Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party by Gerald Horne. New York: International Publishers, 2021. $19.99. Pp. 460.
Reviewed by Denise Lynn
This year International Publishers is reprinting two of Gerald Horne’s seminal studies: Communist Front? The Civil Rights Congress, 1946-1956 coming out in August 2021 and Black Liberation/Red Scare released in March. Horne’s biography of Ben Davis, Black Liberation/Red Scare, originally released in 1994, is not only a detailed look into the life of one of the American Communist Party’s (CPUSA) most important leaders; it is also a narrative of anticommunist harassment and the damage done to the Black freedom struggle as a result.
Horne argues that in the post-World War II years there were concessions made to civil rights demands, but this happened simultaneously with the silencing of the movement’s allies in the CPUSA. This meant that the movement could only “go so far.” Pushing for economic justice invited accusations of communism. Even conservative integrationist goals were often linked to an imagined communist plot, an anticommunist legacy that still plagues progressives and radicals. The deployment of anticommunist techniques taught government officials how to suppress activists under the guise of democracy. As Horne argues, this repression did not end with the Party; it continued to be used to limit the goals of the Black freedom struggle.
This is one of Horne’s most significant historiographical contributions – the analysis of the damage done by anticommunism and its ability to perpetuate the white supremacist state. Often called the Horne thesis by scholars, Horne has effectively demonstrated that both white supremacy and the repression of radicals and their goals defined the post-war era.
Ben Davis’s career in the CPUSA demonstrates these twin imperatives. He was radicalized in the 1920s and 1930s because of the machinations of the political parties and the criminal justice system. Ben Davis Jr. was born in 1908 in Georgia; his father Ben Davis Sr. was a newspaperman and a leading Georgia Republican. The junior Davis went north for college, attending Amherst College in Massachusetts then going on to Harvard Law School. He moved to Atlanta to start a law practice. Meanwhile, his father faced hostility in the GOP as the state party began to marginalize its Black members, leading many to leave the Party. Horne argues that witnessing the Party’s attack and abandonment of its loyal Black constituency started to move Davis to the left.
But it was the Angelo Herndon case that turned him into a communist. Herndon worked for the Unemployed Councils within the CPUSA. He planned a demonstration on the Georgia State House to protest the removal of thousands from the state relief roles in 1933, the height of the Depression. Herndon was arrested under an old slave insurrection law and jailed; the communist literature found in his boarding room was used as evidence against him. Davis was hired by William Patterson to represent Herndon for the International Labor Defense (ILD). He was also actively recruited into the Party. As Horne argues, the CPUSA’s defense and campaign for Herndon appealed to Black people and “emboldened” Black Atlantans. But the case also made life difficult for Black lawyers and, as Harry Haywood claimed, the Ku Klux Klan had it out for Davis because of his work on the case.
Davis left Georgia and moved to Harlem where he took up work as editor of the Negro Liberator and worked on the Daily Worker as well as with Cyril Briggs’ Crusader News Agency. Herndon’s case would eventually make it to the Supreme Court where his conviction was vacated in 1937, a win for the CPUSA. Horne argues that in the 1930s Jim Crow, racist violence, and cases like Herndon’s pushed many Black Americans to the left and many would join the CPUSA or its adjacent organizations and campaigns. As he writes “by virtue of its racism, the US ruling class had handed Blacks to the Left on a silver platter.” Davis would work with many of the prominent Black figures that were involved with the Party in the Depression era including James Ford and the rising entertainment star Paul Robeson.
One of the Party’s more memorable and controversial moves in the depression decade was its seeming abandonment of anti-fascism and support of the Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. The pact took the world by surprise, though Stalin had long been appealing to the Western powers for alliances and was turned down. Horne argues that the claim the pact led to the Party’s decline “overstates the case.” Some members were aware that they did not have to have the same stand as the Party – he points specifically to Claude Lightfoot’s criticism of the pact. There were Party members that were already opposed to the war because of their fears of war profiteering, as well as their hesitation to ally with British and French imperialists. Some Party members were angry with British and French actions in Africa and the West Indies. And many criticized the ability of both the Republican and Democratic Parties to flip flop on issues while the CPUSA was simply dismissed as collaborators. Whatever the case, one argument Black Party members like Claudia Jones and Davis made was that Black Americans could hardly be asked to fight against fascism abroad while they faced racial fascism at home.
Davis was becoming an important figure in the Party. When he volunteered to testify to a Senate Committee on anti-lynching legislation and then “pilloried racists” this made him a popular and powerful figure. He used his growing national notoriety to run for Congress in 1942, he lost that campaign, but the following year he was elected to the New York City Council. The city then used a proportional representation system that allowed Davis to fill the seat and win re-election two more times. By the time of his first campaign the FBI had opened a file on Davis, and he was placed on J. Edgar Hoover’s Security Index, a list of individuals to be detained during a national security crisis. Even after the US entered the war against fascist Germany and became allies with the Soviet Union, American intelligence agencies expended a great many resources to monitor communists like Davis, monitoring that would contribute to postwar harassment and eventually lead to Davis’s imprisonment.
Meanwhile Davis was busy working on several campaigns in New York; along with his friend Paul Robeson, he met with baseball leaders to encourage the desegregation of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a city council member, he gained a reputation for listening to his constituents and he integrated the city’s fire department. Davis’s popularity with both his voters and his comrades continued to grow. In June 1941, the CPUSA changed its policy back to open support of the war when the German army invaded the Soviet Union. This once again led to accusations that it was a Soviet Puppet. But as Horne argues, by 1943, the Party’s new Browderism policy demonstrated that the Party was not in fact following the Soviet lead. After the Big Three meeting in Tehran that year, CPUSA chairman Earl Browder began to pursue a policy of “conciliation with the ruling class” in DC and on Wall Street that came to be known as Browderism. The logic behind Browderism was that during the war capitalism and communism had united “despite class antagonism” and this meant that there was no longer a need for the class struggle; instead, labor and capital could work together. Horne argues that this policy was not completely Browder’s fault as it was “more emulation” of the US and USSR relationship “than dictation” and Browder was not alone in pushing the new Party line. The liquidation of the Comintern in 1943 was in part the inspiration for Browderism. In 1944 the Party changed its name to the Communist Political Association.
Part of the new policy was the abandonment of civil rights goals as Browder argued that Black Americans had used their self-determination to pursue integration. Despite this new line, Ben Davis adopted and followed it until the CPA was formally dissolved in 1945. Other Black members, however, were critical of the new policy. Doxey Wilkerson wanted a more vocal attack on military segregation despite wartime support, and Claudia Jones disagreed, penning a formal challenge to it in 1945. Browderism was seen as “class conciliation” as well as “emulation of Moscow,” though Horne argues that the program demonstrates the Party’s independence from Moscow. This is demonstrated in the 1945 Duclos letter – a letter attributed to French communist Jacques Duclos which was written in Moscow and was critical of Browderism. The letter denounced Browderism and emboldened internal critics like William Foster to challenge Earl Browder’s leadership. In July 1945, Browder was ousted from the Party and Foster would ascend to Party Chair. Despite Davis’s previous support of Browderism he was named to the National Board. His earlier support did not seem to damage his reputation.
Even as the Party resolved its issues with Browderism, redbaiting began to put pressure on the membership. Davis’s 1945 re-election campaign showed some early signs that progressives would abandon their communist colleagues. The local Democratic Party and the American Labor Party refused to endorse him as they had in his earlier campaign. Horne argues that his campaign showed a pattern that would be followed in future redbaiting: moderates would “blunt” the popularity of the left among Black voters by making “concessions” to some to avoid “loud complaints.” Davis was also subpoenaed to testify before the HUAC during his campaign, which Horne describes as a “not too subtle” attempt at disruption. But his campaign also demonstrated the popular support communists enjoyed among some celebrities at the time. Davis was endorsed by boxer Joe Louis, and musicians Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. Despite moderate abandonment he was re-elected; this inspired city official machinations to get rid of the proportional voting system. They succeeded in 1947 and not only did this doom left-wing candidates it also shoved women from the council and meant the end of “Democratic control” which led to “corruption.” Redbaiting served to solidify conservative control and limit progressive actions at every level.
By 1946, Ben Davis was the most popular communist followed by the popular leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But according to Horne, this was also the year the Red Scare began in earnest. The Party was drawing in members and promoting many of its Black Party members and that did not go unnoticed. Davis’s colleague Henry Winston became the third ranking Party leader behind Foster and Eugene Dennis. Though the Party had its own problems with racism, it was still better than the GOP and the Democratic Party and had visible Black leadership. This “premature anti-racism” would be put in “check” by the Red Scare. Davis and his comrades became vocal critics of the rising racist violence in the country, particularly against Black veterans. He criticized the integration of Black people into elite circles as “making imperialism appear more attractive.”
But as Horne argues the growing racist violence and the two parties seeming indifference, kept pushing Black Americans to the left. This prompted moderates to make token efforts to appease civil rights claims while simultaneously using redbaiting to undermine the left and drive a wedge between them and progressives. Their efforts made it hard for progressives to align with the Party which would forestall any real progress. This for Horne was the hallmark of the postwar period “clubbing the left and co-opting the center” so liberal Black leaders chose integration rather than self-determination and were ultimately forced to accept half-hearted concessions ultimately preventing real change. For Horne, the Red Scare was aimed “not just at Reds but at democracy and social progress generally.”
By 1948, Davis was accusing both political parties of heading toward fascism. That same year he and his Party colleagues supported the Henry Wallace presidential bid on the Progressive Party ticket. Wallace, who supported a managed capitalism, denounced the US’s containment policy and its increasing tensions with the Soviet Union. He counseled open relations between the two countries and warned against his own country’s growing militarism; this aligned with the Party policy that feared the tensions with the USSR fed the growing attack on its ranks. The containment policy was waged both domestically and internationally and increased surveillance and harassment of Party members. Davis argued that in the 1948 campaign voters were forced to choose between “tuberculosis Truman” or “cancer Dewey,” and he and his colleagues Claudia Jones, and Paul and Eslanda Robeson campaigned hard for Wallace. In a reflection of the country’s rightward swing, the Progressive Party did not win a single electoral vote while the Dixiecrat bid by Strom Thurmond on a committed segregationist and anticommunist plank won 39 electoral votes.
The Red Scare was creating an “anti-progressive atmosphere” that made the “right wing a chief beneficiary.” That summer during the Wallace campaign, Davis was arrested along with the other members of the CPUSA National Board. This move put the “finishing touches on the liquidation of the left” which would reduce its “influence for a generation” and lend legitimacy to the right and help its goal to “redistribute the wealth from bottom to top.” Davis and his fellow defendants were charged under the Smith Act which made it illegal to advocate or belong to an organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the US government. The trial was an obvious “frame-up” with the additional goal of trying to bankrupt the CPUSA – it cost the Party $10,000 per week. All twelve of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. With his conviction the New York City Council moved to have Davis ejected making him the first person to be expelled in its history.
The year after Davis’s conviction the Korean War broke out which only intensified anticommunism and the Red Scare “reached its apogee” while the “Black condition regressed.” The Cold War led to concessions made to Black Americans to try and improve America’s image and to “undermine the leftist appeal” among Black Americans. This did not silence Davis or the Party which became active in denouncing the increase in police brutality. Davis emphasized ending the Korean War to “bring our boys home to fight Jim Crow.” In June 1951, the Supreme Court upheld the Smith Act convictions and Davis was remanded to a segregated prison in Terra Haute, Indiana. The Courts affirmation of the convictions opened the door for more Party members to be arrested and tried including Claudia Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. All told, hundreds of Party members would be arrested, tried and imprisoned, and some like Jones, eventually deported.
Davis spent from 1951 to 1955 in prison where his health deteriorated. Black prisoners were treated poorly and often neglected; his co-defendant Henry Winston eventually lost his eyesight because his complaints went ignored for so long. Davis lost weight, had to have surgery for intestinal issues, and he slipped a disc. While imprisoned the Party, emboldened by the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision pushed to desegregate prisons. Davis’s name was included in a lawsuit, but it was eventually removed because lawyers wanted to avoid having a communist involved.
Upon Davis’s release he faced an embattled Party. The FBI was still actively trying to undermine Party members and its organizational stability, money was being hemorrhaged in legal cases, and leadership was being affected because of imprisonment and deportation. While Davis was imprisoned, Khrushchev’s announcement confirming Stalin’s purges further shook the Party and led to infighting. Davis was aligned with the Foster faction which remained devoted to the Party; some described the faction as Stalin apologists. The Party also lost members – within ten years it had lost 60,000 members. The Red Scare continued unabated and began to affect American politics as military spending increased and tax dollars focused on Cold War containment and not “human needs.” For Horne, the Red Scare was also useful in “pushing the elite version of Black liberation.” A version that was more palatable to white liberals who aligned themselves with integrationists from a comfortable distance.
But the Party’s Black leadership increased and by 1959 Davis was elected as Party Chairman. This also led the FBI to conclude that the Party was more pro-Soviet than ever, and it continued its surveillance. Davis was fingered as the leader of the so-called Stalinist faction but as Horne argues the FBI was so involved in the Party at this point that it was hard to know what was “organic or manufactured.” Because association with the Party was such a liability, those who remained were part of the “hardcore left.” Even as liberals tried to keep their distance from communists, Davis was actively trying to work with the civil rights movement and was present when Martin Luther King was stabbed in 1958. His attacker Izola Curry, was mumbling about communists which for Horne shows the damage that redbaiting had caused.
Even while the Party was losing members and a younger group of activists emerged to challenge racist institutions, the FBI and other authorities continued its surveillance and harassment of Davis and his comrades. The FBI had 1500 agents in the Party by 1962 and Davis’s brother-in-law worked as a Bureau informant. New York State tried to deny him a driver’s license; a tactic that was not used against white Party members. Davis had to secure lawyers before he was able to secure his license. The FBI meanwhile tried to disrupt his marriage and sew discord between Davis and Party leader Gus Hall. In 1962, both Davis and Hall were indicted under the 1950 Internal Security Act which carried a possible 30-year sentence. But with a new visible Black freedom struggle and younger activists taking the reigns, anti-communism was becoming un-popular and activists rallied behind Davis and Hall. Davis appreciated the direct-action tactics of the new movement and supported it until his unexpected death in August 1964. Even in death the police were not done with him – police harassment forced a change in venue for his funeral and agents copied the license plates of attendees and investigated them.
Ben Davis’s decades long communist career is a testament to the concerted efforts made for revolutionary change and the appeal the left had to Black Americans in a violent and segregated country. As Horne demonstrates, Davis’s career was also hampered by official state harassment and the concerted attempts of the white supremacist state to preserve its power. One of the many important scholarly interventions Gerald Horne has made is to demonstrate how the state consciously conceded to limited civil rights demands only to improve its image on the global stage. This became an imperative in the postwar world as the US vied for influence in newly decolonizing states against Soviet Union. The Western states’ long history of imperialism and colonization abroad and violent racism at home drove Black Americans and many in newly independent states to the left; the United States tried to present itself as an open liberal democracy by offering Black Americans a seat at the table. But without economic advancement that seat remained unequal. As Horne demonstrates, this could only be achieved by “isolating the Left” and creating “anti-communist alliances” between Liberals and Black Americans. Though a younger generation of activists rejected anti-communism and embraced the harassed communists, the legacy of American anti-communism remains and is regularly weaponized against progressive demands. Recently American conservatives have deployed anti-communism against Joe Biden a Democrat whose politics are very right of center and their attempts are wildly successful in a country where dismissing historical grievances as socialism is easier than acknowledging the systemic resiliency of white supremacy.
Horne’s biography of Davis demonstrates the lengths the state will go to preserve its power and prevent radical change.
-Dr. Denise Lynn is Associate Professor of History, the University of Southern Indiana.
 Gerald Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party (New York: International Publishers, 2021): 13.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 82.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 78-81.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 101.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 141.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 164, 190, 192.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 174, 178.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 179, 190.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 192, 198.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 210, 240, 244.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 240, 245, 248.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 256, 265.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 270, 274, 276, 286.
 Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare, 286, 288, 290, 296.