The God That Failed: Why Six Great Writers Rejected Communism is an anthology which details why each author left communism. Authors include: Andre Gide, Arthur Koestler, Louis Fischer, Ignazio Silone, and Stephen Spender. Richard Wright, author and son of a sharecropper, is the third author in The God That Failed and his story comes from the perspective of a black man in his early adult years.
It was Wright’s desire to write and be published that led him to embrace communism. When Wright’s co-worker at his local post office in Chicago invited Wright to a meeting at the John Reed Club, Wright’s reply was “I don’t want to be organized.” His co-worker convinced Wright the club would help him get published. This promise led Wright one night led to the doorstep of The John Reed Club. Upon Wright’s first meeting he was asked to write for a magazine called Left Front.
Later at home he read the magazines his soon-to-be comrades gave him. His mother upon seeing the cover art on one magazine became concerned. The illustration cartoon showed a bugged eyed, open mouthed worker holding a red banner, being followed by a mob holding weapons. Wright rationalized that the grotesque depiction was what the artist’s thought would be most eye catching and gain the cause new adherents. Though the art was too abstract and “missed the meaning of the masses lives” the stories of struggle and the hope for uniting outcasts enchanted Wright.
Believing communism was a proper home for the black experience; Wright presented his crude poems to magazine staff and was surprised when two of his poems were published in three magazines: Left Front, Anvil, and New Masses. Though Wright was concerned about the quality of his work, staff explained that their magazines wrote about blacks but didn’t have any works by them, thus Wright’s work was needed to influence other blacks and display solidarity between the plight of Negros and the worker. Upon floors covered with papers and cigarette butts, Wright was soon elected by the “fervent and restless” staff as executive secretary. Though Wright expressed his disinterest in the position, it had been determined before Wright was informed that he was to be used as the Negro tool to oust certain artists from the group. His leaders knew no one would vote against a black guy because of how it would look.
One wild story Wright tells is of a new member who for several months was on a mission to rid the club of “traitors.” Comrade Young at a meeting one night verbally attacked a talented artist in the club named Swann as a “collaborator with the police” and a Trotskyite. While word from the party of Young’s membership never came, Young readily kept up his attacks until one day Wright and others learned Young was an escaped patient from a nearby asylum in Detroit. It was at this point Wright began to wonder “what kind of club did we run that a lunatic could step into it and help run it?”
At a meeting of black communists he was patronized by his fellow comrades for being a writer and intellectual. From Wright’s shined shoes to his proper grammar, he was deemed bourgeois from that meeting on. When Wright decided to work on a project involving a fellow black communist named Ross and Ross’s experiences growing up, Wright’s membership and loyalty quickly became questioned by leaders. Wright’s first brush with such totalitarian aspects came in the form of a black comrade confronting him at home. Here’s some of the conversation he describes.
Comrade: “Intellectuals don’t fit well into the party, Wright.”
Wright: “But I’m not an intellectual, I sweep streets for a living”
Comrade: “…we’ve had trouble with intellectuals in the past…only 13% stay in the party.”
Wright: “Why do they leave…?”
Comrade: “General opposition to party policies.”
Wright: “But I’m not opposing anything in the party.”
Comrade: “You’ll have to prove your revolutionary loyalty…the party has a way of testing people.”
At this point in their conversation Wright’s comrade refers to another black party member known for being militant who was wounded in the head by police during a demonstration.
Comrade: “That’s proof of revolutionary loyalty.”
Wright: “Do you mean that I must get whacked in the head by cops to prove that I’m sincere?”
Comrade: “I’m not suggesting anything, I’m explaining.”
Wright: “Look. Suppose a cop whacks me over the head and I suffer a brain concussion. Suppose I’m nuts after that. Can I write then? What shall I have proved?”
Comrade: “The Soviet Union has had to shoot a lot of intellectuals.”
Wright’s work recording Ross’s experiences became an unwinnable situation when Ross was accused of “anti-leadership tendencies,” “class collaborationist attitudes,” and “ideological factionalism.” This authentic frontier gibberish led Wright and Ross to not even trust each other, two black low-income comrades in Chicago, when alone together. Suspicion ran deeply throughout the militant John Reed Club and its affiliates. Wright discovered that in group situations, those who agreed with his points remained quiet out of fear.
Eventually Wright himself was accused of being a “smuggler of reaction,” “petty bourgeois degenerate,” “bastard intellectual,” and “incipient Trotskyite” who manifested “seraphim tendencies.” His friend Ross confessed to crimes against the party he never committed. At this, Wright saw the writing on the wall, eventually asking at a meeting to have his membership dropped from party rolls (though he did ask to stay connected to certain elements at the time). His question was deferred but Wright didn’t care anymore, he grabbed his hat and walked out the door without a word.
Even that act was twisted into lie about Wright being a wayward Trotskyite leading others out of the party. Yet he was discouraged from leaving because “People would think that something was wrong if someone like you quit…” Wright’s response is understandable:
“My comrades had known me, my family, my friends; they, God knows, had known my aching poverty. But they had never been able to conquer their fear of the individual way in which I acted and lived, an individuality which life had seared into my boots.”
Unfortunately for Wright, his so-called traitorous ways got him into trouble by the many communists who, according to Wright, often worked in Works Progress Administration positions. Wright was clandestinely kicked out of his job through the Federal Negro Theater. Transferred to the Federal Writers Project, attempts to oust Wright were thwarted by his supervisor. One day, Wright left work and encountered picketing in front of his building. As he walked from the building he heard shouted at him among other insults “Wright’s a traitor!” Wright said of the experience: “I had now reached a point where I was cursed aloud in the busy streets of America’s second-largest city. It shook me as nothing else had.”
The last story Wright tells discusses the day he realized he’d never feel “that simple sharpness about life” and was done with communism. After a fellow black comrade invited Wright to join his contingent during a May Day parade, suddenly a white district party leader named Cy Perry told Wright to “get out of our ranks.” Dumbfounded Wright explained he wanted to be there but Perry enlisted another comrade to lift Wright into the air and pitch him headfirst into a sidewalk. Though Wright avoided a head injury, his mind was forever changed. Richard Wright went on to write Native Son, The Outsider, Black Boy, and Uncle Tom’s Children. He lived in Paris until he died of a heart attack at the age of 52.
“Even a Negro, entrapped by ignorance and exploitation – as I had been – could, if he had the will and love for it, learn to read and understand the world in which he lived. And it was these people that the Communists could not understand.”
Photo credit: https://www.loa.org/writers/269-richard-wright