Hubert Harrison, History's Unknown Black Radical
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Somewhere on the road to becoming a Marxist during the 1970s, I heard about Hubert Harrison. A black radical from the early part of the century, his name was mentioned as an almost mythical character. Little was said about him, except that he was important and had been on the Harlem political stage. And then, almost like a ship disappearing into a fog bank, any further references vanished from view.
Trade unionist and scholar Jeff Perry has made a major contribution to activism and historical studies by introducing a new generation to the thinking and contributions of the West Indian-born black radical Hubert Harrison. A Hubert Harrison Reader is not only accessible to readers of different backgrounds, but it is comprehensive in displaying the various sides, as well as the political evolution, of this often forgotten character.
Harrison was, to borrow from Lenin, a publicist; a publicist not in the sense that this word is currently used, but more specifically, a revolutionary intellectual who wrote eye-opening exposures and rigorous political analysis. Harrison saw himself as a revolutionary, first and foremost devoted to the liberation of black people. At the same time, to characterize him as such gives only part of the story. Harrison existed at the intersection of revolutionary Marxism, revolutionary nationalism, and revolutionary Pan-Africanism. His political evolution was not linear in any sense, but reflected the state of class struggle in the early twentieth century United States, and the struggle against white supremacist national oppression under which black America suffered.
Harrison was a West Indian immigrant. This fact is very important for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that it reminds the reader of the critical inter-relationship of the West Indian and African-American experience. In particular, West Indian immigration directly influenced the culture and politics of black America in its fundamentals. Marcus Garvey, of course, is the most illustrative of political examples, but there were also characters such as Cyril Briggs (who was a major leader of the African Blood Brotherhood and, later, the Communist Party), Malcolm X (whose mother was Grenadian) and Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Harrison was a major activist in the pre-First World War Socialist Party; an advocate for the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies); an independent editor; editor of Marcus Garvey's Negro World; and an independent Harlem-based radical. Yet what I found most striking about Harrison was that in many respects he was almost an ideological precursor and descendent (as paradoxical as that may sound) of Malcolm X -- descendent in the sense of being ideologically further down a road which Malcolm X himself seemed to be traveling. Harrison situated himself, along lines similar to William Monroe Trotter and Cyril Briggs, on the left side of the aisle, speaking the voice of black radicalism. Harrison was not only highly critical of the accomodationist path articulated by Booker T. Washington, he was equally critical of what he saw as the essentially timid liberal/ radical approach taken by individuals such as W. E. B. Dubois (at least during that period). Harrison was a fervent defender of the right of self-defense in the face of the lynchings which were common occurrences for black America, and also believed strongly in the need for an independent black political voice. He had little patience with a legalistic approach to black freedom.
At the same time, Harrison, through most of his political life, was attempting to articulate the relationship between race and class. While in the Socialist Party, Harrison polemicized against the white blindspot economism which was common, not only within the right wing of the Socialist Party, but also within sections of the Party*s left wing. His disappointment with what he saw as the white-race-first approach of many white radicals and white trade unionists led him to shift gears toward a "race first" and later "race consciousness" approach toward black liberation. It becomes clear in reading Harrison that he never abandoned the class struggle, nor his recognition of its centrality. Rather, he believed that far too many whites in the union movement and on the left had abandoned it in practice, and certainly in theory.
Thus, Harrison's involvement with the Garvey movement is both understandable and contradictory. Harrison actually influenced the early Garvey and helped develop his direction. He then went on to serve as Garvey's editor. This did not, however, stop Harrison from offering sobering and critical analysis of Garvey-as-leader. In fact, Harrison's relationship with the Garvey movement was somewhat analogous to that which revolutionary nationalists have in a united front with other anti-imperialist (though not necessarily revolutionary) forces.
Jeff Perry's nearly twenty-year effort to uncover and reintroduce Harrison to contemporary scholars and activists is a major contribution. In reading Harrison one rediscovers a significant though nearly forgotten chapter in the history of black radicalism. Harrison's greatness must be historically situated. Ideologically and politically, he was clearly in the vanguard of black political thought of the time. At the same time, he was without question a product of his era. Harrison, for example, was not far advanced on the matter of women. His views, though not reactionary, seemed fairly conservative and at odds with his otherwise radical approach to life and politics. This is not offered as a condemnation of Harrison, but rather a reminder to the reader that Harrison must be read in the context of the times.
Harrison's views offer us another vantage point on the struggles of the early twentieth century, as well as food for thought in two respects. One, the lingering problem of white racial economism in the political realm, i.e., the belief that taking on issues of racism and national oppression are somehow divisive and, thus, political movements should restrict themselves to common economic issues which will somehow unite us in the struggle. This is all part of the trip wire which movements have faced in the United States.
The second aspect of Harrison to ponder as we proceed into the twenty-first century is the manner in which black radicalism is called upon to correctly articulate the relationship between race and class for black America. In other words, this is not simply a matter vis a vis the white working class and how unity can be built. Rather, in struggling to lead the African-American movement out of its current strategic doldrums, the relationship between race and class becomes critical. Black America itself looks different than it did one hundred years ago, and the future of black liberation must mean an increasing importance of class*and specifically the black working class*but not at the expense of the struggle against white supremacist national oppression/ racist oppression.
In thinking through these and other strategic questions, A Harrison Reader offers us a means to reflect on the various dilemmas we face, by borrowing the insight of a long dead champion of a revolutionary approach to black liberation.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is National Co-Chair of the Black Radical Congress; Vice President of the George Meany Center/National Labor College; and a member of the Board of Directors of the Monthly Review Foundation.