Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


The victory over fascism in World War II signaled a new period of struggle for the Afro-American people.

It was a time of great change in the world. The end of the war held the promise of new advances in the struggle against national oppression and class exploitation, a fight which was inspired even further by the great victories in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“Black people would no longer be cowed and bullied by Jim Crow,” writes Harry Haywood in his unpublished “Black Bolshevik.” “They experienced a mass political awakening as a result of their wartime experiences and this was reflected in their manner.”

“The war served to break the historic isolation of the Afro-American people from the struggles of the people of the world,” he continues. “Black men and women served over a million strong in the armed forces and the wartime expansion of industry saw an unprecedented number of Blacks–close to a million workers–in the U.S. labor force. Through such an involvement, Black people were able to see more than ever that they had allies in the colonially oppressed people abroad and in the U.S. working class in their struggle against Jim Crow and the monopoly capitalists.”

The initial battles and tests of strength in this impending storm, marked by both advances and retreats on both sides, developed over a 15-year period and laid the groundwork for the truly massive upheavals of the 1960s.

U.S. imperialism, for its part, sought to thwart this rising tide of worldwide national liberation and social revolution by using counterrevolutionary dual tactics of repression and reform. On one hand it brandished nuclear weapons and waged an aggressive war in Korea. On the other hand it promised “aid” and “development” for the newly emerging nations of the third world. Both tactics had the common aim, however, of taking over the crumbling empires of the German, Italian and Japanese fascists arid establishing U.S. hegemony over the world’s peoples.

In this same period the U.S. ruling class unleashed vicious attacks and applied its dual tactics against the Afro-American people and the U.S. working class. This was the time of the Smith Act trials against the Communist Party, the Rosenberg executions, the McCarthy repression of the democratic rights of the broad masses of the American people, and the Taft-Hartley injunctions against the working class–all combined with an economic “boom” that facilitated the bribery of the upper strata of labor and Black reformists.


Black militancy was initially met with terror. “Lynchings and Klan activity,” writes Haywood, “were on the rise throughout the country and especially in the South. The frame-up in the case of a self-defense slaying and subsequent life sentence of Mrs. Rosalee Ingram and her sons in Georgia, the burning and destruction of the entire Black community of Columbia, Tenn., and the frame-up on rape charges and execution of the Martinsville 7 in Virginia are but a few examples.”

The background of this repression was the crisis and antagonisms developing in the economy of the Deep South. The war years had spurred the development of defense-related industries and the mechanization, in part, of agriculture in the region. Government farm programs combined with competition in the drive for profits saw increasing monopoly control and centralization of the farms of the wealthiest owners on one hand, while hundreds of thousands of poor farm families were driven from the land.

For those who remained in the rural areas–as landless laborers, sharecroppers or a rural reserve army of the unemployed–both national oppression and class exploitation intensified. Moreover, this “revolution” in Southern agriculture was expanded into the Southwest.

“Thus the plantation system is declining,” wrote Victor Perlo in his 1953 work, “The Negro in Southern Agriculture,” “but it is not likely to die out of its own weight. It is declining not through any reform, not through any victory of ’family-size’ farming, not through the acquisition of land by the Negro rural population, but through the decay of Southern agriculture, through the substitution of impoverished, terribly exploited semicaptive migratory Mexican labor in California for impoverished, semicaptive Negro cropper labor in Georgia, through the conversion of some Negro croppers into homeless farm laborers, through the increased exploitation of Negro farm labor and the driving of the resulting ’surplus’ off the land to the cities where they cannot get good jobs and face the prospect of mass unemployment and hunger in the next depression.”

The U.S. ruling class, beginning with the Truman administration, sought to head off this explosive situation by supplementing the terror of the police and Ku Klux Klan with the “sugar-coated bullets” of reform. William Z. Foster describes the process in his “Negro People in American History”:

“Outstanding Negroes are being flattered, cajoled and politically promoted by the ruling class–but all, of course, within the narrowly proscribed limits of Jim Crow. In return these leaders are expected to, and do, fight against all left forces among their people.. .They declare that the Negroes are rapidly being integrated into the American people as a whole, and that their grievances have almost evaporated. They propagate war slogans among the masses; but the Negro people have not been won to endorse and support the reactionary Korean war and the war program in general.”

At the same time U.S. imperialism was compelled to make some genuine concessions to the Afro-American people in this period, most notably in the “Brown vs. Topeka” 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing Jim Crow schools and ordering desegregation “with all deliberate speed.”

What was the purpose and the motivating force for this move? The Afro-American people had certainly fought for it for decades, but the factor that tipped the balance was the stand of the newly independent African countries, which blasted the U.S. for its hypocrisy as a claimant to the title of “defender of freedom” abroad while it maintained Jim Crow at home. Haywood sums up the matter in his 1957 paper, “For a Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question,” recently reprinted by the October League:

“The Eisenhower federal government is caught between two fires. It is forced to make tactical concessions on the Negro question in order to save face in the world in view of its stance as ’leader of world democracy.’ And, at the same time, these very concessions further aggravate the crisis with regard to the Negro question.

“On the one hand, the Negro people, impatiently straining at their chains of second-class citizenship, are urgently pressing for payment on the promissory note of full equality which was the Supreme Court decision. On the other hand, there is the massive resistance campaign unleashed by the hard-core Dixiecrat henchmen of Wall Street in the Deep South, who see in the least token concession to the Negro masses a direct threat to the rotten Jim Crow system.”


The fact of the matter is that the ruling oligarchs of the Black Belt South saw the revolutionary implications of the struggle for democratic rights and connected it with their own interpretation of the struggle for self-determination. Georgia’s noted Democratic Senator, Richard Russell, had brazenly clarified the matter in a 1928 Senate filibuster against an antilynching bill:

“Every Senator on the floor of this body,” he declared, “knows that if a measure of this kind were passed, there would be one or more states in the United States where there would be Negro governors and there would be Negro senators. There are many states where two or three or four or five members of the House of Representatives would be Negroes, and no white man would have a chance to be elected. This means that there would be county after county where every office and every official would be of the Negro race.”

These were some of the contradictions and objective conditions that plagued the U.S. ruling class in the postwar years and set the stage for the Black revolt of the 1960s. How did the U.S. Communist Party relate to the situation? Was it able to lead the Black liberation struggle and unite it with the general struggle of the U.S. working class against imperialism?


Despite some initial efforts by Marxist-Leninists in the party, it was not able to do so. The fact is that although the party expelled Earl Browder and reconstituted itself at the end of the war, it was not able to rid itself of Browderism. A two-line struggle was waged within its ranks for more than a decade, but in the end the Marxist-Leninists were defeated.

The seriousness and scope of the revisionist betrayal of the class and national struggle is indicated by the nature of the revolutionary struggle developing at the time. It was a struggle that was to be without effective proletarian leadership. Instead, the chauvinist labor aristocrats and Black reformists prevailed.

How did it happen? The story is complex, and it will only be briefly outlined here as it pertains to the Afro-American question and the question of the state. In essence, the party fell victim to American pragmatism and social-democracy, a right-opportunist line that was soon bolstered by the Khrushchev revisionists in the Soviet Union.

Following Browder’s departure, the Marxist-Leninists made an effort to restore the party’s revolutionary line and conduct a deep-going criticism of revisionism. After all, only Browder and two of his relatives were expelled, while almost all of the party’s leadership had upheld Browder’s line without criticism or opposition. In this period Haywood wrote his 1948 classic, “Negro Liberation,” as part of this endeavor in regard to the national question.

This process was hamstrung. For the party leadership at this time claimed that the main danger to the organization came from “left” sectarianism and dogmatism, and not from Browder’s rightism. As a result Browder’s closest supporters were actually able to expel many leading Marxist-Leninists.

The result in 1948 was that the party formally upheld the right of self-determination in the Black Belt, mainly at the insistence of the young Black cadre in the party. At the same time, however, under the pressure of the Smith Act persecutions, the party took a capitulationist stand and advanced the line of “peaceful and constitutional transition” to socialism. The party debated two policies for the trials: an “offensive” line which would proclaim the right to advocate revolution and stand on the First Amendment; and a “defensive” line which said the party was not guilty of advocating the traditional Leninist view of the state and armed struggle. It chose the latter path, which it maintains to this day. The irony is that the bourgeois state revealed its real nature and jailed the CP leaders anyway.


The next step took place in 1952-53. Here the tactic was to “reinterpret” the right of self-determination to mean “Black representation,” i.e., the tailing of Black Democratic political candidates. Said Betty Gannet in the introduction to a 1952 CPUSA pamphlet on the subject:

“For the realization of full nationhood, the rightful position of the Negro people in the Black Belt of full equality as a nation, can today best be advanced in the struggle to achieve Negro representation... (This) demands support for Negro candidates regardless of party label.”

But even this shift was viewed as too “sectarian.” The leadership in 1954, headed by Eugene Dennis, next moved to “shelve” the revolutionary line. Two years later, in 1956, he decided to inform the party of the fact in a Report to the National Committee:

“It is incumbent upon us to reappraise our whole position on self-determination in the Black Belt. For instance, a very important section of the party’s program adopted in 1954 is that dealing with the oppression of the Negro people and the struggle for equality. Yet note should be taken of the fact that in the 1954 program, the previous position of the party has been modified–in fact dropped... It seems to me, however, that it is necessary to do more than reverse our position by shelving it.”

It was left for Ben Davis to apply the finishing touches in a Political Affairs article in the spring of 1956.


“A realistic perspective,” he declared, “has opened up for a peaceful and democratic achievement of the full social, political and economic equality of the Negro people within the framework of our specific American system and tradition. It seems that the slogan of self-determination should be abandoned and our position otherwise modified and brought up to date,” since we “have long given the wide impression that we were seeking to import a foreign formula and apply it dogmatically as the solution... We should review the rigid and mechanical application of these principles to our country, especially to the Negro people in the Deep South.”

A full account of this polemic between Marxism and revisionism appears in the Haywood pamphlet, “For a Revolutionary Position...” The work was written as part of the internal party struggle at the time. The revisionist line it exposes claims, in part, that a Black nation no longer exists due to the “long-range economic trends” of the mechanization of agriculture and the increased out-migration rate of Black people from the Deep South. Haywood criticizes this as a one-sided, economic determinist line that does not take into account the development of a revolutionary national struggle of the Black masses. Since theory is a guide to action, the 1960s showed Haywood to be correct, even though he was expelled from the party for his efforts.