On the Black National Question
and the Right to Self-determination

Reprinted from the Workers' Advocate Supplement, Oct. 15, 1986, vol. 1 #8.


The Black People Fought Heroic Battles Against Slavery
The Beginnings of a Black Nation
During the Period of Slavery
The Civil War Breaks the Back of Slavery
A Process of National Formation in the Decades After the Civil War
Factors That Worked Against the Black People's Movement Taking the Form
of a Struggle for an Independent Country
The Mass Movement Against National Oppression
The Role of the Black Bourgeoisie in Undermining the Mass Struggle
The Black Workers Were Active in the Workers' Movement
The Colored Farmers Alliance and the Populists
A New Wave of Struggle After World War I
The Late 1920's, the 1930's, and the CPUSA
The Garvey Movement
What Did the Existence of a Black Nation Imply for Communist Policy?
Recognizing the Right To Self-Determination Does Not Mean Advocating Secession
The Dispersal of the Black People Out of the Black Belt
In Conclusion
Reference material: (a 614K pdf file)
Charts and Maps of Relevance to the Article
- Figures on the Dispersal of the Black People from the Back Belt South
- Regions of Black Majority in the South 1880
- Regions of Black Majority in the South 1920
- Regions of Black Majority in the South 1980

The following article is based on a speech at the Second National Conference of our Party. It has been revised for publication and additional material has been added.

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. The black liberation movement, from its roots in the heroic resistance against slavery to its dynamic battles that rocked the big cities all across the country in the 1960's, is one of the essential fronts of mass struggle in U.S. It is not only a necessary movement for the black people to free themselves from the outrages of racial discrimination and segregation, but it is also an essential struggle for the unity of the working class and an important lever of the socialist revolution.

. In this article we will deal with one question that has come up repeatedly on the orientation for the black peoples movement, that of the theory of the existence of a black nation in the black belt region of the South and of the need to fight for the right to self-determination of that nation. To deal with this question we will examine the history of the black people's movement, especially in its relation to the question of the black nation in the South, and some of the important principles of Marxism-Leninism on the national question.

. Put in brief terms, this examination will show the following:

. After slavery was abolished through the Civil War, in which the black people played such an important role, the black people's movement took the course of mass struggle against Jim Crow segregation and for agrarian reform, equal rights, and complete emancipation.

.. In the decades following the Civil War a black nation did come into existence in the black belt region of the deep South. However, no mass national independence movement to form a separate black country in the black belt ever emerged among the black people.

. In the situation facing the communists in the 1920's and 30's, it was essential for them to uphold the right of the black nation to secede and form its own state, that is, the right to self-determination. But the task of the communists was not to advocate secession. Rather the need was to put all of their energy into the ongoing struggle of the black people for full equality, for agrarian reform, and against capitalist exploitation. It was essential for the communists to organize this struggle in a revolutionary way, and for them to work to link up the black people's movement with the revolutionary socialist movement of the working class.

. Eventually, after World War II, the black people who had been concentrated in the black belt were forced off the land and dispersed throughout major cities all over the U.S. This dispersal has developed to such a degree that one can no longer speak of a black nation in the black belt South and there is no longer a material basis to form an independent black country or for raising the slogan of the right to self-determination.

. Today the issue in fighting against the oppression of the black people is to organize a revolutionary struggle against capitalist exploitation, against all forms of national oppression, for equality, and for complete liberation. This struggle is part of and a necessary preparation for the socialist revolution. Only socialism can completely liberate the black people.

. Let us now proceed to the examination of the history of the black people's movement and the history of the black nation in the South.

The Black People Fought Heroic Battles Against Slavery

. Although chattel slavery was a inhuman system that had long been in its grave in most of the world, the American exploiters revived it and built it up on a grand scale throughout the plantation system of the South. For the sake of the rich capitalist cotton trade and the mint-julep luxury of a handful of Southern plantation aristocrats, slavery flourished for a time. Black people out of many African tribes were stolen from their native land and put through the deadly ocean passage only to face the humiliation of the auction block, the lash of the slavelord's whip, and a life cut far short from the overwork and mistreatment in the cotton fields.

. Black people never accepted this bestial system and repeatedly rose up against it. Freed slaves joined the abolition movement and a number became foremost abolitionists leaders. Meanwhile in the South the black slaves waged many forms of struggle, from torturous escapes from slavery and small-scale resistance to major slave revolts. There are at least 250 cases of known slave conspiracies and insurrections. Major slave revolts broke out as early as the 1600's and 1700's. The first half of the 1800's saw the now famous events of the plot of Gabriel in 1800, of Vesey in 1822, of Nat Turner in 1831, and of the crews of the Amistad and Creole in 1839 and 1841. In the 1850's, the decade leading up to the Civil War, this struggle reached a high point with important slave movements in Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. One planned revolt in 1853 is reported to have involved 2500 slaves in the New Orleans area.

. Although the black people were unable to overcome the many obstacles to organizing a generalized slave revolt, and their rebellions were mainly isolated to individual plantations and crushed, their heroic struggles exposed the bestial system of slavery, lifted the hope of freedom in the masses, and established the fighting traditions of the black people's movement in the United States.

The Beginnings of a Black Nation During the Period of Slavery

. It was in the crucible of brutal slavery that black people from diverse African tribes began to be forged into a distinct oppressed people in the U.S. And it was in this period that black slaves in the lowland plantation area of the South started to develop certain of the features of a nation.

. Here we are speaking of a "nation" in the strict sense, as distinct from the meaning of an "oppressed people"; that is, a nation based on a definite territory where black people comprise the majority of the population and where there is a certain economic development and class differentiation. Joseph Stalin, whose definition is as comprehensive as any short one can be, described the characteristics of a nation as "a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture." (Marxism and the National Question, Section I "The Nation") Let us look at some of these characteristics with respect to the black people during the period of slavery.

. First, they developed as a people in a common territory. The slave system was not uniformly distributed throughout the South but, instead, it was chiefly found in the deep South, an area which runs from eastern Virginia and eastern North Carolina through most of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Southern Arkansas and on into east Texas. Slavery was concentrated in the core of this region where the large-scale plantations were located, an area known as the "black belt" for its rich soil. In 1860 black people counted for 56% of the population of the black belt. About 55% of all the black people in the U.S. lived in the black belt, and over 70% lived in the deep South as a whole.

. Secondly, they developed a common language. The slave masters feared that slave conspiracies would be hatched under their noses if the slaves were allowed to speak their native languages. So the different African languages spoken by the slaves were suppressed and English, the slavemasters language, was thrust upon them. Over time English became the common language spoken by all of the black slave masses.

. As well, due to the fact that the slaves were of African origin and to the fact that they were kept separate from the white masses, the black people developed a sense of being a separate people from the whites. Forced together under the lash of slavery various African tribal distinctions were eliminated and the black masses developed certain common cultural characteristics based on the mixture of the African cultures with the dominant English or white American culture of the slavemasters and the local white population.

. Thus during the period of slavery black people became the majority of the population in a definite territory of the South, they developed a common language, and they began to evolve a common culture and psychology as a people.

. However, due to their status as slaves, it was very difficult for the black people in the black belt South to actually crystallize as a nation. The slave system confined the black people to a very closed, narrow existence on individual plantations. They were barred from travel except in a few, highly controlled situations. Any regional or South-wide organization, even of the most innocent variety, was strictly forbidden. And even minimal communication and interaction between slaves of different plantations was nearly impossible.

. Thus, the slave system acted in two ways. It threw together people from different African tribes and regions and began to forge them into a distinct oppressed people. But, at the same time, the slave system kept them isolated on separate plantations, with no common economic life drawing them into mutual interaction, and thus barred the door to their development into a nation.

. It would take the abolition of slavery through the Civil War and the development of capitalist economic relations in the deep South to mold the black people into a nation.

The Civil War Breaks the Back of Slavery

. The offensive of the slave masters to extend the area of slavery and to dominate the whole country led to the outbreak of the Civil War. The Northern industrial capitalists, in order to defend themselves and to open up the Southern market for their exploitation, were eventually forced into war by the secession of the Confederate slave states. Despite the initial resistance of Abraham Lincoln, the Northern capitalists' president, to abolishing slavery and to enlisting the assistance of the black people in the war effort, the threat of losing the war eventually forced him into action. Black freedmen and escaping slaves enlisted in the Union army in droves. Slaves acted as spies and saboteurs behind the Confederate lines. They commandeered Confederate ships, supplied the Union army with food and other provisions stolen from the slave masters, and rose en masse as the Union army approached their plantations. The abolition of slavery also won the support of the British working class and blocked the British capitalists from coming to the aid of the Confederacy. Thus the balance of the war was tipped to the Union side and the Confederacy went down to defeat.

. The Civil War broke the back of slavery, the South was opened up for capitalist development, and the previous isolation and narrow borders of slave life began to be broken down as communication and organization among the black people spread through the South.

. But while the Civil War abolished slavery it by no means completely freed the black people. After a few years of Reconstruction the Northern capitalists reached an accommodation with the Southern planters, withdrew the federal troops, and turned the South back over to the former slave masters.

. This accommodation with the Southern planters signified that the former slave owners were being integrated into the capitalist bourgeoisie that had won the Civil War and was now the undivided ruler of the country; the former slaveholders, however, remained a backward, especially reactionary section of the ruling bourgeoisie. The Southern market was now opened to the Northern capitalists and they could now join hands with the former slaverholders to strengthen reaction against the laboring classes.

. The South was drawn into the sphere of widening capitalist relations. But capitalist development was retarded and distorted as the former slave owners fought to retain various semi-feudal and semi-slave features in the deep South. With the defeat of Reconstruction the drive intensified to force the freed slaves into the position of semi-slavery as sharecroppers and peons in bondage to the large plantation owners. These semi-feudal and semi-slave economic relations were enforced by a reign of Klan terror and a whole system of Jim Crow degradation including the elimination of blacks' right to vote and a series of agricultural laws which firmly bound the sharecropper and tenant farmer to the plantation.

. It was in this situation -- where, on the one hand, various of the restrictions of slavery were broken down and capitalism began to develop and, on the other hand, the black masses had to wage decades of struggle against semi-feudal enslavement and Jim Crow segregation and terror -- that a black nation in the black belt South developed.

A Process of National Formation in the Decades After the Civil War

. We earlier noted that the isolated slave life was an important obstacle to the black people emerging as a nation in the black belt. But with the victorious Civil War that isolation began to be broken down and organization spread widely among the black people.

. In the first months after the war and through the Reconstruction period black people formed local "union clubs" which affiliated to the Republican Party, organized militias to defend themselves from racist night riders, held state-wide political conventions, and built other political, educational and religious organizations.

. The plantation lords immediately attempted to smash this organization and to drive blacks back into isolated plantation life. By 1877 Reconstruction was defeated and the period began in which the racist night riders were given free reign to throttle the black masses and the Jim Crow laws were, step-by-step, put into place. Despite the reign of terror and the backward features of economic life, organization continued to develop among the black people. Black workers joined trade unions and, where they were excluded from common unions with the white workers (which was almost everywhere in the deep South except New Orleans), they established their own. Organizations of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers also developed. And by the turn of the century the black bourgeoisie, headed by Booker T. Washington, was building up trade and business organizations. A measure of black development can be seen in the fact that by 1914 there were over 250 black local newspapers in the South.

. This spread of organization found its economic basis in the development of capitalism for which the victorious Civil War had opened the way. Although the development of capitalism was retarded by the former slave masters' establishment of semi-feudal and semi-slave structures, still the former slaves began to be absorbed within the sphere of capitalist relations and class differentiation developed among the black people.

. A large part of the freed slaves were forced into becoming sharecroppers and tenant farmers on the plantations. Despite the semi-slave features of their oppression, these blacks were somewhat brought into the sphere of capitalist relations through engaging in a certain amount of trade.

. As well, even in the largest plantation regions, 10-20% of the black peasants were able to buy land and become independent farmers, although very poverty-stricken ones.

. A proletarian section of blacks also developed. Many former slaves became agricultural laborers. As well a small black industrial proletariat grew, especially in the saw mills and lumber industry, in transportation, on the docks on the coast, and also in the building trades in some small towns. Although there were many attempts to exclude them, blacks eventually became workers in the textile mills, the tobacco processing plants, and other industries.

. A small class of black bourgeois, based on exploiting the newly found market among the black people, also emerged in the cities and towns. As the economy developed, a small number of bigger black businessmen arose. But the upper strata among the black people was mainly made up of petty bourgeois professionals (such as teachers and doctors) and small businessmen. Blacks established funeral parlors, small enterprises to manufacture personal products, insurance companies, real estate firms in the cities, and even a small number of banks. By 1914 there were 40,000 black businesses and 51 black banks in the U.S. , mostly in the deep South.

. This drawing of blacks into capitalist relations, the class differentiation among them, and the emergence of South-wide organization were important factors in the emergence of a black nation.

. Along with these factors it should also be mentioned that blacks continued to be concentrated in a definite territory, the black belt, and they further developed socially and culturally as a distinct people. In fact, the concentration of the black population in the black belt region of the deep South actually increased between 1860 and 1880 and remained almost unchanged until World War I. Blacks were prevented from spreading into other regions of the country by the whole system of debt and legal restrictions which bound them to sharecropping and tenant farming on the black belt plantations. The Jim Crow system was established to enforce this semi-slavery. But it also forced on the black masses a separate social and cultural development from the whites.

. From all of the above angles, it can be seen that in the period following the Civil War the black people developed all of the characteristics of an oppressed nation in the black belt.

Factors That Worked Against the Black People's Movement
Taking the Form of a Struggle for an Independent Country

. Although a black nation came into existence, a mass movement never emerged among the black masses for national independence, for the formation of a separate black country in the black belt region of the South. There are a number of historical and economic factors for this.

. For one thing it must be recognized that for various reasons certain features defining the black people as a nation were not stable and were not as accentuated as with most nations.

. The fact that the black belt was an economically undeveloped region probably operated in this direction. While there was a degree of capitalist development among the blacks in the black belt, the black belt was a distinct economic region of the country which was kept industrially backward to facilitate the super-exploitation of the blacks on the plantations. For example, when the textile industry moved South in the 1880's and 1890's, it did not build its plants in the black belt region which was the center of the "cotton belt." Rather the textile industry was built in the remote majority-white regions of the Piedmont plateau of Tennessee, North Carolina, and western South Carolina. This was done to avoid attracting blacks away from the plantations which might have undermined the source of cheap cotton. For the same reason laws were actually passed prohibiting blacks from operating textile machinery. This kept the black belt distinct, but also retarded the capitalist development of the region and may have operated as another factor retarding the development of a black nation in the black belt.

. The underdeveloped conditions also propelled the black people to leave the South, whenever they could, in search of a better life. Although the black population in the black belt was stable through the turn of the century, mass migrations eventually began. The expansion of industry with World War I provided an opportunity for blacks to escape the plantations, and then and later the mass migrations threatened to disperse the black people away from the black belt.

. It should also be noted that nowhere in the black belt was the population homogeneous. Everywhere there was a large white minority which included not only exploiters and their agents but also white toilers -- workers, tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Even on the large plantations, and this was where the concentration of blacks was highest, on the average 17% of the sharecroppers were white. Off the plantations the white proportion of the population was larger. If we take the entire region of the deep South through which the plantation system extended to varying degrees and which was closely linked with the black belt economically, blacks formed either a slight majority or a slight minority depending on the decade. These facts, which were quite clear to the masses, contributed to the lack of enthusiasm among the black people to fight to break off into a separate black country.

. Another historical factor discouraging a separatist movement was that the history of Reconstruction and of the Populist movement -- which will be gone into below -- had shown the black masses that to further their struggle they needed the support, or at least the benevolent neutrality, of the poor whites.

. There were also other factors that worked against the emergence of a movement for national independence.

. One of the biggest was that slavery had been overthrown by the Civil War against the Confederate secessionists and that the highest degree of freedom that blacks had experienced had been during Reconstruction when the South had been occupied by federal troops. Any idea of secession, or establishing an independent country in the South, was associated with the Confederacy or with the planters' complaints against "Yankee domination." Further it should be remembered that the oppression of blacks took place in the form of racial segregation, and any idea of separation in the South was immediately associated with the worst capitulation to Jim Crow.

. Finally it should be pointed out that the black bourgeoisie had no interest in raising demands for independence. It was influenced by the factors that we have already mentioned above. As well, it was very weak. It appeared on the scene at a time when all of the commanding positions were already taken by the white bourgeoisie. At the same time, class antagonisms were already quite developed in the U.S. In that situation it feared that any revolt by the black masses could jeopardize the bourgeois social system in which the black bourgeoisie itself had a stake. Thus the black bourgeoisie tended to oppose demands for black national independence, and it also promoted reformism and capitulation to undermine any serious fight against the oppression of the black masses. But more on this later.

. For all of the above reasons and others, no movement emerged for an independent black country in the black belt.

The Mass Movement Against National Oppression

. Just because there was no mass movement for national independence does not mean, however, that there was no movement of the black masses against their exploitation and national oppression. Nor does it mean that the black people's movement lacked in revolutionary potential. The spirited struggles of the black masses against Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, and other features of national oppression and the battles for land and full equality showed time and again the revolutionary potential of the black people's movement and the possibilities for merging it with the proletarian movement for socialism. Let us just outline various phases in the mass movement of the black people.

. In the years following the Civil War there was a powerful demand of the freed slaves for confiscation of the plantations and distribution of the land among the former slaves. In numerous cases the freed slaves simply took over the plantations, squatted, and frequently put up stiff resistance against forcible eviction by federal troops. A large portion of the freed slaves joined in the building of "union clubs." These were affiliated to the Republican Party of Lincoln, which had headed up the Civil War, and were in its left wing. Through these clubs, through state-wide political conventions, and through other forms, the black masses voiced their demands including for land, suffrage, the right to maintain their militias as protection against the thugs of the former slave owners, and a federal system of public education. As one can see, in this period the black people's movement was not in the direction of separation but in the direction of agrarian revolution, equality, and full emancipation.

The Role of the Black Bourgeoisie in Undermining the Mass Struggle

. It is notable that even in this early period, when the black bourgeoisie was only barely emerging, the trend of bourgeois reformism was already in evidence. By the time the Reconstruction governments were formed an embryo of the black bourgeoisie -- composed mainly of freedmen from the North and New Orleans who had acquired some education and money and came into the black belt as teachers, agents of the Freedman's Bureau, and other professions -- began to dominate the black people's movement. While they fought in the state Reconstruction governments for public education and some social welfare measures, the fledgling black bourgeoisie put aside the demands of the black masses for the confiscation of the land of the former slaveowners to provide the freed slaves 40 acres and a mule. Instead, they recommended various reformist solutions like granting ex-slaves government loans to buy land.

. Later, after the defeat of Reconstruction and towards the turn of the century, the trend of unabashed collaboration with Jim Crow and disenfranchisement became, for many years, the dominant trend among the developing black bourgeoisie.

. This capitulation to the racists does not mean that the black bourgeoisie promoted no nationalism. Rather its dominant section came to promote what the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) later correctly labeled as "Jim Crow nationalism." The black bourgeoisie promoted a distrust of white working people and its nationalism could be characterized in five words--"Buy Black, Build Black Institutions." This was the program of Booker T. Washington.

. Lenin points out that the bourgeoisie's national program is based on what is "practical." That is, the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation takes up whatever is in the interest of its own class development, including selling out the masses of its own nation, and it promotes this as the "practical" solution to the national question. The black bourgeoisie, recognizing its weak position and the dangers of any fight against national oppression by the black masses, saw in the segregation of the races enforced by Jim Crow a way to carve out a niche in a captive market.

. While unashamed collaboration with the racists became the dominant trend in the black bourgeoisie for a period, bourgeois reformism also continued to operate. Both of these trends still play an undermining role in the black peoples' movement down to the present.

. Despite the subversion by the black bourgeoisie, the black masses in the South did not peacefully submit to Jim Crow or the abolition of suffrage. Resistance continued for decades against every step in the development and consolidation of the system of semi-slave reaction.

The Black Workers Were Active in the Workers' Movement

. Among other struggles, it is important to note the black workers active part in the workers' movement. In the 1880's there was an upsurge in the workers' movement in the South and strikes spread across the region. The Knights of Labor, unlike the American Federation of Labor (AFL), did not exclude or segregate blacks. Black workers flocked to the Knights of Labor for a time, actively joined in the organizing drives, and played an important role in the strike movement in various areas.

The Colored Farmers Alliance and the Populists

. In the late 1880's and early 1890's the movement of black tenant farmers and sharecroppers developed in connection with the Populist movement. The Colored Farmers Alliance (CFA) was formed as part of the Populist movement, and it waged many battles for the demands of the tenant farmers and sharecroppers and for equal rights for black people.

. The Populist movement had a strong influence among broad sections of petty bourgeois and laboring masses, but its leaders were rich farmers. Although this rich farmer leadership was only interested in lower rail and bank rates, they felt the pressure of the poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers who were demanding a more radical program.

. The Populist movement was divided geographically into a Northern and a Southern Alliance, having their own separate histories and politics. Parallel to the white Southern Alliance, the Colored Farmers Alliance was formed and is reported to have had as many as 1. 25 million members. In 1891 the CFA called for a national sharecroppers strike to force a higher price for cotton from the planters and merchants who controlled crop marketing. This strike failed because the leaders of the white Southern Alliance came out against it. However the pressure of the black masses did force the Populist Party in a number of states to take up a number of their demands against lynching, discrimination, Jim Crow, and the denial of suffrage.

. The Populist movement was ruthlessly suppressed by the planters and their sheriffs and the blacks bore the brunt of the repression. Once a few reforms of advantage to the rich farmers were won, many white leaders of the Southern Alliance such as Tom Watson quickly abandoned the blacks and turned into the most virulent Klansmen themselves.

A New Wave of Struggle After World War I

. The next major wave of black struggle arose during the post-World War I period. This was a time of enormous clashes between the working class and the capitalists. The expansion of industry during the war drew many blacks out of the black belt and into the sweat shops in the big cities around the country. There they quickly joined up with the workers' movement. In an effort to maintain the superexploitation of the blacks, to split the workers, and to smash up the strikes and organizing drives, the capitalists unleashed racist pogroms and lynching. In 1919 there were, according to bourgeois sources, at least 26 "race riots" across the country. But what began as racist pogroms frequently turned into armed mass resistance by the aroused black masses.

. One of the biggest struggles took place in Chicago. It began as a fight against segregation of public facilities, but soon escalated as the capitalists organized racist mobs to attack the black communities. The black masses fought back valiantly. It took a week, and the calling in of the state militia and 3500 city police, to finally put down the black struggle.

. Other major black resistance took place in Philadelphia; Baltimore; Coatsville, Pennsylvania; New London, Connecticut; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Bisbee, Arizona; Washington D.C.; Longview, Texas; and Knoxville, Tennessee. Two battles, one in Arkansas and one in Georgia, began with racists killing leaders of black sharecroppers unions. It is notable that the black bourgeoisie through the NAACP and the Urban League toured the country calling for calm and a return to work. In a number of cases they counseled the city authorities to call out state troops against the black masses for fear that the use of the hated racist city police departments would incite the masses to further struggle.

The Late 1920's, the 1930's, and the CPUSA

. The movement ebbed for a period, but rose again with vigor in the late 1920's and through the 1930's. Numerous fights developed in the cities against police brutality, job discrimination, and segregation. Black people also took an active part in the unemployed movement, in union organizing and in the strike movement. As well, the struggle of the tenant farmers and share croppers in the black belt grew, and there were further fights against Jim Crow laws and practices.

. During this period the CPUSA played a big role in unleashing the energy of the black masses and organizing their struggle. The famous 1929 textile strike led by the communists in Gastonia, N.C. , fought against racist practices, united the white and black workers, and inspired a series of strikes and organizing drives elsewhere in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. Similarly, the communists led the formation of the sharecroppers union which grew to 12,000 members and waged significant battles against the plantation owners. The communists also developed the struggles against racist terror and persecution. The broad mass actions that the communists organized in defense of the Scottsboro boys became a symbol of the struggle for the rights of the black people. This outline of the black people's movement through the 1930's shows something of the fierceness of the battles for agrarian reform and equal rights. And it gives some indication of the revolutionary potential of the black people's movement and of the possibilities for drawing together the struggle for the full emancipation of the black people with the revolutionary struggle of the working class for socialism.

. On the other hand, the history does not show any trend in the direction of a fight for national independence in the black belt South.

The Garvey Movement

. In this regards, it is necessary to touch briefly on the Garvey movement because there have been various claims that it represented a movement to form a separate black country in the black belt or that it was a precursor of such a national independence movement among the black masses.

. The Garvey movement took on a mass character during the fierce anti-racist struggles in the post-World War I period. Led by Marcus Garvey, it was a militant Pan Africanist cultural nationalist movement.

. The Garvey movement attracted masses of black people who had left the South in hopes of finding freedom, but who only found that Jim Crow had ridden the train North with them. The main thing that attracted black people to this movement was Garvey's militant denunciation of the oppression of the black masses, his advocacy of militant struggle for equality, and his bold assertion of the dignity of the black race. The other aspect of Garvey's policy, his anti-white rhetoric and his back-to-Africa black zionist schemes, had less attraction among the masses and was originally kept in the background of the Garveyite agitation. But gradually Garvey's extreme cultural nationalism came to the fore, and he increasingly dropped the appeals for a militant struggle for equality. The more that this took place, the more the black masses fell away from the Garvey movement. His black zionist schemes appealed mostly to a section of black people who had begun to despair about the possibilities of winning equality in the U.S.

. It has been claimed at various times that the Garvey movement was a distorted precursor of a genuine movement for national independence in the black belt South. This appears to be stretching things too far. No faction of the Garvey movement had any sympathy for the idea of creating an independent black country in the black belt. And we can find no signs of the Garvey movement in the South. Although some have claimed that there was sympathy for the Garveyites in the South, it is certain that the Garvey movement itself did not strike roots there. Of course it cannot be ruled out that, had the development of the national features in the black belt gone further, a movement like the Garvey movement could possibly have fed into a national independence movement. But history did not take such a course.

. Although the Garvey movement does not indicate that there was any mass sympathy for a black national independence movement in the South, it does show that the black masses can be attracted to nationalist politics. It is also a fact that the Garvey movement was quite weak in those cities where trade unions were organized on an integrated basis. This indicates that the strength and influence of nationalist politics is conditioned by the extent of unified class struggle and class organization among the workers.

What Did the Existence of a Black Nation Imply for Communist Policy?

. Such is the history of the national development and of the mass movement of the black people up to the period before World War II. It is on the basis of this history and the principles of Marxism-Leninism that we conclude that the correct communist policy in the earlier period would have been to recognize the right to self-determination for the black belt but not to advocate secession. It would have meant guiding the black people's struggle along a bold fight against Jim Crow and for agrarian reform and along the road of the proletarian socialist revolution. Let us go into this briefly.

. Marxism-Leninism proceeds from the standpoint of internationalism, from the point of view of uniting the toilers of all nations against capital and advancing from the overthrow of capitalism in each country to the eventual merger of nations. But the unification of the toilers and the preconditions for the eventual merger of nations can only take place on the basis of equality. It must be voluntary.

. Thus Marxism-Leninism teaches us that the proletariat must be absolutely hostile to all national oppression and national privileges. National oppression dopes the workers of the oppressor nation, helps promote chauvinism among them, and thus blunts the development of class consciousness. It strengthens the most reactionary sections of the ruling classes. As Engels declared, no nation which oppresses another nation can itself be free.

. National oppression also retards the cultural and political development of the proletariat of the oppressed nation. And, as Stalin points out, it also is dangerous to the masses of the oppressed nation because it obscures the class struggle in that nation. (Marxism and the National Question, Sec. II, "The National Movement") The conditions of national oppression tend to blur class distinctions and tend to encourage the oppressed nationality workers to see their problems as stemming solely from the denial of national rights rather than from capitalist exploitation.

. Thus the proletariat must fight national oppression to win a wider and clearer field for the class struggle, which is vital for the development of the socialist revolution. The proletariat must demand and must fight for the absolute equality of nations and nationalities as part of its class struggle.

. But if nations are to be completely equal then each must have the right to decide whether or not to form its own state or to decide what state it will join. To say otherwise means that only certain nations should have state privileges. As Lenin said,

"the working class should be the last to make a fetish of the national question. The development of capitalism does not necessarily awaken all nations to independent life. But to brush aside the mass national movements once they have started and to refuse to support what is progressive in them means in effect to pander to nationalistic prejudices, that is, recognizing one's own nation as a model nation (or we would add, one possessing the exclusive privilege of forming a state)." (The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Collected Works, Vol. 20, sec. 7, p. 437)

. Thus as long as a black nation had come into existence in the black belt, even though some of its features were not stable or as accentuated as with most nations, it was necessary to recognize the right of that black nation to self-determination. But what does this mean practically?

. Lenin says that the recognition of the right to self-determination means: 1) fighting against the use of force by the dominant nation to suppress a movement for secession by a weaker nation; 2) advocating that the question of secession can only be decided by the people of the given territory; and 3) fighting against all propaganda of the ruling classes justifying national oppression in general and the denial of the right to self-determination in particular. (See the third thesis in Theses on the National Question, Collected Works, vol. 19, p. 244)

. Although a movement for secession did not arise, it was important to uphold the right of self-determination. Recognizing the right to self-determination, despite the lack of sentiment among the black people for secession at that time, clearly had importance for insuring that the Communist Party would not be caught by surprise by events and in general for strengthening the struggle against oppression of the black people. The struggle against the racist propaganda was also of paramount importance. Through this entire period there was constant propaganda of the most vile form justifying the oppression of the blacks. For example, the racist bourgeoisie maintained that blacks must be denied the right to vote in the South otherwise they would take over and ruin everything. The whole history of Reconstruction was rewritten to propagate this line. Similarly, every sign of resistance by the blacks against Jim Crow or lynching and every demand for equality in the deep South was portrayed as the beginnings of a black uprising in which blacks would take over and wreak havoc on the "good white people." Opposing this hysterical chauvinist propaganda and exposing the interests of the plantocracy was a necessary part of the democratic training of the white toilers. And explaining the principle of the right of self determination might have played some role in this training.

Recognizing the Right To Self-Determination
Does Not Mean Advocating Secession

. At the same time, recognition of the right to self-determination does not mean advocating secession. And in states where the oppressor and oppressed nations inhabit a contiguous territory and have many close connections among them, Lenin pointed out that, generally speaking, the Marxists do not advocate secession. Lenin stressed that the advisability of secession must be determined separately for each nation, and he pointed to a number of factors that should be considered in deciding whether or not to advocate secession in each individual case. He raised the necessity to consider the conditions of capitalist development of the oppressed nation, and he emphasized that, except in extreme cases, Marxists favor larger states because they accelerate economic development and provide a better field for the class struggle. He also pointed to the oppression of the proletariat of the various nationalities by the united bourgeoisie. And he stressed the issue of the united class struggle of the proletariat for socialism.

. When we consider that the area of black majority in the U.S. was a small, economically undeveloped region surrounded by the rest of the U.S. , which was more developed; when we consider that the these economic conditions would have created extreme hardship, not to mention a very difficult military situation, for an independent black nation; when we consider that a large portion of the population in this region was made up of white toilers; when we consider that the semi-feudal social and economic system radiated out from the black belt, held back conditions widely through the South, and created a common basis of struggle for the blacks, and, to a certain extent, also for the white toilers through much of the South; and finally, when we consider that there was absolutely no sentiment among the black masses for a separate nation state -- then we must conclude that it was not only wrong to advocate secession, but also, that it would have been necessary to argue against secession if the issue had come up.

. The fact that the black people themselves had no desire for a separate nation state was progressive; it was a factor which worked to facilitate the unity of the black and white proletariat. To have tried to build a movement for secession would have put one on the sidelines of the actual black peoples' movement which was fighting vigorously for agrarian reform, equality, and full emancipation. And more, it would have meant turning aside from internationalism and towards promoting narrow nation-building schemes among the black people.

. In other words, one should have recognized the right to self-determination but not advocated secession. One should have worked for a revolutionary struggle for equality, against exploitation, and for the building up an agrarian revolutionary movement. And one should have worked to use this struggle as a lever for proletarian socialist revolution.

. This is not to say that it would have been impossible for a situation to emerge where it would have been right to advocate secession. One can not rule out in principle the possibility of major developments that would have changed the situation and made support for secession correct. Such a thing depends on concrete circumstance, not general arguments on the national question. But in the case of the black nation in the black belt, the changes would have had to be really drastic. Even if a mass movement for secession had arisen, one would probably not have advocated secession, but would have fought that much harder for the right of the black nation to secede.

. In the actual situation in the 1920's and 30's, the communists, by recognizing the black nation's right to self-determination but not advocating secession, would be prepared for all eventualities while, at the same time, avoiding the dangers of narrow nationalism.

The Dispersal of the Black People Out of the Black Belt

. Such was the situation into the 1940's. Now we come to what course history has taken since then.

. Capitalism not only has the tendency to arouse people to life as independent nations, but capitalism also has a tendency to break down national barriers and to disperse and assimilate nations. One can see today that while imperialism has meant the intensified oppression of nations by the imperialist powers and the proliferation of powerful national liberation movements, capitalism has also tended to internationalize economic life, politics, science and culture. Moreover, this internationalizing of economic life brings about the massive migrations of workers and the intermixing of populations. No matter how much some people think that it is very "Marxist-Leninist" to rail against mixed marriages and assimilation, it continues to go on. And such intermixing assists the uniting of the workers of all nationalities and helps prepare the ground for the socialist revolution. As Lenin stressed,

". . . capitalism's world-historic tendency to break down national barriers, obliterate national distinctions, and to assimilate nations. . . is one of the greatest driving forces transforming capitalism into socialism." (Critical Remarks on the National Question, Section 3)

. This process of capitalist development has resulted in the dispersal of the black population from the black belt. Of course under capitalism that has been an extremely painful process. Although it was the labor of black people that had produced almost everything that existed of value in the black belt, they were driven off the land, sent penniless to travel vast distances, and forced into poverty-stricken ghettoes in the big cities across the country. Let us trace the historic dispersal of the black people out of the black belt South.

. Elsewhere in this issue of The Workers' Advocate Supplement you will find maps which show the degree to which black people were concentrated in the black belt South in 1880 and how they have been dispersed out of that region up to 1980. The counties colored solid black are the ones with 3 to 1 black majority or better; they actually average about 4 to 1. The counties marked with crosshatching are counties with a 2 to 1 black majority. The counties marked with horizontal lines are 50-60% black, and the counties marked with vertical lines are 40-50% black; taken together they are the area where the population of blacks and whites is roughly even. In 1880 the high concentration of black people in the black belt is indicated by the nearly solid band of counties marked with crosshatching and black color from South Carolina to Louisiana and Arkansas. In that year black people were over 60% of the population in the black belt and some 53% of all black people in the U.S. lived in this region.

. This concentration of blacks remained basically unchanged until World War I. By the time of World War I cotton production in the South was suffering serious international competition as well as competition from more mechanized farms in Texas, and the conditions of the sharecroppers were becoming unbearable. When the World War I expansion of industry provided an opportunity to escape the plantations, over a million blacks did so.

. The effects of this migration can be seen in the map of 1920 which shows a definite thinning out of the areas of black majority. Still, the concentration of blacks in the black belt South was enough that Mississippi and South Carolina remained majority black. By the mid-1920's the migration slowed to a trickle and remained that way through the Great Depression of the 1930's and World War II.

. In 1935 the mechanical cotton picker was invented. It was not immediately introduced into use due to the depressed state of agriculture. However, after the war, it was introduced on a massive scale starting in Texas and moving eastward. This process of mechanization of agriculture led first to the devastation of the black farmers and then to their eviction from the land. In 1920, 50% of the black population lived on farms; today there are only 220,000 black people, or under 1% of all blacks, still living on farms. Between World War II and 1970 one million blacks left Mississippi; all told 4. 1 million blacks migrated out of the deep South in this period. At the same time within the South there was a massive migration from the rural areas of the black belt to the big cities outside of it.

. As a result of these migrations, the number of counties in the South in which the black people were the majority has decreased from 214 in 1920, to 138 in 1960, to 104 in 1970, and to 86 in 1980.

. In 1920 nearly 46% of the black population in the U.S. lived in a continuous area of the black belt where they made up nearly 54% of its population. By 1980 there was no longer a single continuous area in which the black people are a majority of the population. The black majority areas have been reduced to about five small regions, and these regions have quite a small population. Even if we add these five separate areas together we find that the number of blacks living there count for less than 4% of all the black people living in U.S. There had been some thought that the trend of migration back into the South which developed in the 1970's might reverse the dispersal of the black people out of the black belt South. But as things have turned out, black people are not moving back into the black belt itself but rather into big Southern cities. This is demonstrated by the further reduction of counties which have a black majority from 104 in 1970 to 86 in 1980.

. The largest area of black majority remains in the Mississippi Delta region, where 470,500 blacks constitute 54% of the population. The radical economic changes in the black belt can be seen by examining the occupations of the people of this region which was once the area of the largest concentration of black sharecroppers in the country. In this area today there are only about 1,300 black farm operators and 9,000 agricultural laborers, but there are about 38,400 unskilled black factory workers. Clearly even the majority black counties are no longer primarily agricultural. Also these statistics show that semi-feudal sharecropping has been replaced with straightforward large-scale capitalist farming. The number of sharecroppers in the South has dropped to an insignificant number.

. Now it is probable that there has been some undercounting of the number of blacks in the census statistics. But even if one takes into consideration that there is a certain amount of undercounting, it would not be enough to offset the trends that have been going on in the deep South or to affect the geographical distribution.

. These profound demographic and economic changes mean that one can no longer speak of the existence of a black nation in the deep South. Of course one cannot rule out that cataclysmic changes sometime in the future, involving wars or extreme reaction, may turn out to create again a concentration of blacks in a certain part of the country, possibly in the black belt, and that conditions might then again be created for the crystallization of a black nation. But this would require cataclysmic changes and would be out of the present way of development. And, moreover, such catastrophes are not exactly changes that one would hope for.

. It should also be pointed out that the replacement of the semi-feudal plantation system with large-scale capitalist agriculture and the migration of the blacks to the cities means that, under present conditions, there is no longer the possibility of a bourgeois-democratic revolutionary movement on the land question in the South.

. Today the black people in the U.S. exist as a national minority concentrated in the urban areas throughout the country. While some narrow nationalists may wish for "the good old days" when the black people were concentrated in the black belt, the fact is that the dispersal, and the consequent urbanization and proletarianization, have created much better conditions for the emancipation of the black people from the brutal national oppression they suffer at the hands of the American bourgeoisie. The proof of this fact is the great force with which the black movement broke out in the late 50's and 60's.

. As for the South today, it should be stressed that it still remains an area of especially heavy oppression for the black people in the U.S. This has a lot to do with the way developments took place in the South. The movement of the 1960's did smash some of the worst features of Jim Crow segregation but, since the movement did not lead to a revolution, it did root out reaction. It did not wipe out the Klan or the reactionary Southern bourgeoisie. In addition the economic changes in the South -- the doing away of the plantation system -- did not take place in a revolutionary manner from below but through the most painful, evolutionary development from above. As a result of all this, the fight against Klan and police terror, the fight against racial discrimination, and the fight against other features of the brutal oppression of the black people continue to be very important and pressing issues.

In Conclusion

. Leninism teaches us that imperialism means the negation of democracy and the intensification of national oppression. Lenin also draws this connection with particular regards to blacks in the U.S. Speaking of American blacks, he said:

"They should be classed as an oppressed nation, for the equality won in the Civil War of 1861-1865 and guaranteed in the constitution of the Republic was in many respects increasingly curtailed in the chief Negro areas (the South) in connection with the transition from the progressive, pre-monopoly capitalism of the 1860-1870 period to the reactionary monopoly capitalism (imperialism) of the new era." (Statistics and Sociology, Collected Works, vol. 23, pp. 275-6)

. From the fact that imperialism intensifies reaction and national oppression in particular and the fact that the imperialist bourgeoisie is the main basis of national oppression in the modern era, Lenin concludes two things. First, it is all the more necessary to fight national oppression -- and not just on the front of the denial of self-determination -- in a revolutionary way, and secondly, that the fight against national oppression is and must be developed as part of the world socialist revolution.

. This leads us to our last conclusion. Whether we are talking about the period when most blacks were oppressed farmers and sharecroppers and when a black nation had come into existence in the South, or whether we are talking about the present period when the black people exist as an oppressed national minority concentrated mainly in the cities, the fight against the oppression of the black masses must be waged in a revolutionary way. The contradictions that break out on this front, as shown by the 60's rebellions, have great revolutionary potential, and they must be used for launching revolutionary assaults by the proletariat on the power of the bourgeoisie. We must orient the black people's movement on the path of the socialist revolution. The struggle against the oppression of the black people must be guided along a road which brings out to the masses that the source of racist and national oppression is capitalism and the racist capitalist class. It must be guided along the road which mobilizes the fight against the national oppression of the blacks as part of the class struggle of the entire working class, along the road of mobilizing the working class of all nationalities as the main force and vanguard of the struggle against all national oppression, and as part of the socialist revolutionary movement of the proletariat. The complete emancipation of the black people will only by won through the socialist revolution, through overthrowing the exploiters who have sat on their backs for over 300 years. <>

Reference material: (a 614K pdf file)
Charts and Maps of Relevance to the Article
- Figures on the Dispersal of the Black People from the Back Belt South
- Regions of Black Majority in the South 1880
- Regions of Black Majority in the South 1920
- Regions of Black Majority in the South 1980 <>

Notes -- July 2008

(WAS) The Workers' Advocate, and Workers' Advocate Supplement, which carried additional materials including many of the longer theoretical articles, were publications of the Marxist-Leninist Party of the US. The MLP, which was founded on Jan. 1, 1980 and dissolved in November 1993, stemmed from the anti-revisionist movement of activists who wanted to push forward the mass struggles and root them in the working class, saw Marxism as an essential guide for the revolutionary struggle, and rejected the sell-out reformism of the official pro-Soviet communist parties. It was opposed to both Soviet revisionism and Trotskyism. Its roots went back in the mass movements of the 1960s, such as the anti-racist, anti-war, women's, and workers' movements, and the student movement, and the WA itself was published from 1969 to 1993. The cause of anti-revisionist communism is upheld today by the Communist Voice Organization, and the Communist Voice is a theoretical journal which is a successor to the Workers' Advocate. (Return to text)

(Stalin) At the time this article was written, the MLP, while polemicizing against various aspects of Stalinism, believed that socialism was being built in the USSR during this period and right up until the Khrushchovite regime that came about sometime after Stalin's death. Subsequently theoretical work and study of Soviet history by the MLP and, later, the Communist Voice Organization led to the conclusions that the historic Bolshevik revolution had begun fading away sometime in the 1920s, and that not socialism, but state-capitalism was consolidated in the USSR in the 1930s. This was the economic base for the Soviet communist party becoming a revisionist party, and Stalinism ending up as a new form of revisionism; and it's why the Soviet regime became oppressive. Most of this was still a matter of the future at the time of the Sixth Congress, but it failed to see the decline of the revolution and the danger confronting the Soviet Union.

. However, most of the major theoretical writings of Stalin on the national question come from when Stalin was still a Marxist and still trying to set forward a revolutionary standpoint. Marxism and the National Question is from 1913, prior to the October Revolution. The Foundations of Leninism comes from 1924. (But a criticism of Stalin's famous statement about the supposed revolutionary character of the Emir of Afghanistan can be found in part two of "The Socialist Debate on the Taliban".) And the leadership of the CI in the 6th Congress period, 1928-1934, was still seeking to put forward a revolutionary line for the world movement in the capitalist countries. See the article "Between the Sixth and Seventh Congresses" for an evaluation of the general line of the communist movement for work in capitalist countries during this period. The few references to Stalin's works on the national question that can be found in MLP articles are mainly to Marxism and the National Question and a few other works in which Stalin is still trying to adhere to Marxism.

. But later, Stalin would preside over a dramatic trampling of the Marxist-Leninist principles that he had earlier sworn loyalty to. This was not done mainly in theoretical discussion, in which Stalin tried to preserve a communist veneer. But it appeared in practical action -- sometimes of the most cynical and even savage type. It can be seen in the renewed promotion of Russian nationalism, in the brutal mass deportation of the entire Chechen people and of a number of other small nationalities in the Soviet Union to exile in other sections of the USSR (see "Important dates in Russian-Chechen relations" for an overview of this, and "A journalistic account" for a contrast with the Leninist policy), in the gross "practical politics" with which national affairs were settled in Eastern Europe after World War II, in a certain rise of anti-semitism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, in the important role played by the USSR in the creation of the zionist state in Israel, etc. This was one of the harshly oppressive features of Stalinist state-capitalism, and it left a bitter historical legacy of cynicism toward the national question in revisionist circles, a legacy which exists to this day. It's quite significant that on this question, as on a number of others, Trotskyism has developed much the same legacy, albeit expressed in somewhat different terms. (Return to text)

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