J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

(17 October 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 79, 17 October 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

[There Is No Evil Without Good]

There is no evil without good. What the Negro means to the American revolution and the world revolution is being demonstrated with unmistakable clarity by the actions of the Stalinists in Harlem, in Chicago and on the West Coast. With their newline of “down with the imperialist war,” they feel they can once more appeal to the Negroes.

For years they have been discredited among thinking Negroes everywhere. They lived entirely on the remnants of their past reputation. In their press they concentrated on Negro singers, Negro athletes, Negro parsons. But politics, particularly revolutionary politics, occupied a distinctly minor part of their propaganda and agitation.

They reached their lowest ebb during the weeks that followed the beginning of the war. In Harlem for instance, they practically disappeared. You could not walk along Lenox Avenue or Seventh without running into groups of Negroes discussing the war and the role of the Negroes. There were West Indians denouncing Britain, Garveyites denouncing all whites and praising Japan, Americans sneering at Roosevelt’s war for “democracy” – these and other groups were well represented. But you could not find a Stalinist. They stayed at home, and not only because of the mental effort of unravelling the new line. Militant Harlem Negroes showed an inclination to beat them up, in other words, to apply to them that kind of liberation from Stalinism that Stalinism had just applied to the Poles in western Ukraine. James Ford wrote a letter to the Amsterdam News. The Amsterdam News did not publish it for weeks, and then only when Ford was attacked by someone who had read Ford in the Daily Worker and denounced him in a letter to the News.

Stalinist Name Is Mud

All this was not due entirely to the Hitler-Stalin pact and the invasion of Poland. The Stalinists’ name had been mud in Harlem for a long, long time, the Negroes had watched them boost the League of Nations as a means of saving Ethiopia, and had seen the deflation and collapse of that balloon. The Negroes had been able to compare the relative values of Litvinov’s speeches on the side of Ethiopia and the oil Stalin sold to Italy. They had been ignorant and backward enough to believe that to make speeches on behalf of an attacked colonial country and to sell oil to the attacking imperialist country might be very good Stalinism but was no more than a base betrayal of the Negro people.

The Stalinists said that to denounce such a two-faced policy was Trotskyism. But without caring what the Stalinists called it the Negroes left the Communist party.

Political dishonesty leads inevitably to personal and organizational corruption. In order to meet the pressure of Negroes hostile to their policy, the Stalinists had to take such organizational measures inside the party as drove from them even those Negroes who had been faithful to them for many years. They set out on their crusade to make America fight a war against Hitler, at that time Stalin’s enemy. They changed their make-up from red to stars and stripes, and began their seduction of the intellectuals and all the petty-bourgeois democrats.

But in these new circles they found the Negroes to be an encumbrance. All these New Dealers, singers of the Star-Spangled Banner, and believers in Americanism, whose paths into the Communist party were strewn with roses by Browder, Hathaway, and Amter – all these people brought with them, as an indispensable part of their American “democracy,” the ill-disguised prejudices of the American “democrat” against the Negro. Between the rival claims of American “democrats” and the American Negro masses, the Communist party did not hesitate.

They were out to get the “democrats”, so they shoved their Negro sympathizers into the Negro Congress and they invited a body of Negro parsons and bishops, newspaper editors, and small business men into the Congress in order to be sure to stifle Negro militancy. They discovered a basis for Negro emancipation in Father Divine. Altogether, between 1935 and 1939, they disrupted and corrupted the Negro revolutionary movement as thoroughly as they ruined the revolution in Spain and the revolution in France. The Negroes retaliated by leaving them in thousands. During the last two years they lost some 1,600 Negro members in New York State, about 80 per cent of their Negro membership. The Hitler-Stalin pact and the Stalinist invasion of Poland were merely a climax to a series of events which had thoroughly exposed Stalinism among the Negro people.

Venture into Public Again

Then a few weeks ago came the change in the Stalinist policy. Stalin tied the Soviet regime to Hitler, and in the present stage, a victory for Hitler is an essential part of Stalin’s policy. The Stalinists had disrupted and confused the revolutionary movement among black and white workers by their incessant propaganda and agitation for Roosevelt and the New Deal and Roosevelt’s war for “democracy.” All this in obedience to Stalin. So now, still obedient to their Moscow master, they are striving tooth and nail to keep America from intervening on the side of the “democracies,” to stir up anti-war agitation among the British and French workers and colonials – in other words, to help Hitler as much as possible. In this activity, as in their previous period of calling all who opposed a war for the “democracies” Trotskyite-fascists, they are acting merely as agents of the Moscow bureaucracy and not as leaders of the revolutionary movement.

What is most noticeable and most revealing, however, is that after crawling in the grass and sneaking around in the byways and alleys of the Negro areas for some years, they are now once more out in full blast. “Down with the imperialist war!” “The Negroes have nothing to gain by this war!” “War for democracy is a fraud!” “The war is a war between two bloated groups of capitalists!” Day after day in the Daily Worker the Stalinists thunder these irreproachable sentences. They hold meetings. They distribute leaflets. They beg for money. We can expect not only the continuance but the intensification of this renewed activity among the Negroes.

And why? Because they know that by the exposure of the conditions of Negroes in Africa, by the exposure of the fraud that African Negroes have anything to gain by fighting for British and French imperialism, by exposing the imperialist character of the War, they have the possibility of gaining a greater response among the oppressed Negro people than among any other section of the American workers and farmers. This is indeed the depth of political dishonesty and degradation for Ford and the Negro Stalinists in particular. They seek to use Negro militancy for the sake of Hitler’s victory.

Any Negro who understands what the Stalinists are after must make it his duty unremittingly to expose them. The Fourth International, the Socialist Workers Party, have never doubted the tremendous revolutionary energy that is bottled up in the Negro masses. We claim particularly that our special theoretical contribution to the Marxist understanding of the Negro question is that the Negro’s place is not at the tail but in the very vanguard of the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. But it is their very eagerness and response to the revolutionary appeal against the war that make the Negro masses so susceptible to this most recent Stalinist maneuver. The Stalinists have come most hopefully out of their holes and corners. They know that this new policy gives them a chance.

We therefore have to show that the last thing they are thinking of is the emancipation of workers, white and black. We of the Socialist Workers Party shall point out that the Negroes and the white workers must fight against the imperialists, both gangs of them, in war as in peace. But we must not for one single moment neglect the exposure of the new Stalinist line. We must analyze it to its roots and point out that whatever these people may say at a given moment, however sincere may be the Stalinist rank and file, yet those who are responsible for their policy are thinking of nothing else but how best to preserve the power and privileges of the bloated and murderous bureaucracy of Stalin.

Last updated on 14 February 2018