When John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath was originally published, it was often accused of being a work of communist propaganda. Steinbeck had anticipated such charges and had even gone so far as to ask his publishers to print the entire text of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” within the book in order to make his American patriotism clear. Although Steinbeck was obviously sympathetic to the working class, he was deeply distrustful of communism and of the dictatorships it often produced. Indeed, in the years preceding the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, infamous “show trials” were being staged in the Soviet Union – trials which clearly made a mockery of real justice. Even some fellow communists denounced the communist regime of Joseph Stalin, and Steinbeck wanted to keep his distance from the kind of thinking that had led to Stalinism.
One of the most intriguing passages in The Grapes of Wrath dealing with this issue occurs when Jim Rawley, the manager of the government-sponsored camp in which the Joads briefly stay, introduces himself to Ma Joad. When Ma Joad asks whether Rawley is the camp’s “boss,” Rawley immediately replies,
“No. . . . The people here worked me out of a job.”
He then goes on to praise the independent but cooperative initiative of the people who live in the camp – people who don’t need bosses (dictators) or supervision. Rawley treats Ma Joad as an equal, not as a member of the proletariat whom he must and monitor and to whom he must give orders. His attitude toward her is democratic, not communistic in the way of Joseph Stalin, who created a society in which democracy was officially praised but never really practiced.
Nevertheless, it must be admitted that there are passages in Steinbeck’s novel that could easily have been interpreted – and were in fact interpreted – as expressing sympathy for communism. Thus, at one point a character describes how people seeking reasonable wages for work are condemned as “reds,” causing Tom Joad to reply that he must therefore be a “red.” It is little wonder that some of the book’s original readers suspected Steinbeck of communist tendencies, even though in correspondence and conversation he explicitly rejected communism.