“Politics is the way you live every moment of your life”

A Red Family
Book Review by Megan Trudell, May 2009
Mickey Friedman, University of Illinois Press

“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.


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The “S” Word & A Red Family

There is an extraordinary Alice in Wonderland quality to the current economic crisis. At a time when capitalism is revealing its greatest limitations, the biggest bugaboo still is the “S” word – socialism.

Auto execs fly their private jets to Washington to beg for public money after decades of incompetence. AIG rewards those of its traders who failed the most with multi-million dollar bonuses, then diverts its many billions of bailout dollars to failed banks and investment houses like Goldman Sachs. Can it be a coincidence that the head of AIG used to be on the Board of Directors of Goldman Sachs; that Henry Paulson, Bush’s Treasury Secretary, the man who crafted the bail-out plan, used to run Goldman Sachs. And Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Secretary of Treasury, who along with Lawrence Summers, began the de-regulation process that helped make all this possible also once ran Goldman Sachs. There is no conspiracy here. These men, in the full light of day, share a common purpose: to maximize profit, to preserve a capitalism that, even as it has decimated the retirement accounts of the majority, has worked wonders for them.

So why are we hearing the “S” word? The misdirection began in the waning days of the Presidential campaign when the desperate McCain/Palin team played the socialism card. Obama’s pathetically modest attempt to roll-back the Bush tax cuts, to “spread the wealth” just a little was, according to Palin “a little bit like socialism.” Ohio Sen. George Voinovich declared that Mr. Obama “is left of Teddy Kennedy. With all due respect, the man is a socialist.” To me, a child of the anti-Communist witch-hunt, it seemed a bit like preemptive McCarthysism.

As Obama prepared to lead, it became increasingly apparent that the Great Depression 2.0 was at hand. Though, it is quite true that he inherited a mess not of his making, he has, unfortunately, continued to implement the solutions his predecessors designed. Diverting mind-bogglingly enormous amounts of tax-payer money to the coffers of the same bankers who brought us to ruin.

According to the Boston Globe, on February 27, 2009 two top-ranking Republicans responded to Obama’s budget with these words:

“Representative John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, called the budget proposal and recently passed economic stimulus plan “one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.”
“I have serious concerns with this budget, which demands hardworking American families and job creators turn over more of their hard-earned money to the government to pay for unprecedented spending increases,” added Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader.

Then, in an irony to end all ironies, Rush Limbaugh accused Barney Frank of McCarthyism for wanting to know the names of the AIG executives who received mammoth bonuses in tax-payer money. How’s that for bait and switch?

You know we’re in deep trouble when a modest attempt to correct the excesses of the Bush tax policy can be termed “a socialist experiment.” For God’s sake, Obama is only proposing to raise the rate on wealthy Americans to a rate significantly below the rates wealthy Americans paid during the Reagan years. How this is socialism would confuse even the mad tea party-goers!

And yet for working people, the stakes have never been higher than the days of the Great Depression. An October 2008 study of global income inequality revealed that in the United States, the richest 10 percent earn an average of $93,000 a year while the poorest 10 percent earn an average of $5,800. In 2006, the richest 1% reported 22% of the nation’s total adjusted gross income.

If ever there was a time to reconsider capitalism, now is the time. And yet the public discussion, and the consideration of potential remedies, is so severely limited by the invocation of the “S” word.

You can search the airwaves in vain for an intelligent discussion of any comprehensive alternative to capitalism; for an honest examination of socialism. The ghosts of Stalin and Mao hover everywhere. There isn’t the opportunity to remind the pundits that Stalin slaughtered every socialist he could find. That the so-called “Marxists” killed the Marxists. So in some sense you have to first begin with the question: when is socialism not socialism.


These issues resound ever more strongly for me with the publication of “A Red Family.” Because the fact is, Junius and Gladys Scales, dedicated members of the Communist Party, USA spent years grappling with the fact that the Party they devoted so much energy to betrayed in so many ways the socialism they believed in. The socialism they believed could provide a humane answer to the inequities that marked the capitalism of their day.

Some of us still believe democratic socialism deserves discussion. We know well how easy it is to distort undemocratic “socialism.” We know it’s not really socialism, but rather the banner under which a small and ruthless minority takes control of the economic, political, and social life of a land.

But we are everyday witnessing the effects of the greed inherent in the practice of modern day capitalism. And if your shrinking retirement funds haven’t yet convinced you, take a hike in Glacier National Park to see the disappearing glaciers. For the climate crisis offers undeniable evidence of the toll profit-taking has wrecked upon the earth. Maybe it really is time for change we can believe in.

Mickey Friedman

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5 Stars from Curledup.com

A Red Family: Junius, Gladys, and Barbara Scales
Mickey Friedman
University of Illinois Press
216 pages
January 2009

It is impossible to read this book without a sense of sadness. It is the story of a man who paid a high price for his convictions though wrongly accused, the wife who stood by him to the detriment of her own potential and her motherhood, and his daughter, who grew up aware that her father was different but not understanding totally that his difference was something to be proud of.

Junius Scales was the only American ever to be imprisoned simply for being a member of the Communist Party. But when he was caught and brought to “justice” he had already withdrawn, if not formally resigned from, that Party, disillusioned as many were by the revelations about Stalin’s excesses. His wife, Gladys, was forced to live in the shadow of his political activities, always a fugitive, often by command of the Party or because of ceaseless pursuit by the FBI unable to see her husband for long periods of time. His only child, Barbara, grew up able to see her father and interact as a full family only rarely and was enjoined to say nothing about her father’s imprisonment so as to avoid the disapproval of her schoolmates and neighbors.

Documentary filmmaker Mickey Friedman has brought to life the saga of the “red” family and their hounded existence by means of interviews he recorded in the 1970s, interviews that show the three participants in a small-scale human way that makes their story all the more poignant.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2009

Read the entire review.

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Like so many others who grew up in the Civil Rights movement, I am amazed to see the triumph of hope and the desire for change trump racism.  As a political being, I find myself believing once more in the possibility of a fair America.
As a writer, I am a bit taken aback that “A Red Family: Junius, Gladys and Barbara Scales” has been transformed from an interesting exploration of an almost extinct small tribe of activists — American Communists — the province of a small if determined branch of the academy, to a highly relevant personal history of the successes and failures of a generation determined to create the continuing American revolution.
The combination of an Obama presidency, the obvious failures of an-out-of-control capitalism, and the defeat of the pervasive fear-driven, anti-intellectual politics of division makes it clear we can and must address the all-important issues of what kind of country we want and need to be.  These are issues that Junius and Gladys Scales thought about.  Junius, the only American ever convicted under the Membership Clause of the Smith Act—imprisoned not for any violent acts against the government, but merely because he was an acknowledged member of the Communist Party—was born not in Moscow but North Carolina, a son of the wealthy Southern aristocracy.  Gladys was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a modestly successful middle-class Jewish family.

Junius became a Communist because of the horrible injustice of segregation.  He was transformed when he moved from his life of comfort to an impoverished textile mill village.  Gladys’ inherent empathy was multiplied as her family, and millions of others, were shattered by the Depression.
This ancient history seems ever more relevant.  Yesterday’s Smith Act is today’s Patriot Act; yesterday’s Depression may soon be ours. “A Red Family” offers a clear look of what drives Americans to struggle for social and economic justice, at how hard it is to succeed and how easy it is to fail.  The story of the Scales family is the story of the never-ending need to transform bigotry to mutual respect, to replace greed with equity, and the understanding that none of this will happen unless we act with courage, humility, and great self-awareness.  In a movement that is transparent and always democratic.

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A Red Family

A Red Family: Junius, Gladys, and Barbara Scales by Mickey Friedman.  The University of Illinois Press. 2009.

This is the story of a Red family: Junius, Gladys, and Barbara Scales.  Red in the older sense of the word.  Because, before there were red and blue states, there were the Reds, the Communists.


Junius Scales was the son of one of the wealthiest families in North Carolina.  He left privilege to live in a poor textile mill village, and in 1939, on his nineteenth birthday, joined the Communist Party.  One of the few publicly known Communists in the South,  Junius organized textile workers, fought segregation, went underground, evaded the FBI, was indicted, arrested, unsuccessfully appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court  and went to prison. He was the only American ever to be imprisoned under the Membership Clause of the Smith Act – jailed not because he committed violent acts, but because he had been a member of the Communist Party.

Gladys Scales came to Communism from a very different place.  She was born in Brooklyn, New York.  Her Jewish father was a successful small businessman who lost everything in the Depression.  As her family fell apart around her, and she battled her own depression, Communism offered the opportunity to imagine and work for a more caring world.

By the time their daughter Barbara was born, Junius and Gladys were under siege and anti-Communism shaped American politics.  In an attempt to protect her, and allow her the chance for a more normal childhood, they didn’t tell Barbara she was a “red-diaper” baby.

A Red Family is oral history, one very different family’s account of their rich and complicated journey in American radical politics.  It’s a story few Americans know; it’s a part of our history that is rarely talked about.

Photo of Gladys, Barbara and Junius Scales by Richard Nickson, used by permission.

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