J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

The Greatest Event in History

(14 November 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 87, 14 November 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked upby Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Greatest Event in History

A revolution is the greatest event in the history of any society, and the Russian Revolution is the greatest of all revolutions. By this uprising, the workers and peasants of Russia shattered the capitalist system on one-sixth of the world’s surface and took the road to socialism. On November 8, 1917, the night after the seizure of power, Lenin rose to address the Soviet congress. Gripping the rails before him he spoke the memorable words, “We shall now begin the construction of the socialist order”. On that same night and from that same platform, was sounded the call for the world revolution, uttered many times before, but now, because it came from the leaders of the first workers’ state in history, reverberating across the oceans and mountains from continent to continent. It was heard in Central Europe and in Central Asia, by millions of Indians and Chinese, heard too by the most oppressed people in the world, the Negroes in Africa, in the West Indies, and in the United States of America.

A few days ago the revolution achieved its twenty-second anniversary. Broken and besmirched, attacked from without and betrayed from within, yet it lives. From the great peaks scaled in its early years, it has fallen far. But it remains a basis and a banner, a banner torn and bedraggled, stained with crimes and blood, carried by treacherous hands, but still a symbol of the greatest effort yet made by downtrodden humanity to rid the world of economic exploitation and political tyranny. To rid the world, not only Russia. Today Negroes, weighed down by still heavier burdens than those they carried on November 7, 1917, must celebrate that never-to-be forgotten anniversary, must reflect on what the Russian Revolution has meant, and still means, to them and to all mankind.

It Shook the Foundations of Imperialism

Twenty-two years ago the great majority of Negroes in Africa and their brothers and sisters in America were little more than slaves, nourishing that hope of freedom which is unquenchable in the hearts of men, but feeding it on the illusions and misconceptions and impotence bred of white domination and the steel walls of imperialist slavery. But the Russian Revolution in 1917 razed to the ground one great fortress of world imperialism, and so shook the whole structure that today, twenty-two years after, it still rocks on its foundations. In the years that followed 1917, the Communist International carried the great message of the world revolution and the example of Russia to the millions of Negroes throughout the world. Negroes for the first time understood that for them, as for all the exploited and oppressed, there was a road out and upward, understood that they were not alone, that in France and in Britain, in Belgium and America, all over the world, there were millions of workers and peasants whose enemy was their enemy, whose aim was their aim, whose destiny was their destiny, not only to destroy tyrants and oppressors, but to destroy the system which gave them birth, not only to overthrow imperialism but to create the socialist society.

The Russian Revolution, the Communist International that grew out of it, by precept of brilliant propaganda and fearless agitation, by example of heroic struggle and self-sacrifice, taught the lessons of imperialist barbarism, of the necessity for proletarian revolutions in the imperialist nations, and national independence in the colonial countries; preached and practiced the unity of all the oppressed, irrespective of religion and race, indefatigably pointed to the two roads that lay before all mankind – imperialist war and capitalist reaction, or victorious socialism in Europe and America and the independence of Asia and Africa.

A Blow at Colonial Exploitation

There are Negroes who have seen and still see little for their people in the propagation of revolutionary doctrines. They are either selfish or ignorant – selfish because they are anxious only to preserve and extend the mean profits and paltry prestige they have managed to scrape together for themselves; or they are ignorant, not with the ignorance of the masses, which comes from lack of opportunity and which the great school of the class struggle can correct, but learnedly ignorant through too complete an acceptance of imperialist education which is designed to blind and not to open the eyes of the masses, to perpetuate and not to destroy the imperialist system. Let those Negroes who talk so superficially about “Reds” explain why the British government, when Anthony Eden visited Moscow in 1935, demanded as the first condition of British friendship with Russia the discontinuation of revolutionary propaganda in India, in the West Indies, and in Africa. These British imperialists, with the experience of three centuries, know the condition of the people they so mercilessly exploit. They felt and still feel the shock of the Russian Revolution, at home in Britain, and in every corner of their empire. They know that, in Africa for instance, there has arisen no threat to their power during the three hundred years it has lasted, so strong as that represented by a few thousand copies of a Bolshevik paper circulating among the Negroes, and a few men working devotedly to build a Bolshevik party. They can foresee the overwhelming power of the Negro masses when mobilised behind such a party. They know what this revolution will mean to their power and their profits and their privileges. They therefore curse the Russian Revolution and the day it was born.

No Southern capitalist or plantation owner celebrates the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Should a Negro in the South walk down a public street carrying a banner marked “Long Live the Russian Revolution”, he might be lynched before he had gone fifty yards. And why? Because it stands for the destruction of the rotting capitalist system, with its unnecessary poverty and degradation, its imperialist war and its fascist dictatorships, its class domination and racial persecution. Every Negro with an ounce of political understanding or a spark of revolt against oppression will recognise the significance and celebrate the anniversary of the October revolution in Russia.

The Fourth International Carries On

True, we have seen the revolution outraged and degraded. We have seen, rising out of the ruins of Bolshevism in Russia, the monstrosity of Stalinism. We have seen the Communist International change from the valiant defender of the international working class into the mere tool of Stalin’s foreign policy. The development and decline of the Russian Revolution are described elsewhere in this issue, and in many of our books and pamphlets. But the principles of the world revolution, which first assumed flesh and blood in 1917, still remain. Today a new international, the Fourth, maintains the tradition and works for the goal. Though we condemn and ceaselessly expose Stalin and all his works, we celebrate the Russian anniversary and we call upon the Negroes and all workers to celebrate with us.

By a curious trick of fortune, Leon Trotsky, whose name is inseparably associated with Lenin’s as the leadership that guided the revolution to success, was born on November 7th, the anniversary of the revolution. This year he celebrates his sixtieth birthday. History is the struggle of economic and social forces expressing themselves in the words and actions of men. And sometimes the life of a single individual epitomizes the history of a movement. Second only to Lenin, Trotsky was at the head of the Russian Revolution during the great days of October, the war of intervention, the founding of the Soviet state, and the organisation of the Communist International. But with the decline of the revolution, he found himself leading the opposition to the bureaucracy of Stalin. He was driven out of Russia and exiled to Turkey. His children and family have been systematically exterminated. He has been slandered as no other man in history has been slandered. He has been driven from country to country and for years has been guarded day and night to save him from Stalin’s assassins. All for one reason only. Because he remains today as he has always been, the enemy of capitalist society, the organiser and theoretician of the world revolution, and the unsparing opponent of the bureaucracy which has betrayed the great revolution; concerned not with personal revenge nor the lust for power but with the liberation of the workers and farmers in all countries from capitalist chains and slavery.

He has written little specifically on the Negro question, as he has written little, for instance, on the Indian question. The circumstances of his life and the necessities of the struggle have compelled him to devote most of his attention to the great centers of proletarian revolution in Europe. But he has always seen and taught that the struggle in the last analysis is one, that the blows he gave and directed at world imperialism in any country, weakened the whole system and thereby facilitated the victory of Indians in India and Negroes in Africa and America. If today the Socialist Workers Party has placed work among the American Negroes as one of the most important tasks before it, and has a clear program and policy on the problems of the Negro, it owes much to the insistence of the importance of the Negro in the American revolution, his sympathy with their oppression, his boundless faith in their power to struggle, their will to conquer, their capacity to aid in the creation of the socialist society. Negroes will join with us in celebrating his anniversary to wish him and his wife Natalia, his devoted helper, many years of life and health to continue their work, of such importance to us today and to the generations yet to come.

This joint anniversary bears for all Negroes a special significance at this time. It comes at a moment when the imperialist barbarians are engaged once more in their periodical orgies of destruction and slaughter, when the masters of Russia have allied themselves with the imperialist criminals, when hopes of liberation seem faint and distant. But in the early days of 1917 just such a pall seemed to rest on the poor and oppressed in all countries everywhere. Yet that gloom was the prelude to such an uprising of the masses as had never been seen before. Negroes were unprepared then. Today, thanks to the Russian Revolution, they and all others who suffer with them can see more clearly. Knowledge is power. Let us celebrate these anniversaries, not only in memory of the great deeds that have been done but of the still greater tasks that face us in the days that are ahead. Negroes more than all the others have nothing to lose but their chains. They more than all others will play their part in the destruction of capitalist society for they have most to win.

Last updated on 19 April 2018