Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 15, 2020

Readings on race and class

Filed under: Black nationalism — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

The magazine of the African Blood Brotherhood, a nationalist caucus of the early Communist Party

Ten days ago, I received a query:

As I’ve started to dig more into socialism and leftist theory, I have started to take a closer look at Marxism and as I am just scratching the surface of Marx having read articles and seen intro presentations (still need to dig into his books), but I’m struggling with what many marxists seem to view as only looking at class without taking into account the importance of anti racism and that racism and its history, including its unique US history, also needs to also be centered in these discussions with a history of its own.

As I searched for “answers” regarding how to reconcile these forces, I saw two of your articles in Counterpunch: class reductionism and environmental racism; and Marx, Lincoln and the 1619 project. You used the term “vulgar Marxism” I believe to describe the consternation I’ve had with Marxism. Seeing those articles made me want to reach out to you with the hope that – since you seem to have studied Marxism for decades while also having some of these feelings – what you would suggest for me in terms of what other prominent thinkers may share these views as I’d really like to continue learning, but with the knowledge that you can be a Marxist needing to adhere to its orthodoxy necessarily. Being someone who speaks out against racism, stands with the Black Lives Matter protests, and is married to a Latina who is on the left but not steeped in theory, it’s important that as I develop an outlook on the left, that race not be discounted completely.

In my search so far I’ve seen some books in the black radical tradition, such as Racial Capitalism, and Black Marxism by the same author [Cedric Robinson]. I’m hoping those provide somewhat of a pathway into understanding how Marxist theory can be coupled with anti racism.

As is generally the case when I get this kind of email, I like to answer it on my blog since others might find my reply useful.

To start off, I’d recommend the minutes of the meetings that Leon Trotsky had with CLR James and other Trotskyists in 1939 in Coyoacan that are grouped under the heading “Leon Trotsky and Black Nationalism” on the Marxist Internet Archives (MIA). There’s also minutes from a discussion Trotsky had with Arnie Swabeck in 1933, when he was still living in Prinkipo, Turkey. Trotsky, arguably the most powerful Marxist thinker and revolutionary of the 20th century after Lenin, viewed Blacks as an oppressed nation and urged Americans to see them the same way that Lenin saw the Georgians, Ukrainians and other captive nations of the Czarist Empire.

I am not sure whether the Socialist Workers Party paid much attention to them throughout the forties and fifties but when Malcolm X began to popularize Black nationalist ideas in the 1960s, there was at least one SWP leader—George Breitman—who tried to connect Malcolm to the strategy Trotsky laid out in these earlier meetings. If you read his introduction to the articles grouped under Black Nationalism mentioned above, you’ll see how clear he was about the continuity between Lenin/Trotsky and Malcolm X, even when he was still in the Nation of Islam:

In 1923, Trotsky wrote a letter answering certain questions asked of him by the revolutionary Negro poet, Claude McKay. It appeared first in International Press Correspondence and may be found in Trotsky’s The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 1. Here, for the first of many times, Trotsky placed heavy stress on the racial prejudices of the labor bureaucracy and backward white workers, about which he never minced any words; he emphasized this because he realized it has crucial effects on what the Negro masses think and do. In addition, almost in passing, he showed he understood that only Negroes can lead the Negro struggle. The last part of his letter said:

“…it is of the utmost importance, today, immediately, to have a number of enlightened, young, self-sacrificing Negroes, however small their number, filled with enthusiasm for the raising of the material and moral level of the great mass of Negroes, and at the same time mentally capable of grasping the identity of interests and destiny of the Negro masses, with those of the masses of the whole world…”

In addition to the MIA section discussed above, I recommend reading other articles by George Breitman that are categorized under his own name there. Plus, have a look at the CLR James archive at MIA for many useful articles written for both the SWP press and later in Max Schactman’s party press.

Keep in mind that the socialist and communist left of the 1920s had much different ideas about class and race than Leon Trotsky. It was even more class-reductionist than Adolph Reed Jr. and his hangers-on. Without any connection to Lenin or Trotsky, however, African-American members of the Communist Party developed ideas that were akin to theirs. All this is documented in Mark Solomon’s “The Cry was Unity: Communists and African Americans 1917-1936” that was published in 1998. In my review, I noted:

What is significant, however, is that Solomon understands the progressive character of black nationalism as well, sparing no effort to show how the Communist Party at various points in its history embraced such initiatives. I want to focus in one particular moment in party history, which is highly revealing for the affinity black party members had for nationalism, namely the African Blood Brotherhood. Despite the separatist name, this group was the instrument of Communist Party involvement in the black struggle in the early 1920s.

Cyril Briggs was the founder of the African Black Brotherhood. Born in 1888 on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he always considered himself a “race man”. His father was a white plantation overseer and this accounted for Briggs’s light complexion, which earned him the description of the “Angry Blond Negro” later in life, just as Malcolm X was dubbed “Detroit Red” before becoming a nationalist for similar reasons. Briggs moved to Harlem in 1905 and launched a writing career, finally landing a job with the Amsterdam News in 1912.

I recommend Solomon’s book that can be purchased used on Amazon for $18.50 plus a small archive of articles written for Cyril Brigg’s magazine on MIA.

Coming from an entirely different ideological tradition, Ted Allen, Noel Ignatiev, and David Roediger echoed Trotsky and Briggs. Allen and Ignatiev came out of the CPUSA but were drawn to the New Left in the 1960s. As far as I know, Roediger was not a revolutionary activist like the other two but his ideas meshed with theirs. Allen’s best known work was the two-volume “The Invention of the White Race”. I’d recommend it but you can also read an article titled “Class Struggle and the Origin Of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race” that summarizes his ideas. You can also find other articles by Allen in the Cultural Logic archives.

Noel Ignatiev, who died last year, was the author of “How the Irish Became White”, his Ph.D. dissertation from Harvard. You can find articles by both Noel and Ted Allen in the Sojourner Truth Organization’s archives. Sojourner Truth was a group that Noel led in the 1960s that incorporates a lot of their ideas.

As for David Roediger, his 1991 “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class” is clearly tied to Allen and Ignatiev’s work, as indicated by the title. Fortunately, the book is online. He has also been interviewed three times on KPFA, recordings of which can be heard here. Also, look for videos featuring his talks on YouTube.

Jeffrey Perry was one of the members of the Sojourner Truth Organization. Over the past 10 years or so, he has been crusading to make known the work of Hubert Harrison, an African-American who was part of the same generation as Cyril Briggs. In a communication from Jeffrey I received recently, he had news of the second volume of his biography of Harrison:

The forthcoming (November 2020) Columbia University Press publication of “Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927” (https://cup.columbia.edu/book/hubert-harrison/9780231182638 ) follows “Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918” ( https://cup.columbia.edu/book/hubert-harrison/9780231139113 ). This two-volume biography by Jeffrey B. Perry (www.jeffreybperry.net ) is based on extensive use of the Hubert H. Harrison Papers and Diary, which the author placed with Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Born to a Barbadian mother and Crucian father in St. Croix, Harlem-based Hubert Harrison (1883-1927) was a brilliant writer, orator, editor, educator, critic, and activist. He combined class consciousness and anti-white-supremacist race consciousness, internationalism, and struggle for equality into a potent political radicalism. Harrison’s ideas profoundly influenced “New Negro” militants, including A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey, and his work is a key link in the two great strands of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation struggle: the labor- and civil-rights movement associated with Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. and the race and nationalist movement associated with Garvey and Malcolm X.

I have not read Jeffrey’s biography but in a fairly long talk I had with him at a Left Forum in NY a few years ago, he assured me that I would find a strong affinity with both Ted Allen’s book (that is on my bookshelf) and Hubert Harrison. You can read a 117-page article by Jeffrey Perry titled “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy” online.

Finally, I strongly recommend Robin D.G. Kelley’s Boston Review article titled “Births of a Nation, Redux: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric Robinson” that is both a tribute to Robinson as well as a savvy take on the current struggle against white supremacy as exemplified by BLM. For my money, Kelley is today’s leading African-American Marxist scholar who is making the same kind of contribution WEB DuBois made a century ago. I’d look for any articles by him that can be found online and any book he written without qualification.

5 Comments »

  1. Louis, have you read Shactman’s “Race and Revolution,” written in 1933?

    Comment by David Berger — November 16, 2020 @ 12:55 am

  2. Nope.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 16, 2020 @ 12:58 am

  3. Thank you so much for your blog, Mr. Proyect. I lived through three political movements started by black women- MeToo, the Sudanese Revolution, and the BLM uprising, and I have found the practice of Marxism in North America difficult to participate in in a multiracial setting because of class reductionism in the last decade and so instead I lived life as a closeted socialist as I struggled through these three events and in your blog I have been able to find analyses that confirmed my experience as I struggle to discern the possibilities of multiracial organizing. It is not appreciated and few have done a realistic appraisal but the left today is very racially divided. In my opinion, beyond the weakness of class politics that could have maybe served to cohesively undergird an emerging feminist movement, MeToo fell apart due to racial divisions (https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/dahleen-glanton/ct-trump-women-voters-20201111-rmuaw5q4gvgyfbt4fxbqpmbcpi-story.htmland instead we see women of color writing pieces like this and white women self-flagellating on the media and on the Internet and now I am stressed as to whether the BLM uprising and that current of left politics will be able to merge with post-2008 crash socialism. Thanks! 🙂

    Comment by mariamagra — November 16, 2020 @ 2:55 pm

  4. The book Black Reconstruction is table stakes for any socialist project in the US.

    Comment by Aaron — November 18, 2020 @ 7:39 pm

  5. A very decent outline Louis. I am surprised that Breitman’s book is even still in print. It must be strictly out of a financial consideration as Barnes has written a massive brick of garbage that spells out their current position, and it has NOTHING to do with anything that Breitman wrote. You should certainly read Perry’s biographies of Harrison. If not read his collected writings that Perry put out a few years before the first Harrison biography. It was the first time i heard, through Harrison’s scathing denunciation, how deeply the socialist party accommodated white working class bigotry. Debs’ remarks on not offering anything special to the “negro” have NOTHING on this. The socialists allowed segregated chapters in the south and printed degenerate screeds in their publications from chapter members arguing against the dangers of “social integration” using arguments indistinguishable from the most lunatic neo-confederates. Harrison quotes them at length and then goes in on the polemic. As a man who was both a class first socialist and then a race first Garveyite and then finally an independent he certainly reconciled Black Nationalism and socialism in a way that many people find difficult, past or present. Robert Allen’s old classic “Black Awakening in Capitalist America” is still worth recommending to people as well. One point of disagreement though, the African Blood Brotherhood was not “a nationalist caucus of the early Communist Party” IT BECAME THAT. It is important to make the distinction because that mistake is in much of the literature. The source is always an interview with someone who stayed in the CP and describes it as such. But it started off as an independent group and later merged into the CP. Cyril Briggs co-founded the “Hamitic League of the World” (don’t laugh) with George Wells Parker in early 1917. The Crusader was their publication. Briggs, and a whole core of Black militants, were inspired by the BOLSHEVIK revolution while they were none too impressed by US communists. They liked Lenin, Trotsky and the rest but not the class reductionists in New York. They organized the ABB from that core and tried to establish independent ties to Moscow. They did work with the CP and eventually joined some years later. Most of the people who went in this route were over the years expelled from the CP as “bourgeois nationalists and ultra-leftists” over the years. The expulsions were initiated during the Popular Front but continued until the 1950s. It is how we ended up in the Black Community with a distinctive brand of “Third Period” communists that never became Maoists (though some did).

    Comment by New Afrikan Socialist — December 1, 2020 @ 3:12 am


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