Black Orchid Collective’s study group alternates between theory and biography. For the past few weeks we’ve been reading Black Radical, Nelson Peery’s memoirs from his years in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and other such organizations. Peery, a Black working class revolutionary who devoted his life to Black liberation and class struggle, writes a gripping account of the twenty year period between World War II and the Watts Rebellion.
What follows is questions that I wrote to guide our discussion of the first third of the book (Part 1) and a summary of our responses to each. We weren’t able to get to all of the questions, but I’ve left them below so that we — and anyone else who’s interested — can continue to discuss them.
Coming home from WWII
How did Nelson Peery describe his personal experiences coming home as a Black WWII vet? How did he describe the general experiences of Black WWII vets?
When Peery first returned from the war, he tried to reintegrate into his old routine, but he couldn’t relate to his old friends. Instead he hung out with fellow Black veterans. Many of them discussed the disconnect between the democratic values they believed they had fought for and their second-class status as Black folks in the US.
How did fighting in the war radicalize him & other vets?
Peery talked about how having fought in a segregated regiment in the war gave him and other Black vets a sense of collectiveness that they hadn’t experienced before. He valued the experience of fighting in a disciplined, all black unit, though this did not lead him to choose Black nationalism as a response to white supremacy. Instead, he sought multiracial organizing for Black liberation and against capitalism. This remained a major thread throughout the book.
Peery also learned of the ways that Black vets in the South were fighting racism and facing brutal backlash from the Southern white elite in response. He and many other Black vets began to question the cause of racist oppression, and to conceive of themselves as bringing the fight for freedom home. He discusses the oft-overlooked history of Black WWII vets engaging in armed struggle against white supremacy prior to the days of Martin Luther King Jr. They took those racists by surprise!
How did his experiences as a soldier shape his early development as a militant?
Being a soldier gave Peery a strong daily sense of purpose. When he first came back home after the war, he lacked that sense of purpose and felt very lost. He became depressed and spent a lot of time drinking with old vets. Joining the political movement was a way to have that sense of purpose in his life. It was, in many ways, a very deliberate step to get out of a downward spiral of depression and future alcoholism.
Peery references his military experiences throughout the book, but especially when he’s recounting the early years. He tells a story of a moment in the war when he and some other soldiers were under fire. Peery only considered two options: charging forward or retreating. Both terrified him — the first for fear of his life, the second for fear of being a coward. He charged forward. Later he realized that it had never occured to him to keep a middle ground. Peery uses this story as an analogy to his development as a revolutionary several times. Moving forward brings the terror of the unknown, moving back brings the fear of losing. Staying put doesn’t even occur to him.
What lessons can we take from this as militants? Do we want to emulate Perry’s style as a militant revolutionary soldier? Why and/or why not?
We really admire the discipline that he espoused while recognizing that there were probably a number of negative aspects to it. This is very much related to our ongoing questions of what type of person is required to be cadre in a revolutionary organization. The Bolsheviks were soldiers. Is it too much to ask people to be soldiers right now? Is it unsustainable? Is it unreflective of our times? Does a revolutionary organization have to conform to the times in which it finds itself, and develop member expectations accordingly?
Our current society isn’t producing people with high levels of discipline and commitment to revolution. But this could change fast if things heat up. Back in Peery’s day, it was very uneven: the experience of WWII vets produced a lot of highly disciplined and motivated Black militants. The white working class, on the other hand, was experiencing upward mobility. Society produced very few disciplined white militants.
That’s not the case for white working class now. That might mean more of a chance for highly disciplined multiracial organizing.
We also want to know how can we talk about discipline that’s not authoritarian? It might be useful to reclaim discipline with a Marxist-Humanist character, embracing creativity, love, and joy. You have a purpose because it makes you feel good, and because the struggle deepens your connection to humanity.
Organizations in the late 40’s
How did various organizations respond to anti-communism? NAACP? CPUSA? Trade Unions? Leftist academics?
The NAACP purged people while folks left the CPUSA in droves. Meanwhile, many aspects of the white left, namely academia and the trade unions, moved to the right in self-defense and even worked against the movement.
One way to work against this is to develop a more working class intellectual culture. We notice a common pattern: during times of high movement activity, the workers tend to lead. This attracts a lot of intellectuals & artists who abandon ship as soon as the crackdown starts. We can expect it to happen again. What does this mean for the position of middle class intellectuals in a movement? It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reach out to them, but we should not build an organization around them!
Furthermore, organization should avoid having people who, due to their knowledge or skills, are irreplaceable. This leaves organizations vulnerable — such people can easily be arrested or coopted, or agents can put themselves in those positions.This is why the class as a whole should develop theoretical skills.
What was the relationship between the CP and black freedom struggles? How did this affect Peery’s decision to join the CP?
The Communist Party supported Black freedom struggles. Before MLK, they laid the groundwork for much of the Black uprisings in the mid 20th Century. Many have criticized the CP for coopting or selling out Black militants, and this was often true. But in the early post-WWII years, Peery viewed the CP as the organization to join if he wanted to fight for Black liberation.
Peery says that “culture, not Marx, lay at the heart of the movement.” (p. 37) What does he mean by this? What do people think of that?
We should be disciplined but also create a cohesive culture. This is the humanist side, and relates to why it’s important to develop community — and to be clear about what we even mean by community — in organization and in a political group. An interesting side question is: how does this relate to discipline?
Peery describes himself as “becoming a communist” through university study after he joined the CP. What does this suggest about the relationship between organization and individual development, at least in his case? How do we relate this to our own process of self-development and contact work?
If he hadn’t had the time at the university, would he have had the opportunity to develop the skills he had for the rest of his life? The CP didn’t provide that. This shows that an organization can’t be just be about culture — we need study too!
Another element of this is how being in an organization itself developed Peery much more than he could have on its own. Even though the CP itself didn’t provide much of that, it gave him the motivation to study. You expand your understanding through being in an organization.
Still, Peery just walked into the office and signed up! (No wonder they were so easily infiltrated.) This brings up important questions of basic standards that revolutionary organizations should expect of people before they join. We are grappling with this question right now as we look to define our standards for ourselves and for potential new members.
Why did the CP almost expel Peery in the 1948 statewide convention? Why did they end up not expelling him? What organizational structures and cultures in the CP led to this event?
Peery openly disagreed with some of the postitions that a party leader (Tito) was taking. In response, the membership of the regional branch almost voted to expel him! They decided not to only because Stalin himself began to oppose Tito as well.
Part of the problem was obviously a lack of democracy in the organization. However, the CP described itself as “democratic centralist,” the idea being that the membership gets together at convention meetings, votes on issues and elects the leadership to execute those decisions. The problem was that it didn’t really work that way: the elected leadership managed all debates and tried to resolve tensions behind the scenes. They also selected the next layers of leaders, who might have been technically elected but were heavily groomed by the leadership. (Just like business unions, notes Fray :/)
Another problem in the CP was a lack of clear points of unity or principles to inform debate. As a result, the answer to any question became, “what Stalin says.” There was no basis to argue the correct line of the organization. They did have a formal space for discussion, but the only way to evaluate that discussion was to defer to the leadership. So instead of building unity through open discussion and leaving room for minority opinions to present their views, the CP leadership staged managed unity and dealt with factional conflict behind the scenes. Thus, they attacked Nelson Peery because he revealed divisions in the Party.
What happened to Peery’s relationship with Marion? How does he describe the tension between having a committed relationship and being a militant? What do we think of this? (pp. 33 & 64-65)
Peery and Marion connected as black people living in white worlds. They were both University students; Marion had grown up in a white part of Minneapolis while Peery was spending a lot of time with white people in the CP.
Much of their breakup was due to repression — Marion’s job couldn’t handle having a husband in the CP. Even more than that, Peery was unable to navigate family time and his life as a revolutionary — something he seems to figure out later. Part of this is because he didn’t want to figure it out; he still saw throwing himself into Party work as a means of avoiding looming depression. His relationship could have been a different way to heal, but he did not consider that.
What were Perry’s relationships like with his mother and father? How does he relate these to both individual personalities (especially his father’s) and to the larger context of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy?
All of Peery’s brothers became communists, and his father became a famous anti-communist! This was horrible for his entire family, including his mother, who was very supportive of her son. His father was trying to get rid of his family and claimed that he did so out of patriotism, but really he was using it as an excuse to run off with his mistress. Politics can be opportunistic.
Revolutionary organizations absolutely should not create a cult-like culture encouraging people to break ties with family. But it is a reality in some families: they will not accept a member becoming a revolutionary. When that happens, we should mourn and support each other. How can the organization support that even though organization as a whole can’t be a new family (even though individual members can)?
Life as a militant
Why does Peery highlight, on pp. 52-53, the following small moment in the National Convention?
“I was early for the social and the hall was empty. Each table held a bottle of cheap whiskey and a plate of salami and cheese. Taking a table toward the rear and out of the way, I leaned back, closed my eyes, and waited for my delegation to show up. Half dozing, I slowly woke up to the sound of muffled voices. A heavyset, tall Black man was earnestly talking to a white woman. I had no intention of eavesdropping, but they had not noticed me and it never occurred to me to politely cough or scrape my chair so they would be aware of me. I recognized the man as Comrade Ben Davis, central committee member and New York ity councilman. The woman was Comrade Peggy Dennis, wife of Gene Dennis, the general secretary of the Party. As they talked, the would touch each other’s hand or arm for emphasis. I was deeply impressed by these two leading figures in the party talking to each other in a warm, respectful, and comradely relationship. Here, it seemed to me, was a microscopic expression of all I fought for and dreamed of. This is the way all people would relate to one another after the defeat of capitalism. Nothing important was happening, but this was the high point of my emotional linking of the Party to a vision of equality and comradeship.”
How does this relate to the personal meaning that militants can derive from our struggle?
Fighting and organizing together as militants brings us together in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Under capitalism, a lot of people don’t have deep friendships, especially adults. Developing ourselves and each other as revolutionaries creates and deepens relationships immensely.
On p. 53, Peery says that “no amount of ideological steadfastness…could overcome objective conditions”. How do we relate this to our own lives as militants? Our experiences organizing so far? Our plans for the future?
In his second year of college, Peery is the first Black man to be invited to join the honor society the Gray Friars. What does he think of this? What choice does he make as a consequence?
Experiences as a worker
To what does Peery attribute the all-white status of craft unions?
After Peery joins the bricklayers union, how do white workers try to undermine him? What helps him get through this?
What is the process by which Peery went underground? How does the CP maintain contact with him while he’s underground? Why does he decide to go back to Minneapolis after about 6 months underground? What do we think of this process?