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The Party in America

Communism has been one of the most controversial topics in the United States for some time. Whenever communism is brought up, some think about the Cold War, or maybe even think of a certain country like Russia, but most think about communism after 1945. Communist involvement in America was even more prevalent before WWII during the 1920s and 1930s when its ideology caught the eyes of many, including Richard Wright, an African American writer. One of his most prominent books in which communism is mentioned throughout is Native Son. Wright was able to inscribe communism into the book in such a way that if it was replaced, the story would not make sense. Wright displayed characters like Bigger, Jan, Britten, Buckley, and more to show the different controversial views of communism. Although communism was a very controversial political view, it had a positive impact on the lives of Americans by providing an ideology that’s based on economic equality and by providing lowerclassmen and/or minorities a group with which to express their feelings.

Throughout its years, communism has had many different definitions through the eyes of many people. One simple definition given by an article titled, “Communist Party, USA,” shares that, “Communism is premised upon a rejection of capitalism or private ownership of the means of production. The oppression of poor people and the tyranny of wealthy people will end, Communists argue, only through the common ownership of factories, farms, and other means of production.” The basic ideology of communism given by O’Dea is that economic equality comes from the removal of private ownership. There is more to communism than this, but many go off this definition. Through this idea, communists were able to capture the eyes of the working class and many minorities in America.

Furthermore, communists in America were classified into a group called the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). The CPUSA came to be because, according to Bill Kte’pi, an independent scholar, “Many Socialist Party members broke away and formed the CPUSA in response to the ideologies of Vladimir Lenin.” Vladimir Lenin, a Russian revolutionist and communist, invited the communist faction of the socialist party to join the Comintern, an international organization that advocated world communism. The main goals of the CPUSA during the 1920s according to Bill Kte’pi, “were focused principally on labor issues and civil rights in America.” The CPUSA caught the eyes of the working class in America and many African Americans.

Moreover, African American involvement in the CPUSA grew tremendously during the 1920s. According to African American historians Robin D. G. Kelley and Erik S McDuffie, “few people realized the critical role it would play in African-American politics and culture.” Involvement grew in the 1920s because of the CPUSA’s popular support for black nationalist movements. Many African American groups joined the CPUSA, and according to Kelley and McDuffie, created groups like “the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC)” whose intent was “on building interracial unity in, and black support for, the labor movement.” Through the International Labor Defense (ILD), the CPUSA caught major attraction, most popularly after its “defense of nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama, known as the Scottsboro Case” (Kelley and McDuffie). Also, the ideologies and politics from the party combined with African American folk culture. According to Kelley and McDuffie, communists believed that “black culture was the clearest expression of American culture.” African Americans were able to feel the appreciation that communists had toward their culture, which attracted a considerable amount of artists.

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Notably, Richard Wright was one of these artists that was intrigued by the CPUSA and its involvement in the lives of minorities. Wright was not drawn to the CPUSA at first, but began to understand and analyze what kind of impact it had on the lives of Americans. His first altercation he had with communism was with a communist named Jan, a painter and member of the John Reed Club. John Reed Clubs were clubs targeted toward Marxist writers. According to a biography on Richard Wright written by Constance Webb, “Richard liked him immediately. The Man’s comfortable with me, Richard thought” (117). Wright then goes on to say that “He was neither too friendly nor evasive and radiated warm interest in everything and everyone around him” (Webb 117). Although his experience with Jan was quite remarkable, he was not invested into the communist ideology. In fact, according to Constance Webb, Wright believed that “Communists could not possibly be sincerely interested in Negroes. He preferred a white man to say that he hated a black man, which he could accept as an honest statement, but not that he respected him” (117). Wright incorporates experiences like these in his books. In fact, his most popular novel, Native Son, shares one scene that relates to this experience tremendously. The scene in the novel involves a girl named Mary, a black man named Bigger, and also a communist man named Jan. Throughout this scene Bigger is constantly fearful and mad at how these white people are treating him, although they have good intent, Bigger gets mad at them for trying to understand his life and would rather for them to bash him because he is use to it. Furthermore, Wright’s biography then acknowledges that “it was not the economic of Communism, nor the great power of trade unions, nor the excitement of underground politics that claimed [Wright]”, but “It seemed to [Wright] that here at last, in the realm of revolutionary expression, Negro experience could find a home, a functioning value and role” (Webb 119). Wright was intrigued by communism because of it being collaborative instead of integrative, like missionaries saying, “’Be like us and we will like you’” (Webb 119), but rather the opposite.

Although communism has generated a great impact on African Americans in the 1920s and 30s, it is argued to have had little to no impact on others. To be a communist in America throughout time has been seen to be hard. Significantly during the 1920s, where there was a term for extreme anticommunism in the United States, the Red Scare. According to historian, Justin Corfield, “The result was that there was a fear in the United States that Communists might try to take power—initially through the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, who led strikes in 1916 and 1917, and then through the Communist Party of the United States of America, which was established in 1919.” Throughout the 1920s there was a substantial amount of media that added to the public opinion on communism. Wright inscribes this into Native Son by using many characters as examples. First, he uses Bigger to show the media influence on society. Bigger’s first opinions on communism comes from newspapers and magazines. For example, whenever Bigger is thinking about communism, he remembers that one time he saw “Reds” on the newspaper with pitchforks and torches and reads an article about them being murderers. Many also see this influence in the character Britten and his large hatred of communism. Wright is able to address these things in the book because of the experiences that he has had. For example, in Wright’s biography, Wright and his mother, Ella, stumble across a communist magazine. Ella says to Wright “’What do Communists think people are?’” in which Wright responds with, “’They don’t mean what you see there’” and adds “’This is symbolic’”, then Ella responds with “Then why don’t they speak out what they mean?” (Webb 120). Throughout the conversation, Wright remembers the time when he was just like his mother, questioning the magazines before he understood them. Wright’s incorporation of communism in Native Son was very controversial, in the fact that, Jan and Max did not really help Bigger at all, because of how blind they were to Bigger’s feelings, but instead it was Bigger himself that realizes that it is only him that can change himself. Wright acknowledges that change does not come from society, but instead from individual effort.

Nevertheless, communism has brought about many different viewpoints on how the world should be. Bringing many different viewpoints to America has generated a positive impact on Americans. In fact, having different perspectives leads to the best ideas. Everyone throughout life goes through many different experiences that influence their perspective on things, whichever good or bad.

Above all, as communism continues to impact the world around many, the views and opinions on it continue to change and grow. Communism gave African Americans, like Richard Wright, a group to express their feelings on society, yet some question the intention of communists. It doesn’t matter which way many look towards it, communism has had a tremendous impact on Americans during the 1920s and 1930s and even after, whether good or bad.

Works Cited

  1. ‘Communist Party, USA.’ From Suffrage to the Senate: America’s Political Women, Suzanne O’Dea, Grey House Publishing, 3rd edition, 2013. Credo Reference, Accessed 06 Nov. 2019.
  2. Corfield, Justin. ‘Red Scare.’ World History: A Comprehensive Reference Set, edited by Facts on File, Facts On File, 1st edition, 2016. Credo Reference, Accessed 28 Nov. 2019.
  3. Kelley, Robin D. G., and Erik S. McDuffie. ‘Communist Party of the United States.’ Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, edited by Colin A. Palmer, 2nd ed., vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2006, pp. 512-515. Gale eBooks, Accessed 13 Nov. 2019.
  4. Kte’pi, Bill. ‘U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA).’ World History: A Comprehensive Reference Set, edited by Facts on File, Facts On File, 1st edition, 2016. Credo Reference, Accessed 06 Nov. 2019.
  5. Webb, Constance. Richard Wright; a Biography. Putnam, 1968.

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