An unmet challenge: Race and the Left in America

Benjamin Blumberg
Platypus Review 19
January 1, 2010


In his 1932 novel Banjo, the radical black intellectual Claude McKay portrays the vibrancy of black cosmopolitanism in the French port city of Marseilles in the decade following the end of World War I. McKay’s characters — boys of the docks, mendicants, and drifters — grapple with the racism of the wider society, while in their relations to one another live beyond race’s narrowness. One in particular, the novel’s protagonist, an itinerant intellectual named Ray, is driven by French police brutality to reflect on the reality of his race. In a powerful passage, McKay describes Ray as refusing

to accept the idea of the Negro simply, as a “problem.” All of life was a problem…To Ray the Negro was one significant and challenging aspect of the human life of the world as a whole…If the Negro had to be defined, there was every reason to define him as a challenge rather than a “problem” to Western civilization.[1]

To this day, Ray’s challenge remains unmet, not only in France, but in the United States and the rest of the world.

Following Ray, the term “challenge” is used here to signify a refusal of the traditional labeling of anti-black racism and racially justified segregation as a “problem.” Naming racism and segregation as a problem merely acknowledges and passively describes a fact. However, the challenge is to elevate the problem’s mere existence to the level of reality, to shape it through thought and action into a material that, because consciously formed, can be transformed and overcome.

Photograph of Grigorii Zinoviev, Claude McKay, and Nikolai Bukharin in Moscow 1923 Photograph of Arthur Holitscher, Clara Zetkin, and Claude McKay in Moscow 1923 Claude McKay addressing the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, 1923

For the American Left in the first half the 20 century — commonly referred to as the “Old Left” — the task of advancing freedom entailed a thoroughgoing critique of the racist institutions in American society, a socioeconomic and historical analysis of their origins and contemporary function, as well as practical efforts to eradicate these structures. In other words, racism was the challenge faced by the American Old Left. However, to a large extent it evaded the very challenge it set for itself by accepting the characterization of the black population’s political situation as “the Negro problem.” Only the best of the Old Left pushed against this characterization. The New Left, seeking to overcome the Old Left’s shortcomings and receiving a great impulse from the demands of the Civil Rights movement to do so, would nevertheless come to reenact the previous generation’s failings. This brings forth an uncomfortable question: if Marxists in the United States were unable to meet the challenge of raising racism to the level of a transformable reality, then to what extent can we speak of an American tradition of Marxism — a Marxism adequate to the situation of American capitalism — at all?

Marxism was at first a transplant to the United States, brought with the arrival of radicals who were compelled to leave Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848. However, as an organized political movement, it was forged with the great inspiration and impetus given by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, and the subsequent revolutions that swept through Europe and the world. These profoundly radicalizing events led to the formation of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CP), first in 1919 as two separate and competing tendencies, and then as a unified Workers Party in 1921. According to James P. Cannon, one of the Communist Party’s leaders in the 1920s, and one of the leaders of the Trotskyist fight against Stalinism from 1928 onward, the first years of the Communist Party were dominated by foreign émigrés with direct experience in Europe’s mass Marxist parties. Their experience within Marxism led them to believe that it was their duty to preserve the integrity of Marxism against any misinterpretations by its new, less experienced American practitioners. However, this inadvertently led to a neglect of specific aspects of the historical development of the United States, most crucially the struggle against slavery, segregation, and racism. This theoretical deficiency remained even after the growth enjoyed by the CP in the 1920s and 1930s.

Thus limited by its theoretical outlook, the American Communist Party neglected the critical question: How should Marxists account for the specificity of national historical development, while, at the same time, attempting to overcome the nation-state as a political framework? In the case of anti-black racism and segregation, this requires us to critically reevaluate the dialectic of separatism and integration/assimilation in the race politics of the United States. Continue reading