- Interview by
- Chris Dite
We’re living in dangerous times. The Black Lives Matter movement — involving perhaps the largest protests in US history — dragged the systematic violence facing black people under twenty-first century US capitalism back into mainstream global consciousness. The concurrent rise of the far right in the United States and Europe has seen a savage escalation of antiblack and anti-communist rhetoric.
The newly published book Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writing helps makes sense of the ongoing connections between red-scare politics and racism in the United States. Edited by Charisse Burden-Stelly and Jodi Dean, the collection spans three decades of US communist history, from the early days of the Communist Party in the 1920s to the brutal days of McCarthyism at home and imperialist war abroad in the 1950s. It brings together previously uncollected works of writers and leaders like Claudia Jones, Williana Burroughs, Grace P. Campbell, Louise Thompson Patterson, Marvel Cooke, Yvonne Gregory, and Charlotta Bass.
The collection confounds decades of obfuscation and contemporary misconceptions, uncovering a hidden history of black women’s leadership of and struggle within communist parties and movements in the twentieth century. Debates around theory and strategy take on a new vibrancy in these writings and paint a picture of left-wing party building that challenges stale caricature.
Jacobin sat down with the editors to discuss their ambitious project, the necessity of bringing these women’s struggles and organizing to contemporary light, and the future of this same struggle.
One of the first texts in the collection is Williana Burroughs’s internal critique of the Communist Party from a political-organizational perspective. Young people today are quite used to discussing inequality and power but less familiar with party membership. Do you think they’ll find these organizational documents an “alien” part of the collection?
Not the critique part — everybody has a critique today. But perhaps what might seem strange is the way black women waged struggled within the party apparatus, as opposed to leaving or collapsing the whole organization. Even as they recognized that there were issues within it, people like Burroughs, Louise Thompson Patterson, and others were trying to model that a party was the best vessel through which to struggle for proletarian, anti-imperial, anti-colonial revolution. Their critique is principled in that its end is sustaining the organization and holding it up to its ethical standards, as opposed to a centering discourse or a call-out kind of culture. There’s a lot of talk today about not needing to join a party, about horizontalism or autonomous organizing. But these women understood that you need to be in some sort of organization or party apparatus if you hope to build a mass base, especially internationally.
At the time of Burroughs’s critique, the Communist Party in the United States was barely six years old. Hers are not criticisms of a monolithic organization; they’re the criticisms of someone trying to build an organization. If you begin your thinking of Communist Party history with the writings of Grace Campbell and Burroughs, then that party looks like a really different thing. It doesn’t look like this massive, well-organized group of white men with dictates coming from Moscow. It looks like the building practice of organizing working class black people from the bottom up. Particularly nowadays, the issue all organizers recognize is “we never have enough people, time, resources, and so on to do the work we have to do.” Our collection shows that these are not new problems: they come from the very beginning of realizing that you need to be in an organization.
The texts here present a rich and complex world of struggle and culture. There’s the language and political barriers between Yiddish-speaking and black workers in the furriers’ union, Chinese women’s work recruiting black women to their struggle in the laundry shop strikes, sexuality as a complex part of the picture, and so much more. How is it that so many people have forgotten this complexity at the heart of US communism?
It really depends how you’re entering into it. I learned about this period through books like Minkah Makalani’s In the Cause of Freedom or Erik S. McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom. They literally focus on black people in the Communist Party. So, for me, from the outset that period represents the Black Belt nation thesis, Angelo Herndon, the International Labor Defense, the invasion of Ethiopia, and the rise of people like Claudia Jones and Queen Mother Moore.
I don’t know a reductionist or bland white history. But this is what the texts in our book say — it doesn’t have to be that history. Thanks to intellectual McCarthyism and racial chauvinism, many know nothing about communists, or the immense contributions that black, colonized, and racialized folks made to both the Communist Party USA but also the international communist movement.
It’s also straight up anti-communism. The Red Summer of 1919 — called that because of the bloody violence of white mobs against black soldiers returning from World War I — was blamed on the Bolsheviks. Rather than recognizing that people were sick and tired of being lynched and attacked, the major newspapers blamed legitimate black fightback on “the Reds,” who were somehow inciting black people to riot.
The combination of anti-communism and antiblackness has rendered parts of history invisible. Strong parties that are anti-racist are invisible because of antiblackness, and legitimate grassroots communist or socialist movements are eliminated because of anti-communism.
Almost one hundred years ago, black women communists were organizing around the concept of “triple exploitation.” How does this concept differ from, preempt, and relate to intersectionality?
It preempts intersectionality to the extent that it’s black women talking about the many forms of domination that characterize their reality. But it’s not really a precursor. Part of the reason that “triple exploitation” can get subsumed is because it’s considered to be part of this unbroken intellectual tradition of black women. But it’s a distinct political, anti-imperialist, socialist articulation of the position of black women as workers.
Intersectionality is about recognition before the law and the possibility of remedying the forms of discrimination that black women are experiencing. Triple exploitation is about oppression, exploitation, and overthrowing those structures of domination. The women featured in our book understand imperialism to be the primary contradiction. Part of what they’re describing is how imperialism and their own particular relation to the capitalist mode of production situates them in terms of political economy and social relations. That is not the analysis that intersectionality offers. Which one resonates more is up for grabs.
You include Charlotta Bass’s 1952 acceptance speech for the vice presidency nomination for the Progressive Party. Bass describes how in colonial Malaya at the time, Winston Churchill’s generals were literally beheading people with zero political rights, then accusing those same people of “failing to shoulder the responsibility of citizenship.” She compares this to the situation of black people in the United States. That link isn’t particularly intuitive for people today. Why did Bass and the others in your collection think US capitalism and world imperialism were inextricably linked?
Bass was running for VP with the Progressive Party, which is the most viable third party we’ve had historically. Part of what she pointed out is the way all Democrats and Republicans are implicated in the connections with imperialism and colonialism, warmongering, and racial oppression.
These women were socialists. They linked war, the extraction of resources, the superexploitation of colonized and racialized labor, nuclear armament, fascism. . . . Irrespective of where oppressed people are located, there’s a resonance in how they’re treated and the oppression and repression they experience. That resonance should be the foundation for a broad-based, mass, internationalist movement.
There’s a piece by Eslanda Robeson in the collection where she talks about the treatment of Korean war prisoners, challenging the State Department line and comparing the way the Koreans are treated to the way that black people are treated under Jim Crow. Black communists and communist-adjacent women have this profound ability to draw large connections globally but also make them very locally relevant. That’s a really big skill. It’s hard to get somebody who’s sharecropping and disenfranchised to care about what’s going on in Egypt, Malaya, or Ghana, but they can really connect what’s happening locally to what’s happening globally.
These women’s anti-imperialism demands a critique of colonization and identification with the struggle of everyone struggling against colonialism. Their analysis of black people in the United States as essentially constituting a colonized people within the country was crucial to the Communist Party’s organizing efforts in the South. This understanding made a very powerful parallel with any other colonized struggle. It pointed out to black people that their struggles are part of a global struggle against oppression. What this thesis did was make the black struggle objectively revolutionary. It held to the same level for communists as the class struggle. It wasn’t like one is more important. Both are necessary for the success of the other one.
You’ve included Claudia Jones’s argument against Earl Browder’s suggestion that “black people in the US have chosen integration.” She says national self-determination is “not a slogan of immediate action” but “a programmatic demand” and a “guiding principle.” Why did you choose to highlight this debate specifically?
There’s this understanding of black communists particularly as being the dupes of Moscow — uncritical, robotic minions that follow some abstract line. What Jones’s piece shows is they were waging critique within the party. Black communists, irrespective of whether they believed the Black Belt thesis or not, never moved away from the Negro question. They always thought that black people had a special character of exploitation that they experience. Jones argued that the struggle for equal rights is not antithetical to self-determination — in fact, it’s one step toward it. Part of that line is that black people have the right to secede from the United States if they so choose. That’s what self- determination is.
The Black Belt thesis was the condition of possibility for any black-white unity. For white workers to have to subordinate every aspect of white supremacy to the black struggle and to say “Yes, this is necessary: the revolution requires black self-determination.” The idea of black self-determination seems like something that the United States has never been able to get behind. It’s perpetually “assimilation” and “accommodation” and not fully fledged self-determination. Whatever that may mean!
Vladimir Lenin argued that pushing for the right of self-determination is like arguing for the right of divorce – it doesn’t mean everyone will get divorced. It means people have that right, and that gives them power. Black self-determination never meant that a certain part of the United States must be separate. It meant that majority-black counties must have the right to make that decision on their own. Democracy is nothing less.
You say that “the separation of Black Communists from their own party work generates a mistaken view that all the communists are white and all the Blacks are liberal and breaks the links between the Black liberation struggle in the United States and international movements against fascisms, colonialism and imperialism.”
Part of the way to eradicate these different forms of erasure or revisionism is to read and study. What these texts prime us to do is search for sources with a global perspective, which center workers and oppressed people, and offer a multifaceted analysis that has practical solutions for what is to be done. The correlation of forces is such that we need every tool in our tool kit. Not everybody has to be a communist or socialist, but you cannot be an anti-communist. Anti-communism is bound up in antiblack racial oppression and imperialism. There’s no way to have a liberatory project when you advocate for the crushing of the most revolutionary thinkers, the most effective organizers, and the most prolific institution builders. When you agree that these people should be erased, obscured, marginalized, or forgotten, you are trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back.
There is knowledge production, reproduction, and rediscovery that has to happen to counter the whitewashing of black communists that’s occurred over the past seventy years. A whole bunch of good, anti-racist historians just don’t mention key figures’ communism. Sometimes this is done with a good heart. They didn’t want to demonize people when to call someone a communist was to disavow or to disparage their work. But we can see the real errors in that now. It’s led to the historically wrong view of communists in the United States as being white. But that’s just not what the situation was.
Recovering this history can help stop the really stupid polarization of class and race. Revolution for the communists was always about the black struggle for self-determination and the recognition that the black struggle was a necessary and constitutive part of class struggle. The history has to be recovered in ways that will help the struggle now.
In your introduction you write that “anticommunism is a key plank of white supremacy.” You clearly don’t just mean historically, as you also argue that the January 6 assault on the Capitol was anti-communist. Could you explain this link?
Any time there is black organization, there’s this idea that “the commies are coming and riling up the blacks.” One of the ways the Martin Dies and House Committee on Un-American Activities determined whether somebody was a communist was to ask them if they’d ever had a black person in their home or if they believed in Negro equality. Which shows that communists were at the forefront of the fight for racial equality but also that the House Committee saw a link between black equality and communism. It saw black liberation and socialism as antithetical to racial capitalism — antithetical to the foundations of the United States.
We see the convergence of the black scare and red scare today in a number of ways. There was the anti-woke act in Florida, which targeted black protesters after all the discourse about China allegedly funding the Black Lives Matter uprisings, or the recent FBI raid of the African People’s Socialist Party. It’s not happenstance that a black organization was the one accused of being in cahoots with Russia — in the US political imagination, the USSR and Russia are the same thing.
Every time there’s black insurgency, there’s always this discourse of criminality but also of outside agitation. But we know the outside agitator in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was Kyle Rittenhouse. These things are always thought together, because black citizenship is tenuous and questionable at best and blacks are considered to be stupid, docile, easily manipulated, and subject to foreign influence. They’re the always-already potentially subversive group. Black people also have the most to gain from a socialist revolution. Any form of redistribution is necessarily an attack on racial inequality if it’s done correctly.
The US history of white supremacy has been deeply anti-communist. What that does is it makes democracy white. Once you introduce black people into it, you’ve undermined democracy and gone to communism. This is the rationale — it’s a frame of associations that has been firmly in place in the United States for a long time. Today, even neoliberal Barack Obama — the guy who appointed Goldman Sachs to his administration and who refused to create a real national health care program — is widely thought about as a communist by the Right. Commentators on the Right call all the anti-racist, anti-homophobia, feminist movements in the United States “Marxist.” They’ve never heard the word “class,” and there’s no economic analysis. But the interesting mistake/truth they articulate is that communism is the movement that always takes the side of the oppressed. The current link between anti-communism and white supremacy is an attempt to hold onto a particular kind of race hierarchy in the US that communism names the opposition to.
It’s late. It’s fascism outside. We really have to get serious. It’s hard and scary, but the women featured in our book were organizing in extraordinarily hard and scary times — the Great Depression, the Red Scare, McCarthyism — and they did it anyway. They did it collectively and with courage. The most important lesson from these women is that you can’t build a mass movement without some container, whether it’s a party or an organization. If we ever hope to build anything moving toward a mass base, we have to build and sustain organizations and struggle within them.