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.

 

Is It McCarthyism Yet?

This week in North Philly Notes, Rachel Ida Buff, author of Against the Deportation Terrorwrites about immigrant rights in this xenophobic era.

Travel bans based on nations of origin; local law enforcement officials compelled to perform federal surveillance work; lists of suspected subversives; prohibition of solidarity or sanctuary work; massive deportation; and the disappearance of the names of the deported from mass media. These recent trends are part of a renewed xenophobic turn in U.S. politics. They also have historical precedent in the infamous era of McCarthyism.

Often filtered through middle school readings of The Crucible, memories of McCarthyism tend to feature an honest person confronting the inquisitorial voices of Joe McCarthy and his notorious House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). But the McCarthyist Red Scare featured assaults against foreign-born activists as well as a massive and well-publicized roundup of Mexican Americans in the Southwest and California: Operation Wetback.

Buff approved 032017.inddWell before the heyday of HUAC, anti-communist legislators succeeded in passing laws aimed at curtailing the allegedly subversive activities of “foreign-born radicals.” The 1940 Smith, or Alien Registration, Act made advocating governmental overthrow, or belonging to any group believed to advance such an agenda, deportable offenses. Subsequent laws extended deportability to include guilt by association, as well as targeting particular areas of the globe as undesirable nations of origin for immigrants attempting to enter the United States.

These anti-subversive laws were frequently used against immigrant labor and community leaders accused of “UnAmerican activities,” like organizing for wages and rights.  These foreign-born Americans were vulnerable to McCarthyism, much as contemporary Muslim and Arab American leaders are subject to enhanced scrutiny and the possibility of detention and deportation.

Under the Smith Act and subsequent McCarthy era laws, local law enforcement agents often provided evidence in the trials of immigrants accused of subversive activities.  The push for 287(g) and “secure communities” policies today has clear antecedent in this use of municipal forces. As many police unions point out, however, this use of local policing for surveillance and repression alienates immigrants, making all communities more dangerous.

Billed as “cleaning up the border” of “illegal aliens” suspected of political subversion, Operation Wetback commenced in 1954. This Immigration and Naturalization Service campaign eventually resulted in the deportation of a quarter million Mexican Americans, some of them legal residents and American citizens. (Estimates vary; in 2015 then-candidate Donald Trump claimed that this program resulted in 1.5 million deportations.)

While unsuccessful in stopping the flow of migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, Operation Wetback institutionalized the kind of deportation sweeps of immigrant communities currently taking place. And it was during this campaign that the names of those in deportation proceedings vanished from popular media accounts, being replaced by the ominous science fiction of the “illegal alien.” How many people who do not interact regularly with immigrant communities can name just one of the over two hundred thousand deported in 2017?

Campaigns of repression, like McCarthyism or the wave of xenophobia prevalent today, portray foreign-born people as dangerous, subversive, and UnAmerican. Their power is to rob vulnerable non-citizens of their power and livelihoods. For example, the announcement of the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was timed to coincide with the first day of school, forcing thousands of young DACA recipients to experience this traditional time of excitement with dread.

Brave individuals stood before HUAC and refused to name names, eventually exposing the grim machinations of repression as the real UnAmerican activities. Similarly, immigrant rights advocates labor to defend the rights of those targeted by the forces of xenophobia and hate. Their efforts are part of the struggle to defeat McCarthyism, then and now.

A Blueprint for the Possible

This week in North Philly Notes, Bill V. Mullen, author of Un-Americanwrites about the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. 

Un-American was inspired by calls for social justice. In 2012, after the shooting death of Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman, a group of Chicago youth created the group “We Charge Genocide” to document police shootings of African-Americans in the city: http://wechargegenocide.org/about/. The group took its name from the 1951 petition to the United Nations, “We Charge Genocide,” co-signed by W.E.B. Du Bois. In it, Du Bois, William Patterson, Claudia Jones, Charlotta Bass, Paul Robeson, and a host of Black radicals accused the United States of state-sanctioned mass killings of African Americans. The petition was the first ever presented to an international body linking judicial killings in the U.S. to American imperialism abroad. It sutured American state violence at home to the dropping of atomic bombs overseas and the U.S. occupation of foreign lands. It called for a stop to both, and demanded that the United Nations recognize the historical grievances of African Americans as a problem demanding a global response.  Its subtitle might have been, “No Justice, No Peace.”
SoulsBlackFolksThe historical memory of Dr. Du Bois as an instigator and agitator of world-historical change is one Un-American seeks to resurrect and reconstruct. Too often, the W.E.B. presented in high school and University classrooms and in public commemoration is a genteel Dean of African American letters, an avuncular “race man” whose career is often reduced to sound bite-size passages from The Souls of Black Folk on “double consciousness,” his political thought caricatured as the frowning narrative of a village elder who drifted from civil rights dedication to blind advocate for socialism.

American exceptionalism, anti-Communism, and the Cold War have much to do with this misremembering and misrepresentation. Du Bois’s books were removed from shelves during the 1950s and 1960s owing to his statements of support for revolutions in China and the Soviet Union. Close friends, Black and White, abandon Du Bois late in life when he refused to denounce Stalin’s crimes, and continued to criticize the U.S. government as what Martin Luther King, Jr. would later call the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the modern world.

Un-American argues that remembering Dr. Du Bois accurately, and fully, requires remembering him as the rest of the world saw him and knew him. Because of his radical political commitments, Du Bois’s stature as a public intellectual and global figure rose outside the United States in inverse proportion to his shaming and blacklisting at home. Not just in the Communist world he himself embraced, but across Africa, Asia, and Europe, Du Bois by the end of his life was something like the Muhammad Ali of African American intellectuals of his time. His global reputation for international support for anti-colonial struggles, for the struggles of working-class people, for his criticism of imperialisms in all forms, also paved the way for world-wide recognition of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers who were themselves inspired by Du Bois’s global political and intellectual reach. Indeed, Du Bois was a transnational globe-trotting voice for change throughout his life, from his first, trip to Berlin as a student in 1892, to his death in Ghana in 1963.

Un-American_smUn-American then seeks to remember the “worldly” Du Bois whose embrace of and support for what the Communist International called “world revolution” is the most important vector of his political life and legacy. Recognizing this Du Bois means leaving behind not just provincial, nationalist frameworks for analysis, but appreciating the “scholar-activism” Du Bois himself set for himself as the highest bar of achievement. Put another way, writing a book about Du Bois in 2015 demands thinking through the warp and woof of theory and practice as it relates to building social movements, constructing international solidarity, conjuring transnational affiliation. It means engaging honestly and critically with the best and worst of revolutions made in the name of justice across the world in the last century, mindful of Walter Benjamin’s caution that “progress” can be both an excuse and a euphemism for brutality.

At the end of his life it was Du Bois the advocate for peace, for economic equality, for popular sovereignty, for universal health care, for women’s emancipation, for decolonization, for workers’ rights, for a nuclear-free world, that the planet grieved for in his passing. Un-American seeks to recreate a memory of that Du Bois as a way of mobilizing it and him for our own present and future.  As a current generation struggles against the same forces of police violence and racism the impelled Du Bois forward more than 70 years ago, we do well to remember that the long arc of his life and career bent not just toward justice but to political and social revolution. His life remains a blueprint for the possible.

%d bloggers like this: