Review: African Americans, Culture and Communism

Against the Current, No. 84, January/February 2000

Alan Wald

This essay will appear in two parts, the second of which will be published in our May-June 2000 issue (ATC 86).

The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 by Mark Solomon (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1998) 403 pages, $17 paperback.

Old Negro, New Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars by William J. Maxwell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) 254 pages, $17.50 paperback.

Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-46 by Bill V. Mullen (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999) 242 pages, $16.95 paperback.

The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946 by James Edward Smethurst (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 288 pages, $45 hardcover.

FROM THE EARLY 1920s until the late 1950s, the U.S. Communist movement was a significant pole of attraction in African-American political and cultural life. Only a few prominent African-American poets, fiction writers, playwrights and critics-such as novelist Richard Wright-publicly boasted of party membership.  Yet it seems likely that Margaret Walker, Lance Jeffers, Claude McKay, John Oliver Killens, Julian Mayfield, Alice Childress, Shirley Graham, Lloyd Brown, John Henrik Clarke, William Attaway, Frank Marshall Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, Douglas Turner Ward, Audre Lorde, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Harold Cruse were among those organizationally affiliated in individualized ways.

A list of other African-American cultural workers who were, to varying degrees and at different points, fellow travelers, would probably include Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Theodore Ward, Countee Cullen, James Baldwin (as a teenager), Richard Durham, Alain Locke, Willard Motley, Rosa Guy, Sarah Wright, Jessie Fausett, Owen Dodson, Ossie Davis, Dorothy West, Marion Minus, Robert Hayden, Waring Cuney, and Lonne Elder III.

For five decades, students of the left have had access to the reasons why some Black cultural and intellectual figures were eventually dismayed by Communism, through novels such as Chester Himes’ The Lonely Crusade (1947), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Richard Wright’s The Outsider (1953), reinforced by Harold Cruse’s brutal polemic The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967).  (See note 1)

Less available were richly documented, independently critical, yet compelling explanations of just how and why the Communist movement wielded the attractive power that it did, despite all the obvious disadvantages of being regarded as a “communist” for Blacks as well as whites.  Then, during the 1980s, two scholarly works began to promote a rethinking of the relationship of Blacks to Reds: Mark Naison’s Communists and Harlem During the Depression (1983), and Robin D. G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (1990).

Now we have four new books in 1998-99 that constitute a quantum leap forward in our ability to understand what was achieved by this symbiotic relationship, and what has been lost in one-sided assaults upon the legacy of Communist-led anti-racist struggles by McCarthyites, Cold War Liberals and some of the Communist movement’s left critics, as well as by that movement’s incapacity to understand and fairly represent its own remarkable history in the 1930s and 1940s.

The focus of three of the books is on culture, but together they provide a wealth of new detail and conceptual propositions that need to be critically assimilated by those committed to building an interracial movement for social transformation.

The indispensable foundation for appreciating this body of new scholarship is Mark Solomon’s stunning narrative of the absorption of revolutionary Black Nationalists and other Black radicals into the post-World War I Communist movement.  His highly nuanced and finely researched The Cry Was Unity treats the consequences of this co-mingling for the development of Communist ideology and activity from the early 1920s through the first year of the Popular Front.

Solomon, a retired history professor from Simmons College, is in a unique situation to assess the experience.  He has been a participant in the anti-racist and radical movement since he was a teenager in the early Cold War years, and is the author of an earlier published doctoral dissertation from Harvard University called Red and Black: Communism and Afro-Americans, 1929-1935 (1988).

Solomon’s approach is deftly elaborated in a short Introduction explaining his motivations for recreating the story of how the Communist movement “broke free from isolation and ideological abstractions to achieve a significant place in the battle for racial justice.” In contrast to recent liberal discussions, such as President Clinton’s “conversation on race,” Solomon is pledged to review the early history of the anti-racist left because

The pivotal issues then were neither tactical nor sentimental; they involved the basic character of American society.  Capitalism’s cornerstone was seen to have been laid by slavery and fortified by racism.  Therefore, the achievement of equality implied the ultimate transformation of the nation’s economic and social foundation.  (xviii)

On the one hand, Solomon’s book seeks to elaborate the “theory” of national oppression and the road to liberation worked out by U.S. Communists, Black and white, in their first decade and a half. On the other, his aim is equally to explore the practical activities against which the evolving theory was tested as this heroic, interracial organization rose up against white supremacism “with unprecedented passion as an indispensable requirement for achieving social progress.” (xviii)

Most impressive is the way that Solomon triangulates the development of Communist theory and practice by examining Black Marxist activists and theorists, the national Communist party institutions, and the influence of Comintern (Communist International) policy.  In contrast to those who favor the “top down” or “bottom up” approaches to Communist historiography, Solomon presents us with what might be called a “force field” approach in which different elements gain hegemony at various points and under certain circumstances.

The fact that Comintern hegemony might be shown to be paramount over a period of decades and at moments of crisis does not negate how important it was for a group of Black party women in Harlem to raise an issue (unknown to the Soviet party) for debate and discussion.  Without that latter—the local vitality—the attractiveness of the party would be inexplicable (which certainly seems to be the case in many extant narratives of party history).

In rich detail, Solomon’s book covers the period of nearly two decades from the founding of Cyril Briggs’ magazine The Crusader after World War I to the launching of the party-led National Negro Congress in 1936.  Thus he follows Communist policy through three phases: from the view of a “colorblind” class outlook, to the theory of nationality, to the broadly based “Negro-labor alliance.”

The overall structure of the book is divided into three components, recalling the traditional Hegelian triad.  The initial five chapters review the efforts of the first Black Communists to formulate a policy, their interaction with a vision of the Communist International, and the development of a theory (the view of African Americans as “a nation within a nation”) and an organization (the American Negro Labor Congress) to realize this project.

Part II presents another six chapters, this time focused on the 1929-33 era of the ultra-revolutionary “Third Period.” Solomon convincingly demonstrates his rather disconcerting view that unrealistic visions, aspirations and demands frequently motivated the most heroic projects.  From this perspective he discusses the astonishing courage of party practice in the Deep South, and struggles against eviction, hunger and lynching.

The book marches to a climax at the beginning of the Popular Front when, at last, in Solomon’s judgment, the foundation of Black/Labor unity is established.  This is achieved through the success of Peoples Front policy in Harlem and the creation of the National Negro Congress, a multiracial organization under Black leadership.  Within this daunting framework, Solomon presents many discrete episodes worthy of at least a brief survey.

Pioneer African-American Communists

From the very first sentences of the first chapter, Solomon meticulously corrects the record of previous writings on Blacks and Communism, with the kind of scrupulous research only possible from the pen of a scholar committed to learning what really happened because the record matters for life and death struggles.

For example, contrary to earlier studies claiming that no Blacks were present at the founding of the U.S. Communist movement-and an alternative version that two attended-Solomon documents that only Otto Huiswood, born in the Dutch West Indies (now called Surinam) was present.  Huiswood would have been joined by his comrade from the left wing of the Socialist Party, Arthur P. Hendricks, who was born in British Guiana; but Hendricks had just died of tuberculosis.  (Possibly Huiswood’s presence was not noticed by some who wrote reports on the meeting due to his light color.)

Although the two militants, and many who would join them, were Caribbean-born, Solomon views the pioneer cadre of U.S. Black Communism as a genuine Harlem-based alliance of immigrants from colonized nations and U.S.-born men and women.  The former tended to have a greater class and anti-imperialist awareness, and a more “assertive psychological makeup” (4), along with a greater degree of formal education.

It is significant that initially, Black revolutionists tended to gravitate around their own institutions, especially the Peoples Educational Forum in Harlem.  One group—Huiswood, Richard B. Moore, Lovett Fort-Whiteman and Grace Campell—soon joined the new Communist movement when the left wing of the Socialist Party was purged.  Another group-Frank Crosswaith, A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen-remained with the Socialists.

An additional important figure, Cyril Briggs, also from the Caribbean (he was born on the island of Nevis), was a journalist for Harlem’s Amsterdam News.  Briggs was much inspired by the Easter Rebellion in Ireland and committed to the prospects of a decolonized Africa.  He launched The Crusader in December 1918, a dynamic organ of the “New Negro Crowd” that advocated “a renaissance of Negro culture and power throughout the world.” (6)

Over the next six months Briggs’ journal began drawing the links between capitalism and imperialism, and “projecting a shared proletarian identity between Black and white workers as the counterweight to the dominant system.” (7) In Solomon’s words, Briggs “merged Black Nationalism with revolutionary socialism and introduced the twentieth century global revolutionary tide to America.” (7)

One of Briggs’ signal contributions was that he devoted himself to solving the riddle of contradiction between a separate Black national destiny and achieving unity with Euro-American workers.  The first organizational expression of this perspective was Briggs’ formation of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) in the fall of 1919, which was led by Caribbean-born radicals (with many World War I veterans in its ranks) and would grow to a membership of about 3,500.

The ABB was clearly independent of the Communist movement at the outset.  The various Communist factions were too busy vying for the Moscow franchise to pay attention, and Briggs was simultaneously influenced by an Afro-Centric movement called the Hamitic League, as well as by the rituals (passwords, secrecy, oaths) of the Irish Sinn Fein.

By 1921, when the ABB declared The Crusader its public organ and also gained some notoriety for its association with the armed resistance of Blacks against white attacks in Oklahoma, its leadership had evolved to pro-Communism.

According to correspondence located by Solomon in Comintern archives, Briggs was recruited to the Party by Caribbean poet Claude McKay.  This was facilitated by McKay’s having introduced Briggs to a couple of Euro-American Communists with a special interest in Black Liberation-the famous cartoonist from Texas, Robert Minor, and the Jewish-American firebrand Rose Pastor Stokes.  These two were affiliated with the “Goose Caucus,” which advocated parallel communist parties, one to be legal and aboveground, while the other party would remain secret and underground.

Still, more important than organizational affiliation is the manner in which Briggs creatively projected strategies and visions for liberation.  Blending a strong “sense of African identity and national culture with Leninist internationalism,” he formulated arguments to combine a struggle for an “independent Negro State” (which might be in Africa, although not necessarily) in the process of fighting for a “universal Socialist Cooperative Commonwealth.”

Briggs admitted that the independent Black state might not be the ideal route, but that it was understandably necessary in light of the need for “peoples of African descent” to “reclaim their distinct political and cultural heritage.” To put it bluntly, “the Negro has been treated so brutally in the past by the rest of humanity that he may be pardoned for now looking at the matter from the viewpoint of the Negro than from that of a humanity that is not humane.” (13)

The liberation of African Americans and the struggle for socialism worldwide was theorized by Briggs as an alliance in which a distinct Black agenda remained viable and central.  With Briggs’ Communist membership, this program was further clarified so as to provide a clear alternative to the politics of middle-class reform organizations.  Briggs promoted a dramatic switch in the objectives of the African-American liberation movement away from assimilation into the bourgeois order and toward a goal of socialist transformation.  He also urged that the class composition of Black leadership be proletarian and no longer middle class, and that African Americans ally with Euro-American workers instead of white liberals.

Briggs and his comrades were well aware that racism was widespread in the Euro-American working class, and of the history of Blacks being betrayed by false white friends in the past. Thus he held that the left was obligated to aggressively educate against white supremacism in order to facilitate an alliance.

Analogous notions of African American autonomy and alliances also carried over to the predominant attitude of Briggs and his associates toward the Russian revolution.  Solomon observes that

The embrace of communism carried with it a promising connection with Soviet power as indispensable ally, patron, and spiritual guide.  For the new Black Communists the Soviets were an exhilarating source of strength, pride, hope and respect for Black interests.  Heretofore anonymous men and women would now have an international stage where they would be taken seriously and where power was manifest and at the disposal of the Black liberation struggle.  The greatness of Bolshevik power-as an anti-imperialist force, as liberator of labor, as cleanser and avenger of racism, as faithful ally-became an ardent belief and defining point of the African Blood Brotherhood.  (16)

Finally, Briggs certainly believed that, in the long run, Euro-American workers would come to recognize their commonality of interests with Blacks.  Yet he also held that, if Blacks were to devote themselves to the class struggle, there had to be an “acid test of white friendship”—which was the acceptance by Euro-Americans of the right of Black armed self-defense, even if such defense resulted in the killing of whites.  (17)

A Nation Within a Nation

Solomon argues that the pro-Communist evolution of the African Blood Brotherhood profoundly affected the American Communists.  A result was the ultimate transformation of the left-wing “color blind” view of race that prevailed in the early 1920s in both the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party, most of which fused into the United Communist Party (UCP) in 1920.  (See note 2)  Leaders of the UCP did listen to and learn from the ABB, and their publications and resolutions began to resemble ABB ideas, with one exception—the Euro-Americans omitted the need to fight racism within their political party itself.

It is also true that the May 1921 convention that finally unified all Communist factions did not reflect the new alliance in the composition of its delegates nor in resulting resolutions.  Still, Solomon quotes from internal discussion documents (written under pseudonyms) that show a rich understanding of the complex strategic issues that needed to be addressed.

For example, there was now a recognition that the Black population could not be won over by abstract ideological professions of good will; Communists would have to respond specifically to the “Black ideology” that had developed due to white racist exclusionism.  They would also have to “humanize” their political dealings with African Americans, and fight aggressively for specific reforms (such as voting rights in the South) crucial to allowing Blacks to create their own conditions for developing activity and consciousness.

Simultaneously, Briggs was involved in a bitter battle with Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.  Solomon talks candidly of Briggs’ collaboration with the Federal government’s case against Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (which continually published the claim that Briggs was actually a European, until Briggs took legal action).  Moreover, destruction of the Garvey movement became the obsession of The Crusader.  (See note 3)

In this clash, Solomon sees central themes in the U.S. Black radical tradition.  Briggs held to the view that “racial consciousness alone was not enough to win freedom in the modern world, where power was based partially on race but centrally on corporate, class, national and military forces”; thus he championed alliances with progressive forces around a common interest in socio-economic restructuring.  (28)

Garvey, although anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist, in his determination to create a separate African-based territory, refused alliances with forces aimed at challenging those very seats of power.  Believing that, in the last analysis, white workers would side with white bosses against Blacks, Garvey alternatively attempted to negotiate with governments and even racist forces who likewise favored separation of the “races.”

Nevertheless, the Communists would continue to see the ranks of the Garvey movement as a radicalized milieu from which potential recruits might be garnered.

Toward Self-Determination

In a chapter called “The Comintern’s Vision,” Solomon explains how the Leninist notion of the necessary alliance of working class and national liberation movements as “a linked social process” was closer to that of the former ABB members than the ideas of early Euro-American Communists such as John Reed.

At the 1922 Fourth Congress of the Comintern, in response to presentations by McKay and Huiswood, a multinational Negro Commission was set up under Huiswood’s direction (and with McKay as a guest participant).  This body viewed the African diaspora peoples in the framework of colonialism, with Black Americans poised to play a key role in a global struggle requiring Communist backing of all movements of Blacks opposed to capitalism and imperialism.

This perspective probably set the stage for the slogan of “Self-determination in the Black Belt” (which was a region of the South with majority Black population) adopted by U.S. Communists six years later.  Although McKay departed from the conference en route to a stance as an independent radical (eventually converting to Catholicism before his death), Huiswood would become the first Black member of the Central Committee of the U.S. Party, now headquartered in Chicago.

A new figure emerging to prominence by the mid-1920s was Lovett Fort-Whiteman, an African American who had studied at Tuskegee, and who was closely associated with Robert Minor.  Fort-Whitman pursued earlier efforts to get the Comintern to back U.S. Black Communists in internal U.S. policy by forwarding the first concept of an American Negro Labor Congress.

Fort-Whiteman also developed the argument that Blacks perceive oppression as stemming from race more than class, and that such persecution had bonded Blacks of all economic strata together.  Marxism had to be recast to address this unique psychology, and practical work required a dual focus on both the South and problems specific to the great migration in the North (such as the housing crisis in urban ghettos).

Thus, in preparing for the 1925 American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), Huiswood, Moore and others pleaded for the involvement of Black Communists on all party committees responsible for the gathering, for the party not to push itself aggressively, and for literature that took into account the special psychology of the Black proletariat.

This was ignored, and the event-which had only thirty-three accredited delegates-had a majority white audience who were entertained by Russian ballet and theater groups but no Black artists.  For the next year the organization stumbled along until a shake-up in which Moore replaced Fort-Whiteman as leader.  (The latter departed for the Soviet Union, where he would teach for a while and then be imprisoned and die in a labor camp.)  (See note 4)

Moore’s leadership introduced a less sectarian phase of community and union work. Even followers of Lovestone’s faction (near the end of its reign) now favored dumping the NLC, although their alternative was direct party recruitment.  But the advent of the Comintern’s Third Period following the Sixth Comintern Congress ended any hope for a broader political strategy, due to its campaign against “social fascism” (the theory that Socialist parties were fascist in practice) and for United Front from Below.

Solomon is especially critical of the Third period for its ideological rigidity; he believes that the political line was really about Stalin’s fight to dominate the Soviet Party and the Comintern, one that would be “ultimately drenched in Soviet blood.” (68) He is also distressed by evidence of party members (almost all white and largely foreign-born in the early years) speaking an alien political language, and occasionally using “internationalism” to undermine racial priorities.

Moreover, he is dismayed at what he sees as arrogant and thoughtless efforts to substitute workers for the traditional middle-class leaders, accompanied by a blindness to the resentment expressed by African Americans aspiring to assemble their own agendas.

At the Sixth Congress of the Comintern no veteran Black Communists were present.  Instead, the U.S. party was represented by a young student at the Lenin school, Harry Haywood.

Haywood was influenced by a Siberian named Charles Nasanov, who had lived in the United States and saw U.S. Blacks as an oppressed nation with the right to self-determination.  He and Haywood shared the view that historical circumstances (slavery, betrayal of Reconstruction, imperialism) had prevented Blacks from joining whites in a single nation, resulting in a distinct cultural and psychological makeup.

Garveyism was regarded as an expression of authentic national strivings that would arise again-only next time Communists should be in the leadership.  Such an approach broke free at last from class-reductionist dogmas that relegated the anti-racist struggle to second place.  Rather, the Black movement was regarded as inherently revolutionary yet also an indispensable ally of the working class.

Haywood had no support in the early stages of the debate; but gradually it became evident that the Comintern leadership favored an alteration in Party policy toward African Americans.  The amended resolution provided “an ostensible middle ground .  .  .  based on the concept of a racial and national question-with national switching places with racial in parentheses.” (77)

When the official resolutions appeared in 1928 and 1930, they explained a difference in the Communist policy in the North and South of the United States.  In the North, where Blacks were a national minority, the struggle would be for social and political equality; in the South, where Blacks held a majority in certain regions (the Black Belt), the African-American nationality had right to secede and form a separate republic if it so desired.

If a revolution were successful in the larger nation, however, Communists would urge the Black population to remain.  (If Blacks did opt to secede, Euro-Americans might reside in the Black republic with minority rights.)

Nevertheless, Solomon’s opinion is that the nation thesis is flawed.  While Lenin was accurate in recognizing nationalist feelings among the Black population, he thought that these would be undermined by the expansion of the capitalist economy (industrialization, migration) because the economy was inseparable from that of the larger nation.  Communist defenders of the nation thesis such as James Allen believed that capitalism, having advanced as far as it would, was imprisoning the African-American peasantry in the region with no escape except social revolution.  (See note 5)

Yet Solomon is impressed with the effects of “self- determination” on party practice.  In everyday life it meant that Communists believed in the right of oppressed people to choose their own future, and the party throwing itself wholeheartedly into anti-racist struggles.  As a concept it meant the end of the subordination of race to class and paying close attention to all issues-cultural as well as political-that affected African America.

Solomon concludes that “national oppression” is the appropriate terminology for describing what happened to Black Americans.

There were contradictions, of course, to carrying out such a policy under the delusions of the Third period.  Communists held that revolution was on the agenda, so they crudely exposed liberal compromisers as social fascists, and they marched in parades under slogans urging defense of the USSR. Yet such fervent belief enabled the same Communists, Euro-American and Black, to brave police clubs-and bullets-as they organized election rallies, anti-lynching protests, funerals for martyred comrades, and fought back against evictions and police brutality in the streets of Harlem.

Likewise, the Communists’ revolutionary dual union, the National Miners Union (NMU), took strong anti-racist actions.  In Pennsylvania, the NMU convinced Black miners to join striking white miners, and in Kentucky convinced white miners to desegregate the strike kitchen.  Most famously, the Communist-led National Textile Workers Union emphasized anti-racism in its leadership of the Gastonia Strike in North Carolina.

This was followed by a heroic campaign to organize the South, an effort that Solomon believes had been hampered by the Party’s adherence to an earlier theory (when Jay Lovestone was in the leadership of the party) holding that the rural South was a reserve of reaction.  The new efforts resulted in the creation of a union of sharecroppers in Alabama, as well as impressive organizing activities in the face of murderous harassment in Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and elsewhere.

The party’s steadfast opposition in the 1930s to any form of racial segregation, at a time when it was tolerated by liberals and other progressives, was also an outgrowth of its assessment of the party’s failure to make gains in the 1920s.  Solomon says that the party came to the conclusion that “racial segregation and the savaging of black identity represented both an institutional foundation for American capitalism and its weak point.”

Thus the toleration of any form of racism only bolstered capitalism and “wounded its most potent foes.” The party had to create an internal culture qualitatively different from radical or liberal movements that “extended a hand to Blacks while allowing in [their] own structures the very circumstances that engendered inequality.” (128)

Hence the party promoted a view of race chauvinism as the ultimate evil. Anti-Black racism served the ruling class; Euro-Americans could only purify themselves of its stink by personally engaging in militant “struggles against Negro oppression,” which would also be a step toward dismantling the legitimate distrust by Blacks of whites.  (131)

Moreover, one could not expect Blacks to unite with Communists without taking steps to counter the special oppression of Blacks.  One Jewish party leader, Israel Amter, demanded that all white Communists should be prepared to violently avenge any insult against Blacks, even at the risk of death.

The center of CP and Young Communist League life became the interracial dance, even when it antagonized the larger community.  A more theatrical approach was the occasional mass trial of a Party member accused of racist behavior; this was carried out for purposes of public education.

Solomon compellingly recapitulates the anti-racist arguments developed by Communists, who tried to go beyond older appeals to “morality, abstract justice, and `healing’ through `understanding.'”  Instead, Communists emphasized changing power relationships in the interests of all the dispossessed.

Rather than appealing to sentimentality and guilt, the effort was to win over white workers on the basis of their own needs.  This was possible because working class whites could never achieve what they wanted as long as racial division persisted.  Instead of being “pitied or patronized,” Blacks were to be “welcomed as indispensable allies in the battle to change the world.” (146)

This meant that whites should respect Black history and culture, as well as understand that the prerequisite for unity was Black self-organization and autonomous leadership.

A Legacy of Struggle

Among the most inspiring aspects of Solomon’s research is his chronicle of the efforts of party members to fight racism on every front, starting with campaigns against hunger and eviction.  He provides portraits of many female and male activists, vignettes of martyrdom, and describes heroism by Blacks and whites.  The result of such selfless work was that thousands of Blacks joined unemployment councils, and hundreds applied for party membership and signed up for the party’s legal defense auxiliary, International Labor Defense.

Simultaneously, an interracial culture emerged.  In the late 1920s “Negro Weeks” were launched by Briggs to celebrate revolutionary heroes such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Denmark Vesey.  Whites did go into Black communities and serve on Black publications, but usually in subordinate positions under the supervision of Black communists.  What was expected of these whites was a record of fighting racism and respecting the abilities of Blacks.

In the early 1930s, the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), which regarded anticapitalism as a basis of the anti-lynching movement, collapsed and was followed by the League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR).  The new party-led organization saw the campaign against lynching as the major manifestation of national oppression within its larger agenda of demands for justice.

Nevertheless, as an organization that was openly pro-Communist, the LSNR was somewhat in competition for space with the Party itself, and the Unemployed Councils occupied available space, too. Even when the LSNR developed its own leadership with Langston Hughes as honorary president, and an official membership of ten thousand, it did not reach much beyond the party’s influence.

In contrast, the party’s response to the Scottsboro Case (when nine Black youths were framed on rape charges in Alabama) was a breakthrough vindicating Communists’ claims to sincerity about anti-racism.  Throughout the country activists, white and Black, gave their all to the slogan “they shall not die!”  Such activity was possible because they were imbued with the belief that the fate of the defendants was linked inextricably to their own lives.

Nevertheless, Solomon is harshly critical of the CP’s sectarian policy toward middle-class allies—he even endorses criticisms of the “united front from below” policy made by the expelled Lovestone group.  However, he refutes the claims that the Communists wanted the nine youths to die as martyrs, and believes that charges about the Communists’ inflammatory conduct toward the courts “were overstated and deflected attention from a racist judicial system.” (203)

There was constant party-led anti-racist activity throughout the early 1930s.  The candidacy of African American James Ford on the CP ticket, the running of dozens of other Black Communist candidates, and the defense of Angelo Herndon, charged with insurrection for leading a demonstration in Atlanta, were important developments.  There were also numerous strikes in which the party played a role where race issues were important—St. Louis, Chicago, San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco, Birmingham, Louisiana and so forth.

Moreover, Harlem became a centerpiece for anti-racist activity, especially when U.S.-born Black party leader James Ford took control and Briggs and Moore were eased out. The latter tended to emphasize race issues more emphatically, and were sometimes accused of blaming white workers more than the bosses; but they defended themselves by insisting that forging unity should be more of a white responsibility than a Black one.

Solomon’s biggest criticism of the party in this era is its conviction that it deserved sole leadership of the Black movement due to its possession of the correct revolutionary program.  As long as the party spoke of establishing “hegemony over the Negro liberation struggle itself,” it would often antagonize those who questioned or opposed it and would negate its own claims to be fighting for self-determination.  (205)

Thus Solomon ends the book with a chapter and a half devoted to the development of the Popular Front, which he regards as a positive advance away from this posture.  In his view, the dropping of Third Period sectarianism primarily meant the opportunity to work with liberals and Socialists cooperatively, as well as taking a friendlier attitude toward churches, professional organizations, and so on. Some of the tactical flexibility was shown in holding together an alliance against the invasion of Ethiopia, and in the CP’s intervention into the 1935 “Harlem Riot.” (272)

The culminating event for Solomon is the founding of the National Negro Congress, launched in Chicago in 1936.  It was preceded by broad discussions and impressive organizational groundwork under the leadership of John P. Davis, a non-public Communist.  The perspective was for “a multiracial organization under Black leadership, working to build a Negro-labor alliance and advance civil rights on a wide front.”  At the same time, Solomon cites internal CP material to show that Davis had the view that the CP should control the NCC to “guarantee its breadth and democratic character.” (303)

This raises a question, which Solomon never clearly answers, about the exact nature of the party’s understanding of “self-determination” when it came to trusting an independent Black leadership.  In any event, the organization was launched with over 800 delegates from 551 organizations that claimed to represent as many as three million people.  In a striking effort to demonstrate sincerity about the new unity, the party’s old Socialist rival, A. Philip Randolph, was elected president.

[The second half of this essay, reviewing the titles by William Maxwell, Bill Mullen and James Smethurst, as well as some concluding observations, will appear in ATC 86, May-June 2000.]


Alan Wald, and editor of Against the Current, was recently the subject of a political and biographical interview in The Minnesota Review #50-51 (October, 1999), “The Formation of an Activist Scholar.”

ATC 84, January-February 2000