The Third International after Lenin

Saturday, March 6, 2010

“Everything New and Progressive Came from the Revolution of 1917”

Bolshevik Revolution
and Black liberation

The following is the eighth in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest book, Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to study and discuss the book. This excerpt includes the introduction and several paragraphs by James P. Cannon, a founding leader of the communist movement in the United States, from the chapter “Everything New and Progressive Came from the Revolution of 1917.” Next week the Militant will run the rest of the chapter. Subheadings are by the Militant.

The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 in Russia laid a new foundation the world over for efforts to build revolutionary proletarian parties. Under the example of that revolution, a layer of class-struggle-minded workers began to recognize that, among other things, an uncompromising fight by them against national oppression is essential to the struggle to conquer state power from the capitalist and landlord exploiters. Led by V.I. Lenin, the Bolsheviks not only carried out this internationalist course inside the former tsarist empire’s prison house of nations but also insisted, when the Communist International was launched in 1919, that the fight against national oppression be placed at the center of its strategy.

The “entire policy of the Communist International” in the fight against national oppression “must be based primarily upon uniting the proletarians and toiling masses of all nations and countries in common revolutionary struggle to overthrow the landowners and the bourgeoisie,” Lenin explained in the “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions” drafted by him for the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920. “Only such a unification will guarantee victory over capitalism, without which it is impossible to abolish national oppression and inequality.”

An intransigent fight “against the most deeply rooted petty-bourgeois, nationalist prejudices (which are expressed in all possible forms, such as racism, national chauvinism, and anti-Semitism),” Lenin said, “must be given all the more priority as the question becomes more pressing of transforming the dictatorship of the proletariat from a national framework (that is, a dictatorship that exists only in one country and is incapable of carrying out an independent international policy) into an international one (that is, a dictatorship of the proletariat in at least several advanced countries, capable of exercising a decisive influence on all of world politics).”

Lenin’s position on Black struggle
For that reason, Lenin emphasized, “all Communist parties must directly support the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights (for example Ireland, the Negroes in America,1 and so forth), and in the colonies… . Recognizing internationalism in word only, while diluting it in deed with petty-bourgeois nationalism and pacifism in all propaganda, agitation, and practical work, is a common practice not only among the centrist parties of the Second International but also among those that have left that International, and often even among parties that now call themselves Communist.”

The young Communist movement in the United States, most of whose cadres had broken from the Socialist Party in 1919 to affiliate with the Communist International, did not initially pursue Lenin’s course. Demands by Blacks “for economic, political, and social equality were viewed by the communists as just another form of reformism,” Farrell Dobbs notes in Revolutionary Continuity: Birth of the Communist Movement (1918-1922). Many cadres “failed to perceive the connection between revolutionary proletarian objectives and the aims and struggles of the oppressed nationalities [and were unable] to shape a course that both solidarized the communists with the democratic aspirations of these superexploited masses and imparted revolutionary political content to their struggles. No special effort was made to recruit militants among the Afro-American and other oppressed nationalities to the communist movement.”

James P. Cannon, who was part of the founding leadership of the communist movement in the United States and a direct participant in these early experiences, recounted lessons from them in The First Ten Years of American Communism: Report of a Participant (Pathfinder, 1973). Major excerpts from Cannon’s account are printed below.

… American communists in the early twenties, like all other radical organizations of that and earlier times, had nothing to start with on the Negro question but an inadequate theory, a false or indifferent attitude and the adherence of a few individual Negroes of radical or revolutionary bent.2

The earlier socialist movement, out of which the Communist Party was formed, never recognized any need for a special program on the Negro question. It was considered purely and simply an economic problem, part of the struggle between the workers and the capitalists; nothing could be done about the special problems of discrimination and inequality this side of socialism… .

The inadequacy of traditional socialist policy on the Negro question is amply documented by the historians of the movement, Ira Kipnis and David Shannon. The general and prevailing attitude of the Socialist Party toward Negroes is summed up by Shannon as follows:

“They were not important in the party, the party made no special effort to attract Negro members, and the party was generally disinterested in, if not actually hostile to, the effort of Negroes to improve their position in American capitalist society.” And further: “The party held that the sole salvation of the Negro was the same as the sole salvation of the white: ‘Socialism.’” …

Such was the traditional position inherited by the early Communist Party from the preceding socialist movement out of which it had come. The policy and practice of the trade union movement was even worse. The IWW barred nobody from membership because of “race, color or creed.” But the predominant AFL unions, with only a few exceptions, were lily-white job trusts. They also had nothing special to offer the Negroes; nothing at all, in fact.


The difference—and it was a profound difference—between the Communist Party of the twenties and its socialist and radical ancestors, was signified by its break with this tradition… .

The true importance of this profound change, in all its dimensions, cannot be adequately measured by the results in the twenties. The first ten years have to be considered chiefly as the preliminary period of reconsideration and discussion, and change of attitude and policy on the Negro question—in preparation for future activity in this field.

The effects of this change and preparation in the twenties, brought about by the Russian intervention, were to manifest themselves explosively in the next decade.

1. In Lenin’s January 1917 article “Statistics and Sociology,” he wrote that Blacks in the United States “should be classed as an oppressed nation, for the equality won in the Civil War of 1861-65 and guaranteed by the Constitution of the republic was in many respects increasingly curtailed in the chief Negro areas (the South) in connection with the transition from the progressive, pre-monopoly capitalism of 1860-70 to the reactionary, monopoly capitalism (imperialism) of the new era, which in America was especially sharply etched out by the Spanish-American imperialist war of 1898 (i.e., a war between two robbers over the division of the booty).” V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 23, pp. 275-76.

2. Some early African American cadres of the Communist Party had been among the very few Black members of the Socialist Party. Others had been members of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), founded in 1919 in Harlem by Cyril Briggs, an immigrant from the Caribbean island of Nevis. The Brotherhood called for full equality and voting rights for Blacks in the South, the right of self-defense against Ku Klux Klan violence, and organization of Blacks into the trade unions. The ABB solidarized with Soviet Russia; condemned outrages by European colonial powers in Africa; championed the Irish struggle against British rule; and spoke out against anti-Semitism and Washington’s racist exclusion of Chinese and Japanese immigrants. The ABB built branches in New York, by far its largest, as well as in Chicago; Omaha, Nebraska; Tulsa, Oklahoma; West Virginia coal mining areas; and elsewhere. Two CP members who were Black, both also members of the African Blood Brotherhood, attended the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1922. Otto Huiswoud was a delegate from the CP and ABB, and poet Claude McKay an invited guest. Huiswoud was asked by Comintern leaders to chair the Negro Commission and reported to delegates on its “Theses on the Negro Question,” which were adopted November 30. McKay stayed on in Moscow for six months following the congress. Leon Trotsky’s reply to questions by McKay about the place of the fight against Black oppression in the world proletarian struggle was published in the Soviet press and is available in The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 2 (Pathfinder, 1953, 1972).

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