Arne Swabeck and Leon Trotsky: The Negro Question in America

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On February 28, 1933, Arne Swabeck of the Communist League of America met with Leon Trotsky and his secretary Pierre Frank on the island of Prinkipo in Turkey. They debated many questions, including racism in the U.S. and the right of self-determination. This is part of our collection on Marxism and Black Struggle.

Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James (Illustration: Sou Mi)

In the early years of U.S. communism, the young Communist Party carried on the economism of the Socialist Party and the American radical tradition. That is, the particularities of U.S. capitalism — formed as it was on slavery — were overlooked, and the struggle against the oppression of Black people was seen as the general economic struggle between workers and bosses. There was no special program against racism, since it was believed that racial prejudice would dissolve in the fight for socialism. Today, we might call this “class reductionism.”

After the Russian Revolution, the victorious Bolsheviks — who for years defended the right of oppressed nations within the Tsarist Empire to self-determination — challenged the “American communists with the harsh insistent demand that they shake off their unspoken prejudices, pay attention to the special problems and grievances of the American Negroes, go to work among them, and champion their cause in the white community.”1 Thus American communists began to use the Leninist framework to understand the U.S. situation. 

For his role in opposing the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, Leon Trotsky was hounded into exile. From 1929 to 1933, he lived in Turkey, on the island of Büyükada, also called Prinkipo. He carried on the struggle for world revolution and met with revolutionaries from all around the world, including Arne Swabeck from the Communist League of America. The CLA — which would later become the Socialist Workers Party — was the U.S. section of Trotsky’s International Left Opposition. When Swabeck met with Trotsky, the CLA did not yet have a clear position on racism and U.S. capitalism. Trotsky’s advice was sought in a discussion on February 28, conducted in German. This transcript was later published under the title “The Negro Question in America.” 

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Swabeck: We have in this question within the American League no noticeable differences of an important character, nor have we yet formulated a program. I present therefore only the views which we have developed in general.

How must we view the position of the American Negro: As a national minority or as a racial minority? This is of the greatest importance for our program.

The Stalinists maintain as their main slogan the one of “self-determination for the Negroes” and demand in connection therewith a separate state and state rights for the Negroes in the black belt.

The practical application of the latter demand has revealed much opportunism. On the other hand, I acknowledge that in the practical work amongst the Negroes, despite the numerous mistakes, the [Communist] party can also record some achievements. For example, in the Southern textile strikes, where to a large extent the color lines were broken down.

Weisbord,2 I understand, is in agreement with the slogan of “self-determination” and separate state rights. He maintains that is the application of the theory of the permanent revolution for America.

We proceed from the actual situation: There are approximately 13 million Negroes in America; the majority are in the Southern states (black belt). In the Northern states the Negroes are concentrated in the industrial communities as industrial workers, in the South they are mainly farmers and sharecroppers.

Trotsky: Do they rent from the state or from private owners?

Swabeck: From private owners, from white farmers and plantation owners; some Negroes own the land they till.

The Negro population of the North are kept on a lower level — economically, socially and culturally; in the South under oppressive Jim Crow conditions. They are barred from many important trade unions. During and since the war the migration from the South has increased; perhaps about four to five million Negroes now live in the North. The Northern Negro population is overwhelmingly proletarian, but also in the South the proletarianization is progressing.

Today none of the Southern states have a Negro majority. This lends emphasis to the heavy migration, to the North. We put the question thus: Are the Negroes, in a political sense, a national minority or a racial minority? The Negroes have become fully assimilated, Americanized, and their life in America has overbalanced the traditions of the past, modified and changed them. We cannot consider the Negroes a national minority in the sense of having their own separate language. They have no special national customs, or special national culture or religion; nor have they any special national minority interests. It is impossible to speak of them as a national minority in this sense. It is therefore our opinion that the American Negroes are a racial minority whose position and interests are subordinated to the class relations of the country and depending upon them.

To us the Negroes represent an important factor in the class struggle, almost a decisive factor. They are an important section of the proletariat. There is also a Negro petty bourgeoisie in America but not as powerful or as influential or playing the role of the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie among the nationally oppressed people (colonial).

The Stalinist slogan “self-determination” is in the main based upon an estimate of the American Negroes as a national minority, to be won over as allies. To us the question occurs: Do we want to win the Negroes as allies on such a basis and who do we want to win, the Negro proletariat or the Negro petty bourgeoisie? To us it appears that we will with this slogan win mainly the petty bourgeoisie and we cannot have much interest in winning them as allies on such a basis? We recognize that the poor farmers and sharecroppers are the closest allies of the proletariat but it is our opinion that they can be won as such mainly on the basis of the class struggle. Compromise on this principled question would put the petty bourgeois allies ahead of the proletariat and the poor farmers as well. We recognize the existence of definite stages of development which require specific slogans. But the Stalinist slogan appears to us to lead directly to the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.”3 The unity of the workers, black and white, we must prepare proceeding from a class basis, but in that it is necessary to also recognize the racial issues and in addition to the class slogans also advance the racial slogans. It is our opinion that in this respect the main slogan should be “social, political and economic equality for the Negroes,” as well as the slogans which flow therefrom. This slogan is naturally quite different from the Stalinist slogan of “self-determination” for a national minority. The [Communist] party leaders maintain that the Negro workers and farmers can be won only oil the basis of this slogan. To begin with it was advanced for the Negroes throughout the country, but today only for the Southern states. It is our opinion that we can win the Negro workers only on a class basis advancing also the racial slogans for the necessary intermediary stages of development. In this manner we believe also the poor Negro farmers can best be won as direct allies.

In the main the problem of slogans in regard to the Negro question is the problem of a practical program. How will the Negroes be won over? We believe primarily with racial slogans: Equality with whites and the slogans which flow from this.

Trotsky: The point of view of the American comrades appears to me not fully convincing. “Self-determination” is a democratic demand. Our American comrades advance as against this democratic demand, the liberal demand. This liberal demand is, moreover, complicated. I understand what “political equality” means. But what is the meaning of economical and social equality within capitalist society? Does that mean a demand to public opinion that all enjoy the equal protection of the laws? But that is political equality. The slogan “political, economic and social equality” sounds equivocal and while it is not clear to me it nevertheless suggests itself easy of misinterpretation.

The Negroes are a race and not a nation: Nations grow out of the racial material under definite conditions. The Negroes in Africa are not yet a nation but they are in the process of building a nation. The American Negroes are on a higher cultural level. But while they are there under the pressure of the Americans they become interested in the development of the Negroes in Africa. The American Negro will develop leaders for Africa, that one can say with certainty and that in turn will influence the development of political consciousness in America.

We do, of course, 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 what they strive for. We say: If the Negroes want that then we must fight against imperialism to the last drop of blood, so that they gain the right, wherever and how they please, to separate a piece of land for themselves. The fact that they are today not a majority in any state does not matter. It is not a question of the authority of the states but of the Negroes. That in the overwhelming Negro territory also whites have existed and will remain henceforth is not the question and we do not need today to break our heads over a possibility that sometime the whites will be suppressed by the Negroes. In any case the suppression of the Negroes pushes them toward a political and national unity.

That the slogan “self-determination” will rather win the petty bourgeois instead of the workers — that argument holds good also for the slogan of equality. It is clear that the special Negro elements who appear more in the public eye (businessmen, intellectuals, lawyers, etc.) are more active and react more actively against the inequality. It is possible to say that the liberal demand just as well as the democratic one in the first instance will attract the petty bourgeois and only later the workers.

If the situation was such that in America common actions existed between the white and the colored workers, that the class fraternization had already become a fact, then perhaps the arguments of our comrades would have a basis — I do not say that they would be correct — then perhaps we would separate the colored workers from the white if we commence with the slogan “self-determination.”

But today the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt and lynch them. When the Negro workers today unite with their own petty bourgeois that is because they are not yet sufficiently developed to defend their elementary rights. To the workers in the Southern states the liberal demand for “social, political and economic equality” would undoubtedly mean progress, but the demand for “self-determination” a greater progress. However, with the slogan “social, political and economic equality” they can much easier be misled (“according to the law you have this equality”).

When we are so far that the Negroes say we want autonomy; they then take a position hostile toward American imperialism. At that stage already the workers will be much more determined than the petty bourgeoisie. The workers will then see that the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of struggle and gets nowhere, but they will also recognize simultaneously that the white Communist workers fight for their demands and that will push them, the Negro proletarians, toward Communism.

Weisbord is correct in a certain sense that the “self-determination” of the Negroes belongs to the question of the permanent revolution in America. The Negroes will through their awakening, through their demand for autonomy, and through the democratic mobilization of their forces, be pushed on toward the class basis. The petty bourgeoisie will take up the demand for “social, political, and economic equality” and for “self-determination” but prove absolutely incapable in the struggle; the Negro proletariat will march crier the petty bourgeoisie in the direction toward the proletarian revolution. That is perhaps for them the most important road. I can therefore see no reason why we should not advance the demand for “self-determination.”

I am not sure if the Negroes do not also in the Southern states speak their own Negro language. Now that they are being lynched just because of being Negroes they naturally fear to speak their Negro language; but when they are set free their Negro language will again become alive. I will advise the American comrades to study this question very seriously, including the language in the Southern states. Because of all these reasons I would in this question rather lean toward the standpoint of the [Communist] party; of course, with the observation: I have never studied this question and in my remarks I proceed from the general considerations. I base myself only upon the arguments brought forward by the American comrades. I find them insufficient and consider them a certain concession to the point of view of American chauvinism, which seems to me to be dangerous.

What can we lose in this question when we go ahead with our demands, and what have the Negroes today to lose? We do not compel them to separate from the States, but they have the full right to self-determination when they so desire and we will support and defend them with all the means at our disposal in the conquest of this right, the same as we defend all oppressed peoples.

Swabeck: I admit that you have advanced powerful arguments but I am not yet entirely convinced. The existence of a special Negro language in the Southern states is possible; but in general all American Negroes speak English. They are fully assimilated. Their religion is the American Baptist and the language in their churches is likewise English.

Economic equality we do not at all understand in the sense of the law. In the North (as of course also in the Southern states) the wages for Negroes are always lower than for white workers and mostly their hours are longer, that is so to say accepted as a natural basis. In addition, the Negroes are allotted the most disagreeable work. It is because of these conditions that we demand economic equality for the Negro workers.

We do not contest the right of the Negroes to self-determination. That is not the issue of our disagreement with the Stalinists. But we contest the correctness of the slogan of “self-determination” as a means to win the Negro masses. The impulse of the Negro population is first of all in the direction toward equality in a social, political and economic sense. At present the party advances the slogan for “self-determination” only for the Southern states. Of course, one can hardly expect that the Negroes from the Northern industries should want to return to the South and there are no indications of such a desire. On the contrary. Their unformulated demand is for “social, political and economic equality” based upon the conditions under which they live. That is also the case in the South. It is because of this that we believe this to be the important racial slogan. We do not look upon the Negroes as being under national, oppression in the same sense as the oppressed colonial peoples. It is our opinion that the slogan of the Stalinists tends to lead the Negroes away from the class basis and more in the direction of the racial basis. That is the main reason for our being opposed to it. We are of the belief that the racial slogan in the sense as presented by us leads directly toward the class basis.

Frank:4 Are there special Negro movements in America?

Swabeck: Yes, several. First we had the Garvey movement5 based upon the aim of migration to Africa. It had a large following but busted up as a swindle. Now there is not much left of it. Its slogan was the creation of a Negro republic in Africa. Other Negro movements in the main rest upon a foundation of social and political equality demands as, for example, the League [National Association] for Advancement of Colored People. This is a large racial movement.

Trotsky: I believe that also the demand for “social, political and economic equality” should remain and I do not speak against this demand. It is progressive to the extent that it is not realized. The explanation of Comrade Swabeck in regard to the question of economic equality is very important. But that alone does not yet decide the question of the Negro fate as such, the question of the “nation,” etc. According to the arguments of the American comrades one could say for example that also Belgium has no right as a “nation.” The Belgians are Catholics and a large section of them speak French. What if France would annex them with such an argument? Also the Swiss people, through their historical connection, feel themselves, despite different languages and religion, as one nation. An abstract criterion is not decisive in this question, but much more decisive is the historical consciousness, their feelings and their impulses. But that also is not determined accidentally but rather by the general conditions. The question of religion has absolutely nothing to do with this question of the nation. The Baptism of the Negro is something entirely different from the Baptism of Rockefeller: These are two different religions.

The political argument rejecting the demand for “self-determination” is doctrinarism. That we heard always in Russia in regard to the question of “self-determination.” The Russian experiences have shown to us that the groups who live on a peasant basis retain peculiarities, their customs, their language, etc., and given the opportunity they develop again.

The Negroes are not yet awakened and they are not yet united with the white workers. 99.9 percent of the American workers are chauvinists, in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also toward the Chinese. It is necessary to teach the American beasts. It is necessary to make them understand that the American state is not their state and that they do not have to be the guardians of this state. Those American workers who say: “The Negroes should separate when they so desire and we will defend them against our American police” — those are revolutionists, I have confidence in them.

The argument that the slogan for “self-determination” leads away from the class basis is an adaptation to the ideology of the white workers. The Negro can be developed to a class standpoint only when the white worker is educated. On the whole the question of the colonial people is in the first instance a question of the development of the metropolitan worker.

The American worker is indescribably reactionary. It is shown today that he is not even yet won for the idea of social insurance. Because of this the American Communists are obligated to advance reform demands.

When today the Negroes do not demand self-determination that is naturally for the same reason that the white workers do not yet advance the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Negro has not yet got it into his poor black head that he dares to carve out for himself a piece of the great and mighty States. But the white worker must meet the Negroes half way and say to them: “When you want to separate you will have our support”. Also the Czech workers came only through the disillusion with their own state to Communism.

I believe that by the unheard-of political and theoretical backwardness and the unheard-of economic advance the awakening of the working class will proceed quite rapidly. The old ideological covering will burst, all questions will emerge at once, and since the country is so economically mature the adaptation of the political and theoretical to the economic level will be achieved very rapidly. It is then possible that the Negroes will become the most advanced section. We have already a similar example in Russia. The Russians were the European Negroes. It is very possible that the Negroes also through the self-determination will proceed to the proletarian dictatorship in a couple of gigantic strides, ahead of the great bloc of white workers. They will then furnish the vanguard. I am absolutely sure that they will in any case fight better than the white workers. That, however, can happen only provided the Communist Party carries on an uncompromising merciless struggle not against the supposed national prepossessions of the Negroes but against the colossal prejudices of the white workers and gives it no concession whatever.

Swabeck: It is then your opinion that the slogan for “self-determination” will be a means to set the Negroes into motion against American imperialism?

Trotsky: Naturally, thereby that the Negroes can carve out their own state out of mighty America and with the support of the white workers their self-consciousness develops enormously.

The reformists and the revisionists have written much on the subject that capitalism is carrying on the work of civilization in Africa and if the peoples of Africa are left to themselves they will be the more exploited by businessmen, etc, much more than now where they at least have a certain measure of lawful protection.

To a certain extent this argument can be correct. But in this case it is also first of all a question of the European workers: without their liberation the real colonial liberation is also not possible. When the white worker performs the role of the oppressor he cannot liberate himself, much less the colonial peoples. The self-determination of the colonial peoples can, in certain periods, lead to different results; in the final instance, however, it will lead to the struggle against imperialism and to the liberation of the colonial peoples.

Before the war, the Austrian Social Democracy (particularly Renner6) also put before the [first world] war the question of the national minorities abstractly. They argued likewise that the slogan for “self-determination” would only lead the workers away from the class standpoint and that such minority states could not live independently. Was this way of putting the question correct or false? It was abstract. The Austrian Social Democrats said that the national minorities were not nations. What do we see today? The separate pieces [of the old Austro-Hungarian empire] exist — bad to be sure, but they exist. The Bolsheviks fought in Russia always for the self-determination of the national minorities including the right of complete separation. And yet, by achieving self-determination these groups remained with the Soviet Union. If the Austrian Social Democracy had before accepted a correct policy in this question, they would have said to the national minority groups: “You have the full right to self-determination, we have no interest whatever to keep you in the hands of the Hapsburg7 monarchy” — it would then have been possible after the revolution to create a great Danube federation. The dialectic of the. developments shows that where the tight centralism existed the state went to pieces and where the complete self-determination was proposed a real state emerged and remained united.

The Negro question is of enormous importance for America. The League must undertake a serious discussion of this question, perhaps in an internal bulletin.

Source: Bulletin of Marxist Studies No. 4 (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1962) / Transcription: Marxists Internet Archive

Notes

1 James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1962).
2 Albert Weisbord (1900-1977) was a union organizer in the Communist Party USA before he organized the Communist League of Struggle that existed from 1931 to 1937. This group sympathized with the International Left Opposition but never officially joined due to political differences.
3 This slogan was made popular by Lenin before he broke with the concept in the months leading up to the October Revolution. In the 1920s and 30s, it was used by Stalinists to justify alliances with “progressive” sectors of the bourgeoisie, especially in the East. They declared that the victory of Chiang Kai-shek in the second Chinese Revolution (1925-27) would result in a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” However, Chiang Kai-shek established a counter-revolutionary bourgeois dictatorship that oppressed the workers and peasants until it was overthrown in 1949.
4 Pierre Frank (1905-1984) was a founder of the French section of the International Left Opposition and served as Trotsky’s secretary in 1932-1933. He remained in the Trotskyist movement all his life.
5 Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association that popularized the “Back to Africa” movement. It was a mass organization with hundreds of thousands of supporters.
6 Karl Renner (1870-1950) was the Social Democratic chancellor of Austria in 1919-1920.
7 The Hapsburgs ruled Austria for centuries before the 1918 revolutions.

About author

Arne Swabeck

Arne Swabeck

Arne Swabeck (1890–1986), born in Denmark, was a founding member of the Communist Party in the United States. He was expelled as part of the Left Opposition and went on to be a founder of the Socialist Workers Party.

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky

Lev Davidovich Bronstein (1879-1940) was a leader of the October Revolution in 1917 and the founder of the Fourth International in 1938.