MIA: History: ETOL: Documents: International Communist League/Spartacists—PRS 3

10 March 1956

Contribution to the Discussion on the Slogan
“Send Federal Troops to Mississippi”

Written: 1956
Source: Prometheus Research Library, New York.  
Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman, Prometheus Research Library
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2006/Prometheus Research Library. You can freely copy, display and otherwise distribute this work. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive & Prometheus Research Library as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & editors above.

As the civil rights struggle grew in the South, the 17 October 1955 Militant called on the federal government to send troops to Mississippi. This demand precipitated debate within the Socialist Workers Party: National Committee member and Buffalo branch leader Sam Marcy wrote a letter criticizing the slogan, which was then extensively discussed at Political Committee meetings on 9 and 13 February 1956. Marcy’s letter and the transcript of the PC discussion were printed in SWP Discussion Bulletin Vol. 18, No. 12 (October 1957). Dick Fraser’s contribution to the discussion, written from Seattle, Washington and dated 10 March 1956, was published in the subsequent Bulletin (Vol. 18, No. 13, October 1957).

The first P.C. discussion of Comrade Marcy’s point of view on the slogan “Send Federal Troops to Mississippi” revolves largely around the questions of consciousness, transitional vs. immediate demands, etc. These are rather exhaustively discussed without serious consideration being given to the concrete objective effects of the use of Federal Troops in the South, regardless of the ostensible reason for their being sent there. I feel that this is a weakness in the discussion, and that this aspect of the question has a priority in the discussion. For the objective result is the final test of the principled nature of a slogan.

Concretely, it is highly probable that Federal Troops will be sent to the South some time during the coming period whether we ask for them or not. The social antagonisms are too great to be indefinitely contained by the traditional terroristic police regime, and sooner or later the troops will be called in. Any analysis of the problem should begin with this probability.

Troops most probably will be sent to the South under quite different conditions from those envisioned by the P.C.—at a time when the Negro masses are in motion. If we advocate that the Federal Government send them there, we will bear political responsibility for the consummation of the demand.

We have advocated a broad movement involving a March on Washington for the purpose of effecting the demand. This will take time. The movement will be removed from the specific current situation and will have the character of a general demand, which it really has become now: “Send Federal Troops to the South for the purpose of defending the Negroes against terrorism and establishing democratic rights.” This is how it is understood by the Negro leaders who have raised it, and it is apparent from our discussion and use of the slogan in the paper that we do also.

Under either Eisenhower or Stevenson, the most probable condition under which the Federal Government will send troops to the South will be that the Negroes hold the initiative in the struggle. As long as the white supremacists have the initiative and the lid of repression is clamped on tightly, the social equilibrium is not upset by a lynching or other terrorist actions. When the Negroes take the initiative it is a “race riot” and the public security is threatened and an excellent reason is given to the government to intervene.

When the Negroes hold the initiative it will be the function of the Federal army to restore law and order on the basis of the existing social system, and will involve severe repressions against the Negroes. There hasn’t been a “race riot” in this century in which troops were used that they didn’t do just that—and there is not likely to be one.

At such a time we might be able to stop short, and reassessing our dangerous position, reverse direction and demand that “No Federal Troops be sent to the South.” But it would be impossible to reverse the direction of a mass movement led by people who are convinced that U.S. troops could have a beneficial effect upon the South.

I do not believe that it can be demonstrated that there is a qualitative difference in our use of this slogan as compared with the Stalinists calling upon the use of troops during the Little Steel Strike. They were, after all, only calling upon the government to enforce the right to organize and bargain collectively. A right that had been written into the laws of the land. In the comparison of these two cases, I don’t think that there is a difference in the objective actions of the troops, or a difference in the kind of illusions which will be fostered, nor even a substantial difference in political responsibility.

*     *     *

So far, I have considered the problem only on the assumption that troops would be sent to the South as a result of the need to protect the status quo from a powerful movement of the Negroes which would upset the social equilibrium. It must, of course, be considered from the opposite assumption as well. Although unlikely, it is not theoretically excluded that given sufficient social pressure in the North, the government might be forced to make a move with troops ostensibly to prevent a lynching, enforce a court order, or upon some other occasion which would place the troops at the inception of the move in opposition to the apparatus of the southern system. In such a circumstance there would be an appearance of conflict between government and capital, as we saw during the war when the government took over industrial plants during labor disputes.

Such an action would tend to create, at least momentarily, a relaxation of the oppressive machinery which maintains the South in its fascist-like police state. The temporary enlargement of the area of struggle thus made possible would be an immediate signal for a social explosion on both the political and economic front.

In the present stage of the struggle only the most elementary democratic demands are being pushed by the southern masses. This is only because there is an insufficiently wide area of struggle to permit the consideration of other demands. However, it is the super-exploitation of labor which is at the foundation of the southern system and the immediate result of any relaxation of the traditional agencies of repression which might follow, temporarily, the interposition of Federal Troops between these agencies and the Negro people would be a social upheaval with a tremendous strike wave as its probable focal point.

There can be no doubt about what the role of the Federal Troops would be in this circumstance. They would become strike-breakers and the conditions of civil war which would accompany the strike wave would force the army into a firm alliance with the white supremacists and the equilibrium of the traditional southern system would be restored by the use of Federal Troops.

The high probability of such a series of events is one reason that it appears most unlikely that the government would risk the consequences of this kind of “cold” occupation of the South. More probable is that the government will use the agitation in favor of sending troops to the South to do so under conditions of “public emergency.” The government can indeed claim that it is acting to protect the Negroes, but the logic of events and indeed the class character of the army will impel it to protect white supremacy against the Negroes.

*     *     *

In the first P.C. discussion, Comrades Dobbs, Stein and Hansen analyze the question of slogans in general, the nature of transitional demands in general, and the question of principle involved in setting the capitalist army in motion under any conditions whatever. And in so doing they correctly take issue with Comrade Marcy’s exposition of some of these matters, although none of them touches the heart of the question.

In this respect Marcy’s document has a one-sidedness and contains a schematism and formalism which detracts from and tends to obscure a fundamentally correct position: that irrespective of the question of consciousness, the slogan is wrong; essentially because it leads to strike-breaking and other repressions.

For instance, Marcy contends that because of the class character of the capitalist state and its army, to put it into motion in any manner at all is wrong. Therefore, it is wrong to call for it to be sent to the South. This is an oversimplification of the problem and is a formalistic schema. A fact which others have observed. The real reason that it would be wrong to use this slogan is to be found in the relationship between the southern social system, American capitalism and its state. Marcy makes his excellent analysis of this relation subordinate to his schema of the state, and this is a misfortune.

Even the most elementary democratic demand which is general in form tends to transcend the limits of American capitalism. In this sense while it is true that the demand for equality put forward by the Negroes is a democratic demand in the historical sense, it is at the same time a very good example of Trotsky’s definition of a transitional demand. For racial equality transcends the southern social system and consequently American capitalism.

The South is a fascist-like police state and its social relations can be contained in no other. Therefore, any general demand put forward in the South today tends to become transitional in content for there will be no general alleviation of conditions there under capitalism. (It would be wrong to confuse a general demand with specific democratic demands which may not necessarily by themselves be anything more than an immediate demand which has at least a theoretical possibility of being realized. I refer to such demands as “justice to the lynchers of Emmett Till,” the present boycott demands, this or that individual problem of integration, specific strike demands, etc.)

Any one of the general grievances of southern workers, moreover, leads immediately to the others, so closely interwoven are the democratic, economic and racial problems there. Once the movement breaks out of the pressurized circle of the police state, around one question, all others will spring forward demanding solution. Under these conditions, the presence of the U.S. Army in the South during such a period could lead only to disastrous consequences for the southern workers. This would be particularly true if the presence of the troops was initially welcomed by the northern supporters of the movement, for this would tend to disarm the southern workers and prevent them from making whatever plans they could to defend themselves against this army in its inevitable role.

So actually, in spite of its formalism, Comrade Marcy’s statement needs but a slight alteration to fit the situation quite well: The nature of the southern social system and its relation to American capitalism dictate that the army would play only a reactionary role in the South. Furthermore, the nature of the Jim Crow system and its relation to capitalism seem to me to justify Marcy’s criterion of transitional demands when dealing with the South.

*     *     *

Two peculiarities of thetroopsslogan. The slogan reveals the following contradictions:

1. That it is motivated around the question of consciousness of Negroes of the North and West for the solution of a question involving directly only the Negroes in the South. I think that this is substantially correct, irrespective of the fact that some middle class southern leaders are apparently in favor of the demand.

2. That it arose in the Negro petty bourgeoisie and corresponds perfectly, not so much to their illusions about the Federal Government, but to their fear of the Negro masses. That is, as opposed to the tendency of the workers toward mass actions, the petty bourgeois proposes a legal-military solution. To the demands by the workers upon the petty bourgeoisie for leadership in the struggle, the middle class attempts to get the masses off its back by turning the whole thing over to the government.

Regardless of the fact that there are sections of the Negro working class movement which do and will continue to support middle class slogans and leadership, there is a very strong current among the workers both North and South, of hatred and fear of the U.S. Army. They have never seen or heard of the army doing anything to the advantage of the Negroes. In such groupings, any illusions which may exist about the Federal Government do not extend to its armed forces.

The Negro leaders envisage a re-enactment of the Reconstruction in their proposals to refuse to seat congressmen and to send troops. While we could easily find a formula to support the former demand, we have no business supporting the latter. During the many strikes during the NRA [National Recovery Act] period we never once called for the use of troops to enforce Section 7a, although we certainly supported the act of inserting this clause into the law. (And incidentally, the question of an FEP [Fair Employment Practices] with enforcement provisions has nothing whatever to do with a general appeal to the government to send troops to the South.)

In connection with the historical aspect of the question, therefore, it would be wrong to overestimate the progressive uses to which the U.S. Army was put during Reconstruction. Besides the factors which Comrade Marcy has already mentioned, there are two others which should be recalled as modifying the progressive character of the military occupation of the South during Reconstruction.

One is that the question of the success or failure of the Reconstruction was in some cases influenced not by the presence of the U.S. Army in general, but specifically, of Negro troops. On more than one occasion the demand of the white supremacists was not for the removal of troops altogether, but specifically for the removal of the Negro troops. If there were today a completely segregated army, the Negro community would be responsive and unafraid of the demand to send the Negro regiments to the South. And such a slogan would tend to have an altogether different social content than the one proposed. This is obviously not possible, as it would cut across the main line of the struggle for equality—it would be, in effect, a demand for segregated units in the armed forces.

The second recollection of the Reconstruction which pertains to the discussion is that on many occasions, the southern Republicans and the Negroes, both through the Republican Party and independently, requested, pleaded and agitated for Federal Troops to protect them in given areas, only to have the government turn a deaf ear...until the Negroes began to arm and protect themselves. In these instances the army, even in this revolutionary period, was brought into action only when the masses gave evidence of being prepared to embark upon an independent solution to their problems.

While the generally progressive character of the occupation of the South during the Reconstruction is not questioned, at the same time it must be recognized that one important feature of this occupation was the frustration of the independent action of the masses in the solution of their problems. Theoretically, the main tangible reason that the Reconstruction failed so miserably in the end was precisely because of the bureaucratic-military control which the presence of the Union Army enforced over the revolution.

*     *     *

The problem of elaborating correct slogans for the present situation is obviously a difficult one—principally because we are dealing with several different layers of consciousness. 1. The Negro petty bourgeoisie in the North and West. 2. The labor bureaucracy. 3. The Negro petty bourgeois leadership in the South. 4. The Negro masses. 5. The organized working class.

The “troops” slogan obviously pertains largely to the need of the northern Negro movement to do something in support of the actions of the southern masses. For instance, the southern workers would tend to be hostile to the idea of a mass March on Washington from the South. They would justifiably feel that this would be a means of removing the most militant sections of the population from the scene of struggle. And inasmuch as it is the March on Washington which is the present active feature of the campaign, it can have little significance for southern workers.

I was rather surprised that the paper did not develop the idea (once commented upon) of a “March on Mississippi.” Such a slogan contains a direct transition to the Workers Defense Guard. It corresponds to the requirement of the northern workers to do something to express their solidarity with the struggles in the South.

It is perhaps further removed from the agitational stage than the “troops” slogan principally because neither the Negro petty bourgeoisie nor the labor bureaucracy have picked it up—nor are they likely to. Propagandistically, however, it has some rather substantial advantages. It provides the framework for explaining the real nature of the southern social system and its relation to American capitalism; it counterposes mass action to the legal-military type solution of the NAACP lawyers, just as we counterposed mass picketing to the use of troops to enforce Section 7a, a government arbitration award, an NLRB order, etc. The audacity of the slogan is a means of revealing the depth of the social crisis in the South.

This slogan or one like it would be necessary in any consideration of the problem of union organization of the South. Pending an overturn of the southern system by the workers of the South, the union movement cannot hope to achieve the degree of democracy consistent with the requirements of a mass union movement short of massive intervention from the organized working class of the North and West.

(I am aware that the P.C. is planning a separate discussion on this question, and it is not my intention to attempt to divert this discussion to that one ahead. However, the intimate connection between all the social problems involved in the Negro question will break through somewhere in any discussion, and sometime we will have to integrate these separate problems. In this case, it seems impossible to ignore completely the relation between the use of the “troops” slogan and the problem of labor organization in the South, not only for the specific reason mentioned above, but secondly, because the slogan is incompatible with union organization in the South.)

A Workers Defense Guard—a giant flying squadron half a million strong—corresponds to the needs of the objective situation, is easily explained and justified, will find response in the working class, and would be a means of dissociating ourselves from the legalistic approach of the middle class reformers, and unless we are prepared to do this we are going to postpone indefinitely the building of a left wing movement in the Negro community or specifically in the NAACP.

“March on Mississippi” coupled with the demand on Congress that it purge its bodies of the Jim Crow congressmen and senators would at least give us an active position in the present situation which would not be in violation of principle. We demand of Congress that they do the legal end of it and leave enforcement to the people. The March on Mississippi would guarantee the legal elections and the other democratic rights contained in the anti-slavery constitutional amendments.

It is difficult if not impossible to develop at this time general action slogans for the southern movement itself. I don’t think that the southern Negroes require a slogan in order to create defense guards, for this is already in their consciousness. They have been preoccupied with the business of self-defense ever since World War II. Comrade Dobbs has pointed out their tendency to create defense guards when the situation permits. However, they do not possess the necessary legal organizations to develop defense guards.

However, the idea that they are thrown upon the necessity of self-protection, because nobody else is going to protect them, is very strong among the Negro masses of the South. This represents a very advanced stage of consciousness—far in advance of the slogan of “Federal Troops to Mississippi.” It would be wrong in my opinion to advance this slogan for this reason alone. Even if it did correspond to the consciousness of the whole mass of Negroes in the North, and even if it were not wrong in principle, it still would be wrong to try to send the consciousness of the southern militants backward for the sake of their northern allies. On the contrary, our slogans should flow from and reflect the most advanced thinking of the Negro masses, rather than the fearful and treacherous thinking of the petty bourgeoisie.