- Red International and Black Caribbean: Communists in New York City, Mexico and the West Indies, 1919–1939 by Margaret Stevens
Red International and Black Caribbean tells the history of Communists and radical activists in the Greater Caribbean region during the period between the two world wars, based on extensive archival research in the National Archives of the United States, the papers of the Communist International (Comintern), and periodicals published by Communists and others. This is a very ambitious undertaking which involves, by my count, at least Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, Trinidad, and the United States—along with events in China, Ethiopia, and the Soviet Union. This very ambition and scope is admirable and valuable, helping to break down the tendency by both historians and politicians to view things through the prism of the nation state. At the same time, this often makes the book challenging reading. At times this book seems less a scholarly monograph and more a John Dos Passos novel, as it jumps from one location to another and important historical figures jet in and out; Stevens covers much important material in her book, but this does not seem rooted in a broader narrative.
Stevens takes the Communist movement in the broader Caribbean as her subject. The book is divided into three sections. The first, comprising three chapters, examines the development of the intersection between the Communist movement and the black population in the Greater Caribbean, including the Communist Party in the United States, the campaign against U.S. imperialism in Haiti, and finally, Communism in Mexico and Puerto Rico. The next two chapters look at the Communist movement as an attempt to emphasize the fight for black liberation in the [End Page 907] Caribbean, particularly through the fight to free the Scottsboro youth (nine black youths framed up for raping two white women in Alabama and sentenced to death before the Communists took up their defense). Finally, the last three chapters examine changes in the Communist approach in the “popular front” during the second half of the 1930s.
The book contains fascinating glimpses of early attempts by the Communist Party in the United States to intersect Afro-Caribbean émigrés of the African Blood Brotherhood and the much larger United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) led by Marcus Garvey; of the struggle of the International Labor Defense to build solidarity with the Scottsboro youth in the Americas; the activities of the Mexican Communist Party among peasants; work by Haitian Communists; and the early years of Communism in Puerto Rico, among others. Yet this is not an organizational history: these, and other organizations, are never analyzed in any depth beyond what was written in their own propaganda or reports by American officials. Nor is this a political or intellectual history: there is little sense of the politics of these groups and how they grappled with the reality they confronted. And when Stevens disagrees with positions that Communists took, for instance, extending support to Plutarco Elías Calles in Mexico or to endorse a law by Ramón Grau San Martín in Cuba reserving 50 percent of jobs for Cuban nationals, she does not explain why Communists took the position they did, nor how this affected their future development. It is one of the weaknesses of this book that Stevens does not attempt to situate the organizations she examines in a broader political or historical context.
All throughout the book, Stevens raises important questions about the Communist movement in the Greater Caribbean, but more often than not leaves them unanswered. She writes: “The British West Indies took leadership in a series of labor uprisings in the period from 1935 to 1939 that were in many ways the most radical social movements at the point of production then underway in the hemisphere. No Communist parties ever arose in this context” (180). As to why this was the case and what it says about...