James S. "Jim" Allen, born Sol Auerbach (1906–1986), was an American Marxist historian, journalist, editor, activist, and functionary of the Communist Party USA. Allen is best remembered as the author and editor of over two dozen books and pamphlets and as one of the party's leading experts on African-American history.
Allen is credited with helping to save from execution the young black men charged in the Scottsboro case by his prompt and relentless publicity of the case, which helped make their trial a cause célèbre.
Sol Auerbach, later known by the pseudonym James S. Allen, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1906. He was the son of ethnic Jewish parents who arrived in America from the Russian Empire the same year. Upon completion of high school, Allen enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League university in Philadelphia, where he studied philosophy.
A committed radical from his collegiate days, Auerbach traveled to the Soviet Union in 1927, as part of the first American student delegation there. Auerbach was expelled from college 1928 for radical activities. He joined the Communist Party and began writing for the party newspaper, The Daily Worker. Auerbach succeeded Whittaker Chambers as "foreign news writer," who had, in turn, succeeded Harry Freeman.
Auerbach was soon promoted to the editorship of Labor Defender, official organ of the International Labor Defense, the Communist Party's mass organization dedicated to civil rights and legal aid matters.
Party work in South
During his formative years in Philadelphia, Auerbach had developed a strong interest in African-American life, which led to his appointment in 1930 as editor of the Communist Party's first newspaper produced south of the Mason-Dixon line, The Southern Worker. Auerbach adopted the pseudonym "James S. Allen" around that date and traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his wife, Isabelle Allen, to establish and edit the weekly paper.
Necessarily produced under clandestine conditions, The Southern Worker bore a false dateline claiming to be produced in Birmingham, Alabama, in an effort to confuse local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to the testimony of Isabelle Allen, authorities never were able to identify the shop that produced the paper, partly because to the struggling printer's simultaneous production of a newspaper for the Ku Klux Klan, an ideal cover for a secret side job.
The Southern Worker was launched on August 16, 1930, with a print run of 3,000 copies. Although billed as "a paper of and for both the white and black workers and farmers," the content was heavily skewed towards coverage of the daily life and problems of the region's black population.
In this capacity Allen consistently advocated for the Communist Party's political line of the day, which included a demand for self-determination of the so-called "Black Belt" of the South, then populated by nearly half of the country's African-American population.
Despite breathless speculation then and later that the Communist mobilizing slogan "Self-Determination for the Black Belt" was a call for national secession, Allen later claimed that "we weren't stupid." For all the brashness of the "self-determination" slogan, historian Mark Solomon believed the actual meaning of the phrase was rather more modest:
Self-determination was defined as democracy at its essence: self-government, self-organization, social and economic equality, the right of blacks to run their own lives without the relentless terror and racism that dogged their steps and made every waking day a living hell.
Allen's actual time spent in the South was limited, as he was forced to return to New York in 1931 by the pressure of life in hiding and the "monotonous" and "depressing" job of editing an underground newspaper to which Southerners were too frightened to subscribe. Allen remained a member of the Party's Southern District committee, however, and in that capacity, he played a prominent role in all of the party's major regional activities during the early 1930s: the organizing of Alabama sharecroppers, the Harlan, Kentucky miners' strike and the Scottsboro case.
Allen's influence in the Scottsboro case was particularly important, with Yale University historian Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore contending that "we might never have heard of the Scottsboro case if Sol Auerbach, using his Party name, James S. Allen, had not arrived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in mid-July 1930." Allen was listening to the radio in his Chattanooga apartment in March 1931 when he heard that police in Paint Rock, Alabama, had removed nine young black men from a freight train and charged them with rape. Auerbach promptly alerted the party's International Labor Defense, of the situation, which quickly became involved in the defense.
The nine defendants in the case, collectively called the "Scottsboro Boys" in the case after the city in which they were indicted, were aged 13 to 20 and had been traveling aboard a freight train to search for work in Tennessee. They were not traveling as a group and some did not know the others until they met in jail, pulled from the train by a mob of 200 whites following false accusations of rape by two women seeking to avoid prostitution charges.
The case was publicized relentlessly by Allen in the pages of the Southern Worker and throughout the Communist Party press, with the story crossing over to mainstream press coverage. Gilmore wrote, "Without the spotlight that Jim Allen quickly focused on the trials it is most likely that the 'Boys' would have been dead by fall, lost among the thousands of unknown southern black men executed legally and illegally."
Emissary to Philippines
At the behest of the Communist International, Allen was sent to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, then an American protectorate, on two missions in an attempt to end sectarian squabbling and to achieve unity between the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the rival Socialist Party of the Philippines (SPP). In accord with the strategy of the popular front, the Communist International then sought to build broad alliances against the rising tide of fascism and was therefore interested in minimizing conflict between communists and socialists.
The first of Allen's trips to the Philippines came in 1936. Allen's mission was that of convincing Crisanto Evangelista, the general secretary of the CPP, and his jailed comrades to accept a conditional pardon from Philippine President Manuel Quezón and to gain their freedom so they could lead the fight against Japanese militarism. Allen then spoke personally with Quezón and convinced him of the urgent need for Philippine unity in the face of the Japanese Empire's expansionism in the region. Allen was successful, and Evangelista and the other imprisoned Communist leaders were released on December 31, 1936.
Allen returned to the Philippines in September 1938. His new mission was to expand the conditional pardons that had been granted to Evangelista and his associates to the full restoration of civil rights so that they could mobilize radical Philippine workers against fascism by public meetings and mass demonstrations.
Allen presented Quezón with petitions gathered by various labor organizations and successfully made the case for a full pardon for the Communist leaders. An absolute pardon was granted on December 24, 1938 in the context of a Christmas amnesty.
Next, Allen sought to broker actual unity between the two parties, conferring both with the CPP leadership and with Pedro Abad Santos, the president of the SPP, on the matter. Allen used the utmost diplomacy in making his case to Santos to bury tactical differences with the Communists and to accept merger, in the interest of constructing a stronger organization in opposition to fascism. Unity between the organizations was achieved at the Third National Congress of the Communist Party of the Philippines, from October 29 to 31, 1938.
Allen addressed the gathering, conveying the greetings of CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder, who had himself been a Communist International representative to the Philippines in 1927. The united organization temporarily took the cumbersome name "Communist Party of the Philippines (merger of the Communist and Socialist parties)" until it later adopted the simpler "Communist Party of the Philippines" again. Evangelista was named the National Chairman and Abad Santos the Vice Chairman of the newly-united organization.
His mission accomplished, Allen returned to the United States and composed a long and detailed report on his trip, in a document dated February 13, 1939.
Allen was then assigned a position as the foreign editor of the Sunday Worker, a weekly newspaper that had been launched in January 1936, to try to reach a broader audience than that if the more intense and authoritative Daily Worker. The Sunday Worker was edited by Al Richmond, who later remembered Allen as "a scholarly, serene man who did the serious political commentary and analysis."
During the 1956 to 1958 factional crisis of the party, Allen placed his allegiance with the hardline pro-Soviet wing against a dissident faction, for liberalization of internal party life and its distancing from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. When the leader of the hardliners, Gus Hall, emerged triumphant and was named General Secretary in 1958, Allen became a member of its governing Central Committee. Allen was also tapped then to serve as secretary of the National Program Committee, in charge of developing programmatic and educational documents for the party, remaining until 1966. Allen then helped develop early drafts of the party program.
While Allen staunchly the Soviet Union during its armed suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he was critical of similar action in 1968 against the Prague Spring. His perspective, expressed internally at closed meetings of the party leadership, put Allen at odds with Hall and other top officials of the party. Since he did not express his opposition publicly, Allen was not expelled, but at the next National Convention, in 1972, he was quietly removed from the Central Committee, effectively cashiering him from the ranks of top party leadership.
From 1951, Allen was working for International Publishers (IP). While Allen had briefly headed it during founder Alexander Trachtenberg's prosecution in the 1950s under the Smith Act, he found IP in dire financial straits when he began his second stint as a publisher in 1962:
When I returned to IP in 1962 as president and editor-in-chief the house faced bankruptcy. Its publishing program had practically ceased, its debt to the publishers' services was so great without any prospect of payment in sight that the printers refused to undertake new work and the binders refused to release our books in stock. Fortunately, Trachty had some reserve funds that I drew upon immediately. I also arranged small loans from a number of our devoted readers. I also sent out an unprecedented appeal for donations to keep the publishing house going. We were thus able to meet the payroll and office expenses, and also to pay off enough of our debt to resume publishing.
From 1962 to 1972, Allen headed IP, the Communist Party's publishing house. Allen recalled that he initially did not wish to stay in book publishing, as he had no background in business affairs and understood that it would leave little time for research and writing. However, the retiring founder, Trachtenberg, had prevailed upon Allen to accept the position as chief of the financially-troubled firm.
At IP, Allen was responsible for introducing the production of a series of inexpensive "New World Paperbacks" and made reissues of classic Marxist canon more readily available to a new generation of political activists and college students. During a cross-country sales trip, Allen had been convinced that the book trade was going to be dominated by the paperback format and that if IP were to survive in the new environment, it would need to retool its offerings. Old sets of book sheets not yet bound into covers were gathered up at the bindery, some having laid unused for years, and a new set of cover designs was commissioned. Fifteen titles were thus assembled at minimal cost and launched en masse onto the market, promoted by a special catalog. The inexpensive series gained ready acceptance in the market.
Allen worked to expand the number of Black authors on International's list, reissuing works by W. E. B. Du Bois, personally editing the autobiography of Communist New York City Council member Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., and adding works by Henry Winston, Claude Lightfoot, and others.
In 1968, Allen was selected as the American editor of the 50-volume Marx-Engels Collected Works project, a joint publishing project between IP, Lawrence and Wishart in the United Kingdom and Progress Publishers in Moscow. The three-way nature of the project was due to the project having been proposed to Moscow more or less simultaneously by the Communist Party of Great Britain and the CPUSA. Whereas interest in the project on the American side outside of Allen was tepid, the British assembled a team of top party intellectuals, headed by Maurice Cornforth, to work with the Soviet publishing agency to make the massive project a reality.
Allen and Cornforth were instrumental in the decision to integrate the correspondence between Marx and Engels with the mass of letters between each of these and other correspondents, a significant change from previously-published editions in other languages. The first volume of the edition saw print in 1975, and the 50th and final volume was published only in 2004, many years after Allen's death.
Death and legacy
Allen died in 1986.
Allen's papers are held by the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University in New York City. The collection includes approximately 1,500 pages of investigative documents dealing with Allen that were written over the years by special agents of the FBI. Also included is the manuscript of an unpublished memoir entitled "Visions and Revisions," part of which was published posthumously, as Organizing in the Depression South: A Communist's Memoir in 2001.