Socialism’s forgotten roots in Black America

May 30, 2018

Brian Jones considers what a collection of little-known anti-racist writings from the early socialist movement has to teach us about the politics of liberation.

DO YOU recognize the authors of these passages?

“The whole world is under obligation to the Negro, and that the white heel is still upon the black neck is simply proof that the world is not yet civilized.”

“Now, the mission of the Socialist Party is to free the working class from exploitation, and since the Negro is the most ruthlessly exploited working-class group in America, the duty of the party to champion his cause is as clear as day.”

“The Negro Problem, then, is the great test of the American Socialist.”

“No race would be more greatly benefited by the triumph of Labor and the destruction of the parasitic Capital Civilization with its Imperialism incubus that is squeezing the lifeblood out of millions of our race in Africa and the islands of the sea than the Negro race.”

African American stockyard workers line up for emergency wages during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919
African American stockyard workers line up for emergency wages during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919

“The problem of the Negro in industry as well as in American society as a whole, is a problem created by the background of chattel slavery and intimately connected with its traditions, the propagation of a whole series of falsehoods and fetishes, scientifically untenable, but which by repetition and certain superficial plausibility, have become dogmas which to question means social ostracism in the former slave states — the historical home of chattel slavery whose conceptions of the Negro as a social inferior who menaces white supremacy is the obscene fountain from which flows all of the poisonous streams that carry the virus of race hatred into the ranks of the American working class and labor movement.”

Two of these quotations are from articles by white people, and the other three are by Black people. All were socialists living and organizing in the U.S. — the passages appeared in five different publications over a span of 22 years, from 1903 to 1925 (make your guesses now; their identities are revealed at the bottom of the article).

THE EARLY American socialist movement isn’t widely considered a font of generative thinking on the problem of racism. If anything, the strand of conservative reform socialism in this period is notorious for producing leaders who proudly espoused both an electoral brand of socialism and staunch anti-immigrant and anti-Black racism.

A wider audience has gained some appreciation for the innovations and advances of later years. Many contemporary scholars and activists have some sense of the pioneering and courageous anti-racist activism of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks to the research of scholars such as Robin D.G. Kelley, Glenda Gilmore, Mark Naison, Mark Solomon and others. But the politics of the earlier American socialist movement are less well understood.

Class Struggle and the Color Line: American Socialism and the Race Question 1900-1930, a collection of primary socialist documents edited by Paul Heideman, fills in the holes. It paints a picture of an early 20th century socialist movement that consciously and creatively grappled with the centrality of anti-Black racism in American capitalism and how best to challenge it.

As an anthology of original texts from the early socialist movement, Class Struggle and the Color Line provides many potential entry points for the curious reader.

For those well-versed in socialist history as well as those newly exploring it, there are familiar figures, like Eugene Debs and A. Phillip Randolph, and unfamiliar figures, like I.M. Rubinow and Jeanette Pearl.

For readers who may have encountered the sentiment that the socialist movement is primarily or predominantly a “white” thing — or a movement that has always or mostly held reductive or simplistic understandings of racism — there is much in Class Struggle and the Color Line that should forever dispel such fables.

Readers who already know about W.E.B. Du Bois and Hubert Harrison may be surprised to learn about George Washington Woodbey, whom Heideman dubs the “second major Black American socialist” (the first being...well, read the book to find out!).

Woodbey was born a slave, was an activist in the Republican Party and later joined the socialist movement after hearing Eugene Debs speak. He quickly became a leading figure among socialists on the West Coast and was elected to the state executive board of California’s Socialist Party.

Woodbey led many campaigns for free speech and against police brutality. “In the days of chattel slavery,” Woodbey said, “the masters had a patrol force to keep the negroes in their place and protect the interests of the masters. Today the capitalists use the police for the same purpose.”

Heideman’s introduction to the text is worthy of reading and discussion on its own. He traces a genealogy of anti-racist thinking in the early American socialist movement, going back to the writings of Karl Marx.

There has been a trend among scholars who are otherwise sympathetic to Marx and Marxism to portray him as someone who was oblivious or unconcerned with anti-Black racism. Rather, as Heideman shows, Marx saw the American Civil War as a conflict of global significance, and concluded early on that both the issue of slavery and the actions of slaves themselves would be central to the conflict.

Marx was deeply concerned with the way that racism among the “white-skinned” workers retarded the development of a labor movement in the U.S.

Remarkably, although relatively ignorant of Marx’s writings, many figures in the early American socialist movement came to similar conclusions and attempted to think, write and act to specifically address the problem of racism’s persistence after the destruction of the slave regime.

Heideman’s introduction to Class Struggle and the Color Line provides a succinct and compelling summary of this history, highlighting figures like Woodbey who are little known or appreciated, and offering a new way to think about the broad trajectory of the movement as a whole.

For example, the bold campaigns and accomplishments of the American Communist Party in the 1930s are often explained as a product of the intervention of the Communist International — the organization based in Russia that sought to organize the communist movement worldwide.

Heideman argues that this explanation is unsatisfactory. The story is often told that the American socialist movement was clueless about fighting racism until Vladimir Lenin and the Communist International insisted that they pay attention to the specific struggles of Black American workers.

Heideman fills out this story by revealing the ways in which the Communist International came to its conclusions because of the contributions of Black American socialists, like Claude McKay, who traveled to Russia to participate in its deliberations.

The problem lay not with Black workers, but with the racism of white workers, McKay argued. “As always, the colored workers are ready and willing to meet the white workers halfway in order that they might unite in the fight against capitalism,” he wrote in 1920, “but owing to the seeds of hatred that have been sown for long years by the master class among both sections, the whites are still reluctant to take the step that would win the South over to Socialism.”

Just as the shifts in the Communist International were made possible by figures like McKay, Heideman points out that the ranks of the American Communist Party in the 1930s were filled with veterans of struggles from earlier decades, who had widely and repeatedly discussed and debated the problem of anti-Black racism.

“The politics that allowed the CP to play such an important role in the Black liberation struggle during the 1930s were forged,” Heideman concludes, “not in Moscow of 1928, but in the United States in the mid-1920s by Black and white American communists.”

FOR EVERY text or group of texts, Heideman writes a short two- or three-page introduction that provides a broad sense of the publication, the author and the historical context. The American left is notoriously fractious and divided, and Heideman is an exceedingly competent and effective guide when it comes to helping readers understand each writing.

While the continuity of anti-racism is inspiring, the splits, fractures and frequent defeats give a sense of how difficult it has been to maintain an anti-racist, anti-capitalist movement in this country.

There are plenty of pleasant and not-so-pleasant surprises in this book. There are far more male voices represented here than female voices — an unfortunate imbalance that flows from the sexism of the era and the nature of the book’s sources: official publications.

Heideman doesn’t gloss over the fact that the socialist movement was often divided by the question of racism and didn’t always have the most nuanced analysis — and that the movement’s anti-racists didn’t always win out.

In the Socialist Party, for example, the anti-racist revolutionary left wing, represented by figures like Eugene Debs and Hubert Harrison, wasn’t able to defeat the openly racist and reformist right wing that captured the leadership of the party.

As close readers will discover, it wasn’t allegiance to revolutionary socialism that led some activists to equivocate on the question of racism. Rather, the tendency was the opposite: when more reformist, moderate conceptions of socialism won out, they invariably required compromises on the commitment to challenging racism — from Black as well as white socialists.

A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen, for example, are two Black socialists whose publication, The Messenger, made major contributions to the socialist movement.

But as Heideman notes, while their early work brimmed with revolutionary perspectives and radical intolerance for the racism of the American Federation of Labor, their later political trajectories were rightward, leading them to blunt their criticisms of the AFL and accommodate themselves to its bureaucracy.

On the other hand, Heideman shows that the leftward trajectory of figures like Nevis-born Cyril V. Briggs. In Briggs’ case, he combined Black nationalism with a growing commitment to revolutionary socialism, expressed in his publication The Crusader.

Like many of the authors in this anthology, Briggs looked to the Russian Revolution as an example of how the emancipation of the working class would be bound up with the struggle for self-determination for the oppressed.

Briggs saw in the changed situation for Russian Jews a potential analogy to the struggle of Black Americans. “The Russian Jews have found their salvation,” he wrote in 1921, “ the destruction of Capitalism in Russia. Along with Capitalism went Jew-baiting.”

Briggs didn’t think that socialism was the only means of liberation for Black people, but that it was certainly the best, since it also avoided the problems of Black-led capitalism.

“World-wide substitution of the Socialist Co-operative Commonwealth for the vicious Capitalist System,” Briggs wrote, “has the virtues of offering the most complete salvation since saving not only from alien political oppression but from capitalistic exploitation by members of its own group as well.”

IT IS difficult to do justice in a few words to the breadth of socialist voices represented in this volume. There is much more to say, as surely other readers will discover.

Indeed, as more and more people in our own time look upon capitalism as a “vicious” system in this country, the question of what exactly socialists propose to do about racism becomes more salient.

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Given how central racism has been to upholding capitalism historically, it behooves anti-capitalists to prioritize the struggle against racism. In the 20th century, those who have been most resolutely committed to revolutionary socialism in this country have also been uncompromising anti-racists — that legacy is worth studying and embracing.

By filling out the history of anti-racists socialists, Paul Heideman has given socialists access to a crucial period of our history. What we do with that history, how we learn from the successes and failures of the past, is up to us.

Answers to today’s socialist quiz — the authors of the passages above were, in order: Eugene V. Debs, 1903; Hubert Harrison, 1912; W.E.B. DuBois, 1913; Cyril V. Briggs, 1919; William F. Dunne, 1925.

Further Reading

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