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.
It is the most vulgar impressionism to see in Negro moods of isolationist despair over the winning of real points of support from other sections of society today as some kind of process to transform the forms of oppressive segregation into a protective barrier, behind which will occur the gestation of a new nation. Negro Nationalism in ideology and origins is somewhat akin to Zionism as it was from the turn of the century until the Second World War. The large Negro ghettos of the Northern cities are the breeding grounds for this ideology among a layer of petit-bourgeois or declassed elements who vicariously imagine that segregated residential areas can be the germ sources for a new state in which they will exploit (“give jobs to”) black workers. Hence it is that separatist moods or currents among Negroes have a very different foundation and significance than as a national struggle.
As for the specific issue of self-determination, we find that the 1957 party resolution makes a good and balanced formulation:
“Theoretically the profound growth of national solidarity and national consciousness among the Negro people might under certain future conditions give rise to separatist demands. Since minority people have the democratic right to self-determination, socialists would be obliged to support such demands should they reflect the mass will. Yet even under these circumstances socialists would continue to advocate integration rather than separation as the best solution of the race question for Negro and white workers alike. While upholding the right of self-determination, they would continue to urge an alliance of the Negro people and the working class to bring about a socialist solution of the civil rights problem within the existing national framework.”
2. From theoretical weakness to current revisionism
However, it is of immediate importance to point out that this background dispute is far from the central issue in our criticism of the 1963 Political Committee Draft Resolution, “Freedom Now: the New Stage in the Struggle for Negro Emancipation and the Tasks of the SWP.” Thus the 1948-50 party resolution, titled “Negro Liberation Through Revolutionary Socialism,” even though it contains the theoretical outlook that Breitman upheld, is a solidly revolutionary document in its intent and aims. What has happened in the interval is simply that the present party Majority has made the earlier theoretical weakness the point of departure for the profound degradation now arrived at in the 1963 Majority document of the role of the working class in the United States and of its revolutionary Marxist party as well. With evident loss of confidence in a revolutionary perspective by its authors, the essential revision in the 1963 draft is, however qualified, nothing other than the substitution of the axis of struggle as oppressed versus oppressor to replace class versus class.
3. The 1963 revisionism
The essence of what is “new” is found in the following portions of the 1963 PC draft:
But here, as in Africa, the liberation of the Negro people requires that the Negroes organize themselves independently, and control their own struggle, and not permit it to be subordinated to any other consideration or interest.
This means that the Negroes must achieve the maximum unity of their forces — in a strong and disciplined nationwide movement or congress of organizations, and ideological unity based on dividing, exposing and isolating gradualism and other tendencies emanating from their white suppressors. This phase of the process is now beginning.
Having united their own forces, the independent Negro movement will then probably undertake the tasks of division and alliance. It will seek ways to split the white majority so that the Negro disadvantage of being a numerical minority can be compensated for by division and conflict on the other side.[emphasis added]
The general alliance between the labor movement and the Negro fighters for liberation can be prepared for and preceded by the cementing of firm working unity between the vanguard of the Negro struggle and the socialist vanguard of the working class represented by the Socialist Workers Party.
The lesser sin of this schema of the future for the Negro struggle is the complete capitulation to Negro nationalism. (For one to see this vividly, re-read the quotations above substituting, say, “Algerian” for “Negro” and “French” for “whites.”) It is serious enough that the draft envisions no effort to compete with the black nationalists’ understandable reaction to liberal-pacifist toadying. Certainly it is the duty of Marxists to struggle to separate militant elements from a regressive ideology. To say that the Negro struggle must not be subordinated to any other consideration is to deny proletarian internationalism. Every struggle, without exception, acquires progressive significance only in that it furthers directly or indirectly the socialist revolution internationally. Any struggle other than the workers’ class struggle itself has, at best, indirect value. Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks were obligated to wage a two-front ideological dispute in order to free the revolutionary vanguard from misconceptions on this score — against the petit bourgeois nationalist socialists who saw the national struggle as having a progressive historical significance in its own right; and against the sectarian view of Rosa Luxemburg and the workers’ party in Poland which, from the correct premise that the nation-state had become reactionary in the modern world drew the over-simplified and erroneous conclusion — “against self-determination (for Poland).” Lenin pointed out that independent working class involvement in the struggle for national self-determination in several important ways furthered the class struggle and thereby acquired justification. Similarly Trotsky pointed out that defense of the Soviet Union was subordinate to and a part of the proletarian revolution internationally and that in the event of a clash of interests the particular lesser interests of the part (and a degenerate part at that) would for revolutionists take second place.
It is worthy of note that the Negro struggle in America is more directly related to the class struggle than any essentially national question could be — for the Negro struggle for freedom is a fight by a working class color caste which is the most exploited layer in this country. Hence any steps forward in this struggle immediately pose the class question and the need for class struggle in sharpest form.
The graver consequence of the proposed Majority draft is its necessary corollary that the Majority would see the revolutionary workers’ party excluded from one more area of struggle. In their 1961 Cuban question documents the Majority made it clear that for them the Cuban Revolution and, by implication, in the Colonial Revolution as well, the revolutionary working class party is, prior to the revolution, a dispensable convenience. This view has now been explicitly generalized and confirmed by the Majority, as in Section 13 of their “For Early Reunification of the World Trotskyist Movement”:
13. Along the road of a revolution beginning with simple democratic demands and ending in the rupture of capitalist property relations, guerilla warfare conducted by landless peasant and semi-proletarian forces, under a leadership that becomes committed to carrying the revolution through to a conclusion, can play a decisive role in undermining and precipitating the downfall of a colonial or semi-colonial power. This is one of the main lessons to be drawn from experience since the Second World War. It must be consciously incorporated into the strategy of building revolutionary Marxist parties in colonial countries.
By their extension of this line to include the Negro question in the U.S., the SWP Majority has made the most serious overt denial yet of a revolutionary perspective. What they have done is to a priori exclude themselves from struggling for the leadership of a most crucial section of the American working class, and instead to consign that struggle to a hypothetical parallel united Negro Peoples’ Organization which would “probably” one day work with the socialist working class leadership in the U.S. In essence the erroneous conclusions drawn by the Majority from the Cuban Revolution will now be incorporated into the party’s American perspective in the form of “waiting for a black Castro.” Thus the party’s supreme responsibility, the American revolution, is being vitiated!
II. To the socialist revolution —
and the broad masses
1. Method of objectivism versus analytical approach
In surveying current developments the descriptive articles and reports of Breitman have been valuable (for example, his “New Trends and New Moods in the Negro Struggle,” SWP Discussion Bulletin, Summer 1961). However, the material is flawed and limited by its shaping and presentation through an approach which is “objective, “sociological,” “descriptive.” This stands in contrast to the indicated analytical approach for Marxists. Underlying this difference in method of treatment is the closely correlated difference between viewing the developments as an external observer — now given formal codification in the PC draft resolution — as against conceiving developments from the standpoint of involvement in their fundamental solution. For the Negro struggle to this solution integrally involves the revolutionary Marxist party which is missing in Breitman’s approach to current events.
2. Our point of departure — Socialist revolution
Our point of departure comes in turn as the conclusion that the Negro question is so deeply built into the American capitalist class-structure — regionally and nationally — that only the destruction of existing class relations and the change in class dominance — the passing of power into the hands of the working class — will suffice to strike at the heart of racism and bring about a solution both real and durable. Our approach to present struggles cannot be “objective.” Rather it rests on nothing other than or less than the criteria of what promotes or opposes the socialist revolution.
Therefore we can find an amply sufficient point of departure in a key statement of the 1948-50 resolution:
The primary and ultimate necessity of the Negro movement is its unification with the revolutionary forces under the leadership of the proletariat. The guiding forces of this unification can only be the revolutionary party.
3. Negro mass organizations and the revolutionary party
It would be foolhardy and presumptuous to seek after any pat schema detailing the road to be traveled in going from today’s struggles to our ultimate goals. But there are certain qualities and elements which, as in all such social struggles, do and will manifest themselves along the way.
One such matter is that of the basic approach to organizations of Negro workers and youth. The generality is that in an American society in which large sections of the working people are saturated with race hatreds and intolerance of the particular needs of other parts and strata, special organizations are mandatory for various strata. This consideration finds its sharpest expression in the Negro struggle. Today in the wake of the upsurge in mass civil rights struggles there is a felt and urgent need for a broad mass organization of Negro struggle free of the limitations, weaknesses, hesitancies, and sometimes downright betrayal which afflict the currently existing major competitors. This need will be with us for a long time. Participation in the work of building such a movement is a major responsibility for the revolutionary party. Very likely along the way a complex and shifting combination of work in already existing groups and the building of new organizations will be involved. But as long as we know what we are aiming for we can be oriented amidst the complexities and vicissitudes of the process.
At bottom what the Marxists should advocate and aim to bring about is a transitional organization of the Negro struggle standing as a connecting link between the party and the broader masses. What is involved in working from a revolutionary standpoint is to seek neither a substitute to nor an opponent of the vanguard party, but rather a unified formation of the largely or exclusively Negro members of the party together with the largest number of other militants willing to fight for that section of the revolutionary Marxist program dealing with the Negro question. Such a movement expresses simultaneously the special needs of the Negro struggle and its relationship to broader struggles — ultimately for workers’ power.
This approach to the special oppression of the Negroes stems from the tactics of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Comintern. It was there that the whole concept was worked out for relating the party to mass organizations of special strata under conditions where the need had become evident and it becomes important that such movements contribute to the proletarian class struggle and that their best elements be won over to the party itself. The militant women’s organizations, revolutionary youth leagues, and radical Trade Unionists’ associations are other examples of this form.
Parenthetically, it should be noted how little there is in common between this outlook and that of the 1963 PC draft. Thus even in the hypothetical case that a separate social and material base was somehow created sufficient to generate a mass Negro national consciousness, the Bolshevist response is not just to back away and talk of facilitating eventual common work between a “them” of that nationality and an “us” of the (white) socialist vanguard of the (white) working class. Even if a new state — a separate black Republic — were created, our Negro comrades, even at this greatest conceivable remove, would become nothing other than a new section of a politically common international party — the Fourth International. And their struggle for socialism would continue to be our cause too.
4. Toward a black Trotskyist cadre
To return to the realities of the Negro struggle as it is and to the SWP as it is, there is one vital element without which the basic working program remains a piece of paper as far as actual involvement in the struggle is concerned. That element is an existing section, however modest, of Negro party members functioning actively and politically in the movement for Negro freedom.
Viewed from this aspect the current PC draft is at once a rationalization and an accommodation to the weakness of our party Negro forces, and, moreover, will exacerbate this weakness. This organizational abstentionism is obtrusive in the draft’s direct implication that it doesn’t really matter about the SWP because the Negro movement can get along well enough without the revolutionary working class party and one day the Negro vanguard may turn in our direction anyway. The key paragraph of the PC draft quoted in this article sums up a permeating thread of the entire resolution, places the party’s role as one of fraternal relationship between two parallel structures: the (white) working class and its vanguard on the one side, and the Negro people and their vanguard on the other. This conception denies the fundamental necessity that the party will lead, must lead, or should even try to lead the decisive section of the working class in America. The resolution gives credence to the concept that “we cannot lead the Negro people.” This is absolutely contradictory to a revolutionary perspective. Our leadership means the revolutionary class struggle program carried out by revolutionists in the mass movements, fused into the revolutionary party. Just as trade unionists will not join the revolutionary party if they do not see it as essential to winning the struggle, so Negro fighters for liberation will not join the party on any basis other than that the only road to freedom for them is the revolutionary socialist path of struggle through the combat army. Negro militants will not see any advantage in joining a party which says in effect: “We cannot lead the Negro people. We are the socialist vanguard of the white working class, and we think it is nice to have fraternal relations with your vanguard (that of the liberation movement).”
Likewise, once we have recruited Negro militants to the party, the line expressed in the PC draft serves not to help them to develop as Trotskyist cadre and to recruit other black workers on the basis of our program, but rather would serve to waste and mislead them. When the party denies its role of leadership of the black messes, then for what reason do we need a black Trotskyist cadre? The logic of this position means that there is no role for a Negro as a party member that differs from that he could play without entering the party, or, as in the case of the position taken on southern work, membership in the party would actually isolate him from important areas of work because “the party is not needed there.”
Some comrades, in response to the criticisms made here, will say that the party is not giving up a revolutionary perspective, but is only being realistic and facing the fact that the majority of our membership is white and that we have only a tiny and weak Negro cadre. We must seek to become in reality what we are in theory, rather than the reverse — i.e., adapting our program to a serious weakness in composition. If we take this road of adaptation the party program in a process of gross degeneration will become based on a privileged section of the working class.
Negroes who are activists in the movement, such as, for example, the full-time militants around SNCC, are every day formulating concepts of struggle for the movement. The meaning of the line of the PC draft is that we are not interested in recruiting these people to our white party because we have the revolutionary socialist program for the section of the working class of which we are the vanguard, and they (Negro militants) must lead their own struggle, although we would like to have fraternal relations with them. This is the meaning of the PC draft.
To the concept of the white party must be counterposed the concept of the revolutionary party. For if we are only the former, then black workers are misplaced in the SWP. There are three main elements which we recruit to the party: minority workers, white workers, and intellectuals. In the process of the work which brings these elements to the party there are special considerations which must be made with reference to the suspicions of minority peoples (“white caution”) in regard to personnel, etc. However, once inside the party we are all only revolutionists. All of these elements are fused in the struggle to achieve the revolutionary program into revolutionists who as a whole make up the revolutionary party. Thus the “white caution” in Negro organizations is wrong inside the party. An internal policy of “white caution” equals paternalism, patronization, creation of “party Negroes,” etc., and has no place in a Bolshevik party.
The statement by Trotsky, quoted at the head of this article, that if the SWP cannot find the road to the Negroes then it is not worthy at all, finds its concurrent counterpart in the choice now before us. Either the revolutionary perspective in the U.S. has become blunted and lifeless or else its expression today as a living aim of the party pivots, in the context of relative working-class passivity and active Negro struggle, upon the development of a black Trotskyist cadre.
The principal aim of this article is to show that this deficiency in forces is not the fault of objective conditions — isolation and the like — but is rooted in the complex of related political and organizational faults stemming from a loss of confidence and orientation toward the proletarian revolution by the SWP majority.
Because of the pressures of other work upon the authors, the last two sections of this article have not been completed in time for the bulletin deadline even in the rough form of the first sections. The sections which it had been hoped to include are:
III. The party
- External and inner party aspects of winning and building a Negro cadre.
- Against “ours is a white party” end against patronization.
- Qualitative difference of required approach inside and outside the party.
- Priorities in Negro work — defining the most recruitable layers by the party.
IV. Mass work today
- Essential and common flaw in agitation based on either Federal Troops to the South!” or “Kennedy — Deputize and Arm Birmingham Negroes!”
- Against Union decertification hearings as a way to fight Jim Crow; for mass picketing to break racial exclusion in unions.
- Specific aims and balance of our work — North and South.
- Appraisal of existing organizations, including SNCC, the Muslims, etc.
In lieu of these developed sections, we are concluding with a few fragmentary notes. It is our hope that the coming party Convention will act to continue a literary discussion following the Convention in the fast changing Negro Question. In addition, for a brief statement of views on mass work, attention is directed to the Minority Tendency’s amendment to the PC draft on the American Question (in Discussion Bulletin Vol. 24, No. 23, June 1963).
1. The Black Muslims are, with many contradictions, primarily a religious organization. Their political activity is primarily limited to the propaganda sphere. They do not have a program for struggle to meet the demands of the black masses in the community today, although their promise of political candidates would represent somewhat of a turn. We take exception to comrade Kirk’s statement that, “The foundation of the Muslim movement is basically a reflex of the lumpen proletariat to gradualism, to the betrayal of the intellectuals and the default of the union movement.” The Muslim movement has a petit-bourgeois program — black business, black economy, separate on this basis, for this goal, is the answer to the oppression. Their internal organization is bureaucratically structured, with heavy financial drainage on the rank-and-file membership to the enrichment of “The Messenger.” On the other hand, while they call to all levels of black society, businessmen, workers, even socialists and communists, as long as they’re black, in reality the appeal is attractive mainly to the working class and especially to the lumpen layers, but they are no longer lumpen when they join the movement. One tendency of the leadership represented by Malcolm X condemns American capitalist society and shows favor toward Cuba and Red China as opposed to Chiang Kai-shek. Another tendency claims that international affairs don’t concern them and the black man’s problems in America have no relation to the Cuban Revolution, etc. It is realistic to expect that we may be able to win some of its periphery and membership to the revolutionary program, but because of the religious, non-action oriented, exacting and bureaucratic nature of the organization, this can best be done through discussion and common action where possible, rather than on the inside.
2. R. Vernon, prosecuting attorney of “The White-Radical Left on Trial,” states in his article: “The absurdity of a Militant talking trade unions and Negro-White unity at the same time that it sounds like the very voice of the depths of the Negro ghetto is offered with a straight face.” This is but one blatant indication that comrade Vernon is not making criticism from the point of view of a revolutionary and does not see the struggle for socialism — the class struggle — as having any essential connection to the Negro struggle for equality. Vernon’s current writings, “Why White Radicals are Incapable of Understanding Black Nationalism” and “The White Radical Left on Trial,” are based on the premise, or attempt to prove, that Marxism and revolutionary socialism have no place in the struggle of the most exploited section of the American working class nor in the colonial revolution either. For Vernon the building of a revolutionary party aiming toward the American revolution is at best irrelevant and international working class solidarity meaningless. In short, there is little in comrade Vernon’s articles that is common to Marxism. Furthermore, his views are saturated with the spirit of the treacherous justification “that ours is a white socialist revolutionary party” — the logic of which is liquidationist.
Lest any comrades think we are too harsh in criticizing Vernon as having theoretically surrendered to black Nationalism and rejected Marxism (with or without quote marks), let them ponder such a remark as, “The problem of revolutionary nationalism has never been dealt with adequately in any Marxist or ‘Marxist’ movement anywhere. Lenin only scratched the surface…” Of the entire, penetrating, historically verified theory of the Permanent Revolution, Vernon says not a word! Yet, above all, Trotsky’s theory tackles “the problem of revolutionary nationalism” and lays bare its solution.
Moreover, even if “Lenin only scratched the surface,” our luck has finally turned. Vernon coolly informs us that the SWP has now proved its unique worth: “It is the only group whose internal life can, and did, produce the WWR [‘Why White Radicals…’] document…” Apparently Vernon, the author of WWR, has capitulated to his own ego even more fully than to nationalism!
We are happy to accept comrade Vernon’s finding that the Tendency we support is the most distant from his views of any in the party.