Sunday, March 11, 2012

Red Chicago: Multi-Racial Political Organization in the 1930s

I read Randi Storch's excellent book Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots 1928-35 (see here for a review) a couple of months back and have been meaning to post on it ever since. There's a lot to say about this rich, well-researched and engaging social history of the Communist Party (CP) in Chicago during the "Third Period". But I only want to focus here on one particular theme running through the history here: the viability of multi-racial Left political organizations in a fundamentally racist society.

There is a lot that radicals can learn from the successes and failures of the CP in Chicago in the 1930s. By way of summarizing some of Storch's findings, I hope to try to shed some light on the challenges and prospects for building a fighting, multi-racial Left organization dedicated to fully uprooting racial oppression.


Before I say anything about Storch's book, it's worth reviewing what seems to have become the "standard view" about racism, working class politics and the possibility of multi-racial solidarity in the fight against oppression. The received wisdom is that the white working class has always been the most forceful defender of racial oppression throughout American history (whereas, allegedly, middle and ruling-class whites have been more "tolerant" and open to criticizing racism). According to this story, white workers have, without exception, been gripped by anti-Black racism throughout American history. Working-class racism has, in other words, been an unchanging feature of U.S. political life.

It follows, then, that Black/white unity is highly unlikely at best, or downright reactionary at worst. Highly unlikely because of the aforementioned historical narrative about unrelenting racism on the part of white workers. Reactionary because black/white solidarity under such conditions could only mean forcing black workers to compromise with the racism of white workers. But this would be tantamount to tolerating a fundamental injustice while, at the same time, diluting the forces of those committed to anti-racism and black liberation.

Now, the standard view rightly acknowledges that genuine multi-racial solidarity is indeed incompatible with white racism. And, it is of course quite true that there is a long history of racism in the working class movement, and even in the socialist movement in the US. The conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) was explicitly racist and excluded black and other non-white workers from its ranks. The Utopian Socialists like Owen and Forrier were racists, and the right-wing forces in the Second International supported colonialism. In the US, the early socialist movement varied from being, on the one hand, class reductionist/colorblind to explicitly racist on the other.

Daniel De Leon's Socialist Labor Party (SLP), for example, stood up against racism and fought for equality, but, at the same time, believed that racism was nothing more than a class question. As Ahmed Shawki describes it, De Leon argued that "Black workers were like white workers, and their problems were those of all workers. Racial oppression was simply a manifestation of class oppression. Therefore ...agitation around non-economic questions--segregation, lynching, or race riots--could only distract from the real struggle." The right-wing of the Socialist Party (SP), unlike the class-reductionism of the SLP, was explicitly racist. For example, Victor Berger, the first SP candidate elected to office in the US in 1902, openly scapegoated immigrants and described non-white people as "inherently inferior".

So that history of racism within the working-class movement is certainly there. But if this racism disfigures much of the history of the movement in the US, it could hardly be described as a monotone, static property of white working-class consciousness. Even the social/political status of being designated as "white" is dynamic and changing--indeed some previously "non-white" groups (
e.g. Jews, Italians, Greeks, Irish) actually became white as social/economic/political configurations shifted.

In truth, the history of the working class in the US is far more complex than the standard view acknowledges. Despite the racism described above, there is
also a long tradition of multi-racial struggle among black and white workers in the United States where anti-racist and class struggles overlapped and complimented each other. Contrary to the standard view, history itself refutes the cynical hypothesis that white/black unity on the basis of anti-racist, class struggle from below is impossible. Thus, the overall history of working class whites in the US would be better described as shifting, fractured, mixed and internally conflicted on questions of racism. Storch's book is useful in large part because it excavates an important piece of this largely hidden and little-discussed history of black and white workers uniting to fight for a shared project of ending oppression and exploitation.

"On a January evening in 1934, approximately six thousand Chicagoans gathered in the city's large Coliseum Hall to celebrate and remember Lenin... The audience included a contingent of five hundred children in addition to the thousands of grown women and men, half of whom were African American and the other half of whom were a mixture of native-born whites and first- or second-generation immigrants from various ethnic communities. They represented a number of occupations, including skilled and unskilled industrial workers, artists, intellectuals, and students."
This is a convenient introduction to the history that Storch's book uncovers. In the 1930s the Chicago district of the CP was--despite all of its problems and contradictions--a vibrant, multi-racial organization with thousands of members (and a much larger periphery) that actively fought against racism, fomented mass organizations dedicated to stopping evictions, and put together a movement of Unemployed Councils that collected popular discontent and channeled it into a large-scale fight-back.

In the early 1930's, black people made up 7% of Chicago's population, but constituted roughly 25% of the more than 3,300 Chicagoan members of the CP. In a city as thoroughly saturated with anti-Black racism as Chicago, this is a striking statistic.

Harry Haywood
Black militants in the CP joined for a variety of reasons. When Harry Haywood joined the CP in the late 20s, he did so on the basis of his judgment that:
"it comprised the best and most sincerely revolutionary and internationally minded elements among white radicals and therefore formed the basis for the revolutionary unity of Blacks and was part of a world revolutionary movement uniting Chinese, Africans and Latin Americans with Europeans and North Americans through the Third International."
Haywood's remarks suggest that he was (in part) drawn to the CP because it was part of a global anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movement fighting to throw off the exploitation and oppression faced by (especially non-European) peoples across the globe. This fact, combined with an ambitious program to fight racism in the US at a time when anti-racist struggle was generally low, no doubt contributed in large part to the CP's successes in the 1930s as a multi-racial radical organization.


In the 20s and 30s, there was a vibrant political scene in the black community in Chicago. There were, for example, annual rallies and marches celebrating the Nat Turner rebellion as well as a radicalized layer of activists in or around Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). There were also a host of politically active community institutions such as the NAACP, the Urban League, churches, and the Chicago Defender.

In the early 30s, there were frequently open-air political debates in Washington Park between Garveyites and Communists. "By 1932, Communists were speaking daily at the park to crowds that sometimes reached between two and five thousand." UNIA was a mass movement with millions of members in the early 20s, but by the late 20s (following Garvey's deportation and a slew of scandals) the organization was in sharp decline. Still, Garvey's movement had a lasting effect on political consciousness in the black community that manifested itself in the open-air soapboxing and debates in Washington Park. These vibrant public political discussions drew in a layer of radical (and radicalizing) black Chicagoans, among them, David Pointdexter.

Poindexter had moved to Chicago from Nashville, TN where he had witnessed lynchings first-hand. As Storch describes it,

"Pointdexter first gravitated toward the Garveyites, but, listening to the debates in Washington Park, he eventually found Communists more convincing. William Patterson, an African American party leader, later recalled that the party's belief that blacks and whites needed to work together ultimately caused Pointdexter to leave the Garveyite movement."
Pointdexter developed a reputation as a fiery orator, "when he got through preachin' everybody'd be ready to go into the lake with him. That's how much power he had over people." Claude Lightfoot was another black militant drawn into CP at this time. 

Lightfoot cut his teeth as an activist within the Democratic Party in Chicago, but eventually he found his way to the CP, partly,
"for idealistic reasons, to help the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed people all over the world." But if these reasons were important motivations for his decision to join, he also admitted that he joined "after having gotten up on the soap box... cursing out the police and then marching away triumphantly with the workers."
Unlike the racist Democratic Party in Chicago, the CP's candidates for a variety of city, state and federal offices included a large number of black members. One candidate for state representative, Dora Huckleberry, was described in a pamphlet as a "militant Negro woman. Arrested many times for her participation in struggles against discrimination and unemployment. A fighter for Negro rights." 

Candidates with this political profile were an important part of the CP in the 30s, even though contemporary liberal "wisdom" would have us believe that the Democratic Party has, for most of the 20th century, been the leading political force in the US for anti-racism. It's fair to say that the CP did more anti-racist organizing in the 30s alone than the Democratic Party has done in all of its existence.

Leadership roles with the Chicago district were not confined to white cadre. Key leadership positions were occupied by black members who took an active role in shaping the organization's approach to black politics in the city. The flood of black members into the organization in the early 30s permeated the group from top to bottom.

Even conservative newspapers, such as The Whip, acknowledged the inroads the CP had made in the black community in Chicago:

"The Communists have framed a program of social remedies which cannot fail to appeal to the hungering, jobless millions, who live in barren want, while everywhere about them is evidence of restricted plenty in the greedy hands of the few."
As Storch sees it, these sympathetic attitudes toward the CP
"...made their way to the grassroots... it was not unusual, when parents feared an eviction, for them to tell their children to "run quick and find the Reds!"... James Yates, an African American members of the Unemployed Councils on the South Side, expressed the party's significance to him: "I was a part of their hopes, their dreams, and they were a part of mine. And we were a part of an even larger world of marching poor people. By now I understand that the Depression was worldwide and that the unemployed and poor were demonstrating and agitating for jobs and food all over the globe. We were millions. We couldn't lose."

The CP's emphasis on interracial political organization also
"brought blacks and whites together... often for the first time. Lowell Washington, an African American member of the Unemployed Councils, remembered, "I never really ever talked to a white man before, and I certainly hadn't said more than two words to a white lady, and here I was being treated with respect and speaking my mind and not having to worry about saying something that might rile 'em up...Let me tell you it changed the way I thought about things."
That this was exceptional speaks to the deep-seated racism--indeed, apartheid conditions--in Chicago in the 1930s. Nonetheless, despite all of its flaws, it is incredible that the CP was able to carve out a space--however small and tenuous--for social interactions approaching equality and solidarity among white and black radicals.

Unsurprisingly, these "frequent, unprecedented displays of interracial solidarity on Chicago's streets sparked the city's administration into action." As has often been the case throughout American history, city officials and business elites were deeply troubled by the emergence of a multi-racial political movement capable of upsetting the balance of power in the city by mobilizing groups of workers often pitted against one another.

In 1932, the City of Chicago, backed by police violence, ordered an end to the growing anti-eviction actions organized by the CP to keep working people in their homes in the midst of the Great Depression. At one point, police stormed a large crowd of anti-eviction organizers and murdered several activists, among them Abe Grey, "one of the best Negro organizers in the Party". Several days later, one of Grey's friends was found murdered, his body mutilated. CP members were virtually certain that this was the work of the Chicago Police. The CP organized mass marches and speak-outs to protest this spate of police brutality, drawing together white and black activists by the thousands into the struggle.

The fact that the CP was able to pull this off in Chicago in the 30s---where black people were regularly met with terrorism, bombings, and brutal violence when they merely attempted to move out of "designated" areas of the city---demonstrates at least two things. First, it shows that dogged, consistent organizing work on the basis of anti-racist, socialist politics has the potential to forge political formations that can tear asunder existing racist ideologies. Second, it shows that a multi-racial front--built on solidarity and genuine equality--against racist and capitalist domination is both possible and worth fighting for.

The politics of multi-racial radical political organization is complex and liable to run aground in a number of different ways. The biggest danger is that an abstract, colorblind goal of "unity" encourages accommodation with the racist order by designating certain issues "divisive" or "distractions" from the "main goals". "Unity" of this sort is nothing but a compromise with oppression. It is not an emancipatory goal. But genuine solidarity---which requires, as a precondition, that white workers reject racial oppression and enlist themselves in the fight against it---is both inspiring as an ideal in its own right, and necessary if the working class as a whole is to emancipate itself. For all its faults and mistakes---organizational, political and personal---radicals today can learn a lot from the CP's anti-racist work in Chicago in the early 1930s.

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