Super interesting racist trial from CPUSA in 1931

[This case of] an expulsion that took place in the US Communist Party in 1931 [gives] us a sense of why expulsion might be valuable and necessary and how its benefits extend from comrade, to party, to the people. In 1931, CPUSA conducted a massive trial in Harlem. August Yokinen, a Finnish worker, was tried for racial prejudice, upholding white superiority, and forwarding views detrimental to the working class. Some 1,500 black and white workers attended the trial, which was held in the Harlem Casino, one of the biggest halls in the area. A jury of fourteen workers, seven black and seven white, delivered the verdict.

The events leading up to Yokinen’s trial unfolded at a Finnish club in Harlem. One evening, three African-American workers showed up for a dance the club was hosting. They were reluctantly admitted, but the hostility of some of the white workers was such that the black workers soon felt they had leave. Yokinen was one of several party members at the dance, none of whom defended the black workers, meaning that none fulfilled “their responsibilities and duties as Party members.” The white party members neglected to take “a decisive stand for the defense of the right of the Negro workers to attend this dance together with the white workers.” They failed to put equal rights in practice. Instead, they tried to smooth things over.

The Communist Party Committee of the Harlem section investigated the matter, questioning “the comrades in the Finnish club.”9 The Finnish comrades “admitted their mistake … all except Comrade Yokinen.” Yokinen attempted to justify his behavior by saying that he was worried that the black workers would go into the pool room, a room for bathing, “and that he for one, did not wish to bathe with Negroes.”

At Yokinen’s trial, Clarence Hathaway, the editor of the Daily Worker, presented the case for prosecution. Richard B. Moore, “the Party’s greatest black orator,” carried the defense. Each of their speeches detailed for the audience the Communist Party’s position that the struggle for black freedom and racial equality was central to working class struggle. Each emphasized the party’s commitment to eliminating white chauvinism from its ranks. Each agreed that Yokinen was guilty. The defense produced a statement from him (translated from Finnish; Yokinen was not fluent in English) that admitted guilt and promised to rectify it through concrete work toward eliminating race prejudice and supporting the black liberation struggle. The disagreement between the prosecution and the defense was over the penalty: should Yokinen be expelled from the Communist Party or put on probation?

Hathaway’s case for expulsion focused on how Yokinen was guilty of views and practices that hindered class unity and violated fundamental laws of the Communist Party. Yokinen hindered class unity in several ways. First, the prosecutor claimed that the accused repeated the “white-superiority lies that have been developed consciously by the capitalists and the Southern slave-owners.” Hathaway was acknowledging that Yokinen hadn’t come up with his prejudicial views on his own but repeated ideas he got from others. These ideas were “systematically and persistently implanted among the workers of this country by the capitalists.” Yokinen thus operated as a “phonograph for the capitalists.” Hathaway explained to the jury and audience that capitalists promoted white superiority in order to justify the “brutal exploitation and the vicious persecution of the Negro masses by the capitalists in the United States.” Therefore even the slightest expression of race superiority turned white workers into “the agents of the bourgeoisie inside the working class movement.” By transmitting racist views instead of acting according to the egalitarian expectations of the Communist Party, Yokinen undermined party efforts to build unity among black and white workers.

Hathaway’s second argument was that Yokinen indirectly supported the double oppression of black workers. Hathaway reminded those present at the trial that the ideology of white superiority and race hatred was the foundation for lynching and Jim Crow. He told the assembled workers:

Comrade Yokinen, of course, is against all this. He is against lynching and persecution. But unconsciously, Comrade Yokinen with his theories weakens all the efforts to bring about the unity between the white and Negro workers in common struggle against the ruthless and bloody exploiters.

To bring home the seriousness of Yokinen’s crime, Hathaway noted that forty-three “Negro workers and poor farmers were lynched last year.” He linked these crimes to black courage and militancy, saying that Southern whites typically presented lynching as a response to the charge of rape but that this was a lie. Hathaway explained:

When you go to the root of these “rape” cases, we find not rape but that the Negro is lynched because he refuses to accept the accounting that he is given by the landlord’s store. They refuse to be enslaved by the landowners, and it is principally for these reasons that 43 lynchings took place last year.

In the context of lynching and Jim Crow, Yokinen’s failure to welcome and support black workers in practice put him on the side of the lynchers and landlords. Instead of advancing the courageous struggle of black workers and farmers, the defendant’s actions hindered it. His white chauvinism made the development of class unity impossible, thereby strengthening “the enemies of the workers—capitalists and landlords.” The position of the Communist Party, though, was that white supremacy had to be “categorically condemned as anti-working class.” Yokinen failed to uphold this position; hence, he must be expelled.

Hathaway’s third argument was that Yokinen, whom he referred to throughout the trial as “Comrade Yokinen,” violated the views of the party. The prosecution repeatedly asserted the Communist Party’s commitment to “complete and unconditional equality for the Negroes.” This meant the abolition of laws and practices, laws discriminating against black people in employment, housing, and voting; laws prohibiting interracial marriage; and the broader array of social practices—like dancing and bathing at the Finnish Club—that inscribed racial hierarchy. Mark Naison emphasizes the “landmark” quality of the party’s approach to race relations: “Never before had a political movement, socialist or otherwise, tried to create an interracial community that extended into [the] personal sphere, and defined participation in this community as a political duty.” Comradeship had to impact everyday life. To draw out how committed the Communist Party was to complete and unconditional racial equality, Hathaway told the story of Comrade Dunne, a party organizer who had recently given a speech in the South. The organizer was asked whether he would ever want his sister “to marry a n—-r.” Comrade Dunne replied that “he would sooner have his sister marry a militant, fighting Negro, determined to secure equality, than any yellow-bellied white chauvinist.” The audience applauded. When Yokinen failed to uphold the party’s commitment to racial equality in action, Hathaway observed, he gave black workers good reason to expect nothing but betrayal.

As a contrast to Yokinen’s actions, Hathaway explained the Communist Party’s commitment to black people’s self-determination in the Black Belt. He made clear to the audience of black and white workers the difference between the Communist Party line and the Garveyite position that African Americans should return to Africa:

We say that the Negro masses have helped to build this country, to establish its institutions and to create its wealth. These Negro masses today are just as much American as any one of us here. They have a right to live in this country on terms of complete freedom.

Because African Americans worked the fields that created the wealth of the US South, that land rightly belonged to them. Thus, the Communist Party was fighting to take that land away from the Southern landowners and give it to the sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

Hathaway concluded by reiterating that it was the duty of white workers to defeat lynching and “unhesitatingly jump at the throat of any person who strikes a Negro in the face, who persecutes a Negro.” Because the struggle for the equal rights of black people was so crucial to the proletarian struggle, the Communist Party had to prove in action that it was committed to wiping out every trace of white chauvinism. It had to demonstrate its commitment by expelling Yokinen from the party. Nevertheless, Hathaway offered Yokinen a path back to the party. If Yokinen fought actively against white supremacy, selling the black newspaper The Liberator and reporting on his trial at the Finnish Workers Club, then he should be able to apply for readmission.

Moore’s defense focused on working-class justice: the principle that should decide Yokinen’s punishment entailed insuring “the development of the struggle of the working class and the unity of all the oppressed toilers.” Reminding the jury that Yokinen had come to admit his guilt, Moore announced: “But it is not Comrade Yokinen alone who is on trial here. No, fellow-workers, the vicious capitalist system which exploits all the workers, this vile, corrupt, oppressive system is the chief criminal in this working class trial.” The landlords and bourgeoisie are the ones who spread the poison of race hatred—aided by union and socialist opportunists. Moore’s point was not that Yokinen should not be held accountable. It was that no one was innocent. Every aspect of capitalist imperialism spreads the corrupt ideology of white superiority. Moore even turned his critique back on the Communist Party, asking whether it had done the requisite educational work to confront race hatred. Had it developed programs for the workers’ movement explaining the importance of the struggle against lynching? Had it made a serious effort to root out prejudice? Moore declared that the answer was no. The party shared in Yokinen’s crime. Expelling Comrade Yokinen would not remove the “taint of chauvinism” from the party or liberate the party from its prejudice. Moore thus concluded that self-criticism, not expulsion, was the better way. Self-criticism would enable the party to prove its commitment through its deeds and “actually work and fight side by side with the doubly oppressed Negro masses, against the bosses’ Jim-Crow lynch system, for full equality and self-determination.” An added benefit, Moore argued, was that self-criticism would save Yokinen for the struggle, a crucial factor when every worker needed to be brought in to the effort to bring the system down.

Moore emphasized the seriousness of expulsion:

We must remember that a verdict of expulsion in disgrace from the Communist Party is considered by a class-conscious worker as worse than death at the hands of the bourgeois oppressors. As for myself, I would rather have my head severed from my body by the capitalist lynchers than to be expelled from the Communist International.

Being cut off from the party, separated from one’s comrades and deprived of their comradeship, is a fate worse than death. It is the kind of social death where a worker becomes an outsider to his own movement, a person as bad as or worse than the capitalists themselves. Moore painted a vivid picture of the global struggle of the working class against imperialism. He linked the “terror and suffering and misery of the Negro workers” to that of Russian workers and peasants, to oppressed workers in Finland, to the Chinese workers butchered by the Kuomintang, to colonized workers in India, and to all the masses oppressed by the British social-fascist imperialist government in Africa and other colonies. Were Comrade Yokinen to be expelled, he would be lost, worldless, alone.

Moore concluded that Yokinen should be condemned, but argued that “we must first and foremost condemn the bloody, brutal, vicious system of capitalism which breeds unemployment and wage cuts, which breeds starvation and misery, which breeds lynching and terror, which breeds racial and nationalist prejudice.” The party should save and educate its comrade, putting him on probation and giving him a chance to prove that he could fight “for the unity of the working class.” It should also engage in ruthless struggle against white chauvinism and anything else that threatened class unity.

The jury found Yokinen guilty, which was not surprising since he had already admitted his guilt. They agreed to expel him but were split on whether the expulsion should last for six or twelve months. They accepted the prosecution’s suggestions for the ways Yokinen could correct his mistakes: by reporting on his trial at the Finnish Club, by fighting to have the club admit black workers, by “actively participat[ing] in the struggle against white chauvinism throughout Harlem,” by joining the League of Struggle for Negro rights and selling The Liberator, and by taking a leading role in the struggle against white chauvinism in every organization to which he belonged. Even though Yokinen was expelled, he remained a comrade. The trial resulted in a decision that affirmed his role in the class struggle, a role focused on eliminating white chauvinism. The party didn’t cut him off. They provided him with a path back.

The day after the trial, Yokinen was arrested and held for deportation. The Daily Worker explained that the bourgeoisie had expected him to become a rat after being expelled from the party. Instead, Yokinen committed himself to fighting for race equality and working-class solidarity. Imploring readers to defend Comrade Yokinen, the newspaper declared:

Just as the Negroes are lynched and burned at the stake here, so the revolutionary workers are murdered there. And Comrade Yokinen, who Sunday prepared himself to take up the fight against the lynchers here, is to be sent to the Finnish butchers there.

In retrospect, it could seem like the Daily Worker was indulging in rhetorical flourish for the sake of furthering the party line on the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy to the proletarian struggle. A year and half after the initial arrest, however, the paper quoted the US Court of Appeals, which had upheld the deportation order. Noting Yokinen’s expulsion, the court argued that “it is enough that the alien Yokinen pledged himself to perform certain tasks prescribed by the Communist Party to secure reinstatement. On this ground the relator is deportable.” This confirms that Yokinen was in fact being deported because of his agreement to follow the Communist Party line and devote himself to the struggle for black liberation. The paper quoted Yokinen: “A Communist must be true to his Party and carry out its principles not only in words but in deeds. I have carried out these principles. I would rather be deported than be false to them and lose the trust of my comrades.”

The story of August Yokinen is not exactly a story of the end of comradeship. Even though he was expelled from the party, the party did not deprive him of comradeship. On the contrary, the Comintern-backed International Labor Defense (ILD) defended him during his deportation hearings. Yokinen was expelled, but not forever banished. Expulsion was an end but it wasn’t complete or final; it was a moment. This gives us a view of the end of comradeship that Harry Haywood associates with rectification. Comrades will make mistakes, mistakes that will violate party principles and damage the proletarian struggle, mistakes that must be condemned. But that does not have to mean that they must be cut off forever. Workers’ justice and communist principle require that comrades be given a chance to return.


Excerpt from: Jodi Dean – Comrade (2019)

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