J.R. Johnson

Negro Masses and the Struggle
for World Socialism

(28 April 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 17, 28 April 1941, p. 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marxism, on every fundamental issue, always seems to the bourgeois to be standing things on their heads. The bourgeois thinks that a man’s mentality shapes his environment; Marxism shows that it is his environment which shapes his mentality. The bourgeois thinks (or pretends to think) that Hitler caused the war and the crisis; Marxism points out that the First World War and the economic crisis caused Hitler. The bourgeois thinks that its own educated. and trained members are the leaders of society who must be looked to for leadership out of world chaos. Marxism knows that it is this group which forms the greatest social barrier to the solution of our difficulties today; that the class in society to whom we must look for a solution of war and economic ills are the workers, and particularly the most miserable, the most oppressed, the most enslaved, the most degraded, the most exploited. It is this which makes the Negroes, in Africa, in America, in the West Indies, of such enormous importance in the struggle for socialism.

The System Must Be Overthrown

This, like all Marxist deductions, rests not on psychology, but on the solid foundation of economic analysis and on the economic analysis, not of any single society, but of capitalist production on a world scale. What is the crying contradiction in society today? It is the contradiction between the capacity of production, actual and potential, and the consuming power of the masses limited by the fact that in modern society the masses are compelled to live on what is sufficient to maintain them alive and to reproduce another generation of workers.

That contrast is seen in America most clearly between the possibilities, for example, of cotton production and manufacture and food in the Southern states, and the semi-primitive conditions of life to which the millions of Negroes are condemned. To limit the example to the South for the moment, “prosperity” will never return to that area until the ten million Negroes have such housing, clothing, food, education and recreation as are fit for human beings in the twentieth century.

Transfer the problem to the international field. The world market includes nearly 400 million Indians, over 400 million Chinese, 120 million African Negroes. Today American industry or German industry or British industry, each by itself, can supply the needs of these workers as long as they continue to live at the rate of five or six cents a day, as the overwhelming majority of them do.

There is no solution to the world economic problem until their problems are settled. These hundreds of millions must be released from the vast slums in which they live. But who keeps them there? It is the ruling educated clasa, the imperialists; and those groups which hang on to imperialism. For these millions to be freed at all, they have to overthrow the present system. Poor; backward, degraded as they are, on the historical scale they are part of what Lenin called the Russian toiling and exploited masses, “the most advanced representatives of society.” Lenin knew the weaknesses and the deficiencies of the Russian people, but he knew that if Russia was to lift itself at all out of its barbarism, these very masses had to do it.

Today, so-called “educated” society will destroy civilisation unless the miserable, the oppressed, the degraded take the direction of society into their own hands. They want leadership. They will make many mistakes. But they must become in their own spheres, the motive force of the social transformation, or society will perish. The educated bourgeois despises the Negro. The revolutionaries, not from sentimentality, nor humanitarianism, but from sober calculation, knows what the Negroes mean in the struggle for a new society.

The Masses Detest Imperialism

From the theoretical point of view, the obvious question now arises. Is it obvious to the Negroes themselves or how soon will it be? Here again we must avoid psychological reasoning and examine instead what has happened during the last few years in the struggle against fascism and imperialist war. Both fascism and imperialist war are universally detested by the great majority of working people in every country.

When Mussolini attacked Ethiopia the Indian masses held a day of mourning to show their solidarity and sympathy. The social-democracy in Europe protested and called upon their imperialist governments to fight for the liberation of Ethiopia. Haile Selassie and his government trusted to social-democratic tomfoolery, to the League of Nations and to the treacherous assurances of Barton, the British minister. But the Ethiopian people themselves fought and never ceased to fight, Not for one single day did Ethiopian warriors cease a highly organized guerilla warfare against the fascist invaders.

The situation soon became unbearable for Mussolini and he made overtures to Haile Selassie asking him to come back as ruler under Italian domination. It was the only way Mussolini could see to pacify the new colony. Haile Selassie refused. Today the British have supplied Selassie with armed forces and have marched into Addis Abbaba with him. But the class conscious Negroes all over the world are profoundly suspicious of Britain’s rôle. It seems to them that one imperialism has been substituted for another.

But let us imagine for a moment that instead of British imperialism, a proletarian government in Britain, or in Italy for that matter, not necessarily well established but struggling to consolidate itself, had been able to send token detachments, perhaps not very large shipments of guns and ammunition; and a declaration of independence for all the Italian or British colonies in Africa, or both. Let us imagine that nightly on the radio a government, a proletarian government, called for revolution in Africa. The collapse of imperialism in large parts of Africa would follow with a speed which would surprise those who cannot see the hollowness inside the palatial facade.

The large masses of the African people have absolutely nothing to attach them to imperialism. They trace all the evils from which they suffer to the white man in Africa; “the devil is a white man.” There are some workers in western civilization who, think they have something to cling to. They vote for Roosevelt against Willkie. They think that even if America must keep out of war, they must send bundles to Britain and “we” must arm. There are a hundred million people in Africa to whom all this means absolutely nothing. The Ethiopians had arms and fought to a finish. The rest are beaten and demoralized, but they hope in secret. Their hopes are to drive the imperialists into the sea. That is why all over Africa the Ethiopian struggle is followed with such passionate intensity. They see in Ethiopian independence the symbol of their own emancipation.

Our Task in America

Let us now look at the Negroes in America and the present war. Today every imperialist government, and particularly the American government, has one task to perform, to prepare the country for war. This preparation as material: armaments and army; and it is psychological: war to defeat Hitler, war for “democracy,” to defend our liberties, the necessity for sacrifice, etc. A great part of the American masses as a whole accept the necessity for “defense.” They want the sacrifice to fall where it properly belongs, on the rich. They think that “defense” is one thing, but that fighting with Japan over China or sendinh an AEF to Europe is something entirely different from “defense.” The revolutionary task consists in showing the workers that when Roosevelt says “defense” he means American imperialist aggression and that if we consider imperialist aggression to be the cause of war, then we must begin here, against Roosevelt.

Now it is the masses of Negroes who understand this better than anyone else in America. At a mass meeting held for the purpose of developing the fight for Negro bus drivers in Harlem, one of the speakers referred to the fact that he had seen in a Harlem shop window a request for bundles for Britain. The mere statement evoked a tremendous response of derisive laughter and strong feeling from 5,000 people. Roosevelt’s propaganda had left them cold.. The average Negro simply cannot be made to feel excited over bundles for Halifax, Churchill and the enslavers of Africa and India. He may remain passive, but as seen, as the revolutionary point of view is placed before him he sees it at once. On the other hand we can be certain that if, at that meeting, historical circumstances had made it possible to appeal for a workers’ Britain, struggling against Hitler for the poor, oppressed and exploited of Britain who had issued a declaration renouncing imperialist domination over India and Africa, there would scarcely be a member of a family present who would not have gone to find some treasured garment or precious nickel to send.

Exactly the reverse is the case among the “educated” rulers. They are busy with their bundles and armaments for Britain and they only hesitate when they suspect that these bundles may ultimately find their way to a socialist Britain. At the first serious hint of it, they would throw every ounce of their available weight on the side of Hitler. There are a few petty bourgeois Negroes who clutch their $40 a week to their bosoms and feel social solidarity with J.P. Morgan. They talk a lot and write in to the newspapers. They “represent” Negro thought in their own stupid minds and in the minds of the American boobwahsie.

Look to the Masses for a Way Out

But the large majority of the Negroes, the overwhelming majority, are hostile to and, resentful of Roosevelt’s propaganda about a war for democracy. Like all masses, however, they can judge only by action. They want to see the socialist alternative. But once it is posed. concretely they will automatically prove themselves what Lenin called the Russian workers, “the most advanced representatives of society,”

Wall Street, Roosevelt and the rest, with their bundles (and armaments) for Britain are representative of all that is most backward, barbarous, and destructive in society today, class-conscious and cold-blooded. If the British workers tried to break away from imperialism tomorrow even in order to attack Hitler more fiercely, these lovers of Britain would turn against the British workers; intent on destroying them. The Harlem Negroes, who fight for jobs, thousands upon thousands, supporting the cause “on principle,” are fighting for a new order of society. A workers’ Britain officially denouncing imperialism in Africa., would set Harlem ablaze with revolutionary enthusiasm. Where then must we look for the way out? Where but to these and all who are like them, with nothing to lose but their chains and the whole world to gain.

West Indians Showed Their Mettle

What they want is leadership. Let us take a concrete recent example from the West Indies. Some years ago, a series of strikes and riots ran through the West Indian islands. In Trinidad there was a magnificent general strike. It began in big oil industrial plants at one end of the island – and. in a few hours all work had come to a standstill. In Port of Spain, the capital, which is situated at the other end, the school children ran out of school and went home and the domestic servants who work for white people, despite the fact that they got the best pay, all left their work and went home too. Why, exactly, many of them could not say. The West Indian population, chiefly agricultural laborers, stopped work on the big estates. All the working people simply drew together against the white ruling class.

The governor sent for cruisers and some marines landed. Airplanes cruised overhead, dropping leaflets and, of course, showing thereby that they could drop bombs just as easily. The people refused to be intimidated. It is reported, however, that some of the marines told the Negro workers, “We won’t shoot. We have nothing against you. We want you to win your strike.” The news spread in the same way as during the February revolution the news of the cossack who winked at the crowd spread among the St. Petersburg proletariat. How many marines were prepared to shoot or not to shoot is not important. What matters is this: the police force is Negro, chosen from among the masses of the people. Its loyalty during a crisis is in doubt and has been for over twenty years. If such a crisis existed and one revolutionary detachment of marines landed and joined the people, and said that it would fight with them, there is not one single West Indian island, not one single African colony (except the Union of South Africa) where the imperialist regime would not be doomed.

In India there is a force of reactionary Indian princes and Indian bourgeois; in China there is the Chinese bourgeoisie and landlords; in the Union of South Africa there is a comparatively large white population. But in French Africa, British Africa, Portuguese Africa and the West Indian islands, at any grave social crisis the revolutionary whites, if they can show force and clear leadership, can give an invincible impetus to the world revolution. What is curious is that the imperialists fear this more than the revolutionists expect it.

Another Example from the West Indies

The second West Indian example is more recent and more striking. It is the case of Martinique. When bourgeois France collapsed before the blitzkrieg, the Martinique Negroes awoke to world politics. They had to choose. The local government declared for Vichy; Roosevelt naturally wanted them to declare for de Gaulle. That would have enabled Britain to get the planes intended for France which were bottled up in the island and which might get to Hitler. But the Martinique Negroes, as PM’s special correspondent found out after an investigation, wanted neither Petain nor de Gaulle. They didn’t want America either, for French Negroes detest American race prejudice. The Negroes were overwhelming for an independent Martinique in a pan-American federation. They do not know it as yet but they will get independence of any value only under socialism.

Nationalism has not been strong in the West Indies, least of all in the French colonies. The Negro population thinks in terms of dominion status. Suddenly events in Europe faced these somewhat isolated Negroes with what seems to be two alternatives. They chose a third almost overnight. Who doubts that if given a lead they will fight for it and sweep their oppressors into the sea?

Let us sum up. We face alternatives of socialism or an increasing barbarism. The solution of the problem requires, among other things, the release of the productivity of a billion colonials, among whom there are 150 million exploited Negroes. Their release necessitates the overthrow of capitalist wage slavery ... Having gained nothing but misery from capitalism, they are ready to fight it, instinctively, as a man is always ready to throw off someone who is sitting on his back and squeezing his life away.

The Negroes try to organize themselves and must be aided in their attempts to prepare a striking force. The decisive battles will be fought in the great centers of capitalist production, by the advanced and organized workers. There can be no lasting victory anywhere without victory there. But as we calculate forces and estimate chances let us remember that all those millions of colonials, and among them the Negroes, are our potential allies, who need only the stimulus of our own action and the sight of some representatives of the western proletariat ready to fight with them. They can fight without that, but with it they are invincible. It is true of Africa, it is true of the West Indies and it is true also of our own “colonial” South.

Last updated on 14.12.2012