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 Destiny of the Negro

An Historical Overview

(November/December 1939)

Originally published as a series in Socialist Appeal, Vol. III Nos. 89, 91 & 92, 21 November, 1 & 9 December 1939.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 90–99.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Socialist Appeal, Vol. III Nos. 89, 21 November, p. 3.

J.R. Johnson is giving a course on the Destiny of the Negro at the Marxist School, 135 West 33 Street, New York City, each Tuesday evening for the next six weeks, beginning on Tuesday, November 31. To facilitate the study of Negro history, his column will outline each Saturday the subject of the following Tuesday’s lecture. The series begins below.

To know where the Negro is going one must know where the Negro comes from. Capitalist history and capitalist science, taken as a whole, are designed to serve the needs of capitalist profit. Their studies of the Negro and his history have aimed at justifying his exploitation and degradation. They have excused the slave trade and slavery and the present position of Negroes as outcasts in capitalist society, on the ground that the Negro in Africa had shown himself incapable of developing civilization, that he lived a savage and barbarous life, and that such elements of culture as Africa showed in the past and shows today were directly due to the influence of Arabs and Europeans. All of this, from beginning to end, is lies.

I. Negroes in African Civilization

First of all, the capitalist scientist’s attempts to isolate the “pure” Negro from other African peoples is admitted today to be pure rubbish. Though there are broad differentiations, the Negroes in Africa are inextricably mixed. There are people of Hamitic stock who derive either from the Near East or the outermost peninsula of Africa (today British and Italian Somaliland). There are the short-statured Bushmen in the South and the supposedly “pure” Negro is found on the West Coast alone. It is as if a scientist said that the “pure” European was found only on the coast of Portugal. The truth is that even the Egyptians had a strong Negroid strain. There were Negro dynasties in Egypt. Queen Nefertiti, one of the great conquerors and rulers of Egyptian history, was reputedly a Negress. Among the modern Ethiopian ruling class can be seen types, ranging from the purely Semitic through the Mulatto to types indistinguishable from the Negro.

The chief object of these scientists is of course to deprive the Negro of any share in the famous civilizations of Egypt and Ethiopia. Today, ingenious Negroes call the Egyptians “black men” and by this means place all Egyptian civilization to the credit of the Negro. Racial theories of this type, whether from white capitalist centers of learning or fanatical Negro nationalists, are neither history nor science, but political propaganda. This much is clear and for the time being sufficient: the Egyptian civilization began where it did and flourished because of favorable climactic and geographical conditions, and the Negroes had a great deal to do with it.

The attempt to deduce from history that Negroes are subhuman continually breaks down. The Bushmen are among the most primitive of peoples. Yet their drawings have been universally hailed as some of the most marvelous examples of artistic skill. And since when have monkeys been given to producing great artists? In South Africa the ruins of Zimbabwe are evidence of a great ancient civilization. Whose? Nobody knows, but numerous professors are racking their brains to prove that, whoever created it, it wasn’t Negroes. Much good may it do them. They will not stop the world revolution that way.

But the greatest stumbling block in the way of the anti-Negro historians are the empires of Ghana, Songhay, Mos, and others, which flourished in the basin of the Niger. People who sneer at the Marxist phrase “bourgeois ideology” simply have no conception of the dishonesty, corruption, and scope of capitalist lies and propaganda.

The Ghana Empire

For nearly a thousand years (300–1300), between the River Senegal and the Niger flourished the Ghana empire. We do not know how it was founded. Some people say that a Hamitic people from East Africa migrated there. Others say that they came from Syria. What we do know is that this empire at its zenith embraced many millions of people. It produced wool, cotton, silk, velvet; it traded in copper and gold. Many houses in the chief towns were built of stone. At one time its army consisted of 200,000 soldiers. Its schools, its lawyers, its scholars were famous all over the Mediterranean area. And this empire for nearly a thousand years was an empire of black men, of Negroes.

Another famous empire was that of Songhay (600–1500) with its dynasty of Askias. Askia Mohammed I (1493–1528) was not only a great ruler. He surrounded himself with scholars. Timbuktu and Gao were the centers of trade and learning.

The latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica says of these kingdoms,

“Long before the rise of Islam, the peoples of this Northern part of West Africa, consisting largely, as has been seen, of open plains watered by large and navigable rivers, had developed well-organized states, of which the oldest known, Ghana (or Ghanata) is thought to have been founded in the third century AD. Later arose the empire of Melle and the more famous and more powerful Songhoi (Songhoy) empire ... Marking the importance, commercial and political, of these states, large cities were founded.”

The ideas that Islamic influences founded these states is now exploded, and this is admitted by the Britannica writer. He follows, however, the theory of “pure” and “impure” Negroes. The Negroes on the coast were “pure.” But even these, he notes, founded civilizations: “... the Yoruba, the Ashanti, the Dahomi, and the Beni created powerful and well organized kingdoms.”

The Beni, better know as the Benin, are famous today for their bronze sculpture, of artistic merit and technical skill unsurpassed by any people of ancient or modern times. When after many centuries they were “discovered” in 1891, the impudent imperialists at once attributed these bronzes to “Portuguese” influence. That theory has now joined the other in the waste-paper basket.

The High-Water Mark

West Africa was the high-water mark. But all over Africa, organized civilizations flourished. The first Portuguese to visit East Africa some five hundred years ago did not remark any noticeable differences between the Africans and themselves; while less than fifty years ago, Emil Torday, the Belgian explorer, discovered in Central Africa the Bushongo people. A wise king, as far back as the seventeenth century, had prohibited all contact with Europeans, and, away in his interior, the tribe had survived. Torday found a free and happy people, living in villages well laid out, the huts beautifully decorated, their sculpture, textiles, and household objects of a rare beauty. Political organization was a perfect democracy. The king had all the honors, the council all the power. Representatives, two of them always women, were both regional and vocational. Today they are degraded savages.

Torday states that before the coming of the Europeans such civilizations, perfectly adapted to their environment, were widespread over Africa. The picture of warring tribes and savage cannibals is all lies.

As late as 1906, Frobenius traveling in the Belgian Congo, could still see the following:

“And on all this flourishing material, civilization then was abloom; here the bloom on ripe fruit both tender and lustrous; the gestures, manners, and customs of a whole people, from the youngest to the oldest, alike in the families of the princes and the well-to-do, of the slaves, so naturally dignified and refined in the smallest detail. I know no northern race who can bear comparison with such a uniform level of education as is found among the natives.”

Slave Trade Destroys Africa

It was the slave trade that destroyed Africa, the depredations of Arabs and European imperialists. They ravaged the continent for three centuries. What the travellers of the nineteenth century discovered was the wreck and ruin of what had existed four centuries before, and even then enough remained to disprove the ideas of the subhuman Negro. Africa is a vast continent and many millions of people in varying degrees of civilization have lived there over the centuries. There was much ignorance, barbarism, and superstition, but the history and achievements of Negroes in art, literature, politics, empire-building, until Arab and European imperialism fell upon them in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is an incontrovertible refutation of the mountains of lies and slander built up by capitalist apologists in defense of capitalist barbarism. Africans worked in iron countless generations ago and many historians claim that it was they who introduced metal work to Europe and Asia.

Capitalism developing in Europe precipitated the discovery of America and sent its navigators and explorers to Africa. In the sixteenth century began the use of Negro slaves in the plantations of America. British capitalism drew one of the most powerful sources of wealth from the slave trade. The greatness of Liverpool, the second city of Great Britain, was founded on the trade. The wealth of the French bourgeoisie was based upon the slave trade. The rise of modern Europe is inexplicable without a knowledge of the economic ramifications of the slave trade.

* * *


For a useful sketch of the early history of Africa see the opening chapters of Carter Woodson, The Negro in Our History. For more detailed study the reader will have to consult the writings of Emil Torday, Frobenius and Maurice Delafosse. Admirable material can be found in Nancy Cunard’s Negro. For easily obtainable material on slavery and European capitalism see Africa and the Rise of Capitalism, by Wilson E. Williams (The Harvard University Studies in the Social Sciences, Harvard University, Washington, D.C.) and the Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, Chapters 1–3, particularly pages 35–41.

Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 91, 1 December 1939, p. 3.

II. Emancipation from Slavery and the Destruction of Feudalism

First of all, what is feudalism? That is not easy to answer in a sentence. It is a form of society based on landed property and simple methods of cultivation.

They have a landowning class which rules; at the other end of the social scale you have the serfs, who get a part of their produce to feed themselves and contribute their surplus to the landowning aristocracy. Side by side with the landowning aristocr]
acy is the clergy. The main characteristic of social life in feudal society is the fact that the aristocracy and clergy have great privileges, and the serfs and others have very few or none. This is not a question of custom, but a question of law. (In capitalist society, in theory, all men are equal before the law.) Feudal economy in Europe did not in any way have contact with Africa. It was essentially a subsistence economy; that is to say, it produced what it needed to feed and clothe itself. About the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, however, there grew up in Europe a new class, the merchants. These were the first real capitalists.

Europe’s First Dealings with Africa

Soon their business began to be of great importance in the state. With increasing wealth, they gradually changed the economies of certain countries from producing chiefly food and the simple things that the community needed, to the manufacture of goods on a large scale. This particular class was concerned as much with production for trade in other parts of the country and abroad as for use at home. It was this drive for trade, for raw materials, for markets, and for profit, that created the necessity for expansion, and in the fifteenth century finally sent expeditions to America and to Africa. Thus it was the development of capitalism in Europe that brought the millions of Africans into contact with Western civilization.

Capitalism demands above all else landless laborers. In Europe the capitalist class created a class of landless laborers by driving them off the land whenever possible, for if the serf or the peasant had land on which to work or earn his keep for himself, naturally he would not hire himself out to any capitalist for long hours and small pay.

When the capitalists discovered America, they tried to use the Indian as landless laborers. But the Indians died. There was so much land that it was impossible to get landless laborers from among the early colonists. Because of this, the capitalists in Europe and their agents in the colonies brought millions of Negroes as slaves to America and thereby provided the colonies with the necessary labor. By this means capitalism enormously expanded its capacity for making profit.

By means of these vast profits that they made at home and abroad, the capitalists in Britain and France, for example not only built up tremendous trade and business, but with the profits accumulated, they began to organize factories and extend the application of science to industry. The standard of civilization rose, and the power and profits of the capitalists increased also. But the governments of France and Britain still continued to be under the domination of the old feudal nobility. When came much trouble. [sic!]

Capitalists Make Their Revolution

Trade and factories were more important than land. Yet the rulers of the countries were princes, dukes, lords, bishops, and archbishops. That was all very well when they had the economic power, but now it had passed from them. Not only were they proud and arrogant, but they tried to keep the laws and the government suitable to land ownership when, owing to the shift in the economic basis of the country, the laws and the government should have been organized to help trade and industry. It was no use pointing out to them that they should give way. It took revolutions to do it.

In Britain there were two revolutions. One took place in the seventeenth century and lasted off and on for nearly sixty years. In France, revolution began in 1789, and by the time it was over the power of the aristocracy and the clergy was wiped away completely.

What part did the Negroes play in all this? The capitalists who first profited by slavery were commercial capitalists and the planters in the colonies. These planters were partly capitalist in that they traded their produce far and wide, and partly feudal in that they kept their slaves in a state of subjection comparable to the old serfdom and built up a type of feudal society. But as capitalism developed, these commercial traders and the plantation owners collaborated closely with the aristocracy, and many of them became aristocrats themselves. By the time the industrial capitalists were busy developing their factories, the aristocrats, the planters, and the commercial capitalists formed, roughly speaking, one reactionary group.

An End to Slavery

Now one of the things that the industrial capitalists wanted to do was to finish with slavery. It was too expensive. Slave production was backward compared with modern methods and more highly developed capitalist production in agriculture. So that you had on one side the industrial capitalists determined to destroy the slave power of the aristocrats, the commercial capitalists, and the planters. It was in this political struggle that Negroes got their chance to fight for their freedom. They played a small part in the English political struggle, a larger part in the French struggle, and a decisive part in the American struggle. This was not accidental. A few figures will show us why.

In 1789 British colonial trade was five million pounds out of an export trade of 27 million. Britain had lost America in 1783 and had few slaves in the West Indies. We can therefore see that slavery was playing a very minor part in British economy. The British Negroes on the whole played little part in the destruction of British feudalism.

Negro in the French Revolution

In France in 1789 the export trade was 17 million pounds. The colonial trade was 11 million pounds – two thirds of it. The question of abolition was therefore of tremendous importance. It took a prominent part in the revolution. The Negroes fought magnificently and, being thousands of miles away, gained their independence. This is how Haiti came into being.

In America in 1861 this combination of the commercial bourgeoisie and the plantation owners was not a minor part of American economy. It was a major part. The combination was not a colony thousands of miles away. It occupied hundreds of thousands of square miles inside the country. To defeat this combination took the greatest Civil War in history, and the Negro’s share was far greater than it had been in France.

This is the way we must look at history. People who only see black men in general being oppressed by white men in general, and are unable to trace the historical dialectic, do not understand anything and therefore cannot lead. That is the great value of being a genuine Marxist, an adherent of the Fourth International. You can study history and understand where we are today and why and where we are going tomorrow.

* * *


The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James.

History of Negro Revolt, by C.L.R. James.

The series of articles by George Novack which is now running in The New International. They are the only Marxist study of the pre-Civil War period and they are invaluable.

The relevant chapters of Beard’ The Rise of American Civilization.

Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 92, 9 December 1939, p. 3.

III. The Bourgeois Revolutions and Imperialism

Let us for a moment review our analysis of the Negro in his contact with Western civilization ... We established that the Negroes in Africa had built high if simple civilizations up to the fourteenth century. It was necessary to emphasize this, to destroy the imperialist – fostered conception of Africa as a land of eternal savagery and barbarism from which it has to some degree been raised by the gentle hand of the European invaders.

European contact with Africa began with the rise of European imperialism. A new continent, America, was discovered and Africa, which had always lain within easy reach of European ships, was penetrated. Commercial capitalism developed the mercantile system, which needed labor in the American tropical plantation. When the Indians proved unsatisfactory, slaves were brought from Africa. On the basis of the wealth created by the slave trade and the colonial trade directly dependent upon it, the commercial capitalists of Europe and America built up from their ranks a new section of the capitalist class, the industrial capitalists. These, whose chief function was the application of large-scale organization and science to industry, came inevitably into conflict with the planters: slave labor was too expensive, too backward for the new methods. This economic conflict was the basis for political conflict. The commercial bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracy still had the political power their former economic predominance had given them, and for the new rising class of industrial bourgeoisie, to wrest it from them meant a struggle.

The Bourgeois Revolution

This was a progressive struggle. It took place in great revolutions in France and in America, and in Britain it took not only the threat but the actual beginning of a revolution to break the power of the feudal aristocrats. In all these the Negro played a tremendous part. In America he was given the opportunity of doing this because his emancipation was in the interest of the Northern industrialist bourgeoisie. All these great movements of politics thrust the color question into subordination and unimportance. It is economics and politics, not color, that are decisive in history.

To see what happened after the industrialist bourgeoisie took power, it would be best to follow the course of one country, say Great Britain. The industrialists seized power in 1832. They struck a terrific blow at the landed aristocracy in 1847 by abolishing the “corn laws.” Through these laws the feudal aristocrats had artificially maintained the price of grain by restricting foreign competition with the produce of their fields. Rising with the industrial bourgeoisie was a new class – the industrial working class, the proletariat. And by 1848 the Chartist Movement of the workers was feeling its way towards revolution.

But in this year began a great era of prosperity. So prosperous was the industrial bourgeoisie, thanks to the home market its victory had given it, that it treated the idea of colonies in Africa with scorn. Disraeli wrote in 1866 that the British had all that they wanted in Asia. For, he continued, “what is the use of these colonial deadweights, the West Indian and West Africa colonies? ... Leave the Canadians to govern themselves; recall the African squadrons; give up the settlements on the southeast coast of Africa and we shall make a saving which will at the same time enable us to build ships and have a good budget.” In the year he wrote, only one-tenth or less of Africa was in the hands of European imperialists. They had devastated the continent, but now they wanted the slaves no longer. For a while it almost seemed that Africa would be left in peace.

A New Need for Africa

But capitalist production lead inevitable to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the corresponding increasing poverty of the masses. The workers cannot buy what they produce. The capitalists must find abroad new markets, sources of new materials, and places to invest their capital.

In 1885 Jules Ferry, the French statesman, used the famous words:

Colonies for rich countries are one of the most lucrative methods of utilizing capital ... I say that France, which is glutted with capital, has a reason for looking on this side of the colonial question ... European consumption is saturated: it is necessary to raise new masses of consumer in other parts of the globe, else we shall put modern society into bankruptcy and prepare for social liquidation with the dawn of the twentieth century ...

Cecil Rhodes once told a friend, “If you want to free civilization, become an imperialist.” With the glut in the home market, colonies were no longer “deadweight.” While in 1880 only one-tenth of Africa was in the hands of European imperialists; by 1900 less than one-tenth of the land remained in the hands of the African people. That saturation of European consumption to which Ferry referred and the part that Africa played can be shown by the following simple calculation. Great Britain has invested abroad roughly twenty billion dollars. The total investment in Africa from all sources is roughly six billion dollars, and of this almost five billion is in British territory. That is to say, almost one-fourth of British foreign investment is to be found in Africa.

But this process of “saturation” that forced the imperialists to expand to the colonies has now itself spread to the colonies. The increasing accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few and the increasing poverty of the masses is now not only a European but world phenomenon. Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, is bankrupt. The war of 1914–1918, the worldwide crisis since 1929, the new world war of 1939 – these are items from the ledger of imperialism. Only the overthrowing of the bankrupt class by a new class, only the triumphant proletarian revolution, can balance the budget of civilization.

And in the same way as the Negro played an important role in the revolution of the industrialists in unseating the feudal aristocracy, so tomorrow the Negroes will play a decisive role in the struggle between finance-capital and the working class. Against his declared intentions, Lincoln was forced to free the slaves. Revolutionary France had to recognize the revolution of the Santo Domingo blacks. In the stress of economic and political conflict, color was forgotten and the rising class took help wherever it could get it. The Negroes in Africa and America, wherever they are the most oppressed of people, are going to strike even more deadly blows for freedom, against the capitalist system of exploitation, in alliance with the white workers of the world.

Last updated on 19 April 2018