Socialists and the fight against racism

Class Struggle and the Color Line:

American Socialism and the Race Question 1900–1930

Histories of American socialism and the fight against racism in the early twentieth century are laden with flimsy myths. On one account, the socialist movement was indifferent or silent, a lie buttressed by endlessly repeated citation of Eugene Debs’ claim that “We [the Socialist Party] have nothing special to offer the Negro.” On another account, the left hurled itself uncritically and unilaterally into support of the Comintern’s “Black Belt Thesis” advocating for the secession of African-Americans in the US South as an oppressed national minority. These polarized, caricatured assertions prop up a wider liberal consensus hardened by American anti-communist drift that Karl Marx himself—and Marxism more generally—are Eurocentrically tone deaf to the centrality of race and racism in the formation of capitalism. This school of misrepresentation reached its apotheosis in Cedric Robinson’s influential 1983 book Black Marxism. As Paul Heideman notes in his Introduction, Robinson asserted that Marx “consigned race, gender, culture, and history to the dustbin.” This, in turn, gave birth to a neologism meant to replace Marx and historical materialism itself: racial capitalism.

Heideman’s well-curated and annotated anthology of writings by US socialists dispels each of these myths. It is the single best anthology on the topic yet published, providing a wide-ranging, nuanced, critical, and, importantly, interracial representation of writings on race by the US left. It serves four particular uses for historians and activists. First, it restores the central influence of Marx’s own writings on slavery, colonialism and race on twentieth century US socialists. Second, it clearly and judiciously diagrams competing arguments and debates among early twentieth century US socialists about how to understand and combat racism. Third, it recovers a number of figures, texts, journals, and newspapers where these debates occurred, restoring a fuller portrait of socialism’s dynamism at its apex of influence on popular US consciousness. Fourth, it acknowledges analytical weakness, residual racism, and failure in political practice as constant accompaniments to socialist organizing. This is a reflexive approach to our own socialist movement, and thus a more usable tool for our time.

Heideman’s book is structured into five sections. “The Socialist Party,” part one, includes the full text of Debs’s 1902 speech “The Negro in the Class Struggle” from which his “nothing special” line is taken. The speech, important to read in entirety, shows that Debs’s criticism of racism was unequivocal, and that the greatest weakness of his Socialist Party was an inability to develop a clear strategy for organizing the working class across racial lines.

A. M. Simons follows Debs. He was an early member of the Socialist Labor Party and editor of the International Socialist Review—for a time the preeminent socialist journal in the United States—wherein his essay “The Negro Problem” was first published. The essay is significant for locating slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction as cauldrons of unresolved US racial divisions in the working class, and as such shows the influence of Marx’s own writings. Heideman includes a key text by W. E. B. Du Bois—a member of the Socialist Party for one year—signaling his own ambivalence about socialist vacillation on interracial organizing—and two essays by Hubert Harrison driven by frustration with the Socialist Party’s compromises, especially in the South, where only Debs refused to speak to segregated audiences.

Heideman’s selections allow the reader to leave section one for section two on the Industrial Workers of the World with a clear understanding of why the latter felt it necessary to make interracial radicalism a cornerstone of the Wobbly movement. The IWW won two major victories organizing interracial unions: in the South (timber workers) and in Philadelphia where Ben Fletcher, a Black Wobbly, helped organize marine transport workers. In 1923, his essay “The Negro and Organized Labor” blasted the AFL and railroad brotherhoods for excluding Black workers. IWW leaders also reached out to Chinese and Japanese workers despite declaring, “To the I.W.W. there is not a race problem. There is only a class problem.” The IWW’s commitment to on-the-ground interracial organizing bested the Socialist Party during the World War I era.

The Wobblies also earned the support of Socialist Party members Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph when they launched the journal The Messenger in Harlem in 1917. Significantly, The Messenger also attracted writers from the Garvey movement, like W. A. Domingo. As much as any early twentieth century left journal, The Messenger represented African-American socialists in theoretical engagement with a broad menu of vital issues: not just racism but Bolshevism, World War I, labor organizing, strikes, and communist internationalism. Contradictions and weaknesses in The Messenger’s articulation of socialism are evident in its 1919 editorial “The Right and Left Wing Interpreted,” which simultaneously calls for interracial working-class revolution and a larger Black police force to keep down rioting. Owen and Randolph’s ardent support for Bolshevism morphed into a conservative drift as the Russian Revolution sputtered in the 1920s.

Heideman devotes an entire section of the book to The Crusader, a newspaper founded in 1918 by Caribbean immigrant Cyril Briggs. The weight assigned to what Heideman calls”project of one man” foregrounds the paper’s role as a bridge between Black nationalism and socialism after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Brigg’s secret companion society to the paper, the African Blood Brotherhood, attracted radicals like Claude McKay seeking to produce within socialist politics an analysis of radical Black nationalism, anti-colonialism, and imperialism. Significantly, McKay would join the Communist Party and travel to Moscow to testify on the conditions of Black Americans, giving momentum to Bolshevik support for Black self-determination. Essays here like the African Blood Brotherhood’s “Program” for Black liberation published in 1921 are key primary sources for understanding how US and West Indian revolutionaries shaped left internationalism after 1917.

The book’s final section, “The Communist Party,” has several strengths: it features the key documents produced by the Communist International on Black liberation—the Theses of the Second and Third Cominterns (the “Black Belt Thesis”); it carries entries by most of the leading theorists on Black liberation in the CP orbit—Robert Minor, Jay Lovestone, Lovett FortWhiteman, William Z. Foster; and it recuperates lesser known nuggets, like John Reed’s 1920 essay, “The Negro Question in America.” Heideman’s head notes, proficient throughout, are especially useful in this section, tracking the onerous effects of Stalinism on both shifts in the CP line, and more tragic effects like Fort-Whiteman’s incarceration and death in a Soviet prison camp. Where could Heideman’s volume be stronger? The book has only two female contributors—Kate Richards O’Hare and Jeannette Pearl. This limitation reflects the sexism of this period, which generated male dominance in the “theoretical” milieu of the early twentieth-century left, but the book might have added journalistic pieces by Grace Campbell, who joined the Socialist Party and Communist Party and helped co-found the African Blood Brotherhood, or Fanny Austin, who wrote on day workers, or Bell Lamb, who wrote on Black women in industry. The decision to end the book at 1930 also bespeaks the need—well established by this volume—for a sequel that includes the World War II period and the “popular front.”

That said, Heideman’s volume demands a place on every radical’s bookshelf. The text is as useful for political reading groups as for the classroom. It is an indispensable weapon for all of us in the fight against capitalism and racism.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story