Workers Hammer No. 221
The struggle to forge Communist parties
The Comintern and black liberation in the US
We print below with his permission the presentation of Jacob Zumoff, an associate of the Prometheus Research Library, at the Historical Materialism conference in London in November 2012. An earlier version of the talk appeared in Workers Vanguard no 1006 (3 August 2012).
In 1959, James P Cannon — a founder of the American Communist Party (CP) and historic leader of American Trotskyism — wrote an article called “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement”. He argued “that CP policy on the Negro question got its initial impulse from Moscow, and also that all further elaborations of this policy, up to and including the adoption of the ‘self-determination’ slogan in 1928, came from Moscow”.
This is what I want to talk about today. By necessity, I must leave out rich historic detail in such a short presentation (much of which will be dealt with in the book I am writing on the early American CP). I want to focus on how the Communist International (CI), acting upon its understanding of the need for a revolutionary vanguard party derived from the Bolsheviks’ experience, forcefully intervened in the American Communist movement in the 1920s. The CI called for a sharp break with the traditional “colour-blind” approach of the early Socialist movement in the US and for the Communists to place the fight for black liberation at the centre of their work.
The tradition of the American Socialist Party (SP) was one of indifference to black oppression, which has been the bedrock of American capitalism since its origins. By the time of the foundation of the CP in 1919, the “Great Migration” of black people from the rural South to the urban North was well underway. Blacks were becoming an important component of the working class, making the fight against black oppression more strategic. Increasingly, black people were integrated into industrial capitalism while being forcibly segregated at the bottom as a race-colour caste. World War I sped up this process. Amid a wave of racist pogroms throughout the US — most spectacularly in Chicago — a layer of black radicals, the so-called “New Negro Movement”, refused to accept the murderous violence, as expressed in Claude McKay’s famous poem “If We Must Die” (1919).
In this period, the SP did nothing to battle black oppression. Some right-wing Socialists, like Victor Berger, were open racists. Some black Socialists — most importantly Hubert Harrison — urged the SP to address racial oppression. But its general position was articulated by Eugene Debs: “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races” (International Socialist Review, November 1903). Most Socialists were not racists, and Debs was an anti-racist. His hero was John Brown, and the article that I quoted is an eloquent attack on racial segregation. However, this “colour-blind” position dissolved black oppression into class oppression and signalled a refusal to make fighting against black oppression central to the fight for socialist revolution. Essentially, the position was that racism would be solved through socialist revolution, and there was no need to address it specifically.
After the left-wing splits from the SP in the summer of 1919 — plural because the result was actually two Communist parties — the Communist movement continued this colour-blind approach. Communists at times denounced racism and called for working-class unity, but there still was no sense that fighting for black freedom should be central to the fight for proletarian revolution. (There was only one black person in the ranks of the early Communist Party: Otto Huiswoud, who was from Dutch Guiana.)
In contrast, the Bolsheviks emphasised “special oppression” — that is, oppression not just reducible to class exploitation. In What Is To Be Done?, Lenin argued that the revolutionary party must be a “tribune of the people”, fighting against all forms of oppression and linking such to the struggle for proletarian power. In Russia, which Lenin called a “prison house of peoples”, this meant fighting the oppression of the myriad national and ethnic groups by Great Russian chauvinism. In the context of the betrayal of international Social Democracy — by those whom Lenin called the social-chauvinists — during the interimperialist slaughter of WWI, this meant opposing all forms of support to colonialism and imperialism.
From this revolutionary internationalist perspective, the Comintern forced American Communists to take up what was then called the “Negro question”. At the Second Comintern Congress (1920), Lenin made John Reed give a report on the issue. I went through Reed’s papers at Harvard University, where there is a note stating that Reed would have preferred to speak on the trade-union question, but Lenin insisted that the report on black oppression was “absolutely necessary”.
Early black Communists
Early Soviet Russia was a beacon for the oppressed. The anti-imperialist, anti-chauvinist positions of the Comintern attracted black militants. Independent of the Communist parties in the US, a movement of black radicals was formed from the “New Negro Movement”, many of whom were black Caribbean immigrants with few illusions in racist European imperialism or American capitalism. The most notable of these radicals were in a group, the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), to which most of the early black Communists belonged.
The ABB did not originate as a socialist group but rather embraced a contradictory mixture of race-centred, pro-labour positions. Some of its members, such as Richard B Moore, Wilfred A Domingo and Grace P Campbell, had been active in the SP in Harlem and remained active in the SP after the Left-Wing split in 1919. The leader of the ABB, Cyril V Briggs, was a journalist who was not a socialist. But he had become politicised by the hypocrisy of US imperialism pontificating about “self-determination” in WWI as blacks were lynched in America.
By itself, the early CP would not and could not have recruited the ABB. However, the anti-imperialism of the Comintern attracted such black radicals, and by 1921 most of the Harlem leadership of the ABB had joined the Communist Party. It is important to underline that they joined the American CP because it was the representative of the Communist International in the US.
I am going to have to gloss over the details of Communist activity over the next decade. However, it can be summed up by noting that the leadership of the CP dragged its feet in making the fight against black oppression central to its work, the black Communists complained to the Comintern and the Comintern fought to make the party address the issue. The CI had to wage an implacable struggle against the social-democratic approach inherited by the Communists.
The Fourth Congress of the Comintern (1922) is a key signpost. The American CP had two black representatives: Huiswoud, who was the official delegate, and McKay, who despite CP opposition managed to be seated as a fraternal delegate. John Riddell’s valuable new book on the Congress — which I recommend that people read — contains the session on the US black question, the first time it had been discussed at length at a CI meeting. After the Congress, McKay stayed in Russia. Trotsky commissioned him to write a short study of black oppression in the US, Negroes in America. McKay was harshly critical of the American CP for neglecting the fight for black liberation. He criticised it for dropping its demand for full “social equality” for blacks. Significantly, the CP never published this book, and it was not published in English until the 1970s when it was discovered in the Russian-language division of the New York Public Library.
The next period includes several attempts by the American party to address the black question, including the founding of the American Negro Labor Congress in 1925. It was to be turned into a black transitional organisation, in line with the Comintern’s recognition of the need for special organisational forms to draw specially oppressed segments of the population into the revolutionary movement. But these attempts were not particularly successful. To some degree, this outcome was a reflection of the internecine factionalism that wracked the party in this period. It also showed that the party leadership still did not get the importance of the fight for black liberation.
The Sixth Congress and “self-determination”
By the mid 1920s, the CI was not the revolutionary organisation it had been under Lenin and Trotsky. The pressure of imperialist encirclement, the devastation of the Russian working class in the Civil War, the defeat of post-1917 revolutionary uprisings and the lengthy isolation of the workers state issuing out of the Russian Revolution enabled a bureaucratic layer headed by Stalin to usurp power in a political counterrevolution in 1923-24. Instead of the Bolshevik programme of world revolution, the Comintern adopted Stalin’s anti-Marxist theory of “socialism in one country” at its Sixth Congress.
In 1928, the Comintern decreed the so-called “black belt” theory, which claimed that the black population in the American South was a nation and that the key task was to fight for “black self-determination”. This so-called “theory” flew in the face of reality and was initially opposed by most black Communists. I do not have time to go into the origin of this theory, except to say that it was part of the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Communist Party carried out valuable and dangerous work in the fight for black liberation. Its activities included organising sharecroppers in the South, fighting for the freedom of the Scottsboro Boys, organising integrated unions and organising tenants in Harlem. This work was done despite the Stalinist degeneration of the CP and despite the black belt theory. However, as Cannon stressed in the essay I quoted at the beginning of my presentation, the CP became known for its stand in fighting for black rights because of the repeated intervention of the Comintern into the American party.