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Cain and Abel Revisited: A Case for Keeping thy Brother

In order to challenge the emphasis on extreme economic individualism espoused by Gilded Age industrialists and laissez-faire theorists, labor writers drew on diverse historical and religious traditions. Jose Gros, writing in The Carpenter in 1895, turned to religious traditions, specifically the biblical parable of Cain and Abel. Gros used the parable’s central question—“Am I my brother’s keeper?”—to criticize economic individualism and make the case for cooperation and brotherhood.

We reformers are fighting against the best organized army that ever existed under the solar disk, and commanded by the shrewdest general that is possible to conceive. The name of that general is—Monopoly. The army is composed of people of all classes, in all social conditions, rich and poor, wise and ignorant, good and wicked—all united by selfishness and need in this or that form, open or masked, unconsciously sometimes, but no the less effectual on that account. Monopoly itself is nothing but greed and selfishness embodied in human laws, and so clothed with a mask of righteousness or respectability . . . That army can only be crushed, or seriously defeated like every other, by a careful analysis of its line, so as to find out the key on which it rests. Once the key has been discovered, then we should proceed with our general arrangements, they all to be centered on the capture of that key. . . .

The key in question is embodied in the answer that Cain gave to God when asked—Where is Abel thy Brother? We know what the answer was—Am I my Brother’s keeper?

By those words Cain asserted that he did not consider himself his brother’s keep or in any way conducive to the intimate relations with which brothers should live, if their social compact is to rise above that of wild beasts in the jungle. God seems to have viewed the matter somewhat differently from Cain.

The question of God, “where is Abel thy brother,” is no doubt replete with significance. It is the question that God has been asking ever since to men and nations. And the answer of nations and men has always been the same—“Am I my Brother’s keeper?” We refer of course to the fundamentals of human

existence. . . .

Look at the objections by most men presented to any fundamental reform, and the inevitable results through which some people always manage to become very wealthy, while others are forever sunk into poverty. That is but Cain’s modern presentation of—“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Why should I bother myself about the laws of equal rights, when the laws of privilege suit me very well, and keep me in clover? That is the monopolist point of view in life, or that of the fellows who expect yet to become wealthy through laws of monopoly and privilege. For such people the divine conception of human brotherhood is never an actual fact, never to be interlinked with our social, political or industrial relations. It must remain a mere sentiment. . . . Human brotherhood means Equal Rights, if it means anything. . . .

Source: Jose Gros, “Cain,” The Carpenter, 15 (May 1895): 12.

See Also:Pilgrims' Progress: A Seventeenth-Century Solution to the Nineteenth-Century Conflict between Labor and Capital
Law and Order: William Law and the Power of Organization