APPLYING THE DEFT ARTISTRY of a fine historian to the exuberant memoirs of a veteran political activist is a foolproof formula for producing unusual and exciting insights into the recent past. The activist, Hosea Hudson, is an 81-year-old Communist who left sharecropping to become a skillful molder of iron castings and workers' struggles in Birmingham, Alabama. The historian is Nell Irvin Painter, who proved her talent for recreating the lives and aspirations of black working people in Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas Following Reconstruction. Her careful editing, "pruning and arranging" of Hudson's words make this book vastly superior to Hudson's brief memoir, Black Worker in the Deep South, published in 1972. Not that the collaborators always saw eye to eye on what they were doing or why. As Painter records their differences, Hudson "wanted to tell the story of the Communist Party in Alabama," while she "wanted to write southern social history using Hudson's life as an illustration."

Both won. This richly detailed account of the workings of the party at the grass-roots level in the industrial South is unique among recent biographies and memoirs of American Communists and ex-Communists in that it never loses its focus on everday working-class life and the activities of the party's rank and file. Moreover, it undermines the basic assumptions behind virtually all scholarly literature concerning blacks and the party, namely that the role of Communists in black communities should be analyzed, first, as an alien and disruptive influence, and second, as one that operated primarily among intellectuals.

After 1930 the Communist Party of Alabama recruited many black industrial workers and few other people. Among the 600-700 members in Birmingham between 1933 and 1935, Hudson recalls, "We only had a few white, and I mean a few whites." The party's importance lay in its integral ties to "the neighborhood, the working class, industrial neighborhood that make all the difference. You miss one worker here," he explained, "you get the other next door." For precisely this reason, Hudson's "political biography" is the very social history that Painter wanted to write.

The miseries of sharecropping, the relentlessly marginal status of black workers, the role of kinship links in economic survival, the importance of quitting jobs as the only way of rising even slightly up the income ladder, and the neighborhoods of peripatetic families, bootleggers, card readers, church choirs and ruthless white police all appear here not in their familiar garb of explanations for the subject's radicalism, but rather as the very substance of the narrative itself. The party's daily methods of work were fashioned by these conditions. For example, around 1932 its Unemployed Councils were aided in persuading landlords not to evict blacks behind in their rents by the speed with which neighbors tore apart empty houses for firewood. Seven years later the Workers' Alliance, faced with congressionally-ordered layoffs of long-term WPA (Works Progress Administration) workers, could not call a protest strike, as it did in several northern cities. wSo great was the swarm of applicants seeking the positions of those dropped by the WPA that the Workers' Alliance could only demand decent registration facilities for the newcomers.

It was the Communist Party of the ultra-militant "Third Period" (1928-1934) that recruited Hudson and many of his friends. Its uncompromising hostility to white racism and its simple line of "class against class" so appealed to them that they often joined at the first meeting they attended. More remarkably, most of them remained for the rest of their lives. The party meant two things for them. First, action: "The Party fights all the way through. It's like a bulldog. We don't give up -- some of us." Second, training: "I set out to be a leader among the Negro people," and the party's schools, press and meetings allowed Hudson and others to overcome the training in diffidence that southern society had so harshly instilled. So firm became his devotion to the party that Hudson uses the phrase "Stalin period" to refer not to the period of Stalin's leadership of the Soviet Union, but rather to the mid-1950s, when the party was wracked by debates over Stalin's role.

After 1945 that all-consuming commitment cost Hudson his marriage, his leadership position in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and his job. (Only since 1942 had he enjoyed steady employment as a molder.) His narrative ends abruptly in 1948, was purged from the CIO, an arbitrator upholding his discharge from the foundry on the grounds that "his presence in the plant has caused . . . unrest, dissension and resentment." After a brief term on the party's National Committee Hudson went underground. Perhaps the ending is too abrupt, but in an important sense those events severed the link between his political biography and Birmingham's social history.

During the ensuing decades Birmingham's black miners and steelworkers found new ways to battle for the local causes Hudson had championed. At the Fairfield works, where blacks influenced by Hudson had founded the Steelworkers' union only to see it slip into the control of conservative whites, they subsequently initiated the lawsuit that made "affirmative action" a household word. Others, who had been but children when Hudson left Birmingham, faced down Bull Connor's clubs and dogs in the city's streets in the '60s to create the desegregated community that Hudson beheld on a recent return visit.

Meanwhile, in Atlantic City Hudson himself, like so many other labor militants of the '30s, can still be found organizing his neighbors -- nowadays in a fight to preserve their community in the face of an onslaught from the gambling and tourist industries. It gets in the blood.