Cathy Bergin, “Bitter with the Past, but Sweet with the Dream”: Communism in the African American Imaginary: Representations of the Communist Party, 1940-1952

Leiden: Brill, 2015.  i-x + 222.

In this study of three key midcentury African American writers—Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and Ralph Ellison—Cathy Bergin aspires to move through and past many of the Cold War-era assumptions that continue to shape scholarly accounts of African American encounters with the Communism of the CPUSA (Communist Party of the United States of America).  Glossing the quotation from Langston Hughes that supplies the title of her book, Bergin proposes that Hughes’s “vision where ‘the Black/ and Red world/ Now are one’” (1) rejects the conception of identity as “a fragmented and marginal site which resists Marxist appropriation” (5); instead, that “far from being ‘alien’ to black traditions of struggle, Communism built on and extended the terms of struggle” (206).

Bergin makes several significant contributions to scholarship about African Americans and the left in general and black writers in particular.  She acknowledges the often-neglected role played by Garveyism in black politics of the 1930s and 1940s.  She offers a an illuminating commentary on the Liberator (1929-1935), a publication of the strongly pro-Communist American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC) that continually linked “proletarian black identity” with “interracial class solidarity” (49).  She ably defends Boris Max’s famous courtroom speech in Native Son—which critics have roundly condemned as left didacticism, and James Baldwin dubbed “one of the most desperate performances in American literature”—for its “representation of a political consciousness of race that takes Bigger’s life out of the realm of pathological criminality and experiential self-hatred” (115).  Her reading of Himes’s Lonely Crusade (1948) connects the novel to Himes’s war-time nonfiction writings and concludes that the novel’s historically specific critique of “the failures of the American Communist Party to prioritise black struggle during War” should not be read as “an attack on Communism as a trans-historic barrier to black liberation” (173).  In her analysis of Invisible Man, moreover, Bergin notes a pattern overlooked by almost all the critics of the novel who focus obsessively upon the authoritarianism of the Brotherhood—namely, that this organization, a patent stand-in for the CP, is “the first place where the narrator associates with other African Americans on equal terms” (195).

Despite its considerable achievements, “Bitter with the Past” is flawed in some significant ways.  Perhaps most important is Bergin’s uninterrogated deployment of the notion of “Stalinism,” a term that pervades her discussion but is never subjected to definition or analysis, let alone critique. We are told that “the Bolshevik tradition cannot be sublimated into the failures of Stalinism” (13); that “the Comintern was transformed from a Soviet-dominated mechanism for international revolution into an international mechanism for Soviet domination” (22); that, through the “Stalinist hegemony,” the “policies of the Third International during the Third Period” were “disastrous” (41).  But these assertions are not accompanied by argument or evidence; their truth is a given. This political and historical apriorism creates not few a problems for the consistency and reach of Bergin’s analysis.  It is difficult, for instance, to square her dismissal of the Third Period as an era of “Stalinist ultra-leftism” with her acknowledgement that, in the early 1930s, the “growing polarization within black communities compelled a sizeable minority of black workers to look to [the] more radical politics” signaled in “the Communist Party’s aggressive opposition to both Southern racism and to the politics of moderation” (43).  In her account of the appeal of the Soviet position on national minorities to black radicals, moreover, she passes over the fact that—as Wright noted in his autobiography—it was Stalin’s writings on the national question that figured as the principal source for him and other African Americans investigating the CP’s formulation of the “Negro Question.” Rather than confronting dialectically the contradictions of the Communist left in the 1930s and 1940s, Bergin simply asserts that the positive features of the Communist approach to race and class in the 1930s and 1940s existed in spite of, rather than in conjunction with, their significant degree of grounding in the politics of the Third International.  Bergin’s unremitting but largely unexplained hostility to “Stalinism” leaves the reader with the distinct but inaccurate impression that the quotation in her book’s title from Hughes’s “A New Song”—a poem appearing in the Liberator in 1932—should be read retrospectively as an allusion not just to the past of slavery and Jim Crow, to be negated by the “sweet dream” of communism, but to the bitter legacy of presumed Soviet betrayal as well.

As a work of scholarship, moreover, Bergin’s book exhibits a number of shortcomings.  Some of these are irritating but minor.  She misspells the names of Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and A. Philip Randolph; she supplies incorrect dates of publication and/or incorrect titles for Wright’s Native Son Black Boy/American Hunger; Richard Crossman’s The God That Failed; and Ellison’s “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity.” More seriously while Bergin proves herself a deft reader of primary sources in her analysis of Challenge, far too many of her citations from other publications—from the Crusader to the Daily Worker to Negro Quarterly, to mention only a few—are drawn from secondary sources.  The insights she derives from these quotations have thus been cherry-picked in advance.  Her analysis of Invisible Man, while purportedly locating the novel in its “pre-history” rather than its “post-history,” relies almost exclusively on “Twentieth-Century Fiction”—an essay Ellison authored in the late 1940s—and ignores the sizeable corpus of his 1930s and early 1940s publications in the New Masses and other organs of the literary left, as well as the multiple drafts of the novel displaying Ellison’s highly politicized changes in his text between 1945 and 1952.  Finally, while “Bitter with the Past” appears to be a reworking of Bergin’s 2004 dissertation, the 2015 book almost completely ignores the considerable body of scholarship about black writers and the left that has appeared in the past decade; the few footnotes that reference this later work are not incorporated into the book’s argument to any significant degree.  (Full disclosure: I was surprised that, despite Bergin’s praise of my early [2003] work on Ellison as “illuminating” [181 n23], she neglected to engage with my 2010 Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a study that closely examines Ellison’s representation of the Communist Party, Bergin’s principal concern in her analysis of the novel.) Although one can expect a certain amount of lag between the completion of a book manuscript and its appearance in print, Bergin’s book gives quite a few signs of having been sent off to the press without having been adequately brought up to date.

Bergin undertakes a timely engagement with the anti-Marxist politics of identity that shape much of the current discourse about race and class. In the novels she has chosen for discussion, she aptly concludes that “‘race’ does not function exclusively in the interstitial spaces of difference. . . . Identity . . . is configured, crucially, not only in racial terms, but also in terms of social location and political consciousness” (207).  What her analysis also reveals, however, is that the legacy of the Cold War remains alive and well even in studies that have moved through and past the legacy of postmodernism.  So more work remains to be done.  Given the revived struggle against racism and capitalism in many parts of the world, as well as the abiding need for revolutionary social transformation, it is vitally important that we understand—as fully and accurately as possible—the ways in which past radicals seeking to build a world “sweet with the dream” have formulated the relationship between race, class, and revolution.

Reviewed by Barbara Foley
Rutgers University-Newark

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