Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Jim Jacobs

“The OCIC’s White Chauvinism Campaign and its Lessons for the U.S. Marxist-Leninist Movement”

Appendix A: “The Struggle Around Racism ” paper

The purpose of this paper is to extend some of my remarks that I made at the March 30th meeting. It is clear, however, that I was wrong in a number of things I had said. First, there was a good discussion that was initiated by the chair’s criticism. My criticism that it should have been written out was incorrect. Second, my belief that it was incorrect to demand peoples should speak to the criticism did not appreciate the significance of the question and suggests I need to examine my own racism. In addition, as a secondary matter, my choice of strong words was probably a bit unwise, although I would maintain that in part my strong outburst was partially responsible for the lively discussion that followed.

However, what I would maintain is that the current method of fighting racism through drawing out statements made by comrades as “objectively racist” shows signs of leading to an ultra-left error around the question of fighting racism. This error is in essence the separation of the inter-organizational struggle against racism from the overall political struggle of the black liberation movement.

My point can be best examined by a look at the practices of the CPUSA. It is significant to note that the Steering Committee Overview paper, in its correct urging that the struggle against racism must be taken up by comrades in the OCIC states: “To our knowledge in its 60 year history, the communist movement has only openly confronted its own racism on two occasions – once at the Yokinen trial of 1931 and again in the white chauvinism campaign of 1949-51.” (p.5) Perhaps unintentionally, by the linkage in this sentence, the SC appears to equate the two periods when from the small amount of research I have undertaken, they appear to be two substantially different periods. Moreover, the difference is critical to understand the correct and incorrect methods of dealing with the anti-racist struggle within communist organizations.


The Yokinen Trial was considered a turning point for the CPUSA’s ability to attract massive numbers of black workers and peasants. In 1931, a CP member, Yokinen, who was a caretaker at a Finnish Workers Hall near Harlem, refused black CP members entrance to at dance at the hall. After being criticized for this action, he maintained he was correct because the next step would be that blacks would ask admissions to the baths! The CP, according to Harry Haywood, used this specific case of racism to launch a struggle against white chauvinism in the party, and consolidate an understanding of the newly adopted position on the national question. A public trial was held on March 1, 1931 in Harlem in front of a “jury” of both white and black CP members (Yokinen was “represented” by a black CP lawyer) at which over 2000 party and non-party members attended. On the walls of the hall was a banner which read: “Race Inferiority is a White Ruling Class Lie: Smash the Jim Crow Laws and Practices.” The trial received wide attention in black newspapers as well as the bourgeois press. It demonstrated to the black community that the CP was one organization serious about fighting racism and according to Haywood was responsible for the party’s ability to initiate the Scottsboro Defense (see Cha. 12 of Black Bolshevik). This book is one of the few CP “memoirs” by a leading black communist and is an invaluable contribution that should be read by all comrades. Haywood was one of the key figures behind the original formulation of the national question and in 1957 was a founding member of the Provisional Organizing Committee.

It should also be pointed out that at the trial Yokinen confessed to his crime and was expelled from the CP, but with the condition that if he engaged in the struggle against Jim Crow, he could be readmitted. He them proceeded to play an active role in the League for the Struggle for Negro Rights and was readmitted to the CP after six months. There is no question that the Yokinen Trial pushed the party forward in the anti-racist struggle both north and south. As one Marxist historian has written about its growth in Harlem: “although at the beginning of the depression it had only a handful of black members, by 1936 the Party had become an organization with influence in almost every dimension of Harlem’s political life.” Mark Naison, “Harlem Blacks and Communism,” Science & Society, 1978, p. 327).

Three aspects of the Yokinen Trial are significant: 1) the struggle against white chauvinism in the party was set within the overall struggle of the black liberation struggle; 2) there was a conscious connection made between the inner party struggle and the general struggle of blacks, one did not proceed before the other, and 3)Yokinen was criticized for his actions and given a chance through actions to redeem himself.

The White Chauvinism Campaign occurred from 1949 to about 1955 (For some reason which I do not understand the SC uses the period 1949-1951. However, Haywood argues it extended over four years, and I found that Foster in his 1955 report to the CP also refers to the white chauvinism campaign as almost completed.) This period was launched by a specific issue of the CP theoretical journal Political Affairs in June 1949 devoted entirely to white chauvinism. The lead article was written by Pettis Perry and it revealed some racists practices in the New York State section. He revealed that white comrades were signing restricted covenants in order to get better apartments, as well as refusing to promote black comrades into leadership positions within the organization. Here, these errors were pointed out as being in the context of the overall “imperialist offensive of the bourgeoisie.” (p. 10) Furthermore, the campaign was launched, just as in the Yokinen Trial, by relating the struggle against white chauvinism within the context of the unfolding civil rights movement.

Perry wrote:

In order to guarantee the fulfillment of our historic responsibilities, the Party must perform two major tasks. These are: to conduct the political and ideological struggle against chauvinism as already indicated and to develop, in a consistent fashion, as an ever present and unrelaxing feature of our work, the day to day struggles for the rights of the Negro people.

Clearly it would be suicidal for the Party if these struggles were disconnected that is, if we were to try and wage one without the other. If we simply took up the ideological struggle and failed to engage in the practical struggle, the Party would be tied up in an endless debate divorced from real life, and would be torn asunder with no tangible results. (p.11)

For a variety of reasons which lie outside the present scope of this paper, the campaign did not follow these instructions and took a left deviation that divorced it from the general black struggle. While there was no question that much of the white chauvinism campaign did correctly isolate and alter white chauvinist practices within the party, there was also considerable minor criticisms of persona use of words by comrades (like “this is a black day”) or other racist practices that amounted to very little substance. In many cases cadre were expelled from the party for these white chauvinist practices which one were hardly proved to be significant, and moreover, were rarely related to mass struggles. There is also considerable evidence to suggest that the campaign, in its later stages was manipulated by informers to cause havoc within the organization and disrupt the lives of honest cadre.

All accounts of the white chauvinism campaign underscore the error. Perhaps most clear was Haywood who wrote from a left perspective. He was very critical of the period and called it a “phoney war:”

A view developed which contended that the Party would not move forward, that mass work has to wait, until all vestiges of white chauvinism were driven from the ranks. This view was thoroughly idealist and contradicted the experiences of the socialist countries, where the struggle against grant nation chauvinism goes on even in the period of socialist development. This purist approach led to a fight to take a sort of intra-mural character in which success was measured not by the organization of mass struggles in defense of Black rights, but in the number of comrades against whom disciplinary action was taken. It was an atmosphere which was conducive to the development of a particular paternalistic and patronizing form of white chauvinism as well as to a rise in petty bourgeois narrow nationalism among blacks. (p.588)

Haywood also argued that the initiation of the campaign was a substitution for political work around the national question and did nothing but continue to consolidate the revisionists in power in the CPUSA.

The right wing of the party was also critical of the campaign. Gornick, in here interviews with CP members (The Romance of American Communism) summarized the period as when “thousands of Communists were charged, tried and executed for being white chauvinists. The ’evidence’ upon which most of these charges rested was painfully ridiculous, indicative of the kind of mass suspension of reason that prevailed.” (p. 170). Saul Wellman, a leader of the Gates faction and industrial section leader of the Michigan CP referred to the period as “not one of our finer hours” as he detailed accounts of how members were expelled for little reason.

Even Foster, who was chairman of the Party and a supporter of the campaign (he called it one our “our best achievements”) recognized the dangers of the left deviation to the party. He wrote an important article in 1953 entitled “Left Sectarianism in the Fight for Negro Rights and Against White Chauvinism,“ and in 1955 in another article summarized the left deviation:

There is also a “leftist” danger which can do grave damage too in the fight against white chauvinism. We had a big dose of this deviation during the past few years. This was mainly the tendency to separate the fight against white chauvinism from the struggle of equal rights for the Negro people – that is, to restrict the anti-chauvinist fight to a sort of inner-Party campaign. This mistake was expressed ideologically by the general idea that our Party was unable to fight for Negro rights until it first cleansed itself completely of all traces of white chauvinism. This was a dangerous sectarian notion which was intensified by certain Negro bourgeois nationalist tendencies that were also present. Such sectarianism can only lead our Party into distorting and fantastic conceptions of white chauvinism and undermine our fight against it, cripple the Party’s mass struggle for Negro rights, and weaken its influence among the Negro masses – all of which this “leftist: mistake did in a very marked manner. (Political Affairs, May 1955, p. 31)

While I personally accept Haywood’s interpretation for some of the motivation for the white chauvinism campaign, it is clear that all forces, left, right and center accepted the existence of a substantial left-deviation which weakened the overall effectiveness of the campaign. They also appear to agree that this deviation was the divorcing of the struggle against white chauvinism from the general struggle for black liberation – which was not the error committed during the Yokinen period.


Now why, outside of an interesting example of Communist Party history, is this important to us? Furthermore, why am I bringing all of this up now, when we in the Local Center are just beginning to take up this question for the first time in five years? Both of these are legitimate questions and they demand answers.

First, there is some evidence that within our work the errors of the left deviation have emerged.

1. In a statement made to me by KM justifying the focus upon the personal racism of comrades in the DLC, he said that unless this was accomplished, there could be no united black and white work around racism. This statement tends to reinforce a separation of the inner-party struggle around racism from the general context of the black liberation struggle. It also suggests we must “get our house in order” before we can do anything. This tends to oppose the general experience that the two proceed together, not one after another.

2. A statement made by someone in the leadership of the local Center argued that “all racist statements and actions are important to be raised and struggled against.” Obviously, it is true that any signs of racism within a communist movement are bad, but this does not allow us to examine which are critical ones that must be taken up first, or which are the most critical to our particular concerns. Lacking any yardstick – what we seem to have done is criticized all racist actions together – everything from serious questions of leadership to criticism of individual’s head movements equally. There is no value placed on which are more serious and the implication appears to be if we can “clean up” these errors, we will be able to move ahead. This again falls dangerously close to the left deviation.

3. In the brief reference of the SC paper, and by some remarks made by PF, there appears to be little understanding of what are the dangers of the left deviation in fighting racism. The SC’s paper appears to equate the white chauvinism campaign with the Yokinen experience although the left deviation was not present in the latter. Furthermore, PF’s belief that Haywood criticism of the white chauvinism period as “race baiting,” is a clear distortion. He stated very clearly he believed it was an ultra left-idealistic deviation, and the most critical aspect was the divorcing of the party from mass struggle. The question of race baiting was hardly emphasized by Haywood at all. The fact that PF could so misunderstand Haywood suggests we are approaching the anti-racist struggle in need of greater understanding of former party struggles.

4. At the meetings the objectively racist statements of people are criticized by themselves and others, but it is unclear how transformation will occur. During the Yokinen period it was to prove oneself through mass work. During the white chauvinism campaign comrades were given a trial and expe11ed, usually for statements or viewpoints. At this point we have accepted a sort of “self-confession,” but it is unclear how we will prevent racist errors from being repeated.

I want to make it clear that I believe it is correct for the Local Center not to engage in mass work, nor am I calling for that. However, we can (and there have been some good examples of this already) and should always try and link up anti-racist criticisms as they have implications for mass work. Or, even analyze the mass work of comrades to indicate how their racist thinking has led them to errors. This might be a good way to avoid falling into the left deviation of divorcing our criticism from the general struggle against anti-racism the society.

Finally, as to why am I raising all of this now. Is this too early? I was asked at the last meeting “The white chauvinism period was full of race baiting. Do you think this is what we are about?” The answer is of course not, because if I did I wouldn’t even stay to struggle over it. What I believe is that because the question of racism is a fundamental one, it must always be taken up very seriously. I am encouraged that the SC is making anti-racism a central part of our work.

The way the CP took upon the question of racist in the Yokinen period seemed a correct example of what should mold our efforts. I certainly do not wish to have this paper interpreted as not wanting to raise the question of racism within the OCIC. In fact the rightist error of not dealing with inter-party racism is even more fundamental in the long run. The recognition of racism existing in the trend, and its effect at impeding our party building efforts is a significant contribution of the Steering Committee. The Local Center leadership has taken up the task and I support the struggle.

Yet, despite all the good intentions there have been instances when the left deviation has appeared. Obviously they are not consolidated or even specifically articulated. But I believe they are objective errors that would do little good for us to “wait and see” if they develop. This is a form of liberalism. Comrades may disagree with what I have cited as 1. untrue, 2. unimportant, 3. not an error, 4. not a threat, but I believe the criticism that this should not be raised at this time to be incorrect. Furthermore, in political struggle sometimes what appears to be a slight difference, can develop into a major distinction, and it is the responsibility for comrades to attempt to broaden and deepen that distinction so that others can learn from it. That is what I have attempted in this paper.