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161: The Labor Spy Racket

November 11, 2013

Over the past two years I’ve been stumbling across old, early paperbacks published in the 1930s by Modern Age Books in New York. They seem like a lefty publisher in some ways—all the books are union printed, much of their non-fiction is outright socialist, or at least leaning in that direction—but also published things way outside the normal left loop. Their list is a mix of paperback editions of popular crime fiction (Agatha Christie, etc.), what are now “classics” (Steinbeck, Saroyan), literature in translation (Ignazio Silone, Andre Gide), cookbooks, cooky science texts, and the aforementioned leftist history and contemporary affairs books. They had a set of imprints, including “Blue Seal Books” which were all 25¢, “Gold Seal Books” which were titles more expensive that a quarter, “Red Seal Books” for inexpensive reproductions of literature, and “New Modern Age Books.” The first three are marks with images of a seal in their respective colors, and the New Modern Age feature three seals in an oval. The books were able to be sold so cheaply by being produced in huge editions (by today’s standards), between 50,000 and 100,000 copies per print run.
The main title I want to look at today is The Labor Spy Racket by Leo Huberman. I was immediately drawn to the Modernist cover design, part Cubism, part Constructivism. It is signed “R”, and no further name is attributed inside. The city/factory-scape is rendered in deep tones of blue and brown, but the spying eye of the title creates a grayscale image of the workers. This x-ray vision both illuminates and flattens the people and their workplace. The cover is dark and jarring, and feels like it could easily have wrapped an early edition of Orwell’s 1984.
The typography is attributed to Robert Josephy, I’m unsure if that also means the internal design. The design is clean and sharp, making for an easy read.

Leo Huberman was one of the founders of Monthly Review (in 1949), and a Marxist economist and historian. Although his name isn’t exactly household, he had a huge impact on the American left through his editorship of Monthly Review, which presented a non-Stalinist and more palatable socialist/Marxist position (to Americans) and was deeply influential on the New Left.


I can’t do anything but assume Huberman, or whoever was writing captions and laying out the book, created the below on purpose. It’s hard to imagine anyone cramming more innuendo into a five word caption!

The book is choke full of photos of brawls between cops, private security, and union workers.

Here are a couple more nice Modern Age covers. It appears as if both of the covers are signed by “Golitzer,” but I can’t find anything online that clarifies who that might be.

Culture & MediaHistoryLaborSocial Movements

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