J.A. Mitchell, Appeal to Reason, December 29, 1906, based on painting by Balfour Ker.


Scroll down for more

Click image to enlarge


A rising up  "from the depths" threatens to disturb a gilded party in the above cartoon published in 1906 by The Appeal to Reason, the most popular revolutionary socialist newspaper in US history.  The tuxedoed and bejeweled rich, enjoying a grand ball in what looks like the Metropolitan Museum, recoil in horror as a clenched fist smashes up through the dance floor.  Below, in an allegorical view offered by scientific socialism, we see the suffering and resistance of the working class.  In squalid darkness, women and children strain to hold up the roof - or is it the floor - while their kind are crushed by exhaustion, age and injustice. One among them however has put his burden down and leads the fight upward. This is what Socialism in America looked like in the Age of Monopoly. 

The Age of Monopoly begins with the end of Reconstruction and the Great Uprising of 1877.  Subject to waves of violent conflict, a second Civil War seemed ready to break out, whether on the frontier or in urban America as with the Haymarket bombing of 1886 or Homestead strike of 1892.  In 1901 the US Steel became the biggest corporation in history, the Socialist Party is founded in Chicago, and a anarchist assassinated President McKinley, the man who three years earlier invaded the Philippines.  The struggles of the Age of Monopoly reach a kind of peak with World War I (1916-1918) and the Red Scare (1919-1922) that followed.  Victorious in the class struggle, monopoly capitalism and Wall Street reign uncontested until the age comes to a cataclysmic end with the Great Crash of 1929.  

Throughout the era, in all parts of country, the American people rose to challenge the power of capitalism under the banner of building the "cooperative commonwealth."  Denouncing the unaccountable power of Robber Barons and Plutocrats, a generation of industrial workers, midwestern farmers, urban immigrants, civil rights activist and feminists, as well as a progressive middle class, built Socialism into a mass movement.  Rising and falling between the 1880s and 1920s, American Socialism was many things to many different groups, but through the lens of radical cartoonists we can see that at its root, Socialism encouraged people to challenge the sanctity of the free market, to demand the expansion of democratic rights and civil liberties, and to consider the real possibility of progressive, even revolutionary, change. 


Irish World and Industrial Liberator, February 1, 1879.  Click image to enlarge. 

WORKINGMAN: - "Since the public may judge of me from your picture, Mr. Capital, be careful to make it a true one."   TRUTHFUL ARTIST - "Oh, certainly! I shall not misrepresent you, sir."


The roots of American socialism go deep, finding inspiration in the history of utopian communities, immigrant radicalisms and in the confrontation between organized workers and the growing power of industrial capitalists.  The struggle between labor and capital, a struggle that truly became central to US history after the Civil War in the Age of Monopoly, was fought over many things.  In the 19th century, unlike today, this was less so a fight over wages, with many labor organizations like the Knights of Labor rejecting the wage form itself, branding the weekly paycheck "wage slavery."  Instead, it was a struggle over time - such as the 8-hour day strike that led to the Haymarket bombing in 1886 - and a fight over working conditions in which workers sought to preserve control over their skills and the pace of work on the shop floor.  Capitalists, on the other hand, sought to mechanize industry and de-skill workers so as to make employees instantly replaceable and manage the workplace into an efficient and profitable machine.  For American workers then, this was less a fight over money than it was a question of dignity, a fight to defend their manly independence, and to give physical shape to a working class definition of freedom. 

In these cartoons of early labor and socialist images we see the self conscious waging of a cultural class war.  In the image above, we see the dignified, independent and manly worker, sitting for a portrait before the capitalist artists. The worker requests a fair and accurate representation from Mr. Capital; however, the image painted is that of a horned and fanged demon, ready to hang besides his other works of "Miss Corporation" and "Might Makes Right."  The capitalist knowns only how to demonize the worker, to depict them as monsters to be feared and fought  Clearly, argues this newspaper of immigrant radicalism, labor and socialism cannot rely on the capitalist press for honest representations of the class struggle.  Socialists and labor needed to create their own press, their own newspapers and journalists, and, of course, their own artists and cartoonists. 

Walter Crane, The Comrade, 1901.

The Comrade, October 1903.
Click images to enlarge.

Drawn for the New York Call, reprinted in the International Socialist Review, June 1911. 

Socialist and labor cartoons from before the First World War generally represent "the worker" or "the working class" as a broad-chested, powerfully built white male.  This is an appeal to racial and gender privilege both politically and personally, calling upon such working men to exercise their power on behalf of the women and children for whom they provide and protect.  Sadly, there were some American socialists - Jack London most significantly - who embraced a white supremacist vision.  

But this representation also demonstrates the extraordinarily restrictive nature of American electoral democracy in the early 20th century.  Women did not gain the right to vote until 1920.  Many states restricted voting rights for the poor and immigrants (especially from Asia). And black men, once granted the vote with the 15th amendment, had been all but totally disenfranchised with the start of Jim Crow in 1898.

White working class men were the only source of votes beyond the propertied and elite.  So for the growing Socialist Party, they had to convince this population of workers, farmers and the progressive middle class that they were wasting their votes on Democrats and Republicans.  In the image above, the allegorical use of scale tells the political economic story of the workers who create all wealth and dominates the nation demographically, but who votes for his master's interests and his own oppression at the ballot box.   

Below we see another version of this argument.  Here "labor" is attacked by the octopus of capital, wielding its tentacles of class warfare: legal injunctions, militias and police, black lists and employers associations. The caption asks the worker to take up the sword of the Socialist Ballot.  But is he meant to cut off the arms and free himself from his grip, or is he to plunge the dagger into the beast's malevolent eye and kill capitalism itself?  This difference of tactics and goals between reform vs. revolution are skillfully left to the viewer.  We allowed to make our own choice set by our own level of commitment.  By 1912 this division between revolutionary socialists (led by the IWW) and electoral or reform socialists (led by Milwaukee mayor Victor Berger) came to split the party in half. 

T.H. Lockwood, Appeal to Reason, Jan 9, 1904. 

EUGENE VICTOR DEBS: The Soul of American Socialism

Reprinted in Art Young: His Life and Times
Click images to enlarge. 

Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) was the beating heart and living soul of American Socialism. Four times a presidential candidate on the Socialist ticket, Debs insisted, "I am for Socialism because I am for humanity."   Born in Terra Haute, Indiana, Debs grew up on the railroad where he joined his first union as a young man.  In 1894 he helped form the American Railway Union, the first Industrial Union of its kind, organizing workers not by job but across the entire industry.  Shortly thereafter Debs rose to international fame by leading the Pullman Strike in Chicago, after which he was sent to prison for violating the first legal injunction.  Debs went into prison a labor leader, but he came out a Socialist.   

Debs helped found the Socialist Party in 1901. He spoke at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. And when the went to war in 1917, Debs stood opposed, proclaiming, "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles." For this crime he was convicted of violating the Espionage act.  Upon sentencing, Debs spoke to the court and proclaimed his solidarity with all of humanity: 

"Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." 

In 1920, locked up in a federal prison in Atlanta, Debs made his last run for president, winning nearly a million votes. 

Debs' introduction to Red Portfolio.  Cartoon by Ryan Walker.

Click image to enlarge. 


‘‘The true art of the untrammeled cartoonist is now being developed," wrote Debs in his introduction to the Red Portfolio, "and he will be one of the most inspiring factors in the propaganda of the revolution.... Cartooning capitalism is far more inspiring than capitalistic cartooning."  


Appeal to Reason, May, 15, 1897. 

Click images to enlarge. 

The Red Portfolio (1912) was given out as a promotional gift for new subscribers to The Coming Nation and the Appeal to Reason, published out of the small socialist community of Girard, Kansas.  

The Appeal to Reason was published between 1895 and 1922 and quickly became the most important newspaper in the history of American socialism: it commissioned and first published Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as a serial; it hired Eugene Debs as its lead editorialist and managed his speaking tours and presidential campaigns; and always went looking for the "next big fight." Explicitly evangelical in its approach to winning converts to the cause of socialism, the Appeal imagined itself to be a grass roots movement unto itself, and by 1913 the it reached a peak circulation of 750,000 (coinciding closely with the peak in the Socialist Party vote), making it the largest circulating national paper of its era and the largest circulating left-wing paper in American history. ‘‘The Appeal is an agitation sheet – that and nothing more’’, proudly wrote the paper’s founder J.A. Wayland in 1905, ‘‘I am an agitator. The propaganda of Socialism is my specialty.’’


Ryan Walker, New Adventures of Henry Dubb (Chicago, IL, 1915).

Perhaps the only radical cartoonist more prolific than Art Young was Ryan Walker.  Born in 1870 in rural Kentucky, Walker represented a key voice of Midwestern populist-socialism through the thousands of cartoons he provided to The Comrade, The National Rip-Saw, The New York CallThe Coming Nation and the Appeal to Reason.

Walker’s most lasting legacy was the creation of the first radical comic strip, featuring the misadventures of Henry Dubb, a hapless worker who rejects socialism, unions and every other avenue to improve his meager lot in life. Dubb’s wife and child seem to know – or quickly come to discover – that what Henry believes to be the just and natural order of things is in fact a corrupt social system, maintained through (slapstick) violence and the stupidity of the Henry Dubbs of the world. Of course, Henry never learns and finds himself arrested, out of a job or simply made to look the fool once again, resulting in his weekly exclamation: ‘‘I’m a Henry Dubb!?’’

Ryan Walker, Appeal to Reason, May 16, 1914. 

In this cartoon of the "Invisible Government of the United States," the ‘‘invisible hand’’ of the capitalist market is replaced by the very visible, manipulating hand of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, pulling the strings of presidents, soldiers and congress into an aggressive war against Mexico.

The metaphor of an "Invisible Government," a symbol of the corporate corruption of the democratic state, was a major theme of Socialist propaganda.

Click images to enlarge.

Ryan Walker, The Comrade, December 1903.

Ryan Walker, Appeal to Reason, June 24, 1922.


The Rip-Saw Mother Goose
Click on images to enlarge. 

American socialism is a movement of autodidacts. The self-educated agitator needed a collection of pamphlets and books to learn the meaning of socialism.  And his or her kids needed to learn socialism too. These class conscious nursery rhymes from the Rip-Saw Mother Goose give a glimpse of that a second generation midwestern radicals may have grown up on. 


The Messenger, edited by Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph, was the most important magazine of black radicalism and socialism in the early 20th century.  An essential political precursor to the Harlem Renaissance, The Messenger - and the cartoon below - is credited with coining the phrase "New Negro" and helping to articulate a political vision for the new urban black population in the years around the first great migration.  

In the cartoon below, we see this "New Crowd Negro" putting to good use the skills he gained fighting in France.  The ultra-modern black man - his military uniform flying off his body - uses the automobile and machine gun to attack the white mobs that rioted during the Red Summer of 1919.  In Chicago, as white rioters killed, looted and burned black neighborhoods, many African Americans took up arms to defend themselves and their property.  In this blaze of armed self-defense the New Negro was born, commemorated in the pages of The Messenger and in the poetry of their fellow black socialist Claude McKay, who's sonnet "If We Must Die" became the artistic exemplar of this moment of resistance. McKay's poem was first published in the pages of The Liberator where he became the magazine's first black editor. 

The Messenger, 1919.  

A. Philip Randolph was one of the 20th century's great organizers.  After editing The Messenger, he went on to found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the largest African American unions in the country.  In 1941 he threatened to march on Washington unless FDR issued an executive order to integrate the defense plants - a demand that he won, setting off the second great migration of African Americans to California and the Pacific Coast.  In 1963 his long promised March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom provided the moral high-water mark of the Civil Rights Movement.  

As a young socialist, Randolph joined Eugene Debs to champion the cause of black and white worker solidarity.  In his early intellectual formation, Randolph and The Messenger viewed American racism fundamentally a class issue: racism was a lie told by the capitalists to keep black and white workers from finding common cause.  The two cartoons below demonstrates this notion through a crude allegory.  A worried capitalist appears to be fleeing with his surplus profits while two more ride the backs of two workers, shouting instructions to their charges: one demands that the white worker privilege his racial status over class solidarity, while the other tells the black worker to keep his distance from the racist white. Either way, it is the capitalists who use the n-word twice while the black and white worker, similarly chained and saddled, reach towards each other as natural comrades.

Efforts at building multi-racial radical organizations have a long history in America, from John Brown to the Knights of Labor to Freedom Summer and Occupy Oakland.  However, it took the failure of The Messenger's effort at cross race unionization to come to terms with the fact that racism is not reducible to class, that a revolutionary socialist state will still have to deal with problems of racism, and that a conspiracy of capitalists is not the only thing keeping the workers of the world from uniting. The white working class has a history of embracing racism as part of what WEB DuBois called the "psychological wage" of whiteness, in which white privilege comes at the cost of class solidarity.  These are still lessons for our time. 

 W.B. Williams, The Messenger, August 1919.

The Messenger, December 1919.   Click image to enlarge.