Reading Kelley’s “Hammer and hoe” as organizers today

Aug 30, 2021

Photo: "Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell," Britton & Patterson. Source: Wikicommons.

This article accompanies Liberation School’s new study guide for Robin D.G. Kelley’s, Hammer and Hoe.

As the re-popularization of socialism continues, the practical lessons today’s organizers can learn from the history of the communist movement in the U.S. become increasingly relevant. Unsurprisingly, much of this history is largely unknown or distorted in the U.S. Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, first published in 1990, offers an invaluable piece of this history [1].

What we get from Hammer and Hoe is a detailed exploration of the rise and fall of the communist movement in Alabama in the 1930s. While the book has been studied by communists and progressive organizers for decades, our new study guide will hopefully further extend its reach.

The lessons at various stages of struggle

Reflecting on his critics in a 2013 interview, Kelley concludes that “the biggest criticism of the book is that the Communist Party ‘lost’ in Alabama, and therefore it isn’t worth even writing about” [2]. What these critics seem to miss or willfully ignore is that every fight, regardless of outcome, holds valuable lessons for today’s class struggles and liberation movements.

Hammer and Hoe is a treasure trove of lessons learned from every stage of struggle, from initial community engagement to growth and success to defeat and decline.

For example, white Communist Party organizers from New York City first traveled to the south to build the Party there after the Communist International passed a resolution adopting the Black Belt thesis in 1928 [3]. When they first went, they made many errors due to their lack of contextual knowledge and their own unexamined racist attitudes and beliefs. Some organizers assumed that Black southerners would be too apathetic and ignorant to engage in struggle, and they were sorely mistaken.

Organizers from the north had to learn more about the context of widespread white supremacist terrorism in the south, the brutal murder and torture of movement leaders, and the heroic history of the Black struggle there. As a result, communists could not simply impose tactics developed to organize multinational workers against capitalism in the north and apply them to the south. Black communists led the creative charge here, drawing on their existing knowledge and history of developing clandestine campaigns, which allowed them to build the movement while minimizing detection.

Through the guidance of the Party, even with its limited means of communication, these errors were corrected. They launched campaigns based on the most pressing issues, including the legalized lynching of Black men and, most famously, the frame-up of the Scottsboro Boys. The movement advanced as it recruited and developed communist leaders from the Black working class. They engaged in every arena of struggle, from the courts to the streets and farms.

As the movement gained momentum, the capitalist class and their white supremacist supporters intensified their reaction to defend power. Such tactics included physical terrorism–including murder–and attacks on constitutionally-protected speech. These are lessons still applicable today: the capitalist class will deploy whatever means necessary to maintain their position over the many.

Kelley on the book’s relevance to today’s struggles

Kelley identifies three specific things he believes Hammer and Hoe offers ongoing liberation struggles. First, the text demonstrates that people can fight back and even win important victories in the most difficult and restrictive contexts. In other words, neither violence nor poverty are able to stop the people from building a powerful organization.

The second is that ideology and consciousness are not fixed, and that through struggle, even reactionary workers are capable of transformation. Hammer and Hoe demonstrates that in one of the most racist states of the U.S. under the reign of Jim Crow apartheid, significant progress was made in building a militant, multiracial, mass movement.

Finally, Hammer and Hoe shows that the politics of class are alive and well, and that it is incorrect and counter-productive to view racial and gender politics as separate from the class struggle. Indeed, the narrative reveals the dynamism of Marxist ideology and how the Party’s success came from creatively applying it to the unique Black history and culture in the region, threading together the fight against white supremacy with the broader class war.

Hammer and Hoe demonstrates that it is possible to build a revolutionary movement in the U.S. where people of different backgrounds will put their lives on the line for each other because they understand “solidarity” and know that “collective struggle is the only answer to solving all of our problems, and your problem is mine” [4].

With these are only some of the lessons found in the book, Kelley helps reveal the complexity of organizing. For Lenin, this means that the form the struggle takes in different countries, regions, and eras must conform to “the peculiar features of its economics, politics, culture, national composition, its colonies, religious divisions, etc.” [5]. Consequently, “the main task” of communists “is to investigate, study, seek, divine, grasp that which is peculiarly national, specifically national in the concrete manner in which each country approaches the fulfillment of the single international task” including “the overthrow of the bourgeoisie” [6].

As a window into the period, it speaks to the immense challenges communist organizers face in making decisions and building a vehicle for revolutionary transformation. “I think the most important lessons are not the ones I recognize or acknowledged,” Kelley says, “but the lessons activist/readers take from the book upon reflecting on their own experiences and dreams of the world they are trying to build” [7].

Capitalism: Still not a clear victor

In the same 2013 interview he was also asked about comparisons between the Great Depression and the housing market crash of 2008. Kelley responded that “there was a viable alternative to capitalism in the 1930s. Capitalism as a system was not the clear victor and thus some people could imagine its collapse” [8].

While Kelley acknowledges Occupy Wall Street as an important response to the crisis of capitalism, the systematic war on the progressive movement has rendered the struggle today much smaller than in previous eras.

But the people’s movement has continued to grow and develop since 2013: the anti-racist movement in the U.S., which accelerated into the rebellions of 2020; the Bernie Sanders phenomena, which took advantage of–and then helped contribute to–reviving socialism in the U.S.; the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic; the climate catastrophe; and more.

As the people’s movements continue to ebb and flow, Hammer and Hoe gains relevance as a model for assessing the shifting balance of forces and, in response, making the tactical decisions–and risks–that will advance the class struggle. Our task is to make it not only widely imaginable, but desirable, for the capitalist system to collapse and for it to be replaced by a socialist one, a system organized around the end of exploitation and all forms of oppression.


[1] Kelley, Robin D.G. (1990/2015). Hammer and hoe: Alabama communists during the Great Depression Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).
[2] Ibid., 17.
[3] For more on the Black Belt thesis, see Puryear, Eugene. (2014). “Harry Haywood’s contributions to the National Question and the fight for class unity.” Liberation School, July 01. Available here.
[4] Camp, Jordan and Robin D.G. Kelley. (2013). Black radicalism, Marxism, and collective memory: An interview with Robin D.G. Kelley. American Quarterly 65, no. 2: 217.
[5] Lenin, V.I. (1917/2016). “Left-wing” communism, an infantile disorder: A popular essay in Marxist strategy and tactics. (New York: International Publishers), 72.
[6] Ibid., 73.
[7] Jordan and Kelley, “Black radicalism, Marxism, and collective memory,” 217.
[8] Ibid., 228.