Race, Class & the Left

— Allen Ruff

Max Yergan —
Race Man, Internationalist, Cold Warrior
by David Henry Anthony III
NY: New York University press, 2006, 390 pages, $49 cloth.
Caribbean Crusaders and the Harlem Renaissance
by Joyce Moore Turner
Champaign-Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 2005,
344 pages with 35 photos, $25 paper.

DAVID ANTHONY’S BIOGRAPHY of Max Yergan, and the story of Otto Huiswoud and his comrades by Joyce Moore Turner, have provided us with deeper understandings of that complex and often contradictory history that has been the African-American relationship with the communist movement. Approximate contemporaries differing in class origin and background, Yergan and Huiswoud came to reflect two divergent poles, positive and negative, on that broader continuum of Black experience with communism as it evolved from the 1920s through the 1940s, ‘50s and beyond.

Born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1892 to a literate seamstress, Max Yergan was initially influenced by his grandfather’s belief in African Redemption and Ethiopianism, a particular strand of church-based Black Nationalism with late 19th century origins in sub-Sahara African resistance to white colonial rule. He attended an Episcopal academy and Baptist-run Shaw University, Raleigh’s premier Black college, where he became imbued with the social gospel ideology of service and “uplift.”

Graduating in 1914, Yergan set his diasporic sights on a return to Africa. As a young “race man,” he joined the segregated YMCA missionary movement and during World War I, was sent first to Bangalore, India as a Y chaplain and then to East Africa where he ministered to imperial “Coloured” troops as part of an African-American auxiliary in the British service. Following the War, he became the pioneer African-American YMCA secretary allowed into South Africa. He went on to found scores of Y branches in what became Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Lesotho and Botswana.

With earlier origins, the YMCA missionary work arose as a counter to popular agitation and radicalism sweeping the colonized world in the aftermath of the War. Yergan entered South Africa in 1921 as director of a “Bantu” section of South Africa’s Student Christian Association.

Initially steeped in Booker T. Washington’s “racial adjustment” accommodationism, his experience in South Africa, from 1921 to 1936 eventually radicalized him. It was in the 1920s, after all, that the country’s ruling circles, concerned with working class insurgency and Bolshevism, institutionalized Black disenfranchisement, residential segregation and occupational ghettoization.

Yergan’s first-hand experience with the deepening grip of the racialist regime, coming in tandem with the devastating effects of the Great Depression and his contact with trade unionists, nationalists and anti-fascists, moved him toward revolutionary politics. By the early 1930s, he had come to lead a “double life,” carrying on his Christian Association work by day while teaching African workers socialism by night. (One of his students was the future African National Congress figure, Govan Mbeki.)

In 1936, Yergan visited the Soviet Union.  He soon afterward broke with the YMCA, no longer able to condone its liberalism and its accommodation with the South African regime. Back in the States, he came into increasing contact with several important African-American figures in the Communist Party, including James Ford, Ben Davis, and Abner Berry.

He placed himself at the disposal of the Party as a significant “influential” and took a position at City University of New York as a lecturer on African and African-American history (Later, in 1941, he was “red-baited” by New York’s witch-hunting Rapp-Coudert Commission and forced from his position, along with other left academics with ties to the CP, including Philip Foner and Morris U. Schappes.)

Soon a noted Harlem activist, Yergan became active in the National Negro Congress, created in 1935 in attempt to build a national constituency to pressure New Deal administrators for labor and civil rights. Working with Eslanda and Paul Robeson, who had also been influential in moving him leftward, in 1937 Yergan co-founded the International Committee on African Affairs in an attempt to influence U.S. African policy.

In London during that period, he also came into contact with a number of African and Caribbean anti-colonial militants including Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Pan Africanist George Padmore, British Guianan militant Ras Makonen, and the Sierra Leonian, I.T.A.Wallace Johnson.

During the Popular Front period, Yergan worked as a publicist, lecturer and publisher who tied the “Negro question” of South Africa and the Jim Crow South to Axis incursions in Ethiopia, Span and China. Providing a cross-class bridge between various constituencies, he maintained ties with a broader milieu of social gospel-minded liberals, corporate philanthropists and left-wing militants. In 1941-42, he worked with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. on Harlem’s influential progressive People’s Voice.

Rapid Transition

Then, almost inexplicably, in the immediate post-War period Max Yergan turned way to the right to become a significant Black anti-communist crusader.

He not only turned against friends and former comrades such as the Robesons, testifying against them, but went on to work for a number of State Department and CIA-backed public relations fronts in support of some of the most unsavory reactionary regimes in Africa.

He toured Africa for the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the CIA’s AFL-CIO front. He helped bankroll Moise Tshombe and the breakaway Katanga Province against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo controversy of the early 1960s, and supported the colonialist Salazar regime in Angola and Ian Smith’s “minority rule” in Rhodesia. He went so far as to become an apologist for the South African Apartheid regime.

Why the turn? What happened to Yergan? Anthony tells us that he “caved in” to the anti-communist hysteria of the period and suggests a number of contributing factors, among them a loss of “faith” in socialism, and Yergan’s long-held Manichean sense of good in combat against evil, part of his thought and praxis all along.

Anthony tells us that the FBI had been surveilling him for years and clearly must have had something on him, pressuring him to “flip.” Anthony suggests such, but doesn’t tell us exactly what. The man clearly was a figure loaded with contradictions, a flawed character. He had bourgeois tastes, a thing for attractive women, and enjoyed the public limelight and notoriety.

A factor in his “turn” may have been some financial concern for his family’s well-being. He was no longer a young man at the time. The closing section of the book would have been far more rewarding if it gave some deeper understanding of the shift in Yergan’s thinking and change of heart.

In the end, Max Yergan apparently came full circle, giving in to Cold War version of that accomodationism that he had left behind decades before. An interesting saga of one man’s fulfillment of a desire to experience his “homeland,” Anthony’s portrait of Yergan should be read by all those looking to deepen their understanding of a rich but rarely explored reverse current of the cross-Atlantic African Diaspora.

Huiswoud and the Harlem Left

Joyce Moore Turner’s study of Otto Huiswoud and the circle of Harlem-based leftists to which he belonged gives us a very different portrait of the African-American relationship to the Communist Party. Joining those who have worked to deepen our understandings of the role of African-Americans within the communist movement, Turner has succeeded in helping to further clarify the complexities of that historic relationship.

Her excavation of Huiswoud’s life widens and extends the path first surveyed by Phil Foner and broadened by Mark Naison, Robin Kelley, Winston James, and more recently, Mark Solomon. Significantly, the book situates that early generation of Black revolutionary Marxists at the heart not only of the Harlem Renaissance, but at the center of the early communist movement in the U.S. rather than at its periphery.

Here, we find a layer of communist militants for whom class consciousness, internationalism, African-, and significantly, Afro-Caribbean identity, remained intertwined and inseparable. Committed to Black liberation and socialism, Huiswoud and his associates struggled to become not just the objects of history but its subjects.
Immigrating to New York in 1910 from Dutch Guiana (Surinam) at the age of sixteen, Otto Huiswoud found his way to Harlem where he soon came under the influence of that major Harlem Socialist teacher and street orator Hubert Harrison, and received training as an organizer at the left-wing Rand School for Social Science.

Under the mentorship of the future Cominternists, the Dutch left-winger S.J. Rutgers and Japanese internationalist Sen Katayama, Huiswoud made the 1919 transition from the Socialist to the Communist Party. He was present at the founding meeting of the CP, subsequently went to Moscow in 1924 as an official delegate to the 4th Comintern Congress, became chairman of the Party’s Negro Commission, and an important voice on the “Negro question.”

Huiswoud subsequently played a role in a number of the U.S. Party and Moscow-centered disputes, especially regarding that over “Black Nation thesis” proclaimed by the 6th Comintern Congress in 1928, which prioritized a perspective on African-America as an “oppressed nation” versus one that viewed Blacks in the United States as an “oppressed minority.”

Though he later recanted his opposition to the notion of a Southern “Black Belt,” he also ended up on the losing side in a number of intra-party disputes through the ‘20s and ’30s such as the struggle for leadership between Jay Lovestone and William Z. Foster. He maintained a critical outlook on the failure of the Party-run Trade Unity Education League to adequately take up the anti-racist interests of Black workers and spoke out against “white chauvinism” within the CP.

Eventually, in December, 1930, the Party removed him from Harlem to Moscow. From then on he spent the rest of his activist days as an agent/organizer and editor of Black-oriented publications for the Communist International, with time spent in South Africa in the early ’30s (at the same time Max Yergan was there), Hamburg and Antwerp, Paris, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Fleeing the Nazi invasion of Western Europe and barred from re-entry into the United States, Huiswoud made his way back to his native Dutch Guiana, but was interned there during the War, at the behest of British intelligence. Eventually reunited with his wife Hermie after the war, he resumed his work as an anti-colonialist from Amsterdam where he died in 1961.

Significantly, Turner has given us not just Huiswoud’s story, but the social biography of his Caribbean-born associates of the Harlem left, a grouping that served to define the “Harlem Renaissance” as not just an artistic fluorescence, but as a political movement opposing white supremacy and colonialism. Huiswoud’s cohorts included the irrepressible editorial voice Cyril Briggs, founder of the African Blood Brotherhood who made the transition to communism, his life-long comrade Richard B. Moore, and Lovett Ford-Whiteman (one of the earliest Black Communists, he expatriated to the Soviet Union in 1928 and ended up dying in the Siberian Gulag in 1939); the left-wing Jamaican immigrant Wilfred Domingo, and George Padmore who, expelled from the Communist Party in 1930, went on to become a major voice of Pan Africanism.

We gain a different perspective on Claude McKay during his communist period and later meet Huiswoud’s close friend, Langston Hughes. Sensitive to the day-to-day lives of this far from one-dimensional milieu of political actors, Turner also gives us the story of Huiswood’s life-long companion and comrade, Hermina “Hermie” Huiswoud, her development as a Black woman in the communist movement, a portrait rarely visible in the literature. Turner also gives a brief account of those African-American expatriates, part of a “second diaspora,” who made their way to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and remained.

Complexities of Black Communism

By resurrecting the textured story of Otto Huiswoud, barely visible in the earlier histories of the communist movement, Turner has helped immensely to deepen our understanding of those often dismissed but nevertheless important contributions of this circle of overlooked comrades. The closing chapter contains an analytical assessment of that Black experience in the Communist ranks that should be examined closely.

On the down side, both books share a common blind spot.  Here we have portraits of two significant African-American figures connected to the Communist movement through the height of the Stalinist era, but both works are almost void of any substantive discussion of what that meant for them as activists. Turner offers an informative section addressing the role that the Comintern under Stalin’s sway, in 1929, played in externally imposing and mandating the leadership, direction and line of the CPUSA, but there’s very little further discussion.

In her closing assessment of the Huiswouds, Cyril Briggs, and Richard Moore’s communist experience, Turner states that these early Black comrades “felt that they had contributed to a significant world movement despite the enmity they aroused; and also despite the failure of many comrades to grasp an understanding of racism…; the internecine battles that sapped the vitality of the movement; the vacillation in policy; and Stalin’s betrayal and reign of terror.”

Unfortunately, the book does not draw out the perspectives of its central characters on that “reign of terror.”  She does hints at a reason why: “It should be noted that they shared a deep disdain for those they considered “turncoats” and purposely kept their criticisms of the Party and the Comintern to themselves…. [T]hey were not willing to attack the Party, the Comintern, or the USSR.”

What was it that created such loyalty, decades of self-imposed steadfastness? The reader is left to speculate.

What, if any role did Stalinism play Max Yergan’s decision to break with the communist movement? Was it a factor in Yergan’s reversal as the binaries in his Manichean “good vs. evil” world view shifted with the coming of the Cold War?

What turned Yergan not just into another apostate from the Communist cause, of which there were very many, but into an active anti-communist crusader taking up the cause of reaction?

Was all this just personal, perhaps psycho-sociological? Or was there a significant political component that contributed to a fundamental shift in a course traveled over several decades? Anthony leads us to wonder, as well.

While both Turner and Anthony leave various questions unanswered, their respective contributions stand as marvelously rich and informative histories. Turner’s deepened discussion of that first generation of Harlem-based communists, and Anthony’s portrayal of Max Yergan, should definitely be read by all those concerned with the interplay of race, class and the U.S. Left, both past and present.

ATC 126, January-February 2007