The Comintern’s call for American Negro self-determination (1928-1935), an idea formulated to support Soviet foreign policy goals and based upon Russian historic experiences, was disastrous for the Communist Party in the United States. This post will cover Soviet views of the Negro question, the events leading up to the call for Negro self-determination by the Comintern, Soviet foreign policy goals in supports such a call, and the American Communist Party’s response to the call.
In an effort to increase their influence over other Communist parties the Soviets created the Communist International, or Comintern, in March 1919. The Comintern became a Soviet-directed body with authority to decide principles and determine tactics for Communist Parties worldwide. The tactics decreed by the Soviet-dominated organization, however, were frequently based on Russian experience and unfit for conditions elsewhere.1
While the Soviets had clear-cut foreign policy goals for the tactics they demanded, implementation of the tactics could destroy the local Party’s gains and even lead to its ruin. It was impossible for the Russian leaders of the Communist International, five thousand miles away, to appreciate the unique racial and economic situation in the United States. The Russians themselves lamented their poor understand of U.S. condition; nevertheless, they decreed disastrous tactics for the country’s Party, and among the most bizarre was the promotion of a “Soviet Negro Republic.”
Most documents used for this paper originated during the period when African-Americans were referred to as Negroes. The post will use the term of the period to avoid using multiple names for the same ethnic group. Similarly the Communist Party, which was known during this period and the Communist Party of America, the Workers Party of America, the Communist Party, U.S.A., and the Communist (Workers) Party of America, will be referred to as the Communist Party, U.S.A., or simply, CPUSA.
CPUSA Party Position on the Negro Question Before 1928
Before 1928, the CPUSA viewed the Negro problem in the context of the social and political struggle for the working masses, not as a racial or nationalist issue.2 Indeed, John Reed, after discussing the Negro problem with Lenin, wrote during the Second Congress of the Communist International (1920) that Negroes considered themselves “first of all Americans at home in the United States.”3 Similarly the CPUSA declared Negroes an inseparable part of the American nation.4
The CPUSA position on Negroes self-determination reflected, at that time, both American White and Negro sentiments. Negro self-determinations movements did not have a wide following among the American population, and most separatist groups (such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association) were opponents of communism and saw capitalism as an engine of progress.5
Soviet Foreign Policy Goals in Recruiting Negroes into the CPUSA
Soviet leaders believed racism in the United States was a weak thread in the national fabric. They believed that Negroes, who constituted the poorest minority of the United States, with the least chances of upward mobility, could constitute the vanguard in a Communist revolution. With this in mind the CPUSA, under Soviet pressure, created a special Negro department, built special Negro organizations, issued Negro papers and periodicals, and attempted to recruit Negroes into the Party. American Negro political sentiments, however, tended to remain mainstream; Communist recruits therefore reflected neither the Negro working class nor broad Negro attitudes. Of the five original Harlem Negro Communists, four were foreign born intellectuals recruited from a small (3,000 peak membership) Negro nationalist movement, “The African Blood Brotherhood.”6 The influence of this fringe group was to cause the Party serious problems later.
Soviet Solutions to Ethnic Conflict
Soviet policy toward ethnic minorities during the period 1928-1934 was represented by the 1930 slogan, “National in form, Socialist in content.”7
When the Bolsheviks took over the Czarist Empire they formulated a nationalities policy to meet the requirements of a strong central government while addressing the desires of non-Russian nationalities that wished to retain cultural and linguistic identity. The Soviet government created autonomous republics, regions, and areas based on ethnic groupings. The constitution of 1924 contained the treaty by which the partners to the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics united as “one union state” consisting of many nationalities.8 In reality, the local Communist Party, while professing to represent local interests, was subordinate to Moscow.
The Soviets nationalities solution cobbled together by Moscow was probably seen as the best answer to their own ethnic conflicts and as a potential model for other nations. The Soviets also probably perceived that ethnic separatism in capitalist nations would only increase Soviet power and weaken world Capitalism. Oppressed national minorities in capitalist nations would, it was thought, support the Soviet Union against their traditional exploiters.
Stalin and Negro Self-Determination
As early as 1922, Stalin had shown interest in the question of Negro self-determination. Why, he asked five Negro CPUSA students in Moscow, weren’t there more Negroes in the Party when they were the most oppressed of the American working class? He then stated, “The whole approach of the American party to the Negro question is wrong. You are a national minority with some of the characteristics of a nation.9
His audience sat stunned as they listen to a call for “Jim Crow” in revolutionary guise. In 1925, Stalin again met with American students, this time accompanied by Russian professors, who read a long thesis in support of Negro self-determination. Again, the Soviet solution met with American hostility.10
From Stalin’s perspective, Negro self-determination was a rational solution to America’s Negro problem. Stalin apparently failed to heed Lenin who argued that, while American Negroes could be considered an oppressed nation, national differences in the United States disappear faster than anywhere else into a single “American nation.11
By the end of the twenties in was clear that, despite great efforts and much Comintern money, Communist success in radicalizing the Black worker was negligible. Coincident with this recognition of failure, Stalin began to argue that the capitalist countries were in a period of crisis and ready to attack.12
It was in this atmosphere that a special commission was constituted at the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International (1928) to study the “Negro Question.” The commission’s conclusions, issued as a resolution, “On the Negro Question in the United States,” brought about radical changes in the CPUSA’s Negro policy.
The commission, “persuaded” by Soviets nationality experts and influenced by American delegate Harry Haywood, former member of the African Blood Brotherhood, argued the Negro policy in the United States should be redirected to a movement of national liberation with the ultimate objective of a Soviet Negro Republic in the southern “Black Belt.” As described in the 1932 book, “Towards a Soviet America,” by William Z. Foster, Chairman of the Communist Party, U.S.A.,
“The status of the American Negro is that of an oppressed national minority, and only a Soviet system can solve the question of such minorities. This is does, in addition to setting up real equality in the general political and social life, by establishing the right of self-determination for national minorities in those parts of the country where they constitute the bulk of the population.13
Haywood was the only Negro delegate to support the idea; in fact the remaining delegates spoke against the idea. Eventually, the opponents of self-determination either changed their minds or found no place in the Party.14 Non-Americans made all speeches favoring the resolution.
Self-Determination and Wider Soviet Foreign Policy Considerations
Evidence indicating the call for self-determination was a tactical action and not a moral argument was the instruction that, if the United States as a whole were seized by Communists, “The Communist Negroes will not come out for but against separation of the Negro Republic from the United States (emphasis added).15
The call for Negro self-determination occurred during the same Comintern Congress that also declared war was inevitable between capitalism and communism, called the colonial masses a powerful auxiliary for the Soviet Union, and called for the creation of a World Union of Soviet Socialist Republics through violence. Presumably, the Negro fight for self-determination was seen as part of the colonial people’s struggle for socialism that would lead to their annexation by the World Soviet, led by the Soviet Union.16
This analysis by the Comintern caused the Negro students from the United States to be sent to the Communist Universities of the Toilers of the East, which was less prestigious than the International Lenin School, which most Caucasian Communists from the States attended. The Toilers of the East was founded for students from oppressed colonial nations and for students of the Soviet Union’s Asiatic regions. Since the American Negro students did not see themselves as distinct from other Americans, they perceived only segregation and a “white chauvinistic attitude” of the Party.17
It was also hoped that a Soviet Negro Republic would be the vanguard for nationalist movement in the colonies of the Soviet Union’s closer enemies, England and France. A Negro nationalist movement in the United States, if successful, would inspire colonial peoples around the world to rise up and expel their imperialist oppressors, in effect becoming Soviet allies in the combat against World Capitalism.18 Imperial states starved of raw resources would collapse. Said the Comintern resolution:
“The extent to which the Party succeeds in developing a strong revolutionary Negro movement in the United States, it will also be able to exert a decisive influence upon the revolutionary movement of the Negroes in all parts of the world.”
Soviet Definitions Versus American Realities
The Soviets perceived the very different racial problems in the United States were similar to their ethnic problems. It is possible the Soviets truly believed a separate Soviet Negro nation, bound to the larger Soviet State, was the best solution for the Negro’s problems. Indeed, Gorbachev was said to have asked an American journalist in 1987 why the Negroes had no autonomous republic, since that would be the solution to America’s racial problems.
The Comintern’s call for Negro self-determination was based upon a failure to understand the American social fabric. According to Soviet concepts, a nation was a historical community of people, based upon a commonality of language, territory, economic life, culture, and some features of character.19
While Blacks are ethnically different from the majority population, they cannot, under this definition, be described as a separate nation. The Black population speaks the same language as the White majority; and while Negro economic life was often segregated, it remained integral to the greater economic activity. Nor did the Negro population live within a compact territory where they could constitute a majority of the population. In fact, Negroes were not a majority in any state. In 1940, Negroes accounted for over 25 percent of the population in only seven Southern states.20
Furthermore, the Soviet Communists overlooked one important development: the migration of the Negro population from the “Black Belt” (which typically refers to the soil, not the population) to the industrial north, where they were emerging as industrial workers. The call for self-determination ignored the Negro industrial working class, the very class the Communist claimed they represented!21
American Communists Try to Deter the Proposition
Many American Communists understood that the policy favoring Negro self-determination would destroy any chance for the CPUSA to influence either working class Blacks or southern Whites. They saw the demand for self-determination as not only unrealistic, but suicidal for Negroes in the South. According to Benjamin Gitlow, CPUSA’s Vice Presidential Candidate in 1928, he never mentioned Negro self-determination during his campaign stops. Aware the Communist position was destructive to the Party, he confronted John Pepper, Comintern emissary to the United States and author of the pamphlet “American Negro Problems.22
“What do you want to do with this policy? Create a situation in the South where you will bring about a civil war between the whites and the blacks? Do you realize where that will lead to? Do you not realize that such a policy will lead to the butchery and massacre of thousands of Negroes? . . .Remember the tragic experience following immediately after the close of the American Civil War, which clearly indicate that against any such Negro domination the white people of the South, irrespective of class divisions, would rise like one man. If you advocate that policy, you are certain to close the South to the Party and inflict great harm upon the Negro masses, for which they would indeed not be responsible.”
Pepper calmly replied:
“Comrade Gitlow, there is much truth in what you say, but we could not help ourselves in Moscow. The Russians on the commission could only see the American Negro question in the light of the minorities questions which existed in Russia before the Revolution. Had we not fallen in line, we would have been severely condemned as deviators and ‘Khvostists’ who neglect work among the Negro masses.23
The Communists Lose the Black Masses
The vast majority of the Black community never seriously considered the CPUSA’s proposal for self-determination in the Black Belt. The push for national self-determination was not something the American Negro worker typically wanted. He wanted equal pay and fair treatment, not a separate nation. In fact, the idea did not have the support of most Negro American Communists. When twenty-five American Negroes were sent to the Soviet Union for training, they were ordered home after demonstrating against the concept of self-determination.24 Nevertheless, the Party continued to advocate self-determination in their propaganda.
The most famous of the Soviet Negro propaganda pieces is an extraordinary pamphlet crafted by James W. Ford and James S. Allen called the Negroes in a Soviet America. Drawing upon Russian history, the authors claimed the republics of the Soviet Union had the right of self-determination as representatives of their own nationalities. The pamphlet condemned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Booker T. Washington, the Roosevelt Administration, and called for the establishment of the Negro Republic in the South with ambiguous borders but containing the great cities of the Confederacy. Amazingly, the pamphlet held out the possibility of the separation of the republic from the rest of the Soviet America, just as the Confederacy tried to depart the federal capitalist system. The authors held up the post-Civil War Union Occupation of 1867-1868 as a model of revolutionary dictatorship. This comparison could only alienate both southern Blacks and poor Whites who could remember the murderous reactionary terrorism of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Ku-Klux Klan.
It would be an exaggeration to blame the Party’s failure to influence more Negro workers solely on this one issue. The Party’s position of self-determination was just one of many policies that convinced the Negro worker the Communist Party could not help improve his condition. The Communist Party’s attack upon the New Deal, which clearly improved conditions for the poor, was a major tactical error. The Party’s description of the NAACP as a “treacherous Uncle Toms” co-opted by the white ruling class was observably false by any potential black recruit.25
The Republic’s Quiet End
Even as The Negroes in a Soviet America was being written, the concerns of the Soviet Union had changed. Instead of a threat from the colonialist powers (Britain and France) or the United States, a National Socialist Movement strode onto the world stage with explicit goals of Soviet destruction and war. In January 1934, the Comintern, alarmed by Nazi Germany’s rise, abandoned it most radical positions and pressed for anti-fascist solidarity.26 The Soviets could not promote the destabilization of countries it needed to battle the more dangerous foe.
The results of the Seventh Comintern congress ended the call for self-determination. At the November 1935 meeting of the CPUSA Central Committee, Party leaders formally abandoned “self-determination in the Black Belt” and returned to organizing workers. The Party dissolved their nationalist front groups, such as the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, and moved the organization’s propagandists to the Daily Worker. 27 Haywood and other supporters of self-determination were either demoted or expelled. The CPUSA quietly pushed the episode into the darkness, and it was rarely mentioned. The episode, however, provided propaganda fodder for racists, anti-semites, and opponents of integration and civil rights for years.
Russians controlling the Comintern had failed to understand that the “Negro Question” — how the African-American would be incorporated into the greater American society — had been answered long before Lenin. The answer was written in the slaughter amidst the corn and tobacco fields of Northern Virginia, in the blood-filled trenches surrounding Vicksburg, and at the hallowed ground of Fort Pillow: The Negro was to be an American citizen. Their full emancipation could be delayed by nooses, attack dogs and fire hoses, but not stopped.
The Soviet nationalities policy eventually helped destroy the Union. The last Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, never understood that increased local autonomy–real autonomy–would end Moscow’s control. In the chaos of the attempted coup d’état against Gorbachev on 19 August 1991, the nations quickly scattered from the Union. Russia has since battled fierce ethnic forces in Chechnya, invaded Ukraine, and remained unwelcome in nearly all of the former Union Republics. The Putin regime now promotes a chauvinistic nationalism that will likely drag Russia into more conflicts with its remaining internal minorities and its neighbors.
1. Draper, Theodore. American Communism and Soviet Russia, p. 123. Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1986. Paraphrased criticisms by Scott Nearing, and independent socialist economics teacher, made in 1924.↩
2. Draper, p. 321↩
3. Draper, p. 339.↩
4. Mikhailov, B.Y., et al, editors. Recent History of the Labor Movement in the United States, p. 170. Progress Press Publishers, Moscow, USSR, 1977.↩
5. Pinkney, Alphonso. Red, Black, and Green, p 55. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1976. Although this book could be considered revisionist, it does not dispute the fact that the Communist call for self-determination came from Moscow. It does argue, however, that the black participants in the call were not stooges. This author disagrees. Mr. Haywood, the original voice for self-determination, was banished by the Party to lower responsibilities when he was not longer useful. He was later called back in 1948 when self-determination was again considered. By 1949, however, he was again out of favor.↩
6. Naison, Mark. Communists in the Harlem During the Depression, p. 5. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Il, 1983.
8. Draper, p. 336.↩
9. Draper, p. 334.↩
10. Draper, p. 334.↩
11. Keefe, p. 381.↩
12. Naison, p. 17.↩
13. Foster, William Z., Toward Soviet America, p. 303. Elgin Press, Balboa Island,CA, 1961. A reprint of the original 1934 book. The Party apparently later suppressed the embarrassing text, one of the most self-damning documents ever published by the CPUSA. Today the book is most frequently cited on websites containing complex right-wing conspiracy theories.↩
14. Draper, pp. 352-354.↩
16. World Communist Movement — Selective Chronology, 1818-1956, Volume 1, pp. 85, 87-88. Committee on Un-American Activities, United States House of Representatives, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1961.↩
20. Ford and Allen’s The Negroes in a Soviet America state that the territory of the Soviet Negro Republic “would include such cities as Richmond and Norfolk, VA.; Columbia and Charleston, S.C.; Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah, and Macon, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama; New Orleans and Shreveport, La; Little Rock Arkansas, and Memphis Tennessee. In the actual determination of the boundaries of the new Republic, other industrial cities may be included. The actual settlement of the question of boundaries will depend largely on the steps taken to assure well-rounded economic development to the Negro Republic (page 39).” One cannot but read the cities listed, however, and not visualize the Confederate States.↩
21. Mikhailove, p. 176.↩
23. Gitlow, 479-481. Pepper wrote, “The ‘Black Belt’ of the South . . . constitutes virtually a colony within the body of the United States of America. The Communist Party recognizes the tremendous revolutionary possibilities of the Negro people…. The Negro Communist should emphasize the establishment. . . of a Negro Soviet Republic (John Pepper, “American Negro Problems”, Communist, Vol. 7. No. 10, October, 1928.)↩
25. The Negroes in a Soviet America, pp. 4, 13. Workers Library Publishers, New York, NY, June 1935.↩
26. World Communist Movement, pp. 115-121.↩
27. Naison, p. 172↩