Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Chapter One

Chapter One: A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, and The Messenger

In December, 1919, a small, Harlem-based magazine which had previously earned itself the title of “the most dangerous of all the Negro publications”[1] began its latest issue in a most traditionally American way: with a Thanksgiving celebration. The editors of The Messenger, Harlem socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, wasted no time in subverting this ritual, announcing “we do not thank God for anything…Our deity is the toiling masses of the world.”[2] Among the things the young revolutionists did give thanks for was “the Russian Revolution-the greatest achievement of the twentieth century.” Not content to stop with the invocation of an event that positively terrified the American government, they went on to give thanks for “the German Revolution, the Austrian Revolution, the Hungarian Revolution, and the Bulgarian Revolution.” Lest they seem ungrateful for the class struggles which had not yet produced a revolution, The Messenger’s editors also gave nods to “the titanic strikes which are seeping and have been sweeping Great Britain, France, Italy, the United States, Japan, and in fact every country in the world.” This small offering of thanks reveals the importance that Owen and Randolph placed on global revolution. Long before “globalization” was becoming a buzzword for everyone from social scientists to New York Times columnists, two young, African-American radicals were eagerly taking their lead from the international revolutionary movement. This chapter illustrates how that global movement, centered around the Russian Revolution, was both a source of strength for the politics of working class power – in a word, socialism – Owen and Randolph would advance in Black America, and a source of demoralization as the movement ebbed.

As their Thanksgiving editorial demonstrates, A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen were deeply influenced by world revolutionary upsurge in general and the Russian Revolution in particular. This influence has, however, gone largely unstudied in what little scholarship exists on the editors of The Messenger. Jervis Anderson’s 1972 biography of A. Philip Randolph remains the work that most explores the influence of the Russian revolution on the Messenger. The chapter dealing with Randolph and the Messenger rightly situates the magazine’s launch between America’s entry into World War I and the October Revolution of 1917. Anderson recounts the effusive praise Randolph and Owen heaped upon the Bolsheviks, but quickly notes that “[t]he Messenger would suddenly lose its enthusiasm for the Russian dance”[3] in 1921. I will argue later that the Russian Revolution remained a central orienting point for the Messenger’s editors as late as September, 1922. In addition, Anderson’s reasons for Randolph’s move to the right rely wholly upon domestic events. He lists “the general collapse of the New Negro insurgency,”[4] the Messenger’s always precarious finances, and the split between Socialists and Communists after the latter became a force in America. Completely lacking from this account is the tremendous sea-change that took place in world revolutionary politics between 1917 and 1922. Furthermore, these changes in international politics influenced the factors which Anderson does list as influencing the Messenger. As this study will illustrate, the shift from the upsurge of 1919 to the spectre of fascism in 1922 was one of the key factors behind the collapse of the New Negro movement. Anderson also generally understates the impact of revolutionary politics on the Messenger editors during the years in which they were aligned with the Soviet Union. In discussing their articles on the causes and solutions to race riots, he fails to mention that they look to Soviet Russia as an example of a nation where the problem has been solved, dedicating essays to elucidating that very argument. Anderson’s failure to note this influence results in an impoverished view of Randolph and the sources of his politics.

More recent treatments of the subject have hardly improved upon Anderson’s formulations. Paula Pfeffer’s 1990 Randolph biography gives the international influences on her subject’s political development even less space. She notes, for example, that “Randolph was unalterably opposed to taking direction from a source outside the United States,”[5] and uses this to explain the Messenger’s decision to side with the Socialist Party in the Socialist/Communist Split. It is only through a selective engagement with Randolph’s writings that Pfeffer is able to argue this interpretation. Her only evidence for it is an article Randolph wrote in 1926 (well after the end of his engagement with Marxism) for Opportunity magazine to the effect that the Communists were outsiders who split the movement. This vision of a nationally hermetic radicalism is utterly incongruent with the vast majority of the Messenger’s issues, which advance an internationalist politics based on the world revolutionary movement. As mentioned above, Randolph explicitly did take direction from outside the United States in the proposed solution to race riots in America. Furthermore, her analysis is blind to the nuances of Randolph and Owen’s engagement with Soviet Russia. While praising Lenin and Trotsky, for example, they heap scorn upon “St. Zinoviev” of the Comintern. Surely there is ground here for further analysis. What were Zinoviev’s policies which so enraged the Harlem radicals? How did they represent a break from the past? Pfeffer’s failure to even ask these questions leaves a massive void in her study of Randolph’s politics.

In fact, as I will demonstrate, the Russian Revolution and the international revolutionary movement had an immense influence on the Messengers politics. Randolph, Owen, and their collaborators (both around the Messenger and in the New Negro movement generally) were all tremendously enthused by the working class upsurge in Europe that was occurring when they founded the Messenger. News of revolutions abroad gave them confidence at home that their side was winning. Beyond this, it gave them an ethical compass, and an example to look to for solving problems domestically. Above all, it provided them with a realistic model of what socialism would look like. As this movement ebbed, and was eventually defeated, the Messenger group felt the demoralization which set in on the global movement. This was, I argue, a major force in the magazine’s conservatization. Before getting to that story, however, it is necessary to trace just how central internationalist working class politics were to the Messenger.

Black Bolsheviks

A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, like many of those who represented the leadership of the New Negro movement, were recent immigrants to New York, partakers in the Great Migration. Randolph arrived in 1911, inspired by Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk and impatient with the political opportunities available in Jacksonville, Florida. Owen arrived two years later, in 1913, to study sociology and political science at Columbia University. Introduced through Randolph’s wife, Lucille, the two became fast friends as they realized the striking congruence of their political views.

Owen and Randolph soon became fixtures in Harlem’s growing soapbox radical speakers scene. Most prominent among such speakers was the Black socialist, Hubert Henry Harrison. As Jervis Anderson has written, ”whenever [Harrison]…was speaking…the young men would be there.”[6] Learning from both Harrison and the time they spent studying “the theory and history of socialism and working-class politics” and “their application to the racial problem in America,”[7] the two, particularly Randolph, became noted radical speakers in their own right, joining the Socialist Party in 1916.

As the two grew in reputation as advocates of labor unionism and socialism, they attracted the attention of the Headwaiters and Sidewaiters Society of Greater New York, which was looking for editors for its magazine. Offered both a paycheck and office space, the two jumped at the opportunity. They soon moved into their new office on Lennox Avenue, and began publishing the magazine. Their editorship was to be short-lived, however. Eight months after they began, Randolph and Owen were fired for exposing corruption involving the headwaiters receiving kickbacks for selling uniforms to sidewaiters. Undeterred, the two simply moved their office next door and began publishing The Messenger.

The Messenger’s inaugural issue in November, 1917 set the tone for its endorsement of revolutionary internationalist politics. It contained a satirical jab at U.S. proposals to further the war effort by banning the teaching of German. Randolph and Owen sent greetings to Irish-American radicals who were calling on Great Britain to lift “her imperial heel from off the tired neck of Ireland.”[8] Russia was also on the writers’ minds, as they cheered the defeat of a counterrevolutionary military coup in Petrograd. Even more interesting, however, for a magazine which became infamous with the FBI for its defense of the Bolshevik Revolution, was Owen and Randolph’s paragraph long praise of Alexander Kerensky, Prime Minister under the provisional government of Russia and the man the Bolsheviks would depose from power. Their short “Who’s Who” entry on Kerensky praised him for the defeat of General Kornilov’s coup[9], and cheered his government on with exclamations of “Long live Revolutionary Russia!” and “Long live Socialism!”[10] This praise is even stranger given that the magazine’s very next issue would heap unstinting praise upon the Bolsheviks in general, and on Lenin and Trotsky in particular.

This seeming paradox of support for both Kerensky and his arch-foes, the Bolsheviks, reveals the lens with which Owen and Randolph judged revolutionary movements. While today, 90 years after the Russian Revolution, history books are filled with the actions of Lenin and Trotsky, Kerensky and Miliukov, or Martov and Dan, at the time the Messenger was endorsing not the positions of these various politicos, but the revolutionary actions of the Russian workers. As the closing exhortations of their endorsement of Kerensky reveal (“Long live Revolutionary Russia,” “Long live Socialism!”), Randolph and Owen were not endorsing his government for its own sake, but because they believed it was the representative of socialism and revolutionary Russia. Compare this stance, for example, with a resolution passed by metalworkers near Petrograd in March, 1917:

All measures of the PG [provisional government] that destroy the remnants of the autocracy and strengthen the freedom of the people must be fully supported on the part of democracy. All measures that lead to conciliation with the old régime and that are directed against the people must meet with a most decisive protest and counteraction.[11]

Just as the workers of Petrograd supported Kerensky insofar as his government “strengthen[ed] the freedom of the people,” so Randolph and Owen supported it insofar as it stood for revolution in Russia. They placed their trust at this point not in the parties contending in Russia at the time, but in the course of the revolution itself.

When news of the Bolshevik seizure of power did reach Harlem, however, it profoundly changed the Messenger’s stance. The next issue appeared in January of 1918, a full two months after the October Revolution. In the interim, it is clear that Owen and Randolph had come to fully endorse the Bolshevik position in Russia. Their editorial titled simply “The Bolsheviki” contains a detailed description of the Bolshevik platform, as well as a defense of Lenin and Trotsky against the charge of being German agents, an accusation floating around in both the Russian counterrevolutionary press and the U.S. “metropolitan press.” The editors dismiss this “malicious libel,” explaining how the Bolshevik example will “awaken the proletariat of the world to his power and his right to a fair share of the world’s goods.” Though clearly won to Bolshevism, Owen and Randolph still identified with the broader revolutionary movement as described above. Their endorsement of Lenin and Trotsky contains an explanation why the Bolsheviks succeeded: “[t]he Russian people want a general, and not a separate peace. Lenine and Trotsky are working for this result.” [12] It is the congruence of Bolshevik views with the views of “the Russian people” which gives them the moral and political authority they command.

This authority extended beyond the Messenger’s views on international politics and became an integral part of the magazine’s political identity. Rhetoric referring to the Soviet victory became an asset Randolph and Owen deployed in a multifarious assortment of situations. In the January issue, Owen’s column, “Peace,” uses the Russian Revolution to advance antiwar arguments against the U.S. government. Noting Wilson’s refusal to negotiate with Germany because it is not “a people’s government,” Owen goes on to argue that American hypocrisy is demonstrated “in the same breath by a willingness to make terms with the autocracy of Russia, but an unwillingness to recognize the people’s most democratic government of Russia.”[13] The victory of the Russian Revolution did not remain simply a success story from afar, but came home to shape the political arguments the Messenger would use to argue against the government at home.

The Messenger’s July issue continued this focus on the Bolshevik Revolution. Owen and Randolph led with an editorial titled “Bolshevism and World Democracy,” which portrayed the Soviet government as “a forward of true world democracy.” It also located Russia’s place within a narrative of ascending freedom, comparing those who doubt the Soviets to “the Tories of England and America” and “[t]he Bourbons of France.” The Bolsheviks became the latest incarnation of the Minutemen and the sans-culottes, standard bearers in the march of democracy.[14]

The July issue also displayed an awareness of the power of transnational political influences. In “Psychology Will Win This War,” Chandler Owen lays out a sophisticated understanding of the ways in which people construct their political identities from sources of extra-national origin. He describes how Kerensky (who had received praise in the Messenger’s inaugural issue) sought to make the Russian people “feel that their goal and the Allies’ goal were the same.” Here the construction of a political identity with transnational roots was at the service of those prosecuting World War I. If the goals of the Allies could be linked with the goals of the Russian peasants fighting and dying in the trenches, Kerensky would be vastly more assured of his army’s stability. The Bolsheviks, however, followed a different course. Owen notes that the Soviet government’s “democratic doctrine” was affecting German public opinion. By “attacking [German] policies,” the Bolsheviks were “changing Germany’s psychology.”[15] Indeed, Trotsky, as Russia’s new Commissar for Foreign Affairs, made the construction of transnational political linkages a central component of his work. He worked in conjunction with the new Soviet Commander in Chief Nikolai Krylenko, who immediately ordered a “cease fire and ‘fraternization on the fronts.” Krylenko and Trotsky hoped that “through contact with the Russian troops the German Army would become infected with revolution.” Trotsky also demanded as a condition for a truce that German authorities “expressly [allow] the Soviets to conduct revolutionary agitation among German and Austrian troops.” [16] The Bolsheviks thus made linkages between the soldiers of hostile nations a key component in their foreign policy.

In the same article, Owen noted how the world’s rulers were also aware of the growing connections between revolutionary politics in different countries. He recounts with glee British Prime Minister Lloyd George’s proclamation that “A Revolutionary Russia can never be anything but a menace to the Prussian autocracy.”[17] Authorities at home were equally attuned to the dangerous politics making their way across the Atlantic. Though it was standard practice for law enforcement groups to describe any African Americans who stood for full racial equality as Bolsheviks, with the Messenger group the charge was clearly not devoid of merit. Undercover agents who visited the publication’s offices took careful note of the portraits of Lenin and Trotsky which adorned the walls.[18] The Justice Department’s attitude towards the flow of ideas across the ocean was in some ways the mirror image of Randolph and Owen’s. One department memo described the Messenger in language which could only have made its editors proud: “a well-planned, well-executed and well-financed [Randolph and Owen were surely amused by this description] propaganda among the Negroes of this country to-day for an absolute overthrow of the present form of government and the substitution of governmental ideas as carried out by Lenin and Trotsky in Russia.”[19] Just as the Russian Revolution inspired militancy and hope in American radicals, it inspired trepidation and paranoia in America’s rulers.

In addition to scaring Justice Department agents, the offices of the Messenger became a meeting ground for many different radicals of the New Negro movement. A testament to the ecumenicalism of the movement’s early days, everyone from Garveyites to future communists could be found in the Messenger’s office. Among those who spent time in the small Lennox Avenue space were William Ferris, Black nationalist and future editor of the Negro World, Lovett Fort-Whitman, Black Wobbly and future Communist, and Wilfred Adolphus Domingo, another future editor of the Negro World and member of the African Blood Brotherhood.[20] All of these radicals shared a common hope in revolution in the United States, a hope nurtured by the progress of revolutionary movements abroad.

The hope and militancy inspired by both the Russian Revolution and the European revolutionary wave would come to a head in 1919 and 1920. The Messenger’s March 1919 issue (the first to appear following July 1918) carried an editorial about “The German National Assembly,” celebrating the birth of the Weimar Republic. Though the new assembly was headed primarily by moderate socialists with politics similar to Kerensky’s, Owen and Randolph were quite confident that “the more radical Sparticides will ‘ere long rise to power.”[21] This shift from the position in 1917 of support for the moderate socialists to support for those who sought a working class seizure of power is indicative of the revolutionary socialist ideas that the Messenger’s editors took from the upsurges of 1919. Where once they had backed the moderate section of the working class movement that was in power, they now supported the most militant wing, confident that working class power was the solution to the problems they faced. The following issue continued this identification with the revolutionary European workers, celebrating “the cosmic tread of Soviet government:”

Russia and Germany have yielded to its human touch and now Hungary joins the people’s form of rule. Italy is standing upon a social volcano. France is seething with social unrest. The triple alliance of Great Britain – the railroad, transport, and mine workers – threaten to overthrow the economic and political bourbonism of “Merry Old England.” The red tide of socialism sweeps on in America. South America is in the throes of revolution.[22]

The revolution was at hand, and Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph could scarcely contain their joy.

This exaltation was not merely a case of radicals drunk on the grandiosity of their own dreams. A revolutionary tide was sweeping Europe. By 1920 the Communist-led Third International contained the Italian Socialist Party (300,000 members), the Czechoslavak Communist Party (400,00 members), the French Socialist Party (140,000 members), the Bulgarian Socialists (35,478 members), and the Swedish Socialist Party (17,000 members). This was in addition to the German Independent Social-Democratic Party, which had voted to leave the Second International but not to join the Third, and had 800,000 members.[23] Lastly, of course, there was the Bolshevik Government in Russia. The sheer size of the revolutionary movement in Europe gave good warrant for the inspiration Owen and Randolph felt. Just as an earlier generation of radicals had taken heart from the successes of the British anti-slavery struggle, Black radicals in Harlem used the experiences of the European proletariat to shape their own political identity.

Randolph and Owen were self-conscious of the outer-national nature of this shaping. Their editorial from the August 1919 issue, “Internationalism,” presents the editors’ own miniature history of the transnational politics they advocated. The editorial began by extending a welcome to Éamon de Valera, newly elected Prime Minister of Ireland, to America. De Valera had come to the US to seek recognition for the Irish Republic, hoping thus to undercut British claims to the isle. Owen and Randolph applauded De Valera for this move, writing that it demonstrated “signal intelligence” to carry the problem “outside of Ireland for a solution.” They contrast De Valera’s shrewdness with “the ignorant Negro leaders” in America, who, Owen and Randolph claimed, were content to keep the American racial nightmare a purely domestic affair. The editors go on to claim that “the international method” is “the method of the future.” They also plumb the past for examples of its application, recounting General Lafayette’s aid in the American Revolution, Karl Marx’s work in lobbying the International Workingman’s Association to stand for the abolition of slavery, and Frederick Douglass’ travels to England to win support for the same. Noting Woodrow Wilson’s selective transnationalism, Owen and Randolph condemn the president’s “eloquen[ce] over the pogroms committed against Jews in Poland” when juxtaposed with his silence over “the burning of a Negro every day or so in Texas or Georgia or Mississippi.” [24] This history illustrates Owen and Randolph’s self-consciousness in using international tools to develop their own political identities. In discussing the ways De Valera and Douglass sought to make the issues of Irish Republicanism and Abolitionism, respectively, part of their audiences’ political priorities, the Messenger editors illustrated their own desires to make Black oppression in America an international issue as well. Not only did they seek to use transnational politics to their own advantage, they also placed themselves within an African American political tradition of doing the same

If Owen and Randolph sought to bring domestic politics abroad, however, they also hoped to bring international politics home. In discussing the proposed platform of the Left Wing of the American Socialist Party (SP), they emphasize their support of the proposed “immediate emergency national convention” by arguing for the need to discuss the SP position in regards to the Soviets. Randolph and Owen condemned the Right Wing of the SP for its combination of undemocratic procedure and anticommunism. Arguing that “It is high time that the leaders stopped proclaiming in the party press and out of the party press that they are not Bolsheviks,” they go on to ask, “Are the Bolsheviki something to be shunned, despised and declaimed? If we oppose them, why?...let us discuss the facts and interpret them.”[25] In calling for democratic discussion inside the party, the Messenger editors hoped to open up a space to win support for the Bolsheviks in Russia. The politics they brought home from abroad aided them in their struggles to forge the type of Socialist Party they desired. [26]

They also imported the ideas of working class power of the Russian Revolution to deal directly with questions regarding race in America. The September 1919 issue of the Messenger contained an article by contributing editor (and editor of Marcus Garvey’s Negro World) W.A. Domingo entitled “Did Bolshevism Stop Race Riots in Russia?” The article is primarily an exposition of the various measures the Soviets had taken against anti-Semitism in Russia. Domingo lists how Trotsky, a Jew, became Minister of War and how Karl Peters, a Lett, became a Commissar. He also contrasts Russia’s post-revolutionary emancipation of its colonies in Persia with Great Britain’s retention of its holdings. Most importantly, Domingo draws a parallel between the treatment of Jews in Russia and the treatment of Blacks in America. He recounts how “the great revolution came,” after which Russia was made “unsafe for mobocrats, but safe for Jews and other oppressed racial minorities.” He contrasts this state with the pogroms occurring in White Army occupied Russia, noting the same linkage Langston Hughes would describe between “red-baiters” and “race haters.” Domingo concludes by asserting that it is “deducible from the analogy of Soviet Russia” that Bolshevism in America is capable of stopping race riots.[27]

Domingo’s essay was a bold proclamation of Soviet sympathizing. It was published immediately after the “Red Summer” of 1919, when race riots across the country had killed scores of African-Americans. The summer’s moniker became a double entendre for politicians, who sought to blame the violence on “Bolshevik agitators” who stirred up the otherwise docile and contented Blacks. Indeed, these riots were on the minds of the editors of the Messenger, who opened their September issue with Claude McKay’s now famous poem, “If We Must Die.” The issue also carried a call for the defense of African-Americans who had been arrested during the rioting. This militant response to the terror of the lynch mob was partially made possible by the Messenger’s transnational politics. As Domingo’s essay makes clear, the Messenger group, using the example of Soviet Russia, thought of themselves as possessing the solution to race riots. For them, no amount of goodness on the part of African Americans would stop the riots. They would only cease once America had its “October.” The relative militancy of this response is clear when it is compared with that of the Crisis, which, while sanctioning self-defense, placed far greater stress on avoiding “vengeance” or becoming “blind and lawless.” While the Crisis saw the problem of lynching in terms of America straying from the path of “a Land of Law,”[28] the Messenger’s engagement with the Russian Revolution allowed it to argue that the problem could only be solved by overturning America’s laws.

The issue that most linked the Messenger’s celebration of revolutions abroad with its advocacy at home was its opposition to the United States intervention in Russia. Immediately following the Soviet seizure of power in October 1917, a clique of generals and monarchists began organizing an army to overthrow the new workers’ government. The Whites, as they were called, were aided in this endeavor by no less than fourteen governments from around the world. When the specter of communism materialized in Russia, states on both sides of WWI put aside their differences and agreed that Bolshevism was simply too dangerous to be ignored. All told, nearly 200,000 foreign troops were landed on Russian soil to assist the White Army. In addition, the United States held a blockade of Soviet ports which “allowed them to block almost all exports to Soviet Russia while permitting trade with White regions.”[29]

This blockade strangled the already damaged Russian economy, setting the stage for the revolution’s degeneration and the Messenger’s subsequent abandonment of the politics of working class power. Allied support for White forces had allowed them to devastate Russia’s productive capacities. Already by Spring, 1918, “the food ration in Moscow and Petrograd sank to just 10 percent of that needed to sustain a manual worker.”[30] As Wilson used the Federal Reserve, War Trade Board, and Shipping Board to tighten restrictions on exports to Russia, the situation grew only worse. The White Armies, meanwhile, made good use of the US aid that was allowed in. One Russian general, thanking the US, pronounced that “The North-Western Russian Army, which is fighting against the Bolshevism…is now existing practically upon American flour and bacon.”[31] The Whites used this advantage to secure a number of early victories in the civil war.

The editors of the Messenger, keenly aware of their government’s role in Russia, denounced US intervention in the region. They cheered when the 339th “Polar Bear” infantry mutinied in Siberia.[32] Owen and Randolph also printed attacks on the blockade by other Black radicals. The Convention of National Brotherhood Workers of America (CNBW), a Black labor federation founded by Randolph, passed a resolution in support of the Bolsheviks, calling for an end to the Russian Blockade, and demanding “the withdrawal of all troops from Russia.” The resolution, which came out of a committee Chandler Owen sat on, also drew explicit parallels between American intervention in Russia and the French blockade of Haiti following the victory of “the black democracy…led by Toussaint L’Overture.” The CNBW resolutions crystallize the kind of transnational political identity that Randolph and Owen were constructing. While Haiti may seem an obvious source of inspiration for American Blacks, Russia certainly was not. As the resolutions illustrate, however, Black radicals, led by the Messenger, considered both fecund political and rhetorical resources. The resolutions also demonstrate how support for the Bolsheviks could dovetail with opposition to the US government at home. In supporting the Soviets against US invasion, the CNBW resolution calls the American military intervention “not only wanton, unjust, and imperialistic, but also unconstitutional.” [33] Not only did the Bolshevik example provide morale for the editors of the Messenger, but in defending it, they found another front on which to attack their own government.

By 1920, Randolph and Owen were confident that the military threat to Lenin’s government had been overcome. In the March issue of the Messenger, they printed an ebullient editorial celebrating “The Russian Triumph.” In it they marked the defeat of several of the most important White generals and mocked “the Czarist minions and their capitalistic supporters in France, Great Britain, the United States, Japan, and other countries” who “placed their money on the wrong horse.”[34] In the September issue W.A. Domingo gloated that “Bolshevist armies are winning in Western Europe and undermining the great imperialist nations France and England.”[35] To the Messenger group, it appeared that the march of the Soviet government was all but unstoppable.

While it was true that the Bolsheviks emerged victorious from their struggle with the Whites, they did so at a terrible cost. The Russian working class, the base of the Bolshevik regimes’ support, had declined from 3,024,000 industrial workers in 1917 to 1,480,000 in 1920. At the same time, exchange between town and country was only at 12% of its pre-war level. The food ration dropped as low as 60 grams of bread for two days.[36] While the Messenger editors could celebrate the defeat of the Whites for now, the conditions in Russia had been paved for the negation of the October Revolution.

The existence of such conditions, however, did not stop Randolph and Owen from still looking to Russia and the world revolutionary movement as sources for inspiration in the struggle for Black liberation at home. The October 1920 issue of the Messenger contained updates on the revolutionary situation across the Atlantic. In Italy, “workers have seized the metal factories and mines” and are “beginning the establishment of a Soviet state.” In Germany “the present government will not only pass, but its successor must represent either the right wing…or the left wing of revolution – Communism.” Throughout this turmoil, Randolph and Owen pointed to the Soviet Army as a resource which revolutionaries across Europe could count on for aid.[37]

At the same time as they encouraged revolutionary movements across Europe to look to Russia, Randolph and Owen were encouraging African-Americans to do the same. In the same October issue, they published an article by Henry Borst entitled “Why Negroes Should Study About Russia.” Borst argued, in an article remarkably similar to one Lenin had written in 1913,[38] that since both African-Americans and Russian serfs were emancipated at roughly the same time, they were at similar points in their struggle for freedom. As the Russians had recently liberated themselves from “the czar’s political tyranny, the robbery of the capitalistic blood suckers, and the blighting mental curse of superstition,” they were pointing the way forward for Blacks in America. Borst argued for Russia’s centrality to global revolution, declaring that “understanding Russia” was key to workers, “white or black,” being able to “see through the capitalistic war making game.”[39] The thesis that capitalists divided white and black workers to conquer each had been a theme in American antiracism ever since Frederick Douglass’ brilliant formulation in My Bondage and My Freedom[40]. However, the Messenger broke new ground in suggesting that the solution to this division was international in origin. By observing how Russian workers had overcome their own divisions, Randolph and Owen hoped Black and white workers in America could throw off “the muck of ages”[41] and make the revolution a reality.

Red Tides Ebb

By 1921, it began to be clear to the Black radicals around the Messenger that socialism was no longer on the agenda in the way it had been in 1921. While still celebrating Russia as the most democratic country on the planet[42], Owen and Randolph began to acknowledge that the foundations of socialism in Russia were in deep crisis. The Messenger’s pages were at the same time filled less and less with optimistic reports from working class movements across Europe. In both cases, the idea of working class power, central to Owen and Randolph’s politics, appeared further out of reach than two years earlier. Though there was no outright acknowledgment of a shift in perspective, the Messenger’s editors had clearly sensed the changing winds.

They were paralleled in this realization by the Third World Congress of the Comintern. The Theses on the World Situation adopted therein declared ominously that ‘The first period of the post-war revolutionary movement…seems in essentials to be over.” Even worse, “[t]he leaders of the bourgeoisie…have gone over to an offensive against the workers in all countries”[43] This was most obvious in Germany and Italy, where two of the strongest workers’ movements were located. In both countries, the revolutionary movement sustained crushing defeats in 1920-1921. Whereas only a few months earlier workers’ power had seemed on the table, now both countries faced a rising fascist movement. As the Messenger group had looked to the global revolutionary movement as a source of both morale and theoretical strength, the movement’s downturn limited the resources on which Black radicals in America could draw.

Owen and Randolph’s initial response upon recognizing this downturn was to mount a defensive campaign centered on aid for the Soviet Union. Crucially, this campaign was conjoined with the recognition that “Soviet Russia…is the only hope of a new mankind.”[44] The fact that the socialist movement had entered a downturn did not immediately lead to an abandonment of the revolutionary principles which had made the Messenger famous. Indeed, Owen and Randolph threw themselves into the campaign for Russia aid with their typical polemical vigor.

One of the first articles to address the subject of aid for Russia was the September 1921 editorial “Hoover and Relief for Soviet Russia.” Recounting how Herbert Hoover made the release of American counterrevolutionaries a precondition for food aid, Owen and Randolph emphasized the reasonability of the Soviet government in acquiescing to such a request. At the same time that they condemned the actions of “the Food Dictator,” the Messenger editors also used the issue as a platform around which to draw workers in America. They ended their article with a call:

Let the American workers, white and black, Jew and Gentile, combine to drive the gaunt specter of starvation from the confines of the first Workers’ Republic![45]

Even at the beginning of what was clearly a period of retreat for socialists, Randolph and Owen were still using the Russian Revolution as a tool with which to organize working class radicalism in America.

The Messenger’s next issue elaborated on the same theme of imperialist culpability for Soviet deprivation. In an editorial Owen and Randolph praised the relief efforts of organized labor, to whom they attributed the motive of “maintaining the first workers’ republic of the world.” Whether or not such motives really were at the heart of the Russian relief effort, by constructing them as such the Messenger editors could maintain their argument that revolution was still on the agenda for the workers’ movement. At the same time that they praised organized labor, they also attacked the counterrevolutionary relief efforts of the imperialist countries, noting that “[h]ad the Russian people not been compelled to fight the United States, France, Great Britain, Poland, and nearly all the surrounding states…the Russian people would be fairly well able to take care of their own needs.”[46]

Randolph and Owen also sought to inject transnational revolutionary politics into the debates they had with the key trade unionists of the day. In their August 1921 issue, the editors had condemned the American Federation of Labor’s convention on a number of issues, including failing to condemn the Ku Klux Klan and opposing trade with Russia. In the October issue, convention delegate Louis Langer wrote to the Messenger to defend the federation. Langer wrote that he was not “ready to defend the Convention in its attitude of opposing trade relations with Russia. This is a problem that need be discussed by a political economist.”[47] Randolph and Owen excoriated Langer for this agnosticism, replying that it is no “more imperative that one be a political economist, in order to know that trade is essential to the life of a nation than it is imperative for one to be a physician in order to know that blood is essential to human life.” They then went on to list the reasons why American labor should be in support of the Soviet state. First among these was that “it is to the interest of Labor, everywhere, that the first Workers’ Republic of the world should live.” Here Randolph and Owen’s analysis of the interests of American workers, Black and white, posited Russia as a key source of strength for the American labor movement. In their words, “it is also an inspiration to labor everywhere, ever to strive for its emancipation from capitalist slavery.”[48] Just as Owen and Randolph themselves drew upon the Russian Revolution for political inspiration, so they advocated that the workers’ movement in America do the same. In the project of building a labor movement that was transnational in scope, Owen and Randolph saw the Russian Revolution as a key event around which to organize.

The Russian Revolution did not serve merely as an inspirational tool, however. Just as they used the politics surrounding the workers’ republic to attack their own government, Randolph and Owen also used those politics to attack their political rivals at home. Chief among these rivals was Marcus Garvey. While commentators on the Messenger have all recognized the centrality of the struggle against Garveyism to the magazine’s politics, none have brought up the key role that transnational, Bolshevik politics played in the feud. In the January, 1922, article “Black Zionism,” Randolph uses Garvey’s own image of a “Black Emperor” of Africa against him. “A Negro Emperor,” Randolph wrote, “would be no less ruthless, brutal, and despotic to Negro subjects than was Czar Nicholas to the Russian Moujiks, which finally resulted in the Russian Revolution.”[49] Randolph’s rhetorical linkage of Garvey with the czar illustrates the degree to which he had built his own political identity with transnational components. While there were certainly any number of examples of autocracy Randolph could choose from inside the United States, he chose as his political simile the man who the Bolsheviks helped to topple. This was the image Randolph hoped would most galvanize American workers against Garvey. Given the Messenger’s efforts at bringing a transnational perspective into American working class politics, this hope is hardly surprising.

The Messenger group also used the practices of the Bolshevik state as a foundation on which to build their own political ethics. In their struggle to have Marcus Garvey deported, Randolph and Owen used the Soviet deportation of counterrevolutionaries to justify their own advocacy of the practice. Chandler Owen’s September 1922 article “Should Marcus Garvey Be Deported?” quoted from an Associated Press article detailing the sentencing of 1,500 “intellectuals” to exile in August of that year. In Owen’s words, “Even the Communists favor deportation.”[50] When looking for sources of legitimacy for their politics, Randolph and Owen considered the Soviet state to be a resource on which to draw.

While Randolph and Owen were drawing on the radical politics of the Soviet Union, they were harnessing those politics to the profoundly reactionary end of trying to have a political activist deported on the basis of his nationality. Such a political demand was well within the bounds of the discourse of racist antiradicalism, used during the Palmer raids to deport thousands of foreign-born radicals. What Barbara Foley has called the “Messenger’s borrowing from the wartime discourse of the nativists”[51] served to bring Randolph and Owen into alignment with those forces which they had previously struggled against. The editors even went so far as to “agree to provide [a government agent] with any information that might damage Garvey.” In addition to aligning Owen and Randolph with the state, their campaign also led them to argue a view of American society which was deeply discordant with their earlier radical politics. In his letter urging Garvey’s deportation, Owen argued that Garvey was “a menace to harmonious race relationships.”[52] Such harmony was no where to be found in the Messenger’s description of race relations before Garvey’s rise.

By 1923 the Messenger’s articles would make it clear that Randolph and Owen no longer viewed the Soviet Union as a nation leading the fight for working class power, but instead a state as fallible as any other. Chandler Owen’s reply to a letter from W.A. Domingo accused the latter of “accept[ing] every dot of the ‘i’ and crossing of the ‘t’”[53] from Moscow. This standard anticommunist accusation would have been unthinkable in a magazine which six months ago had used Bolshevism as the grounds on which to build working class movements in the United States. Later references to Russia in that year reveal how the Messenger’s analysis of the workers’ state had changed. In the April issue of that year Randolph and Owen carried a report on Claude McKay’s address to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. There they unenthusiastically reported that “resolutions were adopted in the interests of Negro emancipation.” The Messenger’s pronounced lack of enthusiasm towards the resolutions was not a result of the resolutions themselves, which declared “the Negro problem has become a vital question of the world revolution” and “The Communist International will use every instrument…to compel the trade unions to admit Negro workers to membership.”[54] Such resolutions were major steps forward in Comintern policy. Randolph and Owen’s disinclination towards celebrating them must be a result of a shifting attitude towards Moscow.

This shifting attitude is also evident in the April 1923 editorial advocating recognition of Russia and the resumption of trade. However, unlike earlier such editorials where trade was to be the lifeline of the workers’ republic, here Randolph and Owen argue that Soviet moves to the right mean that recognition would be no threat to American capitalists. Given Soviet Russia’s “disposition to recognize the rights of private property,” the United States would be “simply recognizing a state nominally under workers’ control which recognizes the methods of capitalism.” To recognize the reality of the erosion of workers’ control in Russia was a significant analytical step for the Messenger’s editors. However, they went even further, arguing that such moves to the right were the correct course for the Russian state to take. Whereas once Russia pointed the way towards the future, “[t]he march of events in Russia has shown that Russia is not yet ready for Communism.”[55]

This assertion radically changed the political terrain on which Randolph and Owen stood. The idea that the Russia Revolution pointed the way forward for Black politics in America had been a central support for their advocacy of revolutionary politics. With this support gone, Randolph and Owen had fewer theoretical resources on which to draw in arguing for working class revolution in America.

This change, however, was not simply the result of a belated recognition of Soviet fallibility on the part of the Messenger’s editors. Real changes in the revolutionary situation world wide put pressure on the beliefs Randolph and Owen held. In Russia, decimated by the civil war and economic blockade, “the Bolshevik Party…found itself ruling, in the name of a class which had effectively ceased to exist, over a population largely made up of small-holding peasants whose natural suspicions of government were reinforced by the regime’s commitment to collective rather than private ownership.”[56] After the decimation of the working class through starvation and war, these small-holding peasants constituted a major social force with which to be dealt. The New Economic Policy designed to do this effectively reintroduced markets to placate the peasants. Such reintroductions meant the erosion of democratic workers’ control. In the face of this, Randolph and Owen’s expectations for global revolution could not help but be diminished.

The working class movement was also in decline internationally, partially as a result of strategic errors on the parts of the various communist parties. Much of the responsibility for these errors lies with Gregory Zinoviev, head of the Comintern. C.L.R. James provides an excellent summary of Zinoviev’s influence in Germany:

Zinoviev…always unstable and lacking the patience so characteristic of the great revolutionaries, had been disappointed by the failures of the workers since November, 1918, and had developed a new theory, the theory of the offensive – desperate attack by the Communist Party and the vanguard, by this means to electrify the great mass.[57]

Zinoviev sought to apply this same theory, against Lenin’s objections, in America as well. His lack of regard for different national conditions was a major factor in Randolph and Owen’s alienation from the Communist Party.

This alienation does not then demonstrate, as Paula Pfeffer has argued, Randolph’s intransigent political nationalism. Instead, the October 1923 issue, which heaped scorn on the African Blood Brotherhood and “St. Zinoviev of the Third International,”[58] is illustrative of the Messenger’s critical engagement with international political forces. As this chapter has shown, Randolph and Owen were constantly seeking theoretical support and inspiration from outside of America. When it became clear that such support was no longer coming, they reacted by closing ranks and advocating what they thought to be a more realistic political perspective in the current period.

The coda of the Messenger’s engagement with the Russian Revolution is the obituary for Lenin published in March, 1924. The article lauded approbation upon the fallen Soviet leader, pronouncing him “the intellectual colossus of the statesmen of his period.” It also noted the conflicts Lenin had had with leaders such as Zinoviev, commending his struggle against the “infantile irrational leftism which impregnated the Third Internationale.” The article closed by arguing Lenin was the premier of “the first great workers’ republic.”[59] These statements clearly complicate any simple notion of the Messenger abandoning revolutionary politics because it was so nationalist it couldn’t take directions from outside. Randolph and Owen looked to Lenin as a visionary who had built a socialist government. However, the failure of that government, and of the revolutionary movement in general, changed their views on what the possible and desirable politics of human emancipation should be, placing them on a path which led off the political terrain of the New Negro movement.

[1] Theodore Kornweibel, Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy,1919-1925 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 76

[2] The Messenger, March 1919, 4

[3] Jervis Anderson, A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 89

[4] Anderson, 138

[5] Paula Pfeffer, A. Philip Randolph: Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 17-18

[6] Anderson 76.

[7] Qtd in ibid.

[8] Messenger, November 1917, 8

[9] See Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power¸ Chs. 7-8 for a detailed account of the coup and its defeat.

[10] Messenger November 1917, 32

[11] Qtd. In David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime: From the February Revolution to the July Days, 1917 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 67.

[12] Messenger January 1918, 7

[13] Messenger January 1918, 17

[14] Messenger July 1918, 9

[15] Messenger July 1918, 19

[16] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed – Trotsky, 1879-1921, (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 350, 352.

[17] Messenger July 1918,20

[18] Kornweibel, 84.

[19] Qtd. In Kornweibel, 82

[20] Theodor Kornweibel No Crystal Stair: Black Life and the Messenger.Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975. Pg 61

[21] Messenger March 1919, 5

[22] Messenger May-June 1919, 8

[23] Tony Cliff Trotsky: 1917-1923: Sword of the Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 1990), 211

[24] Messenger August 1919, 5-6

[25] Messenger May-June 1919, 22

[26] It should be noted that the struggle in support of the Lefts in the SP was also a struggle against racism, as the Right wing was often openly pro-lynching. See Ahmed Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism, 128-188. However, Randolph and Owen do not frame the issue around race in their article.

[27] Messenger September 1919, 26-27

[28] Crisis September 1919, 231.

[29] David S. Foglesong, America’s Secret War against Bolshevism: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920 , (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 248.

[30] John Rees, “In Defense of October,” International Socialism 52 (1991): 31.

[31] Qtd. in Foglesong, 232.

[32] Messenger October 1919, 8

[33] ibid 18.

[34] Messenger March 1920, 3

[35] Messenger September 1920, 86

[36] Marcel Liebman Leninism Under Lenin (London: J. Cape, 1975), 345-347.

[37] Messenger October 1920, 105

[38] Vladimir Lenin, “Russians and Negroes,” in Lenin on the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 58.

[39] Messenger October 1920, 110.

[40] Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, ed. William L. Andrews (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 188.

[41] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers, 2004), 95.

[42] Messenger August 1921, 226. For evaluations of Soviet Democracy, see Kevin Murphy Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007), and Liebman 1975.

[43] “Extracts from the Theses on the World Situation and the Tasks of the Comintern adopted by the Third Comintern Congress” in Jane Degras, Ed. The Communist International 1919-1943 Documents, Vol. I (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 230.

[44] Messenger September 1921, 243.

[45] ibid

[46] Messenger October 1921, 258.

[47] Ibid, 267.

[48] Ibid, 268

[49] Messenger January 1922, 334.

[50] Messenger September 1922, 479

[51] Foley 109.

[52] Qtd in Kornweibel 98.

[53] Messenger March 1923, 642

[54] Qtd. in William J. Maxwell New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 90

[55] Messenger April 1923, 657

[56] Alex Callinicos, Trotskyism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 12

[57] C.L.R. James, World Revolution 1917-1936, The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1937), 167.

[58] Messenger October 1923, 830

[59] Messenger March 1924, 69