From Fourth International, Vol.11 No.3, May-June 1950, pp.70-74.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Negro intellectuals are powerfully attracted toward Marxism. This is not strange. Marxism is the theory and practice of revolt against the evils of capitalism by all its victims. Frederick Douglass used to say there was not a white man living who did not know that slavery was wrong – for him. Every Negro knows that as far as Negroes are concerned, the social system of the United States is wrong. The intellectuals naturally tend toward an analysis of society which explains this intolerable injustice in social terms and offers a way out.
Even a careerist like Walter White, writing against Paul Robeson’s policies in the Negro Digest of March 1950, says that Negroes “could listen with greater patience and attention to Mr. Robeson’s advice” if Russia were “sincerely, efficiently and successfully putting into practice the basic principles (of) Karl Marx and ... Lenin ...” On the contrary, says White, “Russia of 1950 is at the opposite pole of Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat.” Such has been the bitterness of the Negro experience with American democracy that even this exploiter of his people’s wrongs’ can feel the attraction of Marxism.
For most Americans, however, white or black, Marxism today is represented by Stalinism. Between the brazen-ness of Stalinism and the vigor of American propaganda, the world is pretty well acquainted with the fact that the policies of American Stalinists shift with every change in Moscow’s foreign policy. It is remarkable, however, that a number of Negro intellectuals are not unduly affected by this. The persecution of the Communist Party by the government has made them wary of open fellow-traveling, but despite their recognition of the shifts of Stalinist policy on the Negro question, despite their recognition of Russia’s totalitarian dictatorship, many continue to feel and to express sympathy and even admiration for the activities of the Stalinists on the Negro question.
Their reasoning should be carefully followed. It is true, they say, that during the war the Stalinists opposed Negro struggles for freedom. That was wrong – but it was done for the defense of Russia which they believe in. At any rate, today they are most vigorous in defense of Negroes, as their work for the Trenton Six indicates. Look at their record in the Scottsboro case, the demonstrations they
led against evictions of Negroes in Chicago and elsewhere during the thirties. The Stalinists first raised the Negro question in an uncompromising manner and have done more than any other party to keep the Negro question before the American people and the world. In the unions they have fought for equality. They do theoretical work on Negro history, they are publishing the collected works of Frederick Douglass. They make mistakes but try to correct them. Their “Black Republic” slogan is nonsense but they are trying to correct that too. The Stalinists fight for unity of Negroes and whites, the abolition of prejudice. In their party Negroes have equality. They help Negro artists. Wouldn’t progressive Americans and labor in particular lose if a fighter like Bridges was driven out of the labor movement and Philip Murray controlled the CIO without opposition? And then (final argument), look at Robeson! What Negro today is doing more to denounce American race prejudice at home and abroad! We don’t go along with the Stalinists all the way but, despite everything you may say, the Negro in America benefits by Stalinism. At the worst, Negroes can use the Stalinists.
That is the line of argument advanced. And these ideas cannot be brushed aside simply by listing Stalinist crimes and zig-zags. Negro intellectuals know about these. They accept – or rather discount – them as “politics.” Furthermore, knowing these, it is their view that they can take the good and avoid the bad.
First of all, let us examine the argument, constantly put forward by the Stalinists themselves, that they are chiefly responsible for the Negro question occupying the central position it does in the United States today. Nothing could be more false. If not one single Stalinist had ever said one single word on the Negro question, it would have much the same status that it has acquired today.
What has brought the Negro question forward is not anyone’s propaganda but the necessary, the historically conditioned social and political development of the American people. It is true that a consistently revolutionary Marxist party, fighting for the socialist cause on all fronts, in the proletariat as well as among the Negroes, abroad as well as at home, could and would have qualitatively altered the existing relationship of forces. But the Stalinists? No. When it coincided with their needs, they helped along this development. At: other times and at very critical times, they opposed it with all their force.
American capitalism itself brought the millions of Negroes from the South. Garveyism was the first great political experience of these Negroes. The second was their turn from the Republican Party to the New Deal. With the CIO they came into the union movement.
These were the preliminaries to the real emergence of the Negroes as a distinct political force which began in World War II. By the March-on-Washington Movement the Negroes turned from dickering with private industry and raised the whole struggle to a higher plane by concentrating the issue on the federal government. From that time, the government, and with it the ruling Democratic Party, has been thrown into increasing confusion by the mounting Negro pressure and its effects on the country as a whole.
In the army Negroes fought incalculable battles, large and small, for equality. In Detroit they made a bloody retaliation against Jim Crow. The climax of these struggles was in Harlem in 1943 where they took a carefully-organized militant offensive, and at the same time refrained from attacks against white persons. From end to end of the country and in fact the world over, the boldness and subtlety of this demonstration, despite its obvious weaknesses, were recognized. State after state hastened to pass FEPC bills. The Negro question dominated the national election of 1948, and has been the cause of the stormiest sessions in Congress during the century.
In the light of these facts, the Stalinist attempt to claim primary credit for this progress is an insult to the American people. It is also a thundering lie. When it suited them, as in the organization of the CIO, the Stalinists assisted. But they fought against the March-on-Washington Movement which is one of the key links in the chain of development. They joined with the city and state officials against the people in the 1943 Harlem demonstration. Who can measure fully the assistance they gave to capitalism and to the government in trying to make Negroes accept Jim Crow during the war, promising that after victory Jim Crow would be abolished?
To say that they had done strenuous work in the past counts not for the Stalinists, but against them. For it was precisely the prestige they gained over the preceding years as militants which made them so effective as allies of Jim Crow and enemies of the Negro people at the very moment when the Negroes were putting forward their greatest efforts.
The tremendous theoretical, literary and artistic interest in Negroes is the most striking cultural phenomenon of the last decade and this, too, is not the work of Stalinism. It is an integral part of the development of the United States and of the Negro people as part of America.
In the general awakening which followed World War I, Countee Cullen put into literary form the rising racial consciousness of the Negro. The elegance and beauty of his verse should not obscure the essential affinity of What is Africa to Me? with Garvey’s nonsensical program of Back-to-Africa. Claude McKay, revolutionary as he once was, in his most popular novel, Home to Harlem, expressed the somewhat decadent interest of white intellectuals in the supposed primitiveness of Harlem.
By 1941, parallel to the political emergence of the Negroes and popular support for them, something entirely new appears. Richard Wright makes the first great popular literary success with Native Son. In Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, which has sold millions of copies, Southern liberalism brought before the country its own sentimental and confused but genuine preoccupation with the Negro question. Again, Wright’s Black Boy swept the country. Gunnar Myrdal’s important book The American Dilemma, and the studies associated with it, showed that the liberal bourgeoisie was responding seriously to the national awakening on this question.
The Civil Rights Report of the President’s Committee, despite its political hypocrisy, was in its own way a historical document. Chester Himes’ If He Hollers Let Him Go is being sold in cheap editions of hundreds of thousands of copies. So is William Gardner Smith’s The Last of the Conquerors. The recent films are taking the question to the nation and to the world.
These are the broad nationwide strokes which, whatever their individual virtue, have driven home to the country the new stage of the Negro question, both in its own right and as a symbol of progress in the masses of American people.
To be sure, the Stalinists played a role in this process; but what sort of sociological method is it which acquiesces in their claim that they played the major role? If useful books were written under their influence, it should likewise be noted that men like Wright and Himes who were undoubtedly influenced by them, have in the end struck them the greatest blows they have received in literature going to the mass of readers.
When, by silence or tacit encouragement, the Negro intellectuals allow the Stalinists to get away with their fantastic claims, they unwittingly join the American government’s slander of the American people in its claim that it is willing to abolish Jim Crow but the people are not’ ready. The Communist Party’s claim that it is responsible for American mass hostility to Jim Crow is but the other side of the most reactionary bourgeois allegation that agitation on the Negro question is the work of “Reds.” Thus, each in its own way, Washington and the Kremlin are striking blows at the very heart of the struggle for Negro freedom. How, in the face of this, can the Negro intellectuals excuse their passivity?
Incredible are the lengths to which the Stalinist boasts go, not only in private, public meetings, etc. but in their publications which circulate over the world. In the June 1949 issue of Political Affairs, devoted to The Struggle Against White Chauvinism, the Stalinists resurrected James Ford who contributes an article entitled The Communist Party: Champion Fighter for Negro Rights.
The Communist Party, he insinuates without too much subtlety, was responsible for the formation of the CIO, owing to its work on the Negro question.
The successful creation of the CIO, based on the fight against Negro discrimination led by the Communists over a period of more than a decade and a half, also had its influence on the AFL. As a result, there are today nearly two million Negro workers in the organized labor movement ...
Thus millions of Negroes have their very jobs “as a result” of the Negro work of the Communist Party.
These are ridiculous lies, but these lies, incessantly repeated, can have effect upon those who know no better. Negro intellectuals who allow them to pass in silence or try to dismiss them as insignificant exaggerations, bear a direct responsibility for them before the Negro people in particular.
All who hear the Stalinists or read ten lines of their writings cannot but believe that they stand for unity of whites and Negroes. Such unity has, and rightly, a great appeal to Negroes and increasing millions of whites. But a brief examination of the facts and the record of the Stalinists will show that, except insofar as it suits their special purposes, they are as resourceful wreckers of such unity as any Democrat or Republican, and more effective because they function within the mass movements.
Unity of Negroes with the great mass of the population is developing with gigantic strides. It is developing first of all because of public recognition that without liberation of the Negroes, the movement for the preservation and expansion of genuine democracy in the United States cannot prosper. It is developing because the whole tendency to centralization in modern life forces great masses of the people more and more into common cooperative effort, in industry as in politics.
This movement takes place in contradictory forms. Thus, despite the fact that the Democratic Party is a capitalist, reactionary and treacherous party on the Negro and labor questions, the movement of the Negroes to it in 1936 was a step toward political unification with organized labor, even within that reactionary framework. As organized labor has differentiated itself within the Democratic Party through the PAC-CIO and Labor’s League for Political Education, labor and the Negroes have grown closer together in self-defense against the Southern Bourbons and some of the more obvious administration fakers.
Outside capitalist politics, there has taken place the great movement of Negroes and whites into the CIO. The failure to repeal Taft-Hartley parallels the fate of the civil rights bills. The next stage is obvious. It is the break with the Southerners and the administration through the formation of a great mass party of labor, the Negroes, the poor farmers, the idealistic youth, the old people who have done their share, the lower middle class who do not know where to look for help today.
This political advance would be in line with historical development on a world scale for every developed European country has had such a party for decades. The Negroes, sick of the cynicism and dishonesty of both capitalist parties, would join the new labor party by the millions. One of its main issues, appealing to whites and Negroes alike, would be the civil rights program now treated with such contempt by the two capitalist parties. A party of this type is bound to come in the United States and nothing in the whole past history of the United States will so bring together not only Negro and white labor, but Negroes and whites of all types. The unity will be political in form but such is the nature of politics today, so sharp are the social tensions in the United States, such would be the opposition of reaction to such a party, that the great masses, Negro and white, would experience the greatest impulse yet felt in the United States towards social integration.
No one can lay down the specific policies of such a party in advance. But Marxists are heart and soul for the formation of such a party in which the labor movement separates itself from the ruling bourgeoisie and takes the political field in its own name, summoning all the oppressed in the nation to join with it against the capitalist parties. Such a party may and in all probability will support at first American imperialism in its war-making adventures. Nevertheless Marxists would support this party against Big Business, while opposing its wrong policies. They would extend and deepen wherever possible the political unity of the workers, going through the experiences of the masses with them. The struggle for the next stage of Negro-white unity centers around the struggle for such a party.
One would expect that the Stalinists, in their self-proclaimed role as Marxist advocates of socialism, a doctrine addressed above all to the proletariat, would be the strongest advocates of such a party. They are its deadly enemies.
For a brief period around 1935 Browder spoke for a farmer-labor party; then, from 1936 the Stalinists turned and supported Roosevelt, hoping to win the American alliance for the Kremlin in World War II. For 12 years from 1936 to 1948 they denounced as “enemies of unity” all who pointed out the inevitable betrayal of the hopes of labor and the Negroes involved in depending upon capitalist promises.
But when the Stalinists engaged in a new political venture in 1948, they turned up with the Progressive Party, under the leadership of Wallace, still denouncing a labor party.
During their old pro-war policy, when they wanted to help the American government, they fought for their kind of unity – unity of the Negroes with the Democratic party of Bilbo and Rankin. Now today when they want to embarrass and impede and harass the American government, the Stalinists strive for unity only with those who support what they call their anti-imperialist peace policy but which really is an opportunist pressure policy for another deal between Washington and Moscow. In both cases they serve as an obstacle to the real unity of the Negroes with the mass of the population whose next step is and can only be a great mass party of labor.
Are Negro intellectuals so naive as to believe that this consistent’line is no more than a “mistake?” The Stalinists do not want the Negroes in a labor party which the labor leaders would in all probability commit to support of the war against Russia. They want to tie the Negroes to whatever liberal capitalist politicians, workers and intellectuals they can get together in their discredited Progressive Party which stands as a barrier and diversion to the anti-capitalist political unity of the great masses. What is this but hostility to the historic development of the Negro people in the United States?
This is the constant contradiction between their professions and their actions, their claims to be acting in harmony with the historic aims and methods of socialism, their policies which force them in actuality to oppose these aims. Hence their monumental, incessant lying, the lying about their aims, the lying denunciations of other groups and parties. Nowhere is it so startling as in the intellectuals who commit themselves to following the Stalinists. The most remarkable of these today is a Negro, Paul Robeson. Instead of talking about his spirit and his courage, Negro intellectuals would be well advised to examine the highly instructive course of this world-famous figure.
The Stalinists are pertinaciously trying to build a comparison between Robeson and Frederick Douglass. Negro intellectuals have a special responsibility here to protect not only the memory but the enormous contemporary significance of a great American and a great fighter for human liberty.
Douglass was a political and mass leader of enormous stature, a leader in the Abolition movement, a leader in the Free Soil Party. He originated policy. He broke with Garrison and Phillips to defend the revolutionary traditions which in his mind were inseparably connected with the Constitution of the United States. No man was ever less of an Uncle Tom politically.
What political policy for Negroes has Robeson ever originated or proposed? None. For years he has been a docile follower of the shifts and dodges of the Communist Party. Was he in favor of the March-on-Washington Movement when the Stalinists opposed it? Has he ever had anything to say about Negroes which his masters did not tell him to say? Didn’t he, with Browder, stretch out the hand to J.P. Morgan? Does he oppose “self-determination”? Where? When? Was Frederick Douglass ever in such a humiliating position in regard to any group of politicians? Would he have been Frederick Douglass if he had?
The Stalinists for years emphasized that Douglass called on the Negroes to join the army of Lincoln and drew the analogy that Negroes should support World War II. This is a monstrous perversion. Douglass said that, whatever the conditions, Negroes should fight against the South, for its defeat would mean emancipation. He said this before Lincoln came out for emancipation. He was right. But even if he had been wrong, it Was an honest policy, a policy conceived in the highest interests of the Negroes and the vast majority of the people of the United States.
But Robeson? When the Stalinists were telling the Negroes that victory over Germany meant emancipation for Negroes in the United States, they lied and knew they lied. A thousand books and articles testify to their knowledge of the profound roots Negro persecution had in American capitalism. Did any word come from Robeson on this vicious deception of the Negro people? No. Lester Granger and Walter White were Uncle Toms for the White House; Robeson played the same role for the Kremlin.
Douglass was an internationalist, took his message of Negro emancipation to Europe and was the advocate of freedom for Irish, Hungarians and all oppressed peoples. And Robeson? He comes back from personal visits to Eastern Europe and uses his great reputation and prestige to tell the American people that:
Here in these countries are the people; their spokesman are in the forefront of our struggle for liberation – on the floor of the United Nations, in the highest councils of world diplomacy ... Freedom is already theirs ... It is indeed a vast new concept of democracy.
Southern Bourbons say that the Negroes in the South are happy and contented. Robeson says, in face of a gigantic mountain of evidence to the contrary, that nearly 300 million people in Russia and Eastern Europe have freedom. Could anyone imagine Frederick Douglass in a similar position?
The whole political world in the United States has been startled and disgusted by the refusal of the Stalinists to support civil rights for Trotskyists. In July 1949 at the Stalinist-dominated Bill of Rights Conference in New York, Robeson led the attack upon the Trotskyists, calling them “fascists” and giving this as the reason for denial of Stalinist support to their civil rights. No GPU agent could have exceeded the ferocity, the utter absence of shame and conscience with which he shouted out these lies, knowing them to be lies. Let anyone find one single page in the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass which show that incorruptible Negro in a corresponding position.
Robeson’s whole political activity is a living lie. He does not owe his present status in the world merely to his remarkable talents. Negroes, whites, Indians, Chinese who loved liberty gave him their support, not only for himself, but as a demonstration against the ideology of imperialism. They saw in him a symbol of triumph against the lies, the lynchings, the frame-ups, the tyranny, the judicial murders of Negroes. That is what made Robeson what he is , today. And now he turns around and uses what the oppressed masses have given him to defend and cover up lynchings, frame-ups, judicial murders, tyranny and oppression over half the continent of Europe. Where are the words to express this crime against humanity and against the Negro people in particular, committed on innumerable platforms, stages and radios over the civilized world? What single figure in the world today tells so many lies to so many people in so many languages? It is a tragic spectacle to see what American imperialism and Stalinism between them have made of a man so supremely gifted, so trained for influencing millions of people and with such powerful impulses to serve his fellowmen.
But tragic as it is, that does not absolve the Negro intellectuals from their responsibility. Robeson increasingly represents himself as the voice of Negro America. In defense of the Negro people, Negro intellectuals have to let the hundreds of millions in Europe know that there exists among them an honest and principled opposition to American bourgeois democracy which does not compromise with Stalinist tyranny.
In tolerating and showing sympathy to Stalinism, the Negro intellectuals do not know what fire they are playing with. They airily brush aside the Stalinist “self determination” slogan as if it were some sort of aberration or some Marxist curiosity. The Stalinists are exploiters of Negro suffering and Negro militancy in the United States which they use and abuse for their own purposes. When they had the alliance of Washington with Moscow, they dropped the whole business of “self-determination.” Now that they are once more in conflict with the American government, they have taken it up again. This is conclusive of its ultimate purpose.
Let the Negroes beware. If the Stalinists gain influence among them, they will not hesitate at a critical moment to recklessly hurl them at American imperialism, to artificially foment needless race riots and if necessary to divide labor unions by embittering relations between whites and Negroes.
The end result of this ruthless sacrifice of whatever can be used to further their own ends could easily be a bloodbath lor the Negroes and a serious set-back to the positions painfully won by such hard fighting. This is exactly what the Stalinists did in Canton, China, in 1928. The Comintern, to support its policies in the 6th World Congress, called for an insurrection which was doomed from the start because it had no relation to the situation in the country. The result was a hopeless massacre of the best fighters among the Chinese masses.
Negro intellectuals may believe that their indulgence to Stalinism is in the best interests of the Negro people. They are mistaken. In reality, their adaptation to Stalinism is a class attitude – not the attitude of the militant worker, but the attitude of the pliant intellectual petty-bourgeoisie.
This is perfectly expressed by Robeson when he says that in Moscow he could walk with dignity. Negro masses in the United States have to walk in Jackson, Mississippi, or Savannah, Georgia. If they did go to Moscow they would have to work in factories under bureaucratic slave-drivers, guarded by soldiers. The Negro intellectuals share the prevailing despair that the future belongs either to American imperialism or to Stalinism, and that there is no other path to emancipation. Unable to bear the cruelty and intolerable hypocrisy of American imperialism, they feel that at any rate Stalinism is a bulwark against race prejudice. They are wrong, pitiably, horribly wrong. No minority has ever been emancipated by the methods of Stalinism, and any passivity and tolerance in regard to the crimes of Stalinism is already an evidence of degeneration. Not to denounce such crimes, not to warn against such dangers is second only to commending them. Let the spectacle of Robeson be a warning.
Last updated on: 18 March 2009