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Langston Hughes Was a Lifelong Socialist

In the 30s and 40s, Langston Hughes wrote poetic tributes to the working class and socialist leaders worldwide. Some critics allege he abandoned his principles later in life, but they ignore the role of McCarthyist oppression and Hughes’s resistance.

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Writer and social activist Langston Hughes photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936., (Library of Congress

Few high-profile artists in the twentieth century were as openly socialist as renowned poet, playwright, and author Langston Hughes was in the 1930s and ’40s. Take, for example, these verses from a poetic tribute to Vladimir Lenin:

Lenin walks around the world.
Black, brown, and white receive him.
Language is no barrier.
The strangest tongues believe him.

Lenin walks around the world.
The sun sets like a scar.
Between the darkness and the dawn
There rises a red star.

 

But by the mid-1960s, Hughes had changed his tune. Gone were the explicit homages to communism in the Soviet Union and China, replaced by stream-of-consciousness jazz poetry that more often referenced decolonial insurgencies in Africa.

Critics have argued that Hughes’s abrupt turn constituted an abandonment of his socialist values. This is complicated by the fact that for nearly a decade during the Second Red Scare, he was under investigation by Senator Joseph McCarthy for his communist affiliations and sympathies, which helps explain the shift in his tone.

This criticism also obscures consistencies in Hughes’s earlier and later work. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Hughes was once again reflecting on African self-determination after a lifetime advocating against colonialism, segregation, lynching, fascism, and class warfare. The anti-colonial wars against Europe were thus extensions of a racial dilemma he critiqued throughout his career, and the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba and several other leaders left the aging Hughes lamenting struggles that would continue after his own death. Many of these African revolutionaries were themselves poets who were influenced by the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hughes transformed political frustration into radical affirmations that still inspire individuals to collective action. While many historians have focused specifically on his poetry about US and Soviet politics, Hughes’s vast archive reveals not just the dangers black artists faced for expressing their political views but the need to detangle a literary giant from his liberal institutional legacy.

Harlem Rebirth

Born in Missouri and raised in Kansas, Hughes developed an early awareness of injustice from his family’s financial instability. While still a child, his father abandoned the family to find work in Cuba. His mother, forced to travel for work, placed young Langston in the care of his grandmother, whose refusal to work for whites instilled a sense of racial pride. Hughes escaped their poor living conditions through literature. “Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world of books — where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas,” he writes in his autobiography, The Big Sea.

Hughes wrote poems, stories, and plays in high school and briefly studied at Cornell University, but dropped out to pursue a literary career in Harlem. His first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” appeared in a 1922 issue of The Crisis, the official National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) magazine founded by W. E .B. Du Bois. Two years earlier, Du Bois wrote an op-ed calling for a “renaissance of American Negro literature.” This early connection proved influential, and Hughes’s poetry regularly appeared in the magazine even after both men died.

In New York, Hughes fell in with a crowd of artists, writers, and performers who became foundational to the Harlem Renaissance, including novelists Wallace Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston. He cofounded the short-lived literary journal Fire!! with fellow artists and poets Countee CullenAaron Douglas, and Gwendolyn Bennett. In 1926, he released his first poetry collection, The Weary Blues, and published the Fire!! manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in The Nation.

In that essay, Hughes urges black artists to take pride in their culture, describing jazz as “the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul — the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work.” He opposes Cullen’s belief that black artists should integrate into white institutions, arguing that black elites viewed themselves as superior to the underclasses. This principle manifested in “Lament for Dark Peoples,” which denounces how white colonizers sabotage black and indigenous communities by forcing them into the “circus of civilization.”

Hughes’s early poetry called attention to moments of individual suffering that feel universal — unhoused people kicked off church property, an elevator boy with a Sisyphean job (“Maybe no luck for a long time / Only the elevators / Goin’ up an’ down / Up an’ down”), a porter complaining about the bourgeoisie between utterances of “Yes, sir.” Borrowing from the Delta blues, these works position race as intertwined with labor, and Hughes sympathizes with his downtrodden subjects. This is best exemplified by his “Song” to a black washwoman known for singing at work and church, for whom he has “many songs to make” if he could only “find the words.”

Blues Turned Red

Sure enough, Hughes found those words as the Great Depression gripped New York. In 1930, he penned “Merry Christmas,” a satirical season’s greetings to China, India, Africa, Haiti, and Cuba.  In eight quatrains, Hughes satirizes imperial efforts to appear benevolent, portraying how “peace on earth” means military domination to rich white nations. From here, his poetry blossomed into narratives of singular workers discovering collective power. “Not me alone — / I know now,” he writes in “Union” (1931), a brief intervention on capitalist individualism sustained by “false gods” worshipped at “worn-out altars.”

The revolutionary spirit of the 1930s coincided with the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, and Hughes wrote prolifically on segregation and police violence in the United States. He joined Communist Party–adjacent organizations like the John Reed Club and League of Struggle for Negro Rights, and dedicated two poems to abolitionist John Brown. He devoted multiple poems to the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were wrongfully accused of raping two white women in Alabama. Throughout their court hearings, Hughes advocated for their release and volunteered with the Communist Party’s drives to free them.

“8 black boys and one white lie / Is it too much to die?” he writes in his pamphlet Scottsboro Limited, drawing parallels between their execution and the extrajudicial lynchings based on false accusations. Hughes assumed the role of troubadour, drawing inspiration from news stories as they happened. He wrote on women’s disputes with abusive landlords, sex workers surviving on the street, and domestics tiptoeing the high halls of New York’s bourgeoisie. Along with journalist Ella Winter, he coproduced a pageant for labor leader Caroline Decker, who provided strike relief during the Harlan County War, but their production was tabled for being too propagandistic.

Hughes viewed socialism from an internationalist perspective, and he ventured all over the world in search of revolutionary meaning. In the mid-’20s, he visited West Africa while working on a freighter, an experience that disillusioned him about maritime industry. On a trip to Cuba and Haiti in 1930, he connected with literary editor José Antonio Fernández de Castro and Marxist intellectual Jacques Roumain — whose 1944 novel Masters of Dew was translated to English by Hughes. In China he met Lu Hsun, a favorite poet of Mao Zedong, and in France spent time with Négritude writers Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor.

At home, Hughes contributed poems to the Communist Party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker, as well as the New Republic and New Masses, the latter of which first published “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria” — a vigorous condemnation of class inequality. Composed with ad copy he found in a magazine, the two-page poem treats New York City’s underclasses as the Manhattan hotel’s target demographics, creating ironic dissonance between its amenities and who can actually partake:

LISTEN, HUNGRY ONES!
Look! See what Vanity Fair says about the
new Waldorf-Astoria:
“All the luxuries of private home. . . .”
Now, won’t that be charming when the last flop-house
has turned you down this winter?

The piece addresses “jobless” roomers, encouraging them to dine with their own bosses “who clip coupons with clean white fingers because your hands dug coal, drilled stone, sewed garments, poured steel to let other people draw dividends and live easy.” Other stanzas promote the hotel’s exorbitantly priced apartments to evicted families (“$10,000 and $1.00 are about the same to you, aren’t they?”) and patronize the “black mob” in Harlem (“You know, downtown folks are just crazy about Paul Robeson! Maybe they’ll like you, too”).

“Advertisement” is significant for connecting race and class discrimination, which Hughes would continue in more outwardly socialist poems. Another New Masses piece, “Good Morning, Revolution,” was written during his tour of the USSR, depicting a conversation with revolution personified:

Listen, Revolution,
We’re buddies, see —
Together,
We can take everything:
Factories, arsenals, houses, ships,
Railroads, forests, fields, orchards,
Bus lines, telegraphs, radios,
(Jesus! Raise hell with radios!)
Steel mills, coal mines, oil wells, gas,
All the tools of production.
(Great day in the morning!)
Everything —
And turn ’em over to the people who work.

The Saturday Evening Post rejected the poem, and Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad posits that this inspired another satirical piece, “Goodbye, Christ,” published in the German magazine Negro Worker and the Baltimore Afro-American. Hughes implicates the Post with Catholic institutions profiting off poor worshippers. “Make way for a new guy with no religion at all,” he writes. “A real guy named Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.” The poem caused a great deal of controversy, with fiery responses from clergy members published in the Pittsburgh Courier, and became the target of special counsel Roy Cohn during Hughes’s federal investigation decades later.

While Hughes was drawn to Soviet communism, he still believed in black liberation worldwide. His 1938 poem “A New Song,” published by the International Workers Order, envisions a revolution led by the African diaspora (“I speak in the name of the black millions / Awakening to action / Let all others keep silent a moment”). Concurrently, in a May Day poem, he urges the international proletariat to “Be like the flowers” and bloom with “unknown power.” Racial justice and class consciousness were not mutually exclusive to Hughes, a principle he would maintain as Europe fell to fascism.

War Reports

From the late ’30s through World War II, Hughes’s poetry became more adamantly anti-fascist, starting with his time reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the African American press.

While in Madrid, he broadcasted from the front with Communist Party USA organizers Harry Haywood and Walter Benjamin Garland. His first poem on the war, “Song of Spain,” condemns US support for Francisco Franco’s fascist regime: “I, a worker, letting my labor pile / Up millions for bombs to kill a child — / I bought these bombs for Spain! / Workers made those bombs for a Fascist Spain!” Another poem, “Letter from Spain,” depicts a dying Moor soldier lamenting that fascists “nabbed him in his land.” Hughes writes that victory for the Republic would free Spanish colonies, but that England and Italy would never condone a Spanish workers’ state, “Cause they got slaves in Africa.”

During this time, Hughes moved to Chicago, where he became a labor columnist for the Chicago Defender and a contributor to the literary journal Common Ground. Despite opposition to the war, he was highly supportive of the Red Army, and the “red star” motif would reappear in several poems from this era. In the March 1943 issue of the New Masses, his poem “Good Morning, Stalingrad” praised Russian resilience in the Battle of Stalingrad as an inspiration to all who yearn for freedom. He notes, however, that some people “down this way” claimed the Soviets were allies “just for today,” referring to latent anti-communism at home before the war had even ended.

Dreams Deferred

Hughes continued publishing poetry that advocated for racial equality and social democracy in the ’50s and ’60s, but biographer Laurie F. Leach claims his leftist credibility ends here.

True enough, when Hughes compiled his poetry for the popular collection Selected Poems (1959), he omitted much of the aforementioned works. What complicates this narrative, however, is the clandestine interrogation carried out by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Critics were unaware that Hughes was under federal investigation, and it would not become public knowledge until 2003. Senator McCarthy was in the process of larger Cold War efforts to disseminate pro-America propaganda, and Hughes’s avoidant responses reflected decades of invasive questioning on his radical past and rumors of his sexuality.

Hughes’s political legacy is partially based on the result of these decisions, made during a period when race and class politics were out of the question for black artists on trial. Nevertheless, Hughes continued to write on socialist revolutions in Africa. A later poem, “In Explanation of Our Times,” written at the peak of African decolonization, openly expresses support for indigenous uprisings:

The folks with no titles in front of their names
all over the world
are raring up and talking back
to the folks called Mister.

Two poetry collections from this time, Montage of a Dream Deferred and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, show Hughes delving into stream-of-consciousness verses on poverty and neocolonialism.  He continued to connect racist policing with US-backed dictators in the Third World and expressed solidarity with liberation movements in Cairo, Cape Town, and Angola. His final poems were published posthumously in The Crisis, just four years after Du Bois had passed away. One of these works, “Flotsam,” finds the speaker shipwrecked on the “shoals of Nowhere,” his bow broken and song wasted.

“Politics can be the graveyard of the poet,” Hughes wrote in 1964. “And only poetry can be his resurrection.” Long after his death, the US government continues its efforts to eliminate the historical memory of socialism in twentieth-century art. We should remember Hughes not just as an artist who advocated for black liberation but as a worker who dared to dream of collective emancipation. One of his final poems, “Question and Answer,” urges that dream to prevail:

Durban, Birmingham,
Cape Town, Atlanta,
Johannesburg, Watts,
The earth around
Struggling, fighting,
Dying — for what?

A world to gain.


Billy Anania is an art critic, editor, and journalist living in Brooklyn, NY. Originally from Asbury Park, NJ, they received a bachelor’s degree in literature from Villanova University and a master’s in rhetoric from Monmouth University. Billy has worked in journalism, advertising, and UX research while publishing essays, reports, and exhibition reviews on a freelance basis since 2015.

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