African Americans & the struggle for socialism, 1901-1925

— Alan Wald

Fred HamptonFROM 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.



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