Wed Sep 28, 2022
September 28, 2022

Stalinism and Pan-Africanism – Part III

In previous articles, [1] we have shown that after Stalin and Dimitrov took over the leadership of the III International, the orientation given to the communist parties was to implement the policy that would most benefit the USSR’s ruling bureaucracy.

By Américo Gomes and Jasão Rodrigues

This policy, which resulted in the abandonment of the struggle for colonial independence in Asia and Africa, also had consequences for the struggle of black people in the United States for civil and human rights, which since Lenin’s time was called the “Negro Question”. The Stalinist orientation of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) became known for its shameful zigzags.

The Bolshevik influence in the USA

James P. Cannon, a founding member of the Communist Party USA, with which he broke and founded the Trotskyist SWP (Socialist Workers Party), wrote “The Russian Revolution and the Black Struggle in the United States(1959) that read:
The main discussions on the Negro question took place in Moscow, and the new approach to the problem was elaborated there. As early as the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, “The Negroes in America” was a point on the agenda, and a preliminary discussion of the question took place. Historical research will prove conclusively that CP policy on the Negro question got its initial impulse from Moscow, and also that all further elaborations of this policy, up to and including the adoption of the “self-determination” slogan in 1928 came from Moscow.
The Russian intervention changed all that, and changed it drastically, and for the better. Even before the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were distinguished from all other tendencies in the international socialist and labour movement by their concern with the problems of oppressed nations and national minorities, and affirmative support of their struggles for freedom, independence and the right of self-determination. The Bolsheviks gave this support to all “people without equal rights” sincerely and earnestly, but there was nothing “philanthropic” about it. They also recognised the great revolutionary potential in the situation of oppressed peoples and nations, and saw them as important allies of the international working class in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks identified the black movement in the United States as a major ally of the colonial revolutions, so they influenced American communists to change their approach,
in the 1920s, in this struggle that would be called the “Negro Question”.
At the end of World War I in 1919, the US went through a wave of strikes and mobilisations that forced the US government to launch an anti-Communist crusade and intensify violence against blacks. However, the fighting response of blacks came immediately. After all, things had changed a lot in the world with the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, and they had changed a lot in the US with a great migration of black workers from the South to the North during the war and with the enlistment of around 400,000 blacks in the US military and their return to the country.
The situation became even more threatening for the American bourgeoisie, since – as Cannon pointed out – Russian revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky were directing American communists to wage a relentless struggle against
Black racism, which meant fighting even the racism of the white American and Irish workers. The spectre of communism was looming over the United States and the government feared that blacks, the most explosive and exploited sector of the country, would take the lead in this movement.

The Stalinist zigzags in the United States
But this changed with Stalin’s policy fundamentally in the 1930s. In 1928, the Comintern’s policy [2] towards blacks in the US was based on the characterisation that they were a “national minority,” from then on they began to advocate that they should constitute an “independent state” – an offshoot of the Leninist policy of right to self-determination -, in what was to become the “Black Belt,” a strip of territory in the South, known for its rich, dark soil, which ran from Virginia to Texas. Most blacks did not take up this struggle, as they were more concerned with achieving equal rights within American society.
It was during this same period that the “great exodus” took place, with thousands of black workers moving to the industrialized areas of the North, which needed labour. Even more so because in the South reigned the most nefarious racism, imposed by Jim Crow legislation and lynchings, with blacks being expelled from land and jobs. The American bourgeoisie built a system of racial violence and segregation designed to exploit blacks and whites, but it hit blacks in the South especially hard and most effectively.
As a result, about 1 million African Americans left the South in the 1920s. Between 1916 and 1970, 6 million went from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest and West. The black population of major northern cities grew by large percentages: New York (66%), Chicago (148%), Philadelphia (500%) and Detroit (611%).
Marcus Garvey
It is in this context that the Jamaican Marcus Garvey built the Universal Negro Improvement Association And African Communities League (UNIA), founded in 1914. The UNIA became the largest black organization in the United States at the time, but just as it grew steeply, it quickly collapsed.
Under the slogans “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” and “Africa for Africans, at home and abroad!,” the UNIA grew to over 1 million affiliated members, in some 1,000 branches spread over forty countries. Through the UNIA, Garvey proclaimed himself “provisional president of Africa.”
At first, Garvey adopted positions sympathetic to the Russian Revolution to rally blacks from the working class and later matured his black nationalism into conceptions that amounted to the advocacy of black racial purity and hatred of Marxism and communism. Among the objectives of the UNIA were to establish a Universal Confraternity among the race, to promote the spirit of race pride and love and to assist in civilising the backward tribes of Africa. To achieve these goals, Garvey sought support from European countries, notably England. This is attested to in his letter to the British Secretary of State for the colonies, dated 16 September 1914, in which he prayed for the victory of the British army on the battlefields of Europe and Africa “against the enemies of peace and further civilisation”, and ended by hailing thrice “Long live the King and Empire.”
Ahmed Shawki’s Black Liberation and Socialism relates that Garvey “began to identify white supremacists as the only true friends of Blacks because they understood the need for racial purity“. In 1937, Garvey gave an interview saying that “Mussolini and Hitler copied the programme of the UNIA – aggressive nationalism for the black man in Africa.
Garvey advocated black racial purity and a black versus white struggle pure and simple because he completely ignored two fundamental components in that equation: social classes and capitalism. But Garvey was consciously ignorant since, for him, “capitalism is necessary to the progress of the world and those who unreasonably or wantonly oppose or fight against it are enemies of human advancement.” Thus, he became the precursor of the defence of capitalism within the Black movement, the same economic system responsible for kidnapping, trafficking, enslaving, torturing and murdering our Black ancestors who came from Africa.
But despite the massive support it received, for most blacks, this proposal was seen as a segregationist one, since it did not combat white segregation, and in a way relieved the dominant white bourgeoisie of the demands of the majority of the black population. At the same time, it presented the utopia that blacks could have satisfactory living conditions within the capitalist system and even become rich.

George Padmore said that Stalinism presented the politics of the “Black Belt” only for the contest with Garvey and his “Back to Africa” movement for winning over the black activists, counterposing a “Black Republic” right there, inside the United States, but which had nothing to do with the reality of black people. For him, it was a theory devised to justify the Stalinist formula being imposed on the American party. [3]
In the early 1930s, the increase in economic crisis and unemployment, which officially reached 30% yet it reached 40% to 50% plus among blacks in some cities, made the communists abandon the Black Belt policy and take up the fight for civil, labour and human rights, against white state terror and for an end to lynchings. They began to hold demonstrations in a united front with the conservative and procapitalist National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), often ending in confrontations with police and KKK members and the protesters defending themselves. [4]
Strikes increased sharply in 1934 and peaked in 1937, resulting in a growth in the trade-union organisation, which tripled in membership between 1934 and 1938. Black workers were a significant part of this process, particularly among the miners, steelworkers and dockers, forced to take the worst jobs at the lowest wages. New jobless organisations carried out actions in defence of employment, but also in defence of tenants against evictions and for unemployment insurance. The Communist Party participated in this whole process of mobilisation and reorganisation in constant opposition to the US government which brought it an important growth.
The CPUSA founded the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, which gained notoriety in organising support for the “Scottsboro Boys” (nine young black men wrongly charged with gang rape and sentenced to death in Alabama in 1931). The NAACP, intimidated, initially shunned the case, but then tried to take it on with a more moderate approach. Along with this, the Communists were campaigning against lynching, defending civil rights against police brutality and Jim Crow laws, associated with the International Labour Defence (ILD). [5] They also organised black self-defence squads with ex-military personnel.
But since 1933, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognised the Soviet Union – the same year as Hitler’s election victory in Germany – US Stalinists had softened their criticism of Roosevelt and the Democrats generally, and on the “Negro Question” in particular. [6]
Now the CPUSA was moving on to prioritise alliances with the supposedly progressive bourgeoisie. In the US, they supported the New Deal. And Roosevelt, who was considered a “social-fascist” not long ago, became the “most prominent anti-fascist within the capitalist democracies.” The General Secretary of the party, Earl Browder, even declared that Roosevelt was the president who most “enforced black rights” while the Democratic Party (and Roosevelt) refused to support anti-lynching legislation or end Jim Crow. [7]

From a union standpoint, the CPUSA allied itself with Robert Lewis and the CIO bureaucracy, accepting that some unions would not include clauses against racial discrimination. At the same time, the party began to dissolve its caucuses within the UAW and to abandon its leadership role to become categorically aligned with the New Deal. It supported, through the Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL), the reelection of Roosevelt in 1936. While Lewis and the Democrats were developing a policy that served to destroy any possibility of building an independent labour party that would unify the organisations that were emerging in various Midwestern states and in industrial cities in the North. Moreover, the CPUSA gave up any independent propaganda of revolutionary socialism and, even more, abandoned any open criticism of its “democratic capitalist” allies. The “Communist Electoral Platform, 1936” abandoned completely, and without any explanation, the characterisation of Roosevelt as a “proto-fascist.”

Next, they summarily dissolved the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, which had been the party’s leading civil rights organisation in the struggle for black rights. Its membership was forced to join the conservative NAACP, which prioritised superstructural policies for achieving some reforms.

Its zigzags did not stop there and demoralised its membership and reduced the organisation’s influence.

The Stalinists substituted the National Negro Congress (NNC) – less proletarian and mainly based on black union officials, intellectuals and politicians – for the LSNR, and began to focus its activities in lobbying Congress for new laws.

As a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact (the Molotov-Ribertrop Treaty) in 1939, the CPUSA again reversed its policy to opposition to Roosevelt, denouncing the “inter-imperialist war”, and proposed that black people stay out of the conflict. The NNC further demanded that the US government didn’t help the countries resisting the Nazi attacks. [8]

Next, when Hitler invades the USSR in June 1941, the NNC abandons its anti-war campaign and calls on black workers to support Russia by joining the US army and the war effort.

Their support for the war effort included no wartime strikes or opposition to anything that would compromise anti-fascist unity within the United States. When Philip Randolph, a black reformist trade unionist (head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin called a march on Washington in 1941, with the aim of strengthening the struggle of black workers and winning some labour demands, the CPUSA opposed and attacked its organisers.

The main demands of the march were an end to segregation in the armed forces and equal access to jobs in the national defence industry for black men and women. But immediately afterwards, Randolph welcomed and supported Executive Order 8802 issued by Roosevelt to end segregation in the military and employment discrimination, hailing it as responsible for banning “discrimination in defence industries.” The CPUSA followed suit while Randolph was denounced by the most militant trade unionists for having called off the march after just the nod of the government proposal and demanded that it be maintained in order to achieve better working conditions and higher wages.

Bayard Rustin, was a fascinating black political leader, founder of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). [9] He was discriminated against because of his open homosexual life and had to work behind the scenes. He was a member of the Young Communist League, “due to the fact that the Communists were practically the only political party in the 1930s to be totally opposed to segregation” [10] but left it in June 1941, after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union because the party abandoned the fight for racial justice in the name of building opposition to fascism. During the war he was arrested for refusing to appear before the enlistment board as a conscientious objector, serving 26 months in prison. Inside the prison, he held protests against segregation and homophobia. After his release, he fought against colonial rule in India and Africa and returned to prison. [11]

In addition, the CPUSA supported Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, issued in January 1942, which gave the military full powers against “enemy aliens” and resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of Americans of Japanese and Asian descent in concentration camps in the United States.

Their support for Roosevelt led the CPUSA to back a proposal to militarise some workplaces in 1944, but they retreated when the CIO executive council reacted furiously to the measure. At the end of the war, following in the footsteps of Stalin who had ordered the dissolution of the III International in 1943 as a sign of goodwill with European and US imperialism, the CPUSA dissolved the National Negro Congress in 1947.

The Democratic Party and the New Deal did not play a progressive role. Nor was Roosevelt, when he became president in 1933, a social reformer. The Democrats were the main party of southern slave owners and northern landlords and transportation capitalists, trying to assume another façade to win elections in the North, while in the South, they remained the party of farmers, racial segregation, lynchings and Jim Crow laws.

The Stalinists’ support for the Democratic Party helped it to stay in power in a troubled time in the United States because they subordinated their national policies and the struggle for workers’ demands and oppressed sectors to the needs of the Kremlin bureaucracy, a policy implemented by the Comintern all over the world.

This only reinforces the conclusion that the Stalinists of the CPUSA abandoned the “Black Question” and the struggle for the rights of African Americans to the service of the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Notes:

[1] See https://litci.org/en/stalinism-and-pan-africanism/ and https://litci.org/en/67008-2/

[2] Under Stalin’s control, who at this time implemented the policy known as the “Third Period”.

[3] “This was Marxist sociology turned upside down” in Pan-Africanism or Communism? (p 306)

[4] Howe, I., Coser, L. The American Communist Party: A Critical History (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974). PDF

[5] The American section of the International Red Aid network, which had defended Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s.

[6] George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism?

[7] During the Roosevelt administration, the CP cells were well “entrenched” in all the government employment and welfare agencies created under the New Deal programme. In George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism? (p 307)

[8] George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism?

[9] A pacifist organisation for black civil rights.

[10] John D’Emilio in his biography, “Lost Prophet: The life and times of Bayard Rustin”.

[11] According to the website Black Past, Bayard was arrested about 23 times during his lifetime. (blackpast.org/african-american-history/Rustin-Bayard)

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