J.R. Johnson

Preliminary Notes on the Negro Question

(June 1939)

Originally published in the Socialist Workers Party’s Internal Bulletin, No. 9, June 1939.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 3–14.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked upby Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


The 14 or 15 million Negroes in the USA represent potentially the most militant section of the population. Economic exploitation and the crudest forms of racial discrimination make this radicalization inevitable. We also have historical proof, first in the part played by the Negroes in the Civil War and in the response to a Marcus Garvey. Superficially, the Negro accepts, but that acceptance does not go very deep down. It is essentially dissimulation and a feeling of impotence, the age-old protective armor of the slave. It has been stated that the CP in organizing the Negroes in the South got such response that it had to check the campaign. The reason given was that owing to the number of Negroes joining and the fewness of the whites, the result would soon be a race-war between the Southern workers and sharecroppers.


The Negro responds not only to national but international questions. It is stated that during the Ethiopian crisis, thousands of Negroes were ready to go to Ethiopia as fighters and nurses. Since the trouble in the West Indies, Jamaicans in New York have formed a Jamaica Progressive Association. They drafted a memorandum demanding a democratic constitution for the West Indies, sent a delegate to meet the Royal Commission and to visit Panama and Colon to organize membership of the association.


Finally, I am informed that a new spirit is moving among the Negroes, in Harlem and elsewhere today. People who knew the Harlem Negro fifteen years ago and know him today state that the change is incredible. The Negro press today, poor as it is, is an immense advance on what it was five years ago. The Pittsburgh Courier, with a circulation of over 100,000 weekly, though a bourgeois paper, bitterly attacks the Roosevelt administration for its failure to deal with the Negro question. The younger generation in particular aims at equality, not to be discriminated against simply because they are black. To sum up then

  1. The Negro represents potentially the most revolutionary section of the population.
  2. He is ready to respond to militant leadership.
  3. He will respond to political situations abroad which concern him.
  4. He is today more militant than ever.


The Fourth International movement has neglected the Negro question almost completely. If even the Party personnel were not of a type to do active work among the Negro masses, the Negro question as an integral part of the American revolution can no longer be neglected. The Negro helped materially to win the Civil War and he can make the difference between success and failure in any given revolutionary situation. A Negro department of some sort should be organized (consisting, if need be, entirely of whites) which will deal as comprehensively with the Negro question as the Trade Union Department deals with the Trade Union Question. If the Party thinks the question important enough this will be done. The Party members and sympathizers must be educated to the significance of the Negro question. This is not a question of there being no Negroes in the Party. That has nothing to do with it at all. This work can begin immediately. The main question, however, that of organizing or helping to organize the Negro masses, is one of enormous difficulty for a party like the SWP. The main reasons for this are of course the discrimination against the Negro in industry by both capitalists and workers, the chauvinism of the white workers, and the political backwardness of the American movement. Each of these are fundamental causes inherent in the economic and social structure of the country.

But an already difficult situation has been complicated by the funereal role of the CP, especially during the last few years. It is stated, and there is every reason to believe it, that the possibilities of a rapprochement between blacks and whites on a working class basis are today worse than they were ten years ago. The CP has lost 1,579 or 79% of its Negro membership during the last year in New York State alone. Since that time, there has taken place the split of the Workers Alliance, and New York is slated to be always symptomatic of developments in the Party as a whole. It was not always like this. I am informed that some years ago in Harlem, the Negro who was aware of politics might not join the CP, but he would say that of all the white parties, the CP was the only party which did fight for Negro equality and which tried to stick to its principles. Today that is gone. The chief reason for this is, of course, the new Popular Front turn of the CP. The CP cannot gain the allies it wants if it fights the difficult fight for Negro rights. The CP is now an American party, and the petty bourgeois supporters of democracy who are coming into it have nothing in common with the Negro, who, finding himself an outsider, has simply left the Party. I have had personal experience of the bitterness of ex-members of the CP toward the party, and unfortunately, to all white parties also.

But it is to be noted that the main grievance is political – the activity of the CP on the Ethiopian question. First of all, that Russia sold oil to Italy made a disastrous impression on the blacks. Yet many Negro party members remained. What seems to have been a decisive factor was the activity in regard to Spain and China and its lack of activity in regard to Ethiopia.

“Every day it is only Spain, Spain, China, Spain, but nothing done for Ethiopia except one or two meager processions around Harlem.”

I have the impression that the CP could have gotten away with the Soviet selling of oil if it had carried on a vigorous campaign, collecting money, etc. for the Ethiopian cause. The contrast with Spain has been too glaring, and when the CP entirely neglected the West Indian situation, the Negroes became finally conscious that they were once more the dupes of “another white party.”

The Ethiopian question and the West Indian question are still live questions for the politically minded Negroes. They will judge a Party on the international field by what it does or says on these issues. [1]

Articles, leaflets, and even small meetings in Harlem are not beyond the Party today with a little effort. One party comrade has managed to make himself familiar with the Indian problem, to write articles in the NI, and to make valuable contacts. The same could surely be done nearer home.

France at the present time is the key to the world situation. How to awaken interest in the American Negroes on the critical situation in France, obviously of such importance to themselves? Obviously by the struggle for independence of the French colonies and particularly through the Negro organizations in Europe and Africa which are working towards this end. (The French party and with it the Belgian and British parties have their responsibility here.) In France today there are African revolutionary organizations in contact with a similar organization in Britain. The Fourth International must determinately assist in building and strengthening its connections with this work, and the American Party has its part to play in this important means of educating and organizing the Negro movement in America.

The most difficult question is still to be faced. What will the Party aim at in its Negro work? There are certain things that every revolutionary party will do:

  1. Fight for the Negroes’ place and rights in the Trade Unions.
  2. Seek to make as many Negroes as possible members.
  3. Carry on a merciless struggle against White chauvinism.

About (c) a word should be said. The CP has been accused of fostering a black chauvinism. There have been exaggerations and absurdities and downright crimes against socialism, e.g. using white women to catch Negroes, but on the whole, the CP attitude of going to lengths in order to make the Negro feel that the CP looked upon him as a man and equal is not to be lightly dismissed. The general aim was correct. The Negro brought up in America or Africa is extremely sensitive to chauvinism of any kind. Lenin knew this and in his thesis to the Second Congress on the Colonial Question, he warned that concessions would have to made to correct this justifiable suspicion on the part of the colonial workers. No principled concession can ever be made. But sensitiveness to “black chauvinism” will gain nothing and will do a great deal of harm. It should be noted that this suspicious attitude is not directed against whites only. Africans, and also to some degree Americans, are often hostile to educated West Indian Negroes who from their British education and the comparative absence of sharp racial discrimination in the West Indies are accused, and justly, of having a “superior” and “white” attitude. Organizations in London predominantly West Indian find it difficult to get African members, and in America, to get American members.

The party will base itself in the everyday needs of the Negroes. It must aim at being a mass organization or it would be useless and mischievous. The dangers of such an organization are obvious. But a recognition of these dangers does not solve two questions:

  1. The great masses of Negroes are unorganized and no white party is going to organize them. They will not join the Fourth International. Is it worthwhile to assist in the formation of an organization which will rally Negroes, and, though reformist in character, must from the very nature of its membership develop into a militant organization? The Negro has poured his money into Garvey’s coffers, and now into Father Divine’s, has worked hard and been robbed. Is there a way out for him to fight unless he joins the Fourth International?
  2. Though I may be wrong here, I think that such an organization is going to be formed whatever we do.

This question of the Negro organization is one that deserves the closest study. As far as I can see, no white leader or white organization is going to build a mass organization among the Negroes, either in Africa or in America. As recently as 1935, however, the Negroes have shown their capacity for mass political action under one of their own leaders. One, Sufi, a Southern Negro, masquerading as a man from the East, organized a party, picketed shops, and helped to force employers to give one-third of their jobs to Negroes. He was the leading figure in the riots which gained Harlem schools, more colored teachers, recreation grounds, etc. Sufi was a racketeering demagogue and was entangled into an Anti-Semitism which, I am informed, was no part of his creed, such as it was. But he was ready to fight for such things as the Negro understood and he got a strong response. The question, however, is pertinently asked: Why is it that intelligent Negroes with political understanding never attempt to lead Negroes but always leave them to men like Garvey and Sufi?

This, it seems to me, is one of the most important questions on which the party has to come to a decision. It is closely linked to the question of self-determination for American Negroes. Self-determination for the American Negroes is (1) economically reactionary and (2) politically false because no Negroes (except CP stooges) want it. For Negroes it is merely an inverted segregation. Yet it is not to be lightly dismissed without providing for what it aims at: the creation of confidence among the Negroes that revolutionary socialism does honestly and sincerely mean to stand by its promises. As so often with Marxists, the subsidiary psychological factors are not carefully provided for in the planning of political campaigns.

The Negro must be won for socialism. There is no other way out for him in America or elsewhere. But he must be won on the basis of his own experience and his own activity. There is no other way for him to learn, nor for that matter, for any other group of toilers. If he wanted self-determination, then however reactionary it might be in every other respect, it would be the business of the revolutionary party to raise that slogan. If after the revolution, he insisted on carrying out that slogan and forming his own Negro state, the revolutionary party would have to stand by its promises and (similarly to its treatment of large masses of the peasantry) patiently trust to economic development and education to achieve an integration. But the Negro, fortunately for Socialism, does not want self-determination.

Yet Negroes, individually and in the mass, will remain profoundly suspicious of whites. In private and in public, they ask the question: “How are we to know that after the revolution we shall not be treated in the same way?” Many who do not say this think it. The CP Negroes are looked upon as touts for Negro converts in exactly the same way as the Democratic and Republican Parties have touts for Negro votes.

What is the remedy? I propose that there is an obvious way – the organization of a Negro movement. That the Negro masses do certainly want – they will respond to that and therefore they must have it. They will follow such a movement ably and honestly led. They have followed similar movements in the past and are looking for a similar movement now.

The great argument for such a movement is that it has the possibility of setting the Negro masses in motion, the only way in which they will learn the realities of political activity and be brought to realize the necessity of mortal struggle against capitalism. Who opposes such a procedure must have some concrete suggestions for attaining this most important end: bringing Negro masses into the struggle.

What precise aims will such an organization have? What it must not at any cost do is to seek to duplicate existing white organizations so as to result in anything like dual unionism, etc. One of its main tasks will be to demand and struggle for the right of the Negro to full participation in all industries and in all unions. Any Negro organization which fought militantly for such an aim would thereby justify its existence.

There are many urgent issues: the struggle for the Negro right to vote, against social and legal discrimination, against discrimination in schools (and universities), against oppressive rents. The struggle against such things and the task of bringing the white workers to see to a concrete realization of their responsibility in these questions can be best achieved by a combination of the few politically advanced whites backed by a powerful Negro movement. To expect a continuous struggle by the whites on these Negro issues is absurd to lay down as a condition. For what it amounts to – that the Negro cannot struggle against these things unless he forms organizations predominantly white – is sectarian and stupid.

The Negro himself will have the satisfaction of supporting his own movement. The constant domination of whites, whether by the bourgeoisie or in workers’ movements, more and more irks the Negro. That is why he followed a Marcus Garvey in such hundreds of thousands and would not join the CP. The Party’s attitude towards such a movement should therefore be one of frank, sincere, and unwavering support. The white proletariat will have to demonstrate concretely its value to the Negro not once, but many times, before it wins the Negro’s confidence.

The support of this movement by the Party should be frank, sincere, and unwavering. This is not as easy as it sounds. What the Party must avoid at all costs is looking upon such a movement as a recruiting ground for party members, something to be “captured” or manipulated for the aims of the party, or something which it supports spasmodically at the time it needs something in return. The party should frankly and openly endorse such a movement, urge Negroes to join it, assist the movement in every way and, while pointing out the political differences and showing that revolutionary socialism is the ultimate road, work side by side to influence this movement by criticism and activity combined. It is in this way and on the basis of a common struggle, with the party always helping by never seeking to manipulate the movement, that the confidence of the Negro movement be gained by revolutionary socialism, without raising the impracticable slogan of self-determination.

What are the dangers of such a movement? The chief are: (a) the danger that it might be used by reactionary elements such as the Democratic Party or the Communist Party, (b) the danger of encouraging racial chauvinism. A fortunate combination of circumstances reduces these dangers to manageable proportions.

At the present moment, there is a sufficient number of capable Negroes ready and willing to lead such a movement who, while willing to cooperate with white parties, have no racial chauvinism.

While all Negroes will be admitted and racial discrimination against any Negro as a Negro will be fought, it is recognized by all with whom I have discussed this question, that such a movement must be a mass movement based on the demands of Negro workers and peasants. Much will depend on the leadership here. I see no reason, however, to have any doubts on this score. Such a leadership exists at the present time and needs only be mobilized. The Negro’s right to his place in industry and the trade unions must be one of the main planks of the platform and one of the main fields of activity. The prospective leadership, as I see it, will be militantly opposed to the political line and organizational practice of the CP.

Yet this is not sufficient as a political basis. Sooner or later the organization will have to face its attitude towards capitalism. Is it to be a reformist or revolutionary organization? It will not start as a full-fledged revolutionary socialist organization. As Lenin pointed out to the pioneers of communism in Britain immediately after the war, it would be a mistake to flaunt the banner of revolution right at the beginning. The basis of the organization must be the struggle for the day-to-day demands of the Negro. But the American economy is already and will increasingly pose the question to every political organization fascism or communism. Here again the initial leadership will exercise a decisive influence. This is a question which will ultimately be decided by struggle within the organization.

However, many factors are in favor of a victory ultimately for those who support revolutionary socialism, when the Negro masses are ready for it. First there is the question of revolutionary struggle for the Negroes in Africa against imperialism. On this, most politically minded Negroes are agreed. Secondly, the International African Service Bureau, a British organization, issued a Manifesto during the Munich crisis which demands a joint struggle of British workers in Britain and colonials of the Empire for the overthrow of Imperialism. This Manifesto has been warmly welcomed among advanced Negroes in America, and the bureau and its paper, International African Opinion, have already a powerful influence, and this not only on account of its policy, but because it is run by Negroes.

Militant struggle for day-to-day demands must be the basis and constant activity of the movement, but in this period, action on this basis will drive the movement sharply up against the capitalist state and fascists or neo-fascist bands; and the transition to revolutionary socialism will not ultimately be difficult. As soon as this organization has achieved a firm basis, an international conference will most probably be called between the various militant Negro organizations and from my personal knowledge of them and their personnel, there is a probability that Socialism may be adopted. Such are the possibilities at the present time. And it is fortunate that they are so favorable. But it must be insisted upon that support of a Negro mass movement must not be conditional upon whether it is or soon will be socialist or not. It is the awakening and bringing into political activity of the large mass of Negroes which is the main consideration, and to this the party must give its frank, sincere, and unwavering support. The rest depends on the development of the whole international situation, the struggle of revolutionary parties, e.g. the growth of the SWP and the individuals who will constitute the leadership.

On the specific danger of racial chauvinism, I shall say little; in my view, it is for the movement of the kind projected a minor question. No movement which proclaims the Negro’s right to his place in the trade unions can be deeply penetrated with chauvinism. The Negroes who are likely to lead this movement see the dangers of chauvinism as clearly as the whites do. In America, where the Negroes are in a definite minority, serious fear of black chauvinism on the part of white revolutionaries seems to me not only unnecessary but dangerous. In the concrete instance, black chauvinism is a progressive force, it is the expression of a desire for equality of an oppressed and deeply humiliated people. The persistent refusal to have “self-determination” is evidence of the limitation of black chauvinism in America. Any excessive sensitiveness to black chauvinism by the white revolutionaries is the surest way to create hostilities and suspicion among the black people.

Such, in outline, it seems to me, should be the attitude of the party towards such an organization. It should actively assist the formation of such a movement. In any case, I have little doubt that such a movement is going to be formed sooner or later. But the party also has its own responsibility to the Negro question. The following are a few observations, based on a necessarily limited knowledge of the American situation, learned chiefly by discussion with Negro Socialists or near-Socialists.

  1. Earlier I stated that the Party must form a section devoted entirely to the Negro question. This is urgent work, whether a Negro organization is formed or not. Our great weapon at the present moment is Marxism by which we illuminate every grave social and political problem of the day. The Party’s first task, therefore, is to do what no organization, white or Negro, can do completely unless it is based on the principles of Marxism, study the Negro question in relation to the national and international situation.
  2. The Negro Committee should embark on an unremitting study of the Negro question, and immediately make arrangements for the publication of articles regularly in the Socialist Appeal and the New International. The Appeal should have a weekly column devoted to the Negro question. It will not be difficult to get regular information if contact is kept with Negroes. Not only accounts of lynchings, specific discriminations in industry, etc., but the presentation and analysis of various economic and social statistics issued, with special reference to the Negro, the colonial struggle in Africa, etc. This must now be a prominent and permanent section of the party’s work, for Party members as well as Negro contacts.

    Particularly urgent for the New International is an article or series of articles written from the inside and exposing the dealings of the American Communist Party with the Negro. The political line, the activities of Ford, Richard Moore, and Co., would be shown up, and their political corruption and degeneration traced in relation to the decline of the Comintern. The Negroes must be shown why the CP policy to the Negro has been what it has been at different times and why. The bureaucratic “promotion” and “demotion” of Negroes must be shown as a direct reflection of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution. A series of articles and a pamphlet relating the CP political and organizational policy towards Negroes with the zigzags of the Comintern would be of inestimable value. This should be done as a first task.
  3. The numerous Negro organizations in Harlem and elsewhere must be contacted. This should be done very carefully, for the CP policy of “penetration” or “capturing from within” and generally of being concerned chiefly with bringing the organization under its influence, and not with helping in the Negro struggle, has borne bitter fruit, and the attitude towards any white is likely to be “What have you come here to get?” That the party should encourage the formation of a Negro mass movement does not mean that it will in any way cease activity to gain membership among Negroes. What is to be avoided is the impression that it is interested in Negro activity solely for the purpose of getting members or influence, and not for the purpose of assisting Negro struggles. That would be a grave crime not only against Negroes but against the socialist movement. Yet the party will openly and frankly seek membership. It seems, however, that here certain dangers are to be avoided.

The NAACP, the Urban League, and other Negro organizations, weekly forums, etc., carry on a certain amount of activity. Mere condemnation of these as bourgeois is worse than useless. At present, in most areas, the party’s appeal to most Negroes would chiefly be to those who are attracted by its superior understanding and analysis of the Negro question and the world situation. But these Negroes, when won, must not be immediately abstracted from their milieu and plunged into the struggle against Stalinism, etc. One of their main tasks at the present stage is to remain among the Negroes in their areas in the local organizations, carrying on an active fight for the party’s ideas in a manner carefully adapted to their hearers’ point of view. Broadly speaking, among whites there is a differentiation; revolutionaries circle around revolutionary organizations, and the petty bourgeois democrats belong to the various petty bourgeois organizations. Among Negroes, especially in the provinces, it is not so. All types, instinctive revolutionaries and conservatives, can be found at the local Negro forums, YMCA etc. even though these meetings often begin with prayers. There is a vast field here for the winning of Negro members to the party if the party press and literature give them a weapon which they can use.

But at the same time, the party must beware of looking upon Negro work as to be done necessarily by Negroes. The clearance of the long road to socialist equality must begin at once. Certain white comrades can now begin to become experts on the Negro question. The method is easy to define, hard to carry out. It means a regular reading of the Negro press, Negro literature, regular attendance at Negro meetings, etc. The arguments for socialism are to be directed against the latest pronouncements of Kelly, Miller, Mordecai, Johnson, George, Schulyer, the local Negro representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties, not against Stalin, Daladiuer, and Chiang Kai-Sheck. And to attempt to do propaganda among Negroes on any other basis than attack, debate, exposition, etc. concerned with the writers, press etc. read by the Negroes, is to speak a language alien to them. This is of particular importance in areas where the Party is small. (For the moment I exclude organizations of the Negro unemployed etc. which would more properly be the problem of the Trade Union Section). A close attention by one or two white comrades to the discussion, literature, etc. of the various Negro groups in their community must bear fruit in the end owing to the superior power of the ideas we put forward. And while Negroes will do the main part of this work, even where the Party has Negro comrades, white comrades must take their part and will win great prestige for the party by showing themselves thoroughly familiar with Negro life and thought. We must work patiently in the rather restricted milieu to which even groups of educated Negroes are condemned by their position in American society.

The Committee should get into contact with the French, British, Belgian, and South African sections, get regular information about their work and contacts, a good supply of British and South African papers, especially those dealing with colonial questions, and circulate these and translations from the French among the Negro organizations and interested groups and persons. Every effort should be made to circulate the Spark widely among interested Negro contacts. The International African Service Bureau and its organ, International African Opinion, should be popularized by the party among Negroes and whites alike. Negroes will welcome and appreciate this. This organization of Fourth International colonial activity in a manner to present it constantly and regularly to Negroes in America, is not only one of the most important means of drawing Negro contact ultimately into our party. It means also, and this is of immense importance in our period, that Negro organizations everywhere which are internationally minded or drawing towards internationalism will ultimately realize that the only genuine international organization in the world at the present time is the Fourth International.


1. The neglect of the Ethiopian question by the Fourth International (the British Section included) is a grave strategic error. The Ethiopians are in the field fighting and are going to be there for years. If there is any break in Italy during a war, these fighters will sweep the isolated Italian force out of the country. The African revolution today has a starting point in Africa. It is obvious what effect any such sweeping victory by the Ethiopian army will have on French black troops in Western Europe, and on Africans.

Last updated on 17.7.2011