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C.L.R. James and Leon Trotsky: Plans for the Negro Organization

On April 11, 1939, C.L.R. James had his final discussion with Leon Trotsky in Coyoacán, in Mexico. They discussed concrete plans for founding a revolutionary organization for Black workers in the United States. This is part of our collection on Marxism and Black Struggle.

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

James:1This transcript was printed in the internal bulletin of the Socialist Workers Party in June 1939. For reasons of security, the names were listed as pseudonyms: “Crux” for Trotsky, “Johnson” for C.L.R. James, and “Carlos” for Charles Curtiss. These pseudonyms have been replaced by the real names. The suggestions for the party work are in the documents and there is no need to go over them. I propose that they should be considered by the Political Committee immediately, together with Comrade Trotsky’s idea for a special number of the monthly magazine on the Negro question. Urgently needed is a pamphlet written by someone familiar with the dealings of the CP on the Negro question and relating these to the Communist International and its degeneration. This would be an indispensable theoretical preliminary to the organization of the Negro movement and the party’s own work among the Negroes. What is not needed is a general pamphlet dealing in a general way with the difficulties of the Negro and stating that in general black and white must unite. It would be another of a long list.

The Negro Organization


1. The study of Negro history and historic propaganda should be:

(a) Emancipation of the Negroes in San Domingo linked with the French Revolution.2The “emancipation of the Negros in San Domingo” refers to the Haitian Revolution that took place from 1791 to 1804. This victorious slave revolution created the first Black republic, and was analyzed by James in his book The Black Jacobins.

(b) Emancipation of the slaves in the British Empire linked with the British Reform Bill of 1832.

(c) Emancipation of the Negroes in the United States linked with the Civil War in America.

This leads easily up to the conclusion that the emancipation of the Negro in the United States and abroad is linked with the emancipation of the white working class.

(d) The economic roots of racial discrimination.

(e) Fascism.

(f) The necessity for self-determination for Negro peoples in Africa and a similar policy in China, India, etc.

NB:3Note bene — note well. The party should produce a theoretical study of the permanent revolution and the Negro peoples. This should be very different in style from the pamphlet previously suggested. It should not be a controversy with the CP, but a positive economic and political analysis showing that socialism is the only way out and definitely treating the theory on a high level. This however should come from the party.

2. A scrupulous analysis and exposure of the economic situation of the poorest Negroes and the way this retards not only the Negroes themselves, but the whole community. This, the bringing to the Negroes themselves of a formulated account of their own conditions by means of simple diagrams, illustrations, charts, etc., is of the utmost importance.

Theory — organizational means:

1. Weekly paper and pamphlets of the Negro organization.

2. To establish the International African Opinion as a monthly theoretical journal, financed to some degree from America, make it twice its present size and after a few months enter boldly upon a discussion of international socialism, emphasizing the right of self-determination, taking care to show that socialism will be the decision of the Negro states themselves on the basis of their own experience. Invite an international participation of all organizations in the labor movement, Negro intellectuals, etc. It is to be hoped that Comrade Trotsky will be able to participate in this. This discussion on socialism should have no part in the weekly agitational paper.


1. Summon a small group of Negroes and whites if possible: Fourth Internationalists, Lovestoneites,4Jay Lovestone (1897-1990) was a leader of the Communist Party USA who was expelled as part of the Right Opposition in 1929. He then founded the Communist Party (Opposition). unattached revolutionaries — this group must be clear on (a) the war question and (b) socialism. We cannot begin by placing an abstract question like socialism before Negro workers. It seems to me that we cannot afford to have confusion on this question in the leadership; for it is on this question that hangs the whole direction of our day-to-day politics. Are we going to attempt to patch up capitalism or to break it? On the war question there can be no compromise. The Bureau has a position and that must be the basis of the new organization.


1. A careful adaptation of the program of the transitional demands with emphasis on the demands for equality. This is as much as can be said at present.

Practical steps:

1. Choose, after careful investigation, some trade union where there is discrimination affecting a large number of Negroes and where there is a possibility of success. Mobilize a national campaign with every conceivable means of united front: AFL, CIO, SP, SWP, Negro churches, bourgeois organizations and all, in an attempt to break down this discrimination. This should be the first campaign, to show clearly that the organization is fighting as a Negro organization, but has nothing to do with Garveyism.5Marcus 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.

2. To seek to build a nationwide organization on Negro housing and high rents, attempting to draw the women in for militant action.

3. Discrimination in restaurants should be fought by a campaign. A number of Negroes in any area go into a restaurant all together, ordering for instance some coffee, and refuse to come out until they are served. It would be possible to sit there for a whole day in a very orderly manner and throw upon the police the necessity of removing these Negroes. A campaign to be built around such action.

4. The question of the organization of domestic servants is very important and though very difficult a thorough investigation should be made.

5. Negro unemployment — though here great care will have to be taken to avoid duplicating organizations; and this is probably the role of the party.

6. The Negro organization must take the sharecroppers’ organization in the South as its own. It must make it one of the bases of the solution of the Negro question in the South, popularize its work, its aims, its possibilities in the East and West, try to influence it in a more militant direction, invite speakers from it, urge it to take action against lynching and make the whole Negro community and the whites aware of its importance in the regional and national struggle.

Political orientation:

1. To initiate a militant struggle against fascism and to see to it that Negroes are always in the forefront of any demonstration or activity against fascism.

2. To inculcate the impossibility of any assistance being gained from the Republican and Democratic parties. Negroes must put up their own candidates on a working class program and form a united front only with those candidates whose program approximates to theirs.

Internal organization:

The local units will devote themselves to these questions in accordance with the urgency of the local situation and the national campaigns planned by the center. These can only be decided upon by investigation.

(a) Begin with a large-scale campaign for funds to establish a paper and at least two headquarters — one in New York and one in a town like St. Louis, within striking distance of the South.

(b) A weekly agitational paper costing two cents.

(c) The aim should be to have as soon as possible at least five professional revolutionists — two in New York, two in St. Louis (?) and one constantly travelling from the center. A national tour in the fall after the paper has been established and a draft program and aims established. A national conference in the early summer.

(d) Seek to get a Negro militant from South Africa to make a tour here as soon as possible. There is little doubt that this can easily be arranged…

Curtiss: About opening the discussion of socialism in the bulletin, but excluding it, at least for a time, from the weekly paper: it seems to me that this is dangerous. This is falling into the idea that socialism is for intellectuals and the elite, but that the people on the bottom should be interested only in the common, day-to-day things. The method should be different in both places, but I think that there should at least be a drive in the direction of socialism in the weekly paper; not only from the point of view of daily matters, but also in what we call abstract discussion. It is a contradiction — the mass paper would have to take a clear position on the war question, but not on socialism. It is impossible to do the first without the second. It is a form of “economism,” (that) the workers should interest themselves in the everyday affairs, but not in the “theories” of socialism.

James: I see the difficulties and the contradiction, but there is something else that I cannot quite see   —if we want to build a mass movement we cannot plunge into a discussion of socialism, because I think that it would cause more confusion than it would gain support. The Negro is not interested in socialism. He can be brought to socialism on the basis of his concrete experiences. Otherwise we would have to form a Negro socialist organization. I think we must put forth a minimal, concrete program. I agree that we should not put socialism too far in the future, but I am trying to avoid lengthy discussions on Marxism, the Second International, the Third International, etc.

Larkin: Would this organization throw its doors open to all classes of Negroes?

James: Yes, on the basis of its program. The bourgeois Negro can come in to help, but only on the basis of the organization’s program.

Larkin: I cannot see how the Negro bourgeoisie can help the Negro proletariat fight for its economic advancement.

James: In our movement some of us are petty bourgeois. If a bourgeois Negro is excluded from a university because of his color, this organization will probably mobilize the masses to fight for the rights of the bourgeois Negro student. Help for the organization will be mobilized on the basis of its program and we will not be able to exclude any Negro from it if he is willing to fight for that program.

Trotsky: I believe that the first question is the attitude of the Socialist Workers Party toward the Negroes. It is very disquieting to find that until now the party has done almost nothing in this field. It has not published a book, a pamphlet, leaflets, nor even any articles in the New International. Two comrades who compiled a book on the question, a serious work, remained isolated. That book is not published, nor are even quotations from it published. It is not a good sign. It is a bad sign. The characteristic thing about the American workers’ parties, trade-union organizations, and so on, was their aristocratic character. It is the basis of opportunism. The skilled workers who feel set in the capitalist society help the bourgeois class to hold the Negroes and the unskilled workers down to a very low scale. Our party is not safe from degeneration if it remains a place for intellectuals, semi-intellectuals, skilled workers and Jewish workers who build almost isolated from the genuine mass. Under these condition our party cannot develop — it will degenerate.

We must have this great danger before our eyes. Many times I have proposed that every member of the party, especially the intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, who, during a period of say six months, cannot each win a worker-member for the party, should be demoted to the position of sympathizer. We can say the same in the Negro question. The old organizations, beginning with the AFL, 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. The fact that our party until now has not turned to the Negro question is a very disquieting symptom. If the workers’ aristocracy is the basis of opportunism, one of the sources of adaptation to capitalist society, then the most oppressed and discriminated are the most dynamic milieu of the working class.

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 the brake on the higher strata? It is the privileges, the comforts that hinder them from becoming revolutionists. It does not exist for the Negroes. What can transform a certain stratum, 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 stratum, then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie.

In the States we now have various contests. Competition to see who will sell the most papers, and so on. That is very good. But we must also establish a more serious competition — the recruiting of workers and especially of Negro workers. To a certain degree that is independent of the creation of the special Negro organization…

I believe the party should undertake for the next six months organizational and political work. A six months’ program can be elaborated for the Negro question… After a half year’s work we have a base for the Negro movement and we have a serious nucleus of Negroes and whites working together on this plan. It is a question of the vitality of the party. It is an important question. It is a question of whether the party is to be transformed into a sect or if it is capable of finding its way to the most oppressed part of the working class.

Proposals taken up point by point:

1. Pamphlet on the Negro question and the Negroes in the CP, relating it to the degeneration of the Kremlin.

Trotsky: Good. And also would it not be well perhaps to mimeograph this book, or parts of it, and sent it together with other material on the question to the various sections of the party for discussion?

2. A Negro number of the New International.

Trotsky: I believe that it is absolutely necessary.

Owen: It seems to me that there is a danger of getting out the Negro number before we have a sufficient Negro organization to assure its distribution.

James: It is not intended primarily for the Negroes. It is intended for the party itself and for the other readers of the theoretical magazine.

3. The use of the history of the Negroes themselves in educating them.

General agreement.

4. A study of the permanent revolution and the Negro question.

General agreement.

5. The question of socialism — whether to bring it in through the paper or through the bulletin.

Trotsky: I do not believe that we can begin with the exclusion of socialism from the organization. You propose a very large, somewhat heterogeneous organization, which will also accept religious people. That would signify that if a Negro worker, or farmer, or merchant, makes a speech in the organization to the effect that the only salvation for the Negroes is in the church, we will be too tolerant to expel him and at the same time so wise that we will not let him speak in favor of religion, but we will not speak in favor of socialism. If we understand the character of this milieu, we will adapt the presentation of our ideas to it. We will be cautious; but to tie our hands in advance — to say that we will not introduce the question of socialism because it is an abstract matter — that is not possible. It is one thing to be very attentive to the concrete questions of Negro life and to oppose socialism to capitalism in these questions. It is one thing to accept a heterogeneous group and to work in it, and another to be absorbed by it.

James: I quite agree with what you say. What I am afraid of is the putting forth of an abstract socialism. You will recall that I said that the leading group must clearly understand what it is doing and where it is going. But the socialist education of the masses should arise from the day-to-day questions. I am only anxious to prevent the thing’s developing into an endless discussion. The discussion should be free and thorough in the theoretical organ.

In regard to the question of socialism in the agitational organ, it is my view that the organization should definitely establish itself as doing the day-to-day work of the Negroes in such a way that the masses of Negroes can take part in it before involving itself in discussions about socialism. While it is clear that an individual can raise whatever points he wishes and point out his solution of the Negro problems, yet the question is whether those who are guiding the organization as a whole should begin by speaking in the name of socialism. I think not. It is important to remember that those who take the initiative should have some common agreement as to the fundamentals of politics today, otherwise there will be great trouble as the organization develops. But although these, as individuals, are entitled to put forward their particular point of view in the general discussion, yet the issue is whether they should speak as a body as socialists from the very beginning, and my personal view is no.

Trotsky: In the theoretical organ you can have theoretical discussion, and in the mass organ you can have a mass political discussion. You say that they are contaminated by the capitalist propaganda. Say to them, “You don’t believe in socialism. But you will see that in the fighting, the members of the Fourth International will not only be with you, but possibly the most militant.” I would even go so far as to have every one of our speakers end his speech by saying, “My name is the Fourth International!” They will come to see that we are the fighters, while the person who preaches religion in the hall, in the critical moment will go to the church instead of to the battlefield.

6. The organizing groups and individuals of the new organization must be in complete agreement on the war question.

Trotsky: Yes, it is the most important and the most difficult question. The program may be very modest, but at the same time it must leave to everyone his freedom of expression in his speeches, and so on; the program must not be the limitation of our activity, but only our common obligation. Everyone must have the right to go further, but everyone is obliged to defend the minimum. We will see how this minimum will be crystallized as we go along in the opening steps.

7. A campaign in some industry in behalf of the Negroes.

Trotsky: That is important. It will bring a conflict with some white workers who will not want it. It is a shift from the most aristocratic workers’ elements to the lowest elements. We attracted to ourselves some of the higher strata of the intellectuals when they felt that we needed protection: Dewey, La Follete, etc. Now that we are undertaking serious work, they are leaving us. I believe that we will lose two or three more strata and go more deeply into the masses. This will be the touchstone.

8. Housing and rent campaign.

Trotsky: It is absolutely necessary.

Curtiss: It also works in very well with our transitional demands.

9. The demonstration in the restaurant.

Trotsky: Yes, and give it an even more militant character. There could be a picket line outside to attract attention and explain something of what is going on.

10. Domestic servants.

Trotsky: Yes, I believe it is very important; but I believe that there is the first a priori consideration that many of these Negroes are servants for rich people and are demoralized and have been transformed into moral lackeys. But there are others, a larger stratum, and the question is to win those who are not so privileged.

Owen: That is a point that I wished to present. Some years ago I was living in Los Angeles near a Negro section — one set aside from the others, prosperous. I inquired as to their work and was told by the Negroes themselves that they were better off because they were servants — many of them in the houses of the movie colony. I was surprised to find servants in the higher strata. This colony of Negroes was not small — it consisted of several thousand people.

Trotsky: Yes, I believe it is very important; but I believe that there is the first a priori consideration that many of these Negroes are servants for rich people and are demoralized and have been transformed into moral lackeys. But there are others, a larger stratum, and the question is to win those who arc not so privileged.

James: That is true. But if you are serious, it is not difficult to get to the Negro masses. They live together and they feel together. This stratum of privileged Negroes is smaller than any other privileged stratum. The whites treat them with such contempt that in spite of themselves they are closer to the other Negroes than you would think…

11. Mobilize the Negroes against fascism.

General agreement.

12. The relationship of the Negroes to the Republican and Democratic parties.

Trotsky: How many Negroes are there in Congress? One. There are 440 members in the House of Representatives and 96 in the Senate. Then if the Negroes have almost 10 percent of the population, they are entitled to 50 members, but they have only one. It is a clear picture of political inequality. We can often oppose a Negro candidate to a white candidate. This Negro organization can always say, “We want a Negro who knows our problems.” It can have important consequences.

Owen: It seems to me that Comrade James has ignored a very important part of our program — the labor party.

James: The Negro section wants to put up a Negro candidate. We tell them they must not stand just as Negroes, but they must have a program suitable to the masses of poor Negroes. They are not stupid and they can understand that and it is to be encouraged. The white workers put up a labor candidate in another section. Then we say to the Negroes in the white section, “Support that candidate, because his demands are good workers’ demands.” And we say to the white workers in the Negro area, “You should support the Negro candidate, because although he is a Negro you will notice that his demands are good for the whole working class.” This means that the Negroes have the satisfaction of having their own candidates in areas where they predominate and at the same time we build labor solidarity. It fits into the labor party program.

Curtiss: Isn’t that coming close to the People’s Front, to vote for a Negro just because he is a Negro?

James: This organization has a program. When the Democrats put up a Negro candidate, we say, “Not at all. it must be a candidate with a program we can support.”

Trotsky: It is a question of another organization for which we are not responsible, just as they are not responsible for us. If this organization puts up a certain candidate, and we find as a party that we must put up our own candidate in opposition, we have the full right to do so. If we are weak and cannot get the organization to choose a revolutionist, and they choose a Negro Democrat, we might even withdraw our candidate with a concrete declaration that we abstain from fighting, not the Democrat, but the Negro. We consider that the Negro’s candidacy as opposed to the white’s candidacy, even if both are of the same party, is an important factor in the struggle of the Negroes for their equality; and in this case we can critically support them. I believe that it can be done in certain instances.

13. A Negro from South or West Africa to tour the States.

Trotsky: What will he teach?

James: I have in mind several young Negroes, any one of whom can give a clear anti-imperialist, anti-war picture. I think it would be very important in building up an understanding of internationalism.

14. Submit documents and plans to the Political Committee.

General agreement.

James: I agree with your attitude on the party work in connection with the Negroes. They are a tremendous force and they will dominate the whole of the Southern states. If the party gets a hold here, the revolution is won in America. Nothing can stop it.

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


1 This transcript was printed in the internal bulletin of the Socialist Workers Party in June 1939. For reasons of security, the names were listed as pseudonyms: “Crux” for Trotsky, “Johnson” for C.L.R. James, and “Carlos” for Charles Curtiss. These pseudonyms have been replaced by the real names.
2 The “emancipation of the Negros in San Domingo” refers to the Haitian Revolution that took place from 1791 to 1804. This victorious slave revolution created the first Black republic, and was analyzed by James in his book The Black Jacobins.
3 Note bene — note well.
4 Jay Lovestone (1897-1990) was a leader of the Communist Party USA who was expelled as part of the Right Opposition in 1929. He then founded the Communist Party (Opposition).
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.
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C.L.R. James

Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989) was a revolutionary born in Trinidad who was active in the Trotskyist movement on both sides of the Atlantic. He is best known for his Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.

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.

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