J.R. Johnson

Key Problems in the Study of Negro History

(February 1950)

Originally published in The Militant, 13 February 1950.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 125–129.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

The writers and organizer of the study of Negro history have reached a critical stage in their work. They have accumulated an imposing body of facts which demonstrate the active participation of Negroes in the making of American history and, in particular, in the creation of the American liberal and revolutionary tradition. It is today impossible to write a serious history of the Civil War period without taking into consideration the research which has gone into the making of the Journal of Negro History.

But what next? Merely to go on accumulating facts? Obviously that is not sufficient. Benjamin Quarles’ study of Frederick Douglass shows the dilemma. This careful, conscientious Negro scholar, after years of study, simply could not come to any definitive conclusion about the significance of the career of Douglass; he sought the secret of Douglass in Douglass’ personal character, selfishness, ambition.

Yet the truth is that no single individual so embodied in himself the growth and development of the social forces in America which brought the North-South conflict to a head. After the election of 1860, Lincoln and the bourgeoisie took over. But until that time, Douglass as the slave who escaped, as the brilliant lieutenant of Garrison and Phillips, and then as the man who broke with them to urge political action, without giving up his principles as a radical abolitionist – Douglass is the most symbolical figure of the pre-Civil War period. Yet after all the work the Negro historians have done on him, his significance, both as an American and as an American Negro, eludes them.

It eludes them because historical facts, as facts, can do so much and no more. They have to be organized in the light of a philosophy of history. To be quite precise, they have to be consciously organized in the light of a correct philosophy of history. For whether a writer knows it or not, he is always using a philosophy of history. In the case of American historical writers, it is the philosophy of liberalism and parliamentary democracy. Because they resented the lies and ignorance about Negroes which this philosophy produced, the Negroes went to the archives and produced the facts which have altered the general conceptions regarding the part played by Negroes in the US. But while recognizing that the “democratic” conception of the Beards, Hackers, and Schlessingers is inadequate, they have not been able to substitute any other historical method for it.

Their dilemma is not at all a Negro one. It affects the writing of history from one end of the world to another, and nowhere more sharply than in the history of revolutionary periods such as the English Civil War of the 17th century, the French revolution of the 18th century, and the Russian revolution of this century. All these great historical events are in process of re-evaluation, like the Civil War in the US, with regard to the same problem.

It has been estimated that in France there are more books on the great period of the French revolution (1789–94) than on all the rest of French history. Yet when Daniel Guerin recently published his history of that period, he was able to raise so many fundamental questions, illuminate so many obscure ones, and throw so much confusion into accepted theories, that friends and enemies alike had to agree that a new stage had been reached.

Why? Because Guerin, a revolutionary socialist, for the first time posed unambiguously and in the most militant fashion the role of the artisans, workers, and peasants in the French revolution, bringing them and their leaders like Variet, Rous, and Leclerc, hitherto generally neglected for the historically famous Dantons and Robespierres, into the very center of his investigations of the causes and course of the revolution.

The same thing has happened in regard to the Puritan revolution in Britain. The Levellers and men like John Lilburne, from being mere footnotes to history, have become the center of important studies in both England and America; the historical dominance of men like Oliver Cromwell has been seriously challenged, and here, as in France, the role of the masses is the center of attention.

In Russia the same problem has taken an entirely opposite turn. Stalin and the Kremlin, oppressors of the people, have rewritten the history of the Russian revolution, excluded the role of Trotsky and all who opposed their bureaucratic oppression of the people, and through their Communist parties have spent millions in trying to impose upon the people of the world a version of the Russian revolution which makes the whole mighty development the result of the wisdom, foresight, energy, and courage of Stalin.

Among the many reasons why they hate Trotskyism so bitterly is that it has exposed these falsifications at every opportunity.

It is not hard to understand why this theoretical battle over the role played by the masses in past revolutions assumes such importance. Not merely because of the past, but because one of the problems in the contemporary world is: Can the people, the workers, the peasants, the lower middle class, use their immense power to reorganize a collapsing society and at the same time not fall under the grip of totalitarianism?

The Negro historians have not as a whole faced this question. They first sought to rely on the facts alone. Where they did begin to study historical method, they fell under the influence of the Stalinists. But all Stalinist history, following the great example of their masters in Russia, pays lip service to the role of the masses while in reality sparing no pains to exalt the ideas of submission, discipline, authority. They do not point out the importance of leaders as men who have worked with the masses for years, as men whom the masses know and trust, as men whose every step is conditioned by recognition of the fact that they represent the deepest instincts and desires of the mass. Not at all. The conception they seek to inculcate is the conception of authority, the kind of authority the dictators of the Kremlin wield, the kind of authority that the CP leadership seeks to establish over the working class movement in every country.

Because of the demagogy, skill, and historical doubletalk with which the Stalinists cover their tracks, it has taken a long time for the Negro writers to recognize that what the Stalinists parade as “Marxism” leads them nowhere. What is the way out? The Negro writers have to pose and grapple with the general historical question: What is the role of the masses in great revolutionary upheavals? They will find that instead of dealing, as they have been doing, with the Negro’s role in US history, they are dealing with a world-wide problem of historical writings which is engaging the attention of serious historians today as never before.

Once they have grappled with what modern writers are saying about the role of the mass movements in the English and French revolutions, once they master directly what Marx and Engels had to say about these revolutions and what Lenin and Trotsky had to say about the Russian Revolution, they will find that the role of the Negro masses and Negro political leaders will begin to fall into well-defined political patterns. They will have to tackle the Stalinist corruption at its source. They will have to study Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and, side by side with it, the versions of the Stalinist historians. They will have to study Stalinist accounts of the rise of Stalinism, and Trotsky’s Stalin. They will have to study and to decide.

Until then they will continue, as they are doing now, to accumulate material but be unable to make use of it; not only that, they will not be able to hold even the positions they have now. Already liberal historians like Nevins are backing a counter-attack with attempts to show that the Civil War was not fought over slavery as an economic system but was a moral question. The Stalinist Aptheker now promises to show that it was the poor whites in the South who initiated the struggle for freedom from slavery. The Negro writers on Negro history therefore have to make a big step forward. But having made it they will find that they will add great contributions, not only to American history, but to world history. Their work will be drawn into what is already a movement on a world scale. They will begin to reap the full fruits of their patient, pioneering work.

They will also find that if they do this work as it ought to be done they will be led to the solution not merely of historical problems but of the burning political questions of the day – the future of the US as well as of the Negro people. For history is a part of the class struggle.

In their determination to right the wrongs done to Negroes, the writers of Negro history have done much to clear away the jungle of lies and falsehoods which obscured American history whenever it approached Negroes. Now the time has come to link that work deliberately and consciously with the most progressive historical currents of the day. A heavy price will inevitably be paid if this is not done.

Last updated on 19.7.2011