From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives
Marxism and Black liberation
As part of our commemoration of Black History Month, we reprint here excerpts
from one of Raya Dunayevskaya's most important writings on Black America--her
1944 essay "Marxism and the Negro Question," written when she was a co-leader
(along with C.L.R. James) of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a dissident grouping
in the U.S. Trotskyist
Even in Russia, where there was some fraudulent attempt to give the serf the land, it was impossible for the Russian serf to rise above the needs of the backward economy. All the more so in the South where the Negro did not get his "40 acres and a mule." Cotton remaining dominant, semi-feudal relationships were inevitable. The division of labor set up by the cotton economy may not be disturbed. The social relations arising on the basis of the cotton economy remain "less changed than the soil itself on which the cotton is grown."(1) Within the economic remains of slavery lie the economic roots of the Negro Question.
Unfortunately, America is so barren of Marxist economists that here, too, a
Russian has produced the most profound study. Lenin, seeking to clarify the
situation and evolution of Russian agriculture, embarked on a study of NEW
DATA ON THE LAWS OF DEVELOPMENT OF CAPITALISM IN AGRICULTURE, which comprised an
analysis of CAPITALISM IN AGRICULTURE IN THE UNITED STATES Previous to the
writing of this work in , Lenin, in his theses on the agrarian problem,
demonstrated that "the contradiction between the whole social development and
serfdom... retards economic development and is a source of oppression, barbarity
and of innumerable forms of Oriental despotism in Russian life."(2) And in his
study of the American development of capitalism in agriculture Lenin found a
"striking similarity between the economic position of the American Negro and
that of the former serf of the central
The Narodniki, on the other hand, (even as our contemporary analysts) glossed
over the feudal survivals. America, they said, was a country that had never
known feudalism. It is this statement which served as the basis of Lenin's
counter-thesis: "This statement is directly contrary to the facts, for the
economic survivals of slavery are not distinguishable in any respect from those
of feudalism."(4) It is true, of course, that America started its course of
independence with no feudal vestiges. But it should not be forgotten
It seems, in fact, that the later the bourgeois revolution against feudalism or slavery takes place, the less complete it is due to the higher class differentiation in developed bourgeois society. At a certain stage it becomes impossible for the bourgeoisie to carry out this revolution at all. That is the historic foundation of the permanent revolution. It is the lateness of this development in the United States which accounts for the tenacious economic survivals of slavery which still exist in the country and dominate the life of the Negroes....
BOSS AND BLACK RELATIONSHIP
The economic survivals of slavery manifested themselves in the crop lien system instituted at the end of the Civil War and which still exists to this day. The crop lien system turned the South into an immense shop and still holds the tenant and cropper in a vise. The cropper has neither control over the nature of his crop nor of arketing it. The cropper owns nothing but his labor power, and must part with half of the crop for "furnishings."
Although the agrarian question was and still is the basis of the Negro Question, the proletarianization and urbanization of the Negroes have produced other factors, which we shall now consider....
The Negro has been an integral part of labor in heavy industry since the earliest days of Southern industrialization. He was a militant member of whatever unions took root there. At the height of its power, the Industrial Workers of the World] (IWW) claimed one million members, 100,000 of whom were Negroes. The most important of the IWW unions among Negroes were precisely in [the] prejudice-ridden South....
The proletarian Negro is not the cowed plantation hand. He is literate and has been disciplined by the factory. He knows the might of a cohesive group, organized by the very process of production. He is and feels himself a potent factor. He is no small minority to his white brethren in industry. The relationship in the most concentrated industrial districts of the South is 55% white to 45% Negro, and in some he forms the majority. For example, of the 23,000 United Mine Workers members in Alabama mine fields, the Negroes number 14,000 or 60%....
Nevertheless, the "boss and black" relationship--that is, the racial relation having its roots in the plantation economy--still pursues him in the city as well as in the country. Wage differentials exist in the factory as in the field. Segregation, Jim Crowism, social discriminations persist. The contradiction between the potency in the process of production and his seeming impotence outside cannot but find a manner of expression.
The explosive power in the struggle of the Southern Negro proletarian in the Southern metropolis will have significance in repercussions for the contiguous rural Black Belt. It will strike directly at the heart of the Southern economy and Southern politics and upset as well Northern capitalist interests which have so readily accepted the South's segregation pattern in order to coin surplus value from it.
But among the millions suffering on the plantations and among the hundreds of thousands who have won themselves a place in industry, the problem before them is and must continue for a long time to be the emancipation from the national oppression which they feel at every turn.
The bourgeoisie has posed the question in this form to draw the most reactionary conclusions. To the problem as posed by the bourgeoisie the proletarian vanguard must beware of merely giving a direct negative or simple negative. Outside the unions and inside, it must pose the emancipation of the Negroes themselves, but as an important contributory factor to the whole struggle against bourgeois society.
URBANIZATION AND PROLETARIANIZATION
...In the North too, the proletarianization and trade unionization of the Negro did not raise him to the status of the white proletarian and did not dissolve his struggle for elementary democratic rights into the general class struggle.
First, in the trade unions he must fight as a Negro for his place as a worker. Wage differentials, seniority, upgrading have by no means been abolished. Then, outside of the trade union, he is ghettoized....
It is precisely in the Northern urban centers that the political results inherent in the situation in the South receive their sharpest political expression. Capitalism, in dragging the Negroes from the South, cannot prevent the explosion and revolt of the national oppression which the semi-feudal economic relations in the South not only generate but are able to keep in subjugation.
The ghetto-like existence, the social humiliation not only spring historically from the cotton plantation. The cotton plantation exports to the North its workers imbued with the ideology of the South along with the Klan, the Knights of the Camellia, etc. to stimulate, encourage and organize the anti-Negro prejudices of the people of the North, fortified among the working class by competition in industry
We can sum up our study as follows:
1) Neither Lenin nor Trotsky believed the Negro was a nation, and yet they
unhesitatingly placed the Negro Question as part of the national
2) American Marxists have failed to understand that neither the Negro struggle for assimilation into the national culture nor the European national struggle for independence from the national culture of the oppressing nation invalidate the application of the principle of the Marxist approach to the National Question.
3) Marxists must meet the danger of petty bourgeois misleadership of the Negro movement against national oppression by recognizing not only its validity but its revolutionary character [and] leading the movement.
4) The roots of the Negro question lie not in the "plots" of the capitalists but in the economic remains of slavery, that is to say, share-cropping.
5) The maintenance of this system by reactionary capitalism not only governs the social and political structure of the South, but spreads its influence throughout the whole country.
6) The urbanization and proletarianization of the Negroes have not basically affected the economic roots of the Negro Question. They ve the Negroes not only a better basis for joining in the general political struggle. They also sharpen his sense of oppression as a national minority and give him the opportunity to organize and struggle as such a minority with, however, the purpose of integrating himself into the society which still excludes him. This is the dual movement which is basic to an understanding of the Negro Question in the United States.
7) To free himself from his oppression, the Negroes will be compelled to struggle against capitalist society which cannot release him. His very oppression makes him potentially one of the bitterest enemies of the existing society, as is evident by his attitude toward the war. However, the unemployment inherent in the social crisis and the past history of the country make the proletariat most vulnerable on the very question of the assimilation of the Negro into its ranks. This will probably be the focal point of the ascist attempts to disrupt the proletariat. The proletariat must respond by cognizing not only the validity but the inevitability of mass Negro movements against Negro oppression and strive to lead this movement and harness itsrevolutionary potentialities for the struggle against capitalist society. This can only be done along the lines laid down in the Marxist thesis on the National Question.
We have emphasized the powerful national aspects of the Negro Question and its roots and ramifications in the economic and social relations of the country as a whole. That is what makes it a National Question.
As the social crisis develops and the proletariat becomes more and more conscious of its role as the regenerating force in American capitalist society, it will not only of necessity be compelled to shoulder the solution of the Negro Question. It cannot at the same time avoid unleashing the aspirations of the Negroes to free themselves from the special oppression to which they are subject.
1. Allison Davis, Burleigh G. Gardner, and Mary Gardner, directed by W. Lloyd Warner, DEEP SOUTH; A SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGICAL STUDY OF CASTE AND CLASS (Chicago: University of' Chicago Press. 1941), p. 266. This important sociological work was republished in 1988 by the Afro-American Studies Dept. at the University of California at Los Angeles, with a foreword by its director, Prof. Claudia Mitchell-Kernan.
2. V.I. Lenin, "The Agrarian Question in Russia Towards the Close of the Century," COLLECTED WORKS, Vol. 15 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), p. 92.
3. This work, in a somewhat different translation than quoted above, is
included in Lenin's COLLECTED WORKS, Vol. 22, p. 27.
Published by News and Letters Committees