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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

Jeffrey B. Perry, letter to "Labor" re Brian Kelly, "No Easy Way Through: Race Leadership and Black Workers at the Nadir”

November 19, 2010

To the Editor of Labor:

This letter is in response to Brian Kelly’s Review Essay “No Easy Way Through: Race Leadership and Black Workers at the Nadir” (Labor, Fall 2010). It seeks to correct an error in Kelly’s use of a quote in the review, re-insert key words that Kelly truncates from a Hubert Harrison quote, call attention to important Harrison insights regarding strategic direction and the “white race” that are not mentioned by Kelly, correct an editorial process omission by Labor and a related Kelly quote that remains in the text, and offer reasons why each of these matters is important.

Harrison’s Move to The Left Within the Social Party

On p. 199 of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1912, the first volume of my two-volume Harrison biography, in a chapter entitled “Socialist Writer and Speaker (1912),” I conclude the chapter with the following paragraph:

Throughout 1912 there were constant themes in Harrison’s political agita¬tion. These included support for the IWW, support for industrial unionism and economic organizing, support for sabotage and direct action, challenges to or¬ganized religion, calls for special organizing efforts aimed at African Americans, and opposition to white supremacy. He was increasingly identified with the left wing of the party, and during the year he faced major rebuffs on the race ques¬tion with the demise of the Colored Socialist Club and with the SP’s white-race-first theoretical pronouncements. As he continually studied and agitated, he was repeatedly confronted with the white supremacism in the SP, and he moved further to the left. As he manifested more and more political independence and advocated his views openly, it became increasingly likely that he would face con¬flict within the ever-tightening structure of the Socialist Party.

I open the next chapter, “Dissatisfaction with the Party (1913-1914),” with the following paragraph on page 200:

From late 1912 through 1914, Hubert Harrison agitated for the IWW brand of socialism as opposed to the more right-wing type advocated by most of the Socialist Party leadership. His left-wing sympathies were demonstrated in his speeches; in his defense of sabotage; and in his support of “Big Bill” Haywood, the Paterson, N.J., silk strikers, and arrested IWW activists. He was increasingly disenchanted with the party’s position on the “Negro problem” and its gener¬ally conservative approach to the “economic” organization of workers. In addi¬tion, he was attracted to the IWW-style direct action, which he thought could be used (and fifty years later, in the form of sit-ins, marches, boycotts, freedom rides, strikes, etc., was used) to reach the discriminated against and often dis¬franchised Black masses.

In Kelly’s review (on pp. 89-90) he writes, regarding events “after 1914,” that Perry presents this as a shift “further to the left” (199), but on his own evidence Harrison’s trajectory seems more complicated.”
Kelly has taken my quote related to 1912, applied it to events “after1914,” and then suggested that my analysis is faulty.
In fact, my analysis is correct and Kelly’s insertion of my quote “after 1914” is in error.

Offering a New Strategic Direction for the Socialist Party

During his time in the Socialist Party Harrison worked tirelessly for socialism. He was a prominent and frequent speaker, delivered as many as twenty-plus talks in a week, spoke to a rapt audience on socialism for three hours on Wall Street in front of the Stock Exchange, toured upstate New York and Connecticut, campaigned vigorously for Eugene V. Debs, and addressed the Paterson, NJ strikers. He founded the Colored Socialist Club, which drew on the work of women’s clubs and foreign language federations and sought to make special efforts to reach Black people with socialism’s message. He also wrote a major theoretical series on “The Negro and Socialism” in the New York Call and important articles on that topic in the International Socialist Review.
He did more, however. At a time when the main debate within the Socialist Party was whether socialism would come by evolutionary or revolutionary means, Harrison proposed a new litmus test, a new crucial test for U.S. socialists, the duty “to champion the cause of the Negro.” To the evolutionary socialists who wanted to elect people to office and change laws, he emphasized that they needed Black voters; and to the revolutionary socialists who wanted militant strikes and a seizure of power, he emphasized that they needed Black workers. For Harrison, the fight against white supremacy was central in the struggle for socialism and he pointedly asked in a major article before the 1912 SP Convention, “Southernism or Socialism – which?” He explained that “politically the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea” and that true equality and democracy implies “a revolution . . . startling to even think of.” From 1912, until his departure in 1914, he moved to the left within the Socialist Party and tried to point the way forward in a new strategic direction. He also came to a profound conclusion, which unfortunately is missed entirely in Kelly’s review.

The “white race” – Principal Roadblock

In Hubert Harrison (p. 7) I explain that “Socialist Party theory and practice—including segregated locals in the South, the party’s refusal to route the campaign of the 1912 presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs (who insisted that his audiences be integrated), in Southern states, white-supremacist positions on Asian immigration at the 1912 national convention, and the failure to politically and economically support the CSC [Colored Socialist Club—ed.] — led Harrison to conclude that Socialist Party leaders, like organized labor, put the white “race first and class after.”
Elsewhere (p. 187), I discuss how Harrison would later cite passages from the 1912 convention majority report on Asian immigration as he emphasized the necessity for African Americans to develop race consciousness and to put “race first.” He would call for race consciousness as a protective reaction, as a means of defense, against the “white-race”-first sentiments that permeated U.S. society and the labor and socialist movements. As long as racist whites put “white race” interests first, he would argue, there was a need for Black people to develop race consciousness and to similarly put “race first.”
I then discuss (pp. 187-188) the overall relation between white supremacy and class consciousness in the United States and how the work of Theodore W. Allen, author of the two-volume The Invention of the White Race, gives deeper meaning to Harrison’s theoretical work:

Hubert Harrison was suggest¬ing that a primary reason for limited working-class consciousness and for the absence of socialism in the United States was white supremacy. Within a few years, he would more forcefully articulate that it was because “white” workers and socialists put race first before class. This is an extremely important and pro¬found analysis. Over time, Harrison would respond by stressing that race con¬sciousness among African Americans was necessary not only as a measure of self-defense but also as a means of challenging white supremacy, which was the principal roadblock to class consciousness among European American workers and the principal roadblock to socialism.

I also discuss (p. 443) how Allen describes “the development of the ‘white race’ as a ruling-class social control formation” and I note (p. 462) that Allen maintained “the key to the defeat of labor and popular forces” in the United States has historically been the theory and the practice of white supremacy.
Quite simply, as I argue in a forthcoming Daedalus article, “When Harrison left the Party he offered what is arguably the most profound, but least heeded criticism, in U.S. left history. He stated simply, that the Socialist Party [like the labor movement] has “insisted on [white] Race First and class after”; that it put “[the white] race first, before class.”
Regarding this “white race” -- Allen is insightful. I explain in my introduction to the reprinted edition of Allen’s 1975 pamphlet Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race ( http://clogic.eserver.org/2006/allen.html ) that Allen posits:
1. The "white race" was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor unrest as manifested in the latter (civil war) stages of Bacon's Rebellion (1676-77).
2. A system of racial privileges was deliberately instituted in order to define and establish the "white race."
3. The consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African American workers, but was also "disastrous" . . . for the “white” worker.

More pointedly, Allen argues that the “white race,” “this all-class association of European-Americans held together by 'racial' privileges conferred on laboring class European-Americans relative to African-Americans--[has served] as the principal historic guarantor of ruling-class domination of national life" in the United States”; that “the main barrier to class consciousness” in the U.S. is “the incubus of ‘white’ identity of the European-American” and that “’white race’ solidarity” has been “the country’s most general form of class collaborationism.”
Though Kelly did not mention the “white race” in his review, it is hoped that readers will appreciate how insights from Harrison and Allen on the “white race” offer important keys to understanding U.S. labor history. Both Harrison and Allen emphasized that white supremacy was the principal retardant to social change efforts in the U.S. and that struggle against white supremacy was central to social change. Neither Harrison, nor Allen saw anything progressive in concepts such as “white men’s jobs,” “white” only unions, and the “white race” – and this becomes important in addressing a quotation that Kelly truncates.

A Truncated Quote – and “a real organization of labor”

After casually dismissing my correct analysis regarding Harrison’s move “further to the left” while he was still in the Socialist Party, Kelly, in the same paragraph, describes how, after leaving the Socialist Party, “Harrison came out publicly in favor of ‘join[ing] hands with the capitalists’ to ‘scab [the AFL] out of existence. (309).” Kelly then casually adds – “his proposal was one that would neither have solved the plight of black workers nor eased racial antagonism.”
Harrison’s actual quote, which Kelly truncates, is significant --“Join hands with the capitalists and scab them [the AFL] out of existence—not in the name of scabbery, but in the name of a real organization of labor.”
Harrison wanted to help build “a real organization of labor.” His quote appeared in a 1917 editorial that was written after a series of vicious attacks on the African American community of East St. Louis, Illinois, which left from 40 to 250 dead and destroyed, or partially destroyed, some 244 buildings. These attacks on the African American community were widely attributed to “white” labor’s opposition to Black labor coming into the labor market. W.S. Carter, President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers claimed that “evidently the purpose of the railroads in importing Negro labor is to destroy the influence of white men’s labor organizations” and AFL President Samuel Gompers placed principal blame for the riots on “the excessive and abnormal number of negroes in East St. Louis.” Harrison’s clearly felt that “white men’s labor organizations,” racially exclusionary AFL unions, and the racist statements of Gompers and Carter, did not represent the type of “real organization of labor” that was needed.
Harrison was quite clear that the words and actions of Gompers and Carter were, to use Kelly’s phrase, words and actions that “would neither have solved the plight of black workers nor eased racial antagonism.” Rather than truncating and dismissing what Harrison says, I think we should learn from it.

Hubert Harrison Was a Working Class Intellectual/Activist Intimately Involved with the Working Class

Regarding Labor’s editorial process -- on October 28, 2010, Kelly wrote to me that in his corrections to the proofs he had submitted to the Press was the following:

Page 91, Line 33: insert to read as below
[new paragraph]
‘Collectively these studies reveal the limitations of biography as a genre. With the exception of Perry’s study, they touch upon broad trends among the working-class majority of African American only occasionally. More often they illuminate the gulf between leaders and the led. Nevertheless, a number of salient points emerge from these overlapping stories of race leadership at the nadir....’

Kelly apologized to me for the omission and explained, that “for reasons I do not yet understand, they [the Press] neglected to incorporate” the “relevant changes to the text,” which had been submitted.
Whatever the reason for the omission, I hope that the Press will take steps to see that such omissions do not happen in the future.
The record should also be corrected in this matter since as Kelly’s article now stands – his statement (p. 92) about “the conspicuous disconnect between prominent race leaders and a hard-pressed black working class at the nadir” simply is not true in Harrison’s case.
Hubert Harrison was a working class intellectual/activist rooted deeply among Black working class people. He worked as a bellhop, porter, and postal worker, he joined the self-proclaimed “party of the working class,” he lived on the most densely populated block in Harlem, he spoke at the Paterson strike and in support of the IWW, he organized for the Pullman Porters and Hotel Workers, and he was constantly lecturing in working class forums. Working class issues and themes are treated throughout Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918.

With all best wishes,
Dr. Jeffrey B. Perry

For additional information on Hubert Harrison see: http://www.jeffreybperry.net/_center_3__hubert_harrison__br_life__legacy___some_writings__center___font___fon_86150.htm
For additional information on Theodore W. Allen see: http://www.jeffreybperry.net/_center_4__theodore_w__allen__font___font__br__with_audio_and_video_links__86151.htm
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