Black Bolsheviks: Lessons from the Communist Party of USA

A little known tale of history rests in the experience of the Communist Party of America; the tale of revolutionary socialists striving externally against the brutal, entrenched and segregated racism and oppression of American society, and internally, within their own organisation, for an active policy to fight those conditions. The enslavement of Africans, their kidnapping and shipping to the shores of North America defined those conditions. To accomplish the economic enslavement of the black population, racist narratives were used as “rationalizations to justify a simple economic fact: that the colonies needed labour and resorted to Negro labour because it was cheapest and best” . The racist justification for exploitative savagery would pass through history undefeated, but not unchallenged, through the US Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the Populist movement and Reconstruction. By the end of World War One, the Southern states of America were segregated, 750,000 black people had migrated to the Northern states in search of employment in the big industrial centres and racist violence was rife, from race riots to the lynching’s, shootings and bombings of the racist Ku Klux Klan. The responses to these conditions from ordinary people, activists and revolutionaries, whilst admirable and in some cases, inspirational, had been largely inadequate. The revolutionary left in America was scattered, divided and theoretically weak. The Socialist Party was split between a revolutionary wing led by the likes of Eugene V. Debs who agitated against racism at the point of production, but reduced it to simply a class question, and a right-wing, led by reactionaries such as Victor Berger, who thought black people “constituted a lower race”.

Within the labour movement itself, you had a trade union bureaucracy that was openly racist and largely unwilling to organize on a multi-racial basis. The most prominent example of rejecting the racism within the labour movement being the radical International Workers of the World (IWW), organizing black and white workers together successfully with a “union rule of total racial integration” , gaining a membership of up to 100,000 black workers as a result. However, despite these successes, the IWW suffered from a similar problem to the rest of the radical left at the time, in that it often didn’t confront racism away from the workplace.

The American left, however, was to completely change come October 1917. Russian workers and peasants took state power in a revolution led by the Bolsheviks. Throughout the remainder of the 1910s, this inspired workers and radicals in all countries, and Communist Parties, modelled on the Bolsheviks were formed across the globe. The USA was no different, after many splits, factional struggles and much state repression, a united Communist Party of the USA was formed in 1922.

Passivity

In the 1920s, the Communist Party was an organization consumed by factional in-fighting. Intervention in the day-to-day struggles of workers, the unemployed and the oppressed was relatively weak and the revolutionary wave that had swept the globe from 1917 to 1923 had undoubtedly ebbed. This had its effect on the Communist Party’s anti-racist work. For an organization that modelled itself on the Russian Bolsheviks, a revolutionary party which had organized resistance against anti-Semitic pogroms and anti-Semitic organizations such as the proto-fascist Black Hundreds, that had a Jewish membership of 10% and had leading Jewish members such as Leon Trotsky, the American Bolsheviks, as James P. Cannon, a former IWW member and one of the CPUSA’s leading lights put it, were rather “inadequate” on their anti-racist work.

At a time, when black political organisations were in decline, this was unacceptable. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s (NAACP) membership declined by 70,000 between 1919 and 1929 , and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) “was a shell of what it had been a decade earlier” , and was often faced with deterioration and sectarianism once its leader, Marcus Garvey, had been arrested and deported to the Caribbean for fraud. When traditional black organisations are in decline and the conditions that led to their formation and rise are still as bad as they were to begin with, that speaks more of the weaknesses of those organisations, than the impossibility of challenging the objective conditions that faced people. Any revolutionary socialist party must then be involved in, and be taking a lead in these struggles in order to challenge the status quo. However, it wasn’t until 1929, that the CPUSA eventually stepped up and developed a serious strategy for confronting the racism black people in America experienced on a day to day basis.

Three factors contributed to the development and strengthening of the CPUSA’s anti-racist work; the first, which has already been touched upon, was the migration of thousands of black Americans to the Northern cities and the creation of a stronger, deeper-rooted black working-class. The second was the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1922, where the “Theses of the National Question” was adopted. The focus on “supporting every form of the Negro movement which undermines or weakens capitalism”, and the importance of fighting for the “equality of the white and Black races, for equal wages and equal political and social rights” , gave a much needed impetus to developing serious anti-racist work, as well as a confidence to those within the CPUSA, who were waging a hard argument for more sufficient anti-racist work.

This ran parallel with the third factor; which was the integration of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) into the CPUSA. A radical, black Nationalist formation, led by Cyril Briggs, that was inspired by, and drawn closer to the CPUSA, based on the revolutionary events in Russia and the anti-colonial struggle in Ireland. Initially closer to the UNIA, with its decline, Briggs along with black radicals like Claude McKay and Grace Campbell were drawn to the CPUSA, and would go on to become fully fledged members. These members would struggle internally for an anti-racist strategy that fought efficiently the racism of American society. These three factors together culminated in the Communist International’s Sixth Congress in 1928.

The struggle for a serious anti-racism strategy

In the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, a huge debate took place over the question of racial oppression in America. The debate, which involved black Communists such as James W. Ford and white Communists such as Jay Lovestone, was started by Harry Haywood, when he wrote a thesis, along with Siberian Communist, Charles Nasanov, which stated that because of segregation, and what was deemed their separation “from the emerging bourgeois democratic society” in the USA, black Americans had developed “a distinct cultural and psychological makeup” that constituted a “nation within a nation”. The logical conclusion of this analysis was that the only escape from this situation was one of national liberation . This sparked off a raging debate throughout the entire congress, in which most American Communist Party members in attendance attacked and criticized the thesis. However, by the end of the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, the thesis that outlined the liberation of black people in the USA as a struggle of “self-determination for the Black Belt”, had been voted in favour of, and the Haywood-Nasanov thesis had become the policy of both the Communist Party of the United States of America and the Communist International.

There were two reasons that the thesis passed, despite the fierce disagreements with it, which was made clear by black Communists such as James W. Ford. The first was that, despite the theoretical inadequacies of what would become known as the Black Belt theory, there was a clear deficiency in the CPUSA’s anti-racist activity and even in the eyes of those that disagreed with the thesis, it represented a clear shift away from passivity, and a greater attention towards fighting racism. The second reason the Black Belt theory was adopted was the shift that had occurred within the Communist International. The degeneration of the Russian revolution, and the Stalinist counter-revolution, resulted in several political shifts that determined international Communist policy. Two of these were the stages theory of revolution, and the “Socialism in One Country” thesis. The way in which this interplayed with the dynamic within the CPUSA went as follows: “The self-determination slogan was the American version of the Comintern’s “new theory” that national liberation struggles had to go through distinct “stages” – first a bourgeois nationalist stage, and only after that the struggle for socialism” . The Black Belt theory proposed that the states on the Southern border of the USA, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, constituted an oppressed nation within the USA, and the slogan “Self-determination for the Black Belt” followed from this analysis.

There are several problems with this analysis, ranging from patterns of migration to the kind of consciousness and political demands raised by the black population. First of all, in his autobiography, Communist Party member Harry Haywood writes “the territory of this subject nation is the Black Belt, an area encompassing the Deep South, which despite massive out migrations, still contained the country’s largest concentration of Blacks.” The problem with this analysis is it completely subordinates the political demands of the black population to the geographical location of the majority of this same population, and on a skewed basis at best. Until 1910 “90 per cent” of the black population lived in the South, however this changed after the First World War with almost a million of that same population migrating to the Northern cities fundamentally changing the spread of the black population across the nation, as well as changing the nature of the political organizations and demands developed and raised by the black population. This was largely due to the differing nature of the economic and political conditions the population faced in the North and the South, such as the difference between agricultural and industrial labour, and anti-Jim Crow activity, compared to organising against police brutality. Despite the theoretical flaws of the Black Belt theory, the key element in analysing the CPUSA is working out how the struggle for a stronger analysis of racism and oppression in the USA, turned out in practice.

The Communists hit the streets

Harlem District of CPUSA

So how did the adoption of the Black Belt Theory shape the CPUSA’s anti-racist activity? In order to understand this factor, one has to understand the objective conditions within the USA itself. Despite a period of relatively stable economic prosperity in the USA for most of the decade, Capitalism entered possibly its biggest crisis ever, partially as a result of the Great Wall Street Crash. Inflation rapidly began to rise and with it, economies all over the globe fell into collapse. In the USA, prices fell by huge amounts and unemployment rapidly increased from being 3 per cent in 1929, to “25 percent of the work force, some thirteen million workers” standing “idle in 1933.”

For black Americans the depression was even more devastating; unemployment ranged from 40 per cent to 55 per cent, wages were low and any relief was very unlikely . By the time this crisis had begun, traditional black organisations had rendered themselves quite incapable of relating to wider layers of black Americans frustrated by the combination of both racism and their own economic livelihoods. As a result, in the early 1930s, in the South of the USA, the Communist Party of the USA, made huge gains by relating to the struggles of black and white workers’ and farmers there, where organizations like the NAACP and the UNIA had never coherently done so.

Its involvement in the defence and eventual release of the Scottsboro Boys, where nine black teenage boys were falsely accused, on racist grounds, of raping a white woman played a crucial part in the shift towards anti-racist work. With the organization of mass meetings, demonstrations of up to tens of thousands of people, and the detailed legal work carried out by the International Labour Defence (ILD), the CPUSA “attracted national attention” and had its “popularity in Birmingham’s black communities” boosted “almost overnight” . The intervention around the Scottsboro case exemplified what the possibilities were when the CPUSA took anti-racism seriously. Their ability to generalize the experience of repression, racism and austerity was phenomenal and, tied in with their relief campaigns “directly challenged the leadership of Birmingham’s black elite” to the point where the NAACP, a legal organisation, was in a “paralyzed state” . Across the entire USA, the CPUSA gained the respect of thousands of black people, for their brave, sustained work in freeing the Scottsboro boys.

Its involvement in the dozens of agricultural labour struggles that saturated the South at the time, with a consistent focus on uniting black and white workers against racism and their exploiters; and its defence of black people against the racist forces of the state and the Ku Klux Klan, meant that it was also able to garner a growing membership and sink deep roots very swiftly. One key example of this also being in Birmingham, Alabama where the CPUSA had an “original cadre of three organisers in 1929” which was dramatically inflated to “over ninety by the end of August 1930, and over five hundred working people populated the Party’s mass organizations, of whom between 80 and 90 per cent were Black.” In Baltimore, where the party “launched a series of militant campaigns” it developed a “periphery of close supporters that was several times larger than its actual membership”, with 60 per cent of its membership being black . These successes lay in organising unemployment campaigns of thousands of unemployed workers, defence campaigns such as those of Euel Lee and attracting a wider layer of militant workers and ex-IWW members who strengthened the CPUSA’s intervention in the workplaces. As Andor Skotnes writes however, the main strength of the CPUSA in Baltimore lays in the fact that it “insisted, as no predominantly White organization in the region had ever done before, that anti-racism had to be integral to every struggle”.

Similar pictures are painted in other parts of the country, where the struggles of the black cadre of the CPUSA were probably most beneficial and inspirational. This was particularly the case in Harlem, New York. Despite “the low level of Black membership” in 1932, with only seventy Black Communists making up 3.1 per cent of the district membership , the CPUSA in Harlem played a pivotal role from the late 1920s onwards elevating the struggle locally. Whether it was their involvement in industrial action, their anti-lynching activities, their work against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, or their continued leadership over the national campaign to free the Scottsboro boys, they were hard advocators of struggle and attracted a very wide periphery of people around them to achieve their own political goals.

This was exemplified by the successful mobilizations they achieved. In 1930, the CPUSA was able to build “New York’s first large-scale protest against Depression conditions” , particularly around issues such as unemployment. Later that same year, a meeting against the imprisonment of the Scottsboro boys was able to attract “seven hundred people”, whilst the following demonstration saw an estimated “five thousand Harlemites” pack several streets to “hear Communist speakers”, and then proceed to watch “500 Communists, predominantly white” engage in a “violent clash with police” . These events reflect what the detailed organising around key political questions allowed the CPUSA to achieve on a mass scale. The anger of the Harlem ghettos, the impoverishment, the inequality, the racism also had a rightfully angry expression as well. In 1934, after a demonstration in honour of one of the mothers of the Scottsboro defendants a massive riot broke out, involving “5,000 people at its height” after the police exhibited violence towards the demonstrators.

One of the key questions is then, how did the CPUSA achieve such a shift into the realm of much needed anti-racist activity. There are three elements that define this shift. Firstly, in 1928 it was clear to all of the leading black party cadre, and elements of the white party cadre, that the CPUSA had to make it “the task of all Communists” to go out of their way to “recruit more Blacks” to the organisation. This real yearning for greater political activity on the ground was also combined with the strong desire in the CPUSA amongst its leading black members for a greater theoretical clarity around the issue of racial oppression. The culmination of this was the Black Belt theory that was decided upon at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern. Whatever the theoretical weaknesses of the idea of the anti-racist struggle in the USA as a struggle for national liberation, it clearly had a very strong stick-bending effect, backed by all the authority of the Communist International, on the CPUSA to finally take its anti-racist work seriously.

The second element was another policy decided upon at the Communist International. The decision to change strategy on a global basis to what we have called the Third Period had a huge impact on the CPUSA. This international strategy predicted an era of economic crisis, which would produce mass working-class radicalization, with the biggest barriers to socialist revolution being the compromise politics, and “social-fascism” of the reformist parties. Thus, in a horribly sectarian and ultra-left turn, these mass social-democratic organisations were seen as the enemy of the working-class.

With the decline of traditional black organisations, such as the UNIA and the NAACP (temporarily in the latter’s case), the Communist Party was able to adopt the ultra-left, sectarian politics of the Third Period, with positive effect, to organisations that were becoming increasingly irrelevant to the black population during a time of economic crisis. The ability to relate to the black people of Harlem or Alabama, not just on anti-racist lines, but also on lines opposed to unemployment, in support of agricultural or industrial strikes, and strongly in favour of anti-imperialism and anti-fascism opened a political door that related to a much wider layer of the black working-class. This much larger door was never open to those traditional black organisations because they were always looking for an accommodation to those to the right of them (as the CPUSA later would). Marcus Garvey and the UNIA wanted to appeal to the American bourgeoisie in order for elements of it to fund his “Back to Africa” program, and from there on in, wanted to build his own vision of black capitalism once African-Americans had settled on the land of native Africans somewhere, probably at the expense of the local population, in Africa.

A similar weakness limited the NAACP during this period. They simply did not have either the willingness or the capacity to challenge the dire economic conditions that faced the black population in the USA, and would only court white liberal politicians in a bid to win voting rights. This completely isolated them from the sort of radicalizing political and economic struggles that would emerge in the period. This meant that all the sectarian and ultra-left talk of the CPUSA at the time only sought to elevate themselves as the ones who wanted to wage the struggle for the betterment of people’s living conditions, particularly in comparison to its weakened or declining political rivals.

A third and final element lies with the political, social and economic totality which the Communist Party presented. It always had a wider explanation of why the problems, which they were organizing against, existed. For many, this wasn’t necessary, they just wanted to fight their oppressors on an immediate level, such as the riot I just spoke of, however for the thousands of young black men and women who passed through the ranks of the CPUSA in the years after the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, these ideas were concrete. These ideas took on a reality when those Communists were thrust into the outlined battles, and when white Communists offered solidarity, those ideas were only strengthened.

A good example of the CPUSA’s constant stress on black and white unity being when a former Garveyite, Sufi Abdul Hamid, started a campaign against shops that didn’t employ black workers called “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work”. Having made some successes, the local Harlem branch of the CPUSA decided to join the campaign and argued vociferously for a position that differed to that of the ex-Garveyite, who argued for black workers to replace white workers. The CPUSA argued for launching a campaign along similar lines that would force the hands of the employers, through demonstrations and picket lines, “until Blacks composed 50 per cent of the workforce”, whilst insisting that “no white workers be displaced”, but just moved to a different workplace or given less hours with the same pay. This campaign achieved “great popular appeal” until it was terminated by the leadership for internal reasons. It would eventually be resumed again four months later with even greater successes in several workplaces, whilst also pushing aside its political rivals. The real strength of this example being that the strength in the Communist’s strategy was to argue hard for black-white unity against racism, imperialism, unemployment and exploitation, exemplifying to a huge layer of the black population that actually racism in the USA could be defeated, if challenged on a interracial, working-class basis.

Lessons for Today

There is no doubt of the massive headway the CPUSA made not just in terms of theorizing the question of racial oppression in the USA, but also in applying an anti-racist, working-class based alternative to the Great Depression and a capitalist system in crisis. However the rise of Stalinism and the complete subordination of the Communist Parties of the world to the bureaucratized Communist International and Russian foreign policy, completely destroyed the initiative, flexibility, internal democracy and creativity of the Bolshevik Party in the early twentieth century; the party the CPUSA was ostensibly modelled on. This applies also to the CPUSA. The development in Moscow of the Popular Front strategy in opposition to war and fascism saw the CPUSA make many compromises that would reduce its multi-racial base. Even worse, the complete switch in Russian foreign policy, with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop (Hitler-Stalin) pact, completely disheartened and repelled thousands of Communists away from an organisation that could defend peace with Nazis, and significantly eroded the CPUSA’s black membership.

The political legacies of the CPUSA, however, cannot be disputed. Breaking the ground for radical politics to develop in the Southern states of the USA, the CPUSA had a long lasting effect on politics in the USA that would influence the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the radicalized, left-wing Black Power movement, that arose out of the decline of the former, in the late 1960s. One can’t be fanatic and overstate the effect of Communist politics, but they show a clear example of how the struggles against oppression, racial or otherwise, and exploitation, must be linked up to fight against an inhumane system that destroys human potential. The question remains how can we learn the lessons from the CPUSA in the late 1920s and early 1930s and build a model that can really challenge the status quo. That is the real challenge for today.

Taken away from any abstractions, and taking into account how much sharper racism in the USA is, the lessons revolutionaries in Britain should take from the Communist Party of America are clear. Marxist politics and the anti-racism that should stem from them should be avidly fought for amongst the hearts and minds of the oppressed and the exploited. Our ability to understand the interrelationship between racism, the state and violence, such as that evidenced with the racist murders of Sean Rigg, Smiley Culture and Jimmy Mubenga, gives us a clear lead that we should take advantage of. The necessity of defence campaigns is something the left has often understood, as the CPUSA did with the Scottsboro Boys, it is something that must be pursued further and vehicles such as Defend the Right to Protest, which constantly relates, say the murder of Mark Duggan to the police violence exerted against workers at Orgreave, or the battening down and arrest of Alfie Meadows, are key to linking struggles and opening up the possibilities for revolutionaries to sink deeper roots in both anti-racist and industrial struggles.

Revolutionaries should always push the hardest for the cross-fertilization of the political and the economic. How can you inject anti-fascist and anti-Islamophobia politics into a workplace and vice versa? How can you challenge the disproportionate stop and searches carried out by the Metropolitan police on black and Asian youth? How can you fight back against the disproportionate levels of unemployment, black youth face in areas like Hackney and Bow? How can you organize against racist immigration officers who harass anybody who doesn’t look white English outside tube stations? I don’t pretend to know the answers, but what I do know is that a clearer picture can be gained by looking at 1) the experiences of the American Communist Party, and 2) relating that to your everyday involvement in the struggle.

One lesson that is clear from the CPUSA is that when one feels that a certain stick-bending is required in order for anti-racism to infiltrate every sector of a revolutionary organisation and for analysis to step up, one has to fight for it internally, whilst building the practical examples on the ground that pushes those reluctant few, to take your concerns more seriously, and learn from the experience provided by the class, and revolutionaries rooted within it.

“All Out for Scottsboro March” – Issue of Daily Worker.

8 thoughts on “Black Bolsheviks: Lessons from the Communist Party of USA

  1. A very interesting post, although I must confess that my knowledge of the CPUSA is rather limited. I would ask two questions:

    1) Why is the CPUSA’s anti-racist work more of a framework for socialists in Britain than the anti-racist work of the CPGB in the 1940s-1950s?
    2) The CPUSA and the CPGB were both pioneering as working class organisations involved in anti-racist and anti-colonial/imperial activism when most other ‘white’ labour organisations stayed away from this sort of activism. However in the 1950s-1960s, black people in both countries moved away from the Communist Parties towards other organisations, such as those that espoused some version of black self-determination or black-led struggle. The reason why the CPs were no longer attractive political vehicles for black activists must be more than the Stalinisation of the CPs.

    I, too, don’t have the answers, but I think that looking at the strategies of Communist Parties in the 1930s (similar to the way that the IS/SWP looked to the anti-fascism of the CPGB in the 1930s as an example of a successful strategy in the 1970s) needs also to address why these strategies did not bear fruit in later periods.

    • ProvoJo says:

      I’m not sure if it is more of a framework, I actually haven’t done any research on the CPGB and anti-racism in the 1940s and 1950s. Although I would say there is a lot of analysis to be done around the CPGB and anti-fascism in the 1930s, and anti-racist work done by Communists such as Shapurji Saklatvala. I look forward to learning the lessons from anyone who wants to do this important research :)

      I think, two of the reasons that come to my head, around why the CPs were no longer attractive organizations is, firstly, because the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, pushed away thousands of black activists in the US, because they had leant to identify with anti-fascism so repeatedly (and rightly so), that when the international embodiment of their own organization (Soviet Russia), betrayed that, it was a betrayal of all the anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism (particularly in reference to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia), the CPs, in the US and Britain, embodied. Secondly, ever since the beginning of the Popular Front period, the CPs had adopted a liberal anti-racism, in order to relate to the petty-bourgeoisie, that turned away several from their ranks. This has, arguably, seeped throughout the left in the past century quite a bit, and today, is even utilized by sections of the revolutionary left (in a weird, compromise with the same anti-racism of the Labour Party). But, you can have no doubt, that it tarnished the left, and still does today, even if there are sections of the revolutionary left that do take racism seriously. I always found the example of the Dockers coming out on strike in support of Enoch Powell, an interesting one. CPGB’s response: get a Protestant Pastor and Catholic Priest to convince them of Powell’s racism. The IS’s response: get their only dock worker to agitate hard against the workers’ to expose Powell for the racist he was. I’m not making a big point out of this example except, it shows the necessity for a hard, prolonged, ideological, anti-racist struggle, that makes no compromises, in comparison to a liberal anti-racism, that seeps of being concessionary, and top-down.

      Apologies for ramble, stream of consciousness moment :D

  2. peter says:

    Re: A great day in Harlem (photo 1958). I know Dizzy Gillespie joined the CPUSA but the rest of those great jazzers?

  3. ProvoJo says:

    Yeah, I searched the net for the photo and this one said “Harlem District of CPUSA”. Looks like Google lied to me, because you’re the second person to tell me this ain’t what I thought it was :)

  4. […] that often what invigorates and energises workers are movements around questions of oppression. As Jonas Liston notes on his blog, the anti-racist work undertaken in the 1930s by the Communist Party USA meant […]

  5. […] that often what invigorates and energises workers are movements around questions of oppression. As Jonas Liston notes on his blog, the anti-racist work undertaken in the 1930s by the Communist Party USA meant […]

  6. […] Jonas Liston from east London SWP argues we can learn important lessons from the legacy of the Communist Party USA’s anti-racism work in the 1930s: […]

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