The Russian Revolution and the black struggle

Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920

By Martin Woodley

1 The lock step of socialist advance and black struggle

Marx identified the class struggle as the locomotive of history. Yet, the struggle between classes as defined by Marx is fundamental but it far from exhausts the types of conflict typical of the modern era. In particular, the struggle of black people for liberation is one of the primary metrics by which it is possible to characterise the twentieth century. How does this titanic struggle relate to the class struggle as defined by Marx, and how should communists understand and relate to the black movement and black consciousness?

The black struggle – that is the struggle against racism plus the struggle for liberation and self-determination – and the class struggle are clearly linked. Indeed it is possible to clearly correlate periods of upsurge in class struggle with periods of upsurge in the black struggle. For instance between the formation of the Second International, through the revolutionary wave at the turn of the twentieth century, to the isolation and encirclement of the fledgling Soviet state it is possible to trace a simultaneous rising and then descending arc of black struggle. For instance:

· The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 – the first modern nationalist movement to emerge in the British Empire in Africa and Asia, which became a pivotal participant in the Indian independence movement, with over 15 million members and over 70 million participants in its struggle against British colonial rule.

· The Furen Literary Society (Hong Kong, 1890), Revive China Society (Honolulu, 1894), etc formed mainly outside of China by Sun Yat-sen and came together in the Revolutionary Alliance, the predecessor of the KMT (Kuomintang), to force the Xinhai revolution overthrowing rule by the Emperor in 1911.

· The Philippine Revolution began in August 1896.

· The First Pan-African Conference was held in London from 23 to 25 July 19001.

· The Indonesian independence movement began in 1908

· The ANC (African National Congress) was founded in South Africa 1912.

· The UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) was founded in Jamaica, 1914 by Marcus Garvey.

Then after a period of downturn there is simultaneously an expansion of revolutionary struggle during and following the second world war together with a renewal of the black struggle in the form of the colonial revolution and the struggle against racism and for civil rights. In fact there was significant overlap between the colonial revolution and the socialist revolution in a number of important theatres including China, Vietnam, and Cuba. Also notable were:

· The Vietminh was founded in 1941

· The Arab Ba’ath Party founded in Syria on 7 April 1947.

· The Non-aligned movement was founded at the Bandung (Indonesian) conference in 1950.

· 5th Pan-African Conference held 1945 in Manchester.

· The Algerian NLF (National Liberation Front) was founded in 1954

· Broadening of the strategy of the civil rights movement (US) to embrace direct action2.

· TANU (Tanganyika African National Union) was founded in 1954

· MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) was founded in 1956

· ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union)was founded in 1961

· FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front) was founded in 1962

· ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) was founded in 1963

· The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation)was founded in 1964

· UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) was founded in 1966

· Founding of the Black Panther Party (US) in 1966.

Also the fact that in this period the Soviet Union was able to break out of its pre-war isolation and emerged immeasurably stronger meant that the US had to give large concessions to the population both at home and abroad in order to contain the socialist advance. This created further openings for the advance of the colonial revolution and the struggle against racism and in turn bolstered the prestige of the Soviet State.

It is therefore clear that there is an intimate relationship between the class struggle and the black struggle. However, in order to appreciate the exact nature of the relationship it is necessary to understand precisely what the black struggle is historically.

2 The national character of the black struggle

Any struggle against racism and oppression of non-white peoples has the character of a national struggle. Therefore, in order to understand how communists approach the relation between the class struggle and the black struggle one has to start with the approach of the Bolsheviks prior to the Russian revolution and the revolutionary regime in the early Soviet Union to the national question.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand that the material basis for the oppression of non-white nations lies in the “historic defeat of non-white nations” during the era of the construction of the European nation states. Thus the expulsion of the moors from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, which marked the beginning of the change in the relationship between the white nations of Europe and the non-white nations of the middle east and North Africa, was accompanied by Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas, which led directly to the subjugation and eventual colonisation of the continent. As early as 1494 Pope Alexander VI was instrumental in brokering the Treaty of Tordesillas whereby a first division of the non-European world between the Crown of Castile and Portugal was defined along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The division of the other side of the world between these two powers was agreed at the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529 specifying the demarcation as the anti-meridian of the earlier treaty. In this way, Spain and Portugal became the first modern colonial powers and Spain became the first great power of renaissance Europe and it’s conquest of the new world gave it access to an abundance of precious metals and hence a treasury beyond any of its competitors. This was the first and most spectacular act of primitive accumulation of capital in modern history.

Similarly, the Tudor dynasty is associated with the foundation and establishment of the modern centralised state in England and Wales. However, in 1600 Elizabeth I granted a Royal Charter to the British East India Company. It eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, and finally led to the establishment of the Raj in the Victorian era.

The Dutch revolt of 1566 against Spanish rule led to the formation of the independent Dutch republic under William of Orange – one of the first independent European republics. The Dutch East India Company was granted a Royal Charter in 1602 as a monopoly on the spice trade. It established trading ports by taking over territory and was the instrument by which the establishment of the Dutch empire came about. In 1621, the Dutch government granted a charter to the Dutch West India Company, and gave it jurisdiction over the slave trade in Brazil, the Caribbean and North America.

The establishment of East India Companies and West India Companies became fashionable during the era of the construction of the European centralised nation state. So what we have in the late medieval period is a relationship between European “white” nations and north African/middle eastern “non-white” nations made fractious during the medieval crusades; a historic victory of the nascent Spanish state over the Moors; the discovery of the new world including new “non-white” peoples at an earlier stage of development; and the establishment of European trading companies operating in the name of the European crown nations gaining favourable footholds in both the far east and west. So the creation of the European nation state during the transition from feudalism to capitalism is accompanied by both the beginnings of primitive accumulation and the historic defeat of “non-white” nations. In fact, primitive accumulation occurs because of the historic defeat of non-white nations. This process is deepened at each successive stage of the development of capitalism by the scale of the transatlantic slave trade; the establishment of the Raj in India; the penetration of China via the opium wars; and driven to its conclusion in the partition of Africa at the conference of Berlin in 1885. It is fair to say that the historic defeat of non-white nations is woven into the fabric of the European nation state.

Moreover, the overwhelming experience of the last four hundred years of history, and hence the consciousness that emerges from it, which consists of the integration into and subordination of the historical development of predominantly non-white nations into the emergent capitalist system by predominantly white imperial nations. Furthermore, this subordination of the historical development of predominantly non-white oppressed nations to the needs of the predominantly white oppressor nations is the objective material basis for the consciousness of white superiority and the persistence of imperialist national consciousness among the peoples of the oppressor nations.

The black struggle therefore appears as the struggle of non-white oppressed nations against white oppressor nations and therefore in all respects takes on the character of a national struggle of liberation. The question is then, what is the relation if any between the struggle between classes and the black struggle? Certainly the black struggle is an anti-imperialist struggle since it appears as a struggle against national oppression – which itself is perpetuated in the modern era by imperialism.

3 General questions concerning the building of a revolutionary party.

It is instructive to consider how the Bolsheviks approached the question of how a revolutionary proletarian organisation should be built and what they considered the relation between the party and the class should be.

3.1 Party and class – debates on spontaneity

The first appearance of Russian Social Democracy consisted of an alliance between revolutionaries and bourgeois intellectuals (the legal Marxists) in order to defeat Narodism and popularise Marxist ideas. The Narodniks were anti-capitalists who identified the peasantry as the revolutionary class, and who hoped that by ‘going among the peasants’ they could radicalise them and spontaneously spur them on to revolution. When the conditions under which the Russian Social Democracy had to operate changed, the legal Marxists then attempted to retreat from revolutionary politics and reduce Marxism to narrow trade unionism. They thought that by ‘going among the workers’ that they could spontaneously spur them on to strike action, and that this was all that revolutionaries could achieve in the conditions of the 1890s.

This amounted to just another variant of the reliance on spontaneity that characterised the Narodniks. This produced a defining debate between the younger legal Marxists and the older Lenin, Plekhanov and Axelrod around the character of the party and the relation between the party and the class.

During the strike wave of the 1890’s the Russian Social Democracy saw it as it’s role to unite the strike movement with the revolutionary movement against czarist autocracy, ie. to bring the working class to bear on the most pressing political questions – to make it the vanguard fighter for democracy. In other words it had to champion the interests of all the oppressed, not just its own interests.

Importantly, the state is the arena where the competing interests between the classes and fractions of classes are ultimately played out. On the training of revolutionary cadres Lenin wrote; “working class consciousness cannot be genuinely political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases, without exception, of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is a affected…The consciousness of the masses of the workers cannot be genuine class consciousness, unless the workers learn to observe from concrete, and above all from topical (current), political facts and events, every other social class and all the manifestations of the intellectual, ethical and political life of these classes; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist estimate of all aspects of life and activity of all classes, strata and groups of the population. …Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships between all classes… To bring political knowledge to the workers the Social Democrats must go among all classes of the population..”

By referring to political consciousness, Lenin is identifying that there is a difference between the working class’ knowledge of itself as a class, and its knowledge of itself as the leader of the nation. To illustrate this it is useful to contrast such knowledge with national consciousness which is a product of mother tongue, community, culture and accumulated social experience. National consciousness springs spontaneously from the given circumstances. In the same way working class consciousness is determined by position in the relations of production, exposure to working class culture and experience of class antagonism and struggle.

However, to acquire revolutionary consciousness the working must possess a knowledge of the position and circumstances of all social forces and their interrelations – which is scientific knowledge – and which comes about through a distillation of the lessons of the class struggle both historically and conjecturally. This form of consciousness cannot come about spontaneously, but requires an organisation dedicated to determining it and imbuing the working class with it.

Differently to any other previous class, the working class must become class conscious before it can assume the leadership of the nation. Moreover, in the context of Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, the working class was a tiny proportion of the population. The country was overwhelmingly agrarian, and was also a multinational country possessing within its borders many national minorities.

For this reason, the questions of land reform and the national and colonial questions assumed primary importance for revolutionary strategy. The task of the working class in these circumstances was to take all the grievances of the peasantry and the oppressed national minorities, combine them with its own struggle against the imperialist bourgeoisies and focus them onto the czarist autocracy.

3.2 The communist approach to the national and colonial question and self-determination

National movements arise as a necessary condition for the complete victory of commodity production, for the triumph of politically united territories, typically whose population speak a single language or dominant language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and its consolidation in literature eliminated.

Thus, at the turn of the twentieth century in Asia, only Japan possessed the most complete development of commodity production and the freest, widest and speediest growth of capitalism, and Japan was the only independent national state. Also, because capitalism had awakened Asia, it called forth national movements everywhere on that continent.

The national state is the rule and the norm of capitalism, whereas the multinational state (like Russia then was) was an exception, a product of its backwardness. When discussing these questions in practice it must be emphasised that a historically concrete appreciation must be the basis. There is a difference between emergent capitalism where the population is drawn into the national movement, and developed capitalism where class antagonism comes to the fore.

The right of a particular nation to Self-Determination depends crucially on these assessments. The bourgeoisie invariably almost invariably initially assumes the leadership of the National movements. Support for self-determination therefore assumes support for demands put forward by a section of the bourgeoisie, albeit and importantly, the bourgeoisies of an oppressed nation. However, in doing so the working class supports these demands of bourgeoisie on a conditional basis, the primary motivator being to secure national peace, equal rights, democracy, and the conditions for the development of the class struggle. In other words the working class maintains its independence as a class, while advancing towards socialism along all possible paths.

The argument that was addressed by Lenin in the pamphlet ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ was that the position taken by Rosa Luxemburg that the slogan supporting the right of Russia’s oppressed nations to political Independence and the right to secession amounted to prostration before the national bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations in effect put her in the same camp as the Constitutional Democratic Party, ie. the party of the national bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation.

Similarly, following the Russian revolution the most fundamental point in the attitude of the Comintern to the national and colonial question is the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations. In reality, the recognition of the right of all nations to Self-Determination implies the maximum of democracy and the minimum of nationalism, and not the other way around as is often argued by its detractors. Political self-determination of oppressed nations is analogous to political democracy within advanced capitalist states. Political reforms won do not end class oppression but their conquest expresses a changed relation between classes. Similarly, political independence does not end national oppression but its conquest expresses changes in class relations on an international scale. An example is the Algerian civil war of 1954 – 1962 which following the defeat of the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 at which the French were expelled from Indochina, Algeria rose in open rebellion and forced the fourth republic into a terminal crisis.

3.3 Application of the position to the oppressed black minority in the USA

Initially, the CPUSA prior to the discussion in the Comintern held that the oppression of blacks in the US was purely an economic problem, part of the struggle between Labour and capital, and that nothing could be done about discrimination and equality this side of socialism. This is a classic example of an argument where everything is considered to be directly derivative from the opposition between labour and capital. Rather, in reality this opposition does condition all other factors, but only in the last analysis.

This position was finally reversed following protracted discussions within the Comintern. Also, after the split in the communist movement there was reluctance on the part of the CLA (Communist League of America) to adhere to the slogan of self-determination citing the fact that blacks had become fully assimilated and did not have their own language, special culture or religion.

However, this is to raise to the level of decisiveness those questions that are not decisive. Belgium and Switzerland would have problems arguing for nationhood on these bases. The decisive factors are the historical consciousness and impulses of the group, and the adoption and support for nationalist slogans by the masses are the only proof required as to whether American blacks are a national minority.

The Comintern’s line was presented at the second congress in 1920 after substantial discussion in the Colonial Commission in the congress. Based on a 1910 US census, Lenin viewed the question of Blacks in the US South as one of an uncompleted agrarian and bourgeois democratic revolution.

Essentially, following the betrayal of reconstruction and the instituting of Jim Crow, it became impossible for blacks to be assimilated in the same way as Irish, Italians, Poles, etc. American blacks came from various parts of Africa and spoke a variety of languages. Their birth as an oppressed nation was forged on their transportation to and enslavement in the US, and was matured in the post reconstruction betrayal which left the agrarian question unaddressed and freed blacks landless. Moreover, the condition of southern blacks was imprinted on the entire nation so that even northern blacks were defined as an unassimilable minority.

4 Lessons for contemporary revolutionary strategy

Today, for revolutionary strategy in the imperialist countries, the working class faces an adversary which is incomparably stronger than the adversary faced by the Bolsheviks. Moreover, Russia was an exceptional case where all the contradictions reinforced to produce a deep crisis of the tsarist regime. Today, there are no comparable weak links in imperialism and no situations purely within an imperialist country where the contradictions are reinforcing to such a positively overdetermined extent.

The imperialist bourgeoisie are possessed of an awe inspiring concentration of wealth and power with state machines and military alliances to back it up. However, as power becomes ever more concentrated, it is the case that the overwhelming majority of humanity is oppressed by imperialism. Combined with this, is the fact that the overwhelming majority of this overwhelming majority are comprised of non-white nations.

Moreover, imperialism is comprised of nation states with overwhelmingly white national majorities, and so imperialist domination assumes the form of a colour divide.

National oppression of non-white nations comes about as the result of a prolonged period of conquest, plunder, colonisation and subjugation of non-white nations by the proto-imperialists beginning in the medieval period – the discovery of the Americas by Columbus, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain by Ferdinand and Isobella, the conquest of South America by Pizzaro and Cortez, and culminating and reaching its apogee at the Conference of Berlin, 1884 – 5, with the partition of Africa.

This four hundred year process can be viewed in its historic totality as comprising a ‘historic defeat of non-white nations’, and is the objective material basis for the oppression of black people and for racism. In this sense, it can be said that racism is the ideology of imperialism.. Therefore, the struggle for the liberation of black people from super-exploitation assumes the character of a national struggle for self-determination.

Following Lenin, it is therefore the task of the working class in the imperialist countries to take the struggle of the overwhelming majority of humanity against imperialist domination and focus it onto and combine it with its struggle against its own bourgeoisies. When viewed purely on a national basis the struggle against the imperialist bourgeoisies appears to be a hopelessly uphill struggle. However, when viewed on a world wide scale it can be seen that small victories are possible that by themselves incrementally change the overall balance of forces, but when taken as a whole can be seen to comprise a process of the continual weakening of the stranglehold of imperialism.



1 It was subsequently followed up by conferences in 1919 in Paris, 1921 in London, 1923 in London, 1927 in New York. Another such event did not take place until 1945 in Manchester, 1974 in Dar es Salaam and 1994 in Kampala.

2 Following the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) with the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955) culminating with the Selma to Montgomery marches (1964).

3 The exception to this rule is Japan, which is the only non-white imperialist nation. However, it is instructive to know that even in this non-white imperialist nation, they have developed ideologies of racial superiority with respect to the other peoples of South East Asia, in spite of the fact that Japan’s historical span of imperialist dominion over the peoples of South East Asia is narrow in comparison to that of Europe.