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Charles Van Gelderen


Black American History

(Summer 1974)

From International, Vol. 2 No. 3, Summer 1974, pp. 44–45.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Eugene D. Genovese
In Red and Black
Vintage Banks £1.25

The Thought and Writings of W.E.B. D u Bois
The Seventh Son (Vols. I and II)
Vintage Books, £1.75 per volume

Chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere laid the financial foundations for the expansion of modern capitalism. For 200 years the central axis of the economic development of the commercial nations of Western Europe – Britain, France, Portugal, Holland and Spain – was to take the land stolen from the American Indians and work it with labour stolen from Africa. The study of slavery in the Americas must therefore be a subject of great importance to Marxists.

The essays in Genovese’s book are uneven and many Marxists will find it difficult to reconcile their views with that of the author. One of the most interesting essays is Class and Nationality in Black America, in which he deals scathingly with those American Socialists who saw the problem only in a class context and put forward the slogan ‘Black and White, unite and fight’. Trotsky dealt with this in his discussions with Arne Swabeck, a leading American Trotskyist, in 1933. The American Trotskyists had opposed the Stalinist distortion of the policy of self-determination with the demand for ‘social and economic equality’. Trotsky maintained that the argument that the slogan for ‘self-determination’ leads away from a class basis was an adaptation to the ideology of the white workers. American revolutionists, he said, should defend the right of the black people to separation, if that was what they desired. Lenin had made the same point in his Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, written for the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, when he wrote ‘In this respect, it is necessary for the Communist Parties to render direct aid to the revolutionary movements in the dependent and subject nations, for example, in Ireland, the Negroes in America, etc.)’. (Collected Works, Vol. 10, p. 235)

At times Genovese appears to go out of his way to show that the Southern slave-owners were not the bestial sadists so often depicted. Presumably he wants to bring home the fact that the evil lay in the nature of chattel slavery, which had to be opposed even under the most paternal of slave-owners. In this respect he is very critical of the writings of Marx and Engels on this subject which, he maintains, were characterized by an inadequate knowledge of the real facts of Southern society.

This view was shared by W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the outstanding leader of Black America and certainly its greatest intellectual In an article on Karl Marx and the Negro, in the March 1933 issue of The Crisis, he wrote: ‘It was a great loss to American Negroes that the great

mind of Marx and his extraordinary insight into industrial conditions could not have been brought to bear at first hand upon the history of the American Negro between 1876 and the World War. Whatever he said and did concerning the uplift of the working class must therefore be modified as far as Negroes were concerned by the fact that he had not studied their peculiar race problem here in America ...’ Like Genovese, Du Bois was criticizing Stalinist historians like Aptheker who wanted to apply, mechanically, what Marx and Engels wrote in the 1870s to the problems of Black Americans today.

The two volumes of writings by Du Bois are essential reading for anyone who really wants to get to grips with the realities of the problem. In this fascinating collection is traced the development of Du Bois from his early acceptance of the ideology of the ruling class – ‘Wealth was the result of work and saving and the rich rightly inherited the earth. The poor, on the whole, were themselves to be blamed ...’ – to an awareness of the special situation of the American black people and finally to Marxian

During the 1930’s he repudiated the crude version of communism which the American Stalinists were trying to impose. He had become convinced, however, that there was no solution for his people under capitalism. ‘Communism’, he wrote, ‘... is the only way of human life ... I want to help bring that day.’ It says much for him that he finally joined the Communist Party in his 93rd year, at the height of the McCarthy period, when the very name ‘communism’ was anathema in the ear of all ‘right-thinking’ Americans. In his long life, which is reflected in this collection of articles, is the personification of the history of the struggle of the Black Americans, and an echo of their aspirations.

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Last updated: 9 December 2020