The Art of Revolution: John Callow, Grant Pooke and Jane Powell. Hbk, illus, 96 pp, Evans Mitchell Books, London 2011.
THE USSR collapsed, or rather was destroyed by the counter-revolutionaries at the helm of the Soviet communist party in 1991. Along with it went the old Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and many other so-called communist parties that had clung to coat-tails of Gorbachovism.
The CPGB’s archives went to Manchester’s People’s History Museum. Other documents were piled up in the cellars of the Marx Memorial Library to languish in the dust until the work of cataloguing and preservation began in 2005.
It was then that an amazing discovery was made. Hundreds of posters from the Soviet Union and the people’s democracies were found amongst the bundles of old CPGB dossiers and pamphlets. A collection spanning the entire period of Soviet power from the October Revolution to Brezhnev’s days had come to light, including key campaigning posters from the early days of the German Democratic Republic and socialist Czechoslovakia.
With the help of the GMB union these posters have all been recorded and conserved at Marx House for art scholars and students of the world communist movement. Now a selection of these images has been published in a book produced with the support of the Marx Memorial Library, the GMB and TUink.
This book contains full colour images of over 60 Soviet and revolutionary posters from 1917 to 1953, together with a couple of very rare early examples of CPGB agitational art. While some of these posters are old favourites well known to veteran communists, many others are exceedingly rare and have probably not been reprinted since the day they were first issued.
The publishers have clearly provided a service to the working class in helping a new generation discover the graphic realism and political punch of proletarian art.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the text that accompanies the images. Three academics, John Callow from the Marx Memorial Library and Grant Pooke and Jane Powell, both from the University of Kent, provide a commentary that is technically superb but sadly politically flawed.
The cliché reference to the “Soviet Government, and latterly its satellites…” in the very beginning of the first chapter sets the tone for a potted history of the Soviet Union that accompanies the posters from the Stalin era and it largely accepts the bourgeois explanation of the “Great Purges” that accompanies them. Thankfully it is overshadowed by the detailed commentary on the artists and teams who produced the posters of the 1930s and 40s, which brings to life these gems of Soviet mass art for the modern reader.
This is not a systematic collection of political posters over the years. It simply reflects what was brought back to Britain by leading comrades such as R P Arnot and Andrew Rothstein from trips to Weimar Germany, the Soviet Union and post-war Czechoslovakia. This limitation accounts for a certain unevenness in the selection presented in this book though those posters that have been chosen clearly have been picked to illustrate the particular views of the authors. There’s no other explanation, for instance, for the curious elevation of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who was shot for treason in 1937.
When it comes to the final chapter, largely devoted to Czechoslovak posters of the 1940s, we are treated to an openly revisionist narrative that consciously distorts the role of the leadership of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) at that time.
People’s power came to Czechoslovakia in February 1948 when the communists thwarted a bourgeois coup in parliament aimed at breaking up the KSČ-led coalition government.
The authors accept that the right-wing moved first but then suggest that the KSČ, the largest party in parliament, was set to lose seats in the forthcoming 1948 election. This forced them to portray the right-wing manoeuvres as “miscalculations” based on “too much reliance upon the USA to rally international opinion to their aid”.
The real motive of the Czech bourgeoisie – to bring down the communist-led government and replace it with one that would accept Marshall Aid – is never mentioned. The Marshall Plan – US imperialism’s project to rebuild war-shattered European economies with American “aid” to exclude communists from government and build a new trans-Atlantic alliance to confront the Soviet Union – is ignored.
The Prague show trials are treated in a similar way. Former KSČ general secretary Rudolf Slansky and a number of other leading members of the Party arrested in 1951 are said to have been denounced as “bourgeois nationalists”. But we see the snake-like heads of three of them in the grip of capitalism, being beheaded by a worker armed with a hammer in a poster entitled We have captured dangerous vermin. In fact they were all charged with high treason.
The authors says that the arrest, trial and subsequent execution of most of them was “in reality, an internal struggle within the ruling power” without saying what that struggle was about. They claim that “the root cause of the trials, aside from the animosity of North America, was the refusal of Marshal Tito to let Yugoslavia become entirely subordinated to Stalin’s will and the needs of the Soviet economy”.
But this is meaningless without explaining what “Titoism” meant, or was supposed to mean, in Czechoslovakia or the other people’s democracies in 1940s eastern Europe.
In 1948 Czechoslovakia had been a major arms supplier to Israel and a training ground for the Zionist air force in 1948. A secret air-base in the town of Žatec, which the Zionists called “Ezion”, was also used to fly four surplus US air-force B17 Flying Fortresses to Israel, despite an official US arms embargo on all warring sides during the first Arab-Israeli war. One of them bombed Cairo on its way to Tel Aviv.
But there’s no mention of this or the fact that within the KSČ some wanted that relationship to continue for economic reasons or out of sympathy with the Zionist cause, despite Israel’s rapid alignment with imperialism. Nor is there any suggestion that some of those arrested were, like Tito, opposed to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance set up by the USSR in 1949 to counter Marshall Aid in eastern Europe.
Nothing is said about the continuing controversy that still surrounds the Slansky trial in the Czech republic. The revisionist leadership of the mainstream Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, a mass party with two senators and 26 deputies in the Czech parliament, endorses the rehabilitation of Slansky & Co that took place in 1968. But hard-liners, inside and outside its ranks, still uphold the original Slansky verdict. And even today’s bourgeois Czech establishment concede that Slansky was framed by a letter implicating him as an agent of imperialism planted by an agent of Okapi, a Czech émigré movement set up by the CIA to encourage subversion and sabotage in the new people’s republic.
The text is one problem. The other is the price. This slender volume is no bargain at £30. But at the moment copies can be obtained for £15 plus £2.50 directly from the Marx Memorial Library, 37a Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R ODU.