African-American history

A socialist guide to sex: The CPUSA and sex education in ‘Health & Hygiene’

This is the second part of a series of blog posts on the Communist Party of the USA’s health journal from the 1930s, Health and Hygiene. This post is dedicated to the coverage of sex and birth control issues in the journal. The first post can be found here.

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Sex and masturbation

Although sex education, particularly influenced by the purveyors of eugenics and social Darwinist birth control, was widespread in the United States in inter-war period, it wavered between pragmatism and upholding traditional Christian morality, including abstinence before marriage and from masturbation. The journal tried to counter this moral view of sex with a progressive and ‘matter of fact’ attitude towards sex and masturbation. The journal pronounced that many sexual ‘difficulties’ related back to the ‘morality taught to us in childhood’, which was ‘derived from religion’ and thus, ‘Questions about sex are lied about or completely repressed.’ Although many people may have moved away from religion in their adult life, the journal proposed that many were still unconsciously wedded to these beliefs. For example:

We may no longer believe that God will punish us for masturbation but we continue to believe that our masturbation has weakened our body and injured our sex organs.

The purpose of this morality was to make people compliant in the face of capitalism and bourgeois authority. The journal argued that ‘guilt feelings aroused by sex makes people timid before authority and afraid to fight for their rights.’ Therefore the fight against capitalism entailed a fight against conservative attitudes to sex, with the debut issue of the journal stating:

Just as we must fight to overthrow the present vicious economic system so we must fight against the wrong attitudes to sex [that capitalism] has implanted in us.

This Christian morality was blamed for sexual ‘frigidity’ in women and couples not enjoying sex after marriage, but the journal still warned against sex before marriage. When a young woman wrote to the journal in January 1936, saying her fiancé ‘think we should have sex relations before we get married’ and that she often thought ‘he is right and that it is only prejudice that keeps me from it’, the journal’s psychiatrist replied:

it might seem at first that it would be wiser for you to have sexual relations with your friend before you marry. This is not the case. Sexual relations are a part of life and cannot be isolated from it. To be satisfactory they must be part of an acceptable relationship.

The journal suggested that ‘[e]ven when we have consciously emancipated ourselves from [traditional feelings about sex], they continue to linger on, as unconscious feelings of guilt’. This could, the journal warned, bring on sensations of guilt for the young women, especially if found out by family and friends. The journal warned that her fiancé may also change his mind if they had pre-marital sex:

your friend, though he had the best intentions in the world, might easily, as a result of his own unconscious feelings of guilt about sex, feel that you had degraded yourself by having such an affair with him, and this might endanger his love for you.

Despite this warning against sex before marriage, the journal featured several articles discussing ‘frigidity’ in women, which argued that women needed to feel liberated from traditional views about female sexuality and be more willing to enjoy sex for sex’s sake within the realm of a heterosexual and monogamous marriage. According to an article in the journal from March 1936, 1 in 4 married women in America ‘get so little pleasure from sexual relations that they can be called frigid.’ This concept was borne out of the fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis in the United States in the inter-war period and proposed that women had internalised traditional morality that denied that women had ‘sexual curiosity, desire or knowledge’. The journal suggested that to overcome this ‘frigidity’, the woman had ‘to “let go” sufficiently to enjoy sexual relations’, while the role of the man in developing a sexual relationship was downplayed. As the journal stated, ‘[t]he husband’s skill and technique are factors to a certain extent, but their importance has been exaggerated.’

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As well as being taught from an early age that ‘only men and “immoral” women [had]… sex desires’, the journal’s psychiatrist pointed to another range of factors that they claimed caused ‘frigidity’. These included ‘improper methods of birth control’, such as the withdrawal method where ‘[t]he women’s uncertainty that the man will withdraw in time, especially when combined with a fear of pregnancy, may be of decisive importance.’ Another factor was the linkage of sex with large families and poverty, with the journal suggesting that to some young women, ‘Sex becomes synonymous with children one cannot afford to have, and a deep fear of pregnancy may result.’

An article published a few months later concluded that the combination of a husband’s encouragement, along with possible help from a psychiatrist, could help a married woman to overcome her frigidity. It stated:

Such a woman responds to gentleness, kindness, and affection during the daily round of life as well as during sexual relations. Encouraging her to express herself, giving her the feeling that her place in her husband’s affections is secure, encourages her to discard these relics of childhood. Tact and patience on the husband’s part will often result in the gradual development of an adult reaction to sex.

 In an exhibition of the journal’s Communist Party origins, it put forward the Marxist argument that women’s frigidity came from her inferior status within the capitalist system and the ‘solution to this problem… can only be a social one.’ The journal surmised:

Individual women may be cured, but most of them continue suffering and a million new cases crop up for the few that are helped. Just as our society creates frigid women, so a rational society could create normal ones. Women’s inferior position and their sexual exploitation are merely parts of the larger exploitation on which our society is based.

Sexual ‘weakness’ in men and their attitudes to sex were handled differently by the journal, and much less column space was dedicated to this issue. While a female reader was explicitly discouraged from partaking in pre-marital sex, the journal discussed a man’s sexual history without any criticism, writing:

When he was about seventeen or eighteen he had his first sexual experience and at this time ejaculated almost before he began intercourse. However, after a few experiences of this kind his ability improved and he had no further trouble except on rare occasions. He continued more or less regular sexual relations with different girls.

‘Weakness’ in this case was ‘rapid ejaculation’, or is better known today as premature ejaculation. The cause of this, the journal suggested, was that the man was ‘anxious and over-anxious to please [his wife], to be an ideal mate for her.’ The solution to premature ejaculation was, according to the journal, was to stop ‘worrying about not being the ideal’ and to be himself, alongside some possible help from a psychiatrist.

More room was dedicated to the topic of masturbation over the run of the journal. Famous psychiatrist and former member of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, Frankwood E. Williams wrote a substantial article on the subject for the journal in November 1935 (less than a year before he died). Williams stated that there was ‘nothing surprising’ and ‘nothing unhealthy’ about masturbation, especially by adolescents and unmarried people. Psychiatrists were particularly concerned of the supposed mental and physical effects of sexual frustration and the journal advocated masturbation to relieve this tension. Williams wrote that people who engaged in masturbation should not feel guilty for doing so, but at the same time warned about masturbating ‘too frequently’, cautioning that for some ‘masturbation may become a permanent substitute for normal sexual intercourse.’ As humans were seen as social animals, Williams argued in the journal that sexual intercourse was preferable to masturbation and that it should be preferably only undertaken by married people ‘when the wife is absent or ill, or intercourse for any reason is at the time impossible.’ Williams’ main argument that it was anxiety and guilt caused by people worrying about masturbating that did the damage, concluding, ‘it is not the masturbation which is harmful, but the worry it produces.’ Like other discussions of female sexuality in the journal, discussion about female masturbation saw it as ‘more complicated’, but did acknowledge that ‘[m]asturbation interests women as well as men’.

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An illustration of the myths of masturbation

Birth control and abortion

By the 1930s, the concept of birth control had won acceptance amongst a significant number of Americans, although, as today, a vocal moral minority campaigned heavily against the promotion of birth control, especially to adolescents and unmarried people. At the same time, birth control became for many synonymous with eugenics and social Darwinism, which the Communist Party and the journal’s editors strictly condemned. The journal strongly advocated for knowledge of effective birth control methods to be provided to all women and called for the repeal of all anti-birth control laws. This was portrayed as a class issue:

While the wealthy upper classes have been able to obtain the necessary information wherever and whenever they desired it regardless of the laws, those who have the greatest need for birth control information – the low-income classes – have been unable to obtain it.

The journal enthused that a number of birth control centres were being opened by workers’ organisations, but warned against other centres or clinics run by religious organisations or for profit. With regards to the former, the journal criticised the Catholic Church for its promotion of the ‘rhythm method’ as an effective method of birth control. ‘There is not enough scientific evidence’, the journal’s Eric Matsner stated, ‘to prove that the average woman can rely on this method.’ But in a later issue, the journal conceded:

most women will prefer not to rely on the “safe period” as a method of birth control… However, the “safe period” does work in some cases, and for a woman whose religious scruples will not allow her to use other methods, it may be recommended as better than no method at all.

With regards to the latter, the journal warned:

The public should be on guard against a number of so-called “birth-control clinics” which have been opened by commercial firms. The interest of these firms is naturally not in the reliability of the advice given, but in selling their products.

From this, the journal also warned against birth control methods and ‘abortion’ pills being peddled by many, which were ineffective, costly and possibly dangerous. Writing on birth control methods, Matsner that a suitable doctor needed to consulted for the preferred method of birth control to be effective, which was the insertion of a diaphragm (not mentioned by name in the journal). Matsner wrote:

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the woman who buys a contraceptive device at the drug store and attempts to fit herself runs a great risk of becoming pregnant. Only a physician, and a qualified one at that, can prescribe the size and type of contraceptive she needs. Yet a company that is doing a nation-wide business through drug stores sells its contraceptive device with the claim that “one size fits all normal women”.

With regards to abortion, in an article by Vivian Terry written in June 1935, the journal noted that there were ‘many medicines on the market that are supposed to bring on menstruation’, but Terry stressed:

All of these preparations, regardless of the name given to the product or the claims made for it, or the testimonials to substantiate these claims, are worthless. There is no drug, or combination of drugs, which when taken by mouth will with certainty produce abortion.

There were some pills that could cause miscarriages, but these pills only worked by causing ‘generalized poisoning’ of the woman who had taken them.

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An illustration accompanying an article warning about ‘abortion by pill’

The journal also lamented that at this time, there was a difficulty, even with doctors, in determining pregnancy and that many women became needlessly worried if their period was late. Because the ‘optimum time’ for an abortion is ‘between three and four weeks after a missed period’, the journal suggested that many women were avoiding getting an accurate diagnosis from a doctor and thus, ‘if the menstrual period is a week late they rush directly to the abortionists who emphatically assure them that they are pregnant and advise an immediate operation.’ The journal noted that it was estimated that around 150,000 abortions were performed annually in the United States and acknowledged that many women attempted to obtain one for a myriad of reasons, ‘whether it be heart disease, kidney disease, disease of the nervous system and so forth’. But the journal did not advocate making abortion legal so it could be properly regulated, instead proposing:

since abortions in the United States are still illegal and must be performed secretly at terrific expense and danger to the patient, the only solution to the problem is the use of scientific methods of birth control.

Eugenics and sterilisation

While many who advocated for birth control in the United States did so on the basis of eugenics, the journal was steadfast in its criticism of eugenics and the sterilization of ‘undesirable’ sections of the population. The journal argued that eugenics was based on faulty science from its very foundations:

The eugenicist starting from the crude notions that like produces like entertain the fallacy that superior children must come from superior parents. They have the notion that if the people with brains stopped breeding the next generation would all be morons… The eugenicist… is convinced that the genius ought and therefore does come from parents of what they call the better class; that morons come from morons, that good people come from good people, that criminals come from criminals, etc. None of these thins are so.

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Believing that ‘heredity is all important and environment negligible’, the journal called those who advocated eugenics as ‘propagandists for the exploiting class’. The reason that eugenicists called for the eradication of certain races, classes or political groups was, the journal suggested, because these were the groups of people that the ruling class and eugenicists feared. The eugenicists pushed for sterilization of these groups under the vague terms of ‘degenerate, feeble-minded, criminal [or] insane’, but the journal argued that this was ‘fake science’. Arguing that sterilization was ‘a fascist attack on workers’, the journal proclaimed:

Eugenicists are attempting to maintain the domination of a decaying class… Behind the hypocritical moral tone and all the mystical hokum about class and race superiority is a typical fascist attempt to obscure, disrupt and divide.

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The journal highlighted that the Nazi regime had, since January 1934, been using sterilization (as well as castration) against undesirable people and that these methods were being used around the world, partially inspired by the Nazis. The journal emphasised that the United States had been sterilizing ‘the so-called unfit’ since 1907 and that 12,000 people had been sterilized by 1932. It reminded readers that eugenicists were ‘irrational’ and talked ‘nonsense with a purpose’, concluding:

We must fight the attempt of the eugenicists to divide us on the basis of color, class, or race.

Stay tuned for the next section on vegetarianism, smoking and cosmetics tomorrow!

Fighting Disease, Fighting Fascism: The Communist Party of the USA and its health journal, Health and Hygiene (pt. 1)

This is a series of blog posts on the CPUSA’s journal Health and Hygiene that I am looking to turn into an article in the near future. I originally planned to write one blog post on this journal, but there was so much material that there will be four posts over the week or so. These are new areas of research for me, so any feedback is most welcome!

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The first issue of ‘Health and Hygiene’

In 1937, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA), William Z. Foster, wrote in the party’s monthly journal, The Communist about the threat to the health of the American working class in the mid-1930s:

the health of the people is systematically undermined by low wages, slum housing, unsanitary and dangerous working conditions, lack of social security, adulterated food and drugs, inadequate and costly curative treatments, faulty educational systems, etc., all of which are very profitable to various capitalist interests but fatal to the workers. Capitalism not only robs the producing masses of the wealth they create, but destroys their health and very lives in the process.

From this position, in the mid-to-late 1930s, the Daily Worker Medical Advisory Board, a group of medical practitioners associated with the CPUSA, established a journal titled Health and Hygiene. Beginning in April 1935, the journal was to promote ‘good health at home and on the job’ for the American working class, and provide information on a wide variety of health and medical issues. The journal was published monthly until November 1938, essentially covering the initial Popular Front period. According a November 1935 issue, it had 20,000 readers.

Published at a time when there was a particular concern about the health of the working class in the United States and when public health debates were still dominated by ideas of eugenics and social Darwinism, Health and Hygiene sought to counter these ideas and promote greater socialist measures to combat the medical and material problems facing the working class. The journal campaigned strongly for eliminating poverty and poor living conditions for workers and their families, as well as highlighting the health problems in unsafe workplaces.

A breakdown of the topics covered by the journal over its four-year existence shows it dealt with a wide variety of topics. The journal was especially interested with health concerns for industrial workers and the broader working class, such as health problems in the workplace, as well as diseases that afflicted the lower classes in the United States. It also dedicated significant space to running pieces on health and medical education that was absent in other popular press at the time, including sex education and consumer information about fraudulent medicines and health advice.

Top 20 topics covered in Health and Hygiene journal

Category Number of times featured
Fraudulent medicine/health advice 29
Industrial workers health problems 23
Diet/Vegetarianism 23
Babies and child health 19
Sex/Masturbation 18
Beauty/Make Up/Cosmetics 18
Dentistry 13
Syphilis/Venereal Disease 12
Blood/Anaemia 9
Pregnancy/childbirth 9
USSR health 8
TB/Pleurisy 8
Medicine/vaccines 8
Constipation/diarrhoea 7
Scientist profiles 7
Feet 7
War 6
Poverty/Housing 6
Health insurance 5
Cold/Flu 5
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Advertisement warning false medical advertising

Fraudulent medicine and health advice

The most frequent topic of discussion in the journal was related to exposing fraudulent medicines and health advice. The debut editorial stated that the working class was at risk of being defrauded in this way ‘[b]ecause of their limited income and because of the pressing nature of their health problems’. The editorial added that this meant taking advice from advertisements ‘rather than that of a competent physician or dentist’ and thus, ‘workers fall prey to all sorts of medical fads and faddists’. The journal claimed, ‘We will expose such fakes and frauds wherever we find them’.

This certainly seemed to be the case. In one issue from October 1935, chiropractic was a described as ‘a symptom of the economic and social system under which we live’, claiming ‘Found by a mystic and supernaturalist, it was quickly exploited for the profit it would bring’. In an article from the following month, it wrote:

Osteopathy as an explanation or treatment for human ailments is doomed. Future society will regard it as an understandable outcrop from the roots of an economy where profit could inspire a teaching that had no basis in science and reason.

The editors of Health and Hygiene saw this a service that they could provide to build solidarity between health practitioners and the working class against those who profited from the peddling of fraudulent medicines and treatment. They proposed that there was ‘no essential conflict between the true interest of the doctor and the interest of the patient’, who both benefitted from the exposure of false treatments.

Reflecting the politics of the period, the journal claimed that Nazi Germany was one country ‘where anti-scientific cults and all so-called “natural” methods are flourishing’, criticising the ‘naturopathy’ and ‘racial science’ of the Nazi regime. In contrast, the journal claimed that in the Soviet Union – ‘where the profit system has been abolished’ – all fraudulent treatments ‘that prey on people’s health for profit’ had also disappeared. ‘In the Soviet Union’, the editorial asserted, ‘there is no Chiropractic, Osteopathy, Christian Science, or patient medicine industry’.

As well as fraudulent treatments, the journal also warned about the dangers of taking many over-the-counter medicines, which could contribute to a money-making exercise by drug companies and/or lead to harm through self-medication. Arthur Kallet, co-author of the book 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics, wrote that there were several results from self-medication and relying on over-the-counter medications – that these drugs would not work and were merely placebos, that self-medication could delay diagnoses (and thus proper treatment) of serious illnesses, and that these drugs could lead to injury and death to those who took them, as well as addiction. Kallet warned:

When drugs are taken on the advice of an advertiser, or a neighbour, or simply because they happen to be in the medicine-chest, their usefulness approaches the zero point; and their hazards, present even when drugs are prescribed by physicians, become serious.

Kallet also cautioned readers about the potential addictiveness of certain medications and this was a theme returned to on other occasions by the journal. There were relatively few articles in the journal dedication to the legal addictions of alcohol and smoking, but there was no also little mention of illegal drug consumption, such as heroin or cocaine, or addiction to heavy-duty painkillers, such as morphine, which was commonplace in the inter-war period. One issue in December 1936 raised the issue of addiction to Bromo-Seltzer, a painkiller and tranquiliser that was popularly used for headaches. The journal warned that Bromo-Seltzer was ‘being used as a substitute for morphine, opium, and other drugs by narcotic addicts’ before stating ‘its users become as much a slave to it as narcotic addicts do to cocaine or morphine.’

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From an article in 1937 on industrial poisonings

Health problems in the workplace

One of the primary goals of the journal and of the Daily Worker Medical Advisory Board was to campaign for improvements to workers’ health in the workplace. Despite improvements in the early 1900s, the industrial workplace in the United States was still a very dangerous place. In the debut editorial, the journal announced that it would ‘take the initiative in organizing campaigns for certain public health measures’, including attempting to ‘be a leader in the fight for a change of the conditions which render workers susceptible to illness.’

This was a constant feature throughout the publication run of the journal. The first issue in April 1935 ran a leading article on silicosis and lung disease, campaigning for enforcement of laws pertaining to the removal of silica dust. From there, the journal also highlighted the dangers of benzol poisoning, tuberculosis, lead poisoning in the automobile industry, radium poisoning amongst watchmakers, accidents in the steel industry and poisoning in the rubber mills (amongst others).

The journal put forward two solutions to these problems. Firstly the journal argued for stronger legislation dealing with workplace health and safety, as well as the enforcement of these laws. Capitalists and politicians were seen as a hindrance to this, with the journal stating:

Lobbyists for industrial insurance companies and the employers are paid huge sums to obstruct the introduction of any type of legislation which might save the lives of thousands upon thousands of workers at a small increase in operating expenses.

Even when legislation was in place, it needed to be enforced properly. Discussing safety in the automobile industry, future CPUSA leader Earl Browder (under the pseudonym George Morris) complained that Department of Labor had ‘neither the interest nor the facilities for proper inspection of the plants so as to at least enforce existing inadequate laws.’ In the article on silicosis, the journal demanded:

Only with the enforcement of public health legislation, inspired, administered and controlled by workers, will the disease, silicosis, a pernicious outgrowth of capitalist negligence and exploitation, be liquidated.

Secondly, the journal proposed that stronger unionisation in these workplaces could be used to collectively bargain for better conditions. As a February 1937 issue of the journal declared, ‘It is up to the trade unions and the masses of progressive people to remove this eyesore from the American industrial scene.’

This is the first in a series of posts on this subject. Stay tuned for further blog posts. To keep up to date, press the ‘follow’ button on the sidebar or like the Hatful of History FB page.

#BlackPantherWoman: Black Power, gender and limits of transnationalism – a guest post by Jon Piccini

Once again, Jon Piccini (University of Queensland) has written a splendid piece on the recently shown documentary Black Panther Woman and I’m delighted that this blog is able to post it. Jon also wrote this piece on Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police a few months ago.

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The airing of Blackfella Film’s Black Panther Woman on SBS is significant for a few reasons. It highlights sexual crimes and violence within what academics broadly call the ‘New Left’ – those social movements of the 1960s and 1970s which challenged the capitalist/racial/gender/sexual status quo. As the film’s protagonist, Marlene Cummins, notes: “the thing is that violence on women permeates the whole of society: white or black”, and sexist/patriarchal values infused these social movements as well.

Here, I want to look briefly at the construction of masculinity in these movements and how this provided the political foundations for such violence. Secondly, I want to draw out some of the interesting parallels between Cummins’ trip to New York in the film, and similar trips taken by radical aboriginal activists in the 1970s.

Masculinity was at the centre of the 1960s revolts. For the white student left, heroic, handsome figures like Cuban-Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara were the epitome of a rebellious masculinity, and groups such as Students for a Democratic Society in America (and of course similar groups in Australia) were overwhelmingly led by males who relegated women to menial secretarial or typing jobs – much as women were in the workforce and society at large. Sara Evans has described well how the second wave feminist movement emerged not only out of a rebellion against sexist society – but the continuation of these practices within the white left and indeed the black civil rights movement.

For the ‘coloured’ left, masculinity was equally vital, but for a whole range of other reasons. For black power radicals in the United States, black men had been robbed of their masculinity by the dehumanisation of slavery and their continued status as colonial subjects. If black men had been emasculated and feminised by colonial white society, then the enactment of a proud black masculinity was seen as vital to the reclaiming of this. Such an ideology left little space for women. Stokely Charmical famously commented that the place of black women in the movement was “prone” – women’s place was to ascribe to traditional feminine values and faithfully serve their men – including being effective sexual chattels – so as to not contribute to the colonist’s emasculation.

As Black Panther Woman highlights, this hideous gender politics travelled across the Pacific to Australia alongside the whole package of Black Panther Party iconography, lexicon and practice – fusing with a pre-existing sexism and unofficial code of silence. The place of women in the Black Panther and broader civil rights/black power movement has been reassessed in recent decades, with quite a bit of academic work now existing exploring the importance of both well-known women radicals like Kathleen Cleaver, and the lesser known activists whose day-to-day work was vital to the success of these movements. Marlene’s story of political dedication amidst such personal pain is sobering and heart wrenching, highlighting a gap in our understanding of the reality of sexual violence within New Left movements.

The documentary was also fascinating from another perspective – that of the global imagination of radicals during the period. Marlene’s obvious pleasure at being invited to New York to attend a gathering of Black Panther-inspired radicals from around the world is a fascinating mirroring of the experience of another indigenous woman travelling to America forty-five years earlier – Patsy Kruger. Kruger, 30 years old and president of the Victorian branch of the Aboriginals Advancement League, was invited along with four other Australians – Bruce McGuinness, Solomon Belear, Jack Davis and Bob Maza – to attend a the 1970 Congress of African People’s in Atlanta, Georgia. Thankfully for historians, the five recorded their thoughts on the trip in a now very-rare book on the trip.

Upon receiving the invitation to travel to the congress, Kruger recalled thinking “my feeling good could know no bounds”. Interviewed by The Age before her departure, Patsy explained a bit of why she felt such excitement: “Intelligent, vocal and articulate, [Kruger] is determined to learn all she can…about how best to start a revolution for Aboriginal rights in Australia.” This desire to learn from black activists in the USA was mirrored by other travellers, many of whom had already begun using the rhetoric of Black Power in the few years previously to express their frustration at the failure of the 1967 referendum to engender any real change. As Kruger put it, white Australians were

apathetic, selfish or self-centred… oh, they have a conscience about it. They proved that in the 1967 referendum. But they subdued it and didn’t really go to the basic problems of the Aboriginals.

Yet, the visit to the United States actually delivered only mixed results for the travellers. Kruger recalls the Congress of African People’s being a terrific experience, having “met, talked and lived with black brothers and sisters in the struggle, mostly from North America, but also from the United Caribbean, South America, Asia and Africa”. Cummins enjoys a similar euphoria in the documentary, being surrounded by activists from around the world united by a sense of (now somewhat nostalgic) attachment to ideals of Black Nationalism.

The significance of this level of contact for aboriginal activists in the 1970s cannot be overstated – for many activists of colour around the world seemed just as unaware of their existence as white Australians pretended to be. Aboriginal activist Bobbi Sykes remembers going to a famous black political bookstore in Harlem, New York, only to be told “that there weren’t any blacks in Australia. Hence no Black Australia section”. Kruger described leaving the conference as a “sister in the struggle for the liberation of black people wherever they are and whoever they are”.

Yet, these important contacts and lessons also highlighted for some the impracticability of global connections. Cummins’ narrative is one of holus bolus transition of Black Panther ideas from America to Australia – but the reality was much more complex. Bob Maza, for example, reflected in a later interview how:

The black situation in the USA made me realise that if our black movement here in Australia is going to be left in the hands of whatever ego-trippers there are around… then we are going to head the same way that the black Americans did.

Maza’s injunction was clear – ultra masculine and violent rhetoric would lead to splintering of the working (if tenuous and contested) coalition in Australia between black and white activists.

On a different note, Jack Davis argued that the experience of black Americans, victims of transportation and slavery yet now a significant part of American life, could not really relate to Australian Aborigines, who had been in Australia “since the creation” and had little purchase on public life. Bob Bellear struck a similar chord, noting how “the thing is that blacks in Australia… can’t equate the problems of this country, the problems of class struggle, the problems of racism in this country with problems in any other part of the world”. “[T]he problem…is getting blacks just to know about each other, in such a vast country as this”, Bellear suggested, and thus overseas experiences should only be of secondary concern.

While debated, the importance of overseas travel to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s cannot be contested, as Cummins’ final uniting with her co-thinkers across the world in Black Panther Woman so splendidly demonstrates. Equally, her gut-wrenching story of sexual abuse is a telling lesson and cautionary tale for those of us who want to make political use of the past.

Jon Piccini is a historian of social movements. His book, Global Radicals: Transnational protest, Australia and the 1960s is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan. He tweets at @JonPiccini.

Communism, anti-racism and the ‘imperialist war’ phase in South Africa, USA and Australia, 1939-41

With the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War this week, this post is an extract from a paper that I am writing on the Communist Parties in South Africa, the United States and Australia and their agitation for black soldiers to join the war effort after the Soviet Union joined the Allies in June 1941. This part of the paper actually looks at the ‘imperialist’ war phase, between September 1939 and June 1941, when the international communist movement rejected the war as an inter-imperialist battle.

 

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After the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact in late August 1939, the Soviet Union shifted from its prominent anti-fascist stance that it had taken since the beginning of the Popular Front period. When Britain and France declared war on Germany, the Soviets declared that the war was an ‘imperialist’ war to maintain British and French colonial possessions.[1] Individual Communist Parties followed the Soviet lead and by October/November 1939, denounced the war as an imperialist war and pushed for ‘peace’ between the European powers. Australia and South Africa soon joined the British war effort (which was at first welcomed, then criticised by the respective Communist Parties), but the United States remained out of the war until December 1941. In the USA, the Communist Party’s main slogan was, according to Harry Haywood, ‘Keep America out of the imperialist war!’[2]

This opposition to the war reframed the anti-racist activism of the Communist Parties in all three countries, but predominantly in South Africa and the United States (partially owing to the fact that the Communist Party of Australia was banned from June 1940 to December 1942). The argument of the Communist Parties became that for non-white people, there was little difference between fascism and the imperialism of Britain and France, or particularly the discrimination faced by black people in the US or South Africa. The CPSA asked rhetorically in their Party organ in June 1940, ‘What is the difference to the Non-Europeans between the Nazi regime in Europe and the Union Government in South Africa?’, which was followed by ‘How can we be interested in fighting Nazism thousands of miles away, while in reality we have a similar monster devouring us here daily?’[3] The Communist Party argued that it was hypocritical of white South Africans to ask their non-white countrymen to fight for the Union (and the wider British Empire) when they did not enjoy the rights of their white contemporaries. A 1940 flyer produced by the Party stated:

It is an insult to the intelligence of the African, Coloured and Indian people to ask them to fight against a system of Nazi tyranny when they themselves suffer under terrible oppression and injustice.[4]

In February 1940, General Secretary of the CPSA, Moses Kotane, argued in Freedom that for Africans, there was ‘no enthusiasm among them for the war’,[5] while a pamphlet produced by the Johannesburg District Committee alleged that ‘the Coloured and African peoples are generally in a hostile frame of mind’, compared with the indifference of the Afrikaner population.[6]

However this hostility towards the war effort did not mean that Africans did not join the South African armed forces after the Union narrowly voted to go to war in October 1939. Despite the discrimination and segregation faced by Africans in the armed forces, David Killingray and Martin Plaut have calculated that more than 70,000 Africans enlisted into the Native Military Corps.[7] Although the CPSA was opposed to the war, they still campaigned for those non-Europeans who entered the armed forces to be treated as equals with white soldiers. Recognising that the armed forces offered a way out of unemployment for non-Europeans, the Party declared, ‘If the Government wants the non-Europeans to fight for it, let it give them the same rates of pay and chances of promotion as the Europeans.’[8]

Although the United States did not enter the war until after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, during the ‘imperialist war’ phase, the CPUSA warned of the ‘so-called liberal bourgeoisie’ who were seeking to ‘enlist the Negro’s support for American imperialism in this reactionary war’.[9] The CPUSA reminded its readers that African-American soldiers had fought in the Revolutionary Wars, the American Civil War and the First World War and had gained little from it, so while the ‘Negro masses [were] ever ready to fight for liberty, for real democracy’, they were not ready ‘to die again for the benefit of the swollen coffers of imperialist hangmen’.[10] This reflected broader trends in the attitudes of African-Americans towards the US armed forces in the lead up to America’s involvement in the conflict. As Daniel Kryder has noted, recruitment of African-Americans into (and retention within) the armed forces prior to Pearl Harbour was poor, with ‘widespread discontent’, so that by 1943, only one-fifth of black males eligible for service were successfully recruited (compared with one-third amongst eligible white males).[11]

Much more than the natives of South Africa and African-Americans, there was an initial enthusiasm amongst indigenous Australians (both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) to join the armed forces, although they were predominantly recruited to be support labour, rather than actual soldiers. When Australia entered the war in 1939, Noah Riseman reminds us that ‘[t]he Defence Act had no restrictions against enlistment of Aboriginal people’, although they were ‘exempt from call-up and from compulsory training’.[12] The Army had no little interest in actively recruiting indigenous people or the formation of indigenous units, but many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders did join up (approximately 3000 and 850 personnel respectively), with some seeing it as a way on encouraging the Australian Government to give its indigenous population citizenship rights.[13] Explaining the position of the influential Australian Aborigines’ League, Robert A. Hall summarised, ‘If Australia were to take seriously its fight against fascism,… then it had to take steps to end repression of Aborigines at home.’[14] However this recruitment was short-lived and in 1940, the government ‘explicitly prohibited the enlistment of all nonwhite persons into the army and navy’, although this was reassessed the following year as the threat of the Japanese loomed bigger.[15] By this time, the Soviet Union had entered the war and the position of the Communists in Australia, as well as everywhere else, had changed.

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[1] V. Molotov, Soviet Peace Policy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1941) p. 30.

[2] Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978) p. 496.

[3] ‘The War and Segregation’, Freedom, June 1940, p. 7. Italics are in the original text.

[4] ‘Non-Europeans and the War’ (Cape Town: CPSA flyer, 1940) BC 1081/O18.10, Ray and Jack Simons Collection, University of Cape Town Library.

[5] Moses Kotane, ‘The Africans and the War’, Freedom, February 1940, p. 7.

[6] J. Morkel, The War and South Africa, (Johannesburg: CPSA pamphlet, 1940) p. 5.

[7] David KIllingray with Martin Plaut, Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War (Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currie, 2010) p. 72.

[8] ‘Non-Europeans and the War’.

[9] Theodore R. Bassett & A.W. Berry, ‘The Negro People and the Struggle for Peace’, The Communist (April 1940) p. 326.

[10] Bassett & Berry, ‘The Negro People…’, p. 326.

[11] Daniel Kryder, Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State During World War

[12] Noah Riseman, Defending Whose Country? Indigenous Soldiers in the Pacific War (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2012) p. 10.

[13] Robert A. Hall, The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997) pp. 9-12; Riseman, Defending Whose Country? p. 10.

[14] Hall, The Black Diggers, p. 11.

[15] Riseman, Defending Whose Country? pp. 10-11. Italics are in the original text.