Capitalism, Communism, and the Political Trial

In the very first scenes following Bigger’s arrest, it is clear that his criminal trial is already politicized. Two of his first visitors are Jan, Mary’s boyfriend who introduced Bigger to Communism in “Fear,” and Max, another member of the Communist Party who wishes to represent Bigger as his defense attorney. While both Jan and Max hope to help Bigger seemingly out of empathy for his situation, they have political motivations as well. Max even tells the State’s attorney Buckley, “If you had not dragged the name of the Communist Party into this murder, I’d not be here,” (292). Max wants the people of Chicago to realize that the Communist Party is not at fault for what Bigger did, but rather broken American systems are the enemy, which he believes Communism could fix. Max is defending not only Bigger but Max’s political party too. Buckley, on the other hand, is resolved to convict both. When questioning Bigger and Jan, he repeatedly attempts to implicate Jan and the broader Communist Party in Mary’s death. In doing so, he works to protect the racist, capitalist status quo, represented by the Daltons and him. While Mr. Dalton may think his charity work has absolved him of his racism, Max’s cross examination of Mr. Dalton reveals the wealthy man’s unwillingness to help Black communities on a more impactful level. Despite being aware of their destitute living conditions, he refuses to charge them less rent because that would be “underselling [his] competitors” (328). Mr. Dalton’s reasoning illustrates how capitalism enables, and is, in some cases, used to justify racism. 

Meanwhile, the Communists, Jan and Max, show Bigger compassion. When Jan reaches out to Bigger despite what he did to Mary, “for the first time in [Bigger’s] life, a white man became a human being to him” (289). Through Jan and Max, Communism is associated with equality and humanity. During the immense pressure of his cross-examination, Jan sticks to his ideals when asked about Black people. Buckley incredulously asks, “You like Negroes?” as Jan says he “make[s] no distinctions,” telling Buckley directly that Bigger “is human” (320-321). Max repeatedly objects to the relevance of Buckley’s racist, political questions, but to no avail. The trial is not just between the government and Bigger, but between capitalism and Communism. By drawing such a distinction, Wright describes capitalism as an institution that allows racism to persist, while Communism is portrayed as an answer to modern civilization’s deepest problems. 

3 thoughts on “Capitalism, Communism, and the Political Trial”

  1. Hi!
    I completely relate to your understanding of how capitalism played (and even today, continues to play) such a critical role in structural racism. I was intrigued by how the Daltons used their wealth to insulate themselves from the misery of those who produce that wealth for them. Though guilt is thickly woven in the novel, I found it interesting how the Daltons’ philanthropy was motivated by guilt. Mr. Dalton’s niceties to Bigger at the beginning of the novel seemed quaint and superficially “nice” but as you pointed out, his real attitude is condescending and insecure — the desire for profit easily wins out his ambition for kindness, but he does just enough to keep the possibility of guilt at bay.

  2. Lan Anh, thank you for your comment! I just read your blog post and enjoyed seeing how we approached this topic in different ways. To answer your question, I see the political motivations of Jan and Max as a flaw, because it makes their compassion for Bigger not quite as sincere. Max going so far as to say he wouldn’t help Bigger at all if the Party wasn’t involved undermines the humanity he extends towards Bigger. Jan is also not seen as wholly good. In his first interaction with Bigger, he talks at him instead of with him and, in a poor attempt to recruit Bigger and make him feel comfortable, infantilizes him. I appreciate that Wright included these moments, because otherwise, the Communist characters would have no detectable flaws, and the novel would come across even more like a protest novel than it already does.

  3. Hi, I didn’t realise until after I posted my blog that we basically almost wrote about the same thing! My bad. But I did want to comment on yours and say that I really liked how you articulated Max’s intentioned to bring forth the idea that the reason behind Bigger’s actions is the broken American system. I love your point about how “the trial is not just between the government and Bigger, but between capitalism and Communism.” I’m curious to know what flaws you think the characters affiliated with the communist party has in Wright’s novel, and whether or not that was Wright’s intention?

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