Resolution on the Negro Struggle
For discussion at the SWP’s 17th Convention (June 1957)
25 May 1957
Published in the SWP Discussion Bulletin Volume 18, Number 11, September 1957. Republished in In Memoriam Richard S. Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work, Prometheus Research Library, New York, August 1990.
I. The Permanent Revolution in America
The objective conditions have matured for the eruption of the class struggle in the South. The task of this struggle will be to overthrow the fascist-like yoke of white supremacy.
Since the destruction of popular government in the South at the close of the Reconstruction, the Southern Bourbon oligarchy, in close alliance with the whole American capitalist class, adapted the social relations of chattel slavery to the requirements of property relations and capitalist production.
The capitalists and planters achieved this Jim Crow system by a method which has been copied by all the imperialist ruling classes of the world. They broke up the working masses into hostile racial groups by the use of organized murder and terrorism against the Negroes and all who would stand side by side with them. They degraded labor through the enforced peonage of the Negroes. They created a white middle class which derived special privileges from the degradation of labor in general and the Negro in particular. They eliminated popular government and substituted the rule of a small minority of the privileged, the rich, the powerful: the white supremacists.
By creating a living hell for the Negro people, the ruling classes were thus able to achieve a super-exploitation of all Southern labor, bringing in profits which could be compared with those from colonial exploitation.
Thus, a whole social system became organized around the degradation of the Negro–a system which became an integrated and indispensable part of the economic, social and political structure of American capitalism.
The emancipation of the Negro people through social, political and economic equality is the fundamental condition for this liberation of all the oppressed in the South. This requires the destruction of the whole Southern system. Short of this there can be little change and few democratic rights for anyone.
However, the permanent revolution in America reveals itself in the following manner: the Southern system represents massive survivals of chattel slavery. These survivals take the form of great social problems unsolved by the Civil War and Reconstruction: an antiquated system of land tenure, the absence of democratic rights, segregation and racial discrimination. The solution of these questions was the responsibility of the capitalist class when it took the national power from the slaveowners in 1860. But they proved incapable of this. So these survivals of an antique system of exploitation have become integrated into the capitalist structure and form a component part thereof.
Capitalism could not solve these problems during its youth and virility, even under conditions of waging a bitter war against the slave power. Now, when amidst the decay and death agony of capitalism, these problems have become integrated into its very structure, the capitalist class will positively not prove able to solve them. This circumstance leads to the inescapable conclusion that although the tasks of the liberation of the South are of an elementary democratic nature, they have no solution within the framework of American capitalism: they become a part of the socialist struggle of the proletariat to overthrow the whole capitalist system of production.
The second manifestation of the permanent revolution lies in the question of leadership of the Negro struggle. The goal of the Negro struggle has been determined historically: the elimination of racial discrimination lies through the struggle for economic, political and social equality. The axis of this struggle is the fight against segregation. At the present time the leadership of this struggle is in the hands of the middle class. This Negro middle class suffers social, economic and political discrimination because of skin color. It is a far more terrible discrimination than is the usual lot of privileged layers of an oppressed group. This circumstance has produced a great galaxy of Negro scholars who have brilliantly analyzed and plumbed the depths and sources of racial oppression.
But, at the same time, the position of the middle class as a whole derives from and feeds upon segregation, the axis of the social force which oppresses them as Negroes.
This conflict between their racial and class interests causes the middle class leadership to act in a hesitant and treacherous manner. They will prove totally incapable of giving adequate leadership to the movement as it develops on to higher planes of struggle.
But the Negro workers have no such conflict of interest. They receive no such economic privileges from segregation. On the contrary they are super-exploited at the point of production and in all economic spheres. Discrimination against them as Negroes is intimately connected with their exploitation as workers. Finding themselves below the standard of living of even the white workers, they must of necessity open up a struggle for racial equality as the key to raising their standard of living as workers.
So as it falls to the American working class as a whole to solve the basic contradictions of American society, so does it fall upon the shoulders of the Negro proletariat to take the lead in the struggle for equality.
II. The Significance of Montgomery
The successful struggle of the Negroes of Montgomery shows a changed relationship of forces in the South. This is the first successful sustained mass struggle of the Negroes of the South in nearly seventy years. It demonstrates the decay and disintegration of the power of white supremacy and reveals that the situation is ripening for the liberation of the people of the South from the Jim Crow system.
The changed conditions have been brought about by the industrialization of the South and the deepening of the penetration of monopoly capitalism into all spheres of life. The salient features of this change have been: (1) The urbanization of the Negro population which now finds its center of gravity shifted from the dispersed rural areas into powerful mass forces in the cities. (2) The undermining of the mass base of the Southern system through the partial destruction of the white middle class and the proletarianization of large contingents of this former mass petty bourgeoisie.
This changed relationship of forces results in the inability of the white ruling classes to crush at will the aroused and organized Negro masses. The magnitude of the Negro struggle, reaching national and even international proportions, has rendered the U.S. government helpless to intervene decisively in behalf of the white supremacists.
These objective conditions have been ripening for decades and provide the groundwork for the outbreak of the Montgomery masses. The immediate factor preparing the masses for the actual struggle was the [Emmett] Till case and its aftermath, which demonstrated to the Negroes that the Federal Government would do nothing against the Jim Crow system, that any feeling that the Negroes had an ally in the national capital was an illusion, and that if anything was to be done they would have to do it themselves.
The struggle is now beginning to unfold. As it develops, all the resources of the American capitalist class will be aligned against it: all the forces of reaction, all agencies of government, the army, the avenues of information and the schools, churches and courts. Yet, the victory of the masses will be assured under two conditions:
1. That the struggle of the Southern workers, led by the Negroes, will rekindle the fires of the class struggle throughout the country and bring into play the great powers of the American proletariat in solidarity with them.
2. That the Southern masses will produce a revolutionary socialist leadership fully conscious of its aims, the road of struggle, the magnitude of the task.
The Montgomery boycotters forecast the unfolding movement which will take the lead in the emancipation of the Southern masses.
We support the courageous internationalism of their sympathy for and self-identification with the struggles of the dark-skinned colonial masses. This kinship arises from the common bond forged by years of common struggle against white supremacy. It is our elementary duty, however, to warn the Negro people away from Gandhi’s program of “passive resistance” as a means of their liberation.
This program, fostered by the Indian bourgeoisie, paralyzed the action of the masses of people, kept the Indian capitalists at the head of the movement for Indian independence and made it possible for the native bourgeoisie to reap all the rewards of the struggle against imperialism at the expense of the masses.
In the United States this program has been super-imposed upon the struggle in Montgomery by its petty bourgeois leadership. By thus identifying a dynamic struggle with “resistance in the spirit of love and non-violence” they blunt the consciousness of the masses who require a program which corresponds with the reality of their militant actions.
We hail the emergence of the proletarian militants in the Montgomery struggle. They are the coming leaders of the struggle of all the Southern masses. It is they who have nothing to lose and the world to gain. Their class position gives them courage and insight, for it is they who have the fundamental stake in the struggle against the Jim Crow system.
We salute the women of the South both black and white for their heroic role in the struggle.
The unbounded revolutionary energy of the triply oppressed Negro women is making itself manifest in the initiative and leadership which they have given to the movement in its initial stages.
The decay of the Southern system which foretells its doom is expressed by the defection of the white women away from the forces of white supremacy and by their organized appearance in greater and greater numbers in joint struggle with the Negroes. This is the proof that they recognize that they, too, are the victims of the system of white supremacy. They understand that the socalled “chivalry” of Southern tradition degrades them: that the pedestal of “sacred” white womanhood is in reality a prison for chattels which denies independence, the rights of citizens and the status of human beings.
They are aware that the myth of “sacred” (i.e., segregated) white womanhood is one of the focal points of the ideology of white supremacy and ties the struggle for the emancipation of women directly to that of the Negroes.
Other large sections of the white population hide their disgust with the Southern system in fear of reprisal. We recommend the example of the women and urge them to give organized support to their courageous struggle.
III. The Labor Movement
The existence of the Southern social system is a constant mortal threat to the entire labor movement in the U.S. Every factor of political and economic life shows that the extension of unionism into the open-shop South is a life and death question.
But unions cannot exist on any mass scale in the total absence of elementary democratic rights. On the other hand labor unions will grow hand in hand with the successes of the Civil Rights movement. Consequently the labor movement must dedicate itself to the destruction of white supremacy as the only way to assure the extension of unionism into the South.
We call upon the officials of the AFL-CIO to begin the campaign to organize the South with a repudiation of their political alliance with the liberal Democrats who are the protectors and defenders of the Southern Bourbons. We call upon them to take the next step in the Southern drive: to declare for the formation of a political party of labor which would become the political and organizational center of the struggle against Jim Crow.
IV. The Advanced Position of the Negro Movement
The struggle for racial equality is an integral part of the struggle of the American working class for socialism. The connection between these two goals is so fundamental that one cannot be envisaged without the other.
This connection has been implicit from the very beginning of the anti-slavery struggle and found clearest expression in Karl Marx’s dictum to white American workers: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” The consistent logic which led many abolitionist leaders such as Douglass and Phillips to embrace socialist principles confirmed this connection.
The power of the ruling class and the pernicious influence of the Southern system has kept the American working class divided along color lines for long periods of time. However, the past twenty years have demonstrated again in life the identity of interest which had been implicit all along.
The close connection between the Negro struggle for equality and the labor struggle became one of the paramount features of the great struggles of the 1930’s. One of the greatest achievements of unionism during this stormy upsurge was the successful conclusion of the long struggle to build the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. This achievement was capped by the emergence of the CIO which represented the first mass joining of the two movements in modern times.
Together during the 30’s the two movements made giant strides. But with the preparation for World War II they diverged: the CIO under the pressure of a newly created bureaucracy capitulated to the bosses and the government and it wasn’t long before the Communist Party did likewise. Together they sacrificed the interests of the working class to the needs of the U.S. imperialist war machine. But the Negro movement, under the stimulus of workers arising from great depths of super-exploitation, refused to be taken in or intimidated by the patriotic hysteria.
Ever since the beginning of 1941 the unions have taken one backward step after another and the bosses have followed through with body blows. Although the labor movement was able to mobilize briefly in 1946 for a successful defense when mortally threatened, it soon gave in again and as a result has endured a never ending string of humiliating repressive measures inflicted on them by the government and the employers.
But all through this period and even at the height of the worst wave of reaction which has been unleashed against the American workers in many decades–the Negro movement has registered steady advances. The source of this difference in achievement lies in the divergent lines of development which were laid out in 1941 when the Negroes were organizing for a March on Washington in defiance of the needs of the government for domestic tranquility at the very time that the labor bureaucracy was giving no strike pledges to this same government. The Negroes were able to withstand the patriotic pressure upon them and to see through the lies of American imperialism because of their advanced consciousness derived from super-exploitation and discrimination.
Upon this background the Montgomery uprising propels the Negro movement into a greatly advanced position which, coinciding with the ebb tide of the labor movement, approaches isolation.
And this poses a dual danger: First, that this great movement may remain isolated and be crushed for lack of needed support from the labor movement. Second, that such a defeat inflicted upon this dynamic sector of the working class would set back the development of the labor movement.
It is the duty of all socialists to spare no energy in rallying the working class and the labor movement to the aid of the Negroes struggling in the South and to connect and integrate the struggles.
But the decisive force in determining the future course of events, and relations of the Southern fighters with the labor movement in the North and West, is the Negro movement itself. In this vital movement just unfolding there is great attractive power: in the relations between the Negro movement and the labor movement the Negroes hold the initiative. But only a proletarian leadership of the Negro movement will be able to utilize properly this strategic advantage and to draw the labor movement into support and intervention. Such a leadership will grasp the political significance of the situation.
Above all, the Negro movement must beware of the “isolationist” feeling that if the labor movement doesn’t seem to move, and if, as a consequence, the working class as a whole appears unmoved by and unconcerned with the heroic struggle in the South, then the Negro movement can turn its back and go its way alone. Such a course would be disastrous, would end in the crushing defeat of the Negroes and retard the whole labor struggle.
Such proposals arise from an underestimation of the task ahead and from the dangerous illusion that racial equality can be achieved without the overthrow and complete destruction of the Southern social system. In this struggle, the Negroes will be the initiators, because of their superexploitation and advanced consciousness. But the fight can be won only by the united struggle of all toilers.
V. What Political Road?
The advanced consciousness of the Negro movement expresses itself politically. First, by their refusal to be taken in by patriotic war propaganda. Second, by their willingness to launch broad struggles in spite of the reaction. This political understanding also encompasses the knowledge that the problem of civil rights is neither a moral question, one of law, or of the “hearts and minds of men,” but that it is a political question which must be fought by means of political party.
The Negroes are also quite aware that the Democratic and Republican parties are their enemies, and that serious advancement of the struggle for equality is impossible through these channels.
But the Negroes are the captives of the labor bureaucracy: the alliance between labor and the Negro people finds its degenerate expression in the captivity of the Negro middle class leaders in the Democratic Party. We have every sympathy with the Negroes in this political bondage and with the dramatic move of Roy Wilkins, shortly followed by Representative [Adam Clayton] Powell, to the Republican Party, as signifying a protest against the hypocrisy of the liberals and the labor leaders rather than support to the Republican bankers.
But this situation dictates bolder action by the Negro leaders: the isolation of the Negro movement demands that it give full scope to its advanced position to raise the workers in the labor movement toward it: we call upon the Negro leaders to reject the degenerate alliance with the labor fakers in the party of the Bourbons as well as the ineffectual bolts to the Republican Party. We urge them to join with the Socialist Workers Party in the demand upon the labor unions that they form a party of the working class.
We call upon them to emulate the qualities of leadership of a Frederick Douglass, who was not afraid to break even with William Lloyd Garrison and to split the abolitionist society when an opportunity appeared to prepare the way for the coming political party of emancipation.
The Communist Party, at one time the most successful of the socialist organizations in attracting Negro militants, has by now dissipated its influence in the Negro community and lost the large majority of its once powerful Negro cadre. This cadre was won by the prestige which the Russian Revolution commanded among peoples who seriously wanted a social change, and by years of devoted work by the rank and file of the party.
The basic reason for the present isolation of the Communist Party in the Negro community lies in the following political circumstance: the leaders of the CP have never hesitated to sacrifice the interests of the Negro people to the interests of maintaining alliances with privileged sections of the white population who might temporarily be of use in furthering the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy.
This was most horribly demonstrated during World War II when the CP openly denounced struggles of the Negro people as being disruptive of the “war effort” of American imperialism which was in alliance with the Soviet government. Betrayals of a like nature have followed the various twists and turns of policy until the Negro militants have become completely disaffected.
A second cause for the dissipation of the influence of the CP has been the persistence with which it clung to the erroneous idea that the Negroes constitute a nation and that their consequent political development would lead them to assert the right to nationhood and national self-determination. The authors of this doctrine envisaged that their theoretical contribution was, therefore, to prepare the ground for this inevitable separation.
This whole line of thought is in diametric opposition to the real nature of the Negro struggle and its historical tradition. It is segregation by skin color which is the traditional and present enemy of the Negroes, not national oppression.
The movement of the Negro people is the oldest social movement in existence in the United States. It is over 300 years old, and since 1818, the beginning of the struggle against the American Colonization Society, this movement has had a virtually uninterrupted existence and one fundamental direction: integration. Ever since then, the fundamental course of the Negro struggle has been to reject the demand of the ruling class that they become a separate subordinate nation, through segregation, and to demand the full rights of American citizenship and nationality. It will take a social catastrophe, more devastating than any yet visited upon the Negro people, to change the fundamental course of their struggle.
The Negroes considered that it was impudent, stupid and against their interests for the Stalinists arbitrarily to brush aside this great tradition of struggle and say to them in effect: “You’ll take self-determination and like it. When you develop out of your great political backwardness, the CP will be vindicated.” The Negroes replied that they already had segregation which was their worst enemy, and that the plans for a segregated socialism didn’t appeal to them. In spite of this almost universal reaction in the Negro community, the Stalinists blindly hung on to this theory.
Another consequence of this theory was that it created an almost gravitational attraction between the CP and sections of the Negro middle class. This was the only social group in the Negro community in which there seemed to be any expression of nationalism. This nationalism took the form of a willingness to accept segregation, the economic foundation of the Negro middle class and to confine the struggle to gaining improvements for its position within the framework of segregation.
Even during the “left” periods, this alliance between the CP leaders and the Negro middle classes resulted in the frustration of efforts of the rank and file communists, both white and black, to undertake serious struggle.
The present policy of “peaceful coexistence” is similar to the World War II jingoism in its betrayal of the Negro struggle. We call the attention of the Communist Party to the following actions and policies of the past year which tend to place the whole radical movement in bad repute in the Negro community:
1. Support of the “Louisville Plan.” This reactionary scheme to compromise the demand of the Negroes for immediate desegregation of the public schools, through “voluntary segregation,” was blatantly supported by spokesmen for the Communist Party. (See front page illustrated story People’s World, Sept. 21, 1956.)
2. Support of the Louisiana right to work law. This amended version of the original law was condemned by the National Agricultural Union and other spokesmen for Negro workers in Louisiana as a measure which gave to the largely white skilled workers certain immunities from the law at the expense of the Negroes and other agricultural, lumber, processing, etc. workers. The leaders of the CP committed the party to its support as an example of a “peoples’ anti-monopoly coalition” and even placed this support in its Draft Program. (See Draft Resolution for 16th National Convention of CP presented by NC, page 32, 1956.)
3. Support of the liberal betrayal of the civil rights struggle at the 84th Congress. This betrayal, now exposed by Rep. Powell and many others, consisted of devices whereby the liberal Democrats could guarantee the Bourbons that nothing would come of the Civil Rights legislation, but that the liberals should be permitted to appear as partisans of the legislation. In order to do this, however, they needed a smokescreen. The Daily Worker and the People’s World provided this admirably for them, and every time the liberals betrayed by giving in to the Bourbons, the CP leaders provided the smokescreen by endless fulminations against Eisenhower or the “Dixiecrats.”
4. Support of the “moderate” wing of White Supremacy. The so-called moderate wing of the Southern white supremacists, represented by such figures as Lyndon Johnson, is also part of the projected “anti-monopoly coalition.” (See Political Affairs, June 1956.) But this group is just as completely anti-Negro and anti-union as the rest of the Southern Bourbon politicians.
The support of these reactionary policies by the leaders of the CP disqualifies them completely from speaking with any authority on the civil rights struggle. We call upon them to repudiate these policies and join with us in a united front of action in defense of civil rights and the Negro struggle around the following propositions:
1.That we jointly memorialize Congress to refuse to seat the Southern Bourbon politicians, and continue to so refuse until it has been demonstrated that their elections are not carried out in violation of the civil rights of the people of the South.
2. That we demand of the president of the U.S. a second Emancipation Proclamation, proclaiming the workers of the South free from the white supremacist rulers and proclaiming an immediate and unconditional end to all segregation, discrimination, terrorism, etc.
3. For joint action in all local struggles against discrimination.
4. For a joint program for all socialists in the trade union movement on the civil rights question:
a. Demand of the international unions that they conduct a campaign in their Southern locals to bring them into conformity and support of the Negro struggle.
b. For the elimination of all Jim Crow locals and other discriminatory practices.
c. Against the extension of wage differentials and the privileges of skilled workers bought at the expense of the unskilled.
d. For a campaign to solve the discrimination inherent in the fact that Negroes are the last hired, first fired. This discrimination is perpetuated and frozen in most prevailing seniority systems. Seniority lists can be revised to advance the seniority of that number of Negroes required to maintain an equitable proportion of Negro workers in a plant at any given time, as is the policy of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.
e. For all-out aid to the Southern struggles and to demand that the labor movement intervene directly, linking the problem of the organization of the South to the struggle against white supremacy.
5.To prepare for the overthrow of the Southern system by a continued democratic discussion of all issues at stake in the socialist movement with the object of creating a new revolutionary socialist party which is the only assurance of victory.
VII. Negroes and the SWP
The Negro people have long been preparing for the opportunity to open up the final struggle against white supremacy. Their preparations have been, in the South, painstaking and systematic. As their opportunity comes closer in time and more tangible in form, they must review their preparations and consider what element is lacking or in insufficient quantity or inadequate quality.
They must consider that they are a vital part of a great world revolutionary process which has as its goal the reorganization of the whole globe along lines of complete equality for all, through socialism.
They must recognize the crisis of this world revolutionary movement: that while the masses of the world have demonstrated their willingness to struggle for this aim, the leadership has not responded in kind, and therefore the movement fails to fulfill its historical goals. This has resulted in the historical crisis of leadership which is the basic problem of our epoch.
The critical point of all preparation for struggle in this era is the creation of adequate leadership. The struggles of all peoples and all classes require the organization of leadership into a political party. This is the means by which leadership can be tried and tested and is the means for unifying program with practice, leadership with ranks–and keeping them all in proper balance.
We call upon all socialist-minded Negroes to take advantage of the ideological ferment in the general socialist movement around the question of the regroupment of socialist forces. This discussion holds forth the possibility of clearing the political atmosphere and creating the foundation for a more powerful socialist party through the regroupment of the revolutionary currents.
We call upon them to participate in the discussions which are taking place. They will bring to these discussions the militance, realism and character of the Negro struggle and at the same time broaden their own understanding of it through a heightened consciousness of socialist ideology.
The Negro militants have the following ultimate responsibility in this situation: to determine the program which corresponds to the objective needs of the whole struggle and to make it theirs.
We call upon the militant Negro workers to join the Socialist Workers Party, the party of the American revolution. We stand before them as the party of the proletariat, of the poor and oppressed. We stand upon no economic, political or social privilege, but consider that the oppressed of the world must act together to gain peace, prosperity, security, equality; with abundance for all but special privilege for none. This is the only way to save the world from the catastrophes unleashed by decaying capitalism.
The SWP stands before the Negro people as the only party in the U.S. which has never under any circumstances forsaken or subordinated the needs of the Negro struggle in the interests of alliance with privileged groups or enemy classes.
We call upon the Negro intellectuals to cast their lot with the proletariat. This is the class which will lead the Negro struggle to victory. But this means, first of all, to adhere to the program of revolutionary socialism–which is the only road of the victorious proletarian struggle.