Chicago’s reds in the 1930s

Red Chicago:

American Communism at Its Grassroots, 1928-35

As the Daley machine makes backroom deals to bring the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago, it is worth recalling a very different sort of Olympiad held in 1932. In Red Chicago, Randi Storch reveals how the Communist Party (CP) organized a counter-Olympics protest at Chicago’s Stagg Field that brought together nearly four hundred athletes, with at least a quarter being African American—a figure in stark contrast, she points out, to the four Blacks included as members of the official U.S. track and field team at the LA Olympics of that year.

The CP’s organizing among athletes is just one of many revelations in Storch’s new community study on the Party, a work that reclaims the hidden history of Chicago’s Depression years by focusing on the CP at its grass roots. The work concentrates on the CP’s Third Period in which the Party’s sectarian approach focused on building dual unions—revolutionary unions in opposition to the conservative AFL leadership—and condemning Socialists and liberals as “social fascists.”

In the lineage of Mark Naison’s study of CP practice in Harlem, Storch argues that rigid Stalinist policies were never fully implemented at the local level and were, in fact, contradicted by the actual experiences of members in Chicago’s CP strongholds, particularly in its ethnic neighborhoods and the South Side. Storch even goes so far as to claim that the Popular Front (1935–39) was implemented in Chicago much earlier. According to Storch, Chicago’s Third Period was, ironically, one where “Communists learned how to work with liberals and non-Communists: they developed successful organizing tactics and fought for workers’ rights, racial equality, and unemployment relief and against imperialism.”

The mass character of the period’s radicalization was channeled into a desire for organization, even if many found the CP’s official policies objectionable. Storch claims that past histories have failed to consider the diversity of membership that included the stalwart cadre, middle members, and then the less-integrated rank and file of the Party, an assortment of “shades of red.” The Chicago Party appealed to “African American, ethnics, students, artists, writers, workers, and women” who often carried out Party policy as they saw fit, and as “rule breakers” often voted with their feet, thumbing their nose at party directives.

This eclecticism helped Chicago’s CP grow enormously throughout the Third Period, increasing membership in 1934 to 3,303 dues-paying members—five times its 1928 level—and recruiting more African Americans to the Party than in any other city.

Storch’s scholarship shines as she unveils the ability of the CP to unite white and black; native-born and foreigner; men and women; and workers, students, and artists in the daily life of the party. Her gripping narrative about the building of Chicago’s Unemployed Councils (UCs) and anti-eviction work speaks to the present moment of mass foreclosures.

The CP organized the UCs from block committees in neighborhoods where party fractions would operate and get experience in mass organizing. Storch reveals that the Party “organized citywide rallies and conferences, staffed councils with unpaid Communists, suggested slogans for councils for rallying support and organized a signature campaign for the passage of unemployment insurance in the councils’ name.” The Party emphasized Black self-activity in their work, and African Americans took key leadership positions and made up of quarter of Chicago’s UCs membership.

The interracial unity forged through the CP’s work in the UCs was best expressed in August 1931, when council members led over 500 in a march down South Dearborn St., the center of Chicago’s Black Belt, and placed the furniture of an evicted 72-year-old woman from the street back into her home.

Given orders by Chicago’s politicians and real estate executives to stop anti-eviction work, the police charged the crowd and shot and murdered Abe Grey, “one of the best Negro organizers in the Party,” and two others. In the ensuing melee, one unknown Black man who had joined the protest attempted to shoot one of the police officers.

Later, one of Grey’s friends was found mutilated and shot through the head. It was clear to CP members that he had “been taken for a ride by the police” to serve as a warning.

In response, the CP linked the demand for civil rights and racial justice to a critique of the city administration, organizing speak-outs and rallies that drew thousands to Washington Park in anger at police brutality. The UCs organized a mass funeral and protest for the victims that drew at least one hundred thousand Black and white workers. As the bodies lay in state at the Odd Fellows Hall, according to Storch, “a spotlight drew observers’ eyes to a picture of Lenin, paintings of white and black hands clasped together, and murals of upraised fists.”

Anecdotes like these, common throughout the book, provide a refreshing antidote to the obsession by recent scholars, particularly Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, to interpret the history of the CP from the lens of Moscow spy networks. As Storch found in the newly-opened Moscow archives, “Instead of intrigue, local [Chicago] sources reveal the efforts of the revolutionary party to make itself relevant and provide a clearer understanding of the way the majority in its orbit experienced American Communism.”

However, Red Chicago ultimately rests among a school of New Left revisionist works that have failed to adequately address the utter betrayal of Stalinism. The author’s analytic sharpness is dulled by her liberal preoccupation with the Popular Front, which she describes as a perspective based on “practical politics and tactics.” This common romanticized view of the Popular Front argues that, during this period, the Party finally broke from its isolation and became a “realistic” social movement.

The invention of Popular Front tactics during the Third Period supposedly came from the less-integrated members, the “rule breakers.” While Storch may be correct that local processes impacted the Chicago Party, we still need to grapple with how the party produced an institutional form that transformed these “rule breakers” into little Stalins who held back working-class self-activity with disastrous results. The idealization of the Popular Front ignores how Stalinism and the CP’s alignment with Roosevelt’s New Deal destroyed any hope of a potential independent third party; dashed workers’ militancy by accepting no-strike pledges on the job; disposed of its principled opposition to imperialism and racism; and deadened the world working-class movement as a whole through its alignment with bourgeois parties internationally.

Ironically, Storch herself refutes much of the fascination with the Popular Front period by uncovering that throughout the entirety of the Depression, the CP was able to conduct mass work and recruit enormously—a feat that was accomplished by grassroots organizing itself rather than by any anticipation of the Popular Front. Unfortunately, Storch also conflates Leninist organizing with its distortion under the Stalinized CP apparatus, thus portraying grassroots organizing as somehow separate and distinct from the process of party-building.

Despite these flaws, the nuance of Storch’s bottom-up approach makes the work a must-read and a thrilling story for anyone interested in learning the tactics and hidden history of the CP’s mass organizing in the 1930s. What’s more, with Daley’s plans to take over Washington Park to build a stadium for the 2016 Olympics—the very site where the CP launched its mass marches, and still a major resource for African Americans on the South Side—Storch’s scholarship is a reminder that Chicago is best remembered as a city of red instead of gold. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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