Race and the Comintern
NYC Socialism Series

The Socialism Series is a bi-weekly forum sponsored by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) to take up key questions facing the socialist movement and Left more broadly. In the next two months the series will focus on two themes: neoliberalism and the politics of oppression. We believe Marxism has a great deal to contribute to any understanding of these issues, and is indispensable for developing a strategy of resistance to both. We also believe that with a growing Left and an ever changing world, its important to continue to develop Marxism as a living and breathing theory around developments and questions we confront as activists.

In 1922, representatives from Communist movements from around the world met at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, the international congress of the world Communist movement. Among them were a number of African-American Communists and revolutionaries from the United States. One of the many debates that took place at the congress was over the position the Communist movement should take against racism in the United States and the growing anti-colonial sentiment growing internationally.

The documents eventually adopted represented a significant departure from earlier positions within the U.S. Left while, while often opposed to racism, refused to take up a specific fight against it. As the U.S. socialist Eugene Debs had once put it: “We have nothing special to offer the Negro…The Socialist Party is the party of the working class, regardless of color.” The positions adopted by the Fourth Congress instructed Communist Parties around the world to aid and organize a specific fight against racism and support the growing anti-colonial struggles around the world. It laid the groundwork for some of the most widely known anti-racist campaigns of the 1920s and 30s such as the Harlem Unemployed Councils, the struggle to defend the Scottsboro Boys, and the multi-racial unionization efforts of the CIO.

The Socialism Series will also look at the debates that surrounded the congress as a way to discuss the changing positions on race within the Communist movement and the development of what became a foundational approach to the relationship between Marxism and racial oppression. In future series, we will look at more contemporary debates around identity politics, nationalism, and privilege theory.

Suggested Readings

Black Liberation and the Communist International
by John Riddell
International Socialist Review: 81

Report on the Negro Question:
Speech to the 4th Congress
by Claude McKay

The Negro in the Class Struggle
by Eugene Debs

For more information on the Socialist Party and race, see

Philip Foner - American Socialism and Black Americans: From the Age of Jackson to World War II.

Winston James - "Being Black and Red in Jim Crow America: On the Ideology and Travails of Afro-America's Socialist Pioneers" in Time Longer Than Rope: A Century of African American Activism, 1850-1950, edited by Charles M. Payne and Adam Green.

William P. Jones - "'Nothing Special to Offer the Negro': Revisiting the 'Debsian View' of the Race Question" International Labor and Working Class History 74 (2008).

For information on the early Communist Party and race, see

Mark Solomon - The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936.

Glenda Gilmore - Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950.

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