CLR James, marxist and pan-africanist historian and theorist, wrote extensively on the African-American national question beginning in the late 1930s.
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The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States
Source: submitted as a document of the minority (Johnson-Forest) grouping in the Workers Party (the Shachtmanites), 1943.
The history of the Negro question and the American revolutionary movement in general, and the Trotskyist movement in particular, makes it imperative at this stage to outline in however brief a form the role of the Negroes in the political development of American society.
In 1776 the masses of the Negroes played no initiatory role and the revolution would have taken the general course it did if not one single Negro lived in the United State. However, as soon as the actual revolutionary struggle began, the Negroes compelled the revolutionary bourgeoisie to include the rights of Negroes among the rights of man. The Negroes themselves played a powerful part in the military struggle of the revolution.
Between 1800 and 1830 the Negroes, disappointed in the results of the revolution, staged a continuous series of revolts. By 1831 the petty-bourgeois democracy of the United States entered upon a period of widespread egalitarian and humanitarian agitation.
Disappointed by their failures between 1800 and 1830, the Negro slaves in the South, aided by free Negroes in the North, sought their freedom by mass flight. Owing to this spontaneous action, the petty-bourgeois movement for the rights of the common man was soon dominated by the struggle for the abolition of slavery.
The link between the Northern bourgeoisie and the Southern planters was far stronger by 1860 than the link between the colonial bourgeoisie and the British in 1776. The Northern bourgeoisie used all possible means to avoid the revolutionary clash.
The most powerful subjective influence which forced the irrepresibility of the conflict upon the consciousness of the people was the agitation of the petty- bourgeoisie, stimulated, maintained, and intensified over the years by the refusal of the masses of slaves the accept their position. In the course of the Civil War the revolutionary actions of the masses of the Negroes in the South played a decisive role in the winning of the Northern victory.
In the agrarian movement of the 1890s in the South the Negro farmers and semi- proletarians, independently organized to the extent of a million and a quarter members in the National Colored Farmers Alliance, were a militant and powerful wing of the Populist movement. They supported the break with the Republican Party and the proposal for a third party with social as well as economic aims.
The importance of the Negroes as a revolutionary force has grown with the development of the American economy. Conversely, however, racial prejudice against the Negroes has also grown.
Between 1830 and 1860 the Southern planters cultivated the theory of Negro inferiority to a degree far exceeding that of earlier slavery days, being driven to do this by the increasing divergences between the developing bourgeois democracy in the United States and the needs of the slave economy.
To conquer the formidable threat of white and Negro unity, particularly that represented by Populism, the Southern plantocracy elevated race consciousness to the position of a principle. The whole country was injected with this idea.
Thus, side by side with his increasing integration into production which becomes more and more a social process, the Negro becomes more than ever conscious of his exclusion from democratic privileges as a separate social group in the community. This dual movement is the key to the Marxist analysis of the Negro question in the U.S.A.
At the same time in the country as a whole, as in the world at large, the rights of democracy become more and more a burning political question in view of the widespread attack by declining bourgeois society upon the principles of democracy in general. Simultaneously, the rise of the labor movement brings increasing consciousness of labor as a social force in the reorganization of society.
Thus the Negro in his century and a half old struggle for democratic rights is increasingly confronted with the subjective consciousness of himself as an oppressed racial minority and the objective consciousness of labor as the great bulwark of democracy in the country at large.
It is in the light of this contradiction that we must trace the development among Negroes of the sense of nationalistic oppression and the modern efforts to free themselves from it.
Negro Nationalism: First Phase
The first reaction of the masses of the Negroes to the consolidation of the Solid South was the policy of Booker T. Washington, who counselled submission, industrial training, and the development of Negro business. For the moment the Negroes in the South seemed to acquiesce.
But in reality there grew up a furious but suppressed hatred of whites at the oppression and particularly at the racial humiliation to which Negroes were now being subjected. The appreciation of this is fundamental to any understanding of the Negro question.
During World War I the needs of Northern industry brought a million Negroes to the North. The suppressed resentment burst out and was organized and mislead as Garveyism. Thus when this essentially nationalistic explosion took place immediately the Negroes gained some integration into American society which allowed them free expression.
Its first significance was the indication that it gave of the powerful force of social protest which smoldered in the hearts of the Negroes. Its second is the fact that it took place precisely because the Negro had made economic and social progress.
The Negro and Organized Labor
The Negroes, due to their place as the most oppressed section of the labor force and their sense of national oppression, have always shown themselves on the whole exceptionally ready to join the forces of organized labor. The exclusion of Negroes from the AFL corresponded to a period of class collaboration practiced by the AFL leadership.
When the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) raised the banner of militant trade unionism among the most oppressed and exploited sections of the working population, Negro labor responded both as rank and filers and as good organizers. Moreover, the IWW gave the Negroes the sense of a social program for the regeneration of society to which also the Negroes have always been responsive.
In 1932 the Negroes, like the rest of the labor movement, followed the New Deal program with its vast promises of a new order in America. But the Roosevelt government, while of necessity including the Negroes in its social service program for the unemployed, did nothing to implement its vague promises for the amelioration of the national oppression of Negroes in the country.
The CIO, being mainly an organization of the heavy industries, was compelled to organize the Negroes in great industries like steel and auto or face the impossibility of any organization at all. The Negro masses, despite some hesitation, responded magnificently and today they constitute powerful and progressive groups in many unions of the CIO.
This entry into the militant trade-union movement is undoubtedly of great significance not only for organized labor as a whole but for the Negro people. Yet the main struggle of the Negro masses in the United States has been and until the achievement of socialism will continue to be their struggle for their democratic rights as a nationally oppressed minority.
Their entry into the ranks of organized labor does not lessen their sense of national oppression. On the contrary, it increases it and, in full accordance with their role in past American revolutionary crises and the developing antagonisms of American society, this independent action of the Negro masses is already playing a role in relation to the American proletariat which constitutes one of the most important elements in the struggle for socialism.
Negro Nationalism: Second Phase
The tumultuous world situation, the loud-voiced shrieking of “democracy” by Anglo- American imperialism and the increasing demands of organized labor in America for greater and greater extensions of its democratic rights, stimulated in the Negro people by the beginning of World War II a more than usually intensive desire to struggle for equality.
Driven by the necessities of war, the Roosevelt government called upon the people of America to make the greater sacrifices necessary for war in the name of democracy. At the same time, however, the special needs and practices of Southern society and industry as a whole, fortified by the now deeply- ingrained race prejudice of American society, prohibited any extension of democracy to the Negro people.
Instead the persecution and discrimination of World War I have been intensified. The violent attacks and humiliations to which the Negro people have been subjected, in the Army in particular, have raised the indignation of the Negro masses to a high pitch.
The Negroes have responded with a nation-wide offensive. This offensive, which especially sought the right of entry into industry and also into Jim Crow unions, has expressed itself not only in mass movements but in a growing determination to struggle in an individual and often terroristic manner against any manifestation of white superiority.
The younger Negroes in particular now walk the streets in many towns determined to assert themselves. And in states like Virginia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee their attitude in street cars, their resentful submission to the old Jim Crow laws, have created a degree of social tension unknown in those parts for two generations.
This has been one of the main contributing causes to the series of racial outbreaks which have taken place in various parts of the country. The Attorney General of the United States has made the fantastic and unprecedented proposal to prohibit the Negroes from coming into Northern cities and has publicly expressed his fears of imminent race riots. He thus typifies the bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie in the face of the mass offensive of the Negroes.
The character and high state of development of the nation-wide Negro offensive is best typified by its expression in Harlem. Harlem is the largest urban concentration of Negroes in the country. It is the area in which Negroes feel safest, freest, and therefore most able to express their resentment.
It is therefore precisely in Harlem that appear most powerfully the nationalistic sentiments of the Negro and the deepest social protests. In 1935 the Negroes in Harlem carried out a spontaneous demonstration against their general social conditions and particularly against the non-employment of Negroes in Harlem stores. The demonstrations initiated a movement which has made substantial corrections of this injustice.
In 1941 the Harlem community organized and carried to success a demonstration against the non-employment of bus-drivers. Similar actions or attempts at action have taken place all over the country, except in the very deep South.
The Negroes have not been satisfied with local or merely regional demonstrations. Highly significant is the organized expression of their boiling resentment. As far back as 1940, Councilman Powell, realizing the need for giving some national organized expression to this widespread resentment, tried to summon a national conference of Negro leaders in New York.
The movement did not materialize, but by 1941 the pressure of the Negro masses had forced the formation of an organization aimed at marching on Washington and making a forcible protest to the state against the national oppression of the Negroes.
The Negro petty-bourgeois leaders found their organization in the NAACP and the Urban league rejected by the Negro masses as unsuitable for their militant purposes. They trembled before this powerful urge of the Negro masses to confront the capitalist state with a comprehensive protest against their grievances.
In the persons of A. Philip Randolph and Walter White they rushed to head the movement and immediately turned it over to the Roosevelt government which transformed itself into leader of the Negro people under the guise of the FEPC. The Negro masses waited patiently upon the FEPC to solve their problems in industry and upon the capitalist state to improve the situation of Negroes in the Army.
With the failure of the Roosevelt government and the FEPC to ameliorate their grievances, the masses of the Negro people arrived at the decision that they must take matters into their own hands. The most outstanding expression of this sentiment was the Harlem demonstration, participated in by many thousands of people, viewed sympathetically by the large majority of the people of Harlem and Negroes all over the United States.
When examined in its totality it will be seen as one of the most significant manifestations of independent social protest among Negroes that has taken place since the Garvey movement. This is no question merely of bad housing, insufficient playgrounds, or increasing poverty.
The Harlem demonstration, like the miners' strike, represents a significant stage in the development of the struggle against capitalist society. The miners' strike was an indication not only of the immediate grievances of the miners but of the stage of development reached by the American proletariat as a whole.
The miners did what millions of Americans wanted to do. The Harlem action is equally an indication of the sentiments of the great majority of the Negroes in this country. Both of these manifestations in their strength and in their weaknesses are the two most important indications of the developing mass resentment against the existing, i.e., the capitalist, society that have resulted from the strain of the war.
At the same time the petty-bourgeois leaders among the Negroes have issued a political manifesto which, despite all its weaknesses, show that the Negro people as a whole have reached the stage of taking a critical attitude, as Negroes, to both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Both the Negroes protesting in the streets and the timid and vacillating petty-bourgeois have now reached a stage in their evolution where, as always in the their past history, their next historic step is toward unity with the revolutionary class, in our day, the American proletariat.
To the degree that the Negroes are more integrated into industry and unions their consciousness of racial oppression and their resentment against it become heavier, not less. This dual development of the Negro people during the last few years poses exceptional problems and exceptional opportunities for the American proletariat and therefore for the revolutionary party.
The American Proletariat and the Negro Question Today
The American proletariat is the class whose objective role at the present stage is to solve the fundamental problems of American society. Any theoretical analysis of the contemporary Negro problem must therefore begin with the developing relation of the Negro struggle to the general struggles of the proletariat as the leader of the oppressed classes in American society.
i. In the present stage of American capitalism the great danger threatening the masses of the people is fascism. Events in Detroit and elsewhere have shown that the fascistic elements will exploit to the limit the Negro problem in the United States to confuse, disorganize, and divide the great masses of the people and to disrupt their natural leader in the struggle against Fascism, the organized force of labor.
ii. The American bourgeoisie, whether Democratic or Republican, is perfectly aware of the permanent nature of the agricultural crisis and has already shown its determination to bribe the farmers to support it against organized labor.
However, the problems of the poor farmers, the tenant farmers, the sharecroppers, and the agricultural proletariat are insoluble in capitalist society. The solution of the agrarian problem in the United States rests with the proletariat and any solution involves automatically the general social situation of millions of Negroes in the Southern states.
iii.The South presents the gravest problem of democracy in the United States. Economic remnants of slavery, a large landless peasantry, the development of large-scale and, especially, the extractive industries, the transference of textile industry from the North, a developing labor movement -- all these are permeated with a caste system comparable to nothing else in the modern world.
Holding together these diverse and contradictory elements is a political superstructure with the external forms of bourgeois democracy. This extraordinary conglomeration of explosive forces is situated not as in India, thousands of miles away from the metropolis, but in the very heart of the most advanced political bourgeois democracy in the world.
Armed with Trotsky's theory of the permanent revolution, which we must apply at home as well as abroad, the Bolshevik party must be able to foresee the telescoping of the industrial, agricultural, and social revolution in the South.
These contradictions are developing at a time when Fascism, the enemy of democracy and the most outspoken of all proponents of racial domination, is experiencing signal defeats administered at the cost of great sacrifices to the American people.
The gross hypocrisy involved has made deep penetration into the minds of Negroes in the South. Familiarity with that situation and the comparative acceptance by the masses, particularly the Negro masses, in the past, should not dull our comprehension of the potential dynamite which the situation represents.
It is possible that before the general economic and political forces in the South have reached the point of explosion, the Negro masses may by independent mass actions pose all questions purely in terms of equality of Negro rights.
Whatever the pace of the general development or the forms that it may take, we must expect that in the course of the next period, the period of the social crisis in America, the American proletariat as a whole will be faced with this problem.
iv. Even today, in the day-to-day struggles for democratic rights, the Southern landlords and industrialists have proved themselves the unyielding enemies, not only of the working class but of the democratic rights of the whole American people. Large sections of American society, particularly organized labor and the great number of Negroes in the North are now fully aware of this and are aware also that the basis of Southern political power is the economic and social degradation of the Negroes in the South.
From the above four points, certain conclusions of extreme importance to the American proletariat can be drawn. In America as in every other country, the basic struggle is between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie for the control of the economic sources of social and political power.
But in every country this struggle assumes special historical forms. It is the task of the revolutionary party first of all to clarify itself in order to able to clarify the proletariat on the crucial role of the Negro problem in the defense of its own position and the socialist reconstruction of American society.
The Negro Question as a National Question
The 14 million Negroes in the United States are subjected to every conceivable variety of economic oppression and social and political discrimination. These tortures are to a degree sanctified by law and practiced without shame by all the organs of government.
The Negroes, however, are and have been for many centuries in every sense of the word, Americans. They are not separated from their oppressors by differences of culture, differences of religion, differences of language, as the inhabitants of India or Africa. The are not even regionally separated from the rest of the community as national groups in Russia, Spain, or Yugoslavia.
The Negroes are for the most part proletarian or semi-proletarian and therefore the struggle of the Negroes is fundamentally a class question.
The Negroes do not constitute a nation, but, owing to their special situation, their segregation; economic, social, and political oppression; the difference in color which singles them out so easily from the rest of the community; their problems become the problem of a national minority.
The Negro question is a part of the national and not of the “national” question. This national minority is most easily distinguished from the rest of the community by its racial characteristics. Thus the Negro question is a question of race and not of “race.”
The contrasts between their situation and the privileges enjoyed by those around them have always made the Negroes that section of American society most receptive to revolutionary ideas and the radical solution of social problems. The white working class struggles against the objective rule of capital and for some subjective goal, which even on the every eve of revolution, is impossible to visualize fully in concrete and positive terms.
The Negroes, on the other hand, struggle and will continue to struggle objectively against capital, but in contrast to the white workers, for the very concrete objective democratic rights that they see around them.
But the whole history of the United States and the role of the Negroes in American economy and society are a constant proof and reminder of the fact that it is absolutely impossible for the Negroes to gain equality under American capitalism.
Such is the development of American capitalist society and the role of Negroes in it that the Negroes' struggle for democratic rights brings the Negroes almost immediately face to face with capital and the state.
The Marxist support of the Negro struggle for democratic rights is not a concession that Marxists make to the Negroes. In the United States today this struggle is a direct part of the struggle for socialism.
National Struggle and the Struggle for Socialism
All serious problems arising from the Negro question revolve around the relationship of the independent mass actions of the Negroes for democratic rights to the working class struggle for socialism.
In the Second Congress of the Communist International, Lenin's theses singled out as examples of the national and colonial question the Irish question and the question of the Negroes in America. This Leninist approach was based upon close study of the economic situation of the Negroes in the United States and the Irish Rebellion in 1916.
The whole historical development of the Negro struggle in the United States and its relations to the social struggles of the revolutionary classes show that the Leninist analysis of the Negro question as part of the national question is the correct method with which to approach this problem.
It is necessary, therefore, to have a precise and clear conception of the application of this method. The most concentrated example of it is Lenin's treatment of the Irish Rebellion during World War I.
Lenin wishes to illustrate the specifically nationalist struggle of the Irish Rebellion in its relation to the socialist struggle of the British proletariat against British imperialism. He uses the experience of the Russian Revolution in 1905 which took place exclusively within the national boundaries of Russia.
He uses also, not the struggles of the nationally oppressed minorities, but the struggles of the petty-bourgeoisie, the peasants and other non- proletarian, non-class groups, in relation to the struggle of the Russian proletariat. We have therefore a very concrete illustration of the applicability of the method to environments and classes superficially diverse but organically similar.
(a) “The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups, and elements of the population participated. Among these were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest and most fantastic aims of struggle; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, there were speculators and adventurers, etc. Objectively, the mass movement broke the back of tsarism and paved the way for democracy; for that reason the class-conscious workers led it.”
Within the United States the socialist revolution will ultimately consist of a series of battles in which the discontented classes, groups and elements of all types will participate in their own way and form a contributory force to the great culminating struggles which will be led by the proletariat.
(b) “The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything else than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry of the oppressed and discontented elements. Sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will inevitably participate in it -- without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible -- and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a heterogeneous and discordant, motley, and outwardly incohesive mass struggle will be able to unite and direct it, to capture power, to seize the banks, to expropriate the trusts, hated by all, though for different reasons ... .”
In the United States social revolution is impossible without the independent mass struggles of the Negroes, whatever the prejudices, the reactionary fantasies, the weaknesses and errors of these struggles. The proletarian composition of the Negro people and the developing labor movement, offer great opportunities for a continuous reduction of the prejudices of the Negro people.
(c) “The struggle of the oppressed nations IN EUROPE, a struggle capable of going to the lengths of insurrection and street fighting, of breaking down the iron discipline in the army and martial law, will 'sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe' infinitely more than a much more developed rebellion in a remote colony. A blow delivered against the English imperialist bourgeoisie by a rebellion in Ireland is a hundred times more significant politically than a blow of equal weight delivered in Asia or Africa.”
Blows delivered by an oppressed national minority so entangled in the social structure of the United States as the Negroes, possess a political significance of greater importance in this country than a blow delivered by any other section of the population except the organized proletariat itself.
(d) “The dialectics of history is such that small nations, powerless as an INDEPENDENT factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the REAL power against imperialism to come on the scene, namely the SOCIALIST PROLETARIAT.”
Within the United States, the Negroes are undoubtedly powerless to achieve their complete or even substantial emancipation as an independent factor in the struggle against American capital but such is the historic role of the Negroes in the United States; such today is their proletarian composition and such is the interrelation with the American proletariat itself that their independent struggles form perhaps the most powerful stimulus in American society to the recognition by the organized proletariat of its real responsibilities to the national development as a whole and of its power against American imperialism.
The ideal situation is that the struggle of the minority group should be organized and led by the proletariat. But to make this a precondition of supporting the struggle of non- proletarian, semi- proletarian, or non-class conscious groups is a repudiation of all Marxist theory and practice.
Thus it is utterly false to draw the conclusion that the independent struggle of the Negro masses for their democratic rights is to be looked upon merely as a preliminary stage to a recognition by the Negroes that the real struggle is the struggle for socialism.
The Marxist Movement and the Negro Question
The Marxist movement in the United States with little exception has failed to grasp the fact that the Negro question is part of the national question. This is not surprising because it has shown little interest in the Negroes except under the direct and insistent stimulus of the internationalist movement.
The socialist movement under Debs considered any special appeal to the Negro people as contrary to the spirit of socialism. Randolph appealed to Negroes to become socialists but proved quite incapable of dealing with the powerful nationalistic current of Garveyism that was prevalent at the time.
The Communist Party up to 1928 was unable to understand either the significance of the Negro question in the U.S. or the method of work required. It was only through the drastic intervention of the Communist International, whatever its purpose, that the Communist Party in 1929 began a serious approach to the Negro question.
Despite many exaggerations, the turn to the Negro question was on the whole sound and effective, but it was seriously handicapped by the adoption of a policy of advocating self- determination for the Black Belt. In 1935 with the new turn of the Communist International toward social patriotism, the work of the Communist Party among Negroes began a process of rapid deterioration.
The Trotskyist movement from its foundation in 1928 to 1938 took even less interest in the Negro question than the Communist Party and once more it was only under the insistence of the international organization that the American Marxist movement took action on the Negro question.
Trotsky and the Negro Question
Trotsky began to take a special interest in the Negro question as soon as he applied himself to the problems of the United States from the point of view of building a Trotskyist revolutionary organization. From that time he never ceased to point out the importance of this question.
Though scattered and to some degree incidental, his conversations and discussions are organized by a consistent approach and, altogether, constitute a remarkable example of Marxist penetration into the correct basis for any Negro work in the U.S. In any resolution on the Negro question at this stage, it is necessary to summarize briefly his ideas.
On the question of self-determination, Trotsky believed that the differences between the West Indies, Catalonia, Poland, etc. and the situation of the Negroes in the United States were not decisive. In other words, the Negro question was a part of the national question.
He firmly opposed those in the Fourth International who rejected outright the principle of self-determination for Negroes in the U.S. In a discussion in 1939 he made it clear that he did not propose that the party advocate the slogan of self-determination for Negroes in the U.S. but he insisted that the party should declare its obligation to struggle with the Negroes for self-determination, should they at any time demand it.
Trotsky insisted that if the Negroes should decide, under the stress of unforseen historical events (e.g., a period of Fascism in the U.S.), to struggle for self-determination, the struggle would under all circumstances be progressive, for the simple reason that it could not possibly be attained except through war against American capitalism.
Trotsky's views on the Negro question are most clearly, though not completely, contained in a discussion in 1939. In his approach to Negro work, Trotsky based his views on the sentiments of the genuine Negro masses in the U.S. and the fact that their oppression as Negroes was so strong that they feel it at every moment.
Of those suffering from oppression and discrimination, the Negroes were the most oppressed and the most discriminated against and therefore formed part of the most dynamic milieu of the working class. The party should say to the conscious elements among the Negroes that they have been convoked by the historical development to take their place in the very vanguard of the working class struggle for socialism.
Trotsky considered that if the party was unable to find a road to this stratum of society, in which he gave the Negroes a very important place, then it would be a confession of revolutionary futility.
While conscious of the role of the Negro in the vanguard, however, Trotsky placed a heavy emphasis always on the consciousness of Negroes as being a nationally oppressed minority. On every possible occasion he emphasized the political conclusions that were to be drawn from the social situation of the Negroes under American capitalism for 300 years. He warned repeatedly of the probability of violent racial outbreaks among the Negroes in which they would seek to revenge themselves for all the oppression and humiliations which they had suffered.
Trotsky took the greatest interest in the Garvey movement as an expression of the genuine sentiments of the Negro masses who were always his main concern. He constantly recommended to the party the study of the Negroes in the Civil War as a historical necessity for understanding the Negro question today.
He recommended the study of Garvey's movement as an indispensable indication to the party of the road to the Negro masses. He welcomed the idea of an independent mass organization of the Negro people, formed through the instrumentality of the party.
His general approach to the Negro question can best be indicated by the following fact: he recommended that under certain circumstances the revolutionary party should withdraw its own candidate for election to Congress and support a Negro Democrat put forward by a Negro community anxious to have its own Negro representative. In all these ideas Trotsky merely exemplified the application to the concrete struggle of the original principle embodied in the right to self-determination.
No task is more urgent than the collation and publication of Trotsky's writings and ideas on the Negro question in the U.S., their close study by all members of the party, and their dissemination in an organized form among the proletariat and the Negro masses.