Leon Trotsky

On the Negro Question

(March 1923

Written: 13 March 1923.
Source: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 72, 20 September 1939, p. 1.
This letter was also included in The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2016. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

In the Socialist Appeal of September 15 [1], we published an article by J.R. Johnson on the role of Negro soldiers in the armies of the allied “democracies”. As a continuation of that article, we publish below a letter written by Leon Trotsky to Claude McKay, the famous Negro poet who represented the revolutionary Negroes at the World Congress of the Communist International (1922). McKay had requested comrade Trotsky to answer a few questions regarding the struggle for emancipation of the Negro race. Comrade Trotsky’s reply appeared [under the title Trotzky on the Negro question (A letter from comrade Trotzky to comrade McKay)] in the International Press Correspondence, official organ of the Communist International, [Vol. 3 No. 25,] March 13, 1923, [pp. 197–198].

Dear comrade McKay:

1. What are the practical steps to be taken to prevent France from employing black troops on the European continent? – this is your first question.

The blacks themselves must offer resistance against being so employed. Their eyes must be opened so that they realize that when they help French Imperialism to subjugate Europe, they are helping to subjugate themselves, in that they are supporting the domination of French capital in the African and other colonies.

The Time for Action

The working class of Europe and particularly of France and Germany, must realize that their own most vital interests are involved in this work of enlightening the colored race. The day of general resolutions on the right of self-determination of the colonial peoples, on the equality of all human beings regardless of color is over. The time has come for direct and practical action. Every ten Negroes who gather around the flag of revolution, – and unite to form a group for practical work among the Negroes, are worth a hundred times more than dozens of the resolutions establishing principles, so generously passed by the Second International. A Communist Party confining itself to mere platonic resolutions in this matter, without exerting its utmost energies towards winning the largest possible number of enlightened Negroes for its ideas, within the shortest possible time, would not be worthy of the name of Communist Party.

2. There is no doubt whatever that the use of colored troops for imperialist war, and at the present time for the occupation of German territory, is a well thought out and carefully executed attempt of European capital, especially British and French capital, to raise armed forces outside of Europe so that capitalism may have mobilized, armed and disciplined African and Asiatic troops at its disposal, against the revolutionary masses of Europe. In this way the question of the use of colonial reserves for imperialist armies is closely related to the question of European revolution, that is, to the fate of the European working class.

Educating the Cadres

3. There is no doubt whatever that the employment of the backward colonial rnasses for economically and culturally the world conflicts of imperialism, and still more in the class conflicts of Europe, is an exceedingly risky experiment, from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie itself. The Negroes, and indeed the natives of all the colonies, retain their conservatism and mental rigidity only in so far as they continue to live under their accustomed economic conditions. But when the hand of capital, or even sooner, the hand of militarism, tears them mechanically from their accustomed environment, and forces them to stake their lives for the sake of new and complicated questions and conflicts (conflicts between the bourgeoisie, conflicts between the classes of one and the same nation), then their spiritual conservatism gives way abruptly, and revolutionary ideas find rapid access to a consciousness thrown off its balance.

4. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance, today, immediately, to have a number of enlightened, young self-sacrificing Negroes, however small their number, filled with enthusiasm for the raising of the material and moral level of the great mass of Negroes, and at the same time mentally capable of grasping the identity of interests and the destiny of the Negro masses with those of the masses of the whole wrold, and in the first place with the destiny of the European working class.

The education of black propagandists is an exceedingly urgent and important revolutionary task at the present juncture.

Black and White Solidarity

5. In North America the matter is further complicated by the abominable obtuseness and caste presumption of the privileged upper strata of the working class itself, who refuse to recognize fellow-workers and fighting comrades in the Negroes. Gomper’s policy is founded on the exploitation of such despicable prejudices, and is at the present time the most effective guarantee for the successful subjugation of white and colored workers alike. The fight against this policy must be taken up from various sides, and on various lines. One of the most important branches of this conflict consists in enlightening the proletarian consciousness by awakening the feeling of human dignity, and of revolutionary protest, amongst the black slaves of American capital. As stated above, this work can only be carried out by self-sacrificing and politically educated revolutionary Negroes.

Needless to say, the work is not to be carried on in a spirit of Negro chauvinism, which would then merely form a counterpart of white chauvinism, – but in a spirit of solidarity of all exploited without consideration of color.

What forms of organization are most suitable for the movement among the American Negroes, it is difficult for me to say, as I am insufficiently informed regarding the concrete conditions and possibilities. But the forms of organization will be found as soon as there is sufficient will to action.


With Communist greetings,
L. Trotsky

Notes by MIA

1. The article actually appeared in the issue of September 13.

2. The information in square brackets was added by MIA.

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