As Accuracy in Academia (AIA) has previously documented, members of the Ivory Tower, some of whom remain ardent Marxists themselves, maintain that McCarthyite “hysteria” suppressed free expression in the 1950s and led to the unjustified blacklisting of those with socialist sentiments.
But one poet, Langston Hughes, may not be as innocent as these academics suggest.
“Yet two decades later, even as he was composing his memoir of this event, Hughes suffered an ordeal of anti-communist fervor in his own country at the hands of [Senator Joseph] McCarthy and, more portentously, [General] Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied powers in American-occupied post-war Japan,” argued Professor Etsuko Taketani from the University of Tsukuba at this year’s Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention. She described how Hughes’ memoir, I Wonder as I Wander recounts the black poet’s journey from the Soviet Union to Japan, on to Shanghai, and his deportation upon returning to Japan.
“In a draft section entitled Shanghai Terror that was entirely cut from the published version of the memoir, Hughes recounts his navigation of the perilous tunnels of Soviet-allied internationalism in Shanghai,” said Professor Taketani. While in Shanghai—the heart of Chinese Communist thought at the time—Hughes first met with Harold Isaacs, who worked with the Chinese Communists’ publication World Forum.
(In 1934, Isaacs broke with World Forum because of what he saw as deliberate misinformation and “nauseatingly fawning praise of Stalin.” “I had to refuse to lend space to the nauseatingly fawning praise of Stalin and uncritical reception of Stalinist policies which characterize the Communist party press the world over….I would like to go to the Soviet Union for a visit one day—but I had to refuse your offer on your terms. I had to refuse, in short, to become a hack prostitute in the name of the revolution,” he wrote).
While there, according to Taketani, Hughes refused to deliver a letter from Moscow to a Chinese leftist. “Nonetheless, Hughes asked Isaacs to arrange a meeting for him with [her] though the poet knew it might be “dangerous” since [she] was under constant surveillance and was frequently threatened with assassination due to her left-wing sympathies and unguarded criticism of Chang Kai Shek,” said Professor Taketani.
This experience immediately followed Hughes’ year in the Soviet Union. He told an executive session of the Permanent Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, transcripts of which weren’t released until 2003, that “Well, I went to make a movie, or to work on a movie, rather. I should not say make, myself. I went to work on a picture. The picture was not made, and I remained as a writer and journalist, and came back around the world.”
Senator Everett Dirksen (former R-Ill.) asked “As I recall, all movies in the Soviet Union are government products, really, are they not?”
“This was a disputed point at that time,” replied Hughes. “But I would think so.”
Hughes also worked as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, interviewing members of the Soviet-influenced Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Claflin University professor Sharynn Owens Etheridge noted in an aside to her presentation that “monetary support [for the ALB] came from the Soviet Union during that time.”
Renita Lorden argued that “both lovers and haters alike have painted Langston’s 1930s canon red, albeit for different reasons—the dream is no socialist dream but a dream rooted in the American experience.” Yet Hughes’ “Red Poetry” includes works which encourage Americans to “put another S. in the USA to make it Soviet;” the poem “Goodbye Christ,” replaces religion with “a real guy named Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.”
As Professor Owens Etheridge describes,
“Hughes inaccurate reputation for being a Communist dates from his poems in the 1930s, such as “Salute to Soviet Armies,” as revealed in the lines:
‘Mighty Soviet Armies marching on the west. Red star on your visor, courage on your breast/ Mighty Soviet armies, warriors brave and strong/ Freedom is your watchword as you forge on.’
Describing how the Scottsboro trials transformed Hughes’ vision of America, Professor Benjamin T. Foster of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale said that “Given his vocal support of black rights, Hughes reconsidered many of his previous positions on race and his stance became decidedly more socialist and political.”
“While he was ultimately uncomfortable with being identified as a communist, communism’s international approach—[a] democratic view of race—appealed to Hughes’ intellectual transformation.” Hughes’ Scottsboro play celebrates communisms’ post-racialism. “In the final section, the Scottsboro boys and the distinctively identified ‘red voices’ sing the Internationale and unite to wave the red flag,” said Professor Foster.
Racial issues also influenced Hughes admiration of Stalin’s Russia. “After all, when Hughes traveled to the Soviet Union he observed no Jim Crow and no anti-semitism. Furthermore, Soviet Union leaders enabled the masses unprecedented access to education and medical care,” said Professor Owens Etheridge.
She failed to mention the 62 million who died at the hands of the Soviets, according to estimates by, R. J. Russell, political scientist and co-author of Death By Government. (Russell and Irving Louis Horowitz estimated that only approximately 7 million of these deaths occurred in post-Stalin Russia).
Anti-semitism and the growing revelation of Soviet human rights abuses likely informed Hughes’ decision to distance himself from Communism during a public hearing before the Subcommittee in 1953.
When McCarthy aide Roy Cohn asked “Have you received any disillusionment recently, concerning the treatment of minorities by the Soviet Union?” Hughes replied “Well, the evidence in the press—I have not been there, of course, myself—indicating persecution and terror against the Jewish people, has been very appalling to me.”
Devoting two panels at the MLA to the free-speech-destroying evils of McCarthyism, the Langston Hughes Society academics largely argued that Hughes was victimized by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other “red-baiters.”
However, despite that fact that Hughes’ works indirectly (or sometimes directly) called for a communist revolution in the United States, that he had visited Stalin’s Russia for a year praising its post-racial utopia, and was affiliated with Communist members worldwide, Hughes’ visit before the Subcommittee was actually an investigation into how the State Department had used tax dollars to place pro-communist books in U.S. government libraries abroad. When asked during the March 23rd executive session whether his pro-Communist writings should be there, Hughes said “Yes. You want them [foreigners] to know we have freedom of the press.”
In the coming days—during the public hearing—Hughes would claim otherwise. Asked if they should be in these libraries, he said “No, I would not. I have made no attempt to get them back into circulation. Some of them have been out of print for at least 12 or 15 years.”
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.