Caduceus, or the staff of Mercury

Skannad 1I would like to draw attention to a detail on a medallion deigned by Sergey Chekhonin (Tchehonine), from 1918.* On Chekhonin’s work of art an able-bodied female and a ditto male are depicted. The female stands before a cropland. She is carrying a sickle and a spade and so represents farmers. The male stands before a factory. He is holding a sledgehammer in his right hand, thereby seems to represent (despite Chekhonin’s choice of a non-factory tool as symbol) industrial workers. Behind him, on the ground, rests a parcel, perhaps with goods from his workplace. In his left hand ­– and it is this detail I found surprising – he carries a caduceus.

           Skannad From the late 19th and early 20th century, we spot the caduceus – or Mercury himself, or symbols associated with him (especially his winged helmet) – on trade union banners and emblems. In Sweden and Denmark – and certainly in the countries that harboured workers’ movements that influenced the culture of these small countries, Germany and Britain above all – the banners and emblems decorated with this symbolism belong to unions that organized personnel working in shops, offices and akin workplaces.** This is hardly surprising since Mercury (Hermes) famously is, among other things, the god of commerce.

 Is it possible that Chekhonin, fashioning this medallion, choose to use two symbols for farming, one for industrial production and one for commerce? Considering the emphasis of the Marxist Bolsheviks on the historical role of the industrial proletariat, this interpretation doesn’t strike me as entirely convincing. But I am not able to come up with a better one.

Skannad 1 kopia

* Medallion from Richard Stites, Revolutionary dreams: utopian vision and experimental life in the Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989.

** Banners from trade unions for personnel working with commerce (and in offices). From the Danish city of Herning “with surroundings” (reproduced in Henning Grelle, Under de røde faner: en historie om arbejderbevægelsen, Fremad, København, 1984) and the Swedish city of Norrköping (reproduced in Margareta Ståhl, Vår enighets fana: ett sekel fackliga fanor, LO, Stockholm, 1998).

Right money for the Left

I just came across a prototype for what money ought to represent and what they might look like.* This banknote prototype is from the early 19th century Cincinnati, USA.  We understand from it that its owner has completed honest work and therefore is entitled to shoes, or an amount of corn, equivalent to his/her effort.

pengar kopia

Depicted in the middle are Justitia and  Minerva (maybe, but why?). In the right corner is a clock with the caption “Time is wealth” and above it is the toiling titan Atlas, carrying the whole world on his shoulders, depicted. On the left we find “100” repeated twice, the number corresponding to the amount of corn the owner of the bill is entitled to. Also there is a picture of a goddess seated on a package at a wharf, a full-rigged ship sailing away. Possibly this is supposed to symbolise trade.

The general idea expressed is that only time-consuming, “living labour” creates value and wealth – “dead labour”, i.e. products and capital, creates no value and wealth without it. The true beauty of the banknote is however the text above the goddesses in the middle: “The most disagreeable labour is entitled to the highest compensation”

800px-250-rouble_note_of_Russia,_1919_-_backThe very first notes ever to be printed and circulated in a socialist realm is probably the rouble banknote from the Soviet Union in 1919. Or?

* The American banknote was found in George E. McNeill, (ed.) (1887). The Labor movement. Boston: A. M. Bridgman

Origin of the Red Star (2)

Having Google-translated three Russian texts that Roland Boer (Stalin’s moustache) was kind enough to suggest to me, I believe these authors argue for a French genesis for the red star. Apparently, the French army applied stars on their uniforms and the Russian army then adopted this custom in the mid 19th century. This martial connection is in line with the fact that the first time the Bolshevik red star is mentioned in press, in Izvestija on the 19th of April 1918, and some weeks later decided upon by Trotsky, on the 7th of May, it concerns ”Mars’ star” as an emblem for the Red Army. Thwarting rumours about the star’s masonic and satanic background and meaning, it was proclaimed that the star should have two beams pointing downward and one upwards. According to the authors, a Red Army leaflet explained that the red star symbolises Truth. If I understand the Google-translations correctly.

I haven’t been able to confirm that French uniforms actually had stars on them. It doesn’t sound implausible, but I still don’t detect them on images I have looked at. And I haven’t given up my theory about the significance of Boganov’s novel…

Top: Efim Ivanovich Kurashov portrayed by L. F. Golovanov. Right: “Soviet Russia in under Siege. Everyone to the Defence!”, propaganda poster from 1919 by Dmitry Moor.

Cranes’ Prometheus

My Swedish book Morgonrodnad. Socialismens stil och mytologi 1871-1914, which translates into something like Reddish Dawn. The cultural style and mythology of socialism 1871-1914 appeared in 2016 and will in due time be published by Routledge. I was very pleased that the publishers for front cover chose a sketch by Walter Crane (1845–1915), identified as “the artist of socialism” by H.M. Hyndman because of his tremendous influence on the art and propaganda around the fin de siècle.* As pleased as I was, I however lamented the fact that thereby another sketch by Crane, also envisioning Prometheus revolting against the tyranny, would not be unveiled. I urge you to have a look on that beautiful image, in the collection at Whitworth Art Gallery. The most apparent difference between the two sketches is – besides the colour scheme obviously – the crown on the eagle’s head and – maybe – the Phrygian cap on Prometheus’.

* Morna O’Neill, Walter Crane 2010:15.