From Fourth International, Vol.11 No.3, May-June 1950, pp.90-96.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Next to the emancipation of the working class from capitalism, the liberation of the Negro people from their degradation is the paramount problem of American society. These two social problems are integrally united. The only road to freedom for the workers, and to equality for the Negroes, is through their common struggle for the abolition of capitalism.
The Negro people in all aspects of their social and cultural life are a part of the American people. At the same time it must be recognized that the Negro struggle is not identical with the proletarian movement toward socialism. It exists as a distinct movement of an oppressed minority within the country, possessing its own historical origins, special characteristics, forms of development and methods of action. The economic, political, social and cultural degradation of the Negro people below the levels of even the most exploited layers of the working class places them in an exceptional position and impels them to play an exceptional role within the social structure of American capitalism.
The Negro question in the United States represents a unique combination of the struggle for democracy by an oppressed minority with the working class struggle for socialism. The revolutionary party must take this dual nature of the Negro movement as the starting point for its theoretical and practical conclusions on this problem.
Marxism teaches us that under imperialism, the proletariat is destined to be the leader of all oppressed classes and groups. Petty-bourgeois revisionists of Marxism pervert this conception into the thesis that the Negro movement is in essence helpless and useless unless directly led by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party. This conception is merely a transference into the labor movement of the bourgeois doctrine that the Negroes are so backward that they are incapable of independent action and must therefore at all times be led, if not by the bourgeoisie, then by the proletariat. However radically phrased, this doctrine represents a capitulation to Jim Crow prejudices, leads to an underestimation of the revolutionary tendencies of the Negro movement, and must be relentlessly opposed by the Marxist party.
At critical periods in this country’s history, the Negroes have allied themselves with the revolutionary forces. The latter, as they approached decisive action, repeatedly found it necessary to reverse their previous opposition to the participation of Negroes.
To illustrate: The Army of Independence at the beginning rejected Negroes, but was compelled to change its stand. The Republican Party, which began by a readiness to confine slavery to the Southern states and was hostile to the Abolitionists, came to an alliance with the Negroes against; the counter-revolutionary South. After a generation of slave revolts, often directly stimulated by the international struggle against slavery (Britain, Prance, Haiti), the Negroes organized the Underground Railroad which rescued tens of thousands of slaves from the South and established communications between the insurgent elements in the South and North. In addition, as propagandists and organizers, Negroes were the basis of the Abolition movement. The struggles centering around the Abolition agitation and especially the Fugitive Slave Law when the South attempted to restrict the democratic and civil liberties of the North, were the immediate causes which precipitated the Civil War. Once the revolutionary North directly sponsored the cause of the slaves, the Negroes threw full support behind the Republican Party.
During the Populist agitation of the 80s and 90s, the Negro farmers and agricultural workers organized the Southern Tenant Farmers Association, with a membership of a million and a quarter. When the Populist movement assumed national importance, the Negroes appended their organization to the Populist Party. At the height of the Populist struggle, Southern white Populists were constantly engaged in defending Populist Negroes against lynching and vigilante attacks by their political enemies.
The commercial bourgeoisie of the 18th century and the industrial bourgeoisie of the 19th century, after they had risen to power, betrayed the Negroes. The Negroes also found themselves deserted by the farmers of the Populist movement who, after they suffered defeat because of their inherent inability to carry through an independent struggle, made their peace with the capitalists.
The gravitation of the Negroes toward the camp of revolution has assumed varied forms in recent times. The leaders of the Garvey movement after World War I referred to themselves as the Negro part of the worldwide revolutionary movement led by Lenin and Trotsky. After the depression of 1929-1933 the Negroes broke with the Republicans and became ardent followers of the New Deal, but with loss of illusions about the New Deal they have repeatedly given demonstrations that they are ready to follow the lead of the CIO. The slavish political subordination of the CIO to the Roosevelt and Truman administrations has resulted in the formation of militant organizations like the March-on-Washington Movement, and the tendency to revolutionary protests.
By their entire history the Negro people have been prepared for participating side by side with the proletariat in the struggle to reconstruct society on revolutionary socialist foundations. On the other hand, the proletariat, which by the very nature of its position in capitalist society must abolish all classes and all forms of oppression, is alone able to guarantee the Negro people against a repetition of past betrayals.
Of the 14-15 million Negroes in the United States, the great majority, close to 10 million, live in the South. They are the crux of the Negro problem in the United States.
A large number live in the agricultural areas as tenant-farmers, sharecroppers, agricultural laborers. The most backward elements in the country’s rural economy are in the South and the millions of Negroes there constitute the most poverty-stricken workers in agriculture. The remains of the cotton slave plantation system, adapted to the needs of modern capitalism, keep millions of Negroes (and whites) in a state of bondage through sharecropping. Thus obsolete forms and methods of land cultivation are maintained. This system hampers the technical progress and development of the masses of Negroes, their initiative and education, which are essential for the fully productive utilization of the land.
This system is maintained and perpetuated by huge levies upon the national income which find their way chiefly into the pockets of the landlords, merchants and others who profit by the system.
The vestiges of the old plantation servitude and the predominance of share-cropping and tenant-farming on the lowest level have given rise to a corresponding social and political structure – the domination by landlords through terror and political disfranchisement of the masses, together with the maintenance and perpetuation of a political oligarchy . – the Southern Bourbons. This oligarchy constitutes a nest of political reaction, inside and out of Congress. It is always in the forefront of the enemies of civil liberties. The political representatives of the Southern system have acquired enormous power in initiating, supplementing and sharpening the attacks of capital upon wages, working conditions and democratic rights.
Thus the Negro problem is not to be considered simply as the problem of the South, or worse still, restricted to the fight for Negro rights and equality. Only the destruction of the Southern system can free the Negroes but the destruction of the Southern system is an indispensable precondition for the economic and political advancement of the whole country. This cannot be accomplished by capitalism.
While insisting that the Negro problem is exclusively a Southern problem, the masters of the South have consistently acted in the knowledge that it is a problem of the whole country. Before the Civil War and afterwards, to maintain their privileged position, they have systematically propagated and injected racial discrimination, segregation, super-exploitation and prejudice into this country’s life. In this they have been aided and abetted by Northern industrial capitalists. In 1876, after establishing its political domination over the defeated slave-owners, Northern capital cemented a new alliance with Southern propertied interests for the maintenance of white supremacy. Since then Northern capital has steadily extended its financial control until today the South is entirely in its grip. Thus today it is the interests of capitalism which demand the maintenance and perpetuation of the Southern system.
The Southern brutality, its terror, its social discrimination, its robbery in appropriations for education, its lynchings reported and unreported, and its legalized oppression, persecution and humiliation of the Negro people, are not in any sense the product of any inherent racial antagonisms. Racial antagonism is the barbarous rationalization of an outmoded system of production, taken over and so intensified and developed by American capitalism that today it forms one of the most cruel and shameful features of its civilization.
White supremacy, racial discrimination and Jim Crow have now become part of American capitalist tradition and have poisoned the minds of many millions. But that does not in any way alter the real origins of Negro persecution nor the fundamental reasons why it is maintained. The root of the division lies not in psychology but in such material facts as the preference given to even the poorest whites in the competition for better-paid jobs in agriculture, industry, government employment, social services, education, hospitalization, relief, etc.
When capitalism needed the Negroes in the struggle against the slaveholders during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period the capitalist class did not hesitate to carry out by armed force large-scale actions to crush and discipline the Southern plantocracy and compel it to recognize Negro rights. This was when the Negroes still bore on their bodies and minds the marks of slavery. While it would be a serious error to ignore the reality of racial hatreds which have been injected into the historical development of the American people, not the slightest concession must be made to any ideas which do not place upon capitalism the complete responsibility, deliberate and conscious, for the existing situation of Negroes, the spread of racial prejudices in all areas of the United States today, and the example and encouragement given by American “democracy” to race-haters and race-baiters all over the world.
But if, after conquering the slaveholders, capitalism has taken over and intensified the exploitation and sufferings of the Negro people, it has, in its later development, also created the premises of their emancipation. Capitalist production has penetrated, at first slowly but recently with greater speed, into the formerly solid agricultural South. The Negro agricultural population is now exceeded by the Negro urban population in the South. This industrial transformation has tended to draw whites and Negroes together, creating an element of growing unification against the social divisions of the South.
Heroic attempts have been made by the sharecroppers, white and black, to create union organizations. World War II saw many war industries established in the South and unification of white and Negro workers both in industry and in unions. Capitalism, to avoid higher labor costs and unionization in the North, took the textile industry to the South, maintained Southern racial discrimination, and relegated Negroes to the lowest-paid and most menial tasks. But they are admitted to the textile industrial union. If not in job classification then at least in unionization, the Jim Crow pattern in the South is being steadily undermined. Within recent years the CIO and AFL have instituted campaigns for unionizing the workers. Precisely because of the economic and cultural backwardness of the South, the organized proletariat will carry a weight there fair exceeding its mere numerical strength.
To contend that bourgeois democracy is capable of regenerating and reforming the South for the benefit of the Negro is to whitewash and embellish the present promoters and beneficiaries of Negro persecution. Only the proletarian revolution can free the Negroes, cleanse the social sewer of the South, and reorganize its economy.
It is in the North and West that the needs of capitalist production have given the Negroes a role of singular importance in the economy. Conditions in the South drove an increasing stream of Negroes to seek relief by flight to the less brutally discriminating areas. In World War I and especially World War II capitalist production itself brought millions of Negroes out of the South and incorporated them into the basic industries: coal, steel, auto, etc.
Within the last generation the workers in these industries have transformed themselves, chiefly through the organization and example of the CIO, into the potentially most powerful social force in the country. Precisely because the Negroes, owing to racial discrimination, could find a place primarily in these industries as unskilled, unprotected workers, they find themselves, with the rise of the CIO, an integral part of the most advanced sections of the proletariat. This transition from the rural misery of the South into the mass industrial unions of the CIO simultaneously marks the transformation of the Negroes from the most degraded rural section of the population into part of the spearhead for the abolition of capitalism and the construction of the socialist society.
Despite the trickery of the capitalists, despite the Jim-Crow prejudices of many white workers and their opposition to upgrading in industry, Negroes and whites in industry are being constantly disciplined, united and organized by the very mechanism of capitalist production, which tends, slowly but steadily, to grind down the traditional social obstacles and racial prejudices. It is this unity which in a revolutionary crisis will be decisive. The traditions of the struggle for the organization of the CIO will help unite Negroes and whites in those branches of industry where they are still disunited.
Over one and a half million Negroes are already part of the organized labor movement. It has within its ranks the most advanced, the most disciplined, trained and tempered elements of the Negro people. Nothing but the total destruction of organized labor can seriously check the steady development of this movement.
Capitalism confines most workers to slum-dwellings and. miserable neighborhoods. This is itself a form of segregation, despite attempts to obscure this by fictitious democratic propaganda. This segregation of the proletariat as a whole assumes an exceptionally aggravated form in the case of the Negroes.
The system of plantation slavery dictated rigid social segregation of the slave. Driven by the needs of the Southern system and its own needs, capitalism, while integrating the Negroes into Northern industry, maintained and extended Jim Crow segregation. Everywhere, the Negroes have been herded into ghettos. As a result, there have developed large Negro urban communities not only in the South but in most of the great industrial cities. The Negroes es pecially in the North, East and West today form compact communities, overwhelmingly proletarian or semi-proletarian, with a large minority of organized proletarians while the majority form an immense mass of domestic servants, porters, and other menial laborers.
A Negro bourgeoisie, owning capital and exploiting labor in industry, is practically non-existent. The petty-bourgeois intermediary between the Negro masses and big capital is in the majority white and not Negro. The Negro petty bourgeoisie is composed predominantly of a thin layer of lawyers, doctors, clergymen, teachers, journalists, musicians, and so on. But race prejudice continues on the whole to exclude the Negro petty bourgeoisie from social contact with the ruling class as well as from those minor positions of authority which help cement substantial sections of the white petty bourgeois to bourgeois society.
Thus the integration of the, Negroes into industry and the simultaneous rise of these Negro communities have stimulated the racial and political consciousness of the Negro people.
With a great number of organizations of all types, with a large and varied press, a growing body of distinguished writers and spokesmen who chronicle their wrongs and protests, a fanatical pride in the history of the Negro race and the achievements of remarkable Negroes in any sphere and in any country, these Negro communities are knit together by resentment against their exploitation and humiliation by white America. In recent years the sentiment of racial solidarity and organized protest has grown by great leaps. There is now growing up an embryo “nation within the nation.”
But contrary to similar manifestations in Europe and Asia, this feeling of racial and national solidarity among the Negro people thus far aims solely at acquiring enough force and momentum to break down the barriers that exclude Negroes from American society, showing few signs of aiming at national separatism. These new moods coupled with constantly increasing activities have already had a powerful effect on the Negroes in the South who, even within the shackles of the Southern system, try to follow the Northern example as far as possible.
It would be a grave error to underestimate the social and political significance of this maturing Negro racial and national consciousness. It is rooted in the very conditions of American capitalism, has grown with them and will only disappear with them. It does not lessen but grows continuously. Every stage by which the Negroes have been incorporated into industry and industrial unionism, every expansion of the Negro ghettoes, every social advance of the Negro people, has meant a corresponding rise in the solidarity and temper of the Negro community and its protest against segregation.
Despite all appearances American capitalism constantly increases and intensifies its Jim Crow system. The greatest Jim Crow organization ever created was the Army for World War II. Protests resulted only in special Negro air squadrons, special Negro war correspondents, special groups of Negro entertainers, etc. Thus directly and indirectly the American Army carried with it the American Jim Crow system to every quarter of the globe. The more powerfully the Negroes organize and protest, the more capital is compelled to attempt to bribe them with special Negro schools, special Negro hospitals, special Negro colleges, special Negro playgrounds, special Negro news films, special Negro appointments – generally to government departments dealing with Negro affairs.
The Negroes have repeatedly exploded in revolutionary outbursts of the most varied types. As soon as they found themselves in sufficient numbers out of the South, the Garvey movement erupted. This extraordinary mass movement testified to the protest against Jim Crow which was and is restrained by terror in the South. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attained a membership of more than half a million after World War II. But the petty-bourgeois dominated organizations are absolutely unable to discipline the insurgent Negro masses. In Harlem where the masses feel themselves strongest, the protests tend to express themselves most violently, as in 1935 and 1943. There the Negro masses expressed their pent-up resentment against Jim Crow by coming into the streets and wrecking shops owned by whites in the main centers of Harlem, while at the same time carefully refraining from violence against the whites who walked the streets unmolested.
Similar outbursts have taken place in cities like Detroit and are incipient in every Negro community. With extreme rapidity the Negroes in 1941 organized the March-on-Washington Movement on a nationwide scale, creating consternation in the ranks of the federal government. In addition Negro soldiers fought bravely throughout World War II for equality and democratic rights within the army.
Marxists have repeatedly pointed out that in a revolutionary crisis the most oppressed social layers, who have hitherto remained outside of the class struggle, when awakened by the organized proletariat, constitute some of the most dynamic elements of the revolution. The hatred of bourgeois society and enduring capacity for revolutionary sacrifice which characterizes the deepest proletarian strata is combined in the urban Negroes with the organizational solidity imposed upon them by American segregation and the readiness to revolt which is the result of the universally recognized, intolerable, and indefensible injustice of their position.
The petty bourgeois leaders of Negro organizations strive in vain to instill into the masses the “principles” of American democracy. But the petty-bourgeois leadership has far less control of the Negro masses than the labor leadership has of the basic ranks of the proletariat. In the lives of the great masses of the Negroes and even in the petty-bourgeois Negro press there is a mounting tendency to reject not only in words but in action, the shibboleths of American democracy and thereby, through conclusions from their own experience, to approach the truths of Marxism.
Thus it is that the Negroes more than any other social grouping in the country:
- Have challenged the conception that the great wars of the United States in our generation were fought for democracy;
- Have repudiated the fetishism of American democracy as the quintessence of freedom and equality of rights and opportunity;
- Are skeptical of the belief that the future of American political life is unalterably confined to alternation between the Democratic and Republican Parties;
- Have challenged the conception that the state is above all classes.
- Have discarded the conception that rights are obtained purely by democratic discussions and parliamentary procedures.
It is not in the slightest degree accidental that during World War II, those sections of the population who reached the highest pitch of protest against the bourgeois state were. the miners by a continuous series of strikes and the Negroes in Harlem. If the miners had the sympathy of the masses of the workers, the Harlem Negroes had still more the sympathy of the masses of Negroes all over the country. Miners and the Negro masses in Harlem symbolized on a small but significant scale the unfolding pattern of revolt, of singular importance for the coming period – great mass strikes of the organized proletariat and rebellious outbursts among the Negroes.
The same pattern is already being repeated on a higher scale. In the apparently unchallenged march of the American bourgeoisie to internal enslavement of the masses in preparation for war, once more it is the miners who raised the first open challenge by action, and the Negroes, in the persons of Randolph and Reynolds, who hurled the first open challenge and defiance.
While this movement has nowhere found clear revolutionary socialist expression, its impact has already made itself felt.
- The March-on-Washington Movement resulted in the establishment of the FEPC which has become in its own way a potent source of conflict within the Democratic Party.
- The Harlem action in 1943 not only went unpunished by the government but was the signal for all the labor leaderships and liberal groupings to rally hastily together for the purpose of pacifying the Negro masses by means of a state FEPC with punitive legislation for convicted offenders.
- Racial conflict in Detroit over housing and discrimination resulted in an anti-Negro pogrom, stoutly resisted by the Negro masses. The UAW was immediately involved and the climax of its intervention was of great significance for the future relations between the Negro mass movement and organized labor. The city election of 1944 was fought by a combination of the UAW and the Negro masses against the reactionary Mayor Jeffries, the race question playing a major part in the campaign.
- The power and solidarity of the Negro protest has compelled the leaders of the Democratic Party to weigh the nearly 300 electoral votes, in states where the Negro vote is decisive, against the less than half as many votes controlled by the South, and to propound a civil rights program which is helping to tear the Democratic Party apart.
- The Negroes themselves, both in the mass, as in Harlem in 1943, and as groups, as in the Randolph-Reynolds protest, though basing themselves on their racial problems, show a profound recognition of the unity of their struggle with that of other oppressed groups and constantly demand joint action with the whites. Though racial hatreds in the South may well be the cause of bloody reprisals for centuries of repression, Negroes have repeatedly taken the lead in organizations among the most oppressed groups, the sharecroppers, comprising Negroes and whites.
- Hostile as the Negro petty-bourgeois leaders are to mass action by Negroes, they have repeatedly joined together and, in the name of millions of Negroes, recited their grievances and pointed out the weaknesses and crimes of both parties in regard to Negroes. They have solidarized themselves against the reactionary politics of the Southern bloc and therefore implicitly – and often explicitly – with the labor movement; and declared themselves, on behalf of the Negro people, as supporting the struggles for independence of the colonial nations. They have taken the symbolical step of appealing to the United Nations against the American government. Under the pressure of mass sympathy for the proposals of Randolph and Reynolds, those Negro petty-bourgeois leaders who were carefully nurtured by the Roosevelt administration as spreaders of bourgeois ideas among the Negro masses, were forced to refuse to take any part in assisting the government to integrate Negroes into a segregated army. Despite the inevitable vacillations, compromises and capitulations of the Negro petty bourgeoisie, this sharp break at a time when they are badly needed indicates the dilemma of the government between its need to mobilize the nation and the rebelliousness of millions of Negroes.
Many of these actions have not been carried through to any decisive conclusion. But their increasing frequency and widening scope, the variety of forms in which they appear, their deep historical roots in the past of the country, illustrate with unusual richness and clarity the truth of one of the great contributions of Leninism to Marxist theory.
”The dialectics of history,” says Lenin, “is such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli which help the real power against imperialism to come on the scene, namely, the Socialist Proletariat.”
In analyzing the role of small nations Lenin cast light on the special contribution of the Negro struggle to the proletarian movement in the United States. Under the banner of Negro rights, the movement of the Negro people is rendered most sensitive and responsive to social tensions. It acts as a spur in precipitating struggles for elementary democratic rights; it unmasks the class nature of the capitalist state; it helps educate the working class to the reactionary role of bourgeois democracy and the need to wage merciless struggle against it; and propels into action the major political forces of the nation and the organized labor movement.
Important as these contributions are to the forces of social revolution, the Negro movement has invariably suffered heavy depression and demoralizing blows through the betrayal, defeat or lack of response of these forces. Deserted by the victorious bourgeoisie in 1876, the Negroes bore the full brunt of Southern reaction and revenge. After the defeat of the Populist Movement the South passed drastic anti-Negro legislation. Isolated from the revolutionary forces, the Garveyite outburst, though of great social and historical significance, became besmirched with grotesque follies and fantasies and rapidly disintegrated.
Today the greater organized political power of the Negro struggle faces correspondingly greater dangers. The CIO has brought the Negro back into the mainstream of American social life. Defective as may be its positive contributions, the very existence of the CIO and its enunciation of equality for. Negroes, combined with the relative freedom with which Negroes function within it, create the arena in which Negroes become increasingly bold in their struggles. It acts as a check upon the more flagrant aspects of Negro persecution. The defeat of the proletariat by American capitalism would inevitably result in unprecedented persecution for the Negro people. Already in 1943 when the Negro struggles were at their height, Roosevelt’s Attorney-General Biddle proposed that Southern Negroes be prohibited from coming North. If the proletariat is defeated, the Southern system will be extended over the whole country, and wherever American imperialism holds sway.
That organized labor is the principal shield and ally of the Negroes is true not only in a broad historical but in an immediate sense as well. In Detroit during 1943 the influence of the organized labor movement saved the Negroes from horrible massacres and persecutions by anti-Negro elements and the police.
The Socialist Workers Party pays special attention to the Negro mass movement. Our members join those organizations which offer a fruitful field for promoting the welfare of the Negro people. When necessary, we also assist in the creation of new organizations aiming at the struggle for democratic rights.
In our attitude to these organizations, we recognize the great difference between a periphery organization which is guided by party policy on a particular issue or consists of close sympathizers of the party, and an organization which rises up independently of the party to express the deep needs and aspirations of millions of oppressed people. In entering such organizations the party does not at all insist that they be Marxist in program as a condition for working in them any more than we impose such demands on the unions as a condition for working in them, with them and for them.
Neither do we judge these organizations by the character of their leadership at any given moment, as for instance the reformist, petty bourgeois, timid character of the NAACP leadership. At critical moments organizations of this type can become centers of genuine mass activity. On the other hand, as the March-on-Washington Movement proved, new organizations, expressing the aroused fighting spirit of the Negro people, can spring up overnight. In critical times, mass outbursts, as in Harlem in 1943, can become the starting point for the creation of new or the revitalization of old organizations. From all these points of view, participation by our members in the existing organizations of the Negroes according to the party’s strength and aims, remains a permanent feature of party work.
Party members participate in these Negro organizations, as in all others, as revolutionists. Our main purpose in them is the mobilization of the Negro masses for revolutionary action. The party applies here, too, the principles of its program, which presented with patience and flexibility, will find a ready hearing among the proletarian and semi-proletarian Negroes. The party wages unceasing struggle against the Negro petty-bourgeois leadership, the same type of struggle that it carries on against the union bureaucracy. It strives for an unambiguous militant program based upon the needs and readiness for struggle of the broad masses. It seeks to replace the vacillating, reformist petty-bourgeois leadership with a militant leadership fighting on the principles of the class struggle and in the closest alliance with organized labor and the Marxist revolutionists.
The party raises the question of political affiliation, and on the basis of the widespread Negro disillusionment with the two traditional parties, urges these organizations to go on record for a Labor Party, and to outline their program for such a party and not on the Negro question alone.
Finally, the party will find in the Negro organizations and in Negro life a fruitful field for the spread of the fundamental doctrines of Marxism. The situation of all Negro people offers exceptional opportunities for winning over the best elements in these organizations to Marxism on the basis of Negro needs and Negro experiences.
The Negro mass movement is a natural ally of the proletarian revolution. It will organize and reorganize itself many times in the course of its evolution to socialism. But the party governs itself by the fact that the high peaks of organized labor struggle, the CIO in 1935-1937, the miners’ strike in 1943, the great strikes of 1945-1946 culminating in the widespread but bureaucratically suppressed desire for a general strike against the Taft-Hartley Bill, have been paralleled by the outburst of the Negro masses in Harlem in 1935, the March-on-Washing-ton Movement in 1940, the outbursts in Harlem, Detroit and elsewhere in 1948, the growth of the NAACP to over half a million members. The government and the bourgeoisie have never underestimated the potential force of the Negro movement and its threat to the capitalist system.
The forms and rapidity of its progress will be determined to a large degree by the strength and resolute participation of the party in its struggles and experiences, and its concentration upon promoting the economic and social interests of the Negro masses. We must support this mass movement, develop it, and make it a politically conscious and definitely class movement. In marching hand in hand with it to the end we are marching far beyond its initial goal; we are marching to the very end of the division of society into classes.
The primary and ultimate necessity of the Negro movement is its unification with the revolutionary forces under the leadership of the proletariat. The guiding force of this unification can only be the revolutionary party.
The most urgent task of the revolutionary party is the destruction of the strangling influence of the reformist union bureaucrats over the labor movement. Precisely because of its exceptional rolein the country’s economic and political life, the Negro question confronts the labor bureaucracy with a series of acute problems. These have already drawn a widening line of demarcation between labor bureaucratism and revolutionary Marxism in the struggle for the leadership of the American proletariat.
The labor leadership itself has been compelled to assume a titular leadership of the struggle against discrimination and endorsement of Negro rights on the job and in the union. The imperative necessity of organizing the South has compelled the union leadership to grapple with the legalized and socially sanctified degradation and humiliation of the Negroes in the South. The formation of a Labor Party would immediately lead to a desperate struggle over the poll-tax, federal action against lynching and discrimination, and the whole system of oppression under the Southern oligarchy. Reformism can no more solve this burning problem than the reformist labor bureaucracies of Russia, Italy, or Spain could solve the peasant question.
The labor bureaucracy is becoming increasingly entangled with the government in the deprivation of the democratic rights of the workers. In the coming period, particularly if the war drive intensifies, a repetition of mass Negro upheavals, opposed directly to the federal government, can awaken warm response in the minds of workers, and become a powerful source of exposure of the hypocrisy of American imperialism. The endorsement by the union bureaucracy of the bi-partisan war program and their red-baiting campaign has given prominence and opportunity to some of the most reactionary and anti-Negro elements in the union movement.
In the critical days ahead, the Negro problem inside the union movement can become an extremely important issue. The whole past of the Negro movement shows that the Negroes in the unions, once assured of the support of a substantial number of white workers, will be in the forefront of any serious struggles against the labor bureaucracy as agents of governmental repression and reaction.
The American proletariat needs above all to be instilled with a consciousness of its historic mission as the fundamental force in the struggle against capitalism and leader of all oppressed groups and classes. The struggle for Negro rights and against the poll-tax, lynching, etc., have already made a strong impact upon the social education of the proletariat. This process will inevitably continue and develop. The mass struggles of the Negroes will increasingly pose the question of proletarian intervention, and enable the revolutionary forces to come to the fore with their revolutionary policy as opposed to the reformist.
By its leadership and championship of the Negro mass movement, the party takes one of the surest roads to gaining recognition as an organization that is determined, not merely to right Negro wrongs, but to abolish bourgeois society.
The party does not deny or minimize the existence of racial hatreds and the very real dangers they hold and will increasingly hold for the proletarian struggle as the foundations of bourgeois society continue to crumble and release the passions it has fostered for centuries. The history of Nazi Germany shows what brutality, terror and sadism capitalism in its last agonies can and will mobilize in its defense.
The party alone can carry on a fundamental propaganda and sustained and effective agitation against these dangers. Only the strenuous, patient, persistent and vigilant propagation of Marxist views on the Negro question, which are especially on guard against abstractions, can teach the workers to recognize and tear out by the root, the innumerable, often subtle and always constantly recreated forms in which bourgeois race prejudice infiltrates into the ranks of the organized laboy movement and the revolutionary vanguard itself.
The party will increasingly be subjected to conflicts between different strata of the labor movement which will find their expression in racial form. Particularly the party’s forceful struggle for influence in labor organizations of predominantly white workers will sometimes be impeded or placed in jeopardy by its championship of the Negro cause and Negro workers. Reactionary enemies of the revolutionary party will deliberately incite and magnify this issue to embarrass the party.
This poses and will increasingly pose difficult problems for the party. Even where, as in many AFL unions, the anti-Negro policy is flagrant, the concrete circumstances will often present serious problems for the party. Their successful handling, both for the education of the proletariat and the solidarity and growth of the party, must be based on the determination of the revolutionary party under all circumstances to maintain the principles for which it stands.
In the Negro movement in particular and often in the labor movement the party will meet Negro chauvinism. While making no principled concessions to it, the party treats it with great caution and makes a sharp distinction between the chauvinism of the oppressor and the chauvinism of the oppressed, even when the latter is expressed within the ranks of the organized labor movement. This chauvinism of the Negroes contains possibilities of being exploited under certain circumstances by the capitalists and turned into a terrible danger to the organized labor movement. Precisely because of this, the party must take the lead in guiding it, explaining its progressive features, purging it of its dangerous traits, and both in theory and practice, impressing the organized labor movement with its potentiality as a force for the defense of all democratic rights and the struggle against capitalist reaction.
As the party grows and wins over groups of rank and file workers, white and Negro, the cruder forms of race prejudice will assume importance within the party. They must be mercilessly fought. It is only on the basis of a constantly widening recognition and exposition of the significance of the Negro struggle not merely for Negroes but for the social revolution, that the party will be able to carry Out the necessary measures with firmness and yet without hysteria or foolhardiness. Both in the party and in the organized labor movement the party in opposing Jim Crow spares no pains to explain its reasons to the white workers, victims of a long historical development.
The pervading pressures of racial prejudice can take the most subtle forms. White workers and even union leaders in the party can find an easy escape from the hard task of combatting racial prejudices by counterposing the importance for the party of its influence on the organized labor movement, as against the Negro movement. On the other hand, Negro workers, on gaining class consciousness and observing the practices of equality in the revolutionary party and in certain of the industrial unions, sometimes react with hostility to the Leninist analysis of the racial and national aspects of the Negro movement and tend to reject it as a step backward and an unnecessary concession to Negro chauvinism. Petty-bourgeois Negroes who find in the party not only a means of revolutionary struggle but a relief from the strains and humiliations of Negro life will sometimes oppose bringing forward Negro work to its rightful place in party life. These are not individual aberrations but reflect, each in its own way, political weakness before the bourgeois pressure to relegate the Negro question to a subordinate place. Only a sound policy, actively carried out, can correct and check these and similar manifestations.
The situation of the Negro movement in American society gives a special role to Negro leadership, not merely among Negroes but in the revolutionary forces of the country. All great revolutions have, of necessity, utilized in the leadership members of oppressed races and nationalities as the most opposed to the existing order.
That the American socialist revolution will prove no exception to this rule is shown by the role already played by Negro leaders in the CIO. In its activity in the Negro labor organizations the party must devote great efforts to the winning over, education and preparation for leadership of Negro workers and intellectuals. But here again only the clear grasp of the character of the Negro movement can create the basis for Negro revolutionists to take their rightful place in the revolutionary party and the revolutionary struggle of the organized labor movement.
The party will have to rely chiefly on Negroes in its activity among Negro organizations, even where whites are admitted as members, as a necessary concession to the historically justified suspicions and prejudices of the Negro masses. But if Negro leaders do not play a prominent role in the general activity of the party on a national scale, that would represent a concession to the terrible power of bourgeois race prejudice, and would, in effect, segregate the Negro even within the revolutionary movement itself. This danger must be vigorously and consciously fought.
The Negro leaders of the party in Negro work must be consciously and carefully trained as Marxists of the international revolution. Unless they are so trained they cannot be good examples of Bolsheviks in the union movement; lack of such training would tend to perpetuate inside the party itself the bourgeois division of white and Negro. The party teaches the conscious elements among the Negroes and builds its cadres, both white and black, according to the dictum of Trotsky that “the conscious elements of the Negroes ... are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class.” Only a party educated in this spirit can create the surroundings to assist the Negro revolutionists in overcoming the influence of bourgeois race prejudice, express inside and outside the party the future historic role of the Negro people in the struggle for socialism, help to give confidence to the Negro masses that the past betrayals of the bourgeoisie are alien to the revolutionary proletariat, and demonstrate before the eyes of the masses the character of the new society.
At this stage of the party’s development and at the present undeveloped level, in a stricty political sense, of both organized labor and the Negro movement, the party must view the incorporation of Negroes into the party and Negro work in party building as a test and touchstone of its general revolutionary strategy and tactics, illuminating both the strength and weakness of the American workers and oppressed classes as well as the strength and weakness of the party.
The penetration into the most dynamic strata of the American workers, winning them over to Marxism, lifting them above immediate preoccupations to the heights of Bolshevism, steeling them against prevailing prejudices, the con solidation of diverse elements of an exceptionally diverse population, the creation of a centralized powerful revolutionary organization united by an inner discipline – all this at the present time finds a graphic expression in the Negro work of the party. “If it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this strata, then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and the rest would be only a lie.” These blunt words of Leon Trotsky underscore his recognition of the vital importance of the Negro movement in the United States as a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.
But just as the Negro movement for all its revolutionary character depends upon the revolutionary proletariat for its final success and even for safeguarding; it from defeat and destruction, so, too, the party’s Negro work, important as it is, depends upon the general progress of the party in securing and extending it? influence in the organized labor movement. Experience has shown that where the party possesses real strength in the labor movement its activities among the Negro masses meet with the greatest response. Only to the extent that the party successfully carries out the Transitional Program and rises to the level of its general political tasks will it be able to take fullest advantage of the great contributions to the socialist struggle inherent in Negro work.
1. The general line of this resolution was approved by the Socialist Workers Party national convention in 1948. It was then submitted for further discussion and amendment and adopted in its present form in February 1950.
Last updated on: 18 March 2009