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How an American Communist alerted the West to the 1930s Ukrainian famine.
On a hot day during July 1927, a young left-wing activist by the name of Fred Beal was hitch-hiking down the New Jersey stretch of the Lincoln Highway. He planned to go to Niagara Falls and then California, where he’d take a break from his stressful, badly paid work as a trade union official. But, as he later put it, “the road to California became my road to the Communist Party.” And that, in turn, marked the beginning of an extraordinary geographical and political odyssey, which I first came across in 2018. Back then, I was toying with writing a book about Beal, though he was so little-known that he didn’t even have a Wikipedia page dedicated to him.
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Born into an impoverished family living in the squalid tenements of Lawrence, Massachusetts, he became politicised in his mid-teens, thanks to the socialist orators plying their trade on the street-corners near the mill where he worked. They inspired him to join the so-called Wobblies—the Industrial Workers of the World—who organized a victorious strike at his workplace.
Beal would grow up to become an ardent socialist who travelled around the east coast, helping to organize strikes. Such was his reputation in left-wing circles that his trip to California during the summer of 1927 ended up being interrupted by a message requesting his help. The message had been sent by the Boston-based Citizens’ National Committee for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—two Italian-born anarchists who had recently been tried and wrongly sentenced to death for a double-murder.
Despite detouring to Boston and assisting the organization, it failed to avert the two mens’ execution. From what Beal saw while he was working on the campaign, he reached the conclusion that the Communist Party offered the only viable mechanism for creating a just society. In 1928, he set aside his qualms about its methods and became a member of the Party’s American branch.
On the orders of Albert Weisbord, leader of the Communist-controlled National Textile Workers’ Union, Beal received an important assignment. Late in December 1928, he was sent from New York to the North Carolina city of Gastonia, where a bitter industrial dispute had been initiated by the overworked, underpaid, and badly fed production-line employees at the Loray Mill. Weisbord wanted Beal to expand the strike and, in the process, implement the objectives of the Comintern—a Soviet organization dedicated to fomenting world revolution. For the Comintern, Gastonia promised to be the starting point of the overthrow of capitalism in the United States and the creation of the Soviet Republic of America.
In a bid to crush the strike, the owners of the Loray Mill hired armed vigilantes to intimidate the strikers and demolish the union’s local office and destroy its food reserves. From that moment onwards, the methods favoured by the bosses became ever more violent and oppressive. Union men were beaten up. They and their families were evicted from their company-owned housing. And Beal was twice arrested on spurious charges. He even received an anonymous phone-call saying, “Get out of Gastonia within forty-eight hours or you’ll leave in a wooden box.”
Each evening, Beal and his colleagues lectured the strikers on Communist ideology. At one of these gatherings, he said that, “In Soviet Russia everything is different. There the workers are in complete control. What a happy land it is! No child labor, no overworked men and women, no need for strikes, no police, soldiers and gunmen beating up the workers. Short hours, cheerful working conditions, plenty to eat.” Beal was aware that he must have “seemed like a delegate from a new world, from the Kingdom of Heaven.”
On the evening of 7 June, 1929, the Loray Mill strike culminated in the police launching an assault against the rebuilt union offices. It provoked a gun battle during which the local police chief was shot dead. The police responded by gaoling Beal, plus a group of strikers and fellow activists.
Just over two months after the police chief’s death, by which time the strike had fizzled out, Beal and his co-defendants—whose case had become a national cause célèbre—found themselves in the dock. Well before proceedings had been completed, however, the judge declared a mistrial.
Seeking to maximize the possibility of securing convictions, the authorities decided not to prosecute nine of the defendants. Beal and six others now faced charges of “conspiracy to murder and assault with deadly weapons with intent to kill.”
Eventually, Beal and his fellow defendants received guilty verdicts and were handed long sentences. Beal faced twenty years’ hard labour.
Right after the judge announced the sentences, the Communist Party-funded lawyers representing Beal and the others announced their intention to appeal to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. In the meantime Beal and co. were granted $5,000 bail. Though this was a huge figure, they were assured that the International Labour Defence—one of many Communist-controlled American organizations—would cover it.
While Beal and his colleagues were waiting to be released, one of their lawyers—probably Leon Josephson—suggested they skip bail and seek refuge in the Soviet Union. After leaving gaol, they requested the American Communist Party’s permission to put this idea into practice. Despite being instructed not to leave the country, Beal and four of the others obtained fake passports through Josephson, who had a parallel career as a Soviet spy. Equipped with their phoney documentation, the five convicted men headed for Europe.
Arriving in Berlin, where frequent street skirmishes were being fought between Communist and Nazi paramilitaries, Beal witnessed an economic depression every bit as grim as its US equivalent. He and his fellow fugitives set sail for Leningrad on 28 June, 1930. “As each day brought us nearer and nearer to the promised land, our spirits rose to a higher pitch,” he later wrote. “And when our boat steamed past the historic Kronstadt Fortress we were almost hysterical […] And then there was the most thrilling sight of all—the red flag flying over factories. Giant factories owned by workers […] How silly of America not to have a revolution and put the red flag on the White House, we thought.”
Beal and the rest of the American bail-jumpers were greeted by a large crowd. Far from comprising jubilant Communist well-wishers, it was made up of ragged, shoeless, hungry people, begging for money. Hardly the sort of thing that Beal had been led to expect in the Soviet Union. Compounding this first impression were the empty shop windows they passed as they were escorted through the centre of Leningrad by a representative from the MOPR—the Soviet wing of the International Labour Defence organization.
The Soviet authorities soon moved them to Moscow, where they were confined to a building allocated to foreign Communists. So spartan were conditions that many of their co-tenants, who had also fled from prison sentences, pleaded to return to their home countries. For the time being, though, Beal’s quasi-religious faith in Communism remained intact. Yet his beliefs couldn’t survive contact with the realities of working-class life in the Soviet Union, revealed to him during a subsequent MOPR-backed propaganda tour of Uzbekistan. His disillusionment deepened when he returned to Moscow, where he witnessed one of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s show-trials of a perceived political opponent.
During the autumn of 1930, the New York Times heard that Beal wanted to return home but was being held against his will. Anxious to improve their country’s image in America, the Soviets informed him that he was free to leave.
In January 1931, he travelled to New York, where he found sanctuary at the home of Clarina Michelson, a faux proletarian Communist zealot from a swanky background. She and her friends made it clear that they felt he hadn’t given the Soviet Union a fair chance and that the country was making great economic progress. The continual fear of being arrested and spending the next twenty years in prison rendered him receptive to their arguments. “Perhaps they were right, a voice within me said. I had gotten off on the wrong foot while in Soviet Russia,” he wrote. “I would start all over again. I would go back and cooperate with the powers that be and do my bit in the construction of the new order.”
After only a few months in New York, Beal headed back to Moscow. When he arrived there and reported to the authorities, he was sent to the city of Kharkiv (then known as Kharkov), located in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. There he was given a job at a giant, recently opened tractor factory, treated as a showpiece by the regime. His new role turned out to consist of placating the American, German, and Czech technicians who had moved to the Communist utopia, only to face hunger and long working hours.
Yet the foreign workers were privileged in comparison to the Russians toiling alongside them. Dazed and emaciated, these unfortunates lived in filthy, largely unheated barracks and, if they were lucky, consumed a daily intake of a pound-and-a-half of black bread, a few spoonfuls of barley gruel, and a bowl of cabbage soup. Anyone guilty of even the faintest grumbling about life there would be identified by the network of informers, then be dragged away and executed.
“Factory life in this exemplary establishment was far and away worse than anything I had ever seen in America,” Beal concluded. If things were this bad in Kharkov, he wondered what life was like in the surrounding countryside.
One day during the autumn of 1932, he hiked out of the city. As he walked through the countryside, he encountered decomposing corpses, as well as the skeletons of horses and cows. Numerous fresh graves, marked by crude crosses, also dotted the overgrown fields. Here was Beal’s introduction to the famine that had been inflicted upon the Ukrainian people by Stalin’s policies.
Confirmation of this ongoing nightmare was provided by another such expedition, which yielded even more disturbing sights. “When the last of the winter snows had melted away,” Beal wrote, “I made a random visit to a Ukrainian collective near the village of Chekhuyev. In company with a Russian-American comrade from the factory, I took the train from our little station of Losevo and rode for two hours to Chekhuyev. From this place, we walked east for several miles. We met not a living soul. We came upon a dead horse and a dead man upon the side of the road. The horse lay still harnessed to the wagon. The man was still holding the reins in his lifeless stiff hands. Both had died from starvation, it seemed.”
As Beal later admitted, he was in a terrible position: “I had a great battle with my conscience about remaining in the Soviet Union. If I kept my mouth shut there, I should be free from prison […] Yet I felt that I had to go. The things that were happening around me were just unbearable.”
Using the fake passport that had enabled him to skip bail just over three years earlier, Beal exited the Soviet Union via Finland. He was almost penniless by the time he got to Berlin, now under Nazi control. By a happy coincidence, he discovered that Arthur G. Hays, one of his lawyers in North Carolina, was there as part of a group of international observers attending the trial of Marinus van der Lubbe, the Dutch Communist falsely accused of burning down the German parliament. Hays paid for Beal’s train ticket to Paris.
With financial help from a couple of American charities, Beal at last reached New York in January 1934. His stories about what he’d witnessed in the Soviet Union received a hostile response from his former comrades. “Communists, Soviet sympathizers, and even liberals of the old school obviously did not want to hear the facts about the Workers’ Fatherland,” he realised. “They preferred the picture which had been drawn for them by the propagandists: it fitted so much better with their ideals and illusions.”
Still a fugitive from the American police, Beal was rescued by his old friend, Philip Mason, who paid his train fare to Los Angeles, where Beal moved into Mason’s house, where he spent the next year writing his remarkable memoir, Proletarian Journey. Assisted by two other friends—the journalist Isaac Don Levine and the Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter Sidney C. Howard (who would go on to win an Oscar for scripting Gone with the Wind)—Beal’s book attracted a bid from Farrar & Rinehart, a prominent New York publisher. Worried about how left-wing east coast intellectuals would react to the book, however, the company soon withdrew its offer.
Beal wound up selling his memoir to a New York newspaper—the Jewish Forward—which began serialising it in the summer of 1935. To promote its publication, he wrote a lengthy article for the American Mercury, one of the country’s leading magazines, which ran it under the headline “I Was a Communist Martyr”.
His former political allies in the American Communist Party were so antagonized by his writing that they not only denounced him as a fascist counter-revolutionary, but also helped the police capture him. On 19 January, 1938, his eight-year spell as a fugitive ended when he was arrested during a raid on his brother’s house in Massachusetts.
The American Communist Party then started lobbying the state governor to extradite him to North Carolina, where he’d be silenced by imprisonment. Given legal advice on the pointlessness of resisting extradition, he returned to North Carolina and embarked on his sentence at Caledonia Prison Farm.
Over the next four years, he endured a gruelling routine that involved cleaning ditches, harvesting corn, killing pigs, shelling peanuts, and picking cotton. He nonetheless kept in touch with politics through radio news bulletins. One of those mentioned the testimony being given to the House of Representatives’ recently created Committee on Un-American Activities, which sought to investigate alleged foreign infiltration by both the far-right and far-left. With permission from the Governor of North Carolina, Beal volunteered his services as a witness.
Escorted by an armed guard, he travelled to Washington DC and testified before the committee. “Six years ago, I was in Soviet Russia,” he stated. “While I was over there, I learned that the Communist Party, which was in full control of the workers in that country, did not carry on the kind of government that I thought they were going to carry on—a workers’ state. And I saw so much misery over there in Russia that I felt compelled to come back to America and tell the workers the truth.”
But he’d have to wait a little over two years before he was again freed from the confines of the Caledonia Prison Farm. Courtesy of the unexpected intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the wartime President, he was suddenly told that he was being paroled.
His looks bearing the heavy imprint of his experiences, Beal took the train to New York, where his supporters—among them the novelist James T. Farrell—secured him a job at a textile factory, run by a sympathetic businessman. While he was working there, he set about trying to clear his name and win back his US citizenship, which had been revoked when he fled to the Soviet Union.
Legal assistance wasn’t easy to find, however, because the American Communist Party discouraged the labour movement from helping him. Ultimately, he secured the backing of the Workers’ Defence League—a socialist organization that was staunchly anti-Communist. Its lawyers succeeded in persuading the Governor of North Carolina to pardon him.
Winning back his citizenship proved harder, though. His case wasn’t examined until May 1948. Twenty years after riding into Gastonia on the orders of the Comintern, Beal—now a portly, silver-haired forty-nine-year-old—flew into the city and then motored over to its courthouse, where the hearing was due to be held. Waiting for him were reporters from publications such as Life Magazine and the New York Times.
At the end of a marathon hearing, during which his lawyer called a succession of character witnesses, the presiding judge restored his citizenship. “Your honor,” Beal replied, “I would rather be an American prisoner than a free man in Russia.”
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