Labor Defender was a monthly magazine publication which ran from 1926-1937 and was based out of New York City. It was published by the International Labor Defense (ILD), a legal advocacy organization which acted on behalf of the Communist Party of the United States. Formed in 1925, it was created mainly to support workers and those on strike who were imprisoned. However, they also extended their legal services to anarchists, such as Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and played a significant role in many civil rights cases. It was especially known for helping to provide legal defense for the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s and publicizing their case.
By 1928, Labor Defender was reaching a large audience, especially considering its radical viewpoint, with a total circulation of 22,000 copies. The assistant secretary of the ILD claimed that it had a larger circulation than many other communist publications combined. The magazine was known for its elaborate design, combining text, image, and illustration. It often utilized collage as a method of assembling images, a tool taken from Bauhaus and Russian Constructivists, accommodated by shaped text. The covers, which began as black and white lithographs but eventually moved to color, usually depicted provocative imagery which laid bare oppressive realities. In 2015, selected covers, designed by J. Louis Engdahl, were featured in the exhibition “Art as Activism” at the Museum of the City of New York. Labor Defender’s content reflected a marxist ideology, usually focusing on labor workers and the steps required for their liberation. Each issue usually included a comic strip, an update on the ILD’s activities, events relevant to their message, and a segment which gave voice to prisoners.
This is immediately apparent while flipping through Labor Defender’s archives. It is clear that every page’s layout was carefully considered and meant to be engaging, especially compared to its contemporaries such as The Daily Worker. This is especially surprising considering its low price and that it began just four years after the term graphic design was coined. What is even more surprising is how little information is currently available about the publication. While blurbs describing its general content and background are scattered across the internet, there is hardly any specific information, and it seems that no one has written about the methods used to print it or the motivations for its lavish design.
Looking at the technology that was commonly used to print magazines during the time period, there are a few possibilities as to how it was printed. The linotype, which came about in the 1880s, was the first automated typesetter. One year later, the monotype came about which allowed users to simultaneously compose text with a keyboard while casting type from hot metal. Then in 1890, flexography, a modernized letterpress technique similar to photopolymer, emerged. However, considering the creative placement of text in Labor Defender, hand-set type cannot be ruled out as a plausible, even likely, method.
It is possible that Labor Defender’s layout could simply be attributed to its creators personal preferences for creative design. However, its visuals seem to foreshadow the design methods used by American leftist magazines today. While most leftist publications in the past have tended toward text-dense, academic layouts, a trend has emerged in the last decade. Like the Labor Defender, these current magazines see white space on each page as an opportunity for illustration. Beginning with Jacobin magazine, publications such as The Baffler and Current Affairs have embraced tight, colorful, and bold graphics. These design efforts have led to a surge in their popularity, placing radical leftist politics in newstands alongside mainstream publications such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. While achieving the same level of design as these major names, these leftist magazines still set themselves apart. Each magazine has a distinct, meticulously created aesthetic which balances illustration with text. Rachel Hawley of Eye on Design credits contemporary leftist magazines’ ability to distinguish themselves from more centrist publications by pointing out their “ability to recognize and embrace the fact of the inherent politicization of design.” Seeing how these current magazines utilize design to push their politics forward, it becomes easy to speculate that Labor Defender's creators may have also used design as a tool to disseminate their political ideology to a wider audience.
A complete archive of scanned original issues of Labor Defender can be viewed and downloaded at https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/labordefender/index.htm.