What can DSA learn from the Communist Party in Alabama?

DSA faces serious strategic questions on its orientation to the powerful anti-racist mass movement in the streets. Jacob W looks to the historical examples of CPUSA organizing in Alabama for how we can analyze our own conditions and determine the most effective path forward.

In the preface to the 25th anniversary of Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes, “The book’s genesis cannot be absent an understanding of the political and personal context in which it is written. I felt a fierce urgency to study black working-class radicalism, not because the old Soviet states were crumbling in the face of revolt, but because the apartheid state of South Africa was succumbing to a massive multiracial movement” (xi). 

Kelley continues, “Renewed interest in Hammer and Hoe, in particular, is the result of the ravages of neoliberalism and the global economic crisis, on the one hand, and the growth of the carceral state and the latest wave of police killings, on the other” (xix). It’s impossible to read Hammer and Hoe in 2020, 30 years after its initial publication, without immediately connecting it to the most significant economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the fiercest anti-racist rebellion in a generation. 

DSA faces serious strategic questions on its orientation to the powerful anti-racist mass movement in the streets, as well as the current and future ways that COVID-19 will change organizing conditions. We should look to the historical examples of CPUSA organizing in Alabama not to fetishize the past, but rather because we can draw lessons to analyze our own conditions and determine the most effective path forward.

Though Kelley describes the local CP District 17 as a “working-class black organization,” it wasn’t always that way. The first two paid organizers were white, and in the late 1920s, the CPUSA was an ethnically diverse, though still largely white organization country-wide. A 1928 Comintern resolution marked a shift in approach, affirming the goal of self-determination for those in the Black Belt of the United States, which departed from the analysis of the northern Black proletariat and placed a special emphasis on anti-racist struggles in the South. 

Birmingham was one of the centers of industry in the South and included coal, agriculture, and steel production. While Black workers comprised a majority in these industries and labor organizing would therefore be a primary activity, the crisis conditions of the Great Depression dictated that political power had to be built in the streets as much as in the workplace. Additionally, Kelley stresses that the marriage of the CPUSA and the Black working class in the South was propelled by collective memory.

In an interview from 2010, Kelley explains, “[The Black working class] had a memory of reconstruction, the memory of the Civil War. And in that kind of collective memory, they were told that one day the Yankees will come back and finish the fight. Well, when they saw these white communists, they said, oh, good, the Yankees are here. We can’t wait to join.” Yet, it was still up to the CPUSA to offer an organizational vehicle that was credible, accessible, and enticing to Black workers . This meant organizing and contesting for power across all of society, from the courts, to the ballot box, to the workplace and the neighborhood.

The variety of tactics deployed by the CPUSA involved recruitment through the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), as well as through public rallies that attracted hundreds of participants, with the latter often met by police repression. Labor organizing extended beyond the factory and into the fields, where CPUSA organizers helped build the capacities of sharecroppers to fight back against landlords. The official Party newspaper The Southern Worker devoted most of its space to Black issues in the South, while connecting local struggles to national and international issues.

Kelley notes: “So much space was devoted to the problems of black working people that Southern-born white Communists occasionally commented on the paper’s perceived pro-black bias. In a letter to the editor, one white Party member complained that he could not sell his subscriptions for a paper that ‘devotes 90 percent of its news to Negroes and 10 percent to whites.’ The party had good reason for this focus: Birmingham blacks exhibited a greater interest in the Party than did whites” (17). 

As unemployment rates exploded, the CPUSA organized Unemployment Councils intended to get laid-off workers and their families the aid they desperately needed. These Councils employed a broad collection of tactics that won the popular support of Black Alabamians especially–but the Party didn’t stop organizing after the marches and rallies ended. Kelley notes that “dramatic marches popularized the struggle for relief… but more individualized forms of resistance, or ‘oppositional practices’ proved to be effective weapons of the weak in everyday life” (22). 

Vigilance committees organized against anti-Black charity agencies such as the Red Cross, who purposefully scrutinized Black aid recipients more than others. These paired with relief committees that coordinated essential mutual aid for masses of unemployed workers facing desperate immediate prospects. The variety of tactics meant that the party rejected any single method of winning workers to their program. During this period, CPUSA even had a presidential ticket in Alabama for the first time. This multiplicity of tactics, in service to a strategy of building worker power, shows what class struggle can look like when it’s vigorously pursued at all levels of society, fully conscious of the racializing oppression that has always been constitutive of capitalist exploitation in the United States and beyond.

One of the CPUSA’s most high-profile actions was its defense of nine Black youth falsely accused of raping two white women, which became known as the Scottsboro Boys case. Red, Black, White: The Alabama Communist Party, 1930-1950 by Mary Stanton details this case, paying close attention to the central role played by the Party in mobilizing a national campaign in defense of the Scottsboro Boys. As Stanton explained, “the [International Labor Defense’s] mass campaign focused national and international attention on Scottsboro… [ILD leader William] Patterson ensured that every major U.S. radio station and daily newspaper carried the story. Blacks followed it in the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro American and the Daily Worker” (37). 

Once again, the CPUSA embraced a variety of tactics that included generating media coverage, organizing letter-writing campaigns, and holding marches. Workers in a hundred and ten cities demonstrated against the unjust charges, and two thousand letters flooded the Alabama Governor’s office. Though the U.S. legal system serves to anchor bourgeois power, no institution is immune from mass action. We can see the truth of this lesson playing out in our current historical context, as the mass wave of anti-racist, anti-police protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd demonstrates the ability of working people to apply pressure and demand action from local governments. Some 140 cities and towns saw protests for Black Lives following the Minneapolis uprising. 

The Scottsboro case yielded some success. While it failed to win the total acquittal of the boys, the campaign to free them made the CPUSA a household name and demonstrated, to Black workers in particular, the Party’s unflinching commitment to anti-racist, pro-worker values. Mass mobilization, letter campaigns, and legal defense became key tactics of the CPUSA and the International Labor Defense. In Red, Black, White, Stanton describes the difference in approach that the CPUSA took in comparison to the NAACP. “In 1932 the Reds were the only activists… who were willing to work directly with poor Blacks.The NAACP focused on pursuing constitutional guarantees through the court system and so worked on behalf of, rather than with poor and working-class people” (81). 

The development of the CPUSA in Alabama wasn’t incidental; it was meticulously organized, and relied on the deep embedding of the Party in workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities. We can see how the structure of the Party helped facilitate this. Organizing Units and Sections that could be as small as a workplace and neighborhood, respectively, meant that the actions of the Party had an immediate impact on working-class people’s lives. 

For example, combining mutual aid efforts with Unemployment Councils built power in a way that directly confronted the ravages of racial capitalism that upended the lives of Birmingham’s working class. Structure cannot be a secondary question if we as DSA hope to become a mass organization deeply rooted within working-class communities. When police, banks, and capitalists are violently assaulting our communities, an organization that cannot act decisively is an organization that will stall and eventually fail. Internal structural development combined with concrete action–such as organizing the unemployed in tandem with mutual aid work–is the only way to grow DSA into a mass organization in which commitments to socialist, anti-racist organizing go beyond symbolic resolutions or platitudes.

Crucially, the Black working class of Alabama shaped the Party in unique ways. While the organizational resources of the CPUSA were surely essential, Kelley’s book shows how Black workers embraced the Party as a weapon they themselves would wield. Combining self-defense, folklore, and religion with organizational support meant that outlets like the Daily Worker “offer[ed] more personalized views of radical consciousness. The Party’s broad range of publications provided black Alabamians with a national forum to voice their collective and individual grievances… and to articulate their own vision of an alternative world” (103). The vigilance committees and clashes with police also took on the character of Black traditions of resistance–greatly augmenting the organizing of the CPUSA. 

As DSA seeks to grow into a truly mass working-class organization, we have to be prepared for the organization to change along with it. In fact we must actively seek out that change. The fruitful dynamic between the Communist Party and the Southern Black working class generated a mass militant organization “resilient enough to conform to black cultural traditions but taut enough to remain Marxist at the core” (Kelley 116). Thus we must think carefully about how DSA can grow in a way that strengthens local, regional, and national organizing, while also allowing for the flexibility necessary to be organically molded by the broader working class into a weapon of their own fashioning.

This means developing effective local, regional, and national layers that cohere into an organization that can facilitate decisive action rooted in mass work. This process could include running city-wide campaigns drawing from the specific demands of neighborhoods and workplaces. It could include restructuring chapters in order to drive roots into neighborhood units, workplace units, or campus units. The goal should be to make DSA an ever-present, immediately accessible, and common-sense organization of the working class.

An anecdote illustrates the extent to which the CPUSA succeeded in its organizing, and raises questions for current organizers. In Native Son by Richard Wright, the central character Bigger, a Black man in his twenties, asks early on in the book “what’s a Communist?” (34). Last year during a lecture, a professor at the University of Virginia called this an unrealistic depiction of 1940s Chicago, because there would be “no Black person who did not know what the Communist Party was, thanks to the Scottsboro Boys.” 

This wasn’t accidental. The organizing of the Communist Party was militantly anti-racist, in as much as it was deeply immersed in the real struggles of the multi-racial working class. To fight evictions, to win unemployment relief, to resist police terror, to build power in the workplace, and to go on the offensive against white supremacy, working people of all races and ethnicities, often speaking many different languages, would regularly turn to the Communist Party. 

In DSA, we have to seriously interrogate how to realize this vision in the present. Right now, DSA is not viewed as the reliable, common-sense organization for working people. CPN has been honest about the current structural limits of DSA. We have yet to grow DSA into an organization that is embedded in the fights of the working class, especially Black and Latino communities. 

But CPN also recognizes that, much like the CPUSA in the 1930s, we have the power to organize and change this. This strategic change means developing deep ties to organized and unorganized labor, it means engaging in struggles that are deeply felt within working-class communities, it means developing ties with working-class and left movements abroad, while opposing U.S. imperialism at home. It means a full commitment to bilingual organizing, an expansion of accessibility for working families, and an assault on internally racist practices wherever they fester.

There exists a Democratic Socialist constituency that is younger, less-white, and radical, but which has largely not been organized around a socialist program beyond that of the Bernie Sanders campaign. The goal of DSA organizers today is not to patronize this constituency and declare what DSA can do for them. Our task is to integrate the contributions of working people of color to alter DSA. We must mold DSA into the weapon of the working class wherever such a weapon is needed.

Jacob W is a student and member of the University of Virginia chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America in Charlottesville, VA.