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In the Era of Wars and Revolutions. American socialist cartoons of the mid-twentieth century.

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 In the era of Wars and Revolutions. American Socialist Cartoons of the mid-twentieth century. Edited by Sean Matgamma. 

“Although in some places, notably in the Untied States, Trotskyism is able to attract a fairly large number of adherents, and develop into an organised movement with a petty Fuehrer of its own, its inspiration is essentially negative. The Trotskyist is against Stalin just as the Communist is for him, and, like the majority of Communists, he wants not so much to alter the external world as to feel that the battle for prestige is gaining in his own favour.”

George Orwell. Notes on Nationalism. 1945. ( Orwell and Politics. Page 355. Penguin 2001.)

In the Era of War and Revolutions publishes American left-wing cartoons for the most part long unavailable (even on the Web). They are largely from the papers of what became the Trotskyist American Socialist Workers’ Party, and their publications, such as Labor Action, the Militant, Socialist Appeal and New Militant, although there are some from the Communist Party (US), Daily Worker.

It is immediately striking that capitalists wear top-hats, and are corpulent. while workers are muscle-bound titans. No punches are pulled. Stalinism is a horror, American capitalism is embodied in Jim Crow and Lynching, As Sean Matgamma says in the Introduction, this is “clear and stark class-struggle politics, counterposed to both capitalism and Stalinism.”.

Orwell was simply wrong to say that Trotskyists were single-minded opponents of Stalin and Orthodox Communism. There  is an equal focus on capitalism, the 1930s struggles of the US labour movement, Fascism, and, as World War 2 approached, and was fought, imperialism.

It would have been useful to have outlined the political evolution of the SWP (US) and the publications in which the cartoons appeared.

Its opposition to American participation in the World War – the subject, or sub-text,  of many of the designs -  takes some explaining.

The SWP’s own supporters claim that (2008),

The Socialist Workers Party…… maintained the Marxist view that in the modern epoch there is no progressive wing of the capitalist class. The major industrialized capitalist rivals, dominated by finance capital—what Marxists term imperialism—are constantly driven to wars of conquest in which they try to redivide the world’s territories. The working-class vanguard, the party held, needs to explain the imperialist character of the war and why workers and farmers must oppose it, fighting instead for their own class interests worldwide.

Vanguard workers in the United States came under increasing attack as Washington sought to drum up a patriotic campaign in support of its war drive. The Smith “Gag” Act was passed in 1940, prohibiting the advocacy of “overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States.” Under this thought-control law, 18 leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and Teamsters Local 544 in Minneapolis were railroaded to prison for their class-struggle course in the labor movement, including opposition to the imperialist war. They spent between 12 and 16 months behind bars.

Not everybody, one suspects, will have much sympathy with that stand. Apart from the wider problems it raises it stood uncomfortably close to the US ‘isolationists’ of the period.

Yet Stalinism, for all Orwell’s cavils, is something that was rightly a major issue for the American Trotskyists. In the Era reminds us that there were people on the left prepared to speak their opposition, and dramatically illustrate it in their publications. That some of the SWP became so obsessed with the Soviet Union that they became what would be later be called ‘neoconservatives’ perhaps shows the difficulty of maintaining a Thrid Camp position.

The SWP itself still exists, a small group of property developers who continue to publish Trotksy and use their other resources to back Cuba.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty are to be congratulated for publishing this material. It deserves a place on every socialists’ bookshelf. For this Blogger, who has only a passing familarity with the American left, it is a useful reminder of its rich past.

In an era of wars and revolutions, by Carlo and others, edited by Sean Matgamna. 312 pages, £8.99. To order by post, pay £8.99 plus £1.60 postage here.

More information from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

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Note on some of the cartoonists -  Laura Gray (Slobe),

 From Labor Action.

Labor Action regularly published cartoons and caricatures penned by Jesse Cohen, who worked under the name Carlo, while the Militant ran graphics by Laura Slobe, whose party name was Laura Gray. Despite the new wave of public and scholarly interest in the history of comics and cartoons, neither Carlo nor Laura Gray has attracted much attention from historians of the graphic arts. Readers of this magazine might recognize Carlo’s work from the short profile we published in issue 37 (Summer 2004); now it’s Laura Gray’s turn.

Like Jesse Cohen, Laura Slobe attended high school in the 1920s, came of political age during the 1930s, and remained active on the far left after World War II. She was born in Pittsburgh, but grew up in Chicago, where she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before working for the Works Progress Administration Art Project. As a young, avant-garde artist she concentrated her efforts on painting and sculpture, which remained her lifelong passions. She joined the SWP in 1942, and her first cartoon appeared in the Militant two years later. The labor journalist Art Preis later remembered that, “From the first, her work added such a fresh, bright, satirical note to the paper that it was enthusiastically hailed by our readers everywhere.” According to another SWP writer, “The cartoon’s subject matter was on the agenda of the Militant’s staff meetings. After the staff discussed and decided what the topic would be, Gray would go home and start to draw.” In addition to serving on the staff of the Militant, Gray “worked at a series of jobs to support herself, including painting store mannequins and creating window displays for some of New York’s big department stores.” She remained the SWP’s in-house artist from 1944 until her death in 1958. Tragically, she had contracted tuberculosis in her early twenties, and had a lung removed in 1947. She died after a brief bout with pneumonia.

Stalin 5

Written by Andrew Coates

April 9, 2014 at 11:35 am

Left Unity “moderate” “mishmash” or step forward?

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Weekly Worker says, economic policy  is ” mishmash“.

Left Unity is encouraged, rightly in the Tendance’s view by having achieved some national resonance.   1,520 signed-up members – and 200 in the immediate run up to their Manchester Conference.

But steel-hardened cadres beware!

Peter Manson reports in the Weekly Worker.

The economics policy commission, which made up the first real business of the day, remains a mishmash of lofty aspirations and minimalist reforms. It starts by describing the effects of the global financial crisis, yet does not go on to call for the party to be committed to a campaign for an alternative society. It states: “Radical measures are necessary to ensure a transformation in the economic structure and a reversal of the damage inflicted over the last 30 years of attacks …” It calls for “an expansion of public spending in pursuit of a policy of full employment”.

…incredibly, no debate was allowed on this monstrosity of a document.

We can only be dismayed.

Except that to most people it seems a pretty good approach to take, a radical programme of structural reforms, and a positive attempt to offer an alternative to the Privatising State and Austerity.

In general Left Unity has some pretty good policies. It refused to follow the  Gadarene herd into the sea of Scottish nationalism and an independent capitalist Alba. It rejected calls for  ‘unity’ with groups like the SWP (which some of Left Unity’s main members recently split from acrimoniously) and the No2EU supporting Socialist Party.

It would have been interesting to see  some balance-sheet of the experience of other left party initiatives, particularly a self-criticism from those who were until not so long ago part of the cabal around George Galloway’s Respect Party.

None has appeared.

Even Cde. Mason admits its policy on Europe is an excellent start,

Crouch End’s motion called for support for the statement of the European Left Party and its “refoundation of Europe on a socialist basis”. This was carried unanimously. Of course, there are big differences on what exactly is meant by that, and those around Andrew Burgin, Kate Hudson and so on who support it have very different ideas in practice on what is meant by “socialist”. But this convergence around the notion of all-Europe unity – as opposed to left nationalism – was striking.

This is a major advance for the British left.

The comrade writing in the organ of the Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB accurately  observes (following no doubt the judgement of Tendance Coatesy) that the motion on racism was a load of, how shall we put this politely, cack.

Cde Mason remarks,

“It was fitting that this intersectionalist motion was moved by Richard Seymour. He was urged by comrade Macnair to accept that the motion was “framed in the wrong way” and should be referred back.”

Comrade Macnair pointed out that its sectionalist/intersectionalist basis was “inconsistent with global opposition to capitalist rule”. Blacks (or women) per se cannot lead such opposition. Secondly, it saw no difference between the racism of old and today’s “nativism”. It accepted the whole multiculturalist agenda, which was driven by the bourgeoisie and sought to divide opposition from ethnic groups by upholding their separation from each other and promoting ‘community leaders’ who claimed to speak for them and helped sideline any united class response to cuts, etc.

Quite right comrade! (we are not being facetious  here)

In his reply, comrade Seymour dismissed the concern about intersectionality. The various oppressed groups “intersect”. So “what’s the problem?” As for the divisive nature of multiculturalism, that seemed to pass him by. Showing just how all-pervasive are the backward ideas associated with multiculturalist intersectionality, the CP was virtually alone in calling for a referral-back: the motion was carried overwhelmingly.

To repeat.

The motion passed.

This alone shows something is going wrong.

Whether Left Unity will amount to a successful intervention in national politics remains very much an open question.

One larded with doubts.

We consider that initiatives like the People’s Assembly have deeper roots and can achieve more results – fighting austerity uniting trade unionists , social movements and individuals – than a new party.

But we shall leave to conclusion to Cde. Mason.

The whole day was very tiring, but it was nowhere near as frustrating as the founding conference. But, despite some success for the “extreme left”, March 29 marked another step on the road towards Left Unity becoming a broad, “moderate” party incapable of organising consistent working class opposition to capital. However, there is a lot to play for yet.

A rather different report on the Conference in Links International.

Written by Andrew Coates

April 5, 2014 at 11:42 am

Alain Badiou Renounces his Maoist Past.

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Alain Badiou: I was wrong, innit?

“The Greatest Philosopher since Plato and St Ignatius of Loyola”, as Terry Eagleton calls him, Alain Badiou, a dapper gent, wears his 132 years well.

The Tendance interviewed  him in Les Deux Magots.

“Cher Maître, is it ‘true’ that your latest book includes a 300 page self-criticism of your Maoist years and your support for the Khmer Rouge?”

“Indeed! Let me sum up my truth procedure: Regretter et se repentir, on peut toujours le faire. C’est très facile! One can always regret and repent, it’s always easy! As Spinoza said, it’s always a bit too easy. “

The great man paused, slipping into the fluent English he learnt as a Dalston pot-boy.

“I was wrong, innit?”

Dipping a chip into a bowl of mayonnaise he continued,

“When Mao launched the Great Cultural Revolution, it was a Communist Invariant. But now only 40 years later we have to admit that there were some errors. Humiliating professors, for example and not performing any of my operas. I remain, however  fidèle to the Event. There have been dramas and heart-wrenching and doubts, but I have never again abandoned a love.”

“And Pot Pot”

“He was a bit of a lad, hein?”

“But times move on. L’Organisation Politique is set in new directions. After taking absolution I plan to retire to a Trappist Monastery in Belgium to brew an excellent beer. Here try some”.

 

………………….

Diagram of Badiou Truth Procedure. 

Written by Andrew Coates

April 1, 2014 at 10:58 am

Karl Marx. A Nineteenth Century Life. Jonathan Sperber. A Critical, Left, Review.

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Karl Marx. A Nineteenth Century Life. Jonathan Sperber. 2013.

“The point of my biography is to remove Marx from the 20th century/Cold War era binary opposition, in which he was either a keen analyst of capitalism and prophet of human emancipation, or an evil forerunner of totalitarian dictatorship and a deluded enemy of the free market. This latter, hostile attitude is still very widespread in the US. Describing Marx as a 19th-century figure, I think, makes it easier to consider his ideas.”

Jonathan Sperber. (Times Higher Education. 25.4.13).

“….very little achievement is required in order to pity another man’s shortcomings.”

Middlemarch. George Elliot.

When it was published last year there was praise for A Nineteenth Century Life. Diana Siclovan asserted that, “generations of students” will “get to know Marx” through Serber’s book. To Sperber’s many other reviewers, the picture that emerges is “rounded and humane”. He succeeds in “recreating a man who leaps off the page”. (Jonathan Freedland New York Times. 23.3.13.) The “historical Marx” is portrayed with “consummate skill” (Sheila Rowbotham. Times Higher Education. 25.4.13.).

To John Gray Sperber offers a “surefooted guide to the world of ideas in which Marx moved.” (New York Review of Books. 9.5.13) His awareness of the “revision of the history of socialist thought”, “downplaying the effects of the industrial revolution” and highlighting the centrality of religion, has for Diana Siclovan contributed to Sperber “extraordinary achievement”. (Reviews in History. August 2013.) Tristram Hunt compared the “brilliant embedding “ of A Nineteenth Century Life to the “Cambridge tradition of political thought.” (Guardian. 26.6.13)

Hunt refers to classics such as J.G.K.Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment (1973) and Quinten Skinner’s Foundations of Modern Political Thought. (1978). These books – amongst other landmark studies – were concerned with long-lasting transformations in the fabric of early modern ideas. The conditions which brought politics into the human, out from the divine, or cosmic, order, represented by, for example, Hobbess (Skinner’s more recent work) were far-ranging. In this, the ‘Cambridge’ writers explored normative political vocabularies, not only of Great Works but of wider social mentalités.

The claim that A Nineteenth Century Life provides a reconstruction of Marx, and what Gray calls the “world of ideas”, in the tradition of the Cambridge School’s work, on say, the emergence of “civic republicanism”, is high praise. Sperber himself finds his “model” for the biography not in previous lives of Marx but in Heiko Obermann’s Martin Luther, more of a “late-medieval than a modern figure”, and Ian Kershaw’s work on Adolf Hitler, that placed within with “the twentieth century of total war” (Page xvii). This show how to present a “complex individual” within the context of his or her time.” (Ibid)

Interest in the German Reformation is weak in Suffolk public libraries, and the popularity of books on Nazism is strong. It has been possible to consult only Kershaw’s Htiler (2008). This is, according to its New Preface, concerned with Hitler’s “highly personalised power” and his “charisma” aginst a backdrop of conditions, which he could not control. (1) Contrasts with Marx quickly spring to mind. The author of Capital had, in his time, only limited political influence. His ‘gift of grace’, if he had one, is not often compared to a war-lord, a Plebiscatarian ruler, a great demagogue or the leader of a political party – all features of Hitler’s career. The Kershaw precedent, both on the choice of the individual subject, and the context he operated within, is therefore something of a red herring. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Andrew Coates

March 14, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Socialist Action Defends Russian Army’s Rights.

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Back Russian Troops!

Much of the European left has either adopted a balanced position on the Ukrainian crisis (democratic, not taking the “camp” of  the ‘West’ and Russia), or has tended to be over-enthusiastic about the Ukrainian Maidan movement.

The Tendance backs the former view and rejects the latter.

There are good reasons to be sceptical about the interventions of the EU and the USA in the Ukrainian crisis, and, at the same time,  to back democratic and social demands, without either supporting the new government in Kiev, or en bloc the crowds that forced regime-change.

There are some, nevertheless, who take Putin’s side.

Shiraz Socialist points out, there are still neo-stalinists still around who justify this in the following way.

George Mellor writes,

For today’s neo-Stalinist the world is divided into Western imperialism on the one hand and China, Russia and other states (like Iran and Venezuela) that broadly identify with them against the ‘West’ on the other. Their conclusion is that socialists must stand up for China, Russia, or, indeed, any state or movement (eg the Taliban) that finds itself in conflict with ‘The West’. Seeing the world through this lens has led them to support Russian imperialism against Western imperialism, turning them into Putin’s Foreign Legion.

One of the strangest of these ‘multi-polarists’ (as they would no doubt never call themselves)  is the group known as Socialist Action.

This was originally Trotskyist and democratic Marxist  (indeed some of them were comrades of the Tendance in the International Marxist Group back in the 1970s).

Associated with Ken Livingstone it has somewhat disappeared from sight in recent years (that is, since its members lost their highly paid jobs with Ken).

But

“Its members have maintained leading positions in many campaigns – the National Abortion Campaign, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, National Assembly Against Racism and various coalitions against the wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, for example. As a result, Socialist Action exert an influence beyond that which might be expected from so small a grouping.

Socialist Action has also participated in Respect – The Unity Coalition since the 2007 split in that party.Several of its supporters became members of the party and one serves as its national treasurer.”

Their present line is this.

The confrontation playing out in Ukraine is however not fundamentally about the rights of the Ukrainian people but is the site of a massive attempt by the US to drive back Russia and destroy the capacity for any force to challenge it at a global level.

Russia may not be a second superpower anymore, but recent events on Syria have shown that – especially when in alliance with China – it is still powerful enough to obstruct the US’s plans.

US imperialism will not tolerate any challenge to its global hegemony, however weak and vacillating.

It demonstrated that recently in Iraq, in Libya, in getting rid of Morsi in Egypt, its sanctions on Iran and its offensive against Syria. Therefore it has decided Russia must be fatally weakened.

The US is not interested in ‘democracy’ in the Ukraine – if it was it would not team up with fascists.

The people of Ukraine are just a tool in its attacks on rivals and challengers, which in this case is Russia.

Defending the rights of the people of Ukraine means defending the rights of the east to resist the imposition of a US puppet government over it, defending the right to self-determination even to secession for all regions that want it, and defending the right of the Russian army to come to the aid of the eastern regions to prevent Kiev enforcing its control.

If you want to hear more of the same opinions you can watch Galloway below.

Unimportant downdate: Lenny au pays des Soviets (Ukraine: against infantile realpolitik).

An epideictic ethopoeia (as Seymour could call it) on Lindsey German,

“But since the theory is impossible to infer from German’s polemic, it unfortunately comes across as facile opportunism, and any theory that does now emerge to bolster it – even should it direct us to seize the ‘key link in the chain’ – will tend to look like a post hoc rationalisation.”