Red International and Black Caribbean: Communists in New York City, Mexico and the West Indies, 1919-1939, by Margaret Stevens, Pluto Press, 2017.
By MARTY GOODMAN
Margaret Stevens is one of the few writers to examine the fascinating revolutionary history of the Caribbean and Mexico as a partisan of revolution. Her book is a detailed look at the struggles and betrayals between the two World Wars at the hands of U.S. and British racism and imperialism. Stevens deserves praise for her pioneering work, which is surely a revelation to many North Americans, ignorant of past struggles in the Caribbean.
Her ground breaking book details how Caribbean Communist parties and movements challenged the almost overwhelming power and viciousness of the imperial powers. In addition, Stevens documents how communist movements were profoundly affected by the rightward shifts of the Stalin leadership in the Soviet Union.
Stevens weaves a fascinating, but also tragic story, particularly concerning Haiti, but, there are some missteps in her overall narrative that I will leave until the end.
Besides Cuba, no other country in the Caribbean has confronted racism and imperialism. And, as Stevens correctly frames it, overcoming both is the task of the Caribbean Black working class itself.
For 400 years, the Caribbean was cast into the hell of slavery only to be replaced by neo-colonialism, capitalist exploitation and racism. Stevens’ focus is on the resistance organized in the post-WWI period by the Communist 3rd International of worker’s parties, established in 1919 by Russia’s revolutionary government led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
In the Western hemisphere, the 3rd International was first headquartered in Mexico City by the Mexican Communist Party, which had united in 1925, if not before. The MCP contributed toward the unification of the Cuban communists in 1925; in Haiti in 1930 (others say 1934) and in Puerto Rico in 1935.
In 1926, the 3rd International moved from Mexico to New York City, under the guidance of the Communist Party U.S.A (CPUSA). Cuban Communist Party leader Blas Roca said this about the U.S. party, “The CPUSA was instrumental in supporting the CP of Puerto Rico upon its inception…just as it had been for the parties founded in Mexico, Haiti, and Cuba.”
The English speaking islands however, Jamaica, Trinidad-Tobago, the Bahamas, St. Kitts, and St. Vincent, although shaken by powerful anti-racist, anti-colonial worker’s struggles, as documented by Stevens, they did not establish communist parties between WWI and WWII.
Spurred by the Communist International, the US party played an outsized role in anti-racist campaigns throughout the hemisphere, although insufficiently in the minds of several Black C.P. leaders, with which the author agrees.
By 1930, reports indicate, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) had grown to 14,000 members at the start of the global depression, 900 of them Afro American.
Harlem’s newspapers like the Crusader, Machete and the Emancipator and organizations like the African Blood Brotherhood contributed mightily to the ferment of the “Harlem renaissance” and with it a new sense of identity, from the “Back to Africa” movement of Marcus Garvey to revolutionary socialism.
Important too was the assistance to the development of the CP’s in Puerto Rico and Cuba (CPC) by New York’s Spanish Harlem radicals. Likewise, Haitian communists living in NYC played an outsized role in developing a Communist movement in Haiti.
In 1931, a catalyzing struggle for these early communist parties, in addition to the anti-fascist struggle in Spain, was the international movement to free the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine African American young men living in Alabama framed-up on racist charges of raping two white women. Large international protests were organized, in the U.S. but notably also in the mostly Black Oriente Province of Cuba and Haiti.
Important also was the fight to free the Afro-Cuban, Junco Sandalio, a prominent Communist labor leader, who bore the nickname, “The Negro Champion.” Solidarity rallies were also organized by the CP in the U.S. Once freed, Sandalio was forced to flee to Mexico.
These major campaigns were supported by the influential American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), International Labor Defense (ILD), and the All-American Anti-Imperialist League (AAAIL), all CPUSA aligned or CPUSA influenced organizations one degree or another.
Within Cuba, says Stevens, the CPUSA’s Black leader James Ford played an outsized role in the rise of the 1926 Soviet-style Realengo 18 or Commune 18 in the mostly Black Oriente Province in Cuba and in the 1933 Cuban “revolution.”
In Haiti, a struggle erupted to free Jacques Roumain, a founder of the Haitian Communist Party and author of the classic Haiti novel, “Masters of the Dew.” Roumain agitated for Black identity and solidarity with the Scottsboro boys and was arrested in 1933 in an anti-communist crackdown. After his release Roumain moved to Paris where he worked with well-known Cuban communist and poet Nicolas Guillen, Harlem poet Langston Hughes and Spanish Civil War anti-fascists.
As surprising as it may to some, Haiti once loomed large on the U.S. Left. Of great importance was opposition to the bloody U.S. Marine occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). Otto Huiswood, head of the CP USA’s ‘Negro Department’ told organizers, “To mobilize the party …to hold mass protest meetings and also to demonstrate against the action taken by the Hoover administration in Haiti.” Stevens observed, “Invoking Haiti as a site of resistance was strategically necessary precisely because it doubly exposed the harsh realities of American empire overseas and racist super-exploitation of black laborers in the U.S. itself.”
In December 1929, Haitian workers stoned U.S. Marines in a multi-day battle in which five peasants were shot and killed. In response, on Dec. 14, the CPUSA organized an angry mass protest of an estimated 5,000 in New York’s City Hall plaza against the occupation and the repression of mass strikes and protests. (See fascinating article http://www.NY Times.com, 12/15/29).
Among the 17 listed arrested at City Hall was CP leader James Ford. Among those brutalized by cops was Haitian CPUSA leader Henri Rosemund, knocked unconscious. Rosemund was perhaps the most prominent political leader in New York’s big needle trade strike in early 1929. Utilizing his links between New York’s CP and immigrant communities, Rosemund mobilized his Haitian base within the Haitian Patriotic Union and the Anti-Imperialist League to launch a protest of some 5,000 women in Haiti in opposition to the arrival of a U.S. “Commission” to investigate “human rights violations.” The protests later grew up to 30,000.
The CPUSA’s “Daily Worker” newspaper loudly proclaimed, “Stand by the Haitian Revolution!” In the month after the City Hall demo over 100 Haitians joined the CP in New York.
Of great importance for the CPUSA was the concept of a “Black belt” homeland in the deep U.S. South, a concept promulgated in 1928 by Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, four years after the death of USSR leader, Vladimir Lenin.
A “Black belt” did indeed exist within the former slave-owning U.S. South, and, according to the CPUSA, it extended into the Caribbean, encompassing the Black majority in Oriente in eastern Cuba, a region of militant labor struggles. As Stevens notes, Stalin’s concept was mechanically adopted as a key demand for Black “self-determination,” without bothering to consult the U.S. Black masses about their own liberation, i.e., integrate or live within a separate territory, despite Northern migration.
Indeed, Oriente was a hotbed. Sugar workers seized control of U.S. sugar estates several times in 1933 and supported the 1935 General Strike. Mass deportations of militant Jamaican sugar workers – some known as the “Red guards” – and Haitian workers began in 1933, with Washington’s blessing.
ROOSEVELT: THE IMPERIALIST AS A “GOOD NEIGHBOR”
As the author explains, the “Black Belt” was increasingly forgotten as Stalin’s “Popular Front” strategy lurched rightward following the triumph of Hitler in 1933. To strategically preserve the endangered USSR, Stalin and his followers looked to pressure Western so-called “democracies” and capitalist politicians for aid in thwarting Nazi aggression. Hardly “democracies” however, the West controlled a rapacious worldwide imperialist system that included colonies in the British West Indies and Puerto Rico, as well as vast portions of Africa and Asia. Of course, Wall Street and the other Western imperialists cared little for the fate of the world’s first worker’s state.
During the Popular Front years, the CP’s were not merely trying to pressure “democratic” capitalist governments and dissing revolution, but supporting, at least initially, capitalist governments themselves in Cuba (Fulgencio Batista), the Dominican Republic (Rafael Trujillo) and Haiti (Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier). Some prominent CP’ers joined capitalist governments as individuals (“Papa Doc and the TonTon Macoutes,” Diederich and Burt, 1968).
Cuba’s Batista even praised the CPC in 1939 as, “Promoters of democracy.” Stevens observed that, “Batista would become the champion of communists.”
In the U.S., the C.P. embraced the liberal millionaire, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his racist Democratic Party – the party of Southern apartheid! – dubbing it “anti-fascist.” To deter revolution in the Western Hemisphere FDR announced his “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933 to distract attention from the bitter memory of dozens of U.S. backed coups and military occupations, “legitimized” by Washington’s infamous “Monroe Doctrine” and “Platt Amendment.”
Liberal icon Roosevelt, during the bloody U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-34) and the ensuing guerilla war waged by the “Cacos,” was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and supported the unobstructed U.S. rule over Haiti (Stevens) and even going so far as to brag that he wrote the 1918 Haitian constitution! As President, Roosevelt withdrew from Haiti in 1934, but only after the murder of thousands of Haitian patriots.
As the book’s author put it, “The CPUSA and Communists across the Hemisphere were averse to challenging very directly the leadership of the “Good Neighbors” in the White House and other ruling elites in the region.”
CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST?
By 1935, the Cuban CP backed a “reform” capitalist politician, Grau San Martin, who supported a “50% law” that sought the chauvinist exclusion of non-Cubans workers, forcing the emigration of Jamaicans and Haitians – all with the CPC’s “critical” support. Many Haitians fled to find work in the sugar fields of what became the ‘killing fields’ of the Dominican Republic to find work.
The 50% law resulted in a chain of events that led to the horrific mass murder in 1937 of up to some 14,000 Haitians (Stevens), others say up to 30,000 Haitians.
The U.S. trained, hideously racist, Dominican Republic (DR) dictator, Rafael Trujillo, ordered a bloodbath of Haitians entering along the Haiti/Dominican Republic border in 1937. Stevens quotes an Oct. 2 rant by Trujillo promising to rid the D.R. of, “Dogs, hogs and Haitians.” The DR’s military, cops and civilian racist goons used bayonets, machetes, clubs and knives, throwing dead Haitians into piles or into the sea. Afterwards, “Good Neighbor” Roosevelt and his administration politely addressed the D.R government butchers by framing the massacre as a regrettable, i.e., forgettable, “controversy.”
The CPUSA did little in response to the massacre, wrote the author. Stevens called it, “a retreat from the anti-racist commitments of yesteryear.”
Unfortunately, Stevens cites Grover Furr as a guide to her research, a Rutgers professor who specializes in white-washing the post-Lenin dictatorship of Joseph Stalin and his privileged bureaucratic caste. The Stalin machine murdered the old leadership of the Russian Revolution, smashed worker’s democracy and betrayed revolution world-wide, including in the Caribbean. Furr’s contribution, she says, “deeply contributed” to the book.
Stevens notes Lenin’s passing in the book without assessing its impact on the politics of the rapidly bureaucratizing post-Lenin regime. The challenge to Stalin’s reformism represented by the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union and the creation of the Fourth International in 1938, led by Leon Trotsky, was not mentioned at all by Stevens – not an accident.
Similarly, Stevens leaves out all reference to the brilliant Trinidad born Trotskyist C.L.R. James, who authored, amongst several books and plays, “The Black Jacobins,” (1938) the widely recognized classic history of the successful slave revolution in Haiti against the mighty French empire led by Napoleon Bonaparte. The Haitian revolution, which began in 1791 and triumphed in 1803, had no less a profound impact on world history, particularly within the racist U.S., than the Cuban revolution of 1959.
Stevens’ impressive mass of information lacks systematic conclusions, such as on the critical question of whether working class parties should support for capitalist governments. Was it right, even given the fascist threat? Readers would likely seek such answers in a book about revolution. When the worker’s movement supports its class enemy it always ends in defeat, if not disaster, just as the Caribbean example, and many others, have shown.
Lastly, I must point out that the book lacked information on the Haitian guerilla army known as the “Cacos,” led by resistance hero Charlemagne Peralte, who waged a relentless war on the U.S. Marine occupation until his murder by a U.S. assassin. Haiti’s armed resistance will forever remain a precious legacy for all anti-imperialists – no less so than Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Venezuela.
Nevertheless, and despite its serious faults, the “Red International and Black Caribbean” will remain a source book for anti-imperialists for years to come. I hope Stevens stays on the case.