Israel Amter

The Black Victims of Imperialism

Source: The Communist International, No. 26-27, 1923, pp. 113-119 (3,347 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Israel Amter, founding member of the Communist Party, USA and a leading functionary into the 1940s, was born on March 26, 1881, in Denver to Jewish immigrant parents. He joined the Socialist Party in 1901, and in 1903 moved to Germany where he remained until 1914, editing the German Export Review, participating in the Social Democratic Party, and studying music at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he composed his never-performed opera Winona (1912), which concerns the love between a U.S. army officer and a Native American woman, Winona. He was in the Communist Labor Party though was not a top level official in that organisation but later a prominent figure in the United Communist Party from 1920 until the 1940s. He stood as Communist Candidate for the Governorship of New York in 1932, 1936 & 1942. The Tamiment Library, New York has his music.—Note by transcriber ERC.

The negro problem is one of the burning problems of the day. Wherever negroes are to be found they are being kept in a state of ignorance and helplessness in order that capitalism may have an abundant supply of cheap labour. In. the United States, where the most cultured section of the negro race lives, the negro suffers endless discriminations and restrictions. The victim of 3,436 lynchings in the past thirty-five years, the American negro has looked to governmental action and liberal opinion to put an end to his martyrdom. But the capitalist Government has failed him and Liberal opinion has not aided him. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was shelved and lynching remains the popular sport as before.

There is no story of human exploitation and degradation more horrible than the history of the mistreatment and massacre of the black race by the whites. The slaughter of 8,000,000 natives of the Congo by the agents of King Leopold; the extermination of the Hereros by the Kaiser’s government; the brutal march of French imperialism into Tunis and Morocco; of Italy into Tripoli; the invasion of South Rhodesia by the British marauders—these are a few chapters in the bloody story.

The inhuman slave hunts to provide labour for the American market, which meant the breaking up of villages and tribes, the martyring of hundreds of thousands of natives who met their death on the endless journey to the coast where they were put on vessels, manacled and sick, to be flogged, starved, and killed—forms another chapter.

The bestial treatment in America, where, despite the Civil War, the negro is still without rights; the beating, reduction to peonage, the disfranchisement of most of the race, the lynching and periodical race riots; and, finally, the subjection of the predominantly negro States of the West Indies to the rule of American imperialism, with its accompanying massacres—these are further chapters in the crucifixion of a whole race.

Africa, Hunting-Ground of Imperialist Pirates

Africa is the last stronghold of imperialism. Asia is already in revolt. The rebellions in India, Korea, Egypt (which is counted among the West Asiatic rather than the African nations) are eloquent testimony to the influence that the Communist International exerts in the East, and the faith that these peoples have placed in the revolutionary movement of the West. Africa is still dormant. although resistance to the encroachment of imperialism has been frequent, especially in Northern Africa.

The world population of the negro race is approximately 150,000,000, the majority of whom are in Africa. In the Western hemisphere there are about 12,000,000 negroes, their state of civilisation being far higher than that of the African negro.

With the exception of South Africa, where the rich gold mines. are located and which employ a large number of natives as unskilled labourers, Africa is primarily an agricultural country. Whatever other native industry existed in the backward sections of coloured Africa has been destroyed by capitalist intrigues. The natives have been induced to devote themselves to agricultural pursuits, gathering rubber, cocoa, cloves and palm oil, and raising cotton. In some parts, they are indentured slaves, their families frequently being held as hostages to ensure continual work of the bread-earner. In South Africa, the Government took away the best land from the natives, thereby making them willing subjects for peonage. In the Congo, all land was declared State property.

In exchange for the agricultural products, Europe has furnished the African natives with cheap cotton cloth, food, gin and steel, and iron manufactures. Thus a market was found for the ever-increasing European surplus. The use of gin (25,000,000 dols.. worth imported) was an element in the corruption of the race. The importation of about 25,000,000 dols. worth of iron and steel products indicates that European industry is being established in Africa, with cheap native labour to be drawn upon—the labour that was robbed of its lands. Furthermore, railways are being built and ports constructed. Surely capital could not ask for cheaper “hands” than are to be obtained among this vast population of oppressed natives.

These facts indicate that the negroes are being proletarised—which will have the effect of gradually leading them into revolutionary channels—quite contrary to the intentions of the imperialists.

In the West Indies, the negroes are also predominantly agricultural workers—on the sugar, tobacco, cocoa and coffee plantations.

In the United States 89 per cent. of the negro population live in the south, 79 per cent. of them living in rural communities. There are about 950,000 farmers, the overwhelming majority of whom are tenants; in addition, there are 2,000,000 farm labourers. Hence, of the 7,000,000 negro rural inhabitants of the United States 3,000,000 are at work. This includes a large number of children, many of whom never see the inside of a school.

The plight of the negro tenant farmer in America is tragic. Always in debt, he obtains supplies and provisions from the merchant on credit, giving him a lien on his crops in exchange. At last he becomes a peon—a serf owning neither himself nor his land. He may be arrested for debt, and then be “farmed out” by the State in payment of bail money or the debt. Once sold into peonage in this manner, he can never escape. To obtain proper work out of him the “whipping boss” beats and tortures him, and at times he dies under the flogging.

There are more than 1,000,000 negro industrial workers in the United States (of the 10,500,000 negroes in the United States, more than 50 per cent. are gainfully employed, which is a far larger proportion than among the white race—38 per cent.). Most of them are unskilled or semi-skilled workers. There are numbers of negro workers in the steel and iron, mining, packing, textile and automobile industries, and among the dock workers.

Of these workers, however, only a few are organised. This is due to the rule of most of the bodies affiliated with the American Federation of Labour, which provides for the admission of only “white workers” to the organisation. As a consequence, only about 60,000 negroes are organised in the American Federation of Labour with about 20,000 or 30,000 more in various local and independent unions. There is a purely negro organisation, the “National Brotherhood Workers of America,” which arose during the war and was composed chiefly of shipbuilders.

Race Prejudice Enemy of White and Black Workers

Race prejudice is keeping the negroes out of the unions and as a result they scab on the white workers. Yet whenever they are given a chance to co-operate with the white workers, they are most loyal fighters. Thus in the steel strike in 1919, in the coal strike of 1922, and in the packing-house strike in 1921, they stood the test—until, in the last-named strike, the bosses, in the manner usually employed in America, circulated the rumour that the negroes were scabbing. This had the usual results—race hatred and rioting.

During the war, when there was a big demand for labour, nearly 500,000 negroes migrated from the south to the north of the United States, where they were employed in the shipbuilding, steel, food and other industries. At the end of the war, when the returning soldiers resumed their positions, the negroes went back home. The present prosperity in America has called forth another trek of negroes to the north. Hundreds of thousands again are moving northwards. Out of 1,000,000 negroes in the State of Mississippi, 100,000 have already left for the north. In one week 5,000 textile workers went from South Carolina to the textile centres of New England.

This immigration is placing before the workers of America a question that they must answer. Capitalism wants cheap labour. The doors are practically closed to European labour. The south is flooded with agents of steel, automobile and rubber industries, who are recruiting among the “8,000,000 negroes who are loyal to the government,” as the dean of a negro university recently styled them. For American industry, they represent the most docile, inexpensive form of labour imaginable. They will be used to reduce the wages of the white workers, and in attempts to introduce the “open shop,” just as they will furnish the strikebreakers in future labour disputes.

There is only one thing that will prevent this: the white workers, in their own interest, throw down the bars, and admit the negroes to their unions. More, in fact: they must make a special effort to overcome the justified prejudice that the negroes feel toward them and induce them to join the unions. Otherwise, we shall have bloody repetitions of, race riots, shootings, rapes and burnings at the stake—fomented on some slight pretext, but always having an economic basis.

In South Africa there is no competition between the white and the black workers. The whites are the skilled, the natives the unskilled workers, who act as helpers to the whites. There will be little opposition of the whites to the organisation of the native workers into trade unions.

Negroes of the World Practically Helots

The 150,000,000 negroes in the world have little voice in determining the conditions under which they live. Capitalist “democracy” pays little heed to the opinion of its coloured slaves, despite the fact that, at least in the United States, a war ostensibly was fought over this very issue.

The negroes of South Africa have no franchise. The white workers, furthermore, refuse to consider the ideas of suffrage for them, in this attitude naturally being supported by the capitalists, whose method it is to foment racialism and race antagonism. They realise that if the white and native workers get together on any issue as workers, the doom of capitalism in South Africa will have sounded.

In the French colonies, on the other hand, the natives have suffrage. French imperialism employs the natives of Senegal and Martinique for reactionary military purposes. They were the shock troops in the World War and are now being used in the Ruhr to crush the German workers. French imperialism cultivates their patriotism by giving them the franchise and otherwise treating them with effusive consideration. The coloured troops show their gratitude by their willingness to be used even against French workers.

In the United States the overwhelming majority of the negroes are disfranchised. Although amendments to the Federal Constitution “guarantee” suffrage to all citizens regardless of “race, colour, or previous condition of servitude,” and of sex, the Southern States utterly disregard the law and give the negroes a vote under such conditions as to eliminate more than 90 per cent. of the voting negro population. The Federal Government does not interfere—nor do even the Northern States protest. If the capitalists had the power, they would disfranchise the whole working class; not being able to do so, they allow millions of negroes to be disfranchised. As in South Africa, the capitalists fear the rising consciousness of the negroes and are doing everything to keep the negroes in ignorance and antagonistic to the whites.

As a result of this general attitude of hostility of the capitalists, and, unfortunately, of the majority of the white workers, the negro in South Africa and the United States is subjected to every form of degradation. In South Africa he lives in squalor in the poorest of huts, often in compounds round the mines, not furnished with the slightest conveniences. In the United States he is forced to live in the poorest sections of the city; he is allowed to frequent few public places. In the South he is compelled to ride in separate cars and railway carriages. He must heed himself when addressing a Southern “lady” or “gentleman,” lest the form of address be considered an insult and he be lynched as a penalty.

Above it all rises the terrorisation and brutality of the Ku Klux Klan, which holds undisputed sway over the lives of the negroes in the South. Its actions toward the negroes are a further reason for the migration of the negroes to the North, where they hope to obtain more protection.

Capitalist Government of United States Enemy of Negroes

It is no wonder that the 400,000 negro soldiers from the United States who served in the World War declared that for the first time in their lives they were treated as human beings when in France. They were needed as cannon fodder and nothing stirred them to greater enthusiasm than the kindness they experienced. And no wonder that, when they returned and had to go back to the same indignities and segregation, to the same restriction and race contempt, a flood of rebellion filled them and burst forth as at Houston, Texas, where a regiment was stationed.

Although having a vote under certain limitations in the West Indies, the negroes of Haiti and Santo Domingo have had their island occupied by the marines of the United States Navy, who have taken permanent control and dictate law. Porto Rico, although technically a part of the United States, has no voice in the government. The Central American States are undergoing the same process: the West Indies and Central America are only colonies of American Imperialism.

The negroes of the United States have been able to obtain no help from the Capitalist Government or from the Liberals, who are loud in protestations but very gentle in their acts. Hence they have formed self-help organisations. There are several of this nature; among the tenant farmers of the South there are tenants’ unions, some of them being secret.

In 1921 the negro organisations of the world held a Pan-African Congress in London, which, after a week’s session, could come to no better decision than to appeal to the League of Nations to establish a special section to deal with native labour in the International Labour Bureau, and an international institute to study the negro problem.

Acting on the motive that racialism is the only thing that will save the negro, a movement started in the United States a few years ago, headed by the notorious Marcus Garvey and having as its motto, “Back to Africa.” This movement assumed a mass character and might have attained a measure of success, had the organiser not engaged in various commercial ventures that proved a failure. The movement is merely a Zionist movement among the negroes and if successful would simply add ten million negroes to the 140,000,000 in Africa under the dominion of European and American imperialism.

There is a radical negro organisation in the United States, “The African Blood Brotherhood,” which is sympathetic to the Communist International and is endeavouring to organise the, coloured workers for a united front with the white workers against capitalism.

Disappointment after disappointment has followed every attempt hitherto made by the negroes to help themselves. The World War opened their eyes and, although to-day they are in a passive state, there is a smouldering discontent that soon will find expression.

What is the answer of the Communist International to the negroes?

The Communist International points out to the 150,000,000 negroes of Africa and America that their problem is merely a phase of the general problem of the emancipation of the working class of the world.

Negro Exploitation Phase of Working-Class Exploitation

Capitalism needs an unlimited supply of cheap labour for the production of raw material and for performing unskilled work in industry. The negro race is utilised to supply this labour. Capitalism needs a field for the investment of surplus capital and a market for the surplus of its industrial produce: Africa, the West Indies, and Central America are to furnish these markets in exchange for the raw material and food products they supply. Capitalism knows that it can maintain a supply of cheap labour only by keeping the races antagonistic to one another, so that by race prejudice and race hatred they will underbid one another, scab on one another and thus play into the hands of their common exploiters.

Owing to the declining French birth-rate and the fact that French workers are not reliable for military purposes, French imperialism is obliged to procure recruits for its army outside of France. The French colonies, with high human fertility, are used to furnish soldiery for imperialist purposes.

Capitalism bribes and flatters a few of the negro leaders in order to lead the whole race astray and blind it to the real issue. This is a trap that the negroes must recognise.

The 150,000,000 negroes of Africa and America must learn to understand that as a race they must combine to fight not the white workers, but the capitalist system, which exploits the white workers as well as the negroes. Although the negro problem to-day is a race problem, in the final analysis it is a class problem and can only be solved when the working class as a whole unites in the struggle for power.

White Workers Must Unite with Negro Workers

The white worker, on the other hand, has a deep responsibility in the solution of this problem. Race prejudice, of which he allows himself to be made a victim, does him as much harm as it does the negro. The capitalist artificially stimulates race antagonisms in order to be able to control. The white workers assist capitalists in this prejudice, helping to keep the negro on a lower plane, and thereby pulling themselves down.

The white workers of America refuse to admit the negro into their unions: the result is that the negro scabs on them. More than 500,000 negroes are migrating to the north once more. The white workers must agree to admit them into their organisations, for the negroes will turn against them and drag the white workers down to their level.

The British workers must learn that the negro worker is not a natural attachment to the British colonies to “his,” the British worker’s colonies, from which the Britisher expects “his” returns. African slaves are no more a “divine gift” to Great Britain than is the rule of the waves, which is assumed as a matter of course. The white workers of South Africa must be made to understand that the native is not merely a “helper,” but a co-worker, with whom he must co-operate, economically and politically, against the common enemy, capitalism. The French workers must gain the confidence of the negroes, since the coloured troops are employed by French imperialism to beat down not only the German workers on the Ruhr, but the French workers as well.

Communist International Unites Revolutionary Workers and Oppressed Peoples

The Communist International is closing the circle of the forces destined to fight against imperialism. The peoples of the East have joined the revolutionary workers and peasants of Europe, America and Australia in the struggle for liberation. Africa, the home of the most exploited people, must be added to the battle line. The American negro, by reason of his higher education and culture and his greater aptitude for leadership, and because of the urgency of the issues in America, will furnish the leadership for the negro race.

The Negro World Congress decided upon by the Fourth Congress of the Communist International must soon be held. It will crystallise the negro sentiment and create an organisation that will be representative of the whole negro race.

The Communist International is the only international of workers that has squarely faced the issue of the coloured races and sought a solution. The Second International has always evaded the question since it has been an international of the white workers alone and has not succeeded even in uniting them in international action. At the recent Hamburg Conference, no coloured delegate or representative of the coloured races was present.

The Communist International is the organisation that alone can unite the negroes with the revolutionary workers and peasants of the world for the struggle against exploitation and for the establishment of working-class power.