African-American Communist Roots

Against the Current, No. 46, September/October 1993

Alan Wald

Hammer and Hoe:
Alabama Communists During the Great Depression
By Robin D.C. Kelley
(Chapel Hill, NO University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 369 pages, paper $12.95.

ROBIN KELLEY HAS produced a brilliantly researched and theorized exposition of the appropriation and transformation of U.S. Communist ideology and institutions by the indigenous African-American community of Alabama. This is a book that has the potential for revolutionizing the study in the 1990s of the African-American and broader left through its compelling methodology and the nature of the information disclosed. Moreover, Kelley’s conclusions may also be a stimulant to creative thinking about socialist and antiracist activism at the present moment.

Hammer and Hoe is hardly the first in the new “revisionist” trend in the study of Sitdown strike at American Casting Cot, U.S. Communism, mainly associated with New Left activists turned professors. These radical academics took a cue from the “history from the bottom up” school, pioneered in scholarly studies by Jesse Lemisch and E.P. Thompson(1) although aspects of the approach were anticipated by extra-academic left-wing scholarship in preceding decades.(2)

In the 1980s, a number of impressive studies of the U.S. left were produced by Paul Buhle, Maurice Isserman and others who sought to rethink Communism from a rank-and-file perspective.(3) The most concentrated reinterpretation of the Communist Party’s approach to the antiracist struggle was Mark Naison’s Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression.(4) Kelley’s work incorporates, yet dramatically extends, and in some ways challenges, the achievement of this group of New Left historians.

Perhaps Kelley’s boldest move is to sidestep what could easily have turned into a tedious refutation of the mainstream trend in the historiography of the left, which is liberal anti-Communist His book stands as an implicit retort to the shelf-load of books by Theodore Draper, Harvey Klehr and Wilson Record, in which the Communist experience is interpreted mostly through the malignant lens of increasing Soviet manipulation.(5)

Kelley seems to understand, intuitively if not explicitly on a theoretical level, that these authors are mainly guilty of the sin of omission. Especially as they approach the 1930s and after, they fail to fairly depict positive achievements of the Communist movement or to include substantial episodes that contradict their mostly cynical hypotheses.

Moreover, a few of the “horror stories” recounted in earlier histories, such as Harold Cruse’s claim that the Communist Party stole money collected by the Committee to Defend the Scottsboro Boys (nine African- American youth framed up on rape charges in Alabama) to buy new printing presses for the Daily Worker, rest on unsubstantiated gossip.(6) Still, in the end, there can be no question at this late date that Cruse and others are accurate that the Communist Party was deformed, organizationally and politically, by its unbreakable connection with the totalitarian regime headed by Joseph Stalin.

What is in dispute, and hotly so, is the degree to which the Communist rank and file were “malleable objects,” to use a notorious phrase by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, of those responsible for such deformations.(7) Was the sum total of the Communist impact an “enormous waste,” to quote Howe and Coser again,(8) or did the progressive effects of Communist-led activity, in the short as well as long run, outweigh what was discrediting?

To what extent do the categories appropriate to Stalinism—a term meaning the evolving political outlook that rationalized rule by the Soviet elite—usefully explain the bottom-up activities of party supporters in their unions, communities and cultural works? Should Stalinist deformations be assessed as a manifestation of the logic of Leninism, or explained as the consequence of the displacement of Leninism by an alien, anti-Marxist politics and practice?

Kelley’s research and manner of presentation provide the freshest answers to many of these questions to date, so long as one keeps in mind that he is opening doors to further research and understanding, not closing off debate. Rather than refute his scholarly predecessors point by point—indeed, the names of Klehr, Howe and Coser, Cruse and Record never even appear in the index(9)—Kelley simply presents some of the fascinating material that such writers have failed to see or acknowledge in their work.

Moreover, this alternative presentation is offered from a Marxist perspective and within a framework that acknowledges what remains valid in the conventional historiography of Communism. An opening prologue provides a socio-economic history of Birmingham, Alabama, the pivotal urban industrial center for the unfolding story. This is followed by five chapters called “The Underground,” which survey the interaction between Communist ideas/institutions and African Americans in the unemployed movement, the struggle of sharecroppers, the labor movement and political defense work.

Then comes a stunning exegesis of “The Culture of Opposition” in which resistance is theorized according to concepts adapted from the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony and U.S. cultural theorist George Lipsitz’s notion of “collective memory.” Kelley gives numerous examples where African-American Communists acted like “trickster” characters in Black folklore to distribute literature and gather weapons.

They reworked familiar spirituals into Marxist hymns, changing the refrain about Jesus from “Give Me That Old Time Religion” to read, “It was good enough for Lenin, and it’s good enough for me.” Vivid memories of the Civil War encouraged African-American radicals to draw tremendous hope and strength from the belief that Russia was a powerful ally which would aid them in a new, and more complete, social transformation.

After this are five chapters under the rubric, “Up From Bolshevism.” These study the arenas in which Popular Front policies—under which socialist economic transformation was subordinated to the liberal capitalist program of bourgeois democracy for the sake of unity against the right-wing and fascist threats—were employed between 1935 and 1939. The book concludes with a brief but incisive summary of the consequences of these events for Alabama racial politics in subsequent years.

Hammer and Hoe is striking because Kelley—using oral history, private papers, local newspapers and other primary materials—shows how African-American Alabama Communists incorporated the surface features of Communism into a local radical tradition deeply steeped in religious symbols and community resistance. The slogans of the Third Period (the 1928-34 era of ultrarevolutionary policy), calling for self-determination in the Black Belt (a region of the South that still had a majority African-American population in many counties), responded effectively to already existing nationalist sentiments. The class-based politics of the International Labor Defense was the answer to frustration felt because of the inability of the middle-class NAACP to militantly champion the rights of those on the bottom.

Here it is worth noting that Kelley deviates significantly from others in the New Left School of American Communism in his more critical approach to the Popular Front on empirical grounds, and he concludes that the Popular Front was really more of concern to whites in the party than Blacks. In sum, he insists that in the South the Third Period was not merely class-against-class reductionism; on the contrary, the centrality of the Black nation thesis meant the promotion of a kind of regional/cultural autonomy through advocacy of the right of African Americans to choose to control regions of the South were they constituted a majority. On the other hand, Kelley’s view is that the Popular Front cannot be uncritically celebrated for its unleashing of multicultural democracy, due to the heavy element of cross-class opportunism.

The doors opened by Kelley are many, not the least of which is the possibility for the extension of this methodology to other regions, additional racial and ethnic groups, women, more arenas of political struggle and radical political tendencies other than the Communist Party. Moreover, particular episodes, such as Kelley’s discussion of the efficacy of armed self-defense among the African-American population, might be used to provide a comparative framework for considering the controversial application of this strategy in later situations in the 1960s, such as the armed actions of the NAACP chapter in Monroe County, North Carolina and the community self-defense policy of the Black Panther Party.

Still other areas of inquiry, raised within the topic of the book itself, remain to be rounded out with more research and thought Kelley provides surprisingly frank information about the Communist Party membership of many individuals in the South, often accompanied by fascinating mini-portraits of activists who are Black and white, female and male.

Yet, for all the general emphasis of the book concerning culture and psychology, he may not always have pursued his subject into the more controversial areas. For example, in Richard Wright’s collection Uncle Tom’s Children (first version, 1938; additional stories, 1940), also based on oral histories of African-American Southern radicals and similarly replete with songs and religious references, the climactic tale, “Bright Morning Star,” presents an interracial love affair between a Black male and white female party activist But no hint of interracial sex appears in any of the numerous stories recounted by Kelley.

Indeed, the personal lives of the Black Communists are presented as squeaky clean and as idealized as the fictional William Christman, the African-American Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran in Alexander Saxton’s novel Grand Crossing (1943). It is understandable that a public image of upstanding family men and women, adhering to the segregated sex code of the South and one hundred percent free of any hint of homosexuality, was promulgated for self-defense purposes by revolutionaries who were trying to survive among a Southern population indoctrinated with the view that Communists stood for the virtual nationalization of white women (p. 28). Still, anyone with firsthand experience in the reality of the social life of the left may feel that the version uncritically offered here may well be several steps removed from the personal truth of the Alabama radical movement.

Another unfinished strand of Kelley’s story may be that of Black-Jewish relations within the left Kelley makes a point of ethnically identifying all African-American activists, several of the WASPS, and a select number of Jewish-Americans who were indigenous to the South, as well as those who implanted. Episodes such as the Communist Party’s replacement during the Popular Front era of the Northern-born Jewish-American Nat Ross with the Southern-born WASP Rob Hall suggest the possibility that Kelley’s data may lead to new insights regarding the controversial topic of the role of Jewish Communists in the African-American struggle.

Yet there is no follow-through, and other key Jewish-American radicals are not identified as such—including prominent ones such as playwright John Howard Lawson (the family name was Levy), and, later, in the epilogue, Herbert Hill of the NAACP The full potential for generalization on the subject of Black-Jewish relations remains unrealized.

Finally, there is the general theoretical position to consider. Kelley makes a convincing case that the substantial achievements of Alabama African Americans in the Great Depression were not the result of being “radicalized” by the Communist Party. Rather, the depression conditions interacted with the local practices of resistance. When Communist organizers appeared on the scene from the North, the local Black population found what it needed to achieve political coherence in the Communist slogans and in making use of Communist institutions to educate and organize.

Moreover, this indigenous radical movement at the base persisted with consistent features in spite of political changes in line at the top. In fact, according to Kelley, the Southern Communist movement, unlike the Northern one, experienced a distinct resurgence among African-American militants when it abandoned the Popular Front during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (Fall 1939-Spring 1941).

However, the foundation of this movement was originally rural agricultural labor through sharecrop pins Thus, the mechanization of such labor and depopulation of the countryside undermined and eventually caused its decline. Nevertheless, the impact of these years of struggle was so great that the afterglow of the tradition lived on in different forms—often through individuals influenced by the Communist movement but not so identified—until it blended with the Civil Rights movement Eventually a number of veterans of the experience became well-known and influential figures, as organizers, teachers and even government officials.

Kelley’s argument would suggest that revolutionary socialists of the 1990s must start not by seeking to “radicalize” the oppressed with our own Marxist strategies, but by studying the already existing forms of oppositional culture in the new sites of resistance and rebellion—in the present case, the urban ghetto. It then falls upon us to develop a political strategy and organizational forms through which those indigenous means of expression can be realized at the same time as they can creatively interact with those lessons from Marxism that remain valid today.

Unfortunately, history and cultural formation fail to stand still and there are factors unaccounted for in this model. Partly founded in their belief that an utopia already existed, white and Black radicals were impelled toward extraordinary acts of heroism in the face of Ku Klux Klan vigilantes and gun thugs, and Kelley recounts many such episodes.

The USSR, as it figured in the imaginations of these radicals, was a religious and secular Promised Land, proving that their dreams were obtainable and also offering real material aid. Visits to this Promised Land rarely contradicted preconceived fantasies and thus helped to fortify the cadres in their struggle. Today there is no substitute to fill that void; indeed, the left is overrun with skepticism about the possibility of a democratic-collectivist alternative to the market system.

In addition, Euro-Americans and Jewish-American revolutionaries who braved the armed force of the racists were welcomed by African-American militants as brothers and sisters in struggle—including, amazingly, the acceptance by Blacks of even some local whites who had previously been in the Ku Klux Klan (28). Since the late 1960s, however, even the most well-meaning white radicals are not especially welcome in the Black community; often they are urged by African-American militants to “organize your own community Conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic variants of Black nationalism combined with a real history of betrayal and exploitation of African Americans by whites make interracial unity difficult.

In fact, although urban centers are the sites of oppression of Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Latin American immigrants, Asian Americans, Arab Americans, and others, cross-racial unity even among people of color is rare. Add to this the enormous challenge posed by the gang and drug cultures, and any effort to create a contemporary version of a formula through which revolutionary socialism and the indigenous resistance struggles led by people of color can combine seems a near Sisyphusian task.

And then there is the notion of resistance culture as theorized by Kelley. Can it be true that, similar to what is claimed by some contemporary theorists of popular culture, African-American radicals simply take what they want and need from left politics—rejecting what is alien to their situation and empowering themselves 0T.4 with subversive appropriations? Is it all just a spontaneous process, the activation of “collective memory”? Doesn’t something need to be done to help insure that such rebels will take the most effective tools?

Looking back at the 1960s, it seems to me that the results were far from beneficial when Third World radicals, as well as disoriented white radicals, simply appropriated the guerilla strategy of the left in the colonial world and tried to apply it in U.S., German and Italian conditions. Moreover, looking more internationally at the Vietnamese and even the Cuban experiences in relation to the USSR, it seems fair to speculate that, when one interacts with a Stalinist movement, no matter how autonomously in local practice, there still can be many bad habits—organizationally, culturally, politically—appropriated along with the material benefits.

However, it would be preposterous to demand that Kelley’s book provide answers to all or even most of these questions. Rather, what he has done is to present us with fresh tools and a stunning case study that ought to enable activist-scholars in contemporary struggles to continue the pursuit of answers to these and other enigmas at a far more advanced level than was previously possible.


  1. See Jesse Lemisch, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” William and Mary Quarterly (July 1968); and E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963).
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  2. See George Novack America’s Revolutionary Heritage James, The Black Jacobians (1938), and Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (1943).
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  3. See my more extensive comments in reviews of Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On? (1982) and Paul Buhie’s Marxism in the USA (1987) in The Responsibility of Intd1iva1s: Selected Essays on Marxist Traditions in Cultural Commitment (1992), 112-116 and 122-1.
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  4. Reviewed favorably by this author in Socialist Action, Oct 1984, 14.
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  5. See Draper’s outstanding The Roots of American Communism and American Communism and Soviet Russia (1960); Klehr’s The Heyday of American Communism (1984); and Record’s The Negro and the Communist Party (1951).
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  6. See Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), 148. Cruse’s book is a radical nationalist perspective, however, not liberal anti-Communist.
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  7. See Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (1962), 506. Although this is a brilliantly written left-wing socialist critique of the Communist Party, its reductive attitude toward Stalinism resembles that of the liberal anti-Communists such as Draper and even neo- conservatives such as Klehr.
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  8. Ibid, 499.
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  9. Theodore Draper’s name appears only in connection with his 9 May 1985 New York Review of Books essay attacking the New Left revision of Communist historiography. However, the works of many of the traditional scholars are listed in the excellent bibliography to the volume.
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September-October 1993, ATC 46