‘Our Negro Work’ by Cyril V. Briggs from The Communist. Vol. 8 No. 9. September, 1929.
IN attempting to evaluate the work of our Party among the Negro workers and farmers during the past ten years, it is necessary to begin with the frank admission that the task of winning the Negro masses to our program was seriously and sincerely taken up only since the Sixth World Congress. Most of our Negro work prior to the Congress was of a sporadic nature intended in the main as gestures for the benefit of the Comintern. In its resolution on the Negro Question in the United States, the Sixth Congress correctly pointed out that “the Negro masses will not be won for the revolutionary struggles until such time as the most conscious section of the white workers show, by action, that they are fighting with the Negroes against all racial discrimination and persecution.”
and further, that it is the duty of the Party
“to mobilize and rally the broad masses of the white workers for active participation in this struggle.”
This is just what we did not seriously essay in the years preceding the Sixth Congress. And it is significant that the Negro membership of the Party experienced its first real growth with the application of the Comintern line and exactly in proportion as when and where it was applied. Prior to the Sixth Congress one could almost count the Negro membership on the fingers of one’s hand—in fact, for a number of years this was literally possible. “Today, the Negro membership is increasing, in one district (Buffalo) Negro comrades outnumber the white.
Prior to the Sixth Congress, white chauvinism in the American Party (in both factions!), unmasked at that Congress by Comrade Ford, and mercilessly condemned by that supreme revolutionary body, made progress in Negro work well-nigh impossible. The Sixth Congress recognized this and in its Resolution on the Negro question laid down the line for a relentless struggle against white chauvinism in the American Party, declaring, in part:
“An aggressive fight against all forms of white chauvinism must be accompanied by a widespread and thorough educational campaign in the spirit of internationalism within the Party, utilizing for this purpose to the fullest possible extent the Party schools, the Party press and the public platform, to stamp out all forms of antagonism, or even indifference among our white comrades toward the Negro work. This educational work should be conducted simultaneously with a campaign to draw the white workers and the poor farmers into the struggle for the support of the demands for the Negro workers.”
Since the Sixth Congress the Central Committee and some of the District Committees have undertaken to carry out the line of the Comintern on the work of organizing the Negro workers and tenant farmers, share croppers, etc. A National Negro Department has been created to work with the Central Committee in the formulation of policies on Negro work and in the direction of that work nationally. The districts have been instructed to create District and Section Negro Committees, and most of the districts have complied. However, this is only a beginning. White chauvinism is still a powerful influence in the Party. Defeated at the center it is yet very strong at the periphery. Even in cities so close to the center as Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, etc., it continues to bedevil our Negro work. And it is particularly menacing at this time since it is precisely in this period of the growth of our influence among the Negro masses that white chauvinism can do most injury.
White chauvinism manifests itself in a general underestimation of the importance of the role of the Negro masses in the revolutionary struggles; in open or concealed opposition to doing work among the Negroes, in thinly veneered antagonism to Negro comrades and sympathizers; in failure to carry on anything but the most sporadic and feeble activities among these masses; in failure to come out openly and continually as the champion of the Negro masses in their racial and economic struggles; in failure to prosecute the fight in the reactionary trade unions for the removal of the color bar; in failure to mobilize and rally the broad masses of the white workers for active participation in the struggles of the Negro masses; in failure to draw capable Negro comrades into responsible and leading positions in the Party, in the left wing unions, in the Party auxiliaries, and in trying to excuse the failure to push the Negro comrades to the front with the rotten slander that existing Negro cadres are totally incapable and undeveloped.
White chauvinism has in the past not only prevented the Party from carrying on an aggressive and persistent campaign to win the Negro masses to the Communist program, but was responsible for many costly mistakes in our approach to these masses. The tendency in the past was to ignore the leading Negro comrades when formulating policies on Negro work. This manifestation of white chauvinism led not only to the leftist blunders which marked the birth of the A.N.L.C. and, on this and other occasions marred our approach to the Negro masses, but even to policies so utterly un-Communist as opposition to the spontaneous mass migration from the South of hundreds of thousands of Negroes on the rotten social democratic and A.F. of L. argument that the coming North of these workers would hurt the economic position of the northern white workers and result in the sharpening of racial antagonisms, with resultant race riots. As punishment for their opposition to this gargantuan stupidity the older Negro comrades were refused further support (five or six dollars a week for postage) in getting out the weekly news service which was being sent out to some three hundred Negro newspapers, and were absolutely ignored in the formation of the new bridge organization. The bourgeois trick of utilizing the least militant of the oppressed race was reflected in the Party at this period. At about this same time the Party, at a convention in New York City, went out of its way to repudiate social equality for the Negro, an act which was given wide publicity in the capitalist press and, of course, quoted extensively by the Negro press, thus in one breath of astounding asininity, destroying much of the good work done by our news service, leaflets and speakers.
Another example of the wrong policies engendered by the influence of white chauvinism in the Party is found in the circumstances which led up to Comrade Huiswoud’s defiance of the Party caucus at the Farmer-Labor convention in 1925 in taking the floor to answer an attack on the Negro masses by a Southern delegate. The Party instead of censuring the fraction for failure to answer this attack on the Negro masses and for further refusing Comrade Huiswoud permission to answer, accepted the fraction’s opportunist view that a defense of the Negro workers would have antagonized the Southern delegates. The Sixth World Congress completely exonerated Comrade Huiswoud and censured the Party for its support of the fraction’s attitude. A similar incident occurred at the Miners’ Conference in Pittsburgh when one of the most active Negro comrades was disciplined for his insistence in bringing before the conference the tabooed question of Negro work. This comrade has been since subjected to a campaign of persecution and what, in the absence of formal charges and proof, appears to be nothing but the dirtiest slander. Many other instances of wrong policies arising out of white chauvinism could be cited.
In addition to being hampered and sabotaged by chauvinistic tendencies in the Party, the Negro work, like the trade union work, anti-imperialist work, etc., further suffered as a result of the unprincipled factional struggle which was eating at the very vitals of our Party and with which the Comintern very properly and effectively dealt in the Address. The impossibility of any real Bolshevik self-criticism during the bitter factional struggle permitted white chauvinism to stalk unchallenged in the highest committees of the Party and gained factional protection for those comrades exposed as white chauvinists.
It is not my intention to give the impression that no work at all was done before the Sixth Congress. The Party led the Negro fig and date workers’ strike in Chicago, the laundry strike in Carteret, N.J., the Colored Moving Picture Operators’ strike in New York. In addition, we organized the Negro Miner’s Relief Committee, captured the Tenants’ League from the Socialists, held classes and forums in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. But the work was sporadic and therefore bound to be ineffective.
Since the Sixth Congress much has been done to correct the shortcomings of our Negro work. ‘The instructions of the Communist International to push the Negro comrades to the front in Party work have been carried out on a large scale. At both the Party and the League conventions Negro delegates were present in large numbers and took a leading part in the work of both conventions, serving on all leading committees, presiding over sessions, etc. Negro comrades were elected to the highest body in the Party, the Central Committee, and to the National Executive Committee of the League. Negro comrades were also elected to the Party’s Polbureau, and to the National Bureau of the League. Negro comrades have been added to District Committees, Section Committees, etc. An ideological campaign against white chauvinism was carried on in the Party press and in all units of the Party during National Negro Week in May of this year. In addition to this all too brief ideological campaign sharp organizational measures have been taken against several comrades who were exposed as white chauvinists. In Seattle, Wash., several comrades who objected to the presence of Negro workers at Party dances were expelled. In addition, the Central Committee expelled a number of comrades who, when the vote was taken in the unit to which the offending comrades belonged, voted against expulsion. In Norfolk, Va., most of the white members of a Party unit were expelled for refusal to admit the Negro comrades to their meetings. And in making the Norfolk expulsions the Party showed its Negro face by sending Comrade Hall to Virginia as C.E.C. representative to act in the matter.
In the T.U.E.L. a basis for trade union work among the Negro proletariat has been laid, and some work in this direction begun. A Negro department has been organized with Comrade Hall at its head. In addition, Comrade Hall was sent on tour for the Trade Union Unity Convention with the aim of mobilizing the Negro workers for that convention. Special emphasis has been laid on the necessity of getting large Negro delegations for the convention. Up to a few days prior to the convention, however, indications were that the districts had not done very much in this respect—another evidence of continued under-estimation of our Negro work.
While the Party and the T.U.E.L. have begun to orientate toward the Comintern and R.I.L.U. line on mobilizing the Negro workers for the class struggle, the left wing unions under our leadership have done very little to win the confidence of these workers—the Gastonia fraction being an honorable exception, with all its mistakes and wobblings, to this general indictment. Especially criminal is the apathy of the needle trades comrades and their general attitude toward the Negro workers—an attitude which has made it impossible for their union to retain the Negro workers which it only organizes in times of strikes. While this union has scores of functionaries, with departments for Greek, Italian, Jewish, etc., workers, it has not a single Negro functionary and no department concerned even remotely with the organization of Negro workers. ‘This, in spite of the fact that there are several thousand Negro workers in the needle trades in New York City alone. In the miners’ union the same underestimation is material. In spite of the existence of excellent, militant material plus the fact that the number of Negro miners is very large, in some fields outnumbering the white miners, this union has not yet appointed a single Negro field organizer.
The Party auxiliaries concerned with relief and defense have yet to orientate themselves on our Negro work. The defense body has been doing some good work in helping the tenants of Harlem to fight their battles against the landlords, but this is not enough. There are always numerous opportunities to champion the cause of Negro workers who are notoriously the worst victims of the employers and their courts. The relief organization has made a small start, but has not gone very far, due, in part, to lack of sufficient cooperation from the Negro comrades themselves.
That there is still urgent need for sharpening the struggle against white chauvinism, both ideologically and organizationally, is demonstrated by the present unhealthy situation in District 8 where as a result of much blundering and lack of political direction, a distinctly anti-Party attitude developed some months ago among the Negro comrades. Kruse, then D.O. decided that the district could not pay wages to a Negro functionary, and in spite of the repeated demands of the National Negro Department, the Secretariat and the Central Committee that the District Organizer share with the Negro functionary all funds available for wages this was never done. The Negro comrades in the district very naturally resent the failure to mobilize the Party behind this work and to give the necessary political and financial support. They had a perfect case to bring charges of white chauvinism against the comrade or comrades responsible for this un-Communist attitude and had they gone about it rightly they could have brought about the expulsion of those responsible. Instead they adopted a wholly impermissible anti-Party attitude and issued a statement in which they threatened to sabotage the Negro work of the Party unless Comrade Isbell was paid his wages. In reacting in this manner these comrades showed that they were politically undeveloped. However, the fact that the Negro comrades sinned against the Party should not be permitted to cover up the greater crime of the white comrades involved.
In St. Louis, Missouri, which is in District 8, some white Party members are at present debating whether a hall, controlled by the Party and in the center of the Negro community, could be thrown open as a center for Negro work! This rotten petty-bourgeois attitude cannot be tolerated in a Communist Party and the District Committee should take immediate and energetic action to force these comrades into line on our Negro policy or to kick them out of the Party. The District Committee must take responsibility for this condition in St. Louis and for the developments in Chicago. Had the District Committee given proper care to the creation of a strong District Negro Committee, and would have given political leadership and a correct line, many of these mistakes would not have occurred. How politically bankrupt is such an approach to the question of Negro work may be judged from the attitude of Comrade Milgrom and the support of that attitude by some of the white members of the Committee. Comrade Milgrom finds a million faults in the work of Comrade Isbell, but fails to see anything wrong in the attitude of the District Committee towards the Negro work of the Party. When deservedly sharp criticisms of Comrade Milgrom’s attitude was made by Comrade Gus Sklar, some white comrades had the petty-bourgeois reaction that Comrade Sklar was “unnecessarily antagonizing a comrade.” This is their conception of a Bolshevik Party and Bolshevik self-criticism! Comrade Isbell may not have been the proper comrade for the work but how any comrade could fail to see that the district was also at fault is inconceivable unless that comrade was supporting the chauvinistic policies of Kruse. The Negro District Committee further showed its weakness by its total neglect of live local issues, by its failure to react promptly and militantly on the beach segregation fight, etc. Here both the Negro and the white comrades were at fault.
The danger to the Party’s Negro work contained in such situations as exist in Chicago (the situation is being liquidated by a more correct attitude on the part of the District committee under the leadership of Comrade Hathaway), can be gauged by our experience in Philadelphia a few years ago, when a very active comrade withdrew from the Party in protest at the chauvinist attitude of the Philadelphia white comrades. At about the same time a group of Negro Pioneers withdrew on the same account. As a result, an entire branch of the bridge organization, of over 45 members, was lost to us.
Unfortunately, Chicago is not an isolated instance. At this very moment we have an unhealthy situation in Baltimore where our influence among the Negro workers is being undermined by the chauvinistic attitude of some of the white comrades there.
According to charges made by the local Negro director, Comrade F.E. A. Welsh, and Comrade Nicolai Garcia, a Negro comrade from the center, and substantiated by Comrade Hall on the basis of his own experiences with the Baltimore comrades, this attitude expresses itself not only in apathy toward our Negro work, but in open antagonism as well. Illustrative of the strength of white chauvinism among the Baltimore comrades is the fact that Comrade Garcia was in Baltimore six days before he was able to get a bed. The white comrades with whom he came into contact just didn’t know what to do with him! Yes, two days later when a white comrade arrived from New York and talked about going to a hotel there were instant protestations and offers about white comrades to put him up. Even in District Two, at least one unit (in Queens) “did not know what to do” with several Negro workers they had brought into the Party. Apparently it had not entered their heads that they should be taken into that unit.
For the failure to energetically fight and unmask these tendencies of white chauvinism in the Party the Negro comrades are them- selves largely to blame. Often, however, it happens that the Negro comrades involved are new members of the Party and are not aware of the decisive stand taken by the Communist International and its American section against white chauvinism and merely come to the conclusion that the Communist Party, instead of being a Party of internationalism and working-class solidarity, is “just like the republican, democratic and socialist parties” in the reaction of its members to the race question. White chauvinism must be rooted out of our Party. The petty bourgeois elements who are the ones most responsible for this manifestation within our ranks of the influence of the imperialist ideology must be dealt with sharply wherever it can be shown that they are sabotaging the Party’s Negro work or exhibiting other indications of white chauvinism. The Negro comrades should play a leading role in the task of exposing the white chauvinists and cleansing our Party of these undesirable elements.
It is the duty of our Party, of all its leading committees, of all the leading comrades, to unceasingly combat all manifestations of white chauvinism within our Party and within the ranks of the working-class. The Party must take up in all earnestness the task laid down by the Sixth Congress waging “an aggressive fight against all forms of white chauvinism,” accompanied “by a widespread and thorough educational campaign in the spirit of internationalism within the Party.” And this campaign should be treated as a major campaign, involving the entire machinery of the Party, including all leading national, district and section committees, the agitprop committees, the Party press—every instrument at our command.
There are a number of journals with this name in the history of the movement. This Communist was the main theoretical journal of the Communist Party from 1927 until 1944. Its origins lie with the folding of The Liberator, Soviet Russia Pictorial, and Labor Herald together into Workers Monthly as the new unified Communist Party’s official cultural and discussion magazine in November, 1924. Workers Monthly became The Communist in March,1927 and was also published monthly. The Communist contains the most thorough archive of the Communist Party’s positions and thinking during its run. The New Masses became the main cultural vehicle for the CP and the Communist, though it began with with more vibrancy and discussion, became increasingly an organ of Comintern and CP program. Over its run the tagline went from “A Theoretical Magazine for the Discussion of Revolutionary Problems” to “A Magazine of the Theory and Practice of Marxism-Leninism” to “A Marxist Magazine Devoted to Advancement of Democratic Thought and Action.” The aesthetic of the journal also changed dramatically over its years. Editors included Earl Browder, Alex Bittelman, Max Bedacht, and Bertram D. Wolfe.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/communist/v08n09-sep-1929-communist.pdf