Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


The correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line decides everything. – Mao Tsetung

The 1930s ushered in a period of great revolutionary advances for both the U.S. workers’ movement and the Afro-American people’s struggle.

The onset of the Great Depression had driven millions of workers and farmers into the ranks of the unemployed, while those who retained their jobs or land had their incomes slashed and living conditions impoverished. The armed forces of the state were used increasingly against workers everywhere, while the special burden of “lynch law” was unleashed repeatedly against the Black masses in the South. Worldwide, fascism was coming to power in several countries. The imperialist powers, beset with intrigues and rivalries, sought to crush the Soviet Union and the anticolonial struggle in order to redivide the world, thus increasing the danger of war.

In these objective conditions the U.S. Communist Party (CP) was able to make important gains and play a leading role in the class and national struggle. Critical to its being able to do so, however, was the fact that it had rectified errors in its political line following the 1928 Sixth Congress of the Communist International. The rectification included the expulsion of Jay Lovestone and his followers, who had insisted that the U.S. was an “exception” to the laws of capitalism and that no depression would occur here.

The next five years saw the CP initiate and take the lead in a number of important battles, including the following:

–On March 6, 1930, some 1.25 million workers, Black and white, joined in united demonstrations for the unemployed across the country. This signaled the dramatic advance of the National Unemployment Councils, led and mobilized by the CP.

–By 1932 the Sharecropper’s Union, started in Alabama, had expanded its membership to about 12,000 poor farmers and farm laborers, mostly Black but with some whites as well, in five Black Belt states of the Deep South. With CP members among the leadership, the Sharecropper’s Union organized the rural poor to resist the plantation owners and ally with the working class in the cities. Since the backward, semifeudal conditions gave the most elementary demands a revolutionary significance, the sharecroppers quickly had to organize their struggle as an armed fight, meeting counterrevolutionary terror with revolutionary armed self-defense. Pitched armed battled which saw casualties on both sides took place at Camp Hill in 1931 and Reeltown in 1932, both in Tallapoosa County, Ala., and again in Lowndes County, Ala., in 1935.


–Throughout the 1930s, the CP initiated and led united front defense campaigns against the attempted “legal lynchings” of the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon which, through the International Labor Defense, mobilized millions of Black and white workers here, along with the peoples of other countries. Important victories were won in both cases, exposing the special oppression of the Black people throughout the world. Through these campaigns, in part, masses of white workers were won away from the chauvinism of the labor aristocrats. The Black workers, organized in the CP, came to play a leading role in the Black liberation struggle, curbing the influence of the Black bourgeoisie, either in its narrow nationalist or reformist forms.

–Only about 100,000 Black workers were members of trade unions in 1930. By the end of the decade the figure had multiplied at least seven times over. The CP’s mass campaigns like Scottsboro had paved the way for combating the exclusionist and segregationist policies of the AFL bureaucrats, and the Black workers played an important role in the organizing of the CIO.

–On Aug. 3, 1935, nearly 100,000 Black and white workers joined together in a mass demonstration in Harlem against Italian fascist aggression in Ethiopia. Organized by the League Against War and Fascism and the Harlem Communist Party, the action brought about an alliance which included both white workers, especially Italian immigrants, and Black nationalist organizations which had previously been opposed to white labor in general. Tens of thousands more demonstrated in other cities, raising demands like “Down with Mussolini,” “Down with German Fascism,” and “Free Ernst Thaelmann” (leader of the German Communist Party).

–Finally, there was the growth of the CP itself. In 1928, it had 8000 members, only 50 of whom were Black. Ten years later, in 1938, it had 75,000 members, of whom 10,500 were Black. Afro-Americans were in the leadership of the party as well, including figures like Harry Haywood and James Ford, who ran as the party’s vice-presidential nominee in the 1932 and 1936 elections.

What was the role of the Comintern resolutions in bringing about this dramatic transformation? Harry Haywood summed it up clearly in a 1933 article entitled, “The Struggle for the Leninist Position on the Negro Question in the United States.”

“The first real achievements of our party in the leadership of the struggles of the Negro masses,” said Haywood, “date from the beginnings of the application of this Leninist line... Only through vigorous application of our correct Leninist program on the Negro question could the party carry through and lead such a struggle as the Scottsboro campaign.. .The emphasis upon the development of economic struggles among the Negro toilers does not mean to slacken but on the contrary to increase in every way the struggle around the general issue of Negro liberation, such as Scottsboro and the fight against lynching. It is necessary to broaden out and deepen these struggles, bringing forward our full program of social equality and right of self-determination and building up the broadest united front on these issues.”

The key points in the Comintern resolutions which had previously been underplayed by the U.S. party–the importance of work in the South, the organization of Blacks into trade unions, the development of peasant organizations and their alliance with the working class, the key struggle against white chauvinism and the secondary struggle against narrow nationalism, the building of Black mass organizations, the anti-repression and democratic rights struggles and the linking of all immediate issues with the question of self-determination and working-class political power–all had been put into practice with growing success by the CP in the early 1930s.

The struggle for a correct political line, based on a concrete analysis of the Black nation’s actual historical development and the revolutionary thrust of its movement for full equality and self-determination, was the decisive factor in this change. Earlier the party had taken note of its weaknesses, but blamed them on the persistence of white chauvinist attitudes among CP members and leaders. Haywood describes the party’s quandary here in this way in his unpublished autobiography, “Black Bolshevik”:

“Nasanov [a Comintern representative] and some of his friends agreed with us that the American CP did underestimate the revolutionary potential of the Black struggle for equality. But, they maintained, this underestimation came from a fundamentally incorrect social-democratic line, rather than from white chauvinism.

“They said that I had stood the whole matter on its head. I had presented the incorrect policies as the result of subjective white chauvinist attitudes; whereas, they pointed out, the white chauvinist attitudes persisted because the party’s line was incorrect, in that it denied the national character of the question.”


With the guidance of the new line, then, the CP was prepared for the breakthroughs it made in the new intensification of the Great Depression. The demand for the right of self-determination in this context was viewed as critical. Not only did it help to combat both white chauvinism and narrow nationalist separatism; it also helped link the Afro-American struggle against all the immediate manifestations of national oppression to the strategic question of proletarian political power.

“We defined self-determination,” said Haywood, “as the struggle of Blacks for political power in the South, their unlimited right to exercise governmental, legislative and judicial authority in the Black Belt. This could only be achieved through the overthrow of imperialist power upon which the Southern oligarchy depends.”

Thus the essence of the matter was: Who will rule the Black Belt? The imperialists and their southern capitalist and landlord counterparts? Or the Black masses and their revolutionary allies? The latter category, as the Comintern pointed out, would also include revolutionary white workers and farmers.

The question of what form this rule would take–federation with a socialist U.S., regional autonomy or independence–was a secondary aspect of the matter, to be determined by the conditions of the class and national struggle as it developed. The importance of the slogan and the analysis behind it was that it contained the key to overcoming the disunity of the Black and white masses.”

“The slogan of self-determination is a slogan of unity,” says Haywood. “Its overriding purpose was to unite the white and Black exploited masses in all three stages of the revolutionary movement; from the day-to-day fight against capital, through the revolutionary battle for state power and the task of building and consolidating socialist society. The new line clearly stated that this unity could be built only on the basis of the struggle for complete equality, by removing all grounds for suspicion and distrust and building mutual confidence and voluntary interrelations.”


How effectively was the slogan for the right of self-determination put forward by the CP? The position argued in the Guardian recently states that: “There is no evidence to show that the party’s position in favor of self-determination ever had any measurable impact on the consciousness of the Black masses. But the party’s leading role in cases like those of the nine young Blacks framed in Scottsboro, Ala., or in the case of Angelo Herndon, won it enormous prestige in the Black community.”

This assertion is erroneous on a number of counts. First, it tends to place the slogan for the right of self-determination in opposition to the immediate struggles against repression and for equal rights. Second, it downplays the extent to which the party did put forward the slogan and how it was linked with more immediate demands. Third, it presents no analysis of the consequences of the tendency within the party that worked to curb the slogan, distort it or reject it altogether.

“The party has been able to begin to popularize among the Negro people the slogan of the right of self-determination in the Black Belt up to the point of separation,” stated an article by B.D. Amis appearing in the May 5, 1935, Communist International and entitled “How We Carried Out the Decision of the 1930 C.I. Resolution on the Negro Question in the U.S.”

This refers to the fact that the slogan was raised in the course of the Scottsboro defense. Likewise Angelo Herndon in his autobiography, “Let Me Live,” also mentions how the question was raised in the course of his mass work and his defense in the South. The question was also in presidential campaign literature, as well as in the program of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, set up by the party as a revolutionary-oriented mass organization in the Afro-American struggle. (See William Z. Foster’s “Toward a Soviet America” and James Allen’s and James Ford’s “Negroes in a Soviet America.”)

But there was also resistance within the party to implementing the line, an opposition which developed in a step-by-step fashion until it blossomed into the complete liquidation of the national question and of Marxism-Leninism on all other question under Earl Browder’s leadership in 1943.

This opposition, indicating the existence of two lines, is noted by Amis in 1935, where he points out that “self-determination has not been explained in detail,” and that the party’s “beginning” here “is very small.” (An analysis of Amis’ sum-up from the hindsight of today indicates that the party made both rightist and “leftist” errors on the Afro-American struggle during this period. The former involved not linking immediate struggles to strategic aims and the latter involved an “all struggle, no unity” approach to Black reformist and national forces.)

A clear picture of the steps leading to the liquidation of the right of self-determination can be gained by examining “The Negro and the Democratic Front” by James Ford, a collection of essays written between 1935 and 1938.

Ford in 1936 prepared the party for the liquidation of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR) in favor of a far broader coalition, the National Negro Congress. In doing so, however, he attacked the party’s independent line. LSNR, he said, “called for the destruction of the plantation system in the South, for confiscation without compensation of the land of the big landlords and declared for complete right of self-determination.” This was “sectarian,” he explained, since “the masses did not understand this full program” and it “prevented the development of a broad movement.”

Ford’s 1938 articles drop all reference to the right of self-determination, nor did the National Negro Congress ever take it up. It was followed through with an even more disastrous measure of dissolving the Sharecropper’s Union and transferring those few Blacks within who owned their own farms into the mainly white and reformist Farmer’s Union of Alabama.

The cause of all this was Browderism, particularly its right opportunist distortion of the People’s Front Against War and Fascism proposed by the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935.