Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Communists in the Depression-Era South

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Communists in the Depression-Era South

Article excerpt

The History of the North Carolina Communist Party. By Gregory S. Taylor. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. 258pp. Cloth: $39.95, ISBN 978-1570038020.)

The Unemployed People s Movement: Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929-1941. By James J. Lorence. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009. 328pp. Cloth: $44.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-3045-7.)

Interest in radical activism in the Depression-era South shows no signs of abating. In particular, the role of the Pro-Soviet Left (PSL) in the region's political, economic, and racial affairs continues to engage scholars.1 Thus, the Communist Party and its various auxiliary and front organizations are at the center of Gregory S. Taylor's narrative. James J. Lorence too, while discussing the efforts of other radicals and liberals in efforts to mobilize the unemployed in Georgia, finds that "by far the most aggressive organization in meeting the needs of the underclass was the small but militant Communist Party ..." (5). Lorence hopes also to document the efforts of the unemployed themselves to call attention to their plight and to wring concessions from public authorities but in neither book do the voices of ordinary people predominate. Both books stress the positive role of the PSL in promoting progressive change during the Depression era but neither author addresses the difficulties that attended Communist participation in left-liberal movements.

The History of the North Carolina Communist Party is a blow-by-blow, year-by-year account of the activities of Communists in North Carolina from the Gastonia textile strike of 1929 to the demise of the party in the state, around 1960. Each chapter chronicles a year or a short span of years in narrating Communist plans and activities. The overall impression is one of abortive, overlapping initiatives, coupled with internecine conflicts over strategy and personalities. There are many accounts of rallies and meetings that attracted impressive numbers of participants. Some of these gatherings, even in the 1920s and 1930s, were bi-racial but Taylor does not tell us much about their actual social composition, political orientation, and group dynamics.

Party leaders in New York and representatives on the ground in North Carolina quarreled incessantly. Organizers and functionaries in the state, including those dispatched from New York, constantly called for more funds, more organizers, more attention. National party officials for their part routinely criticized their in-state agents for lethargy, failure to implement party directives, and lack of progress. For the most part, the book is a litany of minor successes (a wage cut restored here, a potential lynch victim rescued there) amid chronic defeat and disappointment. Repression, at the hands of employers, state and local authorities, and vigilante mobs - three overlapping categories - was omnipresent and often brutal.

Race figures importantly in the book, as it posed both opportunities and problems for Communists. On the one hand, Party leaders believed that as the most victimized citizens of North Carolina, African Americans might provide the basis on which to build the Party in the South. On the other hand, close identification with African Americans often antagonized white workers. This dilemma was particularly evident as Party functionaries sought to exploit the militancy that exploded among textile workers in the southern Piedmont from the late 1920s through the 1930s. Since the great majority of textile workers were whites, who typically evinced little concern about the concerns of African Americans, using workers' grievances as a basis for building a bi-racial presence along class lines was a non-starter. Moreover, North Carolina activists were saddled with the Communist International's official position on "the Negro question," adopted in 1928, that characterized African Americans as a subject colonial people and called for the creation of an autonomous black region in the South. …

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