The Russian Revolution &
the American Negro Movement
by James P. Cannon
[Originally printed in International Socialist Review, Summer 1959. Originally posted online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1959/black.htm ]
All through the first 10 years of American communism, the party was preoccupied with the Negro question, and gradually arrived at a policy different and superior to that of traditional American radicalism. Yet in my published recollections of this period, the Negro question does not appear anywhere as the subject of internal controversy between the major factions. The reason for this was that none of the American leaders came up with any new ideas on this explosive problem on their own account; and none of the factions, as such, sponsored any of the changes in approach, attitude and policy which were gradually effected by the time the party finished its first decade.
The main discussions on the Negro question took place in Moscow, and the new approach to the problem was elaborated there. As early as the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, “The Negroes in America” was a point on the agenda, and a preliminary discussion of the question took place. Historical research will prove conclusively 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.
Under constant prodding and pressure from the Russians in the Comintern, the party made a beginning with Negro work in its first 10 years; but it recruited very few Negroes and its influence in the Negro community didn’t amount to much. From this it is easy to draw the pragmatic conclusion that all the talk and bother about policy in that decade, from New York to Moscow, was much ado about nothing, and that the results of Russian intervention were completely negative.
That is, perhaps, the conventional assessment in these days of the Cold War when aversion to all things Russian is the conventional substitute for considered opinion. But it is not true history—not by a long shot. The first 10 years of American communism are too short a period for definitive judgment of the results of the new approach to the Negro question imposed on the American party by the Comintern.
Historical treatment of Communist Party policy and action on the Negro question, and of Russian influence in shaping it in the first 10 years of the party’s existence, however exhaustive and detailed, cannot be adequate unless the inquiry is projected into the next decade. It took the first 10 years for the young party to get fairly started in this previously unexplored field. The spectacular achievements in the ’30s cannot he understood without reference to this earlier decade of change and reorientation. That’s where the later actions and results came from.
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A serious analysis of the whole complex process has to begin with recognition that the American communists in the early ’20s, like all other radical organisations of that and earlier times, had nothing to start with on the Negro question but an inadequate theory, a false or indifferent attitude and the adherence of a few individual Negroes of radical or revolutionary bent.
The earlier socialist movement, out of which the Communist Party was formed, never recognised 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.
The best of the earlier socialists were represented by Debs, who was friendly to all races and purely free from prejudice. But the limitedness of the great agitator’s view on this far from simple problem was expressed in his statement: “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races. The Socialist Party is the party of the whole working class, regardless of colour—the whole working class of the whole world.” (Ray Ginger: The Bending Cross) That was considered a very advanced position at the time, but it made no provision for active support of the Negro’s special claim for a little equality here and now, or in the foreseeable future, on the road to socialism.
And even Debs, with his general formula that missed the main point—the burning issue of ever-present discrimination against the Negroes every way they turned—was far superior in this regard, as in all others, to Victor Berger, who was an outspoken white supremacist. Here is a summary pronouncement from a Berger editorial in his Milwaukee paper, the Social Democratic Herald: “There can be no doubt that the Negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race.” That was “Milwaukee socialism” on the Negro question, as expounded by its ignorant and impudent leader-boss. A harried and hounded Negro couldn’t mix that very well with his Milwaukee beer, even if he had a nickel and could find a white man’s saloon where he could drink a glass of beer—at the back end of the bar.
Berger’s undisguised chauvinism was never the official position of the party. There were other socialists, like William English Walling who was an advocate of equal rights for the Negroes, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1909. But such individuals were a small minority among the socialists and radicals before the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
The inadequacy of traditional socialist policy on the Negro question is amply documented by the historians of the movement, Ira Kipnis and David Shannon. The general and prevailing attitude of the Socialist Party toward the Negroes is summed up by Shannon as follows:
“They were not important in the party, the party made no special effort to attract Negro members, and the party was generally disinterested in, if not actually hostile to, the effort of Negroes to improve their position in American capitalist society.” And further: “The party held that the sole salvation of the Negro was the same as the sole salvation of the white: 'Socialism’.”
In the meantime, nothing could be done about the Negro question as such, and the less said about it the better. Sweep it under the rug.
Such was the traditional position inherited by the early Communist Party from the preceding socialist movement out of which it had come. The policy and practice of the trade union movement was even worse. The IWW barred nobody from membership because of “race, colour or creed”. But the predominant AFL unions, with only a few exceptions, were lily-white job trusts. They also had nothing special to offer the Negroes; nothing at all, in fact.
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The difference—and it was a profound difference—between the Communist Party of the ’20s and its socialist and radical ancestors, was signified by its break with this tradition. The American communists in the early days, under the influence and pressure of the Russians in the Comintern, were slowly and painfully learning to change their attitude; to assimilate the new theory of the Negro question as a special question of doubly-exploited second-class citizens, requiring a program of special demands as part of the overall program—and to start doing something about it.
The true importance of this profound change, in all its dimensions, cannot be adequately measured by the results in the ’20s. The first 10 years have to be considered chiefly as the preliminary period of reconsideration and discussion and change of attitude and policy on the Negro question—in preparation for future activity in this field.
The effects of this change and preparation in the ’20s, brought about by the Russian intervention, were to manifest themselves explosively in the next decade. The ripely favourable conditions for radical agitation and organisation among the Negroes, produced by the Great Depression, found the Communist Party ready to move in this field as no other radical organisation in this country had ever done before.
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Everything new and progressive on the Negro question came from Moscow, after the revolution of 1917, and as a result of the revolution—not only for the American communists who responded directly, but for all others concerned with the question.
By themselves, the American communists never thought of anything new or different from the traditional position of American radicalism on the Negro question. That, as the above quotations from Kipnis’ and Shannon’s histories show, was pretty weak in theory and still weaker in practice. The simplistic formula that the Negro problem was merely economic, a part of the capital-labour problem, never struck fire among the Negroes—who knew better even if they didn’t say so; they had to live with brutal discrimination every day and every hour.
There was nothing subtle or concealed about this discrimination. Everybody knew that the Negro was getting the worst of it at every turn, but hardly anybody cared about it or wanted to do anything to try to moderate or change it. The 90% white majority of American society, including its working-class sector, North as well as South, was saturated with prejudice against the Negro; and the socialist movement reflected this prejudice to a considerable extent—even though, in deference to the ideal of human brotherhood, the socialist attitude was muted and took the form of evasion. The old theory of American radicalism turned out in practice to be a formula for inaction on the Negro front, and—incidentally—a convenient shield for the dormant racial prejudices of the white radicals themselves.
The Russian intervention changed all that, and changed it drastically, and for the better. Even before the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were distinguished from all other tendencies in the international socialist and labour movement by their concern with the problems of oppressed nations and national minorities, and affirmative support of their struggles for freedom, independence and the right of self-determination. The Bolsheviks gave this support to all “people without equal rights” sincerely and earnestly, but there was nothing “philanthropic” about it. They also recognised the great revolutionary potential in the situation of oppressed peoples and nations, and saw them as important allies of the international working class in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.
After November 1917 this new doctrine—with special emphasis on the Negroes—began to be transmitted to the American communist movement with the authority of the Russian Revolution behind it. The Russians in the Comintern started on the American communists with the harsh, insistent demand that they shake off their own unspoken prejudices, pay attention to the special problems and grievances of the American Negroes, go to work among them, and champion their cause in the white community.
It took time for the Americans, raised in a different tradition, to assimilate the new Leninist doctrine. But the Russians followed up year after year, piling up the arguments and increasing the pressure on the American communists until they finally learned and changed, and went to work in earnest. And the change in the attitude of the American communists, gradually effected in the ’20s, was to exert a profound influence in far wider circles in the later years.
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The Communist Party’s break with the traditional position of American radicalism on the Negro question coincided with profound changes which had been taking place among the Negroes themselves. The large-scale migration from the agricultural regions of the South to the industrial centres of the North was greatly accelerated during the First World War, and continued in the succeeding years. This brought some improvement in their conditions of life over what they had known in the Deep South, but not enough to compensate for the disappointment of being herded into ghettoes and still subjected to discrimination on every side.
The Negro movement, such as it was at the time, patriotically supported the First World War “to make the world safe for democracy”; and 400,000 Negroes served in the armed forces. They came home looking for a little democratic payoff for themselves, but couldn’t find much anywhere. Their new spirit of self-assertion was answered by a mounting score of lynchings and a string of race riots across the country, North as well as South.
All this taken together—the hopes and the disappointments, the new spirit of self-assertion and the savage reprisals—contributed to the emergence of a new Negro movement in the making. Breaking sharply with the Booker T. Washington tradition of accommodation to a position of inferiority in a white man’s world, a new generation of Negroes began to press their demand for equality.
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What the emerging new movement of the American Negroes—a 10% minority—needed most, and lacked almost entirely, was effective support in the white community in general and in the labour movement, its necessary ally, in particular. The Communist Party, aggressively championing the cause of the Negroes and calling for an alliance of the Negro people and the militant labour movement, came into the new situation as a catalytic agent at the right time.
It was the Communist Party, and no other, that made the Herndon and Scottsboro cases national and worldwide issues and put the Dixiecrat legal-lynch mobs on the defensive—for the first time since the collapse of Reconstruction. Party activists led the fights and demonstrations to gain fair consideration for unemployed Negroes at the relief offices, and to put the furniture of evicted Negroes back into their empty apartments. It was the Communist Party that demonstratively nominated a Negro for Vice-President in 1932—something no other radical or socialist party had ever thought about doing.
By such and similar actions and agitation in the ’30s, the party shook up all more or less liberal and progressive circles of the white majority, and began to bring about a radical change of attitude on the Negro question. At the same time, the party became a real factor among the Negroes, and the Negroes themselves advanced in status and self-confidence—partly as a result of the Communist Party’s aggressive agitation on the issue.
The facts are not disposed of by saying: The communists had their own axe to grind. All agitation for Negro rights is grist to the mill of the Negro movement; and the agitation of the communists was more energetic and more effective than any other at that time—by far.
These new developments appear to contain a contradictory twist which, as far as I know, has never been confronted or explained. The expansion of communist influence in the Negro movement in the ’30s happened despite the fact that one of the new slogans imposed on the party by the Comintern—the slogan of “self-determination”—about which the most to-do was made and the most theses and resolutions were written, and which was even touted as the main slogan, never seemed to fit the actual situation. The slogan of “self-determination” found little or no acceptance in the Negro community after the collapse of the separatist movement led by Garvey. Their trend was mainly toward integration, with equal rights.
In practice the CP jumped over this contradiction. When the party adopted the slogan of “self-determination”, it did not drop its aggressive agitation for Negro equality and Negro rights on every front. On the contrary, it intensified and extended this agitation. That’s what the Negroes wanted to hear, and that’s what made the difference. It was the CP’s agitation and action under the latter slogan that brought the results, without the help, and probably despite, the unpopular “self-determination” slogan and all the theses written to justify it.
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The communists turned Stalinists, in the “Third Period” of ultra-radicalism, carried out their activity in the Negro field with all the crooked demagogy, exaggerations and distortions which are peculiar to them and inseparable from them. But in spite of that the main appeal to equal rights came through and found an echo in the Negro community. For the first time since the abolitionists, the Negroes saw an aggressive, militant dynamic group of white people championing their cause. Not a few philanthropists and pallid liberals this time, but the hard-driving Stalinists of the ’30s, at the head of a big, upsurging radical movement generated by the depression. There was power in their drive in those days, and it was felt in many areas of American life.
The first response of many Negroes was favourable; and the party’s reputation as a revolutionary organisation identified with the Soviet Union, was probably more a help than a hindrance. The Negro upper crust, seeking respectability, tended to shy away from anything radical; but the rank and file, the poorest of the poor who had nothing to lose, were not afraid. The party recruited thousands of Negro members in the ’30s and became, for a time, a real force in the Negro community. The compelling reason was their policy on the issue of equal rights and their general attitude, which they had learned from the Russians, and their activity on the new line.
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In the ’30s, Communist Party influence and action were not restricted to the issue of “civil rights” in general. They also operated powerfully to reshape the labour movement and help the Negro workers gain a place in it which had previously been denied. The Negro workers themselves, who had done their share in the great struggles to create the new unions, were pressing their own claims more aggressively than ever before. But they needed help, they needed allies.
The Communist Party militants stepped into this role at the critical point in the formative days of the new unions. The policy and agitation of the Communist Party at that time did more, 10 times over, than any other to help the Negro workers to rise to a new status of at least semi-citizenship in the new labour movement created in the ’30s under the banner of the CIO.
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It is customary to attribute the progress of the Negro movement, and the shift of public opinion in favour of its claims, to the changes brought about by the First World War. But the biggest thing that came out of the First World War, the event that changed everything, including the prospects of the American Negro, was the Russian Revolution. The influence of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, even debased and distorted as it later was by Stalin, and then filtered through the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, contributed more than any other influence from any source to the recognition, and more or less general acceptance, of the Negro question as a special problem of American society—a problem which cannot be simply subsumed under the general heading of the conflict between capital and labour, as it was in the pre-communist radical movement.
It adds something, but not much, to say that the Socialist Party, the liberals and the more or less progressive labour leaders went along with the new definition, and gave some support to the claims of the Negroes. That’s just what they did; they went along. They had no independent, worked-out theory and policy of their own; where would they get it—out of their own heads? Hardly. They all followed in the wake of the CP on this question in the ’30s.
The Trotskyists, and other dissident radical groups—who also had learned from the Russians—contributed what they could to the fight for Negro rights; but the Stalinists, dominating the radical movement, dominated in the Negro field too.
Everything new on the Negro question came from Moscow—after the Russian Revolution began to thunder its demand throughout the world for freedom and equality for all national minorities, all subject peoples and all races—for all the despised and rejected of the Earth. This thunder is still rolling, louder than ever, as the daily headlines testify.
The American communists responded first, and most emphatically, to the new doctrine from Russia. But the Negro people, and substantial sections of American white society, responded indirectly, and are still responding—whether they recognise it or not.
The present official leaders of the “civil rights” movement of the American Negroes, more than a little surprised at its expanding militancy, and the support it is getting in the white population of the country, scarcely suspect how much the upsurging movement owes to the Russian Revolution which they all patriotically disavow.
The Reverend Martin Luther King did remark, at the time of the Montgomery boycott battle, that their movement was part of the worldwide struggle of the coloured peoples for independence and equality. He should have added that the colonial revolutions, which are indeed a powerful ally of the Negro movement in America, got their starting impulse from the Russian Revolution—and are stimulated and strengthened from day to day by the continuing existence of this revolution in the shape of the Soviet Union and the new China, which white imperialism suddenly “lost”.
Indirectly, but all the more convincingly, the most rabid anti-sovieteers, among them the liberal politicians and the official labour leaders, testify to this when they say: The Little Rock scandal and things like that shouldn’t happen because it helps communist propaganda among the dark-skinned colonial people. Their fear of “communist propaganda”, like some other people’s fear of the Lord, makes them virtuous.
It is now conventional for labour leaders and liberals—in the North—to sympathise with the Negro struggle for a few elementary rights as human beings. It is the Right Thing To Do, the mark of civilised intelligence. Even the ex-radicals, turned into anti-communist “liberals” of a sort—a very poor sort—are all now pridefully “correct” in their formal support of “civil rights” and their opposition to Negro segregation and other forms of discrimination. But how did they all get that way?
It never occurs to the present-day liberals to wonder why their counterparts of a previous generation—with a few notable individual exceptions—never thought of this new and more enlightened attitude toward the Negroes before Lenin and the Russian Revolution upset the apple cart of the old, well-established and complacently accepted separate-but-unequal doctrine. The American anti-communist liberals and labour officials don’t know it, but some of the Russian influence they hate and fear so much even rubbed off on them.
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Of course, as everybody knows, the American Stalinists eventually fouled up the Negro question, as they fouled up every other question. They sold out the struggle for Negro rights during the Second World War, in the service of Stalin’s foreign policy—as they sold out striking American workers, and rooted for the prosecution in the first Smith Act trial of the Trotskyists at Minneapolis in 1941, for the same basic reason.
Everybody knows that now. The chickens finally came home to roost, and the Stalinists themselves have felt impelled to make public confessions of some of their treachery and some of their shame. But nothing, neither professed repentance for crimes that can’t be concealed, nor boasts of former virtues that others are unwilling to remember, seem to do them any good. The Communist Party, or rather what is left of it, is so discredited and despised that it gets little or no recognition and credit today for its work in the Negro field in those earlier days—when it had far-reaching and, in the main, progressive consequences.
It is not my duty or my purpose to help them out. The sole aim of this condensed review is to set straight a few facts about the early days of American communism—for the benefit of inquiring students of a new generation who want to know the whole truth, however the chips may fall, and to learn something from it.
The new policy on the Negro question, learned from the Russians in the first 10 years of American communism, enabled the Communist Party in the ’30s to advance the cause of the Negro people; and to expand its own influence among them on a scale never approached by any radical movement before that time. These are facts of history; not only of the history of American communism, but of the history of the Negro struggle for emancipation too.
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For those who look to the future these facts are important; an anticipation of things to come. By their militant activity in earlier years, the Stalinists gave a great impetus to the new Negro movement. Then, their betrayal of the Negro cause in the Second World War cleared the way for the inch-at-a-time gradualists who have been leading the movement unchallenged ever since.
The policy of gradualism, of promising to free the Negro within the framework of the social system that subordinates and degrades him, is not working out. It does not go to the root of the problem. The aspirations of the Negro people are great and so are the energies and emotions expended in their struggle. But the concrete gains of their struggle up to date are pitifully meagre. They have gained a few inches, but the goal of real equality is miles and miles away.
The right to occupy a vacant seat on a bus; the token integration of a handful of Negro children in a few public schools; a few places open for individual Negroes in public office and some professions; fair employment rights on the books, but not in practice; the formally and legally recognised right to equality which is denied in practice at every turn—that’s the way it is today, 96 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
There has been a big change in the outlook and demands of the Negroes’ movement since the days of Booker T. Washington, but no fundamental change in their actual situation. This contradiction is building up to another explosion and another change of policy and leadership. In the next stage of its development, the American Negro movement will be compelled to turn to a more militant policy than gradualism, and to look for more reliable allies than capitalist politicians in the North who are themselves allied with the Dixiecrats of the South. The Negroes, more than any others in this country, have reason and right to be revolutionary.
An honest workers’ party of the new generation will recognise this revolutionary potential of the Negro struggle, and call for a fighting alliance of the Negro people and the labour movement in a common revolutionary struggle against the present social system.
Reforms and concessions, far more important and significant than any yet attained, will be by-products of this revolutionary alliance. They will be fought for and attained at every stage of the struggle. But the new movement will not stop with reforms, nor be satisfied with concessions. The movement of the Negro people and the movement of militant labour, united and coordinated by a revolutionary party, will solve the Negro problem in the only way it can be solved—by a social revolution.
The first efforts of the Communist Party along these lines a generation ago will be recognised and appropriated. Not even the experience of the Stalinist betrayal will be wasted. The memory of this betrayal will be one of the reasons why the Stalinists will not be the leaders next time.