Socialism, Popular Education, and the Fight Against Racism in the Soviet Union

Derek R. Ford I Education I Commentary I February 26th, 2016

While in the U.S. the veil of anti-communism is beginning to lift and the word "socialism" isn't as dirty as it once was, the Left still has a lot of recuperating to do. The virulent campaign against communism in the U.S. is deep and multi-faceted, and it has taken on many different forms. And it seems like we constantly forfeit one of our greatest assets in the struggle to recuperate communism: our own history. Instead of critically appreciating the history of the actually-existing workers struggle and the social formations it has produced, we instead seek to separate ourselves from that legacy, to claim that they weren't and aren't really communists. This is an easy way of dealing with the propaganda that is delivered through our media and schools on a regular basis, for we can tell people, "Well, what your teachers were talking about wasn't really socialism." This is, however, just another form of American exceptionalism, left American exceptionalism.

I'm not going to make an argument about the economic and social systems of various social formations throughout history (if you are interested in that argument, read Albert Szymanski's book, Is the Red Flag Flying?), but I am going to demonstrate that the history of socialist struggle provides us with inspiring and effective examples of how we can fight against oppression. In particular, because we are enjoying our month-long relief from another white history year, I want to give two examples of the way that the Soviet Union mobilized popular education to confront racism.

Harry Haywood was recruited into the Communist Party USA in the early 1920s, and was soon sent to the Soviet Union, first to study at KUTVA (the University of the Toilers in the East named for Stalin) and later at the Lenin School. During his time in the Soviet Union Haywood participated in the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, witnessed the debates between Trotsky and Stalin, and played a pivotal role in theorizing the Black Belt Thesis, the concept that Black people in the U.S. constituted an oppressed nation.

Haywood, a Black man originally from South Omaha, Nebraska, spent several years in the Soviet Union. In his autobiography, Black Bolshevik, he recounts a few instances of racial encounters and racist actions. For the racial encounters, Haywood writes that he and his fellow delegation of Black communists from the U.S. would attract attention for their skin color in the Moscow streets. "If we paused to greet a friend," he writes, "we found ourselves instantly surrounded by curious crowds… It was a friendly curiosity which we took in stride" (169).

Haywood notes that during his stay he only encountered one instance of racist hostility. While on a streetcar one evening to visit a friend, a drunken passenger stepped aboard and said "something 'about Black devils in our country'" (170):

A group of outraged Russian passengers thereupon seized him and ordered the motorman to stop the car. It was a citizen's arrest, the first I had ever witnessed. "How dare you, you scum, insult people who are the guests of our country!"

What then occurred was an impromptu, on-the-spot meeting, where they debated what to do with the man. I was to see many of this kind of "meeting" during my stay in Russia.

Some passengers wanted to excuse the passenger's behavior, blaming it on his drinking. Ultimately, however, it was decided that they would take him to the militia station to press charges. The motorman proceeded to drive everyone to the station, where he spent the night in jail.

In 1930, Haywood's last year in the Soviet Union, an incident took place in Stalingrad that, he writes, "forcibly brought home to me the contrast between the socialist world which I was leaving and the racist world which I was about to re-enter" (339).

Unlike the capitalist world, which was in the throes of the Great Depression, the Soviet Union was suffering from a labor shortage. As a result, U.S. workers were flocking to the Soviet Union for jobs. Several hundred white technicians were brought to work in a tractor factory in Stalingrad, and they had their own restaurants and shops in the area surrounding the factory, forming something of a small colony. One day, Robert Robertson, a Jamaican native and U.S. citizen, joined the colony. He was brought over from Detroit to train workers in tool-grinding. His first morning there he entered the American dining room for breakfast and was accosted, beaten up, and thrown out of the restaurant by two white U.S. workers.

This attempt to transplant American racism to Soviet soil was met with outrage. It was made a political issue of high order by the Soviet trade unions and Party organizations. Factory meetings were called throughout the Soviet Union which denounced this crime and expressed the outrage of Soviet workers… The slogan of the day became, "American technique yes! American prejudice no!" It was given the widest publicity; the culprits were arrested immediately, not for assault and battery but for white chauvinism, a social crime and therefore far more serious.

A mass public trial, with delegations sent from factories all over the country, was held. The white technicians were sentenced to two years imprisonment which was commuted to deportation to the United States. (340)

Robertson remained in the Soviet Union, where he eventually gained citizenship.

These two examples document the seriousness with which the Soviet Union-its people and its state-took racism. When racist incidents occurred, they were not explained away or swept under the rug. Instead, they were put in the spotlight, becoming the subject of dialogue, deliberation, and justice. The state apparatus was wielded to snuff out racism and national chauvinism, and the masses were mobilized-the masses self-mobilized-to address racism head-on. They give educators a perfect example of what popular education is. Imagine what they would have done to a George Zimmerman!


Harry Haywood. (1978). Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American communist. Chicago: Liberator Press.

Albert Szymanski. (1979). Is the Red Flag Flying? The political economy of the Soviet Union today. London: Zed Books.

Derek R. Ford is a teacher, organizer, and writer living in Philadelphia. He earned his PhD in cultural foundations of education at Syracuse University in 2015. He is co-author (with Curry Malott) of Marx, Capital, and Education: Towards a critical pedagogy of becoming (Peter Lang, 2015), and his latest book, The Secret Struggle of Study: For a commonness against is forthcoming through Lexington Books later this year. He is Co-Chair of the Education Department at The Hampton Institute and an organizer with the ANSWER Coalition.