Catherine Bergin: Communism and Experiences of Race

Interviewed by Selim Nadi

Chester Himes

A French version of this interview was originally published at http://revueperiode.net/chester-himes-ralph-ellison-richard-wright-communisme-et-experiences-vecues-de-la-race-un-entretien-avec-catherine-bergin/

  • In the introduction of the book you have edited, African American Anti-Colonial Thought, 1917-1937, you write that one of the reasons why you choose to focus on this specific period is because “[t]his historical period also saw a novel relationship between African American activists and the Left in the USA, a relationship that strongly informed the race politics of the time” (p. 2). Could you please explain this point?

 

The period from the Russian Revolution through to the eve of the Second World War was one in which the organised Left made a concerted effort to speak to issues of ‘race’. The heyday of these interconnections were in the 1930’s when the CPUSA famously mobilised around issues of racism, most famously in relation to Scottsboro. Yet accounting for these politics in terms of the 1930s alone or the shifting positions of the Comintern is to mischaracterise the nature of these politics. The genesis of the CPUSA’s race politics is in the radical black politics of the early 1920s when people like Cyril Briggs, Walter Domingo and Claude McKay were inaugurating a way of thinking race and class which spoke to black workers in startling new registers.  These activists and writers famously laid claim on the model of the ‘New Negro’, resisting all forms of accomodationism and simultaneously insisting that the black worker was integral to maintenance of US, and indeed transnational capitalism.  They were building upon older black radical traditions of resistance and the new forms of anti-imperialism which were emerging from the early Comintern and thus began to establish a thrilling form of anti-racist class politics which is attested to in the black radical press in all of its esoteric and polemical manifestations.

Anti-racism was formulated as first and foremost a form of race consciousness in which class was envisioned through the experience of black workers and their role in capitalist wealth creation. This was not therefore a matter of ‘including’ the black workers in the lexicon of class politics but in radically reimagining the nature of class as inherently multi-cultural. One can argue, without hyperbole, that these activists created a form of politics which thoroughly transformed conventional understandings of status of black labour in the making of the US. The predominantly white Left responded to this form of politics in a variety of ways, but it was a form of politics which necessitated new ways of thinking about race as integral to any form of class politics. The pedestrian and politically motivated misunderstandings of the relationship between black radical politics and the organised Left in the US which dominated till the recent past insisted that this was a period in which black radicals were ‘used’ by a canny Left and then betrayed. This is an understanding of the period which traduces the impact of a powerful and rich set of black politics which took inspiration from the Russian Revolution and certain forms of class politics to re-imagine forms of transnational solidarity which foregrounded questions of race.

  • Between 1915 and 1920, a lot of African Americans moved from the southern states  and entered the industrial working class of some big cities of the north: did this change of the composition of the working class in the north have some consequences in the labor union organisation of the working class?

 

It was during the Depression with the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and its commitment to recruiting unskilled and black labour that black membership of Trade Unions soared. The craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor was racist and exclusionary and offered little to black workers who were under severe attack in the post-War period, especially in relation to the ‘red summer’ of 1919. The United Mine Workers of America were notable in their commitment organising black miners, though those workers still faced considerable racist hostility. Brian Kelly’s Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-21 is a really engaging account of the challenges faced by those fighting to build the UMWA as an interracial union. The obstacles placed on black labour organisation by racist trade unions is a covered by many articles in the black radical press, however I am not a labour Historian so my interest here is less on the composition of union membership and more on the way that the black radical press addressed their readership as workers. It is this discursive moment that is fascinating to me. Again and again in the radical press black workers are presented as a vanguard of the class, and as a group who are disproportionately composed of workers.  It is insisted in both the African Blood Brotherhood’s newspaper, The Crusader and the black Socialist Party Newspaper, the Messenger that the majority of African Americans are workers who have both an objective and a subjective interest in bringing down racialized capitalism. The cause of black liberation is thus yoked to the cause of the proletariat but the fact that capitalism is rendered as thoroughly racialized places black workers in a unique position. This insistence on the status as African Americans as workers is not just informed by the immediate effects of Great Migration and its impact upon the class composition in the industrial North, it is a formulation which flexes backwards to insist upon the historic role of black labour in US history.

  • You also write that an essential point, if one wants to understand the “radical, black anti-colonial politics of this period is the influence of Afro-Caribbean migrants in the USA in the first decades of the twentieth century.” (p. 5). What was the relation these Afro-Caribbean migrants had toward anti-colonialism? What consequences did they have on black anti-colonial politics in the US?

 

As Winston James in particular has detailed, Caribbean migrants to the US in the early years of the 20th Century were instrumental in a whole range of radical race politics. His book Holding aloft the banner of Ethiopia transformed our understandings of impact of Caribbean radicals in the race politics of early 20th Century America.  The most famous of these is the Jamaican Marcus Garvey, who built a seminal global black nationalist organisation from his base in New York, but Caribbean migrants also dominated new black Left.  Caribbean migrants to the US had come from societies infected by Atlantic Slavery but the structures and forms of white supremacy in the US were very different in terms of the sheer levels of violence and segregation. The reading of class through colour in the convoluted pigmentocracy of the Caribbean informed race/class politics these radicals expressed. The term ‘Anti-colonial’ is also really interesting in relation to this constituency in the US. These former subjects of Empire imagined the racialized world in global terms. Racism in the US was delineated in terms of its specific character but for most Caribbean migrants it was also connected to the wider structures of racialized power in the colonial world.

This is most startling in the case of Ireland where the Irish revolution is trumpeted as an exemplary moment of anti-colonial resistance. In this regard specifically, the Caribbean migrants in the US are far more celebratory about the Irish independence struggle than American born black activists. The latter had long experience of the racism of   Irish American communities which interrupted any ideal formation of anti-colonial solidarity. Indeed, in the pages of the Crisis Du Bois in particular makes a careful delineation between the Irish in Ireland and the Irish in America in his nuanced and thoughtful support of Irish independence.  The Caribbean born radicals barely note the black experience of Irish racism in the US and un-problematically laud the anti-colonial credentials of the Irish.  In the Crusader the Irish are primarily represented in terms of their status as the enemy of ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as opposed to ‘white’. This complex move is again testimony to importance of emphasising the centrality of racialized subjects in forms of resistance. Anti-colonialism is also apparent in relation to a language of African diasporic solidarity which we see again and again in the pages of the black radical press.  Indeed the title of the collection African American Anti-Colonial Thought may seem to be a misnomer given the dominance of Caribbean born radicals in the volume. But there is a very specific American audience addressed in the black radical press, so whilst the diasporic imagination of these writings are predominantly drawn from Caribbean migrants, their articulation is flexed towards a specifically black American readership. This tension is productive I think; we have transnational politics which is shaped by the local in terms of its articulation.

  • How did you choose the texts that you reproduced in African American Anti-Colonial Thought? Could you please say more about some of the newspapers who originally published these texts? What role did the radical press play in this Anti-Colonial Thought?

 

I chose to focus on those newspapers that either had a relationship to the organised Left, named themselves in terms of an anti-capitalist politics or hosted the major black radical thinkers of the day. Thus The Messenger was the black newspaper of the Socialist Party, and it has far more articles concerned with the convincing their readers that both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party had nothing to offer African Americans. The Crusader became the journal of the African Blood Brotherhood and is less interested in party politics, although it too constantly makes the case for Socialism. Both Garvey’s Negro World  and Du Bois’s The Crisis are not specifically ‘left wing’ newspapers but both of them published articles written by key black socialist activists of the period like Claude McKay, Wilfred Domingo and Hubert Harrison. The later newspaper The Harlem Liberator was an avowedly Communist Party publication despite its occasional insistence that this was not the case.

 It was very difficult to decide what to include and exclude in this edited collection. The newspapers are an extremely rich source – both in terms of the wide range of articles and in terms of the vividly engaging writing style.   I came across fascinating articles about everything from the debilitating effects of white beauty standards to the history of Anti-Semitism and its racializing effects.  There is much fascinating material which did not make this collection. The book is part of a series of books Key texts in Anti-Colonial Thought, which seeks to draw attention to the aporias in Post-colonial studies which has tended to marginalise politics with an explicit connection to forms of Marxism. Thus the first book in that series The Politics of James Connolly by Connor McCarthy publishes key work by the Irish revolutionary that speaks to issues of empire in extremely productive ways that have been overlooked in relation to a post-colonial canon.  My book similarly wished to draw attention to moments of transnational anti-racism that have remained obscure outside of their function as primary sources for important revisionist historical work on this period. So the choices I made in terms of what to include were motivated by what I thought could illuminate the exciting range of the connections these writers made. There is enough material in the archives of the black radical press for many collections with very different emphasis. There will be people who are frustrated by what is not included here as there are many ways in which to frame the politics of the period. I am not suggesting my book is definitive in this regard.

In terms of the effect these newspapers had on ‘anti-colonial thought’ this is very difficult to quantify. Readership numbers were never particularly large (with the exception of Negro World) but this is not really an indicator of their influence since many of these papers had a high pass-on circulation.  I see their influence on the ways in which certain forms of their particular brand of black radical internationalist anti-capitalist thought formed and shaped both the traditional Left’s race politics and the politics of later black radical movements such as the Panthers. What drove this collection was the relative marginalisation of this thought in traditional understandings of both the Left and 20th Century black radical politics.

  • What was the anti-colonial black writers and activists reaction towards the October 1917 Revolution in Russia and, more broadly, toward Bolshevism?

 

This is, on the face of it a really uncomplicated question to answer. The reaction to the Bolshevik revolution was untrammelled enthusiasm. The revolution was heralded as a magisterial event which had the capacity to liberate the black world. It is the specific anti-imperialist claims that are made for Bolshevism that are so interesting. Russia is cited as a country of many peoples who had been oppressed under the Tzar and liberated by the Bolsheviks. The working class revolution is repeatedly named in terms of struggles for national self-determination in Russia which were inaugurated by the revolution. The perceived demise of Anti-Semitism in the wake of the revolution is of especial interest in the black radical press and there are countless articles about how, as McKay puts it, the Bolsheviks ‘made Russia safe for the Jew.’ Again what is so interesting and even estranging in these articles is the determination to make links between the experiences of the African diaspora and the experiences of other oppressed groups in order to trace common structures of oppression. 

  • A highly interesting point that you stress in your introduction to this volume is that, before 1922, many Caribbean and African American activists and writers where attracted to the Socialist Party (SP), even if this organisation had a very limited view of racial issues. You cite the famous quote by Eugene V. Debs: “We have nothing special to offer to the Negro and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races. The Socialist Party is the Party of the working class, regardless of colour – the working class of the whole world”. How would you explain this apparent paradox?

 

The paradox is only a paradox precisely because of the politics inaugurated by these radicals. That is to say, the positioning of race at the centre of class politics that hitherto did not exist. It is this which makes Debs’s quotation seem anachronistic. Importantly Debs didn’t say ‘we have nothing to offer the negro’ but ‘nothing special’ to offer. Debs and many members of the Socialist Party were anti-racist by any understanding of that term. The Socialist Party was a complex organisation in which anti-racists and racists were organised – it was a famously factionalised Party. Thus its history is contested in relation to race. The Wobblies record on anti-racism is extremely impressive.  The point is not to ‘call out’ anti-racists on the American Left who saw race as essentially a class question it is to place this new race/class politics in the context of the existing Left. Black socialists like Hubert Harrison consistently took the Socialist Party to task in terms of their evasions on questions of race , but this process was one which honed his own highly  influential political trajectory. These black radicals were hugely frustrated with the traditional Left precisely because they were drawn to their politics.

  • Was there a difference – for anti-colonial and anti-racist politics – between the Comintern and the Socialist and Communist Parties in the US? If yes, did this difference reflect in the attitude of radical black activists towards the Comintern?

 

Here it very much depends on which ‘Comintern’ we are talking about. The early Comintern was crucial to the emerging black radical politics. It was to the Comintern rather than the local parties that the majority of black activists were drawn. The Comintern’s commitment to anti-imperialism and its interest in black struggles in the US was in stark contrast to the fractious and factionalised Left in the US. So the iconic moment when Claude McKay at Otto Huiswoud address the 4th World Congress of the Communist International in Russia in 1922 is emblematic of how seriously black activists took the Comintern and how interested they were in the possibilities this internationalist revolutionary organisation offered for black liberation. The Stalinised Comintern of the 1930’s and 40’s was more concerned with consolidating the power of the USSR than instigating world revolution and this is where much of the bitterness which has shaped the history of Communism and black radicalism emerges. This is most famously expressed with George Padmore’s break from Communism in the mid-30s over his (correct) claim that the anti-colonial struggle was secondary to interests of the USSR.  This is much disputed history and there is not a dateable moment when we move from ‘good Comintern’ to ‘bad Comintern’. Nor is it true that Comintern directives mechanically shaped anti-racist politics on the ground. However the period of the Popular Front when Communists were asked to take a relatively uncritical attitude to Britain and France (colonialist nations) in the fight against Fascism was unpalatable to many who had been drawn to Communism because of its anti-imperialist promise.

  • Could you please come back on the evolution of political alliances between the US workers movement and radical black organisations and activists in the 1930s? Did the rise of fascism in Europe played a role in the evolution of black anti-colonial politics in this period? I am thinking especially about the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s Italy in 1935.

 

The invasion of Ethiopia is a fascinating moment in terms of Anti-colonialism and Anti-fascism. The idea that Italian Fascism was not at all dependent upon race is only cogent if one ignores Italian imperialism. Indeed the relationship that between European colonialism and European fascism  that Aimé Césaire articulates in Discourse on Colonialism is expressed in all sorts of nascent ways in the black Communist press of the 1930s. Colonial practices are consistently the framework through which understandings of fascism are articulated. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia galvanised African Americans across the board, particularly black Nationalists, and black Communists  were competing for a narrative which sought to differentiate between Italian Fascists and the diverse Italian-American communities in the US. The Front organisation, The Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia, attempted precisely to delineate a form of class politics which stressed the hypocrisy of the Western powers inaction on the invasion but also drew attention to the potential inter-racial class solidarities that an Anti-fascist, anti-colonial politics could establish. Imperialism here, as elsewhere, was imagined as a form of global racism which structured racialized capitalism. Fascism was often cited within the framework of global racism, not just in terms of Ethiopia but also in relation to the Spanish Civil War when up to 100 African American communists and fellow travellers went to fight Franco. Their memoirs and black radical publications make a set of links and connections between Franco’s fascism and Jim Crow practices in the Southern States.  Langston Hughes’s dispatches from the Spanish Civil war are full of references to fascism as particularly dangerous for people of colour and this is echoed in most African American accounts of the war. In the radical black imaginary Fascism was not a European phenomenon ‘home-grown’ fascism was an American institution. Thus the anti-fascism of the Popular Front in the US was understood through black experience of white supremacism in a variety of ways.

  • In 2015, you published – in the “Historical Materialism” book series – a study on Communism in African American Imaginary[1], especially between 1940 and 1952: how did you first become interested in the crossing of black subjectivity and Communist identity in the work of certain African American writers?

 

My interest in African American history and politics began in my teenage years when I read Malcolm X’s Autobiography. This book had a profound impact on a me, not in terms of my experience obviously (as a white teenage girl growing up in suburban Dublin) but   I was struck by the fury in the book and this compelled me to read more about race politics and history in the US. I became a political activist soon after and thus desperately tried to make Malcolm a Marxist in some way so as to have the kind of smooth untroubled politics that are so attractive when one is opened up to a world of alternative politics. Increasingly this effort failed in more and more interesting ways as the specificities and complexities of American racism complicated any facile utopianism about inter-racial solidarity. Thus it was a real revelation to find a period of 20th Century history when there were indeed moments of race-conscious interracial class politics.  A politics which pivoted on the basic incompatibility between American democracy and racial justice in precisely the rage filled terms of Malcolm X and the Black Power activists. In many ways what unites radical Black nationalism and Black Marxism is their relation to the Liberal State, a state which consistently disavows its racialized heritage.

What was so interesting about African American literature of the mid-20th Century was the representations of black subjectivity in relation to models of Communist identity in ways which traced the diversions and interconnections between political identity and lived experience of race.

  • I have recently read Nathaniel Mills’ book Ragged Revolutionaries[2], where he focuses on the centrality of the Lumpenproletariat in the work of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Margaret Walker. In your book, you choose to focus on three novels: Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Chester Himes’s Lonely Crusade (1947) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). Why did you choose those novels for your study?

 

While I was studying for my undergraduate degree Literature in the 90’s I read and adored Wright’s Native Son and was struck by the stark focus on Communism in the novel.  I read Ellison’s Invisible Man not long after and, again, the disproportionate focus on the Communist Party seemed notable.  I asked myself a simple question. Why, in these seminal literary works about being black in the US is the Communist Party so ubiquitous? While the historiography of this period had been challenged by brilliant works on Communism and African Americans, the work of Mark Naison and Robin Kelley in particular, literary criticism remained quite uninterested in talking about this relationship.  African American anthologies and collections rarely thematised black writing of the 30s and 40s in terms of Left wing politics – even in the case of avowedly Communist writers like Wright. Unlike Native Son and Invisible Man Himes’s   Lonely Crusade  has been somewhat critically neglected but like those other two novels it   keeps an unwavering focus on the Communist Party, it its narrative of black masculine identity. My interest in these novels was precisely because of the specific Communist Party representation, as opposed to Communism or class politics more widely.  These three very different novels are interested in black political identity to varying degrees and that seemed important to investigate.

  • Could you please come back on the theoretical understanding of race that the CPUSA had in the 1930s? At the very beginning of the first part of your book, you talk about the role the CPUSA played in the campaign to free the Scottsboro boys. How can one explain how the CPUSA could attract some black workers?

 

This is big and highly contested area of study. In many ways my book is structured by precisely the ways that the CPUSA placed race at the centre of much of their activity in the 30s and how this both gave them credibility amongst some sections of black communities in the US and honed their own race politics. My focus in the book didn’t stretch back to the foundational black radical activists of the early 20s and in many ways this is a limitation in terms of understanding CPUSA race politics. However, the narrowness of the historical focus was also a necessarily tight framing in terms of the contemporaneous CPUSA activity which structures the representation of the Communist Party in the novels.  All three novelists at the centre of my study are interested in recent and recognisable CPUSA activity both pre and post WWII. Certainly the adoption of the black belt thesis in 1928 was important for the CPUSA’s race politics in that it signalled a very clear and serious attempt to speak to questions of race in the US. Although the black belt thesis was not hugely foregrounded in the agitational work of the Party, it was an attempt to recognise the viciously racist nature of US society. The idea of self-determination for African Americans was an identification of the effects of racial segregation on black life. However, the relationship between the ‘theoretical’ understandings of race and the day-to-day activities of Communists in terms of Scottsboro for example is sometimes quite oblique. The nature of the Comintern in the 1930s and the political zigzags that national Communist parties were forced to perform in defence of ‘mother Russia’ have been well documented. What really interested me was the fact that often the local conditions in the US made otherwise disastrous Soviet strategies quite effective. For example the Third Period sectarianism which severely impacted on the ability of European Communists to stem the rise of Fascism, was  (unintentionally) quite effective in parts of the US in delineating a politics of black radical agency in direct opposition to traditional reformist race politics.

One of the ostensibly un-theoretical but hugely important differences between the CPUSA and the NAACP in terms of Scottsboro was a question of basic decency, in terms of treating the victims and their families with respect.  Where the NAACP were cautious about the case initially and deeply condescending to the Scottsboro parents, the CPUSA lauded the class background of the families. For Communists the Scottsoboro defendants innocence was not dependent on a form of black performativity, or at least not a form of performativity structured around ‘respectability’. African American Communists like Hosea Hudson or Ned Cobb were deeply impressed by the Party’s ‘anti chauvinism’ in terms of race - the willingness to believe and defend black party members when they called out racism in the Party. Of course, the Party attracted African Americans through their activities in building the SCU in Alabama, in defending the Scottsboro nine, in placing race at the centre of their political activity, but also in terms of the day to day interactions within the Party itself. This is not to romanticise the Party as a halcyon place of unproblematic inter-racial class politics, but it is to recognise that no other predominantly white organisation in the US had worked so hard to make the party a welcoming space for African Americans.

  • What was the attitude of the CPUSA towards Garveyism? Why were black workers attracted to Garveyism?

 

To take the second question first. Garveyism was attractive for a variety of self-evident reasons. Garveyism offered a rich politics of black pride, a rejection and inversion of racialized hierarchies, a dream of   an African homeland and a history, culture and heritage that had been debased and erased by white supremacism in the US and the Caribbean. Garveyism spoke to an African diaspora, it connected people of African descent in Europe, the Caribbean and the US in a global crusade to restore black pride and black achievement.  In its publications and through its street orators it directly addressed the conditions of black poverty and dispossession. It was an extremely important moment in the black radical tradition. The relationship of the CPUSA to Garveyism while infamously hostile, was also quite often nuanced in comparison to the gleeful sectarian baiting of established black reform movements. Never-the-less the somewhat depressing visceral hostilities between Garveyism and most liberal and left-wing black activists in the early 20s established a particular form of Anti-Garveyism which is apparent in CPUSA publications. Garvey’s own anti-Communism and troubling empire politics in relation to Africa were matched by a corresponding scathing anti-Garveyism from the CPUSA. Yet in black authored newspapers like the Liberator (discussed below) there is also an acknowledgement of the power and attraction of Garveyism, thus a distinction is often made in terms of the discursive address to Garvey’s supporters as opposed to editorials berating Garveyism as a form of reactionary ‘black Zionism’.

  • You wrote a whole chapter about The Liberator (1929-1935), whose first editor was Cyril Briggs. What role did this journal play in bringing communism and anti-racist black politics together? The Liberator also published some poetry and was highly interested in promoting black culture: what role did art played for this journal. Was there a specific theorization of aesthetic issues in Black communists of the 1930s?

 

The book contains a whole chapter about the Liberator because I was looking for a way to investigate the discursive mobilisations of black workers - as opposed to placing the novels in relation to ‘historical background’ of the period. I was attempting to avoid a crude reading of the novels in terms of how they related to contemporary Communist activity. In the Liberator we have a proliferation of a variety of models of black political identity which, I think, illuminate Communist representation in my subject novels. The Liberator   is speaking on a variety of registers in terms of black radical history and Communist praxis.  It is attempting to bring Communism and anti-racist black politics together through a very particular understanding of black rage and its relationship to historical change. Thus the unwavering focus on rebellions of the enslaved in the newspaper, which are presented as exemplary moments of anti-capitalist resistance.

The poems and short stories published are similarly concerned with yoking the black radical past to an anti-racist politics of the present. The Liberator’s cultural politics are fascinating as the newspaper is very much a Third Period journal, and yet in relation to culture it reads far more like a Popular Front Publication. There is an eclectic mix of short stories and poems from anonymous contributors and established writers like Langston Hughes.  In terms of the theorisation of aesthetic issues in relation to race in the 1930’s this is a much more prescient question from 1934 onwards in relation to the Popular Front. During the Popular Front black culture was ascribed a privileged place in terms of an attempt to provide an alternative ‘Americanism’ to that provided by dominant racist hegemony. However, I think the most important contribution to the question of black politics and aesthetics of the period remains Richard Wright’s Blueprint for Negro Writing (1937). It is somewhat ironic that the attacks on Wright that came in the 40’s and 50’s which berated him as a purveyor of ‘protest fiction’ can be challenged through Wright’s own erudite and incisive aesthetic theory. Blueprint is a really important text for thinking about aesthetics and politics more generally, but in its insistence that the complexity of black life could not be reduced to a neat political formula and that the complexity of black life was more than the reproduction of its most dominant cultural idioms it underlined the rich problematics that still inform how to ‘do’ political art.

  • In the chapter about Richard Wright’s Native Son, you write  “the tension in Native Son, which insists on the specificity of racial oppression yet suggests a unity of interest between African American and white Communists” (p. 106) and that Bigger was not attracted to Communism through theoretical or ideological writings, but rather through his encounters with Communists. To what extend can Biggers encounter with Communists helps us understand Wright’s representation of Communism? How is this representation different from his later novel The Outsider (1953)?

 

I make the distinction between Communists and Communism because I think it’s very important to my reading of Native Son. Unlike The Outsider in Native Son there is no real engagement with Communism as a liberatory theory.  Bigger’s relationships to Mary, Max and especially Jan are transformative in negative and positive ways and complicate the wider monolith of whiteness which shapes his world. Communists disrupt whiteness in the novel. This is most apparent in Jan’s transformation which sees him placing himself outside the normative function of whiteness to recognize and indeed validate Bigger’s hate. Native Son is paradoxically optimistic about the potential for an inter-racial solidarity which is not premised on color blind racist liberalism but colour conscious anti-racism. In Baldwin and Ellison’s famous critiques of Native Son it is Bigger who works as an aesthetically unconvincing cypher for Wright’s communist sensibilities, but I argue that it is actually Jan who most obviously performs this function in the novel. Native Son’ ‘politics’ are not to found in Max’s long orations in the courtroom, but in Jan’s ability to express solidarity in terms that Bigger demands. This is a very different type of meditation on the ability and desirability of Communism to speak to black life that we find The Outsider. In that novel Communism is which is presented less through the relationships of the characters and more through the strong authorial voice which repudiates it as dangerous to black subjectivity.  The criticisms of The Outsider were paradoxically similar to those made of Native Son in that Wright was charged with failing to represent ‘the reality’ of African American life. Where he was charged with crude Marxism in relation to Native Son, he was charged with crude Existentialism in relation to The Outsider. I don’t think either charge holds, and I find Paul Gilroy’s reading of Wright’s work in The Black Atlantic is particularly illuminating in contextualizing his artistic practice and philosophical trajectories.   

  • While there is a certain hostility towards the Communist Party in Himes’s Lonely Crusade and in Ellison’s Invisible Man, you write that this hostility cannot be understood through Cold War anticommunism but rather by the wartimes activities of the CPUSA. Could you please explain this point?

 

To put it bluntly, Cold-War anti-Communist paradigms meant that a whole set of assumptions about the corrupting and manipulative nature of the CPUSA dominated the literary critical reception of these novels. Of the three novels Invisible Man’s repudiation of Communism is most akin to the emerging discourses of red-baiting  Anti-Communism in the post-war United States.  However, even in Ellison’s case, the sheer scale of the invective belies a reading of this repudiation as an unproblematic eschewing of Communism as damaging to the black subject. Indeed, the section on the Brotherhood in the novel threatens to unbalance the narrative structure of the text. The novel is furious about the Brotherhood, and that tone really interested me. Fury and betrayal suggest an initial loyalty that has been damaged and there is a subtle but important difference between repudiation of a liberatory model and a sense of betrayal that one has been sold out for reasons of realpolitik.  I thought it would be interesting thus to read this novel in terms of the CPUSA activities of the period rather than the emergent Anti-Communist discourses which sees Communism as incapable of speaking to race.  The CPUSA activities during the war were extremely damaging in terms of its legacy in relation to black radical politics. The de-prioritisation of race, and indeed class, politics in the pursuit of US and Soviet co-operation during the war left many former activists profoundly disenchanted with the forms of liberation proffered by Communism in the 1930’s. This is particularly pronounced in Lonely Crusade where there are a plethora of references to the changing Party line in the run up to and during the War. But even in the much more avowedly existential Invisible Man the recent past is consistently referred to.  Yet both novels present seminal black Communist characters who exceed or disrupt the narratorial chastisement of the authorial voice.  In the book I discuss this in relation to Luther McGregor in Lonely Crusade and both Brother Tarp and Tod Clifton in Invisible Man.  It was not my intention to suggest that these representations were other than hostile, or to perform a mythologizing whitewash of Communism in the US. Rather that the dominant ways of reading anti-communism in both texts delimited the nature of the critique and   misread the terms on which Communism is rejected. It is not suggested in either novel that Communism is an alien interloper because it cannot comprehend the complexity of black life; it is suggested Communism sold out African Americans. Again the distinction is important for understanding the legacy of Communist race politics in the period.

  • How can a focus on literary productions helps us to understand specific political issues (like the issue of race for example) of a specific period?

 

This is the big question, and I would like to narrow it from ‘literary production’ to the form of the novel itself.  The capacity of literature to speak to issues of race, in ways which other forms of writing cannot, is a complex and knotty area of study. I am somewhat unfashionably Lukácsian in terms of my approach to this question. The novel as a form can speak to a totality of social relations in ways that other forms of writing cannot. The ability to go inside other people’s heads, to present a comprehensible world imbues the novel, or the Realist novel to be more precise, with a particular capacity to trace complex relations between subjectivity and society. These sorts of claims made for the novel are usually value-laden and I am not making a claim that the novel is a privileged space of representation or that there is something ‘authentic’ in novelistic representation. But the novel has always been important in African American cultural history. In terms of African American writing the vexed question of black authorship and authority can be traced back to the slave narrative. Most obviously, in terms of slavery, the historical record   contains no unmediated voices of enslaved and is severely limited in accessing those voices – even when reading the archive against the grain. Morrison’s Beloved thus is a remarkable attempt to re-inhabit the inner life of the enslaved in a way which illuminates the racialized legacies which structure US society and imagination. This novel performs a reparative act in relation to Atlantic slavery.  In terms of my own historical period of novelistic representation, these novels dramatize the caustic effects of white supremacy on black bodies, psyches and lives in a myriad of ways. But they also engage with forms and means of resistance which are delimited by and transgress those structures of oppression.  The imaginary space enabled by the form of the novel can (for good or ill) reveal all kinds of hidden and supressed knowledges that would struggle to find voice in different forms.  The question that motivated this book – why is Communism so instrumental to three very different quests for black agency and subjectivity – was prompted by the very particular and somewhat estranging focus on Communist characters and Communist praxis in these aesthetically dissimilar works. Representing communism is not the same as describing or ‘talking about’ communism. Representing Communism is also representing the impact of versions of Communism on versions of lived experiences of race. This gives us access, I think, to a disputed legacy in a form which opens up rather than closes down the interpretative possibilities we can bring to the relationship between African Americans and the Left between the wars. 

 

Catherine Bergin is a Senior Lecturer on the interdisciplinary  Humanities Programme at the University of Brighton where she teaches courses on African American Writing, Culture & Conflict and ‘Race’ & Resistance.  She is the author of Bitter with the Past, but Sweet with the Dream: Communism in the African American Imaginary (2015), African American Anti-Colonial Thought, 1917-1937 (2016) and “Reparative Histories: Radical Narratives of ‘Race’ and Resistance” (edited with Anita Rupprecht) a special Issue of Race & Class  (January 2016).

 

[1] Cathy Bergin, ‘Bitter with the Past but Sweet with the Dream’: Communism in the African American Imaginary. Representations of the Communist Party, 1940-1952, Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2015.

[2] Nathaniel Mills, Ragged Revolutionaries. The Lumpenproletariat and African American Marxism in Depression-Era Literature, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 2017.