African Americans, Culture and Communism (Part 2)

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

Alan Wald

This first part of this review essay, Focussing on Mark Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity appreared in Against the Current 84 (January-February 2000), and is available on the Solidarity web site.

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.

William Maxwell’s 254-page New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (including a handsome thirteen-page insert of photographs and illustrations), puts cultural flesh on the organizational and political scaffolding constructed by Mark Solomon.  It also reconfigures in startlingly new ways the entire terrain of 1920s-’30s left-wing cultural production.

Maxwell’s focus is on the movement of a number of African-American writers from a background of “New Negro” and “Harlem Renaissance” experiences toward the Communist movement in the interwar period.  His unique orientation emphasizes a mutual indebtedness, a two-way channel “between radical Harlem and Soviet Moscow, between the New Negro renaissance and proletarian literature.” This interchange is the reason why the explanation for such a development “cannot be pursued without acknowledging both modern Black literature’s debt to Communism and Communism’s debt to modern Black literature.”

Moreover, the importance of the Harlem/Moscow transit in Black cultural history also explains the reason why the disillusionment of a handful of African-American Leftists was expressed so fervently after the 1930s and has received so much attention.

Maxwell’s emphasis on “Black volition” and the “interracial education of the Old Left” corresponds to Solomon’s research; but Maxwell aims to enhance our understanding of African-American and “white” modern literature as well as radicalism.

Included among the misrepresentations of the relationship of “New Negro” (the term for militants in the Harlem Renaissance days) and “Old Left” refuted by Maxwell, are the pre-eminent readings of novels by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison that view the relationship of the left to African Americans as one of manipulation; Black nationalist interpretations of the faults of earlier Black writing that are usually attributed to the malign influence of the white left; the claims of Black feminist and “vernacular” critics that the Communist tradition posited a hostility to Black folk materials; and the ironic exclusion of the Black/left relationship from recent arguments in literary theory about “mulatto modernism.”

Maxwell’s objection to these earlier treatments of the Black/left cultural relation is not due to a disagreement with the dismay of some of the critics about the left’s illusions in the Stalin regime-a dismay that Maxwell shares.  His dissent is because of the failure of these earlier critics to recognize that the association had as great an impact on changing the U.S. Communist movement’s culture and politics as vice versa.

Maxwell’s effort to recuperate African-American agency in the relationship is based on his observation that Black pro-Communists were independently zealous in their support of what they took to be Soviet policy in the USSR and internationally; that neither Black nor white literary Communists took “dictation from Moscow”; and that earlier narratives of this symbiotic relationship have been too immersed in the Cold War fixation on evidence of “white seduction and betrayal of Black mouthpieces.”

Moreover, what Maxwell calls “Black Communist initiative” is supported by the most compelling trend in historical and literary scholarship of the recent era, such as the aforementioned books by Robin Kelley and Mark Naison.  (5)

This is a trend to which Maxwell wants to make additions and corrections, primarily by extending the time-line backwards from the 1930s.  To Maxwell, the 1920s comprises the crucial moment when historical forces such as the Great Migration of Blacks to urban centers, and the Harlem Renaissance’s pioneering of “Black routes into international modernity,” produced a “Black working class protagonist” as a means by which socialism might be African-Americanized in the form of joining Marxism and the “vernacular culture of the descendants of African slaves.” (6-7)

The resulting negotiations between Black militants moving toward Communism and the Communist institutions themselves can best be traced through literary-cultural expressions, especially the advent of “proletarian literature” and the Party’s construction of a view of African America as a nation within a nation.

Maxwell’s first and by far longest chapter begins the revision of the post-World War I cultural landscape through an examination of the poet-lyricist Andy Razaf, whose writings are used to present him “as a partial product and gauge of the place of Black bolshevism within the cultural field of the Harlem Renaissance.” (15) Razaf, who had a special feeling for the experience of “service” work (he had held jobs such as operating an elevator), wrote first for Cyril Briggs’ Crusader and then for midtown music publishers.

Maxwell’s view contrasts with those of Harold Cruse, George Hutchinson and others, who hold that an attraction to Communism destroyed the potential evolution of the Renaissance-or else that the Renaissance came about by displacing post-World War I Black militancy.  Razaf, however, expresses an important trend of mostly Caribbean immigrants around The Crusader who saw the new Black Renaissance within a field of class relationships affected by the international crisis of capitalism and the impact of the Russian Revolution.  Indeed, part of the attraction to Moscow was based on a conviction that the Soviet leadership would assist the “special interests” of U.S. Blacks in relation to the left.

The Crusader view was that, with the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural center, the new urban African Americans (including Caribbean immigrants) would continue the struggle launched by Black World War I veterans, escalating it even into the international arena.  Maxwell sees the efforts of Howard University professor Alain Locke to promote his interpretation of the Renaissance as partly in competition with the pro-Bolshevik trend; he also regards the version fostered by the group around W.E.B.  Du Bois, which emphasized spirituals as the central Black musical achievement, as missing the boat in its failure to appreciate Razaf’s focus on blues, jazz, films, broadcasting and vaudeville.

Chapter Two returns initially to The Crusader to examine its favorite poet, Claude McKay, and his book The Negroes in America (1923), as an example of the way in which Blacks shaped Communist policy.  Maxwell, from the perspective now established, provides compellingly fresh interpretations of McKay’s poems “If We Must Die” and “The White City.”

McKay’s experiences in the USSR are also recounted, after which Maxwell offers an important interpretation of McKay’s long-neglected one-hundred page Marxist treatise on Black America.  In particular, McKay viewed white workers as having developed a white supremacist “race-consciousness” on their own to defend privilege, and also in response to having assimilated a complex social psychology of Black sexuality rooted in the agricultural labor of early colonies in the South.

McKay’s antidotes to racism involve “the modern upsurge of Black culture” (including sports) and “white feminism” (which needs to recognize that the “protective” role of white men against alleged Black rapists is posited on misogyny).  Maxwell’s case is strong that “McKay’s pre-echo of more recent, more exclusively academic work in African-American history, whiteness studies, cultural studies, and a post-Soviet Marxism without guarantees is valuable for its challenges as well as its flattering symmetries.” (88)

Moreover, Maxwell provides evidence of the little-known text’s influence on the Bolshevik leadership (especially Trotsky) and the role of its author’s ideas in preparing for the Black Belt Nation thesis.

The third chapter shifts to McKay’s coeditor on the Marxist Liberator, the Jewish-American writer Mike Gold, especially Gold’s “anti-minstrel show,” Hoboken Blues (1927), which reinforces from another angle a blending of Communist proletarian literature and the Harlem Renaissance.  Maxwell observes that Gold’s manifesto “Towards Proletarian Art” parallels Alain Locke’s “New Negro” perspective of drawing sustenance from the common people and soil.

He also notes that under Gold’s editorship, The Liberator offered McKay’s poetry collection Harlem Shadows as a subscription premium, characterized as a work of proletarian internationalism.  Moreover, Maxwell believes that Gold’s 1923 book on The Life of John Brown is “an oblique reference” to his and McKay’s collaboration.

Using careful textual analysis of primary documents, Maxwell shows that Gold’s famous Puritanical attacks on Harlem cabaret culture in the 1930s Communist press were similar to those of Du Bois, and that Gold held a positive view of certain Black-specific cultural traditions rooted in spirituals, writings by Frederick Douglass, and perhaps non-commercial jazz.

This is a crucial corrective to those (especially Hutchinson, North and Cruse) who misread selected conjunctural writings of Gold as the defining anti-Renaissance moment of the left. It is also a useful entre to Maxwell’s reading of Gold’s Hoboken Blues (1927) as an effort to temporarily elude white identity and participate in the Harlem Renaissance.  Although Maxwell pulls no punches in noting paternalistic and ineffective aspects of the drama, he makes a powerful case that Gold’s play is anti-minstrel in that it “embraces the identification of African Americans with pre-industrial values yet rejects the moment of censure and the imprisonment of these values within a rigidly racialized and rapidly fading arcadian memory.” (119)

In mulling over Gold’s surprising celebration of a non-proletarian protagonist, Maxwell considers the views expressed on “the race question” in light of McKay’s opinions, and concludes that “McKay’s simultaneous possession of the garlands of revolutionary and New Negro poetry is the standard of aesthetic achievement that Gold’s play covets, a play that poses Sam’s [the Black protagonist’s] renaissance in Harlem as a lesson in proletarian revolution and a lesson to proletarian art.” (120)

That Gold would later (in The Hollow Men, 1941) counterpoise proletarianism as the negation of decadent New Negroism cannot erase the view here and in other places of a “considerable harmony” that paved the way for a “depression-era re-emergence of the position in the renaissance field that spliced New Negro and working-class insurrection, a position that took a low profile during the second half of the 1920s but never vanished…” (122)

Moreover, Maxwell observes that a less selective examination of Gold’s achievement than that offered by Gold-bashers suggests that his proletarianism was a “‘normal’ modernism” in its “scramble of interracial attraction and aversion.” (123) Once again, we have evidence that the left’s theory and practice (in this instance, Gold’s view of proletarian art) evolved from a multifaceted dialogue with the cultural renaissance in Harlem.

Chapter Four is a turning point in the book, not only for its shift to the 1930s but also for introducing a gender critique of the Communist tendency to masculinize the very prospect of interracial radicalism.  Maxwell’s focus is on the effort by the left to deconstruct the “triangular lynch myth” that involves a Black male rapist, white female victim and white male protector; this in turn produced a homosocial “anti-lynch triangle” premised on the interracial bonding of male proletarians against a misogynist view of white female accusers.

Maxwell traces the function of such triangular mythologies (right and left), culminating in a consideration of Langston Hughes’ Scottsboro writings.  He concludes by considering the corrective work of Black Communist Louise Thompson, whose “reportage” managed to write “a way through Scottsboro’s paired triangles against the exclusions of both the rape-lynch and the anti-lynch trios.” (149)

The fifth chapter is the first of two focused on Richard Wright.  Here Maxwell claims that Wright’s views of a Black southern nation, following Communist theory, resembled that of novelist Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological approach influenced by the work of Franz Boaz. This analysis is a continuation of Maxwell’s method of challenging oversimplified oppositions.

Maxwell also effectively reconstructs Wright’s career as a Communist, and the particular attraction of Stalin as a member of an oppressed minority group.  He then compares a number of texts by Hurston and Wright from the late 1930s to demonstrate the degree to which they shared sympathy for the rural Black folk under assault from the Great Migration.

The final chapter compares the “antibuddy” narratives of Wright’s famous Native Son and his radical friend Nelson Algren’s novel Somebody in Boots. These narratives of failed male bonding comprise sympathetic but informative critiques of the Communist project of interracialism.  But Maxwell’s fresh and cogent contextualized rethinking of the novels is now enriched by a continuous backward look at previous discussions of the Harlem Renaissance/Marxist connections, the “interracial triangles” of the cultural discourse around Scottsboro, and the debate around rural southern folk culture.

New Negro, Old Left demands the attention not only of those who wish to be informed about the history of the African-American left, the Harlem Renaissance and proletarian literature, but also those seeking to gain an understanding of the potential relevance of contemporary critical arguments from scholars such as Eric Lott, David Roediger, Pierre Bourdieu, Eve Sedgewick, Hazel Carby, George Hutchinson, Michael North, Michael Rogin, Robin Wiegman and others.

Indeed, the book is so rich and pithy, so full of complex allusions (very often expressed through humorous “signifying” on phrases familiar mainly to those working in the fields), that its most important weakness may be that it is written in a style that will limit accessibility to the very large and diversified audience that the book deserves.  Yet careful readings and re-readings of New Negro, Old Left are worth the effort, for this is without doubt a pathbreaking and clarifying advance in our understanding of African-American literature, modernity, and the left.

What is especially sound and convincing in this achievement stems from Maxwell’s thorough grounding in prior scholarship-his working through the arguments of predecessors in order to correct and advance them. This approach is most evident in Maxwell’s insistence on rigorously historicizing and contextualizing conventional bifurcations and oppositions in order to demonstrate that, in the world of living cultural practice, various texts and careers do not fit into the prevailing narratives that have previously dominated the discourse of the Black/left interaction.

Repeatedly Maxwell demonstrates how selective quotations-from Mike Gold in relation to the Harlem Renaissance, from Wright in relation to Hurston-create false paradigms.  Yet Maxwell’s method is not to reverse these paradigms, only to rethink them in terms of the actual aims, activities and views of the protagonists.

Often this requires our holding several contradictory opinions in mind at the same time-for example, in regard to Gold’s opinions about jazz and Black culture, or the profound misogyny of much of the most admirable anti-racist discourse.  We come away from the experience with a more authentic apprehension of the ambiguities of cultural practice, even at the expense of losing some of those little boxes by means of which we had neatly classified earlier relationships.

Poets on the Left

Different in form, but complementary in content, James Smethurst’s The New Red Negro is a powerful narrative of the evolution of a single genre.  It is also a long-overdue truth-telling that documents central links between African-American poetry and the Communist left. Thus it corrects the work of earlier scholars who have treated the left associations of Black poets in terms of anti-Communist conventions and clich<130>s that Smethurst deftly demolishes.

The book also rebuts those cultural historians who are intellectual prisoners of diminished narratives of twentieth century literature that isolate literary radicalism of “The Thirties” as a decade-limited “moment,” rather than understanding it as a crucial stage in a longer-term, mid-century development.

This very ambitious book tries to argue a complex challenge to prevailing views of the evolution of African American poetry, revise conventional notions of literary classification, offer a theory for the various emphases in form and content of a range of Black poets over several decades, counter institutionalized amnesia about the seriousness and subtleties of political engagements, and speculate on the long-term impact of this mid-century experience.  Each aspect of the project is carried out with an impressively lucid writing style and a highly polished means of documentation.  (Smethurst’s footnotes alone require meticulous study.)

The basic thesis of Smethurst’s book is that the evolving ideology and institutions of the U.S. Communist cultural movement played a substantial role in shaping the form and content of African-American poetry in the 1930s and 1940s.  The primary poets in the study are Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen, Owen Dodson, Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson and Margaret Walker; attention is also paid to Waring Cuney, Frank Marshall Davis, Richard Wright and several others.

While the range of relationships to Communist ideology and organizations among this group is diverse, Smethurst finds the influence most evident in the specificities of the gendered folk-street voice of much of this poetry, a result of a kind of “yoking” together of “cultural nationalism, integrationism and internationalism within a construct of class struggle.” (10)

Once the leading poetry of the decade is discussed in this context, one can then gain new insight into such complex matters as the poetry’s relation to rural and urban forms of African-American popular culture, and the interrelations between “high” and “vernacular” art.

Smethurst’s Introduction incisively reviews the previous scholarship on Black poetry in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as drawbacks to extant memoirs of and scholarship about the cultural left. Among Smethurst’s most convincing points are his sensible explanation of the ill effects of the tendency to separate the 1930s from the 1940s in regard to periodization, and his emphasis on the crucial mixing of “high” and “low” culture.

Less convincing is the assertion that the U.S. Communist cultural leadership welcomed the 1920s modernist revolution in literary form and sensibility.  In my view, this assessment contradicts the writings of the most authoritative Party critics: V.J. Jerome, John Howard Lawson, Milton Howard, A. B. Magil, Samuel Sillen.

It would have been sufficient to observe that perhaps Party critics did not recognize African-American or more “populist” versions of modernism for what they were, and that they held a double standard when it came to the treatment of writers who had or had not expressed dismay over the repressive nature of the Soviet regime.

Chapter One presents a kind of overview of the origin and evolution of Black writers and Communism from the post-World War I era. This is a vivid summary of some familiar episodes that also integrates new information and insights into the narrative.

Smethurst’s characterization of the Communist approach to the “national question” as providing “a paradigm” with which African-American writers felt comfortable is impressive.  The chapter additionally contains a fabulous review of Communist cultural institutions (mainly journals) in relation to Black writers, as well as provocative considerations of masculinity and gender in recreating the “folk voice” before and during the Popular Front.

Chapter Two concentrates on the work of Sterling Brown, beginning with a fine recontextualization of his writing in relation to the Communist left as well as a useful explanation of Brown’s distinction between a “Harlem” and “New Negro” renaissance.  Smethurst’s observations about the parallels between Brown’s cultural project and the Communists’ evolving orientation are also exciting.

Equally noteworthy, the argument proves its mettle in the consideration of the poetry, starting with Smethurst’s astute commentary on the poem “Southern Road” and continuing through a striking comparison of Brown’s and Alain Locke’s views of the respective contributions of Harlem and rural folk culture to the “New Negro” renaissance.

Chapter Three reconsiders Langston Hughes in relation to the Communist left. Although the story has been told before in biographies by Arnold Rampersad and Faith Berry, Smethurst manages to provide an impressively fresh version due perhaps to a more nuanced understanding of the Communist project.

The consideration of voice in the poetry is informative, and the discussion of Hughes’ “Scottsboro Limited” is a fine contribution toward rehabilitating Hughes’ 1930s cultural work. Smethurst concludes that Hughes’ ability to ultimately establish a genuine base in the African-American reading public was intimately connected with his “engagement with the aesthetics of the Popular Front.” (115)

In his fourth chapter, Smethurst switches the mode from a focus on individual writers to a thematic survey using categories such as “The Folk Documentary” and three versions of “Narratorial Consciousness.” Among the writers treated in this framework are Richard Wright, Lucy Mae Turner, Frank Marshall Davis, Waring Cuney, Countee Cullen and Ida Gerling Athens.  The strategy results in stimulating and compelling readings of many texts.

Chapter Five inaugurates the consideration of the late 1930s and first half of the 1940s when poetic styles of the Depression era evolve to what Smethurst calls “neo-modernism” (which comes in “popular” and “high” varieties).  Here we have Langston Hughes discussed as an exemplar of the former, with sensitive readings of poems of the 1940s and a suggestive argument about Hughes as a forerunner of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s.

Chapter Six treats Gwendolyn Brooks as the paradigmatic figure of “high” neomodernism.  It begins with a much-needed challenge to prevailing images of Brooks’ alleged distance from the left. Smethurst then shows how Brooks develops a heroic female subject in her poetry.

Chapter Seven repeats the effective strategy of the first half of the book by reviewing a range of Black poets (Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson, and Owen Dodson) in light of the paradigms established in the preceding studies of Hughes and Brooks, as well as in relation to topics discussed in the first part of the book.

Smethurst frames his interpretations with a brief historical discussion of the transformation of the prevailing folk ethos between the 1930s and 1940s from South to urban North and West. This extraordinary volume concludes with suggestive observations about the implications of this cultural history for Black poets of the 1950s and after, and, more briefly, in relation to the phenomenon of the “New American Poetry” in the 1950s.

The Companion Front

Bill Mullen’s Popular Fronts is distinguished by his intense focus on one particular arena of political and cultural anti-racist struggle and Black art-the city of Chicago, from the advent of the Popular Front to the Cold War. For this project he applies Yale professor Michael Denning’s appropriation of the concept of “The Cultural Front” as the term of choice for leftists who saw “culture as one arm, or front, of a widening campaign for social, political, and racial equality.” (2)

Although others besides Communists used that term, Mullen believes that the expression became especially important after the call for the People’s Front coalition.  The call precipitated a shift from a proletarian revolutionary culture to a “people’s culture” for the purpose of extending the country’s democratic heritage.

The brilliance of Mullen’s approach is that he gives a concreteness to this general development.  This is the same virtue found in the work of Solomon, Maxwell and Smethurst, and it is the one that makes all the difference.

The concern at this stage in scholarship is not merely exposing the proclamations of official Comintern documents to lay bare the realpolitik motivating political twists and turns (something in regard to which the four authors represent a range of views).  Mullen demonstrates that, whatever the intentions of Kremlin or CP bureaucrats, Chicago as a vibrant city had its own local history of left anti-racist activism that received a special stamp in early 1936.  At that time the National Negro Congress (NNC) was launched through the presence of nearly a thousand delegates from twenty-eight states, to an audience of an additional four thousand.  One of its themes was advancement of culture and cultural workers, alongside political demands.

This event introduced to Chicago a style of politics and culture that took root. By the 1940s many of the themes, slogans, demands, and cultural icons of this would-be “Negro People’s Front” were virtually hegemonic on the South Side; the Chicago Defender, for example, without ever referring to the Communists or other left organizations, frequently presented the race-and-class based radicalism of the Communist Party.

Although the CP as a whole suffered an enormous crisis at the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and even abandoned the Popular Front orientation for a period, Black Party members in Chicago continued to forge an alliance with The Defender and with Black liberal forces across the country to launch a famous boycott of the film “Gone With the Wind.”

Simply put, Mullen’s book aims to be a corrective to earlier treatments of the Popular Front.  It answers not only the negative ones that show a condescending attitude toward the accommodating politics and cultural strategies of the time; it also augments the positive ones that treat Euro-American culture primarily and fail to grasp that there existed a “companion front” for African-Americans.  The appeal of this companion front was so strong that it lasted far longer than the official Party policy and helped to shape anti-racist struggle in the Black community up to the present.

The specificity of Chicago provides a unique testing ground, for Chicago has been the cite of a recent revival of cultural scholarship that had hitherto been debilitated by a failure to understand the African-American cultural left beyond the canonical figure of Richard Wright.

Mullen’s view is that what is usually called the 1930s-40s “Chicago Renaissance” is actually “the fruit of an extraordinary rapprochement between African-American and white members of the U.S. left around debate and struggle for a new `American Negro’ culture,” a “black and interracial cultural radicalism, best described and understood as a revised if belated realization of the Communist Party’s 1936 aspiration for a Negro People’s Front.” (6)

On the one hand, “the 1936 opening of Chicago’s black `cultural front’ represented both a culmination and a new beginning for African-American engagement of and revision within the U.S. left.” On the other, “Chicago’s cultural `renaissance’ and the CPUSA’s Popular Front/Negro People’s Front .  .  .  were events that were historically mutually constitutive and in many ways unthinkable in separation.” (6)

The roots of revolutionary Marxism in Chicago’s South Side (which by the mid-’30s was the largest concentration of Blacks in the United States after Harlem) can be traced back to World War I; Mullen cites The Whip and the Free Thought Society as the “genesis” of the local branch of the African Blood Brotherhood.

Subsequently, organizations such as the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, American Negro Labor Congress, United Front Scottsboro Committee and the National Unemployed Councils were “crucial chapters in black Chicago and the white-dominated Communist Party’s reconsideration and reconstitution of each other.” (7)

Mullen assesses the radical politics of Chicago as combining two elements: a broad interracial Popular Front on one hand, and a “companion” Negro People’s Front in Chicago on other.  The latter is understood by Mullen as a “climactic `Black’ moment in the history of U.S. radicalism when African-American political culture actively and willingly engaged, revived, reformed and deployed `Communism’ in a manner generally consistent with official party policy, yet primarily derived from and utilized in relation to the `objective conditions’ of life in Black Metropolis.” (8)

These elements include a responsiveness to both the proletarian component of the population (men working in stockyards and steel mills; women as domestics) as well as its middle and upper classes aspiring to become “players” in the democratic capitalist system and its culture.  A special emphasis on Black churches was included as well.

Perhaps more emphatically than Smethurst, Mullen argues that the African-American cultural left prior to 1936 had been moving autonomously in a manner that would form a symbiotic relationship with the double Popular Front thrust.

Writers, artists and intellectuals such as Margaret Burroughs, Fern Gayden, Alice Browning, Theodore Ward, Gwendolyn Brooks, Horace Cayton, St. Clair Drake, Charles White, Margaret Walker and Frank Marshall Davis were evolving in that direction; they would make that orientation visible not only through individual writings but also through the “Negro in Illinois” project of the Illinois Federal Writers Project, the South Side Community Center, the Associated Negro Press, the Chicago Defender and Negro Story.

Moreover, at moments when the Communist Party seemed to diverge from the larger project it had helped to engender-especially during World War II-this trend not only continued but deepened and creatively developed certain aspects.

In particular, Mullen holds that in Chicago the Black cultural left “constituted among the most aesthetically and politically complex black art of the century, challenging the commonly shared assumption that Popular Front art universally succumbed to an ameliorated populist aesthetics or a mawkish sentimentality.” (11)

None of this is to deny that there were tensions in the companion front; part of Mullen’s story is of the struggles between the members of the “Black bourgeoisie” who ultimately controlled cultural institutions, and the militants who participated in them. Mullen takes note of the fact that very often radical ideas were disguised to appease the Black patronage class as much as to evade FBI surveillance.

Ultimately, the Chicago Renaissance was ended in practical terms through a combination of flight-in some cases flight into exile, in other cases into a Black bourgeois intellectual life.

The seven chapters of Mullen’s book aspire to map out the political, cultural and geographical landscape of the companion front from the mid-’30s through World War II. He begins with a striking revision of Richard Wright’s contribution to the phenomenon; by documenting Wright’s atypicality, Mullen both gains a clearer perspective on his achievement and helps bring back into vision the many other cultural workers, institutions and activities hitherto obscured.

The second, third and fourth chapters treat key institutions of the Renaissance and Negro People’s Front.  Foremost is the Chicago Defender, which after 1940 not only covered the pro-Communist left sympathetically but hired editors and writers from that milieu.  In contrast, the South Side Community Arts Center is noted for its interracial alliances among cultural workers.

Negro Story, published from 1944 to 1946, is reclaimed as helping to “foreground the short story as a genre for black radical voicing” through its blend of the tradition of “proletarian literature” and the racialized wartime experiences of Black women.  (16)

Shifting gears in the fifth and six chapters, Mullen turns to literary analysis of short fiction and poetry of the 1940s.  In the case of the former, the fiction record of Negro Story shows the “critical amnesia” which allowed the establishment of a select group of major Black writers to obscure their roots in the companion front and the contributions of lesser-known writers.  In regard to Brooks, especially “A Street in Bronzeville,” Mullen offers an extraordinary interpretation of her writing as an “unsystematic feminist skepticism” of left culture within a radical framework, even as Brooks herself has denied any past association with the left.

Mullen’s final chapter and his postscript focus on the combined effects of McCarthyism, post-war political splintering (due to the absence of a common struggle against international fascism), embourgeoisement, and the liberalizing of formerly radical institutions, for the legacy of the companion front experience.

Building A New Interracial Left

These four books definitively establish the Communist-led anti-racist movement in mid-century as fundamental for any future interracial socialist left. This is not to dismiss the substantial literature documenting the mistakes and delusions of the Communist movement-especially its reprehensible policies in World War II (including support of Japanese internment, opposition to the “Double V” campaign, and collaboration with the federal government’s suppression of the civil liberties of Trotskyists).

Rather, it is to conclude that this unconscionable record only problematizes but does not negate the palpable achievements recorded in these remarkable books.  Together they embody a series of “lessons” that might be carried over as the starting point of any radical movement in the new millennium.

In addition, there are the methodological contributions of this literature to ongoing considerations about the cultural and political history of the left.

Three of the most important lessons might be summarized as follows:

• First, as we have seen from the experiences of the Communist movement in the 1920s, militancy, devotion to class struggle, and a fervent belief in equality are inadequate to build an interracial movement.  The nature of racism as both material and ideological oppression requires that socialist organizations and projects take special measures in order to transform their membership composition and their relationship to the struggle of people of color.

It is not enough to preach the need for unity and promise fair treatment.  Black history is replete with examples of betrayals by “white friends,” and Communists were correct in understanding why there was the need for Black leadership of autonomous Black struggles.

• Second, the Communist movement, prodded by the arguments of Black revolutionaries from the left nationalist movement, as well as by the Communist International, developed a basic theory to explain both the historical reasons why “special measures” must be taken, as well as to suggest what these measures should be.

That theory is basically the view of “national oppression,” as opposed to the stance that the issue to be addressed is simply racism (dislike of people who look different), injustice, and so forth.  Understanding African Americans as a nationality helps explain why nationalism of various forms has been an ongoing feature of the struggle, and why revolutionaries should not oppose this nationalist struggle but find ways to relate to it in order to assist its evolution in a radical, anticapitalist and internationalist direction.

The development of a proletarian-led nationalist movement with an internationalist vision is probably the prerequisite to a unified movement for socialism-a stage over which Marxists may not be able to leap.

The Communists chose to put this theory into practice by building a working class movement in two complementary areas: On the one hand, they struggled for an integrated CIO, that put the cause of anti-racism among its priorities; on the other, they promoted a Black-led labor movement with a broad social agenda, culminating in the National Negro Congress after 1936.

(Here it is worth mentioning that the precise decision-making procedures in the NNC are not fully discussed, and Solomon believes that at least one public leader was a secret Party member.  So the record of how, exactly, the Party maintained influence in an “independent” Black-led organization remains to be explored.)

From this perspective, it becomes clear why forms of affirmative action (such as taking special measures to insure that all barriers are removed from advancement to leadership of African Americans) are necessary within as well as without a socialist organization; why Black members should be the leaders in areas of Black work, but also in the general political life of the group; why cultural and psychological issues are of crucial importance; why “integration” or “assimilation” into the racist house of capitalism is an inadequate solution; and why an organization’s membership must be re-educated to understand the complex and subtle ways in which paternalism and white privilege can exist despite one’s best intentions.  (Recent scholarship has especially emphasized how the choice of European ethnic groups to identify as “white” assisted, and still reinforces, the racist order.)

In regard to this last point, the Communists were especially effective in demonstrating to their own membership the truth that the struggle against racism is in everyone’s interest, not just that of African Americans.

Euro-American members came to see that their own best hope for the future was interconnected with Black liberation, to the point of supporting Black self-defense against other Euro-Americans.  In general, anti-racism became the duty of every Communist, not just Black members.

• A third lesson from the Communist experience suggests the manner in which substantial numbers of African Americans will possibly come to join a socialist organization.

Some, of course, may join out of individual friendship with members who have won their confidence on the job, as neighbors, or in a common struggle.  However, if the organization adheres to the kind of attitudes promoted by the Communists, broader layers of the most politicized vanguard of the Black struggle will come increasingly to respect the socialist movement; eventually cadres will enter, first by ones and twos, and then these will come to play the key role in the recruitment of thousands more. (But it is also the duty of Euro-American socialists to themselves actively assist in this effort to change the composition of the organization.)

With an organization, like the Communist Party, willing to defend the Black population from exploitation in general-not just around obvious “political” cases, but against police brutality, eviction-the culture of the movement will become increasingly hospitable to people of color.

The Dream of Cyril Briggs

Of course, these four books begin-but they hardly end-the crucial discussions that need to take place in regard to the above “lessons,” a discussion in which a new generation of activists and Marxist scholars of all colors and both genders will have to participate along with veterans.

For example, one of the themes most stressed by Solomon is the central role of ideology, vision, and a unified organization.  In fact, even false visions and a relatively undemocratic military command-type organization seem to have the ability to empower anti-racist activists.  Solomon’s own point of reference here is the mistaken view that the Black belt in the South was the basis of a potential Black Republic.  (See note)

However, there is also the issue of just how empowering was the false view that the Soviet Union represented a genuine stop forward into the socialist future, a country in which workers’ rights were supposedly defended and racism virtually expunged.

Clearly the belief that the beginning of a new world already existed gave much self-confidence to a struggling group of Black and Euro-American Communists in an adversarial position.  But what about a balance sheet measuring these benefits against the deficits of having a mostly false dream, and adjusting national political priorities to the needs of a foreign dictatorship?

Even if one puts aside (for the moment) all the complex debates about whether Communist policies in Germany, Spain, the colonies, etc., actually advanced or retarded anti-fascism and socialist movements, we need to ask ourselves: In the long run, were the gains of a self-comforting illusion worth the betrayal of idealistic rank-and-file Party members by leaders who banked their reputations on false information about the Stalin regime?

Was it worth the long-term discrediting of Marxism among millions who, to this day, identify socialism with the Stalinist horror?

In addition, the ongoing controversy about the politics of the Popular Front is raised implicitly and explicitly in these writings.  By and large, the view of Solomon-that local practice was the crucial test for the Black movement; that the Third Period was at best a trial run to learn first-hand the futility of sectarianism-seems to be vindicated by the three other scholars.

Still, since Solomon ends in 1936, and Maxwell and Smethurst are primarily focused on cultural practice, only Mullen explicitly treats the Popular Front throughout its two phases (before and after the Hitler-Stalin Pact) as both a high point and something of a model to be emulated.  And he does this in a nuanced fashion, emphasizing the semi-autonomy of the companion front.

Nevertheless, Mullen tends to treat the Popular Front orientation through euphemisms such as “coalitionist politics.” (6) Since no critic of Popular Front politics ever objected to coalitions-indeed, the Trotskyist and left socialist critics were for coalition politics in the days when the CP was for a “United Front from Below”-this formula is likely to be seen by those skeptical of the Popular Front as side-stepping the hardest and more troubling questions.

On what basis should one develop alliances with non-socialist and non-working class forces so as to advance the struggle on all fronts, building for the day when authentic economic and political reconstruction are truly on the agenda?  In my view, it is impossible to reach a final judgment on the actual degree of autonomy of the companion front during World War II without a candid, comparative appraisal of the CP’s practice on a national level (and its international positions).

Finally, there is the issue of the uniqueness of the modern African-American Liberation movement as a paradigm for a “new” twentieth-century social movements requiring a rethinking of classical Marxist projections about the likely course of social advance.

Many of the points of analysis about African-American “national oppression” seem appropriate not only to other populations of oppressed nationalities in land areas of the U.S. historically linked to these groups (especially Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans), but also to a number of non-European immigrant nationalities (Latinos from Latin America, Asian Americans, Caribbeans) and even to women.

To what extent is the declaration of a “national oppression” decisive to the recognition of the legitimacy of autonomous struggles, self-leadership, the need for affirmative action, the recognition of the importance of psychological and cultural issues?

Is it possible that one aspect of Communist theoretical work (and corresponding practical intervention) in relation to African Americans is that it simply instigated a rethinking of narrower interpretations of Marxism, a rethinking that is necessary for socialists of future generations to eventually realize the liberatory dreams of Cyril Briggs and all who came after?


ATC 86, May-June 2000