A review of Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927, Jeffrey B Perry (Columbia University Press, 2021), £30
Hubert Harrison was a black revolutionary intellectual and sometime innovative Marxist who debated the relations between race and class, socialism and imperialism in ways that remain relevant, despite his death almost a century ago. His story reflects the difficulties many Marxist organisations have had in handling race and racism. Born on the Caribbean island of St. Croix in 1883, Harrison moved to the United States at the age of 17 and developed as a street orator, making complex ideas understandable to a wider audience.1 He was determined to help his listeners understand their own history and stop them being “dupes of all kinds of boobs that come along with pretentious versions of the past”.2 The black trade union leader A Philip Randolph described him as “the father of Harlem radicalism”, but his biggest success was probably his influence over Marcus Garvey, the most important black nationalist leader of his age, who he then joined in a brief but significant “united front”.3
Jeffrey B Perry has done a great service with his epic, two-part biography. The first volume, published in 2009 as Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, detailed Harrison’s arrival in New York from the Caribbean, his involvement in trade unionism, his journalism and Marxist theoretical writing, and his work as an organiser for the influential Socialist Party of America and later the Industrial Workers of the World.4 He witnessed the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to industrial northern cities create new collective opportunities. Nonetheless, Harrison became disillusioned with the left—particularly the Socialist Party—for failing to see the central importance of fighting racism to challenging capitalism.
The second volume finds Harrison arguing for African Americans to follow “the Swadeshi movement of India and the Sinn Féin movement of Ireland”—the meaning of these names, he noted, is “ourselves first”.5 He found himself in a sometimes awkward position between the “class first” organisation of socialist groups and the “race first” organising of black nationalists. Through the next decade, he developed his political ideas and struggled to establish organisational forms to revolutionise life for the “darker races”. Someone needed to describe in detail when and where Harrison engaged with clashing social and political currents, and Perry has quite rightly decided to report Harrison’s development rather than critique it. This review concentrates on Harrison’s overtly political work, though Perry’s book also covers his thoughts on areas such as literature, theatre and anthropology, meaning this volume alone has over 800 pages.
Imperialism reached a historic peak as the First World War ended, despite US President Woodrow Wilson’s hypocritical talk of self-determination at the Versailles peace conference. This was also when the imperialists faced the great challenge of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks’ anti-racism, anti-colonialism and dramatic social change inspired Harrison, but he was less impressed by the Communist Party USA, which formed in 1919. Still, a government agent reported him saying, “Bolshevism is the salvation of America”.6
In June 1917, Harrison set up the Liberty League of Negro-Americans to promote self-organisation and armed self-defence against racist pogroms.7 A savagely repressive period in the US had started in roughly 1915 with the relaunch of the Ku Klux Klan. The refoundation of the Klan was associated with the release of the racist film epic Birth of a Nation, which received a special screening for President Wilson in the White House.8
In 1919, the “Red Summer” saw “ten major race riots, dozens of minor, racially charged clashes and almost 100 lynchings”.9 This wave of violence climaxed two years later in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when a white mob massacred up to 270 black people and destroyed 1,000 homes and businesses.10 Against this backdrop, Harrison launched the left-wing monthly New Negro in order to aid with “moulding the international consciousness of the darker races”.11 Here he argued that, although racial oppression “was originally economic”, now the main experience of the oppressed “is one of race”.12 He looked to developments in anthropology to show that current racial and sexual divisions have not always existed.13
Marcus Garvey’s rise and fall is intimately tied up with this part of Harrison’s life. Though Garvey was a populist leader, with questionable politics and inclined to wild exaggeration, he is revered by many anti-racists for building the massive Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). This claimed 700 branches across the US and two million members at its peak. Garvey popularised the idea of a united Africa and instilled a new pride in black people, epitomised by slogans such as “Up, you mighty race, accomplish what you will”. Garvey’s most famous project, funded by the savings of his supporters, was the Black Star Line shipping company. This planned to build trade across the Caribbean and eventually transport African Americans back to Africa. It went bankrupt amid accusations of corruption, though Garvey claimed he had “succeeded in the sense of our desire for success”—that is, he had proved that black people could organise themselves and thus prepared them for future achievements.14 For tens of thousands of his supporters Garvey epitomised the “New Negro”, unprepared to bow down to white America.
Garvey had arrived from Jamaica in 1916 hoping to meet the self-improvement educator Booker T Washington, but discovered that his hero had recently died. Garvey established himself in Harlem, an area of Upper Manhattan, New York City, in which large numbers of black people settled during the Great Migration. There he came across Harrison, who was already established as an uncompromising street orator. A contemporary journalist wrote, “Garvey publicly eulogized Harrison, joined the Liberty League and took a keen interest in its affairs… Harrison was the forerunner of Garvey and contributed largely to the success of the latter”.15 Harrison complained, “Everything that I did he copied”.16 Yet, though Harrison’s Liberty League collapsed because it had neither the money nor the groundswell of support to keep going, Garvey launched his UNIA in 1918 and it grew rapidly. Harrison noted that “as a propagandist Garvey was without a peer”.17 Garvey approached Harrison to work with UNIA and he became associate editor of the UNIA’s newspaper, Negro World, in December 1919. Perry writes that Harrison “significantly reshaped” the publication, making it “the nation’s foremost radical, race-conscious paper”.18 He reduced the “almost endless” editorials and gave them, as he put it himself, “terseness, point, pungency and force”. He ended the practice of basing news stories on clippings from mainstream white papers and shifted the focus in a decidedly socialist direction.19 Harrison was happy with the opportunity to engage this new mass audience, but never supported Garvey, describing him in his diary as “spiritually as well as intellectually a little man”.20
The UNIA’s rapid growth terrified the Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and it launched repeated legal attacks, prodding particularly at Garvey’s irregular methods of fundraising. Harrison’s differences with Garvey came to a head over the UNIA’s showpiece convention in August 1920. Here, Garvey declared that “the problem of leadership has been settled once and for all” after he appointed himself “provisional president of Africa”, demanding that “his ruling on all things African…shall be obeyed by all Negroes”.21 Harrison left his editorial role after the convention, though he continued to contribute to Negro World. He later wrote, “Garvey is a worshipper of Garvey… It was his instinct for self-worship that prompted him to appropriate the entire front page of the Negro World each week with his stupid declamations… It reduced the circulation…from 50,000 to 3,000”.22
In spring 1921, Harrison met with other leading “black reds”—mostly Communists—to discuss how to draw UNIA to the left. These included Claude McKay, Grace Campbell, Richard Moore, W A Domingo, Cyril Briggs, Joseph Fanning and Otto Huiswoud.23 Harrison abandoned the project because he disliked the Communists’ controlling influence, and he believed strongly that a black-only organisation was required. On this and other occasions, Harrison turned down the chance of much needed finance from the Communists so he could maintain his independence. This was despite the fact that he was often forced to interrupt his political work to find paid employment to support his family. The Communist Party USA was developing a serious black cadre, but it would be a few years before the organisation as a whole took racism seriously enough. The party’s 1922 programme only called for “educational equality” for African Americans. A congress amendment demanding “social equality” was heavily defeated.24 The US Communists seemed to think that, if they could build through bread and butter issues, radicalised workers would automatically turn against racism. Instead, they alienated many black militants.
Meanwhile, Harrison moved to launch a “colored international” to fight white imperialism and colonialism, though it would also “avail itself of whatever help it can get” from white groups that seek to “destroy the capitalist international of race prejudice and exploitation”.25 Harrison’s internationalism had always made him wary of Garvey’s call for a return to Africa with its implicit assumption that African Americans would dominate. Garvey called for an African Communities League, modelled after the British Empire, that would “strengthen the imperialism of independent African states” and “assist in civilising the backward tribes of Africa”.26
Harrison also kept a distance from more mainstream black organisations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), that looked for change simply through “publicity”.27 Harrison attacked those calling for black unity who “began at the top when they should have begun at the bottom”.28 The NAACP was dominated by W E B Du Bois, who was yet to become a revolutionary and still looked to the educated “talented tenth” of the black population to bring change.29
Harrison continued to develop his theoretical understanding of how capitalism had created racism, discussing the competing systems of black slave labour and largely white wage labour in the US, commenting there never was “a quite free white working class”.30 He wrote of how slave labour exhausted the soil and required continued expansion to remain profitable, and he explained that the free labour system was more profitable. “The capitalist in the South” owned the slaves and had to pay for their upkeep whether or not they were “producing any surplus value”.31
In 1922, Garvey was arrested for fraud. Harrison used his position as a former insider to help black radical journalists expose Garvey’s unsuitability to lead the movement. However, Harrison also went further, providing an official statement for use in the case against Garvey, detailing the UNIA leader’s false claim that the Black Star Line owned the SS Phyllis Wheatley, a “ship which he knew didn’t exist”.32 Perry argues that Harrison believed a movement without Garvey would be strengthened.33 Yet, Harrison’s action was shockingly naive from someone who had based a career on exposing the oppressive nature of the capitalist state, which attacked Garvey because he was a threat to it.34 I suspect that Harrison’s judgement was affected by despair at the black movement’s slow progress and the lack of an organisation that shared his ideas. Sadly, this was not the only questionable stand he took. In 1924, arguing against a racist immigration policy, he called for more restrictive controls. He said this would stop bosses using northern European immigrants to undermine a general bettering of workers’ conditions—and particularly those of black workers.35 Calling for the imperial US state to have greater restrictive powers sits ill with his attempt at the same time to establish an International Colored Unity League.
The Communist International, set up in 1919 in order to generalise the revolutionary spirit of the Russian Revolution, was disappointed with the US Communist Party, particularly regarding its lack of anti-racist activity, and pressured it to up its game.36 By the late 1920s, the Communists had come to eclipse Garvey’s influence, and they became the central radical force fighting racism through the 1930s.37 Seeing the beginning of this shift, Harrison worked with the Communists again. In 1926, he lectured on “world problems of race” for the Communist Party-run American Negro Labor Congress. He argued that race emerged as a “mental reflex” to the social fact of military and political domination in early capitalism.38 More than a decade before C L R James and Eric Williams, he argued that “side by side with the economic subjection of white men there grew up the economic subjugation of black men and for the same reason. These were alien blood and cheaper”.39 Once a system such as chattel slavery is in place, the ruling class will “create unconsciously the ethics that will justify that social arrangement”—in this case racism.40 The book’s cover photo shows Harrison facing an engaged audience at one of these sessions. However, this promising direction, and the chance to debate his theories, was curtailed when he accused the Communist Party of dishonest reporting of a strike by black cinema projectionists in Harlem.41
Tragically, Harrison was suddenly taken ill with appendicitis and died in December 1927. Obituaries across the radical press reflected his stature in the movement. So how has he become so thoroughly erased from history? He fell between two stools: too Marxist for the Garveyites, and too centrally focused on race for much of the far left. Indeed, Harrison certainly did have faults too. At the trivial end of these is an evasiveness about his qualifications. He was an organic intellectual, whose formal education ended with a high school certificate that he completed in evening classes. However, the range of his knowledge and interests led to a widespread belief that he was a professor from the University of Copenhagen, an idea he effectively encouraged and never denied. He could be snobbish and was dismissive of major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including the author Zora Neale Hurston and the poet Langston Hughes. More seriously, though he was a consistent advocate for women’s rights, his treatment of his family was often unreasonable. He also participated in cringeworthy sectarianism and prefigured much of the US left through his dangerous flirtations with the Democrats. Nevertheless, none of this undermines his organisational and theoretical achievements. Harrison should be reclaimed by the revolutionary anti-racist tradition. Hopefully, Perry’s groundwork can now be followed both by a political critique of Harrison’s evolution and a shorter, more accessible biography.
Ken Olende is researching a PhD on “Rethinking ‘blackness’ as a racial identity” at Brighton University. He has previously worked as a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association, a journalist on Socialist Worker and the editor of Unite Against Fascism’s Unity magazine.
1 St Croix was in the Danish West Indies at the time of Harrison’s birth, but was sold to the US by Denmark in 1917 and became part of the US Virgin Islands.
2 Harrison, 2021, p513.
3 Anderson, 1973, p80.
4 For a review, see Olende, 2009. Perry has also edited a reader of Harrison’s writings—see Perry, 2001.
5 Perry, 2021, p18. Swadeshi was an Indian self-sufficiency movement that campaigned for a boycott of products imported by the colonial authorities.
6 Perry, 2021, p49.
7 Perry, 2021, p43.
8 Chadwick, 2001, p122.
9 Krugler, 2015, p3.
10 Kornweibel, 1998, p28.
11 Perry, 2021, p72. In this period, the polite terms of black self-identification in the US were “colored” and “Negro”, the latter being seen as totally distinct from the offensive N-word.
12 Perry, 2021, p83.
13 Perry, 2021, p93.
14 Grant, 2008, 352.
15 Perry, 2021, p152.
16 Perry, 2021, p145.
17 Perry, 2021, p453.
18 Perry, 2021, p115.
19 Perry, 2021, p135.
20 Perry, 2021, p147.
21 Hill, 1984, p3.
22 Perry, 2021, p537.
23 Perry, 2021, p338.
24 Perry, 2021, p461.
25 Perry, 2021, p343.
26 Perry, 2021, p117.
27 Perry, 2021, p361.
28 Perry, 2021, p588.
29 See Du Bois, 1903.
30 Perry, 2021, p324.
31 Perry, 2021, p324.
32 Perry, 2021, p453.
33 Perry, 2021, p452.
34 Perry, 2021, p444.
35 Perry, 2021, p564.
36 Perry, 2021, p644.
37 For more on the role played by the Communists in fighting racism in this period, see Mark Naison’s Communists in Harlem During the Depression, Robin D G Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore’s Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights 1919-1950 and Erik S McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism and the Making of Black Left Feminism.
38 Perry, 2021, p661.
39 Perry, 2021, p666. Harrison’s arguments prefigure those in James’s 1938 The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution and Williams’s 1944 Capitalism and Slavery, although they are not as fully developed as those in either of these works.
40 Perry, 2021, p666.
41 Perry, 2021, p683.