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A Claude McKay Letter to Max Eastman


Moscow, April 3, 1923

Dear Max:

The chapter which includes my experience with the Liberator group shall remain as it is, for in your letter I cannot find any convincing reason for omitting it; but, on the contrary, there is every reason for publishing it, if it will provoke stimulating argument and discussion, such as your letter reveals, on the Negro problem in America.

There are, however, a few knotty points in your exquisitely phrased letter which I have picked out—points insinuatingly questioning my motives and charging me with dishonesty, which I will take up with you in order as they appeared.

You will understand that I do not intend to argue with you about my motives and honesty—to prove or disprove anything, I am only attempting to enlighten you.

(1) I had and have no intention of letting the public think I withdrew from the executive editorship of the Liberator solely because of a disagreement over the race question. As my letters to you and yours to me will show I was preparing to leave the work of active editorship of the Liberator months before I finally gave up the job. But I want to state emphatically, and to let those who are interested in the matter understand, that my colleague on the executive editorship [Michael Gold] made the race story in the June [1922] Liberator the basis of his attack on me, and his opinion, your letters and the artist's [Boardman Robinson?], and the discussions of the affair by the Liberator group, revealed to me that the group did not have a class-conscious attitude on the problem of the American Negro. I think it is very important that this fact should be published especially if it will make for profitable discussion on the race question. The race matter was merely incidental to my quitting the executive work, but it was most important in that it disclosed the truth that the leading minds of the Liberator group did not, to me, have a comprehensive grasp of the Negro's place in the class-struggle.

(2) You write respectively in a single paragraph: "In your discussion of the disagreement which did exist about the race question, you distort completely the nature of that disagreement" (second italics mine) and "There was never any disagreement between you and the editors of the Liberator, so far as I am aware about the proper communist policy towards the race question in the United States." I cannot reconcile these sentences. You know very well that you were virtually the boss of the magazine and that you made me your assistant and later announced it to the readers and the other editors. But, as is implied in your letter, you never discussed the Negro problem as a policy of the Liberator with me. Nor did any of the other editors. The Liberator group, therefore, could not be in "complete accord" with me as you write about my policy on the race question, when we never discussed it as a group. In fact as a group we never even discussed the labor movement seriously. My position on the Liberator I discussed seriously only with the radical Negro group in New York. As I quite remember, I tried to discuss the Irish and Indian questions with you once or twice with a view of getting articles on them for the magazine, but with little sympathy you said that they were national issues. I never once thought you grasped fully the class struggle significance of national and racial problems, and little instances indexed for me your attitude on the race problem. It was never hostile, always friendly, but never by a long stretch revolutionary.

However, I remember one day when we could not find a decent restaurant to accommodate us both on Sixth Avenue, and we finally had to lunch in a very dirty place, that you remarked, perhaps jestingly, "If I were a Negro I couldn't be anything but a revolutionist!" I don't know why, my dear Max, but the atmosphere of the Liberator did not make for serious discussions on any of the real problems of Capitalist Society much less the Negro.

(3) But you write: "You say that in joining the staff you were moved by a desire to further a solution of the Negro problem in the revolution. I refuse to believe that you were moved solely by that consideration, because I know that you are not a more simple person than others; rather you are more complex." You honor and flatter me by stating that I am more complex than others. You ought to know for you are a learned Freudian excelling in your judgment of human nature. However, I have not said anywhere that in accepting the job you gave me on the Liberator I was moved solely by a desire to further a solution of the Negro problem in the Revolution. I can afford to be frank. My first necessity on returning from Europe in 1921 without any money was to get a job so that I should be assured of shelter and food. My job on the Liberator secured me these. But my attitude was not very different from what it was in 1916 when I applied for a job as a houseman in a hotel in New Hampshire. The manager told me that he could only engage me temporarily because all the other workers (about 25) were white men and women and perhaps they would object to my working with them because I am a Negro. I went into that hotel to work with the full knowledge that I was not merely an ordinary worker, but that I was also a Negro, that I would not be judged on my merits as a worker alone. but on my behavior as a Negro. Up there in that little inn, nestling among the New Hampshire hills, the Negro (as in thousands of other places in America) was on trial not as a worker but as a strange species. And I went into that hotel to work for my bread and bed and also for my race. This situation is forced upon every intelligent Negro in America. In a few weeks I had won over the little hostile minority among the hotel workers; they all made demands on my company. For me to accomplish that, my dear Max, it was necessary to be complex! And I am complex enough to forgive your sneer at my saying that in joining the staff of the Liberator I was "moved by a desire to further a solution of the Negro problem in the revolution."

(4) I must repeat that you and I never had any tacit understanding on the race problem as you assert. So you could not have influenced me in any way on the subject. But you controlled the policy of the magazine as chief editor, and the files of the magazine are available to show what you, as chief editorial writer, said about the problem of the Negro in the Revolution. Nothing at all. In the December issue of 1921 you had a serious idea on the Negro of which you made a brilliant joke. You say that I introduced too much race matter during the months of my editorship. You say this would not make the readers think about the Negro problem, they would rather "dismiss" it. Such is your opinion, which gives me a picture of you as a nice opportunist always in search of the safe path and never striking out for the new if there are any signs of danger ahead. I do not think you are a competent judge of my policy. The fact is that I received letters of encouragement and appreciation from working-class leaders and Liberator readers as soon as I began printing those articles. The article "He Who Gets Slapped," which appeared in the May Liberator [1922] was reprinted in part in the New York World and syndicated all over the United States even in some of the Southern States! It had the practical result of arraying certain members of the Theater Guild against the Management on the issue of racial discrimination.

I still maintain that a revolutionary magazine in advocating, the issues of the class struggle in America should handle the Negro problem in the class struggle in proportion to the Negro population and its position in the labor world. And more, I hold to this point of view because the strategic position of Negro labor in the class struggle in America is by far greater and of more importance than the proportion of the 12 millions of blacks to the 100 millions of whites. This obvious truth you would know, had you been in the least acquainted with the way in which the big capitalists have been using Negroes to break the great strikes in the basic industries during the last decade. Furthermore, I am quite willing to lay this debatable point before a jury of internationally class-conscious minds, but I certainly could not accept your opinion only as trustworthy.

Tom Paine was of his time and so is Lenin. To me there is no comparison. During the age of the French Revolution, Paine performed herculean tasks in England, France and America and if you had in your whole body an ounce of the vitality that Paine had in his little finger, you with your wonderful opportunities, would not have missed the chances for great leadership in the class struggle that were yours in America.

(5) Again you deliberately distort the truth when you say that [Boardman] Robinson said the Negro problem "will disappear with the disappearance of the economic classes." Robinson used no such scientific phrase as economic classes, but the poetic phrase "with the triumph of Labor"—meaning the rule of Labor. Hence your paragraph about the Workers' Government of Russia and the Jewish pogroms is ludicrous and untenable. First, because economic classes have not disappeared in Russia. What we have here is a dictatorship of proletarian rule under which the bourgeoisie are disfranchised and shorn of political power precisely as the Negro workers of the South are barred from politics by the white bourgeoisie. I have shown your paragraph about the pogroms to a number of comrades and my translator [P. Ochremenko] and they have all characterized it as phrase-mongering. You write "The commander-in-chief told me only two weeks ago that there never has been an impulse to a pogrom, even under the Czar, which was not instigated by the imperial Government. Everybody knows that the pogroms disappeared automatically with the establishment of the working-class rule." Firstly, I hardly think the War Commissar would have used that loose word "impulse." On reading your sentence, Comrade Ochremenko who lived in the Ukraine (where there are great masses of Jews) before and through the Revolution, remarked: that the number of Jewish dead from the pogroms since the 1917 Revolution is greater than all that ever occurred under the reign of the Czars. Again the "Imperial" system in Russia ended with the Revolution. Even the advanced bourgeoisie were against that system. All plots against the Soviet Government since then are the machinations of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie against the Soviets. These operations involve the instigation of pogroms against Jews, the inciting of the ignorant peasantry to sabotage, uprisings in remote districts against the Communists, exploitation of national differences, etc. The pogroms like the visible activities of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in Russia have "disappeared automatically with the establishment of the working-class rule" because the Communists possess automatic machine guns and military control. If you would get out of your studio to see the strenuous feverish work of the Russian workers in competition against the NEP bourgeoisie, to study the work of the G.P.U. [Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie, the state police apparatus], the Department of National Minorities and the numberless political commissars—the Communists alert against the "impulse" to counter-revolutionary tendencies—you would lose your romantic feeling about the Communist Dictatorship and get down to its reality.

You have read only one chapter of my book, but you assert that in it I say that the Negro problem is the chief problem of the Revolution in America. When you come to read my book you will find that I have said no such thing. What I say is that the Negro question is an integral part and one of the chief problems of the class struggle in America, and I stand by that declaration.

If I am possessed of any "obscure emotion of resentment" it is merely that of publishing the truth as it appears to me. If what I write about the Liberator will "alienate from me every one of them" it would only show that, like you, they all have a personal rather than a social view of men and affairs. I am unwilling to believe with you that Robert Minor, Charles W. Wood and even Boardman Robinson himself would be of those alienated.

I cannot find in your letters that I have by me the paragraph which you quote and charge that I deliberately left out because it conflicted with my opinion. It may be in one of those left in America, but I don't see where it helps you in any way. It rather puts you in a weak and vacillating position. However, and finally, though I could not leave out the chapter, I am quite willing to publish your letter to me and my answer as an appendix if you want that; if not I cannot promise that if at any time after the publication of my book, a controversy should arise involving you and me, I shall not publish this exchange of letters.

Fraternally yours,
CLAUDE MCKAY

from The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948. Ed. Wayne F. Cooper. New York: Schocken Books, 1973. Copyright 1973 by Wayne F. Cooper and Hope McKay Virtue.


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