The Vital Legacy of Hubert Harrison

Against the Current, No. 108, January/February 2004

Allen Ruff

A Hubert Harrison Reader
edited by Jeffrey B. Perry
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001) $24.95 paper.

FOR TOO LONG, much of the contemporary U.S. Left has remained uninformed of its predecessors, especially those African-American activists who demarcated an alternative to a mainstream leadership — whether that leadership was of accommodationist, moderately integrationist or separatist and nationalist character.

While innumerable volumes exist about W.E.B. DuBois and even Marcus Garvey — so much so that they’re commonly recognized within progressive circles as the outstanding “radicals” of an earlier era — few beyond a small number of specialists know anything about their African-American Left critics.

But now, the immense work by Jeffrey Perry has given us a glimpse into a hidden political terrain, the world of perhaps the most significant, influential Black leftist of the early 20th century, Hubert Harrison. Perry is an independent scholar and labor activist who has spent years excavating from obscurity Harrison’s biography and writings.

The subject of but a few shorter pieces found mainly in lesser known African-American historical journals, Harrison was widely known by his contemporaries, among both Black intelligentsia and the “common people” to whom he remained committed.

A brilliant writer, educator, critic and political activist described by some as the greatest street orator Harlem ever witnessed, Harrison immigrated to New York from St. Croix, the Virgin Islands in 1900, at the age of seventeen. Largely an autodidact, he earned a high school diploma by attending night school and working menial day jobs and won a job in the New York Post Office after graduation.

With his encyclopedic memory and ravenous hunger for learning, Hubert Harrison broke early on with “orthodox and institutional Christianity” to turn initially toward rationalism, free thought and eventually, to socialism. His activism as a lecturer,
street speaker, teacher and commentator soon accelerated.

In 1910, he wrote two letters criticizing Booker T. Washington, the most powerful Black leader at the time. Washington’s “Tuskeegee machine” cronies, in turn, had him fired from his postal job. Harrison had joined the Socialist Party in 1909, and that dismissal allowed him to take up full-time work for the party as an organizer.

He founded a Colored Socialist Club in Harlem, wrote for the New York Call, worked as an assistant editor of The Masses, campaigned for Eugene Debs in 1912 and gravitating toward the left pole within the SP, spoke alongside William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other Industrial Workers of the World during the famed Paterson Silk Workers’ Strike of 1913.

Class Unity and “Common Sense”

Harrison took on a materialist analysis of racism and remained a historical materialist long after he formally left the socialist movement. Viewing the “color line” as beneficial to capital and not in any workers’ class interest, he advanced the question of socialist organizing among Blacks.

He criticized racism within the unions, the same unions that often condemned the use of Black strike breakers. Critical of Booker Washington’s industrial education in “labor caste schools,” he prefigured DuBois in calls for socialists to champion the cause of African Americans as a key to revolutionary change.

Viewing Black workers as the most ruthlessly exploited strata of the working class, Harrison called for class unity “on the grounds of common sense and enlightened self interest,” and for the SP “to organize the Negroes of America in reference to the class struggle.”

Proposing that “the crucial test of Socialism’s sincerity was its duty to champion the cause of the African American,” Harrison came away disappointed.

Coming to the defense of the left-wing Bill Haywood during the SP in-house battle over “sabotage” and direct action in 1912-13 while remaining outspokenly critical of the evolutionist concession to racism in the Party’s platform position on the “Negro question” that year, Harrison soon came under attack by conservative elements dominant in the New York Party.

These forces soon moved to restrict his speaking and his livelihood as an organizer. Initially suspended, he finally left the party in 1914.

The New Negro Movement

In response to overall white supremacy and the “white first” practices encountered in the labor movement and the Socialist Party, Harrison moved by 1915-1916 to a “race first” position. Perry tells us that over the next few years, he came to serve as the founder and guiding light of what became known as the “New Negro Movement,” a race-conscious, internationalist, mass-based radical movement for “political equality, social justice, civic opportunity, and economic power.”

That movement laid the basis for the Garvey Movement. In 1917, as the World War raged in Europe and white race riots, lynching, Jim Crow and white supremacist ideology ruled in the United States, Harrison founded the Liberty League and its organ, The Voice, as radical alternatives to the NAACP’s gradualism — its paper protests, concerns with white people’s conceptions of how African Americans should act, and concentration on the “Talented Tenth” uplift.

Geared to “the common people,” Harrison’s League emphasized internationalism, political independence, and both class and race consciousness. In response to white supremacy, The Voice called for a “race first” approach of full equality, Federal anti-lynching legislation, enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, support of socialist and anti-imperialist causes and armed self defense in the face of racist attacks.

During the war, Harrison criticized DuBois’ call for African Americans to “close ranks” behind Woodrow Wilson’s war effort. He also exposed Dubois’ bid to become a captain in Military Intelligence, heavily involved in the surveillance of radicals in the African-American community.

Harrison was briefly associated with Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), becoming the editor of its paper, the Negro World, in 1920. Differences existed, however, and troubled by Garvey’s political style, his auto<->cratic mismanagement of the UNIA and the group’s return to Africa politics, Harrison broke with him in 1922.

Forging Black Identity

Irrepressible during the reactionary 1920s, Harrison spoke out against the resurgent Ku Klux Klan while working on a number of political, cultural and literary fronts to combat racism and to assert a constructive Black identity.

One of his most significant ventures was the International Colored Unity League (ICUL), an attempt “to do for the Negro the things which the Negro needs to have done without depending upon or waiting for the co-operative action of white people.”

Harrison’s ICUL program urged Blacks to develop “race consciousness” as a defensive measure and laid out social, political and economic improvement planks while calling for protest, collective self-reliance and cooperation.

Central to the ICUL strategy was a call for the establishment of “a Negro (sic) state, not in Africa [but] in the United States.” Harrison’s ICUL call for an autonomous Black state preceded a similar call put forward by the Communist International by four years.

Radical Internationalism

A mere biographical sketch cannot adequately convey who Hubert Harrison was. Only through his writings, drawn from numerous periodical sources and painstakingly compiled with richly detailed, informative commentary by Perry, can one acquire some true sense of this figure, once so influential and now all but forgotten.

The man was an internationalist and anti-imperialist. Some of the best pieces in the collection take up the issue of imperialist war and its meaning, especially for people of color. As such, they stand today as timely reminders of lessons gleaned from an earlier period of capitalist class adventurism abroad and accompanying racism.

Perhaps a pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will, Harrison also saw new opportunities and possibilities for the world’s oppressed coming off the end of the World War. In that, too, informative lessons can be drawn.

Harrison’s criticisms of the limitations of mainstream Black organizations, his contemporary left critique of Washington’s accommodationism, Dubois’ “Talented Tenth” gradualist concessions to a white “civil rights” establishment, and even of Garvey’s separatism, open up a richer understanding of the African-American activist tradition.

Most significantly, perhaps, the sections dealing with Harrison’s experience within the Socialist movement send today’s left some important historical messages regarding the failure to place race, the still pervasive presence of “the color line,” at the center of any socialist program.

A close read of Perry’s Harrison collection is well worth the while.

ATC 108, January-February 2004