From Fourth International, Vol.9 No.7, September 1948, pp.221-223.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
In the May issue of our magazine we carried the first of three discussions which took place in April 1939 between Leon Trotsky and a group of comrades. These discussions occurred on the basis of a document Preliminary Notes on the Negro Question, submitted by Comrade George. We continue publication of these April 1939 discussions, with a few minor omissions. The reader should bear in mind that the text is comprised of stenographic notes which remained uncorrected by any of the participants. – Ed.
April 5, 1939
Comrade George’s manuscript read by the comrades prior to the meeting.
Trotsky: It is very important whether it is advisable and whether it is possible to create such an organization on our own initiative. Our movement is familiar with such forms as the party, the trade union, the educational organization, the cooperative; but this is a new type of organization which does not coincide with the traditional forms. We must consider the question from all sides as to whether it is advisable or not and what the form of our participation in this organization should be.
If another party had organized such a mass movement, we would surely participate as a fraction, providing that it included workers, poor petty bourgeois, poor farmers, and so on. We would enter to work for our party. But this is another thing. What is proposed here is that we take the initiative. Even without knowing the concrete situation in Negro circles in the United States, I believe we can admit that no one but our party is capable of forming such a movement on a realistic basis. Of course, the movements guided by the improvisatorial Negro leaders, as we saw them in the past, more or less expressed the unwillingness or the incapacity, the perfidy of all the existing parties.
None of the parties can assume such a task, because they are either pro-Roosevelt imperialists or anti-Roosevelt imperialists. Such an organization of the oppressed Negroes signifies to them the weakening of “democracy” and of Big Business. This is also true of the Stalinists. Thus, the only party capable of beginning such an action is our own party.
But the question remains as to whether we can take upon ourselves the initiative of forming such an organization of Negroes as Negroes – not for the purpose of winning some elements to our party, but for the purpose of doing systematic educational work in order to elevate them politically. What should be the form – what the correct line of our policy? That is our question.
Carlos: As I have already said to Comrade George, the Communist Party organized the American Negro Neither one had great success. Both were very poorly organized. I personally think that such an organization should be organized, but I think it should be done carefully and only after a study of all the factors involved and also of the causes of the breakdown of the two organizations mentioned. We must be sure of a mass base. To create a shadow of ourselves would serve only to discredit the idea and would benefit no one.
Trotsky: Who were the leaders of these organizations?
Carlos: Fort-Whiteman, Owen, Hayward, Ford, Patterson; Bob Minor was the leader of the CP’s Negro work.
Trotsky: Who are the leaders now?
Curtiss: Most of them are in the CP, so far as I know. Some have dropped out of the movement.
Owen: Comrade George seems to have the idea that there is a good chance of building such an organization in the immediate future. I would like to have him elaborate.
George: I think that it should be a success because I met great numbers of Negroes and spoke to many Negro organizations. I brought forward the point of view of the Fourth International particularly on the war question and in every case there was great applause and a very enthusiastic reception of the ideas. Great numbers of these Negroes hated the Communist Party ... Up to the last convention, 79% of the Negro membership of the CP in New York State, 1,579 people, had left the CP. I met many of the representative ones and they were now willing to form a Negro organization but did not wish to join the Fourth International. I had come to the conclusion that there was this possibility of a Negro organization before I left New York, but waited until I had gone through various towns in the States and got into contact with the Negro population there. And I found that the impressions that I had gathered in New York corresponded to those that I found on the tour ...
Trotsky: I have not formed an opinion about the question because I do not have enough information. What Comrade George tells us now is very important. It shows that we can have some elements for cooperation in this field, but at the same time, this information limits the immediate perspective of the organization. Who are those elements? The majority are Negro intellectuals, former Stalinist functionaries and sympathizers. We know that now large strata of intellectuals are turning back to the Stalinists in every country. We have observed such people who were very sympathetic to us: Eastman, Solow, Hook, and others. They were very sympathetic to us insofar as they considered us an object for their protection. They abandoned the Stalinists and looked for a new field of action, especially during the Moscow Trials, and so for the period, they were our friends. Now, since we have begun a vigorous campaign, they are hostile to us.
Many of them are returning to all sorts of vague things – humanism, etc. In France, Plisnier, the famous author, went back to God as well as to democracy. But when the white intellectuals went back to Roosevelt and democracy, the disappointed Negro intellectuals looked for a new field on the basis of the Negro question. Of course we must utilize them, but they are not a basis for a large mass movement. They can be used only when- there is a clear program and good slogans.
The real question is whether or not it is possible to organize a mass movement. You know for such disappointed elements we created FIARI. It is not only for artists; anyone may enter. It is something of a moral or political “resort” for the disappointed intellectuals ... That is one thing; but you consider these Negro intellectuals for the directing of a mass movement.
Your project would create something like a pre-political school. What determines the necessity? Two fundamental facts: that the large masses of the Negroes are backward and oppressed and this oppression is so strong that they must feel it every moment; that they feel it as Negroes. We must find the possibility of giving this feeling a political organizational expression. You may say that in Germany or in England we do not organize such semi-political, semi-trade-union, or semi-cultural organizations; we reply that we must adapt ourselves to the genuine Negro masses in the United States.
I will give you another example. We are terribly against the French turn. We abandoned our independence in order to penetrate into a centrist organization. You see that this Negro woman writes that they will not adhere to a Trotskyist organization. It is the result of the disappointments that they have had from the Stalinist organizations and also the propaganda of the Stalinists against us. They say, “We are already persecuted, just because we are Negroes. Now if we adhere to the Trotskyists, we will be even more oppressed.”
Why did we penetrate into the Socialist Party and into the PSOP? If we were not the left wing, subject to the most severe blows, our powers of attraction would be ten or a hundred times greater; the people would come to us. But now we must penetrate into other organizations, keeping our heads on our shoulders and telling them that we are not as bad as they say.
There is a certain analogy with the Negroes. They were enslaved by the whites. They were liberated by the whites (so-called liberation). They were led and misled by the whites and they did not have their own political independence. They were in need of a pre-political activity as Negroes. Theoretically it seems to me absolutely clear that a special organization should be created for a special situation. The danger is only that it will become a game for the intellectuals. This organization can justify itself only by winning workers, share-croppers, and so on. If it does not succeed, we will have to confess that it was a failure. If it does succeed, we will be very happy because we will have a mass organization of Negroes. In that case I fully agree with Comrade George, except of course with some reservations on the question of self-determination, as was stated in our other discussion.
The task is not one of simply passing through the organization for a few weeks. It is a question of awakening the Negro masses. It does not exclude recruitment. I believe that success is quite possible; I am not sure. But it is clear for us all that our comrades in such an organization should be organized into a group. We should take the initiative. I believe it is necessary. This supposes the adaptation of our Transitional Program to the Negro problems in the States – a very carefully elaborated program with genuine civil rights, political rights, cultural interests, economic interests, and so on. It should be done.
I believe that there are two strata: the intellectuals and the masses. I believe that it is among the intellectuals that you find this opposition to self-determination. Why? Because they keep themselves separated from the masses, always with the desire to take on the Anglo-Saxon culture and of becoming an integral part of the Anglo-Saxon life. The majority are opportunists and reformists. Many of them continue to imagine that by the improvement of the mentality, and so on, the discrimination will disappear. That is why they are against any kind of sharp slogan.
George: They will maintain an intellectual interest because the Marxist analysis of Negro history and the problems of the day will give them an insight into the development of the Negroes which nothing else can. Also they are very much isolated from the white bourgeoisie and the social discrimination makes them therefore less easily corrupted, as, for example, the Negro intellectuals in the West Indies. Furthermore, they are a very small section of the Negro population and on the whole are far less dangerous than the corresponding section of the petty bourgeoisie in any other group or community. Also what has happened to the Jews in Germany has made the Negro intellectuals think twice. They will raise enough money to start the thing off. After that we do not have to bother in particular. -Some, however, would maintain an intellectual interest and continue to give money.
George: The suggestions for the party work are in the documents and there is no need to go over them. I propose that they should be considered by the Political Committee immediately, together with Comrade Trotsky’s idea for a special number of the monthly magazine on the Negro question. Urgently needed is a pamphlet written by someone familiar with the dealings of the CP on the Negro question and relating these to the Communist International and its degeneration. This would be an indispensable theoretical preliminary to the organization of the Negro movement and the party’s own work among the Negroes. What is not needed is a general pamphlet dealing in a general way with the difficulties of the Negro and stating that in general black and white must unite. It would be another of a long list.
The Negro Organization:
- Emancipation of the Negroes in San Domingo linked with the French Revolution.
- Emancipation of the slaves in the British Empire linked with the British Reform Bill of 1832.
- Emancipation of the Negroes in the United States linked with the Civil War in America.
This leads easily up to the conclusion that the emancipation of the Negro in the United States and abroad is linked with the emancipation of the white working class.
- The economic roots of racial discrimination.
- The necessity for self-determination for Negro peoples in Africa and a similar policy in China, India, etc.
NB: The party should produce a theoretical study of the permanent revolution and the Negro peoples. This should be very different in style from the pamphlet previously suggested. It should not be a controversy with the CP, but a positive economic and political analysis showing that socialism is the only way out and definitely treating the theory on a high level. This however should come from the party.
Carlos: About opening the discussion of socialism in the Bulletin, but excluding it, at least for a time, from the weekly paper: it seems to me that this is dangerous. This is falling into the idea that socialism is for intellectuals and the elite, hut that the people on the bottom should be interested only in the common, day-to-day things. The method should be different in both places, but I think that there should at least be a drive in the direction of socialism in the weekly paper; not only from the point of view of daily matters, but also in what we call abstract discussion. It is a contradiction – the mass paper would have to take a clear position on the war question, but not on socialism. It is impossible to do the first without the second. It is a form of “economism.” the workers should interest themselves in the everyday affairs, but not in the “theories’” of socialism.
George: I see the difficulties and the contradiction, but there is something else that I cannot quite see – if we want to build a mass movement we cannot plunge into a discussion of socialism, because I think that it would cause more confusion than it would gain support. The Negro is not interested in socialism. He can be brought to socialism on the basis of his concrete experiences. Otherwise we would have to form a Negro socialist organization. I think we must put forth a minimal, concrete program. I agree that we should not put socialism too far in the future, but I am trying to avoid lengthy discussions on Marxism, the Second International, the Third International, etc.
Larkin: Would this organization throw its doors open to all classes of Negroes?
George: Yes, on the basis of its program. The bourgeois Negro can come in to help, but only on the basis of the organization’s program.
Larkin: I cannot see how the Negro bourgeoisie can help the Negro proletariat fight for its economic advancement?
George: In our movement some of us are petty bourgeois. If a bourgeois Negro is excluded from a university because of his color, this organization will probably mobilize the masses to light for the rights of the bourgeois Negro student. Help for the organization will be mobilized on the basis of its program and we will not be able to exclude any Negro from it if he is willing to fight for that program.
Trotsky: I believe that the first question is the attitude of the Socialist Workers Party toward the Negroes. It is very disquieting to find that until now the party has done almost nothing in this field. It has not published a book, a pamphlet, leaflets, nor even any articles in the New International. Two comrades who compiled a book on the question, a serious work, remained isolated. That book is not published, nor are even quotations from it published. It is not a good sign. It is a bad sign. The characteristic thing about the American workers’ parties, trade-union organizations, and so on, was their aristocratic character. It is the basis of opportunism. The skilled workers who feel set in the capitalist society help the bourgeois class to hold the Negroes and the unskilled workers down to a very low scale. Our party is not safe from degeneration if it remains a place for intellectuals, semi-intellectuals, skilled workers and Jewish workers who build a very close milieu which is almost isolated from the genuine masses. Under these conditions our party cannot develop – it will degenerate.
We must have this great danger before our eyes. Many times I have proposed that every member of the party, especially the intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, who, during a period of say six months, cannot each win a worker-member for the party, should be demoted to the position of sympathizer. We can say the same in the Negro question. The old organizations, beginning with the AFL, are the organizations of the workers’ aristocracy. Our party is a part of the same milieu, not of the basic exploited masses of whom the Negroes are the most exploited. The fact that our party until now has not turned to the Negro question is a very disquieting symptom. If the workers’ aristocracy is the basis of opportunism, one of the sources of adaptation to capitalist society, then the most oppressed and discriminated are the most dynamic milieu of the working class.
We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class. What serves as the brake on the higher strata? It is the privileges, the comforts that hinder them from becoming revolutionists. It does not exist for the Negroes. What can transform a certain stratum, make it more capable of courage and sacrifice? It is concentrated in the Negroes. If it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this stratum, then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie.
In the States we now have various contests. Competition to see who will sell the most papers, and so on. That is very good. But we must also establish a more serious competition – the recruiting of workers and especially of Negro workers. To a certain degree that is independent of the creation of the special Negro organization ...
I believe the party should undertake for the next six months organizational and political work. A six months’ program can be elaborated for the Negro question ... After a half year’s work we have a base for the Negro movement and we have a serious nucleus of Negroes and whites working together on this plan. It is a question of the vitality of the party. It is an important question. It is a question of whether the party is to be transformed into a sect or if it is capable of finding its way to the most oppressed part of the working class.
(To be continued)
Last updated on 26.2.2009