J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

(7 November 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 85, 7 November 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Industry and the Negro

The first, the absolute indispensable necessity for Negroes who want to struggle for their emancipation, is to understand that difference of color is not the cause of discrimination against them in industry. The intelligent capitalist knows this. The Negroes must know it too. Not that the race question is unimportant. Not at all. It has acquired a tremendous importance. But it is a subordinate question.

In our pamphlet on the war, (Why Negroes Should Oppose the War, J.R. Johnson, 5 cents) we wrote the following: (p. 23)

“Whenever a problem faces us we should examine it in all its aspects, then examine similar situations in foreign countries, look back into our own history, see where the circumstances are alike and where they differ, and then attempt a conclusion.”

To that something more can be added. We must see where the problem is today, then where it was yesterday, then see where it is likely to be tomorrow. In other words we see it from all sides and particularly we see in what direction it is moving, what is likely to happen tomorrow. This is known as the dialectic, and the method of investigation is called the dialectical method.

The very opposite of the dialectical method is the kind of argument that runs as follows:

“I went for a job yesterday. As soon as they saw my black face they turned me back. But the fellow who followed me was white and they gave him the job at once. Therefore the Negro problem is a race problem.”

What Makes for Slavery?

It sounds good, but is it? Let us see.

First take the question of slavery. To too many Negroes, slavery is the badge of the Negro and his black skin. Error Number One. For white men were slaves for thousands of years in the greatest empires of antiquity, particularly the empires of Greece and Rome. White men enslaved white men by the millions. In fact white men have been slaves in Europe for far more centuries than white men have been free. Similarly, black men in Africa enslaved black men, and yellow men in China enslaved yellow men. Wherever economic conditions and political power enabled one class of men to enslave another class, there slavery existed, until the economic and political conditions changed and slavery was abolished. Color has nothing to do with it at all. So that a Negro who goes for a job and is refused because he is black, must stop and consider if there isn’t more to this question than appears at first sight.

Let us now look at slavery in America. The Europeans who came to America in the early days tried to make the Indians slaves. But the Indians could not do the work. They died in millions. In the smaller islands of the West Indies they were wiped out almost entirely. On the American continent which was large they could fight and retreat before the invader. When they were caught they fought back, for their brothers and friends were carrying on the struggle elsewhere.

The European invaders then tried to enslave whites. They imported poor white people from Europe and worked them in the fields side by side with the Negroes. In other words, the color question did not trouble them at all.

But white slaves did not stand the climate well. Enough of them could not be got from Europe to do all the work that was to be done. So that the employers of those days, looking round for labor, decided to use the Africans from Africa because they were the most suitable. There were many more Africans in Africa than there were Indians in America. The weapons the Europeans used were technically so much advanced and deadly that they had the Africans at their mercy.

The Africans were strong and could stand the hard work as slaves. Once brought to America, they had no hope, no society, no common language, no common tradition to bind them together and stiffen their resistance as the native Indians were stiffened. They had no perspective for freedom. So that they could only make periodical revolts one after another, which failed and left them often more miserable than before. In the same way the millions of slaves in the ancient Greek and Roman Empires made their periodical revolts and then submitted.

What we must note is that in America the slave-owners tried Indians, tried whites, and then finally settled on Negroes as slaves; obviously not because they were black but because they were the most suitable from an economic point of view.

Here again, therefore, a Negro who is refused a job because he is a black man, must think over history and note how unimportant the question of color was in the history of slavery and how it was the economic factor, the question of highest profit, which predominated. This is the dialectical approach. We watch the subject in different periods of history, in different countries in our own country, see where, it was yesterday, where it is today and where it is going tomorrow. That is the most important thing for us. Where is it going tomorrow? When we know that, we know how to act today, and how to prepare action for tomorrow.

Slave-Drivers Disguise Truth

Now there is another very noticeable fact about history which we must always bear in mind. In the same way as a man tries to cover his naked body with pleasing clothes, so men like to cover naked economic facts with pleasing moral ideas. Roosevelt wants to go to war for the sake of American investments? But he does not say that. He talks about war for “democracy”. Does Hitler want to go to war to seize territory? He does not say that to the German workers. He says “the Aryan blood” the Nordic race and much tripe of the same sort. The reason for this constant bluffing is plain. These men of privilege and power must fool the common people. If they spoke plainly “War for colonies and for profits” the masses, who never get any profits, would reply “Go and fight yourselves for your profits.” The naked truth must be disguised.

It is in accordance with this historical law that the slave-drivers, when people began to challenge the system of slavery, did not dare to say “We tried Indians, we tried whites and now we use Negroes because they are the most suitable.” No. They said “This black man is a barbarian. He lives like a wild beast in Africa. He is an inferior creature. God intended him to be a slave.” Thus, to justify economic exploitation, they elevated the race question into a position of importance which it had never had before.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do this, even in the South. A hundred and twenty years ago, there were many white people who denounced slavery. Wherever a man had a small farm, or where mines were worked, wherever in fact Negroes were not required for large-scale cotton plantations, the whites as a rule opposed slavery. There were scores of abolitionist societies in the South in the period around 1800. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the great men of those days had no love for slavery, and hoped that it would soon be abolished. And it would probably have beep abolished long before 1863, if Eli Whitney had not discovered the cotton-gin in 1793.

This invention could do the work of a dozen slaves. Straightway cotton production began to jump. In 1791 it had been two million pounds. Ten years after, in 1801, it was forty million pounds. Ten years after that, in 1811, it was eighty million pounds and still ten years later, in 1821, it was 177 million pounds.

Huge cotton farms employing hundreds of slaves, spread over the country. The small farmers were driven off the land. So strong had been the abolition movement previous to Whitney’s invention that up to 1826 there were still 103 emancipation societies in the South. But, as fast as the production of cotton and the profits doubled, equally as fast the propaganda against the Negroes doubled. The more the slave-owners exploited Negroes the more they proved that he was a being created by God to be a slave. In other words, to disguise the naked economic exploitation they had to say that in reality they only did it because he was black and inferior.

But even while they proved by the word of God and the laws of man that Negroes were inferior creatures fit only to be slaves, the need for profits made them act in a way entirely opposed to their lying propaganda. They found that slaves could become highly-skilled mechanics and could make the implements, tools and furniture required for the plantation. It was cheaper to have them made by slaves than by free whites. So that by 1861, the number of Negro skilled workers in the South was five times as large as the number of whites.

When a Negro in the South is kept out of a skilled job because he is black he should meditate upon the strange fact that eighty years ago he had nearly all the skilled jobs. Quite true he was a slave. But the white mechanic starved. The white employer, making his profit wherever he could and however he could, simply ignored the fact that by his own argument the slave was a barbarian, and certainly he did not care what happened to the white skilled laborer. In other words he had his eye glued on the economic situation and he made his politics in strict accordance with his pocket. He didn’t let the race question interfere with his profits. Every Negro and every white worker should learn this great lesson from the capitalists.

(To be continued)

Last updated on 19 April 2018