[Marxism] North Carolina CP

John E. Norem jnorem at cox.net
Mon Sep 14 13:05:51 MDT 2009

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 

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 Wes_t, 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 

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

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