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Letters from Leon Trotsky on South Africa

In 1932, Leon Trotsky responded to a letter from two dozen Black communists from South Africa. He also wrote to the leadership of the International Left Opposition on the importance of winning over the most oppressed sectors of the working class. This is part of our collection on Marxism and Black Struggle.

Leon Trotsky

August 22, 2020
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Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James (Illustration: Sou Mi)

Leon Trotsky to T.W. Thibedi

4 September 1932

Dear Comrade Thibedi

Thank you very much for your communication which I am transmitting to Comrade Witte.

It would be a very great step forward if we could establish an organ in the negro language. I suppose that the material hindrances would be great in this time of deep crisis. Are many negro comrades unemployed in Johannesburg and in South Africa in general?

The Stalinists state that the Left Opposition is almost non-existent. The information is not correct. It is true that we are only at the beginning of our great educational and organisational war, but our progress in the last year is very satisfactory in many of the European countries, and we can hope that the comrades who work in the double persecution of the bourgeois state and Stalinist bureaucracy will become steeled into good revolutionaries. Discipline is necessary, but discipline alone is sufficient for a capitalist army, not for a revolutionary party. We are far from exaggerating our forces. The revolutionary movement must remain very honest in the estimation of its own power: it is the only way to win the confidence of the workers.

Have you among your comrades, workers and students, and what is the proportion of the one to the other?

Have you any connections with negroes in America? I hope that the hour is near when the great awakening of the exploited negro masses will give rise to good Marxists and theoreticians from among their ranks.

My Communist greetings and best wishes for the success of your work.

Trotsky,
Prinkipo, Turkey

Closer to the Proletarians of the Colored Races

13 June 1932

To the International Secretariat:

(Copy to the National Committee of the American League)

I have received a copy of the letter dated April 26, 1932, sent by an organization of Negro comrades from Johannesburg. This letter, it seems to me, is of great symptomatic significance. The Left Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists) can and must become the banner for the most oppressed sections of the world proletariat, and consequently, first and foremost, for the Negro workers. Upon what do I base this proposition?

The Left Opposition represents at present the most consistent and most revolutionary tendency in the world. Its sharply critical attitude to any and all varieties of bureaucratic haughtiness in the labor movement makes it possible for it to pay particular attention to the voice of the most oppressed sections of the working class and the toilers as a whole.

The Left Opposition is the target for the blows not only of the Stalinist apparatus but also of all the bourgeois governments of the world. This fact, which, despite all the slanders, is entering gradually into the consciousness of the masses, is bound increasingly to attract towards the Left Opposition the warm sympathies of the most oppressed sections of the international working class. From this point of view, the communication addressed to us by the South African comrades seems to me not at all accidental, but profoundly symptomatic.

In their letter, to which 24 signatures are appended (with the notation “and others”), the South African comrades expressed particular interest in the questions of the Chinese Revolution. This interest, it ought to be acknowledged, is wholly justified. The working masses of the oppressed peoples who have to carry on the struggle for elementary national rights and for human dignity, are precisely those who incur the greatest risk of suffering the penalties for the muddled teachings of the Stalinist bureaucracy on the subject of the “democratic dictatorship.” Under this false banner, the policy a la Kuomintang, that is, the vile deception and the unpunished crushing of the toiling masses by their own “national” bourgeoisie, may still do the greatest harm to the liberating cause of the toilers. The programme of the permanent revolution based on the incontestable historic experience of a number of countries can and must assume primary significance for the liberation movement of the Negro proletariat.

The Johannesburg comrades may not as yet have had the opportunity to acquaint themselves more closely with the views of the Left Opposition on all the most important questions. But this cannot be an obstacle in our getting together with them as closely as possible at this very moment, and helping them fraternally to come into the orbit of our programme and our tactics.

When ten intellectuals, whether in Paris, Berlin, or New York, who have already been members of various organizations, address themselves to us with a request to be taken into our midst, I would offer the following advice: Put them through a series of tests on all the programmatic questions; wet them in the rain, dry them in the sun, and then after a new and careful examination accept maybe one or two.

The case is radically altered when ten workers connected with the masses turn to us. The difference in our attitude to a petty-bourgeois group and to the proletarian group does not require any explanation. But if a proletarian group functions in an area where there are workers of different races, and in spite of this remains composed solely of workers of a privileged nationality, then I am inclined to view them with suspicion. Are we not dealing perhaps with the labor aristocracy? Isn’t the group infected with slave-holding prejudices, active or passive?

It is an entirely different matter when we are approached by a group of Negro workers. Here I am prepared to take it for granted in advance that we shall achieve agreement with them, even if such an agreement is not actual as yet. Because the Negro workers, by virtue of their whole position, do not and cannot strive to degrade anybody, oppress anybody, or deprive anybody of his rights. They do not seek privileges and cannot rise to the top except on the road of the international revolution.

We can and we must find a way to the consciousness of the Negro workers, the Chinese workers, the Indian workers, and all the oppressed in the human ocean of the colored races to whom belongs the decisive word in the development of mankind.

Leon Trotsky,
Prinkipo, Turkey

Source #1: Revolutionary History, Volume 4, No. 4: South Africa (also at South African History Online) 

Source #2: The Militant, Vol. V No. 27, July 2, 1932 / Transcription: Marxists Internet Archive (also at South African History Online)

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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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