USA: the struggle of the workers’ movement against slavery and racism (Part 3)

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USA: the struggle of the workers’ movement against slavery and racism (Part 3)

1920s-1930s: the Communist Parties and the Left Opposition

In part two of this series on the proletarian struggle against racism in the U.S., we examined the different positions in the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and in the Socialist Party of America (SPA). Central in this struggle stood the “Negro Resolution”, ratified at the Founding Congress of the SPA in 1901. Different locals (sections) of this party made serious attempts to fight for the interests of the workers, regardless of the colour of their skin. But in general, the leadership of the Party remained dismissive of any full integration of black workers into the party

In the third part of this series, we will take a closer look at how the later political organisations of the proletariat tried to further clarify the political-theoretical position on the “Negro question”. This had to be done in a period that had fundamentally changed, because capitalism had entered its period of decadence, in which lasting improvements were no longer possible. Every demand of the working class ran up against the objective limits of capitalism. The stakes of the proletarian struggle had risen to the point where every substantial demand faced the ruthless reaction of the bourgeois state.

Therefore, and in contrast to the period of ascendance when demands for “democratic rights” were still backed by progressive fractions of the bourgeoisie, any struggle for specific rights of the black workers had become counterproductive, since it was immediately exploited by the ruling class to put one sector of the working class against the other and to crush any resistance. Any struggle was doomed in advance if it was not based on the unification of the struggle of black and white workers. After the First World War the fight for “equal rights” for black people was no longer part of the programme of the workers’ movement. In the new conditions the only perspective was the massive struggle of all workers, regardless of their colour or nationality.

This was the historical context in which we shall examine how far the political organisations of the proletariat, from the revolutionary wave of 1917-1923 onwards, succeeded in deepening their comprehension of the “Negro question” and the way to overcome the divisions that still existed on a large scale between black and the white workers. We will examine in particular the positions of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) and the Communist International (Comintern), Max Shachtman of the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) and C.L.R. James of the Trotskyist Workers’ Party (WP).

The Comintern and the “national-revolutionary” struggle

The newly founded Communist Party of America (CPA), one of the two Communist parties formed in the USA,[1] had a clause in its programme concerning African Americans: “The Negro problem is a political and economic problem. The racial oppression of the Negro is simply the expression of his economic bondage and oppression, each intensifying the other. This complicates the Negro problem, but does not alter its proletarian character. The Communist Party will carry on agitation among the Negro workers to unite them with all class conscious workers.”[2]

But this statement posed a methodological problem, because it was not based on a radical critique of the positions developed in the SPA. It seemed to be more a declaration than a political position based on a profound conviction within the party. This was shown already in the discussion on the Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions at the Second Congress of the Communist International (the Comintern.) When Louis C. Fraina, the representative of the CPA at the Congress, intervened in this discussion he completely ignored the clause in the party programme and the need for a proletarian approach to the “Negro question”.

Nonetheless the discussion was very interesting from the point of view of the Communist Parties in the US. Because in his Theses Lenin singled out the population of Ireland and black people in America as examples of the national and colonial question: “All Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies.”[3] Thus for the first time in the history of the workers’ movement black people in the US were compared with oppressed populations elsewhere in the world.

The other Communist Party in the US, the Communist Labor Party (CLP), had delegated John Reed to the Congress. Although his party had no section in its programme on the “Negro question”, he made a clear intervention, approaching the subject from the point of view of the interests of working class: “The only correct policy for the American communists towards the Negroes is to regard them above all as workers. The agricultural workers and the small farmers of the South pose (…) the same tasks as those we have in respect to the white rural proletariat. Communist propaganda can be carried out among the Negroes who are employed as industrial workers in the North.”[4] In reply to the Draft Theses he also said that African Americans cannot be considered as a nation, like the other populations in the world, since they had never posed demands for national independence.  

But his intervention also left room for false interpretations. Reed was right that, in the end, it is “the social revolution of the proletariat which will not only liberate all workers from servitude but is also the only way to free the enslaved Negro people.”[5] But in this same intervention, instead of emphasising the necessity of the unification of the black and white workers in a joint struggle against their exploitation, he referred to “the Negro movement” that put forward its own demands. He spoke about the “Negro movement” as if it was a class movement, when black people were a population composed of different classes and not one class, the proletariat.

The example of African Americans and the Irish did not appear in the final version of the Theses. But it was clear that the objective of the Comintern was to call upon black people, like other oppressed nations, to ally with “their” national bourgeoisie in a so-called “national-revolutionary” struggle for their liberation from oppression by imperialism. This idea of forming an alliance with the national bourgeoisie raised criticism from at least two non-American delegates at the Congress: Sultan-Zade of the Communist Party of Iran, and Serrati of the Italian Socialist Party.

Both emphasised that at all times the working class must preserve its independence from its exploiters, the so-called “revolutionary nationalists”. Both criticised alliances between the Communist Parties and the supposedly 'revolutionary' bourgeois parties in the backward countries. “Such alliances can only lead to the weakening of proletarian class consciousness [and] run the danger of losing its class position and its class orientation”[6]; in the end this policy drives “the masses into the arms of the counter-revolution. The task is to create and maintain a purely communist movement in opposition to the bourgeois-democratic one.”[7]

Even if they (Serrati and Sultan-Zade) were completely right to oppose the centrist nature of the Draft Theses, the intervention of Serrati also expressed a certain ambiguity regarding the national struggle against the oppression of colonial populations, when he said that this struggle for national liberation can be revolutionary if the working class takes the lead. Here is not the place to enter into detail on this particular struggle in capitalist decadence, but at the time communists were far from homogeneous on this point. The only comrades who clearly denounced the struggle for national liberation were Rosa Luxemburg in The National Question (1909) and Anton Pannekoek in Class Struggle and Nation (1912).[8]

The CPUSA and the struggle for “equal rights”

The Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA), which was founded in 1921 as a merger between the CLP and the CPA, also had a relevant section in its programme. Under the heading “The Race Problem” it clearly explained the “Negro question” from the point of view of the proletariat: “The interests of the Negro workers are identical with those of the white. It will seek to end the policy of discrimination followed by organized labor [AFL]. Its task will be to destroy altogether the barrier of race discrimination that has been used to keep apart the black and white workers, and weld them into a solid union of revolutionary forces for the overthrow of their common enemy.”[9]

An important point was the position that “the interests of the Negro workers are identical with those of the white” as well as the statement that the task will be to “weld them into a solid union of revolutionary forces for the overthrow of their common enemy”. But the paragraph also contained the same error as expressed in John Reed’s speech at the Second Congress of the Comintern. It did not take into account the changed conditions in decadence, when it made an appeal “to support the Negroes (…) in their fight for economic, political, and social equality”.[10]

As Lenin put forward in his Draft Theses, presented at the Second Congress, “Under the guise of the equality of the individual in general, bourgeois democracy proclaims the formal or legal equality of the property-owner and the proletarian, the exploiter and the exploited, thereby grossly deceiving the oppressed classes.”[11] Thus, instead of strengthening the struggle of the working class, such a demand increases confusion and division among workers and distracts them from the fight for their proletarian goals.

The struggle for economic, political and social equality for black workers was part of the proletarian struggle in the period of capitalism's ascendance. But in the period of decadence such demands can no longer function as a reference point for the mobilisation of the proletariat. In the age of “socialism or barbarism” the goal of the proletarian struggle is not determined by the demand for equal rights. Equal rights or not, oppression and class exploitation continue as the essential conditions of the working class. Moreover, every democratic campaign undermines the attempts of the workers to struggle as an independent force on their own class terrain.

The call for equal rights for black people is not based on a class perspective, but on the interests of a heterogeneous group of people with more or less the same colour, in which members of the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, and the working class are supposed to struggle side by side. The black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that a struggle for equality in the framework of the existing state does not put into question the capitalist system, where one class lives on the unpaid labour of the other. Such a campaign only blurs class antagonisms and confuses workers in their struggle against the exploitation of their labour power.

The Comintern and the “right of Negroes to self-determination”

In January 1921 the Comintern published a first position on the “Negro question” in “An Appeal of the Executive Committee of the Communist International to the Working Class of North and South America”. In this appeal it explained that “The Negro is exploited as a race and also economically - but this in no way alters the fact that the Negro problem constitutes a phase of the social problem, it only invests this problem with a peculiar form. The militant mood of the Negro must attain expression through the proletarian revolution and not independently of it. (…) The toiling Negro must everywhere (…) be joined together with the proletariat and be convinced that his racial struggle must fuse itself with the revolutionary struggles of labor against capital.”[12]

In the same way as John Reed, this Appeal considered the “Negro question” as a particular form of the exploitation of the working class. According to the Appeal the toiling Negroes belong to the working class and as such their struggle must be integrated in the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. However, the Appeal still contains certain ambiguities, such as the expression that “his racial struggle must fuse with the revolutionary struggles of labor”. Even if all people in this struggle are workers, racial struggle takes place on the bourgeois terrain for equal rights and therefore it cannot fuse with the workers’ struggle, and certainly not on an equal footing.

The Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922 was the first to adopt a special resolution on the “Negro question”. This resolution contained no new points and was mainly based on the anti-imperialist position adopted at the Second Congress as laid down in the Theses on the national and colonial question. Only this time, black people in the U.S. were assigned a highly dubious vanguard role. “The American Negro, by reason of his higher education and culture and his greater aptitude for leadership, and because of the urgency of the issues in America, will furnish the leadership for the Negro race.”[13]

At the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, in 1924, the focus was on the self-determination of American black people. But John Pepper, a Hungarian-born delegate from the US, said that the African Americans had no interest in self-determination, as John Reed had already said before him. Fort-Whiteman, another delegate from the U.S., agreed but stressed that black people in the U.S. had to be organised in “a specialised way”. Dmitri Manuilsky, from the Programme Commission also rejected the idea of self-determination for African Americans with the argument that, in the US, it “cannot solve all national questions with its extraordinary mixed population”[14]

The Sixth Congress of the Comintern, in 1928, raised the question of self-determination again, referring to Lenin’s book The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, written in 1914. And this emphasis on self-determination did not happen by accident, because in 1926 the Bolshevik Party had already adopted “socialism in one country” as official state policy. At this Congress the Comintern ratified this position, which marked its death as the political vanguard of the world proletariat. After “socialism in one country” was adopted as a realistic option, the fight for the establishment of a “socialist” nation for black people in the US was a logical consequence.

What was new was the fact that now the Comintern considered the “Negro struggle” not only as an expression of national liberation, but also as an expression of the efforts of black people to free themselves from the deep-rooted racist prejudice that condemned them as inferior creatures. “The Negro race everywhere is an oppressed race. Whether it is a minority (U.S.A., etc.) majority (South Africa) or inhabits a so-called independent state (Liberia, etc.), the Negroes are oppressed by imperialism. Thus, a common tie of interest is established for the revolutionary struggle of race and national liberation from imperialist domination of the Negroes in various parts of the world.”[15]

In this framework the tasks defined for the CPUSA were the following: “While continuing and intensifying the struggle under the slogan of full social and political equality for the Negroes, which much remain the central slogan of our Party for work among the masses, the Party must come out unreservedly for the right of Negroes to national self-determination in the Southern States.”[16] This resolution had not yet mentioned a specific area for this independent nation of African Americans. But the 1930 Comintern resolution explicitly mentioned the so-called “Black Belt”, a region in the South-East of the US with a large black population.

In its strategy towards the struggle of African Americans, the Comintern seemed to consider the US more or less as a world in miniature, with a semi-colonial rule in the South and the oppressing imperialist rule in the North. Invoking the Theses on the national and colonial question of the Second Congresses, the CPUSA was therefore called upon to give direction to the ‘national-revolutionary’ struggle for the self-determination of the toiling black masses in the South against the landowners, and to organise massive support for this struggle among the workers in the other parts of the U.S.

The CPUSA was thus ordered by the Comintern to fight for a separate nation for African Americans. In the party and even in the leadership of the party there was a considerable resistance and many members had to be won over to this policy. But this opposition to the Comintern resolution was not openly expressed. The critique would be expressed some years later by Max Shachtman, one of the militants expelled from the CPUSA because of his critique of the theory of “socialism in one country”.

Trotsky’s defence of “national self-determination”

What was the position of Trotsky, who had not taken part in the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, on the strategy decided by the Comintern on the situation of black people in the US?

In 1923 Trotsky had already explained his position on the “Negro question” in a letter to Claude MacKay, who was present at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. “In North America the matter is further complicated by the abominable obtuseness and caste presumption of the privileged upper strata of the working class itself, who refuse to recognize fellow-workers and fighting comrades in the Negroes.”[17] This concept was reminiscent of Lenin's idea of the “labour aristocracy”, whereby the U.S. was divided into an “advantaged western proletariat” and a “disadvantaged black population”, and where the former supposedly benefited from the fruits of the super-exploitation of the latter.

In 1933 Trotsky even defended the position that, in their relation to black people, the white workers in the US are fully part of the oppressive system. In his discussion with Swabeck and Weisbord he therefore argued in favour of the “democratic” demand for self-determination as the only way that the black people could free themselves from semi-slavery: “Negroes are a race and not a nation”, but they can become a nation since “the suppression of the Negroes pushes them toward a political and national unity”.[18] He rejected the struggle for equal political, economic and social rights as being a liberal demand.

We agree that the demand for social, political and economic equality is a liberal demand. Such a demand lacks a clear proletarian class basis, and since the working class is the only revolutionary class in capitalism this demand can never put into question the rule of capital, which is the source of the oppression of black people. But what were the arguments of Trotsky for rejecting this demand? Actually, he gave only one argument and this was that black people can much easier be misled by such a liberal demand than by what he called the democratic demand for self-determination. But even with this argument to hand we remain in the dark, since Trotsky gave no further explanation for his defence of self-determination in his discussion with the members of the US Trotskyist groups.

In order to acquaint ourselves with the Trotsky’s other arguments in support of self-determination for black people in the U.S. we have to go back to his History of the Russian Revolution, which he had finished only one year before his discussion with Swabeck and Weisbord. In this book he unconditionally defended Lenin’s position: “Lenin early learned the inevitability of this development of centrifugal national movements in Russia, and for many years stubbornly fought – most particularly against Rosa Luxemburg – for that famous paragraph 9 of the old party programme which formulated the right of nations to self-determination – that is, to complete separation as states.”[19]

When Trotsky pleaded for the self-determination of the “Negro people” he must have been convinced that centrifugal forces in the U.S. were getting stronger, and that an independent African American nation was the only solution. He did recognise that this demand could undermine the unification of the struggle and separate: “the colored workers from the white,” in cases where “common actions existed between the white and the colored workers”, and “the class fraternization had already become a fact”. But, as he said, since this is not the case in the US and since “the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors” the demand for self-determination “would undoubtedly mean a greater progress”.[20]

The thesis on “the rights of nations to self-determination” was already highly ambiguous in the year that Lenin wrote his book. And not long after its publication it was criticised within the Bolshevik Party. Like the argument that Serrati would develop at the Second Congress of the Comintern, this criticism denounced unification with bourgeois’ forces in the oppressed nations: ‘Partial’ tasks of the ‘liberation of nations’ within the limits of capitalist society diverts proletarian forces from the true solution of the problem and unites them with the forces of the bourgeoisie of the corresponding national groups”.[21] In this debate Lenin had to admit that the proletariat could give no guarantees, and that self-determination for one nation could easily lead to conflict with another.

Trotsky had rejected the criticisms of the position of Lenin as he did with the criticism of the political practice of the Bolshevik Party in the revolution by Rosa Luxemburg. While the Bolsheviks expected that the policy of secession would turn the new-born nations into allies of the Russian “semi-state” “we have witnessed the opposite spectacle. One after another, these ‘nations’ used their freshly granted freedom to ally themselves with German imperialism against the Russian revolution as its mortal enemy, and under German protection, to carry the banner of counter-revolution into Russia itself”. [22]

The Trotsky of the 1930s seems to have swept all these critiques under the carpet of his concept of “permanent revolution”, which was his deus ex machina against all the counter-revolutionary forces that emerged as a result of the “self-determination of nations”.

Trotsky actually made a caricature of Lenin’s thesis, as he mechanically applied it to the situation of the US in the 1930s, where the conditions were completely different from the years 1917-1923 in Russia and Europe, when the international proletariat had unleashed a massive revolutionary wave. For Lenin the right to self-determination was an “occasional” policy, depending on the particular conditions of the moment; in the hands of Trotsky it turned into “a constant rule, and the possibility of the proletariat finding support in the national struggles of colonial countries was transformed into unconditional support by the proletariat of national and nationalist struggles.”[23]

In the revolutionary wave the international proletariat was a source of inspiration for millions of oppressed people in the world. The fact that the proletariat in the central countries was shaking the capitalist system also set in motion various oppressed layers in the countries on the periphery of capitalism. For Lenin, it was only in these specific conditions, and not in the US of the 1930s, that “the proletariat, concentrated in the most developed capitalist countries could find, in its assault on the capitalist world, support in the underdeveloped countries, which has been exposed to the oppression of the major powers”.[24] Since these oppressed layers were not able to develop a perspective on their own, they needed the leadership of the proletariat if they wanted to be freed from the oppression by the colonial powers or even from oppression altogether.

Critique of the slogan of “national self-determination”

In 1931 the Trotskyist Communist League of Struggle (CLS) had already adopted a point on “The struggle for Negro emancipation” in its general platform published in its journal Class struggle. In this point it rejected the theory that the Negroes were a nation and that they should fight for national independence. In 1933 this criticism was further developed by Max Shachtman, a member of the Communist League of America (CLA), in his book Communism and the Negro. On the basis of Kautsky’s definition of a nation, as formulated in his letter to the Seventh Congress of the Bund (31August1906), Shachtman examined in his book whether black people in the US did fit such a definition.

In his study he came to the conclusion that the black population were not a nation. The black people of America possessed no common culture or language of their own; no separate religion and institutions, which demarcated them as a distinct nationality and as having a separate national culture. And even the caste status of black people, a consequence of his previous state of chattel slavery, did not place them in the category of a nation. Moreover, as other marxists had already stated before him: African Americans had never posed demands for self-determination.

Against the idea of the “Black Belt” he argued that African Americans have no historically defined frontiers: they were spread across the US and their distribution over different parts of the country was constantly shifting. Moreover, economic and political development caused great migrations from the rural South towards the industrial centres in the North. Black people “have never felt a national attachment to this particular section of the country as the Irishman feels for Ireland, the Pole for Poland, the Catalan for Catalonia.”[25]

The conclusion of his examination was that there was no basis whatsoever for self-determination of the Negro people as a separate nation in the “Black Belt”. According to Shachtman the slogan of self-determination was even dangerous for the struggle of the American working class: “The Stalinists have introduced radical change in the communist position on the Negro question, which is just as radically wrong and guaranteed to produce the most harmful results in the fight to liberate not only the American Negro but the whole American working class.”[26] In the end Shachtman rejected not only the “Black Belt” and black nationalism, but also the idea of black people having their own independent fighting organisations.

If we are in agreement with the arguments of Shachtman against the positions of the Comintern and Trotsky, on self-determination, we must also note that his criticism did not go to the roots, because he did not argue against the constitution of new nations as such. For a new nation, even if it is constituted by an oppressed national minority, such as the black people in the U.S., cannot and will never be a real community of all oppressed people, workers and poor farmers alike. Under the conditions of decadent capitalism, every nation state is imperialist and will immediately turn itself, not only against rival nations, but also against the most oppressed parts of the population and against the working class in particular.

Already in the period of the ascendance of capitalism nations were never a unified social body. They contained insuperable property divisions that, like its wider social divisions, had to be managed and often by means of state violence. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels supported the struggle for national independence, but only if it brought the struggle of the working class for its emancipation closer. But in the period of decadence any national unity comes under enormous pressure by the aggravation of its inner contradictions. This tendency compels the national bourgeoisie to increase its grip on society by the development of a state totalitarian rule, whether “democratic” or “dictatorial”.

C.L.R. James and his incomplete break with Trotskyism

Five years after the publication of the book by Max Shachtman C.L.R. James arrived in the U.S. and gave a new impetus to the discussion on the “Negro question” in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). He published dozens of articles and discussed with Trotsky on the issue in April 1939. Raising more or less the same objections as Max Shachtman did in his book in 1933, in this discussion he did not present himself as a protagonist of self-determination for black people. He considered “the idea of separating as a step backward so far as a socialist society is concerned”.[27]

His most important and most elaborated contribution on the “Negro question” was written four years later, in 1943, when he had broken with the SWP after a disagreement on the proletarian nature of the Russian state and on the unconditional defence of the Soviet Union, which led the majority of Trotskyists to support the Allied imperialist camp. Defending an internationalist position during the Second World War, he became a member of the Workers’ Party [28]. In this contribution, “The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States”, he explains his position on “the developing relation of the Negro struggle to the general struggles of the proletariat as the leader of the oppressed classes in American society”.

In his analysis of the perspectives for the struggle of the Negroes, C.L.R. James explicitly referred to Lenin’s The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up (1916), in particular to chapter 10, “The Irish rebellion of 1916”, and showed the implications for the struggle of black people in the U.S. In this text James found “a very concrete illustration of the applicability of the method to environments and classes superficially diverse but organically similar”.[29] Paraphrasing what Lenin had written about the Irish rebellion, which was “capable of going to the lengths of insurrection and street fighting”, James wrote inter alia that

  • “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.
  • 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.
  • 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.”[30]

The merit of his contribution was that he pulled the struggle of black people out of the mire of the “Black Belt” and put it again in the centre of the American capitalist society. The Negroes do not constitute a nation”, but their problems have “become the problem of a national minority”.[31] He defended, although not without any ambiguity, the position that the struggle and the organisation of black people should take place under the direction of the proletariat and that the struggle of organised labour (which means the unions) would be decisive for the fight against their status as second-class citizens.

C.L.R. James never openly criticised Trotsky or Lenin, and also in this case he referred to Lenin’s contribution without making a critical analysis. Basing his analysis on Lenin’s contribution to the workers’ movement and marxism, he did not take into account the positions of Trotsky and Radek, who had already expressed strong reserves regarding any working class support to the Irish rebellion. And they were right, because when Ireland became independent in 1921, the new nation state did anything but join the fight of the oppressed against imperialism. Instead, it took help from British imperialism against the incipient social revolution. Thus Lenin’s method in 1916 had proven not to be the right one, as was also demonstrated two years later in Russia.

Another weak point in Lenin’s text was his emphasis on the importance of the struggle for “democratic rights” for black people as an end in itself. For James it was “absolutely impossible for the Negroes to gain equality under American capitalism”. Therefore, he was convinced that the struggle of the African Americans for “democratic rights” brought them “almost immediately face to face with capital and the state” and from there he concluded that: “in the United States today this struggle is a direct part of the struggle for socialism.”[32]

But his conclusion was too hasty, because a confrontation with the state does not automatically mean a confrontation with capitalist society. Just like farmers’ protests, protests by black people as such, even when they come up against state repression, do not carry within them the seeds of another society. Moreover C.L.R. James had not read or understood Lenin properly. As we already demonstrated earlier in this article, Lenin did not support the struggle for equal rights as an end in itself. For him this struggle was inseparably linked to the struggle for socialism: The real meaning of the demand for equality consists in its being a demand for the abolition of classes.”[33]

As we showed earlier, the struggle for “democratic rights” is a trap for the working class, because it distracts the workers from the proletarian terrain into the fight for an equal place in bourgeois society, which is the terrain of the ruling class. Some black people were already part of the ruling class in the 19th century and many more became part of it in the 20th century.

The demand for “democratic rights” obscures the fact that capitalist society is divided into classes and disarms the working class in face of exploitation and oppression by the ruling class. In this false approach, all black people, whatever the class they belong to, working class, middle class or ruling class, are called upon to join forces in one and the same struggle, drowning the black workers in an amorphous mass of black people. This makes that “the demand for ‘democratic rights’ is in general an excellent way of drowning class demands and preventing the proletariat from affirming its class identity”.[34]

Only the working class struggle can abolish all oppression

At the time of the Second World War the workers’ movement still had no unambiguous and clear-cut position on how to intervene towards the resistance of black people against particular oppression and structural prejudice. The theoretical clarification of this issue from the point of view of the proletariat appeared to be a difficult task. It has shown to be more difficult than the elaboration of a position on the struggle against the oppression of women, which was much earlier recognised as being part of the working class struggle. Nonetheless we can draw some conclusions – if in a negative sense - from the theoretical efforts, undertaken in the 20 years between the Second Congress of the Comintern and C.L.R. James’ 1943 article.

Under the conditions of decadent capitalism:

  • The demand for “equal rights” as an end in itself was not a class demand and was turned against the working class, against white as well as black workers.
  • The notion of self-determination for black people in the “Black Belt” proved to be a complete misjudgement: any movement for national liberation is destined to be counter-revolutionary.
  • The fight of the African American people for their particular interests (as a distinctive race) is just as inimical to the working class struggle as any nationalist struggle.
  • Assigning black people in the US, of whom 75% still lived under appalling conditions in the South, a vanguard role in the struggle against colonial oppression, as the Comintern did in 1922, was completely at odds with the marxist view that only the international struggle of the working class can provide a perspective for all the world’s oppressed strata.

In contrast to the Trotskyist current, the Communist Left was able to clarify the national question in general and therefore it was strongly opposed to any struggle for national liberation. But none of the Left Communist currents in the 1930s were able to develop a clear position on the “Negro Question” in the US. They didn’t even write about it, except Mattick, who had emigrated to the U.S. In an article, written in 1932, he gave an overview of the history of the oppression of the black people in the U.S. and drew the conclusion that “this Negro problem will not cease to be a problem until socialist harmony takes hold in society. The liberation of the Negroes is only possible with the liberation of labour”, but he failed to make any critique of the Comintern’s slogan of self-determination of the Comintern.[35]

As long as capitalism exists, racism will exist. And only the conquest of political power by the proletariat creates the conditions for its gradual disappearance. In that sense Mattick was right.

The campaign for “equal rights” has resulted in the legal lifting of discrimination and segregation of black people. But changing legal regulations does not mean that things on the ground have necessarily changed, since laws are are unable to change people’s minds. Those who are convinced that African Americans are inferior, and that the intermixing of the races must be banned, simply find new ways to discriminate, including restrictive housing covenants, stiff loan requirements, and new barriers to voting, etc. By these means black people in the US are still subjected to all kinds of restrictions and particular forms of oppression.

Black people experience in a particular way the general oppression to which the working class is subjected. The latter embodies all forms of oppression by capitalism; its mode of existence is the synthesis of humanity’s oppression under capitalism. The struggle of the working class against oppression by the capitalist state is therefore the midwife to the abolition of all oppression. No form of oppression under capitalism can be abolished outside the context of the struggle of the working class for its emancipation. Therefore, black proletarians in the US can only do away with oppression by joining and supporting the struggle of all workers, whether white or black, against capitalist rule.


Dennis, October 2021


[1] The ICC aims to come back to the problems of the formation of the CP in the US in a future article

[2] The Program of the party,  The Communist, 27 September 1919

[5] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[12] “An Appeal of the Execu­tive Committee of the Communist International to the Working Class of North and South America”. Cited by: Max Shachtman, Race and Revolution

[15] The 1928 Comintern Resolutions on the black national question in the United States

[16] Ibid

[17] Leon Trotsky, On the Negro Question

[21] Yuri Pyatakov, Yevgeniya Bosh, and Nikolai Bukharin, Theses on the right of nations to self-determination

[23] The Mexican Left 1938 On the national question, International Review 20. The Mexican Left consisted of the Marxist Workers Group (Grupo de Trabajadores Marxistas) and made its first appearance after the crushing of the May 1937 insurrection in Spain. Paul Kirchhoff, Johanna Faulhaber and three or four Mexican militants published a leaflet denouncing “the massacre in Barcelona”. It called upon the workers to break from the repulsive alliance of classes represented by the anti­fascist war front. The group disappeared in 1939. But, in the short two years of its existence it made an effective contribution to the defense of fundamental communist positions, in particular on the national question.

[24] Ibid

[25] Max Shachtman, Race and Revolution. The original title of the book was: Communism and the Negro.

[26] Max Shachtman, Race and Revolution

[28] The Workers’ Party (WP) was a third  Trotskyist group in the U.S. It was founded in April 1940 by members who disagreed with the SWP on the defence of the Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers state”.

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid

[32] Ibid

[35] Paul Mattick, Schwarze Amerikaner, 1932



Communists and the "race" question