A Red Family

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Mickey Friedman, University of Illinois Press; £17.99

"Politics", Barbara Scales says at the end of this book, is "the way you live every moment of your life". She knows what she is talking about. Her parents, Junius and Gladys Scales, were Communist Party (CP) members in the US during the 1940s and 1950s - her father the only American to go to prison for being a Communist. Their story - told through interviews recorded in 1971 and only recently published - is one of considerable courage and affection, great candour and political conviction of the deepest kind.

Junius Scales was born into a wealthy North Carolina family in 1920. His passionate opposition to fascism brought him into the orbit of the CP at college. The pre-war South was segregated. When Junius sat down at a table with black people on equal terms at a conference in 1938, "it was one of the most exciting experiences of my whole life. It just opened up a new world to me." His commitment to anti-racism never wavered. He joined the CP in 1939 and became involved in student struggles in North Carolina which united black and white students 20 years before the civil rights movement.

Junius later became an organiser in the textile industry - Communists were involved as union organisers in the South and faced the real danger of being killed. His descriptions of the men and women he fought alongside are all the more moving for being understated. The conditions in the mills under rationalisation and speed-ups were appalling, and workers endured great hardship, yet unionism and strike action had transformative effects on the tight hierarchies of mill society which convinced him of people's capacity for change.

When Junius was imprisoned under the Smith Act during McCarthyism, Gladys worked tirelessly to have his sentence revoked. They both left the CP in 1957 following Nikita Khrushchev's speech outlining the horrors of Joseph Stalin's reign in Russia. Their discussion of the personal distortion, pain and confusion this caused provides an insight into how political distortion on Stalinism's grand scale was imprinted onto millions of individual histories. Tragically, it turned many from activity altogether: Junius and many others felt too tainted or demoralised to engage with the movements of the 1960s that would have been enriched by their experience.

Emerging from this book are two self-critical and intelligent people with their sense of integrity and outrage intact. Their pride in their principles comes shining through: rejection of Stalin's distortion of socialism did not cloud their belief in working people's right to fight for justice and freedom.

This book fascinates by entwining personal history with wider US history; the interviews evoke the atmosphere of racism in the South and the frightening isolation caused by the McCarthy witchhunts but also the warmth of comradeship and the persistence of their vision of a better world.