Review of "In an era of wars and revolutions"

Submitted by AWL on 15 January, 2014 - 9:22

Socialist propaganda, defined by the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, conveys many ideas to a few people, whereas agitation conveys only one or a few ideas to a whole mass of people.

So what’s the point of socialist political cartoons? Pictures can sometimes convey ideas more vividly than a thousand words or a 10-minute speech. Cartoons are both valuable propaganda and effective agitation.

This 300-page book of cartoons spans the end of the period of high imperialism, from the 1920s to the Second World War, and culminates in the mid-1950s at the beginning of post-war US hegemony.

The first selections centre on the nature of capitalism. Some of the metaphors still resonate, such as capitalists as vultures, the state as an octopus with tentacles that enmesh the working class, and imperialism embracing the whole globe.

Others perhaps less so: for example, as the introduction points out, the idea of capitalists as fat men in stripy trousers and bowler hats. Class struggle questions are drawn out: capital as a machine for pumping out surplus from workers, the wage ceiling (literally overhead) and the ambiguities of inflation — okay for the bosses to put up prices, but not for workers to demand higher wages.

Working-class politics is one of the key themes of the collection, showing how the Communist and Trotskyist press took up issues of women’s liberation, anti-racism and other important matters of solidarity and workers’ unity.

One of my favourites is two boxers, labour and capital. The demand on the worker is to use both hands — not just the economic struggle but independent political action, currently behind the worker-boxer’s back. Another is the journalist with a roller running over hordes of workers with jingoism, a clever play on the word “press”.

The demand for a trade union-based independent labour party has the image of a large cop and a large capitalist threatening workers. Another has a coin with Republicans on one side, Democrats on the other (“heads they win, tails you lose”), while in another, the labour party is a life belt for a worker in the sea clinging to the Democrat boat. One powerful image is of a worker, chained and gagged, while a capitalist sits with an elephant and donkey (symbols of the US Republican and Democrat parties) on his knee.

The cartoons are particulary good at illustrating transitional demands, which are Marxist answers on immediate questions around which workers can organise, but that also point towards working class power. For example “open the books” is presented using a locked book with profits on the cover, indicating that by opening it the source of workers’ exploitation will be revealed. For “workers control of production”, a large worker advances towards the factories, while a small capitalist holds his hands out in despair, the worker saying, “If they can’t run them, we can”.

In a telling cartoon on tactics, two politicians plead with the worker to write to their congressman, while behind them are two clubs, inscribed with “March on Washington” and “general strike”.

Fighting racism is one of the strongest sections of the book, reflecting the terrible experiences of African-Americans during this period, including lynchings, the colour bar in many jobs, and slum living conditions. There is a drawing of Emmett Till, the 14-year old murdered in the South in 1955, his body laid out on an altar at the feet of a judge wearing a KKK hood. Another has a black soldier returning after war (having fought in the segregated US army) to find the Statue of Liberty with a black man hanging lynched from it, as a “welcome home”.

The book does a good job in puncturing the uncritical nostalgia for the Roosevelt era which is still found in the trade union bureaucracy and among the “new deal” Greens. A verdict on FDR is illustrated for workers by his first term as an unemployment line, his second term as war, and the third term as a graveyard.

The terrible effects of Stalinism are well illustrated, with images of the secret police (the GPU) as the grim reaper. Similarly, the Stalinist tactic of the popular front, tying the labour movement to bourgeois political parties, is lampooned with a skeleton looking at a map of Europe, where it had failed in Spain, France, Austria and Czechoslovakia.


Hitler and Stalin are illustrated, both on top of a mountain of skulls. The role of the Communist Party USA during the war in promoting class collaboration is also mercilessly ridiculed.

The cartoons challenge the prevailing view at the time and since that the Second World War was simply a matter of democracy versus fascism. There are no illusions about the nature of the Hitler state in Germany, but the drawings puncture the hypocrisy of the “democratic” powers, focusing on the lack of civil liberties (including anti-worker legislation on strikes), the restrictions on refugees and the war profits of the capitalists.

The cartoons have a variety of images of the post-war world, perhaps reflecting the difficulties Trotskyists had after 1945 in making sense of the shape of the new order. Some elements are spot on: for example two capitalists bestriding the globe fighting over world markets. Others suggest a repeat of the aftermath of World War One, with further repartition of colonies (and indeed of Germany) and economic depression, which did not in fact materialise. There is also the optimistic hope for socialist revolution, with one cartoon headed “down tools”, with a worker hammering the globe and scattering the capitalists.

There is a sense of the Third Camp, both as a way of expressing opposition to both sides during the Second World War and then after 1945 as an independent stance opposed to both capitalism and Stalinism. There are reminders about the early days of nuclear weapons and the understandable fear of a devastating third world war.

These cartoons, all drawn in the heat of struggles to rouse workers to take action, are not merely relics. They have immense educational value today, for socialists trying to ground our ideas in the best traditions of our predecessors, but also to find a way to explain our politics in the current situation.

Marxists, socialists and other activists will draw inspiration from this collection in our fight for socialism in the 21st century.