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The Comintern’s 1922 initiative for global Black liberation

May 8, 2018

Excerpt from proceedings of the Communist International’s Fourth Congress, 1922

In November 1922, two Black Communists of the African Black Brotherhood, a revolutionary organization based in the U.S., introduced the first resolution on global Black liberation ever adopted by a Marxist organization. Here are the speeches of the two delegates, Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay, along with draft and final texts of the resolution and comments by another delegate from the U.S., Rose Pastor Stokes. These texts are also found in Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, published by Haymarket Books, pp. 800-811, 947-50. Biographies of the speakers follow the text.

Regarding this resolution’s origin and significance, see my Black Liberation and the Communist International on this blog.–JR

Report on the Black Question

Session 22, 25 November 1922: [1]

huiswood

Otto Huiswoud

Billings (Otto Huiswoud, United States): Comrades, the Second Congress of the Communist International recognised the importance of the colonial question for the world revolution. From the ranks of comrades in the East as well as from some comrades in the colonies we hear the reproach that little attention has been paid to this matter and that it has not received the attention it deserves as a component of the world revolution. The Black question is another part of the racial and colonial question, and it has until now not received any special attention. I mean by that to say that the Second International did not devote any special attention to the Black question. That is why we find in the Second Congress theses the remark that the Second International is an International of white workers and the Communist International is an International of the workers of the world.[2]

Comrades Zinoviev and Bukharin referred in their speeches to the fact that the colonial question is today among the most important issues that we must deal with. And since this important problem is now under discussion, I expect of this congress that it will recognise the experiences we have gone through and the policies recommended for the colonial question. The congress – or rather the Communist International – has gathered certain experiences during its activity among the peoples of the Near and Far East and should have gained some knowledge regarding this particular problem. We will find that in handling this question certain unavoidable errors have been committed, from which we must learn. When we address the Black question, we must begin by heading in the right direction.

When we examine the Black question, we should include in our analysis the psychological aspects of the question. We must recognise that various peoples that have reached a definite level of development at a given time necessarily react to the world in a specific psychological fashion. If we try to work with these masses and carry out our propaganda and agitation among them, we must necessarily take into consideration the elements we find in this special question that is posed for analysis.

Although the Black question is chiefly economic in nature, we nonetheless find that the problem is worsened and deepened by frictions between the white and Black races. As is generally known, the question of race, based as it is on prejudice arising from the class prejudices of specific groups in society, still plays an important role. It is true that in the United States, for example, the competition between Black and white workers is the main source of racial hatred. But we must not forget that the Blacks still bear the mark of bondage stemming from the time of slavery. For this reason we find that the particular antagonism of white workers against Black workers takes a special form.

There are in all about 150 million Blacks in the world, of which approximately 25 million live in the New World and the rest in Africa. The Blacks in the United States and the West Indies are a source of cheap labour for the American capitalists. We observe that the capitalist class has always utilised them, as it still does today, in order put down the white working class in its daily struggle. ‘White Guard’ forces are recruited from the ranks of these Blacks, to be used anywhere that there is a revolutionary uprising.

The exploitation of Blacks in Africa makes possible the continued accumulation of capital. The capitalist class as such recognises the useful assistance provided by the Black masses. For this reason it many years ago set itself the task of infecting the Black population with bourgeois ideology. This it did, of course, in its own interests, and not in order to help the Blacks. The capitalists have carefully planned the formation of organisations among the Blacks that carry out propaganda for the bourgeoisie and against the white workers. They have called into being the renowned Rockefeller Foundation and the Urban League.[3] The first organisation is a well-known strikebreaking institution, which was at its post while most revolutionaries were asleep, while the second gives financial support to schools for Blacks. Despite these factors it was unavoidable that the Black population would find a way of defending itself against the oppression that it suffers everywhere in the world. Initially this took the form of religious institutions, which were in some periods the only permitted framework for their private recreation. Later we see, however, the continual development of Black organisations that, although composed entirely of Blacks, either directly or indirectly stand to some degree in opposition to capitalism.

The three most important Black organisations are, first, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP], an organisation composed mainly of proletarian forces and led by bourgeois intellectuals, whose activity is based on the principle of petitioning the capitalist class to improve the conditions of Blacks, which in practical terms is simply a form of begging.

We then come to a second and more interesting organisation, the Garvey organisation, which is ultra-nationalist and has a radical membership.[4] Although this organisation veils its programme with an inexpensive share-certificate system, it has nonetheless moved the Blacks into action against imperialism. This organisation was founded after the World War. Of course it did not take any definitive radical form; this was prevented even at that time by its leader. Nonetheless, it has awakened racial consciousness and utilised it on a broad scale, even into the interior of Africa, where one would hardly expect that an organisation formed in the United States would find a base of support.

The third organisation is the African Blood Brotherhood, a radical Black organisation whose programme is based on the destruction of capitalism.[5] This organisation was the only one to wage a struggle during the racial battles in Tulsa, Oklahoma – a brilliant and brave struggle – and it is the organisation to which the capitalist class of the United States is now going to devote its attention.[6]

There are also various small nationalist organisations in Africa, such as the Ethiopian movement, which all find their inspiration in the United States, the centre of political tendencies among the Blacks. These organisations have expanded and developed as far as into the Sudan. They could be utilised by Communists, if the propaganda material was written carefully and with reflection and was then used intensively to bring these movements together. So we see that there is already a sort of organisation that will oppose world imperialism.

There are about 450 Black newspapers and magazines in the United States, most addressing only the question of race, but nonetheless exerting a great influence on the Black masses. Thus we have, for example, the Chicago Defender, with a weekly press run of 250,000, which is sent everywhere in the world where significant numbers of Blacks are to be found. Then there is also Crisis, a monthly magazine with a run of more than sixty thousand. These publications, especially the Chicago Defender and others with a smaller circulation, have always made use of the radical propaganda material that we have made available to them.

The Blacks sense the approach of a crisis that will break out between whites and Blacks in the South. The seeds have been sown in the South and they must sprout up there in some form. It is likely that the crisis will take the form of race baiting on a vast scale.

For us, comrades, the Black question is of great interest and supreme importance. We see, for example, that among the approximately twelve million Blacks, two million work in the industrial districts of the North and another nine or ten million in the South. (I assume that you all have some conception of this South. When you go there, you will believe yourselves to be in Dante’s inferno. Sometimes you will feel that all hope is futile.)

The South is almost a separate country. Among the Blacks, eighty per cent live in the countryside. The [racial] division is kept very sharp, and Blacks are robbed of their right to vote. And here, where the class struggle is waged in its most brutal form, we find that the relationship between Blacks and whites consists of continual conflicts and life-and-death struggles. This is where you find lynching and racial uprisings. You see that in the South, the lynching of a Black is the occasion for enjoyment, as it is elsewhere to go to the cinema. When you grasp that the white population of the South is so imbued by this notion of white domination of the Blacks, you will also understand that we must take up this question.

At present, when major strikes are carried out in the North of the United States, we see that the capitalist class send their paid agents as rapidly as possible to the South to bring the Blacks there to the northern districts as strikebreakers. These agents promise higher wages and better conditions in order to induce Blacks to enter the strike districts. This poses a constant danger to white strikers.

But the Blacks must not be held solely responsible for this situation. The American trade unions, and I am speaking here of genuine trade unions, have insisted during recent years that a Black, even if a skilled worker, is barred from membership in the unions because of the colour of his skin. Just a short time ago, the American Federation of Labor made a feeble attempt to enable Blacks to join the regular trade unions. But even today, if I am not mistaken, even such an organisation as the machinists’ union has a regulation in its programme establishing as a condition of membership that each white brother will recruit other white workers, or something of this sort. That means that Blacks will always remain outside the union, simply because they are Black. The capitalist class and the reactionary Black press exploit this fact as much as they can in order to turn Black workers against the unions.

When you discuss with a Black about his joining a union or about the need to be a radical, you always get hurled in your face the response, ‘Don’t preach to me. Preach to the whites. The unions are useful to them, not to me. I am always ready to fight side by side with them, if they are prepared to let me join. But as long as they refuse, I will carry out work that has been struck. And by God I have a right to do this. I need to protect my life’. That is one of their arguments, and we cannot ignore it. We can advance all the fine theoretical formulations that we have at hand, but yet in the daily struggle there are some harsh and stubborn facts.

The commission on Blacks has drafted theses on the Black question, which I will now read. During our discussion of the Black question, we made certain definite proposals, which in our opinion should be carried out by the different sections of the Communist International whose countries or whose colonies contain Blacks. We have of course not made these proposals so they could remain on paper, but rather so they could be transformed into reality by the various sections. And we ask the Communist International to see to it that these proposals are applied to the letter and in the spirit in which they have been written.

We have drawn up an outline for our work, a proposal to begin work immediately among Black people of the entire world. We have also proposed the founding of a bureau for Blacks as a component of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. The reason for this was that we wished to coordinate and centralise the work. We thought that Moscow is the best place for this bureau, or section, or whatever you choose to call it. The Black question is of great importance for us, and for this reason we have made an effort to study the real situation in Africa and especially in the United States. We have not fallen into reverie over a programme. But we have nevertheless made specific proposals for a plan for a Black organisation. This plan took into account the specific spiritual characteristics of Blacks in the present period.

The theses on the Black question read as follows.

Draft Theses on the Black Question[7]

The foundations of the process of accumulation for capitalist development that existed before the World War have been turned upside down by the war’s results. This applies especially to the relationship between the advanced capitalist countries, which export capital, and the colonial and semi-colonial peoples under their rule. At the same time a movement of rebellion against the power of world capitalism, personified by the British Empire, has grown up among these peoples and is more and more successful. This power has extended to the degree that it is penetrating the territories inhabited by Black races. Colonising these peoples intensively is the last great challenge on which the course of capitalist accumulation depends.

The French capitalists have clearly recognised that postwar French imperialism can only be maintained by establishing a French-African world empire, linked by a railway running through the Sahara. American financial magnates, who exploit twelve million Blacks in the United States, have also now turned to the peaceful penetration of Africa. The degree to which Britain feels threatened in its position is evident in the extreme measures they have taken to suppress the strike in the Rand.[8] Just as the danger of a new world war has grown acute as a result of the competition in the Pacific Ocean among imperialist powers established there, so too there are sinister indications that Africa is becoming the prey of competing efforts by these peoples.

Added to this is the fact that the Russian revolution and the great revolts of Asian and Muslim peoples against imperialism have awakened the consciousness of millions of Blacks. These are the same Blacks that have been exploited by capitalism for a hundred years not only in Africa but even more in America, where a rebellious movement is growing ever more intensive. This exploitation has exerted its influence on the entire Black race, oppressing and degrading them.

From this it follows that the Black question has become important for the world revolution, both subjectively and objectively. The Communist International has already grasped how useful the support of Coloured Asian peoples in semi-capitalist countries can be for the proletarian revolution. It also recognises the collaboration of our oppressed Black brothers and sisters as necessary for the revolution of the proletarian masses and the destruction of capitalist power. For this reason the Fourth Congress declares that Communists have a special duty to apply the Theses on the Colonial Question to the Black question.[9]

  1. The Fourth Congress considers it essential to support every form of the Black movement that undermines or weakens capitalism and imperialism or prevents its further expansion.
  2. Black workers should be organised everywhere. Where Black and white working masses live side by side, every opportunity must be utilised to form a united front.
  3. Work among Blacks should be carried out primarily by Blacks.
  4. Steps should be taken immediately to call a general conference or congress of Blacks in Moscow.

Billings (Huiswoud): Comrades, to conclude I would like to express the hope that comrades of each section of the Communist International where there are Black workers will seize hold of the Black question in its current form, viewing this not merely as a New Year’s resolution but as work to be carried out in reality and in action, in order to awaken the consciousness of the Black masses and put us in a position to integrate them into the proletarian revolution.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Claude McKay (United States): Comrades, I have the feeling that I would prefer to face lynch justice in the civilised United States rather than to try to make a speech before such an intellectually developed and critically minded world audience. I belong to a race of speakers, yet my public speaking is always so poor that those of my own race say that I should not try to give speeches any more but should stick to writing. But when I heard that the Black question was to be placed on the agenda of this congress, I felt nevertheless that I would stand in eternal disgrace if I did not say something about the brothers and sisters of my race. I would particularly disgrace the Blacks of the United States, since I published a poem in 1919 that has become known, which is always shoved into the limelight because of my poetical temperament as a leading spokesperson for Black radicalism in the United States.[10]

I have the feeling that my race has been honoured by the invitation to one of its members to speak at the present Fourth Congress. It is an honour not because my race is different from the white or Yellow races, but because it is a race of workers, of hewers of wood and drawers of water, a race that belongs to the most oppressed, exploited, and subjugated part of the working class of the world. The Communist International is for the emancipation of all workers of the world without distinction of race or colour. And this stand of the Communist International is not just written on paper, as is the Fifteenth Amendment to the constitution of the United States of America;[11] it is something real.

The Black race at present has a special position in the economic life of the world. In every country where whites and Blacks must live together, the capitalists set the one against the other. It is as if the international bourgeoisie wished to use the Black race as a trump in the battle against world revolution. Great Britain has Black regiments in the colonies, and by using them in the last war it showed what can be achieved by Black soldiers. And the revolution in Britain is still far distant as a result of the well-organised exploitation of the subject peoples of the British Empire.

In Europe, we see that France has a Black army of more than three hundred thousand men, and that it aims to use this army to carry out its policy of the imperialist subjugation of Europe. In the United States we face the same situation. The North American bourgeoisie knows how well the Black soldiers fought for their liberation in the Civil War, even though they were illiterate and unpractised. It also knows how well the Black soldiers fought in the Spanish-American war under Theodore Roosevelt. It knows that in the recent war it mobilised more than four hundred thousand Blacks, who acquitted themselves very well. In addition to fighting for the capitalists, they have bravely weathered a hard struggle for their own interests, as they were forced after their return to the United States to struggle against the white mobs in Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington.[12]

But even more important is the fact that the American capitalists use Black soldiers in their struggles against the interests of the working class, and that they are preparing to mobilise the entire Black race in the United States in combat against the organised working class. The present situation in the United States is horrendous and fraught with danger. It is more dreadful and horrendous than that of the peasants and Jews under the rule of the tsars in Russia. It is so dreadful and horrendous that very few people in the United States can accept it.

The reformist bourgeoisie has carried out a struggle against racial division and race prejudice in the United States. The socialists and Communists conducted this struggle with great caution, because there are still strong prejudices of this kind among the American socialists and Communists. They do not want to take up the Black question. In my dealings with American comrades, I have seen that on many occasions, when white and Black comrades came together, that prejudice was noticeable. And the greatest hindrance that Communists in the United States must overcome is that they must first of all free themselves from their attitudes toward Blacks before they can succeed in reaching Blacks through any form of radical propaganda.

But when I consider the Blacks themselves, I have a sense that just as other oppressed races have come to Moscow to learn how to struggle against the exploiter, the Blacks too will come to Moscow. In 1919, when the Communist International published its manifesto, which contained a passage regarding the exploited colonies,[13] there were many groups of radical Blacks in the United States that distributed this propaganda among Blacks. In 1920, the American government set about combating and suppressing radical propaganda among Blacks. Several small groups of radical Blacks responded to these efforts of the government by a public declaration that socialists were striving for the emancipation of Blacks, while the reformist United States could do nothing for them.

It was on this occasion, I believe, that American Blacks grasped for the first time in American history that Karl Marx was concerned with their emancipation and fought for it energetically. I will read a relevant quotation from a writing by Karl Marx during the Civil War:

When an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, ‘slavery’ on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counter-revolution … cynically proclaimed property in man ‘the cornerstone of the new edifice’ — then the working classes of Europe understood at once … that the slaveholders’ rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labour, and that for the men of labour, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic.[14]

Karl Marx, who wrote these lines, is generally known as the father of scientific socialism and the author of the epoch-making work, Capital, popularly known as ‘the socialist Bible’.

Together with Richard Cobden, the atheist Charles Bradlaugh, and John Bright, he travelled throughout Britain to give addresses, and aroused the working class against the Confederacy to such a degree that Lord Palmerston, the prime minister, who wished to recognise the South, was forced to resign. Just as Marx fought against chattel slavery in 1861, his intellectual followers, today’s socialists, are fighting against wage slavery – the exploitation of people by other people.

If the American Workers Party were a genuine workers’ party, which embraced the Blacks as well, it would be illegal in the South.[15] And I would like to inform the American comrades that there is a local branch of the American Workers Party in the South, in Richmond, in the state of Virginia, which is illegal – illegal because it has Coloured members.

Here we have a small group of white and Black comrades who work together, and the fact that there are laws in Virginia and in most other Southern states that ban meetings that include both whites and Blacks means that the Workers’ Party can only be illegal in the South. In order to get around the Virginia laws, the Black and white comrades have to have separate meetings, and come together only once a month behind closed doors.

That is indicative of the work that must be accomplished in the South. The work among the Blacks in the South must be carried out through legal propaganda organised in the North. For the southern states of the United States, home to nine million of the Black population, which numbers ten million in all, is such that even the liberal bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie among the Blacks are prevented by legal restrictions from having their own publications to develop reformist propaganda.

The fact is that only in the southern states is there suppression of freedom of opinion. In the North, on the other hand, there is no such repression. In the North, special laws are passed for specific situations, such as for example the laws against Communists and Socialists during the war. In the South, by contrast, there are laws that have been on the books for fifty-five years now, banning Blacks from meeting together to discuss their grievances. The whites who are concerned with the condition of Blacks are not allowed to go to them and speak to them. When we send white comrades to the South, they are usually expelled by the white oligarchy, and if they do not leave the area the white mob sets upon them and whips, tars, and feathers them. But when we send Black comrades, they do not come back again, because they are lynched and burned.

I hope that the international bourgeoisie will not succeed in utilising Blacks in the final struggle against world revolution. I hope that in response to the challenge of the international bourgeoisie, which has now fully grasped the importance of the Black question, we will soon see some Black soldiers in the ranks of the best, most courageous, and most magnificent armed force in the world, Russia’s Red Army and Navy, who will fight not only for their own emancipation but for the liberation of the entire working class of the world.

Chair: I would like to point out that this is the first time that a world congress of the Communist International has taken up the Black question. I do not consider it necessary to point out the importance of this question. It is a matter of winning the race that has until now been the most oppressed. A resolution has been drafted by the commission on Blacks whose text seems somewhat theoretical and not easily understood by the working class as a whole and the more oppressed layers of the Black race. The Presidium has therefore decided to send this resolution back to the same commission with instructions to amend it and to return with a clearer version.[16]

Is there any objection to this? That is not the case.

The proposal of the Presidium is therefore adopted.

Adjournment: 4:55 p.m

Adoption of Theses on Black Liberation

Session 27, 30 November 1922

Comrade Sasha has the floor for the report on the decisions of the commission on the Black question.

Stokes Rose Pastor

Rose Pastor Stokes

Sasha (Rose Pastor Stokes, United States): Comrades, I will now read the thesis on the Black question that were referred back for clarification and expansion. I hope that it will be unanimously adopted by the congress.

Theses on the Black Question

  1. During and after the war, a movement of revolt developed among the colonial and semi-colonial peoples against the power of world capitalism, and this movement is successfully making progress. Meanwhile, the further development of capitalism depends on resolving its last great challenge, the penetration and intensive colonisation of the territories inhabited by Black races. French capitalism has clearly recognised that postwar French imperialism can only be maintained by creating a French empire in Africa, tied to the mother country by a Trans-Sahara railroad.

The financial magnates of the United States, who already exploit twelve million Blacks in that country, have begun the peaceful penetration of Africa. Britain’s fear that its position in Africa may be threatened is clearly shown by the extreme measures it took to suppress the strikes in South Africa in the Rand.[17]

Just as the competition between imperialist powers in the Pacific region has produced an acute danger of a new world war, so there are ominous indications that Africa has become the object of their competitive efforts. In addition, the war, the Russian revolution, and the powerful rebellious movements of Asian and Muslim peoples against imperialism have awakened racial consciousness among millions of Blacks, who have been oppressed and humiliated for centuries not only in Africa but also, and perhaps even more, in the United States.

  1. The history of Blacks in the United States has prepared them to play an important role in the liberation struggle of the entire African race. Three hundred years ago, the American Blacks were torn from their native soil, transported on slave ships under the most indescribably cruel conditions, and sold into slavery. For 250 years they worked as slaves under the whip of the American overseer. Their labour cleared the forests, built the roads, planted the cotton, laid the railway tracks, and sustained the Southern aristocracy. The reward for their labour was poverty, ignorance, degradation, and misery.

The Blacks were not docile slaves. Their history tells of rebellions, revolts, and underground techniques of winning freedom. But all their struggles were savagely suppressed. They were tortured into submission, while the bourgeois press and bourgeois religion declared their enslavement to be rightful.

Slavery grew into a barrier on the road to America’s development on a capitalist basis. In the contest between chattel slavery and wage slavery, chattel slavery was destined to defeat. The Civil War was a war not to free the slaves but to maintain the industrial supremacy of capitalism in the Northern states. It presented Blacks with the choice between slavery in the South and wage slavery in the North.

The longing, the blood, and the tears of the ‘emancipated’ Blacks formed part of the material from which American capitalism was constructed. When the United States, which had now emerged as a world power, was inevitably pulled into the whirlpool of the World War, Blacks were declared to be of equal worth to whites. They were permitted to kill for ‘democracy’ and let themselves be killed. Four hundred thousand Coloured workers were recruited into the American army and formed into Black regiments. Immediately after the dreadful sacrifices of the world war, the Black soldier, returning home, faced racial persecution, lynching, murder, deprival of the right to vote, and inequality between him and the whites.

Blacks fought back, for which they had to pay dearly. The persecution of Blacks became more intensive and pervasive than before the war, until they had learned to forget their ‘presumption’. The spirit of rebellion aroused by the postwar persecution and brutality, although suppressed, flares up again, as we saw in the protests against atrocities such as those that took place in Tulsa. Combined with the impact of the Blacks’ integration into industry in the North, this assigns to American Blacks, especially in the North, a place in the vanguard of the struggle against oppression in Africa.

  1. The Communist International views with satisfaction the resistance of exploited Blacks to the attacks of their exploiters, since the enemy of their race and of the white worker is identical: capitalism and imperialism. The international struggle of the Black race is a struggle against capitalism and imperialism. The international Black movement must be organised on this basis – in the United States, the centre of Black culture and the focus of Black protests; in Africa, the reservoir of human labour for capitalism’s further development; in Central America (Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua, and other ‘independent’ republics), which is dominated by American imperialism; in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Santo Domingo [Dominican Republic], and other islands in the Caribbean, where the brutal treatment of our Black fellow men by American occupation troops has aroused a protest by conscious Blacks and revolutionary white workers around the world; in South Africa and the Congo, where the increasing industrialisation of the Black population has led to uprisings of different types; in East Africa, where the current penetration of international capitalism is driving the native population to active resistance against imperialism.
  2. It is the task of the Communist International to show Blacks that they are not the only people that suffer the oppression of imperialism and capitalism. The workers and peasants of Europe, Asia, and America are also victims of the imperialist exploiters. In India and China, in Iran and Turkey, in Egypt and Morocco, the oppressed Coloured peoples are mounting a heroic defence against the imperialist exploiters. These peoples are rising up against the same outrages that drive Blacks to fury: racial oppression, social and economic inequality, and intensive exploitation in industry. These peoples are fighting for the same goals as Blacks – for political, economic, and social liberation and equality.

The Communist International represents the worldwide struggle of revolutionary workers and peasants against the power of imperialism. It is not only the organisation of the subjugated white workers in Europe and America but is also the organisation of the oppressed Coloured peoples of the world. It feels duty-bound to support and promote the international organisation of Blacks in their struggle against the common enemy.

  1. The Black question has become an essential part of the world revolution. The Communist International has already recognised what worthwhile help the Coloured peoples of Asia can provide in the semi-colonial countries. It views the assistance of our oppressed Black fellow human beings as absolutely necessary for proletarian revolution and the destruction of capitalist power. For these reasons, the Fourth Congress assigns to Communists the special responsibility to apply the ‘Theses on the Colonial Question’ to the situation of Blacks.[18]
  2. a. The Fourth Congress considers it essential to support every form of the Black movement that either undermines or weakens capitalism or places barriers in the path of its further expansion.
  3. The Communist International will struggle for the equality of the white and Black races, and for equal wages and equal political and social rights.
  4. The Communist International will utilise all the means available to it to compel the trade unions to take Black workers into their rights, or, where this right already exists in form, to make special efforts to recruit Blacks into the trade unions. If this proves to be impossible, the Communist International will organise Blacks in their own trade unions and make special use of the united front tactic in order to force the general unions to admit them.
  5. The Communist International will take immediate steps to convene a general conference or congress of Blacks in Moscow.

Sasha: Now, comrades, I would like to add a few words concerning the Black question, regarding specifically the paragraph about Blacks and the trade unions. In the American Federation of Labor, for example, Blacks are admitted to most trade unions in theory. But with a few exceptions, absolutely no efforts are made to draw Blacks into the ranks of the trade unions. In the United States we have a party that we can use as a means to exert pressure on the American Federation of Labour to admit Black workers.[19]

We must organise a specific campaign to achieve this. Just as our party branches make efforts to gather the radical forces in the trade unions, so too we can work – slowly but clearly and specifically – for the acceptance of Blacks in the trade unions. If we carry out such a campaign in the countries in question, comrades, and if we find that it is a failure, then it will be our duty to unite the Blacks in Black trade unions. We will then bring together the white and Black workers who are ready to form a united front and carry through our campaign for the acceptance [of Black workers], especially in the terrain of industry, were Black and white workers work side by side, striking together and suffering together the economic oppression of capitalism.

In this way we can hope to generate the unity, understanding, and adhesive power that will finally, through a common organisation, be able to bring these workers into the struggle. In my opinion, the congress has obviously taken a great step in the correct direction by calling for a general conference of Blacks. But our main task is to achieve the admission of Blacks working in industry into the trade unions, where they will conduct the struggle on an equal basis with white workers for their joint liberation.

Comrades, I would like to ask those of you whose countries contain Black and Coloured workers to draft a programme based on the Communist International that provides you with instructions on the conduct of the struggle, particularly in the trade unions. I ask you not to permit these theses to remain a dead letter but to transform them into reality, and to make the Black workers into an essential part of the Communist International.

Chair: The resolution has been distributed to you in translation and has been read out. We come to the vote on the resolution on the Black question. (Adopted unanimously)

Biographies

Huiswoud, Otto (Billings) (1893–1961) – born in Suriname; printer; Black liberation fighter; moved to New York 1910; joined U.S. SP 1918; co-founder of U.S. CP 1919; 4WC delegate; met with Lenin; editor of Negro Worker and leader of American Negro Labor Congress; travelled widely on Comintern assignments; settled in Amsterdam 1949; took part in First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists with Alouine Diop, Aimé Césaire, Franz Fanon, and Richard Wright 1956; member U.S. CP until death.

McKay, Claude (1890–1948) – Jamaican poet and writer; moved to U.S. 1912; wrote for Socialist press; an inspirer of Harlem Renaissance generation of Black writers; co-founder of African Blood Brotherhood, which merged into CP; 4WC delegate; lived mostly in Europe in 1920s; attacked by CP after return to U.S. 1934; remained socialist and advocate of Black liberation; in final years close to Catholic Worker movement.

Stokes, Rose Pastor (1879–1933) – born in Poland; moved to Britain, then U.S. as child; cigar maker from age 13; later journalist; socialist and union activist from 1905; won to Russian October revolution 1918; member U.S. CP and its executive 1919; 4WC delegate; continued revolutionary activity until death.

Notes

[1]. The German text uses the word ‘Neger’, which was then equivalent to the English ‘Negro’ – the word probably used by the U.S. delegates who spoke on this question. In recent decades, the English term ‘Negro’ has acquired a pejorative connotation and has fallen out of use. The German word ‘Neger’ is therefore translated throughout as ‘Black’.

[2]. See the introductory paragraphs of the Comintern Statutes, John Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, (Riddell 1991), 2, p. 696. John Reed addressed the Second Congress on the oppression of U.S. Blacks, drawing an objection from Serrati. Riddell 1991, 1, pp. 224–8, 235.

[3]. Between 1910 and 1930, approximately 1.5 million U.S. Blacks fled the South to escape poverty, segregation, and racist terror; a great number sought work in industry. During this period, many U.S. unions excluded Blacks, to the degree that Blacks made up only about 2% of union membership in the 1920s. Employers seized on these conditions to utilise Black workers as strikebreakers. The Rockefeller Foundation established a Department of Industrial Relations in 1914 to advise employers on countering labour militancy. The Urban League, founded in 1910, sought improved opportunities for Blacks in northern cities.

The Urban League called on the American Federation of Labour to act “not with words only but with deeds” for an end to anti-Black discrimination in its affiliates. (Parris and Brooks 1971, p. 136) The AFL did little to achieve this goal. The League advised Blacks not to take jobs as strikebreakers, unless the union in question excluded Blacks from membership. However, at least some incidents justified the League’s reputation for engaging in strikebreaking.

[4]. Marcus Garvey led the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in 1914. The UNIA sought to unite Blacks internationally in a struggle for freedom and equality.

[5]. The African Blood Brotherhood, founded in 1919, aimed to achieve ‘a liberated race; absolute race equality – political, economic, social; the fostering of race pride; organised and uncompromising opposition to Ku Kluxism; rapprochement and fellowship within the darker masses and with the class conscious revolutionary workers; industrial development; higher wages for Negro labour, lower rents; a united Negro front’. It sought liberation ‘not merely from political rule, but from the crushing weight of capitalism’. (Draper 1960, p. 325) The ABB had its own delegates to the Fourth Congress (see John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front, Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Haymarket Books, p. 437) and subsequently merged into the U.S. CP.

[6]. For eighteen hours during 31 May–1 June, 1921, a white mob waged war on the Black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The attackers destroyed the entire Black district, leaving 300 or more dead and 10,000 Blacks homeless. White-only hospitals admitted 800 wounded; Black hospitals had been burned down.

[7]. The draft theses that follow were subsequently revised and expanded by the commission on Blacks.

[8]. See resolution on South Africa in Toward the United Front, Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Haymarket Books, p. 635, and n. 35 on that page.

[9]. For the Second Congress Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, see Riddell 1991, 2, pp. 283–90.

[10]. McKay is probably referring to his poem ‘If We Must Die’, written in 1919, which contains the words,

If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain …
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

[11]. The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution, ratified in 1870, barred the exclusion of U.S. citizens from voting because of ‘race, colour, or previous condition of servitude’. By 1900, most Blacks had been deprived of this right by a combination of legal regulations and extra-legal terror.

[12]. Attacks on Chicago Blacks began 27 July 1919 and lasted a week; 38 people were killed (23 of them Blacks). Attacks in East St. Louis 28 May and 2 July 1917 originated in resentment against the use of Blacks as strikebreakers and left about one hundred Blacks dead. Attacks on Blacks in Washington DC 19–22 July 1919 were met by significant armed resistance, including by Black soldiers.

[13]. See Riddell, Founding the Communist International, Pathfinder Press, 1987, pp. 227–8 or Trotsky 1972b, 1, 24–5.

[14]. See Letter of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, Marx and Engels 1975–2004, 20, pp. 19–21.

[15]. The Workers Party of America was a legal structure established and directed by the U.S. Communists, at a time when the CP itself was still functioning underground.

[16]. For a response by a central Comintern leader to points raised by Billings and McKay, see ‘A Letter to Comrade McKay’, in Trotsky, First Five Years of the Communist International, Pathfinder Press, 2, pp. 354–6.

[17]. See resolution on South Africa, p. 635, and n. 29 on that page.

[18]. The reference here is probably to the Theses on the National and Colonial Questions adopted by the Second Congress. See Riddell 1991, 1, pp. 283–90. Theses on this topic were also adopted by the Fourth Congress, although not until its final session. See Toward the United Front, pp. 1034–44.

[19]. Stokes is referring to the Workers Party of America, founded December 1921. U.S. Communists first called for the building of a labour party in October 1922 and began practical work toward this goal in December.

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One Comment
  1. Bernhard permalink

    Here’s some more concerning Claude McKay: http://www.icl-fi.org/english/wv/1018/mckay.html, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/icl-spartacists/black-question/05_Finish_the_Civil_War.pdf (p.17-20)

    Disclaimer: I’m not a member or a representative of the Spartacist League/International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) http://www.spartacist.org

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