Rulers & Rebels

A People's History of Early California, 1769-1901 by Laurence H. Shoup

book review by NEWS & LETTERS, May-June 2011

California's real history

Laurence H. Shoup presents the history of California from the European incursion of Native America by the Spanish to the Great San Francisco Waterfront Strike of 1901. His interest is agency from below in the form of direct action: "The stories told in this book focus on the fundamentals from the perspective of those at the bottom of society--the rebels."

All of the requisite signposts of California history are here. From the Mission Era, Shoup moves to the Gold Rush and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, then to the transition to industrialization, and, of course, the railroad. He illustrates that the attempts of one group to dominate another are met with resistance, so victories are always temporary, if not incomplete. We meet a diversity of peoples--men and women, Indigenous peoples, African Americans, native born and foreign born Chinese as well as native born and immigrant whites--"excluded from the orthodox histories, the standard textbooks, and the most powerful media outlets."

Shoup mined church documents, military records, newspaper articles, workers' journals, and many other primary sources. Numerous tables from the U.S. Census Bureau are interspersed throughout, always accompanied by interpretations that bring home the lived reality those statistics represent.

Protagonists, rulers and rebels alike, speak for themselves, sometimes at great length, with well-chosen quotes like the words of Father Yorke: "If the rich men are all sticking together...what is the duty of the people who earn wages?... You have nobody but yourselves...The rich men unite against you, and it is necessary for them to be united, it is ten thousand times more necessary for every man and woman of you to stand shoulder to shoulder, and be knit together with bands of steel..." Readers feel what it might have been like to live in these times and can assess our distance from this history.

Shoup's is a compelling history replete with gun battles and shootouts. On one side there are rulers, most often their henchmen including military and other law enforcement, on the other side rebels, Native peoples to white union men. Recounting the scheming and out-and-out thievery that created the great names and wealth of California, he highlights rank-and-file resistance to exploitation. It's messy history, but Shoup doesn't shy away from illuminating the internal battles of the property-less, often drawn along the lines of white supremacy. Here are stories of chilling brutality and great sadness and, against these odds, tales of incredible daring, solidarity, and determination.

Shoup is convincing in his argument that California is a bellwether for both U.S. historical trajectory and future possibility, given that since 1769 peoples from around the world have been meeting there under circumstances of the global political economy.

As a participatory act in transformative history, Shoup's work serves as an excellent primer for readers unfamiliar with economic theory and analysis. His work reminds us that history's progression, acquisition and loss, building and tearing down, are about power and not a neutral and natural process: there are winners and losers. That the winning and losing is discussed in terms of alienation and self-actualization makes this work an important contribution to history broadly, and both American and labor history specifically.

Rulers & Rebels is an origin story that seeks to instruct and inspire. It accomplishes both. At 495 pages, it is well paced and concise, given its scope. There is a nod of acknowledgement to the environmental degradation wrought by capitalism's drive to exploit and, too, a sincere desire to struggle against white supremacy. As his contribution to what he describes as humanity's struggle toward full democracy and protagonism, his history of California is an antidote to anomie, participating in "overcom[ing] the historical amnesia so common in our country" so that we can "begin to recover aspects of our own vernacular revolutionary traditions." AWA FALL


Laurence Shoup is also the author of
Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations & United States Foreign Policy

UPDATE Lawrence Shoup is a candidate for KPFA's Local Station Board (LSB) in the upcoming 2012 election. He is a member of the United for Community Radio slate.