J.R. Johnson

Lenin on Agriculture and the Negro Question

(January 1947)

Originally published in Labor Action, 13 January 1947.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 130–132.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

It is remarkable but not strange that the great leaders of Marxist thought – Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky – all took the keenest interest in the Negro question in the United States. The interest of Marx and Engels centered chiefly on the Civil War. They insisted from the start that the issue at stake was slavery. Trotsky always had a passionate interest in the Negro question, and this increased when he came to live in Mexico. Of the four, the one who seemed most remote from the problem was Lenin. Yet in one of his lesser known writings, he showed his interest in and knowledge of the problem.

The work itself is not that easy to read. It is entitled Capitalism in Agriculture and appeared in the very last volume of his Selected Works (in English). The origin of this work is interesting and significant.

Lenin had been carrying on for years a controversy with those who were attacking Marx’s analysis of the influence of capital on agriculture. This was no mere “theoretical” discussion with him – nor, for that matter, with them either. The driving force of the Russian Revolution was the agricultural question. Lenin insisted that the penetration of capital into the Russian countryside was creating a social differentiation among the peasants, disrupting the traditional relations. He particularly emphasized this disruption: the creation of wealthy tenant-farmers and owners on the one hand and, on the other hand, of poor farmers who worked for wages a few days of the week.

Needless to say, in this disruption Lenin saw the growing basis of revolutionary struggle. His opponents of all stripes argued in various forms the specifically Russian thesis that the old communal life of the peasants provided a basis for some special type of Russian socialism. This would avoid the antagonism between capital and labor, which terrified them with its prospect of inevitable revolution.

It is characteristic of the methods of Bolshevism that Lenin gave his opponents no rest. However remote and semi-scientific their theories might be, he dragged their ideas out into the open and exposed their counter-revolutionary implications. In pursuit of these attackers of Marx and enemies of revolution, Lenin embarked on a study of capitalism in American agriculture. He made a close examination and study of the American census of 1910 and wrote his findings in one of the most solid studies of capitalism in agriculture that it is possible to read. In the course of this study, he had occasion to deal with the Negro question.

Lenin separated the South from the rest of the United States, which he further divided into the highly organized individual farming of the New England states, and the farming of the broad acres in the middle West. And in his analysis of Southern farming, he paid special attention to the Negro question.

His analysis can be summarized as follows. The abolition of slavery did not entirely abolish all traces of the old chattel slavery. They remained in the subordination, the degradation, the inhuman conditions of labor of the Negroes. He details the number of tenant farmers, their increasing decay, their poverty and misery; and he laid special emphasis on the fact that this tendency was bound to increase.

Lenin did not write only from analysis of figures and of his reading. As his other writings show, he had observed and studied a very similar phenomenon in Russia. The American slaves had been freed in 1863. The serfs in Russia were emancipated in 1864. But despite the emancipation, many of the old feudal conditions had persisted. In his analysis of conditions in the South among the Negroes, Lenin pointed out that the remains of feudalism in Russia and of chattel slavery in the United States were much the same. He knew the situation of the small tenant and the sharecropper in Russia on which he had repeatedly written in the past. He recognized similar conditions among the Negroes in the United States. As a matter of fact, what is quite revealing is that Lenin, in his writings on the social conditions in Russia, lays heavy emphasis on the personal tyranny exercised by the landlord over the Russian sharecropper. And after analyzing statistically the situation of the Southern Negro, he writes as one who knows. One can imagine the situation of people who live in those economic and social conditions.

It would take too long here, in this column, to point out the highly instructive parallels between the similar results of a certain economic system even in countries as widely different as Czarist Russia and the US. The point is that Lenin, in his unwearying task of educating the Russian proletariat, made analyses and observations of the Negroes in Southern agriculture which are of permanent value to us today, over thirty years afterward.

A great revolution in Russia destroyed that particular agrarian tyranny. In the US the tyranny still continues, though under different conditions. Yet the basic pattern is the same today as it was when Lenin wrote in 1913. We can say categorically that it is impossible to get a real grasp of the social classes in the agricultural South and their development during the past fifty years without a close study of Lenin’s analysis of Southern agriculture, and his brief but pregnant presentation of the Negro question.

Last updated on 19.7.2011