British Communism and the American Threat: Primary Documents

A guest post by Kent Worcester

A ‘bittersweet historical drama with two comics studies angles’ — and two complete pamphlets, cartoon-packed, of British communist party propaganda from the post-WWII years.

FIGURE ONE: Derek Kartun, This is America, 1947 — a book published by the Communist Party of Great Britain’s London publishing arm.

Communism in Britain peaked in the mid-1940s. By ‘Communism’ I mean the ‘official’ Communist Party (and its periphery) that was embedded in a wider, pro-Soviet international movement. The currently unfashionable term ‘Stalinism’ also applies in this context.

In 1943 the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) reported a membership of around 60,000 – the majority of whom were working class – and in the 1945 General Election the party’s candidates tallied over 100,000 votes. Two Communists were elected to the House of Commons that year, and as Frances Beckett notes in Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (1995), about “a dozen of the 393 Labour MPs [who were elected in 1945] were either secret CP members or close to the CP, sharing its beliefs and enjoying the company of its leaders”. Party members may have been embroiled in internal debates,[1] but on the whole the future seemed bright.

Within a few years these hopes had faded. The wartime alliance that brought together Britain, the United States, and the U.S.S.R. gave way to a Cold War that placed an ‘iron curtain’ between two contending power blocs. While anti-Communism played a bigger role in the U.S. than in Britain, the CPGB faced a far less hospitable environment in the 1950s than it had in the 1930s and 1940s.

The two Communist MPs, Willie Gallacher (West Fife) and Phil Piratin (Mile End), both lost their seats in the 1950 General Election. The party had shrunk to 35,000 members or so by 1951. The party would continue to shed members throughout the postwar era, particularly in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations about Joseph Stalin’s grotesque abuses of power and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, both of which occurred in 1956. As the writer Brian Behan admitted in the early 1960s, “Our membership never went above thirty thousand, and this was only kept up by frantic recruiting drives in which, like the runner on the escalator, we kept running like mad just to stay in the same place”.[2]

Despite these setbacks, the CPGB retained a base in certain industries and communities through the 1960s and 1970s. “If its Marxism was doctrinaire and Russified”, David Widgery wrote, “the party still provided a working-class political education and an industrial organisation for many thousands of workers”.[3] However, the Communists were outmaneuvered by its rivals on the postwar left and by the 1980s the party was riven by in-fighting. As the historian Raphael Samuel wryly noted in 1985, the “Communist Party is becoming as faction-ridden as the Liberals, as Byzantine in intrigue as the Tories, and as Aesopian in its in-fighting terminologies”.[4] Outside observers often characterized the party’s internal divisions in terms of a two-way battle between ‘Euros’ and ‘Tankies’, but as Lawrence Parker rightly points out, this was “a common misreading of the struggle inside the CPGB”.[5] The Communist Party of Great Britain was finally disbanded in 1991, which was the same year that the USSR itself fragmented into several geopolitical pieces.

There are two comics studies angles to this bittersweet historical drama.

First, the Communist movement attracted an impressive number of cartoonists and graphic designers. From its founding in 1920 onwards, the party issued a steady stream of printed materials, from leaflets, posters, and newspapers, to pamphlets, magazines, and books. During its lifetime the CPGB generated a greater volume of political material than the much larger Labour Party.[6] Drawings, cartoons, and good design enlivened Communist publications and made it easier for comrades to build an audience for the party and its program via bookshops, public meetings, street sales, and rummage sales.[7] Communist parties across the globe built on the ‘Wobbly’ tradition of using ‘silent agitators’ to convey its message to a wider audience.[8]

The aesthetic quality of British Communist literature varied widely, of course. The menacing cover to Arthur Clegg’s American Spider, a 1947 pamphlet that bitterly denounces U.S. economic imperialism, is far more representative of the party’s midcentury graphics than the handsome pamphlets that are featured below.[9]

FIGURE TWO: Arthur Clegg, American Spider — CPGB, 1947

Second, as readers of Martin Barker’s A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign (1984) will recall, party members played a pivotal if covert role in the British anti-comics campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Led by the Comics Campaign Council, the moral panic over superhero, crime, and horror four-color imports from North America culminated in the passage of the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act in 1955. Astonishingly, this law is still on the books.

This guest blog post, along with a possible follow-up, considers the party’s investment in political cartooning and its crusade against “the great cultural machine” of Yankee imperialism. But its main goal is to place a spotlight on culturally oriented CPGB materials that have not been in general circulation since the 1950s.

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To date, little has been written on the CPGB’s use of comics and cartoons. In addition, many of the artists whose work appeared in outlets like the Daily Worker, Labour Monthly, Workers’ Weekly, and other similar publications from the first half of the twentieth century have left only the faintest trace in the historical record.

William Hope, for example, was a first-rate draftsman who contributed numerous pieces to the Daily Herald and The Communist in the early 1920s. We know that he sometimes signed his work ‘Espoir’ (‘hope’ in French), and we know when he was born (1884) but not when he died. Some Internet sources say that he came from Australia, while others claim that he migrated to the U.K. from New Zealand.

Michael Boland is another talented political cartoonist who created stirring images in the 1920s and early 1930s but about whom we know almost nothing.[10] There are in fact a number of cartoonists from this early period whom we can only identify via their pen names, such as ‘J.D. Bream’, ‘Hobnob’, ‘Redcap’, and ‘Westral’. It is possible that further information about these engagé artists will turn up in research archives or security services files. But it seems unlikely that oral history can help. The number of people who are still alive and who were active in the party before, say, 1950 must be very small indeed.

Other artists who contributed to the party press but who have yet to attract much attention from art historians and cultural historians include Peggy Angus, whose cartoons appeared in the Daily Worker’s ‘women’s page’; Pearl Binder, who went onto become a successful book illustrator; Pat Carpenter, who signed his work ‘Patrick’; Tom Poulton, a prolific illustrator who briefly worked as a cartographer for the Ministry of Defense; Cliff Rowe, who designed Red Army posters when he lived in Moscow in the early 1930s; and Elisabeth Shaw, who “produced some unusual cartoon posters for the CP during the war in a rather whimsical style reminiscent of nineteenth century children’s’ books”. Shaw subsequently enjoyed “a successful career in book illustration” in the German Democratic Republic.[11]

One member of the Communist cartooning fraternity who has received considerable notice from critics and historians is James Boswell (1906-1971), who joined the party in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression. Boswell was a founding member of the Artists’ International, which was soon renamed the Artists’ International Association, and he served as the art editor of Left Review. During the Second World War he served in Iraq as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and after the war he penned a thoughtful book titled The Artist’s Dilemma (1947). A muralist for the 1951 Festival of Britain, Boswell also designed posters for the 1964 Labour Party campaign and for Ealing Studios. Over time he increasingly focused his efforts on landscape and abstract painting. In 2006 Tate Britain hosted on a centenary display of his work in tandem with the British Museum, which exhibited some of his wartime drawings. Boswell seems to have drifted away from political activity in the 1960s.

FIGURE THREE: James Boswell, The Artist’s Dilemma (1947)

Another noteworthy CPGB cartoonist was the Scottish-born James Friell (1912-1997), whose work appeared in the Daily Worker and other party outlets between 1936 and 1957. When he joined the party Friell adopted the nom de plume ‘Gabriel’ in hopes that his work could herald the end of the capitalist system. Unlike other cartoonists who were in and around the party, Friell was employed by the Daily Worker on a full-time basis. However, he resigned from the CPGB shortly after the Hungarian uprising. He later said, “I couldn’t conceive carrying on cartooning about the evils of capitalism and imperialism, and ignoring the acknowledged evils of Russian Communism.” He subsequently landed a job as a cartoonist for the Evening Standard before setting out as a freelancer. In a 1968 interview with BBC Radio Four Friell expressed a degree of ambivalence about the political cartooning profession. “You begin to wonder if you are banging your head against a foam rubber wall”, he said.[12]

The pamphlets that are reproduced at the end of this post—Uncle Sam (1947) and America – Go Home! (1951)—feature cover art by James Boswell and James Friell, respectively. In both cases the interior drawings are by Friell. Ironically, Friell’s cover has a superhero aspect in that it pits a dastardly supervillain—modelled, it would seem, on the left-leaning folk singer Burl Ives—against a noble industrial worker. Their size relative to the ground below suggests that the stakes are enormous. Both covers catch the eye and make good use of a flirty shade of red. The inside pages are black-and-white to keep production costs low.

Both pamphlets sold for threepence, or 3d.[13] This was the same price as a newsstand copy of the London Times in 1950 and slightly more expensive than a domestic postage stamp, which cost two-and-a-half-pence [old pence, that is, 240 to the pound, not 100 as now; a.k.a. tuppence ha’penny—GL]. In the same year the average weekly wage was a little over seven pounds.

The author of Uncle Sam goes uncredited. But the pamphlet was most likely penned by Derek Kartun, one of the party’s leading journalists. For one thing, the text bears many similarities to the argument advanced in America – Go Home!, which features Kartun’s name on the cover. For another, the case laid out in Uncle Sam closely aligns with the left-nationalist anti-Americanism that Kartun advances in This is America (1947) which describes the United States as

this restless, powerful and tottering juggernaut […] the latest and greatest representative of that system of society that built the technical miracles and cultural triumphs of modern industrialism and built, too, the slums, organised the economic misery and mechanised warfare and has failed in the end to solve the impossible problems it has set mankind. Here is the last of the giants, rushing to economic disaster on a scale which no one yet fully realises.[14]

It is also likely that the two pamphlets were commissioned and edited by Sam Aaronovitch (1919-1998), a working-class autodidact who became the party’s Cultural Secretary after the war. According to his son David, a prominent British journalist and broadcaster, his father had “the tricky job of herding historians, thespians and novelists in the service of Marxism and in the direction of Communism”.[15] Aaronovitch played a key role in implementing the party’s anti-America campaign in the early years of the Cold War, including its efforts in the area of comic books. As Martin Barker notes, “In the background, advising and shaping, fitting the campaign to the party’s goals and the party to the campaign, is the figure of Sam Aaronovitch, then full-time worker for the CP on cultural matters”.[16]

While Aaronovitch remained a party member until its dissolution, Derek Kartun (1919-2005) joined around 1939 and dropped out following the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He became the Daily Worker’s foreign editor after the Second World War and among other assignments covered the birth of Israel in 1948. He subsequently became the managing director of Staflex, a successful clothing business, and wrote a series of spy novels as well as radio plays for the BBC.  As his obituary in the Independent notes, Kartun “was the improbable combination of leftist activist, captain of industry, Daily Worker journalist and writer of spy thrillers”.[17]

Both pamphlets are written in an accessible, colloquial manner, with more than a dash of sarcasm. “What does America stand for?” asks the author of Uncle Sam. “As a country, it has better plumbing, more ice-cream, hot dogs and night clubs than ours. It has many Universities, and Professors of Cosmetics, or Cosmetology, at some of them”. But the author’s main concern has to do with the potential impact of the Cold War on jobs and industries in the U.K.:

Harnessed to American foreign policy, we are to lose both our markets and our natural allies and friends. When the crisis comes, we should not be strong enough to hold on to our hard-won export markets. We should be entirely dependent on American charity, pensioners, doorkeepers, policemen, caretakers of a military outpost, whatever role is assigned to us.

If anything, America – Go Home! is even more scathing in its assessment of U.S. foreign policy and its impact on Britain’s economy and culture. In the section addressed to the U.S. Ambassador, Kartun writes: “Your America is the most dangerous, grasping, brutal and degrading capitalist power the world has ever seen. A country of giant profits and miserable rural poverty, or irresponsible government by bankers and financiers”. The pamphlet goes on to identify a slew of problems with the “cheap, hysterical wilderness of American life today”, including race-hatred, poverty, militarism, and rising crime rates:

We can get along in our quiet way without Coca-Cola, American admirals, and American G.I.’s. We want Britain for the British, not for the United States […] We believe in an independent Britain, not a Britain in pawn to the United States. We believe in a prosperous Britain, not a Britain ruined by crazy rearmament. We believe in an honest Britain, not a Britain dirtied by the hypocrisy of an American campaign for ‘democracy’ which is really a campaign for capitalism.

The accompanying visuals reinforce this core message. Friell’s drawings, which are scattered throughout the two pamphlets, are witty, economical, and easy to grasp. He was a skilled caricaturist and manages, for example, to capture General Eisenhower’s famous grin while still giving the future President an ominous visage. He invokes a number of well-known cartooning clichés, such as fat-cat bankers and downtrodden proletarians, but does it in a way that still seems fresh and engaging. If anything, the covers are even more successful in fostering a sense of a small island-nation under siege from a colossus that the second pamphlet characterizes as being “half-crazy with fear”.

It is worth noting that neither pamphlet references comic books. While America – Go Home! claims that American “films, books, comic strips, radio and television” are “brutalising the minds of the population”, the absence of any mention of horror or crime comics in these documents suggests that the anti-comics campaign was by no means a central preoccupation of the Communist Party in the period following World War Two. This is further underscored by the fact that the party did not publish a single anti-comics pamphlet under its own imprint. Arthur Clegg’s American Spider, for example, warns about “the 250 American corporations which already rule the United States”, and “the bullying policy of atomic bomb diplomacy”, but says nothing at all about movies let alone comic books.[18] Party propaganda focused almost entirely on industrial and economic issues rather than cultural topics – wages, housing, health and safety, and so on.[19]

It is also worth emphasizing that anti-Americanism was by no means confined to Communist Party circles in the 1940s and 1950s. As the historian Lawrence Black has argued, Labour Party members and supporters were as likely to view the United States in negative terms as Communists. “As socialists saw it”, he writes, “the USA was the provenance, the ‘American way of life’ the form, of an encroaching mass culture… Anti-Americanism was shorthand for criticism of capitalism and the general tenor of postwar social change”.[20] Or as a British contributor to the U.S. student magazine Anvil and Student Partisan observed in 1955,

In the field of foreign affairs, the dominant and most important attitude (with particular strength among the Bevanites) is that of anti-Americanism. It is an attitude which is at once tremendously important in itself, and also interesting in that it encompasses complicated motives and emotions, some progressive, some reactionary, which are elements in the pot pourri of ideas motivating the British Labor Party. There is involved in the anti-Americanism such varied elements as British chauvinism and a softness toward Stalinism, as well as a healthy hostility toward American warmongering.[21]

In a follow-up post I hope to return to the issues that Martin Barker raises concerning the party’s involvement in the post-WWII anti-comics moral panic, which I view as a minor and contingent component of its larger campaign against U.S. foreign policy and American influence in British affairs. The CPGB’s stance on cultural issues was primarily motivated by its support for the Soviet Union and its hopes that a postwar Britain could pursue friendly trading and diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R. and its allies in Central and Eastern Europe. The party’s anti-Americanism was a byproduct of its pro-Sovietism, in other words. The ‘natural’ home of anti-comics fervor was (and remains) on the right rather than the left, which is what makes Barker’s revelations in A Haunt of Fears so intriguing.

By 1951, with the publication of The British Road to Socialism, British Communism had formally jettisoned its ‘insurrectionary’ past and was focused on promoting peaceful relations between the U.K. and its ‘socialist’ wartime ally. In the unlikely event that former Vice-President Henry Wallace had won the presidency in 1948 and pursued a policy of peaceful cooperation with the U.S.S.R., Sam Aaronovitch and other CPGB leaders would not have underwritten the type of material reproduced below.[22]

From the vantage point of 2020, the party’s anti-Americanism seems quixotic as well as stubbornly nationalistic.[23] These days the average Brit is almost as likely to watch American football as the English variety – while drinking a Budweiser, eating McDonalds takeout, and celebrating Halloween. As it happens, some contemporaneous observers also assumed that the party was playing a weak hand. A writer for Punch magazine suggested that the party’s ‘Hate America’ campaign was unduly negative and “showed up the sterility of the contemporary Communist appeal”.[24] Clever design and appealing cartooning can only take you so far.

— Kent Worcester

Kent Worcester is the author of ‘C.L.R. James: A Political Biography’ (1996), the co-editor of ‘Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium’ (with Jeet Heer, 2004), ‘A Comics Studies Reader’ (2009), and ‘The Superhero Reader’ (with Charles Hatfield and Jeet Heer, 2013), and editor of ‘Peter Bagge: Conversations (Conversations with Comic Artists Series)’ (2015). A review of that last book appears here.

Below: the two pamphlets discussed in Kent’s text.

Clicking on each image should take you to a larger, fully readable version. Click on your browser’s back button to return here.  A bibliography and footnotes follow.

FIGURE FOUR: Uncle Sam (1947)

Cover: James Boswell. Interior art: James Friell (‘Gabriel’)

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FIGURE FIVE: America – Go Home! (1951)

Cover & interior art: James Friell (‘Gabriel’)

[Editor’s note 1: please do not reply to the advertisement or recruitment form in this publication. The Communist Part of Great Britain ceased trading in 1991.  :O) ]

 Further Reading

David Aaronovitch, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists. Jonathan Cape, 2015.

Jim Aulich, “Stealing the Thunder: The Soviet Union and Graphic Propaganda on the Home Front during the Second World War”, Visual Culture in Britain 13.3 (2012).

Martin Barker, A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. Pluto, 1984.

Francis Beckett, Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party. Merlin Press, 1995.

Lawrence Black, The Political Culture of the Left in Affluent Britain, 1951-1964. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

John Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68. Lawrence & Wishart, 2004.

Dave Cope, “CPGB Bibliography”. http://banmarchive.org.uk/cpgb_biblio/searchfrset.htm. 2008, revised 2020.

Ben Harker, The Chronology of Revolution: Communism, Culture, and Civil Society in Twentieth Century Britain. University of Toronto Press, forthcoming.

Alan Horne, The Dictionary of Twentieth Century British Book Illustrators. Antique Collectors’ Club, 1994.

Samuel S. Hyde, “‘Please, Sir, he called me “Jimmy!”’ Political Cartooning before the Law: ‘Black Friday’, J.H. Thomas, and the Communist Libel Trial of 1921”, Contemporary British History 25.4 (2011).

_____, “‘The Vicious Circle’: Communist Cartooning, Internationalism & Print Culture, c.1917-25”. Twentieth Century Communism: A Journal of International History 12 (Spring 2017).

John A. Lent, Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comics Campaign. Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1999.

Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991. November Publications, 2012.

Raphael Samuel, The Lost World of British Communism. Verso, 2006.

Kent Worcester, ed. Silent Agitators: Cartoon Art from the Pages of New Politics. New Politics Associates, 2016.

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Footnotes

[1] As Lawrence Parker has argued, “a section of the party’s membership” were in “angry rebellion against the leadership” and were “accorded a considerable platform in the open publications of the party to make their case” in the run-up to the party’s “congress of November 1945”. The main issue, Parker suggests, had to do with the party’s de facto alliance “with British imperialism during the latter part of the war” and the party’s decision to “project the cross-class politics of ‘winning the war’ into ‘winning the peace’”. Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991. London: November Publications, 2012: 16 and 15.

[2] Brian Behan, With Breast Expanded (1964), quoted in David Widgery, The Left in Britain: 1956-1968. London: Penguin, 1976: 73.

[3] Widgery, 47.

[4] Raphael Samuel, The Lost World of British Communism. London: Verso, 2006 [1985]: 5.

[5] Parker, The Kick Inside, 14.

[6] As a party member boasted at the end of the 1930s, “There is no party which produces and sells so much literature as the Communist Party”. Party Organizer, January-February 1939, quoted in Samuel, The Lost World of British Communism, 218.

[7] The cover of the pamphlet The Inside Story of the Daily Worker: Ten Years of Working-Class Journalism (1939) includes a tagline that reads, “With many Illustrations and Cartoons.” In fact, the pamphlet only includes two cartoons, and zero illustrations, but it does feature no fewer than 18 black-and-white photographs, some of which are pretty entertaining. I hope to include some of its pages in a second post.

[8] Members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who referred to themselves as ‘Wobblies’, coined the term ‘Silent Agitators’ sometime around 1910 to describe the stickers and small posters that they affixed in large numbers to lampposts, train cars, and other objects across the United States. These printed materials typically featured cartoons or drawings as well as agitational slogans.

[9] I have been unable to determine who drew the cover to American Spider.

[10] The historian Dave Cope suggests that Boland’s cartoons “are like the early Soviet ones with strong proletarian figures sweeping away the clergy and capitalists; they are similar to Kustodiev’s stirring depiction of a worker smashing his chains on the cover of Communist International. They appear dated and stereotyped now, but they combine a vigour and even a hint of violence with a lightness of touch that also lent itself to caricature of individual politicians. They are by far the best of this style by any British artist.” See Dave Cope, “CPGB Bibliography”, http://banmarchive.org.uk/cpgb_biblio/searchfrset.htm.

[11] See Cope, 2008/2020.

[12] Quoted in “James Friell”, British Cartoon Archive. https://www.cartoons.ac.uk/cartoonist-biographies/g-h/JamesFriell_Gabriel_.html.

[13] American readers may not be aware that there was a 3d coin in general circulation at the time and that the term is pronounced ‘thruppence’.

[14] Derek Kartun, This is America. Thames, 1947: 79. Kartun complains about “the phony culture of Hollywood and the advertising industry” (2) and the “brittle, frenzied, and faintly lunatic quality of much of this synthetic American culture which makes it quite different from and far more appalling than the machine culture of other countries” (72), but has nothing specific to say about comic strips or comic books.

[15] David Aaronovitch, Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists. Jonathan Cape, 2016: 43.

[16] Martin Barker, A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. Pluto, 1984: 21.

[17] See https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-derek-kartun-1529922.html.

[18] Arthur Clegg, American Spider. London: The Communist Party, 1947: 3 and 13.

[19] A complete listing of CPGB pamphlets issued between 1920 and 1991 can be found at http://banmarchive.org.uk/cpgb_biblio/tables/view1.htm

[20] Lawrence Black, The Political Culture of the Left in Affluent Britain, 1951-64. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002: 87.

[21] Alan Ross, “The British Labor Party: Complicated Anti-Americanism.” Anvil and Student Partisan 7.1 (Spring/Summer 1955): 18. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/anvil/12-v07n1-w12-spr-sum-1955-anvil.pdf.

[22] This is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem. Wallace was a prominent figure in U.S. politics and had served as Vice-President under Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1941 to 1945. He was popular with many rank-and-file Democrats and had considered standing against Harry Truman in the Democratic primaries. But Wallace eventually decided to help launch a third party, the Progressive Party. As the Progressive Party’s 1948 presidential candidate, Wallace “won just 2.38 percent of the nationwide popular vote and failed to carry any state. His best performance was in New York, where he won eight percent of the vote”. (Wikipedia.)

[23] Lawrence Black reports that the party “found itself defending the monarchy at the time of the coronation [of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953]. Given the way the idea of monarchy was cultivated, it argued it was ‘small wonder if many have fallen for it’, but the CPGB also suggested part of its popular appeal was that ‘it’s British not Yankee’”. Black, The Political Culture of the Left in Affluent Britain: 90.

[24] Black: 90.

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