The prophet and Black Power: Trotsky on race in the US

Issue: 121

Christian Høgsbjerg

Leon Trotsky’s life and work were intrinsically intertwined with the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution. It is his heroic role as both its sword, during the October insurrection and civil war, and then his tragically doomed attempt to act as a shield for revolutionary Marxism against the rising Stalinist bureaucracy that ensures his place in world history. Trotsky was also an outstanding internationalist and, although he did not write a great deal on the African diaspora as a whole, he did address what was known by revolutionary socialists at the time as the “Negro question”—the systematic racism suffered by black people in the United States. Unfortunately, Trotsky’s analysis of the struggle for black liberation in America has received little critical attention in comparison with the rest of his life’s work. Yet human nature abhors even the slightest vacuum, and the relative silence on this question even among Trotskyists has made it easier for those less sympathetic to Trotsky’s politics to misrepresent his views. While Baruch Knei-Paz, for example, could not suppress his initial surprise that reading Trotsky on this question left him with “the impression of reading the words of a contemporary proponent of Black Power”, he put this down to Trotsky’s Leninist “political opportunism” in apparently exploiting “Negro nationalism for wider revolutionary aims”.1

Yet, paradoxically, more radical critics of Trotsky have often made quite the opposite claim that “Trotsky did not understand the force of nationalist passions amongst the Afro-Americans as a motivating engine of class struggle”.2 This article will not suggest that Trotsky provided any sort of final “revolutionary answer to the Negro question”. It will simply attempt to defend him from both charges levelled against him—of political opportunism on the one hand and crude philistinism on the other—through a historical exploration of the development and evolution of his analysis of the struggle for black liberation in America. It will be argued that, despite the kind of inevitable limitations and shortcomings in places, Trotsky overall demonstrated an instinctive sympathy with and a keen desire for a deeper understanding of the black liberation struggle in America, combined with an imagination characteristic of one of the greatest revolutionaries in the classical Marxist tradition.

A “non-Jewish Jew” in the Russian Empire

The roots of Trotsky’s profound internationalism lie, in part, in his experience growing up culturally, spiritually and temperamentally an outsider in Russia as a result of the Tsarist state sponsored racism against Jewish people. As Esme Choonara notes, “The Tsar presided over what was the deepest level of anti-Semitism in any country before the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Anti-Semitism was actually encouraged by the state, which orchestrated mob violence—pogroms—against Jews. Jews were barred from settling or owning land in many parts of Russia, which is why Trotsky’s family ended up in Ukraine”.3 The son of Jewish farmers, Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in 1879. Most Jewish farmers in the region lived in “colonies” in the Kherson steppe near the Black Sea, and in a sense Jewish people were pioneers in the “Russian” colonisation of this remote wilderness (alongside other outsiders such as Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks) on behalf of Tsarism and were free from much of the worst of the anti-Semitism of the period.4

In his 1930 “attempt at an autobiography”, My Life, Trotsky describes how his first school was in a German-Jewish “colony” nearby, and “through the colony ran a ravine: on the one side was the Jewish settlement, on the other, the German. The two parts stood out in sharp contrast. In the German section the houses were neat, partly roofed with tile and partly with reeds, the horses large, the cows sleek. In the Jewish section the cabins were dilapidated, the roofs tattered, the cattle scrawny.” Such injustice insulted the young Bronstein’s social conscience, though it is a testimony to his hostility to all forms of oppression that at secondary school he found himself coming to the fore in standing up for a German student bullied by one unpopular teacher, getting himself temporarily expelled for his troubles.5

After becoming a revolutionary Marxist in 1898, and ultimately becoming what Isaac Deutscher would call a “non-Jewish Jew” in the process, Trotsky first really demonstrated his political abilities and talent during the upheavals of 1905 which were prompted by the Russian Empire’s disastrous war with Japan. In October 1905 the world’s first workers’ council, the
St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, was formed. As Choonara notes, “Trotsky, more than any other revolutionary leader of his time, grasped the importance of the soviet and enthusiastically threw himself into its activities…at the age of 26, a young Jew in a country where anti-Semitism was rife, Trotsky was elected as a leader of the St Petersburg Soviet and became a key speaker and the editor of its news sheet.” In response to the revolution the Tsarist secret police encouraged a counter-revolutionary wave of bloody pogroms against Jews by the “Black Hundreds”. Amid what Trotsky remembered as “anxious days when the journalist wrote and the typesetter worked with a revolver in his pocket”, he was at the fore in helping ensure that the soviet in St Petersburg organised armed detachments of workers which successfully foiled any attempt to trigger a pogrom in the city.6

A Russian revolutionary in New York

In January 1917, after being deported from European country to country as a political exile from Russia, Trotsky was allowed to travel to America with his family where he rented an apartment in New York. As he recalled in My Life, it was here he first began to understand something of racism and resistance in the United States:

The janitor of the house was a Negro. My wife paid him three month’s rent in advance, but he gave her no receipt because the landlord had taken the receipt-book away the day before, to verify the accounts. When we moved into the house two days later, we discovered that the Negro had absconded with the rent of several of the tenants. Besides the money, we had entrusted to him the storage of some of our belongings. The whole incident upset us; it was such a bad beginning. But we found our property after all, and when we opened the wooden box that contained our crockery, we were surprised to find our money hidden away in it, carefully wrapped up in paper. The janitor had taken the money of the tenants who had already received their receipts; he did not mind robbing the landlord, but he was considerate enough not to rob the tenants. A delicate fellow, indeed. My wife and I were deeply touched by his consideration, and we always think of him gratefully. This little incident took on a symptomatic significance for me—it seemed as if a corner of the veil that concealed the “black” problem in the United States had lifted.7

Had Trotsky not returned to revolutionary Russia in 1917 but stayed in America just a few more months, another “corner of the veil” of the “Negro question” may well have been lifted. It was not just institutionalised racist segregation such as the Jim Crow laws that black people in America had to contend with, but also an ideological offensive, a conscious ruling class strategy of using racism to “divide and rule”. In early July 1917, in East St Louis, a horrific attack against the local black population that left
39 dead attracted national attention in the United States. As historian Winston James notes, the roots of this “pogrom” lay in “the customary labour competition between black and white workers, an institutionalised practice of a racist America”:

White workers kept black workers out of the unions; black workers, like many non-union white workers, engaged in strikebreaking; and employers took advantage of the division. Then on 2 July 1917, consumed by a festering accumulation of racist resentments, white East St Louis exploded into a diabolic orgy of indescribable savagery. Black people in that town were slaughtered and burned alive in the most barbaric and outrageous manner by white mobs; escaping black women and children were pinned down by gunfire or thrown back alive into the raging furnaces that had once been their homes; in other cases, the mob first nailed up boards over the doors and windows before setting homes ablaze.

A young Russian-Jewish immigrant who witnessed the violence told Oscar Leonard, the superintendent of the St Louis Jewish Educational and Charitable Association, that “the Russian ‘Black Hundreds’ could take lessons in pogrom-making from the whites of East St Louis. The Russians at least, he said, gave the Jews a chance to run while they were trying to murder them”.8

Meeting Claude McKay in Soviet Russia

Given that such tyranny reigned unchecked in the “land of the free”, it is not surprising that the October Revolution in Russia inspired many black people in America. One of those filled with hope by the upheaval of a socialist revolution which had brought an institutionally racist empire crashing down was a young Jamaican poet, Claude McKay (1890-1948). In 1912 McKay had left the Caribbean and moved to the United States. He was shocked by the open and blatant racism he encountered there, which was quite different to the more subtle variety he had been accustomed to in the British colony of Jamaica where black people had constituted the majority of the population. “It was the first time I had ever come face to face with such manifest, implacable hate of my race, and my feelings were indescribable… I had heard of prejudice in America but never dreamed of it being so intensely bitter,” he recalled in 1918:

In the South daily murders of a nature most hideous and revolting, in the North silent acquiescence, deep hate half-hidden under a puritan respectability, oft flaming up into an occasional lynching—this ugly raw sore in the body of a great nation. At first I was horrified; my spirit revolted against the ignoble cruelty and blindness of it all. Then I soon found myself hating in return but this feeling couldn’t last long for to hate is to be miserable.

Radicalising politically, McKay broke with his youthful Fabian socialism and joined the multiracial and militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He also became a member of the radical black nationalist African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) formed in 1919. The ABB, which had increasingly close ties to the new Communist International, symbolised a new mood of resistance among black people in America after the First World War. As the “black Bolshevik” McKay put it in 1919:

Every Negro who lays claim to leadership should make a study of Bolshevism and explain its meaning to the coloured masses. It is the greatest and most scientific idea afloat in the world today that can be easily put into practice by the proletariat to better its material and spiritual life. Bolshevism…has made Russia safe for the Jew. It has liberated the Slav peasant from priest and bureaucrat who can no longer egg him on to murder Jews to bolster up their rotten institutions. It might make these United States safe for the Negro…if the Russian idea should take hold of the white masses of the Western world, and they should rise in united strength and overthrow their imperial capitalist government, then the black toilers would automatically be free!

In 1921 McKay wrote a letter to WEB Du Bois, editor of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s publication, The Crisis, declaring he was “surprised and sorry that in your editorial…you should leap out of your sphere to sneer at the Russian Revolution, the greatest event in the history of humanity…for American Negroes the indisputable and outstanding fact of the Russian Revolution is that a mere handful of Jews, much less in ratio to the number of Negroes in the American population, have attained, through the revolution, all the political and social rights that were denied to them under the regime of the Tsar”.9

In 1920, after Lenin’s forceful intervention at the second congress of the Communist International on the Negro question, McKay was invited to Moscow by the American revolutionary journalist John Reed as a representative of the ABB to discuss perspectives for black liberation. McKay had rejected Reed’s offer at the time because as primarily a poet he did not feel he was qualified in such a capacity.10 In 1922, however, when McKay received an invitation to attend the coming fourth congress of the Communist International in Moscow the opportunity was too good to resist and he left for Soviet Russia at once. “Those Russia days remain the most memorable of my life,” he would later recall.11 “Whenever I appeared in the street I was greeted by all of the people with enthusiasm…a spontaneous upsurging of folk feeling”—the complete reverse of his experiences in America and Europe. “Never in my life did I feel prouder of being an African, a black,” he recalled during the “lean hungry years” of 1922-3.12 Although he attended in his capacity as a leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance rather than a formal political capacity, McKay helped draft the Comintern’s resolution on the Negro question, a subject he also passionately and eloquently addressed the congress on:

The situation in America today is terrible and fraught with grave dangers. It is much uglier and more terrible than was the condition of the peasants and Jews of Russia under the Tsar. It is so ugly and terrible that very few people in America are willing to face it…the socialists and Communists have fought very shy of it because there is a great element of prejudice among the socialists and Communists of America. They are not willing to face the Negro question…this is the greatest difficulty that the Communists of America have got to overcome—the fact that they first have got to emancipate themselves from the ideas they entertain towards the Negroes before they can be able to reach the Negroes with any kind of radical propaganda.13

While in Moscow, McKay was not able to meet with Lenin (who was too ill) but did meet with such leading Bolsheviks as Zinoviev, Radek, Bukharin and above all Trotsky. Stalin never even bothered to reply to McKay’s request for a meeting. However, as McKay remembered in his 1937 autobiography A Long Way from Home, the request for a meeting with Stalin “vanished from my thoughts when I came in contact with the magnetic personality of Trotsky”, then commissar for war:14

Trotsky asked me some straight and sharp questions about American Negroes, their group organisations, their political position, their schooling, their religion, their grievances and social aspirations and, finally, what kind of sentiment existed between American and African Negroes. I replied with the best knowledge and information at my command. Then Trotsky expressed his own opinion about Negroes, which was more intelligent than that of any of the other Russian leaders…he was not quick to make deductions about the causes of white prejudice against black. Indeed, he made no conclusions at all, and, happily, expressed no mawkish sentimentality about black and white brotherhood. What he said was very practical…he urged that Negroes should be educated about the labour movement…he said he would like to set a practical example in his own department and proposed the training of a group of Negroes as officers in the Red Army.15

Overall McKay felt Trotsky “spoke wisely” and “was human and universal in his outlook. He thought of Negroes as people like any other people who were unfortunately behind in the march of civilisation.” McKay remembers that “before I left, Trotsky asked me to make a summary of my ideas, in writing, for him. This I did, and he wrote out a commentary on it.” Both were published in the Soviet press.16 Trotsky’s 1923 “Letter to Comrade McKay” showed the extent to which his thinking by this time had been moulded into shape by the perspectives on the Negro question laid down by Lenin and the Communist International, and Trotsky offered encouragement to McKay and the ABB, which by now was very close to the Communist International. “The day of general resolutions on the right of self-determination of the colonial peoples, on the equality of all human beings regardless of colour, is over,” Trotsky declared. “The time has come for direct and practical action. Every ten Negroes who gather around the flag of revolution—and unite to form a group for practical work among the Negroes, are worth 100 times more than dozens of the resolutions establishing principles, so generously passed by the Second International.” Trotsky therefore noted that “the education of Negro propagandists is an exceedingly urgent and important revolutionary task at the present juncture” but admitted that the role someone like himself could play in this “education” could, of course, only go so far. “What forms of organisation are most suitable for the movement among American Negroes, it is difficult for me to say, as I am insufficiently informed regarding the concrete conditions and possibilities. But the forms of organisation will be found, as soon as there is sufficient will to action.”

In the meantime, given the general retreat from the earlier high-points of black and white unity along class lines in America seen in, for example, the populist movement of the South in the 1890s and then the IWW, Trotsky defended the necessity and importance of black self-activity and of organisations such as the ABB in breaking down barriers to working class unity. Noting the racism of the trade union bureaucracy in America, Trotsky wrote that “the fight against this policy must be taken up from different sides, and conducted on various lines”. In “enlightening the proletarian consciousness” among “the Negro slaves of American capitalism”, by “awakening the feeling of human dignity, and of revolutionary protest” among black people in the United States, one of the most important steps towards class unity would have been taken.

Yet, given the general political backwardness of the American left on the “Negro question” and the subsequent mistrust of black people for the left as a whole, Trotsky reiterated that for the foreseeable future engaging black people politically in such a fashion “can only be carried out by self-sacrificing and politically educated revolutionary Negroes”.17

The American Trotskyists and the “Negro question”

Aside from this discussion with McKay at the time of the first four congresses of the Communist International, Trotsky in many ways could and did defer to others over the “Negro question” in the United States and, more generally, the national and colonial questions. As commissar for war when the Russian Revolution was besieged by international intervention and facing internal civil war, Trotsky’s priorities understandably lay elsewhere. Yet when Trotsky was forced into exile from the land of the October Revolution by the rising Stalinist bureaucracy he almost single-handedly faced the responsibility of defending and upholding the tradition of classical Bolshevism. In 1929 the exiled Trotsky wrote to his tiny group of supporters in America who had recently been expelled from the Communist Party and had just reconstituted themselves as the Communist League of America (Opposition).18 Trotsky stressed the importance of them taking up the “Negro question” even though they had no black members in their ranks at the time:

The trade union bureaucrats, like the bureaucrats of false Communism, live in the atmosphere of aristocratic prejudices of the upper strata of the workers. It will be a tragedy if the oppositionists are infected even in the slightest degree with these qualities. We must not only reject and condemn these prejudices; we must burn them out of our consciousness to the last trace. We must find the road to the most deprived, to the darkest strata of the proletariat, beginning with the Negro, whom capitalist society has converted into a pariah, and who must learn to see in us his revolutionary brothers. And this depends wholly upon our energy and devotion to the work.19

Unfortunately, Trotsky’s advice fell, if not on totally deaf ears, then on ears belonging to members of a tiny new group overwhelmed with other political work and divided about how to proceed on this most crucial question. In late February 1933, despite the fact that Hitler’s Nazis were on the brink of seizing power in Germany and Trotsky was in exile on the island of Prinkipo, he found time to meet a representative of the American Trotskyist movement, Arne Swabeck, to try and clarify “the Negro question in America”. The discussion was shaped by the fact that in 1928 the Communist Party (CP) had suddenly raised a new slogan—”Self_determination for the Black Belt” (an ill defined area of the United States where black people constituted the majority of the population and where without Jim Crow legislation they would naturally wield a measure of political power)—as if black people in America were oppressed on a national basis like colonised peoples as well as by racism. Given that the demand for a Black Belt had not come from black people in America themselves but had originated in Stalin’s Moscow, and given the recent record of the Stalinised Communist International in veering erratically towards ultra-leftism during the “Third Period”, the American Trotskyist movement were in general naturally rather sceptical. Instead of raising the abstract slogan for a Black Belt they generally insisted the main issue was still one of race and so the battle for “social, political and economic equality for the Negroes” in America.20

In the 1933 discussion Trotsky agreed that “if the situation was such that in America common actions existed between the white and the coloured workers, that the class fraternisation had already become a fact, then perhaps the arguments of our comrades would have a basis”. However, black people in America were on the defensive after the collapse of the mass movement around the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey during the 1920s, while “the American worker is indescribably reactionary…in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also towards the Chinese”. So it was “necessary to teach the American beasts…[and] to make them understand that the American state is not their state and that they do not have to be the guardians of this state”. Given the material oppression of the black population by white American society as a whole, including even the organised white working class, Trotsky argued there was a danger that a simple slogan of “equality” would itself be abstract and not raising the question of “self-determination for the Black Belt” was “a certain concession to the point of view of American chauvinism” and so “an adaptation to the ideology of the white workers”. “The Negro can be developed to a class standpoint only when the white worker is educated” and “self_determination” was a democratic demand, he reminded them.21

No doubt Trotsky was impressed by the important legal defence work on behalf of the “Scottsboro Boys” and others the Communist Party were now undertaking, which allowed the CP to lay down new roots within the black community of the United States. Moreover, as Trotsky now put it, in “a certain sense” as a slogan “self_determination” was revolutionary, and he proceeded to speculate how the drive for a Black Belt might play a key role in the process of “permanent revolution in America”. Through the course of such a struggle for a Black Belt, “it is then possible that the Negroes will become the most advanced section” of the American working class movement after previously being seen by the revolutionary left as the most backward and least organised. “It is very possible that the Negroes also through the self-determination will proceed to the proletarian dictatorship in a couple of gigantic strides, ahead of the great bloc of white workers. They will then furnish the vanguard”.22

In general Trotsky here demonstrated a keen sense of the fact that things were more complicated in America than they appeared on the surface, and that there were and are degrees and different forms of oppression. When the pressure on an oppressed group builds up to the kind of extreme levels it had in the United States with respect to black people, it is only a matter of time before things explode. When the oppressed fight back their revolt is likely to manifest itself in all manner of forms that are impossible to predict in advance. Moreover, the black population had the right to determine their own fate and organise their own defence in whatever manner and form they chose, and to expect if not uncritical then unconditional support of revolutionary socialists in the process. To reject “the demand for self-determination” for a Black Belt in advance just because black people had not yet themselves put it forward Trotsky thought was “doctrinarism”. Of course, “the Negroes are a race and not a nation”.23 However, nations could not be defined in purely objective terms, by territory, language or economic unit, but were what Benedict Anderson has called “imagined communities”, and nationalism—including black nationalism—was therefore a complicated cultural creation.24 As Trotsky put it, “An abstract criterion is not decisive in this question, but much more decisive is the historical consciousness, their feelings and their impulses. But that also is not determined accidentally but rather by the general conditions.” Indeed, “nations grow out of the racial material under definite conditions” and “the suppression of the Negroes pushes them towards a political and national unity…we do, of course, not obligate the Negroes to become a nation; if they are, then that is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they desire and what they strive for. We say: if the Negroes want that then we must fight against imperialism to the last drop of blood, so that they gain the right, wherever and how they please, to separate a piece of land for themselves”.25

Trotsky was only really “absolutely sure” about one aspect of any future revolutionary struggle in America—that once it began, as the most oppressed section of American society, black people “will in any case fight better than the white workers” for emancipation, and so what mattered for revolutionary socialists in America was waging “an uncompromising merciless struggle not against the supposed national presuppositions of the Negroes but against the colossal prejudices of the white workers”. Racism was ultimately not simply a question for the black people who suffered from it—white supremacy as an ideology was also fundamentally a critical problem facing the white working class in America. As Karl Marx had noted, “in the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin”.26 Though slavery had not survived the revolutionary upheaval of the American Civil War it was still the case, as Trotsky now reminded his supporters, that “when the white worker performs the role of the oppressor he cannot liberate himself, much less the colonial peoples” or people of colour.27

While Trotsky conceded that “I have never studied this question and in my remarks I proceed from the general considerations”, in the 1933 discussions he showed that he was able to grasp many of the essentials of the concrete question of racial oppression in America. For example, on the contradictions of religious belief Trotsky noted that “the Baptism of the Negro is something entirely different from the Baptism of [American robber baron] Rockefeller. These are two different religions”.28 The most obvious weakness of Trotsky’s discussions here concerns his question about whether “the Negroes in the Southern states speak their own Negro language” which they “naturally fear” to speak because of lynching, but which may come “alive” when they feel free. However, Christopher Phelps has noted that Trotsky’s “curiosity and speculation about language is less peculiar, for example, when set against the context of the national question in Russia and Central Europe, where language and nationality were intertwined”.29 Overall, as George Breitman noted of Trotsky’s intervention, “to show his American comrades how he thought revolutionists should react to the oppression of the Negroes, he denounced the prejudiced white workers in more scathing, more bitter terms than any American Marxist, black or white, had ever done”. As Phelps notes, “Trotsky himself, in hammering this point home, could have better distinguished between gradations of racialist belief, from obtuseness to condescension to outright white supremacy, but at least he put the problem front and centre”.30

Trotsky concluded his discussion in 1933 by calling on the American Trotskyist movement to undertake “a serious discussion of this question”. Max Shachtman, then a leading theoretician of the early American Trotskyist movement, accordingly wrote a document entitled “Communism and the Negro” (1933) which he sent to Trotsky. “My opinion on the Negro question is of an entirely hypothetical nature,” Trotsky replied. “I know very little about it and am always ready to learn. I will read your manuscript with great interest”.31 Shachtman set out to defend the existing American Trotskyist position by comprehensively critiquing the Communist position of “self-determination for the Black Belt” (and so also implicitly challenging Trotsky’s position). While Shachtman’s work showed up the ludicrously abstract nature of proposals for a Black Belt, and in many ways was a pioneering and path-breaking Marxist historical analysis of race in America, Phelps is right to note that it was not without weaknesses. Shachtman’s slightly schematic perspectives for progress lacked predictive power, ruling out possibilities for any advance except through revolutionary black-labour unity, and more critically it dismissed the value of independent black self_organisation, something Trotsky, as we have seen, never did. As Phelps notes of Shachtman, “In denying the validity of independent black movements, he elided the decisive strategic question of what people of colour should do when the white working class is unwilling to support special black demands—or, even worse, given to resistance to black equality or outright racism”.32 Shachtman’s work was not published, for with the turn of the Communist International to the Popular Front the CP slogan of “Self_determination for the Black Belt” was put on the back burner in order not to offend racist “liberal” American opinion. There was also still little evidence that black Americans themselves demanded a Black Belt.

During the 1930s the American Trotskyist movement, which in 1938 had formed itself into the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), increased its membership during the Great Depression and the accompanying explosive growth of American trade unionism. However, despite the fact that the SWP now had several dozen black members, Trotsky was still deeply worried about the American Trotskyist movement’s failure to build anything like the kind of links with the black population of the United States that the American CP had succeeded in doing during the 1930s through campaigning defence work.33

In 1938 Trotsky arranged for the black Trinidadian Marxist historian and “class-struggle pan-Africanist” CLR James (1901-1989), perhaps the intellectual driving force of British Trotskyism during the 1930s, to come over to the United States for a six-month lecture tour. As Trotsky told James when they met to discuss the Negro question in Coyoacán in April 1939, “I believe that the first question is the attitude of the Socialist Workers Party towards the Negroes. It is very disquieting to find that until now the party has done almost nothing in this field.” Trotsky warned that the SWP would not only not be able to “develop” but would “degenerate” unless it entered the struggle more seriously. As “the most oppressed and discriminated” section of the population, black people were “the most dynamic milieu of the working class” and destined to be “a vanguard of the working class”. If the SWP could not relate to them, “then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie”.34

Meeting CLR James

By the time Trotsky met James in early April 1939 American Trotskyist leaders already deferred to the author of The Black Jacobins (1938) as the movement’s leading authority on the black liberation struggle and distinctive cultural traditions of black Americans. Though James had only been in the United States for six months, in Britain he had worked closely with his boyhood friend from Trinidad, George Padmore, a former member of the American CP and until 1933 the leading figure in the Communist International on the black and colonial question. James had also met several black Americans in Britain such as Paul Robeson and had already written briefly on the history of the struggles of black people in America in A History of Negro Revolt (1938). Perhaps because of his reading of Shachtman’s Communism and the Negro, Trotsky in 1939 was now much better acquainted with weaknesses of the slogan of “Self-determination for the Black Belt” and considered the Communist “attitude of making an imperative slogan of it” to be mistaken. “It was a case of the whites saying to the Negroes, ‘You must create a ghetto for yourselves.’ It is tactless and false and can only serve to repulse the Negroes.”

Trotsky did, however, convince James that there was nothing whatsoever “reactionary” about the slogan in itself, as James had suggested in his “Preliminary Notes on the Negro Question” (1939), circulated before the discussion, as “to fight for the possibility of realising an independent state is a sign of a great moral and political awakening. It would be a tremendous revolutionary step.” In a slight retreat from his earlier position, Trotsky argued, “I do not propose for the party to advocate, I do not propose to inject, but only to proclaim our obligation to support the struggle for self-determination if the Negroes themselves want it”.35 Trotsky and James came to agree on this and much else, though as we have seen, like Shachtman, James had been sceptical of the whole idea of a Black Belt from the start. “You seem to think that there is a greater possibility of the Negroes wanting self-determination than I think is probable,” James told Trotsky. “But we have a 100 percent agreement on the idea which you have put forward that we should be neutral in the development” and support the “right to self-determination” if demanded by black Americans themselves without declaring it a demand in advance.36

In his “Preliminary Notes on the Negro Question”, James had put the case for the SWP supporting the formation of “a Negro organisation” that would aim at “the organisation of a Negro movement” to fight for civil and political rights and full participation in trade unions.37 It seems James had in mind something rather like an American branch of the International African Service Bureau (IASB) that he had been involved with in Britain—a politically radical pan-African organisation that would be independently organised by black people. After a six month tour speaking on behalf of the Trotskyist movement in America and through his other contacts he had made as a representative of the IASB in America, James felt the potential to build such an organisation as a mass organisation was there in the US in a way that it was not in Britain, where the black population was miniscule in comparison. Because American blacks “individually and in the mass…remain profoundly suspicious of whites”, James insisted it was necessary to build an essentially all black organisation that would try and set the masses “in motion, the only way in which they will learn the realities of political activity and be brought to realise the necessity of mortal struggle against capitalism”.38

Trotsky’s positive reaction to James’s proposal shows his flexibility as a Marxist theorist and strategist: “What Comrade Johnson [James’s pseudonym] tells us now is very important… Theoretically it seems to me absolutely clear that a special organisation should be created for a special situation.” Indeed, “the large masses of the Negroes are backward and oppressed and this oppression is so strong that they must feel it every moment; that they feel it as Negroes. We must find the possibility of giving this feeling a political organisation expression.” “Our movement is familiar with such forms as the party, the trade union, the educational organisation, the cooperative, but this is a new type of organisation which does not coincide with the traditional forms,” Trotsky noted. But he was willing to see the potential possibilities and support the setting up of such a new project, given the specific circumstances of the period. “If another party had organised such a mass movement, we would surely participate as a fraction, providing that it included workers, poor petty bourgeois, poor farmers, and so on.” Yet Trotsky wisely urged caution and noted there were huge difficulties ahead, difficulties that might indeed prove insurmountable. Not only was the international Trotskyist movement in the midst of being persecuted by Stalinist terror and slander but also the American SWP was too small and crucially still not yet clear enough itself on the black question. As Trotsky put it, “The question remains as to whether we can take upon ourselves the initiative of forming such an organisation of Negroes as Negroes.” James had noted that there was disillusion among some black intellectuals because of the betrayals of Stalinism (the Soviet Union had famously sold oil to Mussolini at the time of Fascist Italy’s barbaric war on the people of Ethiopia), but as Trotsky replied, “the real question is whether or not it is possible to organise a mass movement” given the existing difficulties confronting the tiny Trotskyist movement.39

Nonetheless, James and Trotsky agreed in theory to try and prepare for the future initiation of such an organisation with Trotskyist support. A week or so after the meeting James wrote in a private letter that “I shall have to do a few months of intensive study, before we launch the organisation…I shall probably have to go to Africa some time. All these things have to be worked out.” James, however, noted that Trotsky “is the keenest of the keen on the N[egro] question”. “He is certainly a most remarkable personality and it is easy to see a very great orator… He agreed almost entirely with my memo on the Negro question. On self_determination, in particular there was no difficulty. If the Negroes want it, then we are in favour, but we do not advocate it. Which, it seemed to me, was always the obvious position.” A few days later, James wrote again:

I have been thinking over the Negro question… I have talked much with LT [Leon Trotsky], and have been thinking over all that he said. I am now certain that no one in America, none in the party, has ever seen the Negro question for the gigantic thing it is, and will increasingly be. LT sees it, I was groping towards it. I begin to see it now, every day more clearly.40

In July 1939 the SWP convention did not discuss the possibilities of helping to launch a black organisation but accepted two resolutions drafted by James. After the convention James headed up a newly formed national Negro department of the SWP, established a column on “The Negro Question” for the SWP paper, Socialist Appeal, and held classes on black history. The December 1939 edition of the theoretical journal New International was a “Special Negro Number” with a superb article by James on “Revolution and the Negro”. By March 1940 the new strategy had led to the recruitment of about 30 new black members and James noted with satisfaction that the CP was currently “carrying on a furious campaign in its classes on Negro work against the ‘Trotskyite line’ on the Negro question”. Back in Mexico, Trotsky was himself very satisfied when he asked an American visitor about James’s work and was told the Negro department “was going night and day”.41

While the challenge of the Second World War and the subsequent divisions in the American Trotskyist movement over the class nature of Stalinist Russia meant that James’s and Trotsky’s plans for helping to launch a black organisation never got off the ground, the exchange between the two of them remains remarkable and repays rereading. As Scott McLemee notes, “the discussion between Trotsky and James was not one between master and disciple. Nor was it a debate. Rather, a genuine dialogue took place”, ranging from the nature of Garveyism to the reactionary nature of both Democrat and Republican parties.42

Some of the specific campaigning ideas suggested at this meeting were indeed to be taken up in the civil rights movement of the 1950s. James, for example, suggested that racial “discrimination in restaurants should be fought by a campaign. A number of Negroes in any area go into a restaurant all together, ordering for instance some coffee, and refuse to come out until they are served. It would be possible to sit there for a whole day in a very orderly manner and throw upon the police the necessity of removing these Negroes.” Trotsky agreed, adding, “Yes, and give it an even more militant character. There could be a picket line outside to attract attention and explain something of what is going on”.43 It is some tribute to Trotsky’s grasp of the dynamics of race and revolution in the US by 1939 that James, even after he had broken with orthodox Trotskyism, would always consider Trotsky as “one of the few who after a few hours of talk have left me as tired as if I had been put through a wringer. His responses to difficult questions were so unhesitating, so precise, and so took the subject on to unsuspected but relevant areas, that I felt it was I who was undergoing examination”.44

In a 1980 conversation with David Widgery, James recalled how “tremendously impressed” he had been overall. “Trotsky started with the analysis—international, political, philosophical. But the action, the activity, always followed. I got a glimpse of what Bolshevism of the old school meant”.45

From Trotsky to today

Tony Cliff once noted that “the ideas of Trotsky can be very much like a stream. The stream disappears from sight and then reappears miles later. The stream hadn’t dried up—it was just obscured from our sight below the surface”.46 Trotsky’s ideas on black liberation in the United States must count as among his most overlooked contributions to Marxist theory, indeed remaining in private archives for 27 years after his murder. It was not until the rise of the Black Power movement that the transcripts of Trotsky’s discussions were published by the American Trotskyist movement. Yet the fact that Trotsky recognised the validity of independent black self-activity and self-organisation in the struggle for black liberation was to be of immense importance in enabling at least elements of that movement to more effectively prepare for the civil rights movement when it exploded in the 1950s, and relate to black nationalist figures such as Malcolm X.47

Today events such as Hurricane Katrina are feeding a growing political radicalisation among black Americans and others in the heart of the beast of American capitalism, testimony to which can be seen in the mass mobilisation which helped propel Barack Obama into power. Much of Trotsky’s discussion on the Negro question is structured within the slightly abstract framework of “the right to self-determination”. Yet from his meeting with Claude McKay right through to his meeting with CLR James, Trotsky was always attempting to relate abstract concepts such as “self-determination” to the concrete struggle against racism in America through a discussion about the kind of political and organisational strategies necessary. In doing so, Trotsky stood in the finest traditions of revolutionary Marxism—dating back to Marx’s own support for those Trotsky called “the Negro slaves of American capitalism” during the American Civil War.

While Barack Obama may symbolise the massive desire for “change” in America, and his victory indeed opens up new opportunities for the American left, his success ultimately signifies merely one register of the historic progress made so far through previous struggles for black liberation in the United States.48 In the struggles ahead, it is not enough for Marxists to simply champion the cause of black liberation, vitally important though that is. The inherent limitations of black nationalism, whether in a cultural or political form, mean that revolutionary socialists must also organise politically to ensure such movements are united with the wider struggle for human emancipation from exploitation and other forms of oppression. As Trotsky himself must have briefly sensed after 1917, the satisfaction of being able to finally register the arrival onto the stage of history of a permanent antidote to the poison of racism will only come in the afterglow of victorious socialist revolution.


1: Knei-Paz, 1979, p555. Many thanks to the editors of this journal and also to Weyman Bennett, Paul Blackledge, Charlie Hore, David Howell and Mark Thomas.

2: Young, 1988, p197.

3: Choonara, 2007, p3.

4: Deutscher, 1979, p6.

5: Trotsky, 1979, pp38, 68-74.

6: Choonara, 2007, p10. Cliff, 1989, pp97-99.

7: Trotsky, 1979, pp280-281.

8: James, 1999, pp94-95.

9: James, 1999, pp51, 93-94, 165-166, 183.

10: McKay, 1969, p206. From December 1919 to January 1921 McKay experienced racism in imperial Britain, see James, 2003. On the ABB, the early years of the Communist International and American Communists on the “Negro question”, see Shawki, 2006, pp128-137.

11: James, 1999, pp180, 272, 276. See also McKay, 1923.

12: McKay, 1969, pp158, 167-168.

13: McKay, 1922.

14: McKay, 1969, pp206-207.

15: McKay, 1969, p208. As Winston James notes of these Russian “black Bolsheviks”, they were “mainly descendants of Africans who had settled several generations before along the Black Sea. They fought, distinguished themselves and rose in Trotsky’s Red Army, moistened the Russian soil with their blood during the Civil War, and at least one served in the Soviet of Tblisi, the capital of Georgia in the 1920s”-James, 1999, p167.

16: McKay, 1969, pp182, 209.

17: Trotsky, 1972b, pp354-356. McKay himself would soon politically shift away from revolutionary socialism but never embraced Stalinism. As his friend-and Trotsky’s translator-Max Eastman noted, McKay “did not conceal his contempt for the increasingly ruthless tyranny over man’s mind and body that he saw growing out of the great revolution that had lifted him so high…his last years were passed in sickness; he could not write much; and he was destitute. One word on the Communist side would have brought him ease, comfort, contemporary fame and a good income. But he would not speak it. He chose instead to live in penury, and watch his fame and popularity gradually disappear from the earth”-Eastman, 1953, p112.

18: Phelps, 2003, pxxix.

19: Trotsky, 1972a, p5.

20: Trotsky, 1972a, p12.

21: Trotsky, 1972a, pp12-13, 15, 17.

22: Trotsky, 1972a, pp14, 18.

23: Trotsky, 1972a, pp13, 17.

24: Löwy, 1998, p68.

25: Trotsky, 1972a, pp13, 16.

26: Marx, 1976, p414.

27: Trotsky, 1972a, p18.

28: Trotsky, 1972a, pp15, 17. Antonio Gramsci made the same point in The Prison Notebooks: “Every religion is in reality a multiplicity of distinct and contradictory religions.”

29: Trotsky, 1972a, p14. Phelps, 2003, pxxxvi.

30: Trotsky, 1972a, p9. Phelps, 2003, plvii.

31: Trotsky, 1972a, p18. Phelps, 2003, pxl. Shachtman’s “Communism and the Negro” was published in 2003 as Race and Revolution with Phelps’s invaluable introduction.

32: Phelps, 2003, pxxi.

33: Phelps, 2003, pxliii.

34: Trotsky, 1972a, pp23, 42-43. For a brief introduction to James, see Høgsbjerg, 2006.

35: Trotsky, 1972a, pp29, 31-32.

36: Trotsky, 1972a, p31.

37: McLemee, 1996, p9.

38: Trotsky, 1972a, pp21, 39. James hoped, for example, in 1939 to “establish the [IASB journal] International African Opinion as a monthly theoretical journal, financed to some degree from America, [and] make it twice its present size”.

39: Trotsky, 1972a, pp33-36.

40: Grimshaw, 1990, pp38-39, 49.

41: McLemee, 1996, pxxii; James, 1939. This kind of concrete practical work that took place following Trotsky and James’s 1939 discussion suggests that it is slightly unfair to accuse them both of being “utopian”, and tending towards an “overestimation of the opportunities and prospects for revolutionaries” on the basis of some of the language used in their discussion, as Ahmed Shawki does-Shawki, 2006, p150. Shawki’s previous discussion of the 1939 discussions, for all its strengths, also tends to read James’s later spontaneist politics back into these discussions in a way which risks confusing more than it clarifies. See Shawki, 1990.

42: McLemee, 1996, pxxi.

43: Trotsky, 1972a, pp40, 46.

44: James, 1969, p249.

45: Widgery, 1989, p124. For James’s discussions with Trotsky about Bolshevism as well as black nationalism, see James, 1984.

46: Cliff, 2003, p267.

47: In 1965, while in London, Malcolm X told Jan Carew, “I’m a Muslim and a revolutionary and I’m learning more and more about political theories as the months go by. The only Marxist group in America that offered me a platform was the Socialist Workers Party. I respect them and they respect me.” Quoted in Boggs, 1998, p282. For more on Malcolm X, see Ovenden, 1992, and Shawki, 2006, pp170-186.

48: It would be foolish to speculate about exactly what either Trotsky or James would have made of Obama, but James’s comments on Jesse Jackson may be of interest. In July 1988 James was visited by the West Indian novelist George Lamming and the American historian Vincent Harding. Lamming remembers that James “asked after Jesse Jackson, and his prospects in the American presidential campaign. Harding gave, stage by stage, an account of Jackson’s rise to prominence. And then CLR said, with that old characteristic circle of the hand, ‘I have been following this rise, but tell me, does he know where he is going to land?’” Lamming, 1992, p200.


Boggs, Grace Lee, 1998, Living for Change: An Autobiography (University of Minnesota).

Choonara, Esme, 2007, A Rebel’s Guide to Trotsky (Bookmarks).

Cliff, Tony, 2003, Marxist Theory After Trotsky: Selected Writings, volume 3 (Bookmarks).

Cliff, Tony, 1989, Trotsky: Towards October, 18791917 (Bookmarks).

Deutscher, Isaac, 1979, The Prophet Armed—Trotsky: 18791921 (Oxford University).

Eastman, Max, 1953, “Biographical Note”, in Selected Poems of Claude McKay (Bookman).

Grimshaw, Anna (ed), 1990, Special Delivery: The letters of C.L_._R. James to Constance Webb, 19391948 (Blackwell).

Høgsbjerg, Christian, 2006, “CLR James: The Revolutionary as Artist”, International Socialism 112 (autumn 2006),

James, CLR, 1984, At the Rendezvous of Victory: Selected Writings, volume three (Allison & Busby).

James, CLR, 1969, Beyond a Boundary (Hutchinson).

James, CLR, 1939, “Revolution and the Negro”,

James, Winston, 2003, “A Race Outcast from an Outcast Class: Claude McKay’s Experience and Analysis of Britain”, in Bill Schwarz (ed), West Indian intellectuals in Britain (Manchester University).

James, Winston, 1999, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America (Verso).

Knei-Paz, Baruch, 1979, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky (Oxford University).

Lamming, George, 1992, “CLR James, Evangelist”, in Richard Drayton and Andaiye (eds), Conversations—George Lamming: Essays, Addresses and Interviews 19531990 (Karia).

Löwy, Michael, 1998, Fatherland or Mother Earth? Essays on the National Question (Pluto).

Marx, Karl, 1976 [1867] Capital, volume one (Penguin).

McKay, Claude, 1969, A Long Way from Home (Arno).

McKay, Claude, 1922, “Report on the Negro Question: Speech to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern”,

McKay, Claude, 1923, “Soviet Russia and the Negro”,

McLemee, Scott (ed), 1996, CLR James on the “Negro Question” (University of Mississippi).

Ovenden, Kevin, 1992, Malcolm X: Socialism and Black Nationalism (Bookmarks).

Phelps, Christopher, 2003, “Introduction—Race and Revolution: A Lost Chapter in American Radicalism”, in Shachtman, Max, Race and Revolution (Verso).

Shawki, Ahmed, 1990, “Black Liberation and Socialism in the United States”, International Socialism 47 (summer 1990).

Shawki, Ahmed, 2006, Black Liberation and Socialism (Haymarket).

Trotsky, Leon, 1979, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (Penguin). An alternative version is available at

Trotsky, Leon, 1972a, On Black Nationalism and SelfDetermination (Pathfinder).

Trotsky, Leon, 1972b, The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume two (Pathfinder). An alternative version is available at

Widgery, David, 1989, Preserving Disorder: Selected Essays, 196888 (Pluto).

Young, James, D, 1988, Socialism since 1889: A Biographical History (Rowman & Littlefield).