Introduction to Trotsky's texts on Black Nationalism

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Author(s) George Breitman
Written 1962

This text was published in 1962 as an introduction to a collection of Trotsky's texts on Black Nationalism

This collection of discussions, reports and resolutions is intended to help those who seriously want to study the history of the development of the revolutionary socialist analysis and program for the Negro struggle in the United States. It brings together some key documents of the period between 1933 and 1950 that are scarce and out of print, and provides the background for understanding more recent material (1954-1961) that is listed at the end of this collection.

In his book, The First Ten Years of American Communism, James P. Cannon shows what a healthy impact the Russian revolution had upon the American radical movement’s policy on the Negro struggle, especially the young Communist Party. Up to then, Cannon says, American radicals “had nothing to start with on the Negro question but an inadequate theory, a false or indifferent attitude and the adherence of a few individual Negroes of radical or revolutionary bent.” The inadequate theory, from which the attitude and lack of influence followed, was that the Negro question was purely and simply “an economic problem, part of the struggle between the workers and the capitalists; nothing could be done about the special problems of discrimination and inequality this side of socialism.” But thanks to the example and pressure of the Russian revolutionists, the early American communists learned “slowly and painfully” to “change their attitude; to assimilate the new theory of the Negro question as a speoial question of doubly exploited seoond-class citizens, requiring a program of special demands as part of the over-all program—and to start doing something about it.” (Originally printed in International Socialist Review, Summer, 1959.)

Part of what we think and do about the Negro struggle today can be traced to these positive influences from the Russian Bolsheviks, because the founders of the Socialist Workers Party were among the leaders of the Communist Party, until they were expelled in 1928 for siding with the Left Opposition against the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Communist International. Through these founders, it is part of our heritage of revolutionary theory and practice.

In addition, the tendency that eventually became the Socialist Workers Party also had the benefit of consultation and advice from Leon Trotsky, leader of the Left Opposition, from 1929 until his death in 1940. This was a second major “outside” influence on the SWP’s thinking on the Negro struggle.

Before taking up the contributions of Trotsky included in this collection, a few quotations would be in order. Trotsky was a great Marxist leader and theoretician — Lenin’s closest collaborator in the Russian revolution and founder of the Fourth International in 1938. But he was not able, until the last years of his life, when he received asylum in Mexico (1937-1940), to acquire detailed knowledge or close contact with problems and developments in the United States, including the Negro struggle. Following are three early passages from his articles and letters.

In 1923, Trotsky wrote a letter answering certain questions asked of him by the revolutionary Negro poet, Claude McKay. It appeared first in International Press Correspondence and may be found in Trotsky’s The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 1. Here, for the first of many times, Trotsky placed heavy stress on the racial prejudices of the labor bureaucracy and backward white workers, about which he never minced any words; he emphasized this because he realized it has crucial effects on what the Negro masses think and do. In addition, almost in passing, he showed he understood that only Negroes can lead the Negro struggle. The last part of his letter said:

“ is of the utmost importance, today, immediately, to have a number of enlightened, young, self-sacrificing Negroes, however small their number, filled with enthusiasm for the raising of the material and moral level of the great mass of Negroes, and at the same time mentally capable of grasping the identity of interests and destiny of the Negro masses, with those of the masses of the whole world...

“The education of Negro propagandists is an exceedingly urgent and important revolutionary task at the present juncture.

“ In North America the matter is further complicated by the abominable obtuseness and caste presumptions of the privileged upper strata of the working class itself, who refuse to recognize fellow workers and fighting comrades in the Negroes. AFL President] Gompers’ policy is founded on the exploitation of such despicable prejudices, and is at the present time the most effective guarantee for the successful subjugation of white and colored workers alike. The fight against this policy must be taken up from different sides, and conducted on various lines. One of the most important branches of this conflict consists in enlightening the proletarian consciousness by awakening the feeling of human dignity, and of revolutionary protest, among the Negro slaves of American capitalism. As stated above, this work can only be carried out by self-sacrificing and politically educated revolutionary Negroes.

“Needless to say, the work is not to be carried on 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.

“What forms of organization are most suitable for the movement among American Negroes, it is difficult for me to say, as I am insufficiently informed regarding the concrete conditions and possibilities. But the forms of organization will be found, as soon as there is sufficient will to action. ”

In 1928, the American Communist Party expelled the future founders of the Socialist Workers Party as “Trotskyists.” In 1929, they held their first national conference as the Communist League of America (Left Opposition). Trotsky, then exiled to Turkey by the Stalinist bureaucracy, made contact with his American collaborators shortly before this conference and sent them his first letter, printed in The Militant of May 1, 1929, under the title “Tasks of the American Opposition.” There were many things he urgently wanted to advise them, but he did not fail to include a warning of the need to resist “aristocratic prejudices” and to find a way to the most exploited sections of society, “beginning with the Negro”:

“The trade union bureaucrats, like the bureaucrats of false Communism, live in the atmosphere of aristocratic prejudices of the upper strata of the workers. It will be a tragedy if the Oppositionists are infected even in the slightest degree with these qualities. We must not only reject and condemn these prejudices; we must burn them out of our consciousness to the last trace. We must find the road to the most deprived, to the darkest strata of the proletariat, beginning with the Negro, whom capitalist society has converted into a pariah, and who must learn to see in us his revolutionary brothers. And this depends wholly upon our energy and devotion to the work. ”

In 1932, an incident occurred which is sometimes remembered for the distinction Trotsky made between intellectuals and workers, but it is also worth remembering because it expressed his keen perception of the special, non-oppressive and potentially revolutionary position of Negro workers in capitalist society. A letter had been received from 24 black South Africans ("and others"), asking questions about the Left Opposition’s program, and applying for membership. Trotsky wrote an article about this, which appeared in The Militant of July 2, 1932, under the title “Closer to the Proletarians of the ’Colored’ Races!” In part, he wrote:

“If the Johannesburg comrades did not as yet have the possibility to acquaint themselves closer with the views of the Left Opposition on all the most important questions, it cannot be an obstacle in getting together with them as closely as possible even today and to help them fraternally to come into the orbit of our program and our tactics.

“When ten intellectuals of Paris, Berlin or New York, who have been in various organizations, address themselves to us with a request to be taken into our midst I would give the following advice: Put them through a number of tests on all the questions of program; wet them under the rain, dry them in the sun and then after a new careful examination, accept one or two.

“The matter changes basically when ten workers connected with the masses come to us. The difference in our relation to the petty bourgeois and to the proletarian groups does not require any explanation. But if the proletarian group works in a district where there are workers of various races, and in spite of this, it consists only of workers of a privileged nationality, I am inclined to regard them with suspicion: Are we not dealing with the workers’ aristocracy? Isn’t the group poisoned by slaveholding prejudices active or passive?

“It is quite a different matter when we are approached by a group of Negro workers. Here I am ready to consider beforehand that we are achieving agreement with them, even though this is not yet obvious; because of their whole position they do not strive and cannot strive to degrade anybody, oppress anybody or deprive anybody of his rights. They do not seek privileges and cannot rise to the top except on the road of international revolution.

“We can and we should find a way to the consciousness of the Negro workers, of the Chinese workers, of the Hindu workers, all these oppressed colored races of the human ocean to whom belongs the decisive word in the development of humanity.”

During its first five years, the Communist League of America considered itself to be and functioned as a faction of the Communist Party. That is, although its members had been expelled by the CP, its aim was to reform the CP —compel it to change its wrong policies and to readmit the CLA members. Its activities were largely determined, defined and limited by this aim. In the Negro struggle the differences between the two organizations seemedto be chiefly over tactical questions, and did not figure prominently in the CLA’s program or literature.

At the end of this period, early in 1933, a CLA leader, Arne Swabeck, during atrip abroad, held discussions with Trotsky in Prinkipo, Turkey. One of these discussions, held on Feb. 28, 1933, concerned the Negro struggle. The text appeared in the CLA internal bulletin under the title, “The Negro Question in America. “ There it was noted that the transcript was in “summary form,” meaning that it had not been corrected by the participants and therefore might not be completely accurate in every formulation. With that warning it is reprinted here after a few improvements in punctuation and spelling.

What this discussion disclosed, on both sides, was a serious concern about the Negro question, ooupled with a lack of knowledge about many of its important aspects. It reflects a oertain stage in the thinking and development of the American movement — before it had “yet formulated a program.” It also expresses very strongly Trotsky’s thinking on the questions of “self-determination,” derived, as he himself pointed out, not from a study of conditions in the United States, but from “general considerations.” (These considerations are developed more fully in “The Problem of Nationalities,” a chapter in The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 3.) One thing is certain—many of the arguments in that 1933 discussion are still pertinent in the 1960’s; in some ways, more pertinent now.

After an assessment of the way in which the Stalin-dominated Communist International had betrayed the struggle against the Nazis in Germany, the Left Opposition in 1933 abandoned the idea of reforming the Communist parties, and proclaimed the need to build a new Marxist international and revolutionary parties all over the world. As part of the job of gathering together the forces for anew party in this country, the CLA made a turn away from the Communist Party and its periphery and toward the mass movements and struggles of labor and its allies. By the time the Socialist Workers Party was founded in 1938, some branches were able to report encouraging beginnings of recruitment of Negroes from both the unemployed movement and the plants.

But the turning point did not come until the following year, and then it came for two reasons. The party’s practical activities among Negro workers in the labor and unemployed movements had stimulated a desire for theoretical clarification on the nature and direction of the Negro struggle and had produced a demand for greater attention to that struggle in the party’s program and literature. At the same time, fortunately, the party’s interest and activity in this field got a healthy impetus from another “outside” source —the arrival in this country of a non-American member of the Fourth International (with which the SWP was then affiliated), J. R. Johnson. A revolutionary intellectual, Johnson had a fundamentally sound understanding of the Negro struggle and did a great deal to help others understand it and join it. Unfortunately, Johnson was also politically unstable; he left the party in the Shachtman-Burnham split of 1940, returned in 1947 and left again in 1951. But no one can deny the valuable contributions he made to the partAproy’s theory and work in the Negro struggle. (Johnson figures in the subsequent sections of this collection under the pen names of “George” and “J. Meyer.” )

In preparation for an SWP convention to be held in mid-1939, Johnson paid a visit to Trotsky, then in Mexico, where he presented some preliminary notes to serve as the basis for three discussions held on April 4, 5, and 11. The subjects they discussed were self-determination; the possibility of collaborating with other forces in the creation of an independent Negro organization of action; and the program and plans for such an organization. The transcripts were submitted to the SWP membership for discussion prior to the approaching national convention. They are reprinted here as they appeared in Fourth International, May, 1948; September, 1948; and February, 1949. (Again a stenographer’s note explains they are a “rough draft uncorrected by participants")

The SWP convention met in New York July 1-4, 1939. Commenting editorially July 7, The Militant said, “There is no doubt that the session (on the Negro struggle) marked a most important stage, not only in the convention but in the history of the party.” There is also no doubt that the delegates took to heart and agreed with Trotsky’s warning about what continued neglect of the Negro struggle would mean for the party itself. This was clearly expressed in the major resolution adopted at this session: “The SWP must recognize that its attitude to the Negro question is crucial for its future development. Hitherto the party has been based mainly on privileged workers and groups of isolated intellectuals. Unless it can find its way to the great masses of the underprivileged, of whom the Negroes constitute so important a section, the broad perspectives of the permanent revolution will remain only a fiction and the party is bound to degenerate.”

The convention elected a committee of 12 to prepare resolutions and recommendations. The Committee on Negro Work brought in a program of action which the convention referred to the incoming National Committee for implementation. It also brought in a resolution, “The SWP and Negro Work,” dealing with the need to further educate the party, plans for recruiting politically advanced Negroes, and the party’s readiness to help create anew militant Negro organization. This resolution was adopted without opposition and is reprinted here. (It was generally agreed, after the convention, by the members of the Committee on Negro Work and the party generally that an “overstatement” had appeared in the second sentence of this resolution—that instead of saying their historical past has designated American Negroes to be “the very vanguard of the proletarian revolution,” it should read “in the very vanguard of the proletarian revolution.”)

One other resolution — on self-determination — resulted in differences in the Committee on Negro Work. A report for the majority of the committee was presented to the convention by Johnson, and then Mc Kinney and Wright were each given time to present their minority reports. What their differences were can be grasped from the amendments they offered to the resolution on self-determination: Mc Kinney’s amendments were to eliminate the fifth paragraph and to eliminate the fifth, sixth and seventh sentences of the last paragraph. Wright’s amendments called for addition to the opening part of “a section dealing with the relation of Negro proletarians to the Negroes as a whole. Should the decisive mass of Negro workers be won to the Fourth International, that would have a decisive bearing on the question,” and addition after the third sentence in the fifth paragraph of “a section dealing with possible effects of the development of ’counter-revolutionary crisis’ on the Negroes. Suggested formulation: ‘It is by no means excluded that in a counter-revolutionary crisis the desire for a Negro state may assume a more reactionary character than did the Garvey movement.’ ”

Three motions were then presented on the self-determination question:

Motion by McKinney: “The convention recommends to the incoming National Committee that a general political resolution on the Negro in the U. S. be prepared, one section of that resolution to deal with the question of self-determination. Resolution to be adopted by party referendum within a period of sixty days after presentation to the party.” (Defeated by action on the subsequent motions. )

Motion by Wright: “Resolution on self-determination be adopted as a basis for a final draft. All amendments to be referred to the N.C.” Carried.

Motion by Committee on Negro Work: “The Committee on Negro Work recommends to the national convention that it instruct the incoming N. C. to prepare as soon as possible a general resolution on the Negro problem in America. This resolution should deal with the question as a whole, in all its aspects and from the broadest point of view, and is to serve as the basic document of the party on the question. Such a resolution alone will throw into correct perspective and reduce to its proper proportions the single aspect of the problem represented by the right of self-determination. The convention should recommend further to the incoming N. C. that, upon completion of this general resolution, it is to take immediate steps to institute discussion of it in the party to the end that the party adopt such a basic document as speedily as possible.” Carried.