No Politics Are Local: A Critique of Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe

I have finally taken the time to read Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. The book was written twenty years ago, but it is still widely read and its subject matter is of such importance that it warrants a brief review here.

Kelley is a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His book, published in 1990, is part of a current of American historiography that—broadly speaking—attempts to rehabilitate the position of the Communist Party in the interpretation of the struggle of African-American freedom struggle. Since the book was published, Kelley’s work has become more interesting, perhaps in part due to the influence to his encounter with the late Chicago Surrealist Franklin Rosemont and the Black Radical Congress inaugural meeting in 1988 (see my review of Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora, which he co-edited with Rosemont).

Hammer and Hoe is distinguished from most of the revisionist writing on the CP (for example, the work of Maurice Isserman) in that Kelley prefers the party’s Third Period and Hitler-Stalin Pact policy to that of the Popular Front. In Kelley’s view, the more “radical” domestic policies allowed the Communists to create an “invisible army” of northern Alabama sharecroppers and industrial workers (miners and steel workers) in Birmingham to combat the near-monolithic system of violent racism that reigned over the south. The Popular Front, Kelley argues, subordinated those efforts to the class collaboration that was the party’s official line between 1935 and 1939.

My main objection to Kelley’s thesis is that it is impossible to separate “domestic” from “international” politics (which Kelly calls “foreign policy issues” on p. 190—where in a discussion of Germany’s invasion of Poland he neglects to mention that the U.S.S.R. also invaded the country). To do so is to violate the Marxist relationship between theory and practice and to reduce potentially revolutionary activity to reformism.

The book does make a contribution of confronting us with the incredible level of deadly racist violence which was the foundation of Jim Crow rule in the democratic U.S., so-called. Kelley concludes with a brief discussion of the relationship of this period with the emergence of the civil rights movement in Alabama in the 1960s, speculating on the “Long Civil Rights Movement” thesis.

For an alternate view of the events Kelley closes with, I refer readers to Chapter 20 (“Stokely Carmichael in Lowndes County”) in Charles Denbys’ Indignant Heart: A Black Workers’s Journal, a book that should be studied in its entirety alongside Hammer and Hoe.

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