Socialism and the Right of Oppressed Nations to Self-Determination
LeiLani Dowell of FIST, Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor of the Pan-African News Wire and Monica Moorehead, Managing Editor of Workers World Newspaper, at a study forum on African history in New York City on July 11, 2008. (Photo: John Catalinotto).
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
LeiLani Dowell of FIST, Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor of the Pan-African News Wire and Monica Moorehead, Managing Editor of Workers World Newspaper, at a study forum on African history in New York City on July 11, 2008. (Photo: John Catalinotto).
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Reflections on African-American history and the national question in the U.S.
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Note: The following address was delivered at an African-American History Month public forum held in Detroit on February 20, 2010. The event was sponsored by Workers World newspaper and the Harriet Tubman School. Other speakers at the forum were Sandra Hines of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shut-offs, who did a presentation on Langston Hughes. Andrea Egypt of the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice (MECAWI) spoke on the contributions of Claudia Jones to the struggle for Black liberation in the U.S. and the UK. Kevin Carey of the Detroit People’s Task Force spoke on the impact of the Cold War and McCarthyism on the Black Left after World War II. The forum was chaired by Debbie Johnson, a member of the Detroit branch of Workers World Party.
Since the development of socialist movements in the Europe and the United States, the question of the right of self-determination and independence of oppressed peoples has been a major point of rigorous discussion, debate and political struggle. Even with the emergence of over 100 former colonial states during the 20th century, the issue of how progressives, revolutionaries and socialists should approach developments in these states and the relationship of these countries and regions to the dominant imperialist powers largely determines the tactical approaches to such fundamental questions as war and peace, racism, national oppression, women’s rights and the character of the class structures within the oppressed nations.
Every serious Marxist theoretician and socialist organization has been forced to address the question of how to analyze the role of the oppressed nations in the overall struggle against capitalism and imperialism. The degree to which progressive and revolutionary organizations and movements develop correct positions on the national questions related to their particular political situations, largely determine the success and viability of the actions taken and the victories achieved.
Slavery, colonialism and capitalism brought destruction and death to billions of people throughout the world. Beginning in the 15th century, the western European nations of Spain and Portugal embarked upon the Atlantic Slave Trade which captured and exploited Africans, exterminated indigenous peoples in the colonies of the so-called new world and established colonies all over the world. As a result of these developments, the nations of Western Europe and eventually the United States, became the dominant economic and political powers in the world.
Every major industry that came out of Europe and North America has its origin within the Atlantic Slave Trade. The profits accrued from the exploitation of African labor and the displacement of the indigenous people from their lands created the capital that developed and fueled the engines of industry, commerce, shipping and banking.
This vast accumulation of wealth was rationalized by the ruling classes of these western European states and North America when they claimed that the indigenous peoples of North, South, Central America, Africa and the Caribbean needed to be “civilized” and converted to a distorted form of Christianity that upheld the false notions of the superiority of the whites over other peoples of color.
Other apologists for slavery and colonialism said that the mineral wealth and agricultural potential of the world would have never been developed if the European ruling classes had not established these exploitative systems. These ruling class thinkers and philosophers went as far as to interpret religious doctrine to suit their own interests.
Africans and indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere were taught that they were cursed and the oppressed were doomed to be servants of the ruling class. In addition, these peoples were told that if they accepted this worldview there would be a reward in the afterlife where paradise would be achieved. However, the only way the oppressed could realize paradise is that they must remain obedient and accept their social status as the natural order of society.
Origins of African Resistance to Slavery
Despite the efforts of the European ruling elites to impose a permanent system of exploitation on Africans and other oppressed peoples, these nations, societies and cultures constantly resisted and revolted against slavery, colonialism and genocide. In the Caribbean it has been reported that the indigenous people fought the imposition of slavery and colonial occupation. Many even jumped to their deaths in waterways in order to avoid the continued humiliation and oppression by the slave masters and colonialists.
In Africa, despite the fact that the western Europeans came to the continent to enslave and colonize the people, there are numerous examples of battles waged aimed halting the encroachment of the slave traders. These instances of resistance that have been documented point to the fact African people were able to maintain their humanity and inherent desire for freedom and independence even under the threat of attack and domination.
For example, as early as 1564 in the area now known as Sierra Leone, a group of British traders led by John Hawkins were attacked by an army of Africans who wounded several of these men and drove them from the inlands back to their ships on the coast. By the time that these slave traders had reached the shores, some 200 Africans were awaiting them.
The ensuing battle resulted in the deaths of seven of Hawkins’ most prized subordinates, including the captain of the ship known as the Salmon. The king in this area then began to mobilize a larger contingent of his military forces, which propelled Hawkins and his survivors to retreat to their ships and sail back to the Caribbean. (Vincent B. Thompson, The Making of the African Diaspora in the Americas, 1441-1900, published in 1987)
In another slave trading voyage, Hawkins was attempting to capture Africans along the Senegal River, when his group was attacked by the local people with bows and poisonous arrows. The Europeans then moved further east to avoid attack, eventually heading for the Spanish Main.
After this disastrous episode, James Pope Hennessy pointed out that it was well into the next century before the British embarked upon slave expeditions again. Preferring less hazardous means of acquiring slave labor, the British began during the 17th century to attempt negotiation and trade as the principal method of obtaining Africans for exploitation in the newly established colonies in the western hemisphere. Such episodes during the 16th century were repeated during the entire history of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Africa.
According to an article published in the South Carolina Gazette on July 7, 1759, “A Sloop commanded by a brother of Captain Igledieu, slaving up the River Gambia, was attacked by a number of the natives, about the 27th of February last, and made a good defense; but the Captain finding himself desperately wounded, and likely to be overcome, rather than fall into the hands of merciless wretches, when about 80 Negroes had boarded vessel, discharged a pistol into his magazine and blew her up; himself and every soul on board perished.” (Elizabeth Donnan, Taken from Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, Volume 4, published in 1935)
By providing these historical instances of resistance to slavery on the continent of Africa, it provides a basis for further research in order to more fully document the origins of pan-African revolt and consciousness. Since these actions by Africans in opposition to the Atlantic Slave system occurred in various regions of the Continent, it illustrates that there was a pattern of response to the advent of European imperialism.
Even during the height of the slave period in the western hemisphere, the relationships between Africans and their homeland would continue to occupy a prominent role in the political discourse on the question of legalized bondage and the status of manumitted ex-slaves.
When the Africans were transported and enslaved in the United States, the rebellions against the exploitative system continued. Yet the apologists for slavery utilized the fields of history and the social sciences to negate the humanity of the African people. This unscientific approach to the study of African people and American society served as a rationalization for oppression and exploitation.
These racist notions of the innate African inferiority permeates the writings of such historians as Ulrich B. Phillips who were prominent in academia during the early part of the 20th century. Phillips’ views related to the slave-master relationships contend that they are the natural order of things between Africans and Europeans.
In his book entitled “American Negro Slavery”: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor As Determined by the Plantation Regime,” there is a chapter on law and state force where he claims that “In many lawyer’s briefs and court decisions it has been said that slavery could exist only by force of positive legislation. This is not historically valid, for in virtually every American community where it existed at all, the institution was first established by custom alone and was merely recognized by statues when these came to be enacted. Indeed the chief purpose of the laws were to give sanction and assurance to the racial and industrial adjustments already operative.”
In reading the above quotation an interpretation could be made that laws created to confine, suppress and ensure the continued oppression and exploitation of African slaves served as a rationalization for the political and economic status quo. These laws designed to restrict the movement and expressions of African slaves have their origins during the earliest periods of the Atlantic trade in human cargo in the American colonies.
As far back as 1693 in Pennsylvania, the Colonial Governor and Council passed an ordinance designed to limit the street gatherings of Africans who do not have permission from a slave owner or a white person to travel in the city of Philadelphia. This law required that any African male or female caught in the street without proper papers should be taken to jail for one night, without being given food or drink.
In addition, the ordinance mandated the public whipping of the Africans found guilty of the said offense with 39 lashes against their bare backs, and the payment of 15 dollars to the person who administered the beating by the owner of the African slave.
During the antebellum period of the late 18th and 19th centuries, the laws restricting the movements and expressions of African slaves increased in number and severity. In the southern border state of Tennessee, laws were passed in 1803 which prohibited anyone to voice sentiments that could be interpreted as disrespectful to a slave owner, particularly in the presence of slaves.
Also these same laws disallowed any language that advocated insurrection against the slave system. Any discussions or speeches related to the notions of emancipation, rebellion, or conspiracy fell under the rubric of this Act. An 1836 law in the same state mandated that any person distributing literature that encouraged disruption or insolence among Africans, slave or free, was committing an act of felony, punishable by ten to twenty years in prison.
Although Phillips' “American Negro Slavery” does mention the passage of severe laws directed towards the maintenance of the slave system, he provides his own rationale for these legal measures that parallels those ideas of the southern slave owners of the period. According to Phillips “Burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel and other ferocious methods of execution which were occasionally inflicted by the colonial courts were almost universally discontinued soon after the beginning of the 19th century.”
Phillips continues by saying that “The general trend of moderation discernible at that time, however, was hampered then and thereafter by the series of untoward events beginning with the San Domingo upheaval and ending with John Brown’s raid. In particular the rise of Garrisonian agitation and the quickly ensuing Nat Turner’s revolt occasioned together a wave of reactionary legislation the whole South over, prohibiting the literary instruction of negroes, stiffening the patrol system, restricting manumissions, and diminishing the already limited liberties of free negroes. The temper of administration however, was not appreciably affected for this clearly appears to have grown milder as the decades passed.”
Consequently, it was the fear of rebellion during the 19th century that led to the increased violence directed against African people. By articulating this rationale, Phillips perhaps unconsciously provides a glimpse of the widespread discontent among Africans during the 19th century and the heightened degree of legal and extra-legal repression geared toward the suppression of the slaves and their free counterparts.
In relationship to lynching Phillips contends that these acts of cruelty, that were largely supported by the criminal justice systems and Euro-American popular culture of the era, were a spontaneous response to heinous criminal actions carried by Africans. He says that “Lynchings, indeed, while far from habitual, were frequent enough to link the South with the frontier West of the time. The victims were not only rapist but negro malefactors of sundry sorts, and occasionally white offenders as well.
Phillips goes on to state that “In some cases fairly full accounts of such episodes are available, but more commonly the record extant is laconic. Thus the Virginia archives have under date of 1791 an affidavit reciting that ‘Ralph Singo and James Richards had in January last, in Accomac County, been hung by a bank of disguised men, numbering from six to fifteen;’ and a Georgia newspaper in 1860 stated the following: ‘It is reported that Mr. William Smith was killed by a negro on Saturday evening at Bowling Green, in Oglethorpe County. He was stabbed sixteen times. The negro made his escape but was arrested Sunday, and on Monday morning a number of citizens who had investigated the case burnt him at the stake.’”
Despite these efforts to justify the denial of due process to Africans accused of committing criminal acts by questionable whites within the community, Phillips gives the reader an idea of the irrational fear and hatred fostered by the slave system. As C.L.R. James stated in his “History of Pan-African Revolt “Every slave-owner did not spend every hour of the day beating and torturing his slaves. But few of his neighbors cared if he did, and if he tortured them, it was done so frequently that it occasioned no surprise in those who saw it. In this respect 1860 was not very different from 1660.” (A History of Pan-African Revolt, 1938)
Response to Race Terror: Pan-Africanism and Self-Organization
With the formation of independent African organizations and religious institutions during slavery and after the civil war that legally ended human bondage in the United States, the aspirations related to repatriation versus abolitionism became more interrelated often after a major push towards the emigration goals. Oftentimes the objective conditions would arise requiring near total preoccupation with developments in North America.
One historian, P. Olisanwuche Esedede, points out in this regard that “Despairing of even attaining equal status with other racial groups, the African-American began to think seriously of returning to the fatherland. In 1787, a committee of the African lodge, whose Grand Master was Prince Hall, sent a petition to the Legislative Assembly of Massachusetts.’’
Despite the egalitarian principles enshrined in the national constitution hammered out in Philadelphia that year, men of African blood continued to suffer discrimination, which they feared would remain the case so long as they and their children lived in America. Since they were poor and therefore in no position to return to Africa without help, the petitioners urged the legislature to assist them and other blacks who wished to emigrate. The petition was ignored, and Prince Hall was obliged to fight for civil liberties on American soil itself.” (Esedebe, “Pan-Africanism: The Idea and Movement, 1776-1991”)
Other Pan-African activists during the 19th century such as Martin R. Delaney and Henry McNeal Turner were both proponents of repatriation and greater institutional links with the African continent. Despite this history, Turner and Delaney served in leading capacities during the U.S. Civil War as officers in the Union military.
It is estimated that approximately 186,000 Africans were enlisted in the Union forces during the “war between the states,” resulting in the deaths of a reported 68,000 Black troops. In the aftermath of the war, Africans joined the Union Leagues where they entered the political process. As candidates for public office, many African-Americans were elected to the United States Congress as well as state legislative structures.
With the collapse of reconstruction and the withdrawal of Federal troops from the former confederate states, the African population was forced into a social status analogous to the conditions that prevailed under slavery. By the 1880s and 1890s, the last vestiges of African-American political power were being eviscerated through the activities of white terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and a series of draconian laws passed by the state legislatures that were dominated by the former slaving owning class.
Turner, a leading Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and a former politician during the post-civil war period, said of the atmosphere in existence during the closing years of the 19th century that “There never was a time the Colored People were more concerned about Africa in every aspect, than at present. In some portions of the country it is the topic of conversations; and if a line of steamers were started from New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah or Charleston, they would be crowded to density in every trip made to Africa.
"There is general unrest and whole dissatisfaction among our people in a number of sections of the country to my certain knowledge, and they sigh for conveniences to and from the continent of Africa. Something has to be done, matters cannot go on as present and the remedy is thought by tens of thousands to be a Negro nationality. This much the history of the world establishes, that races either fossilized, oppressed, or degraded must emigrate before any material change takes place in their civil, intellectual or moral status, otherwise extinction is the consequence."
Early Socialist Movements in Europe
There were challenges to the advent of slavery, colonialism and national oppression within European society itself. In the United Kingdom and the United States, some religious leaders, intellectuals and artists took a stand against the horrors of the exploitation and social status of Africans and other indigenous people.
On the European mainland in France and Germany, the antecedents of modern day socialist thought has its theoretical origins. During the 18th century revolutionary ideas arose in France in response to the feudal system. There were socialists involved in the French revolution of 1789. In the aftermath of the events of 1789, there was a gradual transition from radical enlightenment to socialism.
In France one of the revolutionary leaders, Babeuf felt that the aims and principles of the upheaval of 1789 had been betrayed. Therefore, in 1796, he led an attempt to seize power in order to implement their conception of Rousseau's social contract theory. This group was known as the Conspiracy of Equals and were eventually brought to trial in France. The Conspiracy of Equals is considered by many to be the first organization that attempted to seize power who were motivated by socialist ideals.
Later during the 1830s and 1840s there was a strong emergence of socialist thought in France. This was the result of the rise of an industrially based middle-class which accumulated wealth at unprecedented levels. These economic developments in France as well as England, exacerbated class differences and greater impoverishment of the masses.
In England, the rapid industrialization fueled by the profitability of the Atlantic Slave Trade, prompted the English Chartist movement that sought to extend the franchise to working people. During this period Robert Owen, a British socialist, sought the establishment of utopian communities, such as the New Lanark settlement. However, even though these forms of socialism understood the unjust character of the capitalist system, it did not rely on the working class as an engine for revolutionary change by seizing power from the burgeoning bourgeoisie in Europe.
The developments leading up to the 1848 uprisings in France and other European countries saw the emergence of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels as the major theoreticians and tacticians of socialism. Marx in writing after 1844, placed the working class at the center of his analysis of the necessity of not only analyzing the problems created by capitalist industrialization but to develop a strategy and program for the overthrow of the oppressive system.
Even though the attempted revolutions of 1848 failed, there were tremendous lessons learned from this period. Marx and Engels understood that it would take many more years for the class consciousness and experience of the working class to mature to the degree that the seizure of power by the proletariat would be possible. In the message to the Communist League in 1850, Marx puts forward a program of struggle for the organization that would distinguish it politically from the bourgeois democrats of the period.
In 1870-1871, a working class uprising developed and culminated in what is known as the Paris Commune. These events raised the hopes of the workers seeking to break with the rule of the bourgeoisie. Marx's essay “The Civil War in France” analyzes the outcome of the Paris Commune as a great advancement in working class organization, but it could not under the then existing circumstances maintain its influence and effectively shape the future political course of France.
Engels in his essay entitled "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," traces the origins of socialism in Europe to the period of French Enlightenment. However, it would be the expansion and development of the proletariat in Europe that provided the basis for the transformation of socialism from an idealistic world view to a scientific ideology that can provide a program for the workers to seize power in their own name and interest.
Other than bourgeois democracy, other movements grew up in Europe which competed with socialism. The anarchists under Michael Bakunin disagreed with Marx and Engels over the character of the state and its role after the revolution. Anarchism has an industrial form in syndicalism, which took root in several European countries as well. These disagreements in Europe hampered the growth of the First International founded by Karl Marx in 1864 in London.
In traditional Africa there was the development of communal societies where developed classes and class antagonisms did not exist. It was after the expansion of production of livestock and agriculture that the leadership within society accumulated greater wealth than the majority. In Africa there was the rise of fuedal societies as in ancient Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Monomotapa, the Zulu kingdoms, the Kingdom of Congo, etc.
Even within this process of development, the contradictions between incipient social classes appeared to not have been as antagonistic as those in Europe and Asia in particular. In Europe the advent of the Atlantic Slave Trade and colonialism coincided with the aggressive expansionist aims of the monarchy and the demand to enhance the wealth of the mercantilists.
According to Kwame Nkrumah, one of the leading organizers and theoreticians of the African Revolution, " In general, at the opening of the colonial period, the peoples of Africa were passing through the higher stage of communalism characterized by the disintegration of tribal democracy and the emergence of feudal relationships, hereditary tribal chieftaincies and monarchical systems. With the impact of imperialism and colonialism, communalist socio-economic patterns began to collapse as a result of the introduction of export crops such as cocoa and coffee."
Nkrumah continues by pointing out that " The economies of the colonies became interconnected with world capitalist markets. Capitalism, individualism and tendencies to private ownership grew. Gradually, primitive communalism disintegrated and the collective spirit declined. There was an expansion of private farming and the method of small commodity production." (Class Struggle in Africa, 1970, p. 14)
Pan-Africanism and the Early Socialist Movements: 1880s Through 1920s
After the Civil War in the United States, a new form of oppression was enacted with the failure of Reconstruction. In the 1880s there was a tremendous upsurge in labor action in the industrial regions of the country. In Chicago the so-called Haymarket Riot of 1886 thrust into the public one of the first revolutionary agitators in the African-American community in the personage of Lucy Parsons.
Parsons self-identified as being of African and Native American heritage. She was married to Albert Parsons who was executed for his purported role in the Haymarket incident. It was the marking of this event that sparked May Day as an international holiday for working class people worldwide.
Parsons, like other revolutionaries of the time period, started out as an anarchist. She would later adopt socialism as an ideology and join the early communist movement in the United States during the period after World War I.
However, the early socialist in the United States were influenced by the utopians in western Europe. When Daniel DeLeon became the leader of the Socialist Labor Party this organization is considered the first serious effort to build such a movement in the U.S. DeLeon was Dutch and Jewish in origin and promoted a strong ideological orientation in the struggle to build the SLP. DeLeon was an intellectual who taught international law and philosophy at Columbia University.
Nonetheless, the Social Democracy of America, which had been influenced by the utopians, advocated the formation of a separatist state in the western United States, eventually merged with the Social Democratic Party in 1898. This organization was led by Victor L. Berger, perhaps the first successful advocate and practitoner of socialism in the U.S.
The utopian socialist more than likely had their ideological origins in the Christian church where during the late 18th century, groups such as the Shakers broke away from the established church in England and traveled to the U.S. The leader of the Shakers, Mother Ann Lee, advocated the withdrawal of members from the broader society in order to form their own community in preparation for the impending destruction of society and the world.
Eventually the socialist movement became more secular and focused on the concrete needs of working people. However, its political program became more pratical and distanced itself from the anarchists and advocates of revolutionary violence and armed struggle to overthrow capitalism.
For example, the SDP did not advocate rebellion and armed struggle as a means of achieving its goals, but political education. Berger's base was in the city of Milwaukee which became a centerpiece for socialist policies in an urban setting. He would be elected to Congress in 1911 for a two year term. He would later serve in Congress between 1923-1929. Milwaukee also elected a socialist mayor Emil Seidel in 1910. Overall between 1910-12, socialists elected approximately 1,000 of its members to office across the country and had over 100,000 official members.
During the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, there was much ideological and political struggle within the various socialist organizations including the SDP. In 1901 the Socialist Party of America emerged as a coalition of various factions within the movement, with more conservative, moderate and revolutionary tendencies within its ranks. Eugene V. Debs, an organizer within the railroad industry would emerge as a charismatic figure, political candidate and public spokesperson for the socialist movement.
Debs ran numerous times for presidential office and opposed wars of imperialism waged by the United States ruling class of the time. He served prison terms for his outspoken opposition to war and U.S. foreign policy.
African-Americans would join the Socialist Party after its formation. People such as W.E.B. DuBois, Chandler Owens, A. Phillip Randolph, W.A. Domingo were members. As the internal struggle within the social democratic movement developed in Europe around the collapse of the Second International in the lead-up to World War I, a number of African-Americans began to lean towards communism in the period right after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
African-American militants who formed the African Blood Brotherhood in the period after World War I, when there were race riots in various parts of the United States, looked toward the early communists as allies. Many member of the ABB would join the party during the early 1920s.
American Socialism and the African-American National Question
Within the Socialist Party there were two main currents of thought in regard to the role of African-Americans in the working class struggle. One tendency sought to broaden the socialist movement by downplaying the racism and national oppression suffered by the African-American people. At the same time a more left wing position spoke directly to the race terror faced by African-Americans and demanded that the socialist movement condemn racism and commit to the fight for its eradication.
In highlighting these general positions, the words of Eugene V. Debs are instructive in an essay he published in the International Socialist Review in November 1903. Debs reflected on his experience in Yoakum, Texas when he came upon a group of white men at a railroad station who made disparaging and racist comments about African-Americans.
Debs said in his essay entitled "The Negro in the Class Struggle", that "Here was a savory bouquet of white superiority. One glance was sufficient to satisfy me that they represented all there is of justification of the implacable hatred of the Negro race. They were ignorant, lazy, unclean, totally devoid of ambition, themselves the foul product of the capitalist system and held in the lowest contempt by the master class, yet esteeming themselves immeasurably above the cleanest, most intelligent and self-respecting Negro, having by reflex the "nigger" hatred of their masters.."
Debs went on to proclaim that "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. The history of the Negro in the United States is a history of crime without parallel."
He concluded the essay by saying that "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.'
"For myself, my heart goes to the Negro and I make no apology to any white man for it. In fact, when I see the poor, brutalized, outraged black victim, I feel a burning sense of guilt for his intellectual poverty and moral debasement that makes me blush for the unspeakable crimes committed by my own race...." (Debs, ISR, Nov. 1903)
Another essay in the same journal by Clarence Meily, entitled "Socialism and the Negro Problem", seem to take a more moderate position. Meily addresses the white rationale for color prejudice and discrimination. He indicates that these attitudes stem from customs developed during slavery and the competition of African-American labor with white and that white workers are responding with racism to preserve their own economic interests.
Meily states in the article that "Obviously with all this socialism has nothing whatever to do. It cannot compel one man to admit another to his house, seat him at his table, or marry him to his daughter. Nor can it on the other hand curb that pragmatic spirit which leads one man, afflicted with a race prejudice, to impose it by law or social convention on his fellows. Matters of this sort are ethical, and may become political,but they are certainly not economic."
Communism and the African-American National Question (1919-1959)
With the collapse of the Second International on the eve of World War I and the turmoil generated by the factionalism of the socialist movement between 1912 and 1917, the socialist movement in the United States was effected heavily by the role of the American government in the War and the social unrest generated in its aftermath. In 1919 there was a series of race riots throughout the United States, with the violence in Chicago being the most severe.
In these days race riots were characterized by white mobs and law-enforcement agencies invading the African-American communities to rob, loot, rape and murder scores of black people. However, in the race riots of 1919-1921, African-Americans militantly fought back against the white racist elements seeking to inflict terror on their communities. It was during this period that groups such as the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) came into existence.
Also there was the growth of nationalism and pan-Africanism in the African-American communities throughout the U.S. The Garvey movement grew exponentially after World War I, obtaining millions of adherents during the early 1920s. There was also the so-called "Harlem Renaissance" that was fueled by this new militantcy which found a strong base among those African-Americans who had migrated from the South to the North beginning during the War and its aftermath.
At the same time, the socialist movement in the United States underwent a series of splits that lead to the formation of two communist parties in 1919. The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 increased the desire among more militant elements within the socialist movement to intensify their struggle for fundamental change in the United States. The left wing factions began to criticize the social democrats for their electoral work and the apparent acceptance of the legitimacy of the bourgeois state.
In 1919, the left wing of the Socialist Party was expelled after it made a bid to seize power from the more moderate forces. Several of the currents within the socialist and communists tendencies sought recognition from the Russian party during the first meeting of the Third International. The Bolsheviks in turn demanded that the major communist factions unite and form a Workers Party. The Third International would denounce the Socialists and reformist and then encouraged the formation and consolidation of the left wing tendencies.
During this period, there was tremendous persecution against communists in the United States. Many were imprisoned, deported and driven underground. The communist would emerge above ground in 1921 with the formation of the Workers Party that later renamed itself the Communist Party in 1928. However, after 1924, with the death of V.I. Lenin there was a split within the Bolsheviks between the followers of Stalin and Trotsky. Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union and lived in exile until his murder in 1940 in Mexico.
The rise of the Garvey movement and other political and cultural currents within the African-American community drew the attention of the Communists. In 1920, the Second Congress of the Communist International developed its thesis on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Lenin noted that the right of self-determination applied both to the Irish in Ireland and the African-Americans in the United States.
During the 1920s the early African-American cadres in the Communist Party came from the ABB and the socialist party. In 1925, the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC) was launched in an attempt to enhance Communist work inside the African-American community. That same year a group of African-Americans were sent to the Soviet Union to study at KUTVA, the training school for the Communist International.
By 1928, the Sixth Congress of the Communist International would place more emphasis on the African-American national question as well as the liberation struggle in South Africa. The Black Belt thesis of 1928 was officially adopted by the CI and the Communist Party of the United States.
This program recognized that the overwhelming majority of African-Americans resided in the South in the areas where slavery and cotton production had been predominant during and after slavery. According to the Black Belt thesis, Africans living in these areas constituted an oppressed nation with the right of self-determination as recognized by Lenin at the Second Congress of 1920.
Prior to 1928, very few African-Americans had attended the CI congresses. Otto Huiswood, who had been associated with the ABB attended the fourth congress in 1922 along with the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay. Even though the Sixth Congress had developed the Black Belt thesis and urged greater work among the African-American community, the right forces inside the CP advocated the notion of "American exceptionalism," which implied that the economic conditions of the United States were different than what prevailed in European capitalists states. The rightist forces within the CP refused to fully implement the thesis adopted at the Sixth Congress of the Communist International.
By 1929, another major split developed inside the Communist movement. The followers of Jay Lovestone, the majority faction, were expelled along with some members of a minority faction that included James P. Cannon and Max Schatman, who went on to form the Trotskyist movement in the United States.
According to James Forman in his book entitled "Self-Determination and the African-American People," Jay Lovestone and his faction "took the position that the views of the Sixth Congress concerning the acute crisis of capitalism were valid for the rest of the world but not for the United States. Lovestone also opposed the position of the Sixth World Congress that the African-American people were a nation in the Black Belt of the South. He maintained that the process of industrialization of the South would negate any special national characteristics to the life and struggle of the African-American people, resulting only in a class struggle between the workers and owners of the means of production." (Forman, Self-Determination, 1981)
The CI called for the reorganization of the Communist Party in the United States. Later in 1929, the Great Depression erupted throwing millions of people out of work. Banks and major corporations collapsed amid the failure of the Hoover administration to take decisive action to address the crisis.
In 1930 the Communist Party initiated the Unemployed Councils which sought to develop a political program to fight the economic crisis. The Unemployed Councils fought evictions and demanded jobs and relief to the burgeoning masses of poor workers. When Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he road on the mass discontent of millions of workers in the United States.
Other issues would win thousands of African-Americans over to the Communist Party and its mass work during the 1930s. The attempt to hang a group of African-American youth, known as the Scottsboro Boys, who were accused of raping two women on a freight train in Alabama, deepened the CP's work among African-Americans. Prior to the Scottsboro case, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSRN) was initiated by the CP to fight against lynching and race terror which escalated during the depression years.
However, with the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933 and the subsequent threats against the Soviet Union by fascism, the CI placed greater emphasis on the need to defend the USSR against these threats. In the United States the National Negro Congress (NNC) was formed. It was a broad-based popular front against the depression and for the realization of greater reforms.
The general strikes and labor unrest of 1934 in San Franscisco, Minneapolis and areas throughout the South, led to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935. The CIO had communists within its leadership ranks and in principle called for the organization of African-American workers on an equal basis.
Other significant developments during the 1930s included the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the Spanish Civil War beginning in 1937. African-Americans played a significant role in mobilizing support for the Ethiopians against Italian fascism and imperialism. Also African-American communists such as Harry Haywood fought in Spain on the side of the anti-fascist forces.
When the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941, in effective alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitlerite fascism, the implications of these political developments created tensions inside the Communist Party. By 1944, under the leadership of Earl Browder, the party was liquidated and turned into a Communist Political Association (CPA). This resulted in the shifting of the party's position on the right of self-determination of the African-American people.
After the war, the factionalism increased inside the organization at the same time that the Cold War developed resulting in repression against leftist in the United States. A political struggle against revisionism arose inside the CP where the repudiation of the national question during the war, as well as other issues, were subjected to rigorous criticism.
Claudia Jones, who was a leading member of the CPUSA between the 1930s and the 1950s, published an article in Political Affairs in August 1945, criticizing the revisionist character of the party under the leadership Browder culminating in the line that became dominant during World War II. Jones says that "It is extremely necessary to examine thoroughly how our revisionist conclusions, under the name of Marxist-Leninist science, affected our work in all fields, so that we may now draw the correct conclusions with which to arm the working class and all the oppressed in our country for full victory over reaction and fascism."
Jones quotes Browder when he wrote in October 1943 that "the crisis of history has taken a turn of such character that the Negro people in the United States have found it possible to make their historic decision once and for all. Their decision is for their complete integration into the American nation as a whole, and not for separation..."
Browder continued by stating that "The decision of the Negro people, is therefore, already made. It is that the Negro people do see the opportunity, not as a pious aspiration for an indefinite future, but as immediate political task under the present system of approximately the position of equal citizen in America. This is, in itself, an excercise of the right of self-determination by the Negro people. By their attitude, the Negro people have exercised their historical right to self-determination...." (Political Affairs, 1943, 1945)
Jones then raised the questions related to this revisionist line: "On what premise that 'the Negroes had made their historic decision' based fundamentally? Was it based on a fundamental appraisal of the present economic, political and social status of the Negro people in the Black Belt, where (only) the question of self-determination holds?
"Or was it based on a pious hope that the struggle for full economic, social and political equality of the Negro people would be 'legislated' and somehow brought into being through reforms from on top? (Some nine million Negroes live in the Black Belt under Jim Crow oppression. They are the mainstay of the source of cheap labor for monopoly capital in the United States. Their status is upheld and backed up by the Southern feudalists who are the foundation of monopoly capitalist oppression of the Negro people in the nation."
The Cold War and McCarthyism did tremendous damage to the left movement in the United States. Many leftists were driven from their professions, persecuted, imprisoned and driven into exile. Claudia Jones herself was imprisoned and eventually deported from the United States in 1955. By 1959, the Communist Party had once again abandoned its position on the right of self-determination for the African-American people.
Forman points out in his book on Self-Determination that " On December 10, 1959 the Communist Party USA held its 17th National Convention. At this convention it finally repudiated the Black Belt Thesis adopted at the Sixth Congress of the Communist International held in 1928. Reporting the procedures of that convention, the February 1960 issue of Political Affairs carried an article entitled 'On the Negro Question in the United States.' That article contained the following statement that 'Though a specially oppressed part of the American nation, the Negroes in the United States are not constituted as a separate nation. They have the characteristics of a racially distinctive people or nationality. They are component parts of the whole American nation which is itself an historically derived national formation, an amalgam of more or less well differentiated nationalities.'"
The Fourth International and the African-American National Question
With the split inside the Communist International, the followers of Leon Trotsky attempted to establish a Fourth International. The Fourth International was beset with internal splits and factionalism that hampered its development from the onset. C.L.R. James, the most well-known African historian from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad, became a leading theoretician within the Trotskyist movement during the 1930s and 1940s. James wrote numerous articles on the African-American national question between 1939 and 1948.
His views on the African-American question developed from his own experience inside the United States where he lived between 1938 and 1953. Prior to this time period he had lived in England from 1932 to 1938. In England, he was leading activist in the pan-Africanist movement where they rallied support for the Ehtiopian people during the Italian invasion of 1935. James worked with George Padmore in England during this period.
Padmore had been a leading member in the Communist International between the late 1920s and the early 1930s, when he split with the CI over the questions related to fascism and colonialism. Padmore refused to downplay the role of Britain in colonizing Africa even in the face of rising fascism in Germany, Spain and Italy. Britain and France had more colonies in Africa than Germany, Italy and Spain.
James published three important books during 1938: "A History of Negro Revolt," "The Black Jacobins," on the Haitian Revolution, and "World Revolution," a history of the Russian Revolution between 1917 and 1936. After relocating in the United States in 1938, he observed and wrote about what he called the independent character of the African-American struggle. In 1948, he wrote a resolution which was adopted by the Socialist Workers Party conference entitled "A Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States."
In this article James says that the independent character of the African-American movement was not led by the trade union movement or the left and that this political current would exercise greater autonomy in the coming period. His views prefigured the rise of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s through the 1970s.
Even though James made his transitional break with Trotskyism between 1948-1951, he would go on to champion the black power movement in the United States. In a speech delivered in England where he resided in 1967 entitled "Black Power," James praised the new generation of leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), formost of them Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.
James said in 1967 that "Number one, we support the fighters for Negro rights and for Black Power in the United States. That means we do not apologise or seek to explain, particularly to British people(and particular British marxists), or give any justification or apologise for whatever forms the struggle in the United States may take."
James continues by saying that "It is over one hundred years since the abolition of slavery. The Negro people in the United States have taken plenty and they have reached a stage where they have decided that they are not going to take any more. Who are we here to stand, or rather to sit in judgement over what they decide to do or what they decide not to do? I want to take in particular Mr. Rap Brown, who makes the most challenging statements, is prepared to challenge American racial prejudice to the utmost limit of his strength and the strength of the Negroes who will follow. Who are we to say 'Yes, you are entitled to say this but not to say that; you are entitled to do this but not that', If we know the realities of Negro oppression in the USA(and if we don't we should keep our mouths shut until we do), then we should guide ourselves by a West Indian expression which I recommend to you: what he do, he well do. Let me repeat that: what the American Negroes do is, as far as we are concerned, well done. They will take their chances, they will risk their liberty, they will risk their lives if need. The decisions are theirs." (James, reprinted in Spheres of Existence, 1980)
Self Determination and Socialism Since the 1960s
The eruption of the African-American struggle beginning in 1960 to the present has validated the independent character of the movement for self-determination and national liberation. In the 1960s the fight to end segregation and to achieve universal suffrage culminated in the urban rebellions and the insurgent actions of workers. In 1966 the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense took up the quotations of Mao Tse-Tung as a mechanism for promoting revolution as well as a funding mechanism to purchase guns to fight against racist police terror.
By 1968, the BPP had adopted Marxism-Leninism as its ideology. This was also done by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, formed in 1969 in Detroit. The LRBW was rooted in the automotive plants and the African-American communities. By the early 1970s, many black revolutionaries began to study and adopt socialism as the only viable economic system that would provide a mechanism for liberating the African-American people from capitalism and imperialism.
This adoption of socialism was off course influenced by the revolutionary movements taking place in Africa and other parts of the so-called Third World. In Korea, Vietnam, China and Cuba, revolutionary parties came to power under the banner of socialism. These formally colonized and semi-colonized states composed of people of color, provided encouragement to the oppressed masses throughout the world.
Since 1975, the world capitalist system has undergone tremendous restructuring which has undermined the strength and character of the working class in the United States. These changes have rendered millions of African-Americans and other workers unemployed and in low wage jobs with no future for advancement. Since 2007, some 8 million workers, many of whom are African-Americans and Latinos, have lost their jobs, homes, pensions and health care benefits.
The current crisis in capitalism appears to be terminal in the sense that even the major ideologues of the system voice no optimism in regard to re-employing the millions who are out of work. What the Obama administration is saying is not that it will restore the capitalist system as it was some four decades ago, but that they will prepare the country for the economy of the future. What is the economy of the future? It will inevitably under capitalism result in the worsening of economic conditions for the African-American people and workers in general.
Since 2008, through the work of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition in Detroit and the Bailout the People Movement (BOPM) nationally, a program of struggle has been developed which takes into the consideration the terminal crisis of capitalism and the need to fight for a socialist future. Socialism provides the only viable solution to the current collapse of the economic system.
Moratorium NOW! has boldly called for a complete halt to all foreclosures, evicitons and utility shut-offs. It has demanded that the government create a jobs program to re-employ tens of millions of workers in good paying jobs with benefits. The coalition has linked the growing Pentagon budget of over $800 billion annually and the bank bailouts to the tune of trillions of dollars, directly to the growing impoverishment of the working masses in the United States and around the world.
Knowing that the capitalist system and the U.S. state, that is beholden to the banks, insurance companies and industrialists, cannot create jobs or economic opportunities for African-Americans, Latinos and workers in general, the Moratorium NOW! Coalition has gone to the workers themselves to call for their independent organization to win these goals and to move the struggle to the next level which will culminate in the creation of a society devoid of all exploitation of people by the oppressive system.
With the capitalist and imperialist systems in terminal crisis, there is no solution in either the Democratic or Republican parties. The workers and the oppressed must build their own political party that will organize and struggle without compromise to win back the wealth that working people have created over the centuries. It is within the course of this ongoing and intensifying struggle that the only real hope of overcoming unemployment and poverty will be realized.