James Robertson & Shirley Stoute
SWP-US Discussion Bulletin
(Vol. 24, № 30: July 3, 1963)
What follows is a classic but seldom read document from the history of American Trotskyism, covering a particularly tumultuous period of struggle against separatism within the party and institutionalized racism (like Jim Crow) in society at large. This was of course written at the height of the Civil Rights movement, as black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam rose to challenge more mainstream integrationist currents such as Dr. King’s. As Trotskyists who still considered themselves part of the vanguard of the working class, the question was, as ever, one of leadership. Stoute and Robertson’s document also touches upon the relationship between theory and practice, as well as the crucial distinction of “class vs. class” rather than “oppressed vs. oppressor” as the center around which to orient a Marxist politics.
Moreover, the original nomenclature of “Negro” has been retained instead of “black” or “African-American,” both of which are common today. The term “Negro” was the standard, accepted, and inoffensive at the time.
If it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this strata [the Negroes], then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie.
— Lev D. Trotsky, quoted in the
SWP 1948 Negro Resolution
The Negro Question has been posed before the party for exceptional consideration and with increasing sharpness as the gap has widened over the past ten years between the rising level of Negro struggle and the continuing qualitatively less intense general Trade Union activity.
I. General introduction
1. Basic theory: National or race/color issue? Breitman vs. Kirk, 1954-57
[The reference is to internal discussion in the SWP between George Breitman and Richard Fraser, whose party name was Kirk.]
To our understanding, what was involved then was a shading of theoretical difference. Breitman saw the Negro people as the embryo of a nation toward whom the right of self-determination was acknowledged but not yet, at least, advocated. Kirk interpreted the Negro question as a race issue which, under conditions of historic catastrophe (e.g., fascism victorious) could be transformed into a national question. Hence he agreed to the support of self-determination should it become a requirement in the Negro struggle, but he assumed it could conceivably arise only under vastly altered conditions. Both parties agreed to the inappropriateness of self-determination as a slogan of the party then.
The present writers agree essentially with Kirk’s view of the time, in particular with the 1955 presentation, “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question” (SWP Discussion Bulletin A-30, August 1955). We concur in noting the absence among the Negro people of those qualities which could create a separate political economy, however embryonic or stunted. This absence explains why the mass thrust for Negro freedom for over a hundred years has been toward smashing the barriers to an egalitarian and all sided integration. But integration into what kind of social structure? Obviously only into one that can sustain that integration. This is the powerful reciprocal contribution of the Negro struggle to the general class struggle. Continue reading