Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Capital and Labor

Introduction

"I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Eugene V. Debs, Statement to the Federal Court of Cleveland, September 18, 1918

"After all, the chief business of the American people is business. . . Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. . . We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction."
President Calvin Coolidge, Speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, January 1925

The Twenties was an era marked by a vigorous tug-of-war between the small but alarmingly powerful capitalist community and the plentiful but relatively powerless laborers. Big Business, founded on revolutionary technological innovations, new organizational strategies, the practice of standardization, and an enthusiastic optimism, usually prevailed. The heroes of the day were men like Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, and Owen D. Young (chairman of General Electric), the latter two being Time magazine's "Man of the Year" for 1927 and 1928 respectively. Under their leadership, and that of their competitors and colleagues, corporate profits rose 80% between 1923 and 1929. The assembly line's profound effect on the American pocketbook, lifestyle, and culture had fully taken root, and the consumer marketplace brought amazing innovations into even the most modest of homes.

Under the banner of welfare capitalism, both workers and companies made progress, as several large industries and corporations adopted changes such as shorter workdays and the five-day workweek. Still, inflation, unemployment, and lockouts reminded everyone who was the boss, while strikes, bombs, and union fervor antagonized management through the early Twenties. Before World War I, the Union movement had experienced considerable growth and was a powerful if chaotic force in American politics. Eugene Debs, Robert La Follette, Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were the popular advocates of labor. For a period of time in America, there was a wide variety of political positions, including communism, socialism, and anarchism. In the end, these political alternatives were systematically vilified and ultimately destroyed. The "red scares" of the turn of the decade, a number of trials, deportations, and murders, as well as increased prosperity and the growth of the middle class, turned the tide. The struggle for the soul of America was fierce on both sides.

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Cover of <em>Liberator</em> from May 1922
Cover of Liberator from May 1922

Originally published as The Masses, The Liberator was co-founded in 1918 by Max Eastman, his sister, Crystal Eastman, and a group of writers and artists as a digest of worldwide Socialist political and cultural movements. As an intellec...
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