As Black History Month comes upon us again, one of the things left out of this discourse, despite its importance, is the role of Joseph Stalin as a national liberation thinker. This is perhaps jarring for the uninitiated reader and might strike some as racist to put a white Georgian known for his human rights violations within the same spectrum of as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr., but bear with me.
The recent fracas involving Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings about Bernie Sanders and reparations is instructive and has not been discussed in this fashion. What I found so intriguing about the exchange between Coates and his critics, including rapper Killer Mike, a Sanders supporter, was that they were trafficking in verbiage that is oddly reminiscent of the slogans used last century by the Communist Party USA in regards to what was then called “the negro question”. It strikes me that the Clinton machine press, such as The Atlantic magazine and other venues, have been using an ultra-Left position to criticize Sanders while failing to articulate that same critique for Hillary Clinton. Another example of this is in regards to Palestine, Max Blumenthal, son of Clinton bag man Sidney, has repeatedly hammered Sanders in his writing while noticeably failing to mention that the current state of affairs lies on the shoulders of his father’s paymasters. I would be remiss to articulate that this discussion should not be taken as me singing hosannas for Sanders yet I also think the Democratic machine that feels so threatened by him needs to be properly dissected herein.
To begin with, one must understand what Stalin said about what was called the national question. In his classic book On Marxism and the National Question, a text I have been told is still valuable by mainstream anthropologists, Stalin articulated a position that Lenin and the Bolsheviks adopted wholeheartedly and which later Communist leaders like Mao also held true to. In essence, Stalin says that the fight for liberation of an oppressed minority, even if it is not socialist in nature, short-circuits capitalism and imperialism, thereby taking on a wholly-revolutionary character. In the later Foundations of Leninism, he wrote:
The same must be said of the revolutionary character of national movements in general. The unquestionably revolutionary character of the vast majority of national movements is as relative and peculiar as is the possible revolutionary character of certain particular national movements. The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism…
In application to America and black nationalism, it created an impressvie anti-racist movement that informed later efforts by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Arguably the most important period of this struggle was during the Great Depression and the so-called Third Period.
The Third Period in the history of the Communist movement is an interesting and problematic discussion point. On the one hand, by calling the German Social Democrats “social fascists”, the German Communists prevented the creation of a political united front to stop the election of Adolf Hitler, a move which led to a whole generation being sacrificed on the altar of what scholars like Enzo Traverso are beginning to call the European Civil War between Communism and Fascism. But at the same time, there was an air of truth to the “social fascism” label, European Social Democrats in the seats of various imperial powers were overly deferential to colonialism and its institutional violence.
The Communist Party was actively agitating against the Jim Crow apartheid system in a variety of fashions. They spearheaded agitation campaigns against segregation and lynching while organizing labor unions across the South. The vindication of the Scottsboro Boys was brought about almost entirely by the Communist front organization International Labor Defense, who made the case a cause célèbre in the international arena, saying they were innocent, while the NAACP was merely calling for a fair trial to discern the truth, a position which almost certainly would have caused their execution. And the crowning element was the Communist Party call for a so-called “Black Belt Nation”, a vision of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow derived entirely from Stalin’s position on the national question. It bears mentioning here that the Popular Front period during the war, while able to grow membership, did involve a tampering down on the anti-racist militancy within the ranks as well as a no-strike pledge from CP members.
Harry Haywood, the African American Communist who remained for his entire life a devoted proponent of Marxism-Leninism and who titled his memoirs Black Bolshevik, had this to say in 1933:
…[The] concrete application of the Marxist-Leninist conception of the national question to the conditions of the Negroes and was predicated upon the following premises: first, the concentration of large masses of Negroes in the agricultural regions of the Black Belt, where they constitute a majority of the population; secondly, the existence of powerful relics of the former chattel slave system in the exploitation of the Negro toilers — the plantation system based on sharecropping, landlord supervision of crops, debt slavery, etc.; thirdly, the development, on the basis of these slave remnants, of a political superstructure of inequality expressed in all forms of social proscription and segregation; denial of civil rights, right to franchise, to hold public offices, to sit on juries, as well as in the laws and customs of the South. This vicious system is supported by all forms of arbitrary violence, the most vicious being the peculiar American institution of lynching. All of this finds its theoretical justification in the imperialist ruling class theory of the “natural” inferiority of the Negro people.
It is important before moving forward in this discussion to make clear that the Communist position on the idea of a separate republic based in the Black Belt was not occurring in a vacuum, multiple black nationalists (and even a few white supremacists) were arguing in favor of such an idea. The CPUSA position on this issue was one of many positions that all had as their conclusion a secession of the Black Belt from the United States.
Opportunistic anti-Communist historians, such as the late Irving Howe, leave this important context out of the discussion and present the CP policy as deluded. It was not, it was considered normal in its time. What was so impressive about this vision was that the CP said the Black Belt should not form a separate republic with the same states that would insure hegemony of the white minority. Instead, they suggested that the Black Belt states unite as a single entity, thereby giving electoral majority to Africans. This was a tenable effort at practical reparations for slavery that went well beyond monetary gain and entailed actual liberation.
The Scottsboro Boys, an incident not unlike the recent public acts of violence against people of color but with with a happy ending, was made into an international news story because of the effective agitating of the Communist presses. Haywood tells us the following:
[T]he Party was able to seize effectively upon the issue of the frame-up of these boys to develop a tremendous campaign of mass action and the exposure of the whole system of national oppression of the Negroes. The Scottsboro campaign marked the first real nation-wide mobilization of masses by the Party of concrete struggle against one of the cornerstones of capitalist Negro oppression — the institution of lynching. Through the struggle on this issue the Party was able to bring its program before the widest masses of Negro and white toilers, arousing among them the greatest sympathy and confidence. Scottsboro, as the first big battle conducted by the Party on the front of Negro national liberation, did much to break down the traditional barriers of chauvinism and national distrust separating the Negro and white toilers. This struggle, which was coupled with a real political exposure of the treacherous role of the Negro bourgeois reformists of the N.A.A.C.P., hastened the process of class differentiation among the Negroes — the separation of the interests of the Negro proletarian and semi-proletarian masses from the general interests of “race-solidarity” as propagated by the Negro bourgeois nationalists. The Negro toilers began to understand class divisions. They began to find out who were their friends and who their enemies. Only through the vigorous application of our correct Leninist program on the Negro question could the Party carry through and lead such a struggle as the Scottsboro campaign. This campaign gave rise to the sudden movement of mass participation of Negro workers on an unprecedented scale in the general struggles of the working class throughout the country. The great strike of the Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia coal miners which broke out in 1931, during the first part of the Scottsboro campaign, witnessed greater participation of Negro workers than any other economic action led by revolutionary trade unions. Large masses of Negro workers rallied to the unemployed movement, displaying matchless militancy in the actions of the unemployed. Notable examples of this were the heroic demonstrations against evictions in the Negro neighborhoods of Chicago and Cleveland.
Most historians agree that the case ended in a victory for the defendants only because of the militancy of the CP and its Fellow Travelers. This coincided with a union drive across the South that led to the region becoming a stronghold of CIO membership. There were flaws in Southern unions, most notably the instance in some cases where blacks were segregated into a dual-tier payment system, but the CIO to its credit was a major engine of desegregation, thanks in no small part to the CP membership of their most successful organizers, whereas the AFL was segregated.
Another element of this that is not as easily preserved in the meeting minutes or resolutions passed by the CPUSA is the integrated norms of their meetings. The Daily Worker began to run jazz album reviews and co-sponsor integrated concerts featuring famous performers. Communist Party dances were known sites of inter-ethnic dating, a place of interesting fights between white woman who danced with black men and the black women who sometimes felt slighted. This is the source of the claim that there was once a Jewish-Black alliance that informed an essential element of the civil rights struggle. What this phrase really refers to is that moment when African Americans found a powerful ally in the CPUSA, an organization that had a large number of Jewish members. Of course, mentioning that political orientation would be extremely inconvenient, therefore the mainstream narrative is focused around ethnic as opposed to class solidarity, perhaps one of the earliest instances of liberal identity politics.
One element of the anti-Communist historiography that recurs often is the idea that the CP had a “revolving door membership” wherein people would exit the Party consistently after a few weeks because they found the political program difficult. There is an element of truth there, not everyone is cut out to be a politician, but what is left out is the fact that many were instead members of various “front organizations”, groups that catered to specific demographics in a wholly-integrated fashion, be it a babysitting group, a literary gathering like the John Reed Club, or any other number of groups.
The late Abe Osheroff once described for the documentary HEIR TO AN EXECUTION, directed by Ivy Meeropol, granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, how the Young Communist League had a weight lifting club where the kids would do bench presses. As the Depression worsened, they became a cadre that would bring the furniture of evicted tenants back into the apartments after the landlords had ousted them! The Party’s history in Harlem, chronicled with great maturity by Mark Naison, was an amazing moment of political ferment that helped Adam Clayton Powell get elected and build a mass-organization that demonstrated against racism and poverty.
Of course one of the shining moments of CPUSA history was the creation of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought in the Spanish Civil War. This was the first fully-integrated military unit in American history where African Americans not only served alongside whites but were in commanding positions. Many of the black Lincoln volunteers went to Spain to fight Franco because they viewed it as avenging the Africans massacred by Fascism in Ethiopia, just as the Jews who went to Spain saw their fight as one against the Nuremberg race laws. Whatever the shortcomings of the Spanish Communist Party, one cannot in good conscience hold the Lincoln Brigade culpable for these failures.
In an essay for the anthology New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism, edited by Brown, Martin, Rosengarten, and Snedeker, Dr. Gerald Horne explains and defines the Party policy regarding racism and how their electoral successes with Benjamin Davis in New York City Council demonstrated an augury of the CP nearly becoming a mainstream third party with potential electoral weight had the postwar Red Scare and McCarthyism not occurred. Davis’ experiences, especially the charges of anti-Semitism made against him by the Israel lobby, demonstrates a certain racist edge to the anti-Communist moment that is never properly addressed in the mainstream.
When we understand how central to the CPUSA program this question of African liberation was, we properly understand the true meaning of the Khrushchev Secret Speech of 1956, sixty years ago now, the event that shook the Party to the core and finally defenestrated it. W.E.B. Du Bois, who made a late-in-life decision to join the Party, had written of Stalin at his death in March 1953:
Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous… As one of the despised minorities of man, he first set Russia on the road to conquer race prejudice and make one nation out of its 140 groups without destroying their individuality. His judgment of men was profound. He early saw through the flamboyance and exhibitionism of Trotsky, who fooled the world, and especially America. The whole ill-bred and insulting attitude of Liberals in the U.S. today began with our naive acceptance of Trotsky’s magnificent lying propaganda, which he carried around the world. Against it, Stalin stood like a rock and moved neither right nor left, as he continued to advance toward a real socialism instead of the sham Trotsky offered.
The pain of the Secret Speech was not learning that Trotsky had been correct, it was that the man whose theories had defined the most militant anti-racist current in American discourse on the issue had behaved like a madman. Not until the coming of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers did African Americans have such a militant vocabulary. From the period of 1929, when the stock market crashed, until 1956, when the Secret Speech broke in the headlines, the CPUSA had been a vanguard against racism with few rivals, perhaps only challenged by the Garvey movement. It bears mentioning here that, while Trotsky was still alive, the Trotskyist position was totally ahistorical, tone-deaf, and opposed to the CP position on a basis that looked at things from a European colonial view as opposed to taking into account the strange nuances of American racism.
Haywood was particularly shaken by the Speech. In his later years he became a part of the Maoist movement and declared all anti-Stalinism as “revisionism”, writing in Black Bolshevik:
Rather than finding a source of support in the Soviet Union, we on the left were thrown completely off balance by the two “revelations.” At first we couldn’t believe Khruschov [sic] made such a speech, thinking it must be some imperialist propaganda stunt. When this initial reaction passed we tended to give the new Soviet leadership the benefit of the doubt and failed to grasp the full implications of this attack on Stalin. The liquidationist right quickly took up the anti-Stalin banner and proclaimed the time for sweeping reevaluations of our line was at hand. They bitterly denounced our past history as one of slavish clinging to imported doctrines, the bankruptcy of which were now being proven. Under the guise of fighting dogmatism inherited from the era of “the cult of personality,” the Gates crowd concluded that Leninism was nothing more than Marxism applied to the peculiar, backward conditions of Russia – a purely “Russian social phenomenon” – and therefore not applicable in the U.S. They found Lenin’s theories of the bourgeois state as an instrument of class rule particularly outmoded and cringed at the thought of fighting for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
From thereon, he and many like him would refuse to accept the reality of the Secret Speech, saying that they were calumnies. But what they never were able to articulate clearly was that the Speech, in the hands of the liberal press, was used to delegitimize not just the CPUSA but black liberation as a current. This is where the failure of Stalin truly lies, not in his brutality towards Soviet populations but in how the validity of liberation of the oppressed hinged so much on his cult of personality. The lasting acclamation of Stalinists like Antonio Gramsci or Frantz Fanon demonstrates that even the power structure is unable to deny the validity of that current’s greatest minds.
Along with these general reflections, the issue of strategy becomes one of extreme importance. There are some in the world, like Lars Lih, who wish to see the word ‘vanguard‘ retranslated as something wholly different than what it meant in the last century. Others would like to see the concept totally rejected.
I have reflected on this much in my research. It seems to me that, in instances held up as glorious moments by anarchists, be it Nestor Makhno’s Ukraine, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Spanish Catalonia, the anarchists have time and time again rejected the extreme anti-political views of Bakunin, as laid out in the Introduction to Marx’s The First International and After: Political Writings Volume 3 by David Fernbach, and instead taken on the role of the vanguard party. If one reads the 1932 Towards a Soviet America by William Z. Foster, particularly the final chapter, it is a prescription for a program that is strongly reminiscent of the final goal of the Wobblies or the Socialist Labor Party of America. In the Ukraine, the anarchist Nestor Makhno had created a social order wherein he had a more democratic Soviet model than the Bolsheviks. In Spain, the anarchists abandoned their scorn for parliamentary politics so to run in elections and hold seats in government. Indeed, it was the Italian anarchist Camilo Berneri who argued that the Republic should offer to end the colonial domination of Morocco by Spain, which would have in turn cut off a key source of troops to Franco’s forces. Berneri was killed in 1937 by the Communists, at the time operating under a Popular Front line that tampered down on the Left-leaning politics in the name of a hoped-for alliance Stalin wished to build with France and Britain against the Fascists.
It would seem to me, in the era of mass-communication, radicalization of the masses into the vanguard would be a matter of hours rather than months and that a variety of websites exist to help accomplish this. And it would also seem, based in part on the behavior of the CPUSA, that we should be looking to African Americans and other people of color to be at the forefront. Whereas white Leftists are consistently beneficiaries of capital and must work hard to disown their white privilege, people of color are consistently facing the brutality of capitalism. They know, from slavery unto the death of Trayvon Martin and beyond, that capitalism informs the American psycho-sexual racism fetish. Ergo, to echo the words of Dr. Tony Monteiro, they are almost by default an anti-capitalist people. This is why Dr. Du Bois, in his study of Reconstruction in America, included in the subtitle the word “democracy” and made clear that it was a revolutionary epoch smothered by capital. It is why Malcolm X focused the early days of his Organization of Afro-American Unity on consolidating the black nationalist movement, rebuilding bridges with Dr. King, and even spoke to Socialist Workers Party meetings. And it is why Dr. King, in his final years, embraced a democratic socialist vision that was culminating in a united front against poverty and racism when he was murdered.
In reading how Stalin viewed national liberation, one can find a unique prism through which to view a variety of liberation movements, from the successors of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam to the LGBTQQI movements that reject neoliberal identity politics to the progressive elements in Iran and Libya. It is a fascinating way to think about various elements in our society and can help build up the critical alliances necessary for a vibrant Left to reach the status that the CPUSA once had.