Review written for Revolutionary History but not yet published.
Sean Matgamna (ed.), In an Era of Wars and Revolutions: American Socialist Cartoons of the Mid-Twentieth Century, Phoenix Press, London, 2013, vi + 314 pp, £8.99.
Some cultural products, as Sartre pointed out, are like bananas; they taste best straight from the tree. Satire is an obvious example. When Michael Gove demanded that all school pupils should study Dryden, I had visions of kids in three hundred years’ time being forced to read anthologies from Private Eye; there would be copious footnotes for the lucky youngsters, who would have no idea who Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair were.
So Sean Matgamna has taken certain risks in publishing a collection of around 500 cartoons from the American left press from the 1920s to the 1950s. Matgamna has spent many years studying American far left publications and he has kept copies of cartoons which are reproduced here.
The book is clearly aimed at the general reader rather than at historians. Although we are told that the cartoons are taken from Labor Action, New Militant, Socialist Appeal, The Militant, Daily Worker, The Liberator and Workers’ Monthly, the individual pictures are dated but not given a source, so anyone hoping to trace points of differentiation between the SWP and the Shachtmanites will have to go to the archives of The Militant and Labor Action on ETOL. There are a few clues – many items are signed Carlo, the pseudonym of Jesse Cohen, the longstanding cartoonist for Labor Action.
But general readers may also be a little disappointed. A generation used to the humour, imagination and insights of Siné, Garry Trudeau or Steve Bell may not be too impressed by these rather austere drawings which reinforce the political line rather than illuminating it. There is constant repetition of stereotypes; capitalists are invariably fat and wear top hats – a long way from Richard Branson.
In his introduction Matgamna cites the adage “One picture can be worth a thousand words”. But few of these pictures lack words. The various caricatures are generally labelled; little is left to the reader’s imagination. Thus we see a fat man with a large sack of money sitting on the shoulders of a smaller man whose back is almost broken – just in case we didn’t get the point, they are named as “industry” and “labor” respectively. A large man pushes aside two guns marked “‘democratic’ imperialism” and “fascist imperialism” – helpfully his shirt bears the slogan “Independent Working-Class Action”. And when we see a working man with rolled up sleeves leaning on a placard reading “Build Workers’ Defense Guards Against Fascism” we seem to be dealing with a headline rather than a cartoon.
One of the central demands of the Transitional Programme was the “sliding scale of wages”. Its strategic relevance in different historical periods is a matter of legitimate debate, but how it is illuminated by a picture of a man on an escalator is unclear. And when the British election of 1945 is celebrated with a picture of a boot labelled “British labor” kicking a fat capitalist into the air, we have to respond “If only….”
Yet there are some good cartoons in the collection. The Russian slogan about “Catching Up and Outstripping” the West is illustrated by Stalin standing on top of a mound of skulls even bigger than Hitler’s. At the time of Hitler-Stalin Pact Hitler and Stalin dance together, while Earl Browder, leader of the American CP, hovers above them like Cupid with his bow and arrow. During the Korean War General Douglas MacArthur stands in front of a vast cemetery, saying “Old soldiers never die!” – the caption adds “But Lots of Young Ones Do”.
Several of the best images refer to the racism which was still deeply institutionalised in the USA, perhaps because racism is so obviously irrational and the hypocrisy of the racists so blatant. The Statue of Liberty holds, not a torch, but a tree from which a lynched black man is hanging. A picture of a white policeman hitting a black man with a truncheon is all too familiar – unnecessarily the cop bears the label “New York Police Brutality”. And perhaps the most poignant of all, placed on the book’s back cover, a group of school pupils are pledging allegiance to the flag – “One nation …. with liberty and justice for all” – while a black child says “Except me!”.
Anything that recovers the experience of the anti-Stalinist left is of value to those attempting to rebuild a movement today. So we should be grateful to Matgamna for this collection – and thankful that nobody tried to draw a picture of bureaucratic collectivism.