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The Right of Self-Determination and the Negro in the United States of North Americas

Wednesday 29 December 2021, by Robert Paris

C.L.R. James

The Right of Self-Determination and the Negro in the United States of North Americas

(July 1939)

Source: SWP New York Convention Resolutions, 11 July 1939.
Proofreading: Einde O’Callaghan (March 2016).

In 1930 Negroes in America constituted nearly twelve million, or 10 percent of the American population. Of these, two-thirds were still in the South, despite the war and postwar emigration to the North. In the cities of the North and East, the Negroes form only a small minority of the population, generally less than 10 percent. In the cities of the South, the proportion is much higher, but in only one large city, Birmingham, Alabama, do the Negroes constitute as much as one-half of the white population. Similarly in the state areas of the South, they are outnumbered by the whites. In only one state of America, Mississippi, are the Negroes in a majority, and that of only 2 percent, though there are large county areas inhabited by a majority of Negroes.

Cut off for centuries from all contact with the continent and customs of his origin, the Negro is today an American citizen. In his daily work, language, religion, and general culture, he differs not at all from his fellow workers in factory and field, except in the intensity of his exploitation and attendant brutal discrimination. These discriminations are imposed by capitalism in the pretended name of the Negro’s racial characteristics, but in reality to increase profit by cheapening labor and to weaken the workers and farmers by fostering racial rivalries.

The minority status of the Negro in the political divisions of capitalist America, even in the South, and the absence of a national Negro language and literature and of a differentiated political history, as in prewar Poland or Catalonia and the Ukraine of today, have caused in the past a too facile acceptance of the Negroes as merely a more than usually oppressed section of the American workers and farmers. This in turn has led to a neglect of the Negro’s political past and a lack of historical imagination in envisaging his future political development.

The American Negroes were among the earliest colonists of America, and for three centuries their history has been one of continual economic exploitation, social discrimination, and political expropriation by all classes of whites. Up to 1935, organized labor, as represented by the AFL, discriminated against the Negro as sharply as the capitalist class; today the poor whites of the South are the most savage of lynchers and the most rabid upholders of the theory of white superiority. The world economic crisis and consequent organization of the CIO including hundreds of thousands of Negroes, the organization of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union comprising both white and black, have shown that this division between the black and white workers is beginning to close under economic pressure. But not even a socialist revolution can immediately destroy the accumulated memories, mistrust, and suspicions of centuries; and today, in this period of capitalistic decline in America, the racial prejudices are more than ever based on economic privileges, possessed by one group of workers at the obvious and immediate expense of the other. Negroes today are being pushed out of jobs which, before the depression, whites disdained. Three centuries of property and privilege have used their wealth and power to make the Negroes feel that they are and must continue to be outcasts from all sections of American society, rich and poor; and the political backwardness of the American working-class movement has made it an easy victim to this propaganda, fortified by tangible if slight economic advantages. 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 they may demand the right of self-determination, i.e., the formation of a Negro state in the South. Thus, in their view, they would be free from that exploitation, discrimination, and arrogance, inseparable in their experience from any association with numerically superior whites. The desire to wipe out the humiliating political subservience and social degradation of centuries might find expression in an overpowering demand for the establishment and administration of a Negro state.

The past political history of the Negroes gives not insignificant indications that their political development may very well follow this course. The Garvey movement, one of the most powerful political mass movements ever seen in the U.S.A., concealed behind its fantastic and reactionary slogan of "Back to Africa" — the desire (revolutionary in its essence) for a Negro state. THe Negroes no more desired to go to Africa of their own free will than German Jews before Hitler wanted to go to Palestine. The masses of Negroes, particularly in the South, dominated by the heritage of slavery and the apparently irresistible numbers and state power of the whites, did not dare to raise the slogan of a black state in America. But in a revolutionary crisis, as they begin to shake off the state coercion and ideological domination of American bourgeois society, their first step may well be to demand the control, both actual and symbolical, of their own future destiny. The question of whether the Negroes in America are a national minority to which the slogan of self-determination applies will be solved in practice. The raising or support of the slogan by the masses of Negroes will be the best and only proof required. It is inconceivable that propaganda by any American revolutionary party can instill this idea into their minds if they did not themselves consciously or unconsciously desire it. This desire may very well fall into the hands of reactionary leaders. But only the most energetic defense of the right of self-determination of the Negro masses can lead their movement into revolutionary channels.

Should the masses of Negroes raise this slogan, the SWP, in accordance with the Leninist doctrine on the question of self-determination and the imperative circumstances of the particular situation, will welcome this awakening and pledge itself to support the demand to the fullest extent of its power. The boundaries of such a state will be a matter of comradely arrangement between different sections of a revolution victorious over American capitalism and intent only on creating the best possible milieu for the building of the socialist commonwealth. The Fourth International aims at the abolition of the old and not at the creation of new national boundaries, but the historical circumstances and the stages of development of different sections of society will at given moments be decisive in the road to be followed at a particular historic moment. The demand for a Negro state in America, its revolutionary achievement with the enthusiastic encouragement and assistance of the whites, will generate such creative energy in every section of the Negro workers and farmers in America as to constitute a great step forward to the ultimate integration of the American Negroes into the United Socialist States of North America. The SWP is also confident that after a few years of independent existence the victories of the new regime in both states will lead inevitably to a unity, with the Negroes as anxious and willing partners, their justifiable suspicions and doubts weakened by the concrete manifestation of the desire for collaboration by the whites and the contrast between the capitalist and the socialist state. Such a development in America will have immediate and powerful repercussions not only among the millions of African Negroes but also among oppressed nationalities, particularly of color, everywhere, and will be a powerful step toward the dissolution of those national and racial antagonisms with which capitalism, particularly in this period of its desperate crisis, is poisoning and corrupting human society.

The SWP, while proclaiming its willingness to support the right of self-determination to the fullest degree, will not in itself, in the present stage, advocate the slogan of a Negro state in the manner of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. The advocacy of the right of self-determination does not mean advancing the slogan of self-determination. Self-determination for Negroes means that the Negroes themselves must determine their own future. Furthermore, a party predominantly white in membership which, in present-day America, vigorously advocates such a slogan, prejudices it in the minds of Negroes, who see it as a form of segregation. But the SWP will watch carefully the political development of the masses of the Negroes, will emphasize their right to make this important decision themselves and the obligation of all revolutionaries to support whatever decision the Negroes may finally come to as to the necessity of a Negro state. The SWP recognizes that the Negroes have not yet expressed themselves on this important question. The opposition to a Negro state comes mainly from the articulate and vocal but small and weak class of Negro intellectuals, concerned with little else besides gaining a place for themselves in American capitalist society, and fanatically blind to its rapid decline. Negro members of the Fourth International, however, have every right to participate in the formation of the ideology of their own race, with such slogans and propaganda as correspond to the political development and revolutionary awakening of the great masses of the Negro people; and, while conscious of the ultimate aims of socialism, must recognize the progressive and revolutionary character of any demand unfolding among great masses of Negroes for a Negro state, and if necessary vigorously advocate it.

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