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Workers Vanguard No. 1076

16 October 2015

The Communist Fight Against Black Oppression

Leninism vs. Debs’s Socialist Party

Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party (SP) in the early 20th century, has been getting a lot of attention from the reformist social-democratic left these days. The reason is that Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate, sees himself as standing in the tradition of Debs. In particular, with Black Lives Matter activists and others criticizing Sanders for having nothing to say to black people, what Debs had to say about racial oppression is being discussed.

Likening Sanders to Debs is grotesque. Debs, whatever his shortcomings, was a socialist who opposed all capitalist politicians and dedicated his life to the struggle to get rid of capitalism. Sanders, in contrast, is a bourgeois politician, a representative of the class enemy. He is seeking to be nominated for imperialist commander-in-chief by the capitalist Democratic Party.

In August, the social-democratic journal Jacobin published an online article “Something to Offer” (, August 11), which was an edited version of an article originally published in 2008 in the academic journal International Labor and Working-Class History. The author, University of Wisconsin historian William P. Jones, defends Debs against accusations of indifference to racism. Jacobin’s blurb says: “Unlike many in his party, Eugene V. Debs believed the struggle for black equality was critical to realizing the promise of socialism.”

Jones argues against using Debs “to epitomize white radicals’ alleged indifference to racism and its significance to the history of the working class in the United States.” He blames this view of Debs on the influence of mid 20th century labor historian Philip S. Foner, a supporter of the Communist Party. Jones’s attack on Foner appears in the broader context of attempts to refurbish the Socialist Party at the expense of the Bolshevik Revolution and the early Communist movement. A whole array of authors around the Historical Materialism journal, its conferences and book series willfully obscure the vast gulf that separates the Second (Socialist) and Third (Communist) Internationals (see “The Neo-Kautskyites,” Spartacist No. 63, Winter 2012-13).

It is worth reading Jones’s piece alongside the two Debs articles he discusses: “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” (International Socialist Review, November 1903) and “The Negro and His Nemesis,” (International Socialist Review, January 1904), both of which are included in the book Eugene V. Debs Speaks (1972). Jones attempts to defend Debs’s social-democratic attitude toward black oppression, especially from Communist critics. But, unintentionally, he underlines both Debs’s weaknesses and also the importance of the Leninist analysis of black oppression and its effect on the working class and the labor movement.

The racial oppression of black people is fundamental to American capitalism, which was founded on chattel slavery, and cannot be eliminated short of socialist revolution. The capitalist ruling class foments racial animosities to divide and weaken the working class and defend its own rule. The fight against black oppression is crucial to the fight to overthrow U.S. capitalism; black workers must play a leading role in this struggle.

Jones goes to great lengths to show that Debs was not a racist and that he denounced racism. This is true. The two articles by Debs, written as polemics against racists within the SP, are eloquent in defending black people against racism, in calling for working-class unity across racial lines and in emphasizing that the Socialist Party should open its ranks to black people. In “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” Debs stressed, “The history of the Negro in the United States is a history of crime without a parallel.” Debs stands out favorably against most of his contemporaries in the labor movement—including within the SP.

Debs’s writing remains a powerful denunciation of white workers’ racism. Debs recognized that black oppression, rather than making white workers privileged, degrades them, thus providing a refutation of the later concept of “white skin privilege.” In “The Negro and His Nemesis,” Debs wrote:

“Foolish and vain indeed is the [white] workingman who makes the color of his skin the steppingstone to his imaginary superiority. The trouble is with his head, and if he can get that right he will find that what ails him is not superiority but inferiority, and that he, as well as the Negro he despises, is the victim of wage slavery, which robs him of what he produces and keeps both him and the Negro tied down to the dead level of ignorance and degradation.”

Proving that Debs was not a racist is a bit of a straw-man argument. The characterization of Debs as “color blind” does not signify that he was racist, or even indifferent to black oppression. Rather, it refers to three interrelated flaws: Debs’s lack of understanding of the central role that black oppression plays in maintaining capitalism in the United States, of the vital (and numerically disproportionate) role that black workers will play in an American socialist revolution, and of the need for a revolutionary workers party that places the fight against black oppression at its center.

For a Leninist Vanguard Party

At bottom, Debs’s problems on the black question are related to his fundamental political problem: the party question. As V. I. Lenin argued, in What Is to Be Done? (1902), the party should, as “the tribune of the people,” defend all the oppressed. In order for Lenin’s Bolshevik Party to be the instrument of proletarian revolution, it needed to be comprised of the most advanced elements of the working class and to champion the fight against all forms of special oppression—national, ethnic, religious, women’s oppression, etc.

Debs’s conception of the party was the opposite of Lenin’s. Debs embraced the social-democratic view that the workers party should be a party of the whole class, a big tent that embraced working-class tendencies of all types, including outright racists like Victor Berger, the Wisconsin SP Congressman. Such a conception of the party prioritizes unity with non-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary elements over building a programmatically unified party of revolutionaries that would be capable of leading a socialist revolution. Thus, a social-democratic party’s right wing ends up determining the party’s program and practice.

Debs was not ignorant of racism within the SP: “Indeed, so thoroughly is the South permeated with the malign spirit of race hatred that even Socialists are to be found, and by no means rarely, who either share directly in the race hostility against the Negro, or avoid the issue, or apologize for the social obliteration of the color line in the class struggle.” While opposing this racism, Debs allowed himself to be used as left cover for the right wing in his own party. This is similar to how Debs’s principled opposition to the interimperialist First World War (for which he paid with imprisonment—which likely hastened his death—and loss of his U.S. citizenship) in effect covered the opportunism of the right-wing Socialists.

The blurb to the Jacobin article notwithstanding, Debs did not see the fight against black oppression as central to fighting against capitalism in the United States. To his credit, Debs believed that white and black workers should (to borrow a later phrase) “unite and fight” for their common class interests—but he failed to see black oppression as strategic. Debs wrote that black people should join the SP, but that is essentially all:

“In capitalism the Negro question is a grave one and will grow more threatening as the contradictions and complications of capitalist society multiply, but this need not worry us. Let them [the capitalists] settle the Negro question in their own way, if they can. We have nothing to do with it, for that is their fight. We have simply to open the eyes of as many Negroes as we can and bring them into the socialist movement to do battle for emancipation from wage slavery, and when the working class have triumphed in the class struggle and stand forth economic as well as political free men, the race problem will forever disappear.”

—“The Negro in the Class Struggle”

Several paragraphs later, he offers the famous conclusion:

“We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.

“The Socialist Party is the party of the working class, regardless of color—the whole working class of the whole world.”

When this was written, the Great Migration of millions of black people to the North and West was still in the future. While black people were not yet integrated into the industrial working class, the black question was already important to the labor movement, if not in the same way as it would be two decades later. This was less than a decade after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that legalized segregation; there had been, on average, a lynching every four days in 1903; practically all American Federation of Labor unions excluded black people, and black strikebreakers were used in various strikes.

Debs fought for an inclusive labor movement. As a leader in the American Railway Union (ARU) in the 1890s, he fought unsuccessfully against the color bar and to admit black workers. He later argued that the failure to organize black workers contributed to the defeat of the 1894 Pullman railroad strike.

Despite the growing importance of black oppression, the Socialist Party of Debs’s time had nothing special to say to black workers and in fact generally oscillated between indifference and racist hostility. It is no wonder that Hubert Harrison, perhaps the most important black Socialist of the early 1900s and one of the leading intellectuals of Harlem in that period, left the SP in disgust. Nor is it any wonder that, after the Bolshevik Revolution, black Socialists in Harlem were drawn to the Communist International (Comintern), which emphasized the fight against racial oppression.

James P. Cannon—a former SP member and founder of the Communist Party (CP) as well as later the central leader of early American Trotskyism—put it well in “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement” (1959):

“The best of the earlier socialists were represented by Debs, who was friendly to all races and purely free from prejudice. But the limitedness of the great agitator’s view on this far from simple problem was expressed in his statement [quoted above].... That was considered a very advanced position at the time, but it made no provision for active support of the Negro’s special claim for a little equality here and now, or in the foreseeable future, on the road to socialism....

“In the meantime, nothing could be done about the Negro question as such, and the less said about it the better. Sweep it under the rug.”

The SP’s left wing sympathized with the Bolshevik Revolution and in 1919 the party split. Left-wing Socialists were among the founders of what became the Communist Party, though Debs never made the leap. The Communist International intervened into the fledgling CP to get the party to make the fight for black liberation central to its work. As Marxist historian Jacob Zumoff underscored in an interview published on the Jacobin website on August 18: “The long struggle against national, ethnic, and religious oppression in tsarist Russia—what Lenin had called the ‘prison house of nations’—made the Bolsheviks aware of connections between non-class oppression and the fight for working-class power. This was central to the Comintern’s broader vision.”

In his recent book, The Communist International and U.S. Communism (2014), Zumoff details the Communist International’s interventions to force the early Communist Party to see the connection between the struggle for black liberation and socialist revolution. The Comintern’s proddings laid the basis for the CP’s work among black people in the 1930s, even after its Stalinist degeneration, such as around the Angelo Herndon and Scottsboro Boys cases. During the 1930s, and especially in WWII, the Stalinist Communist Party increasingly sold out the fight against black oppression as part of supporting the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt.

Jones (and Jacobin) are motivated by anti-Communism, which is why so much of Jones’s article consists of a polemic against Philip Foner. Although he was a Stalinist, Foner recognized that—unlike the SP—the Communist Party militantly opposed black oppression. Foner’s labeling of Debs as “color blind” was merely a restatement of the Comintern’s view. The Spartacist League stands on the interventions of Lenin and the Comintern around this issue in the early 1920s as part of our fight against black oppression and for black liberation through socialist revolution.


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