J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

“Labor with a White Skin Cannot Emancipate Itself Where Labor with a Black Skin Is Branded” – Karl Marx

(15 August 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 59, 15 August 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The SWP Tackles Negro Work

News stories from branches about Negroes increase. Reuben Plaskett, a Negro comrade, recently spoke to a meeting predominantly Negro. The Chicago party participated in a Negro demonstration on housing. The party discusses Negro work. All this shows that we did not merely adopt resolutions at the convention, but are seriously alive to the Negro question.

The convention said that our first task is the education of the party. But the discussions usually center around the question of “how to approach the Negroes.” Comrades are aware of the difficulties created by the prevailing prejudices of American capitalist society. Most of them have had little contact, even of a social nature, with Negroes. It is obvious that Negro revolutionists are the best persons to approach Negro masses and of them we have very few. The hesitations and doubts of comrades are not without foundation. Still, the present concern with “the method of approach” is basically false. The Negro question for us is a political question. The main question for the party is the correct political approach. From that flows the “method of approaching Negroes” which is essentially a subordinate matter.

It is our political approach based on our political understanding which here as elsewhere will be decisive. The C.P. experience with Negro work gives indispensable lessons for us there, large and small, and must be carefully studied.

The Revolutionary C.P. and the Negro

The C.P. passed through three stages in its Negro work (a) up to 1928 when the Negro work was neglected, (b) 1939–35 when it made a drive, the period of which coincided with the period of social-fascism, and (c) 1935–39, the open abandonment of the revolutionary line by the C.P. and the catastrophic loss of nearly all its Negro membership.

In The Communist of September 1929, Cyril Briggs reviews the early experiences of the C.P. on the Negro question. For years, the Negro membership of the C.P. 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 C.P. place the winning of the Negroes as one of its major tasks henceforth in America. The political line of the C.P. 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 N.A.A.C.P., and other petty-bourgeois Negro organizations.

That political line was false. It was nearly, though not quite as false 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 N.A.A.C.P.

Furthermore in 1929, the C.P. 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 C.P. 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 under C.P. leadership, such as for instance the needle trades, 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 discriminations 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 C.P. made a revolutionary approach to the Negroes. And despite distortion 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 from many sections of the Negro community.

The C.P. Becomes Respectable

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 C.P. has lost over 80% and the same thing happened all over the country. Here is a revealing example of the great revolutionary truth that it is the political line which is in the last analysis decisive.

Comrades, therefore, must put first things first. The general political line of the S.W.P. has proved its validity nationally and internationally. Today we know that our cadres would never be guilty of the crude discriminations in personal relationships with Negroes which disfigured the less select membership of the C.P. in its early days. If we have neglected the Negro question in the past, a great blunder, we have at least; no specific errors to our credit. Our main preoccupation at the present time therefore must be the elaboration of our political approach to the Negro question. The rest will follow. There is no need to lose sleep at night on the “method of approaching the Negro.” A correct political approach, however, is not at all an easy matter. During the next few weeks we shall interpret and amplify the convention resolution. Full and free discussion from members and non-party persons is invited and will be dealt with in this column.

Last updated on 13 March 2016