Black liberation and the Communist International

Claude McKay

ONE OF the most important events in US Black history took place in faraway Moscow in the early 1920s. There, at a conference of revolutionaries from around the world, two Black revolutionaries led the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in adopting a world strategy for Black liberation.

This historic encounter helped open the door to the development of an influential current of Black Marxists in the United States, the Carib­bean, and Africa.

But why did the two Black delegates, Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay, have to travel halfway around the world to craft a Black liberation strategy? Why did they not just take the subway to the headquarters of the US Communist movement, right in New York, where they lived?

What was the Comintern’s decisive contribution to the development of Marxism among US Blacks?

The proceedings of the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, to be published in 2012 by Haymarket Books, help us answer these questions.1 But before considering the Congress record, let us review how it was that Huiswoud and McKay came to make the long trip by ship and train to Moscow.

Black resurgence
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Jim Crow segregation had been imposed across the US South, where most Blacks then lived, depriving them of the vote and other civil rights and subjecting them to racist terror. Within two decades, however, a new impulse toward resistance was felt in sectors of the Black community.

This resurgence found expression in a mass Black nationalist and pan-Africanist movement—the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), led by Marcus Garvey, which functioned in the US, Canada, and across the Caribbean region. This radicalization also gave rise to a revolutionary current grouped around the Crusader, a Black newspaper founded in September 1918 by Cyril Briggs. Its views and trajectory had much in common with the revolutionary Black nationalism later associated with Malcolm X.

The outcome of World War I further alienated Blacks from racist US society. As Jacob Zumoff notes, “Many Black intellectuals felt betrayed when they realized that [President Woodrow] Wilson’s post-war talk of ‘self-determination’ and ‘democracy’ excluded Black people throughout the world.”2 When the victorious powers met at the Versailles Conference in January 1919, it was quickly clear that the peace treaty they were drafting would confirm colonial rule over Black peoples in Africa and the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Republic, excluded from the Versailles conference, was implementing self-determination of oppressed peoples within its borders and championing it worldwide. W. A. Domingo, a radical Black writer in New York, noted at the time that the Soviets “are willing to extend the principle of self-determination to even the toiling ‘masses of Africa, Asia and all the colonies’” while seeking to reach out to “all the oppressed peoples of the world.”3

Comintern manifesto
In March 1919, revolutionary socialists from more than two dozen countries met in Moscow to found the Communist International. Their conference manifesto announced:

At best, Wilson’s program aims at no more than changing the label on colonial slavery.… Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia: the hour of proletarian dictatorship in Europe will also be the hour of your liberation.4

According to Claude McKay, a pioneer Black Communist in the United States, this passage in the manifesto awakened interest among many groups of radical Blacks, who distributed the document across the United States.5 Here was an unequivocal pledge to fight for the liberation of Blacks in the colonies of Africa and the West Indies.

By implication, this pledge applied to Blacks in the United States as well. That conclusion, not stated at the Comintern’s 1919 gathering, was made explicit at the International’s second congress in Moscow the following year. The 1920 Congress’s theses on national and colonial questions, drafted by Lenin, stated, “All communist parties must directly support the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights (for example Ireland, the Negroes in America, and so forth), and in the colonies.”6 The 1920 Congress also specified that active support for colonial liberation was a precondition for membership in the International.

During the Congress’s discussion of the colonial question, US delegate John Reed passed a note to Lenin, asking if this would be an appropriate occasion to speak on Blacks in the United States. Lenin’s written reply, which has been preserved, was, “Yes, absolutely necessary.” Reed then delivered a powerful indictment of racist oppression in the United States.7

Some months earlier, in October 1919, Briggs’s Crusader had announced the formation of the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption (ABB). This revolutionary association represented, in the words of Mark Solomon, “race patriotism, anticapitalism, anticolonialism, and organized defense against racist assault.”8 Its leaders, including Briggs and McKay, sought to unify Black patriotism with revolutionary socialism. They spoke out strongly in support of the Soviet state and the Comintern.

Two years later, the ABB summarized its view of the Comintern in a programmatic statement: “The Third International [Comintern] has emphatically ordered its members to help the darker races and all other oppressed peoples in their struggles for complete liberation.”9

Reorienting US Communism
The US Communist movement played almost no role in this rapprochement. Until 1921, it was still locked in a sterile dogmatism that cut it off from the Black struggle. The early US Communist leader James P. Cannon described the origin of its stance as follows:

The earlier socialist movement, out of which the Communist Party was formed, never recognized any need for a special program on the Negro question. It was considered purely and simply as an economic problem, part of the struggle between the workers and the capitalists; nothing could be done about the special problems of discrimination and inequality this side of socialism.

Cannon quotes Eugene Debs, “the best of the earlier socialists,” as saying, “We have nothing special to offer the Negro.”10

Reed’s remarks in Moscow in 1920, despite their militancy, did not go much beyond this framework. Nonetheless, the ABB leaders wanted to be part of the Comintern, and that meant joining its US section. In December 1921, Briggs, as an ABB fraternal delegate, attended the convention of US Communists that founded the Workers Party.

The convention reciprocated by recognizing, for the first time, the need to both do educational work among the Black workers and to convince white workers “that to win, they must support the oppressed races in their struggle against race persecution and aid them in their fight to secure political, industrial, and social equality.”11 Subsequently, the ABB evolved into close alliance and ultimately fusion with the US Communist movement.

The Black question at the Fourth Congress
Two leaders of the ABB attended the Comintern’s Fourth Congress, held in Moscow in November–December 1922, and received status as delegates with consultative vote.

The first, Huiswoud, had joined the Socialist Party in 1918 and as part of its left wing had participated in founding the US Communist movement the next year. He attended the Fourth Congress as an official delegate of the US Communist Party (CP) and also as an ABB representative. He appears to have left no account of his Moscow experience.12

The second Black delegate, McKay, left a vivid memoir of his visit to Moscow, entitled A Long Way from Home.13

McKay, a poet widely known both among US Blacks and internationally, made his way to Moscow on his own, without CP credentials. Initially, the majority of the US CP delegation sought to exclude him from the Congress, apparently because he agreed with the minority in the party that called for it to emerge from its underground existence. However, McKay won support from Sen Katayama, a veteran Japanese Marxist and a leader of the Comintern’s work among colonial peoples. During his many years of residence in the US, Katayama had acquired a good feel for racism and Black oppression.

Another factor in McKay’s acceptance was the celebration of his presence by the Russian people. In McKay’s words:

Never in my life did I feel prouder of being an African, a Black, and no mistake about it…. The Moscow streets were filled with eager crowds before the Congress started. As I tried to get through along the Tverskaya I was suddenly surrounded by a crowd, tossed into the air, and caught a number of times and carried a block on their friendly shoulders…. I went triumphantly from surprise to surprise, extravagantly feted on every side. I was carried along on a crest of sweet excitement.14

The Congress established a commission, chaired by Huiswoud, to draft theses on the Black question. McKay was seated as a guest, invited to commission meetings, and asked, along with Huiswoud, to address a plenary session of the Congress.

Huiswoud exposes US racism
Referring to the decision of the Comintern’s 1920 Congress on the importance of colonial liberation to world revolution, Huiswoud told the Congress that “the Black question is another part of the racial and colonial question.”15 Paraphrasing another Congress document, he contrasted the world Social Democratic movement, “an International of white workers,” to the Comintern, which “is an International of the workers of the world.”

“Although the Black question is chiefly economic in nature,” Huiswoud added, “we should include in our analysis the psychological aspects of the question.” He used the word “psychological” in the same fashion as Clara Zetkin, addressing the Congress two days later on women’s condition, to denote what Marxists now term “oppression.”16

“The question of race…still plays an important role,” Huiswoud said. “Blacks still bear the mark of bondage stemming from the time of slavery.” He unsparingly described conditions in the South, where “the lynching of a Black is the occasion for enjoyment,” and in the trade unions, many of which excluded Black workers from membership. In retaliation, Blacks often refused to respect the picket lines of such racist unions, he noted, paraphrasing the thoughts of such workers as, “By god I have a right to do this. I need to protect my life.”

Reviewing what he considered the three most significant Black organizations, Huiswoud criticized the NAACP for “petitioning the capitalist class to improve the conditions of Blacks, which…is simply a form of begging.” The Garvey organization, despite its flaws, had “moved the Blacks into action against imperialism” and “awakened racial consciousness.” The African Blood Brotherhood, by contrast, was “a radical Black organization whose program is based on the destruction of capitalism.”17

McKay challenges US Communists
McKay’s address to the Congress described Blacks as “a race of workers, of hewers of wood and drawers of water, a race that belongs to the most oppressed, exploited, and subjugated part of the working class of the world.” Capitalists everywhere try to set Blacks and whites against each other, he said, citing US capitalist attempts to “mobilize the entire Black race in the United States against the organized working class.”

McKay, who favored the US Communists functioning as a legal, above-ground political party, told the Congress that this course was not possible in the US South, where Blacks and whites were legally barred from meeting together.

“When we send white comrades to the South,” he said, “they are usually expelled by the white oligarchy, and if they do not leave the area the white mob sets upon them and whips, tars, and feathers them. But, when we send Black comrades, they do not come back again, because they are lynched and burned.”

Unfortunately, socialists and Communists in the United States conducted the struggle against “racial division and race prejudice…with great caution, because there are still strong prejudices of this kind among the American socialists and Communists,” McKay said. “The greatest hindrance that Communists in the United States must overcome is that they must first of all free themselves from their attitudes toward Blacks before they can succeed in reaching Blacks through any form of radical propaganda.”18

Although the two Black delegates disagreed on the CP’s underground character, they were, as McKay wrote at the time, “all of a unit on the purely Negro problem.”19

Theses on the Black struggle
The commission on the Black question presented a draft resolution, which was referred back for editing. The final draft, introduced by US delegate Rose Pastor Stokes, was more rounded and developed than the original text. It presented the same recommendations, with one exception: a statement in the first draft that “work among Blacks should be carried out primarily by Blacks” was dropped and replaced by a pledge to struggle for full equality and equal political and social rights for Black people.20

This change must be considered alongside the commitment of the very same resolution to convene an international conference of Blacks and the public call by Comintern leader Leon Trotsky, four months after the Congress, for US Communists to rally a team of “enlightened, young, self-sacrificing Negroes” who were to carry the message of revolution to the Black masses.21

The resolution is similar in many ways to the conceptions of the African Black Brotherhood. Its text is available online.22 It makes the following points:

  1. An upsurge of revolt among colonial peoples has “awakened racial consciousness among millions of Blacks, who have been oppressed and humiliated for centuries not only in Africa but also, and perhaps even more, in the United States.”
  2. “The history of Blacks in the United States has prepared them to play an important role in the liberation struggle of the entire African race.”
  3. "The Communist International views with satisfaction the resistance of exploited Blacks to the attacks of their exploiters, since the enemy of their race and of the white worker is identical: capitalism and imperialism. The international Black movement must be organized on this basis” in the United States, Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.
  4. The Comintern seeks to show Blacks that the “workers and peasants of Europe, Asia, and America are also victims of the imperialist exploiters” and are fighting for the same goals as Blacks.
  5. “The assistance of our oppressed Black fellow human beings [is] absolutely necessary for proletarian revolution and the destruction of capitalist power.” Communists should “apply the [Second Congress] Theses on the Colonial Question to the situation of Blacks,” who form “an essential part of the world revolution.”
  6. The Communist International should:
    (a) Support every Black movement that “undermines or weakens capitalism or places barriers in the path of its further expansion.”
    (b) “Struggle for the equality of the white and Black races, and for equal wages and equal political and social rights.”
    (c) Oppose the color bar in trade unions; support union organization of Black workers.
    (d) “Take immediate steps to convene a general conference or congress of Blacks in Moscow.”

The central idea of the theses—that of an intercontinental Black struggle for freedom—did not come from the Comintern or the Bolshevik Party of Russia. Rather it was a strategy widely held at that time among Black radicals of West Indian origin, who counted among their number Briggs, McKay, Huiswoud, and also Garvey. It was espoused, in different forms, not only by the African Black Brotherhood but by Garvey’s UNIA and W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP.23

After the Congress, it proved necessary to postpone the project of a congress of Blacks. In other respects, the resolution set the framework for a reorientation of the US CP and the development of its work among Blacks until the end of the decade, when a different position was adopted at the urging of Moscow.

The Comintern’s contribution
What, then, did the Comintern contribute to the fusion of a Black revolutionary current with the world Communist movement?

It is striking what we do not see in the Fourth Congress record and related documents. Absent are any references to or quotations from the past writings of Bolshevik leaders. Indeed, it was extremely rare for Comintern leaders in those years to buttress their case with quotations. Instead, they based their arguments mostly on current reality.

We also do not find any attempts by Bolshevik or Moscow-based Comintern leaders to instruct the Black delegates regarding the correct course for their struggle. Their most substantial statement, by Trotsky, focuses instead on the importance of educational work by Black Communists among the Black masses.

As for Lenin’s reference in the Comintern’s 1920 theses to US Blacks as a nation, it was not mentioned in the Fourth Congress or discussed by the International in the early 1920s. Instead, the Comintern adopted a term no longer in use today but then current among Black revolutionists: the Black or African race.

Significantly, the two references to previous revolutionary documents by the Black delegates in Moscow both deal with the primacy of revolutionary movements among the world’s non-white peoples. McKay cited the Comintern’s pledge, at its founding, to liberate “the colonial slaves of Africa and Europe.” Huiswoud recalled the Second Congress decision that “recognized the importance of the colonial question” and the statutes it adopted, which proclaimed that the Comintern embraced “people of white, yellow, and Black skin—the toilers of the whole earth.”24

The Comintern’s contribution consisted of one central insight, which was rooted in the beliefs of those who built the Bolshevik party and established the Soviet state. Comintern leaders held that the liberation struggle of Black people formed part of the world uprising of oppressed peoples against colonialism and racism. They therefore insisted on the duty of Communists everywhere to actively and vigorously support this struggle.

Beyond that, the Comintern’s contribution lay in its capacity to listen to and learn from the most farsighted exponents of Black revolution of that time.

Thanks to Richard Fidler and Jacob Zumoff
for research assistance for this article.

  1. John Riddell (ed.), Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, forthcoming).
  2. Jacob Andrew Zumoff, “The US Communist Party and the Communist International, 1919–1929,” Ph.D. diss., University College, London, 2003, 290.
  3. Oscar Berland, “The Emergence of the Communist Perspective on the ‘Negro Question’ in America: 1919–1931 Part One,” Science & Society, vol. 63, no. 4 (winter 1999-2000), 414.
  4. Riddell (ed.) 1987, Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress–March 1919, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1987, 227-8.
  5. Riddell, Toward the United Front, 809. 
  6. Riddell (ed.), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991), vol. 1, 286. 
  7. Zumoff, US CP and Comintern, 287–88; Riddell, Workers of the World, 224–8.
  8. Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917–36 (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 9-10.
  9. Berland, Emergence, 419.
  10. James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1962), 230-31.
  11. Berland, Emergence, 419.
  12. For Huiswoud’s biography, see Maria Gertrudis van Enckevort, “The Life and Work of Otto Huiswoud: Professional Revolutionary and Internationalist (1893-1961)”, Ph.D. diss., University of West Indies at Mona, 2001.
  13. Claude McKay, A Long Way from Home (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1970 (1937)).
  14. McKay, Long Way from Home, 168.
  15. An English-language summary of Huiswoud’s and McKay’s speeches, published in 1923, indicates that they used the words “Black” and “Negro” interchangeably. Quotations from the Fourth Congress in this article are translated from the German edition of congress proceedings. It used only the term Neger, which is here translated as “Black.” See Fourth Congress of the Communist International: Abridged Report of Meetings Held at Petrograd & Moscow Nov. 7–Dec. 3, 1922 (London: Communist Party of Great Britain, 1923), 257–62.
  16. Riddell, Toward the United Front, 839.
  17. For Huiswoud’s speech, see Riddell, Toward the United Front, 800–807.
  18. For McKay’s speech, see Riddell, Toward the United Front, 807–10.
  19. Solomon, The Cry Was Unity, 20.
  20. Riddell, Toward the United Front, 806, 950.
  21. Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), vol. 2, 355.
  22. For the online text, see For a different translation, see Riddell, Toward the United Front, 947–50.
  23. Wayne F. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987, 180-81.
  24. Riddell, Toward the United Front, 800 (Huiswoud), 809 (McKay); Riddell, Founding the Comintern, 227–28; Riddell, Workers of the World, vol. 2, 696.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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