Summary Remarks on Negro Discussion

From SWP Discussion Bulletin Vol. 18, No. 14 (October 1957). Dick Fraser debated George Breitman at the SWP’s 17th National Convention, held 7-9 June 1957. The Convention adopted the Breitman res­olu­tion with 54 delegate and 33 consultative votes in favor, although a number of delegates recorded objections to its support for “self-determination” and for the slogan “Federal Troops to the South.” Five delegate and five consultative votes were cast for the Fraser res­olu­tion.

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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.

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.