J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

(24 October 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 81, 24 October 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

[The Negro Petty-Bourgeoisie]

The Negro petty-bourgeoisie as represented for instance in the Pittsburgh Courier of April 29, can make clear analysis of such a fundamental conflict as imperialist war. It can point out that for the large masses of Negro and other colonial peoples of the world, victory for the “democracies” or victory for the dictatorships would make precious little difference. True the Courier drew the false conclusion that Negro and colonial emancipation could be gained by the imperialists destroying each other. The Courier saw that the majority of white people, i.e., the workers and farmers have little enough “democracy”, not nearly enough to die for at any rate. But it failed to show that if white workers in Europe and America, and the millions of oppressed colonials in Africa, India and the West Indies all have nothing to gain by dying for imperialism, the thing to do is to unite against both types of imperialisms, whether fascist or “democratic.”

Still the Courier is not a revolutionary Marxist journal. And its policy, muddled and impractical, is not to be lightly dismissed. It has the great advantage of recognizing the fact that violence on a large scale alone will suffice to break colonial slavery. But your petty-bourgeois of whatever race, however revolutionary he may sound, must have a powerful revolutionary party, based on the working class, or he will capitulate before the imperialists at the first sound of a gun.

Courier Begins to Move Backward

War broke out on September 4. On September 9 the Courier still takes a radical position:

“The war in Europe need not detain us because it will make no difference to us who wins. Our immediate concern should be the war in which we ourselves are engaged and have been engaged for a long time. That war is at once external and internal against the oppression and exploitation from without and against disorganization and lack of confidence within.”

The war of the Negro in this country is to acquire educational facilities for children, more jobs, greater progress in business, social equality in America, and above all self-respect, discipline and intelligent leadership among Negroes. “Our war”concludes this editorial “is no contest between dictatorship and democracy”, “our war is a contest between survival and destruction”. “When this is fully realized by all of us our progress will be much more rapid”.

There are still some of the brave words of the April springtime. Neither “democracy” nor dictatorship. But gone is the idea of self-destruction by imperialism as the only way of Negroes earning full equality. The Courier thinks that when Negroes see things more clearly then “progress will be much more rapid”.

How can you in April see hope only when the imperialists destroy each other and in September be sure of rapid progress as soon as you realize things more fully. You realized them fully enough six months ago.

In the following issue, September 16, the Courier takes a great step backward. It notes, in an editorial article, that Roosevelt has declared the United States neutral. But it sees and says that Roosevelt and American business are not really neutral. They want to help France and Britain by sending supplies and will do so as soon as convenient. Where, argues the Courier, do Negroes stand on this question. The reply is astounding. Negroes made great progress in the last war. If America does not export munitions there will be a job-slump (there is one on now, since 1929) and Negroes will suffer. So Negroes should support American sales to Britain and France and so assure jobs for themselves. “Oh, what a fall was there, my countrymen!” The great extermination of imperialism by which Negroes were to enter into the promised land has now shrunk into a war to help get jobs for Negroes. You never know where you are with a petty-bourgeois.

See “Democracy” for What It Is

You never know where you are with them indeed. For in the next issue, September 23, the Courier takes a step forward. It denounces war for “democracy”.

“Before any of our people get unduly excited about SAVING DEMOCRACY in Europe, it should be called to their attention that we have NOT YET ACHIEVED DEMOCRACY HERE.

“We cannot save what DOES NOT EXIST.

“None of the hundreds of millions of COLORED PEOPLE under the Union Jack have ANY VOICE in the British Parliament.

“They are ALL AT WAR with Germany, but they had NO VOTE in the matter.

“None of the black people who live in the French Empire have ANY VOICE in the Chamber of Deputies except those from Senegal and Guadeloupe.

“Yet they are ALL AT WAR with Germany and must supply MEN and RESOURCES.

“If democracy means taxation and conscription WITHOUT REPRESENTATION, then these British and French colonials ARE living in democracies.

“There are really NO DEMOCRACIES where black people are concerned, and therefore any talk about black people fighting for democracy when they are fighting for France and England is POPPYCOCK.

“Black people may have a SMALL MEASURE of democracy in the United States, but a VERY small measure.”

The article exposes the tricks of American capitalism in its plans on the Negro and ends:

“He (the Negro) would have to have some AT HOME before fighting for any ABROAD.”

Our petty-bourgeois is again uttering radical sentiments. There is only one point omitted. Suppose the Negro does not ge t“democracy” at home. What then? Fight against the withholders of democracy here? The Courier says nothing. Take a guess now at what will appear in the next issue. Step forward or backward? Backward you say? Absolutely correct.

Prosperity Through What?

The Courier editorial column is once more urging American capitalism to use the war as a means of prosperity. Raise the embargo, create jobs and give some to Negroes. But about the destruction of American imperialism? You don’t destroy something by making it prosperous. That is the kind of mess you get into when you have not a clear revolutionary program, opposed to imperialism, everywhere, at all times. What the Courier will do tomorrow or the day after we do not know but we can guess. Five steps backward and half-a-step forward. And if the workers and farmers do not prevent Roosevelt dragging this country into war, then when America enters, the Courier is going to call on Negroes everywhere to fight for “democracy”, the “democracy” American capitalism has withheld from the Negro for 75 years and which will be promised after the new war is over.

How grand the beginning was in April! Let the imperialists destroy each other. Today it is a question of jobs. In our pamphlet Why Negroes Should Oppose War by J.R. Johnson (32 pages, 5 cents) we outline our policy on Negroes and war. But the Courier has no policy. It vacillates from the extreme of bloodthirstiness to using the war for jobs. There you have your petty-bourgeois complete, always grouping between the imperialist and the revolutionary workers. Are they lost? Not by any means. Quite a few can be won today and though some are born traitors, many can be won for the revolution tomorrow.

But there is only one way. Build a powerful revolutionary party. Let it look as if it means business. Let it act as if it does. And when it leads the masses into action on a grand scale, we have a chance to tear the petty-bourgeoisie away from the imperialists. It is power and power alone that keeps these wavering elements from wavering so much. They rush to the imperialists today. But an equal power can pull them away in time, the revolutionary power of the masses. It is up to us to build that power.

Last updated on 14 February 2018