Review of “Capitalism Must Die!” by Paul Buhle
Capitalism Must Die! A basic introduction to capitalism: what it is, why it sucks, and how to crush it
Some 20 years ago, while creating a book of Mike Alewitz’s labour murals, the artist and I faced the inevitable question: what would a revolutionary artist want his book to be called? He insisted on a word that seemed to me long outdated, belonging to another, faraway world: agitprop. As in, the way that the Communist International of the 1920s, before (and, lamentably, also after) Stalin’s seizure of power, described the agitation and propaganda value of art. It seemed to me, notwithstanding my own lifetime of left politics, so very unartistic.
Alewitz was stubborn (and he won): the point of his art had been from the beginning to transform society by visually assaulting capitalism and capitalists, by telling the stories of the working class and the oppressed. Perhaps I should add that most of his revolutionary murals – from St. Paul, Minnesota, to New York, to Nicaragua, to the Connecticut community college where he has taught for decades – have been painted over. The people in power clearly don’t like his artistic message.
Stephanie McMillan is an agitprop artist and no doubt proud of it. The granddaughter of a once-famed German animator, she studied at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with the political descendants of blacklisted animators in the U.S., and then turned in the 1990s to cartooning. It was in her nature to begin self-syndicating, an ambitious and (for most artists) frustrating – make that heartbreaking – effort to succeed on their own terms. Thanks to skill and temerity, she broke through to big as well as small publications, and, in 2012, won the Robert F. Kennedy award for editorial cartoonists. She also set herself on being a political organizer, from anti-poverty groups to Occupy and beyond. In a commercial publishing world with scarce room for left-wing artists, she has brought out two books from Seven Stories Press and other works that could be considered semi-commercial (as in, distributed by herself and her supporters without much commercial publicity or attention). “Undaunted” is her middle name, or should be.
The actual art in Capitalism Must Die! can only be described as utilitarian, serving the purpose of illustrating the ideas in her prose. The prose is straightforward and reminds me of the “basics” in the socialist study classes of my youth (during the early 1960s). We did not get into ecology back then, but the historic rise of capitalism, grinding the faces of the poor, the spread of the system across the planet (true to Marx’s own formula) to newly available resources and oppressed populations – all of this seems familiar. What is new here, in a society of declining literacy, is her skill in mixing images and interpretive paragraphs. Any young person who hates their job, or can’t find one, can understand intuitively her description of exploitation as the source of profits. McMillan excels in using this seemingly obvious point to explain how the system at large is fast murdering the planet.
She writes and draws as a socialist revolutionary who knows that working-class folks will not automatically be won over to understanding that something drastic both needs to be done and can be done. If there is a rub, it is in her appeal for a renewed Marxism-Leninism dependent on a vanguard party (“The trouble with Leninism,” an old anarchist postcard of the 1960s read, “is that everyone wants to be Lenin.”). On the positive side, she has plenty of useful suggestions – including points that many of us have tried to live by – on being democratic, patient (even in disagreements with other radicals), and determined to carry through for the long haul.
No one should expect an artist to have all the political answers. Stephanie McMillan prompts the questions and helps her readers along, and that is a lot. Read this book and pass it along to a young person, too.