• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: America Before it Was Great Again

Hugo Gellert (Hugó Grünbaum, 1892–1985) was the Honoré Daumier of the American left and the Thomas Nast of the 20th century. The Budapest-born socialist and communist was the consummate polemical artist, whose politics were inseparable from his output. In his words: "Being an artist and being a communist are one and the same." He used crayon and charcoal as an artistic weapon, and until he died his work highlighted the cruel injustices of capitalism that created systemic racial divides. He was a committed Marxist who used Marx's own words in many of his works, such as, "Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded." He was opposed to war and was one of the first American political artists to say so in the radical magazine The Masses. From there he went on to draw for the progressive journals of the era, including The Liberator and The New Masses.


I had the honor of appearing on a panel with him the year before he passed away. He had not lost his passion for the fight against injustice and inequality.


One of his most significant book projects was Comrade Gulliver: An Illustrated Account of Travel Into That Strange Country the United States of America (G.P. Putnam, 1935). This bitting polemic was influenced by Jonathan Swift's satiric Gulliver's Travels, which, as a CliffsNotes reminder, was a "misadventure tale in four books, about Lemuel Gulliver who, because of a series of mishaps en route to recognized ports, ends up, instead, on several unknown islands living with people and animals of unusual sizes, behaviors and philosophies." Comrade Gulliver (Gellert) declares that Lemuel is his ancestor and the Comrade's own adventures in the U.S. "are even more fantastic than the experiences of my forefather."


In critical comic (ironic) prose and with often biting images, Gellert showcases how the "extraordinary peculiarities of the country, the amazing behavior of the people and the antics of the government are far more eccentric and unaccountable than anything Lemuel Gulliver recorded—despite his numerous voyages. Nevertheless in this age of the telephone, the radio and the printing press, it can be easily ascertained, even by the most casually interested, that the contents of this work, the pictures and the words, unbelievable as they may seem, present the truth and nothing but the truth."


The following pictures are excerpts from the journey, with titles and a few paraphrased words from Gellert on the state of the disenfranchised and working man and the oppression of minorities in America.


Yes, the perspective is of the prevailing Marxist/Communist view of the 1930s. But in its clearly heartfelt biased critique of the oligarchies, demigods and their followers, there are, you'll doubtless see, certain similarities with Trump's America.


Read or listen to the unexpurgated book here.


Comrade Gulliver
Behind the News: Where Gulliver learns the meaning of fake news in a Hearst newspaper.
Battle Cry: "Brass buttons, blue coats. They think we're sheep and nannygoats."
The Belt: "American efficiency is almost a fetish; greed drives the belt and directs thousands of humans."
Law and Order: "Right beside me a policeman felled a youth with his club."
Sales Force: "I haven't sold a [vacuum cleaner] in a month. If it weren't for fifty cents here & there cleaning rugs, I'd starve."
Stake in the Commonwealth: "Can you beat that? A share croppers union."
Share the Wealth: "Hard luck in this family and it all fell on me."
The Master Weaver: "Everything on this side of that fence [the mill] belongs to one man."
Not an Unknown Soldier: "What the hell did we fight for? We thought we were saving the world."
Art News: "At the Coq Rouge last night, we saw dreams instead of dreaming them."
On Our Way: "I was their expert on electric bulbs. I made them so well that the life unlimited. (So) they fired me."
Black and White: "Capitalism, where discrimination and race prejudice are as necessary as wage slavery."
By-Products: "The Army has the training and organization to support the government under constitutional authority."
Poor Fish: "All these honest people are out to take the shirt off each other's back."
Useless: "Way down below, in the street, men were mere fleas. Those fleas built this tower!"
Business is Business: "This week we have had four children with the diagnosis of 'starvation.' They cannot buy food."

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