The Great Breakthrough in Anti-Imperialist Socialism and the challenge to U.S. social imperialists
“History cannot ignore W.E.B. Dubois. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Dubois was a genius who chose to become a Communist.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King
“Whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union.… You are responsible, and your forebears, for 60 million to 100 million Black people dying in the slaveships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about anybody, please.”
– Paul Robeson
“For those who celebrate the fall of the Soviet Union, and consider themselves “democratic socialists, we have to ask ourselves why did the communists attract the most Black people who wanted socialism and the most committed, cadre, while social democracy has failed on both of those fronts.”
– Cornel West at an L.A. event shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union
“We don’t want to throw out the socialist baby with the Stalinist bathwater”
– prominent anti-communist socialist working closely with the Democratic Party
This month marks the 105th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of October 1917. As we in the United States try to imagine a revolutionary opposition to the U.S. imperialist system, we must understand that a great appreciation of the achievements of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union is a critical part of our revolutionary future.
In my interpretation of history, the Great Anti-Colonial Revolution had a major turning point with the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917—the first anti-imperialist revolution that was able to build and hold onto state power in the face of U.S. and European imperialist efforts to overthrow it. That long revolutionary arc continued through the rise of communist and anti-colonial movements to the height of what people understand as “the Sixties” until the final defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam in 1975. That was met, from its first day, by a brutal counter-revolutionary movement that found its expression in world fascism and the racist white backlash. Still, the Black Liberation Movement in the U.S., with great support from the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, made so many demands on The System that it could only respond with the most brutal—and eventually successful—counter-revolution. That period began with the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and continues today both with the Trump-led fascist movement and Biden and Harris’s war mongering imperialism, which is unable to live in peace with Russia, China, or anyone.
Today, in the midst of the brutal counter-revolution against our great Black and Third World Revolutions, there is no unified of pro-communist, anti-imperialist movement. Many community groups who have ingested large doses of anti-communism, believe “history” begins with themselves, have contempt for the successful revolutionary movements of the past, and are connected at the hip to the Democratic Party.
Even more disconcerting, is that at time of movement disorientation, a group of anti-communist socialists whose own work is characterized by abject failure, are contemptuous of the great achievements of the communist movements and parties. They use the name “Stalin,” whose legacy involved great crimes and great achievements, to discredit Cuba, Venezuela, the People’s Republic of China, and to slander the amazing history of the Soviet Union and the U.S. Communist Party. Their call for a “new socialism” and their rejection of communist anti-imperialist socialism leads them to a one-sided focus on Donald Trump and MAGA. Very consciously, they refuse to frontally challenge the imperialist crimes of Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
These “social imperialists”—socialist in name, imperialist in actual politics—talk about “corporate Democrats” to cover their left flank, because they consciously refuse to talk about imperialist Democrats. They begin with something we can agree with them on: that we need to build a “united front against fascism,” Donald Trump, and the armed white racist, fascist hordes. But they use their anti-fascism to cover up their alliance with the imperialist Democrats and their support for U.S. aggression all over the world. At a time when French President Macron argues it is critical to humanize Vladimir Putin with the goal of successful negotiations, the “social imperialists” dehumanize Putin and the Russians to justify their support for aggressive U.S. and NATO domination of Europe and the world.
Most of these ideologues cannot organize their way out of a paper bag—but they are trying to influence the front-line organizers who are leading mass struggles. Instead of expanding their consciousness to challenge The System itself, they restrict the best instincts of grassroots organizers to create an anti-communist framework for grassroots organizing and hope to deliver the movement into the Democratic Party.
Grassroots organizers beware, Democratic Party apologists who use Marxist terminology to practice anti-communism and support for U.S. imperialism are in our midst. While the system warns you against communists and communism it is the anti-communists who will destroy your work. I hope this article helps you to see through their subterfuges and fight with and for the Third World against our own government, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” as Dr. King had the courage to tell the world.
My politics are just the opposite. I think the Movement needs to be rebuilt on the fundamental achievements of Black revolutionary nationalism, Black and Third World revolutionary feminism, Pan Africanism, Anti-Imperialism, and support for and identification with the achievements of the communists of yesterday and today—especially the great Black communists of the CPUSA.
I will engage with this debate in greater detail in future articles, but the celebration of the great achievements of the Soviet Union is an integral part of that larger project. For those dedicated organizers in Black, Latin@, Asian/Pacific Islander, Indigenous, anti-racist white, and women’s liberation groups who share an anti-imperialist perspective, I hope this essay can contribute to your political education programs, especially in the training of effective organizers.
I work in South Central Los Angeles with the Labor/Community Strategy Center in our Strategy and Soul Movement Center. In our Strategy and Soul Bookstore, the words “Black” and “communist” are in the titles of so many of the books we have chosen: Black Bolshevik by Harry Haywood; We Charge Genocide: The Crimes of the United States against the Negro People, by William L. Patterson and the (pro-communist) Civil Rights Council; Louise Thompson: A Life of Struggle for Justice by Keith Gilyard; Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. DuBois; Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow; Beyond Containment, an autobiography by Claudia Jones; and Hammer and Hoe, Alabama Communists During the Great Depression by Robin D.G. Kelley.
Then we go out into the world with our Bus Riders Union to fight for No Police on the Buses and Trains, for No Police in the LA Schools, to Stop MTA Attacks on Black Passengers, and for Free Public Transportation for all. Our Strategy and Soul Social Justice Club works to Stop UCLA’s Anti-Black Academic Opportunism and to Stop the Department of Defense coming into Black achievement programs. We work in South Central, in three Los Angeles high schools, on the buses and trains representing 500,000 L.A. bus and train riders, 55 percent Latin@, 20 percent Black, 65 percent Black and Latina women. The Black passengers are assaulted by the MTA who issues more than 50 percent of its arrests and tickets against them. We go to MTA meetings and chant, “Stop MTA genocide against the Black Nation” and we are real people in the real world with these politics.
As many of you know, we win many of these campaigns, and we help shape the political debate in a city of 4 million people and a county of tens of million. We work well with all Black and Latinx community groups who see our anti-imperialism and support for communism as interesting or attractive, and we build relationships in these communities based on mutual respect. It meant a lot to us that one of our closest allies brought an entire out-of-town delegation to our bookstore.
For us, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Ghana, South Africa, Venezuela, and the Black Nation are real places with real people being oppressed by our government. So, we take on the anti-communists in the movement as part of building our own. It is in this context that I re-present my deep tribute to the people who built the Soviet Union on the 105th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. I hope this article can be part of political education programs for organizers to reverse the tide of counter-revolution and anti-communism in the movement and strengthen our own work.
Celebrating the Great Achievements of the Russian Revolution on the 105th Anniversary of its Victory
The Russian Revolution created the Soviet Union, the first “workers state” and the first successful revolution that survived the world imperialist counterrevolution. The Bolshevik Party (the first communist party) was part of a united front of parties that seized power from the reactionary, feudal Tsar in February 1917. Then, in October 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the forces of capitalism and seized state power from the social democratic Kerensky government. The Russian Revolution came to power as an anti-war movement against the forces in Russia that wanted to continue World War I—one of the greatest imperialist bloodbaths of all time in which more than 18 million “workers of the world” were sent to their deaths by the capitalist governments of Europe with strong support from their “socialist” parties.
The Bolshevik Party and the Soviet State built its own military and police, defended themselves against external and internal capitalist attack, and survived in a hostile world for 72 years—a true miracle against all odds. From the perspective of the world’s exploited and oppressed people, this was a profound achievement and offered them an optimistic vision of their own future.
The day before the successful October Revolution, the world was ruled by U.S. and European colonial and imperialist powers. But the day after the Russian Revolution, the communists created a new political momentum and balance of forces that captured the imagination of workers and anti-colonial movements all over the world. This was reflected in the Indian independence victory of 1947, the Chinese revolution of 1949, the Cuban revolution of 1959, African independence movements in Ghana, the Congo, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, and Tanzania, the Vietnamese revolution from 1945 until its victory in 1975, and the South African independence movement against apartheid, which culminated in victory in 1994.
The Soviet Union was a great friend of Black people in the United States, and the pro-Soviet Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) attracted some of the greatest Black political figures in U.S. history—Claudia Jones, Harry Haywood, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, William L. Patterson, Louise Thompson Patterson, as well as thousands of Black sharecroppers, domestic workers, and auto and steelworkers. In 1951, in the midst of a ferocious U.S. war against communists all over the world, Black communists Patterson, DuBois, and Robeson produced the historic and still prescient We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief of a Crime Against the Negro People by the United States. Even 71 years later, their work shines a powerful light on the painful, egregious, and endless war of the U.S. government against Black people and the Black nation that continues to this day.
Those of us in the United States who participated in the great revolutions of the “Two Decades of the Sixties” (1955-1975) were all pro-communist and, with our own concerns and criticisms, pro-Soviet. I was blessed to work as a field secretary with the Congress of Racial Equality and work closely with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Later, I was an organizer with the Newark Community Union Project and Students for a Democratic Society, and I worked closely with the Black Panther Party.
At that time, we had a sense of history. We saw the United States as what Dr. King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and saw the peoples and revolutions of the Third World and the socialist and communist nations as our allies in a world united front against our own government. We supported the Cuban Revolution and appreciated Soviet support for Cuba. We were in opposition to our own government and the CIA for working to overthrow the Cuban Revolution. We supported the Vietnamese Revolution and thanked both the Soviets and Chinese for trying to stop our own government’s genocide against the people of Vietnam and for contributing to the Vietnamese victory. We worked to stop U.S. genocide against Indigenous and Black people inside the U.S. borders as well.
Today, a new generation of organizers and those searching for revolutionary answers— especially those leading heroic struggles in Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities in the U.S.—can advance their work by challenging the anti-communist lies of the system. As effective organizers, we need to study the great revolutionary achievements of the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, and African revolutions. In particular on the 105th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, studying Soviet history from the perspective of its friends and delve into the great work of pro-communist Pan African leaders Harry Haywood, Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. Our only hope is to situate ourselves in the long continuum of revolutionary experiments with a sense of deep appreciation and the most profound opposition to the crimes of the U.S. government throughout its history, which continue today
I ask you to go on a journey with me to appreciate, celebrate, analyze, and learn from the key achievements of the Russian Revolution. I also acknowledge the errors and abuses and crimes of that and other revolutions. They must be looked at with a sober reality. But also, we need to situate them in the larger frame of our own government’s role as the World Center of Counter-revolution that has worked to attack, infiltrate, suppress, sabotage, assassinate, invade, and if possible overthrow every successful revolutionary movement and revolution in the world.
State and Revolution
The Russian revolution was the first revolution that seized state power, built its own military and police, beat back the capitalists, and was able to sustain its own revolutionary advances against the most reactionary and brutal attempts to overthrow it. It was a “workers’ state” that was born in a world dominated by U.S. and European imperialism—a capitalist system that was exercising a brutal, world colonial dictatorship over the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and Black, Indigenous, and other colonial peoples inside its borders. The Russian Revolution came out of the womb needing to defend its very existence from a world imperialist system that carried out counter-revolutionary infanticide as a central tenet of its existence.
In August 1917, V.I. Lenin wrote State and Revolution while he was hiding in exile. In it, Lenin argued that a revolution involved a forcible seizure of power. Miraculously, only 2 months later, the Bolsheviks did just that. Lenin argued that if capitalism ruled through armed force, then the only revolutionary possibility was the armed overthrow of the capitalist state.
“If the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and ‘alienating itself more and more from it,’ it is clear that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment of this ‘alienation’.”
State and Revolution and the successful Russian Revolution spoke to the direct experience of oppressed people all over the world—even if European socialists, their consciousness already clouded by the super-profits of empire, disagreed.
The Soviets were the first anti-imperialist revolution that the imperialist world system could not reverse
In 1492, there were more than 100 million Indigenous peoples in the Americas. They had built complex and advanced societies that had their own conflicts and wars, but none of these societies were based on barbarism and genocide—a unique byproduct of Christian European feudal capitalism. The invasion of the Spanish and Portuguese with horses, steel weapons, and bacteria wiped out entire indigenous societies in decades and within a century, reduced the Indigenous population by 90 percent. The Indigenous peoples fought back but could not defeat the armed states of Spain, Portugal, England, France, and later the United States. (I point readers to An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz.)
In 1796, armed African slaves in Haiti led by Toussaint L’ Ouverture miraculously overthrew French rule in Haiti. This was met by the most vicious armed counterrevolution by the French. L’Ouverture was eventually captured and brought to France where he died in prison. The French imposed brutal reparations on the Haitians to pay them back for their loss of human property—reparations that they are collecting to this day as the U.S. dominates Haiti militarily and the people live in poverty. (Please see Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James.)
In 1863, after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 400,000 Black slaves fled the plantations and joined the Union Army, where many of them were armed and played a critical role in the defeat of the Confederacy. From 1865 to 1877, a broad united front of radical Republicans; anti-monopoly progressive capitalists; freed Black slaves who had become free peasants, workers, and professionals; and white workers, with the backing of Northern troops—state power—imposed what W.E.B. DuBois called “the dictatorship of the proletariat” over the defeated Southern planters and racists. By 1877, the Republicans, representing northern monopoly capital, agreed to turn the South back to the reactionary Slaveocracy and what followed was a true genocide and re-enslavement of 5 million Blacks. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction in America is a great analysis of the challenges of Black revolutionary strategy, the relationship between Black liberation and anti-imperialism, and the reactionary nature of white corporate capitalism.
In 1871, the French proletariat rose up in a great revolution, the Paris Commune. Karl Marx called that 30-day rebellion the first reflection of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Marx argued that the working class had to arm itself to protect itself against the bourgeois/capitalist dictatorship re-asserting its authority. The Commune was met with brutal retaliation by the French monarchy and bourgeoisie—with more than 20,000 communards murdered in the counter-revolution.
Since long before 1492, oppressed people have understood that unless there was an armed force to overthrow the armed forces of the oppressors, there was no hope. Thus, when in October 1917 the Bolsheviks successfully seized state power, created their own armed forces, and suppressed the armed forces of the occupying powers and reactionary counter-revolutionaries n a bloody civil war, the Soviet Union’s successful seizure of maintenance of state power was seen all over the world as a great historical victory—the first time in modern history that the masses of oppressed people had successfully managed to not just overthrow the power of their oppressors, but to create political and military structures to protect and maintain a new society.
The Soviet victory illustrated the strategic imperative for revolutionary forces to seize control of the army and police for every social movement in the world —and was the first revolution that was not immediately overthrown by capitalist powers. This was one reason the United States and the European capitalist and colonial powers sought to overthrow the Soviet Union from the day it came to power—and why oppressed people all over the world took inspiration from its victory. Throughout this essay, I will document not only the consistent, relentless, and ruthless efforts by the U.S. government to overthrow the Russian Revolution, but also the anti-imperialist imperative of decent people in the U.S. to stand up to our government’s role as the World’s Center of Counterrevolution.
The Soviet Union successfully defended its revolution from a brutal world invasion of imperialist countries
Right after the Bolshevik seizure of state power, the new Soviet Union was invaded by more than a dozen imperialist powers—with troops sent from England, the U.S., Canada, and Japan, as well as well as colonized soldiers from British controlled India—continuing the long history of the imperialist using the people they colonized to suppress anti-colonial revolutions. It also had to defeat a right-wing assault inside Russia, appropriately called “The Whites” in a civil war instigated by the world imperialist powers. The Russian Revolution came to power in a bloody war instigated against it by the most powerful imperialist forces in the world—and it won! The Soviet Union was built on military force against military force. Let the record show that the United States, England, Japan, and every other capitalist state “tried to overthrow the Russian revolution and had they succeeded they would have re-established a bloody puppet government as they have all over the world. The October Revolution, led by workers, peasants, and a political party that had never governed and had been underground for a decade, took on the entire world capitalist system—and won!”
The Bolshevik Revolution as an Anti-Imperialist Socialist Revolution
The Bolshevik revolution came to power in struggle not just against European capitalism and imperialism but against European social democracy—especially the German Social Democratic party led by Karl Kautsky that played a role in provoking World War I. As such, the Russian revolution was not an extension of European “socialism,” but its negation.
The Russian Revolution was based on Lenin’s analysis in Imperialism: The Highest State of Capitalism, written in 1917. Lenin explained that capitalism in its monopoly stage—the merger of industrial and finance capital—went beyond the exploitation of the European proletariat to the oppression of whole nations and peoples (the colonies). As such, Lenin argued a world revolutionary strategy should change from “workers of the world unite” to “workers and oppressed peoples of the world unite.” More than that, Lenin argued that significant sectors of the U.S. and European working class benefited from “the super-profits of imperialism” and, without aggressive anti-imperialist socialist/communist parties, would support their own ruling classes in inter-imperialist wars. He argued that the responsibility of workers in “oppressor nations”—England, Germany, France, the United States, Russia, and all those whose capitalist system benefitted from the oppression of whole nations and peoples—was to side with the colonies’ struggle for self-determination and independence against their own governments. Otherwise, the socialist parties of the West would become “opportunists and scoundrels.”
But as World War I approached, the European Social Democrats (who were the only form of organized political socialism at the time) actively supported their own bourgeoisie’s war. This was one of the most bloody and disgraceful wars, and resulted in 18 million deaths and 23 million wounded. As the winds of war began swirling in Europe, Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and other left socialists aggressively opposed the war and urged the workers of the world to build an anti-war movement. But Karl Kautsky, the father of German Social Democracy supported a war initiated by Germany, as did the vast majority of French, Italian, English, and Austrian socialists who all supported their own capitalist classes and agreed to their right to divide up the world—including the colonies. What had happened to “workers of the world unite?” This was a devastating blow to the theory of socialism. So, the Russian Revolution also overthrew the hegemony of racist, genocidal, European socialism. After the “split” over supporting or opposing World War I, the new Soviet and communist-led Third International saved the soul of socialism and rescued it from social imperialism.
The Bolshevik led Revolution challenged its own nation state and rejected imperialist patriotism with the slogan “Bread, Peace, and Land.” Bread for the starving industrial proletariat, Land for the starving peasants, and Peace—the most revolutionary demand of all—for all. Russian peasants and workers in the Tsarist Army mutinied in the midst of a bloody World War and, organized and encouraged by Bolshevik cadre, refused to fight the Germans and deserted the front where they were freezing, starving, and dying. The Bolsheviks and Social Revolutionaries overthrew a government led by moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky that had come to power in February 1917 but which refused to get out of WWI. Instead, the moderate socialists and liberals in Russia continued the brutal war on the side of the British, French, and U.S. against Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
The October Revolution was the first revolution that came to power by aggressively refusing to fight in an imperialist war while all the other “socialists” were sending their own working classes to their deaths to support their capitalists. No wonder the Soviet Revolution had such prestige and respect all over the world from the outset.
The Soviet Union pulled its economy out of the world imperialist system and denied markets to U.S., British, French, and other world imperialists that had previously plundered Tsarist Russia
Once the revolutionary seizure of power was completed, what was the new Russian revolutionary state supposed to do? The Bolsheviks, as a new ruling party, inherited a nation ravaged by imperialist invasion and civil war. How could they produce an economy and feed their people in the midst of a world war and a civil war? The story of the Soviet Union’s successful experiments—and many errors in a rich social practice is truly remarkable. Steven F. Cohen’s Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution describes the great debates about how to merge a new socialist—initially, state capitalist—economy with limited but critical market mechanisms on the way to a socialist economic system. But the miracle of the Soviet experiment is that it achieved some level of self-sufficiency by getting the workers to work and produce goods and the peasants to farm and produce food. As people who had never governed and were not trained by the ruling class, the new communists set up distribution systems to get the products to the people while also finding ways to get new capital to rebuild a very backward and war-devastated country. The Soviets embraced the concept of “autarky”—that is, a nation that is economically self-sufficient and independent. They used aggressive state power to keep out imperialist investors (while admittedly also encouraging some) from infiltrating and taking over their economy. The Soviets used state power at times brutally for what is called the “primitive accumulation of capital,” which the capitalist nation states had accomplished through violence, war, enslavement, colonialism, and the massacre of entire populations for over 600 or more years. The Soviets built a new economy by encouraging and forcing the peasants to produce more than they wanted and paying the workers less than they wanted. This was necessary for survival to produce a surplus of agricultural products that they could then export to purchase the machinery they needed to expand their economy. The record of many Soviet experiments in building an independent socialist economy in a world of imperialist dictatorship are inspiring.
This praise must be qualified by an acknowledgment of the massive state abuses of forced collectivization and the brutal decision, advocated by Josef Stalin, to “eliminate the kulaks as a class.” That is, to wipe out and kill rich peasants, many of whom were not very rich, who the Soviet state saw as the enemy of collectivization.
The leaders of Third World nations facing the same problems after nominal independence from their imperialist masters saw the fundamental challenges and achievements of the Soviet economy as inspiring. The entire concept of how oppressed people could use the state to seize its own resources, collectivize a lot of production and distribution, and raise the standard of living of an entire people in ways that capitalism did not and could not led many Third World leaders to have great gratitude to the Soviet model.
Many years later, in 1947, Winston Churchill, the arch-imperialist former Prime Minister of Great Britain, derided the Soviet Union as an “Iron Curtain” keeping the Eastern European nations out of the influence of the Western “democracies.” To some degree, that was true. The Soviets tried to build a wall to keep out capitalist infiltration and re-colonization and built an international alternative “socialist bloc” that took more and more of the world out of the capitalist orbit. This was an amazing achievement that led to U.S. and European wars against the Soviet Union from the day it was born until the day it died.
The Soviet Union led a proletarian internationalist revolution inside the socialist movement—workers and oppressed nations unite!
The victory of the Russian Soviet Revolution led to a two-line struggle, a split, in the world socialist movement between the new Communist parties, aligned with the Soviet Union, and the old Social Democratic parties centered in Europe, aligned with their own capitalists seeking a better division of the spoils of empire. The split between communists and socialists was complex but it was shaped by the “communists” who had opposed World War I and supported the formation of the Soviet Union and the “social democrats” who had supported World War I and opposed the formation of the Soviet Union. Many former socialist parties split in two, with the new communist parties attracting the most dedicated, anti-racist, anti-imperialist revolutionaries in every country. By far, the greatest number of Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans and soon, Blacks in the United States, gravitated towards the communist parties.
The Soviet Union initiated and built a Communist International—The Comintern— where new communist parties all over the world built the first viable international movements of workers and oppressed peoples against the world organization of imperialism.
The Comintern was the first successful counterforce to world capitalism, and it attracted the best, brightest, and most dedicated revolutionaries from every country in the world. There is a critique that the Soviets dominated the Comintern and exercised almost dictatorial control of the international party line. While there is some truth to that assertion, it is often raised to anti-communist caricature. In fact, there was significant struggle inside the Comintern. Like all structures, there was a battle for political power among communist parties who disagreed on many things. Of course, leaders of national communist parties courted Soviet approval. But it was also true that Third World communists, such as Vietnamese Party leader by Ho Chi Minh, exercised considerable influence on Comintern policies and challenged the great nation chauvinism of the French communists who still supported, or only weakly opposed, French control of Vietnam, Algeria, and other French colonies. The Comintern gave far greater voice to the communist parties of the oppressed nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America and gave greater voice to Black liberation and Black members.
And contrary to anti-communist stereotypes, the Soviets won international leadership by their successful practice and greater theoretical and practical sense of strategy and tactics. Communists all over the world looked up to and admired a communist party that had successfully carried out a revolution, seized state power, pulled their nation out of World War I, built an international communist movement, set up a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and governed a multi-ethnic nation of 170 million people spread across a land mass that stretched from Eastern Europe to Asia. Why shouldn’t the Soviet Union have great influence in setting the general direction of the world communist movement—as the U.S., England, and Germany set the “party line” for the imperialists?
The Soviet Union became a world university for revolution.
If you were a revolutionary in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Honduras, or a Black revolutionary in the U.S., you could go to the only socialist society that existed and be trained in strategy, tactics, and the specifics of your people’s struggle for liberation and socialism by the leading revolutionaries in the world. One of the Soviet Union’s most stunning achievements was the creation of the greatest school for revolutionary organizers in world history: The Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV). Located in Moscow, it was a university for world revolution whose graduates included Ho Chi Minh, who would become the first president of Vietnam; Jomo Kenyatta, who became the first president of Kenya; Deng Xiaoping, who became paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China; and Harry Haywood, a Black communist who would bring the theory that the Afro-American people were an oppressed nation into the U.S. Communist Party.
The Soviets played a major role in encouraging the Black Liberation Movement in the U.S. Moscow and trained more than 90 African-Americans—including Cyril Briggs, Langston Hughes, William L. Patterson, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois—in revolutionary strategy and tactics in the 1920s and 1930s. This was the most effective training of Black cadre whose impact was magnified as they brought back ideas about a Black-led U.S. socialism and communism as well as effective national liberation strategies into the Black movement. For example, Ho Chi Minh studied in Moscow during the 1920s and from there launched a struggle against the white chauvinism and pro-imperialism of the French Communist Party where France still colonized Vietnam. More than 50,000 Vietnamese studied in Moscow during the Vietnam War. In the U.S., many Black communists studied in the Soviet Union where they were given more support for the merger of Black Nationalism and communism than they were in the U.S. communist party and came back to the U.S. with more power and prestige to fight white chauvinism in the party and white racism in the country.
The Soviet Union Led the Worldwide Struggle against Fascism during World War II
The Soviet Union led the worldwide movement against German and Italian fascism while the Chinese Communist Party led the successful fight against Japanese fascism. By contrast, the United States was conciliatory towards fascism and only joined the fight against Germany in World War II as a last resort. Right after the war, the United States rehabilitated the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan, and turned against the nation—the Soviet Union—that had sacrificed the most to win the war against fascism.
The Soviet Union and the world communist movement were the first to recognize the danger of fascism in Germany and worldwide and try to build an anti-fascist movement to stop Adolph Hitler. In the early 1930s during the rise of fascism in Germany, the German and Soviet communists badly underestimated the power and appeal of Hitler. They believed that world revolution was on the horizon and thus refused to build a united front against Hitler with the Social Democrats who they saw as their primary competition. To be clear, the Social Democrats were sectarian and hostile to the communists and also did not seek unity against the fascists. The Comintern put forth the arrogant and sectarian slogan, “After Hitler, us” meaning that after the people saw through the fascists they would turn to the communists and socialist revolution. This was a terrible assessment. “After Hitler” was the mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, and communists.
Recognizing this grave mis-assessment, the world communist parties began an international campaign, presented in a major theoretical and strategic paper, “The United Front Against Fascism” by Georgi Dimitrov, the head of the Comintern, written in 1935. The Soviet Union encouraged world communist parties to build broad alliances with capitalist governments and social democratic forces and, as a result, many communist parties moved in more “reformist” and conciliatory directions out of the fear that the Soviet Union and the world would be taken over by the uniquely reactionary, racist, and murderous form of capitalism led by Adolph Hitler and the German Reich
But these efforts by the Soviet Union and the world communist movement did not sway the capitalist powers of the West to build a united front against fascism with the communists. Many histories of this period make it clear that United States, England, and France saw the Soviet Union and communism as the far greater danger and hoped that Hitler would invade the Soviet Union. Many Western capitalists shared Hitler’s hatred of both Jews and communists. Importantly, Nazi Germany was a capitalist country and many U.S. capitalists saw fascism as a commercial opportunity. There were many pro-fascist public figures in the United States including Henry Ford; Alfred P. Sloan head of General Motors; and Joseph Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain from 1930 to 1940.
In September 1938, while the Soviets offered massive numbers of troops to fight Hitler in Poland, the British (along with the French and Italians) negotiated what came to be called The Munich Agreement with Germany. This allowed Hitler and the Nazi’s to annex the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia while the Czechs were not even allowed at the meeting. British Prime Minister Neville Chamber claimed he had brought “peace in our time.” After another year of unsuccessful overtures to the Western capitalist powers, and aware that the Western capitalists wanted Hitler to invade the Soviet Union, on August 23, 1939, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with the Nazis. This was denounced by capitalists all over the world as the Soviets tried to buy time before the inevitable Nazi invasion. The entire story of the Soviet’s efforts, mostly unsuccessful, to get the U.S., Britain, and France to stand up to Hitler is a tragic story of Western “democratic” conciliation with fascism. Only the Soviets were ideologically opposed to fascism, saw the grave danger in it, and did everything they could to build a world movement against Hitler.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the Western (European) allies began World War II. The Soviet Union joined the allies shortly after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. The United States did not enter the war until the December 11, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Germans, under pressure from their Japanese allies, declared war against the United States. For the United States to act as if it was a leading anti-fascist power is just not true. In reality, the U.S. watched the rise of German and Japanese fascism, stayed out of the war as long as possible, and then came in to help win the war at the least cost to itself, and take over the world at the war’s end.
The Soviet Union was the main force to defeat Hitler in World War II—sacrificing 26 million soldiers and civilians during the long German invasion and the successful Russian counter-offensive.
The oppressed people of the world and those Jews who survived owe their existence to the heroism of the Soviet people in the face of the cynicism and betrayal of the United States, England, and pathetic France which capitulated to the German invasion in weeks—with many of the French people willingly supporting the Nazi Vichy occupation government.
Throughout the war, communist parties all over the world called on the United States and Britain to open up “a second front” against Hitler in Europe and yet both countries delayed, hoping that Hitler would destroy the Soviet Union. Then, the Soviets began to defeat Hitler during the long Russian winter and the Soviet Army began to march eastward. Then the “Allies” realized that the Soviets and the communists might take over all of Europe with communist parties in every country that had led the resistance against Fascism; only then did the United States finally take great risks. The United States, under the leadership of General Dwight Eisenhower, led a bloody and heroic battle on the beaches of Normandy, France in June 1944, in which 160,000 allied troops won a decisive battle and then began to march on the Germans from the West. The cost was more than 4,500 dead Allied soldiers and tens of thousands more wounded. This long overdue “second front” forced the Germans to move some troops from the Eastern front, making it easier for the Soviets to beat back the German invasion. Still, as just one measure of the sacrifice the Soviet people paid in the fight against world fascism, the Soviet Union suffered the deaths of 10 million soldiers and 16 million civilians whereas the United States suffered only 416,000 military deaths and 2,000 civilian deaths. The world owes the Soviet Union a profound debt for paying the greatest price to defeat Hitler.
The United States violated every concept of international “law” and human rights by dropping a nuclear bomb on Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On August 6 and August 9, 1945, the U.S. dropped nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They killed more than 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred when people were incinerated instantly by the explosions—virtually all of them were “civilian non-combatants.” And that does not count the long-term cancer deaths of those exposed to massive radiation. And yet, a study of this horrific act indicates it was not really used to defeat the Japanese as much as to terrorize the Soviet Union since the U.S. knew that Japan was ready to surrender. And even if Japan had not been ready to surrender, the use of atomic weapons against civilians is not an acceptable “act of war” and is a massive violation of international and human rights treaties—none of which constrain U.S. military action—to which the Indigenous, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and so many other can attest.
U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower opposed using the bomb. It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.), knowing full well the Japanese were ready to surrender. Historical accounts indicate that U.S. President Harry Truman already saw the communist Soviet Union—not the Japanese—as their main enemy even though the war was still going on against Japan and the Soviet Union was a supposed ally. They withheld all nuclear information from the Soviets and did not want the Soviet Union to come into the war against Japan because they feared Soviet influence in Asia after the war. Truman, and many other Democratic anti-communists, also wanted to terrorize the Soviet Union because they feared Soviet influence in post-war Europe.
When they learned of the U.S. nuclear attack on Japan, Stalin and the Soviet leadership were in shock and massively depressed. They saw this as a provocation against the Soviet Union—which it was—an effort to get Japan to surrender before the Soviets became involved in the war, and as a bargaining chip against the Soviets in negotiations over Eastern Europe where the Soviets wanted pro-Soviet governments to protect them from a third German-initiated war. Gar Alperovitz’ book Atomic Diplomacy goes into brutal detail about the cynical calculations of U.S. decision-makers who saw the Atom Bomb as a weapon against the Soviet Union. The masses of Soviet people, already traumatized by the German invasion, were truly terrified of a U.S. nuclear attack—which of course was exactly what Harry Truman, Averell Harriman, Henry Stinson, and all Cold War Democrats wanted to accomplish
Right after the war the U.S. abandoned its Soviet allies and rehabilitated the Nazis—including bringing Wehrner Van Braun, a leader of the Nazi military, to help build their “space program.” Then, with the Soviet economy decimated, the United States gave no aid to the Soviets who had sacrificed 26 million people in the fight against fascism. Instead, the U.S., through the vaunted Marshall Plan, invested $13 billion to rehabilitate the Nazis in Germany and the fascists in Japan and rebuild their economies along capitalist lines in order to reintegrate them into the world capitalist order and prevent the rise of socialism and capitalism in Europe and Japan. It is very sad to hear liberals and even socialists today say, “We need a Marshall plan for the cities” or “We need a Marshall plan for the environment” when in fact the Marshall plan was little more than an anti-communist subsidy for the fascist states that provoked World War II.
The United States Finally Finds a War It Wants to Fight–the Cold War against the Soviet Union and world communism
When World War II finally ended in 1945, the United States began a new war against the Soviet Union and world communist movements and liberation movements all over the world. This Cold War was manifested by attacking, repressing, arresting, imprisoning, and assassinating communist and pro-communist people in every capitalist country who had risked their lives in the fight against Fascism. For example, in Greece right after WWII, the British (with U.S. support) re-occupied Greece and restored Nazis, monarchists, and the king to power while organizing the mass murder of Greek anti-fascist and pro-communist forces.
The Soviet Union rebuilt its economy and society from the shambles of World War II
The Soviet Union, which had been promised significant U.S. aid after the war, suffered massive destruction and starvation during the German invasion. How the Soviet Union rebuilt its economy from scratch after World War II (after having to rebuild it after World War I and the Revolution), and was able to provide food and social services in the face of U.S. confrontation, is a miracle of socialist development and reflects the superiority of the socialist system.
In the United States the Democratic president Harry Truman, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, Democrat Bobby Kennedy (who worked for McCarthy), and Republican Congressman Richard Nixon, attacked communists in every aspect of U.S. society. In 1947, Republicans and Democrats passed the Taft-Hartley Act which denied communists the right to be elected trade union leaders—because the communists were winning many of those elections/ Then, they passed the Smith Act, which allowed them to imprison many of the leaders of the U.S. Communist Party.
In 1951, the U.S. government framed and in 1953, executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in a show trial. The Rosenbergs were human rights and peace movement heroes who, like many communists and non-communists in the U.S. nuclear program, wanted the U.S. to acquire nuclear weapons in order to fight fascism— but also wanted to help the Soviets protect themselves against what they feared was an imminent U.S. nuclear attack. There were many people in the U.S. nuclear program who saw themselves as friends of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union and were terrified when they realized the U.S. would turn against the Soviet Union and might use nuclear weapons against them. Many non-communist, principled liberals in the nuclear program wanted to help the Soviet Union get the information necessary to build its own nuclear weapons so that they could defend themselves against the U.S. government. Given the clear support in some U.S. ruling circles to drop The Bomb on the Soviet Union many of these very sophisticated scientists understood that the best way to avoid a nuclear holocaust was to create a Soviet deterrent to the U.S.
The debate about whether the Rosenbergs did or did not divulge any specific U.S. nuclear secrets is a “red herring,” a trick by the U.S. propaganda machine. This charge avoids the moral imperative people have to divulge information about their government’s violations of human rights to an international audience—debates that took place when Daniel Ellsberg divulged The Pentagon Papers exposing U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, and when Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning released information about U.S. atrocities in Afghanistan and throughout the world. In the case of the Rosenbergs, the U.S. government fomented an anti-communist and anti-Semitic frenzy against them and then executed them. They went to their deaths without recanting, confessing, or apologizing, and they declared their innocence until the end. The great support Julius and Ethel Rosenberg received from Black communists Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson and their heroic decision to go to their deaths proud and defiant is part of the revolutionary legacy a new generation can only dream of living up to.
The Soviet Union and the CPUSA bravely stood up to terrible intimidation by the United States government after World War II, and many of us in what was later called the U.S. New Left in the 1960s fought against the House Un-American Activities Committee and the ugly anti-communism of our government. We often became pro-communist before we had even met a communist out of revulsion against the racism and repression of what DuBois called “The land of the thief and the home of the slave.”
The United States, England, and France double crossed the colonial nations of Asia, African, and Latin America and Blacks who had all contributed to the “Allied victory.
In order to get the support of their colonial subjects during World War II, the United States, England, and France promised them independence after the war against Fascism. Instead, the U.S. and French broke their promises and financed a war against the people of Vietnam that would end up murdering more than 4 million Vietnamese. How the French capitulated to the Nazis and then were allowed to recolonize Vietnam and Algeria with U.S. support is just one of the many horror stories of world imperialism and one of the many crimes of our own government. The United States replaced England and France as the world’s greatest colonial power but often preferred to allow the British and French to do the colonial dirty work with U.S. funds. For example, the U.S. CIA orchestrated and supported the British overthrow of Iranian Prime Minster Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and paid most of France’s military costs in Vietnam until its final defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1955. After the defeat of their French proxies, the U.S. got involved directly for the next 20 years.
The Soviet Union was the best friend of colonial peoples and was a critical material force in every Third World anti-colonial and socialist victory.
As the U.S., England, and France continued to subjugate and terrorize Third World peoples, the Soviet Union supported liberation movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America with economic, military, and political aid. Without this essential Soviet support, the Chinese, Korean, Cuban, Vietnamese, South African, and virtually every other Third World Revolution would have faced even greater, and possibly insurmountable, odds. The Soviet’s defeat of Hitler and support for Eastern European revolutions prevented the U.S. from massing forces to stop the Chinese Revolution. The Soviets and East Germans gave weapons and support to the Cubans, were critical to Nasser’s building of the Aswan Dam, and gave weapons and training to the South African, African National Congress. By contrast, the United States supported gangsters and rapists in Cuba, death squads in El Salvador, and the Apartheid government in South Africa. The Soviets asked, as you should ask yourself, “which side are you on.” For those of us in the United States who see our government attacking and assassinating Third World revolutions and revolutionaries today, we need to have a greater appreciation of what a powerful countervailing power the Soviet Union provided for oppressed people all over the world and what a great void there is now that it no longer exists to provide that help.
The Soviet Union and the world communist movements were the best friends of Black people, recruited and trained the most brilliant Black organizers and intellectuals, challenged white chauvinism and racism inside and outside of the communist parties.
Upon the creation of the U.S. Communist Party 1919, the new, overwhelmingly white party, tried to grapple with the white chauvinism and racism of the U.S. Socialist Party from which many of its members had left, but not with great success or any significant changes in its worldview. Both socialists and communists did not want to face up to the central role of racism and national oppression in the formation of the United States or the active role that so many white workers and white people of all classes played in the subjugation of Black people.
These overwhelmingly white socialist and communist groups argued that “racism” was not inherent in the formation of U.S. capitalism and imperialism but rather an ideological construct that could be fought in the realm of ideas. When asked why they had attracted and recruited so few Black people both groups essentially blamed “The Negro” for having insufficient socialist consciousness.
Still, it was the Communist Party that began to attract revolutionary Blacks such as Cyril Briggs and groups such as the African Blood Brotherhood. In 1928 and 1930, the Communist International did a major study of the plight of Black people in the U.S., titled Resolution on the Afro-American National Question, which included a pointed critique of the white chauvinism of the U.S. and South African communist parties. The resolution concluded that Black people in the United States centered in the Black Belt South were an oppressed nation with the right of self-determination. Even more importantly, the communists understood anti-Black racism and national oppression in an international context as a national liberation struggle against imperialism.
“The Negro race everywhere is an oppressed race. Whether it is a minority (U.S.A., etc.) majority (South Africa) or inhabits a so-called independent state (Liberia, etc.), the Negroes are oppressed by imperialism. Thus, a common tie of interest is established for the revolutionary struggle of race and national liberation from imperialist domination of the Negroes in various parts of the world.”
Black American communists who had studied in the Soviet Union including Claude McKay, a Jamaican poet; Otto Huiswoud, born in Suriname; and Harry Haywood, a former supporter of the Garvey Back to Africa Movement and member of the African Blood Brotherhood, played a major role in this study. But several U.S. communists in the Soviet Union at the time, including Haywood’s brother Otto Hall, did not agree with that conclusion, nor did the majority of the Party. Still, this was a major new analysis of Blacks in the U.S., and it represented a major break with the socialists and even most CPUSA members who still saw Blacks and whites as primarily the same viewed “racism” almost as if it was just an attitude that could be ended through the struggle for socialism. By contrast, Haywood and the Comintern argued that Black national oppression in the United States was based on a profound material reality rooted in kidnapping, slavery, state violence, and brutal subjugation based on race that created Blacks as an oppressed people and nation inside the borders of the United States.
That political perspective led to significant attraction of working-class Black people to the Communist Party. It also pushed the Party into a far more anti-racist and pro-Black orientation. One form that took was the CPUSA taking up the struggle of the Scottsboro Boys, 9 Black youth falsely accused of raping 2 white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. Their case, thanks to the CPUSA, became a tribunal against racism in the U.S. and a justice system comprised of trumped-up charges, all white juries, lying witnesses, and death sentences against Black defendants. At first, the NAACP and other Negro organizations would not take the case, afraid of the image of Black men attacking white women. but the CPUSA took it up boldly and provided legal and political defenses all over the world. through its impressive International Labor Defense led by William L. Patterson Imagine being in pre-Hitler Germany in the early 1930s and seeing thousands of pro-communist German workers protesting against U.S. racism and supporting the Scottsboro Boys. While later many other civil rights organizations including the NAACP joined the campaign, their defense of the Scottsboro Boys put the CPUSA and the Soviet Union on the map in the Black community.
This campaign and the Comintern influence brought some elements of Black Nationalism into the socialist and communist conversation and the socialist conversation into the Black community. Once the CPUSA began to engage Black nationalism and assert special rights of The Negro and Afro-American community it led to a profound and lasting loyalty of Black workers, intellectuals, sharecroppers, and artists so that the CPUSA became known as “the Party of the Negro.”
A study of the Black leaders and intellectuals in and very close to the Communist Party and the Soviet Union would include Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, William L. Patterson, Ben Davis, Claudia Jones, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Loraine Hansberry, Nina Simone, and Angela Davis. They are just a few prominent Black leaders among thousands whose lives were shaped by the Soviet and communist experience and who in turn shaped Black, U.S., and world history. Again, it is important for a new generation of revolutionaries, especially Black revolutionaries, to study the deep impact the Soviet Union and communism had on tens of thousands of Black women and working people who in turn played a major role in reshaping U.S. communism into a more Black and Third World culture and ideology. Louise Thompson, a brilliant mass organizer in Harlem who went to the Soviet Union close to the CPUSA tells what she saw and what she decided.
Here we come from a country where everything is denied us, protection of life and property, freedom go live where we will and go where we will, where we are despised and humiliated at every turn, here in the Soviet Union, we are accorded every courtesy, free to go where we will and are eagerly welcomed, given every opportunity to enjoy ourselves and to travel. Free to pursue any work that we choose.
What I witnessed, especially in Central Asia, convinced me that, only a new social order could remedy the American injustices I knew only too well. I went to Russia with leftist leanings, I returned home a committed revolutionary.
Dr. Martin Luther King, 40 years later, seconded that motion.
“History cannot ignore W.E.B. Dubois. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Dubois was a genius who chose to become a Communist.”
The Soviet Union and the world communist movement including the People’s Republic of China put international pressure on U.S. ruling circles to grant more concessions to the rising civil rights movement.
After World War II, the United States was terrified of Soviet influence in Africa and Latin America and “Communist China’s” victory and influence in Korea and Asia. As early as 1954, pro-imperialist civil rights leaders like Thurgood Marshall used anti-communism as a lever on U.S. courts. In Brown v. Board of Education, he argued that if the United States did not integrate the schools according to the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, this failure would be used by “the communists” to discredit the U.S. in the world and especially the Third World. (Marshall would later work as an informant for the FBI against communists in the civil rights movement). In another example, Clare Booth Luce, a ferociously anti-communist U.S. Ambassador to Italy, told Martin Luther King how much she appreciated him because when the Italian communists attacked U.S. racism she could say, “That’s not true, we have Dr. King.” The growing anti-colonial movements and pro-communist forces in Africa and throughout the world convinced some members of the U.S. ruling class that overt, apartheid-like segregation was an international liability and began a bi-partisan movement to remove some of the most overt forms of racial segregation in the South.
In Robin D.G. Kelley’s pathbreaking Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists and the Great Depression he about how Black sharecroppers, terrorized by Klan violence believed that a new civil war was imperative.
“What distinguished this new war from the Civil War and Reconstruction was its international dimension. For many Black radicals the Russians were the ‘new Yankees,’ Stalin was a ‘new Lincoln,’ and Russia was a ‘new Ethiopia,’ stretching out its arms stretching out is arms in defense of Black folks. The idea of Soviet and/or Northern radical support provided a degree of psychological confidence for African-Americans waiting to wage the long-awaited revolution in the South.”
Sadly, today, the U.S. ruling class, with significant Democratic Party support, without the threat of a Soviet Union and a world communist movement, has worked to gut the 14th Amendment, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and has placed 1 million Black people in prison. While the initiative came from right-wing Republicans, note that President Obama and the Democrats never lifted a finger in support of Black people nor initiated one serious civil rights legislative campaign. The role of international communist and Soviet pressure on the U.S. in support of the Black and civil rights movement cannot be underestimated as one of its great achievements. Today, the Black and civil rights movement must reconstruct an international strategy since the U.S. two-party system has no internal drive to fight racial discrimination let alone national oppression. I urge a new generation of Black organizers to continue your study of the communist and anti-imperialist traditions of the Afro-American people seeking international allies as an important step to reconstruct the international strategy that Malcolm, Martin, SNCC, and the Black Liberation Movement advocated for and carried out.
The Soviet Union and the Communists attracted the most dedicated and creative revolutionary cadre all over the world.
In 1989, at a meeting in Los Angeles right after the fall of the Soviet Union, I heard Cornel West, a prominent Black socialist, chastised the overwhelmingly white group that identified as “democratic socialists: many of whom seemed ecstatic that the Soviet Union had disintegrated. “Before we celebrate the fall of the Soviet Union, we have to ask ourselves why the communists have attracted Blacks and the most dedicated people and we who call ourselves “democratic socialists” cannot.”
Communists cadre, trained in Marxism-Leninism, believing in a world socialist revolution, and allied with an actual socialist state, the Soviet Union, schooled in strategy, tactics, and “organizing” were amazing leaders who could mobilize ten, twenty, and eventually hundreds of people per person. Gus Hall, the General Secretary of the CPUSA for most of the later 20th Century, said that Communists’ scientific understanding of the nature of class struggle enables them to be the most effective organizers, a benefit he called the “Communist Plus”. One estimate of CPUSA membership in 1938 was 75,000. This was such an impressive number — because communist cadre did the work of dozens, worked endless hours, and were brilliant at what they did. Being part of an international movement tied to an actual socialist country, the Soviet Union, a place where they could see socialism first-hand, was a major reason for this sustained morale and productivity among communist cadre.
The Soviet Union without illusions—Soviet errors, chauvinism, abuses, and crimes.
Everyone who has been part of the communist and pro-communist camp has been aware of the challenges and horrors of actually existing socialism. The question for those of us in the United States is how much we truly feel and act upon the far greater horrors of actually existing imperialism.
V.I. Lenin was the unique and essential leader of the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik Party. His efforts to theorize, with no historical precedent, the contradictions of governance and force, dictatorship and democracy, markets and socialism, in the very early years of Soviet state power was unique and often brilliant. Tragically, he became profoundly ill from strokes that were brought on by gunshot wounds he suffered at the hands of a Social Revolutionary assassin in 1918. His death in 1922 was a devastating blow to the Soviet experiment. In 1922, Joseph Stalin took over the Party apparatus and immediately began to attack Lenin and his legacy. Lenin had supported what was called the New Economic Policy that allowed market mechanisms in the Soviet Union to encourage peasants to produce for the urban centers. But after Lenin’s death, Stalin moved against many other in the party to impose the forced collectivization of agriculture and a class war in the countryside with devastating results. In the 1920s, the inner party struggle allowed some innovations and options that were later closed by Stalin’s ascension to dictatorial power.
During the 1930s, Stalin’s Soviet Union initiated the terrifying spectacle of the “Show Trial” where dedicated communist cadre were forced, under fear not only of their death but the murder of their families and friends, to renounce, recant, and confess non-existent “crimes against the socialist motherland.” These trials were cheered by some, but terrified many communist cadre who understood the party’s capacity to turn on its own members—calling dedicated revolutionaries “counter-revolutionaries.” This caused some disillusionment and defections in the communist ranks.
After Stalin’s death in 1955, the new party chairman Nikita Khrushchev, in his Secret Speech, recalled Lenin’s Testament, a long-suppressed document in which Vladimir Lenin had warned that Stalin was likely to abuse his power. Then Khrushchev cited numerous instances of such excesses. Among these was Stalin’s use of mass terror in the Great Purge of the mid-1930s, during which, according to Khrushchev, innocent communists had been falsely accused of espionage and sabotage and unjustly punished, often executed, after they had been tortured into making confessions.
Khrushchev criticized Stalin for having failed to make adequate defensive preparations before the German invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941), for having weakened the Red Army by purging its leading officers, and for mismanaging the war after the invasion. He condemned Stalin for irrationally deporting entire groups of people (e.g., the Karachay, Kalmyk, Chechen, Ingush, and Balkar peoples) from their homelands during the war and, after the war, for purging major political leaders in Leningrad (1948–50; and in Georgia in 1952). He also censured Stalin for attempting to launch a new purge, the Doctors’ Plot in 1953, shortly before his death, and for his policy toward Yugoslavia, which had resulted in the severance of relations between that nation and the Soviet Union (1948). The “cult of personality” that Stalin had created to glorify his own rule and leadership was also condemned.
Soviet experiments in socialism and the abuses of the Soviet state dictatorship are the subject of another important interrogation. As evidenced by the Soviet Union invasion of Hungary in 1955 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, it could not tolerate “socialism with a human face.” Soviet fear of a U.S. invasion in addition to its own internal dynamics of empire and great nation chauvinism began a long decline that led to its overthrow by its own people in 1991. Of course, U.S. CIA gave great aide to the overthrow of the Soviet State.
The efforts of both Khrushchev and later Mikhail Gorbachev to carry out both Glasnost and Perestroika are critical experiments in self-correction of the Soviet model—something no ruling party or class or group in the United States has every considered to liberalize—let alone revolutionize—U.S. imperialism.
The Anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist legacy of the Soviet Union shapes its Historic Legacy
If we see, as I do, the world socialist and communist movement as a continuum, then the great achievements and heroism in the Soviet experiment far outweighs its structural problems— especially when we consider the fact that the U.S. government waged a war against the Soviet Union for the entire 20th century and remains the greatest danger to peace, economic justice, and human rights in the world.
For us in the United States, as we debate the Soviet experience on the 105th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, we also have to focus on an even more pressing question: what do we really think and feel about our own government? In any discussion of the future of the U.S. left, I think the strategic imperative of a United Front Against U.S. Imperialism should shape that conversation. For any possibility of socialism must begin by closing all 800 U.S. military bases, prioritizing the defense of revolutions all over the world presently under attack by our government—from Cuba to Venezuela to China—and stopping U.S. fossil fuel emissions that threaten mass death in Sub-Saharan Africa from droughts, floods, and famines.
And as we work to figure out our own forms of organization and struggle, a reading of the history of the Soviet Union and the communist experience places real challenges before us that we must face. As the U.S. has become a police state all over the world and inside its borders, and more than 1 million Black people are in prison, we must ask what our plan is to confront the U.S. army and the police state. If we believe a systematic revolutionary struggle is needed, what are the plans to build a disciplined organization like the communists were able to do? And what sacrifices are each of us willing to make for the revolution?
As we talk about socialism and revolution, I think it would be helpful to talk about “Anti-imperialist socialism” and even an “Anti-imperialist eco socialism” rather than a “21st century socialism.” I do not believe we can “socialize” U.S. fascist imperialism—without creating National Socialism—the formulation of the German fascists.
I think that Black revolutionary thought and the very impressive work of Black communists and friends of the Soviet Union can be a critical building block for that conversation. I have compiled some quotes by the great Black pro-communist Paul Robeson who addressed the question of his own allegiances in the most direct and revolutionary manner. After World War II, Robeson, seeing the danger of a U.S. war against the Soviet people, argued that Black people should not fight in a U.S. war against the Soviet Union. For that he was punished by the U.S. government and driven into exile in his own land. Robeson stood up to the fascists with full revolutionary clarity.
“Yes, all Africa remembers that it was [Soviet ambassador Litvinov who stood alone beside Haile Selassie (emperor of Ethiopia) in Geneva in 1935 when Mussolini’s sons flew with the blessings of the Pope to drop bombs on Ethiopian women and children. Africa remembers that it was the Soviet Union which fought the attempts of the Smuts to annex Southwest Africa to the slave reservation of the Union of South Africa… if the peoples of the Congo refuse to mine the uranium for the atom bombs made in Jim Crow factories in the United States; if all these peoples demand an end to floggings, an end to the farce of ‘trusteeship’ in the former Italian colonies . . . The Soviet Union is the friend of the African and the West Indian peoples.”
“In Russia, I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington…My father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?”
“Whatever has happened to Stalin, gentlemen, is a question for the Soviet Union . . . You are responsible, and your forebears, for 60 million to 100 million black people dying in the slave ships and on the plantations, and don’t ask me about anybody, please.”
As we try to rebuild a New Left in the U.S. at a time of such profound international ecological, spiritual, economic, social, and political crisis, I hope that we in the United States study the history of the Russian Revolution, and the century of communist parties that it generated, with respect, affection, introspection, self-criticism, and innovation. It was Dr. King, continuing Robeson’s tradition, who spoke out against the U.S. genocidal war in Vietnam, called the communist revolutionaries in Vietnam his brothers and sisters, confronted “the cowardice in my own bosom” for not having spoken out forcefully against the war, and called the U.S. government, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
I would like to thank the Russian and Soviet people for the great sacrifices they have made to move history forward. On this, the 105th Anniversary of the October Russian Revolution, I want to challenge myself to be a better revolutionary and a better organizer.