J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

(20 October 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 80, 20 October 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What Do the Negroes Themselves Think About the War?

To this question a Marxist replies automatically, “Which class of Negro are you inquiring about? Do you mean Negro workers and farmers or the Negro petty bourgeoisie – the lawyers, the doctors, the small businessmen, the stage performers?” In the party pamphlet, Why Negroes Should Oppose the War (J.R. Johnson, 32 pages, 5c), there is a section on the Negro petty bourgeoisie and the war. There it is pointed out that because he has a standard of living higher than that of the average Negro workers, farmer, or unemployed, the Negro petty bourgeois act essentially as agents of American imperialism. To quote one passage from the pamphlet (p. 22):

“And so, for the sake of the crumbs and bones that they get from the big table, they are quite prepared to sacrifice the interests of the majority of the Negroes. They are the most dangerous people. It is they who deceive the Negroes every time. They, despite their black skin, are no more than agents of the white imperialists. They are not saying much now, but when the time comes, they are going to shout for ‘democracy’ as loudly as the American ruling class ... Meetings will be held at which these Negro traitors will speak and agitate and do their best to bluff the Negro people to take part in a war and be deceived and maltreated just as they were in the last war for ‘democracy.’ The bait that they will dangle will be promises of a better world.” etc., etc.

Now this is undoubtedly true. And we have evidence of it already. But the Negro petty bourgeoisie, unlike the white petty bourgeoisie, is cut off very sharply from participation in the general life of American capitalist society. American race prejudice, designed to keep the Negro in a state of subjection and to maintain a division between the Negro and the white workers, differentiates very little between the poor Negro and the middle-class Negro. Both suffer almost equally from racial discrimination. Thus the Negro petty-bourgeois press reflects the sentiments of the large masses of Negroes, even though, when things come to a showdown, it declares for the program and policy of American imperialism. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the writings of the Negro press on the war and the present international situation.

The Negro Press on the War

The Pittsburgh Courier is one of the best of the Negro weekly sheets. It fights some valiant battles for the Negro cause. It was one of the few Negro papers to wage a campaign on behalf of Negro entry into and support of the CIO (one of the three greatest steps forward of the Negro in American history during the last hundred years). The Courier has taken the lead in the struggle for the entry of Negro players into major-league baseball. It has battled for the fight of Negroes to entry into the American army on the same conditions as the whites and for equal facilities in training as air pilots. The Socialist Workers Party, the Fourth International, are opposed to imperialist war. But the Socialist Workers Party fully supports the rights of Negroes to participate in American life with the fullest equality, including entry into the army. If any Negro is ass enough to wish to go to fight for American “democracy” of his own free will, it is his privilege to do so. The paper has a great reputation among the Negroes. It sells for ten cents which the poorer Negroes cannot pay. It maintains a large staff and is essentially the paper of the Negro petty bourgeoisie. The Pittsburgh Courier has on its staff Mr. George Schuyler, one of the most brilliant journalists in America (of whom more later). It is not in any sense of the word a revolutionary paper.

The Pittsburgh Courier has naturally been commenting on the war. What it says, and still more what it does not say, is of the utmost importance for the revolutionary movement.

On March 29, the Courier published a cartoon on the war entitled Ringside Seat. The cartoon showed two boxers, one labeled “Democracies” and the other “Dictatorships.” The referee was a military-looking gentleman labeled “Imperialism.” In the ringside seats were Africans, American Negroes, Mongolians, Pacific Islanders, and Malays. The chief editorial of that issue expressed the following sentiments:

“The ‘democracies’ and the ‘dictatorships’ are preparing to do BATTLE in the near future.

“The referee is IMPERIALISM, who stands ready to award the decision to the VICTOR.

“The stake is the right to EXPLOIT the darker peoples of the world.

“The audience consists of the vast MAJORITY of those who happen to be NON-WHITES.

“They have NO FAVORITE, because it makes NO DIFFERENCE to them which party WINS the fight.

“They are ONLY interested in the bout taking place AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.”

Now this on the surface is a most bloodthirsty attitude. But the editorial had its very good reason for wishing this destruction:

“The AUDIENCE knows that the destruction of white civilization means the EMANCIPATION of colored people, and that explains why they eagerly await the opening gong.”

The editorial is anxious for the destruction of both camps because it knows that there is no essential difference as far as colored people are concerned between “democratic” imperialism and fascist imperialism. It explains this in detail:

“The democracies which now CONTROL the dark world have never extended DEMOCRACY to the dark world.

“THEIR meaning of democracy is for WHITE PEOPLE only, and just a FEW of them.

“The dictatorships FRANKLY DECLARE that if they win THEY will do as the democracies HAVE DONE in the past.

“The democracies as frankly declare that IF they win they will CONTINUE to do as they HAVE BEEN doing.”

An Indication of Revolutionary Instincts

Here is an astonishingly clear characterization of the real nature of the great forces which are now tearing civilization apart. Note particularly that sentence which states that even among the whites democracy is only for a few of them.

This clear vision into the fundamental nature of modern society, this rage at its pretences, this desire for emancipation at whatever cost, are what we mean by the revolutionary instinct of the Negroes. And this is why the Fourth International states that the place of the Negro is in the vanguard and not at the tail of the revolutionary movement.

The Courier editorial naturally makes a great error in thinking that the blacks can stand aside in the coming war. Colored people were compelled to fight in the last war. The Africans are being compelled to fight in this one, and if the workers of America, black and white, do not stop Roosevelt by working-class action, then the American Negroes will be compelled to fight when American capitalism goes in.

The Petty Bourgeoisie Cannot Lead

The Courier makes a still greater error when it thinks that emancipation for Negroes can come from the mutual destruction of the groups of white imperialists, with the people of color just stepping in to gather up the spoils. The root of this monumental error lies in the neglect of that most important fact which the editorial noted – that even among the white people “democracy” is only for the few. That is the key to the emancipation of Negroes and the oppressed colonial peoples. The political battle is unity among both these groups who recognize that in essentials capitalist democracy is a fraud for all the working people, white and black, and offers them nothing but continual crises, fascist dictatorships, and ultimately imperialist war. That is the unshakable basis of the Fourth International.

But what we must note is this. If the Negro petty bourgeois expresses himself in these drastic terms about imperialist war,we can have some conception of what are the real sentiments of the great masses of Negroes in every country who feel upon their backs the unmitigated blows of capitalism.

But can the Negro petty bourgeoisie give trustworthy revolutionary leadership? Can we trust it to correct itself and give the Negroes political leadership and organization necessary to translate this powerful revolutionary urge into concrete action against the war? Not at all. The outstanding characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie is instability, and in succeeding articles we shall see the Negro petty bourgeoisie, while reflecting the tremendous revolutionary drive of the Negroes, is in reality one of the most dangerous forces misleading the Negroes in the present crisis.

Last updated on 14 February 2018