Field of Study
Margaret S. Thompson
A Peculiar Position in the Working Class and Society at Large”: The Socialist Party of America’s Discourse on Race and the Deracialization of the “Negro Question,” 1901-1918
Dissertation DescriptionAt its founding convention in 1901, the Socialist Party of America issued a resolution welcoming African American membership. The so-called “Negro Resolution” declared an identity of interest between black and white workers and articulated a causal link between American racism and the depredations of capitalism. However, over the following two decades the party failed to develop the terms of what it called the “Negro Question,” nor did it expend any substantive effort to establish programs of ameliorative action or organizational drives among black workers. The SP adhered to a general policy of “color-blind” socialism that recognized blacks as particularly aggrieved members of the working class, yet held that the elimination of anti-black racism would come only with the inevitable triumph of socialism over capitalism rather than through the active efforts of the party itself.
The relationship between the Socialist Party and African Americans has received relatively little attention from historians of American socialism, who have generally attributed the party’s failure to meaningfully engage the “Negro Question” to a combination of racism and indifference among its leadership and rank and file. This dissertation questions those longstanding assumptions; socialist attitudes toward race were hardly monolithic, and the “Negro Question” was the subject of significant debate in the party press and among its leadership. The examination of several points at which the discussion on race broke the surface of the SP’s “color-blind” stance suggests that a narrow and economistic Marxism played a significant role in minimizing the importance of race in American culture, economy, and politics, and reveals significant tensions between the party’s rhetorical universalist egalitarianism and the racialized reality of American society. I argue that the SP’s inability to see race as anything but a superstructural phenomenon precluded the development of intraparty consensus on the meaning of the “Negro Question,” and foreclosed the development of interracial class struggle in the opening decades of the twentieth century.