‘Awaken feelings of dignity
and revolutionary protest’
Below is an excerpt from The First Five Years of the Communist International by Leon Trotsky, a Pathfinder Book of the Month for April. Looking to the example of the world’s first workers and peasants republic, brought to power by the October 1917 Russian Revolution, the Communist International was founded in 1919. During its first five years, the International, guided by Bolshevik Party leader V.I. Lenin, organized to build a world movement of proletarian parties able to lead the toilers to overthrow imperialist exploitation and oppression.
The International championed struggles by nationally oppressed peoples, both in colonial countries and the imperialist centers. Reprinted below is a letter from Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky to Claude McKay, who attended the July 1922 Fourth World Congress in Soviet Russia as an invited guest and ended up spending a year there. McKay, a member of the Communist Party in the United States, asked to meet with Lenin to discuss the fight against Black oppression and other questions. Lenin was too ill, but Trotsky met with McKay. The letter below contains Trotsky’s answers to a number of written questions by McKay. Copyright © 1972 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
Dear Comrade McKay,
1. What practical steps are to be taken to prevent France from employing Negro troops on the European continent?—this is your first question.
The Negroes themselves must offer resistance against being so employed. Their eyes must be opened, so that they realize that when they help French imperialism to subjugate Europe, they are helping to subjugate themselves, in that they are supporting the domination of French capitalism in the African and other colonies.
The working class of Europe, and particularly of France and Germany, must realize that their own most vital interests are involved in this work of enlightening the colored peoples. The day of general resolutions on the right of self-determination of the colonial peoples, on the equality of all human beings regardless of color, is over. The time has come for direct and practical action. Every 10 Negroes who gather around the flag of revolution—and unite to form a group for practical work among the Negroes, are worth a hundred times more than dozens of the resolutions establishing principles, so generously passed by the Second International. A Communist Party confining itself to mere platonic resolutions in this matter, without exerting its utmost energies towards winning the largest possible number of enlightened Negroes for its ideas, within the shortest possible time, would not be worthy of the name of Communist Party.
2. There is no doubt whatever that the use of colored troops for imperialist war, and at the present time for the occupation of German territory, is a well thought out and carefully executed attempt of European capitalism, especially of French and English capitalism, to raise armed forces outside of Europe, so that capitalism may have mobilized, armed and disciplined African or Asian troops at its disposal, against the revolutionary masses of Europe. In this way the question of the use of colonial reserves for imperialist armies is closely related to the question of European revolution, that is, to the fate of the European working class.
3. There is no doubt whatever that the employment of the economically and culturally backward colonial masses for the world conflicts of imperialism, and still more in the class conflicts of Europe, is an exceedingly risky experiment, from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie itself. The Negroes, and indeed the natives of all the colonies, retain their conservatism and mental rigidity only insofar as they continue to live under their accustomed economic conditions. But when the hand of capital, or even sooner—the hand of militarism, tears them mechanically from their customary environment, and forces them to stake their lives for the sake of new and complicated questions and conflicts (conflicts between the bourgeoisie of different nations, conflicts between the classes of one and the same nation), then their spiritual conservatism gives way abruptly, and revolutionary ideas find rapid access to a consciousness thrown off its balance.
4. Therefore it is of the utmost importance, today, immediately, to have a number of enlightened, young, self-sacrificing Negroes, however small their number, filled with enthusiasm for the raising of the material and moral level of the great mass of Negroes, and at the same time mentally capable of grasping the identity of interests and destiny of the Negro masses, with those of the masses of the whole world, and in the first place with the destiny of the European working class.
The education of Negro propagandists is an exceedingly urgent and important revolutionary task at the present juncture.
5. In North America the matter is further complicated by the abominable obtuseness and caste presumption of the privileged upper strata of the working class itself, who refuse to recognize fellow workers and fighting comrades in the Negroes. [American Federation of Labor president Samuel] Gompers’ policy is founded on the exploitation of such despicable prejudices, and is at the present time the most effective guarantee for the successful subjugation of white and colored workers alike. The fight against this policy must be taken up from different sides, and conducted on various lines. One of the most important branches of this conflict consists in enlightening the proletarian consciousness by awakening the feeling of human dignity, and of revolutionary protest, among the Negro slaves of American capitalism. As stated above, this work can only be carried out by self-sacrificing and politically educated revolutionary Negroes.
Needless to say, the work is not to be carried on in a spirit of Negro chauvinism, which would then merely form a counterpart of white chauvinism—but in a spirit of solidarity of all exploited without consideration of color.
What forms of organization are most suitable for the movement among the American Negroes, it is difficult for me to say, as I am insufficiently informed regarding the concrete conditions and possibilities. But the forms of organization will be found, as soon as there is sufficient will to action.
With Communist greetings,