In 1912, a white, socialist, Kate Richards O’Hare, wrote:
“SOCIALISTS WANT TO PUT THE NEGRO WHERE HE CAN’T COMPETE WITH THE WHITE MAN.”
Indeed, the white American Left’s attitudes on racism a century ago anticipated those of white progressives of today who pretend that everyone’s Blues are the same, and that any focus on the fundamental role that racism plays in the class struggle is misguided, even selfish, on the part of Black folks. Eugene Debs articulated the white Left’s indifference to Black suffering in a 1903 article that appeared in the International Socialist Review:
“The history of the Negro in the United States is a history of crime without a parallel.” And yet, “(t)here is no Negro question outside of the labor question. . . The class struggle is colorless. The capitalists, white, black and other shades are on one side and the workers, white, blacks and all other colors, on the other side.”
For African Americans who were were disillusioned with their white comrades’ reticence to address Jim Crow, the Bolshevik Revolution that toppled the Russian tsar in 1917 was a thunderclap. With the possible exception of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin understood the fundamental role that racism plays in class struggle better than any white man who ever lived. This is because he understood that the Russian tsars’ misrule was rooted in not just capitalism but Russia’s ancient ethnic rivalries.
Inhabiting a land mass accounting for nearly a sixth of the Earth’s surface, Russia is home to more than 100 nationalities, and was widely known as the “prison-house of nations before the 1917 revolution.
The tsars stoked these sectarian tensions in a cynical attempt to divide and conquer Russia’s many tribes. The thinking was that the more energy that Russians invested in fighting each other, the less they had in reserve to fight the Russian state, which conspired with the banks to dispossess the Russian people.
To cite one example, a Ku Klux Klan-like outfit known as the “Black Hundreds,” was infamous for nighttime massacres targeting Jewish communities. (The Yiddish word “pogrom” was invented by Russian Jews to specifically describe these assaults by the Black Hundreds). Alexander III’s ascension to the throne in 1881 escalated anti-Semitic violence, causing Russian Jews to flee in droves for enclaves such as New York City.
In the Soviet Union’s early years, bigotry was expressly forbidden, culture exalted, and self-determination encouraged by Lenin, who envisioned an international workers’ uprising. The vanguard of that revolution, as Lenin saw it, was the African working class that represented the most oppressed people in the world. And a key component of this African vanguard were the descendants of slaves who populated capitalism’s global stronghold:
The United States of America.
To further the Bolsheviks goal of a worldwide proletarian dictatorship, the Soviet Union opened a revolutionary school in 1921, Moscow’s Communist University of the Toilers of the East–known by the Russian acronym KUTVA– that enrolled scores of revolutionaries –including Ho Chi Minh, Deng Xiaoping, Jomo Kenyatta, and African Americans such as a Chicagoan named Jane Golden, a lawyer named William Patterson, who was one of Paul Robeson’s best friends, and a waiter, Harry Haywood – to pore over Marxist texts and study organizing strategies. Patterson and Haywood would go on to lobby for the release for the Scottsboro Boys–nine Black teenagers falsely accused of rape. That campaign was a catalyst for the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement.
In his autobiography, Black Bolshevik, Haywood recalled a drunk staggering aboard a half-empty Moscow streetcar one late afternoon in the late 1920s when he was studying at the Communist University of the Toilers. Seeing Haywood with a group of his black classmates, the inebriate mumbled loud enough for everyone to hear “Black devils in our country.” Here is what happened next, according to Haywood:
“A group of outraged Russian passengers thereupon seized him and ordered the motorman to stop the car. It was a citizen’s arrest, the first I had ever witnessed. ‘How dare you, you scum, insult people who are the guests of our country!’
What then occurred was an impromptu, on-the-spot meeting, where they debated what to do with the man. I was to see many of this kind of “meeting” during my stay in Russia. It was decided to take the culprit to the police station, which, the conductor informed them, was a few blocks ahead. Upon arrival there, they hustled the drunk out of the car and insisted that we Blacks, as the injured parties, come along to make the charges. At first, we demurred, saying that the man was obviously drunk and not responsible for his remarks.“No, citizens,” said a young man . . .“drunk or not, we don’t allow this sort of thing in our country. You must come with us to the militia (police) station and prefer charges against this man.”
The car stopped in front of the station. The poor drunk was hustled off and all the passengers came along. The defendant had sobered up somewhat by this time and began apologizing before we had even entered the building. We got to the commandant of the station.
The drunk swore that he didn’t mean what he’d said.“I was drunk and angry about something else. I swear to you citizens that I have no race prejudice against those Black gospoda [gentlemen].
Again, I think it is worth repeating that this occurred in 1920, one year after the worst outbreak of racist violence in U.S. history, known as Red Summer.
At last week’s convening of the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin recalled the Soviet Union’s support of African liberation movements during the Cold War, and, like Lenin, articulated his vision for an Africa emancipated, at long last, from the West’s colonial yoke.
We have always strictly adhered to the “African solutions to African problems” principle, standing in solidarity with Africans in their struggle for self-determination, justice and their legitimate rights. We have never tried to impose on partners our own ideas about the internal structure, forms and methods of management, development goals and ways to achieve them. Unchanged remains our respect for the sovereignty of African states, their traditions and values, their desire to independently determine their own destiny and freely build relationships with partners.
Vladimir Lenin is not Vladimir Lenin and the Soviet Union is long gone. But Putin’s remarks at the opening of the Russia-Africa Summit underscore why Blacks everywhere have overwhelmingly rejected the United States’ demonization of the Soviet Union, and now Russia under Putin. If Russia is not perhaps as steadfast an ally as was, say, Cuba, neither is it the enemy of Black people, and at times, it has offered an appealing alternative to the white settler projects that have oppressed Africans, everywhere in the world, for nearly 500 years.
In other word, the West, generally, and the U.S. in particular, loathe both Russia and African Americans because both are obstacles to its Imperial, expansionist ambition.
Hence, Putin has been made to be a boogeyman in the mainstream news media just as Blacks have always been depicted as boogeymen. Recall if you will, Bill Clinton’s betrayal of the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters, African Americans, with his omnibus crime bill, gutting of welfare, educational reforms, and NAFTA, which sent decent-paying unionized factory jobs to Mexico.
Bill Clinton also betrayed the U.S. government’s promise that it would not move so much as one inch eastward after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and West Germany’s annexation of East Germany. Not only did Bill Clinton begin the process of expanding NATO, but he also supported, enthusiastically, the failed presidency of Boris Yeltsin, who essentially sold Russians out to Wall Street, and international finance.