Klehr on Taylor, 'The History of the North Carolina Communist Party'

Gregory S. Taylor
Harvey Klehr

Gregory S. Taylor. The History of the North Carolina Communist Party. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. 258 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57003-802-0.

Reviewed by Harvey Klehr (Emory University) Published on H-NC (September, 2009) Commissioned by Judkin J. Browning

Tar Heel Reds

Ever since the papers of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), entrusted to the Soviet Union for safe-keeping, were made available to scholars by the efforts of the Library of Congress to copy and digitalize them, it has become possible to write state- and local-level histories of one of the most controversial organizations in American history. Because so much of the party’s activities had been conducted in the shadows or hidden from public view due to fears of persecution and deliberate strategies of secrecy and deception, these materials provide the raw material to reassess the CPUSA’s role in a variety of social movements and protests from the 1930s through the 1950s. In the past few years, detailed accounts of the CPUSA in the state of Maryland and in Chicago have appeared, joining prior accounts of the party in Alabama, California, Minnesota, and a handful of other locales.

Gregory Taylor’s The History of the North Carolina Communist Party makes extensive use of the party’s records to provide as detailed and thorough a report as we are ever likely to have or need about what the CPUSA’s small but persistent band of members in the Tar Heel state accomplished or did. Unfortunately, apart from his detailed recounting of labor organizing efforts, political campaigns, appeals for racial justice, and other activities, Taylor is unable to place the North Carolina CP in any broader context. He never compares its activities to those taking place in another southern state, Alabama, the subject of Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe (1990). His book misses numerous opportunities to explain what all the party’s efforts meant either to the CPUSA itself or to our understanding of why American communism failed.

Taylor argues that North Carolina was the first southern state to face a significant Communist presence because of the Gastonia textile strike of 1929. While the state Communist Party never made a major impact or developed a mass membership, he suggests that it was far from a “radical revolutionary” group, but carved out a liberal agenda focusing on labor rights, aid for the unemployed, civil rights and a “peaceful” foreign policy. It was independent, with its leaders opposing “efforts from Moscow or New York City to turn the state organization into a monolithic machine” (p. 3). While it certainly followed basic policies set from outside the state, it made its own decision on issues, members, and day-to-day work. Carolina Communists were often petty and quarrelsome, and engaged in occasional self-destructive behavior, but, all in all, they were “selfless servants of the downtrodden” (p. 5).

This largely sympathetic portrait is, however, seriously undermined by the detailed description Taylor provides of what the North Carolina Communists actually accomplished and further weakened by what he omits. The most important and crippling omission is the lack of context for what the party actually did at any given time. For example, in discussing Gastonia, Taylor never discusses the significant fact that it took place at a time when the CPUSA was, following Comintern orders, implementing what was called the “Third Period,” an era in which Communist parties and members were instructed to eschew alliances with “social fascists,” emphasize the imminence of revolution, and militantly confront capitalism. Moreover, it coincided with an internal power struggle within the CPUSA, leaving party leaders nervously looking over their shoulders to figure out what Moscow wanted and lower-ranking cadres to undermine their factional enemies. Later on, he fails to discuss the activities of North Carolina Communists in the context of the Popular Front, or explain why the upheaval of CPUSA orientation occasioned by the denunciation of party leader Earl Browder by the USSR at the end of World War II for suggesting that capitalism and Communism might coexist was so devastating in places like North Carolina, where the CPUSA’s only hope for influence was to work with liberal organizations. As a result, he minimizes the extent to which the North Carolina Communists were faithfully carrying out the party line.

There is an extensive literature--which Taylor never cites--that discusses the extent to which local party units were free to go their own way. Even those least sympathetic to the revisionist argument about the independence of American Communists from Moscow have acknowledged that at some times--such as 1935-39--and in certain places--like California--local parties could exercise some discretion. And no one would deny that many day-to-day decisions were adopted locally. But Taylor undercuts his own sweeping statements. Ultimately, he admits, the Gastonia strike was run by New York, which ran roughshod over local interests. He discusses a disastrous internal campaign against white chauvinism in the 1930s without mentioning its national origins. He acknowledges the internal conflicts and “show trials” of dissident members in the late 1940s but does not relate them to national CPUSA paranoia about traitors and informers. He discusses the party’s travails in the late 1940s and 1950s as Junius Scales, the most charismatic and well-known party leader, was arrested, but never references the Dennis v. U.S. decision that led the national party to set up an underground and order Scales to enter it. In fact, a reader without any background would not even know that Scales lived underground for several years in response to party directives.

More significantly, Taylor wildly overestimates the “successes” of the North Carolina Communist Party. A few membership figures demonstrate one facet of his exaggeration. In 1931 there were ninety-nine Communists in the state, sixty-eight of them African-American. Two years later two-thirds of the members had quit. Between 1935 and 1938 there was little improvement, with membership barely making it back to the 1933 level. The war years were hard and the party reached its “nadir,” with only about fifty members in 1945. The following year membership shot up to 250, a large percentage increase but a negligible number. Taylor talks about the Wallace presidential campaign of 1948 serving as a springboard for a party upsurge in 1949 and he labels its involvement in a series of controversies “a great success”  (p.168). 1951 inaugurated a period of “slow decline” even though the party’s opposition to the Korean War “energized the Party” (p. 189). By 1957 there were thirty Communists in the state; three years later there was one. If any of this is success, it is based on a remarkably weak standard.

Even if success is measured not by membership but by party influence, Taylor is prone to offering wildly optimistic claims and then withdrawing them. During the period he calls among its “most successful” (p. 185), Taylor touts the party’s influence in a Winston-Salem local union but admits that its involvement in a high-profile strike led to the union’s loss of recognition and denunciations by other labor unions in North Carolina. Its campaign to organize a textile mill in Durham turns out to have consisted of producing several issues of a newsletter, which had “minimal” impact. Its campaigns for integration of UNC-Chapel Hill, while noble, were counterproductive. And its defense of two African-Americans convicted of murder ended with their execution. He notes its “success” at opposing a bill in the state legislature to ban the party. Is there any doubt that the ultimate decision by the legislature had nothing to do with the position of the North Carolina Communist Party?  Taylor does recognize reality; he concludes that the party “failed to achieve any real successes,” mostly energized its opponents, and most of the activities he chronicled didn’t achieve anything (p. 215).

That is no doubt a depressing conclusion to reach about a topic to which you have devoted considerable time and effort. Instead of inflating its influence, Taylor might have placed the travails of the North Carolina Communist Party in a different context. Why was it unable to take advantage of several opportunities to grow? Taking his assertion that most party members were idealistic and decent people at face value, why did they fail so miserably to convince their fellow Tar Heels, many of whom were not sympathetic to the state’s plutocrats, of their “liberal” values? Was the race issue, which certainly loomed large throughout this period, the only or even major reason for their isolation? If they were so independent, why did they slavishly follow Soviet foreign policy?

By far the most interesting and revealing vignettes in Taylor’s book deal with the personalities of the party’s leaders in the state. Junius Scales is an interesting and occasionally sympathetic figure, as is Paul Crouch, who later became a government witness against his old comrades. Ralph Long joined the party and was marked as a rising young star before becoming disillusioned and quitting, eventually testifying against his old comrades. Taylor talks about a woman named Ann Matthews who helped reinvigorate the party after World War II, playing a key role in the growth of Local 22 in Winston-Salem. He mentions that she eventually quit the party and testified as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), but the reasons for her turnabout are never made clear. And, despite his insistence that Don West never became a card-carrying member of the CPUSA, Taylor fails to make use of James Lorence’s biography of West (A Hard Journey: The Life of Don West, 2007) that demonstrates he indeed did so. (In fact, at one point in the book, after denying West was a CPUSA member, Taylor quotes a letter he wrote to the party leadership about organizational issues!)

Taylor's detailed research provides us with a valuable picture of what the North Carolina Communist Party did between the 1920s and 1960. His explanation for why it behaved as it did or what the significance of its activities was is not nearly as compelling. And his lack of use of a number of secondary sources weakens his arguments.

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Citation: Harvey Klehr. Review of Taylor, Gregory S., The History of the North Carolina Communist Party. H-NC, H-Net Reviews. September, 2009. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=25365

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