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C.L.R. James and Leon Trotsky: Self-Determination for the American Negroes 

On April 4, 1939, C.L.R. James held the first of three discussions with Leon Trotsky in Coyoacán in Mexico. The central question: Should revolutionaries call for self-determination of Black people 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)

Trotsky: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 These pseudonyms have been replaced by the real names. Comrade James proposes that we discuss the Negro question in three parts, the first to be devoted to the programmatic question of self-determination for the Negroes.

James: (There was introduced some statistical material which was not included in the report.) The basic proposals for the Negro question have already been distributed and here it is only necessary to deal with the question of self-determination. No one denies the Negroes’ right to self-determination. It is a question of whether we should advocate it. In Africa and in the West Indies2The West Indies referred to the islands of the Carribean. we advocate self-determination because a large majority of the people want it. In Africa the, great masses of the people look upon self-determination as a restoration of their independence. In the West Indies, where we have a population similar in origin to the Negroes in America, there has been developing a national sentiment. The Negroes are a majority. Already we hear ideas, among the more advanced, of a West Indian nation, and it is highly probable that, even let us suppose that the Negroes were offered full and free rights as citizens of the British Empire, they would probably oppose it and wish to be absolutely free and independent … It is progressive. It is a step in the right direction. We weaken the enemy. It puts the workers in a position to make great progress toward socialism.

In America the situation is different. The Negro desperately wants to be an American citizen. He says, “I have been here from the beginning; I did all the work here in the early days. Jews, Poles, Italians, Swedes and others come here and have all the privileges. You say that some of the Germans are spies. I will never spy. I have nobody for whom to spy. And yet you exclude me from the army and from the rights of citizenship.”

In Poland and Catalonia there is a tradition of language, literature and history to add to the economic and political oppression and to help weld the population in its progressive demand for self-determination. In America it is not so. Let us look at certain historic events in the development of the Negro America.

Garvey raised the slogan “Back to Africa,” but the Negroes who followed him did not believe for the most part that they were really going back to Africa. We know that those in the West Indies who were following him had not the slightest intention of going back to Africa, but they were glad to follow a militant leadership. And there is the case of a black woman who was pushed by a white woman in a street car and said to her. “You wait until Marcus gets into power and all you people will be treated in the way you deserve.” Obviously she was not thinking of poor Africa.

There was, however, this concentration on the Negroes’ problems simply because the white workers in 1919 were not developed. There was no political organization of any power calling upon the blacks and the whites to unite. The Negroes were just back from the war — militant and having no offer of assistance; they naturally concentrated on their own particular affairs.

In addition, however, we should note that in Chicago, where a race riot took place, the riot was deliberately provoked by the employers. Some time before it actually broke out, the black and white meatpackers had struck and had paraded through the Negro quarter in Chicago with the black population cheering the whites in the same way that they cheered the blacks. For the capitalists this was a very dangerous thing and they set themselves to creating race friction. At one stage, motor cars, with white people in them, sped through the Negro quarter shooting at all whom they saw. The capitalist press played up the differences and thus set the stage and initiated the riots that took place for dividing the population and driving the Negro back upon himself.

During the period of the crisis there was a rebirth of these nationalist movements. There was a movement toward the 49th state and the movement concentrated around Liberia was developing. These movements assumed fairly large proportions up to at least 1934.

Then in 1936 came the organization of the CIO. John L. Lewis appointed a special Negro department. The New Deal made gestures to the Negroes. Blacks and whites fought together in various struggles. These nationalist movements have tended to disappear as the Negro saw the opportunity to fight with the organised workers and to gain something.

The danger of our advocating and injecting a policy of self-determination is that it is the surest way to divide and confuse the workers in the South. The white workers have centuries of prejudice to overcome, but at the present time many of them are working with the Negroes in the Southern sharecroppers’ union and with the rise of the struggle there is every possibility that they will be able to overcome their age-long prejudices. But for us to propose that the Negro have this black state for himself is asking too much from the white workers, especially when the Negro himself is not making the same demand. The slogans of “abolition of debts,” “confiscation of large properties,” etc., are quite sufficient to lead them both to fight together and on the basis of economic struggle to make a united fight for the abolition of social discrimination.

I therefore propose concretely: (1) That we are for the right of self-determination. (2) If some demand should arise among the Negroes for the right of self-determination we should support it. (3) We do not go out of our way to raise this slogan and place an unnecessary barrier between ourselves and socialism. (4) An investigation should be made into these movements; the one led by Garvey, the movement for the 49th state, the movement centering around Liberia. Find out what groups of the population supported them and on this basis come to some opinion as to how far there is any demand among the Negroes for self-determination.

Curtiss:3Charles Curtiss (1908-1993) was a member of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party and served as the Fourth International’s representative in Mexico in 1938-1939. It seems to me the problem can be divided up into a number of different phases:

On the question of self-determination, I think it is clear that while we are for self-determination, even to the point of independence, it does not necessarily mean that we favor independence. What we are in favor of is that a certain case, in a certain locality, they have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they should be independent or what particular governmental arrangements they should have with the majority of the country have with the majority of the country.

On the question of self-determination being necessarily reactionary — I believe that is a little far-fetched. Self-determination for various nations and groups is not opposed to a future socialist world. I think the question was handled in a polemic between Lenin and Piatakov from the point of view of Russia — of self-determination for the various peoples of Russia while still building a united country. There is not necessarily a contradiction between the two. The socialist society will not be built upon subjugated people, but from a free people. The reactionary or progressive character of self-determination is determined by whether or not it will advance the social revolution. That is the criterion.

As to the point which was made, that we should not advocate a thing if the masses do not want it, that is not correct. We do not advocate things just because the masses want them. The basic question of socialism would come under that category. In the United States only a small percentage of the people want socialism, but still we advocate it. They may want war, but we oppose it. The questions we have to solve are as follows: Will it help in the destruction of American imperialism? If such a movement arises, will the people want it as the situation develops?

I take it that these nationalist movements of which you speak were carried on for years and the struggle was carried on by a handful of people in each case, but in the moment of social crisis the masses rallied to such movements. The same can possibly happen in connection with self-determination of the Negroes.

It seems to me that the so-called black belt is a super-exploited section of the American economy. It has all the characteristics of a subjugated section of an empire. It has all the extreme poverty and political inequality. It has the same financial structure — Wall Street exploits the petty bourgeois elements and in turn the poor workers. It represents simply a field for investment and a source of profits. It has the characteristics of part of a colonial empire. It is also essentially a regional matter, for the whites have also been forced to feel a reaction against finance capital.

It would also be interesting to study the possible future development of the Negro question. We saw that when the Negroes were brought to the South they stayed there for many decades. When the war came, many emigrated to the North and there formed a part of the proletariat. That tendency can no longer operate. Capitalism is no longer expanding as it was before. As a matter of fact, during the depression many of them went back to the farms. It is possible that instead of a tendency to emigrate, there will now be a tendency for the Negro to stay in the South.

And there are other factors: The question of the cotton-picking machine which means that the workers will be thrown out of work by the thousands.

To get back to the question of self-determination. There is the possibility that in the midst of the social crisis the manifestation of radicalism takes a double phase: Along with the struggle for economic and social equality, there may be found the demand for the control of their own state. Even in Russia, when the Bolsheviks came to power, the Polish people were not satisfied that this would mean the end of oppression for them. They demanded the right to control their own destiny in their own way. Such a development is possible in the South.

The other questions are important, but I do not think they are basic — that a nation must have its own language, culture and tradition. To a certain extent they have been developing a culture of their own. In any public library can be found books — fiction, anthologies, etc. — expressing a new racial feeling.

Now from the point of view of the United States, the withdrawal of the “black belt” means the weakening of American imperialism by the withdrawal of a big field of investment. That is a blow in favor of the American working class.

It seems to me that self-determination is not opposed to the struggle for social and political and economic equality. In the North such a struggle is immediate and the need is acute. In the North the slogan for economic and political equality is an agitational slogan —an immediate question. From the practical angle, no one suggests that we raise the slogan of self-determination as an agitational one, but as a programmatic one which may become agitational in the future.

There is another factor which might be called the psychological one. If the Negroes think that this is an attempt to segregate them, then it would be best to withhold the slogan until they are convinced that this is not the case.

Trotsky: I do not quite understand whether Comrade James proposes to eliminate the slogan of self-determination for the Negroes from our program, or is it that we do not say that we are ready to do everything possible for the self-determination of the Negroes if they want it themselves. It is a question for the party as a whole, if we eliminate it or not. We are ready to help them if they want it. As a party we can remain absolutely neutral on this. We cannot say it will be reactionary. It is not reactionary. We cannot tell them to set up a state because that will weaken imperialism and so will be good for us, the white workers. That would be against internationalism itself. We cannot say to them, “Stay here, even at the price of economic progress.” We can say, “It is for you to decide. If you wish to take a part of the country, it is all right, but we do not wish to make the decision for you.”

I believe that the differences between the West Indies, Catalonia, Poland and the situation of the Negroes in the States are not so decisive. Rosa Luxemburg was against self-determination for Poland. She felt that it was reactionary and fantastic, as fantastic as demanding the right to fly. It shows that she did not possess the necessary historic imagination in this case. The landlords and representatives of the Polish ruling class were also opposed to self-determination for their own reasons.

Comrade James used three verbs: “support,” “advocate” and “inject” the idea of self-determination. I do not propose for the party to advocate, I do not propose to inject, but only to proclaim our obligation to support the struggle for self-determination if the Negroes themselves want it. It is not a question of our Negro comrades. It is a question of 13 or 14 million Negroes. The majority of them are very backward. They are not very clear as to what they wish now and we must give them a credit for the future. They will decide then.

What you said about the Garvey movement is interesting — but it proves that we must be cautious and broad and not base ourselves upon the status quo. The black woman who said to the white woman, “Wait until Marcus is in power. We will know how to treat you then,” was simply expressing her desire for her own state. The American Negroes gathered under the banner of the “Back to Africa” movement because it seemed a possible fulfillment of their wish for their own home. They did not want actually to go to Africa. It was the expression of a mystic desire for a home in which they would be free of the domination of the whites, in which they themselves could control their own fate. That also was a wish for self-determination. It was once expressed by some in a religious form and now it takes the form of a dream of an independent state. Here in the United States the whites are so powerful, so cruel and rich that the poor Negro sharecropper does not dare to say, even to himself, that he will take a part of his country for himself. Garvey spoke in glowing terms, that it was beautiful and that here all would be wonderful. Any psychoanalyst will say that the real content of this dream was to have their own home. It is not an argument in favor of injecting the idea. It is only an argument by which we can foresee the possibility of their giving their dream a more realistic form.

Under the condition that Japan invades the United States and the Negroes are called upon to fight — they may come to feel themselves threatened first from one side and then from the other, and finally awakened, may say, “We have nothing to do with either of you. We will have our own state.”

But the black state could enter into a federation. If the American Negroes succeeded in creating their own state, I am sure that after a few years of the satisfaction and pride of independence, they would feel the need of entering into a federation. Even if Catalonia which is very industrialized and highly developed province, had realized its independence, it would have been just a step to federation.

The Jews in Germany and Austria wanted nothing more than to be the best German chauvinists. The most miserable of all was the Social Democrat, Austerlitz, the editor of the Arbeiterzeitung. But now, with the turn of events, Hitler does not permit them to be German chauvinists. Now many of them have become Zionists and are Palestinian nationalists and anti-German. I saw a disgusting picture recently of a Jewish actor, arriving in America, bending down to kiss the soil of the United States. Then they will get a few blows from the fascist fists in the United States and they will go to kiss the soil of Palestine.

There is another alternative to the successful revolutionary one. It is possible that fascism will come to power with its racial delirium and oppression and the reaction of the Negro will be toward racial independence. Fascism in the United States will be directed against the Jews and the Negroes, but against the Negroes particularly, and in a most terrible manner. A privileged condition will be created for the American white workers on the backs of the Negroes. The Negroes have done everything possible to become an integral part of the United States, in a psychological as well as a political sense. We must foresee that their reaction will show its power during the revolution. They will enter with a great distrust of the whites. We must remain neutral in the matter and hold the door open for both possibilities and promise our full support if they wish to create their own independent state.

So far as I am informed, it seems to me that the CP’s attitude of making an imperative slogan of it was false. It was a case of the whites saying to the Negroes, “You must create a ghetto for yourselves.” It is tactless and false and can only serve to repulse the Negroes. Their only interpretation can be that the whites want to be separated from them. Our Negro comrades of course have the right to participate more intimately in such developments. Our Negro comrades can say, “The Fourth International says that if it is our wish to be independent, it will help us in every way possible, but that the choice is ours. However, I, as a Negro member of the Fourth, hold a view that we must remain in the same state as the whites”’ and so on. He can participate in the formation of the political and racial ideology of the Negroes.

James: I am very glad that we have had this discussion, because I agree with you entirely. It seems to be the idea in America that we should advocate it as the CP has done. You seem to think that there is a greater possibility of the Negroes wanting self-determination than I think is probable. But we have a hundred per cent agreement on the idea of which you have put forward that we should be neutral in the development.

Trotsky: It is the word “reactionary” that bothered me.

James: Let me quote from the document: “If he wanted self-determination, then however reactionary it might be in every other respect, it would be the business of the revolutionary party to raise that slogan.” I consider the idea of separating as a step backward so far as a socialist society is concerned. If the white workers extend a hand to the Negro, he will not want self-determination.

Trotsky: It is too abstract, because the realization of this slogan can be reached only as the 13 or 14 million Negroes feel that the domination by the whites is terminated. To fight for the possibility of realizing an independent state is a sight of great moral and political awakening. It would be a tremendous revolutionary step. This ascendancy would immediately have the best economic consequences.

Curtiss: I think that an analogy could be made in connection with the collectives and the distribution of large estates. One might consider the breaking up of large estates into small plots as reactionary, but it is not necessarily so. But this question is up to the peasants whether they want to operate the estates collectively or individually. We advise the peasants, but we do not force them — it is up to them. Some would say that the breaking up of the large estates into small plots would be economically reactionary, but that is not so.

Trotsky: This was also the position of Rosa Luxemburg. She maintained that self-determination would be as reactionary as the breaking up of the large estates.

Curtiss: The question of self-determination is also tied up with the question of land and must be looked upon not only in its political, but also in its economic manifestations.

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


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 West Indies referred to the islands of the Carribean.
3 Charles Curtiss (1908-1993) was a member of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party and served as the Fourth International’s representative in Mexico in 1938-1939.
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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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