Friday, December 21, 2007
A Chapter From Radical History
“Red Flag, Black Nation: Communists, African Americans, And Self-Determination
By Brad Duncan
Two Connected Themes
There are two story lines writ large across the world in the twentieth century: race and communism.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s white supremacy was the law of the land across the planet. From the French colonies of
The emergence of an American Communist movement in 1919 signaled the beginning of a new challenge to industrial capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. The vision of the world offered by the new Communist movement was fierce in its racial egalitarianism. Not only did the Communist movement preach the common class bond between white workers and workers of color but Communists championed the right of national self-determination for all oppressed nations. The imperialists had mad noises to honor this democratic right in the wake of World War One, but it amounted to little. The Communist movement demanded freedom for colonies by any means, up to and including revolution.
By the end of the 1920’s the Party classified African Americans as an oppressed nation yearning to be free. This meant that any revolution against oppression in the
Labor, Socialists, and Black Workers before the CPUSA
By the time American Communism emerged in 1919 the Socialist Party had been the political party most associated with socialism and anti-capitalism for over twenty years. While the Socialist Party identified racism as a destructive force that helped divide the working class and should be done away with, they never developed a systematic program for fighting racist oppression. When it came to organizing unions and wining strikes and opposing the war, the Socialist Party had a program, platform, and strategy. When it came to organizing to combat lynching, analyzing the roots of white supremacy, and consistently fighting Jim Crow in the unions, the Socialist Party did not have much to offer.
Some early trade union such as the Knights of Labor had made limited efforts to specifically organize workers of color, as did the more radical IWW. The IWW had a handful of prolific and important Black organizers and the Socialist Party likewise had small amount of Black cadres and leaders such as A. Philip Randolph. But by and large, the workers’ movement and even the organized left of that generation was segregated and almost totally ignored workers of color, Black workers included. These unions, from the AFL to smaller craft and even industrial unions, helped reinforce—not challenge—the American color line that was so important to employers and the state. Unions that did seek to organize Black workers either independently or with white fellow workers were met with incredible repression and often shunned within the larger labor movement. Capitalists wanted to make white workers feel that segregation and Black oppression created material benefits for them, and most mainstream trade union leaders were happy to play along. Many unions made guaranteeing white privilege a central demand. A movement that held tremendous potential to attack white supremacy was in many ways another racist arm of the law for workers of color.
The Socialist Party was very proud of the fact that in an era of extreme racism they were a color blind political party. But that was just the problem. The “color blindness” of the Socialist Party meant they were unable to prioritize fighting Jim Crow, incapable understanding Black struggle, and willfully ignorant of the special oppression that Black people face in the
African Blood Brotherhood
The African Blood Brotherhood was a secretive organization in the late 1910’s and early 1920’s that was primarily dedicated to propagating socialist and Black nationalist ideas to an increasingly politicized African American audience. They also aspired to be an armed force that could protect Blacks from lynching and racist violence. Although nominally an underground movement the ABB used it’s widely circulated newspaper The Crusader to build support for Black pride, Pan-Africanism, and class struggle against capitalists. The ideology of the ABB barrowed from nationalists like Martin Delany and socialists such as Eugene Debs, making them the first party ever in the United States to fuse the ideas of Black Nationalism with those of revolutionary socialism. Although the ABB would eventually established cells across the country the group was based in
More than anything else the ABB came to be associated in the public mind with armed self defense to white supremacist violence. In 1921 white racist mobs attempted to entirely destroy the Black community of
For the African Blood Brotherhood Black people in the
“…our experiences lately in the mass struggle show, first of all, how everything that touches upon the Negro question is for out Party a question of fundamental principle importance, a matter of life and death” (Communist Position on the Negro Question, page 8)
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the first time in human history that working class people seized control of a state apparatus and kept it. The Paris Commune of 1871 showed that workers could take power, the Russian Revolution showed they could take it and wield it. The Communist movement in
In its first decade the Communist Party carved out quite a niche as a political party that aligned itself with organizing unorganized workers, defending class war prisoners, and propagating the idea that workers could and must overthrow the government. They were more radical that the Socialist Party, more political that the IWW, and more ambitious that both combined. Defending political prisoners was a key area of work if for no other reason than sedition laws had hit communists and immigrant unionists so hard. They initiated the Trade Union Education League which help spread militant trade unionism and radical class politics throughout the nation, including regions previously void of unions. The TUEL and the Negro Labor Congress attempted to popularize industrial unionism—as opposed to narrow craft unionism—a decade before the CIO was born. Both preached strict anti-racism and opposed the collaborationist relationship unions like the AFL had with employers.
From the outset the Communist Party,
The influence of the African Blood Brotherhood, the Garvey movement, and a shifting focus in world politics meant that the Communist Party was increasingly viewing the Black liberation struggle as a National liberation struggle in the classic Marxist sense.
Birth of “National Self Determination for the Black Belt” Theory
The shift towards viewing African Americans as a nation and not ‘simply’ a racially oppressed sector of the working class was part and parcel with a shift in the international Communist movement. In an era when anti-colonial movement were beginning to make themselves known the Marxist right to national self determination was pushed to center stage in Communist thought and practice. Part of this hardening on what is called The National Question was linked to the rise of Joseph Stalin. Stalin, who was never a party intellectual or a prolific writer, had in fact been assigned to write an essay regarding Communist Party policy on the National Question years before 1917. This essay lays out the basics of what Communists think constitutes a nation and why such a entity has a democratic right to chart its own course and be independent if it so chooses. This idea was not created by Stalin—in fact he relied most centrally on Lenin’s notebooks—but as Stalin and the emerging beaurucratic clique around him rose to power in the Soviet Union in the mid to late 1920’s the idea and the essay became holy writ.
This period of the Communist movement was fraught with division over what course the first ever Communist country should take. It was in the climate that a young Harry Haywood ventured to
The Communist Position On the Negro Question
Published in 1932 The Communist Position on the Negro Question is a deep, detailed look at Communist policy towards and involvement in Black struggles of the period. Contained inside the eighty-page pamphlet are three lengthy essays, a campaign speech, and two Communist International resolutions on the Black question from 1928 and 1930. The essays and the speech seek primarily to accomplish three things. Firstly it makes the point that the liberation of Black people is directly connected to the liberation of all working class people, thus making strident anti-racism the duty of all workers everywhere. Secondly the pamphlet seeks to show that “white chauvinism”—or a white supremacist attitude—pervaded the labor movement and the Left. Every essay, speech, and resolution contained in the pamphlet makes note of this cancer that is eating away any future possibility of class struggle, much less potential revolutionary victory. Political forces from trade unions, mainstream parties, and even the Socialists are given a firm whacking on the Black issue throughout the pamphlet. Finally, the pamphlet enthusiastically and immodestly makes the point that the Communist Party,
This collection was designed to prove the CPUSA’s credentials on the Black question to those already in the movement but also to bring new converts into the movement and demonstrate to them the centrality of the issue. But it was also designed to attack the CPUSA’s competitors on the left and in the labor movement. One audience was the radical worker who was unsure which radical party to pick, another audience was African Americans who were unsure of the Party’s sincerity, and a final audience was Party members who needed to know the correct and contemporary party line after years of theoretic changes and development. The CPUSA hoped to get a lot of mileage from this rather small publication.
Story of the Nation
Any nation conscious enough of itself to exert its right to self-determination has to have a creation story, a national narrative. The Communist Position on the Negro Question lays out the story of the Black Nation in the US South, know henceforth as the Black Belt Nation. The stories beginnings of course lay in the removal of millions of Africans to work as slaves in the US South. As the slave-owning ruling class of the South grew more ambitious Northern industrialists grew more concerned about the existence of competion in the form of slave labor. Fearing the future of slavery under
Reconstruction offered the promise of Black land-ownership and some degree of political enfranchisement. Rumors swirled of land redistribution and Black Congressmen and Senators—some former slaves—took office across the South. But the political, social, and economic egalitarianism promised by Radical Republicans and some Union Generals never materialized. In little over a decade the entire Reconstruction project—the first real experiment in multiracial democracy in the
The Black Belt with its majority Negro population constitutes the objective prerequisite for the realization of the struggles of the Negro masses for national liberation. The Negro toilers, once the allies of the Northern bourgeoisie but betrayed by the during the reconstruction period, have now become the allies of the proletariat. [emphasis in the original]
Harry Haywood, “The Theoretical Defenders of White Chavanism in the Labor Movement”, The Communist Position on the Negro Question
Who Are the Friends of the Negro People?
The campaign speech included in the pamphlet titled Who Are the Friends of the Negro People? was written to set the party apart from the other political parties of the day. The speech was delivered by party activist C.A. Hathaway as a public nomination of the party’s Vice Presidential candidate, Black comrade James W. Ford. An African American had never been on a presidential ballot before in the 20th century, much less a radical Black labor leader running as an open revolutionary Communist. The speech lays out how both main political parties as well as the Socialist betray Black workers and help prop up white supremacy and Jim Crow., thus continuing the rule of capitalists over workers.
Firstly, Hathaway points out that the Communists are not running a Black candidate as a gimmick or a vote getter. Especially not since millions of Black workers can not even vote, as Hathaway points out. He says a Black worker and leader was chosen for the ticket because Black social, political, and economic equality is an absolute party principle. Hathaway wants the party’s motive to be plainly known:
That motive is the desire to clearly and forcefully bring forward the fundamental position of the Communist Party, and of those workers who support the Communist Party, on the Negro question. The Communist Party stands squarely for the complete and unconditional equality in some narrow and limited sense. We do not say that the Negro is all right “in his place”. We say that any place open to the whites must be opened for the Negroes. We stand unequivocally for the full political, economic, and especially—we emphasize—social equality (Applause) page 22
Hathaway also makes the case that running a Black candidate is a challenge to all of the Party’s white members and sympathizers. It pushes the envelope in the entire left and labor milieu and acts as a vehicle for making the Party’s position on racism known more widely. Throughout the pamphlet there are admitions that white chauvinist additudes still existing within the Party. There should be no doubt, the Party assures us, that such elements are being put on trial and forced to choose sides. The Ford campaign was a part of this effort to change the internal life of the Party.
Although the Socialists may have formally been for Black suffrage, none of the parties actually fought for Black political rights. The reasons seemed simple to the Communists; the Republicans were run by the northern industrialists and bankers who profited from Black labor and the Democrats were run by former slave owners and lynchers. Democrats are presented as the front line defenders of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Republicans are considered the cynical exploiters who claim to be more civilized but profit off white supremacy nonetheless. Both tell Black workers to stay in their place, simply except occasional violence, and not to rock the boat (page 25).
“No Party lies more brazenly on the Negro question than the Socialist Party”
Seeing as the Socialist Party was the Party most likely to be competing for members and votes with the Communist Party they were singled out for a particularly harsh treatment. In fact, the Socialist Party—which was dramatically smaller than the Republicans and Democrats and was ostensibly a leftwing party—gets a rough, sectarian treatment throughout the pamphlet. One wonders what everyday workers who were new to radical politics would have thought about this bitter inter-left criticism. The Communist went so far as to say that the Socialists were the most serious enemies of Black workers because they claimed to be a friend of Black workers, yet were not. This meant that Socialists were the ultimate liars and therefore poisonous to the Black struggle. The Socialists said that Black freedom could be won with a Constitutional context (page 24). For Communists, only revolution could free Black people, therefore the Socialist were intentially trying to destroy the Black and labor movements by spreading lies that the system could be reformed (page 24). As shown above, the CP believed that the Socialist Party lied more than others to Blacks. Even more than the openly racist Republicans and Democrats. It may be hard to believe, but this was the Communist position in 1932.
But in the era of the “Third Period” it should not be so surprising. From the late 1920’s through the first half of the 1930’s the leadership of the Communist International to which the CPUSA was affiliated struck a disdainful pose towards other forces on the left or in the workers movement which were not Communist. Stalin—who by now had gained control of the
To any class conscious worker, the question is clear. To reject the right of the oppressed Negro majority in the Black Belt to set up their own government, means simply to accept the domination of white slave drivers in this territory, or in other words, to be (together with the imperialists and their allies, the slave-driving landowners) in favor of white supremacy. Truly the Lovenstonite renegades have won their spurs as the theoretical spokesmen of white chauvinism in the labor movement.
Harry Haywood, “The Theoretical Defenders of White Chavanism in the Labor Movement”, The Communist Position on the Negro Question
The Fight for Equality in the North: Nat Turner Clubs
Throughout the 1930’s the Communist Party, USA involved itself in a dizzying array of causes connected to the Black struggle in the North: organizing auto workers, fighting Jim Crow-style segregation by any means, defending the Scottsboro Boys, breaking the color barrier in unions, organizing Black workers, not to mention politically training thousands of young activists through a whole host of secondary and solidarity organizations. The CPUSA—Black comrades and white--immersed themselves in Black struggles north and south to an extent unsurpassed by previous multiracial political movements.
Like most spheres of Communist activity, there was open and clandestine organizing as well as some projects that feel in between. The Nat Turner Clubs were a classic mid-1930’s Communist Party operation. Based in
They study groups would focus on Black history, not surprisingly seeing as the clubs were named after a famous rebel slave from the 1820’s. The study of radical currents within Black history—from slave revolts to African anti-colonialism—had become very popular things to study in the Communist milieu. Party historians like Herbert Aptheker and the Jack and Philip Foner wrote numerous books and pamphlets on these and related topics. Such studies were used in the Nat Turner Study clubs.
Once there was a cohesive group based around the study, further actions could be organized. There is of course the classic Depression-era direct action of stopping evictions physically, which was used. As well as building support for Black workers on strike. The Nat Turner clubs, in the tradition of the ABB, were both pro-Black and pro-labor organizations. They sought to fuse two arenas that did not always overlap: the CIO and the post-Garvey radical Black political scene.
Oral histories from the period show the Nat Turner Clubs as all-pourpose Black front groups for the CPUSA. They could act as an organizing cell for things like eviction actions, but also function as a study group.
The CPUSA tried many different avenues for challenging Black workers into unions, and in Detroit the Nat Turner clubs of the early to mid 1930’s were one of the most successful. The cadre trained through the clubs would go on to organize Black workers at Ford and General Motors. Eventually, as the Party moved deeper into the CIO officialdom and Democratic Party politics, the Nat Turner Clubs were disolved. As the part maneuvered to the political right during the New Deal more militant, direct-action projects such as anti-evictions became signigicantly less prominent.
The CPUSA’s contribution to the study of Black history should not be underestimated. Certainly they were one of very few national organizations putting on radical Black history study groups with a multiracial audience in the 1930’s. The Party, chiefly because of the focus of this period and into the 1940’s, produced a string a highly reguarded historians of slavery, slave revolts, and African history. The kinds of studies—and the kind of direct action—that the Nat Turner Clubs organized in
The End and a New Beginning
The Communist Party kept up its commitment to challenging racism in the labor movement and in society through the end of the Depression. The Party’s efforts to play a junior role in the New Deal coalition meant much of the revolutionary posturing had to be toned down considerably. It even got to a point where the Communist Party shunned A. Phillip Randolph’s anti-racist march on
The Black Belt Nation Theory was shelved in the 1940’s, with Communist leaders arguing that African Americans had indeed expressed their self-determination by deciding not to form a separate state. The Communist Party,
The concept of African Americans being a distinct nation and needing to fight for self-determination did not die out entirely, in fact it was revived in the New Left/Black Power era. Black Nationalists like the
The Communist Position on the Negro Question International Publishers,
Haywood, Harry Negro Liberation Liberator Press,
First Tier Sources
Bart, Phillip ed., Highlights of a Fighting History: 6o Years of the Communist Party,
Cannon, James P. The Early Years of American Communism Prometheus Research Library, New York 2001
Davis, Ben Communist Councilman From
Georgakis, Dan ed. The Encyclopedia of the
Harris, William The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War
Hooker, James Black Revolutionary: George Padmore’s Path From Communism to Pan-Africanism Preaeger,
Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe:
Kelley, Robin D. G. Race Rebels: Culture Politics, and the Black Working Class
(specifically the essays “Afric’s Sons with Banner Red: African American Communists and the Politics of Culture, 1919-1934” and “It Ain’t Ethiopia But It’ll Do: African Americans and the Spanish Civil War”)
Kelley, Robin D. G. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
Beacon, Boston 2004
Maxwell, William New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism Between the
Naison, Mark Communists in
Painter, Nell The Narrative of Hosea
Record, Wilson The Negro and the Communist Party Atheneum,
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Cruise, Harold The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (specifically the essays “Jews and
Negroes in the Communist Party”, “Richard Wright”) Quill,
Deburg, Van ed. Modern Black Nationalism
Sternsher, Bernard The Negro in Depression and War: Prelude to Revolution 1930-1945 Quadrangle,