more persuasive than he realized.
She still felt, however, that personal emotion was the main cause of antagonisms, including strikes. She admits that labor has a responsibility to fight for the interests of the working people (that is, more leisure and wealth) but only because achieving them would help the workingman feel less unjustly treated. She charges labor with storing up of “grudges” against “capitalists” and calls this “selfish.” She ignores the question of whether low wages and long hours are fair. Social justice is not a touchstone for her arguments in this essay.
Instead, Addams stresses the ideal she had emphasized since coming to Chicago: that of a society united by its sense of common humanity. She writes prophetically of “the larger solidarity which includes labor and capital” and that is based on a “notion of universal kinship” and “the common good.” One might read into her argument the conclusion of social justice, yet the principle remains uninvoked. Instead, Addams stays focused on feelings. She is calling for sympathy for others’ suffering, not for a change in workers’ physical condition.
Addams disapproves of capitalism but not because of its effects on the workers. The moral failings of the individual capitalist trouble her. She slips in a rather radical quotation by an unnamed writer: “The crucial question of the time is, ‘In what attitude stand ye toward the present industrial system? Are you content that greed . . . shall rule your business life, while in your family and social life you live so differently? Shall Christianity have no play in trade?’” In one place, although only one place, she takes workers’ perspective and refers to capitalists as “the power-holding classes.” (Here at last was a glancing nod toward power.) The closest she comes to making a social justice argument is in a sentence whose Marxist flavor, like the previous phrase, suggests Florence Kelley’s influence, yet it, too, retains Addams’s characteristic emphasis on feelings. She hopes there will come a time “when no factory child in Chicago can be overworked and underpaid without a protest from all good citizens, capitalist and proletarian.” While Debs had wanted to arouse middle-class sympathies as a ways to improve the working conditions of the Pullman laborers, Addams wanted the labor movement to cause society to be more unified in its sympathies. Their means and ends were reversed.
Addams found the idea that labor’s organizing efforts could benefit society compelling. “If we can accept” that possibility, she adds, then the labor movement is “an ethical movement.” The claim was a startling one for her to make. It seems the strike had shown her at least one moral dimension to the workers’ struggle. The negative had become the potentially positive. Instead of seeing labor’s union organizing as a symptom of society’s moral decay, as she once had and many other middle-class people still did, she was considering the hypothesis that labor organizing was a sign of society’s moral redemption.
The Pullman Strike also cracked her moral absolutism. In “The Settlement as a Factor” she argues for the first time that no person or group can be absolutely right or absolutely wrong. “Life teaches us,” she writes, that there is “nothing more inevitable than that right and wrong are most confusingly mixed; that the blackest wrong [can be] within our own motives.” When we triumph, she adds, we bear “the weight of self-righteousness.” In other words, no one—not unions and working-class people, not businesses and middle-class people, not settlement workers and other middle-class reformers—could claim to hold or ever could hold the highest moral ground. The absolute right did not exist.
For Addams, rejecting moral absolutism was a revolutionary act. She had long believed that a single true, moral way existed and that a person, in theory, could find it. This conviction was her paternal inheritance (one recalls her father’s Christian perfectionism) and her social-cultural inheritance. Moral absolutism was the rock on which her confident Anglo-American culture was grounded. (It is also the belief that most sets the nineteenth century in the West apart from the twenty-first century.) Now she was abandoning that belief. In the territory of her mind, tectonic plates were shifting and a new land mass of moral complexity was arising.
In the fall of 1894, as she was writing “The Settlement as a Factor,” this new perspective became her favorite theme. In October she warned the residents of another newly opened settlement, Chicago Commons, “not to be alarmed,” one resident recalled, “if we found our ethical standards broadening as we became better acquainted with the real facts of the lives of our neighbors.” That same month, speaking to supporters of the University of Chicago Settlement, she hinted again at the dangers of moral absolutism. Do not, she said, seek “to do good.” Instead, simply try to understand life. And when a group of young men from the neighborhood told her they proposed to travel to New York City that fall to help end political corruption and spoke disdainfully of those who were corrupt, she admonished them against believing that they were purer than others and asked them if they knew what harm they did in assuming that they were right and others were wrong.
What had she seen during the Pullman Strike that led to this new awareness? She had seen the destructive force of George Pullman’s moral self-righteousness. It seemed to her that his lack of self-doubt, that is, his unwillingness to negotiate, had produced a national tragedy; his behavior and its consequences had revealed the evil inherent in moral absolutism. In Twenty Years she writes of how, in the midst of the strike’s worst days, as she sat by her dying sister’s bedside, she was thinking about “that touch of self-righteousness which makes the spirit of forgiveness well-nigh impossible.”
She grounded her rejection of absolute truth in her experience. “Life teaches us,” she wrote. This was as revolutionary for her as the decision itself. In “Subjective Necessity” she had embraced experience as a positive teacher in a practical way. Here she was allowing experience to shape her ethics. The further implication was that ethics might evolve, but the point is not argued in “The Settlement as a Factor.” Still, in her eyes ideas no longer had the authority to establish truth that they once had. Her pragmatism was strengthening, but it had not yet blossomed into a full-fledged theory of truth.
The Pullman Strike taught her in a compelling way that moral absolutism was dangerous, but she had been troubled by its dangers before. She had made her own mistakes and, apparently, a whole train of them related to self-righteousness. The details have gone unrecorded, but they made her ready to understand, and not afterwards forget, something James O. Huntington, the Episcopal priest who had shared the podium with her at the Plymouth conference, had said in a speech at Hull House the year before the strike. “I once heard Father Huntington say,” she wrote in 1901, that it is “the essence of immorality to make an exception of one’s self.” She elaborated. “[T]o consider one’s self as . . . unlike the rank and file is to walk straight into the pit of self-righteousness.” As Addams interpreted Huntington, he meant there was no moral justification for believing in one’s superiority, not even a belief that one was right and the others wrong.
A deeply held, central moral belief is like a tent pole: it influences the shape of the entire tent that is a person’s thought. A new central belief is like a taller or shorter tent pole; it requires the tent to take a new shape. The tent stakes must be moved. Jane Addams had decided there was no such thing as something or someone that was purely right or purely wrong, but the rest of her thought had yet to be adjusted. Among other things, she still believed that a person of high culture was superior to those who lacked it; that is, she still believed that cultural accomplishment could justify self-righteousness.
Some hints of this can be found in the adjectives Addams attaches to democracy in “The Settlement as a Factor.” After proposing that the workers might lead the ethical movement of democracy, she anticipates the fear her readers might feel at this idea. “We must learn to trust our democracy,” she writes, “giant-like and threatening as it may appear in its uncouth strength and untried applications.” Addams was edging toward trusting that working-class people, people without the cultural training in “the best,” could set their own course. Such trust, should she embrace it, would require her to go beyond her old ideas—her enthusiasm for egalitarian social etiquette, for the principle of cooperation, and for the ideal of a unified humanity. Not feeling such trust yet, she was unable to give working people’s power a ringing endorsement. The essay is therefore full of warnings about the negative aspects of the labor movement.
These radical claims—that the labor movement was or could become ethical, that the movement was engaged in a struggle that advanced society morally, that capitalists were greedy and ethically compromised, and that there was no absolute right or wrong—opened up a number of complicated issues. Addams decided she needed to write a separate essay—would it be a speech?—to make these points more fully and to make them explicitly, as honesty compelled her to do, about the Pullman strike. Sometime in 1894, she began to write it. A page from the first draft, dated that year, survives with the title “A Modern Tragedy.” In its first paragraph she writes that, because we think of ourselves as modern, “it is hard to remember that the same old human passions persist” and can often lead to “tragedy.” She invited her readers to view “one of these great tragedies” from “the historic perspective,” to seek an “attitude of mental detachment” and “stand aside from our personal prejudices.” Still grieving over what had happened, Addams was hoping that the wisdom of culture, of the humanities, of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy could give her the comfort of emotional distance. But she had pulled too far back. The opening was so blandly vague and philosophical that no one could tell what the essay was about. She set the piece aside.
You can read more from Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy here.