SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 212 October 2017

Visualising revolution

The David King collection

The Bolshevik revolution’s 100th anniversary is an appropriate time to describe, explore and celebrate the vast, sensational David King collection of Soviet posters, photographs, documents and publications – the largest and most important of its kind in the world. Following King’s sad death in 2016, Tate Modern now holds his collection and will be running a three-month exhibition based on it. DAVID BEALE evaluates the significance of his work.

Born in Middlesex in 1943, David King studied typography and graphic design. From 1965 to 1975, he was Sunday Times art editor, working with photographer Don McCullin on its weekly magazine. These were the pre-Murdoch days of relative journalistic freedom under Harold Evans’s editorship. King was close politically to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (previously the Socialist Labour League), although he was never a member. During this time, he did the graphics for diverse projects, including two Jimi Hendrix albums, and a book on Muhammad Ali that Ali himself said was the best!

King began to amass a growing collection of material in his north London home, especially photographs, posters, documents and various ephemera primarily related to the Soviet Union from the 1917 revolution to Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. Eventually, it amounted to an astonishing 250,000 items, selections of which have been published in a series of books incorporating King’s distinctive layout and design.

In 1972, David King and Francis Wyndham produced Trotsky: A Documentary. I bought my copy from the Militant’s bookshop in the mid-1970s and to open its pages was a revelation. It has the most extensive collection of photographs of Leon Trotsky ever published, with sympathetic text, cartoons and documents. These images really bring to life the revolutionary politics of the Bolsheviks, in dreadful contrast to Stalin’s bloody terror which included Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico in 1940.

The book’s emphasis on the visual image is, of course, not to deny the primary importance of what Trotsky wrote. Rather, it’s that the photographs provide an important additional sense of reality, an invaluable supplement to Trotsky’s accounts, theory, ideas and analysis. There is something almost cinematic about King’s work, arising from a combination of the extensive, striking and rarely seen images, and his dynamic graphic design and presentation.

Throughout King’s books on the 1917-53 Soviet period is the critical contrast between what Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks stood for, and Stalin’s determination to crush this through show trials, mass purges, torture, executions, deportations and labour camps. On the one hand, this meant all power to the soviets and workers’ democracy, for international and permanent revolution, for the united front against fascism, for the right of national self-determination, and for the transitional programme.

On the other, stood an unaccountable party bureaucracy and the complete centralisation of power, the crushing of all internal opposition, and a reign of terror on a breath-taking scale. In addition, so-called ‘socialism in one country’ as the justification for a nationalist foreign policy that served the needs of the Stalinist dictatorship, embracing the stages concept of history, and the ruthless elimination of all national minority rights.

Stalin’s terror

In 1984, David King and Isaac Deutscher published The Great Purges. It begins by citing other post-revolutionary purges historically but emphasises, as did Trotsky, that a distinguishing feature of Stalin’s terror was a fundamental and systematic falsification and fabrication. At the heart of this were several themes. It included absurd allegations of Trotskyite-Nazi political conspiracies and planned assassinations, of widespread economic and industrial sabotage, and of espionage, especially of foreign communists living in the USSR. All of this was ‘substantiated’ through thousands of detailed, false confessions extracted by the most brutal forms of torture prior to execution. The lies were so big that most on the left outside the USSR found them hard to disbelieve!

Once Trotsky was expelled from the USSR in February 1929 (he had been in internal exile from January 1928), the accusations against him were a central feature of the developing terror. In 1936, came the show trial of 16 leading Bolsheviks and civil war heroes, including Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. Charged with conspiracy – alongside Trotsky – to assassinate Sergei Kirov, Stalin and other party leaders, the world – not least the left – was shocked by their detailed confessions.

Subsequently, as King’s book confirms, the evidence has shown quite conclusively that the accused had been brutally tortured for months beforehand to extract false confessions. Stalin’s prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, had been a bitter opponent of the October revolution. In chilling extracts, the book quotes verbatim from the trial, including outrageous allegations, and absurd and tragic confessions. In conclusion, Vyshinsky demanded that "the mad dogs be shot! Every one of them should be shot!" They were.

Following a massive purge of 25,000 Red Army officers in 1937, a much broader reign of terror emerged, affecting thousands of innocent people. These included relatives (sometimes children) of those arrested, others not politically active, and even those who had previously carried out arrests, interrogations and torture themselves. Stalin’s closest allies were not immune. In 1937 Trotsky answered the accusations against him through the Dewey Commission of Inquiry, held in Mexico. This is quoted in some detail in King’s books. In 1938 there was yet another show trial of leading Bolsheviks and others, including Nikolai Bukharin, Aleksei Rykov, and the notorious GPU (secret police) chief Genrikh Yagoda.

In 1997, David King published a comprehensive account of Stalin’s falsification of photographs and art, The Commissar Vanishes. An extended edition was produced in 2014. The photograph of Lenin speaking on a podium, in which Trotsky’s image was removed sometime after Lenin’s death, is well known, but King’s visual evidence proves that this was a far more extensive and systematic practice than is often appreciated. To own a book or magazine, even an old publication, which contained an image of a purged person was a very serious offence that could easily result in torture and execution. King includes examples of faces blacked out in ink, scratched out or even cut from the page with scissors. This is another vivid expression of what the terror meant in almost every home and workplace, affecting the entire population.

King’s Ordinary Citizens (2003) contains 150 full page mugshots of ordinary people arrested, tortured and executed by Stalin’s vicious GPU. Each is accompanied by a caption, quoting the person’s details from the old Soviet archives (age, occupation, nationality, date arrested, charge and sentence). A short text introduces the book but it’s the photographs themselves that are the most shocking and startling. Some have facial wounds (presumably from torture), others look very distressed. Some seem resigned to their fate, while others have retained their dignity in defiance or even look outraged and angry. Altogether, it is a very disturbing account of what Stalin’s terror looked like in real human terms.


Red Star Over Russia was published in 2009. This is a widely acclaimed, detailed and superbly designed book, crammed with numerous photographs and colour posters not previously published, plus some explanatory text. It contrasts the Bolshevik revolution – the phenomenal step forward and potential it meant for the toiling and oppressed masses – with the Stalin era. Presumably, through its extensive 350 pages, David King intended to provide an overview of his collection. His great talents at bold, exciting design and layout, which are very fitting for a project sympathetic to the Bolshevik revolution, are so evident here. If you want to buy any of his books, this is probably the best place to start.

Russian Revolutionary Posters (2012) is essentially King’s supplement to Red Star, containing over 100 full page reproductions, informative captions and brief introductory text. The contrast is clear between the diverse, revolutionary approach to poster art and design in the early years following 1917, and the stifling, oppressive and fundamentally false and fabricated nature of Stalin’s socialist realist propaganda of the 1930s and 40s. This is in spite of the fact that some of the latter continue to show the influence of constructivism and photomontage. It is good to see that Tate Modern has reproduced four full size posters from the early, Bolshevik period from King’s collection.

David King’s final book was John Heartfield: Laughter is a Devastating Weapon (2015), a much-needed book on a great subject. Heartfield was a German communist who invented photomontage in the wake of the first world war. He cut up photographs, usually of politicians hated by the left, and pasted elements of other photographs onto them to create new images. These have real, biting venom aimed at the oppressor that goes way beyond satire. This ensures you will not forget them easily. Heartfield’s work was particularly aimed at the Nazis. Among the more well-known of his images are those of the Nazi leader, Hermann Göring, with a meat cleaver, butcher’s apron and spattered in blood; and of Hitler giving the Nazi salute while a fat businessman behind him sticks money in his hand.

Heartfield’s images were published in the new mass circulation, pictorial weekly magazines of the 1920s and 30s, largely sold to the working class and often advocating the politics of the left. However, his subject matter, ideas and approach – combined with digital methods – also have much relevance today. With the widespread use of social media for making and distributing agitational visual images and memes in the campaigns of the left, Heartfield’s work could certainly inspire some of this to new levels – and such digitally produced images can easily be reproduced in print too. Most publications in English about Heartfield have been long out of print, so hopefully this book will bring his work to a new audience.

A vast archive

As well as the Heartfield material, David King has provided us with an immense visual record of both the Bolshevik revolution and Stalin’s great terror. His books provide a new, very vivid sense of the reality, bringing us yet closer to the participants in those momentous events. His images are the next best thing to watching a documentary film that records the fine detail of what the Bolsheviks fought for, stood for and did – from a perspective that is sympathetic to them – and also of the nightmare methods of Stalin’s bloody regime. It is as though King articulates a visual language that can tell us something that goes significantly beyond text alone, the kind of thing legendary Marxist art critique John Berger often talked about.

King’s books focus more on the account, process and detail rather than analysis and explanations. For that, you need to look foremost in Trotsky’s own writings. But in no sense does King deny Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism. Instead, his mission is to increase our understanding through the visual dimension. Of course, King’s books can only show a small sample of his collection. The coming Tate Modern exhibition, Red Star Over Russia, may show us more. Nonetheless, that still leaves an enormous amount of yet largely unseen material on the Soviet Union – as well as on Heartfield and some on Maoist China.

This vast archive is of immense interest, with the potential for research and learning about the importance of the visual image to understanding our history, to revolution, and to the struggle for a socialist world. The Tate plans to allow research access to it from November. In the meantime, the David King collection can be explored through his wonderful books, and at the upcoming exhibition.

Red Star Over Russia: a revolution in visual culture 1905-55

Tate Modern, London

8 November 2017 to 18 February 2018

Admission: £11.30

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