Title Reviewed:
American Labor Unions and Polities, 1900-1918

Author Reviewed:
Marc Karson

Roger Mayhill


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 45, Issue 1, pp 103-104

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

American Labor Unions and Polities, 1900–1918. By Marc Karson. (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958. Pp. xv, 368. Notes, bibliography, index. $6.50.)

To the regret of Republicans and businessmen in recent years, labor unions in the United States have participated more frequently and more earnestly in both national and state elections. They have usually followed the advice of the deified first president of the American Federation of Labor, Sam Gompers, to support labor's friends and defeat its enemies. From 1900 to 1918 "friends" always seemed to mean Democrats. The Socialist party or an independent labor party did not receive the support from labor unions which these political groups enjoyed in many other democratic countries, such as Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, and Australia. The author of this volume, a student of Harold Laski, has endeavored to analyze the reasons for continued opposition to independent labor parties in the United States by presenting a vivid picture of three hitherto neglected aspects of the labor movement between 1900 and 1918: (1) the political activity of the American Federation of Labor, (2) the rise and fall of the Industrial Workers of the World, and (3) the influence of the Roman Catholic church in fighting Socialists in the trade union movement.

The thought-provoking, objective, and brilliant essays on these subjects display a broad knowledge of the material used and contribute significantly to knowledge of subjects discussed. The book is written with a lucid, concise style. Quotations are very appropriate. Psychoanalyses of labor leaders, notably Daniel DeLeon and Samuel Gompers, are written ably by an author interested in psychology.

Instead of being the definitive work on a complicated subject, however, Karson's book still may be a pioneering study. For example, in the last chapter the author lists his reasons why this country has not favored an independent labor party: (1) the vitality of American capitalism, (2) the middle-class psychology of American workers, (3) the American's faith in individual rights, (4) the conservative features of the American political system, (5) the anti-Socialist position of the Roman Catholic church, (6) the anti-Socialist leadership of Samuel Gompers. These considered judgments of the author are not well documented in this chapter, and the problems he examines could be studied further either by classifying the thought of labor leaders, according to a method similar to the one Professor Cochrane has used with railroad entrepreneurs, or by studying the development of separate institutions. For example, is the American capitalistic system a distinctive contribution to the world because of the anti-trust laws, the regulation of monopoly, and the mobility of labor among social classes?

Even the whole question of labor unions in politics needs further exploration: the attitude of railroad brotherhoods and other labor unions, the labor politics of William Randolph Hearst, and the lobbying activities by both laborers and manufacturers. No mention is made in this book of the important Mulhall lobbying investigation of 1913. How much control did manufacturers have over the voting of their laborers? How much influence did labor spies have on union political activities? What political devices were used by manufacturers and retailers? These and other topics still require investigation.

Purdue University Roger Mayhill

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.