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Perlman, Selig

Perlman, Selig

works by perlman

supplementary bibliography

Selig Perlman (1888-1959), American economist, was born in Bialystok, Poland. After attending the school of commerce in Bialystok from 1900 to 1906 and the University of Naples for a year, he went to the United States in 1908. He gained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1910 and his PH.D. five years later.

Perlman served as a special investigator for the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations from 1913 to 1915, and in 1916 he was appointed to a research position at the University of Wisconsin. He eventually rose to a professorship in the department of economics in 1927 and remained at Wisconsin until his retirement in 1959. He was the author of many books and articles on the labor movement.

Under the influence of John R. Commons, Perlman’s early Marxist views were modified. He concluded that the ideas of socialism and anarchism are the creations of intellectuals (that is, writers, teachers, scholars, and even autodidacts) who approach social and economic problems from an excessively abstract point of view. The attitudes and aspirations of the workers may better be understood by studying the institutions they themselves have created: the trade unions. These reflect the manual workers’ consciousness of their limited opportunities and their need to reinforce their inferior bargaining position vis-a-vis their employers.

Labor unions are, in his opinion, essential in an industrial society, for some mechanism is needed for redressing grievances and equalizing bargaining positions. Not only do these institutions enlarge the freedom of the individual and give him a voice in the determination of the conditions of employment, but they are an aid to social and political stability. Perlman believed that the trade unions are conservative institutions; they neither attack the basis of private property nor aspire to socialize it. He was convinced that the workers would turn to more radical means, if they were prevented by law from utilizing the trade unions to redress their economic grievances. Such legal restriction would be an undesirable development, in that it would mean a diminution in the influence of essentially democratic trade organizations; eventually it would lead to a replacement of the trade unions by political groups that would reflect less accurately the needs of the worker and would not be subject to the same kinds of direct pressure as are the trade unions.

From his study of American labor history, Perlman concluded that job-conscious unionism—emphasis on immediate demands and day-to-day improvements in the place of employment—is the result of the thinking and planning of the trade union leaders of the 1870s and 1880s, many of whom had been schooled in the radical philosophies of Europe. These leaders, he claimed, transformed their belief in class consciousness into a belief in wage consciousness. He pointed to the struggles of these pioneer unionists to support his views that the organization and maintenance of economic organizations of labor are acts of statesmanship requiring both a high level of intelligence and a willingness to sacrifice.

Perlman had a wide acquaintance with European history, especially of the labor movement. He was interested primarily in the attempts of European workers to set up economic organizations capable of protecting their interests, but he was generally a close student of political trends within European labor. With serious and often painful concern he watched the destruction of independent economic and political organizations on the European continent in the 1920s and 1930s. He was the first to challenge the view propagated by the Marxists that fascism was a form of monopoly capitalism, and he claimed that in fact many fascist doctrines were the staples of lower-middleclass opinion. Although this view was presented in his classes in the 1920s, Perlman, who was not very much concerned with publication, did not offer it to a larger audience until much later.

Perlman was one of the leading classroom teachers at the University of Wisconsin. His colorful language, his wit, and his sharp improvisations made his classes an important intellectual experience. His influence led generations of students to examine existing institutions and the attitudes and behavior of groups instead of concentrating upon general principles, and many of these students were able to function more effectively in government and industry as a result. A shy man, Perlman was not at home in large gatherings and was rarely seen at meetings of learned societies. To some extent his caution in publishing, his avoidance of debate and argument, and his tenacity in maintaining a proposition once proclaimed reduced his reputation, at least outside of the University of Wisconsin. Nevertheless, Perlman was one of the leading students of the labor movement, and his teaching and writing made a permanent mark upon the field.

Philip Taft

[For the historical context of Perlman’s work, see the biography ofCommons. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeLabor Unions, article onTheories of the labor movement.]

works by perlman

(1918) 1951 Upheaval and Reorganisation (Since 1876). Volume 2, pages 193-537 in John R. Commons et al.,History of Labour in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

(1922) 1950 A History of Trade Unionism in the United States. New York: Kelley.

(1928) 1949 A Theory of the Labor Movement. New York: Kelley.

1935 Perlman, Selig; and Taft, Philip Labor Movements. Volume 4 of John R. Commons et al., History of Labour in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

1939 The United States of America. Pages 319-404 in Hilary A. Marquand (editor), Organized Labour in Four Continents. London and New York: Longmans.

1945 American Unionism in the Postwar Period. Pages 33-48 in Thomas C. McCormick (editor), Problems of the Postwar World. New York: McGraw-Hill.

supplementary bibliography

Commons, John R. (1934)1963 Myself: The Autobiography of John R. Commons. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press. → Contains material on Perlman’s career.

Commons, John R. (1950) 1959 The Economics of Collective Action. New York: Macmillan.

Derber, Milton; and Young, Edwin (editors) 1957 Labor and the New Deal. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press. → Contains an article by Perlman.

Harter, Lafayette G. 1962 John R. Commons: His Assault on Laissez Faire. Corvallis: Oregon State Univ. Press. → Discusses Perlman as a student of Commons.

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Perlman, Selig

Selig Perlman, 1888–1959, American economist, b. Bialystok, Poland. His parents were active in the Zionist and labor movements of Eastern Europe. Perlman emigrated to the United States in 1918, where he taught at the Univ. of Wisconsin at Madison (1918–58), and became a close associate of labor historian John R. Commons. Among Perlman's works are The History of Labor in the United States (written with Commons, 10 vol., 1918) and A Theory of the Labor Movement (1928).

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