Blog post

The Black Bolsheviks

The story of the African Blood Brotherhood, which recruited and trained the first generation of Black socialist cadre in the U.S.

Paul Heideman16 May 2017

The Black Bolsheviks
This essay was first published in Socialist Worker

Claude McKay speaking in the Throne Room of the Kremlin, first published in The Crisis, 1923. 

Two recent events should be of interest to radicals. First, the eruption and continuation of anti-racist struggles after the election of Donald Trump demonstrates forcefully that the current wave of Black liberation struggle begun by the Black Lives Matter movement has not yet receded. Second, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, marking nearly a century since the moment workers and oppressed peoples came the closest yet to ending the rule of capital.

These events seem completely unrelated. What two things could be less alike than the upsurge of anti-racist struggle in America and the anniversary of a revolution carried out on the fringes of Europe in an overwhelmingly white country?

Strange as it may seem today, to an earlier generation of Black radicals, the connection between contemporary anti-racist struggles and the anniversary of the Bolshevik victory would have been obvious.

In fact, at the time of the revolution, Black radicals across the U.S. followed events in Russia with rapturous attentiveness, convinced that the victory of Lenin's Bolsheviks in the October Revolution held vital lessons for their own struggle for liberation. Black activists from all backgrounds debated the meaning of the revolution, from nationalists like Marcus Garvey to the NAACP's W.E.B. Du Bois.

Of all these groups, one of the most radical (and hence least-known today) was the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB). The ABB was a small organization, probably never surpassing 3,000 members nationwide.

Its importance far surpassed its numbers, however, as members of the ABB would go on to become the key early Black cadre of the Communist Party, enabling it to recruit a base of thousands and thousands of Black members in the 1930s and 1940s, and to lead a militant struggle for Black liberation in those decades.

The ABB was founded in 1919 by Cyril Briggs, an immigrant from the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts. Briggs had been an editor at one of the main Black newspapers in Harlem during the First World War, but was fired for his antiwar writings. Undeterred, he founded his own journal, The Crusader, to serve as a propaganda organ for his radical Black nationalist politics.

Briggs founded the ABB in response to the "Red Summer" of 1919, named for the horrific wave of lynchings and race riots that broke out across the country that year. It was formed as a kind of secret society devoted to Black self-defense against racist violence. In the advertisement for the group's founding that ran in The Crusader, Briggs challenged his readers that "those only need apply who are willing to go the limit."

When Briggs began the journal, its politics were those of radical Black nationalism. Initially inspired by Woodrow Wilson's talk of "the right of nations to self-determination," Briggs quickly realized that Wilson had no intent of applying this lofty rhetoric to the colonized world.

Disillusioned with official politics, Briggs began arguing that the liberation of the colonized world and of Black Americans in the United States would only come about through militant struggle against racism and empire.

Possessed of a mordant wit, Briggs delighted in offending the sensibilities of white gentility. In response to the Justice Department's attempt to crack down on the paper during wartime, he gleefully published an editorial titled "We Rile the Crackerized Department of Justice."

The state had turned its attention to the journal for, among other crimes, "abuse of the white man." Briggs wore the government's repression as a badge of pride, declaring, "To have been listed as 'well-behaved' in the eyes of Crackerdom would have forced us to cease publication."

For its first year or so, The Crusader did not pay particularly close attention to what was happening in Russia. Briggs, while interested in working with radicals in Socialist Party, was not initially a Marxist. He was suspicious of white workers in the U.S. and Europe, who had all too often either supported their country's colonial ventures or been the direct perpetrators of violence against Black people.

To be sure, Briggs held no illusions in the country's ruling class, on whom he placed the vast bulk of responsibility for the oppression that Black people faced. But the call to interracial struggle against capital seemed to him a risk not worth betting Black lives for.

By late 1919 (around the time the ABB was founded), however, Briggs had begun to take more of an interest in Marxism and socialism. Undoubtedly influenced by the lively intellectual milieu of Harlem radicalism, in which political giants like Hubert Harrison regularly lectured on Marxist theory on street corners, Briggs began reading more deeply in Marxism.

Discussing the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie in The Crusader, Briggs recommended his readers consult Marx's pamphlet Value, Price, and Profit on the true origins of the steel baron's millions. He argued that capitalist profit came from the exploitation of workers, and that white workers suffered this exploitation, as well as Black workers. He also grew deeply interested in the idea of primitive communism, and wrote several pieces analyzing African social systems in these terms.

Around the same time, Briggs began to pay more attention to what was happening in Russia. He was particularly impressed by the Soviet state's progress in combating anti-Semitism, which was comparable in intensity in Russia to anti-Black racism in the United States.

As the scourge of race riots and lynching swept across the country in 1919, Briggs looked with hope to Russia, where only a few years earlier, pogroms against Jews had followed a similar pattern. Now, however, the government repressed and jailed would-be pogromists, and Jews like Leon Trotsky and Gregory Zinoviev were elected to the highest positions the workers' councils.

Discussing the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which Black Oklahomans who dared to fight back against vicious white violence found themselves arrested for doing so after the fact, Briggs commented that Tulsa exemplified the "kind of justice the Jew used to get in capitalist-Czarist Russia, until the workers of all races arose in their wrath and overthrew the capitalist-Czarist combination...Now the workers of all races get justice--in Russia. How long will the Negro in America continue to fall for capitalist bunk?"

Briggs was also impressed by the way the Bolsheviks approached the colonial question. Shortly after taking power, the Soviet state had published all of the secret treaties that the Tsar's government had maintained with the other capitalist powers concerning the fate of the colonies, exposing the way even capitalist states at war with one another colluded to keep the colonial system in place.

Russia itself was a colonial power, holding dozens of central Asian nations in bondage. The Bolsheviks also reversed this practice, granting the right of self-determination to all of the colonized nations.

Actions like this led Briggs to wryly suggest that Bolshevism set "a bad example to the enslaved populations under British and French rule." Reciting the litany of imperial crimes, Briggs asked, "Is this the 'democracy' to which the spread of Bolshevism is a menace? Then may God advance the spread of Bolshevism through Europe, Asia, and Africa, and in every country where oppression stalks!"

Brigg's own growing identification with Marxism and the Russian Revolution led him, and much of the rest of the leadership of the ABB, to join the Communist Party in the summer of 1921.

The other leaders who joined along with him included Richard B. Moore, who would go on to become the party's most famous orator in Harlem; Harry Haywood, who would be a major party theoretician on "the Negro question" for decades to come; and Claude McKay, the Jamaican-born poet whose If We Must Die served as the rallying cry for Black armed self-defense against lynching.

Briggs and the other Black radicals who looked to Russia did so because they believed that racism and colonialism could not be defeated without a total remaking of their society.

They came to this conclusion by a number of routes. The sheer scale and brutality of American white supremacy in those years, crystalized during the Red Summer of 1919, dealt a serious blow to the idea that racism could be eliminated either through Black Americans reforming their own behavior, as the followers of Booker T. Washington suggested, or through a gradual process of changing laws and changing minds, as was the strategy of the NAACP.

At the same time, the explosion of class struggle across the globe, from Italy to Russia to the U.S. (which witnessed the biggest strike wave in its history in 1919), helped make concrete the hope that another world was possible. In this context, Black radicals like Briggs saw the liberation of Black people as part of a global insurrection against oppression everywhere.

In today's world, these kinds of massive ambitions for liberation are rare. Several decades of neoliberal assault, and the parallel weakening of movements for liberation, have made it much harder to imagine a worldwide fight against all forms of oppression.

As a consequence, radical movements of every stripe have suffered from much-diminished horizons, aiming for much smaller targets than the liberation of all. In this context, it is not uncommon for would-be radicals to confine their ambitions to changing the behavior of themselves and those around them.

The forces that drove Briggs and an entire generation of Black radicals to look to Russia are, however, still at play. Though lynchings no longer play the role they once did in enforcing Black oppression, modern police forces have shown themselves to be more than capable of picking up the slack. Black Americans suffer from state and white vigilante terror today just as surely as they did in 1919.

Similarly, international solidarity still serves to shape radical politics. The inspiring exchanges between protesters in Palestine and in Ferguson served as a reminder that our movements are strongest when they link themselves to all struggles against oppression.

The history of Briggs and his comrades stands as an inspiration for more of these kinds of politics. Though we still live in what is very much a time of defeat for radical movement, the relationship Black radicals forged with the Russian Revolution can serve to remind us of the sheer scale of the dreams that have fueled radical movements at their high points.

Rediscovering those dreams today is part of what is necessary to reach those points again and, hopefully, to surpass them.

Filed under: black-liberation, revolution2017, russia, russian-revolution