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A Claude McKay Letter To Max Eastman Essay, Research Paper
Moscow, April 3, 1923
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  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
(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  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
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.
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.
- ... friendships with the poet Max Jacob, the writer ... This technique marked a transition to synthetic cubism. This second ... painted bronze sculpture, anticipates his much later “found object” creations, such ... bore him two children, Claude and Paloma; they appear ...
- ... burns within this charismatic leader to lead his province to the future of ... ) Their visit to Montreal was enough to make Roch and Claude join the sovereignty ... of their relation consist of a mix-up grievances, pressures and frictions ...
- ... the high drop out rates. Claude M.Steele, a professor at ... factor, QUALIFICATIONS. Leave it to our society to make a good idea a ... discrimination.” Schools trying to achieve a racial mix are not doing ... in the later decades. The government wants us to believe ...
- ... , they are married to the music almost to the point of perfection ... Story there could have been later musicals with such vociferous ... aria, rock and much more. This contrapuntal mix of styles added depth ... rables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Sch?nberg, with ...
- ... various jobs but never amounted to much,” says Calder. “His ... to have lived an artificial existence. “We didn’t mix ... Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Robert ... thousands in building costs. Later, a US distributor confiscated ...