1962 Introduction by George Breitman
The Negro Question in America 1933 discussion in Prinkipo, Turkey between Leon Trotsky and Arne Swabeck
Self-Determination for the American Negroes First of a series of discussions with C.L.R. James and other leaders of the US Socialist Workers Party in 1939.
A Negro Organization Second of a series of discussions with C.L.R. James and other leaders of the US Socialist Workers Party in 1939.
Plans for the Negro Organization Third and last of a series of discussions with C.L.R. James and other leaders of the US Socialist Workers Party in 1939.
List of supplementary readings from the Socialist Workers Party: Subsequent convention resolution, statements and reports
This collection of discussions, reports and resolutions is intended to help those who seriously want to study the history of the development of the revolutionary socialist analysis and program for the Negro struggle in the United States. It brings together some key documents of the period between 1933 and 1950 that are scarce and out of print, and provides the background for understanding more recent material (1954-1961) that is listed at the end of this collection.
In his book, The First Ten Years of American Communism, James P. Cannon shows what a healthy impact the Russian revolution had upon the American radical movement’s policy on the Negro struggle, especially the young Communist Party. Up to then, Cannon says, American radicals “had nothing to start with on the Negro question but an inadequate theory, a false or indifferent attitude and the adherence of a few individual Negroes of radical or revolutionary bent.” The inadequate theory, from which the attitude and lack of influence followed, was that the Negro question was purely and simply “an economic problem, part of the struggle between the workers and the capitalists; nothing could be done about the special problems of discrimination and inequality this side of socialism.” But thanks to the example and pressure of the Russian revolutionists, the early American communists learned “slowly and painfully” to “change their attitude; to assimilate the new theory of the Negro question as a speoial question of doubly exploited seoond-class citizens, requiring a program of special demands as part of the over-all program—and to start doing something about it.” (Originally printed in International Socialist Review, Summer, 1959.)
Part of what we think and do about the Negro struggle today can be traced to these positive influences from the Russian Bolsheviks, because the founders of the Socialist Workers Party were among the leaders of the Communist Party, until they were expelled in 1928 for siding with the Left Opposition against the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Communist International. Through these founders, it is part of our heritage of revolutionary theory and practice.
In addition, the tendency that eventually became the Socialist Workers Party also had the benefit of consultation and advice from Leon Trotsky, leader of the Left Opposition, from 1929 until his death in 1940. This was a second major “outside” influence on the SWP’s thinking on the Negro struggle.
Before taking up the contributions of Trotsky included in this collection, a few quotations would be in order. Trotsky was a great Marxist leader and theoretician — Lenin’s closest collaborator in the Russian revolution and founder of the Fourth International in 1938. But he was not able, until the last years of his life, when he received asylum in Mexico (1937-1940), to acquire detailed knowledge or close contact with problems and developments in the United States, including the Negro struggle. Following are three early passages from his articles and letters.
In 1923, Trotsky wrote a letter answering certain questions asked of him by the revolutionary Negro poet, Claude McKay. It appeared first in International Press Correspondence and may be found in Trotsky’s The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 1. Here, for the first of many times, Trotsky placed heavy stress on the racial prejudices of the labor bureaucracy and backward white workers, about which he never minced any words; he emphasized this because he realized it has crucial effects on what the Negro masses think and do. In addition, almost in passing, he showed he understood that only Negroes can lead the Negro struggle. The last part of his letter said:
“...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 destiny of the Negro masses, with those of the masses of the whole world...
“The education of Negro propagandists is an exceedingly urgent and important revolutionary task at the present juncture.
“ In North America the matter is further complicated by the abominable obtuseness and caste presumptions of the privileged upper strata of the working class itself, who refuse to recognize fellow workers and fighting comrades in the Negroes. AFL President] Gompers’ 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 different sides, and conducted 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, among the Negro slaves of American capitalism. 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 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. ”
In 1928, the American Communist Party expelled the future founders of the Socialist Workers Party as “Trotskyists.” In 1929, they held their first national conference as the Communist League of America (Left Opposition). Trotsky, then exiled to Turkey by the Stalinist bureaucracy, made contact with his American collaborators shortly before this conference and sent them his first letter, printed in The Militant of May 1, 1929, under the title “Tasks of the American Opposition.” There were many things he urgently wanted to advise them, but he did not fail to include a warning of the need to resist “aristocratic prejudices” and to find a way to the most exploited sections of society, “beginning with the Negro”:
“The trade union bureaucrats, like the bureaucrats of false Communism, live in the atmosphere of aristocratic prejudices of the upper strata of the workers. It will be a tragedy if the Oppositionists are infected even in the slightest degree with these qualities. We must not only reject and condemn these prejudices; we must burn them out of our consciousness to the last trace. We must find the road to the most deprived, to the darkest strata of the proletariat, beginning with the Negro, whom capitalist society has converted into a pariah, and who must learn to see in us his revolutionary brothers. And this depends wholly upon our energy and devotion to the work. ”
In 1932, an incident occurred which is sometimes remembered for the distinction Trotsky made between intellectuals and workers, but it is also worth remembering because it expressed his keen perception of the special, non-oppressive and potentially revolutionary position of Negro workers in capitalist society. A letter had been received from 24 black South Africans ("and others"), asking questions about the Left Opposition’s program, and applying for membership. Trotsky wrote an article about this, which appeared in The Militant of July 2, 1932, under the title “Closer to the Proletarians of the ’Colored’ Races!” In part, he wrote:
“If the Johannesburg comrades did not as yet have the possibility to acquaint themselves closer with the views of the Left Opposition on all the most important questions, it cannot be an obstacle in getting together with them as closely as possible even today and to help them fraternally to come into the orbit of our program and our tactics.
“When ten intellectuals of Paris, Berlin or New York, who have been in various organizations, address themselves to us with a request to be taken into our midst I would give the following advice: Put them through a number of tests on all the questions of program; wet them under the rain, dry them in the sun and then after a new careful examination, accept one or two.
“The matter changes basically when ten workers connected with the masses come to us. The difference in our relation to the petty bourgeois and to the proletarian groups does not require any explanation. But if the proletarian group works in a district where there are workers of various races, and in spite of this, it consists only of workers of a privileged nationality, I am inclined to regard them with suspicion: Are we not dealing with the workers’ aristocracy? Isn’t the group poisoned by slaveholding prejudices active or passive?
“It is quite a different matter when we are approached by a group of Negro workers. Here I am ready to consider beforehand that we are achieving agreement with them, even though this is not yet obvious; because of their whole position they do not strive and cannot strive to degrade anybody, oppress anybody or deprive anybody of his rights. They do not seek privileges and cannot rise to the top except on the road of international revolution.
“We can and we should find a way to the consciousness of the Negro workers, of the Chinese workers, of the Hindu workers, all these oppressed colored races of the human ocean to whom belongs the decisive word in the development of humanity.”
During its first five years, the Communist League of America considered itself to be and functioned as a faction of the Communist Party. That is, although its members had been expelled by the CP, its aim was to reform the CP —compel it to change its wrong policies and to readmit the CLA members. Its activities were largely determined, defined and limited by this aim. In the Negro struggle the differences between the two organizations seemedto be chiefly over tactical questions, and did not figure prominently in the CLA’s program or literature.
At the end of this period, early in 1933, a CLA leader, Arne Swabeck, during atrip abroad, held discussions with Trotsky in Prinkipo, Turkey. One of these discussions, held on Feb. 28, 1933, concerned the Negro struggle. The text appeared in the CLA internal bulletin under the title, “The Negro Question in America. “ There it was noted that the transcript was in “summary form,” meaning that it had not been corrected by the participants and therefore might not be completely accurate in every formulation. With that warning it is reprinted here after a few improvements in punctuation and spelling.
What this discussion disclosed, on both sides, was a serious concern about the Negro question, ooupled with a lack of knowledge about many of its important aspects. It reflects a oertain stage in the thinking and development of the American movement — before it had “yet formulated a program.” It also expresses very strongly Trotsky’s thinking on the questions of “self-determination,” derived, as he himself pointed out, not from a study of conditions in the United States, but from “general considerations.” (These considerations are developed more fully in “The Problem of Nationalities,” a chapter in The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 3.) One thing is certain—many of the arguments in that 1933 discussion are still pertinent in the 1960’s; in some ways, more pertinent now.
After an assessment of the way in which the Stalin-dominated Communist International had betrayed the struggle against the Nazis in Germany, the Left Opposition in 1933 abandoned the idea of reforming the Communist parties, and proclaimed the need to build a new Marxist international and revolutionary parties all over the world. As part of the job of gathering together the forces for anew party in this country, the CLA made a turn away from the Communist Party and its periphery and toward the mass movements and struggles of labor and its allies. By the time the Socialist Workers Party was founded in 1938, some branches were able to report encouraging beginnings of recruitment of Negroes from both the unemployed movement and the plants.
But the turning point did not come until the following year, and then it came for two reasons. The party’s practical activities among Negro workers in the labor and unemployed movements had stimulated a desire for theoretical clarification on the nature and direction of the Negro struggle and had produced a demand for greater attention to that struggle in the party’s program and literature. At the same time, fortunately, the party’s interest and activity in this field got a healthy impetus from another “outside” source —the arrival in this country of a non-American member of the Fourth International (with which the SWP was then affiliated), J. R. Johnson. A revolutionary intellectual, Johnson had a fundamentally sound understanding of the Negro struggle and did a great deal to help others understand it and join it. Unfortunately, Johnson was also politically unstable; he left the party in the Shachtman-Burnham split of 1940, returned in 1947 and left again in 1951. But no one can deny the valuable contributions he made to the partAproy’s theory and work in the Negro struggle. (Johnson figures in the subsequent sections of this collection under the pen names of “George” and “J. Meyer.” )
In preparation for an SWP convention to be held in mid-1939, Johnson paid a visit to Trotsky, then in Mexico, where he presented some preliminary notes to serve as the basis for three discussions held on April 4, 5, and 11. The subjects they discussed were self-determination; the possibility of collaborating with other forces in the creation of an independent Negro organization of action; and the program and plans for such an organization. The transcripts were submitted to the SWP membership for discussion prior to the approaching national convention. They are reprinted here as they appeared in Fourth International, May, 1948; September, 1948; and February, 1949. (Again a stenographer’s note explains they are a “rough draft uncorrected by participants")
The SWP convention met in New York July 1-4, 1939. Commenting editorially July 7, The Militant said, “There is no doubt that the session (on the Negro struggle) marked a most important stage, not only in the convention but in the history of the party.” There is also no doubt that the delegates took to heart and agreed with Trotsky’s warning about what continued neglect of the Negro struggle would mean for the party itself. This was clearly expressed in the major resolution adopted at this session: “The SWP must recognize that its attitude to the Negro question is crucial for its future development. Hitherto the party has been based mainly on privileged workers and groups of isolated intellectuals. Unless it can find its way to the great masses of the underprivileged, of whom the Negroes constitute so important a section, the broad perspectives of the permanent revolution will remain only a fiction and the party is bound to degenerate.”
The convention elected a committee of 12 to prepare resolutions and recommendations. The Committee on Negro Work brought in a program of action which the convention referred to the incoming National Committee for implementation. It also brought in a resolution, “The SWP and Negro Work,” dealing with the need to further educate the party, plans for recruiting politically advanced Negroes, and the party’s readiness to help create anew militant Negro organization. This resolution was adopted without opposition and is reprinted here. (It was generally agreed, after the convention, by the members of the Committee on Negro Work and the party generally that an “overstatement” had appeared in the second sentence of this resolution—that instead of saying their historical past has designated American Negroes to be “the very vanguard of the proletarian revolution,” it should read “in the very vanguard of the proletarian revolution.”)
One other resolution — on self-determination — resulted in differences in the Committee on Negro Work. A report for the majority of the committee was presented to the convention by Johnson, and then Mc Kinney and Wright were each given time to present their minority reports. What their differences were can be grasped from the amendments they offered to the resolution on self-determination: Mc Kinney’s amendments were to eliminate the fifth paragraph and to eliminate the fifth, sixth and seventh sentences of the last paragraph. Wright’s amendments called for addition to the opening part of “a section dealing with the relation of Negro proletarians to the Negroes as a whole. Should the decisive mass of Negro workers be won to the Fourth International, that would have a decisive bearing on the question,” and addition after the third sentence in the fifth paragraph of “a section dealing with possible effects of the development of ’counter-revolutionary crisis’ on the Negroes. Suggested formulation: ‘It is by no means excluded that in a counter-revolutionary crisis the desire for a Negro state may assume a more reactionary character than did the Garvey movement.’ ”
Three motions were then presented on the self-determination question:
Motion by McKinney: “The convention recommends to the incoming National Committee that a general political resolution on the Negro in the U. S. be prepared, one section of that resolution to deal with the question of self-determination. Resolution to be adopted by party referendum within a period of sixty days after presentation to the party.” (Defeated by action on the subsequent motions. )
Motion by Wright: “Resolution on self-determination be adopted as a basis for a final draft. All amendments to be referred to the N.C.” Carried.
Motion by Committee on Negro Work: “The Committee on Negro Work recommends to the national convention that it instruct the incoming N. C. to prepare as soon as possible a general resolution on the Negro problem in America. This resolution should deal with the question as a whole, in all its aspects and from the broadest point of view, and is to serve as the basic document of the party on the question. Such a resolution alone will throw into correct perspective and reduce to its proper proportions the single aspect of the problem represented by the right of self-determination. The convention should recommend further to the incoming N. C. that, upon completion of this general resolution, it is to take immediate steps to institute discussion of it in the party to the end that the party adopt such a basic document as speedily as possible.” Carried.
February 28, 1933
Swabeck: We have in this question within the American League no noticeable differences of an important character, nor have we yet formulated a program. I present therefore only the views which we have developed in general.
How must we view the position of the American Negro: As a national minority or as a racial minority? This is of the greatest importance for our program.
The Stalinists maintain as their main slogan the one of ‘self-determination for the Negroes’ and demand in connection therewith a separate state and state rights for the Negroes in the black belt. The practical application of the latter demand has revealed much opportunism. On the other hand, I acknowledge that in the practical work amongst the Negroes, despite the numerous mistakes, the [Communist] party can also record some achievements. For example, in the Southern textile strikes, where to a large extent the color lines were broken down.
Weisbord, I understand, is in agreement with the slogan of ‘self-determination’ and separate state rights. He maintains that is the application of the theory of the permanent revolution for America.
We proceed from the actual situation: There are approximately 13 million Negroes in America; the majority are in the Southern states (black belt). In the Northern states the Negroes are concentrated in the industrial communities as industrial workers, in the South they are mainly farmers and sharecroppers.
Trotsky: Do they rent from the state or from private owners?
Swabeck: From private owners, from white farmers and plantation owners; some Negroes own the land they till.
The Negro population of the North are kept on a lower level —economically, socially and culturally; in the South under oppressive Jim Crow conditions. They are barred from many important trade unions. During and since the war the migration from the South has increased; perhaps about four to five million Negroes now live in the North. The Northern Negro population is overwhelmingly proletarian, but also in the South the proletarianization is progressing.
Today none of the Southern states have a Negro majority. This lends emphasis to the heavy migration, to the North. We put the question thus: Are the Negroes, in a political sense, a national minority or a racial minority? The Negroes have become fully assimilated, Americanized, and their life in America has overbalanced the traditions of the past, modified and changed them. We cannot consider the Negroes a national minority in the sense of having their own separate language. They have no special national customs, or special national culture or religion; nor have they any special national minority interests. It is impossible to speak of them as a national minority in this sense. It is therefore our opinion that the American Negroes are a racial minority whose position and interests are subordinated to the class relations of the country and depending upon them.
To us the Negroes represent an important factor in the class struggle, almost a decisive factor. They are an important section of the proletariat. There is also a Negro petty bourgeoisie in America but not as powerful or as influential or playing the role of the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie among the nationally oppressed people (colonial).
The Stalinist slogan ‘self-determination’ is in the main based upon an estimate of the American Negroes as a national minority, to be won over as allies. To us the question occurs: Do we want to win the Negroes as allies on such a basis and who do we want to win, the Negro proletariat or the Negro petty bourgeoisie? To us it appears that we will with this slogan win mainly the petty bourgeoisie and we cannot have much interest in winning them as allies on such a basis? We recognize that the poor farmers and sharecroppers are the closest allies of the proletariat but it is our opinion that they can be won as such mainly on the basis of the class struggle. Compromise on this principled question would put the petty bourgeois allies ahead of the proletariat and the poor farmers as well. We recognize the existence of definite stages of development which require specific slogans. But the Stalinist slogan appears to us to lead directly to the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. The unity of the workers, black and white, we must prepare proceeding from a class basis, but in that it is necessary to also recognize the racial issues and in addition to the class slogans also advance the racial slogans. It is our opinion that in this respect the main slogan should be ‘social, political and economic equality for the Negroes’, as well as the slogans which flow therefrom. This slogan is naturally quite different from the Stalinist slogan of ‘self-determination’ for a national minority. The [Communist] party leaders maintain that the Negro workers and farmers can be won only oil the basis of this slogan. To begin with it was advanced for the Negroes throughout the country, but today only for the Southern states. It is our opinion that we can win the Negro workers only on a class basis advancing also the racial slogans for the necessary intermediary stages of development. In this manner we believe also the poor Negro farmers can best be won as direct allies.
In the main the problem of slogans in regard to the Negro question is the problem of a practical program.
Trotsky: The point of view of the American comrades appears to me not fully convincing. ‘Self-determination’ is a democratic demand. Our American comrades advance as against this democratic demand, the liberal demand. This liberal demand is, moreover, complicated. I understand what ‘political equality’ means. But what is the meaning of economical and social equality within capitalist society? Does that mean a demand to public opinion that all enjoy the equal protection of the laws? But that is political equality. The slogan ‘political, economic and social equality’ sounds equivocal and while it is not clear to me it nevertheless suggests itself easy of misinterpretation.
The Negroes are a race and not a nation:—Nations grow out of the racial material under definite conditions. The Negroes in Africa are not yet a nation but they are in the process of building a nation. The American Negroes are on a higher cultural level. But while they are there under the pressure of the Americans they become interested in the development of the Negroes in Africa. The American Negro will develop leaders for Africa, that one can say with certainty and that in turn will influence the development of political consciousness in America.
We do, of course, not obligate the Negroes to become a nation; if they are, then that is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they desire and what they strive for. We say: If the Negroes want that then we must fight against imperialism to the last drop of blood, so that they gain the right, wherever and how they please, to separate a piece of land for themselves. The fact that they are today not a majority in any state does not matter. It is not a question of the authority of the states but of the Negroes. That in the overwhelming Negro territory also whites have existed and will remain henceforth is not the question and we do not need today to break our heads over a possibility that sometime the whites will be suppressed by the Negroes. In any case the suppression of the Negroes pushes them toward a political and national unity.
That the slogan ‘self-determination’ will rather win the petty bourgeois instead of the workers—that argument holds good also for the slogan of equality. It is clear that the special Negro elements who appear more in the public eye (businessmen, intellectuals, lawyers, etc) are more active and react more actively against the inequality. It is possible to say that the liberal demand just as well as the democratic one in the first instance will attract the petty bourgeois and only later the workers.
If the situation was such that in America common actions existed between the white and the colored workers, that the class fraternization had already become a fact, then perhaps the arguments of our comrades would have a basis—I do not say that they would be correct—then perhaps we would separate the colored workers from the white if we commence with the slogan ‘self-determination’.
But today the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt and lynch them. When the Negro workers today unite with their own petty bourgeois that is because they are not yet sufficiently developed to defend their elementary rights. To the workers in the Southern states the liberal demand for ‘social, political and economic equality’ would undoubtedly mean progress, but the demand for ‘self-determination’ a greater progress. However, with the slogan ‘social, political and economic equality’ they can much easier be misled (‘according to the law you have this equality’).
When we are so far that the Negroes say we want autonomy; they then take a position hostile toward American imperialism. At that stage already the workers will be much more determined than the petty bourgeoisie. The workers will then see that the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of struggle and gets nowhere, but they will also recognize simultaneously that the white Communist workers fight for their demands and that will push them, the Negro proletarians, toward Communism.
Weisbord is correct in a certain sense that the ‘self-determination’ of the Negroes belongs to the question of the permanent revolution in America. The Negroes will through their awakening, through their demand for autonomy, and through the democratic mobilization of their forces, be pushed on toward the class basis. The petty bourgeoisie will take up the demand for ‘social, political, and economic equality’ and for ‘self-determination’ but prove absolutely incapable in the struggle; the Negro proletariat will march crier the petty bourgeoisie in the direction toward the proletarian revolution. That is perhaps for them the most important road. I can therefore see no reason why we should not advance the demand for ‘self-determination’.
I am not sure if the Negroes do not also in the Southern states speak their own Negro language. Now that they are being lynched just because of being Negroes they naturally fear to speak their Negro language; but when they are set free their Negro language will again become alive. I will advise the American comrades to study this question very seriously, including the language in the Southern states. Because of all these Masons I would in this question rather lean toward the standpoint of the [Communist] party; of course, with the observation: I have never studied this question and in my remarks I proceed from the general considerations. I base myself only upon the arguments brought forward by the American comrades. I find them insufficient and consider them a certain concession to the point of view of American chauvinism, which seems to me to be dangerous.
What can we lose in this question when we go ahead with our demands, and what have the Negroes today to lose? We do not compel them to separate from the States, but they have the full right to self-determination when they so desire and we will support and defend them with all the means at our disposal in the conquestion [conquest] of this right, the same as we defend all oppressed peoples.
Swabeck: I admit that you have advanced powerful arguments but I am not yet entirely convinced. The existence of a special Negro language in the Southern states is possible; but in general all American Negroes speak English. They are fully assimilated. Their religion is the American Baptist and the language in their churches is likewise English.
Economic equality we do not at all understand in the sense of the law. In the North (as of course also in the Southern states) the wages for Negroes are always lower than for white workers and mostly their hours are longer, that is so to say accepted as a natural basis. In addition, the Negroes are allotted the most disagreeable work. It is because of these conditions that we demand economic equality for the Negro workers.
We do not contest the right of the Negroes to self-determination. That is not the issue of our disagreement with the Stalinists. But we contest the correctness of the slogan of ‘self-determination’ as a means to win the Negro masses. The impulse of the Negro population is first of all in the direction toward equality in a social, political and economic sense. At present the party advances the slogan for ‘self-determination’ only for the Southern states. Of course, one can hardly expect that the Negroes from the Northern industries should want to return to the South and there are no indications of such a desire. On the contrary. Their unformulated demand is for ‘social, political and economic equality’ based upon the conditions under which they live. That is also the case in the South. It is because of this that we believe this to be the important racial slogan. We do not look upon the Negroes as being under national, oppression in the same sense as the oppressed colonial peoples. It is our opinion that the slogan of the Stalinists tends to lead the Negroes away from the class basis and more in the direction of the racial basis. That is the main reason for our being opposed to it. We are of the belief that the racial slogan in the sense as presented by us leads directly toward the class basis.
Frank: Are there special Negro movements in America?
Swabeck: Yes, several. First we had the Garvey movement based upon the aim of migration to Africa. It had a large following but busted up as a swindle. Now there is not much left of it. Its slogan was the creation of a Negro republic in Africa. Other Negro movements in the main rest upon a foundation of social and political equality demands as, for example, the League [National Association] for Advancement of Colored People. This is a large racial movement.
Trotsky: I believe that also the demand for ‘social, political and economic equality’ should remain and I do not speak against this demand. It is progressive to the extent that it is not realized. The explanation of Comrade Swabeck in regard to the question of economic equality is very important. But that alone does not yet decide the question of the Negro fate as such, the question of the ‘nation’, etc. According to the arguments of the American comrades one could say for example that also Belgium has no right as a ‘nation’. The Belgians are Catholics and a large section of them speak French. What if France would annex them with such an argument? Also the Swiss people, through their historical connection, feel themselves, despite different languages and religion, as one nation. An abstract criterion is not decisive in this question, but much more decisive is the historical consciousness, their feelings and their impulses. But that also is not determined accidentally but rather by the general conditions. The question of religion has absolutely nothing to do with this question of the nation. The Baptism of the Negro is something entirely different from the Baptism of Rockefeller: These are two different religions.
The political argument rejecting the demand for ‘self-determination’ is doctrinarism. That we heard always in Russia in regard to the question of ‘self-determination’. The Russian experiences have shown to us that the groups who live on a peasant basis retain peculiarities, their customs, their language, etc, and given the opportunity they develop again.
The Negroes are not yet awakened and they are not yet united with the white workers. 99.9 per cent of the American workers are chauvinists, in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also toward the Chinese. It is necessary to teach the American beasts. It is necessary to make them understand that the American state is not their state and that they do not have to be the guardians of this state. Those American workers who say: ‘The Negroes should separate when they so desire and we will defend them against our American police’—those are revolutionists, I have confidence in them.
The argument that the slogan for ‘self-determination’ leads away from the class basis is an adaptation to the ideology of the white workers. The Negro can be developed to a class standpoint only when the white worker is educated. On the whole the question of the colonial people is in the first instance a question of the development of the metropolitan worker.
The American worker is indescribably reactionary. It is shown today that he is not even yet won for the idea of social insurance. Because of this the American Communists are obligated to advance reform demands.
When today the Negroes do not demand self-determination that is naturally for the same reason that the white workers do not yet advance the slogan of the proletarian dictatorship. The Negro has not yet got it into his poor black head that he dares to carve out for himself a piece of the great and mighty States. But the white worker must meet the Negroes half way and say to them: ‘When you want to separate you will have our support’. Also the Czech workers came only through the disillusion with their own state to Communism.
I believe that by the unheard-of political and theoretical backwardness and the unheard-of economic advance the awakening of the working class will proceed quite rapidly. The old ideological covering will burst, all questions will emerge at once, and since the country is so economically mature the adaptation of the political and theoretical to the economic level will be achieved very rapidly. It is then possible that the Negroes will become the most advanced section. We have already a similar example in Russia. The Russians were the European Negroes. It is very possible that the Negroes also through the self-determination will proceed to the proletarian dictatorship in a couple of gigantic strides, ahead of the great bloc of white workers. They will then furnish the vanguard. I am absolutely sure that they will in any case fight better than the white workers. That, however, can happen only provided the Communist party carries on an uncompromising merciless struggle not against the supposed national prepossessions of the Negroes but against the colossal prejudices of the white workers and gives it no concession whatever.
Swabeck: It is then your opinion that the slogan for ‘self-determination’ will be a means to set the Negroes into motion against American imperialism?
Trotsky: Naturally, thereby that the Negroes can carve out their own state out of mighty America and with the support of the white workers their self-consciousness develops enormously.
The reformists and the revisionists have written much on the subject that capitalism is carrying on the work of civilization in Africa and if the peoples of Africa are left to themselves they will be the more exploited by businessmen, etc, much more than now where they at least have a certain measure of lawful protection.
To a certain extent this argument can be correct. But in this case it is also first of all a question of the European workers: without their liberation the real colonial liberation is also not possible. When the white worker performs the role of the oppressor he cannot liberate himself, much less the colonial peoples. The self-determination of the colonial peoples can, in certain periods, lead to different results; in the final instance, however, it will lead to the struggle against imperialism and to the liberation of the colonial peoples.
The Austrian Social Democracy (particularly Renner) also put before the [first world] war the question of the national minorities abstractly. They argued likewise that the slogan for ‘self-determination’ would only lead the workers away from the class standpoint and that such minority states could not live independently. Was this way of putting the question correct or false? It was abstract. The Austrian Social Democrats said that the national minorities were not nations. What do we see today? The separate pieces [of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, beaded by the Hapsburgs] exist, rather bad, but they exist. The Bolsheviks fought in Russia always for the self-determination of the national minorities including the right of complete separation. And yet, by achieving self-determination these groups remained with the Soviet Union. If the Austrian Social Democracy had before accepted a correct policy in this question, they would have said to the national minority groups: ’You have the full right to self-determination, we have no interest whatever to keep you in the hands of the Hapsburg monarchy’—it would then have been possible after the revolution to create a great Danube federation. The dialectic of the. developments shows that where the tight centralism existed the state went to pieces and where the complete self-determination was proposed a real state emerged and remained united.
The Negro question is of enormous importance for America. The League must undertake a serious discussion of this question, perhaps in an internal bulletin.
April 4, 1939
Trotsky: Comrade Johnson proposes that we discuss the Negro question in three pans, the first to be devoted to the programmatic question of self-determination for the Negroes.
Johnson: (There was introduced some statistical material which was not included in the report.) The basic proposals for the Negro question have already been distributed and here it is only necessary to deal with the question of self-determination. No one denies the Negroes’ right to self-determination. It is a question of whether we should advocate it. In Africa and in the West Indies we advocate self-determination because a large majority of the people want it. In Africa the, great masses of the people look upon self-determination as a restoration of their independence. In the West Indies, where we have a population similar in origin to the Negroes in America, there, has been developing a national sentiment. The Negroes are a majority. Already we hear ideas, among the more advanced, of a West Indian nation, and it is highly probable that, even let us suppose that the Negroes were offered full and free rights as citizens of the British Empire, they would probably oppose it and wish to be absolutely free and independent ... It is progressive. It is a step in the right direction. We weaken the enemy. It puts the workers in a position to make great progress toward socialism.
In America the situation is different. The Negro desperately wants to be an American citizen. He says, ‘I have been here from the beginning; I did all the work here in the early days. Jews, Poles, Italians, Swedes and others come here and have all the privileges. You say that some of the Germans are spies. I will never spy. I have nobody for whom to spy. And yet you exclude me from the army and from the rights of citizenship.’
In Poland and Catalonia there is a tradition of language, literature and history to add to the economic and political oppression and to help weld the population in its progressive demand for self-determination. In America it is not so. Let us look at certain historic events in the development of the Negro America.
Garvey raised the slogan ‘Back to Africa’, but the Negroes who followed him did not believe for the most part that they were really going back to Africa. We know that those in the West Indies who were following him had not the slightest intention of going back to Africa, but they were glad to follow a militant leadership. And there is the case of a black woman who was pushed by a white woman in a street car and said to her. ‘You wait until Marcus gets into power and all you people will be treated in the way you deserve’. Obviously she was not thinking of poor Africa.
There was, however, this concentration on the Negroes’ problems simply because the white workers in 1919 were not developed. There was no political organization of any power calling upon the blacks and the whites to unite. The Negroes were just back from the war—militant and having no offer of assistance; they naturally concentrated on their own particular affairs.
In addition, however, we should note that in Chicago, where a race riot took place, the riot was deliberately provoked by the employers. Some time before it actually broke out, the black and white meatpackers had struck and had paraded through the Negro quarter in Chicago with the black population cheering the Whites in the same way that they cheered the blacks. For the capitalists this was a very dangerous thing and they set themselves to creating race friction. At one stage, motor cars, with white people in them, sped through the Negro quarter shooting at all whom they saw. The capitalist press played up the differences and thus set the stage and initiated the riots that took place for dividing the population and driving the Negro back upon himself.
During the period of the crisis there was a rebirth of these nationalist movements. There was a movement toward the 49th state and the movement concentrated around Liberia was developing. These movements assumed fairly large proportions up to at least 1934.
Then in 1936 came the organization of the CIO. John L. Lewis appointed a special Negro department. The New Deal made gestures to the Negroes. Blacks and whites fought together in various struggles. These nationalist movements have tended to disappear as the Negro saw the opportunity to fight with the organised workers and to gain something.
The danger of our advocating and injecting a policy of self-determination is that it is the surest way to divide and confuse the worker’s in the South. The white workers have centuries of prejudice to overcome, but at the present time many of them are working with the Negroes in the Southern sharecroppers’ union and with the rise of the struggle there is every possibility that they will be able to overcome their age-long prejudices. But for us to propose that the Negro have this black state for himself is asking too much from the white workers, especially when the Negro himself is not making the same demand. The slogans of ‘abolition of debts’, ‘confiscation of large properties’, etc, are quite sufficient to lead them both to fight together and on the basis of economic struggle to make a united fight for the abolition of social discrimination.
I therefore propose concretely: (1) That we are for the right of self-determination. (2) If some demand should arise among the Negroes for the right of self-determination we should support it. (3) We do not go out of our way to raise this slogan and place an unnecessary barrier between ourselves and socialism. (4) An investigation should be made into these movements; the one led by Garvey, the movement for the 49th state, the movement centering around Liberia. Find out what groups of the population supported them and on this basis come to some opinion as to how far there is any demand among the Negroes for self-determination.
Carlos: It seems to me the problem can be divided up into a number of different phases: On the question of self-determination, I think it is clear that while we are for self-determination, even to the point of independence, it does not necessarily mean that we favor independence. What we are in favor of is that a certain case, in a certain locality, they have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they should be independent or what particular governmental arrangements they should have with the majority of the country have with the majority of the country.
On the question of self- determination being necessarily reactionary—I believe that is a little far-fetched.
Self-determination for various nations and groups is not opposed to a future socialist world. I think the question was handled in a polemic between Lenin and Piatakov from the point of view of Russia—of self-determination for the various peoples of Russia while still building a united country. There is not necessarily a contradiction between the two. The socialist society will not be built upon subjugated people, but from a free people. The reactionary or progressive character of self-determination is determined by whether or not it will advance the social revolution. That is the criterion.
As to the point which was made, that we should not advocate a thing if the masses do not want it, that is not correct. We do not advocate things just because the masses want them. The basic question of socialism would come under that category. In the United States only a small percentage of the people want socialism, but still we advocate it. They may want war, but we oppose it. The questions we have to solve are as follows: Will it help in the destruction of American imperialism? If such a movement arises, will the people want it as the situation develops?
I take it that these nationalist movements of which you speak were carried on for years and the struggle was carried on by a handful of people in each case, but in the moment of social crisis the masses rallied to such movements. The same can possibly happen in connection with self-determination of the Negroes.
It seems to me that the so-called black belt is a superexploited section of the American economy. It has all the characteristics of a subjugated section of an empire. It has all the extreme poverty and political inequality. It has the same financial structure — Wall Street exploits the pettybourgeois elements and in turn the poor workers. It represents simply a field for investment and a source of profits. It has the characteristics of part of a colonial empire. It is also essentially a regional matter, for the whites have also been forced to feel a reactism against finance capital.
It would also be interesting to study the possible future development of the Negro question. We saw that when the Negroes were brought to the South they stayed there for many decades. When the war came, many emigrated to the North and there formed a part of the proletariat. That tendency can no longer operate. Capitalism is no longer expanding as it was before. As a matter of fact, during the depression many of them went back to the farms. It is possible that instead of a tendency to emigrate, there will now be a tendency for the Negro to stay in the South.
And there are other factors: The question of the cotton-picking machine which means that the workers will be thrown out of work by the thousands.
To get back to the question of self-determination. There is the possibility that in the midst of the social crisis the manifestation of radicalism takes a double phase: Along with the struggle for economic and social equality, there may be found the demand for the control of their own state. Even in Russia, when the Bolsheviks came to power, the Polish people were not satisfied that this would mean the end of oppression for them. They demanded the right to control their own destiny in their own way. Such a development is possible in the South.
The other questions are important, but I do not think they are basic — that a nation must have its own language, culture and tradition. To a certain extent they have been developing a culture of their own. In any public library can be found books — fiction, anthologies, etc. — expressing a new racial feeling.
Now from the point of view of the United States, the withdrawal of the "black belt" means the weakening of American imperialism by the withdrawal of a big field of investment. That is a blow in favor of the American working class.
It seems to me that self-determination is not opposed to the struggle for social and political and economic equality. In the North such a struggle is immediate and the need is acute. In the North the slogan for economic and political equality is an agitational slogan —an immediate question. From the practical angle, no one suggests that we raise the slogan of self-determination as an agitational one, but as a programmatic one which may become agitational in the future.
There is another factor which might be called the psychological one. If the Negroes think that this is an attempt to segregate them, then it would be best to withhold the slogan until they are convinced that this is not the case.
Trotsky: I do not quite understand whether Comrade Johnson proposes to eliminate the slogan of self-determination for the Negroes from our program, or is it that we do not say that we are ready to do everything possible for the self-determination of the Negroes if they want it themselves. It is a question for the party as a whole, if we eliminate it or not. We are ready to help them if they want it. As a party we can remain absolutely neutral on this. We cannot say it will be reactionary. It is not reactionary. We cannot tell them to set up a state because that will weaken imperialism and so will be good for us, the white workers. That would be against internationalism itself. We cannot say to them, ‘Stay here, even at the price of economic progress’. We can say, ‘It is for you to decide. If you wish to take a part of the country, it is all right, but we do not wish to make the decision for you.
I believe that the differences between the West Indies, Catalonia, Poland and the situation of the Negroes in the States are not so decisive. Rosa Luxemburg was against self-determination for Poland. She felt that it was reactionary and fantastic, as fantastic as demanding the right to fly. It shows that she did not possess the necessary historic imagination in this case. The landlords and representatives of the Polish ruling class were also opposed to self-determination for their own reasons.
Comrade Johnson used three verbs: ‘support’, ‘advocate’ and ‘inject’ the idea of self-determination. I do not propose for the party to advocate, I do not propose to inject, but only to proclaim our obligation to support the struggle for self-determination if the Negroes themselves want it. It is not a question of our Negro comrades. It is a question of 13 or 14 million Negroes. The majority of them are very backward. They are not very clear as to what they wish now and we must give them a credit for the future. They will decide then.
What you said about the Garvey movement is interesting—but it proves that we must be cautious and broad and not base ourselves upon the status quo. The black woman who said to the white woman, ‘Wait until Marcus is in power. We will know how to treat you then’, was simply expressing her desire for her own state. The American Negroes gathered under the banner of the ‘Back to Africa’ movement because it seemed a possible fulfillment of their wish for their own home. They did not want actually to go to Africa. It was the expression of a mystic desire for a home in which they would be free of the domination of the whites, in which they themselves could control their own fate. That also was a wish for self-determination. It was once expressed by some in a religious form and now it takes the form of a dream of an independent state. Here in the United States the whites are so powerful, so cruel and rich that the poor Negro sharecropper does not dare to say, even to himself, that he will take a part of his country for himself. Garvey spoke in glowing terms, that it was beautiful and that here all would be wonderful. Any psychoanalyst will say that the real content of this dream was to have their own home. It is not an argument in favor of injecting the idea. It is only an argument by which we can foresee the possibility of their giving their dream a more realistic form.
Under the condition that Japan invades the United States and the Negroes are called upon to fight—they may come to feel themselves threatened first from one side and then from the other, and finally awakened, may say, ‘We have nothing to do with either of you. We will have our own state.’
But the black state could enter into a federation. If the American Negroes succeeded in creating their own state, I am sure that after a few years of the satisfaction and pride of independence, they would feel the need of entering into a federation. Even if Catalonia which is very industrialized and highly developed province, had realized its independence, it would have been just a step to federation.
The Jews in Germany and Austria wanted nothing more than to be the best German chauvinists. The most miserable of all was the Social Democrat, Austerlitz, the editor of the Arbeiterzeitung. But now, with the turn of events, Hitler does not permit them to be German chauvinists. Now many of them have become Zionists and are Palestinian nationalists and anti-German. I saw a disgusting picture recently of a Jewish actor, arriving in America, bending down to kiss the soil of the United States. Then they will get a few blows from the fascist fists in the United States and they will go to kiss the soil of Palestine.
There is another alternative to the successful revolutionary one. It is possible that fascism will come to power with its racial delirium and oppression and the reaction of the Negro will be toward racial independence. Fascism in the United States will be directed against the Jews and the Negroes, but against the Negroes particularly, and in a most terrible manner. A privileged condition will be created for the American white workers on the backs of the Negroes. The Negroes have done everything possible to become an integral part of the United States, in a psychological as well as a political sense. We must foresee that their reaction will show its power during the revolution. They will enter with a great distrust of the whites. We must remain neutral in the matter and hold the door open for both possibilities and promise our full support if they wish to create their own independent state.
So far as I am informed, it seems to me that the CP’s attitude of making an imperative slogan of it was false. It was a case of the whites saying to the Negroes, ‘You must create a ghetto for yourselves’. It is tactless and false and can only serve to repulse the Negroes. Their only interpretation can be that the whites want to be separated from them. Our Negro comrades of course have the right to participate more intimately in such developments. Our Negro comrades can say, ‘The Fourth International says that if it is our wish to be independent, it will help us in every way possible, but that the choice is ours. However, I, as a Negro member of the Fourth, hold a view that we must remain in the same state as the whites,’ and so on. He can participate in the formation of the political and racial ideology of the Negroes.
Johnson: I am very glad that we have had this discussion, because I agree with you entirely. It seems to be the idea in America that we should advocate it as the CP has done. You seem to think that there is a greater possibility of the Negroes wanting self-determination than I think is probable. But we have a hundred per cent agreement on the idea of which you have put forward that we should be neutral in the development.
Trotsky: It is the word ‘reactionary’ that bothered me.
Johnson: Let me quote from the document : ‘If he wanted self-determination, then however reactionary it might be in every other respect, it would be the business of the revolutionary party to raise that slogan’. I consider the idea of separating as a step backward so far as a socialist society is concerned. If the white workers extend a hand to the Negro, he will not want self-determination.
Trotsky: It is too abstract, because the realization of this slogan can be reached only as the 13 or 14 million Negroes feel that the domination by the whites is terminated. To fight for the possibility of realizing an independent state is a sight of great moral and political awakening. It would be a tremendous revolutionary step. This ascendancy would immediately have the best economic consequences.
Carlos: I think that an analogy could be made in connection with the collectives and the distribution of large estates. One might consider the breaking up of large estates into small plots as reactionary, but it is not necessarily so. But this question is up to the peasants whether they want to operate the estates collectively or individually. We advise the peasants, but we do not force them — it is up to them. Some would say that the breaking up of the large estates into small plots would be economically reactionary, but that is not so.
Trotsky: This was also the position of Rosa Luxemburg. She maintained that self-determination would be as reactionary as the breaking up of the large estates.
Carlos: The question of self-determination is also tied up with the question of land and must be looked upon not only in its political, but also in its economic manifestations.
April 5, 1939
(Comrade Johnson’s manuscript read by the comrades prior to the meeting.)
Trotsky: It is very important whether it is advisable and whether it is possible to create such an organization on our own initiative. Our movement is familiar with such forms as the party, the trade union, the educational organization, the cooperative; but this is a new type of organization which does not coincide with the traditional forms. We must consider the question from all sides as to whether it is advisable or not and what the form of our participation in this organization should be.
If another party had organized such a mass movement, we would surely participate as a fraction, providing that it included workers, poor petty bourgeois, poor farmers, and so on. We would enter to work for our party. But this is another thing. What is proposed here is that we take the initiative. Even without knowing the concrete situation in Negro circles in the United States, I believe we can admit that no one but our party is capable of forming such a movement on a realistic basis. Of course, the movements guided by the improvisatorial Negro leaders, as we saw them in the past, more or less epressed the unwillingness or the incapacity, the perfidy of all the existing parties.
Business. This is also true of the Stalinists. Thus, the only party capable of beginning such an action is our own party. But the question remains as to whether we can take upon ourselves the initiative of forming such an organization of Negroes as Negroes — not for the purpose of winning some elements to our party, but for the purpose of doing systematic educational work in order to elevate them politically. What should be the form — what the correct line of our policy? That is our question.
Carlos: As I have already said to Comrade Johnson, the Communist Party organized the American Negro Labor Congress and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. Neither one had great success. Both were very poorly organized. I personally think that such an organization should be organized, but I think it should be done carefully and only after a study of all the factors involved and also of the causes of the breakdown of the two organizations mentioned. We must be sure of a mass base. To create a shadow of ourselves would serve only to discredit the idea and would benefit no one.
Trotsky: Who were the leaders of these organizations?
Carlos: Fort-Whiteman, Owen, Haywood, Ford, Patterson; Bob Minor was the leader of the CP’s Negro work.
Trotsky: Who are the leaders now?
Curtiss: Most of them are in the CP, so far as I know. Some have dropped out of the movement.
Owen: Comrade Johnson seems to have the idea that there is a good chance of building such an organization in the immediate future. I would like to have him elaborate.
Johnson: I think that it should be a success because I met great numbers of Negroes and spoke to many Negro organizations. I brought forward the point of view of the Fourth International particularly on the war question and in every case there was great applause and a very enthusiastic reception of the ideas. Great numbers of these Negroes hated the Communist Party. . . . Up to the last convention, 79% of the Negro membership of the CP in New York State, 1,579 people, had left the CP. I met many of the representative ones and they were now willing to form a Negro organization but did not wish to join the Fourth International. I had come to the conclusion that there was this possibility of a Negro organization before I left New York, but waited until I had gone through various towns in the States and got into contact with the Negro population there. And I found that the impressions that I had gathered in New York corresponded to those that I found on the tour. . . .
Trotsky: I have not formed an opinion about the question because I do not have enough information. What Comrade Johnson tells us now is very important. It shows that we can have some elements for cooperation in this field, but at the same time, this information limits the immediate perspective of the organization. Who are those elements? The majority are Negro intellectuals, former Stalinist functionaries and sympathizers. We know that now large strata of intellectuals are turning back to the Stalinists in every country. We have observed such people who were very sympathetic to us: Eastman, Solow, Hook, and others. They were very sympathetic to us insofar as they considered us an object for their protection. They abandoned the Stalinists and looked for a new field of action, especially during the Moscow Trials, and so for the period, they were our friends. Now since we have begun a vigorous campaign, they are hostile to us.
Many of them are returning to all sorts of vague things — humanism, etc. In France, Plisnier, the famous author, went back to God as well as to democracy. But when the white intellectuals went back to Roosevelt and democracy, the disappointed Negro intellectuals looked for a new field on the basis of the Negro question. Of course we must utilize them, but they are not a basis for a large mass movement. They can be used only when there is a clear program and good slogans.
The real question is whether or not it is possible to organize a mass movement. You know for such disappointed elements we created FIARI [International Federation of Revolutionary Writers and Artists.–Transcriber]. It is not only for artists; anyone may enter. It is something of a moral or political "resort" for the disappointed intellectuals… That is one thing: but you consider threes Negro intellectuals for the directing of a mass movement.
Your project would create something like a pre-political school. What determines the necessity? Two fundamental facts: that the large masses of Negros are backward and oppressed and this oppression is so strong that they must feel it every moment; that they feel it as Negroes. We must find the possibility of giving this feeling a political organizational expression. You may say that in Germany or in England we do not organize such semi-political, semi-trade-union, or semi-cultural organizations; we reply that we must adapt ourselves to the genuine Negro masses in the United States.
I will give you another example. We are terribly against the "French turn." [The entry of Trotskyists into the large French Socialist Party–Transcriber] We abandoned our independence in order to penetrate into a centrist organization. You see that this Negro woman writes that they will not adhere to a Trotskyist organization. It is the result of the disappointments that they have had from the Stalinist organizations and also the propaganda of the Stalinists against us. They say, "We are already persecuted, just because we are Negroes. Now if we adhere to the Trotskyists, we will be even more oppressed."
Why did we penetrate into the Socialist Party and into the PSOP ? If we were not the left wing, subject to the most severe blows, our powers of attraction would be ten or a hundred times greater; the people would come to us. But now we must penetrate into other organizations, keeping our heads on our shoulders and telling them that we are not as bad as they say.
There is a certain analogy with the Negroes. They were enslaved by the whites. They were liberated by the whites (so-called liberation). They were led and misled by the whites and they did not have their own political independence. They were in need of a pre-political activity, as Negroes. Theoretically it seems to me absolutely clear that a special organization should be created for a special situation. The danger is only that it will become a game for the intellectuals. This organization can justify itself only by winning workers, sharecroppers, and so on. If it does not succeed, we will have to confess that it was a failure. If it does succeed, we will be very happy because we will have a mass organization of Negroes. In that case I fully agree with Comrade Johnson, except of course with some reservations on the question of self-determination, as was stated in our other discussion.
The task is not one of simply passing through the organization for a few weeks. It is a question of awakening the Negro masses. It does not exclude recruitment. I believe that success is quite possible; I am not sure. But it is clear for us all that our comrades in such an organization should be organized into a group. We should take the initiative. I believe it is necessary. This supposes the adaptation of our Transitional Program to the Negro problems in the States — a very carefully elaborated program with genuine civil rights, political rights, cultural interests, economic interests, and so on. It should be done.
I believe that there are two strata: the intellectuals and the masses. I believe that it is among the intellectuals that you find this opposition to self-determination. Why? Because they keep themselves separated from the masses, always with the desire to take on the Anglo-Saxon culture and of becoming an integral part of the Anglo-Saxon life. The majority are opportunists and reformists. Many of them continue to imagine that by the improvement of the mentality, and so on, the discrimination will disappear. That is why they are against any kind of sharp slogan.
Johnson: They will maintain an intellectual interest because the Marxist analysis of Negro history and the problems of the day will give them an insight into the development of the Negroes which nothing else can. Also they are very much isolated from the white bourgeoisie and the social discrimination makes them therefore less easily corrupted, as, for example, the Negro intellectuals in the West Indies. Furthermore, they are a very small section of the Negro population and on the whole are far less dangerous than the corresponding section of the petty bourgeoisie in any other group or community. Also what has happened to the Jews in Germany has made the Negro intellectuals think twice. They will raise enough money to start the thing off. After that we do not have to bother in particular. Some, however, would maintain an intellectual interest and continue to give money.
Johnson: The suggestions for the party work are in the documents and there is no need to go over them. I propose that they should be considered by the Political Committee immediately, together with Comrade Trotsky’s idea for a special number of the monthly magazine on the Negro question. Urgently needed is a pamphlet written by someone familiar with the dealings of the CP on the Negro question and relating these to the Communist International and its degeneration. This would be an indispensable theoretical preliminary to the organization of the Negro movement and the party’s own work among the Negroes. What is not needed is a general pamphlet dealing in a general way with the difficulties of the Negro and stating that in general black and white must unite. It would be another of a long list.
April 11, 1939
1. The study of Negro history and historic propaganda should be:
(a) Emancipation of the Negroes in San Domingo linked with the French Revolution.
(b)Emancipation of the slaves in the British Empire linked with the British Reform Bill of 1832.
(c) Emancipation of the Negroes in the United States linked with the Civil War in America.
This leads easily up to the conclusion that the emancipation of the Negro in the United States and abroad is linked with the emancipation of the white working class.
(d) The economic roots of racial discrimination.
(f) The necessity for self-determination for Negro peoples in Africa and a similar policy in China, India, etc.
NB: The party should produce a theoretical study of the permanent revolution and the Negro peoples. This should be very different in style from the pamphlet previously suggested. It should not be a controversy with the CP, but a positive economic and political analysis showing that socialism is the only way out and definitely treating the theory on a high level. This however should come from the party.
2. A scrupulous analysis and exposure of the economic situation of the poorest Negroes and the way this retards not only the Negroes themselves, but the whole community. This, the bringing to the Negroes themselves of a formulated account of their own conditions by means of simple diagrams, illustrations, charts, etc., is of the utmost importance.
1. Weekly paper and pamphlets of the Negro organization.
2. To establish the International African Opinion as a monthly theoretical journal, financed to some degree from America, make it twice its present size and after a few months enter boldly upon a discussion of international socialism, emphasizing the right of self-determination, taking care to show that socialism will be the decision of the Negro states themselves on the basis of their own experience. Invite an international participation of all organizations in the labor movement, Negro intellectuals, etc. It is to be hoped that Comrade Trotsky will be able to participate in this. This discussion on socialism should have no part in the weekly agitational paper.
1. Summon a small group of Negroes and whites if possible: Fourth Internationalists, Lovestoneites,·· unattached revolutionaries - this group must be clear on (a) the war question and (b) socialism. We cannot begin by placing an abstract question like socialism before Negro workers. It seems to me that we cannot afford to have confusion on this question in the leadership; for it is on this question that hangs the whole direction of our day-to-day politics. Are we going to attempt to patch up capitalism or to break it? On the war question there can be no compromise. The Bureau has a position and that must be the basis of the new organization.
1. A careful adaptation of the program of the transitional demands with emphasis on the demands for equality. This is as much as can be said at present.
1. Choose, after careful investigation, some trade union where there is discrimination affecting a large number of Negroes and where there is a possibility of success. Mobilize a national campaign with every conceivable means of united front: AFL, CIO, SP, SWP, Negro churches, bourgeois organizations and all, in an attempt to break down this discrimination. This should be the first campaign, to show clearly that the organization is fighting as a Negro organization, but has nothing to do with Garveyism.
2. To seek to build a nationwide organization on Negro housing and high rents, attempting to draw the women in for militant action.
3. Discrimination in restaurants should be fought by a campaign. A number of Negroes in any area go into a restaurant all together, ordering for instance some coffee, and refuse to come out until they are served. It would be possible to sit there for a whole day in a very orderly manner and throw upon the police the necessity of removing these Negroes. A campaign to be built around such action.
6. The question of the organization of domestic servants is very important and though very difficult a thorough investigation should be made.
8. Negro unemployment- though here great care will have to be taken to avoid duplicating organizations; and this is probably the role of the party.
9. The Negro organization must take the sharecroppers’ organization in the South as its own. It must make it one of the bases of the solution of the Negro question in the South, popularize its work, its aims, its possibilities in the East and West, try to influence it in a more militant direction, invite speakers from it, urge it to take action against lynching and make the whole Negro community and the whites aware of its importance in the regional and national struggle.
1. To initiate a militant struggle against fascism and to see to it that Negroes are always in the forefront of any demonstration or activity against fascism.
2. To inculcate the impossibility of any assistance being gained from the Republican and Democratic parties. Negroes must put up their own candidates on a working class program and form a united front only with those candidates whose program approximates to theirs.
The local units will devote themselves to these questions in accordance with the urgency of the local situation and the national campaigns planned by the center. These can only be decided upon by investigation.
(a) Begin with a large-scale campaign for funds to establish a paper and at least two headquarters —one in New York and one in a town like St. Louis, within striking distance of the South.
(b) A weekly agitational paper costing two cents.
(c) The aim should be to have as soon as possible at least five professional revolutionists — two in New York, two in St. Louis (?) and one constantly travelling from the center. A national tour in the fall after the paper has been established and a draft program and aims established. A national conference in the early summer.
(d) Seek to get a Negro militant from South Africa to make a tour here as soon as possible. There is little doubt that this can easily be arranged. . . .
Carlos: About opening the discussion of socialism in the bulletin [the proposed theoretical journal], but excluding it, at least for a time, from the weekly paper: it seems to me that this is dangerous. This is falling into the idea that socialism is for intellectuals and the elite, but that the people on the bottom should be interested only in the common, day-to-day things. The method should be different in both places, but I think that there should at least be a drive in the direction of socialism in the weekly paper; not only from the point of view of daily matters, but also in what we call abstract discussion. It is a contradiction—the mass paper would have to take a clear position on the war question, but not on socialism. It is impossible to do the first without the second. It is a form of "economism," (that) the workers should interest themselves in the everyday affairs, but not in the "theories" of socialism.
Johnson: I see the difficulties and the contradiction, but there is something else that I cannot quite see —if we want to build a mass movement we cannot plunge into a discussion of socialism, because I think that it would cause more confusion than it would gain support. The Negro is not interested in socialism. He can be brought to socialism on the basis of his concrete experiences. Otherwise we would have to form a Negro socialist organization. I think we must put forth a minimal, concrete program. I agree that we should not put socialism too far in the future, but I am trying to avoid lengthy discussions on Marxism, the Second International, the Third International, etc.
Larkin: Would this organization throw its doors open to all classes of Negroes?
Johnson: Yes, on the basis of its program. The bourgeois Negro can come in to help, but only on the basis of the organization’s program.
Larkin: I cannot see how the Negro bourgeoisie can help the Negro proletariat fight for its economic advancement.
Johnson: In our movement some of us are petty bourgeois. If a bourgeois Negro is excluded from a university because of his color, this organization will probably mobilize the masses to fight for the rights of the bourgeois Negro student. Help for the organization will be mobilized on the basis of its program and we will not be able to exclude any Negro from it if he is willing to fight for that program.
Trotsky: I believe that the first question is the attitude of the Socialist Workers Party toward the Negroes. It is very disquieting to find that until now the party has done almost nothing in this field. It has not published a book, a pamphlet, leaflets, nor even any articles in the New International. Two comrades who compiled a book on the question, a serious work, remained isolated. That book is not published, nor are even quotations from it published. It is not a good sign. It is a bad sign. The characteristic thing about the American workers’ parties, trade-union organizations, and so on, was their aristocratic character. It is the basis of opportunism. The skilled workers who feel set in the capitalist society help the bourgeois class to hold the Negroes and the unskilled workers down to a very low scale. Our party is not safe from degeneration if it remains a place for intellectuals, semi-intellectuals, skilled workers and Jewish workers who build almost isolated from the genuine mass. Under these condition our party cannot develop—it will degenerate.
We must have this great danger before our eyes. Many times I have proposed that every member of the party, especially the intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, who, during a period of say six months, cannot each win a worker-member for the party, should be demoted to the position of sympathizer. We can say the same in the Negro question. The old organizations, beginning with the AFL, are the organizations of the workers’ aristocracy. Our party is a part of the same milieu, not of the basic exploited masses of whom the Negroes are the most exploited. The fact that our party until now has not turned to the Negro question is a very disquieting symptom. If the workers’ aristocracy is the basis of opportunism, one of the sources of adaptation to capitalist society, then the most oppressed and discriminated are the most dynamic milieu of the working class.
We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class. What serves as the brake on the higher strata? It is the privileges, the comforts that hinder them from becoming revolutionists. It does not exist for the Negroes. What can transform a certain stratum, make it more capable of courage and sacrifice? It is concentrated in the Negroes. If it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this stratum, then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie.
In the States we now have various contests. Competition to see who will sell the most papers, and so on. That is very good. But we must also establish a more serious competition—the recruiting of workers and especially of Negro workers. To a certain degree that is independent of the creation of the special Negro organization. . . .
I believe the party should undertake for the next six months organizational and political work. A six months’ program can be elaborated for the Negro question. . . . After a half year’s work we have a base for the Negro movement and we have a serious nucleus of Negroes and whites working together on this plan. It is a question of the vitality of the party. It is an important question. It is a question of whether the party is to be transformed into a sect or if it is capable of finding its way to the most oppressed part of the working class. Proposals taken up point by point:
1. Pamphlet on the Negro question and the Negroes in the CP, relating it to the degeneration of the Kremlin.
Trotsky: Good. And also would it not be well perhaps to mimeograph this book, or parts of it, and sent it together with other material on the question to the various sections of the party for discussion?
2. A Negro number of the New International. Trotsky: I believe that it is absolutely necessary.
Owen: It seems to me that there is a danger of getting out the Negro number before we have a sufficient Negro organization to assure its distribution.
Johnson: It is not intended primarily for the Negroes. It is intended for the party itself and for the other readers of the theoretical magazine.
3. The use of the history of the Negroes themselves in educating them.
4. A study of the permanent revolution and the Negro question.
5. The question of socialism —whether to bring it in through the paper or through the bulletin [the proposed theoretical journal].
Trotsky: I do not believe that we can begin with the exclusion of socialism from the organization. You propose a very large, somewhat heterogeneous organization, which will also accept religious people. That would signify that if a Negro worker, or farmer, or merchant, makes a speech in the organization to the effect that the only salvation for the Negroes is in the church, we will be too tolerant to expel him and at the same time so wise that we will not let him speak in favor of religion, but we will not speak in favor of socialism. If we understand the character of this milieu, we will adapt the presentation of our ideas to it. We will be cautious; but to tie our hands in advance —to say that we will not introduce the question of socialism because it is an abstract matter —that is not possible. It is one thing to be very attentive to the concrete questions of Negro life and to oppose socialism to capitalism in these questions. It is one thing to accept a heterogeneous group and to work in it, and another to be absorbed by it.
Johnson: I quite agree with what you say. What I am afraid of is the putting forth of an abstract socialism. You will recall that I said that the leading group must clearly understand what it is doing and where it is going. But the socialist education of the masses should arise from the day-to-day questions. I am only anxious to prevent the thing’s developing into an endless discussion. The discussion should be free and thorough in the theoretical organ.
In regard to the question of socialism in the agitational organ, it is my view that the organization should definitely establish itself as doing the day-to-day work of the Negroes in such a way that the masses of Negroes can take part in it before involving itself in discussions about socialism. While it is clear that an individual can raise whatever points he wishes and point out his solution of the Negro problems, yet the question is whether those who are guiding the organization as a whole should begin by speaking in the name of socialism. I think not. It is important to remember that those who take the initiative should have some common agreement as to the fundamentals of politics today, otherwise there will be great trouble as the organization develops. But although these, as individuals, are entitled to put forward their particular point of view in the general discussion, yet the issue is whether they should speak as a body as socialists from the very beginning, and my personal view is no.
Trotsky: In the theoretical organ you can have theoretical discussion, and in the mass organ you can have a mass political discussion. You say that they are contaminated by the capitalist propaganda. Say to them, "You don’t believe in socialism. But you will see that in the fighting, the members of the Fourth International will not only be with you, but possibly the most militant." I would even go so far as to have every one of our speakers end his speech by saying, "My name is the Fourth International!" They will come to see that we are the fighters, while the person who preaches religion in the hall, in the critical moment will go to the church instead of to the battlefield.
6. The organizing groups and individuals of the new organization must be in complete agreement on the war question.
Trotsky: Yes, it is the most important and the most difficult question. The program may be very modest, but at the same time it must leave to everyone his freedom of expression in his speeches, and so on; the program must not be the limitation of our activity, but only our common obligation. Everyone must have the right to go further, but everyone is obliged to defend the minimum. We will see how this minimum will be crystallized as we go along in the opening steps.
7. A campaign in some industry in behalf of the Negroes. Trotsky: That is important. It will bring a conflict with some white workers who will not want it. It is a shift from the most aristocratic workers’ elements to the lowest elements. We attracted to ourselves some of the higher strata of the intellectuals when they felt that we needed protection: Dewey, LaFollete, etc. Now that we are undertaking serious work, they are leaving us. I believe that we will lose two or three more strata and go more deeply into the masses. This will be the touchstone.
8. Housing and rent campaign. Trotsky: It is absolutely necessary.
Carlos: It also works in very well with our transitional demands.
9. The demonstration in the restaurant.
Trotsky: Yes, and give it an even more militant character. There could be a picket line outside to attract attention and explain something of what is going on.
10. Domestic servants.
Trotsky: Yes, I believe it is very important; but I believe that there is the first a priori consideration that many of these Negroes are servants for rich people and are demoralized and have been transformed into moral lackeys. But there are others, a larger stratum, and the question is to win those who are not so privileged.
Owen: That is a point that I wished to present. Some years ago I was living in Los Angeles near a Negro section —one set aside from the others, prosperous. I inquired as to Negroes themselves that the; were servants —many of the colony. I was surprised to : strata. This colony of Negro of several thousand people.
Johnson: That is true. But if you are serious, it is not difficult to get to the Negro masses. They live together and they feel together. This stratum of privileged Negroes is smaller than any other privileged stratum. The whites treat them with such contempt that in spite of themselves they are closer to the other Negroes than you would think. . . .
11. Mobilize the Negroes against fascism. General agreement.
12. The relationship of the Negroes to the Republican and Democratic parties.Trotsky: How many Negroes are there in Congress? One. There are 440 members in the House of Representatives and 96 in the Senate. Then if the Negroes have almost 10 percent of the population, they are entitled to 50 members, but they have only one. It is a clear picture of political inequality. We can often oppose a Negro candidate to a white candidate. This Negro organization can always say, "We want a Negro who knows our problems." It can have important consequences.
Owen: It seems to me that Comrade Johnson has ignored a very important part of our program — the labor party.
Johnson: The Negro section wants to put up a Negro candidate. We tell them they must not stand just as Negroes, but they must have a program suitable to the masses of poor Negroes. They are not stupid and they can understand that and it is to be encouraged. The white workers put up a labor candidate in another section. Then we say to the Negroes in the white section, "Support that candidate, because his demands are good workers’ demands." And we say to the white workers in the Negro area, "You should support the Negro candidate, because although he is a Negro you will notice that his demands are good for the whole working class." This means that the Negroes have the satisfaction of having their own candidates in areas where they predominate and at the same time we build labor solidarity. It fits into the labor party program.
Carlos: Isn’t that coming close to the People’s Front, to vote for a Negro just because he is a Negro?
Johnson: This organization has a program. When the Democrats put up a Negro candidate, we say, "Not at all. it must be a candidate with a program we can support."
Trotsky: It is a question of another organization for which we are not responsible, just as they are not responsible for us. If this organization puts up a certain candidate, and we find as a party that we must put up our own candidate in opposition, we have the full right to do so. If we are weak and cannot get the organization to choose a revolutionist, and they choose a Negro Democrat, we might even withdraw our candidate with a concrete declaration that we abstain from fighting, not the Democrat, but the Negro. We consider that the Negro’s candidacy as opposed to the white’s candidacy, even if both are of the same party, is an important factor in the struggle of the Negroes for their equality; and in this case we can critically support them. I believe that it can be done in certain instances.
13. A Negro from South or West Africa to tour the States. Trotsky: What will he teach?
Johnson: I have in mind several young Negroes, any one of whom can give a clear anti-imperialist, anti-war picture. I think it would be very important in building up an understanding of internationalism.
14. Submit documents and plans to the Political Committee. General agreement.
Johnson: I agree with your attitude on the party work in connection with the Negroes. They are a tremendous force and they will dominate the whole of the Southern states. If the party gets a hold here, the revolution is won in America. Nothing can stop it.
The SWP and Negro Work 1940 Convention statement
The Right Of Self-Determination and the Negro in The United States of North America 1940 Convention Resolution
The Revolutionary Answer To the Negro Problem in U. S. 1948 Convention Resolution