A response on race and racism

November 30, 2010

IN AN effort to deepen our collective understanding, I would like to offer some thoughts on the statement in "Race and the U.S. socialist tradition" by Paul D'Amato that "[W.E.B.] Du Bois left the party around the same time as Hubert Harrison, and for similar reasons."

W.E.B. Du Bois left the Socialist Party in 1912. Woodrow Wilson had promised "fair justice" to African Americans in a letter to Bishop Alexander Walters, and that led Du Bois to support Wilson and to resign from the Socialist Party after his "attitude in the political campaign...[was] called in question."

Wilson was elected President of the United States, segregation was soon imposed in federal workplaces, the film Birth of a Nation was brought into the White House, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were occupied, and Wilson led the U.S. into the First World War. Du Bois supported Wilson's war effort, put in an application for a captaincy in military intelligence and, in his July 1918 Crisis editorial, urged African Americans to "forget our special grievances and close ranks" behind Wilson's war effort.

In contrast, Harrison and William Monroe Trotter organized the 1918 Liberty Congress, the major Black protest effort during the First World War. It should be noted that, in the international socialist movement, a major dividing line was one's position on the war.

Hubert Harrison left the Socialist Party in 1914. As I write in my biography, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918:

Socialist Party theory and practice--including segregated locals in the South, the party's refusal to route the campaign of the 1912 presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs (who insisted that his audiences be integrated), in Southern states, white-supremacist positions on Asian immigration at the 1912 national convention, and the failure to politically and economically support the [Colored Socialist Club]--led Harrison to conclude that Socialist Party leaders, like organized labor, put the white "race first and class after."

When Harrison left the Socialist Party he offered a profound, but little heeded criticism--he stated simply, that the Socialist Party [like the labor movement] has "insisted on [white] race first and class after"; that it put "[the white] race first, before class."

In the Harrison biography, I also discuss the overall relation between white supremacy and class consciousness in the United States and how the work of Theodore W. Allen, author of the two-volume The Invention of the White Race, gives "deeper meaning" to Harrison's theoretical work.

In particular, I discuss how Allen describes "the development of the 'white race' as a ruling-class social control formation," and I note that Allen maintained that "the key to the defeat of labor and popular forces" in the United States has historically been the theory and the practice of white supremacy.

Regarding this "white race," Allen is insightful. In my introduction to the reprinted edition of Allen's 1975 pamphlet Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race, I explain that Allen posited: (1) The "white race" was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor unrest as manifested in the latter (civil war) stages of Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77); (2) A system of racial privileges was deliberately instituted in order to define and establish the "white race"; (3) The consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African American workers, but was also "disastrous"...for the "white" worker.

In other articles, Allen argues that the "white race," "this all-class association of European Americans held together by 'racial' privileges, conferred on laboring class European Americans relative to African Americans--[has served] as the principal historic guarantor of ruling-class domination of national life" in the United States"; that "the main barrier to class consciousness" in the U.S. is "the incubus of 'white' identity of the European-American"; and that "'white race' solidarity" has been "the country's most general form of class collaborationism."

As we seek to move our struggle forward, I would like to encourage people to become familiar with the work of both Hubert Harrison and Theodore Allen.
Jeffrey B. Perry, Westwood, N.J.

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