In an era of wars and revolutions — a new book from Workers’ Liberty — features American socialist cartoons spanning the middle of the 20th century. This era saw Stalinism at the height of its prestige and power, as well as some of its most notorious atrocities.
In the late 1920s, the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, under the political leadership of Joseph Stalin, wrested the last vestiges of power from the working-class, and unleashed a wave of expulsions and exiles to purge the Bolshevik party of those who resisted and held fast to their revolutionary socialist principles.
Stalin concentrated enormous power in his own hands. Members of the Left Opposition, foremost of whom was Leon Trotsky, and Stalin’s other political enemies, were expelled and suppressed. Many of Stalin’s own faction fell victim, too.
Usurping the rhetoric and imagery of socialism, the Stalinist bureaucracy transformed the Soviet Union into a grotesque totalitarian society, where social, economic and political power rested in the hands of the state bureaucracy, and in which basic freedoms of dissent, as well as working-class and democratic organisation, were smashed.
Far from being a socialist state, this new form of exploitative class society was the utter negation of the workers’ revolution of 1917, dressed up in a distorted ideology that was a hideous parody of Marxism.
Many of the cartoons in In an era of wars and revolutions, from the Trotskyist movement in the US, comment on what was happening in the Soviet Union, but also on what was happening in the “Communist” [Stalinist] movement in the US and elsewhere.
Of course, cartoons depicting Stalin as a villain and Stalinism as a monstrous tyranny are far from rare, and were common in the bourgeois, right-wing press at the time. But these socialist artists do something more — they depict Stalinism as an implacable enemy of the working-class and of socialism.
Stalin is depicted as a gravedigger and an executioner.
In the Spanish Civil War, we see the Spanish proletariat trussed up and presented to a Francoist executioner. The proletariat’s hands have been tied together by the “Popular Front” — the Stalinist policy that firmly bound the workers’ movement to the bourgeoisie, and destroyed independent class politics.
In another picture about Spain, a pile of corpses marked “political opponents” lies lifeless on the ground. Above it are two smoking pistols, one marked “Franco” and the other “Stalinist GPU” — the secret police that the Stalinists used to ruthlessly hunt down Trotskyists, anarchists and dissidents within the Spanish republican camp.
When the Comintern was first set up in 1919, it was intended to co-ordinate and organise workers around the world for revolution. But as the bureaucracy took control in the Soviet Union, it became a crude institutional tool for imposing Stalin’s directives on foreign communist parties.
When the needs of the Russian dictatorship changed, the line of the Comintern and its affiliates would rapidly change, too. The sudden volte-faces and contradictory changes of the line were ripe for mockery, and the cartoonists of the Trotskyist movement were quick to take their chance.
Earl Browder, the leader of the US Communist Party, is portrayed as a pathetic little puppet, constantly being forced into ridiculous stances by his master in Moscow. When the Soviet Union needed US help in World War Two, the miniature Browder prostrates himself to American jingoism, licking the boots of a giant army officer. The Communist Party itself is a goofy-faced mannequin being perpetually turned in different directions by Stalin's hand. Finally, Earl Browder, twisted and twisted round like a spring, snaps.
The rise of and rule of Stalinism in Russia, and later in Eastern Europe and elsewhere was one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century; understandably the cartoons on this topic in In an era are some of the more pessimistic. But they are not without hope.
In one of the boldest drawings, we see the prone body of the old Comintern lying face down on the face of the earth, stabbed in the back by a Stalinist bayonet. But over the horizon comes a mighty hand holding the banner of the 4th International.
The American Trotskyists bravely struggled for the creation of a new international grouping, untainted by betrayal and bureaucratic corruption, to liberate the workers once and for all. These cartoons were a fascinating part of that struggle.