The Socialism of James Baldwin

“In the early 1940s, James Baldwin was in his teens and living in New York City when he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, a branch of the Socialist Party of America. His first foray into formal political life followed years of informal activity, including public agitation. ‘At thirteen, I had been a convinced fellow traveler,’ Baldwin wrote in his political memoir, No Name in the Street. ‘I marched in one May Day parade, carrying banners, shouting, East Side, West Side, all around the town, We want the landlords to tear the slums down!’ Baldwin’s attraction to left-wing politics was practical, based on his experience growing up in the tenements of Harlem. ‘I didn’t know anything about Communism,’ he wrote, ‘but I knew a lot about slums.’ Baldwin’s self-conception as a budding socialist was a far cry from how he would later describe his relationship with the Left. ‘My life on the Left is of absolutely no interest,’ he wrote in the introduction to The Price of the Ticket, a collection of his nonfiction works. ‘It did not last long. It was useful in that I learned that it may be impossible to indoctrinate me.’ What happened? Reading Baldwin’s writings, it becomes clear that it was contemporary socialism’s perceived inability to deal with the race question that estranged him from the movement, pushing the once-inspired agitator to deride left-wing politics as mere indoctrination. Baldwin would eventually return to socialism — but the homecoming would take thirty years and require the advent of a new form of left-wing politics, embodied in the Black Panthers. Born in New York City on August 2, 1924, Baldwin grew up in a Harlem that was becoming a center of black cultural life. The Great Migration of African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South to Northern cities like New York had started the previous decade, setting the stage for the Harlem Renaissance. This flourishing of African-American art and culture was cut short by the Great Depression, which plunged the neighborhood into poverty and marred Baldwin’s childhood. As a young boy, he spent much of his time caring for his eight younger siblings while his mother cleaned the homes of rich women and his stepfather preached to an ever-shrinking flock of Baptist congregants. … Baldwin’s personal experience with poverty was ignited by Miller, inspiring him to become active in politics. Although there’s no record of Baldwin’s participation in the Young People’s Socialist League, his writings contain references to his political activities from the time. …”
LitHub: A Look Inside James Baldwin’s 1,884 Page FBI File

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