Summary Remarks on Negro Discussion
In the debate on the “Negro Question” at the 17th National Convention of the SWP
Published in SWP Discussion Bulletin Volume 18, Number 14, October 1957. Republished in In Memoriam Richard S. Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work, Prometheus Research Library, New York, August 1990.
A study of the first discussions of the Negro question in the American political movement reveals that the question which was originally quite simple has become extremely complicated. The Negro struggle for equality was an obvious type of movement, as viewed by the IWW, a matter of equality for all workers. They would not tolerate any ideas of segregation. They would go into the deep South and hold integrated meetings there. It was simple, but incomplete. It required Marxism to clarify the question.
Of recent years, since the introduction of the nationalist conception of the Negro question by the Stalinists, the problem has revolved around the question of what is the nature of the Negro question. Dan [Roberts] says it is a national question and it isn’t a national question. So, if it isn’t a national question, what is it? It is a racial question. It is a question of racial discrimination. This is a unique category of special oppression which is different from national oppression.
Religious oppression, which Dan relates it to, is closely associated with national oppression. It is oppression of a part of the culture of a people; but that is not what the Negro question is like. The Negro question is only like itself. That is, it is a unique phenomenon arising fundamentally in the United States, and emanating from there in various forms throughout the world.
Color discrimination is a unique problem and requires an analysis of its own. Upon close examination the first thing which you find in the Negro question is its diametric opposites to the national question. Not in the whole history of the national struggle of Europe or Asia, did you ever see a national minority or a nation, whose fundamental struggle was the right to assimilate into the dominant culture. You never saw it. It is the diametric opposite of all the national struggles.
The national struggle is characterized by the desire for self-segregation, the desire to withstand the pressure of the dominant nations to force them to assimilate, give up their economy, give up their language, their culture and their religion. All of the militant tendencies of the nationalist movement stress the requirements of the nation to organize itself and to segregate itself from the nation that oppresses it. The conservative, conciliatory elements are on the side of assimilation and integration. That is absolutely characteristic of the national struggle. That is one of the fundamental characteristics with which Marxists were historically confronted.
This was the problem in dispute between Lenin and Luxemburg, and Lenin and everybody else who dealt with this problem of nationalism. It is the precise opposite of the Negro struggle. From the very beginning of the modern Negro struggle 150 years ago, all tendencies of a militant, revolutionary, progressive nature in this struggle have tended to find as the axis of their struggle a resistance against racial separation because this is the weapon of racial oppression.
Comrade Dan, you say that you want to leave the door open for self-determination at some future time. Will you not permit the Negroes a self-determination now based upon 150 years of struggle? Everything points to this fact. They do not want to be designated a nation. Why do you demand to place this designation upon their struggle? It is not a national struggle. It is a struggle against racial discrimination. That’s from whence it derives its independent and dual character, i.e., its independence from and identity with the class struggle.
It is the feature of the permanent revolution in American life. What is involved is the vestigial remains of color slavery, an antique social system unsolved by the capitalist revolution in the Civil War and Reconstruction. These vestiges, the social relations of chattel slavery, color segregation, color discrimination, white supremacy adapted to and integrated into the whole economic, political and social life of capitalism, become one of the important driving forces of the movement for socialism because capitalism can no longer even be considered as a possible ally of the Negro people in the solution of this question. The capitalist class has decided this long ago. They integrated their system with the Jim Crow system, it is one and the same thing now.
Consequently, the Negro struggle for equality, in its independence, arises out of racial oppression, attacking a Southern social system which is the result of these vestiges incorporated in the capitalist system. This struggle begins on the plane of elementary consciousness. Equality is an elementary democratic demand which has no solution under capitalism and therefore becomes, because of its nature, a transition to the struggle for socialism.
Comrade Dot accuses me of accusing the P.C. of being pro-Stalinist and pro-reformist.
(Note by Kirk: The following interchange was not picked up in the transcription. I have reconstructed it as it occurred according to my memory:
Interruption from the Presiding Committee: That what you said yesterday?
Kirk: That’s not what I said.
Presiding Committee: Then you implied it.
Kirk: I implied nothing of the kind.
Presiding Committee: Let’s have plain speaking here.
Kirk: I say that your program is an adaptation to reformism.)
That means that you do not differentiate yourselves from the reformists in the Southern movement. The critical problem of the moment, the crisis of leadership in the Negro movement, revolves around the question of reformism or revolution, and the resolution does not differentiate between these two tendencies. If it did we would have a different situation today in the convention. I would not have written another resolution.
The resolution does not differentiate. It supports the basic line of the religious pacifist leadership of the Negro movement in the South.
Comrade Breitman and the resolution say that the Southern Leaders Conference is the differentiation, that this is the differential force in the Negro movement; and that’s not true. The S.L.C. is just another wing of the petty-bourgeois leadership. This is not the decisive differentiation. The differentiation will come as a result of our being able to inject the revolutionary proletarian program into that struggle. And the struggle will not have its over-all religious character then, as the workers take the power in the Negro movement.
Comrade Jones says we are not, never have, and never will be separatists. We had a resolution in 1939 which Comrade Breitman said was the guiding line of the party for 10 years, which is essentially a nationalist document on the Negro question. It is entitled “Self-Determination and the American Negroes.” And it is organized around the concept of self-determination. That was the program adopted by the 1939 convention. “It is not improbable, therefore, that the bulk of the Negroes have absorbed their lesson far more profoundly than is superficially apparent and that on their first political awakening to the necessity of revolutionary activity, the first political awakening, they may demand the right of self-determination, that is, the formation of the Negro state in the South.”
The 1939 Resolution analyzes the Garvey movement as representing the desire for a Negro state, and speaks about the opponents of the Negro state as follows: “The opposition to a Negro state comes mainly from the articulate and vocal but small and weak class of the Negro intellectuals concerned with little else besides the gaining of a place for themselves in American capitalist society, fanatically blind to its rapid decline.” This is the characterization in the resolution of the theoreticians of assimilationism who have been now vindicated by the whole course of the Negro struggle. That is a wrong formulation and it has not been vindicated by the course of events, but nevertheless this is an important part of our history and it is wrong to say that it never existed.
Now, Comrade George Lavan accuses me of twisting words when I say the resolution designates the Negroes as a national minority. That’s what it says and Comrade Dan agreed that it did; he said, what are you going to call it if you don’t?
Comrade George says that there is no such movement as I described as quoted in the Militant as a movement of Southern women. There’s no movement, there’s no struggle. There is! The item in the Militant is only one aspect of it, only one facet. There is a movement which has been in continuous existence since 1930, in overt struggle against the system of segregation.
A very exceptional book on the movement in the South, Lillian Smith’s The Killers of the Dream, describes this organization and what role it plays there. She speaks about the Southern women and what their stake in this struggle is. She describes them as follows: “Culturally stunted by a region that still pays nice rewards to simple mindedness in females they had no defenses against blandishment. The gullied land of the South, washed out and eroded, matched the washed-out women of the rural South whose bodies were often used as ruthlessly as the land; who worked as hard as animals; who were segregated in church, sitting in separate pews from the men; who were not thought fit to be citizens and vote until three decades ago and who, in some states in the South, cannot own property except in their husband’s name. Who even now cannot officiate as ministers in most of the churches though they are the breath of life of the church.”
These women, she says, decided to make a war upon their oppression. These “lady insurrectionists,” she calls them,
“these ladies went forth to commit treason against Southern tradition. It was a purely subversive affair but as decorously conducted as an afternoon walk taken by the students of a female institute. It started stealthily in my mother’s day. Shyly these first women sneaked down from their chilly places, did their sabotage and sneaked back up, wrapping innocence around them like a lace shawl.
“They set secret time bombs and went back to their needle work, serenely awaiting the blast. Their time bombs consisted of a secret under-ground propaganda movement which was developed from mothers to daughters and through the years spreading out to encompass vast sections of the white female population. And so degraded was the position of women in Southern society that white men of the South could not conceive of their women having ideas and had no inkling of the insurrection until it happened.
“The lady insurrectionists gathered together one day in one of our Southern cities. They primly called themselves church women but churches were forgotten by everybody when they spoke their revolutionary words. They said calmly that they were not afraid of being raped and as for their sacredness, they could take care of it for themselves. They did not need chivalry or a lynching to protect them, they did not want it. Not only that–they continued that they would personally do everything in their power to keep any Negro from being lynched and furthermore, they squeaked bravely, they had plenty of power and this was the foundation of the Association of Southern Women Against Lynching in 1930.”
It began a struggle against segregation, as the fundamental hereditary enemy. They claimed that the Lord’s Supper was a holy sacrament which Christians cannot take without sacrilege unless they also break bread with fellow-men of color. They systematically set out to break down one of the most important conventions of segregation and engaged in inter-racial feeding.
This organization has been in continuous existence since that time, has been active and has now become a tremendous factor developing support of the movement against segregation.