Marxism in Langston Hughes’ Good Morning Revolution

Good morning Revolution:
You are the best friend
I ever had.
We gonna pal around together from now on.
Say, listen, Revolution:
You know the boss where I used to work,
The guy that gimme the air to cut expenses,
He wrote a long letter to the papers about you:
Said you was a trouble maker, a alien-enemy,
In other words a son-of-a-bitch.
He called up the police
And told’em to watch out for a guy
Named Revolution

You see,
The boss knows you are my friend.
He sees us hanging out together
He knows we’re hungry and ragged,
And ain’t got a damn thing in this world –
And are gonna to do something about it.

The boss got all his needs, certainly,
Eats swell,
Owns a lotta houses,
Goes vacationin’,
Breaks strikes,
Runs politics, bribes police
Pays off congress
And struts all over earth –

But me, I ain’t never had enough to eat.
Me, I ain’t never been warm in winter.
Me, I ain’t never known security –
All my life, been livin’ hand to mouth
Hand to mouth.

Listen, Revolution,
We’re buddies, see –
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.
Rule and run’em for us people who work.

Boy! Them radios!
Broadcasting that very first morning to USSR:
Another member of the International Soviet’s done come
Greetings to the Socialist Soviet Republics
Hey you  rising workers everywhere greetings –
And we’ll sign it: Germany
Sign it: China
Sign it: Africa
Sign it: Italy
Sign it: America
Sign it with my one name: Worker
On that day when no one will be hungry, cold oppressed,
Anywhere in the world again.

That’s our job!

I been starvin’ too long
Ain’t you?

Let’s go, Revolution!

A truck lustily playing the song “God Bless America” when Langston Hughes was ousted from a hotel due to the objection of the follower of Christian evangelist Aimee McPherson, who called Langston “a red devil in a black skin”. An irony as he is now hailed as the « poet laureate of the Negro race ».

He is a writer who believed in revolution, and that too, has to take place in the near future. He was a significant artist around the Harlem Renaissance, when black artists were struggling against racial discrimination. Hughes’ work for my presentation is Good Morning, Revolution, published in 1973. I would like to talk about Marxism in this collection of writing created in 32 years: poems, short stories and speeches. In the introduction of this book Faith Berry says that Hughes’ most outspoken prose and poetry is from the 1930s. They were preoccupied with political militancy; he traveled widely in the Soviet Union, Haiti, and Japan and served as a newspaper correspondent (1937) in the Spanish Civil War. He was not a member of the Communist Party, but only a sympathizer.

Hughes was involved in Communist-led organizations like the John Reed Clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. He also signed a statement in 1938 supporting Joseph Stalin’s purges.

Hughes was one of many black writers and artists of that era who turned to Communism as the solution to the segregated America.

Hughes’ understanding and drive of Marxism can be seen in his both fiction and non-fiction. His works became significant in American history for the awakening of racial consciousness and cultural nationalism. As Frederic Jameson in Political Unconscious says that in looking into a creative work, or literary work, we must study the structures of the text related to its background. These include the historicity of the form and the content, the time period of its birth and the linguistic exploration as well as its function in the society.

Hughes talks about the advancement of navigation and the beginning of slavery. In The Same, he says that black people are “exploited, beaten, and robbed. Shot and killed.” People are brought to “Sierra Leone, Kimberley, Alabama, Haiti, Central America, Harlem, Morocco [and] Tripoli” and turned into “Dollars, Pounds, Francs, Pesetas [and] Lire”. People of different races work, for example, in cotton fields, diamond mines, coffee hills and banana lands. Back home in America, Hughes talked sarcastically in Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria. The binary opposition between the rich and the poor is made clear by the difference of, for example, staying at a $28 million a night hotel and “a charity flophouses where God pulls a long face, and you have to pray to get a bed”.

Slavery is one of the forms of racism. After it was abolished in 1865 in the United States, one of the problems that stayed for the black Americans was poverty. How Hughes describes poverty is very harsh. That they are left with “the garbage can to empty” (White Man). Poverty was caused by, in Marxist term, division of labor, where jobs were divided based on race. Black Workers compares black workers to working bees, whose work is taken away.

Hughes also pondered upon whether the oppression against the blacks in America was similar to that against Jews in Germany and other anti-Semite countries. He came to understand that it was all a matter of democracy and law enforcement. Talking about racial equality cannot be detached from the wider perspective of humanity. Woman is an issue he raises in The Soviet Union and Women. Uzbek women were free to wear or not to wear veil. Women could also act and dance for theatres.

The society that Hughes imagined is the world that has freedom of education, freedom to love. There should be equality for human beings of all races, no more Jim Crow. U.S. fascism (97) should end. And democracy is the means to achieve it all. This is not quite a Utopia since he seemed to like Soviet Union very much. To him Soviet represents the East and it was making history. He explained that the reason why he came to Soviet Union was one of its basic principles, “the end of all racial distinctions’ (Moscow and Me). Most of the essays, or sometimes more like travelogues, are talking about how good Soviet Union was compared to the U.S. He claims that he is speaking of the positives of S.U. neither from theory in books as he had visited the country, nor from political point of view as he was not a Communist party member. (p.80) He says that the country was like the land of Before and After. The crucial moment between the two is the Revolution. Before the Revolution, it was the land of emirs, khans, mullahs and beys; high rate of illiteracy, exclusive education, exploitation of raw materials, banned modern culture, discouragement of intermarriage, and stagnant social strata movement. And after the Revolution, the conditions are the opposite (Going South in Russia). But he does not mean that the S.U. is paradise. It is just that the modern social progress is more real (The Soviet Union).

And revolution, in Marxism, does play an important role in changing the society. In Letter to the Academy, the first poem in the collection, Hughes is talking about classless society, as the poor will no longer be poor. He is talking about equality, where « there are no best people ». The revolution is the moment when « the flesh triumph (as well as the spirit) ». The flesh means human being, the labor. In Marxism the abstraction of human labor into something valuable and exchangeable means labor-power. This system takes for granted that the laborer deliberately make a contract with the employer, who will take his labor-power as commodity and own the output of production. As the employer, or the capitalist, tries to gain surplus-value as much as he can, the labor-power is prone to exploitation. A child is also considered as laborer[1]. In Good Morning, Revolution, Hughes personalizes Revolution. They are pals. They are a threat to the boss, « a trouble maker, a alien-enemy ». He criticized the bourgeois, revealed how they maintain the power is by “involving in politics, bribing the police, paying off congress, [and made] strikes dissolved”. He calls out people, saying « Together we can take everything ». Revolution at its high time because he has been starving for too long. But in Cubes I find his slight loss of faith in revolution as he called French Revolution slogan Liberty, Egality (sic), Fraternity “three old prostitutes” (p.11).

Workers’ revolution would change the function of the state from being dominated by the ruling class to being an instrument of the working class. One step for the workers to do is to found trade union. In the short story The Sailor and the Steward, the union function to organize all the sailors and make their wish heard by officers. One of the ill treatments against the sailors is they are always served hardly-inedible liver stew. [A sailor named Manuel tries to kill the steward, whom he thinks is trying to starve him to death.] Marx in Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy says that human’s social being determines their consciousness. From relations of production comes an epoch of social revolution. Langston Hughes in the poem speaks as representing the labor class. His « one name » is Worker. He ties up with workers in America as well as Germany, China, Africa, Poland, Italy—the world.

The world, even today, is blanketed by capitalism. Race in Hughes’ time also had to do with it. Certain classes forced people based on the skin color to do something for their benefits. Hughes said, “[r]ace means nothing when it can be turned to Fascist use. And yet race means everything when the Fascists of the world use it as a bugaboo and a terror to keep the working masses from getting together.” (p. 98) He listed this usage by Japan to Chinese, Italy to Ethiopia, Germany to Jews, France to the Moors.

The relation between Marxism and religion has been complex. Marxists believe in the basis of philosophical materialism, which negates the existence of any supernatural entity. Mind, ideas, and the soul are the products of matter organized in a certain way[2]. Marxism is only concerned about the present life, the present world. Engels pointed out in his preface to The Civil War in France that « in relation to the state, religion is a purely private affair. » Religion, as Marx says, is opium of the people. This is context from where Hughes made his controversial poem Goodbye, Christ. It is, in my opinion, in a way similar to the line in Nietszche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, God is dead. The church sold the Christ and made money from the Bible. Then Hughes introduces “a real guy named Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME—“ (p.37). Hughes named the people and ideas that influenced him and made him what he was.

Regarding the tension between art and capital, Hughes contrasted Hollywood business to the movie making in Russia. Hollywood is business, while Moscow is for the artistic interest. Hollywood scenarios have to sacrifice the writer’s ideals while in Moscow the point is “how to present with the greatest artistic force the ideals that will make for the betterment of the Soviet people” (Moscow and Me). He also highlighted how the industrial aspect of movie making. He said that some black actors, though having had nice experience of travelling in Europe and enjoying the luxury in Soviet Union and been paid full, were still disappointed because they could not star in the movie. The business involves so many parties that it becomes “complicated”. He went further to say that he was glad he wrote poems, a solitary job.

Capitalism has its own way to entwine art and industry. White people let black people express themselves, such as in music. For example, Louis Armstrong, but then they take care the copyright and make money out of it, cites Hughes. Again he notes the positive side of Soviet Union. Unlike in American cities where money speaks more than many other things, in Moscow, Hughes says, work is important. Work is powerful because it can give access to food, lodging, medical service and even theatre tickets. This is why Moscow became Hughes’ first city where he could earn money entirely from writing.

As a black writer, Hughes wanted to embrace fellow black writers to help changing America by writing about the oppressions their people were experiencing. He did not want them to be Romantic, in the sense of writing about nature or things that are not directly connected to social problems. As he said in To Negro Writers, a speech at the First American Writers’ Congress in 1935, instead of writing about the moon, Negro writers can write about “practical things” to erase Jim Crow. Hughes also mentioned being a social poet and his adventure with censorship and authorities. Actually Hughes wanted not only black writers to write about racial discrimination, but also he expected academicians, black and white, « who write better than we do » to convey their concerns, that is to make changes in the society. But fighting for equality does not stop at writing. Hughes also took acts to defend black Americans. For example along with leading intellectuals and writers, he was involved in defending the inmates of the Scottsboro case, where nine black youths were indicted for allegedly raping two white prostitutes in Alabama in 1931. That is a way to « speak of revolution » (Letter to the Academy).