- The History of the North Carolina Communist Party
Scholarship on the Communist Party of the United States of America (CP) has blossomed during the past decade. The fall of Soviet communism in the late 1980s has led scholars to new archival sources, to the voices of once-reluctant CP members, and to the designation of American communism as a reform movement. Studies of regional and state movements, individual biographies, and edited interviews with participants are now available, and have supplanted the large overviews of the CP which had often characterized American communists and their causes as one homogenous historical development. Instead, these new studies reveal the complexity of the CP and its membership in the twentieth century.
Gregory S. Taylor’s The History of the North Carolina Communist Party adds to this re-evaluation by focusing on the Tar Heel state’s contributions to the CP movement. While scholars have tilled portions of this familiar ground—the 1929 Gastonia Strike, the unionization of tobacco workers, radicalism at the University of North Carolina, the career of CP activist Junius Scales, and North Carolina’s contributions to the long Civil Rights Movement—Taylor’s fine work is the first comprehensive study of the CP as an organization in North Carolina. He stitches together the seemingly isolated moments of the state’s CP activities into a continuous thread of development and evaluates the legacies of the entire movement in North Carolina.
Taylor begins by placing the CP within the state’s tradition of reform and distinguishes North Carolina’s CP experience from the larger movement. He argues that, collectively, the members of the North Carolina Communist Party (NCCP) were social activists trying to improve the lives of farmers, mill [End Page 109] workers, the unemployed, African Americans, and prisoners. According to Taylor, members of the NCCP were not revolutionaries trying to overthrow the government in favor of a communist state; instead these fellow travelers believed their work to be “defending true American values by standing against perceived fascist threats to freedom, liberty, and the American way of life” (5). While Taylor examines the activities of NCCP notables, such as Paul Crouch, Dewey Martin, Junius Scales, and Hans Freistadt, his greater accomplishment is chronicling how CP members attempted to improve social conditions in North Carolina.
As the first CP organization in the South, established in late 1928, the NCCP quickly distanced itself from the methods and Marxist agenda coming from the national level. Yet, Taylor explains, the members of the NCCP were shortsighted, set unrealistic goals, recorded few political accomplishments, failed to learn from their mistakes, seldom capitalized on opportunities, and were unable to stabilize their organization. During its thirty-year existence, the NCCP never achieved its goal of becoming a viable reform party and fell victim to internal squabbles and the radicals of the 1960s. Despite this uneven history, Taylor points out that the NCCP was an important chapter in the history of social reform in North Carolina.
Taylor succeeds in chronicling the CP in North Carolina, but he may leave behind those readers unfamiliar with the context of the national CP movement. More ample discussions of the Depression, the Popular Front movement, Earl Browder’s leadership, the McCarthy Era, and connections to CP activities in other southern states would only enrich Taylor’s enlivened study. His use of primary sources, especially mining obscure union newsletters and Comintern files, is impressive. Taylor’s solid work presents scholars, students, and North Carolinians a more detailed view of the now largely extinct Reds in the Tar Heel state.