Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Chapter Three

Chapter Three: Cyril Briggs and the Crusader

More than any other newspaper, Cyril Valentine Briggs’ Crusader exemplified the spirit of the New Negro. Dedicated to an uncompromising resistance to white supremacy, the paper was the textual representative of the image of the New Negro as armed defender of Black rights. Especially as it became associated with Briggs’ underground self-defense organization, the African Blood Brotherhood, the Crusader was marked by its militancy of both rhetoric and argument when polemicizing against the enemies of the race. More racially focused than the Messenger and more militant than the Negro World (most of the time), the Crusader struck out something of a middle ground that represented a unique distillation of New Negro ideology centered around active resistance to white supremacy on both the physical and ideological levels.

Though Briggs’ militancy remained a constant in editorship of the Crusader (and throughout his entire life as well), the theoretical underpinning of that militancy was to undergo a profound shift during his tenure as editor. The first issues of the Crusader are marked by a deep acceptance of the reality of racial difference and, following this, the impossibility of white acceptance of Black rights. While the rhetoric of “fighting” is prominent throughout the paper’s early issues, the actual praxis suggested consists of eliminating the influence of “Alien [white] Education” and building independent Black states. Briggs would eventually abandon the core of this theoretical position (while retaining many parts of it) in favor of a more classically Marxian position in which racial antagonisms were primarily the result of a capitalist economic system based on imperialism abroad and oppression at home. This shift is inexplicable without an understanding of Briggs’ engagement with the Russian Revolution.

For Cyril Briggs, the Russian revolution provided the intellectual tools with which he could move beyond his racialist conceptualization of American politics. Later, in the context of a retreating Left and disintegrating New Negro movement, the American Communist Party, linked as it was to the prestige of the Russian revolution, appeared to be a more viable route to Briggs’ goals than the shrinking ABB. The decision to enter the party, however, enmeshed Briggs and the other ABB members who joined in an organization rife with factionalism left over from its members’ experiences in the Socialist Party. Ultimately, entering the Party took Briggs and co. out of the Harlem activist milieu in which they had been most effective, even as it paved the way for the party to become a significant factor in Black politics in the late twenties and beyond. This chapter will trace the evolution of Briggs’ theoretical engagement with racial politics, paying close attention to the influence of the Left in general and the Russian Revolution in particular.

Briggs and the Early Crusader

Though Cyril Briggs was to become known for his political radicalism, the early issues of the Crusader are marked by two theoretical positions which were deeply resonant with dominant American political ideology: a belief in the intractable reality of race and an acceptance of the broad legitimacy of the American state. The first position is evident in the many Crusader articles which extol the necessity of racially based organizing as well as explicit formulations on the permanence of white racism. The second position consists in a broad acceptance of the American war aims in World War I, as well as a conceptualization of racist brutality as an aberration from the true nature of the American state. Though Briggs would later abandon both of these positions (the second in a much more thorough fashion than the first), they present a picture of the magnitude of the Crusader’s political shift.

Briggs’ acceptance of racialism is first presented in his “Race Catechism” from the Crusader’s first issue. There, in a series of five questions and answers, he advances a view firmly grounded in the biological reality of race. For example, Briggs explains the “sentiment which unites all [of the race]” as

The sentiment that the Negro Race is of all races the most favored by the Muses of Music, Poetry, and Art, and is possessed of those qualities of courage, honor, and intelligence necessary to the making of the best manhood and womanhood and the most brilliant development of the human species.[1]

In this passage Briggs clearly accepts as valid the differentiation of the Negro race from others. The qualities which he lists as those possessed by Black folks form an effective marker of the reality of race. Later, Briggs even explicitly grounds these differences in biology, arguing that “in the veins of no human being does there flow more generous blood than in our own.”[2] This unmistakable reference to the biological reality of race commits Briggs to a discourse in which the conclusions of white supremacists may be challenged, but not their premises.

Two issues later, Briggs expands on this to offer a general theory of racial antagonism, firmly grounded in human nature and thus, immutable. In the third part of his multi-installment article, “The American Race Problem,” Briggs attacks the Washingtonian position that economic achievement would lessen white antipathy. Describing this position as “diametrically opposed to human nature,” Briggs goes on to argue that “the white race (nor, in truth, any other race) has never been just in its dealings with unorganised and (therefore) weak peoples.” In the final analysis, the race problem is “[e]mbedded…in the natural fortresses of human nature (caucasian nature in particular).”[3] As Minkah Makalani notes, “the subordination of black people in the U.S. was, for Briggs, a product of inherent racial differences.”[4] Here Briggs commits himself to an ideology I call Hobbesian racialism – the view that the immutable differences of race will inevitably translate into a bellum omnium contra omnes conducted along racial lines. What is clear in such an ideology is that any alliances with whites are necessarily transitory and provisional, a position directly opposed to the interracial workers’ movement in which Briggs would later invest his hopes.

Equally opposed to the ideology of such a movement was the basic acceptance of the legitimacy of the American state that the Crusader would advance in its early issues. In the first article of the first issue, for example, Briggs discusses the necessity of extending Wilsonian self-determination beyond Europe to Africa as well. The article’s closing sentences are “We are fighting for Democracy. We must see to it that it is applied to African as well as to European, to the Negro as well as to the white man.”[5] The phrase “as well as” implies in both cases that democracy really was being granted to both the white man and Europe. Such a conclusion is, at best, highly arguable. Whatever its truth value, however, Briggs’ article accepted the basic assumptions of Wilsonian foreign policy rhetoric, arguing that they needed to be extended rather than combated. Such acceptance was not universal throughout the New Negro movement, as the Messenger published several denunciations of Wilson and exposés of the real war aims. Briggs’ acceptance of Wilson’s argument that a capitalist state could bring self-determination would stand in marked contrast to his later denunciations of imperialism.

Andy Razafkeriefo also wrote for the Crusader at this time, and displayed many of the same theoretical commitments as Briggs. In his poem “Why I Am Proud” from the October 1918 issue, Razaf recapitulates the acceptance of racialism from Briggs’ “Race Catechism.” He describes his color as standing for loyalty, “a race which has given an ‘Attucks’/But never an ‘Arnold’ or ‘Booth.’” [6] Here Razaf uses synecdoche to argue that Black loyalty to the United States is a source of pride for him. Later, in the poem “Police Brutality in Harlem,” Razaf accuses racist officers of betraying “Democracy/Their uniform and state.”[7] He portrays white supremacist police brutality as an aberration from the American state, not something fundamental to it. The political conclusion of both these poems is that Black folks should align themselves with the American state, seeking to combat those who are disloyal to it[8].

These aspects of the Crusader’s early ideology are explicable in terms of the institutions of which Cyril Briggs was a part. When Briggs founded the Crusader he was a member of a group called the Hamitic League of the World, a culturalist group which sought to “inspire the Negro with new hopes; make him openly proud of his race…and to place in the hands of every race man woman and child the facts which support the League’s claim that the NEGRO RACE IS THE GREATEST RACE THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN.”[9] The HLW based itself on racialist logic, from its titular allusion to the Curse of Ham to its strategy of making Black folks aware of the achievements of their race. Briggs’ association with the League helps to explain the extended presence of racialist ideology in the Crusader. Indeed, for a time, the Crusader was even the official organ of the League. The culturalist assumptions of the League also provide an insight into the nearly-patriotic side of the Crusader in its early issues. The ideology which sees racial difference as innate leads away from any rigorous analysis of existing institutions. Actions of the US state which oppress African-Americans are simply manifestations of white antipathy. Such a paucity of analysis leaves far greater space for dominant ideologies to assert themselves than the rigorous class analysis used by the Messenger at the same time, for example. Thus the racialist logic Briggs took from the League left uncontested the major assertions of the white supremacist ideology he was dedicated to fighting.

Before examining the ways the Crusader would change with its engagement with the Russian revolution and the broader Left, I would like to note that while I’ve focused on the less radical underpinnings of the Crusader in its early phase, this should not detract from the paper’s actual radicalism of the time. As Makalani argues, Briggs’ “understanding of race and imperialism was ultimately in tension with his racialist view of the world.”[10] Briggs’ constant rhetoric of fighting was an indication of the paper’s New Negro spirit, for example, even if how that fight would be waged remained unclear. Andy Razaf was similarly contradictory, as his poem, “Why I Am Proud,” in addition to affirming American patriotism, also contained a wonderful subversion of white supremacy, as Razaf writes, “My color stands for a people/Whom you have called evil and wild/Yet never a land have we stolen/Or a weaker race defiled.”[11] Whatever the ambiguities and contradictions of the Crusader in its early issues, it was a radical New Negro publication. I have focused on the less radical theorizations of Briggs and Razaf in order to emphasize the change which the paper underwent through its engagement with the Left. It is to this engagement that I now turn.

Moving Leftwards

The first sign of the Crusader’s engagement with the Left came in September 1918, in its first issue. In an article, entitled “The Negro Candidates,” Briggs endorsed the Socialist Party’s ticket in the 19th and 21st Assembly districts. The ticket consisted of Messenger editors A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, and George Frazier Miller. Though such an endorsement may imply sympathy with the socialist cause, the article indicates nothing of the sort. Briggs describes the three candidates as serving “but one master, but one Race.” Congratulating them for not seeking “the white man’s favor,” Briggs encouraged “Every Negro who is pro-Negro before he is anything else” to vote for the SP candidates. Throughout the article, Briggs couched his endorsement of the candidates in distinctly racial terms. His persistent capitalization of the word “Race” is a further indicator of the racialist underpinning of the article. Indeed, the actual platform of the SP is not even mentioned in the article. Aside from mentioning the candidates “radical character,” no indication is given of their actual views. Briggs’ endorsement then, was not based on actual agreement with the Socialists, but support for radical Black candidates in general.[12]

Despite the racialist underpinning of Briggs’ endorsement of Miller, Randolph, and Owen, the article signaled the beginning of a “relationship with black Socialists”[13] which would move Briggs away from the logic which led him to endorse them in the first place. The first sign of such a move was the appearance of socialist epithets in his articles. In the December, 1918 issue of the Crusader, Briggs is careful to distinguish his enemies in the “capitalist-junker class” from “the masses” when describing the acceptance of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Such a distinction was no where to be found in articles like the “Race Catechism.” The next article in the December issue was targeted at “Profiteering Landlords,” accusing Harlem real estate agents of “demanding and receiving extortionate rents.” This article also drew attention to a problem which could not be explained by racialist theory, as Briggs himself pointed out the fact that Harlem landlords were “aided and advised by their Negro hirelings in fleecing Negroes.” Both of these articles show Briggs drawing on theories which were ultimately in conflict with racialist logic.[14]

The appearance of Leftist rhetoric and analysis in the Crusader did not mark the displacement of Briggs’ racialism, however. The December issue which first showed Briggs’ use of Leftist rhetoric, for example, was also the first issue of the Crusader to bear the subtitle “Publicity Organ of the Hamitic League of the World.” What is clear in the winter of 1918-1919 was that Briggs was beginning to engage the theories of the Left alongside his own racialist ideology.

As the Crusader moved into its first spring, the same contradictory mix of racialism and Leftist thought continued to define the newspaper’s ideological terrain. The April 1919 issue contained two of the most directly contradictory articles ever published in the same issue. In an editorial entitled “Amalgamation,” Briggs used the case of Stanley Braithwaite, a Black poet who advocated interracial marriage as a solution to the American race problem, as an opportunity to go on a tirade against the “amalgamation” of the Black and white races. “Negroes who preach amalgamation,” Briggs wrote, “must be either ignorant of its logical consequences or are lower than we have ever dreamed that human beings could be.” He went on to argue that the white man “rightly will not lend his women to such an infamous scheme.” Though the article would end on a militant note (“The sword has won the way to Freedom for others. It can and will do the same for us.”), such radicalism was ultimately undercut by the deep acceptance of both racialism and patriarchy the article evinced.[15]

A mere two editorials later, however, Briggs would put forward an analysis of government repression and labor based on far more radical principles than those present in the “Amalgamation” piece. Linking the deportation of foreign-born radicals with the deportation of Black steel workers from Coatsville, Pennsylvania, Briggs argued that

The capitalists who would bring the Negro North during a crisis and then shuffle him back willy nilly to the old hateful conditions and to Lynch Law…are the same capitalists who would send out of the country all workers who dare to talk against the system.

In this single sentence Briggs brought forth a tremendous amount of analysis new to the pages of the Crusader. First, in discussing the deportation of European radicals, Briggs acknowledged the reality of governmental oppression of white workers, a fact which undermined a racialist analysis of the US state. Second, by linking the fates of Black workers with those of white radicals, the article moved towards an understanding of the common interests of a multiracial working class. Finally, in discussing the capitalists’ “system,” Briggs began an attempt to analyze the workings of capitalism as a specific economic system, instead of merely another racialist regime. The article would go on to explicitly argue for interracial unity, observing that “In both cases the mailed fists of capitalism was [sic] aimed at the worker.” Briggs would close by decrying the situation of “the Negro uninterested in what was being done to the whites and the whites ignoring the blow struck at the colored.” This analysis was in profound contradiction to the racialist analysis described above. If the road to freedom for both Black and white lay in linking arms with the other, what precisely was to be lost from “amalgamation?”[16]

Curiously lacking from the Crusader’s engagement with Leftist thought in this period is any mention whatsoever of the Russian Revolution. Before the May issue, the only appearance of Russia in the Crusader is in a review of H. Grattan Donnelly’s play, “Darkest Russia.” The play is set well before the October revolution, and is primarily concerned with portraying the outrages of czarist brutality against the peasants. In his review, Briggs makes a brief note that “the Bolshevik regime even as painted by the capitalist press is a blissful era” compared to the czar’s rule. At this point Briggs’ attitude toward the revolution is guardedly neutral. While implying that the capitalist press may be exaggerating the hardship of postrevolutionary Russia, Briggs makes no effort to contest such exaggerations. Briggs’ disinterest in the revolution at this point is in keeping with the majority of the paper’s articles, which paid little attention to happenings in foreign countries which did not affect Blacks. This lassitude would change rapidly however, as the Soviet State would commence its foreign policy endeavor with the formation of the Comintern in March, 1919, an attempt to spread the radicalism of October across the globe.[17]

The May issue of the Crusader, the first with any extended engagement with the Russian revolution, concerned itself primarily with this international spread of the revolution. The paper’s first editorial, “High Rents and Bolshevism,” humorously argued that “The landlords…of Harlem are doing their merry best to increase the converts of Bolshevism in that district. So far they have been highly successful.” Here Briggs positions Bolshevism as the rational response of Black Harlemites to exploitative landlords, the first positive reference to the Russian Revolution in the Crusader. Later, Briggs signaled his awareness of Bolshevism as a global movement, musing that perhaps landlords will find interests beyond price-gouging when “the Negro seeks relief in the class war of the proletariat against the conscienceless capitalists and makes common cause with the Bolsheviki of the world.” Though this article marks the first awareness of the Russian Revolution as being central to the world revolutionary movement, it still contains precious little engagement with happenings inside Russia itself.[18]

The July issue would begin this engagement by presenting a positive evaluation of the Soviet state’s race relations. In an editorial entitled “Make Their Cause Your Own,” Briggs described how the USSR was “the only government outside of our own in African and democratic South America in which a Negro occupies a high and respectable position.” He goes on to celebrate the Soviet state’s lack of “Negro ‘colonies,’” showing for the first time an analysis of what the revolution in Russia had actually achieved. Immediately following this, Briggs observes that the New York Call “is the only paper in New York City which is perpetually and honestly concerned about the Negro and which nearly every day comments upon his wrongs and calls the nation to task for their existence.” Following this, he argues that the Socialist Party is both the only party with an anti-lynching plank in its national platform and the only party to call for self-determination for African colonies. As such, “Make Your Cause Their Own” marks Briggs’ own evaluation of the socialist cause as his own. That he chose to place a description of Soviet policy first in his argument to convince African-Americans to become socialists is an indication of the weight it received in Briggs’ own decision to whole-heartedly endorse socialism. Briggs’ commitment to socialism in this article also signaled a displacement of his earlier racialist ideas. The editorial’s last line, “We need not fight alone if we breast the sea upon the irresistible tide of liberalism that is at present sweeping the world,” was an explicit revision of his earlier Hobbesian racialism. The international revolutionary movement and the racial policies of the Soviet Union helped to convince Briggs that the class war could indeed supplant the racial war of all against all.[19]

Briggs’ engagement with the Russian Revolution would only grow after this point, as would his use of Leftist analysis and rhetoric. In the October, 1919 issue, Briggs used Karl Marx’s pamphlet on economics, Value Price and Profit, to argue that despite Andrew Carnegie’s popular image as a humanitarian philanthropist, he had actually “accumulated his vast wealth by the inhuman and grinding exploitation of other men and of weak women and children.” To understand the roots of Carnegie’s millions, Briggs suggests to his readers that “they read Karl Marx’s work on ‘Value, Price, and Profit’” which demonstrates “in unanswerable logic…that labor receives only enough of the wealth it creates to live and reproduce its kind for further capitalist exploitation.” For Briggs, Marx’s work was a tool with which he could most effectively advance the political arguments he thought necessary.[20]

As Briggs moved towards a deeper engagement with socialist theory, he also drew increasingly on the happenings in Russia as tools he could use. In the October issue, when describing a reactionary journalist, Briggs made the offhand remark, “The Kolchaks are not all in Russia.” In a mirror inverse of Razaf’s earlier use of synecdoche to argue for African-American patriotism, Briggs uses the counter-revolutionary Russian admiral (who the United States government was funding and arming) as an image of reactionaries everywhere.[21]

In the December issue Briggs would use the Russian Revolution to make his most fundamental break yet with Hobbesian racialism. Briggs’ article, “Bolshevism and Race Prejudice,” pointed out that under Lenin’s government, “all men are equal, of whatever race, and nearly all races are represented in high offices,” while “[t]he only pogroms against the Jewish race being committed in Russia today are taking place” in regions controlled by the White Army. Briggs then generalized from this observation, arguing that in the USSR “pogroms are no more because there are no reactionary capitalist influences at work to pit worker against worker and race against race.” This analysis moved well beyond Briggs’ earlier revisions of Hobbesian racialism, for here he not only wrote of the possibility of interracial revolution, but provided a theoretical understanding of where white supremacy came from, locating it not in “human nature,” but in an economic system dependent on dividing oppressed classes. The Russian Revolution was the event that gave Briggs the tools he needed to move decisively beyond a racialist conception of the world.[22]

Briggs’ deepening Leftist commitment also led him to break with the second conservative underpinning of the Crusader’s early issues: the legitimacy of the American state. While earlier Briggs had published Razaf’s poetry celebrating Black loyalty to the United States, by December, 1920 he was describing African-Americans who flew the American flag as “the most pathetic sight.” Briggs described the flag as “the national symbol of the white nations which have so greatly wronged [the Black man] first by theft of his people and their enslavement and later by theft of his land and eventual dispossession.” Though the editorial was phrased in racial terms throughout, indicating the remaining presence of racialist ideology, it contained a militant attitude towards the American state that was utterly foreign to the paper’s early issues. Even in the instances in which Leftist analysis failed to displace racialist ideology, the militancy accompanying Briggs’ leftward move still impacted his writings. The turn towards socialism, while never complete, shifted the entire ideological terrain of Briggs’ thought.

Into the Party

The turn towards socialism would also alter the organizational terrain on which Briggs worked. Throughout the entire period I’ve described, Briggs’ primary organizational context was the African Blood Brotherhood, a secret fraternal organization based around principles of armed self-defense. At its height, the ABB could boast of only about 3,000 members. However, the organization’s historical importance extends beyond its own accomplishments, which were many. The leadership of the ABB provided the American CP with its first group of Black leadership, giving the Party an ability to reach African-Americans well beyond any it previously could claim. Though there has been academic controversy over the exact date on which Cyril Briggs joined the Party[23], scholars of the ABB now generally agree that Briggs didn’t become a member until mid-1921.[24] By 1922, “the majority of the leaders of the Supreme Council [of the ABB] had joined the Party.”[25] These activists, Cyril Briggs, Claude McKay, Grace Campbell, Richard Moore, were all drawn to the promise of the Soviet Union as an ally of anticolonial movements and land free of race riots. Though their decision to enter the party would eventually draw them into a context from which it was difficult to reach Black workers, their initial enthusiasm for the Revolution makes it clear that they regarded it as a vehicle with which to advance their politics to that very audience.

Briggs’ growing acceptance of the CP’s political perspective was reflected in his writings in the Crusader during this period. In July, 1920, Briggs wrote an editorial praising “The Soviet Successes.” Particularly noteworthy in this article was the linkage he drew between the Soviets and various anticolonial movements. For Briggs, “Bolshevik inspiration” was behind the recently acquired momentum of the independence movements in Afghanistan, Persia, and India. Briggs even likened these movements to a “rising tide of color,” inverting Social Darwinist Lothrap Soddard’s dire warning to the white nations. Briggs’ attribution of these movements’ successes to the inspiration they received from the Bolsheviks indicates the harmony with which he had come to view his own goals of a free Africa with the intentions of the Soviet Union. For Briggs, the USSR’s anticolonial foreign policy was a major point of attraction.[26]

Domestically, Briggs’ presence in the orbit of the CP is visible in his increasing hostility to the Socialist Party[27]. In August, 1920 Briggs was still telling his readers to “Vote Socialist!” [28] In November of that year the newspaper carried ads from the SP supporting the Socialist slate, which both A. Philip Randolph and Grace Campbell were on, in the state elections[29]. The first notices of the difference between the Soviets and Socialists came in the April, 1921 issue. In a plug for the Liberator, a Communist aligned magazine, Briggs took notice of one of its articles detailing “the struggle between the Socialists and the Communists” in Italy.[30] Two pages later, in the “News at a Glance” section, Briggs made brief mention of the split in Mexico between the Mexican Proletariat Communist Congress and the Mexican Socialist party.[31] In neither of these notes does Briggs give any indication of taking sides in the split, although by this point he was surely aware that the Communists were the official representatives of the Soviet Union and the Comintern.

By August, 1921, however, Briggs had shifted his stance to one of clear alignment with the Communists against the Socialists. Following the SP’s National Convention in Detroit, after which it was clear that the party was firmly under the control of right wing leaders like the pro-lynching Victor Berger, Briggs published an editorial decrying “The Socialist Surrender.” Accusing the party of abandoning “the banner of International Labor” in favor of that of “One Hundred Percent Americanism,” Briggs made perfectly clear his final break with SP. Hinting towards his new commitments, he took particular note of the SP’s rejection of the Third International.[32]

No more would the Crusader contain enthusiastic reports on different Socialist campaigns. Now, Briggs paid particularly close attention to pro-Communist activity in the United States. Several pages after the attack on the SP, Briggs reprinted a piece from the Metropolitan Press detailing police efforts to uncover “a nation-wide propaganda effort intended to stir up Negro discontent throughout America.” Though the article itself was printed from the standpoint of the police, Briggs recontextualized it by titling the piece “Communists Champion Negro” and providing a subtitle, “American ‘Reds’ Issue Stirring Call to White Labor to Make Common Cause with Colored Workers.”[33]

The Socialist Party was not the only enemy of the Communists at which Briggs would direct his fire. As detailed earlier, after his 1921 convention Marcus Garvey began his attempt to reconcile his movement with the American state by any means necessary. While the American CP had earlier approached Garveyism with an open mind, they now sought to expose him thoroughly as a reactionary petty bourgeois nationalist. Briggs was more than happy to follow suit, especially after Garvey’s meeting with the KKK. In the October, 1921 issue, Briggs launched his most blistering polemic against Garvey yet. Leading with the question, “Is Not This Treason?”, Briggs began a long recounting of Garvey’s “unenviable record.” Among the acts which most incensed Briggs were Garvey’s repudiation of social equality, his assertion that Black folks “had done nothing praiseworthy…in the last five hundred years,” and his advice to “Negroes to be loyal to all flags under which they live.” This editorial precipitated a historic feud between Garvey and the ABB, leading to lawsuits and countersuits over everything from claims about the Black Star Line’s finances to Garvey accusing the light-skinned Briggs of being a white man.

Though the Crusader’s attack on Garvey would help to bring Briggs and the ABB leadership closer to the CP, it alienated much of the ABB across the country, which, as Winston James notes, “largely shared its constituency with the UNIA.” Indeed, Post Pushkin in Chicago, the largest ABB post outside of the Supreme Council’s Post Menelik in Harlem, was formed by four previous members of the UNIA, three of whom left the ABB after it allied itself with the Communist Party[34]. As James describes, “With every salvo fired at Garvey…members would leave the Brotherhood and complain.”[35]

The ABB’s hemorrhaging of membership during its anti-Garvey campaign presented the organization with a major problem. The loss of support for the ABB and the Crusader constituted first and foremost a fiscal problem for Briggs and his comrades. The recession of the early 1920s had already reduced the Crusader’s finances to dangerously low levels. The January-February 1922 issue would be the newspaper’s last. The ABB itself was also teetering near the edge of fiscal insolvency, jeopardizing the ability of its leaders to support themselves.

After an attempted campaign for ABB owned cooperative stores, Briggs turned to the Party for help. Eventually a deal was reached in which the Party would provide the ABB with financial support in return for the group’s leadership agreeing to direct its campaigns along Party lines, which, as the examples above show, it was already doing anyways. Nonetheless, this fateful deal effectively marked the beginning of the end of the ABB. As Mark Solomon notes, the Brotherhood was “virtually dissolved in early 1924.”[36] Though members of the ABB would play a crucial role in the Communist movement, their days as an independent organization were over, thus silencing the collective voice of the embodiment of the New Negro.

Briggs and the CP

It is easy to impose on the story of the Crusader the traditional anticommunist narrative of white radicals suppressing Black independence. However, to do so would do tremendous violence to the actual facts. As Winston James notes, “Nothing could be further from the truth” than the view that the ABB-CP merger was “a sordid bartering of independence for a few dollars.”[37] Briggs and the other leaders of the ABB had been increasingly viewing the politics of the Soviet Union – and its representative in the United States, the CP – as those politics which could bring the liberation of Black people for which the ABB so stridently worked. Though financial troubles were ultimately the motive force behind the Brotherhood’s move into the Party, the potential energy behind such a move had been growing for a long time.

Additionally, the Party’s ineffectiveness in dealing with African American issues in its early days was not the product of a Eurocentric ideology incapable of dealing with Black life and culture, but instead was the result of the specific history of the American CP. The CP was formed, after all, out of a split in the Socialist Party in 1919, and most of its leadership had gotten its experience inside the SP. This history was directly relevant to the way that leadership would conduct itself in the CP.

The key experience of the Socialist activists who would go on to form the CP was the immense factionalism of the SP. This factionalism was directly related to the grounds on which the party was organized. The Socialist Party was open to “anyone who called himself or herself a socialist.” Its key leaders agreed that they “had to have a broad tent in which all trends within the socialist movement were represented in the same organization, because it would organize more people.”[38] The consequence of such a conception of organization was that people with diametrically opposed views of the world were forced to work together in the same organization. Victor Berger, who viewed socialism as little more than municipal ownership of firms, had to work alongside Eugene Debs, who argued for working class self-emancipation. Such a party configuration was clearly not stable, and came to an end when Berger and his allies attempted to have the Left Wing of the party arrested at its 1919 convention. The Socialists who would go on to join the CP thus were used to organizing in a party in which differences of opinion could get an activist incarcerated.

The tremendous amount of mistrust resulting from such experience translated into the intense factionalism of the early days of the CP, in which faction leaders would do whatever possible to out maneuver their opponents. As Duncan Hallas notes, this resulted in the American CP becoming, for a time, “one of the very worst parties in the Comintern – and that’s really saying something.” Hallas continues to describe the party as “internalised, fraught with problems arid ineffective” until the onset of the Great Depression.[39] This was the party into which the ABB leadership entered, a party that could not help but cool the dynamism of its members.

The silencing of the ABB was not the inevitable result of Black radicals adopting Marxist ideas. As the history of ABB members in the party would go on to show, Black Marxists could play a tremendous role in the Black Freedom Movement. The last thirty years have seen scholars reconstruct the deep history of the Party’s fight for Black liberation, a fight in which former ABB members played a central role. The engagement of Briggs and the other ABB leaders with the Russian revolution was a key step towards making that fight possible.

[1] Crusader September 1918 pg 11.

[2] ibid

[3] Crusader November 1918 pg 12.

[4] Minkah Makalani “For the Liberation of Black People Everywhere: The African Blood Brotherhood, Black Radicalism, and Pan-African Liberation in the New Negro Movement.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2004. pg 67

[5] Crusader September 1918 Pg 4

[6] Crusader October 1918 pg 11.

[7] Ibid 14

[8] This position became particularly problematic after Red Summer, when every Black assertion of basic rights became attributed to a Bolshevik conspiracy against the government. Given white supremacist dominance of the means of ideological production, any attempt by Black organizations to rhetorically align themselves as “True Americans” was destined for failure.

[9] Qtd. In Makalani Pg 64.

[10] Ibid 68.

[11] Crusader October 1918 pg 11.

[12] Crusader September 1918 pg 8.

[13] Makalani 72.

[14] Crusader December 1918 pgs 5-6.

[15] Crusader April 1919 pg 9.

[16] Ibid pg 10

[17] Crusader March 1919 pg 25.

[18] Crusader May 1919 pg 4.

[19] Crusader July 1919 pg 6.

[20] Crusader October 1919 pg 13.

[21] Ibid p 23.

[22] Crusader December 1919 pg 9.

[23] See James 160-163 for a brief summary of the arguments.

[24] This is the view endorsed by Theodore Draper, Minkah Makalani, Winston James, and Mark Solomon.

[25] James 163.

[26] Crusader July 1920 pgs 10-11

[27] The American Communist Party grew out of a split in the SP in 1919.

[28] Crusader August 1920 pg 5

[29] Crusader November 1920 pg 3.

[30] Crusader April 1921 pg 21.

[31] Ibid 23.

[32] Crusader August 1921 pgs 8-9

[33] Ibid pg 12

[34] Makalani 145

[35] James 179

[36] Mark Solomon The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998. Pg 29.

[37] James 179.

[38] Todd Chretien. “Lenin’s Theory of the Party.” International Socialist Review 56 Nov-Dec. 2007.

[39] Duncan Hallas “The American Working Class.” Socialist Review 88 June 1986. Accessed online at http://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/hallas/works/1986/06/us-wc.htm