Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee

Black Liberation Today

Against Dogmatism on the National Question

The Rise of the Black Nation


The forging of the Black people as a nation has its historical roots in the development of African chattel slavery and the plantation system. These institutions grew out of the rise of commerce and manufacturing in England which generated a market for the cotton, tobacco, sugar, and rice of the southern colonies. The plantation, in spite of its ancient and feudal relations of production, was firmly situated in the rising system of capitalist commodity production. Slave labor, the central anachronism on which the plantation rested, arose out of the historical peculiarities of capitalist development in North America.

The efficient and profitable production of the cash crops of the region favored large scale units. The question was where was the labor to work such units was to come from. Here there was no peasantry that could be driven off the land to form a mass of wage laborers or be bound to it as serfs. The widespread availability of free land made the independent yeoman rather than the serf the characteristic tiller in North America and precluded the development of a class of agricultural wage laborers. These circumstances dictated a reliance on servitude to work the plantations. After failed experiments with indentured white servitude and the enslavement of the Indians, the peoples of West Africa, marked by color and shaped by agrarian cultures, provided the humanity on which the slave system was erected.

It is the plantation that provides the central, unifying force in the national development of the Afro-American people. The forging of the Black people began in earnest in the seasoning camps where the Africans were prepared to be sold as slaves. Coming from diverse cultural backgrounds and speaking different languages, the Africans were taught the rudiments of English. The slave traders deliberately split slaves from the same tribes up thus compelling them to learn English in order to communicate with each other and facilitating the forced assimilation of the Anglo-European culture. The process was to continue and accelerate after the African had been sold and began his life on the plantation. As a result, very little of the tribal African culture survived. The culture of the Afro-American was the culture of the plantation–a culture of oppression and resistance.

It was the plantation system that concentrated the Black people in a territory–the Black Belt region of the south, so called because of the color of its soil. The Black Belt formed a crescent, its rich black loam stretching from Maryland in the east to Texas in the west, encompassing the tidewater regions of Virginia and the Carolinas, the Gulf plains of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama and the rich deltalands of Mississippi, Louisiana and reaching up into Arkansas and Tennessee.

The physical character of this area is what made it the heart of the plantation region, and the development of the plantation in turn made it the area of a concentration of a stable Black majority. The following maps illustrate the coincidence the area of Black majority with the characteristic agriculture of the plantation. The darker area on the first map indicates the area of Black majority. The maps of Mississippi, the state that comes closest to being the prototype for the Black Belt, demonstrate the equation between Black soil and Black labor, the twin pillars of the plantation system.


By the time of the American Revolution a firm basis for Black nationhood had been formed. The Black people were historically evolved into a stable community of people by the plantation system which sundered their connection with Africa and violently maintained them in servitude. They inhabited a common territory, the Black Belt, where the political economy of slavery had concentrated them for over a hundred years. They possessed a common language and a common psychological make up corresponding to their conditions of life and common oppression.

However, at this point in time the Black people did not constitute a nation. The essential ingredient of economic cohesion was absent. With the exception of a small number of freedmen, the masses of the Black people were slaves. The cleavage of society into the modern classes associated with capitalism could not proceed until the elimination of slavery. It is in the specific historical forms that this process took in relation to the Black people that we can locate the germination of an oppressed nation.

The formation of national states and the amalgamation of peoples on the basis of equality was a feature of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Western Europe. This achievement, which was bound up with the defeat of feudalism and the securing of a national market, fully corresponded to the bourgeoisie’s class interests in the period of progressive capitalism, and as such constituted a generalized task of the bourgeois democratic revolution. But in the U.S. it was precisely this element that was left out of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Here the revolution left chattel slavery intact and thus excluded Black people and deformed the subsequent democratic development of the nation. This exclusion of the Black people from the fruits of the democratic revolution laid the basis for a national question in the U.S. Just as the French Revolution had amalgamated Bretons, Normans and Alsatians into a single national union, so did the U.S. Revolution weld together the various white European peoples of the English North American colonies. This was achieved on the firm ground of the establishment of full political and social equality. Not only were Black people denied equality, but the overwhelming majority of them were maintained in slavery, which meant they existed outside the normal political, social and economic development of the nation as a whole.

The Northern bourgeoisie had accepted the maintenance of slavery in order to cement their ruling alliance with the Southern planters, an alliance in opposition to the revolutionary masses who sought to extend the democratic thrust of the revolution. This policy was crystalized in the framing of the American Constitution after a period of intense class struggle during and after the Revolution. The adoption of the Constitution was the American thermidor, the triumph of counter-revolution and reaction. In spite of their celebrated foresight, the founding fathers did not foresee the coming of the technological revolution represented by the cotton gin. They expected slavery to die out within a generation. This mistaken estimate, along with the fear of the popular masses and the consequent need for a firm alliance with the planters, were the compelling reasons why the bourgeoisie was to allow the maintenance of slavery in contradiction to its historic class aims.


The expansion of the slaveocracy, with its stranglehold over the federal government, increasingly became a mighty fetter on the development of capitalism and bourgeois class rule. In the period between the Revolution and the Civil War this became the central issue in the nation. The bourgeoisie could not utilize the central government to Implement the policies it needed for rapid capitalist development, because the planters were firmly entrenched in all three branches of the government and used their power to block these policies. The constant wrangling in Congress over the tariff and public works programs were actually class struggles between the planters and the bourgeoisie. The Northern bourgeoisie favored a high tariff to protect native industry and an ambitious public works program to create an economic infrastructure for capitalist development. The planters wanted the cheap importation of foreign goods and low taxes.

The sharpest antagonisms developed over the extension of slavery into the western territories. Westward expansion of the slaveocracy not only inhibited the development of the capitalist market, but also maintained the strength of the planters politically since the admission of free states was countered with the addition of new slaves states. Planter control of the Supreme court, symbolized by the Dred Scott decision, was also a powerful lever in the class struggle with the bourgeoisie.

This struggle came to a head with the election of Lincoln and the secession of the Southern states. The ensuing Civil War was to resolve the question of which class was to rule the nation. It was also to place once again on the agenda the completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution, the inclusion of the Black people in the nation on the basis of equality.

Going into this historic struggle the bourgeoisie was divided into three camps. The dominant center, represented by Lincoln, favored the containment of slavery but hoped to stop short of abolition. A right wing, the Copperheads centered in the Democratic Party, was openly pro-planter, reflecting the strong economic ties of sections of Northern merchant capital with the plantation economy. A left wing, led by Stevens and Sumner, stood for the abolition of slavery and a systematic assault on the political power of the planters. It was these Radical Republicans who expressed the revolutionary democratic interests of the bourgeoisie. These lines were to maintain themselves during and after the war and were to profoundly effect the outcome of Reconstruction.

The interests of the working class were, of course, in the abolition of slavery and the winning of full equality for the Black people–in short, for the completion of the democratic revolution. The circumstances demanded a policy of unity with the radical bourgeoisie to achieve these aims while simultaneously maintaining the independent organization and class stance of the proletariat. Given the contradictions within the ranks of the bourgeoisie and the consequent vacillation on the commitment to the democratic aims of the revolution, it was necessary for the working class to play an independent, vanguard role if these aims were to be realized. Unfortunately, the working class lacked the political maturity to play this role.

While for the most part solidly on the side of the union and pro abolition, the labor movement, with the exception of the followers of Karl Marx, did not really understand the stake of the working class had in the winning of full equality for the Black people. During the war it lacked an independent program and tailed the bourgeoisie, and afterwards during Reconstruction it was largely diverted from the task of winning democracy in the South.

The Black people themselves had never been passive observers of the struggle between other forces over the questions of slavery and freedom. Throughout the period of slavery the Black people had resisted their oppression by means of sabotage and armed insurrection. Ex-slaves like Frederick Douglas, had played leading roles in the abolition movement and the Black freedmen, though not numerous and subject to harsh political restrictions, had sought to organize to further the cause of Black freedom. But it is only with the Civil War and Emancipation that the Black People for the first time gain the requisites for forming a mass movement. With these events the Black people themselves move into the central arena of the struggle.

Large numbers of freed slaves fought in the Union Army and returned home after the war with definite political expectations and often with guns as well. The freedmen rapidly organized themselves to gain political equality and the only thing that could insure that freedom would be real and lasting–the land. In alliance with the radical bourgeoisie and sections of the impoverished white farmers, the Black people waged a fierce struggle for political rights and land reform. In the face of the capitulationist policy of Lincoln and Johnson and the resurgence of planter power after the war, this movement succeeded in amending the Constitution and winning formal political equality and the franchise. Popular, democratic governments were elected to power in a number of Southern states. These Reconstruction governments, in which Blacks and poor whites had a significant voice, were the most democratic the South has ever known, inaugurating free public education, public works programs and sweeping away much of the feudalistic legacy of the slave system.

But the completion of the democratic revolution and even the consolidation of the limited gains represented by Reconstruction required the breaking up of the plantations and the division of the land among the former slaves and poor white farmers. Only this measure could break the back of the planters as a class by removing the economic foundations of their political power. Only this measure could assure the normal democratic development of the Black people and their integration into the nation on a genuine basis of equality. The land question was the key to the success of the democratic revolution and the winning of Black freedom.


It was over the land question that the Revolution was to stumble and fall. The battle over the shape of Reconstruction continued over a decade, but it was most sharp in the period following the war. The Radical Republicans managed to carry out much of their program over the opposition of the forces that sought to conciliate the planters. But on the question of the land the Radical Republican majority in Congress broke with a faction led by Stevens that favored the division of the plantations among the former slaves decidedly in the minority. The dominant bourgeois policy thus stopped short of land reform.

It would be wrong to see this failure as an inevitability, a necessary pattern of political behavior that conformed with the class interests of the bourgeoisie. It was a genuine failure of the bourgeois democratic revolution in the same sense that the original revolution had been. For the logic of capitalist development would have been far better served by the breaking up of the plantations and the purging of the South’s feudal and slave remnants.

It is in the political situation that we must look for an explanation of this failure. By having achieved ascendancy over the plantations through their military defeat and political eclipse, the bourgeoisie had fulfilled its main aim. It was now indisputably the dominant force, the ruling class in the nation. Capitalist production had grown enormously during the war, and had not only strengthened the position of the bourgeoisie vis a vis the planters, but had also generated a new antagonist, an enlarged, rising proletariat.

Following the war, the gross corruption and profiteering along with intensified exploitation had engendered a mood of revolt among the broad masses of workers and farmers. The trend toward monopoly made its appearance after the war and in its wake followed strikes and radical political movements among workers and farmers. It was this general state of affairs that shaped the bourgeoisie’s outlook.

With the regime of Capital coming under sharp attack, the dominant section of the bourgeoisie had little taste for revolutionary measures that assaulted property rights in the South. The turmoil of the Reconstruction years led the bourgeoisie to re-evaluate its attitude toward the planters. In searching for a new formula for stability and class peace, the bourgeoisie came to align itself once more with the planters and the new class of rising capitalists in the South. The basis of this alliance was the abandonment of Reconstruction and a free hand for white supremacy in the South. This was the meaning of the Hayes-Tilden Betrayal of 1876.

Thus abandoned, the Black people were forced under the compulsion of terror into new forms of bondage based on the remnants of slavery. The plantation remained intact and now was consolidated on a new basis. The mass of the Black people were once again tied to the land through the instrument of a complex system of land tenure that amounted to peonage.

The most common and characteristic form of tenure was sharecropping in which the farmer received the right to work the land in return for a share of his crop. The cropper borrowed from the planter in order to purchase his seed, fertilizer and basic foodstuffs, often buying them at the planter’s store at inflated prices. He rented his implements and work animals from the planter. At the end of the harvest the planter took half the crop in the form of rent and generally the bulk of the rest for the debts owed him by the cropper. The cropper could not rise above subsistence and found himself caught in an ever-deepening cycle of debt and dependency on the planter.

Besides sharecropping there was cash tenancy, the renting of the land on a cash basis. The cash tenant generally owned his own work animals and implements and bought his own seed and fertilizer. Some even hired labor or sub-leased part of their tract to sharecropping. Between these two forms were the share tenants who were distinguished from the croppers in the ownership of some means of production and thus paid a smaller share to the planter. There were also cropper laborers who besides sharecropping hired themselves out part of the time as wage labor. The sharecropper ended up parting with half his crop while the share tenant gave up a third and the cash tenant the equivalent of a quarter.

Existing outside this system of land tenancy, but profoundly gripped by white supremacy and the plantation system, were the owners of small farms and the farm laborers, both fairly large categories. The small Black farmer generally existed on the fringe of the plantation and his land was heavily mortgaged. The laborer was not a wage laborer in-the ordinary sense. He received his “wages” in the form of a cabin for himself and his family along with credit at the plantation store.

In terms of land, the small farmers had the largest plots, followed by the cash tenants, share tenants and croppers. The same hierarchy and land tenure system existed among the poor whites as well with the general case being that the white farmers and tenants had larger plots and better land. The plantation thus created in the stead of slavery a whole ladder of land relationships which had the effect of reducing the Black people, along with masses of whites, to a state of peonage. Lenin in his work on agriculture noted the serf like character of the land tenancy system in the U.S. south, describing it as the “typically Russian, purely Russian, labor service system.”

Buttressing the oppression of the Black People on the Plantations was the whole developed superstructure of white supremacy. The Black people were stripped of the vote through the employment of the grandfather clause and the literacy test. The planters effected the collusion of the legislatures, courts and county sheriffs in their exploitation of the Black people. A new series of Black codes were passed controlling the movements of Black people. Another cornerstone of planter policy was the most vigorous promotion of white supremacy among the poor whites which was aided by the development of the strictest segregation in all aspects of life from public toilets to education. Finally there was the extra legal terror of the Ku Klux Klan. Constitutional white supremacy was regularly supplemented by the employment of the night riders and the hangman’s noose.

To use Lenin’s words: “For the ’emancipated’ Negroes, the American South is a kind of prison where they are hemmed in, isolated and deprived of fresh air.”

The abolition of slavery thus did not result in the winning of democratic rights for the Black people. On the basis of the failed Revolution during Reconstruction, the Black people were subjugated anew and the plantation was maintained as an instrument of oppression. But emancipation also introduced a qualitative change in the social character of the Black people. With the ending of slavery, the conditions for class differentiation among the Black people emerged. In spite of the setbacks encountered during Reconstruction, this process proceeded. By the end of the period there was, besides a large Black peasantry with its own complex hierarchy, a small urban petty bourgeoisie and an agricultural and industrial proletariat as well. With the cleavage of the Black people into classes, all the features of nationhood were now fully emergent among the Black people. The requisites for a national movement had now come into being. But this Black nation, owing to the circumstances of its creation, was not an “ordinary” nation but an oppressed nation.


The final crushing of the democratic movement of the Reconstruction period and the consolidation of reaction in the Black Belt coincides with the rise of imperialism in the U.S. The rapid growth of U.S. industry unleashed by the Civil War was accompanied by the process of monopolization, of ever greater concentrations of wealth and by the merger of finance and industrial capital in great trusts. By 1880 this process was already well advanced and it was to rapidly accelerate thereafter. With the rise of imperialism came the entry of the U.S. on the world stage as a colonial power as the monopolists rapidly penetrated the markets of Asia and Latin America and fought a war to strip decrepit Spain of its colonies.

At the same time, the monopolists stepped up the national oppression of peoples within the borders of the U.S. The Black Belt existed as a kind of semi-colony for U.S. imperialism. A thousand threads connected Wall Street to the plantation system.

Northern banks financed the plantation economy and controlled its credit. The super-profits reaped from the exploitation of the sharecroppers were skimmed off by monopoly in the form of high interest rates and crop liens on loans to the planters. Especially after Reconstruction, Northern financial interests were increasingly absentee owners of large plantations as well as the mortgage holders on scores of others.

Southern industry, penetrated by Northern Capital after the Civil War, was thoroughly dominated by monopoly interests by the turn of the century. In rail, steel, coal and even textiles to a large extent, the Morgans, Rockefellers, du Ponts and Mellons held decisive control. These monopolists sought to reinforce the general backwardness of the region in order to maintain it as a source of cheap labor for these industries. The maintenance of white supremacy and the plantation system were central to these aims.

In the dawn of the age of imperialist plunder of the world, the U.S. monopolists, as late entries on the scene, had their fortunes enhanced by their possession of this internal semi-colony which assured to them control of the world’s cotton market and generally buttressed their competitive position.

The consolidation of the plantation system on the basis of peonage and national oppression was to act to retard the whole economic development of the area, especially the modernization of agriculture. While agriculture elsewhere in the U.S. increasingly mechanized under the pressure of the market, the plantation owners responded by leaning ever harder on the cropper and his subsistence income. The oppressive sharecropping system thus institutionalized backward and inefficient methods of agricultural production. The dominant semi-colonial, semi-feudal features of the region’s economy meant that it was not to share fully in the expansion and economic development of the rest of the country. Instead the south was to remain the most backward part of the nation.

The consolidation of the Black Belt as a semi-colony, an oppressed Black nation was to distort the national development of the Black people. The subjugation of the mass of the Black people as serf-like farmers was the main expression of this, other facets being the smallness and weakness of the Black Bourgeoisie and Proletariat alike.

The failure to win full democratic rights during Reconstruction meant that the Black bourgeoisie was not able to have access to the larger national market. If the democratic revolution had succeeded the Black bourgeoisie would have been integrated into the larger bourgeoisie and developed in conjunction with it. Instead the Black bourgeoisie was excluded and forced on the path of separate national development.

But here too its path was blocked. The consignment of the mass of Black people to peonage with its features of subsistence income and total dependency on the planter curtailed the possibility of a Black market. Only the spread of Black land ownership and wage labor could generate a base for the Black bourgeoisie. What limited market did develop, primarily outside the rural Black Belt regions in the cities, was dominated by the white bourgeoisie. For while the Black bourgeoisie was restricted to the ghetto, white capital was in no sense excluded from that same ghetto.

The fact that the Black bourgeoisie was to develop in a period when the possibility of entry into large-scale industrial enterprise was already being restricted by the rise of trusts, meant that this class could not hope to penetrate the heights of the economy. Lacking capital and credit, it was consigned to a peripheral role as a purveyor of services and then only for the markets that were created by the logic of segregation and white supremacy. Illustrative of this is the fact that in 1930 the only Black business that had nearly complete control of the Black market was undertaking.

The same pattern could be seen in what little manufacturing existed. One of the largest Black fortunes made in the early part of this century was through the manufacturing of a compound to take the kinks out of Black hair. In 1930 over half of Black manufacturers were engaged in the production of hair and facial preparations. The same logic extends to real estate and finance, the most parasitic functions of capital and the areas where there has been the greatest accumulation of Black wealth. Because of the discriminatory practices of banks, insurance companies and realtors, a market for Black-owned operations in these areas was generated.

This general weakness, this extreme “lateness” of the Black bourgeoisie, is at the root of the absence of a strong national movement during this period. In the south especially, the crushing weight of national oppression was so great that it left little opportunity for independent economic activity and made political resistance extremely precarious. Under these pressures, the dominant sections of the Black bourgeoisie adopted a comprador posture toward white capital best symbolized by the figure of Booker T. Washington.

Rather than seeking to mobilize the Black masses to win democracy and national freedom, this comprador element sought to win petty privileges for itself by trading off their influence with the Black masses. In exchange for a few crumbs from the white bourgeoisie’s table, they preached to the Black masses the virtues of patience, thrift and hard work–a gospel of passivity and accommodation. Later, when a more aggressive, bourgeois nationalism developed, it was to come from the North where conditions were more favorable, rather than from the Black Belt.


In the case of the Black nation, the rise of imperialism foreclosed the possibility of a peaceful, democratic resolution of the national question. It eliminated the possibility of the completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution within the framework of capitalism. National liberation for the Black people could only be achieved in a struggle against imperialism–a struggle for self-determination. The strategic perspective of Marxist-Leninists was to uphold the right of self determination, up to and including the right of the Black nation to separate and form an independent state. The Communist International, following its Sixth Congress in 1928, sought to promote a revolutionary national movement against imperialism in the Black Belt and made solidarity with this movement a central task for the whole U.S. proletariat.

As an internal nation, the national struggle of the Black people was not centered on the demand for independence but for self determination, in recognition of the possibility and desirability under the circumstance of socialism of remaining within the framework of a single state. The slogan of self determination was seen as an instrument for forging unity between the Black and white workers and between the Black revolutionary national movement and the proletariat as a whole.

The struggle for equality and self determination was not simply the struggle of the Black masses but the fight of the whole proletariat, a fight for class unity and to cement the revolutionary alliance between the working class and the Black people. The Communist International declared that “this struggle will be the test of real international solidarity of the American white workers.” The duty of the white workers was not simply to support the struggle for equal rights, but “to march at the head of this struggle.”[19]

The Comintern, recognizing that the Black movement was not fully conscious of its national revolutionary aims, saw the struggle developing out of the fight for demands that correspond to the elementary needs of the oppressed Black people, struggles that focused on fighting lynching, Klan terror and the whole rotten system of Jim Crow. Within this framework, Communists sought to focus the attention of the Black masses “on some of the revolutionary basic demands arising from the concrete situation.”

The slogan of self determination had to be employed in conjunction with two other demands. First the “confiscation of the landed property of the white landowners and capitalists for the benefit of the Negro farmers.” The Comintern resolution noted that “without this revolutionary measure, without the agrarian revolution, the right of self determination would be only a Utopia.” The other basic demand was for the “state unity of the Black Belt,” the elimination of arbitrary state boundaries and the erection of boundaries that corresponded to the contours of the Black nation.

Thus the Black national question undergoes a definite change in conjunction with the shift from pre-monopoly capitalism to imperialism. In the earlier period it is a question of winning full equality within the framework of completing the bourgeois democratic revolution. In the new period only a proletarian revolution guaranteeing the right of self determination or secession from the U.S. prior to the revolution can address the question of national freedom for the Black people. In either case the liberation of the Black people is bound up with the proletarian revolutionary movement.

What we have presented here is essentially the analysis of the Communist International and its further development by the CPUSA during the late twenties and early thirties. The Comintern resolutions of 1928 and 1930, the theoretical and historical investigation of James Allen and Harry Haywood and the practice that developed on the basis of this work, represented a qualitative break with the sorry, chauvinist past of the U.S. left. This analysis, in all its essentials a correct application of Marxism-Leninism to the situation of Black people in the U.S., represents a great contribution to all revolutionaries today, and we are greatly indebted to its authors. It remains the starting point for any serious approach to the Black national question in the present period.

But for some so-called Marxist-Leninists, the line of the Comintern is not the starting point but the terminus of their thinking on the national question. For them, the national question in all its essentials remains what it was almost fifty years ago. We even have certain “Marxist Leninists” who go back further in time and resurrect the discredited formulation that Communists must demand and fight for a “Negro Soviet Republic” in the Black Belt.

But real Marxist-Leninists do not bury their heads in the sand so as to be able to ignore the forward development of history. Even the most hidebound dogmatist cannot deny that over four decades have wrought certain changes in the world. In fact this historical period contains a profound shift in the character of the Black national question, a change that bodes all the more darkly for the bourgeoisie and favorable for the proletariat.


[19] “Comintern Resolution.” 1928.