Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


There’11 be men enough, the scum that we used for overseers, the trash that bought and sold slaves and bred them, the kind who were men with a bullwhip and filth without one, the kind who have only one virtue, a white skin. Gentlemen, we’ll play a symphony on that white skin, we’ll make it a badge of honor. We’ll put a premium on that white skin. We’ll dredge the sewers and the swamps for candidates, and we’ll give them their white skin–and in return, gentlemen, they’ll give us back what we lost through this insane war. . . –Stephan Holms, a former slaveowner in Howard Fast’s historical novel, “Freedom Road,” speaking to others of his class on how to recruit to the Ku Klux Klan.

The Black nation in the Deep South was born in a reign of terror launched by the U.S. imperialists and their southern “bourbon” allies in 1876.

The great defeat of Reconstruction exacted a severe cost on the Black and white masses. The counterrevolutionary offensive struck repeatedly, wave upon wave, over the next 50 years. It reached a peak at the turn of the century, when Blacks were stripped of the ballot and Jim Crow laws were consolidated throughout the South and effectively practiced in the rest of the country. These decades saw some 3,500 recorded lynchings, which took place at a rate of two a week prior to World War I.

The developing trend of unity between Black and white labor, which had reached a high point during the Civil War, was overtaken by a trend of disunity, a condition which was to dominate the relation between the U.S. workers’ movement and the Afro-American people’s movement during these years. Despite countercurrents, the two mainly proceeded on separate paths of development, a course which inevitably denied any decisive victories to each and remained effectively unchallenged until the rise of the Communist Party in the late 1920s.

Mao Tsetung referred to a similar process in his “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People”:

“New things always have to experience difficulties and setbacks as they grow. It is sheer fantasy to imagine that the cause of socialism is all plain sailing and easy success, without difficulties and setbacks or the exertion of tremendous efforts.”

Once the Civil War had smashed the fetters of chattel slavery, the Black masses advanced a full range of national revolutionary demands. These reflected the interests of each of the embryonic classes and strata that had developed among them under and in opposition to the slavocracy.

An early but typical picture was given by the Colored People’s Convention of South Carolina, meeting in Charleston in November 1865. In addition to confiscation and division of the land, it demanded to secure “the school, the pulpit, the press. . . the right to assemble in peaceful convention, to discuss the political questions of the day; the right to enter upon all the avenues of agriculture, commerce, trade; to amass wealth by thrift.”


Plantation rule thus had to be reimposed in the South by force and violence. In the course of doing so it required a new form of bondage to tie the former slaves to the land and to curb their efforts to become independent farmers, workers and businessmen. This was accomplished by the share-cropping system, whereby Blacks became tenants, “renting” a plot of land which was to be paid for in turn with a “share” of the crop produced. Since the tenants were penniless, the owners also “advanced” food and supplies, at rigged prices, against the tenants’ “share.”

The system was a hybrid of capitalist and feudal relations. For a while it was theoretically possible for a cropper to show a profit at year’s end, in practice it was hardly ever so. All the plantation owner had to do was to make sure that his tenants’ debts equaled the price due to them for their “share” of the crop. The grim story is told in C.S. Johnson’s “The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy”:

“A tenant offering five bales of cotton was told, after some owl-eyed figuring, that his cotton exactly balanced his debt. Delighted at the prospect of a profit this year, the tenant reported that he had one more bale which he hadn’t yet brought in. ’Shucks,’ shouted the boss, ’why didn’t you tell me before? Now Iíll have to figure the account all over again to make it come out even.’”

In addition to this economic relation, the tenants were also restricted by contract and vagrancy laws. If they tried to leave the plantation, they could be arrested and fined for nonpayment of debts or having “no visible means of support.” Unable to pay off the fines, they would then have to “work it off as convict labor, which was in turn “hired out” to the plantation owners. And if these “legal” means failed, there was always the direct terror of the Klan.

The system could not be erected all at once. The democratic gains of Reconstruction had to be counteracted in the legal and political system. This required the disenfranchisement of Blacks and the division of the poor.

But the Black masses, as well as many whites, resisted the imposition of the plantation system both economically and politically. The first mass upheaval was the “Exodus” movement of 1879, where nearly 100,000 Afro-Americans fled the Black Belt for Kansas and other northern and western states. This was to be the first of several post-Civil War mass out-migrations from the South that have continued as a general trend until this day.

Others who stayed in the South worked and fought to obtain or hold on to their land, to remain or become unskilled workers in developing industries or to keep or acquire positions as craftsmen, servants, professionals and small merchants in the towns.

Some were successful. By 1890 about 8 million Afro-Americans lived in the South. Perhaps a million were urban or rural wage workers and about 120,000 owned their own farms. The small middle classes were growing and, between 1899 and 1905, 28 Black-owned banks were established. (See William Z. Foster, “The Negro People in American History.”)


Politically most Blacks in this period still supported the Republican Party against the planter-controlled southern Democrats. During the Populist revolt spearheaded by the western farmers, however, many southern Blacks joined with poor whites in the agrarian upsurge.

The ruling class responded with the weapons it had already set in motion. It intensified the use of the counterrevolutionary dual tactics of deception and terror: Jim Crow and the Klan.

By the end of the 1890s it had drawn the color line everywhere and consolidated the system legally. The 1896 “Plessy vs. Ferguson” ruling of the Supreme Court put the final seal of approval on the policy of “separate but equal” as the law of the land. It was supplemented by the poll tax, the literacy test and other devices which eliminated the ballot as a means to do anything about it.

Jim Crow thus represented the codification of national privilege and inequality, the distinction between the oppressed and oppressor nation in every aspect of life. It was rooted in the infamous Black Codes of the slaveowners.

Jim Crow had two main functions. First, it restricted the class differentiation of the Afro-American people by reserving them the worst of everything–lands, jobs, schools and public facilities–which in turn curbed their national development. Second, it erected a barrier between the Black and white masses that worked to degrade the conditions of both.

Thus there are two aspects to the historical development of the Black people in their relation to the plantation system: oppression and resistance. The latter produced the class differentiation essential to the development as a nation. The former restricted their development in the form of an oppressed nation.


It is important to note both aspects. Contrary to the view argued in the Guardian recently, the post-World War II decline of the plantation share-cropping in favor of other forms of national oppression and class exploitation in agriculture and industry does not imply the “qualitative change” of a nation’s dissolution. As long as national oppression and segregation persist, to argue that a nation’s existence is dependent upon a single form of semi-feudal, semi-capitalist relationship in agriculture is to fall into a one-sided, economic determinist error, even though that relationship is an important feature of the objective conditions of the nation’s origin. Instead, the shift from one form of national oppression to another in agriculture, combined with agriculture’s decline relative to industry, only signifies an important shift in the specific weight of the various classes within the oppressed nation.

The class stratification and national division produced by imperialism in the 1890s saw the rise of two class forces that represented capitulationist trends to white supremacy both in the American workers’ movement and the Afro-American people’s movement. The first was the labor aristocracy, represented by the leadership of the American Federation of Labor and the Socialist Party. The second was the emergence of a comprador bourgeoisie among the Afro-American people, represented by Booker T. Washington and the “Tuskegee movement” financed by northern capital.


Chauvinism was rampant in the white labor leadership at this time. Blacks were barred from many unions and the Socialist Party organized its locals in the South on a segregated basis. No left party at this time, despite the wave of lynchings in the South and pogroms under the guise of “race riots” in the North, took up the demands of Black people for land and freedom, let alone the right of self-determination. In fact when the Second International queried the Socialist Party in 1902 as to what its stand on lynching was, the SP replied as follows:

“The Socialist Party points out that nothing less than the abolition of the capitalist system and the substitution of the socialist system can provide conditions under which hunger maniacs, kleptomaniacs, sexual maniacs and all other offensive and now-lynchable human degenerates will cease to be begotten or produced.”

For his part Washington called upon the Black masses to abstain from politics and struggle for equality, to accept their second-class status and disenfranchisement with humility and meekness. Instead he stressed the need for agricultural and mechanical training that meshed with the needs of the cotton industry, in the vain hope that this would provide for the rise of Black businesses that could successfully and peacefully compete with white capital for the Black market.

Washington’s line was soon opposed, however, by the rise of another class force within the Black movement-the radical intelligentsia represented by the Niagara Movement organized by W.E.B. Dubois and Monroe Trotter, which called for militant struggle against Jim Crow on all fronts.

Both of these forces, however, were soon to be overshadowed in the early 1920s by the massive, Black nationalist upsurge led by Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA swept the entire country and conducted massive political mobilizations against Jim Crow and lynch terror. Its leadership consisted of the urban petty-bourgeoisie and its base was mainly displaced peasants from the South and urban workers.


There were two aspects to Garvey’s political line, one which was responsible for its mass following and the other which resulted in its demise. The first called for the militant, worldwide solidarity of Black people everywhere against all forms of national subjugation. It proclaimed its solidarity with the October Revolution in Russia and stood for the right of self-determination of Black people “wheresoever they form a community among themselves.”

The second aspect was Garvey’s separatism, summed up in his reactionary Utopian scheme for all Blacks to emigrate “Back to Africa.” This latter aspect soon became the sole feature of Garvey’s program, as he either dropped his earlier stands or reversed them, as with his view of the Soviet Union. As he did, his influence declined, and he ended his career by both collaborating with the Klan and being imprisoned by the ruling class.

It is important to grasp the significance of these two aspects. Contrary to the view argued recently in the Guardian, Garveyism was not “essentially the ideology of despair.” Its progressive aspect reflected the positive national aspirations of the Black masses for land and freedom, as well as national pride and dignity.

This feature was not ignored by either the left wing of the Black nationalist movement in the 1920s or the newly emerging Communist Party at the time and the worldwide organization of which it was a part, the Communist International. It was these forces, based on revolutionary Black and white workers, that were finally able to challenge the trend of disunity with a political line which could lead both movements forward.