J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

(22 August 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 61, 22 August 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The American Negro and the Proletarian Revolution

“The Negroes are designated by their whole historical past to be, under adequate leadership, the very vanguard of the proletarian revolution.” – from Resolution on Negro Work adopted by the Socialist Workers Party convention July 1–5, 1939.

It is going to be one of the high peaks in the history of the American revolutionary movement, this decision of our recent convention.

There is, in the sentence quoted, an overstatement, in my opinion. It would be more correct to say, “in the very vanguard.” But the place of the Negroes is in the very front. This is the truth that must be burnt into the consciousness of every party member before the party can successfully approach the Negro question. When we have absorbed this, we shall know how to approach the Negro.

It is the masses of the under-privileged, the disinherited, who are least corrupted by the prevailing ideas of a society. They, in the mass, are the readiest to fight most desperately for the overthrow of any social system.

Example of French Revolution

The Paris masses were the battering ram of the French Revolution: the Sansculottes, i.e., the people without shoes. In that manual of revolutionary theory and practice, the History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky describes the entry of these downtrodden masses on the historical stage of the French Revolution, (p. 210):

“But before it comes to war and the guillotine, the Paris Commune enters the scene – supported by the lowest city layers of the Third Estate – and with increasing boldness contests the power with the official representatives of the national bourgeoisie. A new double sovereignty is thus inaugurated, the first manifestation of which we observe as early as 1790, when the big and medium bourgeoisie is still firmly seated in the administration and in the municipalities. How striking is the picture – and how vilely it has been slandered! – of the efforts of the plebeian levels to raise themselves up out of the social cellars and catacombs, and stand forth in that forbidden arena where people in wigs and silk breeches are settling the fate of the nation. It seemed as though the very foundation of society, tramped underfoot by the cultured bourgeoisie, was stirring and coming to life. Human heads lifted themselves above the solid mass, horny hands stretched aloft, hoarse but courageous voices shouted. The districts of Paris, bastards of the revolution, began to live a life of their own. They were recognized – it was impossible not to recognize them! – and transformed into sections. But they kept continually breaking the boundaries of legality and receiving a current of fresh blood from below, opening their ranks in spite of the law to those with no rights, the destitute Sansculottes. At the same time, the rural municipalities were becoming a screen for a peasant uprising against that bourgeois legality which was defending the feudal property system. Thus from under a second nation arises a third.”

These were the millions who poured into the French Trade Unions between June and August 1936 at the rate of 40,000 a day. These are the masses who will rally around the more conservative organizations of the more privileged workers and vitalize them for the proletarian revolution.

Revolutionary History of American Negroes

And in America, “under adequate leadership”, the Negroes will come en masse to the revolutionary struggle.

Of the fifteen million of them in America today, barring a thin crust of petty-bourgeois capitalists, intellectuals, and well-paid domestic attendants of the American bourgeoisie, the large majority of Negroes will fight for a new society with a vigor and endurance that will be surpassed by no other section of the American workers or farmers.

Their ancestors did it. Lincoln doubted that the North could have won without the 220,000 Negroes in the Northern Army and the support of the slave population. How the black soldiers fought! “It would have been madness to attempt, with the bravest white troops, what I have successfully accomplished with the black ones.” This is the testimony of Colonel Higginson, and there are a score of similar appraisals. This bravery and endurance can be counted on from any people who for centuries have experienced every variety of oppression and at last see a way out.

Such was, or should have been, generally known at least by Marxists. But it is only within the last few years that research has begun to find and make known the revolutionary hostility against the old slave-owners which characterized the ex-slaves after the Civil War. Fear of a servile insurrection hung like a thunder-cloud over the defeated plantation magnates in the years that followed their defeat. With the slightest encouragement from any political party in the North, the blacks in the South would have carried the revolution to a conclusion, wiping out every vestige of the plantation system and with it the theory and practise of white supremacy.

Negro Not Deceived by “Democracy”

Today the lives of over 90% of the Negroes in this country offer no soil hi which illusions about bourgeois democracy can flourish. The Negroes have no need to dream dreams and see visions of a new society. It is always before them – to be able to live as white America lives. But that desire, modest as it is, they will never get under capitalism. The majority do not understand their position in these terms. But the thinking ones know that they will win their emancipation only by merciless struggle against their masters. What terrorizes them is that they see as their enemies all white America, white workers and all. When the white workers realize, as Lincoln realized, that their emancipation is impossible without the Negroes, they will look for them and find them as Lincoln did. They are doing it already, as witness the hundreds of thousands of Negroes in the CIO. The revolutionary party seeks to accelerate that process.

American Marxists Have Underestimated The Negroes

What Lincoln learned by experience, we of the revolutionary vanguard should know by analysis. Yet, even when it was a revolutionary party, the Communist Party took ten years to address itself seriously to the Negro question, and then only by the vigorous intervention of the Communist International. The S.W.P. has followed an identical course – ten years of neglect and then an impulse to action from our international movement. This is not in the faintest degree accidental, and any superficial explanations would be a dangerous sophistry. It is due in part to the influence of that chauvinism which is characteristic of American bourgeois society and which is present even in a movement as advanced as ours. Marxists are not exempt from the laws of history and can combat a prevailing prejudice in all its aspects only by conscious and strenuous thought and action continuously renewed. This is not a matter of personal relationships between whites and Negroes in a party, important though that is. There is a certain number of non-revolutionary Americans who maintain quite liberal personal relationships with those Negroes whom they know. Yet they are permeated with chauvinism. We shall have to probe this question to its depths.

When as a party we realize how pervasive and subtle, even among revolutionaries, is the chauvinism fostered by American capitalism, then and then only shall we be in a position to tear it out by the roots and begin to win the Negro for the revolution. But the first requisite for this is to tear out of our minds the false conceptions of Negroes which we have unconsciously taken over from American capitalism. To see the Negro as being in the very vanguard of a great international political movement is to do him justice for the first time in American political thinking. It is from there that the Fourth International begins.

Last updated on 13 March 2016