J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

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

(10 November 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 86, 10 November 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Industry and the Negro

Then came the Civil War. Every Negro should know by now why the Civil War took place. The capitalists and their allies of the North were fighting for control of American economy and of the Federal Government. The Southern slave-owners wanted to maintain that control. Every new State added to the union meant more representatives and more power to one side or to the other. If a new state was a slave-state then the slave-owners gained more power at Washington. If the new state was a state based on free labor, then Lincoln and the Northern capitalists gained more power. So that for years there was always a quarrel whenever a new state was to be added to the Union.

But the slave-owners were in a jam, not only politically but economically as well. To make profits at all they had to have new land. The huge plantations and their wasteful methods of cultivation exhausted the soil and periodically they had to extend the territory they controlled. So that when the North said, “No more new slave states” the slave owners replied, “If we do net get new territory our economy will collapse.” And the next thing was the Civil War.

Lincoln would never have fought to free the slaves. He didn’t intend to free slaves at all. But he found that he could not win unless he pulled the slaves powerfully over to his side. This he could decisively do only by declaring the abolition of slavery.

International Labor Aided Emancipation

There was also another powerful current sweeping Lincoln on toward the abolition of slavery in America. When the Civil War began, the British ruling class wanted to intervene on the side of the Southern slave owners. But the British working class, took the side of Lincoln. Led chiefly by Karl Marx, they maintained a powerful agitation in Britain, mass meetings, protests to Parliament, and open letters of support to Abraham Lincoln, etc. The British ruling class used to point to the fact that the North was not fighting any war to abolish slavery, for Lincoln himself had said so. But one of the strongest weapons, in the working class anti-war agitation in Britain was this very argument, that the war of the North was a war for abolition. Lincoln, therefore, for the sake of his valuable working-class allies in Great Britain, was further driven to declare the abolition of slavery in America. A Negro, therefore, who is really trying to get at the root of the Negro position today, cannot help drawing the following conclusions: “The actual question of color had very little to do with the abolition of slavery in America. Powerful economic and political forces were at work in America. The military assistance that the Negroes could give played a great part. And, finally, the international working-class movement, in this case the British working class in particular, played a great part in Negro emancipation.”

From this, such a Negro worker would be justified in thinking that if color played so little part in that great event it is not at all unlikely that in the great events of today, color and race, which in everyday affairs seem to occupy so large a place, will in reality at the decisive moment, prove as unimportant as they did in the Civil War.

Negroes Enter the Factories

How does that apply in recent history? The biggest event that has taken place in the history of the American Negroes since the Civil War is the great migration of millions of Negroes from the South to the North that began in 1915. Between 1915 and 1923, 1,200,000 Negroes came from the South to the North. The Negro gained a place for himself in industry. Now, ten thousand workers in a factory have infinitely more capacity to struggle for better wages, better living conditions, and an extension of their democratic rights than fifty thousand farmers scattered over the countryside. Thus the entry of millions of Negro workers into industry, particularly in the North, marked a decisive stage in the development of the American Negro. But how did it happen? Was it because the white employers had listened to some preachers and had been converted to the view that Negroes should have a better chance in life? Nothing of the sort.

What happened was that Northern industry was faced with a tremendous opportunity for expansion due to the war. At the same time the stream of immigrants from Europe was cut short, because instead of working or coming to America to work these Germans, Austrians, Italians, and others had to spend their time and strength massacring each other for the profits of their imperialist masters. Our American capitalists, therefore, not only took Negroes into their factories but send hundreds of agents into the South offering Negroes free passage into the North and promising them a happy life. The Negro population of New York rose from 91,000 in 1910 to 327,000 in 1930, while over the same period the Negro population of Detroit rose from 5,700 to 120,000. This meant millions of dollars more in the pockets of Negro wage earners. Negroes were able to get much better education and opportunities for development. Negroes living in cities were better able to organize and fight for social and political equality. To serve the needs of these Negroes a greater number of Negro doctors, teachers, and other professional men was needed.

Of course we know that the Negroes still continue to suffer under heavy discrimination. But the fact remains that this migration and opportunity to enter into industry was a great step forward. And it had nothing to do with color. A great economic and social change was taking place in the country as a whole; great numbers of Negroes were swept along by it, and thus had an opportunity to improve their position.

The Next Step Forward

What was the next great step forward of the Negroes? It came in 1937 with the organization of the CIO. Here again we see that the decisive factor was not the question of race but the question of economic and social and political change, affecting American society as a whole. Up to 1937 the American Federation of Labor, representing on the whole the more privileged sections of the American working class, kept Negroes out of its ranks. But with the great crisis of 1929, American labor entered into a new phase of existence. One of the most important results of this shake-up was the organization of all workers in industrial unions, particularly the semi-skilled and the unskilled. The CIO was essentially the organization of the poorer types of workers. But the CIO organizers found that if they were to organize the workers in an industry as a whole they could not leave out the Negroes. In the packing-houses in Chicago and elsewhere the employers had deliberately brought Negroes into industry in order to use them against the white workers. Obviously these new CIO unions, to win their battles, had to have the Negroes in. And today, 1939, we can see hundreds of thousands of Negroes in the new unions, firmly knit with the white workers and gaining many of the great advantages that come to all workers who carry on militant struggles in workers’ organizations. This does not mean that prejudice and discrimination have been wiped away, even in the best of the new unions. But it means that a great step forward has been made. And here again the decisive factor was not color.

On the Eve of Great Upheavals

It may seem to an individual Negro that it is the color of his skin that is making all the difference. But this is true only to a limited extent. From an examination of history it can be stated with confidence that the Negroes as a whole, millions of them, have made strides forward owing to great economic, social, and political changes which were powerful enough to sweep aside the barriers of color. And this should teach us a great lesson for the future.

All human society today stands at the crossroads. Europe is plunged into a great war. In the Far East, Japan and China have been fighting for two years. America is visibly preparing to enter into the war. What is the cause of all this universal confusion? The cause is one thing and one thing only: the bankruptcy of the capitalist system. There are in America today over thirty million people starving in the midst of plenty. The capitalist system can no longer function, neither here nor elsewhere. The capitalists did not solve the crisis by the last war. The post-war crises have been more devastating than the pre-war ones. We are today on the ever of economic, social, and political upheavals infinitely greater than anything that took place in America during the Civil War. And in those upheavals color is not going to play any very great part. American society today, as society in all parts of the world, faces two alternatives. Either the workers and the poor farmers will get together in unions and political organizations and take over capitalist property, establishing the socialist system. Or, on the other hand, the capitalists will organize fascist bands, smash the workers’ organizations, and by this means insure their profits and the continuance of the capitalist system. That is the great conflict in the world today. It is a conflict in which the Negro must and will play his part. In America the white workers, as has been shown in the organization of the CIO, will in time seek the assistance of the Negroes against the capitalists as certainly as Lincoln had to seek it against the Southern slave-owners. But whereas Lincoln and the Northern capitalists were rich and powerful and their Negro allies were poor, today the Negroes and the whites are members of the same class. For this reason, in the course of the struggle and after it, the barriers of race prejudice will be much more easily overcome than they were seventy-five years ago.

On the international scale the workers of Great Britain and France, for instance, may feel today little solidarity with Negroes in Africa. But when they find themselves in deadly struggle with British and French landlords and capitalists they will welcome the news that the Negroes in Africa are striking at the brothers and sons and cousins of the European ruling classes, who oppress the Negroes in the colonies. It is to such great crises in human history that the whole world is moving today.

A Negro, therefore, who is turned back from a job because he is black will not lose courage. Instead he will see in what direction history is moving and, by means of political activity and industrial organization, he will try to assist those forces which make for greater solidarity among workers and farmers. That is the road along which we have to travel. It may seem slow, and it may seem also that it does not answer the immediate problems of the day. But there is no other road. And today the historical process is not at all slow. History is moving very fast. That is why it is necessary to know where we came from, where we are, and, infinitely more important, in what direction we are moving.

Last updated on 19 April 2018