The revolutionary answer to the Negro problem in the United States

A report delivered by C. L. R. James in presenting the draft resolution on the Negro Question to the Thirteenth Convention of the Socialist Workers Party (US), July 5, 1948

Introduction by Scott McLemee

ORIGINALLY PRESENTED as a speech to an audience of socialists in the early days of the Cold War, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States” is undoubtedly one of the best-known writings by C. L. R. James from his long study of American politics and culture. It appeared almost exactly ten years after the publication of his book The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938). And like that great account of the Haitian liberation struggle, it has earned its place in the classical Marxist tradition as a forceful and incisive treatment of racial oppression, mass action, and revolutionary social change.

But few readers who encountered “Revolutionary answer” in the December 1948 issue of Fourth International magazine had any way to know that James was its author. It appeared under the byline “J. Meyers”—one of several pseudonyms James used to sign the pamphlets and articles he wrote for American radical organizations.

An author’s scattered publications are sometimes called his “fugitive” writings—and “Revolutionary answer” certainly qualifies on that score. But it counts as a fugitive work in another, more concrete sense. Born in Trinidad, then a British colony, James had arrived in the United States in 1938 and overstayed his residency permit. After the Second World War, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) joined forces to locate and expel him as an undesirable (that is, left-wing) alien. They caught up with him during the last two weeks of 1947, though it took six more years before he was deported.

That biographical detail is worth keeping in mind while reading “The revolutionary answer to the Negro problem in the United States”—because when it was delivered at the Socialist Workers Party convention in July 1948, James had J. Edgar Hoover breathing down the back of his neck.

The following year, someone at the FBI prepared a detailed report on James that included an account of his recent articles for the left-wing press. (Evidently the pseudonyms hadn’t done much good.) Surveillance files on “subversives” are notoriously unreliable—often filled with rumor, guesswork, and outright bullshit. But the memo on James was surprisingly accurate. It was the work of someone who could recognize and comprehend the most important points of an argument. And so which article by C. L. R. James did this clear-sighted guardian of the capitalist social order decide needed the longest and most thorough treatment? “The revolutionary answer to the Negro problem in the United States.”

James begins by situating his talk in the “tremendous battle for the minds of the Negro people and for the minds of the population in the United States as a whole over the Negro question.” This was more than a rhetorical gesture. For all the celebration of an “American Century” then underway, the ideological moorings of US power were under great strain.

Years of mobilizing the entire country against Hitler’s racist regime, followed by a massive and ever more strident propaganda offensive against the Soviet police state, left the ruling class in a vulnerable position. It was bad enough for a self-described capitalist democracy that one-tenth of its population was descended from slave laborers who had been exploited and brutalized in an archipelago of concentration camps called “plantations.” That most African Americans remained subject to systematic racial oppression that was fully sanctioned by the state through the force of law was more than hypocrisy; it was a fault line running through the entire structure’s foundation.

A growing awareness of the contradictions was reflected in works that straddled the line between literature and popular culture. At the start of his talk, for example, James makes a joking allusion to Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, a controversial and best-selling novel about interracial romance published in 1944. (Its title was borrowed from Billie Holiday’s haunting 1939 song about lynching.) James began a close friendship with Richard Wright as the novelist was finishing the autobiographical manuscript that became Black Boy in 1945—another best seller, like Native Son a few years earlier.

Even the now rather dated formulation “the Negro problem” in James’s title carries overtones of a specific element in the public awareness of race during and just after the war. Marxists had been theorizing about “the Negro question” for decades—and James’s presentation is a concentrated synthesis of perspectives developed by V. I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and W. E. B. Du Bois, among others. But in presenting his “Revolutionary answer,” James gives a nod to the subtitle of Gunnar Myrdal’s sociological study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944).

It, too, was a best-seller, though at more than a thousand pages in length (not counting appendices and notes), it was no doubt more often debated than actually read. The great interest in Myrdal’s treatise was driven in large part by pressures from below—including the national march on Washington called by African American labor organizers in 1941 to demand desegregation. President Roosevelt had been too preoccupied with other matters to give serious attention to earlier lobbying efforts, but the prospect of some 100,000 Black demonstrators surrounding the White House seems to have wonderfully concentrated his mind long enough to issue the executive order creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee.

With that concession won, the organizers called off the protest. But a march on Washington movement continued for several years, demanding—in the words of its manifesto from 1942—“an end to Jim Crow in education, in housing, in transportation, and in every other social, economic, and political privilege.” Meanwhile, amid the war effort, racial tensions were building up. In June 1943, Detroit exploded into three days of violence, and riots in Harlem came a few weeks later when a policeman shot an African American soldier.

Writing under the name “W. F. Carleton” in the New International, a Trotskyist journal, James noted that the authorities had been ignoring repeated assaults by white gangs on African American communities, while the police in Detroit went a step further by openly taking sides with white rioters. The lesson was clear:

If Negroes depend on the government, they are going to be dragged from trolleys and beaten up; they and their wives and children will be shot down by rioters and police; and their homes will be wrecked and burned…. Every school, every street, every church group, can organize for self-defense where official authority has failed them, as it now has.

Membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) grew rapidly at the end of the war—a development James saw as significant quite apart from the criticisms a Marxist might make of the NAACP’s program or leadership. When hundreds of thousands of African Americans rush to join “an organization aiming at the destruction of Negro oppression and discrimination,” he wrote in 1947, “that becomes an indication of a tremendous social ferment in the nation as a whole…. [which] drives them towards unifying their forces for struggle. They are impelled toward the search for solidarity because they realize that all the great problems of the nation and of the Negro minority are now being posed. They gird themselves for a solution of their own.”

At an important but easily misunderstood turn of the argument in “Revolutionary answer,” James cites Lenin’s idea on national self-determination as a key to understanding the tremendous and disproportionate impact of the African American liberation struggle on the whole of American society. It is sometimes construed as evidence that James, for all his anti-Stalinism, accepted something akin to the Black Belt thesis put forward by the Communist International in 1928. (This called for the creation of a new and independent republic for people of African descent, its territory occupying most of the old Confederacy.)

At the very least, the reference to Lenin’s work is taken to mean that he was a Black nationalist—a characterization that James himself rejected unambiguously. In “The historical development of the Negroes in American society” (a major theoretical document from 1943, written within months of the summer’s upheavals) James was quite explicit:

The Negroes…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. They 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 punctuation of that last sentence is certainly a bit problematic, but its thrust is clear: their history and position within the United States makes African Americans an oppressed minority within a multiracial nation-state dominated by capitalism.

James goes on to say that the revolutionary socialist movement must wage “a merciless war against the Negro nationalist movements”—exposing “their fantastic and reactionary proposals for Negro emancipation,” which he calls “magic-carpet programs of salvation.” At the same time, given the overwhelmingly working-class composition of any African American mass movement, it is necessary “to differentiate between the Negro nationalist leaders and their sincere but misguided followers”—just as with the reformist liberalism of the NAACP.

What James has taken from Lenin, then, is not a set of formulas or schemas but a sense of revolutionary method. That means combining close attention to the force and direction of specific forms of struggle against oppression (class or otherwise) with participation in mass movements that have the potential for creating wider forms of solidarity among the victims of capitalism’s constant, self-generated crises.

“The revolutionary answer to the Negro problem in the United States” offers a highly concentrated lesson in that method. Indeed, it has come to overshadow the very resolution on behalf of which James was speaking: the document “Negro liberation through revolutionary socialism,” adopted by the Socialist Workers Party and published in the February 1950 issue of Fourth International. (Like the other material cited here, “Negro liberation” can be readily found online thanks to the Marxist Internet Archive, although the MIA archivists do not identify James as its primary author.)

Even Ahmed Shawki, whose book Black Liberation and Socialism is invaluable for anyone grappling with the issues discussed here, makes the mistake of assuming “Revolutionary answer” itself was the resolution James presented to the convention in 1948. James’s speech is undoubtedly the more powerful document—but one passage in “Negro liberation” is worth pointing out to anyone reading James for the first time:

The government and the bourgeoisie have never underestimated the potential force of the Negro movement and its threat to the capitalist system. The forms and rapidity of its progress will be determined to a large degree by the strength and resolute participation of the party in its struggles and experiences, and its concentration upon promoting the economic and social interests of the Negro masses. We must support this mass movement, develop it, and make it a politically conscious and definitely class movement. In marching hand in hand with it to the end we are marching far beyond its initial goal; we are marching to the very end of the division of society into classes.

It has a special significance in the age of Obama—when lip service to democracy and equality is so much easier to come by than even the slightest improvement in our condition.

The revolutionary answer to the Negro problem in the United States

COMRADES, OUR party, with this Resolution, is preparing to make a powerful entry into a section of the class struggle that is now raging in the United States. The decay of capitalism on a world scale, the rise of the CIO in the United States, and the struggle of the Negro people, have precipitated a tremendous battle for the minds of the Negro people and for the minds of the population in the US as a whole over the Negro question. During the last few years certain sections of the bourgeoisie, recognizing the importance of this question, have made a powerful theoretical demonstration of their position, which has appeared in The American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal, a publication that took a quarter of a million dollars to produce. Certain sections of the sentimental petty bourgeoisie have produced their spokesmen, one of whom is Lillian Smith. That has produced some very strange fruit, which however has resulted in a book which has sold some half a million copies over the last year or two. The Negro petty bourgeoisie, radical and concerned with communism, has also made its bid in the person of Richard Wright, whose books have sold over a million copies. When books on such a controversial question as the Negro question reach the stage of selling half a million copies it means that they have left the sphere of literature and have now reached the sphere of politics.

President Truman has made his literary and theoretical declaration in the report of the Civil Rights Committee, and he has also made his political declaration in his recommendations to Congress to accept the proposals of that committee. The Communist Party is doing its hardest in the same field and has declared at one of its recent plenums that the test and touchstone of the work of the party, of its maturity in the United States, is the work it has done and does on the Negro question.
It is into this battle that we now propose to enter, in a more rounded, more consistent, and more militant form than we have entered in the past. That is the first significance of this Resolution. It is not only a guide to the actions of the party; its mere presentation to the public will mean that the policies of genuine Bolshevism are now ready to compete fully armed in the tremendous battle that is raging over the Negro question in the United States.

Now what is it that we have to say that is new? In one sense—and I quote—“nothing is new.” What we say in this Resolution has been “implicit,” it has been an “underlying conception” of our activity in the past. It has appeared in many discussions by Trotsky and in various articles and speeches. But nevertheless it has not appeared in such consistent and rounded and finished form as we propose to do in this Resolution.

We can compare what we have to say that is new, in that sense, by comparing it to previous positions on the Negro question in the socialist movement. The proletariat, as we know, must lead the struggles of all the oppressed and all those who are persecuted by capitalism. But this has been interpreted in the past—and by some very good socialists too—in the following sense: The independent struggles of the Negro people have not got much more than an episodic value, and as a matter of fact, can constitute a great danger not only to the Negroes themselves, but to the organized labor movement. The real leadership of the Negro struggle must rest in the hands of organized labor and of the Marxist party. Without that the Negro struggle is not only weak, but is likely to cause difficulties for the Negroes and dangers to organized labor. This, as I say, is the position held by many socialists in the past. Some great socialists in the United States have been associate with this attitude.

Our standpoint
We, on the other hand, say something entirely different.

We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.

We say, number two, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.
We say, number three, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.

In this way we challenge directly any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent Negro struggle for democratic rights. That is our position. It was the position of Lenin thirty years ago. It was the position of Trotsky which he fought for during many years. It has been concretized by the general class struggle in the United States, and the tremendous struggles of the Negro people. It has been sharpened and refined by political controversy in our movement and, best of all, it has had the benefit of three or four years of practical application in the Negro struggle and in the class struggle by the Socialist Workers Party during the past few years.

Now if this position has reached the stage where we can put it forward in the shape that we propose, that means that to understand it should be by now simpler than before; and by merely observing the Negro question, the Negro people, rather, the struggles they have carried on, their ideas, we are able to see the roots of this position in a way that was difficult to see ten or even fifteen years ago. The Negro people, we say, on the basis of their own experiences, approach the conclusions of Marxism. And I will have briefly to illustrate this as has been shown in the Resolution.

First of all, on the question of imperialist war. The Negro people do not believe that the last two wars and the one that may overtake us, are a result of the need to struggle for democracy, for freedom of the persecuted peoples by the American bourgeoisie. They cannot believe that.

On the question of the state, what Negro, particularly below the Mason-Dixon line, believes that the bourgeois state is a state above all classes, serving the needs of all the people? They may not formulate their belief in Marxist terms, but their experience drives them to reject this shibboleth of bourgeois democracy.
On the question of what is called the democratic process, the Negroes do not believe that grievances, difficulties of sections of the population, are solved by discussions, by voting, by telegrams to Congress, by what is known as the “American way.”

Finally, on the question of political action. The American bourgeoisie preaches that Providence in its divine wisdom has decreed that there should be two political parties in the United States, not one, not three, not four, just two; and also in its kindness, Providence has shown that these two parties should be one, the Democratic Party, and the other, the Republican, to last from now until the end of time.

That is being challenged by increasing numbers of people in the United States. But the Negroes more than ever have shown—and any knowledge of their press and their activities tells us—that they are willing to make the break completely with that conception.

Recent Negro struggles
Such are the ideas that are moving among the Negro people. And it is not only a question of approaching the conclusions of Marxism, in their own instinctive way, under the banner of democratic rights. We have seen during the last ten or fifteen years that the Negro people have carried on tremendous struggles, significant in themselves but still more significant as a portent of the possibilities of things to come. We saw them riot and break out in Harlem in 1935. We saw it again in 1940 when the “March On Washington” exploded and shook the American bourgeoisie, particularly the Roosevelt administration. We saw it again in Detroit and in various other towns in 1943 and later. We have seen it explode recently in the tremendous challenge and defiance of the Randolph-Reynolds movement. And, finally and most important, at the time when the American bourgeoisie presented its most powerful organization and clamped its strength upon the American people during the war by means of the American bourgeois military machine, we saw individual Negroes, groups of Negroes, masses of Negroes, hurl themselves at that machine with a reckless disregard for their personal safety and their personal situation that shows the tremendous revolutionary potentialities that are simmering among the Negro people.

So that our theoretical position, our analysis of the situation among the Negro people—what they are thinking—has got evidence in what the Negro people have been doing.

Now we can draw from this one of the first of the important conclusions. The Randolph-Reynolds movement, the mere declaration by Reynolds and Randolph, caused a tremendous confusion in the ranks of the bourgeoisie. It disrupted the propaganda for mobilizing the nation to go into the war. You have seen also that it has seriously disrupted the passage of the important draft bill in Congress. And if not what Randolph says and what Randolph proposes but if what Randolph expresses can find the organizational expression which we hope it will find, then it is certain that under the banner of Negro democratic rights, asking only for an army that will not practice segregation, the Negro people will have a terrific impact, national and international, upon the preparations of the American bourgeoisie for the war. It is impossible to deny this.

Secondly. If we look at what took place after the “March on Washington” and if we look again at what took place in Harlem after the 1943 outbreak, we shall see the Negro people, by their independent mass activity and by their determination to gain their rights, have been striking terrific blows at one particular point in the Democratic Party, the link between the organized labor movement and the Southern reactionaries.

When the history of the Democratic Party comes to be written, and particularly the history of the break-up of the Democratic Party, it will be seen that the independent Negro struggle, the vigor with which the Negroes are protesting, their determination to gain their rights under American bourgeois democracy, has been one of the most powerful means of breaking that unnatural alliance between the most advanced section of the population—the organized labor movement—and the Southern reactionaries.

Already a powerful factor
Under the banner of Negro democratic rights, struggling purely for what seem to be limited objectives, the independent Negro movement is contributing to the release of the proletariat from the stranglehold of the Democratic Party and giving it an opportunity and a possibility lo emerge as an independent political force.
This is our basic position. It can be concretized and will have to be developed. But it is clear that we cannot look upon the independent Negro movement as episodic or of little importance. It is a part of the political life of the country and, more important, of fundamental importance for the political development of the proletariat.

But when that is said—we have little doubt that it will be accepted—there arises for us a very important problem.

As Bolsheviks we are jealous, not only theoretically but practically, of the primary role of the organized labor movement in all fundamental struggles against capitalism. That is why for many years in the past this position on the Negro question has had some difficulty in finding itself thoroughly accepted, particularly in the revolutionary movement, because there is this difficulty—what is the relation between this movement and the primary role of the proletariat—particularly because so many Negroes, and the most disciplined, hardened, trained, highly developed sections of the Negroes, are today in the organized labor movement.

Fundamental propositions
Now let us note first that the resolution does not falter in one single degree on fundamental propositions. It states, for instance, that the Negro struggles in the South are not merely a question of struggles of Negroes, important as those are. It is a question of the reorganization of the whole agricultural system in the United States, and therefore a matter for the proletarian revolution and the reorganization of society on socialist foundations.

Secondly, we say in the South that although the embryonic unity of whites and Negroes in the labor movement may seem small and there are difficulties in the unions, yet such is the decay of Southern society and such the fundamental significance of the proletariat, particularly when organized in labor unions, that this small movement is bound to play the decisive part in the revolutionary struggles that are inevitable.

Thirdly, the Resolution pays great care and attention to the fact that there are one and a quarter million Negroes, at least, in the organized labor movement.
On these fundamental positions we do not move one inch. Not only do we not move, we strengthen them.

But there still remains the question: what is the relationship of the independent Negro mass movement to the organized labor movement? And here we come immediately to what has been and will be a very puzzling feature unless we have our basic position clear.

Those who believe that the Negro question is in reality, purely and simply, or to a decisive extent, merely a class question, pointed with glee to the tremendous growth of the Negro personnel in the organized labor movement. It grew in a few years from three hundred thousand to one million; it is now one and a half million. But to their surprise, instead of this lessening and weakening the struggle of the independent Negro movement, the more the Negroes went into the labor movement, the more capitalism incorporated them into industry, the more they were accepted in the union movement. It is during that period, since 1940, that the independent mass movement has broken out with a force greater than it has ever shown before.

That is the problem that we have to face, that we have to grasp. We cannot move forward and we cannot explain ourselves unless we have it clearly. And I know there is difficulty with it. I intend to spend some time on it, because if that is settled, all is settled. The other difficulties are incidental. If, however, this one is not clear, then we shall continually be facing difficulties which we shall doubtless solve in time, but which it must be the function of this Convention to try to get rid of at once.

Now Lenin has handled this problem and in the Resolution we have quoted him. He says that the dialectic of history is such that small independent nations, small nationalities, which are powerless—get the word, please—powerless, in the struggle against imperialism, nevertheless can act as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which can bring on to the scene the real power against imperialism—the socialist proletariat.

Let me repeat it please. Small groups, nations, nationalities, themselves powerless against imperialism, nevertheless can act as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli which will bring on to the scene the real fundamental force against capitalism—the socialist proletariat.

In other words, as so often happens from the Marxist point of view, from the point of view of the dialectic, this question of the leadership is very complicated.

What Lenin is saying is that although the fundamental force is the proletariat, although these groups are powerless, although the proletariat has got to lead them, it does not by any means follow that they cannot do anything until the proletariat actually comes forward to lead them. He says exactly the opposite is the case.

They, by their agitation, resistance, and the political developments that they can initiate, can be the means whereby the proletariat is brought on to the scene.
Not always, and every time, not the sole means, but one of the means. That is what we have to get clear.

Our task
Now it is very well to see it from the point of view of Marxism which developed these ideas upon the basis of European and Oriental experiences. Lenin and Trotsky applied this principle to the Negro question in the United States. What we have to do is to make it concrete, and one of the best means of doing so is to dig into the history of the Negro people in the United States, and to see the relationship that has developed between them and revolutionary elements in past revolutionary struggles.

For us the center must be the Civil War in the United Slates and I intend briefly now to make some sharp conclusions and see if they can help us arrive at a clearer perspective. Not for historical knowledge, but to watch the movement as it develops before us, helping us to arrive at a clearer perspective as to this difficult relationship between the independent Negro movement and the revolutionary proletariat. The Civil War was a conflict between the revolutionary bourgeoisie and the Southern plantocracy. That we know. That conflict was inevitable.

But for twenty to twenty-five years before the Civil War actually broke out, the masses of the Negroes in the South, through the underground railroad, through revolts, as Aptheker has told us, and by the tremendous support and impetus that they gave to the revolutionary elements among the Abolitionists, absolutely prevented the reactionary bourgeoisie—(revolutionary later)—absolutely prevented the bourgeoisie and the plantocracy from coming to terms as they wanted to do.
In 1850 these two made a great attempt at a compromise. What broke that compromise? It was the Fugitive Slave Act. They could prevent everything else for the time being, but they could not prevent the slaves from coming, and the revolutionaries in the North from assisting them. So that we find that here in the history of the United States such is the situation of the masses of the Negro people and their readiness to revolt at the slightest opportunity, that as far back as the Civil War, in relation to the American bourgeoisie, they formed a force which initiated and stimulated and acted as a ferment.

That is point number one.

Point number two. The Civil War takes its course as it is bound to do. Many Negroes and their leaders make an attempt to get incorporated into the Republican Party and to get their cause embraced by the bourgeoisie. And what happens? The bourgeoisie refuses. It doesn’t want to have Negroes emancipated.

Point number three. As the struggle develops, such is the situation of the Negroes in the United States, that the emancipation of the slaves becomes an absolute necessity, politically, organizationally and from a military point of view.

The Negroes are incorporated into the battle against the South. Not only are they incorporated here, but later they are incorporated also into the military government which smashes down the remnants of resistance in the Southern states.

But, when this is done, the Negroes are deserted by the bourgeoisie, and there falls upon them a very terrible repression.
That is the course of development in the central episode of American history.

Historical anticipations
Now if it is so in the Civil War, we have the right to look to see what happened in the War of Independence. It is likely—it is not always certain—but it is likely that we shall see there some anticipations of the logical development which appeared in the Civil War. They are there.

The Negroes begin by demanding their rights. They say if you are asking that the British free you, then we should have our rights and, furthermore, slavery should be abolished. The American bourgeoisie didn’t react very well to that. The Negroes insisted—those Negroes who were in the North—insisted that they should be allowed to join the Army of Independence. They were refused.

But later Washington found that it was imperative to have them, and four thousand of them fought among the thirty thousand soldiers of Washington. They gained certain rights after independence was achieved. Then sections of the bourgeoisie who were with them deserted them. And the Negro movement collapsed.

We see exactly the same thing but more intensified in the Populist movement. There is a powerful movement of one and one quarter of a million Negroes in the South (the Southern Tenant Farmers Association). They joined the Populist movement and were in the extreme left wing of this movement, when Populism was discussing whether it should go on with the Democratic Party or make the campaign as a third party. The Negroes voted for the third party and for all the most radical planks in the platform.

They fought with the Populist movement. But when Populism was defeated, there fell upon the Negroes between 1896 and about 1910 the desperate, legalized repression and persecution of the Southern states.

Some of us think it is fairly clear that the Garvey movement came and looked to Africa because there was no proletarian movement in the United States to give it a lead, to do for this great eruption of the Negroes what the Civil War and the Populist movement had done for the insurgent Negroes of those days.

And now what can we see today? Today the Negroes in the United States are organized as never before. There are more than half a million in the NAACP and, in addition to that, there are all sorts of Negro groups and organizations—the churches in particular—every single one of which is dominated by the idea that each organization must in some manner or another contribute to the emancipation of the Negroes from capitalist humiliation and from capitalist oppression. So that the independent Negro movement that we see today and which we see growing before our eyes—is nothing strange. It is nothing new. It is something that has always appeared in the American movement at the first serious sign of social crisis.

A sign of the times
It represents a climax to the Negro movements that we have seen in the past. From what we have seen in the past, we would expect it to have its face turned towards the labor movement. And not only from a historical point of view but today concrete experience tells us that the masses of the Negro people today look upon the CIO with a respect and consideration that they give to no other social or political force in the country. To anyone who knows the Negro people, who reads their press—and I am not speaking here specially of the Negro workers—if you watch the Negro petty bourgeoisie—reactionary, reformist types as some of them are, in all their propaganda, in all their agitation—whenever they are in any difficulties, you can see them leaning toward the labor movement. As for the masses of Negroes, they are increasingly pro-labor every day. So that it is not only Marxist ideas; it is not only a question of Bolshevik-Marxist analysis. It is not only a question of the history of Negroes in the US.

The actual concrete facts before us show us, and anyone who wants to see, this important conclusion, that the Negro movement logically and historically and concretely is headed for the proletariat. That is the road it has always taken in the past, the road to the revolutionary forces. Today the proletariat is that force. And if these ideas that we have traced in American revolutionary crises have shown some power in the past, such is the state of the class struggle today, such the antagonisms between bourgeoisie and proletariat, such, too, the impetus of the Negro movements toward the proletariat, that it is clear that the Negro movement toward the revolutionary forces, which we have traced in the past is stronger today than ever before. So that we can look upon this Negro movement not only for what it has been and what it has been able to do—we are able to know as Marxists by our own theory and our examination of American history that it is headed for the proletarian movement, that it must go there. There is nowhere else for it to go.

And further we can see that if it doesn’t go there, the difficulties that the Negroes have suffered in the past when they were deserted by the revolutionary forces, those will be ten, one hundred, ten thousand times as great as in the past. The independent Negro movement, which is boiling and moving, must find its way to the proletariat. If the proletariat is not able to support it, the repression of past times when the revolutionary forces failed the Negroes will be infinitely, I repeat, infinitely, more terrible today.

Therefore our consideration of the independent Negro movement does not lessen the significance of the proletarian—the essentially proletarian—leadership. Not at all. It includes it. We are able to see that the mere existence of the CIO, its mere existence, despite the fakery of the labor leadership on the Negro question, as on all other questions, is a protection and a stimulus to the Negroes.

Penalty of defeat
We are able to see and I will show in a minute that the Negroes are able by their activity to draw the revolutionary elements and more powerful elements in the proletariat to their side. We are coming to that. But we have to draw and emphasize again and again this important conclusion. If—and we have to take these theoretical questions into consideration—if the proletariat is defeated, if the CIO is destroyed, then there will fall upon the Negro people in the US such a repression, such a persecution, comparable to nothing that they have seen in the past. We have seen in Germany and elsewhere the barbarism that capitalism is capable of in its death agony. The Negro people in the US offer a similar opportunity to the American bourgeoisie. The American bourgeoisie have shown their understanding of the opportunity the Negro question gives them to disrupt and to attempt to corrupt and destroy the labor movement.

But the development of capitalism itself has not only given the independent Negro movement this fundamental and sharp relation with the proletariat. It has created Negro proletarians and placed them as proletarians in what were once the most oppressed and exploited masses. But in auto, steel, and coal, for example, these proletarians have now become the vanguard of the workers’ struggle and have brought a substantial number of Negroes to a position of primacy in the struggle against capitalism. The backwardness and humiliation of the Negroes that shoved them into these industries is the very thing which today is bringing them forward, and they are in the very vanguard of the proletarian movement from the very nature of the proletarian struggle itself. Now, how does this complicated interrelationship, this “Leninist” interrelationship express itself? Henry Ford could write a very good thesis on that if he were so inclined.

The Ford experience
The Negroes in the Ford plant were incorporated by Ford: first of all he wanted them for the hard, rough work. I am also informed by the comrades from Detroit he was very anxious to play a paternalistic role with the Negro petty bourgeoisie. He wanted to show them that he was not the person that these people said he was—look! He was giving Negroes opportunities in his plant.

Number three, he was able thus to create divisions between whites and Negroes that allowed him to pursue his anti-union, reactionary way.

What has happened within the last few years that is changed? The mass of the Negroes in the River Rouge plant, I am told, are one of the most powerful sections of the Detroit proletariat. They are leaders in the proletarian struggle, not the stooges Ford intended them to be.

Not only that, they act as leaders not only in the labor movement as a whole but in the Negro community. It is what they say that is decisive there. Which is very sad for Henry. And the Negro petty bourgeois have followed the proletariat. They are now going along with the labor movement; they have left Ford, too. It is said that he has recognized it at last and that he is not going to employ any more Negroes. He thinks he will do better with women. But they will disappoint him, too.

The case of Negro women
Now there we have a movement, essentially proletarian, proletarianized Negroes, Negroes who are part of the organized labor movement and who dominate the Negro community.

Here it would seem is a place where the independent Negro movement should play a strictly subordinate role. But history takes its own course.

Let us look at what happened in Detroit in 1943.

The struggle began over the Sojourner Truth housing development for Negroes. Isn’t that so? It continued by the activity and hostility of the Negro people to being pushed around, and finally the general dissatisfaction burst out in the rioting.

At this stage the organized labor movement had to intervene; absolutely had to intervene. In other words, owing to the activity and conflict of the Negro people, the proletariat begins to get some education in its responsibilities not only for the demands and needs of labor, but for other sections of the population. But it didn’t stay there, it didn’t stay there.
When the municipal election came up, the Negroes wanted to run a candidate. They put up a Negro clergyman (one of those petty bourgeois whom Ford thought he had won over).

Now the revolution sometimes needs the whip of the counter-revolution. Frankensteen, then a CIO leader, was running for Mayor. Mayor Jeffreys and the rest thought they saw an opportunity to discredit Frankensteen’s campaign by calling him a Negro lover and flooding Detroit with information that the victory of Frankensteen would mean that whites and Negroes would have to live in the same houses, and so on.

Naturally Frankensteen (in great difficulty, and sweating no doubt), had to play a peculiar course. He had to remember that the Negroes played a certain role in the labor movement, that he couldn’t afford to antagonize them, that on the whole he had to be careful not to antagonize Negroes in general, and had to preserve the honor of the labor movement; and yet he did not want to give the impression that he was a Negro lover. It was difficult but that is his difficulty; not ours.

What we have to look at is what happened. In spite of themselves the Negro masses found themselves pushed up against the organized labor movement, and though with a lot of confusion, the organized labor movement found itself compelled to take over, so to speak, the leadership of the Negro community. It was very confused and hesitant; but the general line was clear.

Most remarkable of all, this Negro clergyman in the Negro community ran on the CIO ticket. This made Jeffreys say that the Negroes and the labor unions were planning to run Detroit. He was a little bit premature but nevertheless it showed that he could recognize these possibilities.

Beginnings of a great alliance
The movement has fallen off since, but we have seen enough to know this: That the struggle which began by Negro militants in the Negro community fighting purely for Negro rights—a simple matter of housing, and resisting people who pushed them around, resulted ultimately in—let us put it mildly—the beginnings of an alliance, a political alliance between the Negro community and the organized labor movement in Detroit.

I give you this as an example of how complicated the relationships can be between the Negro community and the organized labor movement even in a city where the Negro community is dominated by proletarians of a very high quality who have their first allegiance to the organized labor movement.

If we can reflect on that, if we can constantly be on the alert to see these possibilities, the leadership, the fundamental leadership that organized labor can give to the Negro movement, the basic dependence of the Negro movement upon organized labor; but we can at the same time see the kind of leadership, the kind of stimulus, the kind of impetus, the kind of anticipation that the Negro Movement can give to organized labor, then we shall be able to deal with all problems, not only the general problems outside, but the specific problems that the party will have to face.

Now if all this is true from a theoretical point of view, and if it is true also from a historical point of view, and if we are able to see the signs of it—not too clearly but nevertheless sufficiently for us to draw some tentative conclusions in Detroit—then we, as a party, having participated in Negro work, having taken part in it for the last three or four years, should be able to see this general movement reflected in party life and in the activity of the party. We have been able to see it.

What fundamentally has been the history of the party as I have seen it, as it has been explained, as we have heard it in discussion? The party in 1946 embarked on the task, consciously and deliberately to transform itself from a propaganda group (that is to say, a group that more or less puts over the whole program) into a mass party, in other words, a party which would draw workers not on the basis of general socialist conceptions, but on the basis of concrete activity and readiness to help them on basic problems that were immediately troubling them and which, as far as they could see, required, if not an immediate solution, at least immediate activity. It was the Negroes in the crisis of ’43, ’44, and ’45, who came first to the party and offered the party for the first time the opportunity to draw masses on the basis of agitation and with the perspective of concrete activity. Our general analysis shows that this experience of the party was no accident. It took place this way because of this peculiar relationship of the Negro mass movement to the general struggle. Our first opportunity, our first experience, really to become a mass party was given to us by the Negroes.

Recent party experiences
Now the fact remains that a great number of Negroes who came into the party left. First of all, the most fundamental reason which has been given to me and which I see no reason to disagree with, is that the party was not quite ready to handle these tremendous problems. It could handle a specific case like the Fontana case. It could handle a case like the Hickman case and carry it through to a brilliant conclusion. But the actual day-to-day struggles against the bourgeoisie, and the Negro organizations, and the inertia of the labor movement, we simply were not powerful enough to handle.

And we come to another very important conclusion here for our practical activity. If the vitality of the independent Negro movement depends in the last analysis upon the power and response of the proletariat, then life and activity, the strength of the party’s Negro work must depend also—American society being what it is—upon the strength the party has in the organized labor movement and as a Marxist organization.

You see the pattern continues. It is impossible to be able to do Negro work in the sense that the party at this stage wants to do it, in mass activity, meeting the demands of the Negroes, transformation from a propaganda organization to a mass party, without great strength and power in the organized labor movement. That the convention has dealt with. It is to be remembered that this is a report on the Negro Resolution, but we must never lose sight of that; that was our experience. And in fact, I have been told that the best work has been done and the best Negro cadres have remained where our party was strongest in the labor movement. That must guide us in the coming period.

In addition to these, there were certain subordinate reasons for our difficulties. The Negro militants who came to us came in revolt from the NAACP and these other organizations which were, as usual, like the labor bureaucracy, talking but doing little or nothing. When they came to us, we were not able, under our own banner, as I have said, to carry on a sustained mass activity on these questions.

The correct road for these Negro militants was back into the Negro mass organizations and there to do solid, patient, fraction work as we do in the union movement. But they had just come from there. It was very difficult, it was very difficult for them to understand that they had come from there, to us, only to learn that they had to go back there again.

And, not at all to be forgotten, I am informed that the party didn’t have trained, experienced personnel to be able to lead this work in the way that it should be done. So that we have been more successful with the Negro comrades in the unions, who could work in one of our fractions in the labor movement. That is good, but it is not sufficient.

Now we hope upon the basis of the experience that we have had, upon the fact that certain solid Negro cadres remain, upon the basis of the work that we intend to do with this Resolution, upon the basis of the impetus to thinking, study, penetration in the Negro movement, and observation of the Negroes in the trade union movement, which we hope will come from this Convention and the six months’ discussion, we hope that those opportunities which were presented to us, from which we have gained some capital, we hope that we can begin again, we hope that when opportunities will be presented—we are absolutely sure they will be—then the party will be able to undertake that task and lay a solid foundation in its Negro work.

A permanent feature of activity
And therefore our policy is that a clear consideration of all theoretical issues involved in what is a very difficult, very complicated, and at times can be a very exasperating question, our party proposes to you that we make a permanent, fundamental feature of our work, the work in the Negro organizations.

We say that whatever these Negro organizations are today, they represent the channel whereby the Negro people today or tomorrow will express themselves in the way we have outlined. We make our main orientation the NAACP. That is the most powerful Negro organization. Today it may look to be petty bourgeois, reformist, or whatever you think; that is not the issue.

Behind this organization, or liable to flow into it, or to create an organization which can destroy it at a future date, is the tremendous revolutionary potentiality of the Negro people that we have outlined.

We have to be there, we have to devote ourselves to this work and in much the same way that for us the trade union is the basic place where we can work, whatever may be the position of the labor bureaucracy. We concentrate on the Negro organizations and for the time being as a general rule, the NAACP is the place where we are going to work, because we are confident that the Negro movement has these great potentialities both for itself and in regard to revolutionary developments.

But as the Resolution states clearly, we go into those movements, into that movement, as we go into all others, as revolutionists.

I have been talking to one or two Negro comrades, not as many as possible but I have been talking to some, and one of them says that he gets an impression that this insistence upon the significance of the Negro struggle for democratic rights gives him the feeling that when we go into the Negro movement, we may go there concerned only with a democratic program, when in reality, he says, there are many Negro militants who want Marxism. We can assure you that in saying many Negro militants want Marxism he is absolutely correct. We go there as revolutionists seeking to make those organizations into class organizations, seeking to inculcate proletarian methods of struggle, seeking to clear out the petty-bourgeois reformist leadership and substitute the leadership of organized labor or of revolutionary militants. But we do more than that.

If our analysis of the Negro people is correct, if what they think about fundamental questions approaches empirically the conclusions of Marxism, if we believe that the Negro movement is heading toward the proletarian revolution led by the proletariat, then it is absolutely imperative that we carry into those Negro organizations the fundamental doctrines of Marxism not only on the Negro question but on all the political questions of the day. We are not going into those movements to limit ourselves to the Negro struggle for democratic rights and the particular methods which may appear to be used by the majority of the Negroes in those organizations at that time. Not at all. If our analysis is sound and if we grasp its significance, we gain two things. We gain, one, the conviction to be able to stay in these movements and to work patiently under the most difficult conditions. But we gain something else. We gain a conviction of the necessity that our Marxist ideas, Marxist propaganda, our struggle for the labor party and our struggle for the proletarian revolution must meet some important response from the Negro militants in those organizations, and with the necessary discretion we have a fruitful field for party recruitment and the development of the general Marxist movement.

Racial prejudices
Now there are only one or two things more that I would like to say. There is the question—and I hope you will allow me a minute or two extra—there is the question of racial prejudice. I am not talking here about going out to dinner with Negroes or having Negroes at your house or any of those things. When the party gets larger and rank-and-file Negro and white workers and others come into it, rank-and-file white workers will bring their prejudices. Negroes will bring their suspicions, and in my opinion, absolutely justified suspicions, and there will be difficulties created of a certain kind. But the party is a Bolshevik organization and on the basis of a fundamental political line and its general socialist aspirations, will be able to settle the crudest forms of those to the extent that they appear. The cadre by and large today is sound on these matters. But bourgeois race prejudice against the Negroes in the United States is something extraordinarily powerful and of a range and subtlety that it takes years to understand and only the proletarian revolution and the break-up of the bourgeoisie will make the proletariat fully understand. Such is the tremendous power which racial prejudice exercises in the United States, at every stage, wherever the races meet. In the Resolution we select one series of examples.

Undoubtedly this Resolution is breaking a new stage in the organized form in which we are bringing forward Negro work and our conception of the Negro contribution, bringing it forward before the country and before the organized labor movement. We can accept it. We can feel that we shall do everything we can to carry it through. But bourgeois race prejudice isn’t going to let it pass so easily. No. We have pointed out (and this has been the experience of many and particularly in the old Communist Party), that you will find many high-class unionists who accept a sound policy on the Negro question, genuinely mean to carry it out. Then they find themselves in a certain situation in the union, maybe a union of predominantly white workers, and the constant hammering home by the party of the importance of the Negro question and the significance of the Negro question in the party press and in the party propaganda and agitation begins to affect the work. There are problems created.

A problem arises and these unionists ask, couldn’t we in this particular situation, not on the whole but in this crisis, couldn’t we play down the Negro angle a bit. Sometimes, in fact, we have to. But you can find, and it is possible that as we expand, you will find this tendency to push the Negro question back a bit. Not for any reactionary reasons but with the genuine intention to advance what looms as more important, the role of the party in the organized labor movement at large. If we have time, maybe tonight, I will tell you many instances that have been given to me. This is not an individual aberration, it is not a personal weakness of a comrade. If it were, it wouldn’t find a place in the Resolution. It is the pressure of bourgeois race prejudice that will penetrate into the party and impede the development of Negro work to the stage that we want to place it.

Problems facing Negro militants
There are other examples. You find a Negro unionist who for thirty years of his life has been bothered with chauvinism and the problem of where the Negro people are going to find some salvation. And at last he gets into the union movement, a progressive union. He meets other unionists, he sees what the union signifies, he grasps the question of the class struggle. Good. Now he has a perspective. He comes to the revolutionary party, and there he sees in embryo, despite certain difficulties, he catches a glimpse, of the perspectives of a new society, and he is reinforced in his fundamental conceptions. When we now begin, when the party now begins to insist upon the significance and vitality of the independent Negro movement, this is a shock to him.

He doesn’t understand it too well. He thinks that we may be taking a step back. He doesn’t quite see it. And you will find that he may align himself with those (I have seen this) who are finding some sort of objection to the projection forward of the Negro work. That is only another aspect of bourgeois race prejudice. It isn’t that the Negro unionist is prejudiced. Don’t misunderstand it. It is the impact of prejudice that affects us at every turn.

There are others, there are plenty of others besides those that are mentioned here. There are petty-bourgeois Negroes who more than most Negro groups suffer terribly in a personal way from the persecutions and humiliations of bourgeois society. When they come into a fairly large party, there they are able to work genuinely for the revolution and at the same time find a social milieu in which they can be comfortable and are saved from the merciless repression and savage attacks that bourgeois society subjects them to. I have seen, I have been told, and we shall undoubtedly see, you will find, if not today, tomorrow, some of these who, also using as argument the basis of “the class struggle” tend to push the Negro question back, so to speak, into a sort of obscurity. It seems to be forcing forward what they have gotten away from. This again, is the influence of the prejudice of bourgeois society.

Thus, inside the party, you get certain tendencies which are likely to stand in the way of our work. Nothing can check this but a clear fundamental theoretical line and the education of the party not abstractly, not “black and white unite and fight” (that is a very crude example) and not “the Negroes must follow the whites and the proletariat must lead them”—not at all. No. We need a careful systematic building up of historical, economic, political, literary ideas, knowledge and information, on the Negro question inside the party. Because it is only where you have Bolshevik ideas, Marxist ideas, Marxist knowledge, Marxist history, Marxist perspectives, that you are certain to drive out bourgeois ideas, bourgeois history, bourgeois perspectives which are so powerful on the question of the races in the United States. That is what we must do.

Inescapable difficulties
We will have, we have had difficulties in the party. We cannot escape them. I have been hearing of some. I hope the Negro comrades in the party will express themselves freely and fully. But all these difficulties assume importance and in the last analysis can be traced directly to, both on the part (and I am speaking now of the party), both on the part of the white comrades and on the part of the Negro comrades, can be traced to the fact that we have not thoroughly grasped to the fullest extent the difficulties that the party faced when it was placed before masses of Negroes coming into the party and having to deal with them as a mass party when it was still a propaganda group.

It is the settled opinion of the most experienced comrades and certainly it is mine—I have a wide experience on the Negro question—that a basic fundamental understanding, a clear understanding (within the limitations of the party and the objective situation), a clear historical and theoretical grasp of perspectives is the only cure for those difficulties that are bound to arise, and if they don’t turn up today, they are bound to turn up tomorrow. Because we are not creating them. It is the tremendous power of bourgeois society which tries to stop and tries to prevent a complete coordination and pushes itself into the party at all times. That is what is taking place. It is an aspect of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletarian movement. And we have to learn to meet it in a proletarian way.

Comrades, in bringing forward this Resolution, the Political Committee is telling the party now, in a manner more serious, more concentrated, more organized than ever before, not to consider ourselves merely as the champions of Negro rights, but to make it our special business to advocate to the Negroes, to the organized labor movement, and to the country at large the role which these persecuted, humiliated, despised people are going to play in the destruction of bourgeois society. The moment you say that in this American bourgeois structure, ridden with race prejudice, hatred and contempt of the Negroes, the moment we push forward what the Negroes can and will do, we shall find ourselves represented not merely as the champions of Negro rights, but as mortal enemies of the whole bourgeois structure.

The revolutionary potential
Let us not forget that in the Negro people, there sleep and are now awakening passions of a violence exceeding, perhaps, as far as these things can be compared, anything among the tremendous forces that capitalism has created. Anyone who knows them, who knows their history, is able to talk to them intimately, watches them at their own theatres, watches them at their dances, watches them in their churches, reads their press with a discerning eye, must recognize that although their social force may not be able to compare with the social force of a corresponding number of organized workers, the hatred of bourgeois society and the readiness to destroy it when the opportunity should present itself, rests among them to a degree greater than in any other section of the population in the United States. That we must know, and must know that in this Resolution here, behind its sober, disciplined words, there is contained a clear recognition of this immense revolutionary potentiality.

When we go to the Negro movement we are preparing one of the important channels of the proletarian revolution. And we must do this not with the idea that it is for some distant future and we have a long period for theoretical preparation. No. In 1943 the miners revolted in their own way against the domination of the American bourgeoisie. The Negroes in Harlem did the same. Today the American bourgeoisie prepares for war. Once more the miners, that oppressed section, express their defiance. Randolph and Reynolds open up for the Negroes. It is a repetition on a higher scale of what took place in the midst of the war. In the period that is facing us, these two currents are bound to join. It is our task to effect that unification. Nobody else can do that but ourselves. When that unification is effected, the floodgates will be opened but we are not afraid. We shall rule the wind and the whirlwind, too. We will be able to deal with any passions, forces, that are developed once we can direct them plainly and simply to the overthrow of bourgeois society. But to do this requires sober, patient, painstaking work and preparation. This is what the Resolution attempts to prepare us for. And that is why we recommend it to you for your careful study and acceptance.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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