by Karyn Pomerantz, October 19, 2017
This series of blog posts reviews the immense contributions of black revolutionaries fighting racism and capitalism, primarily in the United States during the early to the mid-20th Century.
This is not close to a comprehensive review; see a brief bibliography below for further reading. These inspiring stories can help advance our own antiracist movement.
Many people view Marxism and communism as a white thing, and the most famous revolutionaries, such as Marx, Lenin, and Mao, were white or Asian. The history books largely ignore the revolutionary contributions of American black communists, such as William Patterson, Paul Robeson and Lucy Parsons. They and many of their comrades advocated for working class unity to topple capitalism around the world in spite of Jim Crow atrocities, the patriotism pushed during World War II, and McCarthy era imprisonments and black lists.
Many white communists and socialists believed that eliminating capitalism would automatically abolish racism. They minimized the destructive nature of racism and did not strongly engage in anti-racist struggles. While eliminating capitalism removes the reasons for racism (creating more profit and dividing workers), black Marxists like Paul Robeson, William E.B. DuBois and William Patterson recognized the need to prioritize the fight against racist ideas and practices. Many all black revolutionary groups, such as the Marcus Garvey (Return to Africa) Movement and the Black Panther Party, promoted a nationalist perspective instead of building united working class organizations and movements.
Paul Robeson, Antiracist Communist Organizer
People remember Paul Robeson as a distinguished athlete, singer, orator, actor and lawyer. Plays and biographies about him often minimize his immense contributions as a communist and antiracist fighter in the 20th Century.
He made extraordinary and diverse contributions to sports and the arts. He was an All American football player at Rutgers in spite of his fellow racist team members and opponents assaulting him and breaking his nose, crushing his fingers and taunting him with racist names during games. Because he was black, Rutgers never listed him as All-American and refused to enter him into the Hall of Fame. Robeson also excelled in basketball, baseball, and track and field.
https://youtu.be/eh9WayN7R-s Robeson singing Old Man River
His work in the theater and film included Show Boat where he brought down the house singing Old Man River, and the leads in Othello and Emperor Jones. He refused to play roles that demeaned African Americans and longed to play race neutral roles.
He performed throughout Europe and the US, enabling him to reach 1000s of people. During his stay in London, Robeson met members of the socialist party, including George Bernard Shaw. He adopted communist principles and returned to the US as an organizer with the Communist Party USA working with William Patterson (see our September 2017 blog piece below) and William E. B. DuBois.
Robeson advocated for the destruction of capitalism and racism, support for anticolonial struggles around the world, and unity between workers of all racial categories and nationalities. He recognized the potential of the labor movement to fight racist discrimination practices on the job although many unions excluded black workers. Some unions like the meatpackers countered racism in neighborhoods where black workers lived. Robeson denounced these segregated conditions in housing, schools, and sports, campaigning successfully to end segregation in baseball.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 overthrew the czars and established soviets where workers controlled manufacturing, health care, and farming under the state. The Soviet government nationalized industries, collectivized agriculture and household work, outlawed racism, and provided free education. Their victory inspired workers throughout the world and threatened the US corporate class. The Soviet Union declared its support of liberation struggles in the US and anticolonial uprisings in Asian and African countries.
Many black revolutionaries, including Patterson, DuBois, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes visited or moved to the Soviet Union. Robeson’s family lived there for 5 years during the 1930s, enrolling his son in Soviet schools. “Here I am not a Negro but a human being. Here for the first time in my life, I walk in full human dignity (Freedomways, p 76).”
The US experienced economic depression during the 1930s. During this time, 50 percent of the population suffered unemployment. Workers lost their homes and jobs. Thousands of WWI vets descended on Washington demanding the bonus pay promised to them. They set up camp on the Anacostia River and marched through DC streets. Communist membership soared as the wealth of the corporate class rose.
The CPUSA dominated labor and the arts. Its members led unemployment councils, moved evicted workers back into their homes, and built the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO, the leftist association of unions that admitted black and immigrant workers. The Harlem Renaissance thrived as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry and Paul Robeson contributed to the arts as writers, actors, and novelists.
Terrified that a revolution loomed, Roosevelt established his New Deal programs to preserve capitalism in the face of these rebellions. Yet even these programs reinforced racism. They paid black workers less and excluded black farmers, domestic workers and Mexican farmworkers from Social Security. African American civil rights organizations fought these discriminatory practices, triggered by Roosevelt’s compromises with Southern democrats.
Upon his return to the US in 1939, Robeson boldly defended the Soviet Union as a model of racial equality to end white supremacy. “For they (Soviet people) have no minorities in our sense of the word. There of all people of whatever color or culture enjoy complete equality. (Baljai, p. 203).” He traveled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to sing for the American volunteers in the Lincoln Brigade who fought against the fascist Franco supported by Nazi bombing raids and munitions.
The development of fascism in Germany and Italy raised strategic decisions for the left. The US government called on the unions, civil rights groups like the NAACP, and the various political parties to create a Popular Front to oppose Nazism and support the war effort. It softened its racist rhetoric in order to win the backing of black citizens. The Army required unity among its soldiers in order to win the war. In response, many communists denounced the Popular Front and the government. They asked why African Americans and antiracists should support the war when the US ruling class oppressed black workers for centuries. Yet the leadership of the CP joined the Popular Front and softened its attacks on US capitalism.
DuBois and the Marcus Garvey party, a large black nationalist movement, sided with the Japanese fascists because they were not white. DuBois defended this line: “I believe in Asia for the Asiatics.” Robeson countered with a class analysis: “As a persecuted minority, we are on the side of the persecuted and colonial peoples. … As far as any sympathy for the Japanese because they make some dent in white civilization, this is fantastic (Baljai, p. 92)”. DuBois and Garvey’s analysis demonstrates nationalism’s worse feature where allegiance to people based on skin color and nationality outweighs allegiance to class. (DuBois later changed his support for the Japanese).
The level of anticommunism dropped during WWII as the US and Soviet Union became allies. However, the US only entered the war when the Soviet army repulsed the Germans and advanced on Berlin. Once the war ended, anticommunist rhetoric and attacks increased dramatically. Right wing politicians like Richard Nixon and Sen. McCarthy dragged leftists before congressional hearings to demand that they admit they belonged to the CPUSA and to name those who did. They destroyed the careers of film makers like Dalton Trumbo, expelled the leadership of the CIO, jailed communists and sympathizers, and implemented policies that increased segregation.
Attacks on the antiracist movement increased and generated different responses. The NAACP softened its demands preferring to maintain its mainstream status. Robeson and Patterson among others refused to squelch their communist principles and organizing in spite of vicious assaults and imprisonment. In 1949, organized fascists beat thousands of people attending a Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York.
The government deprived Robeson of his passport, making it impossible for him to travel, and blacklisted him from performing in the US, ruining his career and ability to earn a living. This led to a decline in his health but not in his political activity. He and Patterson published We Charge Genocide that denounced the US ruling class for racism throughout the world, eventually submitting it to the United Nations. In 1958, Robeson wrote Here I Stand that illuminated his political positions.
Robeson and his comrades stood for:
- Multiracial organizing and solidarity of the working class while prioritizing the liberation of black workers. They believed in multiracial unions and supported the CIO.
- International solidarity against racism and imperialism condemning the ruling classes of the imperial powers. However, he also supported new anti-colonialist leaders, such as Nkrumah in Ghana, Kenyatta in Kenya, and Nehru in India, without calling for an end to capitalism in their countries. In later years, Nehru lost Robeson’s support when he arrested Indian communists.
Robeson strongly condemned allying with the British and French during World War II because they colonized people in Asian and African countries. Robeson and DuBois strongly supported the liberation struggle in South Africa while the US backed South African fascism, continuing to send aid to South Africa from the 1940s to the 1980s. This internationalism influenced the left to support liberation struggles in Latin American, African and Asian countries.
- Support of the Soviet Union’s practices of criminalizing racism compared to the US’ oppression of black workers. They and their comrades witnessed many occasions when people were punished and ostracized for racist bullying. Soviet people welcomed Robeson and others with love and solidarity.
- Reliance on the grass roots to fight discrimination, using the electoral and legal systems as tactical interventions. He rejected the Popular Front that suppressed the antiracist struggles while the NAACP and the Communist Party joined the Front to oppose Nazi Germany. The decision to join or oppose US imperialism proved extremely difficult for the left, but Robeson consistently condemned support for colonial powers that exploited the working class, especially African, Asian and African American workers.
- Building a mass movement among black and white workers to oppose racism. The NAACP primarily relied on the judicial system to abolish racist practices. While trained as a lawyer, Robeson only practiced for a short time.
Making the antiracist and communist movements invisible was the worst attack on Robeson and his thousands of comrades. Their histories have been denied to later generations grappling to vision a non-capitalist future and to create multiracial movements. We can benefit from studying and implementing many of their antiracist principles and actions.
Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958, 1988.
Balaji, Murali. Professor and the Pupil: the Politics and Friendship of W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson. NY: Nation Press, 2007.
Freedomways. Paul Robeson: the Great Forerunner. NY: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1978.
Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson. NY: Knopf, 1988.