Fighting Racism – Bolsheviks in America
In 1867, Marx argued in his most famous work Capital: “In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is branded.”
White revolutionaries in the U.S. had played a prominent role in the movement to abolish slavery, but despite Marx’ insistence on anti-racism, the socialist organisations that emerged after the Civil War were often themselves racist. Their membership was made up of European immigrants and native-born white workers and intellectuals. African Americans, Latinos and Asians rarely joined the various socialist groups. This was the worse time of Jim Crow segregation and Klan terror.
The Socialist Party, founded in 1901, included within its ranks both segregationists and principled anti-racists. Victor Berger, one of the Socialist Party’s most conservative leaders and its most successful politician, spoke for a wing of the party that was openly hostile to African Americans when he wrote, “There can be no doubt that the negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race.” This sort of bigotry obviously held no appeal for Black workers.
Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s left-wing champion and four-time presidential candidate, personally opposed Jim Crow and refused to speak to segregated meetings. Yet Debs himself argued in 1903 that the socialists “have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.”
Debs’ thinking carried over into the Industrial Workers of the World
(IWW). Founded in 1905, the Wobblies, as they were popularly known, brought together elements
from the leftwing of the Socialist Party, radical trade unionists and a small group of Marxists in the Socialist
Labor Party. The Wobblies steered away from what they called “politics” (a reaction against what they perceived
as the Socialist Party’s attempt to court moderate voters), usually focusing on organizing on the job as opposed
to broader community issue-based campaigns. Although the IWW did organize Black workers in certain important instances, it didn’t campaign systematically against lynching or racism in housing, education, transportation or the courts. The October Revolution in 1917 in Russia provoked splits and realignments
in the U.S. in both the Socialist Party and the IWW. By 1919, a new communist movement emerged from the smoke. Battered by vicious state repression and bruised by ideological battles, the movement initially splintered into rival organizations, the two most prominent being the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party.
Two developments began to change the Communists’ theory and attitude. First, by 1919 it became clear that the
Russian Bolsheviks’ most prominent spokesman, Vladimir Lenin, placed a tremendous emphasis on what he called the national question.
The Russian Tsar had ruled over a vast empire, comprised of dozens of oppressed nationalities, with a multitude of languages, religions, and cultures. Just over half of the Tsar’s subjects were ethnically Russian, yet all were governed by a Russian aristocracy that promoted what Lenin called Great Russian chauvinism, a sort of racism or national supremacy.
It enforced this ideology by means of legal prejudice and extra-judicial violence. The Bolsheviks demanded that revolutionaries who happened to be from an “oppressor nation” (or racial group) go out of their way to combat prejudice and violence against members of oppressed nations or racial groups.
THE BOLSHEVIKS’ approach began to influence leading American Communists’ thinking in earnest by the 1920 Second Congress of the Communist International. The Moscow-based Comintern, as it was commonly referred to, was a coalition of revolutionary parties that had supported the Russian Revolution and had broken away from their moderate socialist counterparts forming separate Communist parties.
Lenin, speaking at a session dedicated to the need for Communists to oppose colonialism and national oppression, declared, “What is the most important, the fundamental idea of our Theses? It is the difference between the oppressed and the oppressor nations.” Indian Marxist M.N. Roy then spoke, asserting the centrality of establishing “mutual relations between the Communist International and the revolutionary movement in the politically oppressed countries…like India and China.”
John Reed, renowned journalist and founding member of the Communist Labor Party, then stood before the International to address the situation facing African Americans. He demanded that, “Communists must not stand aloof from the Negro movement which demands their social and political equality” marking one of the first definitive steps by a leading white American Communist to supersede Debs’ “nothing special” formulation.
Just as white Communists struggled to come to grips with the Bolsheviks’ emphasis on racial and national oppression, a small group of African American revolutionaries gravitated toward the Russian Revolution and its anti-colonial implications.
Dedicated to fighting racism in the U.S. and colonialism overseas, West Indian-born Cyril Briggs and a small core of Black activists founded the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) during the First World War. Briggs first entered an alliance with the Communist Party of America in 1919 (the rival to John Reed’s Communist Labor Party) based on his enthusiasm for the Communist International’s anti-colonial policies, joining a handful of other Blacks, including Surinam-born Otto Huiswoud, a founding member of the Communist Party of America, and the poet Claude McKay, a Communist sympathizer and co-editor of the left-wing journal the Liberator.
Although unable to fulfill their initial hopes of recruiting large numbers of Blacks into the Party, Briggs and Huiswoud did help the Communists take the first difficult steps toward relating to important African American organizations. These efforts crystallized in terms of stated policy in 1922 when McKay and Huiswoud helped draft the Comintern’s resolution on “The Black Question,” calling on the American Communists to “fight for the racial equality of Blacks and whites, for equal wages and equal social and political rights.”
After several years of government repression and internal division between 1919 and 1922, various Communist organizations united into one group, called the Workers Party. In January 1924, the party launched the Daily Worker. The paper reached an estimated 17,000 readers each day, implying a larger regular readership of perhaps twice the average party membership of 12,000 for the years 1924 and 1927. During those same years, the Workers Party published another two dozen weekly or monthly regional, foreign language or industry-specific journals, including a daily Yiddish newspaper. Thus, while a large majority of their members were ethnic European immigrant male workers, the regular readership of Party publications extended considerably beyond this base, reaching around 100,000 people on a regular basis.
By no means a mass party, the Workers Party could boast far greater organizational coherence and human resources than any challenger on the radical left. One indication of their organized strength surfaced at memorial meetings organized in dozens of cities in early February marking Lenin’s death on January 21, 1924. In New York, some 25,000 attended the event at Madison Square Garden, while thousands more attended meetings in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City and elsewhere.
The party remained an outsider to the Black freedom and anti-lynching movements, but it does go to show that if the party made a priority of becoming a factor among African American activists and immigrant groups, it had a considerable capacity to do so. Besides its sheer size and the Comintern-inspired change in its attitude toward fighting oppression, the party had recruited, and was developing, a talented group of writers and activists, both Black and white, who were capable of translating theory into practice.