Self-determination and the "Black Belt"

Lee Sustar explains a flawed theory at the heart of the CP's anti-racist organizing.

The History of Black America

THE U.S. Communist Party long claimed a "special" relationship with Black America. Its literature portrayed the party as a leader in the civil rights movement and in Black workers' struggles in the past.

Like most other Communist Party (CP) successes, the height of the party's influence in the Black working class came in the 1930s. The Depression saw the party recruit Blacks on scale unprecedented among the "white left," in part because the CP represented one of the only open anti-racist organizations in the U.S. at the time.

The CP's approach to Black liberation was summed by the slogan "Self-determination for the Black Belt." The idea was that African Americans concentrated in the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas constituted an oppressed nation with tangible borders within the U.S., which should be given the right to self-determination, up to and including the right secede from America.

This slogan, however, was based not on the actual demands of American Blacks, but on the works of a Swedish professor who aimed to theoretically justify the political turns of the bureaucracy which was coming to control Russia a decade after the 1917 revolution created the first experiment in workers' power.

The Black Belt theory was part of a sharp "left" turn by the Communist International (Comintern) used by Joseph Stalin to mask his bureaucracy's attack on the workers' state. At a speech in December 1927, Stalin declared that the period of capitalist stability that characterized the early 1920s had been superseded by a "Third Period" of revolutionary crisis.

The CPs of the world were instructed to abandon the organized labor movement and create dual "revolutionary" unions. Social democrats were to be exposed as "social fascists"--in other words, worse enemies than followers of Hitler and Mussolini because they fostered workers' illusions in the possibility of reform.

One of Socialist Worker's earliest features was a monthly series on the history of the African American struggle in the U.S., from slavery to the present day.
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This "Third Period" had little basis in reality--and even less value as a guide for a tactical or strategic approach to organizing. Above all, it was an effort to isolate critics of the bureaucratic counter-revolution, especially the exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky and the international Left Opposition.

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IN THE U.S., the new perspective launched the CP into a series of senseless sectarian attacks on reformist Black and working-class leaders, alienating the party from the mass of workers. The perspective also served as a test of loyalty to Stalin. Those who didn't toe the line were purged.

The slogan "Self-determination for the Black Belt" served much the same purpose. Though never consistently put forward in practice, any CP member who questioned it was denounced as a racist or worse.

The self-determination slogan was the American version of the Comintern's new theory that national liberation struggles had to go through two distinct "stages"--first, a bourgeois nationalist stage, and only after that the struggle for socialism. The problem with this approach is that it means subordinating the needs of workers to those of the middle class in the oppressed nation--which, upon victory, turned its backs on its former allies. By 1928, Stalin insisted that his stagist theory of national liberation was the orthodox Leninist position.

In 1917, Lenin had indeed argued that American Blacks "should be classified as an oppressed nation." At the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, Lenin included Blacks in the U.S. in a list of "revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations." Lenin argued that "the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content we unconditionally support."

Thus, it might seem reasonable to suppose, that had he lived, Lenin could have supported the slogan "Self-determination for the Black Belt." But Lenin's unconditional support for the right of self-determination of existing national movements of the oppressed was a means to fight chauvinism and racism in the working class. For Lenin, self-determination was not a necessary step on the road to socialism, but a decision of the oppressed groups themselves.

Further, Lenin's Theses on the National Question insisted that communists must avoid giving nationalist movements a "communist color" and must "uphold the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is in the most embryonic form." In the early 1930s, it was the Communist Party--not Black workers and farmers--who called for self-determination of the Black Belt.

In the 1920s, followers of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey demanded not self-determination in the South, but rather an exodus to Africa--for which the CP attacked them. In the early 1930s, the CP denounced the Ethiopian Peace Movement, a back-to-Africa group, and the National Movement for the Establishment of a Forty-Ninth State, which advocated Black migration to sparsely settled areas in the U.S. The CP favored Black self-determination only if it meant acceptance of the Black Belt theory.

The Black Belt theory also flew in the face of population trends. Although in the early 1930s, the majority of Blacks still lived in the rural South, the Depression saw the continuation of the Great Migration to the northern cities that began during the First World War. By 1940, fully half the Black population was urban. The Black Belt was less and less Black.

Despite all of this, the CP's Black leadership supported the theory. During the 1920s, many came to rely on the Russian party for support as the U.S. party was paralyzed by factionalism, and, all too often, inaction on the question of racism.

Black members such as Harry Haywood, Otto Hall and James Ford traveled to Russia and studied at the "University of the Toilers of the East," which became the training ground for Stalinist cadres. For these leaders, the Comintern's theory of self-determination for the Black Bell must have appeared as a revolutionary commitment to fighting the enormous racism in the U.S.

Most working-class militants attracted to the CP were, in fact, dedicated anti-racists. CP members who went to the South to organize Blacks into unions faced certain arrest, probable beatings and the constant threat of lynching. Members in Northern cities frequently clashed with police in anti-eviction struggles and union drives.

But these efforts were limited by ultra-left antics that alienated potential recruits. By the time the CP abandoned the "Third Period" in 1934, the party had only an estimated 2,500 Black members out of a reported total of 24,536.

The CP's membership grew during the "Popular Front" period of the later 1930s--only to decline again. Many Blacks left when they saw the CP drop its commitment to Black liberation in the U.S. when it became politically inconvenient for Stalin's state capitalist regime in Russia.

First published in the November 1985 of Socialist Worker.