This originally appeared in Against the Current
by David Finkel
In an era of wars and revolutions
American socialist cartoons of the mid-twentieth century
By Carlo and others; edited by Sean Matgamna
London, England: Phoenix Press, 2013, 314 pages, $15 paperback.
Capitalism Must Die!
A basic introduction to capitalism: what it is, why it sucks, and how to crush it
By Stephanie McMillan
Fort Lauderdale, FL: Idees Nouvelles, Idees Proletairiennes, 2014, 241 pages, $12 paperback.
HEAVILY MUSCLED, BLACK and white, mostly (although not all) male proletarians confront profit-bloated moneybag (all white male) capitalists, Jim Crow racism, the war industry, and the grim visage of Stalin.
A one-eyed fighting rabbit, “Bunnista,” takes on the greedy bosses (mostly but not all white and male) and their “omnicidal” system destroying the planet in the course of exploiting labor and nature.
The first set of images dominate the collection In an era of wars and revolutions, compiled by Sean Matgamna, a leading member of the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL) in Britain. The second, the creation of Stephanie McMillan, is an illustrated manifesto setting out her Marxist-inspired account of how capitalism operates and the necessity to overthrow it.
Both are entertaining as well as educational, and put together certainly throw some light on changes in radical political culture over the past seven or so decades. Matgamna has compiled an assortment of mostly Trotskyist and Third Camp cartoons from the immediately pre-World War II period through the mid-1950s, with a handful of earlier contributions from the 1920s Communist press.
The artists include Carlo (Jesse Cohen) and Laura Gray (Slobe) and several others. For insight into these artists and their world, you can look up articles by Kent Worcester (http://newpol.org/content/sculptor-painter-and-cartoonist-laura-gray) and “Cannonite Bohemians After World War II” by Alan Wald (http://www.solidarity-us.org/pdfs/ATC%20159-Wald.pdf).
The coloration of these cartoons is generally pretty dark, and much of the imagery is likely to strike today’s readers as rather grim and outdated. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that these cartoons and the papers where they appeared — The Militant, Daily Worker, Labor Action, Socialist Appeal, etc. — actually addressed a working-class audience engaged in a labor movement that was stronger and substantially more politicized than today’s.
Matgamna acknowledges the masculinist shortcomings of the works: “The socialists who drew these cartoons were, themselves and their organizations, militant for women’s rights, but little of that is in their work…Even so, the old symbols, the fat capitalist and the big powerful worker, are still intelligible. They depict truths of our times as well as of their own.” (1-2)
Stephanie McMillan brings the same hatred of exploitation and oppression, along with the ecological and feminist priorities of today’s movements. Her Bunnista character, whom I take to be an alter ego of sorts, appears to have evolved in recent years from a mainly environmental activist to a fully-fledged revolutionary fighter.
One feature I especially appreciate — missing in the period cartoons chronicled by Matgamna — is McMillan’s ability to turn a humorous critical light on the movement itself. Recycling a classic radical joke, one of her characters pronounces that “Being a revolutionary militant requires tremendous sacrifice, resolve, persistence, and hard work. It ends in violent death or prison.” To which Bunnista replies: “Your recruitment pitch could use some work.” (178)
In another case, without quoting Marx, she nicely paraphrases his classic quip about the arm of criticism and the criticism of arms. (241)
In a welcome development, both of these books are “licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution — Non-Commercial” licensing arrangement. That means the art can be used with attribution, for non-commercial purposes and without alteration.
One could discuss the cartoons and text at greater length, but better to look for yourself. Ordering information: Phoenix Press, 20E Tower Workshops, Riley Road, London SE1 3DG, England; Stephanie McMillan, P.O. Box 460673, Fort Lauderdale FL 33346; email@example.com.
May/June 2015, ATC 176