The socialism of Hubert Harrison
by John Alan
A HUBERT HARRISON READER, Edited with Introduction and Notes by Jeffrey B. Perry, Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, Conn., 2001, 505 pp.
A HUBERT HARRISON READER, edited by Jeffrey B. Perry, is an extensive collection of articles from various journals and newspapers written by Hubert Harrison (1883-1927). Born in the Danish West Indies island of St. Croix, he arrived in New York City in 1900 where he continued his education mostly on his own. He was a speaker for the Socialist Party and then for the Industrial Workers of the World in the New Jersey Silk Strike of 1913. He became a street corner orator in New York in the 1920s, usually drawing a big crowd.
His pervasive presence as a soapbox speaker led him to be called “the father of Harlem radicalism.” He was a major African-American intellectual and activist who combined a passionate concern over race and class issues. He has largely been forgotten, yet some aspects of his life are important to revisit for today.
RACE AND CLASS STRUGGLE
As a member of the Socialist Party he challenged it to confront U.S. racism. “Socialism,” he wrote, “is here to put an end to the exploitation of one group by another, whether that group be social, economic or racial...the affirmation of this is the present duty of the Socialist Party.” (p. 59). Addressing socialists he wrote, “the ten million Negroes of America form a group that is more essentially proletarian than any other American group” (p. 71).
It was the “essentially proletarian” character of African Americans that led him to the formulation that African Americans are “Negroes first.” This was not a form of chauvinism and was not unreasonable considering the nature of race relations in the early 1900s. There were race riots against African Americans in major cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Tulsa. There was massive segregation and the return of the KKK with pervasive lynchings in the South.
All political parties, including the Socialists, failed to challenge racism. This was a “crucial test” for Harrison and he left the Socialists while never forgetting the importance of the struggle of labor.
In 1917 he founded the Liberty League with a paper called THE VOICE as part of the whole New Negro movement of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance that is remembered today is primarily cultural, but what Perry is highlighting through Harrison is that it was a massive social movement. Eventually African Americans organized themselves by the millions in the Garvey Movement. Harrison became an editor of Garvey’s paper THE NEGRO WORLD.
The two poles usually cited as models for African- American leadership at the time were: either the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea that African Americans should be led by an elite" Talented Tenth." Harrison’s support of the Garvey movement reflected a different view of the African-American masses. He called for a “leadership...based not upon the ignorance of the masses but upon their intelligence” (p. 119). He also opposed Du Bois for his support of the U.S. in World War I.
He published in his paper THE VOICE on July 25, 1918, “The Descent of Dr. Du Bois,” a critical answer to Du Bois’s “Close Ranks” editorial in his magazine CRISIS. Did Du Bois write this editorial to get a desk captaincy in military intelligence, as some have claimed? Whatever the reason, it caused an intensive debate in the African-American community, and it raised the question of whether Du Bois could be the great leader of African Americans.
'SPECIAL GRIEVANCES' SPELLED OUT
What galled Harrison in Du Bois’s editorial was the statement “Let us, while this war lasts, FORGET OUR SPECAL GRIEVANCES [Harrison’s emphasis] and close our ranks, shoulder to shoulder, with our white fellow-citizens...” Harrison responded that “our ‘special grievances’ [...] consist of lynching, segregation and disfranchisement.” Thus, “Negroes of America cannot perceive either their lives, their manhood or their right to vote (which is their political life and liberties) with these things in existence... Instead of the war for democracy making [our special grievances] less necessary, it makes them more so” (p. 171).
In spite of all the gains made since the 1920s, today’s calls for a “war for democracy” abroad still sound hollow in the African-American communities, which every day experience the terrorism of police brutality, economic deprivation, and other forms of racism.
Perry stresses that Hubert Harrison always put his faith in the masses. For Harrison, everything comes back to the masses as the source of vitality in culture and art, giving them a real direction, a “backbone of every good cause” (p. 405).
This is an absolutely necessary beginning for comprehension of American history and the self-development of the Idea of freedom. The full articulation of that Idea is a philosophy of liberation, which will not only guarantee that that history is not forgotten, but will point a way to a different future.
Published by News and Letters Committees