Social Ideals and Social Realism, Gellert Style

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This rare booklet published by the International Workers Order excerpts portions of a 1942 speech by FDR’s vice president, one-time presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace. The poet Carl Sandburg wrote in the foreword that in the speech the answer to the question of whether democracy and freedom can prevail in the modern world devastated by a world war (two years from its finale): “As human utterance, his speech transcends partisan causes and petty ambitions. As a speech, it deals with living history and may long be remembered.”

What’s interesting about Wallace’s arguments (which can be heard here), each highlighted by illustrations produced by the social realist-idealist Hugo Gellert, is that this attempts to tie the United States more closely to the Soviet Union in the face of a common enemy, Nazi Germany. “It is no accident that Americans and Russians like each other when they get acquainted,” Wallace wrote. “Both people were molded by the vast sweep of a rich continent.” He further noted that “thanks to the hunger of the Russian people for progress, they were able to learn in 25 years that which had taken us in the United States a hundred years to develop.” The quintessence of liberal thinking.


The speech further addressed the issue of “ethnic democracy,” which Wallace insisted was vital to the “new democracy, the democracy of the common man.” He defined it in the same way as the issue continues to be framed, “that the different races and minority groups must be given equality of economic opportunity.” And he continued, “President Roosevelt was guided by principles of ethnic democracy when in June 1941 he issued an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the employment of workers by the national defense industry.”

An additional point the vice president said: “From the Russians we can learn much, for unfortunately the Anglo-Saxons have had an attitude toward other races which has made them exceedingly unpopular in many parts of the world. … We have not sunk to the lunatic level of the Nazi myth of racial superiority, but we have sinned enough to cost us already the blood of tens of thousands of precious lives.”

Gellert (1892–1985), who was born in Hungary, underscored Wallace’s theme through a series of graphics that echoed other lithographic work he did for left causes. (I had the pleasure of being on a panel about political art with Gellert a year before his passing—he was committed to “ethnic democracy” until the end.)

The images here are selected from the 1943 booklet “Century of the Common Man,” with points in Wallace’s speech illustrated and titled by Gellert.


Free world or slave world


ABC of Democracy


Learning to think and work together


Religion of darkness


The people on the march


Free man’s duties: Produce to the limit


Free man’s duties: transport as rapidly as possible to the field of battle


Free man’s duties: Fight with all that is in us


Free man’s duties: build a peace—just, charitable, and enduring


Century of the common man


Winning the battle of production


Fighting with all our might


The fifth column


Complete victory for complete peace


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