Blacks and Reds

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Review of 'Race and Revolution', Max Shachtman, Verso £14

Lenin and Trotsky often raised concerns about the passivity of the US left on issues of race. Talking about the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in 1939, Trotsky stated, 'It is very disquieting to find that until now the party has done almost nothing in this field. It has not published a book, a pamphlet nor even any articles.' This wasn't strictly true, as in 1933 Max Shachtman, a leading Trotskyist in the US, produced a pamphlet that Trotsky himself received a draft of. Never before published, 'Race and Revolution' is an advance draft of Shachtman's work, originally entitled 'Communism and the Negro'.

Shachtman, a full time Communist Party organiser in the 1920s, was expelled in 1928 for supporting the Left Opposition, led by Trotsky. It is in this context, the split between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists, that 'Race and Revolution' was produced. As a result a significant section of the pamphlet - and perhaps its raison d'être - is to tear apart the Stalinist position of 'self determination for the Black Belt'. This policy held that blacks in the southern US were an oppressed minority, with a common language, culture and territory who wished to have a separate existence from the racist US. The Black Belt extended like a crescent moon across the South where blacks were in the majority.

At the time there was great confusion about this new policy. 'Race and Revolution' helps us to understand the context of the exchanges between Trotsky and US socialists on race, class and revolution, especially his discussions with CLR James in 1939. While Trotsky agreed that revolutionaries should not advise the establishment of a separate state, he concluded they should defend the right of blacks if they desired it.

Shachtman did not reject the right of self determination as a general principle, but he did not believe it applied to the race issue in the US. Blacks, although racially oppressed, did not constitute a separate nationality and Shachtman viewed this concept as artificial, unviable and one which had no legitimacy within the black population. He stated that the policy was 'guaranteed to produce the most harmful results in the fight to liberate not only the American Negro but the whole American working class'.

Ironically, the main practical effect of the policy was to highlight to blacks the centrality of the CP fighting racism. It encouraged action on black issues, not agitation for a Black Belt state. The CP became involved in campaigns with black sharecroppers and workers and led the defence for the Scottsboro boys, a group of nine young men accused of gang rape. As a result the CP recruited over 5,000 blacks to its ranks and became the first political organisation to be a significant force among US blacks.

The book does cover wider issues than just 'self determination', in particular the socialist position on race and class. Essentially Shachtman states that black freedom can only come about through joint action with the working class majority. Moreover, at a time when most white Americans were indifferent to tackling racism, Shachtman stated that emancipation of the working class depends on it attacking all forms of racism and white workers needed to take a lead on this. Shachtman contended that the working class and socialist movements in the US would never advance without ceaseless and uncompromising campaigns against racism. In many respects, Shachtman was right. However, given the minute size of the Trotskyist movement and later the Stalinisation of the CP, which threw away all the gains of the 1930s, the left was not in a position to forward black liberation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Shachtman's pamphlet undoubtedly adds to our understanding of the discussions on black issues on the US left in the 1930s.