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Looking back from today, the Soviet Union in the 1930s may not seem like a promised land, but in Depression-era America many US citizens migrated there. Perhaps the most interesting group who made this journey were African-Americans. In this article we look at the fascinating inter-relationship between Harlem, racial issues, the Great Depression and Communism, and how these factors combined to lead some African-Americans to move to Stalin’s brutal Soviet Union.

 A glorified, almost saintly, portrait of Stalin, circa 1937. Alas, behind the surface, Stalin was far from being a saint.

A glorified, almost saintly, portrait of Stalin, circa 1937. Alas, behind the surface, Stalin was far from being a saint.

Looking back from today, the Soviet Union in the 1930s may not seem like a promised land, but in Depression-era America many US citizens migrated there. Perhaps the most interesting group who made this journey were African-Americans. In this article we look at the fascinating inter-relationship between Harlem, racial issues, the Great Depression and Communism, and how these factors combined to lead some African-Americans to move to Stalin’s brutal Soviet Union.

 

In 1917, Russia was a very unstable place. Against the backdrop of the extraordinary suffering that World War I was inflicting on the Russian people, major protests against the government soon produced an earth-shattering change. That change was the Russian Revolution, in which Lenin’s Bolsheviks gained power at the expense of the centuries-old Russian monarchy. After the Revolution, the Russian Civil War broke out, and some Western countries actively supported anti-Bolshevik groups.

One of the reasons for this Western intervention in the Russian Civil War was that the West feared the possibilities for social, economic, political and cultural revolutions that the new Russia brought with it; however, such sentiments were mirrored by the Bolsheviks, who thought that the West might be a territory in which they could expand and grow Communism, although such thoughts did not last.  By the end of the Russian Civil War, the hopes that some Bolsheviks harbored about the potential for exporting revolution across Europe were largely extinguished and the ‘revolutionary moment’ in the aftermath of World War I had expired by the end of 1919. Russia, through the medium of the international Communist group known as the Comintern, found America not to have much revolutionary potential at all, despite its revolutionary tradition.

There was one exception though. Through the filter of Marxist-Leninist discourse, America’s black communities appeared to be fertile ground for the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). Their experience of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow seemed to present the party and its leader, Earl Browder, with ideal recruits to the cause. This led to an unsuccessful project to develop an all-black Communist movement in America, and after that failed, an inter-racial party initiative to ‘raise the condition of the blacks’ began in the late 1920s. As we shall see, this initiative, as well as others, produced mixed results. This was no truer than in the place that could claim to be the center of African-American culture at the time, Harlem.

 

Communism in Harlem

The fact that in Harlem, as Mark Naison shows in Harlem Communists during the Depression, the party was largely unsuccessful in flourishing in a majority black neighborhood, would tend to suggest that while the Comintern looked to African-Americans to be their revolutionary vanguard, most African-Americans had at best mixed feelings towards Communism and the Soviet Union. One factor that played a role in reducing the influence of the CPUSA was that it had to compete with pre-existing, exclusively black organizations such as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and Thurgood Marshall’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Naison’s history of Harlem Communism sees the party pass through several distinct phases; its inception, in the aftermath of World War One (the 1920s), the depression years (1929-34), the Comintern’s attempts at developing a Popular Front (1934-39), and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact/war years (1939-45). In each phase, Naison shows how African-American Harlemites within and outside of the party transposed their interpretations of the USSR and Soviet Communism on to the challenges facing the black community. Looking internationally for solutions to racism and poverty in America was not a new phenomenon. Marcus Garvey’s UNIA had proposed the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa, after a hypothetical armed uprising had taken place to force out white European colonists. Some African-Americans in the South even looked to Japan to be the world leader of non-white people during the 1930s, given the challenge it presented to the British, French, Dutch and Americans in the Asia-Pacific region. The focus on the USSR as a multi-racial state free of segregation or racial persecution was attractive to a broad range of non-Communist Harlemites, although there is little evidence that the core tenets of Soviet Communism penetrated deeply into the black community.

The CPUSA generated great levels of support in Harlem prior to the Popular Front years when it gained a reputation as being an ally against discrimination. It was helped in this as it championed two high profile cases, the trials of the Scottsboro Boys and of Angelo Herndon. The Scottsboro boys were nine African-American teenagers accused of the rape of two white girls in Alabama on flimsy evidence and sentenced to death. The CPUSA persuaded the families to allow the party, not the NAACP, to represent them. Herndon was an African-American labor organizer sentenced to death in Georgia in 1932 under antiquated laws dating back to the pre-Civil War era that equated such activity with slave insurrection and sedition.

These endeavors from the CPUSA did not automatically translate in to more widespread support for the idea of Communism in African-American communities though.

 

Cyril Briggs

Naison describes the experience of Cyril Briggs, a West Indian journalist who had been fired from the Harlem Amsterdam News in 1917 for his anti-war stance. Briggs founded the Crusader, a broadly Nationalist magazine espousing ideas that were: “dedicated to a renaissance of Negro power and culture throughout the world.” Briggs was suspicious of Garvey’s dominant Nationalist movement, the UNIA, and despite a strong affinity with Garvey’s emancipatory views, he began to view him with mistrust by 1919 as the anti-Communist crackdown across America gathered pace and Garvey, dismissing key leftists from the UNIA, seemed to be cooperating. His initial Crusader editorials, according to Naison, were ‘strikingly similar’ to Garvey’s views, combining black liberation and Nationalism with anti-capitalism.

Naison identifies Briggs’ initial interest in the Bolshevik Revolution as being based largely on what he saw as the Soviet Union’s ‘anti-imperialist orientation’, which was consistent with his pan-African emancipatory Nationalism; the Soviet Union might not be able to do much to prevent lynchings in the Southern states or the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, but it could potentially challenge European imperial dominance in Africa and Asia. Unfortunately for Briggs, Lenin’s interest in Africa was minimal. Beyond rhetoric and a small number of African students and revolutionary visitors to Moscow, the USSR was no threat to British, Belgian or French colonies in Africa. Briggs eventually joined the CPUSA in 1920, but his drift to the political left had begun as he moved away from the more accepted Black Nationalist positions of mass repatriation to Africa, and began to argue for a multi-racial, egalitarian America, one that could be achieved through revolution.

 

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This article is provided by Nick Shepley from www.explaininghistory.com, a site that has a wide array of history ebooks.