The following article below was originally published by the political news blog Return to the Source:
By Vince Sherman & Frank Thomson, with contributions from Black Uhuru
June 24, 2012
In the past year, the United States has experienced an upsurge in black political consciousness as hundreds of thousands of organizations and people poured into the streets to demand justice for Trayvon Martin, the 17 year-old African-American youth brutally murdered in Sanford, FL. Martin’s case has drawn enormous attention to the daily terrorism inflicted on African-Americans by both the US government and vigilante terrorists, like George Zimmerman, who uphold and enforce a vicious system of white supremacy.
As the movement against police brutality and racist oppression continues to grow, Marxist-Leninists must grapple with the burning question of how to build a revolutionary national liberation struggle capable of ending white supremacy and imperialism in the United States.
Seeking to capitalize on the growing struggle against racism, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has republished a series of articles from the 1980s reflecting their understanding of “The History of Black America” in its newspaper, Socialist Worker. Complete with all of the errors endemic to their bizarre Trotskyite understanding of revolutionary history, these articles are a flaccid attempt for a mostly white organization – an organization that expelled several activists of color from its Washington DC branch in 2010, no less – to make itself relevant to the struggle of African-Americans against white supremacy.
However, one article in particular, republished on Saturday, June 16, stands above the rest in its historical revisionism, its fallacious analysis, and its generally poor syntactical construction. Lee Sustar’s piece, “Self-determination and the Black Belt” is a hit piece on the Marxist-Leninist demand for African-American self-determination, the entire concept of the Black Belt nation, and black nationalism in general.
Rife with historical errors, strawman characterizations, and misspellings, Sustar’s piece itself is barely worth a response. Never missing an opportunity to denounce and slander Josef Stalin, Sustar makes the totally absurd claim that “The Black Belt theory was part of a sharp “left” turn by the Communist International (Comintern) used by Joseph Stalin to mask his bureaucracy’s attack on the workers’ state,” arguing that somehow upholding the demand for African-American self-determination allowed Josef Stalin to better consolidate his so-called “state capitalist regime in Russia.” (1) The relationship between the struggle for black nationalism and the USSR is never explained or warranted by Sustar.
Neither is his claim that the demand for black self-determination was based “on the works of a Swedish professor who aimed to theoretically justify the political turns of the bureaucracy which was coming to control Russia.” (2) Sustar never names this Swedish professor, supposedly the progenitor of the demand for black self-determination, nor does he offer any evidence that such a professor had any impact on the development of the black national question adopted and implemented by the Communist International (Comintern). But a lack of evidence never stands in the way of the ISO’s vicious slander of Marxism-Leninism so the omission of key facts is both unsurprising and expected.
However, the continued relevance and renewed importance of the black national question in the 21st century demands serious consideration by Marxist-Leninists. It is important to respond to these unprincipled criticisms and slander of the experiences of black nationalist organizations and the CPUSA. The ISO may have published this piece nearly 30 years ago, but the same theoretical bankruptcy demonstrated in this re-published essay continues to inform their strange blend of Cliffite-Trotskyism today.
Instead, Marxist-Leninists must put forward a principled and materialist evaluation of the successes and failures of these various groups struggling for black liberation that appropriately contextualizes their specific struggles.
The Soviet Union and the National Question
The Marxist-Leninist position on the African-American national question and the Black Belt South developed directly out of the Soviet Union’s own experience with actualizing the demand for self-determination for oppressed nationalities. The October Revolution of 1917 and the founding of the Soviet Union marked the end of tsarist oppression of the nations in the transcaucasus and Central Asia. In addition to Russia, many other nations under the Tsarist empire participated in the proletarian revolution in October 1917, and the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, began to work towards the creation of a voluntary federation of free, self-determined nations.
The destruction caused by the Russian Civil War, waged between 1918 and 1922, along with the Allied invasion of Russia by fourteen countries in 1921, forged a sense of unity between the underdeveloped constituent nations of the former Russian empire and the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary government. After exiting World War I through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and emerging victorious over the tsarist White Army, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) met with representatives from these formerly oppressed nations and formed the Soviet Union in 1922. The Soviet Union’s recognition of its constituent nations’ right to self-determination finds its embodiment in the 1917 “Declaration of the Rights of the Russian People,” which legally guaranteed “equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia, the right of peoples of Russia to free self-determination up to secession and the formation of independent states, abolition of all national and national-religious privileges and restrictions, [and] free development of national minorities and ethnic groups inhabiting the territory of Russia.” (3) Thus, any analysis of the Soviet Union must account for the complexities of its international composition, rather than viewing it as a purely Russian political phenomenon.
After the formation of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) implemented a policy of korenizatsiya to encourage the indigenous development of revolutionary leadership among the USSR’s constituent nations. While the CPSU argued that the process of socialist construction for each nation was generally the same, it acknowledged a firm belief that “each nation which has overthrown capitalism seeks to plot the course of its economic, political and cultural development in such way as to be most in conformity with its concrete historical features and progressive traditions.” (4) Korenizatsiya was a means by which the CPSU would help create indigenous communist parties, culture, and economies tailored to the specific needs of the nation in question. The central component of this, in the view of the CPSU, was the cultivation of native communist leadership in each nation’s party and the promotion of national minorities in higher Soviet institutions. (5)
In practice, the CPSU “supported local languages, educated and promoted local elites and thus built new loyalties to the socialist cause” as a part of korenizatsiya. (6) Reza Zia-Ebrahimi of the London School of Economics & Politics describes this process in a 2007 article entitled “Empire, Nationalities and the Fall of the Soviet Union,” pointing out that “each Soviet republic was flanked with an official culture, official folklore and national opera-house. (7) Soviet authorities went as far as to develop written systems for local languages that had previously lacked them.” (8) She notes that this policy of nativization also had the effect of combating Russian national chauvinism, citing Ukraine in the 1920s as an example, in which “a Russian residing there also had to be educated in Ukrainian.”(9)
Though the precise manifestations of korenizatsiya oscillated over the history of the USSR and at times nations had less operational freedom – particularly during the glasnost period brought on by Gorbachev – the Soviet state’s dedication to raising the status of national minorities and guaranteeing political representation demonstrates a genuine ideological commitment to national self-determination that inspired oppressed nations around the world. (10)
Developing the Black National Question
Among the many activists inspired by the Russian Revolution was African-American communist Harry Haywood. In his autobiography, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist, Haywood recounts his excitement at the many achievements of the Russian Revolution, noting its specific importance to African-Americans: “Most impressive as far as Blacks were concerned was that the revolution had laid the basis for solving the national and racial questions on the basis of complete freedom for the numerous nations, colonial peoples and minorities formerly oppressed by the czarist empire.” (11) Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ handling of the national question in North Asia prompted Haywood to join the CPUSA in the winter of 1923 and to visit the Soviet Union as a part of a student delegation in 1925.
Sustar views genuine African-American revolutionaries like Haywood, who developed the demand for black self-determination in the Soviet Union, with condescending contempt. He writes, “For these leaders, the Comintern’s theory of self-determination for the Black Bell (sic) must have appeared as a revolutionary commitment to fighting the enormous racism in the U.S.” (12) The implication, of course, is that Haywood, Otto Hall, and James Ford were more or less passive recipients of the black national question line – a falsehood that flies in the face of historical fact – and that they were basically duped into accepting a position hoisted upon them by Stalin.
In actuality, the black national question established by the Comintern came about through vibrant debate and struggle between African-American comrades, the white comrades in the CPUSA, and Soviet comrades, who contributed their own first-hand experience in building a multinational republic of the 15 unique constituent nations of the USSR. During his four-year visit to the Soviet Union, Haywood meticulously analyzed the character of black oppression in the US alongside other comrades.
The CPUSA’s position at that time was that black workers were subject to harsh societal prejudice based on race, but fundamentally they experienced the same capitalist exploitation as white workers. Haywood and the Communist International (Comintern) came to criticize this position because “To call the matter a race question, they said, was to fall into the bourgeois liberal trap of regarding the fight for equality as primarily a fight against racial prejudices of whites.” (13) This simplistic view placed total emphasis on building the trade union movement irrespective of race, leading the CPUSA to mistakenly see the struggle for black civil rights “as a diversion that would obscure or overshadow the struggle for socialism.” (14)
Furthermore, looking at the exploitation of African-Americans purely as a question of race “slurred over the economic and social roots of the question and obscured the question of the agrarian democratic revolution in the South.” (15) In describing Reconstruction, Haywood writes that the “revolution had stopped short of a solution to the crucial land question; there was neither confiscation of the big plantations of the former slaveholding class, nor distribution of the land among the Negro freedmen and poor whites.” (16) The White Supremacist counter-revolution of 1877 brought an end to Reconstruction, and through fascist terrorism by paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan, African-Americans were denied the political rights and economic opportunities afforded to White citizens. Thus, Haywood writes in his 1948 book, Negro Liberation, “The uniqueness of the Negro problem in the United States lies in the fact that the Negro was left out of the country’s general democratic transformation.” (17)
Influenced by Lenin’s Draft Theses on the National-Colonial Question and Josef Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question, both of which identify African-Americans as an oppressed nation within the US, Haywood and the leadership of the Comintern launched an intensive study of the character of African-American people. (18) In Marxism and the National Question, Stalin outlines the objective conditions for nationhood, which are, “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” (19) Using the criteria set out by Stalin, Haywood notes that “Under conditions of imperialist and racist oppression, Blacks in the South were to acquire all the attributes of a single nation.” (20)
A common territory is one of the criteria for nationhood. Although African-Americans were spread out across the US, Haywood argued that the “territory of this subject nation is the Black Belt, an area encompassing the Deep South,” because even after the post-war Northern migrations of black workers, the Black Belt “still contained (and does to this day) the country’s largest concentration of Blacks.” (21) Additionally, Robin D.G. Kelley writes in his book, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression that “This region, dominated by cotton plantations, consisted of counties with a numerical black majority.” (22) The demographic concentration of African-Americans, along with their historical tie to the land, led the Comintern to adopt a resolution affirming the presence of a black nation in the American South at its Sixth World Congress in 1928. (23)
Sustar’s article spins a web of sophistry in trying to back-handedly argue that Lenin would have opposed the Comintern’s line on the black national question. While he acknowledges that Lenin viewed African-Americans as an oppressed nation, he then proceeds to ignore that fact in painting Lenin’s position as one in harmony with the ISO’s Trotskyite position: That the struggle for national liberation is simply “a means to fight chauvinism and racism in the working class.” (24)
In actuality, Lenin maintained that “it is necessary that all Communist Parties render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and subject nations (for example, in Ireland, among the Negroes in America, etc.) and in the colonies.” (25) True to Trotskyite form, Sustar leaves out any mention of the other toiling masses besides the proletariat, whose support is vital to the national liberation struggle. Lenin writes, “the cornerstone of the whole policy of the Communist International on the national and colonial questions must be a closer union of the proletarians and working masses generally of all nations and countries for a joint revolutionary struggle to overthrow the landlords and the bourgeoisie.” (26) The term “working masses” unmistakably refers to the peasantry and the petty-bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations, who can and must support the proletariat for a revolutionary national liberation struggle to succeed. Much as Trotsky held contempt for the Bolshevik line on a strategic alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry in Russia, the ISO holds contempt for the strategic alliance between the multinational working class and the other nationalist classes comprising the oppressed African-American nation. He can hold that position, but it is characteristically anti-Leninist, as is the entirety of Trotsky’s theory of revolution.
The Comintern’s groundbreaking new line on the African-American question maintained that “African-Americans had the right to self-determination: political power, control over the economy, and the right to secede from the United States.” (27) In a broader sense, however, Haywood’s line on the national question represented an affirmation of the revolutionary character of black nationalist movements, whose efforts could strike blows against US imperialism from within. While Marxist-Leninists view nationalism as a bourgeois ideology, it can nevertheless fuel revolutionary movements against imperialism in colonized nations, whose economic and social development were held back by foreign exploitation.
Organizing in the Black Belt Nation
Sustar has an incredibly superficial understanding of the black national question in theory, but his historical evaluation of its impact is equally flawed.
When Haywood returned to the US in 1930, the CPUSA had already begun implementing the African-American national question by sending party cadre into the Black Belt to organize and raise the demand of black self-determination. Suster claims that “the new perspective launched the CP into a series of senseless sectarian attacks on reformist Black and working-class leaders, alienating the party from the mass of workers,” the actual effect of the Party’s focus on the black national question was tremendous growth in its black membership. (28) The Alabama Communist Party was particularly successful in building strong ties with African-Americans through applying the theory to political organizing. Kelley notes that “From the beginning, Birmingham blacks exhibited a greater interest in the Party than did whites.” (29) The party’s appeal among African-Americans came from its outspoken opposition to racism and its support for national self-determination. Kelley writes that “During the 1930 election campaign, the Communist Party did what no political party had done in Alabama since Reconstruction: it endorsed a black candidate, Walter Lewis, for governor. The election platform included complete racial equality and maintained that the exercise of self-determination in the black belt was the only way to end lynching and achieve political rights for Southern blacks.” (30)
The Alabama Communist Party’s orientation towards building a strong, independent African-American movement translated into exponential growth in black cadre. Starting with a mere three organizers in 1929, the Party “was augmented to over ninety by the end of August 1930, and over five hundred working people populated the Party’s mass organizations, of whom between 80 and 90 percent were black.” (31) Contrary to Sustar’s baseless claims, the correct application of the national question to organizing fueled the early rapid levels of growth for the CPUSA among African-Americans.
Black workers were hit hardest by the Great Depression’s rampant unemployment due to racist firing preferences by White managers. In response to the mass demand among African-Americans for jobs, the Alabama Communists organized an unemployment relief campaign in 1933. By the end of the year “the Party’s dues-paying membership in Birmingham rose to nearly five hundred, and its mass organizations encompassed possibly twice that number.” (32) The unemployment relief campaign was particularly successful in its goal “to increase the number of black female members, who often proved more militant than their male comrades, from open confrontation to hidden forms of resistance, and would later prove invaluable to local Communists continuing their work in the mines, mills, and plantations of the black belt.” (33) The Alabama Communist Party maintained high diversity because of its attention to the plight of African-Americans, and in particular, the plight of African-American women.
Southern communists heavily involved themselves in the sharecropper labor movement, whose composition was primarily African-American. In Alabama, for instance, the Party organized the Share Croppers Union (SCU) in 1931, which grew to “a membership of nearly 2,000 organized in 73 locals, 80 women’s auxiliaries, and 30 youth groups.” (34) The SCU was openly organized by Alabama communists, and while it drew substantial support from the African-American community, it was also subject to a harsh crackdown by state and non-state actors. (35) Nevertheless, “the SCU claimed some substantial victories. On most of the plantations affected, the union won at least seventy-five centers per one hundred pounds, and in areas not affected by the strike, landlords reportedly increased wages from thirty-five cents per hundred pounds to fifty cents or more in order to avert the spread of the strike.” (36) The mass appeal of the SCU, an explicitly red trade union, and its tremendous victories demonstrate the power once possessed by the CPUSA in the American South.
Because sharecropping and rural wage labor was dominated by African-Americans, the SCU gave Alabama communists an interesting opportunity to apply the national question to trade union organizing. African-American communist Al Murphy was chosen as the Secretary of the SCU, and the bulk of the union’s leadership was always black. (37) Kelley writes that as Secretary, “Murphy, an unflinching supporter of the Party’s demand for self-determination in the black belt, had very definite ideas about the radical character of the SCU. He saw within each and every member ‘standard bearers of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Frederick Douglass,’ and regarded the all-black movement as the very embodiment of black self-determination.” (38) The SCU came to represent the embodiment of Black self-determination applied to organizing because African-American cadre themselves comprised the union’s leadership, rather than the white labor bureaucrats that marked most other industrial trade unions in the 1930s. Nearly all of the Party’s black leadership had no prior experience in radical movements, making the SCU an authentic people’s trade union reflecting the class conflicts of the South. (39)
Perhaps the only aspect of Sustar’s piece with a kernel of principled criticism is his claim that the black national question was never “consistently put forward in practice.” While the CPUSA did implement and adapt the theory to much success, the rise of fascism and the breakout of World War II produced zig-zags in the Party’s line on African-American liberation, much to the detriment of the Party. For instance, the CPUSA abandoned Haywood’s line on the national question in 1935 in order to collaborate with conservative middle class black organizations in anti-war work related to fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. (40)
It is important to understand that Sustar is completely wrong in his assessment of the line’s implementation. Contrary to Sustar’s claim that the black national question “means subordinating the needs of workers to those of the middle class in the oppressed nation,” it wasn’t until the CPUSA dropped the demand for black national self-determination in 1935 that the Party began tailing the conservative black petty-bourgeoisie. (41) While the demand for a black nation was gaining traction among the black proletariat in the American South, the political pivot to a more rightist position proved costly to the CPUSA and actually fueled their waning influence in the working class. Sustar’s claim is outrageously ahistorical, and the facts actually demonstrate that abandoning the line seriously damaged the proletarian character of the black nationalist movement that the Party was building.
This political zig-zag was the product of Northern communists, who dominated the CPUSA leadership at the time. (42) Additionally, the sudden appearance of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), one of the only national trade unions to allow black members, prompted communist leaders to fold the SCU into the CIO in 1936. Although organizing within the CIO had tactical advantages in terms of available resources, the dissolution of the SCU “exacted a costly toll from the Alabama cadre, especially black party organizers.” (43) Because of racist internal policies limiting African-American leadership, “Black Birmingham Communists, for the most part, did not (and often could not) become pure union bureaucrats in the way that their comrades had in Northern and Western CIO unions.” (44) Reflecting deeper changes in their political line, the Alabama Communist Party’s influence declined across the South as it gradually lost its mass base among the African-American Nation.
One of the more bold claims made by Sustar is his claim that the CP pushed a line not shared by African Americans: “in the early 1930s, it was the Communist Party–not Black workers and farmers–who called for self-determination of the Black Belt.” Exactly who else is to put out slogans and calls? Is it a communist party’s job to wait until the people have perfected their demand and in the meantime there is nothing to do but twiddle one’s thumbs and hope for the best? Absolutely not. We say it is the job of the party to collect the best sentiments of the masses and translate them into coherent revolutionary action. Additionally, the tremendous success of the Communist Party in the South, especially among African-Americans and despite incredible state repression, indicates that the workers and sharecroppers in the South responded positively to the line precisely because they demanded it.