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Organizing in the Depression South, A Communist’s Memoir

James S. Allen

The "Negro Question" continued

Obviously, the primary lesson was still to be learned: the Party was also victim to the racism prevailing in the country, the heritage of a long historical development, renewed constantly by the continuing persistence of the old Southern structure. It was bolstered by the expansionism and imperialism of the United States. U.S. wars of conquest, in addition to the African slave trade, were waged against other races. We fought the Indians of our own land, as well as the Indians and their descendants in Mexico and in large parts of Central America and the Caribbean, where there were also many of African descent. We subjugated Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Filipinos, and later fought wars of conquest against Koreans and Vietnamese. For a long time, we excluded Asians from our country and during World War II, we placed Japanese-Americans in concentrations camps under onerous conditions. Thus, great-power imperialist chauvinism, with its arrogance and pretenses of superiority, and the racism born of our own internal history, nurtured each other.

It cannot be said that the Party succumbed to this general ambiance, for it understood early on and fought against the aggressive, interventionist actions of its own government from opposition to the first World War as imperialist through every armed intervention or threat to the peoples of Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.

The Party was not immune to prevailing racial attitudes, but the racism that penetrated the Party was transmitted primarily through the working class, from whose struggles it was formed and which is its fundamental base. This is a significant consideration, not because racism among workers is any less properly, it is necessary to dispense with the mistaken and distorted view that the Communist International was an alien, evil force responsible for all the mistakes and failures of the Communist Party of the United States.6 Like other political associations, the International did make some serious mistakes, as did the American Party. But among its many benefits was the unique aid it rendered the American Party on the problem that had been plaguing it from the start. The position elaborated through the International on the situation of Black Americans proved not only a great boon to the Party, but was an invaluable contribution in the struggle to overcome racism in the United States as a whole. This may appear at first to be an overdrawn conclusion, but this conclusion stands the test of time. obnoxious than among others, but because it is more susceptible to change. The racism that filtered through the working-class medium to affect the Party and labor militant is deeply classtinged. To be sure, this did not prevent the exclusion of Blacks from trade unions or other discriminatory practices. But it is also true that prejudices against national minorities of whatever race and they were probably the majority in the industrial proletariat are prone to be set aside when they interfere with practical class objectives, such as winning a great strike, as had been demonstrated in many such instances in our labor history. When this happened, it did not mean that national chauvinism and racism in various guises had been eliminated, but it did signify progress in that direction.

More time and much experience would be required to recognize that the particular needs of Black workers, which arise from their late entry into the working class and their underprivileged position in it and in society, must be incorporated in the demands of labor, and that Black workers need to be accorded an equal place in labor organizations. Without such steps, their solidarity on an enduring basis cannot be gained. It would take still more effort, and hard critical thinking, to appreciate the broad strategic advantage of gaining the confidence not only of Black workers but of other Black Americans in order to make real progress toward a new and just social order.

Unfortunately, the past record of militants and the Left, including the Communists, in fighting racism in the labor movement could hardly be considered successful.

It is true that many efforts were made to overcome this obstacle, going back to the years immediately following the Civil War. The leaders of the National Labor Union, formed in 1866 as the first effort at nationwide organization in the modern period, did see the need to organize the Black craft workers and laborers. In the South there were many more Black mechanics and laborers than white in industry, and the Blacks had their own unions among craftsmen and in the tobacco, shipcaulking, construction, and lumber industries, as well as on the docks. Attempts were made both by the National Labor Union and by the Colored National Labor Union, formed in 1869, to bring about unity. These efforts foundered on the rocks of racism, as expressed in the refusal of Northern white unions (there were few in the South) to admit Blacks as members, and on the political differences arising from opposing outlooks concerning Reconstruction.

The American Marxists of the time, members of the First International, were instrumental in organizing unions among Black workers in the North but failed to recognize the revolutionary implication of Reconstruction. They seemed to ignore entirely the main body of Black toilers in the South in transition from slavery to a half-free form of land tenancy. At times, the Knights of Labor, precursor of the American Federation of Labor, did pay attention to the needs of Black workers, and the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) in the years before World War I, did include Negro labor in some of its great, but sporadic, organizing drives. The left wing of labor, led first by Socialists and then by Communists, fought the conservative leadership of the American Federation of Labor. They opposed its narrow concept of craft unionism and favored industrial unions and the organization of the vast body of the unorganized. This of necessity included, perhaps overwhelmingly, all ethnic and racial groups. But successes were few and did not result in any significant changes in the movement at a whole. The concerted effort to recruit Black workers did not come until the rise of the new industrial unions of the CIO in the 1930s. By then, the Black workers, more experienced and class conscious, more assertive of their rights, joined on their own in the organization drives. By then, also, Communists and other left militants had learned the essential lesson and become prime movers in the vast undertaking.

Before this could happen, a virtual internal revolution had to take place in the Party. At the height of the inner-Party warfare late in the 1920s, Jay Lovestone, then its leader, declared that the Black peasantry of the South, which fed the stream of Black labor into the North, was “the reserve of reaction.” [v] This assertion was a revelation of his outlook and that of many of his supporters. The position revealed ignorance or total disregard of American history, and the nature of the present reality of the South and of the oppression of Blacks. It also departed from the Leninist concept of the alliance of the working class with the peasantry and with oppressed peoples fighting for freedom. That judgment was indignantly repudiated by the Black comrades and by the opposing faction led by William Z. Foster as an unforgivable concession to reaction and racism.

Nevertheless, by 1928 the Party was making progress in overcoming its difficulties in this respect. Its national nominating convention in May had twenty-four Black delegates. The section of the election platform dealing with Black Americans was comprehensive and may be considered among the most satisfactory statements on the subject until then. It spoke vaguely of the “racial class system,” but also declared, “The Communist Party is the party of the liberation of the Negro race from all white oppression.” It recognized the unique and semifeudal nature of the Southern agrarian system. A number of Negro candidates were run for local and legislative offices.

Outstanding in the campaign was the tour of the South by William Z. Foster, the presidential candidate of the Party. He had meetings in Louisville, Birmingham, New Orleans, Atlanta, Norfolk, and Richmond. Foster and campaign workers were arrested in Wilmington, Delaware, because publicity for the meeting included the demand for Black equality, a demand that the authorities considered a breach of the peace. These were the first Communist meetings to be held in most of those cities. In an article in the November 1928 Communist, Foster urged the elaboration of a Party program for the South and the founding of Party organizations in that region. Significant also were the inclusion of some Black comrades in the top national and regional committees and the appointment in Buffalo of the first Black district organizer.

Obviously, the Party was by now more keenly aware of the need for a fundamental change in its position on the “Negro question.” But by itself it seemed unable to accomplish the decisive turn. It needed help from the outside, from associates unaffected by the American race epidemic and with the experience of dealing with movements of a nationalist type. This help came from the Communist International. To understand this properly, it is necessary to dispense with the mistaken and distorted view that the Communist International was an alien, evil force responsible for all the mistakes and failures of the Communist Party of the United States. [vi] Like other political associations, the International did make some serious mistakes, as did the American Party. But among its many benefits was the unique aid it rendered the American Party on the problem that had been plaguing it from the start. The position elaborated through the International on the situation of Black Americans proved not only a great boon to the Party, but was an invaluable contribution in the struggle to overcome racism in the United States as a whole. This may appear at first to be an overdrawn conclusion, but this conclusion stands the test of time.

The position was expounded in two resolutions of the International. One was a consequence of discussion before and during the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in 1928, and the other was a more elaborate statement by its executive body in 1930. These documents were preceded by years of discussion and debate, begun by Lenin as early as 1913 [vii] and with the participation of American Communist leaders to some extent since 1920, and more intensively during the months of preparation for the Sixth World Congress. Leading American Communists were in the preparatory committees charged with presenting the question in the form of a draft resolution to the Congress as a whole.

This is not the place to record a full history of the question. Suffice it to recall that Lenin included, in a draft resolution on the national and colonial question he presented to the Second World Congress of the Communist International in 1920, the American Negro people among the oppressed nations of the world, and continued to press this view in subsequent articles. In an early study he had defined the semislave condition of Black Americans and compared it with the semifeudal situation of Russian peasants after the abolition of serfdom. [viii] He had also shown the distinctive characteristics of Southern society based on this historical development, as distinguished from the rest of American society. Now, by 1920, he had concluded, historical development had resulted in the formation of an oppressed Negro nation within the confines of American society. Negro freedom struggles should be supported by the world Communist movements, he urged, along with the liberation movements of other oppressed peoples.

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1. The supreme council of the ancient Hebrew nation was known as the Sanhedrin. That the All-Race Assembly was so designated emphasized the parallel, often drawn at that time, between the oppression of the Negro people and the situation of the Jewish people.

2. In a speech at the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in 1928, James W. Ford reported no more than fifty Black members in the CPUSA (International Press Correspondence, August 3, 1928, pp. 772–73). At that time the Party may have had no more than 12,000 members. On the assessment of the American Negro Labor Congress as a replica of the Communist Party, see Otto Huiswood, head of the Negro Department, “Report to the Sixth Communist Party Convention,” Daily Worker, March 9 and 11, 1929; James Ford and William Wilson (William L. Patterson), “On the Question of the Work of the American Communist Party among Negroes,” (Discussion Article), Die Kommunistische Internationale, August 29, 1928, pp. 2132–46.

3. The critical support offered by the Party is perhaps best exemplified in its open letter to the Fourth International Convention of the UNIA in August, 1924. One of its central points was to propose a united fight against imperial- ism in Africa, without mentioning the Garvey slogan of “Back to Africa” (Daily Worker, August 5, 1924.) Among the leaders of the Party, Robert Minor and William F. Dunne were outstanding in sensing the nationalist quality of the Black freedom fight. See, for example, Minor, “The Black Ten Million,” Liber- ator, February-March, 1924, and “The First Negro Workers Congress,” Workers Monthly, December 1925; Dunne, “Negroes in American Industry,”

4. The Congresses of the Communist International and also of the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU) served as tribunals for Black American Communists who attended them as delegates of the U. S. Party. The Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922 was first attended by American Blacks. Otto E. Huiswood, a national organizer of the African Blood Broth- erhood, came as part of the official U. S. Party delegation, and Claude McKay, the Black poet and recent coeditor of the Liberator, was an invited fraternal delegate. In his speech there, McKay warned that “racism is the greatest difficulty that the Communists of America have still to overcome the fact that they first have to emancipate themselves from the ideas they entertain towards the Negroes before they can be able to reach the Negroes with any kind of radical program” (International Press Correspondence, January 5, 1923, pp. 16–17). That Congress was the first to devote a special session to the Negro and to establish a commission to deal with the Negro question in the United States and other countries. Among many published criticisms of racism in the American Party that may be cited is an article by Lovett Fort-Whiteman, then a student in Moscow and later the national organizer of the American Labor Congress, in the official organ of the Communist International. Writing under the name of James Jackson, he stated that Communist influence among Negroes is weak because “the Communists have not recognized and accepted as a starting base the peculiar social disabilities imposed upon the race” (Communist International, November, 1924, pp. 50–54). Particularly noteworthy in this respect is the speech of James W. Ford at the Sixth Comintern Congress, already referred to, as well as the speech of Otto Hall (Jones) at the same congress (ibid., August 8, 1928, pp. 811–12). Also on racism in the CP, see Cyril Briggs, “Our Negro Work,” Communist, September, 1929. Ford was named a member of the executive committee of the RILU.

5. The phrase appears in his report to the Fifth Party Convention in August, 1927 (Daily Worker, September 22, 1927).

6. One may cite, for example, Wilson Record, The Negro and the Communist Party, Chapel Hill, 1951, long considered in many quarters a standard text on the subject. Though it is well researched and annotated, the text is seriously marred by a simplistic, negative approach to the Communist International and the relation of the CPUSA to it. “Orders from Moscow” were not automatically followed, as the author would have it. The fierce factional fight in the Party, for instance, continued for years, despite pressure from Moscow to stop the “unprincipled” struggle. In his speech, previously cited, at the Sixth World Congress, James W. Ford had this to say: “By investigating the archives of the Comintern, we have discovered that during the last few years no less than 19 resolutions and documents upon the Negro question have been sent by the

7. “Russians and Negroes,” February, 1913 (Lenin on the United States: Selected Writings by V.I. Lenin, New York, 1970, pp. 58–59).

8. Lenin, Capitalism and Agriculture in the United States of America, ibid., pp. 123–131).

9. See The Second Congress of the Communist International, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1920, pp. 151–54.

10. See Irving Keith, “Organizing Virginia,” Daily Worker, May 6, 1929.

11. See Cyril Briggs, “The Negro Question in the Southern Textile Strikes,” Communist, June, 1929, pp. 324–28, and “Further Notes on the Negro Question in Southern Textile Strikes,” Communist, July, 1929, pp. 391–94.

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