Hubert Harrison: Key Link in the Two Great Trends of the Black Liberation Movement
A review by Larry A. Greene
In the first quarter of the 20th century, the major, competing trends of Black American political thought were already in vivid evidence: Black nationalist and socialist tendencies vied with corporate-backed accommodation. In Harlem, an extraordinary St. Croix-born activist-thinker named Hubert Harrison emerged on the scene, described as “more race conscious than [A. Philip] Randolph and more class conscious than [Marcus] Garvey.”
Hubert Harrison: Key Link in the Two Great Trends of the Black Liberation Movement
A review by Larry A. Greene
This article originally appeared in New Politics.
“The Life and Times of Hubert Harrison: A Forgotten Synthesis of African-American Socialism and Black Nationalism,” Review of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 by Jeffrey B. Perry (Columbia University Press, 2009).
“One of the many strengths of the Perry biography is the detailed exposition of the transformation of Harrison from a socialist to both a socialist and Black Nationalist.”
Hubert Harrison emerged in the first two decades of the twentieth century as one of the leading voices of Harlem radicals rejecting American claims to an egalitarian democratic heritage and commitment to such a future based on the undeniable persistence of massive racial and class inequalities. Jeffrey Perry’s exhaustive biography of Hubert Harrison elevates the lesser-known Harrison to the stature he so richly deserves as one of America’s most perceptive public intellectuals on the critically intertwined issues of American democracy, race relations, and class structure. Harrison, a St. Croix immigrant from the Virgin Islands, was one of the first to combine the divergent strands of socialism and Black Nationalism. Hubert Harrison emerges as the principal black spokesman for the Socialist Party in its heyday in the early twentieth century. His ability to articulate a coherent philosophy synthesizing essentially a class and racial analysis was unique among Harlem radicals and “soap box orators” on its major thoroughfare of 125th Street. A future second volume will explore Harrison’s life from 1919 through the apex of the Garvey movement and the Harlem Renaissance till his death in 1927.
In this volume, Perry explores the interaction, cooperation, and conflicts between intellectuals and radicals such as A. Philip Randolph, John E. Bruce, Arturo Schomburg, Cyril Briggs, and others in pre-Marcus Garvey Harlem. Against this background of contending local leaders and intellects in the cultural capital of black America, Harrison will distinguish himself as a preeminent thinker analyzing the philosophical and tactical positions of nationally known black leaders like the Harvard trained historian W.E.B. Du Bois and the president of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington. He examines the protest-oriented philosophy of Du Bois and the less militant, more accommodating approach of Washington to segregation, political disfranchisement, and lynching. While critical of the Du Bois concept of the “Talented Tenth” of a college educated elite leading the black masses into the promised land, Harrison was even more critical of the accommodationist approach of Washington, which he saw as little more than collaborationist. Harrison, throughout his debates with his Harlem counterparts and the “Tuskegee Machine,” remained true to his core beliefs of socialism, race consciousness, and committed “free thinker” unfettered from the confines of orthodox religious thought. As Perry so cogently notes, Harrison was “more race conscious than Randolph [a socialist] and more class conscious than Garvey [a nationalist]” and was the “key link in the ideological unity of the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement — the labor and civil rights trend associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the race and nationalist trend associated with Malcolm X.” (p.5)
“While critical of the Du Bois concept of the ‘Talented Tenth,’ Harrison was even more critical of the accommodationist approach of Washington, which he saw as little more than collaborationist.”
Harrison became the chief black organizer, activist, and theoretician of the Socialist Party in New York City during its peak in the 1912 election. He was the only black speaker at the landmark Patterson Silk strike that had such leftists and International Workers of the World (IWW) notables as “Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, and Patrick Quinlan. Eventually, Harrison will part company with the Socialist Party over their failure to aggressively address the issue of white racism both within the party and nationally as well as their indifference to the recruitment of black workers into the party. As Winston James noted in his excellent study of Caribbean radicalism in twentieth century America, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, “American socialism did not keep faith with Hubert Harrison, Harrison kept faith with socialism.”1 The Socialist Party, according to James, “did not keep faith with the radical egalitarianism of Marx,” and for some black socialists like Harrison, “black nationalism was the last resort of a black socialist in a racist land where race is elevated above social class in politics as well as in social life.”2 One of the many strengths of the Perry biography is the detailed exposition of the transformation of Harrison from a socialist to both a socialist and Black Nationalist, who while not rejecting socialism will put race first in the organizing of black workers and the black community.
The Perry study is a comprehensive biography of Harrison which explores his genealogical and educational roots in St. Croix and his early intellectual development in St. Benedict’s Lyceum, a Roman Catholic church, with an interracial congregation and St. Mark’s Lyceum, a black Methodist Episcopal church, after his 1900 arrival in New York. It was through the lyceums that Harrison deepened his exposure to the philosophical and historical traditions of Europe, America, and Africa. Through Perry’s detailed analysis of the Harrison critique of capitalism and racism in the United States, we witness the maturation of a serious working class intellect and his intellectual evolution toward socialism. Of particular importance is a five part series of articles beginning in 1911 that Harrison wrote for the Call, the Socialist Party newspaper in New York, which contains some of his most trenchant writings on racism, capitalism, and socialism.
“We witness the maturation of a serious working class intellect and his intellectual evolution toward socialism.”
In his first article entitled, “The Negro and Socialism,” Harrison asserts that the so-called “Negro Problem” is not one of “social adjustment” or social control of relationships, and he rejected the argument of a biological basis for racism based on the idea of superior and inferior groups. Rather, Harrison found the roots of racism, like that of the class struggle, in economic relationships related to the means of production. Harrison clearly asserts a “materialist” basis for the emergence of white supremacy ideology rooted in slavery and the need to rationalize that exploitative superior ordinate and subordinate nature of black-white relationships derived from that institution. The contradictions between the democratic rhetoric of the Enlightenment as manifested in the founding documents of American republic — the Declaration of Independence and Constitution — necessitated the designation of blacks as racial inferiors undeserving of the democratic and egalitarian rights of the nation and consigned by God and nature to slavery.
In his second article, “Race Prejudice,” Harrison argued that racism had economic causes and that capitalists deliberately fostered race prejudice, which divided workers along racial lines to the benefit of capitalism and the detriment of workers. It was in the interest of employers to maintain the inferior economic status of African-American workers and to use them as a source of cheap low wage labor to threaten the unionization and striking tactics of white labor. This pitting of black and white workers against each other, according to Harrison, kept the wage level as low as possible. In asserting this line of analysis, Harrison challenged the defenders of white supremacy who maintained that racial prejudice was innate and based on a natural aversion of the superior white race to the intellectual and moral degeneracy of the inferior races as seen in African-Americans. Certainly, this belief system was manifest in the speeches of southern politicians like James K. Vardaman, writers like Thomas Dixon in his novel, The Clansman (1902), and in D.W. Griffith’s movie, Birth of a Nation (1915).
“It was in the interest of employers to maintain the inferior economic status of African-American workers and to use them as a source of cheap low wage labor to threaten the unionization and striking tactics of white labor.”
Harrison’s third article, “The Duty of the Socialist Party,” in the Call series called upon the party to condemn racial prejudice and reject what he termed “southernisms” or the ideology of Southern Jim Crow with its demands for racial segregation, disfranchisement of black voters, and anti-black pogroms throughout the South. The historic mission of the Socialist Party was to unite all workers across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. This duty involved the reeducation of white workers about the threats to their economic well being from racism, and it dictated that the party reach out to and aggressively recruit black workers. Harrison did not believe that socialism would immediately remove all racial prejudice, but he did think it would reduce the oppression on white workers and their susceptibility to racist propaganda and use as a tool to repress blacks. Perry cogently notes, Harrison considered this “duty” of the Socialist Party to be sacred and virtually a litmus test of sincerity, commitment, and ideology. In a following article, “How to Do It — And How Not,” Harrison gave advice warning against paternalism and condescension in addressing and recruiting black workers and urged party members to treat them as they would any white workers. In “Summary and Conclusion,” the fifth and concluding article in the series, Harrison believed that a trans-racial workingclass movement held out the promise of a socialist victory over capitalism and racism. In 1911, Harrison was optimistic and saw social, economic, and racial justice on the horizon. Perry’s close reading of the writings of Hubert Harrison results in a clear and through analysis of his political philosophy.
In the following presidential election year of 1912, Perry explores the evolving political thought of Harrison in a discussion of a new set of articles by Harrison which appeared in the Chicago based International Socialist Review amid a growing, but not fully manifest tension between Harrison and the Socialist Party, which masked his simmering disillusionment with the party. In an article taking off on Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” Harrison’s “Black Man’s Burden” depicted the suffering of African-Americans under white over-lordship. Over eight million African-Americans were disfranchised in sixteen Southern states by fraud and force, lacking political rights to protect their economic rights (i.e. property and jobs). Part two of the “Black Man’s Burden” demonstrated how the southern state school segregation laws contributed to the underfunding, creation of industrial education or “labor-caste schools” and miseducation of African-Americans. In these two articles, Harrison aimed a devastating critique at the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which publicly eschewed voting rights and a liberal arts college/university education. Washington’s lieutenants had successfully conspired to obtain the removal of Harrison from his $1,000 a year job at the post office for two anti-Washington articles in the New York Sun newspaper, thus causing great economic hardship to Harrison’s family. Harrison’s final article in the International Socialist Review, “Socialism and the Negro,” was based on an earlier pro-IWW speech, in which he asserted African-Americans rather than constituting a reactionary hindrance to socialism, as some socialist theorists like Algie Simmons and Charles Vail claimed, were indeed the key component in the struggle by the American proletariat without which socialism in America stood little chance.
“Harrison aimed a devastating critique at the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which publicly eschewed voting rights and a liberal arts college/university education.”
Perry’s detailed description of the Socialist Party failure to confront racism within its own ranks and nationally is quite convincing and explains Harrison’s continued criticism and his eventual suspension by the party in 1914. Despite the logic of Harrison’s analysis of the intertwined race and class problem in America, the Socialist Party was moving in a more conservative and even racist direction. The Socialist Party right wing triumphed over the left IWW members in the party, ended the Colored Socialist Club in New York, pushed through majority and minority reports at the 1912 party convention, which banned Asian immigration, and refused to take aggressive action in support of African-American recruitment. Southern white socialists supported segregated organizing and Harrison’s relentless denunciation of what he called “southernisms” placed him on the collision course with the party.
From this experience, Harrison will enter a Black Nationalistic phase in his political evolution in which he will place “Race first” before class as an organizing principle in the black community. Harrison will play a founding role in the organization of the Liberty League and its weekly publication, The Voice. He will embrace black self-determination, organizational autonomy, and black leadership for black organizations, unlike the predominantly white-led National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Harrison’s involvement in the “New Negro Manhood Movement,” a belated precursor to the Harlem Renaissance, as a cultural theorist and literary reviewer is examined by the author. Perry’s work covers new ground in demonstrating Harrison’s role in establishing some of the ideological principles of Harlem newcomers and fellow public orators, Marcus Garvey, and his nationalistic Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and young socialists, A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen. Garvey’s Negro World newspaper and the Randolph and Owen magazine, The Messenger, both borrow from Harrison. Harrison will be eclipsed by the more dynamic Garvey and although for a time will assume an editorial role at the Negro World, Harrison will continue to harbor some repressed resentment at being superseded by Garvey in the hearts of the Harlem masses.
“Southern white socialists supported segregated organizing.”
The author, in exploring with great thoroughness the political evolution of Hubert Harrison from Socialist Party spokesman and organizer to Black Nationalist activist, has raised significant questions about the ineffectiveness of the left in America and the estrangement of some its more devoted followers. Harrison’s suspension and disconnect from the Socialist Party parallels the estrangement of later black intellectuals like George Padmore and Harold Cruse from the Communist Party. Caribbean radicals did not arrive in New York with a socialist orientation. It was the more blatant and intense racism that they experienced in the United States as they moved from a majority status to a minority status compared to the Caribbean that steered many in this direction and generated the desire to form ethnic political alliances, according to Joyce Moore Turner in her highly informative study of Caribbean activists in Harlem.3 Certainly, the 1910s and World War I years were radical times of assertive dissent. Yet, the estrangement of black socialists and later black communists suggest that the left did not always hear their black members, either out of a myopic ideological commitment to a political analysis that did not consider the interplay of both class and race factors in shaping the American political landscape, or a kind of racial arrogance that relegated black members to the periphery of the policy making process. For some black members, this estrangement resulted in the integration into the American political mainstream, and for others, it meant the pursuit of another strain of political radicalism, Black Nationalism. Harrison is different from some of the disillusioned in that his embrace of Black Nationalism did not mean a rejection of socialism, but a rejection of the Socialist party.
Scholars and students of Harlem, Afro-American, and Afro-Caribbean history in the United States are indeed indebted to Jeffrey Perry for this magisterial study of Hubert Harrison whom A. Philip Randolph called the “Father of Harlem Radicalism.” Volume one of this biography should be read in conjunction with Perry’s edited volume of Harrison’s writings, A Hubert Harrison Reader.4 Readers will eagerly await volume two of Perry’s biography as he takes the Hubert Harrison saga from 1919 to his death in 1927, covering Harrison involvement with Garvey, the Harlem Renaissance, and other political and cultural currents in black America.
Larry A. Greene is professor of history at Seton Hall University. A Fulbright Fellow at the University of Muenster in Germany during 2005-2006, he is the co-editor of Slavery: Its Origins and Legacy, co-author of The New Jersey African-American Curriculum Guide, co-editor of the forthcoming book, German and African-American Encounters.
1. Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America (London: Verso, 1998), 126.
2. Ibid., 127,128.
3. Joyce Moore Turner, Caribbean Crusaders and the Harlem Renaissance (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 43.
4. Jeffrey Perry, ed., A Hubert Harrison Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001).
Editor's Note..... For more info about Hubert Harrison, the place to visit is http://jeffreybperry.net, the web site of Dr. Jeffrey B. Perry. Perry is author of the definitive collection of Harrison's works, as well as the first volume of his biography. We wish him health, energy and a long enough life to finish the second volume.