African-American Socialist Pioneer

Against the Current, No. 144, January/February 2010

Clarence Lang

Hubert Harrison:
The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918
By Jeffrey B. Perry
New York: Columbia University Press, 2009,
624 pages, $37.50 cloth.

IN HOLDING ALOFT the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America, Winston James singled out Hubert Henry Harrison for his “pioneering role in what became known as the New Negro radicalism of the 1920s.” Yet, James noted, Harrison remained an understudied figure who had not been the subject of a major biography.

In his narratively rich and exhaustively researched Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, independent scholar and activist Jeffrey B. Perry — who also edited A Hubert Harrison Reader (Wesleyan University Press, 2001, reviewed by Allen Ruff in ATC 108) — goes far in making up for this negligence. Presented as the first of two volumes, the book establishes Harrison as a “freethinking, Black, Caribbean-born, race- and class-conscious, working-class intellectual-activist” who paved the way for radicalism as a cogent tendency in African-American political thought in the 20th century. (3)

Harrison’s obscurity stems from the fact that, relative to contemporaries such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, Cyril V. Briggs and Richard Moore, his career was brief and limited to Harlem.

As Perry explains, Harrison also mismanaged money and organizational matters, which left him impoverished and bereft of a stable organizational base. Moreover, he earned the enmity of peers due to his sharp, critical intellect, as well as a noted penchant for indiscriminate philandering.

Yet as Perry chronicles, Harrison was heralded in his own time as Harlem’s leading street orator and lecturer. Serving for a time as the New York Socialist Party’s principal Black organizer and theoretician during its heyday, he subsequently became the chief architect of the short-lived Liberty League of Negro Americans and The Voice, both early vehicles of New Negro militancy.

“[T]he most class conscious of the race radicals, and the most race conscious of the class radicals,” as Perry describes him, his genius lay in his unwavering attention to rigorous study, popular education and mass agitation. (17)

Harrison heavily influenced not only Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and its newspaper Negro World, but also The Messenger edited by Randolph and Owen, and The Crusader and African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) founded by Briggs. That the leadership of the Black Nationalist UNIA and the Black radical ABB became mutually antagonistic, while owing a common debt to Harrison, illustrates the intersection between these two political currents, and his role in bridging and embodying them.

Harrison’s Road to Socialism

In his lengthy yet fast-moving account, Perry examines Harrison’s birth and formative years in St. Croix, Danish West Indies, his migration to New York City as a youth, and his intellectual development and political maturation. Like many Caribbean migrants of his generation, Harrison was highly literate and an enthusiastic bibliophile.

Because of his upbringing in a colonial context in which “coloreds” existed as an intermediate stratum between Black Crucians and a white minority, Harrison was also sensitive to the intricate relationship between race and class. Imbued with a Black majority consciousness, moreover, he was unprepared for the brutal system of U.S. racial apartheid that had emerged from the wreckage of Reconstruction and marked the period as a nadir for African Americans. These factors all predisposed him to anti-imperialist and anti-racist ideas.

Settling into the city’s Black working-class life, Harrison became a fixture in debate clubs and newspaper editorial pages. His published criticisms of Booker T. Washington made him a target of the Tuskegee Machine, whose reach was long enough to strip him of his steady postal job.

Drawn to the freethought movement through its adherence to scientific methodology, Harrison in due time accepted the rational, evolutionary underpinnings of socialism. His accompanying awareness of race and racism as shifting, sociohistorical realities also conditioned a new consciousness of the possibility of ending white supremacy through social action.

Harrison became a full-time agitator for the Socialists around 1911, but was quickly soured by their class reductionism and relative apathy toward Black group interests. In his view, this was key to the party’s deficiencies on other issues including industrial unionism, immigration, and direct action.

Harrison became a left-wing party dissident who sided with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and its advocacy of sabotage and revolutionary change, which fueled his involvement in the Paterson, New Jersey Silk Workers’ Strike of 1913. Most importantly for the trajectory of Black radical history, he came to regard Black freedom struggle as an independent and constitutive element in the fight for radical social transformation, and the “Negro Question” as the hinge on which this change would pivot.

In the years following Harrison’s death, this position would become an article of faith among diverse segments of the Left, encompassing the Communist International’s “Black Belt” thesis in 1928, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States” by the Trinidadian-born Trotskyist C.L.R. James in 1948, Oliver C. Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race, and the activism of Detroit radicals James and Grace Lee Boggs in the 1960s.

Black Liberation

By 1914, when Harrison had departed the Socialist Party, and as the cataclysm of the First World War ignited his international consciousness, he had begun an independent trajectory focused on a vision of a modern militant, race-conscious Black leadership.

Inspired by Ireland’s Easter Rebellion and Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, Harrison’s emerging new methodology of struggle emphasized armed self-defense over peaceful petitioning, and privileged mass political education over a dependence on DuBois’s “Talented Tenth” elite.

Perry argues strenuously that Harrison adopted this “race first” approach not in refutation of his socialist principles, but rather as a component of a fluid strategy for achieving a racially democratic socialist society — an approach consistent with the Bolsheviks’ position on the “National Question.”

“For Harrison, the key to the class question and to class unity was the breaking down of white racial solidarity and the system of racial oppression,” the author states in one of the book’s most critical paragraphs. A “generally consistent class radical,” Harrison nonetheless “concluded that U.S. progressives would have to go through race to get to class.” (280)

The volume concludes in the summer of 1918, when Harrison’s prominence as a leader reached its zenith in the convening of the Liberty Congress in Washington, D.C. Garvey eclipsed him soon after, in part due to the latter’s genius for self-promotion, his single-minded focus on organization building, and his amenability to capitalism, which during this period of state-sponsored reaction made him “politically safer” to would-be allies than Harrison. (334)

A progenitor of internationalist pan-Africanism, Harrison also differed in his stance on African self-determination. Recognizing the war as part of a European scramble for empire, he rejected the premise, shared by Garvey and an older generation of Black Nationalists, that Black people in the New World had the responsibility of “civilizing” the African continent through resettlement.

Although the Liberty League was minor in comparison to the UNIA, Perry carefully documents how it supplied many of the early members and leaders who would play influential roles in the Garvey movement. “It was not simply that Garvey pulled members away from the Liberty League,” he notes. “He was also deeply influenced by them.” (337)

Even the red, black and green flag popularized by the UNIA — today recognized as the colors of the Black Liberation Movement — was, according to Perry, a reinterpretation of an earlier black, brown and yellow emblem of the Liberty League.

Independent Black Radicalism

Perry has rendered a painstakingly detailed, yet highly readable biography attuned to both social and intellectual history. Perfect for scholars of the New Negro Movement and students of Black Nationalism more generally, Hubert Harrison also contributes immensely to recovering the Black radical tradition. Like Winston James, Robin D. G. Kelley, Mark Solomon, Mark Naison, Barbara Ransby, Minkah Makalani and others, the author is committed to documenting the history of an independent Black radicalism inclusive of, yet much larger than, the organized Left.

Bringing Harrison from the margins further remaps the terrain of early 20th-century Black radicalism, moving it to the left of more well-known icons such as DuBois and Randolph (Harrison’s scathing attacks on both DuBois and The Messenger group paints them as indecisive political dilettantes in comparison.)

To the extent that Harrison’s life “offers profound insights for thinking about race, class, religion, immigration, war, democracy, and social change in America” at this current historical juncture, as Perry claims, this work should also appeal to activists engaged in today’s social justice efforts. (3)

The author strongly identifies with his subject for good reason, though at times he veers too closely toward hagiography. This is leavened, however, by Perry’s unflinching accounts of Harrison’s numerous affairs, his deficiencies as a helpmate to his spouse and a reliable parent to his children, and his overall double standards regarding sex roles.

In this regard, Harrison paradoxically affirmed his freethought views, as with his open advocacy of birth control and disdain for marriage; and contradicted them, as in his approach to “studying, thinking, and writing equaling a man’s work and care for the children a woman’s work.” (221) Although his recognition of Harrison’s gender blind spot is not always woven into his overall evaluation of him, Perry does vividly portray his subject’s masculinist politics.

Many will dispute Perry’s depiction of Marcus Garvey as a pale imitator of Harrison. Others will take issue with his central claim that the New Negro Movement, a multifaceted and multiregional phenomemon, was the offspring of an exceptional Harlemite.

Among other things, this implicitly reinforces the problematic thesis of Harlem as the center of Black political and cultural innovation. It also creates the risk of drawing too straight a line from Harrison to his many “descendants,” who — like him — grappled in historically specific ways with the unique circumstances of their day.

Further, a small handful of specialists will contend that Harrison became more narrowly nationalist over time, and that some of his contemporaries actually moved further left than he did. Still, the author has provided a well-drawn and compelling portrait of someone deserving of much more study and debate. Perry’s second volume on Harrison will be well worth the wait.

ATC 144, January-February 2010