Race and the U.S. socialist tradition

November 18, 2010

Paul D’Amato looks at the history of the attitude of socialists in the U.S. to the question of racism and Black oppression--and why the best fighters for the working class have always seen opposing racism as essential for winning socialism.

AT THE end of the U.S. Civil War, the International Workingmen's Association, of which Karl Marx was secretary, penned a letter to the people of the United States that read in part, "Let your citizens of today be declared free and equal, without reserve," and warned that "your victory will be complete" only if you "remove every shackle from freedom's limb."

The outcome of Reconstruction (1867-77) after the defeat of the South would determine whether the United States would be a society of free and equal citizens without regard to color, or whether it would find new shackles with which to hold the free Black population.

During Radical Reconstruction, freed slaves gained the right to vote, and throughout the South, Blacks and poor whites voted hundreds of Blacks into office from the city to the national level. Though land redistribution failed to materialize, Blacks in the South began to assert themselves as free citizens. Alarmed that a free South might threaten their own interests, the Northern bourgeoisie eventually recoiled from Reconstruction. A rising white supremacist campaign, backed by the old planters, used Klan terror to push Blacks back into semi-slave status.

A communist-led march on Washington demanding justice for the Scottsboro Boys in 1933
A communist-led march on Washington demanding justice for the Scottsboro Boys in 1933

If the racial caste system destroyed the promise of interracial solidarity of white and Black workers and sharecroppers in the South--one that flared up again briefly during the populist movement in the 1890s--it had a no less devastating effect on the labor movement in the North.

The explosion of industrial development in the United States after the Civil War created a new working class made up of a mixture of native-born, immigrant and Black labor. Seeking sources of plentiful cheap labor, burgeoning industry looked to Europe, Asia and Mexico to obtain it. A new industrial working class emerged that was crisscrossed with division in which brilliant flashes of solidarity were dampened by racial, ethnic and national enmity. "Your bourgeoisie," Frederick Engels wrote to a collaborator in the United States, "knows much better even than the Austrian government how to play off one nationality against the other."

By 1877, Blacks in the South were relegated to the status of indebted peonage, deprived of voting rights and legally segregated in a system of white supremacy enforced by legal and extra-legal forms of terror. In the North, Blacks were subject to lower wages, worked in the dirtiest, hardest jobs and faced the highest levels of unemployment. Segregated into crowded ghettos with the poorest housing, they paid higher rents than any other group. They faced systematic police brutality, and were sometimes the brunt of vigilante riots.

The American Federation of Labor's (AFL) craft unionism, in which they organized skilled workers and turned their backs on the unskilled, found formal and informal means to drive out, and then bar, Blacks from membership. The United Mineworkers, one of the few industrial unions in the AFL, was the only AFL union with a sizable Black membership.

Employers were able to use Blacks (as well as different national and non-English-speaking groups) as strikebreakers. The "privileged upper strata" of workers, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was to write in 1923, "refuse to recognize fellow workers and fighting comrades in the Negroes. [AFL head Samuel] Gompers' policy is founded on the exploitation of such despicable prejudices, and is at the present time the most effective guarantee for the successful subjugation of white and colored workers alike."

"In the United States of America," Marx wrote in Capital, "every independent workers' movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured part of the republic." But slavery's abolition was insufficient to accomplish the task of creating a united labor movement, because though slavery was abolished, racial oppression still "disfigured the republic."

WITH NOTABLE exceptions, the post-Bellum socialist movement in the United States failed to make a centerpiece of its work on any consistent national basis "removing every shackle from freedom's limb." There were individuals and groupings, particularly in the early 20th century Socialist Party (SP), who were committed to this task.

However, like most other social democratic parties of the Second International, the international body to which socialist parties all over the world affiliated, the SP was a broad, heterogeneous party committed to an electoral strategy to defeat capitalism. Though the party was not simply one of "dentists and lawyers," as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once described it, social reformers and progressives rather than revolutionaries dominated it, and its concern not to alienate white voters in the South and AFL bureaucrats in the North meant that it would not take on racism on a national level.

It was not until the rise of the Communist Party in the U.S. that a socialist organization--prodded by the Communist International and, in particular, Lenin--eventually took up racial oppression as a consistent feature of its national propaganda, agitation and organizational work.

Tens of thousands of German immigrants came to the United States beginning in the late 1840s; many were radicals, socialists and Marxists fleeing Germany after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. Many of these, like Joseph Weydemeyer, the leading Marxist of this period, took up the abolitionist cause, arguing against those utopians and socialists who consider ending slavery a "side issue" to the question of abolishing "wage slavery." Many radical Germans became soldiers and even officers in the Union Army during the Civil War.

In the South, German-language newspapers were the only voice of abolition. Dr. Carl Daniel Adolf Douai, a socialist who came to Texas from Germany in 1851, published anti-slavery articles in his paper, the San Antonio-Zeitung. Douai attempted to foment a movement to split West Texas away and set it up as a free state. He was eventually forced under threat of death to flee Texas for Philadelphia and Boston, where he continued to work for abolition. In an appeal to workers in 1856 in his new paper, Der Pioneer, he wrote that if one class of workers can be oppressed, then none can be free: "Your own indifference to the enslavement of fellow workers will then go against you."

Though the local chapters of the International Workingmen's Association in the U.S. stood for the equality of all people, regardless of race, it did and said little around the question of defending and extending the newly won rights of former slaves. Though there were plenty of examples in the South of Blacks and poor whites uniting against the old planter class, in large part because the latter could see how the enfranchisement of Blacks also gave them greater political power, there is no evidence that the International's locals in the South played any particular role in these developments.

IN 1876, the International was dissolved and, soon after, the Workingmen's Party was formed in the United States. This was a period in which a terrorist counterrevolution was sweeping through the South, and in the North, people of color were being systematically excluded from the skilled trades by the craft unions. As Philip Foner writes in his indispensable book, American Socialism and Black Americans, neither the new party's founding convention nor its few dozen newspapers had anything to say about the victory of white supremacy in the South or about Black workers. Only one of its newspapers spoke of the "great betrayal" of Blacks.

The party had a handful of leading Black members, including Peter H. Clark, a Black educator from Cincinnati who, during the 1877 national railroad strike, delivered the first widely published appeal for socialism by a Black American. Yet the party made no special efforts to recruit Blacks or to address the issues concerning them.

The railroad strike, however, produced some notable moments of unity between Black and white workers. "It was grand to see in West Virginia white and colored men standing together, men of all nationalities in one supreme contest for the common rights of workingmen," J.P. McDonnell, Marxist editor of the Labor Standard, told a labor meeting in New York. "The barriers of ignorance and prejudice were fast falling before the growing intelligence of the masses."

Yet the strike also revealed the presence of racism within the Workingmen's Party. In St. Louis, the railroad strike, which was being led by the party, became a general strike, paralyzing the whole city. During a meeting sponsored by the Workingmen's Party, a Black steamboat worker took the stage and asked the crowd if it would stand beside the strikers, "regardless of color," to shouts of "we will" from the crowd. Black workers became central to the strike, sending out groups of workers to shut down businesses and factories in the southern part of the city.

Workers of all colors then joined a great procession organized by the Workingmen's party. The press proceeded to engage in an offensive against the strike, saying that Blacks had seized control of the strike. Alarmed at the militancy, the moderate leaders of the party in charge of the strike, some of them racists, called off mass meetings and protests, and actively dissuaded white workers from associating with Black workers.

One member of the St. Louis strike's executive committee, Albert Currlin, leader of the German section of the Workingmen's Party, told the St. Louis Times that the executive committee was shocked by the role played by Blacks in the strike (he used a more derogatory term). The moderation and the racism of the strike leaders doomed the strike to defeat.

THE MOST serious attempt at creating a labor movement uniting both Black and white workers was the Knights of Labor, which reached its zenith in 1886, the same year as the fight for the eight-hour day that culminated in the Haymarket affair, when Chicago police were killed by a bomb thrown at a labor rally, prompting a massive crackdown and the frame-up and execution of several leaders of the eight-hour movement.

Under its slogan, "An injury to one is the concern of all," the Knights of Labor invited into its ranks male workers of all nationalities and color--although, against the resistance of some of its socialist members, it excluded Chinese workers. At its peak in 1886, it may have had more than a million members and, of that, several tens of thousands were African Americans.

They were organized into both all-Black and mixed assemblies. In the South, Knights of Labor assemblies were forced to disguise their purpose and post sentries at their meetings in case of attack. The radical press reported that Blacks in the South were flocking to the Knights because it was perceived as the only organization that refused to accept the color line, so that throughout the South, one-third to one-half of the Knights membership were African Americans.

The Knights had two great weaknesses: an opposition to strikes and an unwillingness on the part of its leaders to challenge segregated Knight assemblies. The order's commitment to racial equality was put to the test in its 1886 convention in Richmond, Va. When the New York delegates of District 49, most of whom were socialists, discovered that a local hotel would not put up their only Black delegate, Frank J. Ferrell, the delegates brought tents and stayed with Black families in Richmond. Unfortunately, most of the white delegates to the Richmond convention stayed at hotels that excluded Blacks, while most Black delegates were forced to stay with African American families.

When a member of the District 49 delegation proposed that Ferrell introduce the governor of Virginia to the podium at the convention, the Knights' leader, Terence Powderly, refused. "I do not believe that it would be an act of courtesy," he wrote, "to violate any recognized rule of this community." It was instead agreed that Ferrell would introduce Grand Master Workman Powderly after the governor had finished speaking.

After a barrage of attacks on the Knights from the Southern press, Powderly attempted to mollify Southern critics, writing, "I have no wish to interfere with the social relations which exist between the races of the South." The convention then voted on a contradictory resolution that both recognized "the civil and political equality of all men," and also upheld the "social relations which may exist between different races."

The Knights were destroyed both by the vicious employers' offensive that followed the Haymarket affair, as well as its own weaknesses. As the Knights went into a tailspin, so did its commitment to equality of all workers.

There is one other socialist organization worth mentioning briefly, the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) under the leadership of Daniel DeLeon, if only because its policy toward the Black question foreshadowed that of the Socialist Party. Formed in 1877, the SLP platform declared its support for "universal and equal rights of suffrage without regard to color, creed or sex."

The SLP's position on the question of race is significant because it became for some decades the most prevalent position among socialists. "There was no such thing as a race or 'Negro question,'" argued DeLeon, "There was only a social, a labor question... so far as the socialist and labor movements were concerned."

DeLeon criticized Jim Crow policies in the AFL, and at a meeting of the Second International on colonialism, attacked the Dutch socialist Van Kohl for accepting the distinction between "superior" and "inferior" races. "It is for capitalism," he argued, "to fan the fires of such sentiments to keep the proletariat divided." Yet this did not lead him to a clear understanding that socialists must actively fight against racial oppression, and combat racist attitudes in the labor movement.

IN 1910, shortly before joining the Socialist Party, the Black activist and scholar W.E.B. DuBois published an article in The Crisis, the national paper of the NAACP, titled "The Oklahoma Socialists," which, quoting the SP paper the New York Call, announced a decision by a convention of Black organizations in Chickasha, Okla., to endorse the Socialist Party platform and called upon Blacks in Oklahoma to vote socialist.

"It is a principle universally acknowledged by Socialists," the article continued,

that although Socialism is primarily a movement of the working class for the overthrow of capitalist rule, it nevertheless must rush to the assistance of every oppressed class or race or nationality. The working class cannot achieve its ultimate grand aim of freeing itself from exploitation unless it frees itself from all other elements of the community from exploitation. It cannot put an end to its own oppression unless it puts an end to all forms of oppression.

This forms the cornerstone of the Marxist position on racial and national oppression. It was not the position held by most leaders of the SP.

The Crisis was reacting to the impressive efforts by the Oklahoma SP to combat attempts in Oklahoma (which ultimately succeeded) to disfranchise the new state's Black population. The local SP's petition against the "grandfather clause" that would deprive Blacks of the vote insisted that Blacks in Oklahoma "should not be deprived of the ballot, because the ballot is an instrument with which he can fight his way to industrial freedom." Unfortunately, this is the only case in which the SP in the South defended democratic rights for Black people.

The party's founding convention in Indianapolis in 1901 held out some promise that it might seriously take up the race question. There, it adopted a resolution acknowledging that Blacks, because of their experience under slavery and recent emancipation, "occupy a peculiar position in the working class." It took note of the attempts of the ruling class to divide workers by race, and the African American's "helpless struggle against disenfranchisement and violence," and concluded with an invitation to Blacks to join the SP "in the world movement for economic emancipation."

The resolution was a modification of one proposed by three Black delegates to the convention; William E. Costley, a minister from San Francisco, and two coal miners from Indiana, John W. Adams and Edward D. McKay. The politically heterogeneous nature of the new party, which included both reformists and revolutionaries, racists and antiracists, was made immediately apparent at the conference.

Costley's original resolution had included a clause denouncing "lynching, burning and disfranchisement" of Blacks. Some delegates proposed its removal out of deference to white SP members in the South. Others stood up and vigorously defended the clause. "I would prefer that we lost every white vote in the South than to evade the question which is presented today in that resolution," argued Reverend George Herron. When the final version resolution came up for a vote, the clause had been removed. This version passed.

Costley's argument that "the Negro as a part of the great working class occupies a distinct and peculiar position in contradiction to other laboring elements in the United States" did not win the day, and never became a guiding principle of the party.

The party's racists were ably represented by Victor Berger, moderate leader of the SP from Milwaukee who considered all non-whites to be of "inferior" races, with Blacks at the bottom. He defended lynching in the South, violently opposed immigration, especially Chinese immigration, supported segregated SP locals, and firmly believed in Anglo-Saxon supremacy. He chastised party leader Morris Hillquit for allowing the delegates to the Socialist International congress in Stuttgart in 1907 to sway him in favor of a resolution for the rights of immigrant workers. "If we admit Asiatic labor without restriction," he complained, "this country is absolutely sure to become a black-and-yellow country within a few generations."

THE MAINSTREAM or "center" position of the party on race was that the SP needed no separate resolution on the race question because Blacks were a part of the working class. Morris Hillquit, a New York lawyer, soon to become a key leader in the party, said that the party should not single out the "negro race" any more than "Jews or Germans." Subsequent SP conventions never revisited the "Negro question" and never reaffirmed its 1901 resolution.

Eugene Debs, the party's ablest spokesperson and regular presidential candidate, echoed Hillquit's argument in a 1903 article he wrote for the International Socialist Review: "I have said and say again that, properly speaking, there is no Negro question outside of the labor question--the working-class struggle. Our position as socialists and as a party is perfectly plain. We have simply to say: 'The class struggle is colorless.'"

Debs concluded by calling on the party to "repeal the resolutions on the Negro question," on the grounds that, "We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races."

This did not mean, however, that Debs was indifferent to the question of racial oppression. He refused to speak to segregated meetings, denounced race prejudice in the party, and called on socialists to picket the racist film Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, in the same International Socialist Review piece quoted above, Debs called the "the history of the Negro in the United States...a history of crime without a parallel," and concluded that "socialists should with pride proclaim their sympathy with and fealty to the Black race, and if any there be who hesitate to avow themselves in the face of ignorant and unreasoning prejudice, they lack the true spirit of the slavery-destroying revolutionary movement."

Though Debs did not engage in a systematic campaign to root out all vestiges of racism inside the party, he had notable flashes of anger over the party's failure to take a consistently progressive stand. He condemned, for example, the majority report at the party's 1910 convention that called for the exclusion of immigrants. "If socialism, international revolutionary socialism," he wrote, "does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly and uncompromisingly for the working class and for the oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for no one and its claim is a false pretense and the profession a delusion and a snare."

But it was precisely a "true revolutionary spirit" that the SP lacked. It certainly had revolutionaries within it, and among them, individuals who understood the centrality of the struggle for Black freedom, however.

Debates over the race question that sometimes played themselves out in the party press showed that the party contained some genuine internationalists and antiracists. When the state secretary of the Mississippi Socialist Party wrote in to the Chicago Daily Socialist to insist that in the South "this is a white man's fight, and must be made so, for the white man has the vote," A.H. Dennet of Virginia responded that if the SP stood for segregation, then "let it die, for it will be false to the international socialist movement." Dennet called in the SP to expel from the party any member who "refused comradeship to the Black man because of his color." Yet this never became party policy, and so the party contained those who deplored lynching and those who defended it!

Debs' position was in many ways advanced for its time, but it was not the most advanced position in the party. Caroline Hollingsworth Pemberton, assistant secretary of the Pennsylvania State Committee of the SP, whose uncle was a Confederate officer, wrote articles in 1901 that showed an uncommon sensitivity to the relationship between racial oppression and class exploitation. "As long as the mills of the South can employ labor at 40 cents a day (and children all night), the mills of the North will have to adjust their wage scale to suit, or shut down half the year," she wrote. "Unquestionably, the white man pays somewhere for everything the Negro is robbed of."

New York SP member Dr. I. M. Rubinow wrote a series of 15 articles starting in 1909 in the International Socialist Review, the voice of the party's left wing, where he argued that the party must take up the fight against racial oppression:

Do the socialists of this country really expect to attract the 10 million Negro proletarians to their ranks with such a policy of indifference? Or do they really think they can succeed in this country with these ten millions of proletarians left on the outside?...

The Socialist Party must take a definite attitude on the Negro problem, and must not be afraid to proclaim it. And this attitude must include something a good deal more tangible than the promise of "full products of ones labor in the cooperative commonwealth." It must include, if it is to be logical and honest, a clear, unmistakable demand for the entire abolition of all legal restriction of the rights of the Negro...The attitude of the socialist movement must not only be passively correct and decent, but actively aggressive.

THE PARTY attracted some Blacks, particularly in Harlem, who attempted to steer the party in the direction indicated by Rubinow. Hubert Harrison, a West Indian immigrant who came to New York in 1906, joined the SP in 1909 and quickly became a popular lecturer and street speaker.

He published a number of articles in the New York Call under the title "The Negro and Socialism," which outlined the political, economic, educational and social oppression of Blacks in the United States, and argued that the party must take up the issues facing Black American--disfranchisement, lynching, job discrimination, inferior housing and education--and begin recruiting them to the party:

The Negro worker gets less for his work--thanks to exclusion from the craft unions--than any other worker; he works longer hours as a rule and under worse conditions than any other worker, and his rent in any large city is much higher than that which the white worker pays for the same tenement. In short, the exploitation of the Negro worker is keener than that of any group of white workers in America. 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. This is the crucial test of socialism's sincerity...

He noted examples of racism among party members, particularly in the South, and asked, "Southernism or Socialism--which? Is it to be the white half of the working class against the Black half, or all the working class?"

Harrison spearheaded efforts in the New York party (which included an appeal written by Rubinow in December 1911) to raise special funds to conduct work among Blacks and to recruit and organize them into the party. A "Colored Socialist Club" was formed in Harlem, and at its headquarters on 134th Street, Hubert Harrison delivered a series of five lectures on Black history to which all were invited.

Harrison was criticized by some socialists, among them W.E.B DuBois, the Black intellectual who was a member of the party between 1910 and 1912, on the grounds that forming a Black socialist club smacked of segregation. Harrison argued that the purpose of the club was not to organize Blacks separately, but merely an acknowledgement that Blacks mistrusted the SP, and that an appeal to Blacks must be made by Black SP members. By the following year, the party had withdrawn its funding and the club folded.

Stung by the reversal, Harrison continued to lecture for the party. But he was discouraged by the party's unwillingness to challenge craft exclusion in the unions, and moved closer to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which advocated racially united industrial unions that brought all workers together in solidarity. The New York Socialist Party leadership, which opposed the IWW, was particularly incensed by Harrison's public criticism of the AFL's racism and his comments in favor the IWW's egalitarianism.

DUBOIS LEFT the party around the same time as Hubert Harrison, and for similar reasons. He argued that Blacks would never be attracted to the party "so long as the international socialist movement puts up the bars against any race whether it be yellow or black."

DuBois noted that the racism of the labor movement had convinced the Black worker that "his greatest enemy is not the employer who robs him, but his white fellow workman." Instead of proving to the Black worker that the SP was ready to champion the fight against racial oppression, the SP instead yielded to "race hatred" in the hope of winning white support in the South.

Harrison's attraction to the IWW wasn't isolated--many of the SP's left wingers, such as Big Bill Haywood, were founding members of the IWW and would later provide many of the forces that would form the Communist Party.

The party leadership put Harrison on trial and suspended him after he refused a party directive not to participate in a debate in which he would advocate "industrial action" over "political action." But before he could serve the suspension, he had already left the party.

Although its membership never reached beyond the tens of thousands, the IWW was notable because, unlike the SP and the AFL, it put its ideas into practice, taking to heart the Knights of Labor adage, "An injury to one is an injury to all." This was particularly notable in the South, where the IWW refused to organize workers into separate locals, denounced lynching and attacked Jim Crow segregation.

The IWW's weakness was that it maintained that working class needed only economic, or industrial organization, to liberate itself, and shunned "political" organization; it therefore paid little practical attention to the question of political disfranchisement of Blacks or to combating forms of segregation, discrimination and racist violence outside the workplace.

Though Harrison left the socialist movement, a number of Black Harlem radicals remained in the Socialist Party--A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen (who published the influential Black Messenger), Richard B. Moore, Otto Huiswood, Cyril Briggs, William Bridges, W.A. Domingo and Lovett-Fort-Whitman. Some of them, like Cyril Briggs and Fort-Whitman, would later join the Communist Party in the 1920s.

Our history breaks off here, but a few salient points should be made about later developments. The Socialist Party reached its high point in 1912, when it expelled the left wing that was attracted to the IWW and critical of the party's electoral cretinism. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 created an even greater rifts in the party, and eventually produced a split, out of which the left of the party formed not one, but two communist parties, which only merged on the insistence of the Communist International.

Created in 1919, the Communist International brought together revolutionary parties that had broken away from the moderate reformism (and pro-imperialist stance) of the socialist parties of the Second International like the German Social Democratic Party and the U.S. Socialist Party.

Initially the CP suffered from the same theoretical limitations. The founding CP convention in 1919 referred to the Black question as "a political and economic problem. The racial oppression of the Negro is simply the expression of his economic bondage."

Lenin and the Comintern leaders pushed the U.S. Communists to take a more revolutionary approach to the Black question. Under their influence, as well as the impact of the great migration of Blacks northward beginning during the First World War to take up jobs in northern factories, the Communist Party broke with the Socialist Party's policy in the U.S. that saw racism simply as an extension of class oppression. The impact of the Comintern can be seen in the program of the Workers (Communist) Party in 1921, which recognized the special character of Black oppression:

The Negro workers in American are exploited and oppressed more ruthlessly than any other group. The history of the Southern Negro is the history of a reign of terror--of persecution, rape and murder...Because of the anti-Negro policies of organized labor, the Negro has despaired of aid from this source, and he has either been driven into the camp of labor's enemies, or has been compelled to develop purely racial organizations which seek purely racial aims.

The Workers Party will support the Negroes in their struggle for liberation, and will help them in their fight for economic, political and social equality...Its task will be to destroy altogether the barrier of race prejudice that has been used to keep apart the Black and white workers, and bind them into a solid union of revolutionary forces for the overthrow of our common enemy.

The Communist Party was the first U.S. socialist organization to officially champion the fight against the legal, political economic and social oppression of African Americans. It would take, however, several years of debate, and ultimately a campaign to root racism out of the party, to put these ideas solidly into practice.

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