|American Art||Cartoonists||First World War|
Robert Minor was born in San Antonio, Texas, on 15th July 15, 1884. His father was unemployed and so he was forced to leave school at fourteen. For the next few years he worked as a handyman to help support the family.
In 1904 Minor was hired as an assistant stereotypist and handyman at the San Antonio Gazette. While at the newspaper he developed an interest in drawing. He submitted some unsigned cartoons and these were published in the newspaper.
Minor admired the cartoons in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He moved to St. Louis and convinced its editor, Joseph Pulitzer, to employ him as an artist. While at the newspaper, Minor's doctor, who was treating him for increasing deafness, converted him to socialism and in 1907 he joined the Socialist Party of America. A fellow member of the party, Max Eastman, later recalled: "Bob Minor possessed brilliant and original gifts both as a writer and artist... He was a natural-born fanatic. I used to feel that he would string me to a lamppost with the pained gleefulness of a Torquemada if I diverged by a hair from the fixed path of the revolution."
Joseph Pulitzer, a campaigning journalist, did not object to the strong political statements that Minor made in his cartoons. 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.
Minor was one of the first American cartoonists to employ grease crayon on paper. His work influenced a generation of cartoonists including Boardman Robinson, Daniel Fitzpatrick and Rollin Kirby. A socialist and supporter of woman suffrage, Minor contributed to feminist journals such as the Woman's Journal and Woman Voter.
Robert Minor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (1908)
On 22nd July, 1916, employers in San Francisco organised a march through the streets in favour of an improvement in national defence. Critics of the march such as William Jennings Bryan, claimed that the Preparedness March was being organized by financiers and factory owners who would benefit from increased spending on munitions.
During the march a bomb went off in Steuart Street Street killing six people (four more died later) and 40 were badly wounded. Two witnesses described two dark-skinned men, probably Mexicans, carrying a heavy suitcase near to where the bomb exploded. A friend of Minor's, Tom Mooney, was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to death.
Robert Minor, The Masses (August 1915)
A poster of this cartoon and many others from The Masses and related
radical publications, is available from the Georgetown Bookshop.
A large number of people believed that Mooney and Warren Billings had been framed. Those involved in the campaign to get them released included Minor, Fremont Older, Heywood Broun, Samuel Gompers, Eugene V. Debs, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Over the next few months Minor addressed mass meetings, and wrote articles for several magazines about the case. Mooney was reprieved but was not released until 1938.
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.
Army Medical Examiner: "At last a perfect soldier!"
Robert Minor, New Masses (July, 1916)
A poster of this cartoon and many others from The Masses and related
radical publications, is available from the Georgetown Bookshop.
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.
Minor was at first critical of the lack of democracy in Russia. He wrote that: "There is no more industrial democracy in Lenin's highly centralized institutions than in the United States Post Office". However, when Minor arrived home he published I Change My Mind a Little, and announced he was going to join the American Communist Party.
In 1920 Minor began living with Mary Heaton Vorse, a talented journalist who had worked with him on The Masses. She suffered a miscarriage in 1922 and soon afterwards Minor left her for illustrator Lydia Gibson. As a result of the trauma of these two events, Mary became addicted to alcohol. Minor and Gibson got married in 1923.
Minor worked as a cartoonist and writer for The Liberator and the Workers Monthly, the magazine of the American Communist Party. In 1924 he helped establish the Daily Worker and contributed articles and cartoons to the journal for the next twenty-five years. However, Theodore Draper has argued that Minor lost his creative abilities during this period: "A truly gifted and powerful cartoonist, he renounced art for 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."
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Minor went to Spain and helped to organize the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a unit that volunteered to fight for the Popular Front government. He was also the American representative to the Comintern in Spain. Sandor Voros later recalled that people like Minor became convinced that he was a "master strategist" and a "military genius". He wrote that: "He (Minor) 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."
After the Second World War Minor became southern editor of the Daily Worker. He campaigned for Black Civil Rights and wrote several articles exposing the involvement of local white politicians in lynching.
Minor suffered a heart attack in 1948 and was bedridden during the time when fellow leaders of the American Communist Party were arrested and imprisoned.
Robert Minor died in 1952.
(1) Robert Minor, New York Call (1915)
Paris is fall of one-legged, one-armed men. When the hospital train arrived it looked as though the only part of the human body sure to be found on the stretcher was the head.
(2) Robert Minor, speech on the Tom Mooney case (8th September, 1916)
Only great mobilized strength gets justice. If the sixty thousand union members of San Francisco had simply done the part of friends and gone down to visit the men on the morning after the arrest - a perfectly legal act - the men would have been freed in twenty minutes. Simply a peaceful visit. Men who have friends get justice.
(3) Robert Minor, New York World (4th February, 1919)
The main fact in the new situation is that the so-called nationalization of Russian industry has put insurgent industry back into the hands of the business class, who disguise their activities by giving orders under the magic title of "People's Commissaries". That is the only title that commands obedience. There is no more industrial democracy in Lenin's highly centralized institutions than in the United States Post Office.
(4) Max Eastman worked with Robert Minor on the Masses.
Bob Minor possessed brilliant and original gifts both as a writer and artist, but he was in one profound sense a misfit on the Masses and Liberator. He was a natural-born fanatic. I used to feel that he would string me to a lamppost with the pained gleefulness of a Torquemada if I diverged by a hair from the fixed path of the revolution.
(5) Claude McKay, A Long Way Home (1937)
The Masses was one of the magazines which attracted me when I came to New York in 1914. I liked its slogans, its make-up, and above all, its cartoons. There was a difference, a freshness in its social information. And I felt a special interest in its sympathetic and iconoclastic items about the Negro.
Some times the magazine repelled me. There was one issue particularly which carried a powerful bloody brutal drawing by Robert Minor. The drawing was of Negroes tortured on crosses deep down in Georgia. I bought the magazine and tore the cover off, but it haunted me for a long time. There were other drawings of Negroes by an artist named Stuart Davis. I thought they were the most superbly sympathetic drawings of Negroes done by an American. And to me they have never been surpassed.
(6) Sandor Voros, American Commissar (1961)
Finally I was able to reconstruct fairly closely what had actually happened. 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.
(7) Theodore Draper, 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.
(8) Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (1957)
Another American, Robert Minor, came to Russia in 1918 but, unlike Reed, was not carried away and converted on the spot.
On his father's side, General John Minor had served as Thomas Jefferson's campaign manager for the presidency. On his mother's side he was related to General Sam Houston, first president of the Texas Republic. But Robert Minor was not born into any American aristocracy. He was brought into the world of the hard-up, run-down middle class in an "unpainted frontier cottage" in San Antonio. His strong-minded mother was a physician's daughter, his "dreamy, improvident" father a lawyer by profession. He left school at the age of fourteen and home two years later, working at farming, railroading, carpentering, riding freight trains and living on handouts. It was the half-hobo, half-migratory-worker experience of the I.W.W. rank and file in the Southwest. A self-trained genius for drawing enabled him, at twenty, to escape from this harsh, uncertain proletarian existence. From a small San Antonio paper he made the jump to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Seven years later, in 1911, his official biographer says, he was the highest paid cartoonist in the country. The family's fortunes also rose. An election the year before had transformed his father from an unsuccessful lawyer to an influential district judge.
Minor came to communism by way of socialism and anarchism. His interest in radicalism arose after his material circumstances had improved. When he was still a carpenter, two members of the union tried to talk to him about socialism without making any impression. But after his cartooning career started in St. Louis, he consulted a doctor about his increasing deafness. The doctor gave him Socialist propaganda along with medical treatments. Whenever Minor tried to explain why he joined the Socialist party in 1907, he made this coincidence paramount. His Socialist activity made a place for him on the City Central Committee. Five years later, however, socialism gave way to anarchism. His anarchist period began about 1912 when he sympathized with Haywood in the inner-party struggle and became fully formed the following year when he went to Paris to study art. He quickly rebelled against the academic instruction but easily absorbed the anarcho-syndicalist philosophy that flourished in the studios and garrets of Montparnasse and Montmartre. When he came back to New York to work for the Evening World, he was a full-fledged, outspoken anarchist. Bill Haywood was his hero and Alexander Berkman his bosom friend and teacher. The European war broke out that year and Minor was able to draw his brawny, massive cartoons sprawled over a quarter of the editorial page without compromising his political conscience.
Fortunately for him, the Pulitzers' editorial policy was antiwar. Unfortunately for him, it did not remain so.
At this point, Minor and Reed faced the same problem. The war came athwart their professional careers. When Minor was asked to draw prowar cartoons for the Evening World in 1915, he had to choose between his job and his convictions - and he chose his convictions. He immediately shifted to the Socialist Call, which was glad to get a famous cartoonist even if he was an anarchist and ex-Socialist. But Minor was no longer content to express himself with pictures only. Minor the cartoonist became Minor the war corre¬spondent. After his return from Europe, he was ready to take his first step as a political organizer. The opportunity came in 1916 when he was suddenly called on to lead a campaign to save the lives of people of whom, as he later admitted, he had never heard before. The California labor leaders, Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings, and three other defendants were accused of dynamiting a "Preparedness" parade in San Francisco. Minor organized the first Mooney defense committee, wrote the first pro-Mooney pamphlet, and did more than any other single man to save the defendants. The Mooney-Billings case was much more than a landmark in the development of one future Communist. It was a crisis of conscience for Minor's generation of radicals. Not a few young men traced their active participation in the radical movement to righteous indignation at the plight of Mooney and Billings.
Minor went to Russia for nine months in 1918. He was then thirty-four, a huge man with extraordinarily bushy eyebrows, intensely staring eyes, and. a booming voice. He looked at the Bolshevik reality through the eyes of a convinced anarchist, and it repelled him. Though Lenin himself tried to win him over, he remained unmoved. When he left Russia, he published a famous interview with Lenin in the New York World, which he later claimed had been tampered with but which he did not deny reflected his basic attitude. It commented on Lenin's remark that the Soviet system was first formulated by Daniel De Leon in the form of industrial unionism: "There is no more industrial unionism in Lenin's highly centralized institutions than in the United States Post Office. What he calls industrial unionism is nothing but nationalized industry in the highest degree of centralization." It compared the old and new economic administrators with bitter disillusionment: "There is a difference now. The business types ride in fine automobiles as before, live in fine mansions, and are again managing the old industries, with more authority than ever before. Now they are "People's Commissaries" - servants of the proletariat - and the iron discipline of the army under red flags has been developed in order to protect them against all annoyance. A rose smells as sweetly to them under any other name."
This disenchantment with an all-powerful state was to be expected of an orthodox militant anarchist like Minor. Berkman and Emma Goldman went through it the following year.
Completely unexpected was the sequel. A year and a half later, Minor changed his mind. He tried to explain why he did so in an article which is intellectually incredible and psychologically fascinating.ls Since Minor had no political finesse, he put down his thoughts with unashamed and disarming naivete.
Minor told how, after leaving Soviet Russia "far from clear" about the Russian Revolution, he was "bothered with the elusive impres¬sion that a great natural law was at work which I did not understand." No one ever tried to explain this "natural law" as primitively as Minor did: "It was plain that the Russian Revolution had set this current in motion, and that its form was predetermined somewhere in the origin of the race." He also asked: "What strange power has Lenin? Why does every adversary, one by one, fall before him?" He ex¬plained: "The answer is that Lenin is a scientist in an unscientific world." In a previous age, Minor might have venerated Lenin as a prophet or even as a wizard. In the twentieth century, he worshipped Lenin the Scientist.
In an age of science, the great masses of men, even educated men, marvel at the revelations of science without understanding them. The least scientific of men, like Steffens, Minor, Floyd Dell, and Max Eastman, artists by nature, made a cult of communism by identifying it with the cult of science. "There will be something almost super¬natural in the hold upon historic forces that Marxian science and the philosophy of change will give into the hands of this man," wrote Eastman of Lenin. To Dell, Lenin represented a "scientifically daring, mathematically confident social-engineering genius." They sought something in the "science" of communism which they did not have in themselves. What really captivated them was the mysticism, not the science, or perhaps the mysticism of science.
© John Simkin, April 2013
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