This is no Christmas postcard

24 December, 2020

Postcards were one of the most widely used means of communication by the labor movement of the Second International. From time to time, some exhibits and papers or some articles in a blog remind us of the relevance they had in the daily life of what was called at the time the conscious proletariat; but in general, except for a handful of collectors, they represent only a minor anecdote. They were, however, much more than that.

Between 1900 and 1914 the great majority of strikes and struggles in the industrial heart of Europe – from Toulouse to Petersburg – can only be graphically documented through postcards, many of them found today in small regional museums.

And The 1905 Russian Revolution was no less, all its main episodes, slogans and moments, generated a mass of postcards that spread the images of the revolution all over Russia and took them throughout Europe. However, with two important differences from what was happening in France, Austria or Germany: in the first place there is a clear predominance of the influence of the democratic movements of the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry over the expressions of the socialdemocratic movement, both Menshevik and Bolshevik, after all it was the first permanent revolution; and a predominance of the poster, caricature and illustration over photography.

These were not only the great events of strikes or revolution. The opening of an athenaeum or the creation of a cooperative deserved their postcards as well. With the political migration and the pogroms that followed the repression of 1905, the custom spread throughout the world: from the North of England to Palestine, with the first credits for tools or books, a small budget for postcards was added.

What the postcards really tell us

Postal sent by the Spanish socialist leader Juan José Morato from the central prison in Madrid after the repression of the 1908 strike.

Between the Exposition Universelle in Paris and the outbreak of war in 1914, the flow of postcards increased from a few thousand to 800 million. Developments in the graphic arts had enabled photographers and printers to produce low-cost postcards to the new standards of the International Postal Union.

The working class soon realized the potential of a medium that could make it visible and publicize its struggles and aspirations around the world by following the networks and complicities created by migrations and exiles. Postcards, almost always commissioned by the People’s Houses and the organizations they amalgamated, produced sometimes by photographers who thus intended to sell in working class neighborhoods and also produced by the workers’ parties during the great political moments, became a massive phenomenon.

The workers, beyond literature and theory, discovered the universality of their condition and their interests in a tangible, visual way, capable of jumping sector, regional and national borders.We can say without fear that the postcards, although not much used by the scarce apparatus of the Second International, were nevertheless the main and most spontaneous means, which the workers used to extend and strengthen internationalism before the World War.

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