Tag Archives: class struggle

Tintin: Breaking Free of Class-Only Politics

By Hugh Goldring | @ooHugh

“The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free” is a comic about class war. If that doesn’t sound quite like Tintin’s typical adventures through Orientalist portrayals of the 1930s, there’s a reason why.

Published under the pseudonym J. Daniels, ‘Breaking Free’ expropriates Hergé’s classic images of the reporter turned adventurer and remakes him as the central protagonist of a general strike. Featuring a cast of familiar faces in entirely unfamiliar roles, ‘Breaking Free’ is as much a blueprint towards revolution as it is an exercise in wishful thinking.

BF_cover

Title: Breaking Free / The Adventures of Tintin
Author: ‘J. Daniels’
Illustrator: ‘J. Daniels’
Original Release: February, 1992
Published: Attack Intl (UK)
Other Spec’s: Softcover, 176 pages, black and white interior.
Of central interest is that, for a comic about class war, ‘Breaking Free’ has a lot to say about other struggles: the fighting proletariat are not all gruff blue-collar blokes in flat caps, though there’s no shortage of them here. But the story teems with the diversity of the systemically oppressed: housewives tired of devalued housework, lesbians running away from intolerant homes and elderly being driven out of their communities by gentrification. The idea that all our struggles are connected is intimately threaded through the narrative of the general strike, driving the strike on by recognizing that all are allies in the fight.

Before the strike begins, Tintin and his uncle (a transformed Captain Haddock) head out to take in a football match. In the crowd outside, a fascist is selling a newspaper. As this excerpt shows, this is no crude caricature of a fascist. Employing language about safety and economic security, the fascist organizer plays on the worst fears of the working class. But the Captain is no stranger to solidarity, and makes the left-wing argument very ably: black or white, it’s us against the bosses.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

The Captain aptly deconstructs the notion of a ‘white’ race in simple terms, demanding to know which sort of immigrant the fascist descends from. In the sincerity of its depiction of fascism and nuance of the Captain’s arguments, the comic treats the issue of race seriously. Certainly more can be said on the tendency of white men to dominate within even progressive social movements, but at least it addresses the issue seriously.

The question of women’s roles in the struggle also crops up, as in this excerpt, and gets a broader showing than race. Tintin treats Mary as little more than a domestic servant, prompting a well deserved dressing down.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Mary emphasizes that she’s neither swayed by lesbians nor middle class feminists, debunking those chauvinistic myths about feminism by speaking from her own experience. Rather than be easily persuaded, Tintin flies off the handle, and needs time to cool off before coming around to understanding her point of view.

In just a few short pages, the comic covers domestic work, working class feminism and sexual assault. These are not abstract problems for academics to write endlessly on – they are issues affecting left-wing organizing in the 21st century. Tintin later puts in his time as a babysitter so that some of the women can get out to the strike meetings.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Although Tintin wises up about feminism quick enough, he still has some internalized homophobia to deal with. Rather than coddling him, his squatter neighbour Nicky puts it to him very frankly. Tintin is just as guilty of breaking society’s rules, and all Nicky asks is that he live and let live. If his acceptance seems to come a little too easily when she forces him to admit that homophobia is one more way the rich divide us, Tintin is not completely reformed.

But Tintin learns, albeit slowly. When Nicky and the rest of a queer contingent at the strike are hassled by a protester who quickly resorts to homophobic slurs, Tintin turns up out of the crowd to tell him off.

Breaking Free of Ignorance

The point the comic is making is twofold – first, that gay and lesbian people have as much of a stake in the class struggle as anyone else. Fairly elementary stuff, all told. But the more radical insistence is on visibility – not only are they welcome, but their banner demonstrates public support of the strike, reflecting both diversity and solidarity.

Granted that the origins of many liberation movements are in fact decades older, Breaking Free came out in 1992, at a time when intersectionality was still working to get a foothold in leftist organizing, particularly within the realm of labour. It is a great read for anyone involved or interested in progressive organizing.

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Sabo-Tabby Vs. The Bosses: The Political Cartoons of North America’s Most Radical Union

SaboTabbyAlthough the name might mean little to modern readers, there was a time when the initials ‘IWW’ struck fear in the hearts of bosses, police and all other respectable elements of society.  The Industrial Workers of the World, formed in 1905, was one of North America’s most radical and militant unions.  Though much diminished since its heyday in the 1910s and 20s, there are still active IWW chapters around the world, including here in Toronto.  What is less well known about the Wobblies, as they have been called for generations, is their rich history of political cartoons.

Their most enduring contribution to the graphic vocabulary of the left is undoubtedly the Sabo-Tabby.  Seen here with claws out and back arched, the Sabo-Tabby was probably created by Ralph Chaplin, more famous for writing the union hymn “Solidarity Forever”.  But their work also includes the hopeless ‘boss-head’ Mr. Block who could never quite see where his interests lay, and a proliferation of other editorial cartoons. The IWW truly forged an iconography of both union pride and class consciousness in their decades of activity.

An organized worker walks proudly with his good friend. Note the wooden clogs, another early symbol for workers' sabotage.
An organized worker walks proudly with his good friend. Note the wooden clogs, another early symbol for workers’ sabotage.

In their cartoons, the IWW often sought to entice workers away from electoral politics.  The IWW emphasis on direct action – strikes, foot-dragging and packing jail cells over free speech – finds ready expression in this cartoon.  The heroic figure of the worker is coaxed by the politician on the one hand and the Wobbly on the other – where should he struggle?  Washington’s distance is matched by the factory’s immediacy, emphasizing the workers’ true and immediate priorities.  The stakes of this struggle are expressed in the preamble to the union constitution:

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”


In the first half of the 20th century, when millions of working people lived in conditions of poverty unimaginable today, the rich enjoyed lives of equally unimaginable luxury. The appeal of the IWW’s call is all too evident.

HeUnderstandsTheGame

The refusal to deal with politicians, seen as agents of the capitalist class, is recurrent in Wobbly cartoons.  The IWW’s antipathy to politicians began early, with a break from socialist politician Daniel DeLeon, who insisted on the primary importance of political struggle and the potential irrelevance of demands for higher wages.  The Wobbly response to this attitude is summed up wonderfully in “Now He Understands The Game”, where the looming figure of a class-conscious worker looks skeptically on the capitalist’s puppet show.  The demands clutched in his hand and the rising sun of the IWW at his feet are all a part of him seeing the political façade for what it is, and so the worker is labeled accordingly on his overalls.  That the various political puppets are all on the strings of the same boss, symbolizing the capitalist class as a whole, showed that the bitter partisanship of mainstream politics was an irrelevance to workers who could legislate on the shop floor.

Migratory_WorkersIWW cartoons tended to construe politicians as a class, usually not differentiating between Democrat or Republican.  But their jabs were also aimed at the parties of the socialist left. In this cartoon, the artist mocks the notion that transient workers can have their interests served by sedentary politicians belonging to the more mainstream Socialist Party, led by former Wobbly cofounder Eugene Debs.  Farmhands, lumberjacks and other temporary migrant workers were the focus of many successful IWW campaigns; the idea that these precarious workers would cast their lot in with a politician representing a congressional district they might not be in for even a year was duly mocked by the Wobbly press.  The only way to catch the pork chop of gainful employment was to join a union that would see to your getting a square deal – or at least a square meal!

Organize

IWW_misconceptionThe Communist Party USA was, if anything, less favourably regarded by the Wobs.  Like a great many other left organizations operating in North America, the IWW was constantly confronted with accusations that it was doing Bolshevik Russia’s work and that its members were agents of the communist state.  This allegation was not helped by the emigration of leading Wobbly ‘Big’ Bill Haywood to Russia following the revolution, and the publication of his happy memoirs.  But as this comic shows, the IWW did not want to be seen as leading the Russian Bear behind it.  The cartoon draws on the popular representation of Russia as a bear, and the high population of lumberjacks in the IWW to create an image of a sinister woodsman.  Other than the label, ‘One misconception of the IWW’, nothing in the cartoon indicates that the Wobblies and the Bolsheviks were anything other than friendly.

Although they were drawn by dozens of different artists, some of whom are speculated to have had separate careers as established comic strip artists working for commercial features, IWW cartoons share some commonalities.  They are seldom subtle, and some feature such extensive labeling of elements of the image that one suspects the artist harboured grave doubts regarding their abilities as an illustrator.  At times they attempt to incorporate too many elements to be coherent, though most of those selected here avoid that prospective pitfall.  But they serve their purpose in their simplicity: politicians and businessmen are ugly with expressions of sinister intent on their face. For hungry workers making a pittance for long hours, the straightforward message of these comics must have helped to win them over to the Wobblies’ cause.  When all the fiery manifestos in the world won’t do, sometimes a few comics can close the gap.

MORE WOBBLY ‘TOONS…

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Further Reading

Preamble of the IWW, by its membership:  http://www.iww.org/culture/official/preamble.shtml Rebel Voice: An IWW Anthology Edited by Joyce L. Kornbluh.  2011, PM Press. The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years. Fred Thompson and Jon Bekken. 2006, IWW. Bill Haywood’s Book: The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood New York: International Publishers, 1929

For a comic book history of the IWW, check out:

Keeping the Faith: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Mike Alewitz, Sue Coe, Sabrina Jones. Edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. 2005, Verso Books.