The Return of Phil Evans

Posted by on December 26th, 2009 at 8:18 AM

In my initial TCJ post, I complained that the web yields far more information about the current fracas inside the Socialist Workers Party (UK) than it does about the massively underrated Phil Evans, whose defamatory cartoons enlivened SWP and trade union publications in the 1970s and 1980s. “In my next post,” I promised, “I hope to suggest a few reasons as to why Phil Evans’ cartooning holds up nicely in a world utterly transformed by global capitalism.” In fact, that next post was about the Punisher, and Bernie Goetz, and until now I haven’t uttered a peep about poor Mr. Evans. To blog is to efface the distinction between the unpredictable and the erratic.

Not everyone will be familiar with Phil Evans’ work. He’s not on the Lambiek site, and he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. I can’t find a single reference to his long career as a political cartoonist in any of the obvious secondary sources. In my earlier post, I mentioned he illustrated Trotsky for Beginners (1980) and Marx’s Kapital for Beginners (1982). The only collection I know of is The Joke Works: The Political Cartoons of Phil Evans, issued by the SWP in 1982. Evans also provided the illustrations for a macroeconomics textbook (Understanding Economics, 1995), and is a favorite of the Inveresk Street Ingrate ( Typing “Phil Evans cartoon” into google images yields fewer than a dozen relevant hits.

Nearly twenty of Evans’ cartoons are featured in a quirky little book called More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP, by the English socialist Jim Higgins (1930-2002). Published in 1997, the book was sitting in a pile of similar titles in my hall closet. One reason I didn’t return to the Phil Evans story sooner is I’ve been savoring Higgins’ account of his years as a far left activist.

Higgins was a leading member of the International Socialists, the forerunner to the Socialist Workers Party, until his expulsion in the mid-1970s. He came from a working class background, left school at an early age, and worked for many years as a post office engineer. He joined the Communists at 16, just after World War Two, and left the party in 1956, shortly after Khrushchev’s revelations. After that he spent some time as a blue collar malcontent inside the Labour Party, where he first gravitated toward the Trotskyist leader Gerry Healy and subsequently to the circle around Tony Cliff. His description of Healy addressing a meeting in London in the late 1950s provides a flavor of old-school, head-banging leftism:

“Gerry would start off mumbling into his chest in a very soft voice that was almost inaudible to all but the people in the front rows. The comrades leaned forward, ears straining to catch the pearls he cast before them. Suddenly, without warning, he would switch to full bellow and the comrades recoiled, suffering from electric shock. This time, the unfortunate dishwasher dropped a pile of plates. Healy’s strength five oration, containing as it does blood curdling threats, dire warnings and accounts of past mayhem, convinced the publican that this was no normal travel club.”

As this passage suggests, Jim Higgins’ prose has a wry, I-can’t-quite-believe-it-either quality that is nicely suited to the arcane subject matter. While he refers to events taking place in the world at large, his primary focus is on micro-politics. In Higgins’ view, a once promising IS was derailed by the machinations of its leadership, particularly the group’s founder, Tony Cliff. The group had offered “the very best chance we have had since the 1920s…it was a chance that was not taken and those who were responsible for that error have much to answer for and should be called to account if only in the pages of this book.”

As the book makes clear, Higgins’ orientation was toward experienced trade unionists, especially shop stewards. He despised Cliff’s “dopey youth thesis,” that the “young and traditionless” were “moving to revolution.” He concluded his text by calling on socialists to return “back to the working class, where we ought to have been all the time.”

As it happens, I started attending the group’s public meetings just as Higgins was being expelled for factionalism. In fact, my friends and I were exactly the kind of excitable non-proletarians he warns about in his book. But I was unaware of these internal tensions. In addition to the Rock against Racism and Anti-Nazi League campaigns, Phil Evans’ cartoons were an integral aspect of what attracted me to the group.

I now see, from the graphics in More Years for the Locust, that Evans himself was more sympathetic to the old IS than the relaunched SWP. At the time I regarded Evans as an exemplary figure, but some of the cartoons featured here are pretty bitter. Unfortunately, their single-minded focus on obscure socialist history blunts the impact of Evans’ charismatic linework. The following example, taken from Higgins’ book, is suggestive of the problem. Only insiders will appreciate the irony of the SWP invoking Michael Kidron’s analysis of the postwar boom after Kidron himself had jettisoned his own theory. Otherwise, the cartoon takes too long to explain. It lacks the inherent drama of a financier being smacked by a lump of coal.

An effective case for Phil Evans, then, must center on the work reprinted in The Joke Works, rather than More Years for the Locust. But when I finished Higgins’ workerist polemic, I wondered whether the book was now valuable because of its rarity. I couldn’t find it listed on the U.S. Amazon website, while the U.K. Amazon says it is “currently unavailable.” Perhaps I could sell my copy to a specialist bookseller! But then I typed “more years for the locust” into Google. It turns out the entire text is reprinted on the website: – Phil Evans cartoons and all.

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2 Responses to “The Return of Phil Evans”

  1. ethanyoung says:

    I have a collection of his Our Norman strip, which was fun agitprop, good comics-timing sense if not the most humorous or challenging strip…

    He followed Our Norman with the even more didactic Ratty, which didn’t last long…

    Please consider contacting me regarding left press cartoonists, both editorial and strip. I want to compare notes…


  2. Kent Worcester says:

    Thanks, Ethan. I certainly hadn’t heard of Ratty, which sounds intriguing. From your comments I suspect I rate Evans’ cartooning more highly than you do – I think he has a wonderfully deft touch with his linework. And thanks for reading TCJ.