Liu Liangmo: China’s anti-imperialist, anti-racist, Christian revolutionary (pt. 2)

Mar 29, 2023

One of Liu's columns from the Pittsburgh Courier in February 1943.


This is the second of a two-part series on Liu Liangmo. You can find the first part here.

Introduction

Liu Liangmo’s story is as remarkable as it is unknown. An anti-imperialist, pro-Communist Christian, with a significant relationship to the Black Liberation Movement and the Indian Freedom Struggle, Liu lived in the U.S. as a diplomat after participating in the ongoing Chinese revolution. He wrote a column for the prominent Black newspaper. The Pittsburgh Courier, before returning to his home country and attaining a fairly high-ranking position there. His story offers notable insight into the history of pre- and post-revolutionary China and its approach to the Black freedom movement in the U.S. It also reveals much about the turbulent “Second Popular Front” era in China, during which time Communist forces obtained broader legitimacy. This has largely been erased from U.S. political and historical consciousness, which helps explain Liu’s relative marginality.

Most radical movements since the late 1960s have rightly critiqued the legacy of the Popular Front for blurring the lines between reform and revolution and, by extension, capitalism and communism. They see the Popular Front as an opportunist approach to building unity where radical ideas and the independent working-class program were subordinated to maintain legitimacy among left-liberal reform currents.

What is lost in such sweeping generalizations are the unusual concrete circumstances and strategic conundrums that Communist forces faced worldwide in this moment, especially among the struggles of oppressed peoples against colonialism and fascism. Liu Liangmo’s story provides an opportunity to critically examine this period anew. His Courier columns covered a wide breadth of “popular front” political activities and the relationships expressed in those writings speak to both the strengths and the weakness of Communist political activity during World War II. On the one hand, there was unprecedented vitality and significance to Communist-led interventions while, on the other hand, there was a lack of strategic clarity that forestalled a larger political breakthrough. Using Liu’s columns as a foundation, we can address this moment and draw important international parallels.

Inflection point

Just about a month after the New Year in 1943, the last pockets of the Nazi Wehrmacht surrendered in Stalingrad. The Soviets had already stopped Hitler from taking Moscow. Leningrad was prepared to starve before they surrendered. The Nazis were thrown on the defensive across the Eastern Front, and the Western Allies finally seemed poised to invade Europe, opening a Second Front, something the Soviets requested for years.

Japan was bogged down throughout Asia to protect their colonial endeavors. Japan was forced to expend tremendous energy in their attempt to defeat the millions of Chinese guerrilla and regular forces, along with the determined insurgencies across Korea and Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Japan remained fully engaged in the Pacific campaign of the U.S. The tide had decisively turned.

In this atmosphere, the contradictions heightened in the U.S. In Detroit, Mobile, and Beaumont, violent anti-Black pogroms broke out after efforts of militant Black war workers forced corporations to suspend Jim Crow seniority and social rules. In Harlem and Los Angeles, uprisings kicked off to resist racist police terrorism. For years, wages had been essentially frozen and strikes banned for the sake of “stability” and “shared sacrifice” in the war effort. Defying this, across 430 strikes over 400,000 miners walked off the job demanding fair wages from the coal barons that gained super-profits from government contracts [1].

For the Communist-centered movement known as the “Popular Front,” the tumult served as a clear confirmation of their analysis that, practically and ideologically, the “Jim Crow, anti-labor” forces hindered the fight against the Axis. These events served as an impetus to amplify their message that the war could only be prosecuted successfully abroad by introducing far-reaching social reforms at home.

This was reflected on June 7, 1943, at the “mammoth” Negro Freedom Rally in Madison Square Garden, where Liu was “high in the rafters.” One of the leading Black newspapers, the Chicago Defender, called it “one of the greatest crowds ever assembled at Madison Square Garden,” headlining their coverage “20,000 Vow Patriotism But Death to Jim Crow” [2].

Rally speakers included crusading Congressman Vito Marcantonio and the highest-ranking Black union official in the U.S., Ferdinand C. Smith, the Vice-President of the powerful National Maritime Union who was also a Communist Party member.

The Defender wrote: “The Garden echoed with applause as the speakers demanded that social and economic discrimination against the Negro be ended for all time.” The New York Times added that the rally “asked for the freedom of all colonial peoples and the right of self-determination for India, the West Indies, and Puerto Rico.” Meanwhile, Liu told his Courier readers:

“There I saw the strength of the Negro people. There I saw the unity demonstrated through the coming together… of all races, creeds and colors, especially black and white… all political affiliations, from Communists to Republicans… from all walks of life, and especially the labor unionists” [3].

Paul Robeson and a “cast of 200” put on a “dramatization showing the contribution of the Negro race to United States progress and history.” Even Republican Party luminary Wendell Wilkie, the Republican’s 1940 presidential nominee, sent a telegram message denouncing the “economic, social and racial imperialisms which we have practiced within our own borders for years.” He received a “lusty response” [4].

Liu’s report charged direct collusion between the European and Asian fascists and

“the fascists and fifth-columnists in this country” who were “doing their best to… to flare up racial conflicts, all for their darling little baby Adolf, and for their common doctrine—fascism.” The war had domestic enemies: “The KKK, the isolationists, the poll-taxers, the America first-ers… the Lindberghs, the Coughlins… all the home-front fascists… ‘Divide and Rule’ is still their old trick” [5].

The Poll Tax

Throughout 1943, Liu highlighted struggles against the Poll Tax—a fee to vote that disenfranchised 10 million people—mainly Black but also the poorest white workers in the South. He placed that struggle side-by-side with efforts to end the Chinese Exclusion Act to provide an opportunity to unite large numbers in a challenge to national oppression.

He observed a strong overlap between the most anti-labor, racist, and defeatist members of Congress. Indeed, the biggest beneficiaries of the Poll Tax in Congress included the outstandingly reactionary and professional red-baiter Martin Dies, anti-Semite John Rankin of Mississippi who freely used the N-word on the floor of Congress, and Representative Stearns of Alabama who said, “voting is a privilege and not a right and should be allowed only to those with intelligence to use the vote wisely.” Stearns suggested the entire country should require voters to pay to cast their ballot [6].

Congressman Marcantonio—who represented East Harlem—was able to seize the moment with an anti-Poll Tax bill in 1943. In addition to the political motion mentioned above, the U.S. ruling class faced threats of a mass anti-racist protest in Washington led by Black leader A. Phillip Randolph. They likewise faced local struggles breaking out across the country, like an NAACP-led protest movement demanding equal pay for Black teachers in Newport News Virginia, where students struck to support their teachers [7].

A large coalition that backed Marcantonio’s bill included the Congress of Industrial Organizations, NAACP, the American Federation of Labor, powerful figures in the Railroad Brotherhoods, the YWCA, and the Grand Exalted Ruler of the Elks [8]. In urging his readers to back the bill, Liu sought to add the imprimatur of hundreds of millions of Chinese to the list of supporters. “As friends of the American people,” he wrote, “the Chinese people would say: ‘If you are interested in winning the war, pass the anti-poll tax bill’” [9].

The bill passed the House in late May 1944, with some notable support from congressmen from Tennessee, Texas, and North Carolina. Tennessee repealed its state poll tax the year before and the latter two states were notable redoubts of the thoroughly militant and mostly Mexican and Black workers of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America.

Commenting on the seeming changing tenor of the times, Liu told readers about a trip to the Virginia State Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention:

“There I heard Miss. Juliette Mather, the Southwide Baptist Young People’s Leader among the white people. She said to a thousand delegates: ‘Weed out racial prejudice from your heart, and sow the seed of the brotherhood of man. Remember most of our allies, including the Chinese, are colored. Where will America be if we are going to discriminate against all the colored peoples of the world? We must struggle side-by-side with our colored brothers and sisters for a better world to live in’” [10].

The fight against exclusion

Bromides against the Poll Tax were frequently bookended by columns decrying the Chinese Exclusion Act, Liu implored readers to act on this racist bill that was not only still on the books but still enforced. He explained that the Act was not simply discriminatory but indicative of the semi-colonial relationship China had with the West in the years leading up and into the War. While Chinese people could not legally enter the U.S. or become American citizens, Americans freely entered and lived in China, protected by the Burlingame Treaty, which the Americans wantonly disregarded. Liu quoted a representative of the Chinese government before Congress who demanded repealing the act: “We are determined that there will be no more exploitation of China” [11].

In one 1943 column, Liu lamented a racist remark in favor of the Chinese Exclusion Act by AFL President William Green, explaining that his use of “Chinamen” was “just like calling a Negro a n—r.” Alluding to the AFL’s defense of lily-white unions, he wrote, “the same labor leaders who are against the letting in of the Chinese are also for discrimination against the Negro people.” He related the “Jim Crow” logic of Green, who also stated that “the Chinese don’t mix with white people,” before topping it off by informing his readers they should be distressed that Green’s comment was so bad it was being broadcast by Japanese radio to demoralize the troops [12].

Liu was, likely intentionally, making his case by drawing on a deeper cultural link between the Black Nation and China and her diaspora, a thread that connected the Burlingame Treaty, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Black Liberation Movement.

The treaty gets its name from Anson Burlingame, an abolitionist appointed by President Lincoln as envoy to China who later returned to the U.S. as an envoy of China to lead diplomatic negotiations for a treaty in 1868 [13]. Burlingame compared supporters of exclusionary policies towards the Chinese to the Dred Scott decision, and in a speech in his native Cambridge Massachusetts, he reminded his audience of their abolitionist days and clearly advocated for China: “I speak today as in the old time for the equality of men—for the equality of nations” [14]. In the context of the debate around the 14th Amendment, Reconstruction, and Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential campaign, support for relatively equitable relations with China and free immigration was—alongside civil rights for Black America and ensuring that the Confederacy’s defeat was permanent—a key Republican talking point. The defeat of Reconstruction and the Chinese Exclusion Act were part of the same reactionary wave in the late 1870s-80s.

In Liu’s estimation, just as the Civil War created political openings for Black Liberation and Chinese self-determination, World War II could create a similar opening for practical solidarity between peoples who have “suffered under oppression for a long, long time,” and a potential shared future in a nation and world that would “carry out in deed” the Christian “ideal of the brotherhood of mankind” without racism, imperialism and colonialism [15].

Liu’s columns must have had some impact. In September 1943, the Courier asked 10,000 of its readers: “Do you believe the Chinese Exclusion Act should be repealed?” 90.7% said “Yes.” Stanley Roberts, the Courier’s poll analyst, quoted a “northern social worker” as saying: “I think America will be guilty of a grievous sin if she thinks she can fight a vicious war against fascist forces and continue to practice a pro-fascist rule here at home” [16].

On the rocks of reality

The Chinese Exclusion Act would also pass in the House of Representatives, but, in the Senate, its path diverged somewhat from the anti-Poll Tax bill. The Chinese Exclusion Act was simply too untenable given China’s official position in the Allied coalition. The Senate thus passed the Magnuson Act, which symbolically abolished the act while establishing a quota that would let only 105 Chinese immigrate to the U.S. per year and upholding bans on Chinese (including Chinese-American) property ownership.

The Poll Tax, however, was simply a bridge too far for Roosevelt, the Democratic leadership, as well as the Republicans. They went with the tide in the House, but the high command in both parties didn’t want to provoke a fight with the fascists of the Solid South. Roosevelt’s political coalition was carefully balanced on avoiding direct conflict with the racist Democrats who ran the South, limiting Black gains to the North and West, where the influx of Black voters and the increasingly sophisticated political operations of labor made limited but substantive progress possible.

Ending the Poll Tax might have enfranchised just enough workers to shift the balance in some reactionary congressional seats, introducing cracks into the Solid South. This would threaten a KKK-led backlash and weaken the most rabidly pro-capitalist block in Congress, which did not appeal to the financiers and industrial magnates behind each party.

The Senate organized a little show towards the end of 1943, including slight debate on the bill, a sham filibuster that climaxed in a failed, and also rigged, cloture vote, after which the bill was shelved. In both cases, the actions of the anti-Imperialist labor-left current in society showed both the promise—and limitations—of their approach to the struggle.

Legacies

As the results of both bills reflect, there is no doubt that the Communist/anti-Imperialist wing of the Popular Front heavily underestimated the resistance of Imperialism to a liberatory vision for the world.

On the one hand, they correctly wagered that the war against fascism opened up massive contradictions in the capitalist world, contradictions that clearly created leverage for the colonized and oppressed world to press their demands in an unprecedented way. On the other hand, however, in their effort to be “good allies” in many parts of the world (including the U.S.), they subordinated critical elements of their own program.

For example, Alphaeus Hunton, one of the most stalwart fighters against colonialism (and neocolonialism), could write—in the Daily Worker, no less—approvingly of the Bretton-Woods conference and its proposed establishment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Calling it a “milestone on the road of international cooperation” that was bringing closer the “prospect of rapid economic development of colonial and semi-colonial areas.” Going even further, he noted that the World Bank would “supplant the customary greedy and short-sighted practices of getting the quickest and highest possible returns on foreign investments” [17].

The end of Hunton’s column, written in 1944, called for a big vote for Roosevelt and his allies in Congress, in many ways revealing a key mistake: misrepresentation of the role of the state. The Communists and their closest allies were depending on a strong labor movement, a related “progressive” vote, and the international impact of the Soviet Union to curb the deepest impulses of Imperialism through strictly legal, “American” means.

This would be something Hunton would note later when offering a brief review of an older Marxist text as the war ebbed:

“Though world fascism now faces destruction as a consequence of the united front policy which the capitalist powers were at last belatedly compelled to adopt in order to save themselves, there remains the basic economic fact underlying imperialist and fascist aggression… the line of collective security, the realization of which is dependent on the policies of Imperialist governments, can never be a substitute for the independent struggle of the masses of the people themselves” [18].

The fact that the waning of the war brought a certain reconsideration of some of these points speaks directly to one of the principal reasons for the ideological confusion: the primacy placed on making Communist policy correspond with Soviet diplomatic imperatives.

For the Soviets, the best immediate outcomes were rooted in the continuation of the Roosevelt coalition and the “Big Four” allies. It was the basis for their ability to survive the Nazi war machine and the potential mechanism to create “breathing space” for the socialist project that, prior to 1941, was totally blockaded by the Imperialist powers who sought to crush Soviet power. The communist forces around the world had similar interests, as every victory of Soviet power sharpened the ideological struggle between capitalism and socialism. Every denunciation by the USSR of the crimes of capitalism did the same.

However, the victory of working-class forces needed more than junior partnership in capitalist electoral coalitions. That victory required, ultimately, revolution, which necessitated clarifying contradictions rather than downplaying them and polarizing the class forces accordingly. In a different but related context, Indian communist E.M.S. Namboodripad wrote that the aggressive denunciation of the Quit India movement by the Communist Party of India, for example, led to the branding of honest fighters as fifth columnists and weakened the ability to subsequently unite the broadest range of forces in opposition to the broader agenda of capitalists and imperialists:

“Our correct assessment… prevented us from appreciating the noble aspirations of our sisters and brothers… the fact of the matter is that both they and we were pursuing the same objective… but pursuing different (even contradictory) paths of advance” [19].

Something similar could be said about the iron-clad attitude towards the no-strike pledge in the U.S. Workers fighting for higher pay or against speed-ups and unsafe work conditions were branded traitors for daring to take job actions; and those whose anger against racism could make them less than attentive to the “win the war” efforts were shunned despite shared goals to defeat white supremacy.

In short, communist, and communist-related forces isolated themselves from elements of the working class and oppressed communities for being too combative against the machinations of capital. Even if they viewed their actions or leadership as mistaken, they created stumbling blocks to building the broadest possible unity in the inevitable struggle against a post-war right-wing turn by the ruling class when the political equilibrium shifted.

Notably, the anti-imperialist forces in China did not make this same mistake. While the conditions were vastly different, there are two notable conditions that led to the success of Chinese Communists in taking power. The first was their unwillingness to simply be a tail to the kite of the Nationalists throughout the Popular Front period. The second was their ability to present a compelling, patriotic, and anti-imperialist vision in the immediate post-war era that stressed the need for a new and different kind of state to lock in substantive social change, as opposed to the “Bill of Rights Socialism” in vogue with the CPUSA.

Ultimately, then, the struggles of the Popular Front era are a key reminder of the fact that, yes, power concedes nothing without a demand, but there are some things it will not concede. The struggle for power is not the same as the struggle for formal “democratic” authority. In fact, the democratic struggle is the exact arena where the difference between “power” and “authority” in capitalist society is truly revealed.

That the response to the impeccably “democratic” credentials of the Popular Front was McCarthyism is an important reminder that the needs of capital accumulation trump “formal democracy” wherever they conflict. In some ways, we should thank Liu and his comrades for helping us see these things more clearly, and for being willing to struggle, because only through practical attempts to change things can we learn how to succeed.

Mistakes aside, it’s clear that their struggle was genuine, and that it laid the foundation for important revolutionary work for decades to come, perhaps most notably in the relations between the Black Liberation Movement and the Chinese revolution. While there are many verdicts to be drawn and discussed, the legacy of Liu Liangmo, and his attempts to build closer links between the oppressed peoples of the world, deserve to be remembered, and uplifted.

References

[1] U.S. Department of Labor, “Strikes in 1943,” Bulletin No. 782 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944), 29. Available here.
[2] “20,000 Vow Patriotism But Death to Jim Crow,” Chicago Defender, 19 June 1943: 3.
[3 ]Liu Liangmo, “China Speaks: Fascists at Home Are On the March—Race Riots Are Not Mere Coincidentals,” Pittsburgh Courier, 26 June 1943: 6.
[4] “Unity Is Demanded At Freedom Rally,” The New York Times, 08 June 1943: 9.
[5] Liu, “China Speaks: Fascists at Home Are On the March,” 6.
[6] William M. Brewer, “The Poll Tax and Poll Taxers,” Journal of Negro History 29, no. 3 (1944): 272; Frederick R. Barkley, “Anti-Poll Tax Bill Is Adopted By House 265 Votes to 110,” The New York Times, 26 May 1943: 1.
[7] “Along the N.A.A.C.P. Battlefront,” The Crisis, June 1943: 180-181. Notably the same issue of The Crisis recorded significant growth for the organization in 1943. Noting that the Texas Branch had recruited 6,000 members in a recent membership drive. Also noting that the Petersburg Va. branch had increased their membership by several hundred under the leadership of eminent historian Dr. Luther P. Jackson. Intriguingly the same issue carried a surprisingly pro-Soviet article by the lapsed communist George Padmore who detailed the industrialization and development in the formerly most oppressed areas of the Tsarist empire under communist rule.
[8] National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax, The Poll Tax Repealer 2, March (1943): 2-3. Available here.
[9] Liu Liangmo, “China Speaks: Negroes and Chinese Spearhead Struggle for Equality and Dignity,” Pittsburgh Courier, 12 June 1943: 6.
[10] Liu, Liangmo, “China Speaks: America Cannot Be Proud Of the Way She Discriminates Against Her Own Citizens,” Pittsburgh Courier, 17 April 1943: 6; Mather’s official title was: “Young People’s Secretary for the national Women’s Missionary Union,” an auxiliary of the Southern Baptist Convention. Read more here.
[11] Liu Liangmo, “China Speaks: Now Is the Time to Repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Pittsburgh Courier, 08 May 1943: 6
[12] Liu Liangmo, “China Speaks: Green Shows True Colors In Opposing Repeal of Chinese Exclusion Act,” Pittsburgh Courier, 28 August 1943: 6.
[13] Burlingame became an abolitionist hero after anti-Slavery leader Charles Sumner was brutally beaten on the floor of the House of Representatives by pro-slavery zealot Preston Brooks. Burlingame, who represented Massachusetts in the House, made a fiery speech denouncing Brooks as “the vilest sort of coward.” Brooks promptly challenged Burlingame to a duel to which Burlingame promptly agreed. However, when the time came, true to Burlingame’s original charge, the vile Brooks cowardly chose not to show-up.
[14] John Schrecker, “‘For the Equality of Men — For the Equality of Nations’: Anson Burlingame and China’s First Embassy to the United States, 1868,” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 17, no. 1 (2010): 9-34
[15] Liu Liangmo, “China Speaks: Japanese Arrogance and White Supremacy Are the Same–India Must Be Freed Before It’s Too Late,” Pittsburgh Courier, 12 September 1942: 3.
[16] Stanley Roberts, “Repeal of Chinese Exclusion Act Approved,” Pittsburgh Courier, 04 September 1943: 4.
[17] Alpheus Hunton, “Today’s Guest Column: World Bank Plan Depends on Victory for FDR,” in The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker 1944-1946, ed. T. Pecinovsky, (New York: International Publishers, 2021), 182-183
[18] Ibid., 282-283
[19] E.M.S. Namboodripad, The Frontline Years: Selected Articles (New Delhi: Leftword Books, 2011), 41.

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