The Promises of Internationalism: Thinking globally about the CPUSA's Black Nation Thesis

Trevor Joy Sangrey, Ph.D., Washington University in St. Louis
April 3, 2014 - 4:30pm
Busch Hall 18

In 1928 the Communist Party developed an unconventional and intriguing proposal that black people in the Black Belt of the Southern United States were an unrecognized national group and should have rights to self-determination, a move later called the “Black Nation Thesis.” Developed within a larger nationalist framework that the Communist International used to agitate against imperialist and colonialist governments around the world, the theorization of black nationhood was both indebted to the Pan-Africanist ideas of Marcus Garvey, Soviet ideas of nationalism, and a specifically Communist critique of imperialism and capitalism.  In the US context, however, the ideas of the Black Nation Thesis were both tailored to a specific domestic context through direct organizational campaigns and used to connect to international struggles against imperialism, colonialism, and oppression.

Looking at pamphlet literature produced by the CPUSA between 1929 and 1936, this paper traces the development of black-nationalism and self-determination alongside anti-imperialist struggles.  In pamphlets such as S. Weinman’s Hawaii, Harry Gannes’ Yankee Colonies, and Luis Montes’ Bananas, all published in 1932, the CPUSA authors look to anti-imperialist labor struggles in US colonies and compare them with black organizers’ struggles in the US.  The pamphlets Bananas and Hawaii, for example, link Southern lynching to labor exploitation and military rule in Central American and the Pacific Islands. The pamphlets connect these struggles through the rhetoric of self-determination highlighting the structural similarities of racism, labor exploitation, chauvinism, and capitalism. By drawing connections between these anti-imperialist struggles and the Scottsboro Nine trial, Jim Crow, and organizing against chain gangs, for US audiences these pamphlets suggest the internationalism of the Black Nation Thesis. Other pamphlets draw connections to anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and associate Italian and Japanese imperialism to the US’s treatment of blacks. James Ford’s World Problems of the Negro People (1936) and Imperialism destroys the People of Africa (1933) demonstrate the direct links between a developing international campaign against imperialism and the domestic struggles for self-determination.

Through a visual and textual analysis, this paper traces the deployment of ideas of imperialism and colonialism to give an international context to the struggles of black organizers in the US.  By making allusions to struggles against colonialism, naming US exploitation of black tenant farmers imperialist, and demonstrating the benefits of a nationalist rhetoric for black self-determination in the US, the Black Nation Thesis built a framework for black liberation that relied on and benefited from an idea of internationalism.