Place of Black workers
in coming revolution
Leon Trotsky’s 1933 discussion with
American communists about Black struggle
The following is the 14th in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest book, Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to study, discuss, and help sell the book. This excerpt is from the chapter “Black Liberation and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” The footnotes used here are added by the Militant, based on facts provided in the book. Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
It was [Leon] Trotsky,1 basing himself on the political conquests of the Communist International, who first explained to us scientifically that it was awakening Black working people to their self-worth, not to their oppression, that would open new prospects for revolutionary struggle in the United States.
In response to questions the party leadership had asked [Arne] Swabeck2 to discuss with Trotsky in 1933, the Bolshevik leader explained:
The Negroes will, through their awakening, through their demand for autonomy, and through the democratic mobilization of their forces, be pushed on toward a class basis. The petty bourgeoisie will take up the demand for equal rights and for self-determination but will prove absolutely incapable in the struggle; the Negro proletariat will march over the petty bourgeoisie in the direction toward the proletarian revolution.
The meaning comes through loud and clear, even translated into English from the German-language notes taken by Arne, whose first language was Danish!
Twice in this country in the twentieth century, we’ve seen in practice how the Black proletariat had to “march over the petty bourgeoisie”—white and Black, including the trade union officialdom, with all their limitations and hesitations—in order to advance the struggle against Jim Crow segregation and other institutions of racist discrimination.
The first time was during the political radicalization that developed under the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution and the spreading capitalist crisis in the decades following World War I. Struggles by exploited farmers and other working people in the 1920s laid the foundation for the labor battles and social movement of the 1930s centered on building mass CIO industrial unions. Workers regardless of skin color more and more fought shoulder to shoulder for union rights and other social goals. These interconnected working-class struggles gave such momentum to the fight to bring down Jim Crow that the impetus outlasted the broad retreat of the labor movement during and after World War II.
As for the second time, some of the people in this room lived through the Black rights battles of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s and took an active part in them….
Trotsky’s starting point in the discussions with Swabeck was the fact that racist oppression and anti-Black prejudice in the United States were the largest obstacle to revolutionary unity of the working class. As a result of such oppression, Trotsky pointed out, few “common actions [take] place involving white and Black workers,” there is no “class fraternization.” “The American worker is indescribably reactionary,” Trotsky said. “This can be seen now in the fact that he has not yet even been won to the idea of social insurance.” And, Trotsky added, “The Negroes have not yet awakened, and they are not yet united with the white workers. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the American workers are chauvinists; in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen as they are also toward the Chinese, etc. It is necessary to make them [white workers] understand that the American state is not their state and that they do not have to be the guardians of this state.”
Those conditions, of course, have changed substantially since 1933 as a result of class battles. They began shifting in the mid-1930s as a product of the labor struggles that built the CIO, growing opposition to fascism and the spreading imperialist world war, and motion toward a labor party independent of the Democrats and Republicans. These changes accelerated in the 1950s with the conquests of the mass civil rights movement and Black liberation struggles, which had their roots in the massive urbanization, migration to the North, and shifts in the composition of the industrial workforce that began prior to World War II. As a consequence of these struggles, and as a component of them, workers in the United States did fight for an important form of social insurance: Social Security. And as a result of the labor battles of the 1930s and civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s, they came to see an expanded version of that Social Security, including Medicare, Medicaid, and related programs, as rights.
With the rise of industrial unions, more and more workers who are Black, white, Asian, and Latino—native-born and immigrant—today do work alongside each other in many workplaces, often doing the same jobs. They do engage in common actions and class fraternization. But the fight to combat multiple forms of segregation and racism, and to overcome national divisions in the working class—through mutual solidarity and uncompromising struggles using any means necessary—remains the single biggest task in forging the proletarian vanguard in this country.
Trotsky, in his exchange of views with Swabeck, went on to point out that during a major rise of revolutionary struggle and proletarian class consciousness in the United States,
it is then possible that the Negroes will become the most advanced section… . It is very possible that the Negroes will proceed through self-determination to the proletarian dictatorship in a couple of gigantic strides, ahead of the great bloc of white workers. They will then be the vanguard. I am absolutely sure that they will in any case fight better than the white workers.
But this can only happen, Trotsky emphasized, “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”—prejudices brought into the working class by the bourgeoisie and the imperialist masters, through their petty-bourgeois agents—“and makes no concession to them whatsoever.”
This is what Trotsky had learned from Lenin, the central leader of the Bolshevik Party and Communist International, and from his own long revolutionary experience in the tsarist prison house of nations. Trotsky had deepened this understanding through his discussions with delegates from the United States to the first four congresses of the Communist International from 1919 through 1922. And this is what he worked with the Socialist Workers Party leadership and the rest of the world communist movement, from 1929 until his death, to apply in practice.
1. Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was a central leader of the October 1917 revolution in Russia and of the Bolshevik Party and Communist International in the early years of the Soviet republic. From the mid-1920s, he was the principal leader of the fight to continue the communist course charted under the leadership of V.I. Lenin against its reversal by a counterrevolutionary privileged caste headed by Joseph Stalin. Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929 and later assassinated by Stalin’s agents in Mexico.
2. Arne Swabeck (1890-1986) was a founding leader of the Communist Party in the United States in 1919. He was expelled for supporting the political fight led by Trotsky. He was the national secretary of the Communist League of America in the early 1930s.