Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


In the U.S. 11.1% of the population consists of Negroes (and also mulattoes and Indians) who must be considered as an oppressed nation insofar as the equality, won in the Civil War of 1861-65 and guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic, has in reality been more and more restricted in many respects in the main centers of the Negro population (in the South) with the transition from the progressive, premonopolistic capitalism of 1860-1870 to the reactionary monopolistic capitalism (imperialism) of the latest epoch. – V.I. Lenin, in his unfinished work, “On Statistics and Sociology,” written in early 1917.

The 1917 October Revolution in Russia had profound impact on the U.S. workers’ movement and the Afro-American peoples’ movement, as it did on the struggles of the exploited and oppressed throughout the world.

The lessons it held for the Afro-American question were drawn and debated for nearly a decade, until they were finally clarified and summed up by the Communist International in 1928 and 1930. The period that followed saw the ascendancy of the greatest revolutionary unity among the Black and white masses that had existed since the time of Reconstruction.

What were the lessons of October in this regard? The imperialist world war which gave rise to the Bolshevik seizure of power had forced a split in the international workers’ movement, dividing the socialists in every capitalist country into two camps. Those on one side opposed the imperialist war and called for the defeat of “their own” bourgeoisie, thus upholding proletarian internationalism. Those on the other side supported the war aims of their respective ruling classes, rallied the workers of each country to shoot each other “in defense of the fatherland” and thus became, to use Lenin’s term, “socialists in words, imperialists in deeds.”

The Bolshevik revolution demonstrated which line led the workers to victory and which line led to defeat, repression and misery.

World War I was fought to redivide the world among a handful of imperialist “Great Powers,” who sought to increase their plunder of the colonized and dependent countries. As such it awakened a vast resistance among the colonized and nationally oppressed peoples, thus placing them on the side of the proletarian revolution and the workers’ movements in the “advanced” capitalist countries in the struggle against imperialism.


The national question had thus entered a new period. It was no longer mainly a struggle between the bourgeoisies of the oppressor and oppressed nationalities of Europe to secure and develop a national market. Instead it became linked with the colonial question on a world scale. Imperialism had entered the era of its decline, aligning monopoly capital with semifeudal and semicolonial reaction against the agrarian and bourgeois democratic revolution.

What did this mean for the national liberation movement? On one hand it spurred forward the struggle of the masses. On the other hand it weakened and divided the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations, rendering it incapable of leading the national struggle to victory.

The task of leadership now passed into the hands of the proletariat. With the peasant masses as its main ally, it was the most capable class to unite all anti-imperialist forces in revolutionary struggle.

For the working class of the imperialist countries, the new era also signified a change. Previously, it had to support the right of self-determination only in a negative way. Its role was to give indirect support to the ascendancy of the oppressed nation’s bourgeoisie–mainly to demonstrate to the oppressed nation’s proletariat that it was not interested in preserving the national inequality and privileges imposed by the ruling class of the oppressor nation. This was aimed at facilitating the class unity of the workers of both countries against the capitalists of both countries.

Now it was different. The national movements were objectively thrust against imperialism and thus became the allies of socialism. The working class of the imperialist countries was therefore called upon, as Lenin put it in 1920, “to render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, American Negroes) and in the colonies.”

To sum up the difference between the two periods briefly: On one hand the main slogan of national liberation changed from “All power to the national bourgeoisie!” to “All power to the masses of the oppressed nations!” On the other hand the main slogan of proletarian internationalism changed from “Workers of all countries, unite!” to “Workers of all countries and oppressed nations of the world, unite!”

This was the line of the Communist International put forward at its Second Congress in 1920. It represented the theory and practice of Leninism, both in summing up the world situation and in the actual practice of the new Soviet power in solidifying its alliance with the oppressed nations and peoples of the East and the border regions of Russia.

This established the strategic policy of the world united front against imperialism which continues to guide the class and national struggles to this day.

The views of Lenin on the Afro-American question, however, were not immediately developed in a complete way by the Comintern itself. While the young U.S. party and the left wing of Garvey’s movement, organized in the African Blood Brotherhood, had both opposed the crass white chauvinism of the Socialist Party, neither had fully absorbed a proletarian policy on the national question. This was only to occur through the waging of a struggle between the two lines over the next decade.

The battle began with a debate between Lenin and John Reed, the American revolutionary writer, at a commission of the Second Comintern Congress. It came to a peak at the Sixth Congress in 1928 and was followed up with an additional Comintern statement in 1930 following the expulsion of Jay Lovestone, the head of the U.S. party, from its ranks.


What was the initial line of the U.S. party? It viewed Blacks as an oppressed racial minority fighting for equality and assimilation and whose movement was, as Reed put it, “advancing very fast in class consciousness.” Since Blacks were not a nation, he said, there was no basis for any nationalist movement and hence any that did develop was reactionary and doomed to fail, as Garvey’s movement had. “This makes it very much simpler for the Communists,” Reed concluded.

With this line the U.S. party was hamstrung. On one hand it often fought militantly for equality and against Jim Crow and lynching. Through the Trade Union Educational League it waged important fights to bring Black workers into the trade unions.

On the other hand, it persistently underestimated and downplayed those aspects of the Black people’s struggle which either were not directly tied to unionization or took on a national form involving other classes in addition to Black workers. It was also a northern-oriented policy, with Lovestone even eventually going so far as to claim that the Black masses in the South were “reserves of reaction.”

Neither Lenin nor Stalin was convinced by this line, and the Comintern continued to refer to Blacks in its statements as an oppressed nation. Likewise the Comintern prior to 1928 had sent some 19 communications to the U.S. party, criticizing its work among Blacks and urging rectification. These were mainly ignored, and one practical result was that the party was unable to make any decisive gains among the Black masses. One comparison tells the story. While Garvey was able to mobilize somewhere between one million and four million Black followers around 1920, the CP in 1928, after nearly a decade, had only 50 Black cadre out of a total of 8000.


The Leninist view of Afro-Americans was not held universally in the Comintern. It was opposed by some other parties and by some leading figures in the Soviet party. The U.S. party’s line was backed by Sik, an ally of Bukharin, in the Lenin School, which was an educational center set up in Moscow by the Comintern to train cadres from all over the world. But Lenin’s supporters, for their part, sent representatives to the U.S. to investigate the question and also worked to win over U.S. communists studying in Moscow, the first of which was Harry Haywood, then a young Black worker who had come into the party through the African Blood Brotherhood. Later he was joined by others from the U.S., including William Z. Foster. (Much of the information and analysis of this account is from Haywood’s unpublished autobiography, “Black Bolshevik.” Other references are Haywood’s 1948 work, “Negro Liberation” and Foster’s “The Negro People in American History.”)

Thus the two-line struggle was not simply a fight between the U.S. party and the Comintern, with the latter merely dictating a line to the former, as many Trotskyists and social-democrats have charged. Instead, the struggle took place within the U.S. party and within the International concurrently, although Lenin’s view clearly had the upper hand in the latter arena.

The two lines represented opposing theories on the national question. Both had examined the Garvey movement, which had declined in the early 1920s, but had arrived at different conclusions. While they each supported the struggle for equality and opposed the “Back to Africa” slogan and separatism, they parted company on the question of the right of self-determination of the oppressed Black nation in the Deep South.

The Leninist line was rooted in a concrete analysis of the development of capitalism in southern agriculture and the historical consequence of the Civil War and the betrayal of Reconstruction. This study had been done initially by Lenin himself in his 1913 work, “New Data on the Laws of Development of Capitalism in Agriculture,” which analyzed the result of the U.S. Census of 1910 and which led him to conclude in 1917 that Blacks in the South were an oppressed nation. This was confirmed shortly afterward by the emergence of the Garvey movement.


The Leninists also used the approach of the mass line to analyze the Black national movement and the significance of Garveyism and its decline. They conducted an investigation in the U.S., both through the U.S. party and through the Comintern’s own representatives. They gathered up the views and demands of the Black masses and revolutionary activists, including a longing for land, self-determination, Black unity and the elimination of Jim Crow, they also noted the existence of separatist tendencies and the effect of the “Back to Africa” slogan. They used revolutionary theory to systematize these views, to concentrate what was progressive and to reject what was reactionary. The summed-up experience was then taken back to the masses in a more advanced form in the 1928 resolution of the Sixth Congress of the Comintern. This was in turn debated and criticized in the U.S., summed up again and taken back again in a still better and more concrete form in the 1930 resolution.

What was the approach of the opposing line? Against the Leninist position the Lovestone group argued its position of the “pure class struggle,” which was a combination of both dogmatism and pragmatism. Only the direct class struggle for socialism was revolutionary, it insisted, and thus the national movement, by definition, served to divide the working class and impede class struggle and was thus reactionary and bourgeois. The line was ahistorical in its view of the national development of the Garvey movement, the two aspects of which it refused to grasp. It confronted the Black nationalist movement by denouncing it in its entirety and finally claimed that inequality in the South was being eliminated by capitalist industrialization.

Thus Lovestone and his followers refused to apply Marxism-Leninism to the concrete conditions in the U.S. In effect they had failed to break completely with the line of the Socialist Party and advanced their “new theory” of “American exceptionalism,” a line which ended in a morass of chauvinism and reformist opportunism.

Marxist-Leninist theory was a key factor in enabling the young U.S. party to defeat this line. The position argued in the Guardian recently, however, states that “it was not theory that had forced the Communist Party to confront this question. It was the emergence of a powerful nationalist movement.” It is true that the party’s new line developed in a reevaluation of the Garvey movement, but this assertion one-sidedly downplays the Marxist view that the correct line develops in the course of struggle against the erroneous line in the summation of revolutionary practice. It thus tends to belittle the role of revolutionary theory and thus, in effect, bows to the spontaneity of the mass movement. “Confronting” the “powerful movement” without theory could only lead the party to denounce it from the sidelines or trail in its wake, not to lead it forward in a revolutionary direction.

The position argued in the Guardian, however, would be faced with one problem in stating that the Comintern position was the product of a struggle between a correct and erroneous line. While it states that Black people “had developed all the characteristics of a nation” in 1930 and praises the Comintern view as a “concept. . .of the greatest importance” enabling the CP to overcome a “signal weakness,” it carefully avoids stating whether or not the Comintern’s line on self-determination was correct at the time or whether or not a Black nation has ever existed.

But the line was correct and it was clearly demonstrated to be so in practice during the revolutionary upheaval of the 1930s.