NEWS & LETTERS, Jan-Feb 10, Hubert Harrison and Harlem Radicalism

NEWS & LETTERS, Janurary-February 2010

Hubert Harrison and Harlem Radicalism

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, by Jeffrey B. Perry, Columbia Univ. Press, New York, 2009, 600 pages.

Hubert Harrison was a self-educated socialist organizer and orator, agitator for race pride and education for Black people, unflagging supporter of labor. He was a mentor to Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph and a sharp critic of war, imperialism, capitalism, and any Black leader beholden to white power such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Perry's new biography--a second volume covering 1918-1927 is planned--provides a richly detailed picture of Harrison's intellectual, social and theoretical development unseparated from his daily activities. In addition to the narrative, notes and an index enable readers to further develop any topic related to the socialist and revolutionary context of Harrison's life and work.


Shortly after Harrison arrived in New York in 1903, he won a medal for oratory in the New York Evening High School and had letters published in The New York Times: on lynching, in defense of an English anarchist, and against the racist views of Mississippi governor James K. Vardaman. He was attracted to "freethought" and the theory of evolution, and registered increasing dissatisfaction with religion. He convened a study circle with his fellow postal workers. In 1907 he began a history of the Reconstruction period "that will bring a knowledge of psychology and sociology to the exposition of Negro history…that will attempt to bring…something of a philosopher's insight…all this by putting me in full touch with the life of my people will aid me in understanding them better…" For the remainder of his life Harrison rooted his work in the life of Black masses, calling in a 1917 editorial in his paper, The Voice, for "a New leadership, based not upon the ignorance of the masses, but their intelligence."

After two of Harrison's letters to The New York Times sharply criticized Booker T. Washington, Harrison suddenly ran into difficulties at his post office job. Perry presents evidence that Washington's "Tuskegee Machine" was instrumental in his firing in September 1911. From 1911 through 1914 Harrison became a paid organizer and speaker for the Socialist Party. He was forced out of the Party when he criticised its failures 1) to address racism, 2) to support the IWW and 3) to support the 1913 silkworkers' strike in Paterson, New Jersey.

Just as throughout history the Black masses have put American civilization on trial, Harrison's thought and activity put U. S. socialism on trial. The Socialist Party was unable to transcend the racial and class barriers to develop an American socialism that fully included Black masses. Harrison wrote: "The Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea [whose presence puts] democracy to the proof and reveals the falsity of it" (p. 162). Simple democracy for African Americans implied a revolution "startling to think of" (p. 158). To Harrison, championing the cause of Blacks was the key to revolutionary strategy in the U.S. Perry quotes historian Winston James: "American socialism did not keep faith with Hubert Harrison, Harrison kept faith with socialism" (p. 218).


Harrison's concept of race-consciousness embraced women's suffrage, sexual liberation and the movement for birth control; the Irish rebellion of 1916 and the Russian Revolution. He revealed European imperialism in Africa as a major motive for World War I. He critiqued the "suicidal policy of certain trades unions in excluding Negroes from membership" because they were then easily used as strikebreakers (p.174).

Harrison identified his philosophy as race-conscious "first" but he was never narrowly nationalistic. Perry points out that he both "laid the ideological and organizational foundation for the race radicalism of Garvey and the class radicalism of [A. Philip] Randolph and [Chandler] Owen." Nevertheless he critiqued both and eventually broke with Garvey.

Even a comprehensive overview of Harrison's work barely scratches the surface of his activity and thought and its meaning for today's struggles. Reading Harrison's biography generates a flood of questions, emotions and speculations. Why, 100 years later, are we still fighting to integrate national self-determination with class struggle? What if U.S. socialism had based itself on the totality of Marx's humanism instead of a mechanistic, anti-dialectical concept of class struggle? Why was this remarkable freedom fighter so utterly forgotten? Most important, can today's revolutionaries continue the dialogue with Harrison's body of work in the freedom struggles of our time? Hopefully, some of that dialogue will take place in the pages of News & Letters.

--Susan Van Gelder

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