J.R. Johnson

The Communist Party’s Zigzags
on Negro Policy

(15 August 1939)

This is an extract from The SWP Tackles Negro Work, The Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 59, 15 August 1939, p. 3.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 116–117.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The CP passed through three stages in its Negro work: (a) up to 1928 when the Negro work was neglected, (b) 1929–35 when it made a drive, the period of which coincided with the period of [denouncing all other left currents as] social-fascism, and (c) 1935-39, the open abandonment of the revolutionary line by the CP and the catastrophic loss of nearly all its Negro membership.

In The Communist of September 1929, Cyril Biggs reviews the early experiences of the CP on the Negro question. For years, the Negro membership of the CP could be counted “literally” on the fingers of one hand. In 1928, the drive was initiated directly by the Comintern, which insisted at the 6th World Congress that the CP place the winning of the Negroes as one of its major tasks henceforth in America. The political line of the CP in those days was of course the line of social-fascism. Daily they went into action to make the revolution on every street corner. They formed their own red trade unions. They called Roosevelt and the New Dealers the worst enemies of the working class and the initiators of fascism in this country. They foamed at the mouth whenever they mentioned the NAACP and other petty-bourgeois Negro organizations.

That political line was false. It was nearly though not quite as bad as their present line of the Democratic Front – repudiating the revolution, making out Roosevelt and the New Deal to be the sole salvation of the American workers, grinning and smirking at Walter White and the NAACP.

Furthermore in 1929 the CP had many blunders to live down. It had opposed the migration of Negroes from the South to the North on the grounds that these newcomers would affect the economic position of the white workers in the North and result in sharpening racial antagonism. The Negro comrades who opposed this “gargantuan stupidity” were refused the five or six dollars they got weekly as postage for the news service they sent out to about 300 Negro newspapers. The CP had openly opposed social equality for Negroes at a convention in New York. This piece of stupidity was given wide publicity in the capitalist press and extensively quoted in the Negro press. Even when the turn was made to the Negroes, the party was guilty of open acts of blatant chauvinism.

In the unions there were scores of functionaries and departments for Greek, Italian, Jewish workers etc. But there was not a single Negro functionary, despite the fact that there were several thousand Negro workers in the needle trades in New York City alone. The personal behavior of whites to Negro comrades was frequently such as to damn the party in the minds of all Negroes who heard of it. One Negro comrade, Nicolai Garcia, was in Baltimore six days before he was able to get a bed. The white comrades with whom he came into contact just didn’t know what to do with him. Yet two days later when a white comrade arrived from New York and talked about going to a hotel, there were protests and offers from white comrades to put him up. Such incidents always spread like wildfire among Negroes. Here then was a false political line and a party membership many elements of which had not rid themselves of the crudest discrimination and prejudices practiced by capitalist society.

And yet, despite these handicaps, between 1929 and 1936 the party made progress. The social-fascist line at least summoned the masses to struggle. It differentiated sharply between the aims and methods of Communists on the one hand and of bourgeois politicians and vaguely “progressive” persons on the other. The CP made a revolutionary approach to the Negroes. And despite distortions of the revolutionary line, the demagogy and corruption, the bureaucratic manipulation of the Negro leaders, the chauvinism open and inverted, the party gained thousands of members and won a sympathetic if critical interest among many sections of the Negro community.

Then the line changed from one that at least attempted to be revolutionary to one which is today openly tied to American imperialism and the Roosevelt war machine. The result was immediate and unmistakable. Of their 2,000 Negro members in New York State, the CP has lost over 80% and the same thing happened all over the country ...

Last updated on 13 March 2016