Debs ran numerous times for presidential office and opposed wars of imperialism waged by the U.S. ruling class. He served prison terms for his outspoken opposition to war and U.S. foreign policy.
African-American figures like W.E.B. DuBois, Hubert Harrison, Chandler Owens, A. Philip Randolph and W.A. Domingo joined the Socialist Party after its founding in 1901.
Within the Socialist Party there were two main currents of thought about the role of African Americans in the working-class struggle. One tendency thought it could broaden the socialist movement by downplaying the racism and national oppression suffered by the African-American people. But a more left-wing position spoke directly to the race terror faced by African Americans and demanded that the socialist movement condemn racism and commit to the fight for its eradication.
In an essay published in the International Socialist Review in November 1903, Debs reflected on his experience in Yoakum, Texas, when he came upon a group of white men at a railroad station who made disparaging and racist comments about African Americans.
In this essay, entitled “The Negro in the Class Struggle,” Debs described these racists as “the foul product of the capitalist system and held in the lowest contempt by the master class,” who nevertheless deemed themselves superior and in this reflected “the hatred of their masters.”
Debs went on to proclaim: “The whole world is under obligation to the Negro, and that the white heel is still upon the black neck is simply proof that the world is not yet civilized. The history of the Negro in the United States is a history of crime without parallel.”
He concluded the essay, “I have said and say again that, properly speaking, there is no Negro question outside of the labor question — the working class struggle. Our position as socialists and as a party is perfectly plain. We have simply to say: ‘The class struggle is colorless.’”
In this quote it can be seen that Debs, while to the left of other white socialists who wanted to ignore racism, failed to acknowledge the importance of the Black struggle for national self-determination. He fell far short of revolutionaries like Karl Marx who, much earlier during the U.S. Civil War, wrote that white workers could never emancipate themselves from wage slavery as long as Black workers were held in bondage.
Within a few years of the founding of the Socialist Party, the capitulation of the social democratic parties in Europe to national chauvinism at the outset of World War I led to the collapse of the Second International. Out of the war came a profound workers’ revolution in Russia in 1917 that led a number of African Americans to lean toward communism.
African-American militants who formed the African Blood Brotherhood in the period after World War I, when there were race riots in various parts of the United States, looked toward the early communists as allies. Many members of the ABB joined the party during the early 1920s.
Communism & the national question
In 1919 a series of race riots broke out, the violence in Chicago being the most severe.
White mobs and law-enforcement agencies had often invaded African-American communities to rob, loot, rape and murder scores of Black people. However, in the race riots of 1919-1921, African Americans militantly fought back against the white racist elements seeking to inflict terror on their communities. It was during this period that groups such as the African Blood Brotherhood came into existence.
There was also the growth of nationalism and pan-Africanism in African-American communities throughout the U.S. The movement led by Marcus Garvey grew exponentially after World War I, obtaining millions of adherents during the early 1920s. The so-called “Harlem Renaissance,” fueled by this new militancy, also found a strong base among African Americans who had migrated from the South during the war.
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the formation of a Third International increased the desire among more militant elements within the socialist movement to intensify the struggle for fundamental change in the United States.
In 1919 several of the currents within the socialist and communist tendencies sought recognition from the Third International, which encouraged the left-wing tendencies to consolidate and form a workers’ party.
During this period there was tremendous persecution of communists in the United States. Many were imprisoned, deported and driven underground. The communists emerged above-ground in 1921 with the formation of the Workers Party, later to become the Communist Party in 1928.
The rise of the Garvey movement and other political and cultural currents within the African-American community drew the attention of the communists. In 1920 the Second Congress of the Communist International developed its thesis on the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Soviet leader V. I. Lenin noted that the right of self-determination applied both to the Irish in Ireland and to African Americans in the United States.
During the 1920s the early African-American cadres in what was to become the Communist Party came from the ABB and the Socialist Party. In 1925 the American Negro Labor Congress was launched in an attempt to enhance communist work inside the African-American community.Ω