In the early 1940s, James Baldwin was in his teens and living in New York City when he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, a branch of the Socialist Party of America. His first foray into formal political life followed years of informal activity, including public agitation. “At thirteen, I had been a convinced fellow traveler,” Baldwin wrote in his political memoir, No Name in the Street. “I marched in one May Day parade, carrying banners, shouting, East Side, West Side, all around the town, We want the landlords to tear the slums down!” Baldwin’s attraction to left-wing politics was practical, based on his experience growing up in the tenements of Harlem. “I didn’t know anything about Communism,” he wrote, “but I knew a lot about slums.”
Baldwin’s self-conception as a budding socialist was a far cry from how he would later describe his relationship with the Left. “My life on the Left is of absolutely no interest,” he wrote in the introduction to The Price of the Ticket, a collection of his nonfiction works. “It did not last long. It was useful in that I learned that it may be impossible to indoctrinate me.”
What happened? Reading Baldwin’s writings, it becomes clear that it was contemporary socialism’s perceived inability to deal with the race question that estranged him from the movement, pushing the once-inspired agitator to deride left-wing politics as mere indoctrination. Baldwin would eventually return to socialism — but the homecoming would take thirty years and require the advent of a new form of left-wing politics, embodied in the Black Panthers.
“The World’s Victims”
Born in New York City on August 2, 1924, Baldwin grew up in a Harlem that was becoming a center of black cultural life. The Great Migration of African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South to Northern cities like New York had started the previous decade, setting the stage for the Harlem Renaissance.
This flourishing of African-American art and culture was cut short by the Great Depression, which plunged the neighborhood into poverty and marred Baldwin’s childhood. As a young boy, he spent much of his time caring for his eight younger siblings while his mother cleaned the homes of rich women and his stepfather preached to an ever-shrinking flock of Baptist congregants.
Baldwin’s introduction to socialism most likely came from a white schoolteacher, Orilla “Bill” Miller, who also supported his earliest literary inclinations. In The Devil Finds Work, his book of memoir and film criticism, Baldwin credits Miller with “suggest[ing] to me the extent to which the world’s social and economic arrangements are responsible for (and to) the world’s victims.” Miller not only took an active interest in Baldwin’s literary and political education, but sought to defend all of her students against the depredations of a racist, capitalist society, including its landlords, store owners, and even police — all of whom, Baldwin notes, hated Miller for her agitation. He recalls one episode with relish, when Miller took her (presumably black) students to a police station for ice cream (presumably reserved for white children). Miller refused to back down to the white cops, who eventually gave in and surrendered the dessert.
Baldwin’s personal experience with poverty was ignited by Miller, inspiring him to become active in politics. Although there’s no record of Baldwin’s participation in the Young People’s Socialist League, his writings contain references to his political activities from the time. In addition to the aforementioned May Day parade, where he denounced landlords and their tenements, Baldwin helped organize rent strikes with his best friend, another young black socialist named Eugene Worth. Baldwin describes Worth as a much more ardent believer than himself. In love with a fellow socialist who was white, but rebuffed by her family, Worth jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in 1946.
If it was an appeal to poverty that drew Baldwin to socialism, it was the sidelining of the fight against American racism that drove him away — most evidently in the Communist International’s Popular Front strategy.
Following the failure to stanch fascism in Europe, the Comintern began to advocate an anti-fascist coalition of leftists and liberals in 1935. As part of this strategy, Communist-backed organizations in the United States were directed to abandon their anti-racist efforts in favor of supporting the war at all cost — a decision that left black radicals justifiably bitter. Suddenly, the claim that Communists had ulterior motives when agitating among black workers or supporting unjustly accused black defendants, like the Scottsboro Boys, seemed to have merit. That was how Baldwin would describe the about-face decades later, in a 1960 speech titled “Role of the Writer in America” (reprinted as “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” in Nobody Knows My Name), where he insisted the Scottsboro case gave “the Communist party hideous opportunities.” While the Popular Front was foremost a Communist effort, many other socialists supported the strategy as well, provoking Baldwin’s ire.
Yet despite occasionally describing himself as an anti-communist, Baldwin never supported McCarthyism or any of the other American episodes of Cold War hysteria. In No Name in the Street, he describes returning to New York in 1952, after four years in Paris, to find a city “in which nearly everyone was gracelessly scurrying for shelter, in which friends were throwing their friends to the wolves, and justifying their treachery by learned discourses (and tremendous tomes) on the treachery of the Comintern.”
Rather than driving him into the arms of the anti-communists, McCarthyism only gave Baldwin a preview of the liberal hypocrisy he would become familiar with during the height of the Civil Rights Movement:
The pretext for all this, of course, was the necessity of “containing” communism, which, they unblushingly informed me, was a threat to the “free” world. I did not say to what extent this free world menaced me, and millions like me. But I wondered how the justification of blatant and mindless tyranny, on any level, could operate in the interests of liberty, and I wondered what interior, unspoken urgencies of these people made necessary so thoroughly unattractive a delusion.
After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when US brinkmanship nearly triggered a nuclear war, Baldwin criticized the United States for its ceaseless Red-baiting and defended the right of peoples to self-determination. The following year, Baldwin delivered a speech titled “The Negro Child — His Self-Image” (reprinted as “A Talk to Teachers”), where he argued the United States is “desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within,” referring to the country’s failure to meet the demands of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin compared the delusions of white supremacy to the delusions of anti-communism:
It is the American white man who has long since lost his grip on reality. . . . having created this myth about Negroes, and the myth about his own history, he created myths about the world so that, for example, he was astounded that some people could prefer Castro, astounded that there are people in the world who don’t go into hiding when they hear the word “communism,” astounded that communism is one of the realities of the twentieth century which we will not overcome by pretending it does not exist.
“‘Yankee Doodle Type’ Socialism”
While Baldwin would not fall prey to the histrionics of McCarthyism, it would take several years for him to re-embrace socialist politics. And it took the Black Panthers, who fused anti-capitalism with a distinct form of anti-racism, to pull him back into the fold.
Founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, the Black Panther Party pushed for the armed self-defense of African Americans, particularly against the police, as well as for immediate mutual aid programs, radical reforms, and black self-determination. While commenting on the Panthers in No Name in the Street, Baldwin focuses on the party’s armed cop-watch patrols and the state’s ruthless response. But he also describes — and identifies with — the party’s socialist aims:
Huey believes, and I do, too, in the necessity of establishing a form of socialism in this country — what Bobby Seale would probably call a “Yankee Doodle type” socialism. This means an indigenous socialism, formed by, and responding to, the real needs of the American people. This is not a doctrinaire position, no matter how the Panthers may seem to glorify Mao or Che or Fanon. . . . The necessity for a form of socialism is based on the observation that the world’s present economic arrangements doom most of the world to misery; that the way of life dictated by these arrangements is both sterile and immoral; and, finally, that there is no hope for peace in the world so long as these arrangements obtain.
By 1970, Baldwin had already settled in the South of France, where he would succumb to stomach cancer in 1987, leaving him half a world away and with relatively little time to do what he could with this newfound socialism. He had already been through the wringer of the Civil Rights Movement, meeting, supporting, and eulogizing Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers.
Baldwin now took a similar stance defending the Black Panthers as they were systematically imprisoned (Newton in 1967, Seale in ’68, Eldridge Cleaver in ’68, Angela Davis in ’70) or killed (Bobby Hutton in ’68, Fred Hampton in ’69) by the state. In 1968, he hosted a birthday party organized by the Black Panthers for the then incarcerated Newton, which attracted thousands of supporters. In 1970, he also penned an open letter, published in the New York Review of Books, to the then imprisoned Davis, writing, “We must fight for your life as though it were our own.” His support for the Panthers, following his more upfront involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, earned Baldwin an impressive 1,884 pages in his FBI file.
In 1972, Baldwin was asked whether the United States would ever go socialist. His response made clear the profound impact the Panthers had had on him, as well as the particular brand of socialist politics he now espoused:
You have to be very careful what you mean by socialism. When I use the word I’m not thinking about Lenin for example. I don’t have any European models in mind. Bobby Seale talks of a Yankee Doodle-type socialism. I know what he means when he says that. It is a socialism created from the indigenous need of the people in the place. So that a socialism achieved in America, if and when we do — I think you have to say when we do — will be a socialism very unlike the Chinese socialism or the Cuban socialism. . . . The price of any real socialism here is the eradication of what we call the race problem.