The AWL’s new book, In an era of wars and revolutions, brings together cartoons published by revolutionary socialists in the US between the 1920s and 1950s.
Below Sacha Ismail discusses the cartoons that deal with the oppression of African Americans and black liberation struggle. Here are a few of them.
Some of the book’s most powerful images are indictments of black oppression in the United States. The period covered by the book ends just as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was beginning to stir.
In the “Reconstruction” of the 1860s and 70s, after the abolition of slavery, African Americans and white radicals organised a mass movement to smash racism and create a multiracial democracy. But the US bourgeoisie betrayed its temporary allies, the four million ex-slaves. The result was a brutal system of white supremacy, “Jim Crow” segregation and super-exploitation of black workers which lasted the best part of a century and, after its overthrow, still shapes America today.
By the 1930s, the white-supremacist regimes of the US South were decaying, but still very much alive. In the mid-1950s, when the latest cartoons in Era were published, the vast majority of black Americans could not vote. Segregation was still in place, enforced by a system of state and vigilante terrorism against black people and other dissidents. The national army was segregated until 1954. Lynchings, though less common since the 1920s, continued.
These cartoons attack, with seething anger, these issues and more — segregation, including in schools and the army; lynchings; the right to vote; unemployment and discrimination at work; slum housing; police brutality; the complicity of the political establishment; and the role of racism in union-busting. They show African Americans as victims of a horrific system, but also as resisting and fighting back.
Black people made up more than 10 percent of the USA’s population, and a bigger proportion of its working population. Their oppression was a gigantic democratic question both distinct from and central to the general class struggle in America.
The American labour movement which developed between the Civil War and the First World War was poisoned by the racism which characterised much of the country’s white working class.
Some more radical unions did organise black workers, but many — particularly the craft unions of the American Federation of Labour — excluded African Americans and other non-whites from membership and fought to keep them out of the industries they organised. The (quite strong) Socialist Party had a racist wing; its anti-racists mostly shared revolutionary leader Eugene Debs’ insistence that socialism must be colour blind.
After the war and the Russian revolution, the SP split. Under the influence of the Bolsheviks, the Communist Party formed by the majority argued for a new emphasis on black oppression as a special question to be tackled with special effort. This was the ideological context out of which the Trotskyists who published these cartoons emerged.
Wider post-war trends also prepared a new drive for black liberation.
In 1900, ninety percent of black Americans still lived in the South; up to 1930 almost two million would migrate to the North, and after a Depression-era hiatus, millions more from 1940. There was an increasingly concentrated and powerful black working class in many Northern cities.
In the 1920s, the ruling class utilised the racism of many white workers to pit white against black and prevent the organisation of basic industry — until the mass industrial union struggles of the 1930s, repeatedly uniting black and white, smashed through.
By 1945 there were one and a half million black workers in the unions. Even before the civil rights movement, these struggles sometimes spilled over into vibrant anti-racist campaigns, for instance to desegregate bars and diners near industrial plants.
Radical activists, including the Communist Party and the Trotskyists, played an important role in these class battles.
When the CPUSA expelled Trotsky’s supporters in 1928, it had less than a hundred black members out of many thousands. The new Trotskyist group, “ethnically” but not “racially” diverse, had none.
The Stalinists would recruit thousands of African Americans in the 30s as a result of their work in the burgeoning trade union movement and in anti-racist struggles — for instance in defence of the Scottsboro boys, nine black Alabama teenagers accused of rape in a racist frame-up. In Harlem, New York, the CP became a major force. The Stalinists ran a black activist, James Ford, for Vice President in the 1932, 1936 and 1940 elections.
But like all its principles, the CP’s commitment to black liberation was conditional on its defence of the Stalinist regime in the USSR. During the Second World War, the US’s alliance with the USSR caused the Stalinists to abandon the fight for black equality on the shopfloor and in the army in favour of increasing production and military discipline, alienating many sympathetic African Americans.
Informed by the pre-Stalinist communist tradition on these questions, the Trotskyists made a major effort to get to grips with black liberation. Extensively discussing various aspects of the question, they on several occasions sent prominent members, including the famous black intellectual CLR James, to discuss it with Trotsky — who from his first letter to his supporters in the US had urged them to make fighting for black rights central to their work. In 1939, after his visit to Trotsky, James led the creation of a “Negro Department” in the Trotskyist SWP.
This ferment of discussion produced some remarkable writing — and not only in this later period when the arguments and activites of the Trotskyists had won them many dozens of black recruits like James and Ernest Rice McKinney, the unemployed and steelworker organiser who in the 1940s became the national secretary of the Third Camp Trotskyist organisation.
In 1932, three years before WEB Du Bois published his ground-breaking Black Reconstruction, Max Shachtman swam against the tide of the then completely dominant racist narrative to tell the truth about Reconstruction and the central role of black people in US history in his polemic Communism and the Negro.
The cartoons in Era are part of the practical activity which paralleled this intellectual work, part of the Trotskyists’ contribution to the fight against black oppression.
Many other images in the book are also relevant to this story — and not just the ones dealing with other forms of racism and with anti-imperialist struggles. For instance, the cartoons exposing the record of “liberal” president Franklin Delano Roosevelt help explain why FDR never challenged the white-supremacist Southern Democrats who were an essential part of his power base. These “Dixiecrats” would not bolt the Democratic Party until the 1960s.
The failure of the rising American labour movement of the 30s and 40s to organise the South was in large part due to its unwillingness to break from the Democrats - and this failure had huge consequences for the decades that followed.
Despite this, by the late 1940s, mass migration to the North, the growth of the black industrial workforce, over a decade of multi-racial unionisation and the effects of the war had paved the way for a new attempt to “reconstruct” US society. It came when it did, from the mid-50s and not a decade earlier, because of the stifling political climate of the US’s Cold War witch-hunt and its traumatic effect on the US left and labour movement. Along with white trade union bureaucrats, many middle-class black leaders accommodated to the witch-hunters. The left was marginalised and the emerging civil rights movement would have to fight hard for white allies.
Where America’s first Reconstruction was defeated, the second succeeded, but only partially. The social revolution needed to achieve genuine equality for black Americans remains to be won.