From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
As a young apprentice photographer in the middle of the 1960s ferment, I came across the montages of John Heartfield – they blew me away. I had an immediate visual solidarity with them. They were the most exciting ‘Art’ I had ever seen, but I understood little or nothing of the detail. It was at this time I joined CAST – a collection of underground agitprop actors which became a kind of International Socialist theatre group. This was my introduction to class politics, the New Left and libertarianism.
Heartfield’s montages are in many books, but the one I have is Photomontages of the Nazi Period – John Heartfield. John Heartfield was born Helmut Herzfelt. In 1916 he anglicised his name to protest against German chauvinism in the First World War. He was a Berlin dadaist who joined the newly formed German Communist Party after the Russian Revolution. His most important and brilliant work was done in the period 1930–38 for the AIZ (Workers’ Illustrated Paper), which had a circulation of half a million a month. After April 1933, when Hitler came to power, he fled to exile in Prague and then to London from 1938 to 1950.
There are 83 plates in this book, out of the 238 he did for AIZ. Top hatted hyenas stalk the killing fields of the First World War. Goebbels drapes the beard of Karl Marx around Hitler as he entices the German workers. The ideal Nazi family sit round the kitchen table eating bits of iron; even the dog eats nuts and bolts. The title ‘Hurrah all the butter is gone!’ refers to Goering’s words: ‘Iron has always made our country strong. Butter and lard only make people fat.’
Heartfield’s concerns were not restricted to Nazi Germany. A true internationalist, his image from July 1931 ‘Black or White – in struggle united’ shows the clenched fists of two workers raised in solidarity against the racial injustice of the famous ‘Scottsboro boys’ case in Alabama.
I find Heartfield’s art as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.
There are a number of great Marxist historians, but A.L. Morton is the one for me. His A People’s History of England is so accessible. It reads more like a thriller than a history book. This is not the dry stuff of kings and queens and dates and discoveries; this is people, conflict, class and struggle from megalithic times around 3000 BC to the end of the First World War.
War and an Irish Town is Eamonn McCann’s account of the Bogside uprising: his dispatches from the barricades of Derry of 1968, through internment, to the murders of Bloody Sunday. This is another story of ordinary people changing in the heat of struggle and doing extraordinary things. Rich in history and imagery, humanity and anger scream through this landmark book.
Two more brilliant books that excited me and gave me a better handle on art, culture, consumerism and capital were Ways of Seeing by John Berger and Keywords by Raymond Williams.
David Widgery’s wonderful book Some Lives has been mentioned in this space many times, and since the BNP’s election in Tower Hamlets, it has an added relevance.
Also worth checking out in the light of renewed struggle against fascism is Beating Time, the photo-history of Rock Against Racism from 1976–82. It’s not his best book, but a vital source for today’s young anti-Nazis and a great reminder of the part played by what Widgery would call ‘electric culture’ in the campaign against the National Front last time round; something which is sadly slipping from the memory of many socialist writers and reviewers today.
Last updated: 1 March 2017