American Socialists Have Grappled With Race From the Very Beginning

A new book torpedoes the familiar notion that 19th-century US socialists were indifferent toward race. While flawed, the “interracial internationalism” they espoused should be recognized as part of early socialism’s legacy.

African American workers take a break from their work on the railroad, 1938. (Buyenlarge / Getty Images)

For a century and a half, socialist movements in the United States have been dogged by the allegation that they fail to understand or properly address the complexity of racism. While socialism has surged in popularity in recent years, centrists and liberals have seized on socialism’s “race problem” as fuel for a host of self-serving distortions: that Marxism is inherently Eurocentric; that socialism is a “white movement” that “only cares about class”; that Bernie Sanders was unelectable because he lacked nonwhite support; and that because some New Deal programs were racially discriminatory, universal programs such as Medicare for All are somehow innately exclusionary or even racist.

Most of these are willful obfuscations — part of the liberal tendency to separate racial justice from economic justice and frame “anti-racism” in terms of moral reckoning and individual “work” rather than material redistribution. Others are sincere misunderstandings. Some are, however, rooted in demographic realities, made worse by deunionization, rampant segregation, and the decline of working-class institutions. Indeed, despite holding less racist attitudes than liberals, the disproportionately white, urban, and college-educated composition of present-day organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has exposed the barriers between socialists and other sections of the working class.

Socialists of all colors have largely attempted to address and overcome rather than sidestep these hurdles. They have done so through internal education and by spotlighting the rich, heterogenous tradition of black socialism, the essential role socialists played in anti-colonial struggle, and the many socialist experiments in the Global South. Socialists of color have refused to be whitewashed by the liberal commentariat, and contemporary debates regarding so-called identity politics have mostly spurred on racial justice work. In the case of DSA, they have furthered the growth of the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus and the recruitment of candidates of color.

The range of specific positions on race and class notwithstanding, US socialists today overwhelmingly regard the fight against racial oppression as crucial to the fight against capitalism.

Racialists and Internationalists

The path toward that position has been a long and meandering one. The standard telling goes like this: early US socialists were not interested in race. In fact, ideological dogmatism, isolation within Northern urban ethnic enclaves, black suspicion of white-led organizations, and the personal racism of members cut off socialists from African Americans’ struggle for their rights. Over time, this supposed indifference — embodied by Eugene Debs’s often-bastardized 1903 quote that the Socialist Party had “nothing special to offer the Negro” — slowly dissipated. Only with the American Communist Party of the 1930s — goaded by the Communist International — did US socialists fully accept racism as a central problem and develop coherent analyses of race and colonialism within global capitalism.

Lorenzo Costaguta’s Workers of All Colors Unite: Race and the Origins of American Socialism reveals that this conventional story is too pat. Tracing the role of race within the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) across the Gilded Age, from its origins among German American émigrés to its shift toward Americanization and fracture at the turn of the century, Costaguta argues that the “race question” was not ignored but fervently debated among early socialists. In doing so, he uncovers the dynamism of this dispute in an industrializing society where race and ethnicity held tremendous importance.

Costaguta, a historian at the University of Bristol, splits the early SLP into two broad camps. The first was “scientific racialism” — a grand theory of social conflict that saw humankind as a hierarchy of competing “races.” Influenced by social Darwinism and the ideas of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, advocates blended German naturalism and geographic determinism to posit that certain “natural laws” of race governed all human interaction. Socialism, they argued, must therefore accommodate these scales of human development, which they understood as cutting-edge science.

While many scientific racialists believed in the primacy of the “white” working class — a concept that matured in antebellum America as an ideational antithesis to enslaved black labor — others defied white supremacist conventions by calling for open borders and promoting the political organization of African Americans. Scientific racialists did not hate “nonwhite” people, but thought, absurdly and noxiously, that “ethnographic laws” made their extinction inevitable.

Peter H. Clark, book photograph,
Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens by Wendell P. Dabney, 1926. (Cincinnati History Library and Archive Cincinnati Museum Center / Wikimedia Commons)

Countering the scientific racialist position were the “race-blind” internationalists. Championed by Friedrich A. Sorge and Joseph P. McDonnell, and largely embraced by early industrial unionists such as the Knights of Labor, the internationalists argued that human divisions existed along material, not racial, lines. For them, interracial and interethnic conflicts were not biological or innate, but socially constructed, and they often endorsed and celebrated interracial unity. Rather than viewing “race” and “economics” as separate issues, internationalists such as Peter H. Clark of Cincinnati — the first black socialist to give a public speech in US history — believed that class and race exploitation were so tightly bound that socialism could offer a solution to both.

At the same time, interracial internationalists feared that the United States’ singularly diverse working class might permanently atomize by race, ethnicity, language, religion, and section. Their class-first (and often class-only) outlook sought to minimize that possibility. As such, Costaguta contends that these largely German American socialists expended almost no energy trying to understand the discrete conditions of black workers or why they remained viscerally tied to the Republican Party. The tragic failure of socialists (and of the labor movement generally) to comprehend and capitalize on the class implications of Reconstruction by connecting with black agricultural workers in the South was the partial result of this “color-blind” strategy.

Socialists and the Race Question

The SLP of the 1880s found itself adrift on matters of race — summed up in the parlance of the time as the “Chinese question,” the “Indian question,” the “Negro question,” etc. —  with leaders struggling to find a compromise between its two mismatched approaches. Party members seesawed between supporting free immigration for Chinese people and decrying the influx of “naturally servile” peoples from “enslaved” parts of the world. Most socialists rejected popular notions of Native American inferiority, even attacking US Indian policy with forceful anti-colonial arguments, but simultaneously romanticized Native society as pure and “untouched by capitalism.” And although socialists had a firmer grasp of the dire problems facing African American workers, the party missed golden opportunities to prove its interracial bona fides in the heavily black cities of New Orleans, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.

Friedrich Adolph Sorge, nineteenth century, unknown artist. ( / Wikimedia Commons)

Disagreements over race mirrored those of party strategy. Costaguta laments that socialist dogma and insularism spawned competition rather cooperation with the (at least somewhat) interracial Greenback-Labor and Populist movements. And while internationalists largely backed a Marxist approach to worker organization through trade unions and attempted to reach out to African Americans, scientific racialists tended toward an electoral-focused approach that pushed them into the tent of hard-line exclusionists such as the Workingmen’s Party of California.

Of course, the racially reactionary wing of the socialist movement was by no means unique in its racism. As evidenced by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prejudice within socialist camps reflected far more than it reinforced broadly popular attitudes. The racist ideas perpetuated by some socialists paled in comparison to those upheld by political and economic elites.

In this sense, the 1890s SLP saw a decisive shift away from scientific racialism and toward class-first internationalism in spite of the onset of Jim Crow. New party leader Daniel de Leon identified class (not race) as the organizing principle of social conflict, clarified and consolidated a stance that repudiated all biology-based racial theory, and mounted a principled defense of racial equality. In a major step, De Leon attested to the social impact of racial discrimination and expanded the SLP into Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama, with greater potential to recruit African Americans.

Taken together, Costaguta’s findings torpedo the familiar notion that nineteenth-century socialists were indifferent toward race, and the interracial internationalism he recovers should be recognized as part of early socialism’s enduring legacy.

The SLP’s “race-neutral” theory did not, however, translate into the practical tools necessary for robust interracial organizing. As significant as it was, “color blindness” was an oversimplification of Marx’s historical materialism, and it proved ineffective in a society shot through with violent racial subordination. Rather than meeting black working-class dissent when and where it existed, even the most progressive socialists tended to expect African Americans to conform to socialist doctrine and policy. While socialists in the Deep South argued for a greater consideration of race in regional organizing, many, perhaps most, US socialists believed that any formal gesture toward racial “particularism” would threaten the movement’s unity.

This drive for class unification precluded race-specific programs, thus undercutting genuine solidarity. For all the racially egalitarian impulses of individual socialists, the SLP as an organization failed to account for African Americans as a distinctly oppressed segment of the working class. Further, it neglected to acknowledge the racialized nature of capitalist development in the United States.

Hubert Harrison, 1913, unknown photographer. (American Labor Museum / Wikimedia Commons)

For better or worse, race neutralism laid the foundation for the US left going into the twentieth century. Following the SLP’s internal fracture in 1899, Eugene Debs’s upstart Socialist Party of America (SP) inherited many of De Leon’s conundrums and contradictions, repeating his party’s failure to organize black workers en masse. At its founding convention in 1901, the SP adopted an admirable resolution stating that African Americans, “because of their long training in slavery and but recent emancipation therefrom, occupy a peculiar position in the working class” and inviting them “to membership and fellowship with us in the world movement for economic emancipation.” But the convention — fearful of alienating Southern whites — opted not to endorse what would have been a historic statement denouncing “the lynching, burning, and disenfranchisement” of blacks in the South. And while ethnically diverse, the party struggled to organize black workers.

Nevertheless, the Socialist Party demonstrated a growing willingness to foreground racial justice rather than “nondiscrimination.” Debs, particularly beginning in the mid-1910s, vehemently denounced racial oppression, and in Harlem, the party (aided by black organizers like Hubert Harrison and A. Philip Randolph) made headway among African Americans. The Communist Party, formed out of a split from the SP, elevated such organizing to new heights in the 1930s. But even then it took a succession of external interventions — from the directives of Moscow to the involvement of West Indian émigrés — to convert the individual beliefs of US socialists into a coherent political project, culminating in the civil rights unionism of the mid-century.

Organizing the World’s Most Diverse Working Class

It has been over a century since the German economist Werner Sombart first asked the question, since echoed by innumerable commentators, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” Working against this exceptionalist paradigm, Costaguta’s important and nuanced book reveals not only that there was socialism in the United States, but that its true source of exceptionalism may have been its efforts to organize the world’s most diverse working class.

To that end, the successes and shortcomings of early socialists on the race question lay bare the deep contingency of the leftist past. They also illuminate the ongoing efforts of Marxists to account for and incorporate various forms of oppression into our politics and programs.

Costaguta’s story is one with unmistakable contemporary implications as we try to forge a radically capacious socialism — one not only for, but also by, all workers and the oppressed.