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Robert Minor: Radical Cartoonist

John Simkin

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Over the years cartoonists have played an important roles in exposing political conspiracies. One of my heroes is Robert Minor. By 1910, Minor was the chief cartoonist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was considered by many to be the best in the country. The following year, the editor of the New York World offered to make Minor the highest paid cartoonist in the United States if he moved to his newspaper. However, Minor was a socialist and refused the offer as they refused to give him complete political freedom.

Minor was totally opposed to the First World War. At first his anti-war cartoons caused no problems as the editor, Horatio Seymour, shared Minor's views on the topic. However, Seymour eventually changed his mind and became a supporter of the Allies. Minor was ordered to produce cartoons that reflected this new policy. Minor refused and instead began contributing cartoons to the radical journal, The Masses. He also went to the Western Front where he wrote articles on the war.

After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, The Masses came under government pressure to change its policy. When it refused to do this, the journal lost its mailing privileges. In July, 1917, it was claimed by the authorities that cartoons by Art Young, Boardman Robinson and H. J. Glintenkamp and articles by Max Eastman and Floyd Dell had violated the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort.

The legal action that followed forced The Masses to cease publication. In April, 1918 the jury failed to agree on the guilt of the defendants. The second trial in January 1919 also ended with a hung jury. As the war was now over, it was decided not to take them to court for a third time.

After being released from prison Minor found work with the New York Call. He was sent to Europe and covered the Russian Civil War and the Spartakist Rising. While in Germany Minor was arrested and charged with spreading treasonous propaganda among British and American troops.



One of Minor's best cartoons can be seen below:

Army Medical Examiner: "At last a perfect soldier!"

Robert Minor, The Masses (July, 1916)


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  • 1 year later...

Theodore Draper wrote in The Roots of American Communism (1957):

Minor is a study in extremes. A truly gifted and powerful cartoonist, he renounced art for politics. He made this gesture of total subservience to politics after years as an anarchist despising and denouncing politics. But he could not transfer his genius from art to politics. The stirring drawings were replaced by boring and banal speeches. He had none of the gifts of the natural politician, his stock in trade was limited to platitudes and slogans. The wild man, tamed, became a political hack. If as an anarchist he had believed that politics was a filthy business, as a Communist he still seemed to believe it was - only now it was his business.

Sandor Voros was with Minor during the Spanish Civil War. He wrote in his book, American Commissar (1961):

Finally I was able to reconstruct fairly closely what had actually happened (the sinking of the Ciudad de Barcelona). There were over 500 volunteers on that boat out of whom nearly half had perished: those trapped in the hold when the torpedo struck, and those who couldn't swim or stay afloat until rescue arrived. None of them knew how many Americans had actually boarded that boat; checking their stories one against another my best estimate came to between 130-135 volunteers of whom only forty-six had escaped. Once I learned those casualty figures I also lost my penchant for objectivity and retired into a corner with my fistful of notes to cable the story to the Daily Worker. Although I had not intended to continue to write for it, this story was too hot, the details too sensational; the party could make real political capital out of it. After working on it for about fifteen minutes at top speed I became aware that the volunteers were all rushing in one direction, forming a tight ring around somebody. I followed them and to my delight found that he was Robert Minor, the representative of the American Central Committee to the Communist Party in Spain. Minor was also a member of the Daily Worker editorial staff; we had known each other for years.

Bob Minor was a tall, imposing figure, with a heavy frame and silvery white hair framing his massive, bald head. He was a famous cartoonist before he turned Communist and he carried himself with dignity and poise. I had a few messages of a confidential nature for him from the Central Committee, to be delivered orally, concerning individuals some of whom were on their way to Spain and some of whom were to report back immediately to the States. I had been given only the first names; I did not know who the people were, nor was it any of my business.

I noted an indefinable change in Minor's face since the last time I had seen him in New York, about a half-year earlier, and I was puzzled about it. Minor stood impassively in the center, listening to the American volunteers crowding about him without saying a word; but to my eyes he only appeared to be listening, I had the feeling he was not paying attention. I knew he was somewhat deaf but not sufficiently so not to have heard that clamor.

I stood aside and waited until the excitement subsided, then went up to him and greeted him. He regarded me as if he had never seen me before, cold and disinterested. Realizing that my haggard face and tattered clothes after those rugged days of climbing the Pyrenees must have changed my appearance considerably, I told him my name and who I was. He cut me short abruptly; he knew very well who I was and why was I bothering him, didn't I see he was busy? I was quite taken aback by that unexpected response. I told him I had a few messages for him from the Ninth Floor and took him aside to deliver them. He cocked his ear close to my mouth and I realized he was even more hard of hearing than I suspected. I had to repeat my message twice and louder before he nodded his head that he had understood. I then told him I already had all the facts about the sinking of the Ciudad de Barcelona, the names of the American survivors, their home towns, etc., that my story was already organized, all I needed from him was a typewriter so I could knock it out in a hurry for the Daily Worker.

Minor became livid with anger.

"Give me those notes," he shouted at me and grabbed them out of my hand.

"Not a word of this must be permitted to leak out in America, do you hear? What are you trying to do, demoralize the people back home?"

Something was wrong with that man.

"Bob, this is news, sensational news, the best propaganda we could wish for to arouse the American people," I expostulated. "With the details I have, this story will be picked up by the wire services. Every home town newspaper where a local boy was involved will feature it as: Local boy killed or escapes with life from boat torpedoed by Fascists!"

"Not a word of this must leak out, you understand?" Minor roared at me.

"See here, Comrade Minor, this torpedoing has already been reported in the Valencia papers. It must have been cabled to the United States and published there already. This story will be the follow-up, it will fill in the missing details and shake up those people back home who still do not believe what Fascism really is. This is the propaganda we want, where the facts speak for themselves: Americans torpedoed and drowned on the open seas by Fascists!"

"You're not to mention a word about this to anyone, do you hear! This is an order!" With that he stalked away from me, called the Americans together, and made a speech.

He told us that we were all anti-Fascists who had come to Spain to fight Fascism. He told us Fascism was the last desperate attempt of qapitalist imperialism in its death throes to drown in blood the inevitable rise of the working class and that Fascism would meet its tomb in Spain.

He rambled on and on like a Daily Worker editorial on the glory of the Soviet Union and finally told us that we had already met the baptism of fire heroically and come out victorious. He then admonished us on our honor as anti-Fascists, as the bravest flowers of the revolutionary working class, not to let a word of that torpedoing leak out, we mustn't even discuss it among ourselves any further because that would only lend aid and comfort to the Fascists who had ears all over, who were listening everywhere, and it would also demoralize our comrades, the other volunteers in Spain.

"That is an order!" he added for emphasis, then walked briskly away.

That speech had its effect. The comrades immediately fell to discussing how they mustn't talk about the torpedoing any more, first in hushed tones, later arguing with each other loudly, citing and inventing gory incidents to prove how easily such news could demoralize comrades less firm in their anti-Fascists beliefs than they.

I was to meet Minor again a few months later, on my way back from the Cordoba front. By then I had heard enough stories about him to make me even more cynical about our top leadership. Minor had been assigned by the American Central Committee to co-ordinate the propaganda efforts of the American and Spanish Communist Parties and, incidentally, also to represent before the Comintern the interests of the American volunteers in Spain. However, Minor had also caught the bug like other leading Communists, he became convinced that he was a master strategist and a military genius. He spent his time in Spain devising military campaigns and giving unsolicited military advice to the Spanish Communist Party. At that second meeting, after listening for a whole evening to his military theories, I realized he was oblivious of the political and military developments around him and that he was becoming senile. It was this Minor who reported on Spain to the American Party from his hotel in Valencia, and when we read his analyses in the Daily Worker we wondered how such naive concepts could be advanced by anyone who had ever set foot in Spain, much less a high-ranking Party leader with access to inside information.

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