Cause at heart: a former communist remembers.
by Junius Irving Scales and Richard Nickson. Athens, Ga: The University of Georgia Press, 1987. 427 pp., $24.95.
A little over a quarter of a century ago, President John F. Kennedy was inundated with letters demanding executive clemency for Junius Irving Scales, the only person ever to have gone to jail solely for the crime, under the membership clause of the Smith Act, of being a member of the Communist Party. What was unusual in this campaign was the diversity of those who came to Scales's defense: labor leaders including Walter Reuther, David Dubinsky, and George Meany; political activists like Dorothy Day, A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Paul O'Dwyer; writers, artists, and scientists including Linus Pauling, Ashley Montague, Raphael Soyer, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Jules Feiffer, Alexander Calder, Norman Mailer, Marianne Moore, Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, Eric Fromm, Mary McCarthy, Van Wyck Brooks, and Harvey Swados; and such academic figures as Henry Steele Commager, Mark Van Doren, C. Vann Woodward, Irving Howe, Robert Heilbroner, Howard Mumford Jones, Martha Gellhorn--and many, many more. Leading the battle were James Wechsler, then editor of The New York Post, and Norman Thomas.
Ultimately, the campaign was successful. Despite the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover to prevent it, JFK did commute Scales' sentence (the most severe--six years--given to any Smith Act victim) in time for him to celebrate Christmas 1961 with his family.
Why did these notables representing essentially social democratic and liberal political views rally behind the cause of this imprisoned Communist? Well, in truth, Scales had left the CP four years before the government had railroaded him to prison. But the relentless editorials of Wechsler that succeeded in gaining such support were written not just because Scales had left the Party. In that post-Khrushchev-speech era, that was hardly remarkable. What was different--as we shall see--was the kind of person Scales was. Given his character, the more interesting question is why the government insisted on incarcerating him.
The foreword to this memoir, written by Scales's lawyer Telford Taylor, takes up this mystery. Scales had two trials: the first, in 1955, was reversed by the Supreme Court based on a memorandum from the government that it had made an error; the second, in 1958, after Scales had publicly left the Party. Before the reversal of the first conviction, the Supreme Court had ruled in the Yates case (Communist leaders on the West Coast) that the prosecution had failed to prove that the CP or the individual defendants had sought to incite anyone to engage in overthrowing the government by force or violence.
That would seem to have sounded the death knell for the Smith Act. But the Justice Department was at the same time trying to get Communists to register under section 4(f) of the McCarran Internal Security Act. If mere membership in the CP was illegal under the membership clause of the Smith Act, clearly section 4(f) of the Internal Security Act would be unconstitutional since it would require Communists to incriminate themselves. Therefore, the Government wanted to retry Scales to show that it was not "mere membership' that made him culpable, but "active' membership with knowledge of the specific intent of the Party to bring about the violent overthrow of the government.
This memoir opens with Scales arrest in Memphis in November 1954. Immediately one gets a sense of the man. Party district organizer for the mid- to upper South, he was then what the Party euphemistically called "unavailable'--i.e., operating clandestinely to avoid arrest and endangering those with whom he had to maintain contact. Scales describes the meticulous precautions he took to be certain he was not being tailed, but he is picked up at his rendezvous point, apparently betrayed by the act of a couple coincidentally named Smith.
In the Memphis jail, he quickly wins the respect of his fellow inmates--and the jailers, for whom this was the "biggest thing to happen since Machine-Gun Kelly.' And when he speaks to the press before being shipped off in leg irons to Greensboro, N.C., to stand trial, he presents the reporters with a list of prisoner grievances over jail conditions.
These are actions, one would say, of a true son of the working class concerned with improving conditions for the downtrodden no matter where they're found. But the trip back to North Carolina is also a voyage home, and we are suddenly confronted with a very different class background than we might have been led to expect. As the plane taking him to Greensboro flies over his family home, a flashback begins and we learn that Scales came from prominent North Carolina antecedents: On his mother's side, the Pells, a family that included college presidents, editors, lawyers, judges--and even had an Indian heritage traceable back to Pocahontas (for real!); on his father's side were judges (including the first chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court), Confederate generals, and a governor of the state. His father was a lawyer who became a multimillionaire; and though he lost much of his wealth in the real-estate crash of the late 1920s, Junius grew up in what were certainly affluent circumstances.
An inquisitive mind and wide reading made him receptive to new ideas. His father, friendly with men like Josephus Daniels, was a Southern liberal, a Jeffersonian in outlook, an opponent of segregation, and an early fighter for women's suffrage. His influence on his son was probably greater than Junius ever realized. Certainly crucial to the young Junius's development was the fact that his father had a library of over 3,000 books.
Scales says that reading Herndon's Life of Lincoln at age 12 began to alter his views; but he had also read all of Mark Twain and who knows how many other humanist writers who may have affected his moral vision. Thus, when he went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was disgusted by the anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, anti-working class bigotry of many of his classmates and was open to the radical solutions proposed in books he found at Milton Abernethy's Intimate Bookshop, a hangout for Chapel Hill's leftist set.
But it was political activity through the American Student Union rather than a theoretical conviction about Marxism that eventually led him to join the Party--on his 19th birthday. On the whole, his impressions of his new comrades were not favorable except for their "exceptional' concern for social justice.
They wouldn't tolerate racist, anti-Semitic, or male-supremacist attitudes; they passionately defended the rights of working people; and they hated war and fascism. Perhaps that was enough. But Scales was not yet committed.
Then he met Bart Logan, the Party's able Carolina district organizer, got involved in a strike at the Highland Cotton Mills, and began to understand the real meaning of the class struggle. One striker, knowing the identity of Scales, commented that he had worked for 35 years at Proximity Cotton Mills in Greensboro. This was scarcely a mile from where Junius had spent his early childhood. He was astounded to relize that immeasurable suffering, exploitation, and poverty had existed among thousands of people right under his nose and he had been totally unaware of it. Having met these strikers, seen his first picket line, and having heard a favorable firsthand report about the Soviet Union from Kelly ("Red') Hendrix, a leader of the Gastonia strike of 1929 who was framed on a murder charge and fled to the USSR (he later returned and served four years in a Carolina prison), Scales was ready for full commitment to the CP.
This meant working in the mills in an attempt to organize them for the CIO's Textile Workers Union. One of the passages here reads like the best of proletarian literature of the 30s, as Junius describes his superhuman efforts to cover for an ill coworker. Even though he was a rich man's son, his fellow workers accepted him. After all, he was "friendly, polite, clean-living, and sober; worked hard for the union --and besides, dogs, children, teenage girls, and old people' liked him. In truth, it appears that he was outstanding at just about everything he did. But just when the American Federation of Hosiery Workers took him on as a full-time organizer (knowing he was a Communist), the Second World War changed everything. Scales enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor.
Returning to Chapel Hill after the war, he again plunged into Party activity. He made headlines when he was elected vice-president of the Southern Negro Youth Congress--the only white officer that organization ever had. It was bad enough that "the scion of a prominent North Carolina family' should achieve notoriety by becoming an officer of a Negro organization; but when he publicly announced that he was a Communist, he became a pariah to some of his liberal friends.
Except for his underground period, most of Scales's political life in the CP had been spent as an official Party spokesman. It is interesting that one of the few things that still haunt him about his Party experience concerns a conversation he had with a fellow student just prior to having publicly proclaimed his Party membership. When his friend asked him whether he was a Communist, he lied and denied it. He presents this as a failing of character.
Now, certainly in Jesse Helms's home state in the 30s and 40s, it was dangerous to life and limb, let alone livelihood, to admit to membership in the CP; and it was also Party policy that members in key positions in unions and other mass organizations not reveal their Communist connections. Thus in the early 50s, in order to comply with the Taft-Hartley Act, many Communist heads of union locals publicly resigned from the CP. (Ben Gold of the Furriers' Union and a member of the CP's National Committee, was the only exception-- he resigned from the union.) This was frequently the first the members knew they were Communists, with the inevitable result that many then lost their union positions, too.
Scales only tangentially discusses this question in relation to whether it was wise to plead the Fifth Amendment before Congressional hearings and whether he ought not to have taken the stand in his own behalf at his two trials. At no point did he ever consider "naming names,' the only proof J. Edgar Hoover would accept that he was no longer in the Party. But he wonders whether it would have made a difference if he had been held in contempt for refusing to answer such questions while still testifying about his political beliefs. This is really related to the conspiratorial image the CPUSA erected for itself because it had early on decided that "open' Communists could be only marginally effective.
Also related, in a less direct way, are the Smith Act charges about force and violence. Scales insists that at no point in his years as a Communist did he advocate violence, nor did he ever believe in its efficacy. Certainly the CPUSA, throughout the period in question, practiced electoral politics, sometimes putting up its own candidates, sometimes supporting liberal Democrats, sometimes supporting third-party movements such as the Progressive Party in 1948. Yet this was always with the reservation that a socialist transformation could never be achieved peacefully--that the bourgeoisie would never voluntarily hand over state power to the working class. There may have been a contradiction between theory and practice in the Party's approach (which is why the Smith Act prosecutions were flawed from a legal point of view), but Scales seems more interested in defending the Party against the Smith Act charge than in dispassionately examining its ideological schizophrenia concerning this issue.
Scales's break with the Party came less out of disillusionment with the Soviet Union following the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU--though disillusion there certainly was--than over the failure of the U.S. Party, and in particular its Southern leadership, to shake loose from its sectarian ways. In this connection, it is interesting to examine the Scales memoir in the light of Theodore Draper's thesis that the CPUSA based its policies first and foremost on what was in the interest of the Soviet Union. Scales would probably not deny this. And yet, when he examines whether, on balance, his years in the Communist movement had been worth while, he answers in the affirmative, largely because he still feels that when it came to opposing white supremacy, there was nowhere else to turn.
There were probably several hundred thousand Americans who passed through the Communist Party in the 30s and 40s, many of them wearing blinders about the Soviet Union during the period of their Party membership. But as this book shows, that wasn't what brought them into the Party, nor does it express what was crucial about their participation in that movement. They were concerned, as Junius Scales was, with other issues: organizing the U.S. working class--weaker today, Scales notes, than it was 40 years ago; working for full economic, political, and social equality for blacks; agitating for world peace; and striving to convince the country that its well being would be better served by a socialist organization of the American economy than by an avaricious capitalism that leaves millions in misery and poverty.
That was the meaning of Scales's political life, and it is beautifully described in this well written book. His scenes of prison life alone-- where he won respect from his fellow inmates and jailers alike--make remarkable reading. With the editorial assistance of his longtime friend, Richard Nickson (professor emeritus of English at William Paterson College of New Jersey and president of the Bernard Shaw Society), Scales has written a memoir that is as outstanding for its literary quality as for its historical value. It is a must read for those interested in knowing what the South was like in the Roosevelt era.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1987|
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