Tag Archives: communism

The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party

Mark Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party is a deep and detailed look at this relationship in the US over a very short period of time, but a rather vital one I think. This time when the CP did some pretty amazing organizing, and some pretty flawed organizing, before their top-down structure dictated they drop it entirely.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how theory works with practice, about ideology and pragmatism, about the need to confront racism and white supremacy and how we might better go about that and I keep thinking about this book, so I dusted off the notes. I read a good while ago, I confess. Never got around to processing it really. This doesn’t succeed or do it justice, just pulls out some key quotes because it’s dense, something to return to with questions about specific people, specific dates.

So to start with Otto Huiswood. Originally from Surinam (Surinam!), he helped found the CP in Harlem in 1919 — making him the 1st African American to join. Cyril Briggs from the island of Nevis was another key figure…I had so little knowledge before reading this of just how important the Caribbean diaspora was in NY, and to radical politics. But Briggs did so much before the CP… he was inspired by the Irish Easter rising

which had fired the imagination of the “New Negro” radicals…exemplified an revolutionary nationalism that found its way into the rhetoric voiced on street corners and in the emerging press of rapidly urbanizing African American life. (5)

It makes me happy to see the connections between his radical philosophies and the Irish struggle (we all know Irish and Black folks didn’t often get along in NY, I just finished Ignatiev on the whole Irish becoming White thing, and damn is it ugly…) But anyway, a bit of happy news — and Connelly stood against slavery, for a while anyway.  But the Easter Rising, and other independence movements, inspired Briggs to advocate for a separate black state within the US. He founded the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) for African Liberation and Redemption, the announcement of its founding continued ‘Those only need apply who are willing to go the limit.’ (9) They were modeled on the Sinn Fein, founded the newspaper The Crusader in 1918.

1919 — Red Summer, a wave of lynchings swept the country. Briggs Was moving in the same circles as Huiswood, Claude McKay, Grace Campbell, W.A. Domingo, Hubert Harrison and other radicals in Harlem. Terrible times, amazing times, no? This was also the time of Marcus Garvey — and he and Briggs never got along.  Solomon writes

Marcus Garvey’s UNIA resonated for African American working people as Briggs’ ABB could not, because the former vibrantly express outrage at the dominant white society without directly and dangerously confronting the bourgeois order. (28)

And that is something Briggs did. He would join the CP in 1921, after the 2nd Internation congress in 1920. That’s the one where Lenin presented his ‘Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’, a radical document that would begin to transform the work of the CP in the US as it urged the party to support revolutionary movements, and named both Ireland and African Americans. I lose track a little of the twists and turns and the politics of these congresses, but Claude McKay and Otto Huiswood were both present at the 4th congress in 1922, where the Congress established a Negro Commission.

The American Negro Labor Congress of 1925 opened in Chicago, race was always an issue as seen by the mostly white delegates, though they were addressed by Richard B Moore and Claude McKay. Solomon writes:

The sense of a “nation within a nation,” born in slavery and nurtured in segregation, is rooted in African American thought. It emerged from the lash, from political subjugation, from the trampling of the cultural heritage of an entire people, from assaults on their psychological makeup and identity. The Negro question was indeed more than a class or racial problem. the forced rupture of community between blacks and whites, and the onslaught on the blacks’ historical continuity, culture, and identity had produced a longing for political unity and psychic autonomy–for the realization of black national yearning. the Communists were onto something. National oppression constituted a proper description of what had happened to black Americans. (88)

There is this amazing insistence for a time that racial divisions and white supremacy be overcome:

southern whites [and non-southern whites, but more amazing for southern whites] must enter the CP cleansed of chauvinism…At the end of the decade [1920s] the Party had finally admitted the need to win the trust of  blacks and to strongly resist any backsliding on social equality. The Communists had come to believe that racial segregation and the savaging of black identity represented both an institutional foundation for American capitalism and its weak point. To compromise with racism in any way strengthened capitalism and wounded its most potent foes…concessions to segregation and inequality would validate racism and sacrifice blacks’ trust in white radicals. ‘ (128)

I still find it hard to imagine how hard it must have been to place this front and centre, but they did, and they were right to insist that it was this racism that prevented any united sense of class, right that freedom could not be obtained while these divisions existed. As Solomon continues:

“A real Bolshevik Leninist understanding” of racism, Harry Haywood intoned, held that liberation from the bonds of such oppression was inextricably “part of the question of the proletarian revolution” — a precondition for achieving Lenin’s historic alliance of the workers and subject peoples in common struggle against capitalism and imperialism. …. By locating the source of white chauvinism in the ideology and interest of the ruling class, the Party held an ominous sword over its members. What was more serious than the accusation that a Communist was doing the work of the class enemy? (130)

And so some of this work was amazing. The 20s drew to an end, the Great Depression hit. We see the brilliant movement of the Unemployed Councils, working to return possessions back into the homes of those who had been evicted and organizing rent strikes. In Chicago, 1931, Unemployed  Councils organized on South Side of Chicago. Solomon notes that one day in July they restored 4 families to their homes in one day. Yet the police were cracking down. While the UCs continued fighting through 1933, there is no doubt that 1931 saw them at their height. The CP admitted they were unable to maintain the enthusiasm and engagement, and noted the ‘internal tedium’ of party politics as a factor. Reading some of the descriptions of party life, it is easy to see why. Meetings and meetings, circles of judgement and criticism, show trials. I mean, they had show trials. I had no idea, but you can see how the structures emerging from a calcifying Russian revolution (a whole tragedy in itself about to unfold there of course) were already beginning to crush the spirit.

It took a while though.

This early period also saw a branching out to work in wider collaborations. A number of middle-class Black leaders also endorsed the party given their stance on the race question, like Countee Cullen. The CP was running dozens of black candidates for political offices, not to win but as mass actions to educate and politicize around unemployment and racial equality. They had some incredible victories beyond the Unemployment Councils. Like the strike in St Louis where on May 15, 100 women  working in the nut industry (!) walked out demanding a pay rise, 3 weeks later 1000 black women struck, the next day white women walked out in solidarity. My favourite line in the book:

‘The women armed themselves with ‘brick-sandwiches’ to confront strikebreakers’ (251)

In Chicago 800 women, black and white, won a partial victory on strike against B. Sopkins Dress Company. Solomon gives us names I had not heard of the, the women who led this movement in Harlem — Maude White, Louise Thompson, Augusta Savage, Williana Burroughs of Hunter College (keep seeing this college referenced here though I had not heard of it before, seems to be an amazing radical place to look into). Increasingly the movement is being driven by those who are American born. There is a real sense of movement though, of hope. And then the CP stepped in once again. Good in some ways, that 1935 opening up, ‘accelerating the popular front’. CP members were able to work in growing coalitions — they even included Father Divine in Harlem. But this signaled the beginning of a move away from organizing, the liberation of Blacks, the anti-racist strategies. They dropped tenants wholesale. 1936 was a bit early for this so that’s not really covered here (like Iton’s work), there is a little more about it in Manning Marable, Robert Fisher and others. There is just a sense of impending tragedy, the story of the black Share Croppers Union — trying to ally with others with the help of Highlander (Don West, the cofounder of Highlander with Horton is mentioned a number of times in the book) — they fail,  and face a horrible wave of repression after they strike, they face murder and assassination.

This history is swallowed up. Rarely retold. Needing to be kept alive.

[Solomon, Mark (1998) The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi}

Museum of Communism (I’m in the Czech Republic!)

Prague’s Museum of Communism was a lesson in how ideology works, but ironically not the ideology of communism. In fact it was a lesson in irony and ideology all mixed up together. On our first attempt to find it I only knew the corner it was on, and thought that would be enough. But it’s obscure not just in its absence from most must-see lists, and we missed it, only seeing amazing posters for it later near the Charles Bridge that convinced us to try again.

IMG_8731

Above the McDonalds, they said, beside the Casino. You turn into what is almost an alley almost an entrance, turn right again into big double doors and walk along red carpet into an extraordinarily ornate Baroque entrance hall. As you walk up the stairs you are offered an existential choice, museum or casino?

IMG_8956Though the casino is at every turn. The inside is quite extraordinary, because it turns out this is after all, the Savarin Palace. For one of the few places with any interesting things to say about what the Palace is or once was, I found only the new developers:

Savarin occupies a remarkable site in Prague’s Old Town, bounded on one side by the historic Wenceslas Square and incorporating a collection of small streets and ‘passages’ (pedestrian precincts) giving access to many offices, shops and amenities. … now restored to life by Ballymore as Prague’s ne plus ultra.

Savarin was the site of an aristocratic palace complete with riding-stables…

A warren of small streets it is, it is such a strange thing to me to see a castle as a warren of small streets, but much more on castles (and The Castle) later.

IMG_8957

At least one tourist gambled on the museum by mistake. In this space it is hard to conceive of life under communism, you can be forgiven for believing the irony intentional. The museum shop is brilliant, full of what seems to be an intellectual and aware humour that can appeal to Marxists and free-marketers alike. Postcards of Marx and Lenin with clever captions, a museum postcard that makes fun of the museum’s own location;

pohledy_Page_17

the T-shirts and posters with the brilliant artwork as below (and yes I happily bought one of those)

pohledy_Page_04

You can find collections of reprints of original Soviet posters, notepads, pencils and various other fairly awesome consumer goods. Irony. The map of the museum shows the sections: the origins, the dream, the reality, the nightmare. That too seems smart, thoughtful enough, interesting. You walk in and see statues of Marx and Lenin, this wonderful picture.

IMG_8971IMG_8972And then you read:

The practice of revolutionary terror and dictatorship of the proletariat was justified by the communists by an alleged irrefutability of the ‘scientific’ theories of Karel Marx, the bohemian and intellectual adventurer. who started his life career as a romantic poet with an inclination towards apocalyptic titanism….The attempts at the implementation of Marxist theories demanded, according to contemporary and lower estimates, around 100 million human victims.

This is the even-handed treatment of the dream of Marxists? I laughed out loud as did Mark, and continued laughing through the exhibit I’m afraid. While also enjoying the collection of real communist artifacts, propaganda, and shit from the 50s.

IMG_8980Radio Tesla is just cool, and I love her shoes.

IMG_8981I don’t have too much confidence in their ‘recreation’ of a factory, it’s really just a great collection of old machinery, which I loved of course. Again I laughed at this:

Using the obsolete economic theories of Karel Marx, Stalin created an ideological doctrine according to which the life of the whole society should revolve around industrial production. The hero of the time became the laborer, who, in the name of occasional slogans and to honor the communists feasts and anniversaries, worked more than his supervisors told him to…The pressure on increased employment for women and their introduction into traditional men’s professions was justified by the party through an ideal of ‘woman’s emancipation’.

There’s the bust/statue collection:

IMG_8982And this living room setup with brilliant old furniture, but I didn’t feel the chairs were socialist enough:

IMG_8989

While walking through there was a strange cold war feel, so the pro-U.S. stuff was as crazy as the anti-communist. There was this:

The blackest pictures of capitalism drawn by the communist press depicted America whose democratic regime was already admired by the Czechs in the period of Hapsburg emperors. American played a decisve role in the defeat of Hitler…America was also attractive, thanks to the romantic ‘Country and Western’ music and style, as introduced in Bohemia before World War I. County and Western style was cultivated by tramps in the many recreation settlements usually named after American localities…

There was another blurb mentioning the anti-American propaganda spread by the communists like their referrals to the mass lynching of Blacks. It certainly read as though the communists had made this up when of course they didn’t.

So really, this is like walking through a cold war propaganda effort from the US side, brilliantly illustrated by the cool old things from the Czech Republic under Stalinism. The why of this is made clear from the brochure and its reproduction of an International Newsweek article discussing the museum’s origins:

Spicker, 36, spent several months and $28,000 scouring markets and junk shops for close to 1,000 items of memorabilia, including Russian textbooks, anti-American posters, chemical-warfare protection suits and statues of Lenin and Marx. A former student of politics, Spicker was passing through central Europe in the late 1980s when the Velvet Revolution toppled Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. He decided to stay on and capitalize on all the new business opportunities, opening up a jazz club and a string of bars and restaurants in Prague. Then he hit on the idea for the museum. “As a student I found communism fascinating because of the influence it had on all aspects of people’s lives,” he says. “But now its fascination for me is just how outdated it is.”

I’m glad he collected the memorabilia, but damn. Capitlising on the business opportunities offered by presenting the least balanced review of a historical time period I have ever read…

IMG_8986

Save

The radical thought on the wall

“Put down your weapon and come out with your hands up.”

There is a wailing of sirens. The helicopter circles endlessly, it has been doing so for twenty minutes. The megaphone comes through loud and clear, the house is at most two streets over I think. This is when I hate Los Angeles. Some poor fool holed up in some shit building, and if he’s not smart he’s going to be shot tonight. Or she, I suppose he could be a she, but he almost never is.

It’s sweltering. Hot like Arizona hot during the monsoons, not the white and blinding oven heat that I rather enjoy, but a slightly sticky heat. Nothing as bad as the East Coast though. I’ve worked right through it, got so much editing work done today I’m quite a happy woman though this weekend I have a lot to pull off and I’m not quite sure how well it will go.

Siguen los pinches helicopteros.

So I’m working on a map of radical thought, it lies in different coloured post-its spread across my wall. It is the foundation for my upcoming literary tangle with combining theory and practice. For money, my first paid article. I’ve been mostly a practice girl myself, but I think it really is time to take a good look at where we’ve been, and where it has brought us, and why we are still so fucked. And when people label themselves or others as this ist or that, I’d really like to have a firm handle on what the hell that means…apart from the fact that such labels have been rendered ludicrous over the passing years, and also that maybe they’re not actually working in the trenches. Still, in the trenches you forget to look up, you have no time to think, you’re not always aware of where you’re headed and how exactly you believe you might get there. And so organizing organizations seem to have a tendency to devolve into service because the emergency is always there, and it’s just easier. It’s such a huge weakness. So I’m doing my map and thinking through all this stuff again and it’s been good so far.
More sirens.

So I knew, but never quite…hm, how do I say what I want to say? I knew, but it never ever struck me before that Gandhi was only 1 year older than Lenin. That their struggles were contemporary, along with their philosophies. And I don’t know if they ever commented on each other. Why do I not know that? In my head these movements are entirely compartmentalized…Europe and to a certain extent America together (as so many Europeans fled here until we deported them back), Asia, India, Africa, South and Central America…separate, isolate. They seem like different eras almost, though the separation is philosophical and geographical only. There must have been connections, I shall have to find them. Or perhaps the arrogance of the Western World simply continued supreme…

The helicopter is still circling. They haven’t made demands in a while.

So you look at Europe up through the Russian Revolution, the Spartacist League, the Spanish Civil War, and all the theorists and philosophers have some connection to struggle. There are a number of people who are self-educated and brilliant and came out of the working class. And then it all gets more and more abstract, Marxism moves into the Universities and sits there writing to itself. The people doing stuff are elsewhere, in other countries around the globe. Or perhaps still in Europe, I just haven’t sifted down to them yet. But they aren’t like their forerunners, the heady times after 1848, actually perhaps since always when theorists tended to actually trundle themselves down to the barricades, rouse the masses, spend quality time in prison…is it just that they’ve all been bought out now?

The helicopter is still circling. It’s funny, but after hearing so many refugees unburdening their pain and fear when I worked at Carecen, I’m rather deeply afraid of helicopters, they are the perfect and ultimate killers. You can’t really hide from them. It’s not a surface fear because it’s not rational – in that I am almost certain a helicopter shall never come for me though I never say never; but in that it’s not my own memory. It’s like a nightmare fear that’s more powerful for belonging to a mass of other people and passed on to me slowly slowly through stories and tears and memories of the dead. It hides in my stomach and I don’t even quite realize how much it’s affecting me until my stomach starts hurting, and I can feel my shoulders around my ears. And I wonder that in this country we cannot understand that no one who has been in it truly escapes from war.

The helicopter is still circling.

At any rate, the other thing that seems clear is that a lot of these guys were just assholes. And they all hate each other. And Spanish communists somehow figured that anarchists were a greater threat than fascists, and did Trotsky really tell Martov he belonged in the dustbin of history with the other pitiful isolated individuals? What a dick. Better than shooting him, though he shot his fair share of people as head of the red army didn’t he? Did he have to destroy Makhno? Mao, Stalin, Hoxha (he was shooting his comrades in the resistance to eliminate competition even before the war was over)…all assholes. Some may argue that the revolution needs blood and ruthlessness to succeed. I think that perhaps it’s just that being assholes, these guys had to rise to the top quickly or be forever shut out and outcast because people just didn’t want to have them hanging around. You know they were the kind who went on that same old rant over beers that everyone was so tired of hearing, or perhaps they didn’t even drink, just ranted and were all self-righteous and lacked any ability to listen to others or laugh at themselves. It’s my (rather bitterly flippant) proposal for the asshole theory of…

The helicopter has left! After an hour. No shots. No death. Relief.

So, the asshole theory of failed revolution. Or why we are still fucked. I rather like it, after all, assholes want power, it’s the only way they can keep friends and sleep with attractive people. I saw Kissinger on the Daily Show, and he’s the rightwing version of this, the man has not a humorous bone in his body, he speaks in a monotone, he’s not at all attractive. Not only is he an asshole, but he’s a boring asshole. And yet he kicked it with the rich and famous all because he rose to the top, and power was enough to overcome every other natural deficiency.

Another helicopter, the same helicopter? And it’s fucking circling again. I guess the life and death confrontation continues and the helicopter just had to…refuel? Moonlight for the filming of some new Hollywood smash? Catch a quickie car chase?

Anyways, I’ve written enough now I think…I’ll come back to the delightful eccentricities of some of the older generation of thinkers and doers in another blog. I got the Maltese Falcon in the mail from netflix today, I suppose it will go well with the damn helicopter.

And it’s still circling. I can never fall asleep to helicopters, even after all of this time in L.A., it could be a long night.