Sunday, January 26, 2014

Black liberation and the proletarian party: Trotsky's discussions with C.L.R. James

The name C.L.R. James came up in a discussion on Facebook today.  This sent me back to Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power [Pathfinder Press, Second Printing, 2010] by Jack Barnes. Pages 307-313 seem to cover the question well. 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 under- standing 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.

Struggle for a proletarian party

In April 1939,a little more than six years after his discussions with Swabeck, Trotsky took part in another exchange on the struggle for Black liberation and proletarian revolution in the United States. The discussions were held in Coyoacan, near Mexico City, where Trotsky was then living in exile. And this time they were not initiated by the central leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, but by C.L.R. James, a Trinidadian-born writer who had joined our world movement in Britain in 1935.James was in his mid-thirties at the time.3

Trotsky initially took an active interest in collaborating with this new Afro-Caribbean recruit. In a May 1938 letter to James P. Cannon, Trotsky noted that James had written a book (World Revolution) a year earlier criticizing Trotsky "very sharply from an organizational point of view." The ultraleft political line of the book, Trotsky said, was undoubtedly "a theoretical justification of [James's]own policy toward the Independent Labour Party" in the United Kingdom, one of several centrist organizations in Europe that James adapted to politically.4

Trotsky nonetheless urged Cannon to involve James in the work of the world movement and to seek to convince him "that his criticisms are not considered by anyone of us an item of hostility or an obstacle to friendly collaboration in the future."5  Toward the end of 1938 James visited the United States to live and travel for a period of time, and the SWP leadership collaborated with him to advance the party's work in defense of Black rights. In early 1939 James wrote to Trotsky proposing the discussions in Mexico.

At the time, the Socialist Workers Party had made relatively little progress since the discussion between Trotsky and Swabeck in involving itself in political work among workers and farmers who were Black. In preparing for the discussion with James, Trotsky wrote Cannon that the "party cannot postpone this extremely important question any longer."6

As with the discussions six years earlier, Trotsky's exchange with James opened on the question of the right to national self-determination for Blacks in the United States. Trotsky was taken aback by James's assertion - a position held by no one in the central leadership of the SWP - that self-determination for Blacks in the United States was "economically reactionary" and "politically false." Trotsky responded sharply and strongly: "We cannot say [self-determination] will be reactionary. It is not reactionary .... [W]e can say, 'It is for you [African Americans] 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.'"

First and foremost, however, the 1939 discussions with James put a spotlight on the working-class program and composition that is the bedrock of any revolutionary party capable of organizing and leading a victorious battle by the toilers to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat in the United States-or in any other capitalist country. The discussions took the form of an exchange on James's proposal that the Socialist Workers Party take the initiative to launch and help lead an independent Black organization of militant action. Acknowledging he was not familiar with "the concrete situation in Negro circles in the United States," Trotsky nevertheless took the proposal seriously and organized two sessions with James, together with cadres of the SWP, to consider it.

"If another party had organized such a mass movement, we would surely participate as a fraction, providing that [the movement] included workers, poor petty bourgeois, poor farmers, and so on," Trotsky said. "We would enter for the purpose of educating the best elements and winning them for our party. But this is another thing. What is proposed here is that we take the initiative," said Trotsky.

Trotsky steered clear of tactical judgments about the SWP's work in the class struggle in the United States. But his political criteria for assessing this proposal were the opposite of James's. Trotsky focused on the class orientation of such an organization: Would our cadres seek to build it among workers and rural toilers who were Black?  Would we fight within it for a revolutionary program to advance the struggle for power in the United States?

James pointed to some examples of individuals and cur- rents that might be brought into such an organization. The information James provided "shows that we can have some elements for cooperation in this field," Trotsky said. At the same time, he noted, it "limits the immediate perspective of the organization." How and why did it limit those perspectives? Because, Trotsky said, it's necessary to ask the question: "Who are these elements?" And he answered: "The majority are Negro intellectuals, former Stalinist functionaries and sympathizers."

Trotsky noted that white intellectuals who earlier in the 1930s had been briefly attracted to communism had largely gone "back to Roosevelt and democracy"-imperialist democracy, that is. But "the disappointed Negro intellectuals looked for a new field on the basis of the Negro question," Trotsky continued. Yes,communist workers can and should seek to collaborate with them on defense campaigns, to raise money for common goals, and so on. "That is one thing," he told James, "but you consider these Negro intellectuals for the directing of a mass movement." And that was neither possible nor, above all, desirable.

Trotsky pointed to the danger that such an organization "will become a game for the intellectuals," whom, he added, "keep themselves separated from the masses, always with the desire to take on the Anglo-Saxon culture and of be- coming an integral part of the Anglo-Saxon life"-that is, their desire to become integrated into the professional and middle classes of capitalist society, of "white" America.7  An independent Black organization, Trotsky said, "can justify itself only by winning workers, sharecroppers, and so on."

These exchanges with James on our movement's proletarian orientation had a substantial impact on the two SWP members present for the discussions in Mexico: Charles Curtiss, a cadre of the party since the founding of the Communist League of America in 1929, and Sol Lankin, also a founding CLA member and at the time a guard in Trotsky's household. "Would this organization throw its doors open to all classes of Negroes?" Lankin asked James.
Yes, said James. "The bourgeois Negro can come in to help, but only on the basis of the organization's program." That didn't satisfy Lankin, however. "I cannot see how the Negro bourgeoisie can help the Negro proletariat fight for its economic advancement," Lankin added.

So James tried another tack. "In our own movement some of us are petty bourgeois," he replied to Lankin. That was James's attitude to the class composition of the party! It was a political approach that flew in the face of the systematic campaign being carried out by the majority of the SWP leadership and cadres at the time to proletarianize the party from top to bottom. This effort was being made at Trotsky's urgent insistence.

As delegates to the party's convention had decided some fifteen months earlier, "We will not succeed in rooting the party in the working class, much less to defend the revolutionary proletarian principles of the party from being undermined, unless the party is an overwhelmingly proletarian party, composed in its decisive majority of workers in the factories, mines, and mills." The January 1938 convention decided that such a "complete reorientation of our party, from the membership up to the leadership and back again, is absolutely imperative and unpostponable."8

Following up in response to James's comments, Trotsky underlined the life-or-death character of the proletarian orientation that guided the SWP, and its inseparable relationship with deepening the party's work among African Americans. "Our party is not safe from degeneration if it remains a place for intellectuals, semi-intellectuals, skilled workers," Trotsky emphasized. "... Many times I have pro- posed that every member of the party, especially the intellectuals and semi-intellectuals, who, during a period of say six months, cannot each win a worker-member for the party should be demoted to the position of sympathizer. We can say the same in [relation to] the Negro question."

Returning to points that had been central to his discussions with SWP leader Arne Swabeck several years earlier, Trotsky added:

We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class. What serves as the brake on the higher strata? It is the privileges, the comforts that hinder them from becoming revolution- ists. It does not exist for the Negroes.

What can transform a certain stratum, make it more capable of courage and sacrifice? It is concentrated in the Negroes. If it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this stratum, then we are not worthy at all....

It is a question of the vitality of the party. It is an important question. It is a question of whether the party is to be transformed into a sect or if it is capable of finding its way to the most oppressed part of the working class.


3. Transcripts of the three discussions can be found in Part III of this book, pp. 257-91.
4. These centrist organizations included the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Britain, the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in Spain, the Socialist Workers and Peasants Party (PSOP) in France, and others. Between 1932 and 1939 they clustered together under the umbrella "The London Bureau." Zigzagging between Stalinism and Social Democracy, these organizations contributed to the bloody defeat of the revolution in Spain, added to the disorientation of the workers movement in France, and created substantial obstacles to efforts led by Trotsky to rebuild the world communist movement across Europe and beyond.
5. "On C.L.R. James" in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937-38) (Path- finder, 1976), pp. 385-86 [2009 printing].
6. "More on Our Work in the Communist Party" (April 10, 1939), in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39) (Pathfinder, 1969, 1974), pp. 341- 42 [2004 printing].
7.Except for a tiny handful of individuals, that desire was a vain hope in the Jim Crow America of the 1930s-the Jim Crow America, not just the Jim Crow South. As a by-product of the victorious Black rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, however, a layer of the African American population in the United States has today taken great strides toward achieving that aspiration. See "The Cosmopolitan 'Meritocracy' and the Changing Class Structure of the Black Nationality" in Part II of this book.-JB
8. See "The Political Situation and the Tasks of the Party," and "The Trade Union Movement and the Socialist Workers Party," in The Founding of the Socialist Workers Party (Pathfinder, 1982), pp. 145, 162, 2001 printing].

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