Editor's note: The following is a background report to Paul Kengor’s The Communist. Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor. It is written by Spyridon Mitsotakis, who is Professor Kengor’s research assistant. To see Part II, click here.
Despite the rhetoric, there are few, if any, ideological movements that have caused more racism, ethnic repression and ethnic bloodshed than Communism – going all the way back to Karl Marx himself. Not long before he produced the Communist Manifesto, Marx expressed his support for “the slavery of the Blacks” in a letter to a Russian acquaintance:
There is no need for me to speak either of the good or of the bad aspects of freedom. As for slavery, there is no need for me to speak of its bad aspects. The only thing requiring explanation is the good side of slavery. I do not mean indirect slavery, the slavery of proletariat; I mean direct slavery, the slavery of the Blacks in Surinam, in Brazil, in the southern regions of North America.
Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilization. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World.
As is usually the case with Marx, his economic analysis is completely backward. As Thomas Sowell points out, societies with forced labor create an atmosphere where hard work is looked down upon, thereby ruining a society’s potential by stigmatizing the work necessary to realize that potential – something that had for a long time produced a noticeable difference in the prosperity of northern states to the poverty of former slave states.
In addition to his support for slavery, Marx was also a racist. Expressions of bigotry by Marx were so frequent they could fill a whole book – and in fact, they have. Former Communist Nathaniel Weyl filled 283 pages with examples of Marx’s hatred in his 1979 book, Karl Marx, Racist.
Even though American Communism itself has had limited influence, it has had lasting effects on the poor economic and social status of black Americans.
Communists’ efforts to draw black Americans toward Communism started shortly after American Communism’s official founding in the latter half of 1919. Not long after the creation of the Comintern in 1919, the director of its branch in the United States, Ludwig C.A.K. Martens, met with a black American named Lovett Fort-Whiteman to launch the American Communist movement's first campaign to convince blacks that the promise of freedom from the injustices they suffered lies in revolution and the creation of a Soviet America. Documents from U.S. government intelligence that monitored the Communists during that time period speak for themselves:
Glenda Gilmore, who accessed the archives of the Comintern for her book Defying Dixie writes:
"Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a black man from Dallas, Texas, became the first American-born black Communist. Earning the title the ‘reddest of the blacks,’ Fort-Whiteman came to Communism through socialism, radical labor activism, and race consciousness.”14 When he was released from jail in1924, he officially joined the Communist Party. “In mid-June, 1924, Fort-Whiteman traveled from Chicago to Moscow as one of roughly five hundred delegates to the Fifth World Congress of the Third International. …
“On July 1, a long, warm summer day, Fort-Whiteman rose to educate listeners, including Joseph Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, on the Negro question. … He advised the Party to move into the South and ‘exploit’ rising dissatisfaction among sharecroppers, a strategy that would pay off, since the ‘negroes are destined to be the most revolutionary class in America.’ … Fort-Whiteman did not return immediately to the United States, but enrolled in the school for colonized peoples, the Kommunisticheskii Universitet Trudyashichsya Vostoka, the Communist University of Toilers of the East, known by the acronym KUTV … Audiences everywhere listened raptly as Fort- Whiteman told them of the racial hierarchy in the U.S. South; audiences everywhere disavowed racism in the new Soviet society. Fort-Whiteman became convinced that the USSR had become the ‘first state in the history of the world which ha[d] actually solved the problem of racial discrimination.’
“His studies at KUTV and experience on the ground slowly convinced Fort- Whiteman that he had been wrong when he said that African Americans were discriminated against as a race, not as a class. … ‘Race prejudice is not an inherent thing in the mental makeup of the individual,’ Fort-Whiteman discovered; it was not ‘transmitted thru the blood.’ Instead, ‘race prejudice . . . springs from the capitalist order of the society[.]’”
When he returned to America, Fort-Whiteman went to work recruiting 12 other blacks to go to the Soviet Union - including James Ford, who would be the Communist Party’s Vice Presidential candidate in 1932, 1936 and 1940 – and setting up Communist front groups targeted at blacks. In the course of this effort integrated unions were created in the South. The Communists point to this as evidence of their early enlightenment, but in truth - as Glenda Gilmore explained in an interview with the Charlotte, N.C. radio station WFAE - the Comintern ultimately came to the conclusion that if only white southern workers were "organized" (presumably into unions), there would just be a "reserve" black workforce to take their place. Thus, if there was to be a communist revolution in the south, both would have to be organized at the same time.
Also upon his return to the United States, Fort-Whiteman initiated the disbanding of the African Blood Brotherhood – a black self-defense organization which, although only having a peak membership of less than 3,000 members, operated a magazine which in the words of the Brotherhood’s founder and leader Cyril Briggs in a letter to historian and ex-communist Theodore Draper “had a peak circulation of 36,000 and reached many Negro communities throughout the country” and had become the Communist Party’s most successful tool in their attempts to gain a black American audience after its leaders had been recruited into the Communist Party in 1921. In the Brotherhood’s place, Fort-Whiteman and black Communists formed the Party-controlled American Negro Labor Congress [ANLC], hoping to continue the work they were doing under the Brotherhood on a more party-line basis. It was a disaster. In his letter to Draper, Briggs wrote:
After I, Dick Moore, and some other members of the Supreme Council joined the CP, we sought to and succeeded in establishing a close relationship between the two organizations. This was successful, however, only in northern industrial centers. Few of our Southern members joined the CP or followed us into the American Negro Labor Congress when we decided to liquidate the Brotherhood and turn our efforts to building the Congress.
An FBI report from Chicago dated November 5, 1925 recounts the events of the ANLC founding conference. The report noted:
- October 25th, 1925: “Lovett Fort-Whitman, national organizer of the Congress, made the principal talk. In brief, his remarks were that ‘the aim of the congress is to mobilize and coordinate into a fight-machine the most enlightened and militant and class conscious workers of the negro race in the struggle for the abolition of lynching, Jim Crow'ism, industrial discrimination, political disfranchisement, and segregation of the race.’ He attacked President William Green of the American Federation of labor as misrepresenting that body, stating that the negroes want no Jim Crow unions. Continuing, he said: ‘We demand that the American Federation of labor tear down the barriers that segregate us from the white workers and keep us out of the white unions. We colored workers will, through this congress, correct the mistakes of our white brothers, who have been foolishly misled by the wrong kind of leaders.’ He concluded with a class-conscious appeal, stating that ‘the natural enemies of the negro are the boss, the landlord and the capitalist’. ”22 (Fort-Whiteman’s conclusion about the enemy of the black worker being “the capitalist” is in direct contradiction with the attitudes of the black leadership of the time, including Marcus Garvey, who, as recounted by Walter Williams, urged “blacks to undercut union wages as a means to employment and combating union racism, [stating] ‘the only convenient friend the Negro worker or laborer has in America at the present time is the white capitalist ’.” )
There was a significant change in Party policy in 1928. Making the final move in the power struggle that had engulfed the Soviet leadership since the death of Lenin, Stalin made his move against fellow Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin and, having gained the upper hand, purged the Comintern of Bukharinites by initiating a shift to an anti-reformist ultra-left. This era would come to be known as the “Third Period.” As a result, the Comintern was able to convince Harry Haywood, one of the black Americans recruited by Fort-Whiteman, to adopt a new policy. The new policy came as a surprise to the new ANLC head chosen for the mission, William Nowell. Nowell – years later, after he defected from the Communist Party and became an anti-Communist – recounted to police investigator Jacob Spolansky how he had received his instructions during a visit to the Soviet Union:
“Comrade, [Nowell was told], "we consider you the best available choice for our Negro program in the South."
"We have decided that a separate Negro republic should be established in the South, a buffer state under our leadership."
The details were filled in for Nowell, and, as he later explained to [Spolansky], the program called for the Negro population of the United States, a minority group which the Soviet has long courted and coveted, to play a featured role in the timetable of the revolution prescribed for America.
Handing the startled Nowell a crudely drawn map, the Russian official bluntly demanded: "Do you recognize this, Comrade?"
Nowell examined the drawing for a few seconds and then replied, "Yes, it looks like a map of part of the southern portion of the United States."
The Communist leader grunted. "We call it the 'Black Belt,”’ he explained. "It represents more than fifty counties in which is concentrated the heaviest Negro population."
The fantastic scheme of the Russians called for intensive missionary work in that area to arouse the Negroes to form their own separate republic.
"Thus," Nowell was told, "when the revolution is launched by the workers of the North, at our signal, the Negroes of the South, well organized, will deliver a crushing attack from the rear against capitalism. Do you understand?"
"I think so.”
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