Communists and Community

Activism in Detroit's Labor Movement, 1941-1956

Ryan S. Pettengill
Book Cover

PB: $34.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1905-7
Publication: May 20

HC: $110.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1904-0
Publication: May 20

Ebook: $34.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1906-4
Publication: May 20

260 pages
6 x 9
4 tables, 12 figs., 2 maps

Enhances our understanding of the central role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy throughout the mid-twentieth century

Read an interview with the author

Read the Introduction (pdf).


Communists and Community seeks to reframe the traditional chronology of the Communist Party in the United States as a means to better understand the change that occurred in community activism in the mid-twentieth century. Ryan Pettengill argues that Popular Front activism continued to flourish throughout the war years and into the postwar period. In Detroit, where there was a critical mass of heavy industry, Communist Party activists mobilized support for civil rights and affordable housing, brought attention to police brutality, sought protection for the foreign-born, and led a movement for world peace.

Communists and Community demonstrates that the Communist Party created a social space where activists became effective advocates for the socioeconomic betterment of a multiracial work force. Pettengill uses Detroit as a case study to examine how communist activists and their sympathizers maintained a community to enhance the quality of life for the city’s working class. He investigates the long-term effects of organized labor’s decision to force communists out of the unions and abandon community-based activism. Communists and Community recounts how leftists helped workers, people of color, and other under-represented groups who became part of the mainstream citizenry in America.


"Pettengill, using a vast array of archival sources, has documented an understudied aspect of U.S. Communist history. Rather than focusing on the CPUSA’s relation to the Soviet party—a favorite topic of historians—he has begun to unearth the everyday activities of rank-and-file Communists.... The author provides a blueprint for future local studies of Communist activities which historians will hopefully follow."
—People's World

"Communists and Community traces the fortunes of the Communist Party (CP) in Detroit from World War II to the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s. Ryan Pettengill’s purpose is 'to shed light on leftists’ use of community activism within the labor movement' and to argue its relevance today.... Pettengill has done sterling service in highlighting the positive aspects of CP policy in Detroit."
—Labor History

"Pettengill is at his best when documenting...lesser-known initiatives, such as the communists’ campaign against racialized police brutality or its founding of the Michigan School of Social Sciences, a pioneering type of left-wing community college."
—Journal of Social History

“Communists and Community greatly contributes to our understanding of an understudied period of U.S. communism. In this excellent monograph, Ryan Pettengill—utilizing extensive archival sources, including Detroit Red Squad records—recounts the important role Communists played in a variety of union and community-based coalitions devoted to fighting racism, wartime price and rent gouging, labor and housing discrimination, and police brutality. According to Pettengill, those alliances unfortunately did not survive the party-line shifts and the Cold War purges of the left, thus destroying the possibility of achieving a more inclusive and just social and economic order.”—Gerald Zahavi, Professor of History at the University at Albany, SUNY, and author of Workers, Managers, and Welfare Capitalism: The Shoeworkers and Tanners of Endicott Johnson, 1890–1950

Move over, Saul Alinsky! Communists and Community uncovers the hidden history of community organizing in Detroit before Alinsky’s version emerged. Pettengill’s sharp portrait reveals working-class radicals attempting to connect community and workplace power struggles; these were overlooked because Communist Party history was erased. From activism that began in bowling halls and clubs to campaigns for anti-police brutality and civil rights, Pettengill shows that direct action outside the workplace was a vital part of the quest for working-class power. He also rewrites the history of postwar conservatism by showing that right-wing community activists prevailed in part because of the removal of radicals during the Cold War who had acted as a bridge between labor and community struggles.
Rosemary Feurer, Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University and author of Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900–1950

" Pettengill sheds important light on how Communists actually shaped labor relations and the lives of workers and everyday people.... Among the book’s most important contributions is its demonstration of how the party’s activism persisted beyond the point that it is commonly assumed that Communists no longer exerted much influence anywhere in the country.... (T)his is an important volume that should gratify many students of the history of labor and the American Left, of Detroit in the twentieth century, and of the course of civil rights and race relations in America."
—Michigan Historical Review

" (A)n excellent examination of such activism through the lens of perhaps American communism’s most prolific battleground for politics, unionism, and community resistance: Motor City, USA. Pettengill effectively draws the line between communists concerned about community activism versus those more interested in unionism and organizing political rallies.... Arguably one of the most valuable components to Pettengill’s work is his analysis of the continuance of communist community-based activism after World War II and into the periods of the early Cold War and the Second Red Scare.... Pettengill effectively describes the diffusion of localized, radical activism into a broad array in which radical political identities served little purpose."
—American Communist History >

Table of Contents


1. Popular Front Activism and the Communist Cooperative
2. World War, a Community Crisis, and the Communist Cooperative
3. The Roots of Postwar Anticommunism, 1944–1945
4. Community Activism and the Emergence of Postwar Detroit, 1945–1949
5. Anticommunism and the Transition of Labor Activism, 1945–1949
6. Community Activism in the Age of McCarthy, 1950–1956
7. Anticommunism, Local Politics, and the Demise of Community Activism
Conclusion: Community Activism and the Labor Movement


About the Author(s)

Ryan S. Pettengill is a Professor of History at Mountain View College in Dallas, Texas.