The American Communist Party has always been one of the weakest and least important links in the international Communist movement, yet, ith the exception of the Russian branch, it has been studied more exhaustively than the Party of any other country. This paradox may in part be traced to the continued wish of many former Stalinists or fellow-travelers to re-examine their past and to discover what went wrong. But there are other reasons. American Communism, though it never amounted to a major force in American politics, was yet responsible for the destruction, waste, and misdirection of a great deal of political idealism and moral passion in this country. The Communist betrayal is largely to be blamed for the contemporary eclipse—except in the Negro movement—of the very idea of radicalism, of the notion that men might be able, by a radical effort of the collective will, to make the world over in the image of their desires. The fact that once unambiguous notions like socialism, community, or equality have become deeply problematical in our times can be traced in no small measure to the impact of the cynical misuse and exploitation of these terms by the Communist movement. Hence the continued concern of historians, political scientists, and sociologists with American Communism.
Record’s book is essentially a narrative history of the American Communist attempt to penetrate and subvert the Negro movement. He recounts the early indifference of the Communist Party to specific Negro problems; the fantastic, somewhat ludicrous period after 1928, when the Communist International imposed a new program, “Self-Determination for Negroes in the Black Belt”; the wartime period in which the Party practically abandoned all efforts to defend Negro rights because of its concentration on furthering the war effort; the subsequent twists and turns of a Party increasingly isolated not only from the Negro movement but from all vital political forces in American life. Record shows how the tactics of the Party shifted back and forth between efforts to infiltrate the NAACP, and denunciations of its leadership as agents of Wall Street and American imperialism.
All this might have been an important story had it been previously unrecorded. But the fact is that we have already several specialized studies on the largely unsuccessful attempts of the American Communist Party to gain a foothold among American Negroes. In addition, more general histories of American Communism have paid a good deal of attention to the subject. Indeed, Wilson Record himself has previously written a book on The Negro and the Communist Party (1951) which came close to being the definitive study in the area. What then is the justification for this new volume? Record brings the earlier study up to date, but, as he himself admits, the American Communist Party has been so weak in recent years that its policies in the Negro field, just as in any other, are hardly of any significance. Record’s earlier book dealt with Communist attempts to infiltrate the whole Negro minority; this volume concentrates on the NAACP. Yet, despite this narrowed focus, it adds little to the previous documentation provided by other scholars as well as by the author himself. Parkinson’s Law might best account for the appearance of this volume. It is part of the well-endowed Fund for the Republic series on Communism in American Life edited by Professor Clinton Rossiter of Cornell, which has included a number of first-rate studies by Theodore Draper, Daniel Aaron, and Nathan Glazer, among others. The series seems by now to have covered most of the areas worth examining, but work seems to “expand so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
This book would have been of much greater value had the author followed more analytical procedures, instead of sticking to a chronological account of events. For example, in the Thirties the Party succeeded in attracting a number of younger Negro militants who were in opposition to the staid respectability of the NAACP general staff, made up mainly of Negro and white middle-class professionals. These New Negroes pressed for a more militant program and closer links to the labor movement, especially to its radical wing. Gradually the NAACP evolved under such pressures, and from a group mainly concerned with uplifting the “Talented Tenth” it evolved into a mass movement concerned with the whole of the Negro people. This transformation was accompanied by a number of ideological and tactical disputes among such NAACP leaders as Walter White and W. E. B. Du Bois. Mr. Record misses the chance to analyze these disputes in any depth or to investigate to what extent specific Communist pressures can account for them. I think that this transformation would have taken place in any case owing to a basic change in the social and political position of the American Negro since the Depression, but the Communist movement may still have triggered some of it. Had Record pursued some such line of inquiry he might have been able to establish some interesting paralells between the Thirties or Forties and the present with respect to the interplay of conservative and radical forces in the Negro movement. Today there would seem to exist somewhat similar tensions between the NAACP and some of the more militant organizations such as CORE, Martin Luther King’s Southern Leadership Conference, and various other direct-action groups in the Student Protest Movement.
Throughout the book Record seems anxious to prove repeatedly that the NAACP has never been a “communist” or radical organization. This may be news to Mississippi backwoodsmen or Alabama white supremacists, but scholarly books are hardly written with such an audience in mind. Nor is the matter helped by a preposterous blurb on the book’s jacket in which it is said that while “the militant civil rights movement of the 1960s has often been labeled ‘extremist’ and ‘revolutionary, it has been radical neither in method nor goal.” If the freedom rides, the sit-ins, and the non-violent protest of the last few years are not “radical” it would be hard to imagine what, under present circumstances, could be. Such efforts to make the Negro protest movement respectable by denying some of its major characteristics can only serve to weaken its intended impact upon the American conscience. Even if it is considered worthwhile to show once again that the American Negro movement remained largely impervious to the appeals of Communism, this should not be done at the expense of denying that it now has developed its own indigenous form of radical protest. Maybe American Negroes do not wish, as the jacket affirms, “to subvert the American Dream but to become a part of it,” but they are certainly using some unorthodox means to do so. One can only hope that Wilson Record will now turn his considerable skills to a study of the new Negro protest and that he will not be tempted, in his effort to make it respectable, to mute the radical passion for equality now which gives it its characteristic flavor.
June 11, 1964