An Echo of New York’s Unfinished Struggles: A. Philip Randolph, Frank Crosswaith and the Socialist Party

Frank R. Crosswaith, New York City labor organizer and socialist political activist.

Frank R. Crosswaith, labor organizer and political activist.

Here’s a fascinating new article on the history of Harlem activists A. Philip Randolph and Frank R. Crosswaith, and their involvement with the Socialist Party (riven by right and left factionalism) in the 1920s.

It places them in contrast to Black Nationalism, but highlights the abuse they were willing to put up with at the hands of some purported “comrades” for their belief that race and class struggles are inextricable.

It’s also a nice picture of the diversity of the Socialist Party of America at the time, which in the New York Socialist Party was made up of many dozens of active locals. The full text of the article is available [in html and in pdf ] for a limited time. Some excerpts are below.

 

The history confirms my longstanding dislike of Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit (the right wing apparatchiks that overtook the party in the 20s) and my love of Eugene Debs and Big Bill Heywood, men continually struggling with the blindness of their times.

In the wake of this, I’m also eager to read more about St.Croix born New Yorker, labor activist and socialist Frank Crosswaith. Crosswaith, although a young radical, a lifelong socialist and prominent trade union organizer, in the 30s and 40s chose the Social Democratic blind alley of Roosevelt and various anti-communist Democratic party front groups.

 

Cornelius L. Bynum. The New Negro and Social Democracy during the Harlem Renaissance, 1917–37 The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (2011), 10: 89-112

Randolph and Crosswaith’s assessment of socialism’s radical potential to counter racial discrimination aligned closely with the basic position that Eugene Debs took on race and the Socialist Party. Despite the clear racial animosity that both leaders and rank-and-file members openly expressed from the party’s inception, Debs recognized and strongly argued that racism and racial discrimination fundamentally violated the party’s core principles and mission. Though he was equally susceptible to the kind of personal failings on race that he so forthrightly criticized in others, Debs insisted that economic freedom and political equality went hand-in-hand. This reasoning fit with the sense of open participation at the center of Randolph and Crosswaith’s notion of social justice. Even as Socialist Party leaders and rank-and-file members continued to exhibit deep racial hostility, Deb’s position on economic justice and racial equality largely matched key aspects of Randolph and Crosswaith’s appraisal of African Americans’ plight.

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By the time Randolph and Crosswaith joined the Socialist Party it had lost much of the organizational cohesion of its first years. Nevertheless, they still viewed it as African Americans’ best political option. Portraying the plight of black workers as fundamentally caused by the impact of racial discrimination on their ability to “sell their labor in the market effectively,” they were convinced that the solution to this problem lay in greater labor organization and overhauling industrial capitalism. They and others maintained that the competition at capitalism’s core accentuated the economic roots of racism. The Socialist Party’s determination to redress the ills of industrial capitalism and promote unionization led Randolph and Crosswaith to believe that it was central to challenging racial discrimination and fostering the kind of social justice that they envisioned. It was this link between unionization and social justice that propelled them into the Socialist Party and became such a central component of the radical message that they preached in the postwar years.

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For Randolph, Crosswaith, and the small group of African Americans recruited into the New York Socialist Party‘s Twenty-first Assembly District in Harlem, this commitment to progressive reform and political mobilization was attractive. Randolph and Crosswaith in particular recognized the significant, if unintended, implications embedded in this electoral strategy for African Americans “seeking human status and full freedom.” The participatory nature inherent in drawing workers into local and regional politics fit neatly with their conception of social justice. As Crosswaith explained years later in reflecting back on his role in building interracial trade unions, he and Randolph understood that “the nation’s labor could not exist half-slave and half-free.” They looked to mobilization and interracial labor solidarity to promote the kind of industrial democracy that would ensure an “equality of responsibility and equality of benefits” for all workers. In fact, their willingness to turn a blind eye to clear racial antipathy in the party seemed largely predicated on the argument that African Americans could only “become a power to be feared and respected throughout this nation” by joining the Socialist Party. Their belief that the party’s emphasis on social and economic reform could be turned to the specific advantage of African Americans certainly seemed to have factored into Randolph’s decisions to accept the party’s nomination to run for New York state comptroller in 1920 and secretary of the state assembly in 1921. Even if Berger and Hillquit never really intended to engage an agenda of social justice for African Americans, Randolph and Crosswaith nonetheless found meaningful resonance between the reform strategies they promoted and the conception of social justice he and Crosswaith were formulating.

Randolph also found common cause with the syndicalist element of the Socialist Party concentrated in the mining and lumber states of the Mountain West. Primarily organized around William “Big Bill” Haywood’s Western Federation of Miners that gave rise to the IWW in 1905, this wing of the party endorsed industrial sabotage and violence as acceptable protest tactics and believed that workers should use the ballot to gain administrative control over government’s police powers to protect striking workers. They adamantly opposed any program of progressive reform on the grounds that it merely forestalled the inevitable workers revolution. Instead, Haywood and the IWW pushed for a general strike to reorganize society around factories, mines, and other places of production. Haywood was an especially strong advocate of industrial unionism. Focusing almost exclusively on labor’s immediate demands, he looked to organize all workers into one vast and well-disciplined labor organization with enough political power to successfully challenge their opponents. Most importantly perhaps for Randolph, Haywood and the IWW attacked all divisions of the working class—racial, religious, and ethnic—as detrimental to the cause of overthrowing of industrial capitalism. This decidedly inclusive organizational policy fit neatly with Randolph and Crosswaith’s conception of social justice and their determination to bring African Americans into the working-class fold.

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In the years immediately following World War I, A. Philip Randolph and Frank R. Crosswaith began devising a notion of social justice that set them apart from other African American radicals in Harlem and mainstream white socialists. Although they too believed that transforming industrial capitalism was central to combating racial discrimination, they rooted their assessment of modern industrial society in a conception of social justice that stressed the shared humanity of all and insisted that all were equally entitled to benefit from society’s advances. In fashioning their critique in these terms rather than the more standard producer theory associated with mainstream socialism, Randolph and Crosswaith articulated a position that set out to adapt the broader spirit of postwar reform to the particular conditions and concerns of Harlem. Even as their message of interracial cooperation in organized labor was simultaneously drowned out by the powerful appeal of Garveyism, ignored by white labor unions, and undermined by the Socialist Party’s inability to address the Negro question, the conception of social justice that Randolph and Crosswaith formulated in these years creatively fused black racial identity and class consciousness into an authentic and largely independent strain of black radicalism.

 

 

 

1 comment for “An Echo of New York’s Unfinished Struggles: A. Philip Randolph, Frank Crosswaith and the Socialist Party

  1. September 3, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    Interesting history. I just learned about Frank Crosswaith while doing research on my father, former journalist in Harlem during the 20s and 30s. I found a letter Crosswaith wrote to the New York Age that seemed appropriate during the political season and for Labor Day.

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