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Black Liberation and the Comintern in Lenin

By Larry Stewart

This article was originally written as part of Permanent Revolution and Black Liberation in the U.S., which Larry Stewart was still working on when he died in November 1984. George Breitman divided it into two separate articles when he edited the unfinished manuscript after Stewart’s death. This first was published in Bulletin in Defense of Marxism No. 17, April 1985.

More than any other person, Leon Trotsky shaped the SWP’s thinking about the nature of the Black struggle in the U.S. Despite his considerable influence and prestige among us, he wasn’t able to accomplish this all at once.

In 1933, when Trotsky was exiled in Turkey, he tried to convince the leaders of our movement that they should support the right of self-determination for Blacks in this country. But they didn’t understand his arguments and they didn’t agree .

It was not until 1939, when Trotsky was living in Mexico, that he persuaded us of the progressive character of Black nationalism and helped the SWP to adopt our first resolution having a fully Leninist approach to self-determination. (Both episodes are documented in Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, Pathfinder Press, 1978.)

This, plus the development of the Black struggle itself and the lessons we learned from that during the next 30 years, enabled us to work out our policy of “combined revolution” An application of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to a particular American reality, this policy combines the democratic struggle of Blacks against racism with the workers’ struggle against capitalism. For a long time it gave the SWP a definite theoretical and practical advantage over all other tendencies in the radical movement

But now the Barnes group in the SWP leadership has set itself the goal of fusion with the Castroist current and puts this goal ahead of everything else. It has repudiated the policy of permanent revolution (without explaining what effect that repudiation has on the policy of combined revolution) and it is trying in other ways to indicate that the SWP should no longer be considered “Trotskyist.”

One of the ways of doing this is to demote Trotsky from the highest level of revolutionary authority and stature, next to Lenin, to a secondary level, alongside Zinoviev, Radek , Bukharin, etc.

Demoting Trotsky doesn’t necessarily involve belittling him directly or denying that he was a good revolutionary (except with regard to permanent revolution, political revolution, etc.). Often it only involves assertions or hints that when Trotsky was doing certain good things, these were not exceptional contributions because he was only acting in accord with decisions made by the Communist International in Lenin’s time.

Efforts along this line are being made by the Barnes group especially in relation to Trotsky’s views and record on the U.S. Black struggle. They can’t attack him on these matters - yet -but they can and do try to whittle down his place in the history of our party’s long fight to achieve a correct policy and correct practice in that struggle.

Here, for example, is what Jack Barnes said in his most famous speech (“Their Trotsky and Ours,” Dec. 31, 1982) when he was listing the things Trotsky had done in the 1930s that Barnes approved: “Trotsky also carried on the Comintern’s work of educating revolutionists in the United States about the centrality of the struggle for Black self-determination and of the vanguard role of Black workers in the class struggle.”

New International, Fall 1983, p.58.

Carrying on the Comintern’s work - how can anyone object to Barnes saying that? What’s wrong with putting Trotsky’s contributions in their historic context? Nothing at all, if the Comintern’s work is assessed correctly and if Trotsky only continued it and did not add to it significantly.

Operation-Cut-Trotsky-Down-to-Size started two days after the SWP’s August 1981 convention, at an expanded meeting of the Political Committee where the Barnes group introduced a new educational-reorientation program focused on carefully selected portions of Lenin’s writings. Two reading lists were introduced to show SWP members what to read. The second, entitled “Reading List on the Communist International Under Lenin,” is relevant here because of its last section, which we are reprinting from Party Organizer, Vol.6, No. 1, April 1982, p. 3:

The Black struggle, Lenin on the United States, New World Publishers, pp. 123-131 and pp. 303-306; Progress Publishers, pp. 124-132 and 301-304 (also in Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 24-31; Vol. 23, pp. 271-273).

In 1915 m his study of agriculture in the United States, Lenin took up the question of Black oppression. In early 1917 in an article on the national question inside the advanced capitalist countries Lenin says that Blacks, “should be classed as an oppressed nation....”

The National Liberation Movement in the East, Lenin, p. 272.

In the “Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions” presented to the second congress Blacks are again characterized by Lenin as an oppressed nation.

The Second Congress of the Communist International, Vol. I, pp. 120-124.

In his remarks at the second congress on the Black struggle in the United States John Reed argues that the key question facing Blacks is class exploitation rather than national oppression.

Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, “The Black Question,” pp.328-331 (Also in The Communist International Documents 1919-1943, Degras , Vol. I, pp. 398-401).

This resolution, adopted at the fourth congress, took up the struggle of Blacks in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States.

First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. II, Trotsky, “A Letter to Claude McKay,” pp. 354-356.

Lenin was the greatest revolutionary that the human race has produced so far. His teachings and example are precious and irreplaceable for revolutionaries of our time. As a Pathfinder Press note puts it, he “restored Marxism as the theory and practice of revolution in the imperialist epoch after it had been debased by the opportunists, revisionists, and fatalists of the Second International.” Where would we be today if he had not been on the scene then?

But Lenin was only one man, with limited time and capacity. He could not solve all problems for his and later generations. He did make very valuable contributions to the revolutionary comprehension of the far-off U.S. Black struggle, but he did not have the time or opportunity to study the question deeply, and it would be foolish of us to expect or pretend otherwise.

First of all, Lenin’s comments on the Black struggle in the U.S. are quite brief, and are usually made in the course of broader discussion of other questions. Because of their brevity, almost anyone can look them all up in a few hours if you have access to a good library.

The library I went to has the 45 volumes of the latest English translation of Lenin’s Collected Works plus a two-volume index, all published in Moscow. In the subject index you can find all the places where Lenin ever mentioned Negroes, slaves, Africans, etc. It doesn’t take long because there are only 30 to 40 such places. Most of the references are quite insignificant -- sometimes only a word or a sentence. Some are very important and suggestive, despite their brevity.

“Lenin took up the question of Black oppression” in his 1915 study of U.S. agriculture, the SWP reading list says. Yes, but unfortunately only in passing. In this 85-page pamphlet he said:


There is no need to elaborate on the degraded social status of the Negroes; the American bourgeoisie is in no way better in this respect than the bourgeoisie of any other country. Having “freed” the Negroes, it took good care, under “free,” republican-democratic capitalism, to restore everything possible and impossible for the most shameless and despicable oppression of the Negroes.

Later in the pamphlet he refers to “the existence of still-unparcelled slaveholding plantations in the South, with its downtrodden and oppressed Negro population...”

Collected Works, Vol.2, pp. 24-5 and 89

These passages show that in 1915 Lenin unquestionably considered U.S. Blacks to be oppressed, but they say nothing about the specific nature of that oppression. It would have been difficult for most people reading that pamphlet in 1915 to conclude that Lenin was referring to national oppression.

That is not the case with the next excerpt in the SWP reading list, a 1917 passage saying that Blacks “should be classed as an oppressed nation....” A part of a paragraph about the national composition of the U.S. and Japan, in a pamphlet entitled “Statistics and Sociology,” here is the passage in its entirety:

In the United States, the Negroes (and also the Mulattos and Indians) account for only 11.1 per cent [of the total population.] They should be classed as an oppressed nation, for the equality won in the Civil War of 1861-65 and guaranteed by 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 1860-70 to the reactionary, monopoly capitalism (imperialism) of the new era, which in America was especially sharply etched out by the Spanish-American imperialist war of 1898 (i.e., a war between two robbers over the division of the booty)

Collected Works, Vol. 23, pp. 275-6

This is very good, despite its brevity, anybody reading it in 1917 could have seen what Lenin’s essential position was on the national oppression of U.S. Blacks.

But it did not have this effect on anybody because nobody else read this pamphlet in 1917 or many years after that. As the SWP reading list neglects to mention, Lenin started this pamphlet in January 1917 but never finished it; the Russian revolution broke out a few weeks later, and his new tasks prevented completion of the pamphlet. So no one else saw it at the time, and in fact it was not published, even in its unfinished form, until 1935, 11 years after his death.

This means that nobody m the Comintern “under Lenin” could possibly have been influenced or educated by the contents of “Statistics and Sociology” It shows what Lenin thought, but not what the Comintern thought.

Now we come to the third and last Lenin citation on the reading list – the “Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions,” which Lenin wrote for the Comintern’s second congress in 1920 Thesis 11 said, in part:

It is also necessary that all Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies.

Collected Works, Vol. 31, p. 148.

The reading list says, correctly, that in that passage “Blacks are again characterized by Lenin as an oppressed nation.” And since Lenin’s theses were written for a Comintern congress, a reader might conclude that the Comintern shared Lenin’s view, especially since the reading list has nothing to say about this.

But such a conclusion would be altogether wrong. After discussing Lenin’s draft theses at the congress, the delegates amended them, and the reference to Ireland and the American Negroes was deleted from the final draft, which now says:

It is also necessary... to give direct support to the revolutionary movements in dependent nations and those deprived of their rights, through the Communist Parties of the countries in question. The Second Congress of the Communist International, New Park Publications, 1977, Vol. 1, p. 180.

Why this deletion was made the delegates were not told and we do not know. Perhaps it was because some delegates were opposed to including U.S. Blacks among dependent nations and nations deprived of their rights. John Reed (see the fourth item on the SWP reading list) was not speaking for himself alone when he stressed the class aspects of the struggle over its national aspects; and nobody at the congress got up to rebut his one-sided position.

We don’t know why the deletion was made and it’s not too important, except for one thing: not only at the second congress but at all the other congresses held in Lenin’s lifetime (the third and fourth), the Comintern failed to endorse Lenin’s position that U.S. Blacks are an oppressed nation or nationality.

That position was never adopted by the Comintern until 1928, four years after Lenin died, when the Comintern was being strangled by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Until then, the Comintern and the CP in this country rejected the right of self-determination for U.S. Blacks and wrongly counterposed class struggle to national struggle, instead of dialectically combining them.

The fifth item on the reading list says that the Comintern’s fourth congress in 1922 adopted “The Black Question,” a resolution that “took up the struggle of Blacks in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States.” It took them up all right but its main emphasis was on class and democratic demands (“for the racial equality of blacks and whites, for equal wages and equal social and political rights,” campaigns to force the unions to admit Blacks, etc.). There was nothing in the resolution about the national oppression of U.S. Blacks or anything else that John Reed would have objected to.

For what I have written above I may be accused of hostility to the Comintern. There wouldn’t be an iota of truth in such a charge. The Comintern in Lenin’s time was the most revolutionary organization the world had ever seen. It blazed many of the paths we are following now and will follow until capitalism is banished from this globe.

Its greatest contribution to the U.S. Black struggle was not in charting a correct or complete program for it but in re-educating U S and other communists to “shake off their unspoken prejudices, pay attention to the special problems and grievances of the American Negroes, go to work among them, and champion their cause in the white community” (James P. Cannon, quoted in Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, pp. 10-11) Its “harsh” and’ insistent” work along this line was by itself sufficient cause for us to remember the Comintern in Lenin’s time with the highest respect and appreciation.

But the Comintern had weak sides as well as strong ones. It was fallible and it made mistakes. Alongside some of its most inspiring achievements, it unconsciously carried over some harmful notions and practices inherited from the Second International; or it sometimes reacted to opportunism with corrections that were warped by ultraleftism.

This may come as a shock to SWP members who have been disoriented by the Barnes group’s recent campaign to set the Comintern and its documents on a pedestal, and to “justify” its current revisions and theoretical retrogressions with poorly read and poorly assimilated citations from Comintern documents of Lenin’s time

The first four congresses of the Comintern are foundation stones of the Fourth International and the SWP We could not exist, we could not be what we are, without the theoretical and political tools we inherited from them But because the Comintern was not infallible, because many things m the world have changed since Lenin’s time, we cannot find all the answers to today’s problems in those documents, and must learn to use the method they used rather than swallow every formulation they contain

I am not an authority on Comintern literature, but what I have read of its treatment of the Black struggle, the trade unions, and women’s liberation convinces me that while most of this literature was valid and progressive at that time, it also contains false starts and errors that can do us big damage today if we do not read it critically— the way Lenin encouraged us to do, the way the Barnes group discourages us from doing

The SWP reading list does not summarize or explain its sixth and last item, Trotsky’s 1923 “Letter to Claude McKay,” a Black intellectual who had been an observer at the fourth congress In it Trotsky said that revolutionary work among Blacks “is not to be carried out in a spirit of Negro chauvinism, which would then merely form a counterpart of white chauvinism -but in a spirit of solidarity of all exploited without consideration of color .” Reprinted in Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, p. 81.

Perhaps it was included to show that in 1923 Trotsky had not yet recognized the national aspects of the Black struggle. If that was the reason, it should simultaneously have been noted that in this respect Trotsky was acting in accord with the Comintern line of that time.

In 1928, the now Stalinized Comintern changed its position on U.S. Blacks and pronounced them an oppressed nation, but they did it in a typically bureaucratic

and ultimatistic way that made a caricature of Lenin’s position.

After that, Trotsky stopped “carrying on” the previous Comintern line, but he also rejected the new Comintern caricature, and began to mobilize support for Lenin’s policy, which was different from both the original Comintern position and the distortion introduced in 1928.

Trotsky didn’t merely continue the Comintern’s work in the 1930s -- he revived Lenin’s policy on U.S. Blacks and helped to make it part of the program of the SWP and the F!, which it had never been in either the Leninist Comintern or the Stalinized Comintern maintain that it is necessary to recognize this fact, not in order to defend Trotsky’s personal stature, but because the full value and richness of the SWP’s combined revolution policy get lost or downgraded if you think it is only a continuation of the Comintern’s policy.

Trotsky added new things, and after him the SWP did too. Jack Barnes, in the days before he lost confidence in the future of the SWP except as part of the Castroist current, was not afraid to give credit publicly to Trotsky for adding to Lenin. In a political report to the SWP National Committee in February 1970, Barnes said:

What Trotsky began grappling with, what he the Black struggles in the United States was a national struggle with characteristics that Lenin had not dealt with....

Trotsky-- in his discussions with his American comrades...—stressed the lessons learned from the Bolsheviks on the national question, but also added some things that were new...

Towards an American Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, 1971, pp. 198-9.


As an appendix we are reprinting below substantial excerpts from that report by Barnes in 1970. We do so for two reasons:

1. Because it substantiates our claim that Trotsky’s additions to our theory of the Black struggle were universally acknowledged in our party prior to the recently adopted pro-Castroist reorientation.

2. Because it is an eloquent example of the SWP’s creative additions to our theory of “some things that were new” -- additions that occurred in the days when our party was unshakably rooted in the policy of permanent revolution and combined revolution.

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