The Negro and Communism (1931)

The Scottsboro, Alabama, cases have brought squarely before the American Negro the question of his attitude toward Communism.

The importance of the Russian Revolution can not be gainsaid. It is easily the greatest event in the world since the French Revolution and possibly since the fall of Rome. The experiment is increasingly successful. Russia occupies the center of the world’s attention today and as a state it is recognized by every civilized nation, except the United States, Spain, Portugal and some countries of South America.

The challenge to the capitalistic form of industry and to the governments which this form dominates, is more and more tremendous because of the present depression. If Socialism as a form of government and industry is on trial in Russia, capitalism as a form of industry and government is just as surely on trial throughout the world and is more and more clearly recognizing the fact.

The American Worker

It has always been felt that the United States was an example of the extraordinary success of capitalistic industry, and that this was proven by the high wage paid labor and the high standard of intelligence and comfort prevalent in this country. Moreover, for many years, democratic political control of our government by the masses of the people made it possible to envisage without violence any kind of reform in government or industry which appealed to the people. Recently, however, the people of the United States have begun to recognize that their political power is curtailed by organized capital in industry and that in this industry, democracy does not prevail; and that until wider democracy does prevail in industry, democracy in government is seriously curtailed and often quite ineffective. Also, because of recurring depressions the high wage is in part illusory.

The Amerian Negro

Moreover, there is in the United States one class of people who more than any other suffer under Present conditions. Because of wholesale disfranchisement and a system of color caste, discriminatory legislation and widespread propaganda, 12,000,000 American Negroes have only a minimum of that curtailed freedom which the right to vote and influence on public opinion gives to white Americans. And in industry Negroes are for historic and social reasons upon the lowest round.

Proposed Reform

The proposals to remedy the economic and political situation in America range from new legislation, better administration and government aid, offered by the Republican and Democratic parties, on to liberal movements fathered by Progressives, the Farmer-Labor movement and the Socialists, and finally to the revolutionary proposals of the Communists. The Progressives and Socialists propose in general increased government ownership of land and natural resources, state control of the larger public services and such progressive taxation of incomes and inheritance as shall decrease the number and power of the rich. The Communists, on the other hand, propose an entire sweeping away of the present organization of industry; the ownership of land, resources, machines and tools by the state, the conducting of business by the state under incomes which the state limits. And in order to introduce this complete Socialistic regime, Communists propose a revolutionary dictatorship by the working class, as the only sure, quick and effective path.

Advice to Negroes

With these appeals in his ears, what shall the American Negro do? In the letters from United States Senators published in this issue of The Crisis, we find, with all the sympathy and good-will expressed, a prevailing helplessness when it comes to advice on specific action. Reactionaries like Fess, Conservatives like Bulkley and Capper, Progressives like Borah and Norris, all can only say: “You have done as well as could be expected; you suffer many present disadvantages; there is nothing that we can do to help you, and your salvation lies in patience and further effort on your own part.” The Socialist, as represented by Norman Thomas in the February Crisis, invites the Negro as a worker to vote for the Socialist Party as the party of workers. He offers the Negro no panacea for prejudice and caste but assumes that the uplift of the white worker will automatically emancipate the yellow, brown and black.

The Scottsboro Cases

Finally, the Scottsboro cases come and put new emphasis on the appeal of the Communists. Advocating the defense of the eight Alabama black boys, who without a shadow of doubt have been wrongly accused of crime, the Communists not only asked to take charge of the defense of these victims, but they proceeded to build on this case an appeal to the American Negro to join the Communist movement as the only solution of their problem.

Immediately, these two objects bring two important problems; first, can the Negroes with their present philosophy and leadership defend the Scottsboro cases successfully? Secondly, even if they can, will such defense help them to solve their problem of poverty and caste?

If the Communistic leadership in the United States had been broadminded and far-sighted, it would have acknowledged frankly that the honesty, earnestness and intelligence of the N.A.A.C.P. during twenty years of desperate struggle proved this organization under present circumstances to be the only one, and its methods the only methods available, to defend these boys and it would have joined capitalists and laborers north and south, black and white in every endeavor to win freedom for victims threatened with judicial murder. Then beyond that and with Scottsboro as a crimson and terrible text, Communists could have proceeded to point out that legal defense alone, even if successful, will never solve the larger Negro problem but that further and more radical steps are needed.

Communist Strategy

Unfortunately, American Communists are neither wise nor intelligent. They sought to accomplish too much at one stroke. They tried to prove at once that the N.A.A.C.P. did not wish to defend the victims at Scottsboro and that the reason for this was that Negro leadership in the N.A.A.C.P. was allied with the capitalists. The first of these two efforts was silly and the Communists tried to accomplish it by deliberate lying and deception. They accused the N.A.A.C.P. of stealing, misuse of funds, lack of interest in the Scottsboro cases, cowardly surrender to malign forces, inefficiency and a policy of do-nothing.

Now whatever the N.A.A.C.P. has lacked, it is neither dishonest nor cowardly, and already events are proving clearly that the only effective defense of the Scottsboro boys must follow that which has been carefully organized, engineered and paid for by the N.A.A.C.P., and that the success of this defense is helped so far as the Communists cooperate by hiring bourgeois lawyers and appealing to bourgeois judges; but is hindered and made doubtful by ill-considered and foolish tactics against the powers in whose hands the fate of the Scottsboro victims lies.

If the Communists want these lads murdered, then their tactics of threatening judges and yelling for mass action on the part of white southern workers is calculated to insure this.

And, on the other hand, lying and deliberate misrepresentation of friends who are fighting for the same ideals as the Communists, are old capitalistic, bourgeois weapons of which the Communists ought to be ashamed. The final exploit at Camp Hill is worthy of the Russian Black Hundreds, whoever promoted it: black sharecroppers, half-starved and desperate were organized into a “Society for the Advancement of Colored People” and then induced to meet and protest against Scottsboro. Sheriff and white mob killed one and imprisoned 34. If this was instigated by Communists, it is too despicable for words; not because the plight of the black peons does not shriek for remedy but because this is no time to bedevil a delicate situation by drawing a red herring across the trail of eight innocent children.

Nevertheless, the N.A.A.C.P. will defend these 34 victims of Southern fear and communist irresponsibility.

The ultimate object of the Communists, was naturally not merely nor chiefly to save the boys accused at Scottsboro; it was to make this case a center of agitation to expose the helpless condition of Negroes, and to prove that anything less than the radical Communist program could not emancipate them.

The Negro Bourgeoisie

The question of the honesty and efficiency of the N.A.A.C.P. in the defense of the Scottsboro boys, just as in a dozen other cases over the length and breadth of the United States, is entirely separate from the question as to whether or not Negro leadership is tending toward socialism and communism or toward capitalism. The charge of the Communists that the present set-up of Negro America is that of the petit bourgeois minority dominating a helpless black proletariat, and surrendering to white profiteers is simply a fantastic falsehood. The attempt to dominate Negro Americans by purely capitalistic ideas died with Booker T. Washington. The battle against it was begun by the Niagara Movement and out of the Niagara Movement arose the N.A.A.C.P. Since that time there has never been a moment when the dominating leadership of the American Negro has been mainly or even largely dominated by wealth or capital or by capitalistic ideals.

There are naturally some Negro capitalists: some large landowners, some landlords, some industrial leaders and some investors; but the great mass of Negro capital is not owned or controlled by this group. Negro capital consists mainly of small individual savings invested in homes, and in insurance, in lands for direct cultivation and individually used tools and machines. Even the automobiles owned by Negroes represent to a considerable extent personal investments, designed to counteract the insult of the “Jim Crow” car. The Insurance business, which represents a large amount of Negro capital is for mutual co-operation rather than exploitation. Its profit is limited and its methods directed by the State. Much of the retail business is done in small stores with small stocks of goods, where the owner works side by side with one or two helpers, and makes a personal profit less than a normal American wage. Negro professional men—lawyers, physicians, nurses and teachers—represent capital invested in their education and in their office equipment, and not in commercial exploitation. There are few colored manufacturers of material who speculate on the products of hired labor. Nine-tenths of the hired Negro labor is under the control of white capitalists. There is probably no group of 12 million persons in the modern world which exhibits smaller contrasts in personal income than the American Negro group. Their emancipation will not come, as among the Jews, from an internal readjustment and ousting of exploiters; rather it will come from a wholesale emancipation from the grip of the white exploiters without.

It is, of course, always possible, with the ideals of America, that a full fledged capitalistic system may develop in the Negro group; but the dominant leadership of the Negro today, and particularly the leadership represented by the N.A.A.C.P. represents NO such tendency. For two generations the social leaders of the American Negro with very few exceptions have been poor men, depending for support on their salaries, owning little or no real property; few have been business men none have been exploiters, and while there have been wide differences of ultimate ideal these leaders on the whole have worked unselfishly for the uplift of the masses of Negro folk.

There is no group of leaders on earth who have so largely made common cause with the lowest of their race as educated American Negroes, and it is their foresight and sacrifice and theirs alone that has saved the American freedman from annihilation and degradation.

This is the class of leaders who have directed and organized and defended black folk in America and whatever their shortcomings and mistakes—and they are legion—their one great proof of success is the survival of the American Negro as the most intelligent and effective group of colored people fighting white civilization face to face and on its own ground, on the face of the earth.

The quintessence and final expression of this leadership is the N.A.A.C.P. For twenty years it has fought a battle more desperate than any other race conflict of modern times and it has fought with honesty and courage. It deserves from Russia something better than a kick in the back from the young jackasses who are leading Communism in America today.

What is the N.A.A.CP.?

The N.A.A.C.P. years ago laid down a clear and distinct program. Its object was to make 12 million Americans:

Physically free from peonage,
Mentally free from ignorance,
Politically free from disfranchisement,
Socially free from insult.

Limited as this platform may seem to perfectionists, it is so far in advance of anything ever attempted before in America, that it has gained an extraordinary following. On this platform we have succeeded in uniting white and black, employers and laborers, capitalists and communists, socialists and reformers, rich and poor. The funds which support this work come mainly from poor colored people, but on the other hand, we have in 20 years of struggle, enlisted the sympathy and cooperation of the rich, the white and the powerful; and so long as this cooperation is given upon the basis of the platform we have laid down, we seek and welcome it. On the other hand, we know perfectly well that the platform of the N.A.A.C.P. is no complete program of social reform. It is a pragmatic union of certain definite problems, while far beyond its program lies the whole question of the future of the darker races and the economic emancipation of the working classes.

White Labor

Beyond the Scottsboro cases and the slurs on Negro leadership, there still remains for Negroes and Communists, the pressing major question: How shall American Negroes be emancipated from economic slavery? In answer to this both Socialists and Communists attempt to show the Negro that his interest lies with that of white labor. That kind of talk to the American Negro is like a red rag to a bull. Throughout the history of the Negro in America, white labor has been the black man’s enemy, his oppressor, his red murderer. Mobs, riots and the discrimination of trade unions have been used to kill, harass and starve black men, White labor disfranchised Negro labor in the South, is keeping them out of jobs and decent living quarters in the North, and is curtailing their education and civil and social privileges throughout the nation. White laborers have formed the backbone of the Ku Klux Klan and have furnished hands and ropes to lynch 3,560 Negroes since 1882.

Since the death of Terence Powderly not a single great white labor leader in the United States has wholeheartedly and honestly espoused the cause of justice to black workers.

Socialists and Communists explain this easily: white labor in its ignorance and poverty has been misled by the propaganda of white capital, whose policy is to divide labor, into classes, races and unions and pit one against the other. There is an immense amount of truth in this explanation: Newspapers, social standards, race pride, competition for jobs, all work to set white against black. But white American laborers are not fools. And with few exceptions the more intelligent they are, the higher they rise, the more efficient they become, the more determined they are to keep Negroes under their heels. It is no mere coincidence that Labor’s present representative in the President’s cabinet belongs to a union that will not admit a Negro, and himself was for years active in West Virginia in driving Negroes out of decent jobs. It is intelligent white labor that today keeps Negroes out of the trades, refuses them decent homes to live in and helps nullify their vote. Whatever ideals white labor today stives for in America, it would surrender nearly every one before it would recognize a Negro as a man.

Communists and the Color Line

American Communists have made a courageous fight against the color line among the workers. They have solicited and admitted Negro members. They have insisted in their strikes and agitation to let Negroes fight with them and that the object of their fighting is for black workers as well as white workers. But in this they have gone dead against the thought and desire of the overwhelming mass of white workers, and face today a dead blank wall even in their own school in Arkansas. Thereupon instead of acknowledging defeat in their effort to make white labor abolish the color line, they turn and accuse Negroes of not sympathizing with the ideals of Labor!

Socialists have been franker. They learned that American labor would not carry the Negro and they very calmly unloaded him. They allude to him vaguely and as an afterthought in their books and platforms. The American Socialist party is out to emancipate the white worker and if this does not automatically free the colored man, he can continue in slavery. The only time that so fine a man and so logical a reasoner as Norman Thomas becomes vague and incoherent is when he touches the black man, and consequently he touches him as seldom as possible.

When, therefore, Negro leaders refuse to lay down arms and surrender their brains and action to “Nigger” hating white workers, liberals and socialists understand exactly the reasons for this and spend what energy they can spare in pointing out to white workers the necessity of recognizing Negroes. But the Communists, younger and newer, largely of foreign extraction, and thus discounting the hell of American prejudice, easily are led to blame the Negroes and to try to explain the intolerable American situation on the basis of an imported Marxist pattern, which does not at all fit the situation.

For instance, from Moscow comes this statement to explain Scottsboro and Camp Hill:

Again, as in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, the American Bourgeoisie is attempting to go against proletarian social opinion. It is attempting to carry through its criminal provocation to the very end.

This is a ludicrous misapprehension of local conditions and illustrates the error into which long distance interpretation, unsupported by real knowledge, may fall. The Sacco-Vanzetti cases in Massachusetts represented the fight of prejudiced, entrenched capital against radical propaganda; but in Jackson County, northeastern Alabama, where Scottsboro is situated, there are over 33,000 Native whites and less than 3,000 Negroes. The vast majority of these whites belong to the laboring class and they formed the white proletarian mob which is determined to kill the eight Negro boys. Such mobs of white workers demand the right to kill “niggers” whenever their passions, especially in sexual matters, are inflamed by propaganda. The capitalists are willing to curb this blood lust when it interferes with their profits. They know that the murder of 8 innocent black boys will hurt organized industry and government in Alabama; but as long as 10,000 armed white workers demand these victims they do not dare move. Into this delicate and contradictory situation, the Communists hurl themselves and pretend to speak for the workers. They not only do not speak for the white workers but they even intensify the blind prejudices of these lynchers and leave the Negro workers helpless on the one hand and the white capitalists scared to death on the other.

The persons who are killing blacks in Northern Alabama and demanding blood sacrifice are the white workers—sharecroppers, trade unionists and artisans. The capitalists are against mob-law and violence and would listen to reason and justice in the long run because industrial peace increases their profits. On the other hand, the white workers want to kill the competition of “Niggers.” Thereupon, the Communists, seizing leadership of the poorest and most ignorant blacks head them toward inevitable slaughter and jail-slavery, while they hide safely in Chattanooga and Harlem.

American Negroes do not propose to be the shock troops of the Communist Revolution, driven out in front to death, cruelty and humiliation in order to win victories for white workers. They are picking no chestnuts from the fire, neither for capital nor white labor.

Negroes know perfectly well that whenever they try to lead revolution in America, the nation will unite as one fist to crush them and them alone. There is no conceivable idea that seems to the present overwhelming majority of Americans higher than keeping Negroes “in their place.”

Negroes perceive clearly that the real interests of the white worker are identical with the interests of the black worker; but until the white worker recognizes this, the black worker is compelled in sheer self-defense to refuse to be made the sacrificial goat.

The Negro and the Rich

The remaining grain of truth in the Communist attack on Negro leadership is the well-known fact that American wealth has helped the American Negro and that without this help the Negro could not have attained his present advancement. American courts from the Supreme Court down are dominated by wealth and Big Business, yet they are today the Negro’s only protection against complete disfranchisement, segregation and the abolition of his public schools. Higher education for Negroes is the gift of the Standard Oil, the Power Trust, the Steel Trust and the Mail Order Chain Stores, together with the aristocratic Christian Church; but these have given Negroes 40,000 black leaders to fight white folk on their own level and in their own language. Big industry in the last 10 years has opened occupations for a million Negro workers, without which we would have starved in jails and gutters.

Socialists and Communists may sneer and say that the capitalists sought in all this profit, cheap labor, strike-breakers and the training of conservative, reactionary leaders. They did. 3ut Negroes sought food, clothes, shelter and knowledge to stave off death and slavery and only damned fools would have refused the gift.

Moreover, we who receive education as the dole of the rich have not all become slaves of wealth.

Meanwhile, what have white workers and radical reformers done for Negroes? By strikes and agitation, by self-denial and sacrifice, they have raised wages and bettered working conditions; but they did this for themselves and only shared their gains with Negroes when they had to. They have preached freedom, political power, manhood rights and social uplift for everybody, when nobody objected; but for “white people only” when anybody demanded it. White labor segregated Dr. Sweet in Detroit; white laborers chased the Arkansas peons; white laborers steal the black children’s school funds in South Carolina, white laborers lynch Negroes in Alabama. Negroes owe much to white labor but it is not all, or mostly, on the credit side of the ledger.

The Next Step

Where does this leave the Negro?

As a practical program, it leaves him just where he was before the Russian Revolution; sympathetic with Russia and hopeful for its ultimate success in establishing a Socialistic state; sympathetic with the efforts of the American workingman to establish democratic control of industry in this land; absolutely certain that as a laborer his interests are the interests of all labor; but nevertheless fighting doggedly on the old battleground, led by the N.A.A.C.P. to make the Negro laborer a laborer on equal social footing with the white laborer: to maintain the Negro’s right to a political vote, notwithstanding the fact that this vote means increasingly less and less to all voters; to vindicate in the courts the Negro’s civil rights and American citizenship, even though he knows how the courts are prostituted to the power of wealth; and above all, determined by plain talk and agitation to show the intolerable injustice with which America and the world treats the colored peoples and to continue to insist that in this injustice, the white workers of Europe and America are just as culpable as the white owners of capital; and that these workers can gain black men as allies only and insofar as they frankly, fairly and completely abolish the Color Line.

Present organization of industry for private profit and control of government by concentrated wealth is doomed to disaster. It must change and fall if civilization survives. The foundation of its present world-wide power is the slavery and semislavery of the colored world including the American Negroes. Until the colored man, yellow, red, brown and black, becomes free, articulate, intelligent and the receiver of a decent income, white capital will use the profit derived from his degradation to keep white labor in chains.

There is no doubt, then, as to the future, or as to where the true interests of American Negroes lie. There is no doubt, too, but that the first step toward the emancipation of colored labor must come from white labor.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1931. “The Negro and Communism.” The Crisis. 38(9):313–315, 318, 320.