“Slavs and Tatars – Red-Black Thread” – Lecture at the Walker Art Center, 10/11/2018
An upscale liberal artsy crowd showed up to hear this presentation by an unnamed member of ‘Slavs and Tatars,” (S&V) an intellectual group that studies cultural life “east of the old Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China.” Or as they call it, “Eurasia.” This is the first time this group has addressed a question that relates to the U.S. What was the question? The connection between Soviet communism and the black struggle in the U.S. This is a topic familiar to anyone in the Marxist movement, but was probably total news to the upscale white hipsters and oldsters sitting in the audience, as well as to the black people who attended.
The presenter was a young man who had lived in Moscow and seemed to originally be from one of the ‘southern’ parts of the former USSR – Belarus, Tajikistan, Moldova, Uzbekistan – one of those. He now lives in Berlin. The slant of “Slavs and Tatars” seems to be a post-modernist one that relies on linguistic, visual and historical elements to show syncretic connections where perhaps none were seen before. In this case, the identification of Russians with U.S. black people. As he pointed out, Russians are not really Europeans, in spite of the efforts of Peter the Great. He insisted the Mongolian ‘steppe’ dominates – a nowhere land somewhere between desert and farmlands. What we might call a prairie – Montana on steroids, not Rome replicated.
He cited certain cultural similarities between Russia and the U.S. Slaves in Russia were white serfs. This white slavery existed in Russia, but was abolished in 1861, two years before the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The ‘black people’ of Russia were the peasants – as they tilled the the black soil. “Black Russians” were also a reference to the minority people’s of Soviet Central Asia from the Caucasus region, not just a drink of vodka and coffee liqueur. So the irony is that in this context “Caucasians” are black. He also insisted that there are emotional similarities between Russians and African-Americans. All together it indicates that both Russians and African-Americans are the ‘Other’ in European, ‘American’ or Atlanticist eyes.
The S&V’s basic contention is that Marxism and Islam are connected and the latter has now replaced the former as the ideology of the oppressed. He used an example of the revolts in the banlieues (working class suburbs) surrounding Paris in 2014. In the 1960s and 1970s these Arab youth might have been Trotskyists, but now they drifted to Islam with the weakening of socialism. As Vijay Prashad pointed out in his book, “Death of the Nation...,” this has also happened in the wider Middle East. He put up pictures of Marx and Mohammed as twins; Lenin as a black man; Claude McKay as a religious symbol; of the somewhat similar images of the Soviet hammer and sickle and the image on the Iranian flag; of the first stamp memorializing Malcolm X, issued by Iran (Malcolm was a Muslim of sorts, after all…).
He related stories of visits to the USSR by Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Claude McKay, all prominent black writers and social activists. Robeson, a singer best known in the U.S. for his work in "Show Boat," was considered a ‘rock star’ in the USSR, unlike in the States. Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance figure (later author of “Amiable With Big Teeth…”) met with Zinoviev and Bukharin, leaders of the Soviet state at the time. McKay’s anti-racist political works were translated into Russian, and later translated back into English because the originals were lost. Hughes journeyed to the Soviet ‘south’ – Central Asia – to see cotton production and the minority peoples of the USSR. Unlike in the U.S. at the time, the cotton workers in these republics were in charge of their own work, not sharecroppers working under Jim Crow.
The speaker made a point of showing that ‘affirmative action’ for Soviet minority nationalities and anti-imperialism were first introduced as legal principles by the USSR in the 1920s, through Soviet laws and the documents of the 3rd International. He also showed how for the first time Muslim women were legally allowed not to wear the veil and to have a higher role in society. Hughes was most fascinated by older dances performed only by young boys, as Islam would not allow women to dance in public. Hughes, a gay man in the closet, saw some of the last dances like this.
The presenter flashed an election poster of the Black Belt through the south, which was at one time a strategy of the U.S. Communist Party in their 1932 presidential campaign, when they ran steel leader William Z. Foster and James Ford, a black man. The ‘black belt’ was a connected geographic area through the south that held a majority black population. The CP at this time saw black people as a separate ‘nation’ that could declare self-determination and independence. This line was later changed after ‘3rd Period” Stalinism ended due to the sectarian failure in Germany, and the party swung to the popular-front strategy – an alliance with the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie that it follows to this day.
What the lecturer did not talk about was the pressure put on the racist U.S. policy of Jim Crow by the USSR internationally and domestic socialist forces, including the Communist Party. The treatment of the U.S. black population became an international embarrassment for the U.S. This is one of the reasons why local favorite son Hubert Humphrey finally proposed a civil rights position for the Democratic Party at the 1948 convention, causing the delegates from Mississippi and Alabama to walk out of the convention. Humphrey was at the time Mayor of Minneapolis. Humphrey said it was time to “get out of the shadow of states rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunlight of civil rights.” Of course, it wasn’t until the 1960s that black people’s movements forced Jim Crow segregation and voting rights barriers to begin to be lifted – almost 20 years later. While liberals pat themselves on the back for a small section of Democrats to finally – in 1948 – decide to oppose Jim Crow, it was the internal and external pressure of black people themselves, the domestic socialists and the international USSR which finally forced the liberals’ hand under Lyndon Johnson. The role of the USSR in promoting national liberation struggles in Africa also played a role.
As can be seen, Communists were ahead on this issue, as on the issue of women’s rights. “Strange Fruit” indeed … by the way, written by a Jewish Communist, Abel Meeropol.
The presenter discussed the intersectionality of ethnic and gender issues as related to developments in Soviet Central Asia, and rejected neo-liberal and capitalist ‘multiculturalism’ as a solution to ethnic differences. He contended that multiculturalism is merely a dodge and a melting pot, while the old Soviet policy of ‘multi-nationalism’ allowed communities to exist without being forced to disappear. This was also how so many religious, linguistic and ethnic groups across the world co-exist successfully.
All in all, a somewhat leftward event put on by the Walker, which probably signals a small shift in the appreciation of Marxism – even though the speaker thinks Marxism is old hat and most of this middle-class audience finds Marxism to be laughable. Well, the jokes on them...
Other posts related to this subject: “Amiable With Big Teeth…,” “Death of the Nation…,” “Souls of Black Folk,” “Southern Cultural Nationalism…,” “33 Revolutions Per Minute…,” “Malcolm X…,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “Things of Dry Hours,” “Black Radical – the Education of Nelson Peery,” “I Married a Communist.” Use blog search box, upper left.
October 12, 2018