J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

(25 August 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 62, 25 August 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chauvinism Must Be Driven Out

Negroes are held in subjection chiefly by three powerful imperialist nations – France, Great Britain, and the United States of America. It follows inevitably that racial chauvinism is a social characteristic in all these countries. Each imperialist power, however, has its own special type of chauvinism, based on its national peculiarities. What is important for us is that each specific type is faithfully reflected in the revolutionary movement of each country.

Talk intimately to an American Negro who is disillusioned with the Communist Party. Mingled with his disgust at the political degeneration of the C.P., will be a melancholy tale of personal insults, social discrimination, and similar conflicts springing directly out of the race relationships prevailing in capitalist America. Yet he has to admit that, when one looks back over the last 25 years, it is in the militant working class movement and particularly in its revolutionary wing that the greatest progress has been made towards real political solidarity and social equality, in association between members of the races.

Chauvinism in personal relations is not, to the politically-minded Negro, the main grievance. What he objects to more is a political attitude which, as always in our movement, can best be understood from an international approach.

In Great Britain and in France there are a few Negroes in the revolutionary movement. Social antagonisms such as those which take place in America are conspicuously absent. Not only the French revolutionaries but French bourgeois society on the whole displays a remarkable absence of racial prejudice. Even in England where race prejudice is very strong, personal relationships between white and colored revolutionaries are exceptionally good. Little trouble ever arises about Negro or other colored comrades staying in the homes of white revolutionaries, slighting of Negroes and their friends at socials, etc. There the radical movement in England differentiates itself sharply from English bourgeois and petty-bourgeois society which was the most race-conscious in Western Europe before the Nazis came to power in Germany to 1933.

British Chauvinism and the African Revolution

Yet the English revolutionary movement is eaten to the marrow with a most dangerous anti-Negro chauvinism. An English revolutionary, in thinking of the colonial revolution, thinks always of India but very rarely of Africa. India has produced world-famous leaders, like Gandhi and Nehru. India has a great history, a great cultural heritage. The Indian masses have many achievements to their credit in recent years, and these are widely known. An English radical has no difficulty in conceiving of a great revolution in India. This does not make him like Indians more. Quite often, English men and women admit that they find it easier to get on with African and West Indian Negroes than with many Indians.

But this same Englishman, who when he wants to go to the pictures or to a dance or to go camping, calls up his Negro friend instead of an Indian, finds it hard to think of an African revolt. He speaks always of the English revolutionaries winning power in England and then “granting” freedom to Africans. He has accepted almost completely the evaluation of Negroes propagated by British imperialism. He sees Africans as incapable of independent action on a large scale, unable to organize a revolutionary struggle, to seize the power and hold it. In other words, he sees them essentially as the bourgeois sees them. The African for him is the revolutionary white man’s burden.

In the French revolutionary movement, the situation is different. The French used hundreds of thousands of Negroes in the last, and are preparing to use millions to the coming war. Many Negro divisions come to France for training. The French bourgeoisie popularizes its African as well as its other troops. However ignorant a French revolutionary may be about Africa, he cannot see armed and highly trained African troops, officered by Negroes, without realizing their enormous revolutionary possibilities. Further, he sees Negro deputies in the French parliament. Negroes have been cabinet ministers, generals in the French Army, high officials in the civil service. It is therefore far easier for a French revolutionary to take the African revolution seriously. And the French Communist Party did some good work among the African troops in the old days when the Communist Parties were revolutionary.

Not dissimilar in their social approach to individual Negroes, the revolutionary movements of Britain and France are wide apart in their conceptions of the African revolution.

American Marxists and Bourgeois Ideas

The American Marxist is much closer in this to the English than to the French revolutionary. It should not be so. The Negroes have a great revolutionary history in America. Here is one revealing incident.

During the Civil War, an independently organized detachment of free Negroes in the South fought for the Confederacy. When the Confederacy was defeated in their state, they joined the North. They were ready to fight with the Devil against God or with God against the Devil. All they wanted was a chance to show that they were men. The Negroes, once they see a way out, will do the same today.

The Garvey movement is one of the most remarkable political eruptions that has taken place in America during the last quarter of the century. Most American revolutionaries treat it with an extreme light-mindedness. Merely backward Negroes misled by a demagogue. For proof? No serious study of the Garvey movement exists. “The Negro ‘accepts’. The white proletariat will have to emancipate him.” The Negro is seen always at the tail of the revolutionary movement. In other words, like the British and French revolutionaries, the American revolutionaries function mentally pretty much within the limits laid down by the American bourgeoisie. It was the Communist International which held the American C.P. by the scruff of the neck and made it take the Negro question seriously.

Yet even in the revolutionary days, the C.P. still saw the Negroes as a tail to their own movement. The C.P. conception was that the white revolutionaries had a “duty” to the Negroes. You might as well say that a man has a “duty” to save himself from drowning. The class-conscious white workers have to realise the vast importance, the absolute necessity of having the millions of Negroes with them, of realising that the place of the Negroes is in the front of the struggle. We of the Fourth International have now raised this question to its full status theoretically. What we have to do now is to make this conception a part of our mental equipment. But to do this we must break absolutely with bourgeois ideas about the Negro. The bourgeois lies about the Negro’s past. He lies about the Negro’s present. He lies about his future. He manufactures fake science to prove the Negro inferior. He manufactures a fake Negro to justify his oppression of the real Negro. The bourgeois not only lies himself but is the cause of lies in others. He has managed to instill quite a substantial portion of his own lies about Negroes into the minds of Negroes themselves. We as Marxists have to repudiate and denounce on every occasion all that the American bourgeoisie so pertinaciously circulates about Negroes.

And having broken with bourgeois ideas we must vigorously create our own, for if we do not, bourgeois corruption will come pouring in on us again. So conscious and complete a break with American bourgeois ideas about Negroes has never been made in America before. In the old revolutionary days the C.P. went a certain distance but stopped short, and its rapid degeneration prevented its complete theoretical emancipation. Only a Marxist party can even attempt jit. Determinedly carried through, such an ideological approach is the real beginning of the gigantic upheaval which will lift not one of two but the fifteen millions of Negroes to their rightful place in American society.

Last updated on 13 March 2016