J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

(13 October 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 78, 13 October 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

[Like the Red of an Apple Rotten at the Heart]

“Hundreds of thousands of Negro soldiers face the danger of having to shed their blood for the greater glory, the greater profits, of the bloated money kings of London and Paris in this imperialist war, the purpose of which is to tighten the yoke of oppression more closely around the necks of all toilers.”

This is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Where does it come from? The readers of this column and of the Socialist Appeal might think it comes from our new pamphlet Why Negroes Should Oppose the War (by J.R. Johnson, 32 pages, 5 cents). But that extract is not from our party literature at all. It comes from an interview given by James Ford, the Stalinist Commissar of Harlem, to the Daily Worker, October 9, 1939. The same issue carries another interview given by Dr. Max Yergan, executive secretary of the International Committee on African Affairs. During the Spanish war this committee worked in close collaboration with the Stalinist organization, the League for Spanish Democracy. On behalf of Harlem Negroes, the committee presented an ambulance to the Spanish people.

Dr. Yergan also says that the war in Europe is an imperialist war. Like James Ford, he regarded “the Soviet-German non-aggression pact and the subsequent action of the Soviet Union as the one great contribution to world peace and democracy to come out of the conflict thus far.” Thus Dr. Yergan, a missionary, a YMCA official, widely known in America, in Europe, and in Africa, by his observation of the international situation and the grace of God, advocates a 100 per cent Stalinist position. The war is an imperialist war; the Negroes will be sacrificed for profits; Negroes, help keep America out of war.

Sounds Good – But Is It?

It looks good, like the red of an apple rotten at the heart. It sounds good, like the words a prostitute whispers in the ear of a traveler, while robbers creep behind to stab him in the back.

For proof, let us take one great tragedy for Africans and the friends of Africa – the case of Spanish Morocco. The Moors are not Negroes, but they are an oppressed colonial people. If they had won their freedom, a mighty blow would have been struck at imperialism. The victory of the Moors could have acted as a clarion call to revolutionaries in Europe and to all oppressed and groaning Africa.

Now you gain your freedom when your enemy is weak and your enemy is weakest when he is fighting for his life. When the Spanish revolution broke out, it was the chance of the Moors. The correct policy for the Moors was to say to the Spanish workers and peasants:

“You want to break the necks of the ruling class. We want our independence, but this we can get only by breaking the neck of the same ruling class. We support you, you support us. You declare that you support the independence of Spanish Morocco. We shall fight against Franco and be your loyal comrades and allies.”

That was the policy for the Moors. But it was still more the duty of all who were friends of African independence to proclaim that policy and agitate for it among the Spanish workers and peasants, “the independence of Spanish Morocco.” “Moors,take up arms and fight for your own country.” These are the slogans that should have been on the lips of every true revolutionary, of every genuine fighter for African independence in the days when every class, every group in Spain, was fighting for its own interests, on one side or the other.

What did James Ford and his Communist Party say in those days? What did Max Yergan say? You will search columns of the Stalinist press and not find one clear call, “Moors, use your arms for your independence.” They sent men to fight, they sent ambulances, Yergan agitated for Spanish democracy. But “the independence of Spanish Morocco”? Not a word. And why? Because they did not want to overthrow Spanish imperialism; they wanted to maintain Spanish “democracy.” With Spanish Morocco as a colony of this “democracy” just as East Africa is a colony of British “democracy” and the Belgian Congo is a colony of Belgian “democracy.” Independence for Morocco? Under no circumstances, said Stalin.

“I want an alliance with Britain and France against Germany. A socialist Spain? An independent Morocco? If I or my Communist Party fought for such a policy, I would never get my alliance with Chamberlain and Daladier. They would say I was a Red.”

The Trotskyists in Spain fought against Franco, but they urged that the only way to beat Franco was for the workers and peasants to struggle for socialism and for the Moors to fight for their independence, in other words capitalism had to be broken at home and abroad. For saying this they were called traitors by the Stalinists, persecuted and murdered as agents of Franco. The Moors, getting promises from Franco and not even a promise from the Spanish Loyalists, fought with Franco. At home and abroad the Spanish revolution was beaten.

The Stalinist Line Changes

Today, however, Stalin no longer wants any alliance with Britain and France. He is tied up with Hitler. Hitler has no colonies. But Britain and France have. Stalin wants to embarrass the British and French governments in their conduct of the war. He wants to prevent America from assisting Hitler’s enemy, Britain. So Ford and Yergan, Browder and Patterson take the field. The war is an imperialist war. Down with the war. These conscienceless scoundrels want to use the Negroes to help Hitler’s peace: they shout for peace. But peace means Hitler’s peace, with Stalin keeping his piece of Poland. That is why they say this is an imperialist war, which is true, and then add Russia did the right thing, which is false.

The Fourth International denounces these servile corrupters of the Negro people. We do not support the capitalist war; we do not support the capitalist peace. We say:

“Negroes, war or peace, fight against all the imperialists, today by a mass demonstration, tomorrow by strike, and when enough have rifles fight with rifles too.”

But what does Yergan say today? In the interview in the Daily Worker he says that it is necessary for “the democratic labor forces of Europe and America to press for the reopening of the whole colonial question in the interest of a secure world peace.” There you see the naked reaction of Yergan. What does he mean by “reopening the whole colonial question.” Who closed it? Does he want a conference to talk over things? With whom? With Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler and Stalin? Is this the peace that the Stalinists are shouting for? Will one single colonial be freed by this peace? Peace, by all means. We denounce their murderous war. But do the workers want Chamberlain and Daladier to “reopen” the colonial question?

It is Hitler who wants to “reopen” it, in other words, bargain for Africa. For the revolutionary Negroes, that question is always open. No peace with imperialism, whether fascist or “democratic.” Tomorrow, according to how Stalin moves, Ford and Yergan will shout again, “War for democracy.” Traitors yesterday and traitors tomorrow, they are traitors today, however revolutionary they my sound. The Negroes must not be blinded by them, but should mercilessly expose this unscrupulous deception of an oppressed people.

Last updated on 14 February 2018