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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Mark Lause

Mark Lause

Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati.

In the 19th century, three particular labor titles had significant influence on workers and public opinion about the role of work in American life, as measured by numbers of books sold, effect on public discourse, and long term influence on the direction of the labor movement.

Henry George, Progress and Poverty (1879). Written by a working printer, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty offered, as its subtitle suggested 'An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth.' Resurrecting old land reform social criticisms, George argued that inequalities would foster even greater inequalities. George's brilliant explanation of how 'poverty' paradoxically grew from'progress' under the existing social and economic inequalities sparked a serious labor party movement, not only in New York where George ran for mayor, but in a number of cities across the country. Moreover, it became incredibly widely-read, influencing the course of labor history throughout the English-speaking world. Nothing over the subsequent generations has made George’s critique anything but more relevant.

Timothy Thomas Fortune, Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South (1884).  Less widely read, but clearly of deep significance was Timothy Thomas Fortune’s Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South. The son of a black political leader in Reconstruction Florida, Fortune came north as the prospects of black liberation faded. His book rooted the failure of the country to assure justice for African Americans in the obvious unwillingness to disrupt the relations of power and property in the South—or acknowledging that government had the right to do so anywhere in the country. The National Afro-American League, which Fortune had launched in upstate New York during 1890, reorganized into the National Afro-American Council in 1898, laying the foundations for the later Niagara movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Fortune’s emphasis on the socio-economic foundations of race remains a terribly useful.

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). Last, but not least, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 offered a fictional account of the journey of Julian West from the America of Haymarket Square into an enlightened, genuinely democratic civilization. The novel galvanized middle class concerns about the anti-republican and undemocratic implications of class inequalities. It inspired not only a number of publications, but also the formation of small but influential Nationalist Clubs across town and country in every part of the nation. These, in turn, exercised some influence in the Populist Party, and helped detonate what became the Socialist Party at the close of the century. Bellamy’s concerns turned not only on the unethical nature of capitalism but its ultimate irrationality. His cousin and co-thinker, Francis Julius Bellamy, wrote 'The Pledge of Allegiance,' that remarkable declaration of anti-capitalist values to which 'under God' was added in the Cold War and has since become, rather bizarrely a designated mantra of those for whom capitalism can do no wrong.

Mark Lause is a Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati. 

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