From the Archives: “Socialism and the Negro”

Hubert Harrison's classic 1912 programmatic statement on an enduring question facing the US socialist movement.

Hubert Harrison was one of the outstanding socialists of the twentieth century. Born on the Caribbean island of St. Croix in 1883, he immigrated to New York City as a teenager and was shocked by the racism and discrimination he encountered in the United States. He threw himself into various forms of political activity, including the movement against lynching, secularism, and eventually the socialist movement. He joined the Socialist Party (SP) in 1911 and quickly became one of the party’s most prominent Black members.

Unfortunately, the SP’s commitment to racial equality was inconsistent – it included racial egalitarians like Eugene Debs and Oscar Ameringer but also open racists and segregated locals in the South – and Harrison finally resigned from the party in 1918. He continued to be involved in labor organizing and was one of the founders of the “New Negro” movement, an efflorescence of Black intellectual and cultural activity centered in Harlem, where Harrison became known as the “father of Harlem radicalism” – a title bestowed on him by another leading Black socialist organizer, A. Phillip Randolph.

Harrison died in 1927 at the age of 44. His life and work slipped into obscurity for many decades, but his legacy has recently been revived by scholars like the late Jeffrey B. Perry, whose two-volume biography helped to restore Harrison’s place in the social and political history of the twentieth century. Here, Socialist Forum republishes Harrison’s 1912 essay “Socialism and the Negro,” which can also be found in Class Struggle and the Color Line: American Socialism and the Race Question, 1900-1930, edited by DSA member Paul Heideman.

  1. Economic Status of the Negro 

The ten million Negroes of America form a group that is more essentially proletarian than any other American group. In the first place the ancestors of this group were brought here with the very definite understanding that they were to be ruthlessly exploited. And they were not allowed any choice in the matter. Since they were brought here as chattels their social status was fixed by that fact. In every case that we know of where a group has lived by exploiting another group, it has despised that group which it has put under subjection. And the degree of contempt has always been in direct proportion to the degree of exploitation.

Inasmuch, then, as the Negro was at one period the most thoroughly exploited of the American proletarian, he was the most thoroughly despised. That group which exploited and despised him, being the most powerful section of the ruling class, was able to diffuse its own necessary contempt of the Negro first among the other sections of the ruling class, and afterwards among all other classes of Americans. For the ruling class has always determined what the social ideals and moral ideas of society should be; and this explains how race prejudice was disseminated until all Americans are supposed to be saturated with it. Race prejudice, then, is the fruit of economic subjection and a fixed inferior economic status. It is the reflex of a social caste system. That caste system in America today is what we roughly refer to as the Race Problem, and it is thus seen that the Negro problem is essentially an economic problem with its roots in slavery past and present.

Notwithstanding the fact that it is usually kept out of public discussion, the bread-and-butter side of this problem is easily the most important. The Negro worker gets less for his work-thanks to exclusion from the craft unions-than any other worker; he works longer hours as a rule and under worse conditions than any other worker; and his rent in any large city is much higher than that which the white worker pays for the same tenement. In short, the exploitation of the Negro worker is keener than that of white workers in America. Now, 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. This is the crucial test of Socialism’s sincerity and therein lies the value of this point of view- Socialism and the Negro.

  1. The Need of Socialist Propaganda 

So far, no particular effort has been made to carry the message of Socialism to these people. All the rest of the poor have had the gospel preached to them, for the party has carried on special propaganda work among the Poles, Slovaks, Finns, Hungarians and Lithuanians. Here are ten million Americans, all proletarians, hanging on the ragged edge of the impending class conflict. Left to themselves they may become as great a menace to our advancing army as is the army of the unemployed, and for precisely the same reason: they can be used against us, as the craft unions have begun to find out. Surely we should make some effort to enlist them under our banner that they may swell our ranks and help to make us invincible. And we must do this for the same reason that is impelling organized labor to adopt an all-inclusive policy; because the other policy results in the artificial breeding of scabs. On grounds of common sense and enlightened self-interest it would be well for the Socialist party to begin to organize the Negroes of America in reference to the class struggle. You may depend on it, comrades, the capitalists of America are not waiting. Already they have subsidized Negro leaders, Negro editors, preachers and politicians to build up in the breasts of black people those sentiments which will make them subservient to their will. For they recognize the value (to them) of cheap labor power and they know that if they can succeed in keeping one section of the working class down they can use that section to keep other sections down too.

  1. The Negro’s Attitude Toward Socialism

If the Socialist propaganda among Negroes is to be effectively carried on, the members and leaders of the party must first understand the Negro’s attitude toward Socialism. That attitude finds its first expression in ignorance. The mass of the Negro people in America are ignorant of what Socialism means. For this they are not much to blame. Behind the veil of the color line none of the great world-movements for social betterment have been able to penetrate. Since it is not yet the easiest task to get the white American worker-with all his superior intellect to see Socialism, it is but natural to expect that these darker workers to whom America denies knowledge should still be in ignorance as to its aims and objects.

Besides, the Negroes of America-those of them who think- are suspicious of Socialism as of everything that comes from the white people of America. They have seen that every movement for the extension of democracy here has broken down as soon as it reached the color line. Political democracy declared that “all men are created equal,” meant only all white men; the Christian church found that the brotherhood of man did not include God’s bastard children; the public school system proclaimed that the school house was the backbone of democracy-“for white people only,” and the civil service says that Negroes must keep their place—at the bottom. So they can hardly be blamed for looking askance at any new gospel of freedom. Freedom to them has been like one of “those juggling fiends… / That palter with us in a double sense, / That keep the word of promise to our ear,/ And break it to our hope.”

In this connection some explanation of the former political solidarity of those Negroes who were voters may be of service. Up to six years ago the one great obstacle to the political progress of the colored people was their sheep-like allegiance to the Republican party. They were taught to believe that God had raised up a peculiar race of men called Republicans who had loved the slaves so tenderly that they had taken guns in their hands and rushed on the ranks of the southern slaveholders to free the slaves; that this race of men was still in existence, marching under the banner of the Republican party and showing their great love for Negroes by appointing from six to sixteen near-Negroes to soft political snaps. Today that great political superstition is falling to pieces before the advance of intelligence among Negroes. They began to realize that they were sold out by the Republican party in 1876; that in the last twenty-five years lynchings have increased, disfranchisement has spread all over the south and “jim-crow” cars run even into the national capital-with the continuing consent of a Republican congress, a Republican Supreme Court and Republican president.

Ever since the Brownsville affair, but more clearly since Taft declared and put in force the policy of pushing out the few near-Negro officeholders, the rank and file have come to see that the Republican party is a great big sham. Many went over to the Democratic party because, as the Amsterdam News puts it, “they had nowhere else to go.” Twenty years ago the colored men who joined that party were ostracized as scalawags and crooks-which they probably were. But today, the defection to the Democrats of such men as Bishop Walters, Wood, Carr and Langston – whose uncle was a colored Republican congressman from Virginia – has made the colored democracy respectable and given quite a tone to political heterodoxy.

All this loosens the bonds of their allegiance and breaks the bigotry of the last forty years. But of this change in their political view-point the white world knows nothing. The two leading Negro newspapers are subsidized by the same political pirates who own the title-deeds to the handful of papers hirelings holding office in the name of the Negro race. One of these is an organ of Mr. Washington, the other pretends to be independent- that is, it must be “bought” on the installment plan, and both of them are in New York. Despite this “conspiracy of silence” the Negroes are waking up, are beginning to think for themselves, to look with more favor on “new doctrines.” And herein lies the open opportunity of the Socialist party. If the work of spreading Socialist propaganda is taken to them now, their ignorance of it can be enlightened and their suspicions removed.

The Duty of the Socialist Party 

I think that we might embrace the opportunity of taking the matter up at the coming national convention. The time is ripe for taking a stand against the extensive disfranchisement of the Negro in violation of the plain provisions of the national constitution. In view of the fact that the last three amendments to the constitution contain this clause, “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation,” the party will not be guilty of proposing anything worse than asking the government to enforce its own “law and order.” If the Negroes, or any other section of the working class in America, is to be deprived of the ballot, how can they participate with us in the class struggle? How can we pretend to be a political party if we fail to see the significance of this fact?

Besides, the recent dirty diatribes against the Negro in a Texas paper, which is still on our national list of Socialist papers, the experiences Mrs. Therese Malkiel in Tennessee, where she was prevented by certain people from addressing a meeting of Negroes on the subject of Socialism, and certain other exhibitions of the thing called Southernism, constitute the challenge of caste. Can we ignore this challenge? I think not. We could hardly afford to have the taint of “trimming” on the garments of the Socialist party. It is dangerous-doubly dangerous now, when the temper of the times is against such “trimming.” Besides it would be futile. If it is not met now it must be met later when it shall have grown stronger. Now, when we can cope with it, we have the issue squarely presented: Southernism or Socialism-which? Is it to be the white half of the working class against the black half, or all the working class? Can we hope to triumph over capitalism with one-half of the working class against us? Let us settle these questions now—for settled they must be.

The Negro and Political Socialism 

The power of the voting proletarian can be made to express itself through the ballot. To do this they must have a political organization of their own to give form to their will. The direct object of such an organization is to help them to secure control of the powers of government by electing members of the working class to office and so secure legislation in the interest of the working class until such time as the workers may, by being in overwhelming control of the government, be able “to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”-in short, to work for the abolition of capitalism, by legislation-if that be permitted. And in all this the Negro, who feels most fiercely the deep damnation of the capitalist system, can help.

The Negro and Industrial Socialism 

But even the voteless proletarian can in a measure help toward the final abolition of the capitalist system. For they too have labor power-which they can be taught to withhold. They can do this by organizing themselves at the point of production. By means of such organization they can work to shorten the hours of labor, to raise wages, to secure an ever-increasing share of the product of their toil. They can enact and enforce laws for the protection of labor and they can do this at the point of production, as was done by the Western Federation of Miners in the matter of the eight-hour law, which they established without the aid of the legislatures or the courts. All this involves a progressive control of the tools of production and a progressive expropriation of the capitalist class. And in all this the Negro can help. So far, they are unorganized on the industrial field, but industrial unionism beckons to them as to others, and the consequent program of the Socialist party for the Negro in the south can be based upon this fact.