A new book on blacks and the CPUSA

While most scholarship has used the correspondence between the Kremlin and the American Communist Party, that was made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for reactionary purposes, there is at least one very important exception. Taking advantage of archival material, Mark Solomon has written what might be the definitive history of the CPUSA's involvement in the black struggle during the period of the party's formation to the beginning of the popular front turn. ("The Cry was Unity: Communists and African Americans 1917-1936," U. of Mississippi).

Solomon is emeritus professor at Simmons College and a member of the Committees of Correspondence. The CofC split from the CPUSA because of objections to the dogmatism and bureaucracy of the Gus Hall regime. The event that finally led to the formation of the CofC was Hall's support for the coup against Gorbachev. Some of the most prominent black members of the CP went with the CofC, including Charlene Mitchell who is co-chair of the CofC with Manning Marable, department head of African-American studies at Columbia University. Although Solomon is white, he explains in his introduction why he was drawn to the black struggle:

"The environment we knew was one of spirited demonstrations to save the lives of Rosa Ingram, Willie McGhee, the Martinsville Seven, and other victims of a racist legal system. It included attending vibrant interracial dances at Rockland Palace in Harlem, sitting in awe in the back of Birdland to ask Charlie Parker to support Du Bois for the Senate, and listening to Miles Davis, engaged by the unhip Marxist Labor Youth League, which somehow thought that Davis's brilliant, elliptical bebop was right for dancing. All of that had nearly disappeared by the mid-1950s. But that defiant interracialism, grounded in the unity of cultural traditions, of shared support for all who labored for an end to oppression at home and abroad never died. Its special commitment to, and admiration for, black culture, history, and community life survived and fused with a pervasive sense that the liberation of one group was essential to the spiritual and physical freedom of all."

What is significant, however, is that Solomon understands the progressive character of black nationalism as well, sparing no effort to show how the Communist Party at various points in its history embraced such initiatives. I want to focus in one particular moment in party history, which is highly revealing for the affinity black party members had for nationalism, namely the African Blood Brotherhood. Despite the separatist name, this group was the instrument of Communist Party involvement in the black struggle in the early 1920s.

Cyril Briggs was the founder of the African Black Brotherhood. Born in 1888 on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he always considered himself a "race man". His father was a white plantation overseer and this accounted for Briggs's light complexion, which earned him the description of the "Angry Blond Negro" later in life, just as Malcolm X was dubbed "Detroit Red" before becoming a nationalist for similar reasons. Briggs moved to Harlem in 1905 and launched a writing career, finally landing a job with the Amsterdam News in 1912.

Briggs was swept up by the self-determination rhetoric of WWI which inspired his editorial, "Security for Poles and Serbs, Why not for Colored Nations?," a call for a separate black state in the United States. He was also a strong supporter of the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916.

Briggs started a new magazine called the "Crusader" in 1918 to focus on the struggle for self-determination and black pride. The magazine made no distinction between such goals and more immediate social and economic issues. It backed the Socialist Party electoral campaigns of A. Philip Randolph and exposed lynchings in the south and job discrimination in the north.

In the February 1919 issue, the Crusader began demonstrating a concern with class in the Marxist sense. Comparing the forced removal of black workers from a Pennsylvania steel town (where they had migrated to during wartime labor shortages) to the Palmer Raid deportations of white foreign-born radicals, The Crusader attributed such actions to the "mailed fist of capitalism." By May and June, the magazine was equating capitalism and colonialism, and projecting proletarian unity between black and white workers as a way to eradicate national oppression of black people.

The direction the Crusader was taking made it receptive to the left wing of the Socialist Party, which was about to split and form the first Communist Party in the US in September, 1919. It was during the summer of 1919, when antiblack riots were erupting across the United States, that Briggs finally came to the ideological conclusions that would lead him to join the CP. He saw national, race and class consciousness as dialectically interlinked. While claiming that his true home was Africa, Briggs also declared that the Negro's place was "with labor." Blacks would benefit from "the triumph of Labor and the destruction of parasitic Capital Civilization with its Imperialism incubus squeezing the life-blood of our race."

In the first months of American Communism, Briggs drew close to two members of the party's underground, Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay, who would later become known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. (Huiswoud, another Caribbean immigrant, was a charismatic figure in his own right. He got involved with the Socialist Party while studying agriculture at Cornell University. During a summer job working on a cruise ship, Huiswoud organized a successful job action by black members of the crew for higher pay and better working conditions.) Solomon believes that Briggs became a party member in mid-1921. This connection influenced the direction of Brigg's own organization, the African Blood Brotherhood, which would begin to absorb Marxist influences.

The 1920 ABB convention defined resistance to the KKK, support for a united front of black organizations, and promotion of higher wages and better working conditions for black workers as paramount. While calling for "racial self respect," it also maintained that cooperation with "class-conscious white workers" was necessary. As the ABB drew closer to the Communist Party, nationalistic prejudices as such became less frequent. The Crusader, which was now the semiofficial organ of the ABB, declared that while the oppression of blacks was more severe, blacks and Jews shared a historic experience of persecution.

Furthermore, Briggs began to, as Solomon puts it, "...fuse his own sense of African identity and national culture with Leninist internationalism. He found in African antiquity the primitive communism that provided an Afrocentric root to the vision advanced by the Third International." As opposed to Garvey's nationalist movement, the Marxists of the ABB did not view "Africa for the Africans" as an invitation to capitalist development. He wrote, "Socialism and Communism [were] in practical application in Africa for centuries before they were even advanced as theories in the European world." Within a year or so, the ABB would have evolved into a full-fledged black Marxist organization. Solomon describes the process:

"The Brotherhood was being drawn irresistibly into Marxism's field. The Crusader eagerly echoed (and perhaps inspired) the Communist Toiler's assertion that the underlying motive of whites in the Tulsa carnage was to grab African American oil lands. Tulsa was now within the vortex of Marxism's assault on capitalism and on those who supported the system -- white or black. There was no justice in capitalist America, the Crusader asserted. How many more Tulsas would it take before Negroes rejected their treacherous bourgeois allies and joined with 'the radical forces of the world that are working for the overthrow of capitalism and the dawn of a new day, a new heaven on earth'?

"Briggs and the New Negro radicals who gravitated into the Communist orbit were staking out new ideological grounds on the black political landscape. Shortly after the 'Salvation' article, Briggs joined the Communist Party and resolved some of the article's ambiguities, softening (but not renouncing) the nationalist temperament. He and his ABB comrades now clearly advocated a historic shift in the objectives of the black freedom struggle from assimilation into the bourgeois order to a socialist transformation; in the class composition of black leadership from middle class to proletarian; and in the class character of African American alliances with whites, from bourgeois liberal to the working-class left. The difficulty of the task was acknowledged in a Crusader editorial that grappled with the pervasive suspicion among blacks about the reliability of white labor as an ally. It said that those blacks who saw only white hostility had been soured by false protestations of friendship in the past. It was futile to deny that the white working-class majority was racist. At present, it said, 'every white worker is a potential enemy of the Negro,' but not the actual enemy. Racism existed in the working class; it had to be rooted out so that blacks could willingly join in an alliance arising from common interests and common ground. This view had a powerful impact on the racial policies of American communism."

Within two or three years, the Comintern began to lay down a much more narrow understanding of Communist Party organizational principles that would make semi-independent formations such as the ABB impossible. Under Zinoviev's dubious stewardship, new guidelines for "Bolshevization" were proposed at the 5th Comintern world congress in 1924. After it was approved, foreign language federations within the CP were abolished. Party membership was tightly restricted to shop or neighborhood units and party members were pressured into speaking English. On the racial front, organizational meshing of blacks and whites was mandatory and the African Blood Brotherhood was deemed as an exception to the "Bolshevization" guidelines. Party work shifted to the American Negro Labor Congress. Solomon states that this organizational-political turn pulled some blacks in the party away from their community roots.

The "democratic centralism" which was now institutionalized in both the CP and its rivals in the tiny Trotskyist movement implied a negative view of independent black formations like the ABB. Whenever motion would appear in party ranks to foster such formations, the inevitable lecture would proceed from on top that this was a new version of the Jewish Bund that Lenin had viewed as a threat to Bolshevik unity.

But in reality, unity can not be forced on the revolutionary movement. It has to be generated organically through struggle from the bottom up. There is very little likelihood that new revolutionary formations in the 21st century will adhere to the schematic organizational principles of the "Marxist-Leninist" variety handed down from the 1920s. It is entirely possible that the revolutionary movement in the United States will be a broad alliance of various working-class and nationality-based organizations, with a kinship to such formations as the FSLN and FMLN of the 1980s in Central America. Within these alliances, there will be overlapping memberships and programmatic fluidity. Perhaps the best expression of this possible new approach is the fact that the African-American director of the AFL-CIO's education department is now the chairman of the Black Radical Congress.

For insights into how the early Communist movement operated in such broad parameters, I strongly recommend Mark Solomon's book, which is also valuable for its stirring description of Communist Party involvement in a myriad of struggles that in many ways are the antecedents for the monumental struggle underway to save the life of Mumia Abu Jamal.