From the November-December 2022 issue of News & Letters
A new biography of the great Black poet, Claude McKay (Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik, Columbia University Press, 2022), brings out the hidden story of this Black radical. I first read his 1919 poem “If We Must Die” while I was in prison reading George Jackson’s Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters.
Claude McKay, 1920 (artist unknown)
Jackson wrote that we are always “pressed to the wall.” Yet you have to fight anyway, and some of us do our best fighting when up against the wall. He ends his letter by saying: “I don’t mind dying but I’d like to have the opportunity to fight back” (p. 103).
Jackson highlights the condition of all our people. Capital has nothing for you. If you don’t have skills to be absorbed as a cog into its machinery, it spits you out. “If We Must Die” speaks directly to that as it did to hunger strikers at Pelican Bay. We were dying anyway, and we knew we had nothing to lose when embarking on our, ultimately successful, movement to end perpetual solitary confinement in California prisons.
Anyone who belongs to the human family would have no problem with the poem. “If We Must Die” became a signifier of “Bolshevism” to both left and right. Bolshevism is not a strictly Russian development, it is a reach for the universal of being human in a way that transcends all racial and class distinctions. It is a fundamental commitment to a life struggle to lift the incubus of capitalism and let humanity live.
“If We Must Die” was written in 1919, the year of “hot summer.” The counter-revolution knew that the Russian Revolution was not just Russia. It excited the imagination of people all over the world who didn’t have any power. Black soldiers were coming home from fighting abroad. They were not going to put up with overt racism at home. Whites, including police forces, were determined to suppress that opposition. They appealed to that age-old trope, calling unrest at home “outside influence.” Hence the “hot summer” of white mobs killing Blacks.
A DEEP UNCOMPROMISING PERSPECTIVE
To understand a moment like the Russian Revolution, you have to understand the whole process. Being a Bolshevik in this sense means grasping the whole of human existence. Black struggle is inseparable from white struggle, even if white people don’t recognize that.
There was a double movement after World War I. People in Russia and in the U.S. were fighting for their freedom. Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” was proof of how deep is the uncompromising perspective on fighting the reality that is. It was as present in the Black population as it was in Russia.
We are all reaching for self-determination. The Russian revolution shows us why we need that kind of universality. What is its ground? Blacks in this country knew it is not what it became under Stalin in World War II: orders from the Comintern to call off Black struggle because of Russia’s foreign policy. True Bolshevism is a creative act coming from within the human experience.
THE POWER OF BLACK HISTORY
Black history is full of moments of such creative universality. Take David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. The powers-that-be paid a lot of money to keep his Appeal from appearing in the South. They put a price on his head. They raided U.S. post offices to stop it. Some today criticize him for NOT calling for Black nationalism. He was calling for humanism, indirectly for whites and Blacks coming together.
Or take Nat Turner in 1831. To his white captors he said, “I see, sir, you doubt my word [about not conspiring in a slave insurrection in another county]. But cannot you think that the same idea [freedom] prompted others as well as myself to this undertaking?” (Quoted in Philosophy and Revolution, p. 47.) That same spirit is reflected in McKay’s poem. It spoke to so many who have taken up the struggle to be human.
As Marx said, the universal drive to be human, freedom, is a dimension of all of us. Some oppose it, but only in others. It’s not enough to advocate it, you want to live it every day. We all want the same thing. It’s not only about material things, there is enough for all of us. There is no need to chop down more trees for adequate shelter. There are empty homes available already. We all get hungry, we all need shelter, healthcare, etc. Marx said self-determination must be rooted in necessity, but also in the dialectic of freedom, a universal that particularizes itself.
The dialectic of freedom enables us to not be caught up in one particular moment. Don’t take lightly the unchaining of the dialectic. When you get caught up in a particularization, instead of holding on to the universal, the moment can get transformed into its opposite, the way the Russian Revolution did with Stalin coming to power. We need to understand our differences to prevent them from becoming a barrier to our universality the way racism is used to set whites against Blacks, as McKay pointed out in his Nov. 1922 speech to the 4th Congress of the Comintern.
We are at a precipice endangering human existence. The food chain is broken. The fish are fished out of the oceans, formerly fertile lands are becoming deserts. The way things are going, Earth will become a dead planet. In California, it is said we will have to get used to breathing bad air. People live in cancer alleys, asthma is rising in children. Environmental racism undermines our metabolism with nature. “If we must die,” let us fight back with Marx’s universal of what makes us human, freedom.
Nature engenders our human development, but we have to respect how it also constrains it. The idea of freedom that is one with life is what Marx followed in a Bolshevik way as he unfolded his revolution in permanence.
If We Must Die
by Claude McKay
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
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