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Fourth International, February 1949


From the Arsenal of Marxism

Discussion on Negro Question


From Fourth International, Vol.10 No.2, February 1949, pp.57-59.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Following is the concluding installment of the transcript of discussions which took place in 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. The first and second installments were published in the May 1948 and September 1948 issues of the Fourth International. The text is based on stenographic notes which were not subsequently corrected by any of the participants in the discussion.

* * *

Proposals taken up point by point:

1. Pamphlet on the Negro question and the Negroes in the CP, relating it to the degeneration of the Kremlin ...

Trotsky: Good. And also would it not be well perhaps to mimeograph this book [1], or parts of it, and send it together with other material on the. question to the various sections of the party for discussion?

2. A Negro number of the magazine.

Trotsky: I believe that it is absolutely necessary.

Owen: It seems to me that there is a danger of getting out the Negro number before we have a sufficient Negro organization to assure its distribution.

George: It is not intended primarily for the Negroes. It is intended for the party itself and for the other readers of the theoretical magazine.

3. The use of the history of the Negroes themselves in educating them.

General agreement.

4. A study of the permanent revolution and the Negro question.

General agreement.

5. The question of socialism – whether to bring it in through the paper or through the Bulletin.

Trotsky: I do not believe that we can begin with the exclusion of socialism from the organization. You propose a very large, somewhat heterogeneous organization, which will also accept religious people. That would signify that if a Negro worker, or farmer, or merchant, makes a speech in the organization to the effect that the only salvation for the Negroes is in the church, we will be too tolerant to expel him and at the same time so wise that we will not let him speak in favor of religion, but we will not speak in favor of socialism. If we. understand the character of this milieu, we will adapt the presentation of our ideas to it. We will be cautious; but to tie our hands in advance – to say that we will not introduce the question of socialism because it is an abstract matter – that is not possible. It is one thing to be very attentive to the concrete questions of Negro life and to oppose socialism to capitalism in these questions. It is one thing to accept a heterogeneous group and to work in it, and another to be absorbed by it.

George: I quite agree with what you say. What I am afraid of is the putting forth of an abstract socialism. You will recall that I said that the leading group must clearly understand what it is doing and where it is going. But the socialist education of the masses should arise from the day-to-day questions. I am only anxious to prevent the thing’s developing into an endless discussion. The discussion should be free and thorough in the theoretical organ.

In regard to the question of socialism in the agitational organ, it is my view that the organization should definitely establish itself as doing the day-to-day work of the Negroes in such a way that the masses of Negroes can take part in it before involving itself in discussions about socialism. While it is clear that an individual can raise whatever points he wishes and point out his solution of the Negro problems, yet the question is whether those who arc guiding the organization as a whole should begin by speaking in the name of socialism. I think not. It is important to remember that those who take the initiative should have some common agreement as to the fundamentals of politics today, otherwise there will be great trouble as the organization develops. But although these, as individuals, are entitled to put forward their particular point of view in the general discussion, yet the issue is whether they should speak as a body as socialists from the very beginning, and my personal view is no.

Trotsky: In the theoretical organ you can have theoretical discussion, and in the mass organ you can have a mass political discussion. You say that they are contaminated by the capitalist propaganda. Say to them, “You don’t believe in socialism. But you will see that in the fighting, the member of the Fourth International will not only be with you, but possibly the most militant.” I would even go so far as to have every one of our speakers end his speech by saying, “My name is the Fourth International!” They will come to see that we are the fighters, while the person who preaches religion in the hall, in the critical moment will go to the church instead of to the battlefield.

6. The organizing groups and individuals of the new organization must be in complete agreement on the war question.

Trotsky: Yes, it is the most important and the most difficult question. The program may be very modest, but at the same time it must leave to everyone his freedom of expression in his speeches, and so on; the program must not be the limitation of our activity, but only our common obligation. Everyone must have the right to go further, but everyone is obliged to defend the minimum. We will see how this minimum will be crystallized as we go along in the opening steps.

7. A campaign in some industry in behalf of the Negroes.

Trotsky: That is important. It will bring a conflict with some white workers who will not want it. It is a shift from the most aristocratic workers’ elements to the lowest elements. We attracted to ourselves some of the higher strata of the intellectuals when they felt that we needed protection: Dewey, La-Follette, etc. Now that we are undertaking serious work, they are leaving us. I believe that we will lose two or three more strata and go more deeply into the masses. This will be the touchstone.

8. Housing and rent campaign.

Trotsky: It is absolutely necessary.

Carlos: It also works in very well with our transitional demands.

9. The demonstration in the restaurant.

Trotsky: Yes, and give it an even more militant character. There could be a picket line outside to attract attention and explain something of what is going on.

Owen: That is a point that I wished to present. Some years ago I was living in Los Angeles near a Negro section – one set aside from the others. The Negroes there were more prosperous. I inquired as to their work and was told by the Negroes themselves that they were better off because they were servants – many of them in the houses of the movie colony. I was surprised to find the servants in the higher strata. This colony of Negroes was not small – it consisted of several thousand people.

Trotsky: Yes, I believe it is very important; but I believe that there is the first a priori consideration that many of these Negroes are servants for rich people and are demoralized and have been transformed into moral lackeys. But there are others, a larger stratum, and the question is to win those who arc not so privileged.

George: That is true. But if you are serious, it is not difficult to get to the Negro masses. They live together and they feel together. This stratum of privileged Negroes is smaller than any other privileged stratum. The whites treat them with such contempt that in spite of themselves they are closer to the other Negroes than you would think ...

11. Mobilize the Negroes against fascism.

General agreement.

12. The relationship of the Negroes to the Republican and Democratic parties.

Trotsky: How many Negroes are there in Congress? One. There are 440 members in the House of Representatives and 96 in the Senate. Then if the Negroes have almost 10% of the population, they are entitled to 50 members, but they have only one. It is a clear picture of political inequality. We can often oppose a Negro candidate to a white candidate. This Negro organization can always say, “We want a Negro who knows our problems.” It can have important consequences.

Owen: It seems to me that Comrade George has ignored a very important part of our program – the labor party.

George: The Negro section wants to put up a Negro candidate. We tell them they must not stand just as Negroes, but they must have a program suitable to the masses of poor Negroes. They are not stupid and they can understand that and it is to be encouraged. The white workers put up a labor candidate in another section. Then we say to the Negroes in the white section, “Support that candidate, because his demands are good workers’ demands.” And we say to the white workers in the Negro area, “You should support the Negro candidate, because although he is a Negro you will notice that his demands are good for the whole working class.” This means that the Negroes have the satisfaction of having their own candidates in areas where they predominate and at the same time we build labor solidarity. It fits into the labor party program.

Carlos: Isn’t that coming close to the People’s Front, to vote for a Negro just because he is a Negro?

George: This organization has a program. When the Democrats put up a Negro candidate, we say, “Not at all. It must be a candidate with a program we can support.”

Trotsky: It is a question of another organization for which we are not responsible, just as they are not responsible for us. If this organization puts up a certain candidate, and we find as a party that we must put up our own candidate in opposition, we have the full right to do so. If we are weak and cannot get the organization to choose a revolutionist, and they choose a Negro Democrat, we might even withdraw our candidate with a concrete declaration that we abstain from fighting, not the Democrat, but the Negro. We consider that the Negro’s candidacy as opposed to the white’s candidacy, even if both are of the same party, is an important factor in the struggle of the Negroes for their equality; and in this case we can critically support them. I believe that it can be done in certain instances.

13. A Negro from South or West Africa to tour the States.

Trotsky: What will he teach?

George: I have in mind several young Negroes, any one of whom can give a clear anti-imperialist, anti-war picture. I think it would be very important in building up an understanding of internationalism.

14. Submit documents and plans to the Political Committee.

General agreement.

George: I agree with your attitude on the party work in connection with the Negroes. They are a tremendous force and they will dominate the whole of the Southern states. If the party gets a hold here, the revolution is won in America. Nothing can stop it.


1. A historical and statistical study privately prepared and sent to Comrade Trotsky for his views.

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