When W. E. B. Du Bois researched African American underdevelopment in the South, he concluded that emancipation was due largely to shifting labor dynamics among slaves. Neither Union nor Confederate armies expressed particular interest in abolishing slavery at the Civil War’s outset, yet enslaved men, women, and children took it upon themselves to flee plantations as the Northern army descended on the South.
In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Du Bois describes this exodus as a collective withdrawal of labor: “[T]he slave entered upon a general strike against slavery by the same methods that he had used during the period of the fugitive slave. He ran away to the first place of safety and offered his services to the Federal Army. So that in this way it was really true … that this withdrawal and bestowal of his labor decided the war.”
Du Bois uses the term “general strike” in a way that might seem unfamiliar, yet this concept factored into art of the time. Theodor Kaufmann’s 1867 painting “On to Liberty,” for example, details this lesser-represented aspect of the war, with barefoot women and children emerging from a dark forest toward a hazy horizon. While archetypal images of the Civil War focus on soldiers in battle, Kaufmann’s painting is symbolic of modern art’s relationship to labor. The general strike, one of the modern era’s most prominent forms of protest, materialized in myriad ways in painting, photography, illustration, and graphic design.
In the late 19th century, mainstream portrayals of labor strikes showed white workers leading consolidated crowds in public spaces and confronting capitalists, as in Robert Koehler’s painting “The Strike” (1886). Harper’s magazine published illustrations from the Great Railroad Strike of 1887 and 1892 Homestead Steel Strike, showing strikers attacking the National Guard and Pinkerton militias. These representations are limited in scope, creating a false impression that strikes are mutual confrontations between workers and the state. In reality, art has been integral in revealing state escalation of violence against labor. So too has it preserved a diversity of tactics for organizing artists, many of which continue to be relevant.
Rapid industrialization had reshaped modern cities by the turn of the 20th century. New divisions of labor, which segmented the production process, further separated workers from creative agency. Capitalists lowered wages to enhance profits and replaced skilled laborers with machinery, leading to a wave of strikes across the United States. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) promoted general strikes using easily reproducible flyers and posters, such as Ralph Chaplin’s iconic “Hand That Will Rule the World” (1917), in which workers’ raised fists merge into one. The “Pyramid of Capitalist System” (1911) situates the proletariat who “work” and “feed all” below the police and military who “shoot at you.” The IWW borrowed this concept from a 1901 Russian flyer published just two years before the Bolsheviks formed.
For decades, Russian artists had withheld their labor to express disdain with the Empire. A group of realist painters known as the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) withdrew from the Imperial Academy of the Arts and organized traveling exhibitions for underserved provinces. Artists such as Ilya Repin and Grigoriy Myasoyedov were among the first to recognize everyday Russians as worthy subjects, raising class consciousness before the rise of Socialist Realism. Repin’s “Arrest of a Propagandist” (1880-92) critiques the limits of free speech under late Tsarism, while Myasoyedov’s “Time of Harvesting (Mowers)” (1887) shows women and men working in a wheat field on a beautiful day, from an angle that makes them appear larger than life.
The invention of photography, used widely by police to stereotype criminality, also helped popularize early forms of protest art. During the Victorian period, the British Chartist movement organized one of the earliest UK general strikes for voting rights, captured in an 1848 photo from Kennington Common. Despite their success, women would not win the right to vote until 1918. A bright green poster by the Women’s Social and Political Union opposes the 1913 Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act (known as the Cat and Mouse Act), in which Parliament released imprisoned suffragists on hunger strike and subsequently locked them up again after recovery.
As photo technology advanced, nonviolent liberation movements reshaped the meaning of representation around the world. Early photography from Palestine shows democratic gatherings of Arabs opposing British policy in the 1920s, more than two decades before the Nakba. Their tailored suits stand in stark contrast to contemporary photos of Palestinians trapped in an open-air prison and mainstream stereotypes of Arab violence. In Samoa, the Mau (or “testimony”) movement likewise visualized its peaceful independence struggle through photography, with women and men who organized the strike standing proud and stoic before the masses.
For Rosa Luxemburg, leader of the Spartacus League in Germany, the strikes that formed the basis of the 1905 Russian Revolution were a result of “historical inevitability.” In The Mass Strike (1906), she portrays proletarian consciousness as a point in which “objective investigation” surpasses “subjective criticism.” That Luxemburg faced imprisonment and execution by the Weimar government shows the lengths even liberal imperial powers will go to deny this. As such, a 1961 photo of a Brussels strike against austerity measures — showing policemen on horseback chasing down protestors before a banner for the film Spartacus (1960) — further embodies the continued denial of historical inevitability.
While theorists frequently forecast capitalism’s demise, labor’s prominence in art more often points to an impending shift in class relations. As artists become more politically active today, it is worth remembering that John Reed Clubs and New York’s Artists Union organized strikes to negotiate federal arts programs during the Great Depression. The art made in each phase of proletarian advancement thus serves to protect this history.