Cartooning capitalism – a look back at American radicalism

Michael Mark Cohen revives political art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that remains equally relevant today

November 2, 2016
4 min read

familyArthur Henry Young (1866-1943) – known to the world as Art – was the most widely recognised and beloved cartoonist of the golden age of American radicalism. Spanning the Age of Monopoly (1877-1929) his images gave a visual design and humorous edge to a rising wave of socialist, labor and anti-capitalist mass movements (along with more than one terrorist conspiracy). Together they organised to oppose the unchecked power of monopoly capitalism, Wall Street finance and militant nationalism.

Artist and activist, Art Young’s work records his direct involvement in the political struggles that shaped his age. His career stretches between his jailhouse portraits of the Haymarket Anarchists, drawn just days before their execution in 1887, to a Fourth of July picnic in 1918 with John Reed at the home of Eugene V. Debs, just a few days before his arrest for giving an anti-war speech. Nearly unique in the history of political cartooning and the American Left, as an artist Art Young was capable of leading a mass anti-capitalist movement while also reaching deep into the mainstream of American media.

Rarely have visual artists played such a prominent role in political organising as they did in the Haymarket Generation. Young stood at the centre of a large community of cartoonists, working class artists and bohemian modernists who forged a distinctive style of revolutionary art for the new century. “The true art of the untrammelled cartoonist is now being developed”, wrote Debs in 1912, “and he will be one of the most inspiring factors in the propaganda of the revolution.” As Debs insisted: “Cartooning capitalism is far more inspiring than capitalistic cartooning.”

Art worked closely with many of the 20th century’s greatest artist and his work was published everywhere; in liberal and socialist papers alike. For his troubles, he was sued, censored, banned from the mail, and nearly spent decades in prison, narrowly escaping in two federal trials for sedition and conspiracy in 1918.

Today much of the history of American radicalism, including the work of Art Young, languishes in obscurity just when it is needed most. Cartooningcapitalism.com seeks to collect the cartoon art from the Haymarket Generation, highlighting their contributions to the history of American radicalism, civil liberties, socialism, and progressive reform.hellThis is not Art Young’s Protestant view of Purgatory, with the elect climbing their way out of sin and unto salvation. No, it is the struggle against your fellow men and women to climb up the ladder away from the masses of the poor to the precarious top that creates a Hell for everyone.hell 2

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from the depthsJ.A. Mitchell, published in Appeal to Reason, the most popular revolutionary socialist newspaper in US history, December 29, 1906.worker and capitalist

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standard oilIn 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.

debsEugene 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.”

View more cartoons and read more about the artists on cartooningcapitalism.com Follow Michael Mark Cohen on Twitter.