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C.L.R. James: The Place of the Negro Is in the Vanguard

C.L.R. James wrote this essay in 1939 for Socialist Appeal, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party. The Second World War had begun a month earlier. James predicted that Black workers would be in the front lines of the revolutionary struggle for socialism. This is part of our collection on Marxism and Black Struggle.

C.L.R. James

August 10, 2020
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Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James (Illustration: Sou Mi)

“Labor with a White Skin Cannot Emancipate Itself Where Labor with a Black Skin Is Branded” — Karl Marx

The place of the Negro is in the very vanguard of the revolutionary movement for socialism. That is the major theoretical contribution which the Fourth International and the Socialist Workers Party have made towards a clear and precise understanding of the role of the Negro in the solution of the difficulties now facing humanity.

Whereas even the Communist Party in its revolutionary days saw the Negroes essentially as an appendage, however valuable, to the revolutionary movement, we on the other hand, see the Negroes as foremost among those who will struggle against the crimes and barbarities of the capitalist system. The reason for this lies in the very nature of the Negro’s position in capitalist society. The most exploited, the most oppressed, the most discriminated against, Negroes are the ones who experience most acutely and most unbearably the overwhelming burdens which capitalism places upon the masses in every country. Negroes haven’t to read in books about the fraud of capitalist democracy. Karl Marx and Lenin have little to teach them about the fact.

Prejudices Must Be Overcome

This conception of the role of the Negro has hitherto been obscured by the racial prejudices instilled into the different sections of the working class by American capitalism. The revolutionary party therefore is faced with the tremendous difficulty of overcoming this division. Yet difficult as this task is, it is a difficulty of tactics and not of strategy. The important question is not so much that of winning the Negroes for the revolution, but of instilling the Negro masses with the conviction that they can place their trust and confidence in a revolutionary party composed largely of white workers, as is inevitable in American society. That task successfully accomplished, the Fourth International is confident that the large masses of the Negroes will fight against imperialism of all kinds with a bravery and endurance that will be surpassed by no other section of the population.

Such a generalization, of such profound importance for the American revolution, and the world revolution as a whole, is best tested by the reaction of Negroes to great events such as, for instance, the present war. Anyone who has contacts of any kind with Negroes will know that they have been profoundly stirred by the outbreak of war in Europe. In a series of articles in this column, we shall examine the attitude to the war taken by various groups of Negroes. This attitude is in many respects confused and in some dangerous. What has been most striking, however, is that of all political and social groups in America, they have been the least bamboozled by the thesis that the imperialist war is a war for democracy against fascism. From the harsh experiences of their own lives and their knowledge of the exploitation and indignities endured by their brothers in Africa, they see the realities of the imperialist conflict much more clearly than many other sections of the American workers who are better organized and have more education and experience in the day to day politics of America. What is true of the American Negro is also true of Negroes everywhere.

A general mass sentiment of this kind inevitably produces atone stage or another some political organization, some political expression which points the road by which the confused but revolutionary instincts of great masses can be transformed into effective political reality. Such an organization already exists in the Fourth International and its sections in America, Great Britain, Africa, etc. The Fourth International, in its call for the revolutionary struggle against imperialism, expresses the aspirations and shows the future road for all the workers, white, Negro, Indian, whatever color, whatever race, whatever creed.

Int’l African Service Bureau

But there are Negroes, not affiliated to the Fourth International, who have arrived at a political position which places them side by side with the Fourth International on the war question. They are conscious that nothing but the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism can give any final solution to the permanent burdens, and additional sufferings placed upon Negroes everywhere by the imperialist war. In Great Britain, an organization of Negroes known as the International African Service Bureau, during the last few years has carried on a wide propaganda for African independence and Negro emancipation. This propaganda has not been confined to Great Britain, but has been spread in all parts of the world where Negroes live and suffer. These Negroes have seen that the colonial masses of the East are allies of the Negro and contacts have been made with organizations in India and in Ceylon. The work of the bureau has been assisted by various industrial and political organizations of the British workers, which to a smaller or greater degree, recognize how vital to their own emancipation is the emancipation of the Negro people all over the world. In the crisis over Czechoslovakia, the Bureau issued a call to the Africans and to the British workers, to fight in unity against the imperialist lie of “war for democracy.” And with the approach of this war, the Bureau issued another manifesto “A Warning to the Colonial Peoples” which is published in another column. The manifesto calls upon the colonial masses in Africa, in India, in Burma, in Ceylon, to struggle against the war-mongers both fascist and “democratic.” It appeals to the British workers to do the same against the common enemy — imperialism.

Struggle Against War Is International

This manifesto is of enormous importance, and must be closely studied and assimilated by all the workers in America, Negro and white. The Negroes in particular must realize that it is their duty to follow the lead so clearly and courageously given by a group of their brothers operating in Great Britain, the heart of the British Empire and of world imperialist reaction. Today the struggle against war is international and the Bureau manifesto has appealed not only to Negroes but to all workers, in the colonies and in Europe. It is impossible to have an equivocal position on war. One must be either with the imperialists and for the war, or against the imperialists and against the continuance of their system which inevitably breeds war. The manifesto says clearly and simply: Colonials and white workers, oppose the war.

It is of great significance that this manifesto comes into our hands just at the moment that our series of articles on the “Negro and War” in this column of the Socialist Appeal have come to a conclusion. That series will be republished in a few days as a pamphlet of 32 pages under the title of “Why Negroes Should Oppose the War”. Negroes of all shades of political opinion must study this pamphlet carefully, compare it with the manifesto issued by the International African Service Bureau, and realize how the consciousness of oppression and an insight into the mechanism of modern society lead inevitably to the one conclusion: that all the workers, of whatever race, must unite in revolutionary struggle against the imperialist war-mongers, whether fascist or “democratic”. The pamphlet “Why Negroes Should Oppose the War” and the manifesto “A Warning to the Colonial Peoples” are events of major importance in the political crystallization of the Negro instinct for revolutionary struggle.

Source: Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 76, October 6, 1939 / Transcription: Marxists Internet Archive / Written as J.R. Johnson

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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.

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