Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Phil Evans - revolutionary cartoonist

Phil Evans on the Police...

...the Nazis...

...on Enoch Powell...

...and wider racism...

Karl Marx

...Phil Evans on the Labour Party and socialism...

...on Socialist Worker...

On alternatives resulting from the capitalist crisis

The man who decided to redefine socialism

(Apart from the last, which contrary to popular belief and malicious rumour was not drawn with Richard Seymour in mind, all images from Steve Irons (ed.) The Joke Works: The Political Cartoons of Phil Evans (London: Socialist Worker, 1982).)

The passing of the brilliant socialist cartoonist Phil Evans (1946-2014) attracted much less attention than that of Tony Benn and Bob Crow, probably because for the last twenty years or so of his life he had not really been engaged with the political Left and so he had kind of slipped out of view.  But his work from the 1960s until the 1980s Evans won a reputation on the Left as one of the best socialist cartoonists in Britain - and as the cartoons above hopefully show, he was able to wonderfully satirise everyone ranging from  fascists and racists on the right to the limitations of the reformist Left.  As Kent Worcester noted back in 2009 in The Comics Journal, 'Phil Evans is one of the most compelling visual satirists to comment on British politics in the past half-century. His career gives new meaning to the phrase “underrated.” His pen-and-ink drawings mainly appeared in SWP periodicals, most notably the weekly Socialist Worker. But they also turned up in numerous U.K. trade union publications in the seventies and eighties. His work was at one time highly regarded among labor movement activists, but invisible even then to many fans of English political cartooning. For American readers, the only plausible point of entry into Evans’ work would have been Trotsky for Beginners, published in 1980, with text by Tariq Ali, or Marx’s Kapital for Beginners, published two years later with text by David Smith'.  

In The Joke Works, a collection of his cartoons from 1982,  Evans described how he first came to draw his first political cartoons from 1965 onwards, aged 19 as a student at Leeds College of Art, and what he was trying to do with cartooning.

'At Leeds I founded - and was the secretary of - the Socialist Society, an alliance of different political groups, ranging from the Labour Party to the Communist Party to the sectarian Socialist Labour League.  I was never attracted to the CP because of the lessons of history: history is marvellous because it has (as Trotsky says) 'great irony'.  In 1956, no-one had to point out the connections between Hungary and Suez, because they happened silmultaneously.  History put them together.  More importantly for me, history put the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the height of the Vietnam War together (January-June 1968).  When I was nineteen, I started to draw political cartoons and design posters and leaflets.  One of the first posters I made was "Smash Imperialism East and West".  It was of a burning tank and was critical of both the imperialism of America in Vietnam and the imperialism of Russia in Czechoslovakia....

When I was younger I wanted to be an oil painter, a portraitist.  More recently I realised that to be a cartoonist is just as difficult - more difficult perhaps - because you have to get your hands dirty in the political fight.  I have always been interested in propaganda - I've always felt that if you're good at something then why not try to make a point with it?  A little pamphlet, with cartoons, on the struggle of a tiny group of ordinary seamen against their right-wing union leaders, or textile workers against a sweatshop employer, is more important than the cracks on the face of an important diplomat or princess.'

At some point in the 1980s, as Worcester notes, Evans parted company with the SWP, but his vast output for the socialist left - including the Our Norman cartoon strips about the life of a every day factory worker ('Norman') and his life and thoughts on the world around him remain an inspiration.  Worcester's descriptions of the Our Norman series really sum up what was critical about Evans's 1970s political cartooning at its best: 

'The cartoon tells its story from inside the labor process, from an explicitly blue collar point of view. Most editorial cartoonists see “politics” as something that concerns politicians and other prominent individuals, as something practiced in legislative chambers and presidential debates. Evans starts from the assumption that the experience of work itself is a fundamentally political question...What distinguishes Phil Evans’ 1970s-era cartooning is its remarkable confidence in the forward march of the masses. His work from that period anticipated a time when a confident and united working class could seize the levers of power.'

As Roger Huddle, who worked with Evans in the SWP printshop during the 1970s, recalled, 'Norman was every worker, someone ducking and diving though the trials of work in a factory. He got one over on the bosses, kept up his union dues and took great pride in outwitting the foreman. How Phil maintained the excellence of this series was his commitment to the workers’ struggle.'   Workers in struggle today - together with other socialists - can still learn much from the wit and wisdom of Phil Evans - who, like Tony Benn, made a tremendous contribution to powerfully and memorably communicating socialist ideas to a wide, popular audience.

Edited to add: Phil Evans obituary in the Guardian and this comment by Roger Protz plus:
David Widgery on Phil Evans (1981) 

Edited to also add: Kent Worcester's obituary of Phil Evans in New Politics 

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