PROBABLY THE FIRST political cartoon can be found somewhere on a cave wall crudely scratched out and pointedly directed at the heftiest member of the group or the one with the biggest club. The practice of puncturing political egos with the prick of the caricaturist's pen is nothing new, but Herblock (Herbert Block, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated cartoonist and author) is among the most effective needle wielders in the business. This collection of his cartoons, with explanatory text, covers the 1970s and the 1980 presidential primaries. Herblock is in the time-honored tradition of satirizing the frailties of man and dramatizing the inequities and faults in the social fabric by the swift and deft movement of a line across a surface. Poltical cartoons have progressed through history, from the nightmarish vision of Goya, and the subtle misanthrophy of Daumier, through the outrageousness of Thomas Nast to the flip nuances of today's Oliphant.

Herblock is a cartoonist with a cause; he feels deeply about what he considers the injustices and abuses of this world. There is nothing whimsical or elusive about Herblock's version of his society. His pen is a blunt instrument. His cartoons on the Year of the Child, Boat People, starvation in Cambodia are all reminiscent of Goya's morbid and bitter etchings of war in his Disasters of War series. Sometimes depicting pain and suffering, sometimes acid disdain, Herblock's drawings always reflect the cartoonist's humanistic concerns. One can disagree with particulars (for example, some of his more strident antismoking and anti-junk food advertising polemics) but hardly with the spirit of the concern. Occasionally the Federal Trade Commission seems to be portrayed more as a knight in shining armor than a regulatory agency with self-interests of its own.

Herblock is an indignant as an affronted porcupine; he is angry at the slings and arrows that visit themselves upon us all. But primarily he uses his cartoons to champion those he feels have weaker voices, less influence and few defenders. If the pen is mightier than the sword, Herblock is the Robin Hood of the editorial page. In this collection his targets are catholic indeed: Khomeini, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, arms sales, Indira Gandhi, Andrew Young, the CIA, apartheid, toxic chemicals pollution, terrorism, OPEC, et al. On the subject of nuclear proliferation, the author says: "With more U.S. help than we may have realized, India developed what it called a 'peaceful' nuclear device. Pakistan has worked toward an 'Islamic bomb'. . . . This proliferation is one of two shadows [the other is terrorism] that has been walking the world."

In the arena of foreign affairs, Block's written word is at once softer and tougher than his famous hard hitting cartoons. In the softer, gentler vein: "For the past few years, we've been going through a lot of self-analysis.

"By now I think we'd better get off the couch and stop feeling so guilty, guilty, guilty about having gone into Vietnam that we will never, never, never raise a hand against anyone under any circumstances. . . . We have to deal with the world as it is. And we can also work to make it what we want it to be." In stronger language: "We do not have to believe in old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy to find it intolerable that a gangstertype government in Chile should be able to blow up opponents in the capital of the United States without a reaction stronger than pro forma threats.

"When we tell Russians or Cubans or Iranians or anyone else that something is 'unacceptable,' we should mean it. If we don't mean it, we shouldn't say it.

"A bottom line that keeps dropping lower and lower takes our government's credibility down with it.

"A policy of bluff-and-back-down is not only humiliating -- it is dangerous. What happens when we really mean business and our adversaries don't believe us?"

Political cartoons are perhaps a slightly Cyclopean way to chronicle an age, but Herblocks's latest collection is one man's sharp political diary and acute social commentary on a decade.