Shifting the Meaning of Democracy: Race, Politics, and Culture in the United States and Brazil

Shifting the Meaning of Democracy: Race, Politics, and Culture in the United States and Brazil

by Jessica Lynn Graham

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This book offers a historical analysis of one of the most striking and dramatic transformations to take place in Brazil and the United States during the twentieth century—the redefinition of the concepts of nation and democracy in racial terms. The multilateral political debates that occurred between 1930 and 1945 pushed and pulled both states towards more racially inclusive political ideals and nationalisms. Both countries utilized cultural production to transmit these racial political messages. At times working collaboratively, Brazilian and U.S. officials deployed the concept of “racial democracy” as a national security strategy, one meant to suppress the existential threats perceived to be posed by World War II and by the political agendas of communists, fascists, and blacks. Consequently, official racial democracy was limited in its ability to address racial inequities in the United States and Brazil. Shifting the Meaning of Democracy helps to explain the historical roots of a contemporary phenomenon: the coexistence of widespread antiracist ideals with enduring racial inequality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293762
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/24/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 392
Sales rank: 298,708
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jessica Lynn Graham is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego.

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Communist Racial Democracy in the 1930s

Workers, farmers, Negro and white, the lynching bosses we must fight.

Close your fists and raise them high, Labor Defense is our battle cry.

The Scottsboro boys shall not die, the Scottsboro boys shall not die, Workers led by I.L.D. will set them free. Set them free! Set them free!

—"The Scottsboro Boys Shall Not Die," US communist song of the people, ca. 1937

The wind of revolt sweeps America Blacks, Indians, pariahs; ... Miners, woodcutters, and seamen Indeed, all proletarian masses Wake up, workers

—"Anthem of the Poor Brazilian," Brazilian communist revolutionary song, ca. 1935

In the 1930s the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the Communist Party of Brazil (Partido Comunista do Brasil, or PCB) declared their struggles to be part of an interracial movement that was invested in the ideals of racial equality. Communists in both countries also claimed to represent the only political and economic philosophy that promised true, popular, and authentic democracy. Communists interlocked their ideas about race and democracy, arguing that only a genuine democracy — which, they contended, the Soviet system exclusively produced — could bring about racial egalitarianism. I refer to this doctrine as communist racial democracy, and its advocates not only praised the Soviet system but also spurned racist societies as inherently undemocratic. In other words, communists labeled racial equity as an essential litmus test for genuine democracy, a test, they asserted, that the Brazilian Republic and the United States were failing unequivocally. At certain moments, communists pointed to this failure as proof of these regimes' unworthiness to govern, insisting that the proper response was revolution. In fact, in 1935 language of racial democracy was part of the rallying cry for attempted communist coups in three Brazilian cities. Brazilian and US authorities responded with an anticommunist nationalist ideology of their own that promoted racial inclusion.

These phenomena are signs that the Moscow-based Comintern (Communist International), with branches in the United States and Brazil, was perhaps the most influential international organization to directly equate ideals of democracy with racial justice in the 1930s. And, contrary to contemporaneous beliefs, democracy was a central component of the Comintern's political philosophy throughout the entire decade, even during the organization's radical Third Period (1928–1935, officially). It was during the Third Period that the Comintern advanced its self-determination policy, promising blacks (and the indigenous in Latin America) the right to form their own separate states. On the face of it, the controversial policy was quite radical, but it was actually less a workable plan for black and indigenous independence and more a message of racial democracy and solidarity with communities that bore the yoke of oppressive states.

Communist efforts to embarrass the United States internationally for its record of racial injustice forced a proactive response by state anticommunists, as we will see in the next chapter. The comparable cold war story is well known and debated: the international outcry over the violent repression of US black freedom fighters aided in the passage of cold war civil rights legislation. This chapter shows a similar tendency decades earlier, as the Soviet Union claimed to be free of racial discrimination while it humiliated its US adversary by exposing racial inequities in the North American power. For instance, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviets invoked images of police hosing down blacks and mobs attacking defenseless activists in the United States. This Soviet strategy had precedent — in the 1930s local communists led protests in Brazil and other nations over the young black men in Scottsboro, Alabama, wrongly charged with rape. The international scandal the communists helped to generate out of the Scottsboro case was but one example of their attempts to paint the United States as backward and undemocratic on the question of race.

The national mobilization in defense of the Scottsboro Nine in the United States, particularly among blacks, is also evidence that antiracist activism on the ground was robust, a phenomenon that made the communist strategy viable. Furthermore, Glenda Gilmore's observation that "African Americans always used geopolitics to fight domestic racism" meant that Moscow's internationalist strategy naturally resonated with the many US blacks who had long rejected domestic boundaries for the freedom struggle. The presence of black radicals who were born outside the United States, especially in the Caribbean, but lived in the country had a huge impact, as their transnational lives manifested in their politics and overall worldview. Indeed, these black radicals hoped to use communism as a way to advance their own global liberation agenda.

Although Brazilian communists certainly discussed race less systematically and frequently than their North American counterparts, they did express revolutionary racial sentiments and even promoted racial consciousness among blacks. During this decade, especially in the first few years, the PCB maintained perhaps the most radical racial position in the country. The advent of communist racial democracy also marked the first time that the PCB directly theorized the issue of race. The PCB attacked Brazil's reputation as a racially tolerant nation and constructed historical narratives that praised blacks as national heroes and agents to a much greater degree than the official state accounts. While a few scholars have acknowledged that in the 1930s Brazilian communists were among the rare groups to spotlight racism in Brazil and to stray from its racial utopia myth, very little has been written on Brazilian communists' racial discourse. In fact, as Pedro Chadarevian has pointed out, the literature has generally stated just the opposite: that the PCB refused to engage the racial question and blamed classism as the sole cause of the hardships that Afro-Brazilians confronted.

Despite his familiarity with the communists' Scottsboro campaign, contemporaneous black activists like José Correia Leite also advanced the oversimplified idea that communists failed to distinguish between race-based discrimination and class oppression. This perspective ignores important evidence, such as black anthropologist and communist Édison Carneiro's discussion of racial oppression at the First and Second Afro-Brazilian Congresses in 1934 and 1937, as well as the PCB policy and literature assessed below. Still, there is something revealing in what Leite and others have said. We cannot assume that the change in policy during the 1930s accurately reflected the lion's share of opinions and attitudes within the PCB, especially since its leadership argued that antiblack racism was not a problem in Brazil until the early 1930s.

According to Aruã Silva de Lima, the slower adoption of the policy in Brazil compared to the United States may have been because Afro-Brazilian "organizations were relatively free of leftist influence, not having had the organic closeness [with] communist groups in the 1920s" that was common in the United States. Presumably such contact would have made white leftists knowledgeable enough about racial discrimination to disabuse them of the racial paradise myth. Nonetheless, US black communists complained that the CPUSA ignored Comintern directives to prioritize the "Negro Question." In addition, few US black communists fully agreed with the most radical of the Comintern's Negro resolutions, particularly the self-determination policy.

What becomes evident in this chapter is that the global antiracist Left, and even less progressive black activists, transformed the Comintern into a conduit that spread radical racial consciousness and politics internationally, particularly in the first half of the 1930s. In other words, the Comintern helped to establish a new international political milieu, in which racial awareness and attention to racial injustice were elevated worldwide. We see signs of this in Brazil and the United States. Communists in Brazil used the US Scottsboro case to pull blacks into their political orbit, and these discussions seem to have inspired a greater investment in racial politics among Afro-Brazilians. US communists portrayed Brazilian political prisoners, including the famous communist leader Luís Carlos Prestes, as antiracist Brazilian freedom fighters in a way that naturalized the place of race in the overall struggle for political and economic democracy. The development of these parallel rhetorical commitments to racial egalitarianism created and solidified a transnational camaraderie of sorts between these two nations and many others as well.

Finally, this chapter shows that the debate over the relationship between racial inclusion and systems of economy/governance that ensued between communists and anticommunists in both countries was largely a debate about democracy, as the next chapter will also demonstrate. Communists and the states under Getúlio Vargas and Franklin Roosevelt battled over democratic ideals. Both sides claimed to defend and represent true democracy, and the racial qualities of democracy played an important role in this conflict. Therefore, we should not categorize communism and democracy as mutually exclusive terms. In the 1930s the contest was not communism versus democracy per se, but how to define democracy, and in the course of this dispute, even anticommunist US and Brazilian authorities absorbed communist racial rhetoric.

In order to contextualize the communist viewpoint on race and democracy, we must appreciate how and why communists vigorously sought black support. To a great extent, communist racial democracy in Brazil and the United States materialized in order to recruit Afro-descendants. Just as communism pulled the state into formulations of racial democracy, communist rhetoric was similarly yanked and tugged by race-conscious organizations. In essence, the period was a discursive mosh pit in which language and ideas about race and democracy were flying from all directions, hitting one another head on. All parties, it seemed, had something at risk.


As the 1920s progressed, the Comintern's focus on blacks and the importance of their role in the communist struggle increased. By the early 1930s, Comintern theses unequivocally stated that, in order to be victorious, the revolution in Brazil and the United States depended on the active participation of blacks. At the same time, communists looked with alarm at the success of racially conscious black movements that were opposed to socialism and steered their members away from the far Left. These and other factors caused the Comintern to adopt new policies in the 1920s that, for the first time, specifically addressed the Negro Question and were largely driven by the perceived necessity to attract blacks to the communist cause. In these efforts, communists paid special attention to Afro-descendants who were already active in black-identified organizations.

The Comintern considered "reformist" black movements to be direct competition, for their tactics and teachings countered the notion that proletarian revolution was the only path to equality. If these organizations were deemed advantageous to the movement, communists tried to obtain support from their leadership, especially those with a determined likelihood of converting to communism. Otherwise, communists attempted to either discourage entry into or recruit black workers from the rival organizations that they concluded were hopelessly void of revolutionary potential. Alternatively, new recruits could also conduct a communist takeover of such organizations and grab the reins of the leadership.

Many factors developing in the United States, Brazil, and the Soviet Union led the Comintern and both domestic parties to target blacks in this new way. The rapid urbanization of blacks in the United States and Brazil by 1930 was one critical change that rendered them important potential members of the communist movement. In Brazil the massive move of formerly enslaved blacks into the urban labor force shaped early twentieth-century processes of industrialization and the labor movements that accompanied them, including communism. Similarly, US historian James Grossman defines the World War I Great Migration as the "second emancipation," during which Southern rural blacks sought to take advantage of new job opportunities in urban areas. The urbanization of blacks mattered greatly, as Comintern policy reflected the Marxist-Leninist judgment that the industrial and urban proletariat was the vanguard of the revolution. In places like São Paulo and Harlem, Afro-descendants' vibrant social and political movements, even their participation in mainstream politics, seemed to bear witness to the urban thesis and the fact that black city dwellers were ready to mobilize. Because the epicenter of communist activity was in the cities, black urban movements were also more visible to party leaders. Therefore, for the Comintern, the proletarianization of blacks in the United States and Brazil represented a transformation of Afro-descendants into important revolutionary players.

In neither national context did these early twentieth-century migrations epitomize the overall black experience at the time. Under the leadership of senior Japanese member Sen Katayama and others, the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) did recognize that most of the world's people of color remained in rural areas. Communists in Brazil and the United States also understood this. In 1928 the PCB reported to the Comintern that there were four times as many rural workers as industrial counterparts in Brazil (eight million and two million, respectively), and in 1931 the Executive Committee of the Comintern's International Red Aid reminded the Brazilian chapter that the majority of agrarian workers were black and indigenous. In 1928 a Comintern resolution calculated that 86 percent of US blacks lived in the South, with 74 percent of that number residing in rural zones. Katayama (who had witnessed and experienced racism while studying in the United States during the 1890s), Ho Chi Minh, and black CPUSA member Otto Huiswoud helped spark the fresh interest in people of color and rural labor in the Comintern that culminated in its Third Period. However, the Third Period's newfound radical racial policies and attention to the rural sector did not mean that the Comintern jettisoned its partiality for the urban proletariat.

At times making explicit links to the significance of their urbanization, Third Period resolutions asserted that blacks held the key to communist success. Around 1930 the CPUSA's Negro Department argued that the historic migration of blacks into the urban market signaled the "rapid growth of the most important driving force of the [US] national revolution." In part citing ECCI resolutions, the Negro Department added that the new black proletariat had a "special duty to perform in the leadership of the Negro masses" (including the "peasantry") and reiterated their significance as leaders in the entire struggle. The freedom of white workers, it was argued, could not be achieved without them. Although it did not mention black migration, the Comintern's South American Bureau articulated a similar warning in its thesis on Brazil that was issued about the same time. After noting that the "majority [of Brazil's] population is made up of mestizos and blacks," the bureau declared: "Without pulling the black and Indian masses into the struggle, no revolution of the masses is possible in Brazil." The South American Bureau chided the PCB for not doing more on this front.

These racial theses largely reflected the ways in which US-based blacks influenced the Communist International. There were many reasons for the disproportionate attention and stature that US black residents received in Moscow during the 1920s and 1930s compared to others in the African Diaspora. One explanation was that some high-ranking Comintern leaders had interest and experience in US race relations, as was the case with Katayama and even Vladimir Lenin. Another was the perception that US blacks — including the numerous radicals of Caribbean origin, with their transnational politics — were "the most advanced by virtue of their location at the center of the American empire," in the words of the historian Minkah Makalani. Certainly, the language of the Comintern's 1928 Resolution on the Negro Question reflects this sentiment: despite attempts that some black radicals made to broaden its scope, the adopted resolution focused on the United States. One paragraph did acknowledge that the "Negro race everywhere is ... oppressed by foreign or native imperialism"; however, the passage also specified that "the Negro worker of the USA [should be] the vanguard of the Negro struggle all over the world." A 1930 resolution abandoned the vanguard clause, which had been the Comintern's stance since at least 1922, but not the overall thesis on black liberation that was crafted with the United States in mind. Therefore, the efforts to ignite a black proletarian revolution in the United States dominated how the Comintern handled the Negro Question internationally.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Terminology
Abbreviations and Acronyms

1. Communist Racial Democracy in the 1930s
2. Embattled Images of Racial Democracy: State Anticommunism in the 1930s
3. Presaging the War: Racial Democracy and Fascism in the 1930s
4. State Cultural Production, Black Cultural Demarginalization, and Racial Democracy in the 1930s
5. The Centrality of Race and Democracy in the US-Brazil Wartime Alliance
6. A Partnership in Cultural Production: The Brazil-US Racial Democracy Exchange
7. Wartime Racial Democracy at Home: Domestic Pressures and In-House Propaganda


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