An interview with author Ryan Pettengill about Communists and Community

This week in North Philly Notes, we interview author Ryan Pettengill about his new book, Communists and Community, which enhances our understanding of the central role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy throughout the mid-twentieth century.

You trace community activism in Detroit during the years 1941-1956, which is during the downslide of the American Community Party [CPUSA]. What accounts for this time frame for your book?
Quiet honestly, the CPUSA had always had a knack for community activism. There have been other scholars that have written about this topic, but much of their attention is concentrated on the period from 1935 to 1939. This era, known as the Popular Front period in which communists made important alliances with liberals and progressives in the struggle against international fascism, was thought to have ended by 1940, largely a casualty of the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. While the CPUSA did, in fact, enter into a new period in its history, the activism it pursued – especially at the local level in centers like Detroit – largely remained the same. The alliances that communists made with religious and civic organizations that were dedicated to social and political equality remained intact. Moreover, the nature of their activism, in which they would flood City Hall with letters, march in demonstrations throughout neighborhoods, boycott bowling alleys that insisted on Jim Crow policies, or establish “labor schools” for the training of the next generation of activists remained the preferred mode of activism long after World War II ended. Taking this community activism into account helps us understand the CP in a different light. It also helps demonstrate that leftists were central in keeping militant activism alive in the postwar period before it would become much more visible in the early 1960s with the coming of the civil rights movement.

Can you discuss why you focused on post-war Detroit? Sure, it was motor city with a huge industry in America at that time, but what made this city a valuable crucible
Detroit is just…fascinating. I developed an interest in the city as a graduate student and it never really stopped. But to the point of this question, Detroit is outside of the local context in which American communism is typically examined – New York City.  Examining communists and the activism that they sponsored demonstrates that at the local level in places like Detroit there was a level of autonomy in which activists were afforded a chance address local challenges in the way they saw fit despite what the “party line” may have dictated.

Communists and Community_smYou write about how the CPUSA helped underrepresented groups, working toward socioeconomic betterment, creating multiracial workforces, and protecting the foreign-born. Can you discuss this little-known history of Communists playing a central role in the advancement of social democracy and civil rights?
I think communists, with their insistence on analyzing the role that class played in American life, were able to see the unmistakable connections to race. Other scholars have noted that the CP was the only predominantly white institution that took up the matter of systemic racism during the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s. To that end, it attracted civil rights activists like Reverend Charles Hill and Coleman Young, the first African American to be elected mayor of Detroit. As Young put it, the communists and Reverend Hill (an African American Baptist minister) were the only ones even talking about racism in the 1940s.  Young never apologized for running around with radicals so long as it meant the socioeconomic betterment of the black community.

There are interesting stories about housing projects, racism and racial segregation, police brutality, as well as issues involving wages and unionism, etc. What challenges, setbacks, and successes did the CP and its members have?
This may sound obvious but it was the Second Red Scare that accounted for the biggest challenges and setbacks for the CPUSA in Detroit and elsewhere. As I point out throughout the book, the Red Scare and McCarthyism compromised the alliances built between the labor-liberal-leftist coalition that had flourished in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Anticommunists like Joseph McCarthy had built careers on red baiting and liberals who had once been allies of leftists were forced to demonstrate their patriotism by ridding them from unions and civic organizations. That said, I think that what the communists achieved – especially throughout the 1950s – was keeping the concept of militant activism alive in the minds of Detroiters. The 1950s is so often portrayed as a politically tame period and it is no coincidence that McCarthyism was raging throughout the country at the time. The activism that communists sponsored in the postwar period helped lay the foundation for future activism in the 1960s and beyond.

 What observations do you have about the white ethnic backlash and rise of conservatism in the face of the CPUSA’s efforts? (Sounds kind of timely….)
In a perfect world, I would like my book to be read in conjunction with studies that chronicle the postwar economy, the rise of conservatism, and the long descent of the New Deal order. If you read Communists and Community in conjunction with, say, Daniel Clark’s Disruption in Detroit, for example, you can clearly see that the postwar economy was anything but stable and for the bulk of Detroit’s industrial workforce, simply having steady work took absolute precedent over the communist brand of activism that addressed the integration of Detroit’s neighborhoods or reforming policing practices throughout the city. If there is one thing writing this book has taught me is that the working class existed in the abstract and workers did not always want the same things. So, along comes someone like George Wallace who can speak the language of the working class in locales like Detroit and is able to portray himself as the “law and order” candidate and, thus, fracture the working-class coalition that the UAW, leftist activists, and other progressives worked so hard to establish throughout the war years.

How did the radicalism and politicization that gained momentum during that time continue in the decades after? You write that the decline of community activism within organized labor [is] a casualty of the Cold War; that anticommunism played a key role.
I generally think of Carl Winter, Helen Alison-Winter, Nat Ganley, and Billy Allan as placeholders for the future leftists who would come to mainstream protest and dissent in the 1960s and early 70s.  It wasn’t always easy to defend their radicalism but these individuals did so anyway.  When the Michigan Council for Peace led a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to petition the federal government to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union, they opened themselves up to all sorts of criticism from the right.  But Reverend Hill led the pilgrimage anyway.  By the 1960s, with the fading of McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare, radicalism was once again a permissible form of political expression.  The activists comprising what might loosely be called the “old left” essentially preserved the institution of community activism.

 

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