Black Radical Part 1

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.

Personal relationships

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?

Going underground

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?

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7 Responses to Black Radical Part 1

  1. mamos206 says:

    Thanks for posting Fray. I’ll write more later, but just to flag one point, I want to make it clear BOC definately is not looking at the Communist Party USA as a model- except maybe as a model of what NOT to build. Peery’s life on the other hand is very impressive and he did many things worth emulating. I think he was ultimatley held back by his organization. I do think that Black CPUSA members like Peery often don’t get enough credit for the work they put in building the Black liberation movement before Dr. King and others stepped on the scene. But overall I would say the CPUSA practiced white supremacy in how they sold out Black cadre and how they related opportunistically to the Black liberation struggle. This will come out more clearly in future posts as we get into Peery’s expereinces later on in the party, where he is clearly betrayed by an authoriatrian, unaccountable, clueless white middle class party leadership.

  2. Fray says:

    Very true, Mamos. In fact, this first starts to happen when Peery goes underground, which was a question that we didn’t get to in the discussion.

    In the middle of the night in late 1949, amid fears that the leadership of the CPUSA was going to be arrested, a comrade came to Peery’s home and told him that he’d been selected to go underground. The man told Peery to leave home at once and take a train to Detroit, where in a week’s time he’d meet with someone from the Party at a pre-arranged time and place. Peery was ordered to make no contact with anyone else in the party.

    Peery did as they told him, but after a few weeks in Detroit his one contact — a young, inexperienced, middle class white man — just stopped showing up to their weekly meetings. Despite this, Peery stayed in Detroit for several months — this illustrates how deep his sense of discipline was. Finally, desperate to find political contacts and work, he went back home to Minneapolis.

    It’s pretty appalling that the CP made this incredibly intense demand on a serious working class Black militant and appointed as his ONLY contact a flaky white guy who hightailed it to grad school or whatever as soon as things got tough. As we’ll see in later posts, this is not the last or even the worst of the way that the CP leadership treats him.

  3. Katie says:

    This sounds like a really interesting autobiography. The questions you guys are asking about discipline and about the relationship between discipline, culture, and community are important ones, I think. Here’s my take on it:

    Discipline comes from learning that one’s actions have consequences. (The word “discipline” is from the Latin for “teaching” – the consequences are what do the teaching!) This can take the form of reward and punishment, so that becoming disciplined is akin to being trained like a dog. But it may also be that one’s actions have consequences for something other than oneself that one begins to care about – for another person, for learning an art or skill, for some common endeavor, or for a cause. When one realizes this, really feels it or sees it in practice, then the process of becoming disciplined isn’t just imposed from the outside. Rather, it is internally motivated by a larger aim – learning the skill, or not letting others down, or whatever. This is clearly a better kind of discipline!

    It sounds like Nelson Peery’s experiences in the war instilled in him both kinds of discipline. On the one hand, he was at the bottom of an authoritarian power structure, expected to follow orders without asking questions. On the other hand, he and his fellow soldiers depended on each other for survival, and they also felt they were fighting for higher ideals such as democracy.

    As you say, “our current society isn’t producing people with high levels of discipline and commitment” – not just to revolution, but to anything. Capitalism has made it extremely easy to live a life in which one’s actions don’t really have consequences. As a worker, you are replaceable. Relationships are transient – you can always move on to the next person. Immigrants with families still have discipline; so do the few workers who really want to claw their way to the top. The rest of us, lacking traditional responsibilities and having nothing particularly enticing to work toward, feel that we could pretty much disappear off the face of the earth with little effect. Why bother to cultivate discipline? Discipline toward what end? Of course, a life without consequences is also a life without meaning – and this is why, as you suggest, the end of upward mobility means “more of a chance for highly disciplined multiracial organizing” today. The problem is how to create an environment in which workers can begin to realize that maybe their actions can have meaningful consequences.

    This is where I think community comes in, as they key to creating a culture of discipline that is not authoritarian. Here I am conceiving ‘community’ not as a ‘feeling’ but as a co-ordinated set of communistic projects that make workers’ lives better: living together, teaching and learning arts and skills, doing childcare, food preparation, etc. at a community-wide scale. In such projects, people’s actions really do have meaningful consequences – they have to work together, and they have to be reliable and committed, in order to succeed. And the results, the common goods and the feelings of solidarity that flow from these activities, are palpable. In this environment, social expectations will encourage discipline, but more importantly there will be things worth cultivating discipline for. This, I think, is how we can “reclaim discipline…embracing creativity, love, and joy”.

    The life-affirming discipline learned in community can then carry over to class struggle – and here it will be an antidote to the fanaticism, the self-imposed authoritarian discipline, the willingness to sacrifice oneself and others to a merely abstract goal, that can come from conceiving all of one’s actions as directed toward ‘the revolution’. This isn’t to say that sacrifices won’t be necessary, just that they should be motivated by love (and guided by reason) rather than by the desperation that comes from having nothing worth living for. We need to have experience, real knowledge of the better world we are fighting for – because we’re not just going to win it, we have to build it.

  4. Scott Myers says:

    On the subject of discipline, I’d like to submit a few words from radical psychoanalyst and humanist Erich Fromm. In the Art of Loving (1956) he writes:

    “One might think that nothing is easier to learn for modern man than discipline. Does he not spend eight hours a day in a most disciplined way at a job which is strictly routinized? The fact, however, is that modern man has exceedingly little discipline outside of the sphere of work. When he does not work, hew wants to be lazy, to slouch, or to use a nicer word, to ‘relax.’ This very wish for laziness is largely a reaction against the routinization of life. Just because man is forced for eight hours a day to spend his energy for purposes not his own, in ways not his own, he rebels and his rebelliousness takes the form of an infantile self-indulgence. In addition, in the battle against authoritarianism he has become distrustful of all discipline, of than enforced by irrational authority, as well as of rational discipline imposed by himself. Without such discipline, however, life becomes shattered, chaotic, and lacks in concentration.”

    The routinization of life under advanced capitalism, the spending of our time for a purpose alien to us as human beings and about which we have no say, produces an aversion to discipline and a lack of skill in practicing it. We are thus robbed of the opportunity for self-directed activity and self-mastery, which only come as a result of rational, non-exploitative discipline.

    Later, in the same vein he writes:

    “How does one practice discipline? Our grandfathers would have been much better equipped to answer this question. Their recommendation was to get up early in the morning, not to indulge in unnecessary luxuries, to work hard. This type of discipline had obvious shortcomings. It was rigid and authoritarian, was centered around the virtues of frugality and saving, and in many ways was hostile to life. But in reaction to this kind of discipline there has been an increasing tendency to be suspicious of any discipline, and to make undisciplined, lazy indulgence in the rest of one’s life the counterpart and balance for the routinized way of life imposed on us during the eight hours of work. To get up at a regular hour, to devote a regular amount of time during the day to activities such as meditating, reading, listening to music, walking; not to indulge in escapist activities like mystery stories and movies [and today one might add, video games], at least not beyond a certain minimum; not to overeat or overdrink are some obvious and rudimentary rules. It is essential, however, that discipline should not be practiced like a rule imposed on oneself from the outside, but that it becomes an expression of one’s own will; that it is felt as pleasant, and that one slowly accustoms oneself to a kind of behavior which one would eventually miss, if one stopped practicing it. It is one of the unfortunate aspects of our Western concept of discipline that its practice is supposed to be somewhat painful and only if it is painful can it be “good.” The East has recognized long ago that that which is good for man—for his body and for his soul—must also be agreeable, even though at the beginning some resistances must be overcome.”

    • blarg says:

      This quote is right on. I’d say the key thing to understand about discipline is that externally imposed discipline and self-generated discipline are two completely different, mutually hostile things. People often confuse the two, or imagine one that leads to the other. Actually, when subjected to externally imposed discipline, people tend NOT to develop self discipline. When the leash is removed, people who are used to imposed discipline turn out not to be very good at self control or self direction.

    • Katie says:

      I do actually think there is a place for externally imposed discipline in the development of self-generated discipline.

      As I argued above, self-generated discipline comes from becoming aware of, and coming to care about, the consequences of one’s actions. But before this happens, my actions may have negative consequences – for myself, for others, for our common endeavors – that I don’t yet recognize or care about. Sometimes it is appropriate for other people, who see this more clearly than I, to let me make mistakes and (hopefully) learn from them. Other times it is appropriate for them to try to reason with me. But sometimes it is appropriate (or, when the negative consequences are serious, even their duty) to simply prevent me from acting – and this is externally imposed discipline.

      This can be done in a way that encourages the development of self-generated discipline. For this it is necessary that those imposing the discipline actually be in a position to see things more clearly than I; that they be genuinely motivated by a desire to prevent the negative consequences and/or to help me learn, and not (for instance) by a desire for interpersonal control; and that the reasons for the discipline be made clear, so that even if I am not yet ready to understand or accept them, they may still linger in my mind and contribute to a longer-term process of learning and moral development. It is when externally imposed discipline fails to meet these conditions that, as you say, it becomes no more than a “leash” that, when removed, leaves people incapable of self control or self direction.

      All of this is most obvious in child-rearing, since a small child often has to be made to do things, or prevented from doing them, before he can fully understand or care about the reasons. But it is also true for any activity in which people with varying degrees of awareness and maturity (that’s all of us) are interdependent. For instance, suppose I sign up for a meditation class. I tend to be somewhat flaky, always arriving late to things. But the instructor is strict: she locks the door when the class is scheduled to start, and if you don’t make it you forfeit the fee for that class. At first I am annoyed by this (who really cares if I’m a few minutes late, anyway?) but, not wanting to waste my money, I make a superhuman effort and arrive on time every morning. Gradually, two things happen. First, I find that I really like the ritual of everyone starting the meditation together in an unhurried fashion. Second, I can imagine how disruptive it would be if stragglers were coming in and making noise for the first quarter hour of every class. Henceforth I arrive on time for new reasons: because I want to and I recognize the importance of it. Now, what would happen if the instructor didn’t mete out this externally imposed discipline? I might eventually learn the same lessons – but it would take longer, and in the meantime I would be diminishing the experience for everyone. And by the time I learned, there would probably be some new person stumbling in ten minutes late. The instructor’s discipline therefore accomplishes two things: it helps me to establish good habits right away, and in such a way that ‘external’ reasons (money, social shame) can give way to ‘self-generated’ reasons (the good things that flow from being on time); and it protects the whole class, our common endeavor, from having to suffer for my lack of self-generated discipline.

      The same general idea applies to any organization. When an individual member’s actions threaten to seriously undermine the activities of the organization (whether because he is simply immature or unaware, or because he is actually trying to be disruptive), there has to be some procedure for not letting this happen – if possible in a way that enables the person to learn and develop and continue to participate in some capacity. Of course it is possible that the members of a particular organization are selected or self-selected in such a way that externally imposed discipline is seldom or never necessary – but any group that strives to incorporate and succeeds in bringing in people of all sorts will eventually need to deal with this problem. (By the way, I am not suggesting that the discipline imposed within the Community Party was the good kind!)

      What happens when the need for externally imposed discipline is categorically denied? Either discipline is not imposed and things fall apart, or (more often) it is imposed but in subtle and unacknowledged ways. I think of an interaction I once witnessed between a young girl I used to babysit and her mother. The girl wanted something; her mother, instead of saying “No, you can’t have that, and here’s why,” said something like “We don’t really want that, do we? We’re too old for that kind of thing now, aren’t we?” Instead of being straightforward, she ‘reasoned’ with her daughter in a confusing and manipulative way, trying to make external discipline appear self-generated and leaving her daughter visibly confused about what her desires really were, where ‘she’ ended and ‘we’ began, etc. This underhanded approach, while it might help the mother to maintain a nice self-image, is (I think) much more psychologically damaging to the child.

  5. mamos206 says:

    Thanks Katie and Scott, your comments are really helpful, and I agree with what you’re arguing. You make Marx’s ideas in the 1844 Manuscripts (Alienated labor) concrete, accessible, and up to date. You also pull the rug out from under the kind of conservative critiques of modernity that I grew up around as a Catholic. Catholic critics are correct when they argue that modern life provides no positive vision of discipline and hence dissipates our energies and saps our creativity. However, they have no solution except for patriarchal, authoritarian, and repressive forms of spirituality and religion that bring us backwards instead of forwards. Your take on Fromm provides the basis for a different type of spirituality, one that unites the struggle for personal wholeness and positive self-discipline with the struggle against alienated capitalist labor. Instead of saying we should work hard and offer it up as a sacrifice, Fromm’s ideas suggest we should abolish alienated work, which then will allow us to abolish undisciplined, dissipated “play” so we can build a new type of human self-activity. This self activity would unite play and work into a creative whole, expressing our social humanity.

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