USA: the struggle of the workers’ movement against slavery and racism (Part 2)

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In the first part of this series we sketched out the first steps of the workers’ movement in dealing with the aftermath of a 350 years history of the enslavement of African Americans in the United States. From the American Workers’ League to the Knights of Labor, the first organisations of the working class tried to integrate black workers into their ranks. Free black people existed already before the legal abolition of slavery, but, in 1863, four to five million more African Americans were freed, and a small number started to look for work as wage labourers.

In this part we will examine how the political parties of the proletariat at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century took up the political defence of the interests of black workers in the mines, the factories and in agriculture. Although African Americans were only one of the many “nationalities” (next to the Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, etc.) they were subjected to a special regime, where the culture of slavery persisted, in particular through the so-called Jim Crow codes, a racial caste system based on the segregation of black and white people.

In order to make a correct assessment of the evolution of the political positions in the American workers’ movement in respect of this system of racism, it is necessary to understand that, until the First World War, capitalism had a period of ascendance where real improvements for the working class were still on the agenda. In this period the workers movement throughout the world fought for a shorter working day, for the right to organise in trade unions, the right to vote, the abolition of child labour, etc. In the US the stakes of the struggle were the same as elsewhere, but there was one additional demand to be raised and that was the abolition of the system of two classes of workers, in particular the division between white and black workers.

The Socialist Labour Party on the position of the black worker

After the disappearance of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) was founded in 1876, primarily comprised of German immigrants. At the end of 1877 Peter H. Clark became the first black worker elected to the national leadership of the SLP. And in 1879 the SLP adopted a platform in which advocated political equality “without regard to creed, race or sex”, and appealed to working people, “regardless of color”, to unite against the southern landlords and the northern capitalists.

Although the SLP formally supported equality for people of colour, it did not give the struggle for the emancipation of black workers much weight. When Daniel De Leon became the main leader of the SLP, in 1891, this tendency was only reinforced. The early writings of De Leon were almost free of any reference to the struggles and hardships of the black people.

For Daniel De Leon “there was no such thing as a race or “Negro question” . . . there was only a social, a labor question, and no racial or religious question so far as the Socialist and labor movements were concerned”[1]. In those years De Leon had a very blinkered view. Though correctly denying the assertion that the black workers were fundamentally different human beings or even inferior, he didn't see that marxism had every interest in fighting the institutionalised segregation of white and black workers.

In the Platform of June 1896 the Party had taken up various demands that were also put forward in the programs of social democratic parties throughout the rest of the world. Reduction of the hours of labor in proportion to the progress of production; equalization of women's wages with those of men where equal service is performed; school education of all children under 14 years of age to be compulsory, gratuitous and accessible to all by public assistance in meals, clothing, books, etc.”[2] But the platform had no specific demands relating to black workers.

It was only in the first years of the 20th century that De Leon publicly formulated his position about black workers, recognising “a special division in the ranks of labor”. (…) “In no economic respect is he different from his fellow wage slaves of other races. Yet by reason of his race, which long was identified with serfdom, the rays of the social question reached his mind through such broken prisms that they are refracted into all the colors of the rainbow, preventing him from appreciating the white light of the question”[3].

From that moment De Leon fought in a determined way against racism and for class solidarity. For instance, when Van Koll from Holland advocated the restriction of the immigration of “inferior” races at the Amsterdam Congress in August 1904, De Leon reacted furiously: “Socialism knows not such insulting, iniquitous distinctions as ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ races among the proletariat. It is for capitalism to fan the fires of such sentiments in its scheme to keep the proletariat divided.”[4]

The Socialist Party of America and the “Negro Resolution”

The SLP was not the only marxist organisation at the beginning of the 20th century. The other party was the Socialist Party of America (SPA), formed by a merger between the Social Democratic Party of America and disaffected elements of the SLP that had split from the main organisation in 1899. At its founding Convention the SPA adopted a very important “Negro Resolution” which was meant “to invite the Negro to membership and fellowship with us in the world movement for economic emancipation by which equal liberty and opportunity shall be ensured to every man and fraternity”. And, more significantly, it recognised thatThe Negroes of the United States, because of their long training in slavery and but recent emancipation therefrom, occupy a peculiar position in the working class and in society at large.”[5]

This resolution was a big step forward for the workers’ movement in the defence of the interests of the black exploited population and for their integration in the organised workers’ movement. In 1901 only 15 per cent of African Americans worked as wage labourers. Nevertheless it was an important document, because for the first time in the history of the workers’ movement in the US a political party of the proletariat had adopted a resolution in which it proclaimed loud and clear “to the Negro worker the identity of his interests and struggles with the interests and struggles of the workers of all lands, without regard to race, or color, or sectional lines”[6].

The resolution also clearly defined the stakes of the debate within the SPA, between the right wing that said that black people belonged to a lower race and were inferior to white people, and those who declared that the interests of the black worker were identical with those of the working class as a whole. However, the main struggle was against the centrist position of Eugene Debs, a member of the party leadership, who advocated the fight for economic freedom for black workers (the abolition of wage labour), but said that as long as this was not achieved any social equality would be impossible.

In the years that followed, the “Negro resolution” was the subject of a bitter struggle within the SPA against the centre that actually defended the right wing against the criticisms of the left. In this struggle the issue was not putting “race before class” or “class before race”, as is often suggested by modern leftists, but the need to fight for better living conditions of black workers, when capitalism still played a historically progressive role. In order to make any unified struggle between white and black workers possible, it was of the utmost necessity to overcome the deep divisions between them.

In November 1902 Debs wrote the first article on the “Negro resolution”, which was published in the International Socialist Review (ISR). The article started with a paragraph that recalls the famous words of Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy about the cotton industry: “As a matter of fact the industrial supremacy of the South before the [civil] war would not have been possible without the Negro, and the South of today would totally collapse without his labor. The whole world is under obligation to the Negro, and that the white heel is still upon the black neck is simply proof that the world is not yet civilized.”[7]

In the article Debs distanced himself also from any racial argument in defining the place of the black worker in the workers’ movement in the US: “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 settle the Negro question in their way, if they can. (…) As a social party we receive the Negro and all other races upon absolutely equal terms. We are the party of the working class, the whole working class, and we will not suffer ourselves to be divided by any specious appeal to race prejudice.” [8]

In fact, Debs did not really defend the “Negro resolution” but limited himself to some simple statements such as “The class struggle is colorless.” and that there is “no Negro question outside of the labor question”[9]. At the end of his article Debs even expressed “the hope that the next convention may repeal the resolutions on the ‘Negro question" with the argument that “The Negro does not need them and they serve to increase rather than diminish the necessity for explanation.”[10]  He even advocated stopping any further debate on the “Negro resolution” since the SPA had nothing special to offer the Negro” anyway.[11]

In Debs’ view the SPA was not to succumb to the temptations of the bourgeois parties who were trying to win over African Americans for their cause by promising them social equality. He disavowed the call for equal rights for black workers such as equal opportunities for work, education and cultural activities. He systematically evaded the issue of the wretched social position of the black workers as corollary of their past as chattel slaves, by pointing to the future of socialism: “The Negro, given economic freedom, will not ask the white man any social favors; and the burning question of ‘social equality’ will disappear like mist before the sunrise.”[12]

By reducing racism to a mere reflection of class exploitation, and arguing that everything would be solved with the abolition of wage labour, Debs actually defended in a more sophisticated way the same position as the right wing in the SPA, while upholding the extraordinary obstacles for the unification of the struggle between the white and the black workers. It was only the left wing in the party who defended - in line with the “Negro resolution” - the idea that as a long as black workers were seen as second-class workers there could be no question of the unification of the American working class. Debs’ position would become the subject of severe criticism in later years.

The Industrial Workers of the World in support of the “Negro resolution”

In the meantime, in June 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in Chicago with representatives of 43 groups. In a period of major strikes internationally (the revolution in Russia of 1905 for instance) and in the US, the convention was a festival of combativity. The IWW came out in support of the “Negro Resolution” of the SPA, when its Preamble openly rejected not only the organisation in craft unions in favour of industrial unionism, but also racist segregation, declaring itself in favour of organising every race and creed. Its welcome to all workers into the same organisation, with a special emphasis on the mostly unskilled black workers, was its most important contribution to the labour movement.

In the first five years of its existence however the IWW accomplished little in organising black workers. At the beginning of 1910 it therefore made a determined effort to recruit more of them. A massive educational campaign was launched to convince black workers that “There is only one labor organization in the U.S. that admits the colored worker on a footing of absolute equality with the white - the IWW (…) In the IWW the colored worker, man or woman, is on an equal footing with every other worker. He has the same voice in determining the policies of the organization, and his interests are protected as zealously as those of any other member.”[13]

The campaign had a certain success, as the IWW was able to recruit large numbers of black dockers along the Atlantic coast waterfronts and timber workers in Texas and Louisiana. As we've previously said: “Within the U.S., the IWW pioneered in bridging the gap between immigrant and native-born, English speaking workers in the U.S., and welcomed blacks into the organization on an equal basis with white workers, at a time when racial segregation and discrimination was rampant in society at large and when most American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions denied admission to blacks.”[14] 

The critique of the neglect of the “Negro question” in the SPA

In the early years of the 20th century the majority of African Americans were still facing many forms of neo-slavery such as indentured servitude, convict labour and sharecropping. Because of segregation even freed black workers were condemned to inferior treatment and lived on the fringes of society (unemployment was highest among black workers). Most blacks were disenfranchised by changes in state law across the South, which raised huge barriers to voter registration. The mass of black people still living in the South, were, forty years later, treated as though the slaves of 1863 had still not been 'freed'.

On top of that, black workers were often portrayed as scabs because of their role as strike breakers in industrial conflicts. The years immediately following the turn of the century marked the dramatic emergence of African Americans as a formidable strikebreaking force. (…) Northern corporations recruited ‘armies’ of African Americans, largely from the Deep South and border cities, to break the national packinghouse strike in 1904 and the Chicago teamsters’ strike of 1905”[15].

Starting in February 1908 SPA member I.M. Rubinow, under the pseudonym I.M. Robbins, wrote a series of 15 articles in the ISR on the “The Economic Aspects of the Negro Problem”, with the aim of shaking up the “rigid, cast-iron conception of the great doctrine of economic interpretation” in the party[16]. In his series, Rubinow took on Debs himself.

In his last contribution of June 1910 he criticised the centrist wing in the party for making unambiguous statements about “the full enjoyment of the product of his labor” once socialism was achieved, but completely neglecting the daily practice of disenfranchisement and the slave-like existence of black workers. These statements of Debs sounded very radical, but did not address the fight for the improvement of the daily conditions of black workers. Rubinow defended the view that the Party should not only strive for economic equality, but also for political and social justice in its broadest sense, if it wanted to truly work towards a socialist future.

He observed that the existence of socialism would not be the cure-all of racial prejudice. “The connection between race justice and socialism [is] not self-evident. (…) A special appeal to the Negro is necessary, for the special grievances which he suffers. (…)  The Socialist Party must take a definite attitude on the Negro problem (…). And this attitude must include, if it is to be logical and honest, a clear, unmistakable demand for the entire abolition of all legal restriction of the rights of the Negro.”[17]

In defending the “Negro resolution” Rubinow followed in the footsteps of Marx and De Leon, since he was also convinced that as long as black skin was still branded, the obstacles to the emancipation of labour in the white skin would be insurmountable. Therefore, he insisted that the SPA should make “an earnest and energetic effort to convince the American labor movement, as expressed in labor and trade unions, that in resisting the economic and civic growth of the Negro it is simply building obstructions in its way.”[18]

The “Negro resolution” left no doubt about the theoretical positions of the SPA. But examining the basic texts and official statements of the party since 1901, Rubinow came to the conclusion that the word “Negro” failed to appear in either platform: in that of 1904 and much more so in the platform of 1908. He pointed to a serious weakness in the policy of the SPA. He stressed that the failure to give the “Negro question” a central place, at least since the contributions of Debs in the ISR, made the famous resolution a dead letter.

This tendency to neglect the “Negro resolution” and to formulate specific demands for black workers was affirmed again in the 1912 platform of the SPA. This platform had taken up a point on the abolition of child labour, but not on the abolition of convict labour and other forms of semi-slavery, which is inconsistent, since there is no fundamental difference between the two. In both cases there is question of an inhuman subjection of a particular group of workers to the rules of capitalism.

The reason for the neglect of the “Negro resolution” by the SPA leadership was the growth of opportunism, the fear that campaigning for “equal rights” for about ten per cent of the US population would alienate the growing number of members and voters of the Party. This opportunism was clearly shown when the right wing in the party wanted to adopt a report that opposed the immigration of non-whites (from China and Japan), while favouring immigrants from “civilised” Europe. It was clear that Rubinow’s critique did not gain adherents in the leadership, it was only defended by a small left wing minority and among some black socialists such as Hubert Harrison and, to a lesser extent, W.E.B. Du Bois.

The theoretical contribution of Afro-American socialist militants

Until 1910 the discussion on the position and the role of the black workers in the papers of the SPA was entirely conducted by non-black socialists, with the articles of Rubinow as the last ones published in the ISR. Given the lack of further theoretical elaboration, black militants in the SPA, from 1910 onwards, began to develop and propagate their analysis of the “Negro question”, with more attention to the African American part of the American population.

W.E.B. Du Bois became a member of the SPA in 1910, but his position towards socialism was highly ambiguous. While a member of the SPA for about two years, he remained a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a bourgeois civil rights organisation, in which he edited the monthly magazine The Crisis. During his membership of the SPA he was hardly engaged in the theoretical struggle on the position of the Afro-American workers.

After leaving the SPA in 1913, he wrote “Socialism and the Negro Problem” in which he criticized the SPA for not taking seriously the fight for the equality of the black workers. According to Du Bois the party put off the solution for the structural subordination of the coloured people to the distant future: The general attitude of thinking members of the party has been this: we must not turn aside from the great objects of socialism to take up this issue of the American Negro; let the question wait; when the objects of socialism are achieved, this problem will be settled along with other problems.”[19]

Hubert Harrison was not the same as Du Bois. He was a radical black militant, whose aim was not just fighting against the repression of the African Americans but against the exploitation of the working class, with special attention to the conditions of black workers. Harrison therefore turned to the SPA in 1911. After joining, he immediately started to champion the cause of black workers within the party and to challenge the leadership. Soon he became the leading black theoretician in New York and a prominent supporter of the IWW. Likewise, in opposition to the leadership, Harrison saw socialism not as a matter of reform but as a matter of revolution.

Moreover, he defended the view that the workers’ movement should speak to the particular concerns of African Americans. “The mission of the Socialist Party is to free the working class from exploitation, and since the Negro is the most ruthlessly exploited working class group in America, the duty of the party to champion his cause is as clear as day.”[20] He repeatedly pointed to the policy of the IWW, organising thousands of black and white timber workers in “mixed” Louisiana locals in 1911. This type of unionism, he observed, “wants Negroes - not because its promoters love Negroes - but because they realize they cannot win if any of the working class is left out.”[21]

In his articles in the New York Call Harrison added a new dimension to the marxist position on racism. While underlining the class nature of racism, he developed the idea that racism is not a mere reflection of class exploitation. In "The Negro and Socialism I", written in November 1911, Harrison rightly explained that certain forms of racism, while originating in class oppression, still took on a life of their own, not directly reducible to class or economic considerations. “Systems of racial oppression had their own histories much as the class struggle and the system of production have theirs”[22].

Although racism cannot exist without class exploitation, ideology is relatively independent from the material base that gives rise to it. Despite the fact that the original material conditions under slavery that gave rise to racism had already been transformed, racism as an ideology did not die away:

  • After the abolition of slavery, racist ideology served to conceal the fundamental contradiction between capital and labour and to divide the working class by setting black and white workers against each other.
  • Since the former slave-owners feared that the freed slaves might threaten their economic and political pre-eminence, the absence of a legal racial oppression was compensated by the establishment of an equally racist system, imposed by the Jim Crow laws.

Harrison’s lack of confidence in the capacities of the working class to overcome the racial divide remained his main weakness. While recognising the force of the working class he was never really convinced that class exploitation is at the root of racism. Instead, he continued to oscillate between class struggle and race struggle. A few years later Harrisons’ waverings on this question came into broad daylight when he adopted a position in which the “race question” took the upper hand. He emphasised that a new leadership would not emerge from the working class, but from the black masses. It was only in the logic of his evolution that Harrison became the principal editor of the Negro World, the publication of the bourgeois Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) of Marcus Garvey.

In 1915 the theoretical clarification of the “Negro question”, which the workers’ movement in the US had reached - not, incidentally, set down in any official document of the SPA – was that

  • the structural subordination of the African Americans in the US, even after the official abolition of slavery, was determined by fundamental class antagonisms;
  • the ruling class used the racial differences between white and black people to divide the working class, for instance by using black workers as scabs;
  • the particular fight for equal rights for black workers, above all in education and employment, was of fundamental importance to prevent the employers from driving a wedge between black and white workers;
  • in order to take decisive steps towards the emancipation of the working class in the US there was only one way and that was the united fight of all workers, regardless of the colour of their skin or their nationality.
  • and, even then, racism as an ideology will not disappear automatically, but will persist for some time in the minds of workers as an exploited class. As Marx wrote: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”[23].

In the third part of this series, we will take a closer look at how the later political organisations of the proletariat tried to develop and deepen the political-theoretical positions of the SPA on the “Negro question” in a period that had fundamentally changed. For their political struggle against racism had to take place in the context of decadence, when reforms were no longer possible and only one goal remained: the unification of the struggles of all workers, regardless of race or nationality, in the fight for a world revolution. This is the framework in which we shall examine how far they succeeded in their task on the basis of the positions of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA), the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) and, in a later period, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), with C.L.R. James as one of the most important theoreticians in this field.


Dennis, 15 May 2021


Appendix Solidarity between black and white workers


"On Thursday [July 5, 1906] New York was treated to the extraordinary spectacle of white union men striking to compel a company of contractors to recognize the Afro-American members of the union.

The Cecelia Asphalt Paving company, which has the contract for paving the square around Cooper Union, began by filling the places of the Afro-American pavers and rammersmen with Irish and Germans. Immediately Mr. James S. Wallace, the Afro-American agent of the International Union of Pavers and Rammersmen, reported to the officers of the union that his men were not getting a square deal.

“Then we’ll call out all of our union members,” replied the officers; and in a short while nearly all the white workmen laid down their tools.

The superintendent of the company hustled to the spot post-haste and tried to persuade the white men to go back to work.

“Beat it,” replied they, “unless you give us a written guarantee to recognize all the members of our union, black as well as white.”

“I’ll give you the letter tomorrow at 10 o’clock,” conceded the contractor.

“Then we’ll go back to work tomorrow at 10 o’clock,” said the union men.

The next day the letter was forthcoming, and all the men triumphantly went back to their tools. "[24]


"Dramatic examples of Southern inter-racial union organising in this period came in the coal mines. In Birmingham, Alabama, the United Mineworkers (UMW) maintained blacks and whites to launch a strike in 1908. To be sure, union leaders organised blacks and whites in separate locals, bowed to segregation and denied that the strike would bring ‘social equality’ for black and white miners. Coal operators whipped up a racist frenzy in the Birmingham press and tried to use blacks as strike breakers. Nevertheless, black miners aligned themselves with whites in the armed battles with company guards and strike breakers that have always characterised coal strikes in the US. In “Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class and Community Conflict 1780–1980” R.L. Lewis tells that “the attention of the entire white power structure, and the white populace generally, was focused on black strikers who were violating social norms by assuming a militant stance within a bi-racial working-class organisation ... Furthermore, that these black unionists were ‘conspiring’ with white unionists presented the explosive possibility of a class uprising.” [25]


"During a 1910 strike by the Brotherhood of Timberworkers (BTW), the lumber operators’ association tried to use blacks as strike breakers and baited the BTW for violating the norms of Southern society with its 50 percent black membership.

“These association tactics, more than any other factors, drove the BTW’s leaders to preach integration with Negroes and affiliation with the IWW ... Hence, they advised the black worker: ‘The BTW ... takes the Negro and protects him and his family along with the white wage worker and his family on an industrial basis.’ To the white worker they proclaimed: ‘As far as we, the workers of the South, are concerned, the only ‘supremacy’ and ‘equality’ they [the employers] have ever granted us is the supremacy of misery and the equality of rags ... No longer will we allow the Southern oligarchy to divide and weaken us on lines or race, craft, religion, and nationality.’”

The strike ultimately led to the BTW’s affiliation to the IWW. Wobbly leader Bill Haywood and the white Southern IWW leader Covington Hall convinced BTW’s members to hold an integrated mass meeting at the union’s 1912 convention in Alexandria, Louisiana. This inter-racial solidarity prevailed in an even more bitter strike the next year."[26]


"In the morning of 11 November 1912, 1,200 union men struck against the American Lumber Company [for firing fifteen union men] and the Brotherhood of Timber Workers began the last battle. Phineas Eastman, a Wobbly who helped to organize black workers, claimed that racial solidarity in the Brotherhood reached its strongest point at Merryville [Louisiana]. "Although not one of the fifteen men fired by the company was a Negro", he wrote, "our colored fellow workers showed their solidarity by walking out with their white comrades and no amount of persuasion or injection of the old race prejudice could induce them to turn scab or traitor". In the first months of the struggle at Merryville, the workers held their own; they even formed a communal organization (Hall called it the "first American Soviet") that attracted considerable attention in radical circles throughout the country. In the strike’s third month, after the mill had reopened with "scab" labour, the corporation mobilized its community power to crush what was left of the Union. On 16 February I913, the Merryville Good Citizens’ League struck. Organized by the "leading citizens" in the town, led by the company doctor and staffed by Santa Fe gunmen, the League destroyed the Union headquarters, attacked and "deported" several Wobblies, and burned the soup kitchen staffed by female BTW members."[27]



[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid


Social democracy and black workers