Category: About the CPUSA
Response to Dave Mack
| November 26, 2017 | 7:42 pm | About the CPUSA, Local/State | 1 Comment

by the Editor

John Stanford

Many thanks are due to Dave Mack who posted a comment to a video of an African-American music group posted on this website. His comment is as follows: “Ya’ll have been pretty ‘uneven’ and I can understand ‘factions’ but what is it with “All points of View”? We do not accept the views of Nazis or Trots and that sounds so damn liberal!”

Thanks for giving us a chance to respond and explain the recent changes we have made to the website.

To understand the name “All Points of View”, please review the article that appears just before this one on the website entitled “Gentle Giant.” It is the story of a Texas born communist, John Stanford, who fought for justice his entire life. All Points of View was the name of his bookstore which was raided by the US government. He filed a lawsuit against the government and won.

John’s bookstore sold many books concerning social justice issues and some of them were published in the Soviet Union. He was a contemporary of Gus Hall and was an advocate for “Bill Of Rights Socialism” to include freedom of speech.

In 2012, after this writer met with John Stanford, he received an email from John Bachtell which was a notice of expulsion of Houston communists from the CPUSA. At that time, the leadership of CPUSA sought to deny club members the right to free speech based on a distorted concept of “Democratic Centralism.” Mr. Sanford died on September 13, 2013.

Mr. Mack is certainly correct that we are uneven. We seek to fight for freedom of speech among communists who want to fight for a better world and want to make socialism a reality in the USA.

I would issue a challenge to Mr. Mack to find any articles on this website which are in any way laudatory of Nazis. However, I would point out that at some point it might be useful to publicize the views of Nazis on this website to provide a forum in which socialists and communists could critically analyze Nazi ideology. You cannot fight your opponent effectively if you have no knowledge of their ideology.

Although there are some articles on this website about Trotskyism, the vast majority are critical of this ideology. However, it is important to recognize the contributions of Leon Trotsky to the 1917 Russian revolution. It is extremely unfortunate that he became a counterrevolutionary, as many Russian revolutionaries did, following the revolution. Similarly, it may be useful to post the views of Trotskyites on this website so that this flawed ideology can be critically analyzed.

The post that Mr. Mack made a comment to was a video of an African-American band. It is the plan of this website to publicize and remind people of the great talent of African-American musicians and their contributions to the culture of the US. We have done this and will continue to do this unashamedly and proudly.

Again, many thanks to Mr. Mack for his comment. “All Points of View” will strive to be a forum for progressive, working-class people. We will seek to be a voice for the voiceless. We will fight against sectarianism and opportunism in all its ugly forms.

 

Gentle Giant

https://www.sacurrent.com/sanantonio/gentle-giant/Content?oid=2268857

GENTLE GIANT

At 79, he has outlived his most outspoken critics and several spans of public scorn. Most of those who know his name today are activists or labor liberals — and they have only praise for him, despite his long and entirely public or “open” membership in the Communist Party, USA.

“He’s a true organizer, of a dying breed,” says Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center.

Those who have dealt with Stanford over the years say that rather than pose as a militant, he speaks in the voice of consensus and prudence.

 Tom Flower, a Vietnam-era protester, now an Anglican minister better known for work among the homeless, argues that, “actually, John is pretty conservative about doing things that might upset people. He doesn’t like to put leaflets on people’s windshields, for example.”

But Stanford wasn’t always viewed as the mild character that he seems to be today. There was a time when he was seen as a threat to the free world.

In 1950, he entered the peace movement by circulating the Stockholm Peace Petition, which called for banning nuclear weapons, and was roundly viewed as a conspirator in a global plot to further Stalin’s aims.

Stanford says that the joined the Party on the day after his discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1946. He became an activist within weeks, soon after re-enrolling at the University of Texas at Austin. Late that year, the Houston Informer reported that Stanford gave a speech in the basement of a Baptist church, under the sponsorship of the youth wing of the NAACP.

“White students are learning that it is time for them to fight for the rights of the Negro people,” he declared, characteristically throwing in a bit of wishful thinking. “If we increase our unity, we can make of the South a place where everyone can have a decent living, health, and education facilities.”

Stanford, who is white, delivered his Houston speech to support a lawsuit by Heman Sweatt, a black postal worker, to gain admission to the University of Texas law school. It was not the kind of speech that ordinary white men gave in that era of poll taxes and statutory segregation.

“In the South in the 1930s and 1940s, there were very, very few whites who spoke out for racial equality,” explains Maurice Isserman, the nation’s leading scholar on American communist affairs. “To do so was to put your life at risk.

And in many instances, the white Southerners who were willing to take that risk were in, or close to, the Communist Party.”

Sweatt’s legal challenge, won in 1950, is today seen as a precedent to the more-famous 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which ordered the integration of all public schools.

Because of his victory, Sweatt posthumously became a Texas hero, his portrait displayed at the Institute of Texan Cultures, a scholarship and college campus named in his honor.

feat-stanford-0944_330jpg
John Stanford was one of the few whites who spoke out for racial equality in the 1930s and 1940s. Photos by Mark Greenberg

The Meerschaum pipe Members of the Communist Party customarily don’t reveal the names of members or former members who are still alive. But Sweatt’s death has freed Stanford to declare that at the time of the suit, Sweatt, too, was a Communist Party member. Unlike Sweatt, Stanford was never closeted, even if it was because he had little choice, thanks to the Texas Legislature and the Houston police. He moved to the Bayou City following his graduation from UT, and on September 16, 1948 — El Diez y Seis de Septiembre, Mexican Independence Day — the bilingual agitator was arrested for distributing Party leaflets decrying “the ruthless economic, political, and social oppression of the Mexican-American people.”

In 1951, Texas passed a Communist Control Act that required Party members to register with authorities, and prescribed a two- to 10-year prison term for failure to comply with the law. The Party decided to challenge the law’s dubious constitutionality, and Stanford, who was by then living in San Antonio, volunteered to be the test case, mailing an open letter to officials in 1952, declaring his membership. According to the plan, he was to refuse to register when the authorities responded.

But the 1950s were tough times for even the Party’s bravest members. Eleven national leaders of the group had been indicted under federal anti-communist laws, and some of them were already behind bars. After Stanford mailed his statement, the Party’s leadership found that it didn’t have the resources to pursue the Texas challenge, and ordered him to go underground.

“The Party had made a big mistake,” Stanford observes today. “It thought that fascism was coming.” He doesn’t remember everything that happened afterwards, partly because aging takes a toll, and partly, he says, because he tried to forget.

“I used to keep photo albums,” he recalls, “but when I went underground, I cut the faces out of the pictures, so that the FBI wouldn’t harass my friends. But the thing is, then I forgot, too, and can’t match names with faces now.”

To avoid arrest, he fled to Alabama, and knowing no one, found a job as a waiter at a diner and tried to lay low. But he couldn’t; it wasn’t in him to sit on the sidelines. After a few weeks in Birmingham, Stanford began attending meetings of a committee that was opposing fare hikes on city buses. Alabama bus fare activists, however, were wary of the Texan who showed up as if from nowhere; they thought that he was an FBI agent.

Stanford’s arrangement with the Party — like a scene from a movie about the French Resistance — was that he was to stay out of view for six months, then place a classified ad in the leading daily newspaper, saying that he had lost a meerschaum pipe. The person who called to report the discovery of the meerschaum, the plan went, would become his contact with the Party.

Stanford placed the ad and a young woman called. He asked her to meet him at the diner on a Sunday morning, when business was slow. Joanna Tylee walked in, she recalls, and upon seeing the Texan whom she remembered from the bus fare meetings, thought that she had walked into a trap.

The pipe plot had a happy ending: Joanna Tylee is today Jo Stanford. Following their marriage, John returned to San Antonio, and with her, reorganized the city’s frightened Communists and raised two children in the Jefferson neighborhood.

A Rosewood raid Back in Texas, prosecutors hadn’t forgotten Stanford. Through informers, they and the FBI kept eyes on the quiet-spoken protester, and as late as September 1963, San Antonio Express and News headlines assured its readers that “D.A. Still Studying Stanford.”

Officials had plenty of authority under which to act against him: Augmented by new measures, Texas laws by then prescribed 30-year prison terms for unregistered Reds. But the feds asked that Texas officials wait to nab Stanford until he could be designated as a Communist by the federal Subversive Activities Control Board, which delivered its finding on December 26, 1963.

Hours later, search warrant in hand, seven men from the district and state attorneys offices knocked on the door of the Stanford home, which was then on Rosewood Street, in the Beacon Hill area. John Stanford wasn’t home; Jo admitted the raiders and promptly telephoned the press. Meanwhile, her visitors began boxing some 2,000 books and various papers, including the couple’s marriage license, insurance policies, and mortgage schedule. The raid lasted for five hours. When reporters arrived, according to the Express and News, Jo welcomed them with, “Come on in and join the party!” But then she caught herself. “Or should I use another word?” she joked. The searchers claimed that the raid was necessary to prove that Stanford was imperiling public safety by selling Communist books and tracts through a mail-order bookstore in his home called All Points of View, which he had been operating since 1961.

In the months that followed, Stanford and his attorney, the late Maury Maverick Jr., were frequent subjects of the local press, whose handling of the affair betrayed an acquired admiration for the suspect. Reporters described Stanford as “affable,” and “pipe-smoking,” a designation that, in days before bongs, connoted “reflective” and “calm.”

Litigation over the book seizure wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where Maverick pointed out that among the confiscated items were copies of legal opinions on anti-communist laws penned by Justice Hugo Black.

“The reference to Justice Black’s opinion brought chuckles from the bench and several humorous exchanges that brightened the hushed dignity of the marble courtroom,” Express writer Ned Curran reported from Washington when the Court heard the case.

To almost no one’s surprise, the Court ruled the raid on Rosewood invalid, and the DA’s men, driving a borrowed red-and-white pickup, returned Stanford’s books to Rosewood.

They probably didn’t intend to aid or encourage the unarmed Stanford to overthrow the government, but the lawmen also gave him a gun, a .38-caliber pistol that had been taken for evidence in an unrelated case. Stanford, who has always claimed that he is for “socialism by peaceful and democratic means,” promptly returned the weapon.

Lingering suspicions Stanford’s victory before the Supreme Court kept him under public glare even after the ruling was old news. In 1965, an Express reporter grilled Stanford, who attended a demonstration to protest the killing of Reverend James Reeb during the Selma-to-Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King Jr.

Perhaps hoping to tarnish the voting rights movement, the reporter asked Stanford to justify his presence at the event. “I participated for the reason tens of thousands participated across the country — as a protest against the brutality being practiced against the Alabama Negroes,” Stanford shot back.

Six months later, his activities were again assailed in the local press when he sent anti-war leaflets to a mailing list that he had compiled, drawing a complaint from a soldier’s mother — not in San Antonio, but in distant El Paso.

“I believe the wars in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic endanger the lives of all American servicemen — including this woman’s son,” he told an inquisitor from the Express.

In the years since Vietnam, Stanford has taken part in dozens of other causes: the unionization of Valley farm workers, the campaign to Free Angela Davis, protests over U.S. involvement in Central America, and since 2001, Thursday peace vigils at the San Fernando Cathedral.

At protests against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he is saying much the same thing today that he has said since 1946. “Capitalism doesn’t have a future,” he maintains. He insists that Soviet interests were only a marginal concern of his. “We weren’t concerned about Stalin’s policies during the 1950s, we were fighting against the poll tax,” he says.

Young demonstrators may dismiss Stanford as too old, and his trademark causes too dated to be relevant now, but they don’t suspect him, as their forerunners did, of joining their protests with a hidden agenda in mind. The ironies of history are endless, and one of them is that it’s not because he has spent more than 50 years on the barricades, but because there is no longer a Soviet state, that nobody questions Stanford’s sincerity today.

Georgi Dimitrov: An Antidote to False Prophets and Naysayers

A new posting –

Georgi Dimitrov: An Antidote to False Prophets and Naysayers

– from Greg Godels is available at:
http://zzs-blg.blogspot.com/

By Zoltan Zigedy (Greg Godels)October 16, 2017

Marxists have been prolific correspondents, engaging others in polemics and collective ideas. The Marx and Engels correspondences, for example, number 1,386 letters! Marxism is, or should be, a collaborative effort.

Thus, I read the recent Sam Webb/Max Elbaum correspondence with some interest. Webb was the National Chairperson of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) for fourteen years until 2014. Elbaum was a sympathetic chronicler and active leader of the so-called “New Communist Movement” (NCM) in the 1970s. It is important to note that the CPUSA and the NCM were bitter rivals at that time.

So, it is strange that they exchange warm emails today, sharing the pleasantries of senior life–swimming, camping, time with grandkids, and marathon running– while adding their voices to the chorus calling for an all-out effort on behalf of the Democratic Party in the 2018 elections.

Or is it strange?

Webb holds the dubious distinction of leading the CPUSA down the rabbit hole of irrelevance. After the death of long-time CPUSA leader, Gus Hall, Webb and his cohorts transformed the CPUSA into a social democratic organization, eschewing both the legacy of the Communist Party and much of its organizational structure. Webb further entrenched the “lesser-of-two-evil” electoral strategy that began with the panic over the Reagan victory in 1980. The final years of Hall’s chairmanship and the Webb era snuffed out the last measures of the CPUSA’s political independence, turning it into a servile handmaiden to the Democratic Party.

Webb resigned from the eviscerated CPUSA the year after he gave up the national chair.

Elbaum’s career emerged very differently, but landed in nearly the same place as Webb’s. Elbaum, like many other veterans from the 1960s student movement, moved away from the radical democratic reformism of that era in the direction of a more anti-capitalist ideology, Marxism-Leninism. Unable to overcome their infection with the anti-Communist virus of the Cold War, many were drawn to the militant rhetoric of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that was simultaneously befriending Nixon’s administration and roundly condemning the Soviet Communists and most of the World Communist Movement. With amazing chutzpah, Elbaum and the New Communist Movement found no contradiction in the two positions. But by the end of the 1970s, the opportunism of the CPC was more than even the most faithful could hold their noses and swallow. China’s Communists had sided with the US against every legitimate liberation movement in Africa, including the ANC. The Red Guard anarchy and the Gang of Four excesses tested the conviction of the devoted, leading to defection for all but the most cultish.

Elbaum’s political journey continued, but swung sharply away from Leninism. The hyper-sectarian model embraced by NCM generated a sharp reaction, an extreme swing away from the classic Leninist notion of a vanguard party with a centralized, but democratic structure. Having little or no experience with Leninism apart from the brief heyday of the NCM, Elbaum began a steady retreat towards social democracy, a trend expressed in the US by investing in the perceived positive, progressive potential of the Democratic Party. Where Webb argues for unquestioned conformity to the Democratic Party leadership, Elbaum opts for a more critical attitude with the hope of steering the Democrats leftward.

Judging by the odyssey of Sam Webb and Max Elbaum, many roads lead disillusioned radicals, Marxist short-timers, and weak-kneed Communists back to the Democratic Party. Of course, many of the privileged (and violence-prone), elite-school New Lefties have been welcomed back to the Democratic Party as well.

In retrospect, two notions have provided excuses for disillusioned Marxists to retreat to the social democratic camp: first, the perceived threat of fascism as present or around the corner and, secondly, the firmly held conviction that resistance to fascism necessitates some kind of broad, anti-fascist front. Both notions, though widely cited, belong to the theoretical legacy of the Marxist-Leninist left. And both were elaborated most clearly and authoritatively by the Communist theoretician of fascism, Georgi Dimitrov.

Dimitrov on Fascism and Anti-fascism
Hardly a day goes by without someone on the left raising the shrill alarm of fascism. As Diana Johnstone reminds us in her brilliant essay on Antifa, “…historical fascism no longer exists.” What does exist, however are movements, formations, and personalities that bear various common features with historical fascism. Of course, we should not diminish the active role of these movements, formations, and personalities in their vicious attacks on the democratic and economic gains won by working people.

But these elements have always been a part of the political landscape of the US, both before, during and after the era of historical fascism– the Know Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, the Liberty League, Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, the John Birch Society, George Wallace, the Tea Party, Trumpets and Trumpettes, etc. It is far harder to identify a time in US history when the fascist-like elements did not exist as a significant force. For that reason, vigilance and militant resistance is always important. But that is a far cry from urging that something identical with historical fascism is now imminent. If the wolf is always lurking in the shadows, is it helpful to cry “wolf”?

This should in no way be construed as a dismissal or underestimation of many of the forces arrayed around and unleashed by President Trump. They, like their predecessors, are present as a reserve army for the ruling class should political matters get out of hand. They should be met with the same resolute resistance as the left has mounted in the past against rabid hate-mongers and right-wing terrorists.

Historical fascism arose as a response to the success of revolutionary socialism, in Dimitrov’s words: “Fascism comes to power as a party of attack on the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, on the mass of the people who are in a state of unrest…” Clearly, there are, with perhaps a few exceptions, no serious threats to capitalist rule today, certainly not in the United States; there are few revolutionary movements contesting state power. There can be no counter-revolutionary “open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital” when there is no revolution to counter.

While Dimitrov warns of the dangers of fascistic tendencies and urges their resistance, he reminds us that: “The accession to power of fascism is not an ordinary succession of one bourgeois government by another, but a substitution of one state form of class domination of the bourgeoisie — bourgeois democracy — by another form — open terrorist dictatorship.” Few of the harbingers of fascism today acknowledge this point. Since the right in the US manages its agenda well within the confines of a corporate dominated two-party system, why would it need to move to an open terrorist dictatorship?

In a real sense, the premature cry of “fascism!” disarms the revolutionary left, the advocates of socialism. Instead of building an alternative to the failed two-party system, a system that demonstrates a constant rightward shift, Webb, Elbaum, and far too many on the left argue for compromise with those who have been fully compliant with this rightward drift. They misunderstand or distort much of what we have learned about historical fascism.

Contrary to the vulgar distortion of Dimitrov’s views, fascism did not come to power in Germany because sectarian Communists refused to work with Social Democrats. Dimitrov is clear on this: “Fascism was able to come to power primarily because the working class, owing to the policy of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie pursued by Social Democratic leaders, proved to be split, politically and organizationally disarmed, in face of the onslaught of the bourgeoisie…” and owing to “…their campaign against the Communists and [failure] to accept the repeated proposals of the Communist Party for united action against fascism.”

Webb and Elbaum neither understand the historical basis of fascism nor grasp the Marxist theory of united front designed to meet the fascist danger when it arises. Rather than viewing the united front as a specific historical response to a specific historical development, they generalize the united front tactic to a universal response to the ascendency of the right.

If fascism is on the horizon, they argue, then we need to adopt a united front policy that brings together any and all forces willing to stand in its way. But that is not the lesson that Georgi Dimitrov– the Communist who stood against and defied the Nazi judiciary when charged with the Reichstag fire– drew from the experience of historical fascism:

Whether the victory of fascism can be prevented depends first and foremost on the militant activity of the working class itself, on whether its forces are welded into a single militant army combating the offensive of capitalism and fascism. By establishing its fighting unity, the proletariat would paralyze the influence of fascism over the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie, the youth and the intelligentsia, and would be able to neutralize one section of them and win over the other section.

Second, it depends on the existence of a strong revolutionary party, correctly leading the struggle of the working people against fascism. A party which systematically calls on the workers to retreat in the face of fascism and permits the fascist bourgeoisie to strengthen its positions is doomed to lead the workers to defeat… [my italics]

Both Webb and Elbaum have long given up on building “a strong revolutionary party,” either for its own sake or for a battle against fascism. Instead, they take their lead from the Democratic Party, a pathetic answer to the rightward shift of the last four decades.

They fail to grasp the application of the united front strategy to US conditions. Rather than tail the Democrats, Dimitrov, writing specifically in 1935 about the US, called for the creation of a third party and for a decisive break with the bourgeois parties (the Democrats and the Republicans):
It is perfectly obvious that the interests of the American proletariat demand that all its forces dissociate themselves from the capitalist parties without delay. It must find in good time ways and suitable forms to prevent fascism from winning over the wide mass of discontented working people. And here it must be said that under American conditions the creation of a mass party of the working people, a Workers’ and Farmers’ Party, might serve as such a suitable form. Such a party would be a specific form of the mass People’s Front in America and should be put in opposition to the parties of the trusts and the banks, and likewise to growing fascism. Such a party, of course, will be neither Socialist nor Communist. But it must be an anti-fascist party and must not be an anti-Communist party.

Of course, this was written at a moment when historical fascism was at its zenith internationally. Today, without the imminent threat of fascism, the prescription for a break with the Democrats is even more urgent.

It is not simply a question of stopping fascism, but a question of winning people away from it with a peoples’ program.
Those who confuse the anti-fascist united front with capitulation to the leadership of liberals or social democrats often see the problem of united action as left-sectarianism. Certainly, sectarianism, characterized by Dimitrov as finding “…expression particularly in overestimating the revolutionization of the masses, in overestimating the speed at which they are abandoning the positions of reformism, and in attempting to leap over difficult stages and the complicated tasks of the movement…” was then and remains a significant obstacle to building a Communist Party or a third party.

But Dimitrov gave equal attention to the dangers of right opportunism:
…we must increase in every way our vigilance toward Right opportunism and the struggle against it and against every one of its concrete manifestations, bearing in mind that the danger of Right opportunism will increase in proportion as the broad united front develops. Already there are tendencies to reduce the role of the Communist Party in the ranks of the united front and to effect a reconciliation with Social-Democratic ideology.

Nor must we lose sight of the fact that the tactics of the united front are a method of clearly convincing the Social-Democratic workers of the correctness of the Communist policy and the incorrectness of the reformist policy, and that they are not a reconciliation with Social-Democratic ideology and practice. A successful struggle to establish the united front imperatively demands constant struggle in our ranks against tendencies to depreciate the role of the Party, against legalist illusions, against reliance on spontaneity and automatism, both in liquidating fascism and in implementing the united front against the slightest vacillation at the moment of decisive action.

Thus, it is a mistake to surrender the revolutionary program to appease tactical alliances or coalitions. Joint action is possible, maybe essential at times, but without sacrificing the integrity and revolutionary ideology to tactical partners. This is a nuance lost on those rushing to uncritically embrace the electoral slates of the Democratic Party and to hide the goal of socialism under a basket.

Those abandoning the struggle against capitalism, for socialism, should be honest about their change of heart. They should not hide behind an inflated threat or a misrepresented tactic.

Historical fascism was a mortal, worldwide threat in the 1930s and 1940s. Communists devised special tactics to broaden and deepen the fight against it. They did so without illusions about the commitment of other forces or without corrupting or compromising their principles. They led and won that fight, except, unfortunately, in Spain.

A similar threat may arise again when revolutionary forces present an existential challenge to the conventional rule of the capitalist class.
Or it may not. That will depend, as Dimitrov points out, on the balance of forces between revolutionaries and their adversaries.

But those who imagine a world without capitalism should not be misled by false prophets who pretend to find a road to socialism through the Democratic Party. Those who aspire to socialism should not be seduced by naysayers who insist that the struggle for socialism should be postponed until all of the specters and ghouls of the right are exorcised.

A Tribute to Claudia Jones

 

A TRIBUTE TO CLAUDIA JONES

Thursday 26 October 7pm

Marx Memorial Library, 37a Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0DU

Book tickets here http://tinyurl.com/yamdq2jj

  • Claudia Webbe, Islington Councillor and member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee in the Chair
  • Winston Pinder, friend of Claudia, on Claudia’s life as socialist, organiser and writer
  • Meirian Jump, Archivist & Library Manager, on Claudia’s archives at the MML

Claudia Jones (1915-1964) was a political activist and tireless anti-racist campaigner. Her activity as a member of the Communist Party USA – during a period of McCarthyite attacks on the left in America – led to her imprisonment and deportation in 1955. She moved to the UK where she was instrumental in founding the Notting Hill Carnival in 1959 and established the first major black British newspaper The West Indian Gazette. She was an inspirational speaker, addressing numerous peace and trade union meetings. At her funeral in 1965 Paul Robeson gave the following tribute ‘It was a great privilege to have known Claudia Jones. She was a vigorous and courageous leader of the Communist Party of the United States, and was very active in the work for the unity of white and coloured peoples and for dignity and equality, especially for the Negro people and for women’.

 

Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School

37a Clerkenwell Green
Marx Memorial Library
London
EC1R 0DU
United Kingdom
The Forgotten World of Communist Bookstores
| August 18, 2017 | 6:21 pm | About the CPUSA | No comments

http://portside.org/2017-08-17/forgotten-world-communist-bookstores

The Forgotten World of Communist Bookstores

https://jacobinmag.com/2017/08/communist-party-cpusa-bookstore-fbi
Portside Date:
August 17, 2017
Author:
Joshua Clark Davis
Date of Source:
Friday, August 11, 2017
Jacobin

 

Their names proclaimed a new age: The Modern. The Progressive. The New Era. The New World. Others looked to the past, evoking American political heroes like Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln.

They were targets of FBI investigations and congressional hearings on “un-American activities.” J. Edgar Hoover condemned them for selling publications that “indoctrinate . . . members and sympathizers” of the Communist Party and “propagandize the non-communist masses.”

While largely forgotten today, communist bookstores were one of the most important public spaces for Marxism in the United States in the twentieth century. Most Americans didn’t personally know a communist. But in cities across the country, radicals made their presence known at unassuming bookstores. Teeming with texts by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, these stores also stocked the Daily Worker [1] and the latest publications by party officials from the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries around the world.

Communist bookstores provided a critical public space for radicals, operating in virtually every major American city. Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York had several apiece. Smaller and ostensibly less radical locales such as Birmingham, Houston, and Omaha, had communist bookstores, too.

Decades before alt-right trolls viciously attacked left-wing writers online, right-wing extremists targeted communist booksellers, accusing them of the most insidious crimes imaginable. “Visit any Communist bookstore in the United States and you will find books printed in Moscow and Peking in English for one, two, and three-year-old babies,” warned Fred Schwarz, author of the 1956 redbaiting bestseller You Can Trust the Communists (To Be Communists) [2]. “The Communists want the children. They do not care so much about the adults whom they consider as already contaminated with the disease of Capitalism and consequently of little use to them.”

It’s not entirely clear when communists first sold books in the US. But almost as soon as they split off from the Socialist Party of America to form their own parties in 1919, communists opened their own bookstores, too.

Communist booksellers immediately became targets of state repression as they faced an intense postwar backlash [3] against so-called subversion. In 1919, the New York legislature established a committee to investigate “seditious activities” in the state. As part of the investigation, a group of fifty state police officers and right-wing volunteers led by Deputy Attorney General Samuel Berger raided the People’s House bookshop of the Rand School of Social Science, then New York’s premier radical educational center. The investigators seized communist books and papers, but prosecutors eventually failed to convict the bookstore’s employees of sedition.

As avowed anticapitalists, communists made for unlikely business owners. But as entrepreneurs, their objective was to promote ideology and cover costs, not maximize profits. Red bookstores spread rapidly as the ranks of the consolidated Communist Party of the United States of America [4] (CPUSA) swelled during the Depression. By the end of the 1930s, roughly fifty communist bookstores were open for business. Their politics were also paradoxical. Unwavering supporters of Stalin abroad, American communists were relentless champions of democracy and civil liberties at home. And their bookstores helped them circulate a domestic agenda of racial and social equality.

Communists in the US were sophisticated marketers. International Publishers (IP), the official CPUSA publishing house operated by Alexander Trachtenberg, oversaw an extensive network for distributing communist publications in the US. Trachtenberg, a Ukrainian Jew who had fled Russian pogroms for the United States in 1906, managed IP since it was founded by the party and wealthy socialist A. A. Heller in 1924. The CP paid in advance for texts written by party leaders, typically placing bulk orders in the range of five thousand copies prior to publication but sometimes distributing as many as one hundred thousand. Every party branch across the country had an official “literature agent” that worked with the bookstores and IP to make sure that official texts ended up in the hands of party members (who received a discount of up to 60 percent on publications).

A 1941 advertisement in the Daily Worker suggests the CP’s sales priorities that year. The ad for the Workers Book Shop in New York announced “150,000 volumes to be sold” in “the greatest sale in our history.” In addition to classics like the collected works of Lenin and Marx and Engels’s writings on the American Civil War, the store offered less remembered (and more intimidating) titles like J. B. S. Haldane’s Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences, David Guest’s A Textbook of Dialectical Materialism, and Eugen Varga and Lev Mendelsohn’s New Data for Lenin’s Imperialism for as little as 49 cents apiece.

But business acumen didn’t protect communist booksellers from state repression. One of the most notorious attacks they faced was in Oklahoma City, where local police raided the CP’s Progressive Book Store in August 1940, arresting almost twenty employees and customers and confiscating thousands of books, pamphlets, and newspapers. Four CP booksellers were tried for violating the state’s laws against “criminal syndicalism.” Prosecutors offered confiscated communist texts as evidence of plans for insurrection, and the four defendants were easily convicted.

The Oklahoma case became a lightning rod for radicals and civil libertarians across the country, mirroring national campaigns to free such imprisoned communists as the black labor organizer Angelo Herndon and CPUSA general secretary Earl Browder [5]. In February 1943, more than two years after the raids, the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals finally overturned the booksellers’ convictions.

The FBI was also keenly interested in communist bookstores. The bureau’s files on the managers of the CP’s Free State Bookshop in Baltimore offer a vivid portrait of the ins and outs of running a communist bookstore during the party’s apex in the 1930s and ’40s.

From 1937 to the late 1940s, Alexander Munsell and his wife, Louise Ellen Munsell, operated the Free State in downtown Baltimore next to the local CPUSA chapter’s headquarters. A disheveled eccentric who renounced his bourgeois upbringing, Alexander was an industrial heir who had donated much of his fortune to the CPUSA and joined the Maryland state party’s leadership.

In hundreds of pages of documents, plainclothes FBI agents and informants reported in mundane detail their visits to the Free State Bookshop and another Munsell-operated store, the Frederick Douglass Bookshop, which the bureau described as a “Communist Party literature distribution point in the Negro section of [West] Baltimore.”

For more than a decade, the two stores functioned as the leading public spaces for Baltimore’s CP branch. In addition to offering space for party meetings and “new members classes,” the shops were used to recruit new members, prepare petitions, and organize protest campaigns.

The Free State and the Frederick Douglass dealt with many of the same challenges facing ordinary small businesses. The Munsells applied for business licenses with the city and balanced their books, or at least tried to. Keeping up with bills wasn’t always easy and local CP leaders worried about the store’s deficits. Funds from bookstore sales were badly needed to help cover the local party’s operating costs.

The Daily Worker once suspended shipment of its newspaper to the Free State when it fell too far behind on payments. Alexander Munsell complained to the newspaper that “all of us here in Baltimore who work vigorously to win the war by selling the Worker were puzzled by the fact that the Worker did not arrive,” but a circulation manager informed him the newspaper had no other choice for dealing with delinquent bookstore accounts. It seems that even anticapitalists couldn’t entirely ignore the bottom line.

Communist bookstores weren’t just focused on political ideology. They also flourished as hubs of avant-garde culture and various kinds of free thought. They were especially important in smaller, more conservative cities where — in contrast to Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York — few public spaces supported artistic and intellectual experimentation.

Literary scholar James Smethurst has shown [6], for example, how critical communist bookstores were for the mid-century Black Arts Movement. In Birmingham in the 1930s, a young musician by the name of Herman Blount — later known as Sun Ra, the incomparable jazz bandleader — regularly visited the party’s Ella Speed Bookstore, where he enjoyed public lectures and conversations on culture and politics with employees and customers. Decades later in Baltimore, the Black Arts poet Sam Cornish frequented the Free State’s successor, the New Era Bookstore, which published one of Cornish’s earliest poetry collections under its in-house Sacco Publishers imprint (named for Sacco and Vanzetti).

But even as political and artistic communities thrived around these bookstores, they faced a new wave of hardships in the Red Scare following World War II. Congress subpoenaed radical booksellers and publishers to testify and answer questions from elected officials about the details of their business. By the late 1950s, the bookstores’ numbers declined sharply amid plummeting party membership, internal schisms, and nationwide repression.

Those that remained in business often endured attacks at the hands of anonymous assailants. In Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Manhattan, CPUSA bookstores were hit with bricks, Molotov cocktails, and even bombs in the 1960s. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society were believed to be responsible for many of these assaults.

Despite these challenges, surviving communist bookstores enjoyed a small renaissance in the late 1960s and 1970s. The New Communist Movement [7] — an ultra-left offshoot of the New Left — launched an array of Marxist-Leninist organizations and sought to radicalize existing unions in these years. But in the 1980s and ’90s, two unforeseen transformations overwhelmed this modest uptick in activity.

First, and most dramatically, nearly twenty Communist governments fell in a three-year-stretch. The Soviets had directed American Communists and overseen their bookstores for decades, so the Berlin Wall’s collapse and the implosion of state socialism — despite being a boon for free expression in the Eastern Bloc — had a deleterious effect on communist bookstores in the US.

Second, there was the rise of bookstore chains. As stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders aggressively expanded in the mid-to-late 1990s, they began to sell many of the books that had once been the specialty of more radical independents — not only Marxist booksellers, but also black leftist and feminist bookstores. And as online booksellers like Amazon became household names by the end of the decade, Americans could purchase virtually any book with an ISBN number with a just few clicks of a mouse. Today, many bestselling communist texts are available for free online on sites like Marxists.org [8].

Some radical brick-and-mortar bookstores still operate today. Few identify strictly as communist, and even fewer are associated with the CPUSA, a party that has struggled in recent decades to reach even ten thousand members. Newer independent radical bookstores such as Red Emma’s [9] in Baltimore and Bluestockings [10] in New York’s East Village draw customers with cafes and frequent speaker events.

Venture into one of these shops and you’ll glimpse the legacy of a bygone era, one in which communist bookstores — despite facing considerable financial and political hardships — helped their customers envision radical worlds that were often otherwise unimaginable in America.

[Joshua Clark Davis is the author of From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs and an assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore.]

The Unexpected Afterlife of American Communism

The Opinion Pages

The Unexpected Afterlife of American Communism

Photo

Claudia Jones arriving for a court date in 1951. Credit George Alexanderson/The New York Times

The Communist, in the American imagination, has always been the ultimate outside agitator.

No matter how homegrown a resistance movement was, or how local the organizers were, the first response from those facing protest has always been to blame an outsider. This was as true for town hall protests during the February 2017 congressional recess as it was for anti-lynching struggles more than 80 years ago during the Great Depression.

For much of the past century in this country, this undesirable alien — seen as being from someplace foreign and in need of deportation back there — stood accused of invading to stir up trouble where there was none, where previously the locals had been docile and willing to accept whatever everyday inequality was their lot. Though many Communists were indeed immigrants, who would be targeted for harassment and deportation for as long as the party existed, many, too, were homegrown, born and raised in the same cities and towns as their persecutors.

The Communist Party U.S.A., founded in 1919, was closely tied to what emerged as the Soviet Union after the 1917 October Revolution, but the American party also drew on decades of local radical organizing. Many of its members came out of the Socialist Party, the labor movement and even anarchist activism, but the party also found a base among African-Americans when Communists proved willing to take on their struggles for self-determination.

In short, American Communism was a movement that grew out of what the historian Robin D. G. Kelley, the author of “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression,” calls “the most despised and dispossessed elements of American society.” It was the black workers drawn to the party, Professor Kelley argues, who shaped its political choices as much as the varying dictates that came from the Communist International, Moscow’s directorate for foreign parties.

During the Depression, the party took on fights not just for better wages and working conditions but also against evictions by landlords and abuses of the criminal punishment system. In the Deep South, the battle for freedom for the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape in 1931, was led by the International Labor Defense, a legal arm of the Communist Party U.S.A.

That stand still inspires activists today. The Scottsboro case was what drew the organizer and educator Mariame Kaba, who runs the blog Prison Culture, to learn more about the Communist Party U.S.A.

“They were helping nine young black men,” she said, “and preventing their state-sanctioned murder for a crime they didn’t commit.”

In the 1930s, the party taught its members to discuss their problems using the language of exploitation. This language meant that people “understood that racism and what they called male chauvinism wasn’t simply people acting badly or being psychologically controlled or being ignorant,” Professor Kelley said. “It was about the benefits that they derived from exploitative relationships.”

That framework, which has been revisited today in platform documents like “A Vision for Black Lives,” argues that racism, at root, is not about hate between groups, but about the way power is held in society. And class, according to this analysis, is created by relationships of exploitation.

These arguments were championed by organizers like Claudia Jones, a black leader within the Communist Party U.S.A. and a journalist for its newspaper, The Daily Worker. According to Charlene Carruthers, the national director of Black Youth Project 100, Ms. Jones expounded the idea now known as intersectionality decades before that term became so ubiquitous that Hillary Clinton used it in a tweet on the campaign trail. For Ms. Jones, understanding the lives of black women and the economic and social position they occupied would create a better understanding of the system of capitalism as a whole. It followed, Ms. Carruthers explains, that black women’s work was central in the struggle to replace the system.

Within organized labor, particularly the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1940s, the Communist-led unions were consistently the leaders on racial and gender equality. Sometimes this clashed with the wishes of white male members, who occasionally went on strike against the inclusion of black members. With the eventual purge of such so-called red unions from the federation, the cause of antiracism slipped to the sidelines. Only in the past decade or so has it returned as a priority for some unions.

Yet for all the work that went into killing the idea that another system was possible, the specter of Communism haunts us still. The Communist Party U.S.A. had its greatest successes as the country reeled from the Depression. Today, as we are still picking our way out of the rubble left by the crash of 2008, left-wing ideas have gained new purchase. It was the material conditions of people’s lives, Ms. Kaba points out, that made them willing to listen to something radically different during the 1930s and ’40s. It was that economic reality that drove millions of people to pay attention to both the nationalist bombast of Mr. Trump and the democratic socialist message of Bernie Sanders.

The year 2016 saw a revolt against politics as usual, with the mainstream parties’ failing to offer much in the way of solutions to struggling people across the United States. In the wake of the election, Ms. Carruthers said, organizations like Black Youth Project 100 have to broaden the scope of their work while cleaving to their political vision. Courting the supposed white mainstream while ignoring the material needs of black people, immigrants, transgender people and other marginalized communities will not placate Trumpian efforts to foment fear of the un-American outsider.

The power of the radical agitator — homegrown as well as outsider — has always been the ability to expose the gap between the narrative of American greatness and the realities of people’s lives. What American Communists, at their best, pioneered was to show how effectively grass-roots movements can challenge the racism, state violence and economic exploitation that people face in their daily lives, and connect those fights to a broader vision of a just world.

America’s obsession with rooting out communism is making a comeback

 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/22/anti-communist-laws-california-trump-russia

California shoots down bill to strike language barring Communist party members from government jobs as Trump’s alleged Russia ties stoke cold war sentiments

Statue of worker and collective farm woman by Vera Mukhina, in Moscow, Russia<br>MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 13, 2017: The statue of a worker and collective farm woman by Vera Mukhina at the main entrance to the VDNKh exhibition complex. Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS (Photo by Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images)

Is a new ‘red scare’ gripping the US? Photograph: Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS

America’s obsession with rooting out communism is making a comeback

California shoots down bill to strike language barring Communist party members from government jobs as Trump’s alleged Russia ties stoke cold war sentiments

It was a scene straight out of the 1950s, but the year was 2017. Travis Allen, a Republican from southern California, took to the floor of the state assembly on 8 May to denounce communism. “To allow subversives and avowed communists to now work for the state of California,” he railed, “is a direct insult to the people of California who pay for that government.”

Allen was speaking out against a move to remove language from the California code that that bars members of the Communist party from holding government jobs in the state.

Anti-communist language remains on the books in several states, and in California, at least, it’s not going anywhere. After facing backlash from Republicans, veterans and the Vietnamese American community, the bill’s sponsor, the Democratic assemblyman Rob Bonta, announced last week that he would not move forward with the bill.

With intrigue about Russia driving the daily news cycle, cold war sentiments are bubbling up again, despite the fact that our erstwhile adversary is decidedly capitalist these days. It’s a marked reversal from just a year ago, when an astonishing number of Americans embraced the candidacy of a self-identified socialist, and a reminder of how deep anti-communist suspicion runs through the American psyche.

Bonta is not the first legislator to fail in an attempt to drag state laws into the 21st century. A similar effort was made in California in 2008, when a bill passed only to be vetoed by the then governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I see no compelling reason to change the law that maintains our responsibility to ensure that public resources are not used for purposes of overthrowing the US or state government, or for communist activities,” the governor wrote in his veto statement.

Joe Fitzgibbon, a Democratic state representative in Washington, has attempted three times since 2012 to pass legislation getting rid of his state’s law barring communists from voting or having government jobs, but he has faced considerable opposition from Republicans.

He called the law “a mark of shame for Washington state” in a recent interview with the Guardian, and said he would keep trying.

“I wonder if now that Republicans have a different opinion on Russia, if maybe they’ll be more receptive,” he said. “My hope is that they will change their tune on whether people should be discriminated against for their political beliefs. Maybe they can talk to their Russian friends about that.”

Lest there be any misunderstanding: members of the Communist party are currently allowed to hold government jobs in every American state. Such laws were passed around the country during the so-called red scare of the 20th century, but they have long since been ruled unconstitutional by the supreme court.

Some states have managed to move on. Arizona lawmakers voted in 2003 to update the state’s loyalty oath. Now, instead of swearing they are not members of of the Communist party, elected officials and public employees must vow not to be terrorists. Candidates for elected office in Illinois still receive a loyalty oath when they register to run, but filling it out is optional. Pennsylvania stopped requiring candidates to sign a loyalty oath in 2006, after a Socialist Worker party candidate objected.

While these red scare relics can seem comical, Michael Risher of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California said they could still have serious consequences. “Occasionally someone will dredge them up and use them to try to scare people … to stop them from speaking out,” he said.

In 2006, he recalled, a California legislator asked the state attorney general whether an anti-subversive law could be used to go after Mexican American student activists. At the time, there was considerable rightwing suspicion about the student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán) and its supposed goal of reconquista, or returning California and other parts of the south-west to Mexico.

“The danger is not so much that someone will be sentenced to life in prison, but that they will be restrained from doing something that they would otherwise do,” Risher said.

In New York City, a public school principal has been placed under investigation over allegations of recruiting students to join the Progressive Labor party, a communist group. The principal, Jill Bloomberg, is an outspoken critic of racial inequality in the school system, and she has sued the city’s department of education for violating her civil rights.

Either way, she said the investigation had placed a pall over her school, as teachers second-guess their ability to speak freely to their students. “If you’re teaching the Harlem renaissance and the civil rights movement, can you say Paul Robeson was proud to be a member of the Communist party?” she asked. “Or can you only talk about communism if you present it as a negative?”

For Rossana Cambron, a national vice-chair of the Communist Party USA, which has about 5,000 members, the failure of Bonta’s bill was “very disappointing”. Still, she said, such efforts are in no way a priority.

“We’re too busy fighting Trump to be looking into those kind of things.”