Trotsky and black liberation

Submitted by dalcassian on 30 March, 2013 - 2:32

In the first letter that he wrote to the Trotskyists in the
United States, Trotsky, in exile in Prinkipo, posed to the comrades
the Negro question as a vital part of the struggle for
the proletarian revolution in the United States . Prom that time to
his death, his interest in the question continually grew.

The basis of his approach was his deep conviction of the revolutionary
character of the masses of the Negro people. He had learned this
by his vast experience of revolution and that mastery of principles
which distinguished the Bolsheviks of the great epoch, Lenin and Trotsky
above all the others. Thus armed, he was anxious from the very
beginning that a Trotskyist organization in the U. S. should
recognize what the revolution would mean to Negroes and what Negroes
would mean to the revolution.

NATIONAL QUESTION
Lenin it was who had placed the Negro question as a part of "the
national question" and it was on these principles based on his own
revolutionary experiences that Trotsky worked. As he told an American
comrade in April 1933:

"Nations grow out of the racial material under definite, conditions.
We do not obligate the Negroes to become a nation; if they are,
then, that is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they
desire and they strive for." That was the general theory of"the national question"
in the Marxist sense. Whether the negroes wanted to become a nation
or not was not decisive. What mattered was that "suppression of the
Negroes pushes them toward a political and national unity."

Trotsky left no writings upon the Negro question. He. carried on discussions
and these discussions were recorded and often printed without his
personal revision. But the main line of his orientation is un-
mistakably clear. It was an insistence upon recognition of the fact
that the masses of the Negro people from their special oppression in the
United States could be expected to react, in ways of their own, with
a special revolutionary energy against American capitalism in the
period of its death agony.

But if he never wrote, Trotsky was no dilettante on the Negro question.
The idea that he and Lenin, educated Europeans, altogether apart
from their caliber as Bolsheviks, believed that the Negroes in the
United States constituted a nation, that is impudence indeed.?

Trotsky had read widely on the Negro question. His books had
notes and markings to which he referred easily. When his views be-
came known, sympathetic Negro intellectuals from the United States,
anxious to convince him that he was wrong, sent him material and
memoranda, all of which he read and preserved. He carried on unwearied
discussions with people upon all aspects of the Negro question.
Any idea that the views to which he stuck so tenaciously were
casual opinions is false to the core.

Trotsky saw the Negro question as a peculiar expression of
"the national question" in relation .to American capitalist society. But he
sharply differentiated among the Negroes themselves. He; did not
call the divisions classes, but strata. He understood that the Negro
intellectuals were not a producing class, as the Indian cotton
manufacturers are a Class - itt relation to the Indian masses. But as he said,
these Negro intellectuals "keep themselves separated from the masses
always with the desire to take on the Anglo-Saxon culture
and of becoming an. integral part of Anglo-Saxon life. The majority
are opportunists arid reformists. Many of them continue to Imagine
that by the improvement ot the mentality and so on, the discrim-
ination will disappear That is why they are against any kind of sh&tp ???
slogan."

For Trotsky the main task was a question of "awakening the Negro
masses." For them he always had the deepest sympathy and the most
penetrating understanding. He was keenly interested- in. the Garvey
movement. He understood why the masses had fllowed Garvey. He
saw it as an active rejection of the fate imposed on them by bourgeois
society. To impatient comrades who hotly pointed out that Garvey was
a faker, the co-leader of the October Revolution and the founder
of the Fourth International usedto reply with an ironical but kind-
ly smile: "Yes, I know that Garvey was a faker. The question is
why should so many Negroes have followed him. You find that out
and you will find the road to the masses of the Negro people."

It was not only what Trotsky said concretely that mattered. It
was the perspectives that he opened up. He believed that, the American
Civil War was to the coining American Revolution what the French
Revolution was to the proletarian revolutions in France. Not only
was this so for the American Revolution as a whole. It was
particularly so for the Negro question.It is necessary not only to
repeat these dicta but to give. Some indication of what Trotsky meant,
for example, by his Insistence that one needed to study the Civil War
in the United States in order to penetrate more deeply into the
Negro question.

TWO STRATA IN CIVIL WAR
The Negroes in the Civil War consisted of two strata — the free
Negroes in the North and the masses of Negro slaves in the 'South.
In the period preceding the Civil War the class with revolutionary
aspirations in Northern society was the peltff bourgeoisie. The active
revolutionists were the Abolitionists.-Marxism understands that in the
period preceding the actual outoreak of hostilivies escaping slaves
and the Abolitionists, the free Negroes and escaped slaves in the
North, provided "the. Driving-force for an agitation which wrecked
vcry compromise attempted between the Northern bourgeoisie and
the Southern planters, and educate and prepared the nation for the
inevitable revolutionary crisis. '

When the war actually began, and Lincoln in 1862 found himself in
an impasse, we have his own testimony for the fact that the
emancipation of the slaves was the most important political measure left to
him to rejuvenate the declining political fortunes of the North. Secondly,
we have also his testimony of the vast importance (to put it mildly) .
to the Northern cause-of the actual intervention of the slaves in
the Civil War. Finally, after the Civil War. The Republican Party split
into two wings: tke reactionary profiteers who had used the war
to establish large scale capitalism in the United States,'and the wing
of radical intellectuals with whom is associated the name of Thaddeus Stevens.

The radical intellectual wing, the revolutionaries, were distinguished by
this, above all, that in their effort tov bring to the Ainerlcan nation the
greatest .benefits from the revolution1 that' was- the Civil War, they
became: the most ardent advocates of complete equality for the !Negro
beople insofar as that is -possible in a capitalist-regime.

REPUBLICANS SPLIT
In that pattern, before the Civil War, during the Civil War and
after it, we have the logical framework by which it is possible to
penetrate into the relations between Negro. movements and the basic
class relations in the country from the Civil War to the present day.
The logic 6f the dialectic deals not with numbers here but with
developing classes. The coming proletarian revolution will show
that the free Negroes of 1860 have become the Negro petty bourgeoisie,
struggling to attach itself to the left wing of the capitalist class.
The revolutionary free Negroes of the pre-Civil War period have been
replaced by the Negro proletariat.Where the free Negroes were allied
to the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie, the Negro proletariat is tied
by industrial and social bonds to the organized labor movement.

REVOLUTIONARY POTENTIAL
Where Abolitionists and escaped slaves constantly kept the slave
question before the nation, today, the Negro people, the revolutionary
elements among the proletariat, and the radicals constantly keep the
Southern torture of the Negro people before the nation, despite all
the efforts of the Republicans and Democrats' in the North to com-
promise ori the issue with the Southern Bourbons.

We can boldly outline the future course of development. During the
revolutionary crisis, the revolutionary proletariat will be able to draw-
behind it the great masses of the Negro people, North and South,
as Lincoln drew them during the Civil War. In the crises of the
struggle for power and in the early days of the revolutionary regime,
the party of revolutionary socialism and the proletariat as leader
of the nation.will turn to the great masses of the Negro people
— the deepest layers of .the population, as Stevens
and the Republican Radicals turned to .them after the Civil War, and
Lenih and Trotsky in the great crisis of the. Russian Revolution
turned always to where lay theii most devoted following — the masses-
w ho had been awakened to full political life by .the revolution, it-
self.

We can be certain that if Trotsky had been able to write on the
American Civil War, as he wished, the whole past and future of the
Negro people and their relation to revolutionary struggle would have
emerged as an organic part not only of the past but of the coming
American revolution. Trotsky did not see the revolutionary workers
and the masses of the people on one side and the party,
the subjective factor, on the other. For him at all stages the
party could only live and prosper by considering Itself a part of the
mass movement and drawing strength and nourishment from it.

In 1939, as those acquainted with the published history of the party
are aware. Trotsky was deeply disturbed about the situation in the
Socialist Workers Party. He felt that the party contained too many
petty-bourgeois intellectuals and that these constituted a danger of
degeneration. Fundamental to his solution was the bringing into the
party of workers, including Negro workers. For the great Bolshevik,
not only did the party educate and help the workers and the masses of
the Negro people; genuine proletarian elements and revolutionary
Negro workers were the means whereby the party itself could be
saved Irom degeneration.

We cannot do better than end with some of the weightiest words
that Trotsky ever addressed to members of the revolutionary move-
ment in the United States. He was summing up the discussion of 1939:
"Many times I have proposed that every member of the party, espe-
cially the intellectuals and semi-intellectuals who, during a period
of six months, cannot each win a worker member for the party,
should be demoted to the position of sympathizer. We can say the
same on the Negro question. Theold organizations beginning with
the A F L are the organizations of the workers' aristocracy. Our party
is a part of the same milieu, not of the basic exploited masses of whom
the Negroes are the most exploited. If the workers' aristocracy is
the basis for opportunism, one of the sources for adaptation to capi-
talist society, then the most oppressed, most discriminated class,
of which the Negroes are the most oppressed and discriminated, are
the most dynamic milieu of the working class.

NO PRIVILEGES HERE
"We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they
are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard
of the working class. What serves as a brake on the higher strata?
It is the privileges, the comforts that hinder them from becoming
•evolutionists. It does not exist for the Negroes. What can transform a
certain strata, make it more capable of courage and sacrifice?
It is concentrated in the Negroes. If it happens, that we in the SWP
are not able to find the road to this strata, then we are not worthy
at all. The permrnent revolution ind the rest would be only a lie."

One year after these words on the Negro question, Trotsky was
murdered. But his contribution to the Negro question in the United
States remains with the Socialist Workers Party and has guided It
during the past years. Succeeding years will 'only further demonstrate
that Trotsky's heritage on the Negro question is one of his greatest
contributions to the struggle for the proletarian revolution and the so-
cialist society in the United States.

Aug 25 1947, Militant NY

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.