Race & Revolution

— Peter Drucker

Race and Revolution
by Max Shachtman
edited and introduced by Christopher Phelps
London/New York: Verso, 2003, $19 hardcover.

VERSO PRESS HAS done anti-racists and socialists a great service by publishing Max Shachtman’s Communism and the Negro at last, 70 years after he wrote it in 1933, under the new title Race and Revolution.(1) As Christopher Phelps points out in his introduction, Shachtman’s document anticipated much later scholarship on African-American history and politics. It is also a valuable source for the history of U.S. Marxism.(2)

The Communist Party’s tradition of writing on Black oppression and struggles was far more extensive and has understandably received more attention. But alongside the work of others in the Trotskyist tradition like C.L.R. James and George Breitman, Race and Revolution shows that non-Stalinist Marxists also did valuable work, and even set off down some promising avenues that the CP barred to those under its tutelage.

Max Shachtman in 1933 was a leader of the struggling Left Opposition in the United States, supporters of Leon Trotsky who had been expelled from the Communist Party five years earlier. His document sought to lay out the strategic centrality of the Black struggle for American socialists, while refuting the “Black Belt Nation” theory then promoted by the CP.

For a not yet 30-year-old college dropout, Shachtman did an extraordinary job of absorbing and going beyond the research that had been done before him. As Phelps points out, Shachtman was a practitioner of “history from below” years before social historians invented it in the 1970s.

His analysis of Reconstruction in some ways foreshadowed W.E.B. Du Bois’ conclusions two years later in Black Reconstruction in America, while avoiding Du Bois’ implausible description of Reconstruction as a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Shachtman’s study of agrarian class relations in the South is a model of careful, empirical Marxism.

Politically too, many of Shachtman’s positions withstand the test of time. His attack on the posture of “color-blindness” (at best) adopted by the labor movement and Socialist Party is still all too timely. His insistence that if white workers “try to deal with [the Negro’s] burning problems by cowardly half-measures or formal or evasive palliatives, the Negro will rightly turn his back upon the working class” (5) sounds prophetic.

Shachtman is in tune with our time, if not (sadly) ahead of it, in seeing racism not just as a problem of prejudice but also as something institutional and structural. His scorn for Black “moderates,” as Phelps notes, has been shared by African-American radicals from E. Franklin Frazier in the 1950s to Adolph Reed now.

At a time when radicals instinctively tended to see African Americans mainly as North American peasants, Shachtman was clear-sighted in seeing that the fight for Black freedom would be lost or won above all in the cities.

As for the way Shachtman writes, though I know it’s a specialized taste, for me it is rediscovering an old pleasure. When he describes the African American as “the Russian Jew and Russian serf thrown into one” (3), I wonder what more eloquent formulation anyone could have found to bring home to his communist audience the importance and centrality of African-American struggles.

Nor does Shachtman limit himself narrowly to economics and politics. He combines telling statistics with sharp indignation for instance to dispose of the “myth of the Negro rapist.” (48)

While readable, Race and Revolution does need an introduction to make sense of it for readers unfamiliar with old communist debates. Very few people are qualified to write such an introduction, since it requires in-depth knowledge of both socialist and African-American historiography. Verso’s choice of Christopher Phelps was a shrewd one, and he has carried out his task with care and success.

Phelps’ telling of the Trotskyist background to Race and Revolution is (as far as I can tell) faultless. He has done the considerable work of going through the old issues of The Militant, Trotskyist internal bulletins and various personal archives so as to explain which Trotskyists were arguing for which positions and why.

His introduction also shows sound judgment at the points where it takes issue with Shachtman. I in any event agree with Phelps in ultimately preferring C.L.R. James’ approach to African-American liberation, which emphasized the importance of a distinctive African-American community and an independent Black movement, over Shachtman’s insistence that the “Negro masses will attain social, political and economic equality only by way of the class struggle.” (68)

Phelps rightly criticizes Shachtman for insisting that only socialism could end Jim Crow. (Trotskyists are all too prone to say that only socialism can do this or that.) A the same time he rightly gives Shachtman credit for seeing that the vast majority of African Americans would never attain full social and economic equality under capitalism.

The National Question

Shachtman did underestimate, as Phelps notes, the potential progressive role of the Black middle class, as seen later in the civil rights movement. It was positively perverse for Shachtman as a Trotskyist to rely on Stalin’s definition of a nation (camouflaged by citing Karl Kautsky (71)) so as to insist that African Americans did not qualify for the right to self-determination.

As Trotsky said, “An abstract criterion is not decisive in this case: much more decisive are historical consciousness, feelings and emotions.”(3) But while Shachtman wrote that “the Negro in Africa had reared mighty empires, and astonishingly advanced cultural achievements are linked with his race in the annals of mankind” (44), he belittled the idea of a “‘special’ Negro culture” in North America as the fantasy of “a Negro petty bourgeoisie, and to a greater extent perhaps, ... white literature and dilletantes [sic],” which could only have “abortive and pitiful results.” (73)

Even more serious was Shachtman’s ultimately destructive lack of support for Black self-organization.

Phelps describes Shachtman’s class- struggle-only approach as positive in the 1930s and ‘40s, and revealing its shortcomings only from the 1950s on. This I find unconvincing. African-American workers were marginal to the great CIO organizing drives of the 1930s. They were incorporated more or less passively into unions during the Second World War, while the left’s failure in 1943-45 to mount an adequate challenge to white CIO members’ racism hampered labor for decades afterwards.(4)

Shachtman and his “closest black ally” Ernest Rice McKinney (xlix) showed their inadequate grasp of this problem immediately after the war when they rejected the use of “super-seniority” to protect Black workers from postwar layoffs.(5)

The one paragraph that Phelps devotes to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (xxvii-xxviii), while balanced and helpful, also may not provide quite enough guidance to readers unfamiliar with the theory. Shachtman clearly thinks he is applying Trotsky’s theory to the United States when he attacks the CP’s Black Belt thesis as a typical strategy of “an ‘intermediate’ revolution.” (86)

A little more background on the 1926-27 Communist debate over China and Shachtman’s writings in 1929-33 on Palestine, India, Spain and Nicaragua might have helped clarify what Shachtman thinks he’s doing in Race and Revolution.

But these are minor flaws in an excellent introduction and an excellent book, which everyone interested in a Marxist approach to African-American oppression and liberation should buy and read.

Notes

  1. Less importantly of course, Verso has done a service to Shachtman fans like me who waited years to see something by him published on a subject other than Stalinism. Many socialists today who identify with Shachtman’s political tradition treat his theory of bureaucratic collectivism as far and away his most important legacy, while his writings on other subjects are just as worthy of being remembered and republished. (See e.g. Ernie Haberkern, “The left and Max Shachtman,” Workers’ Liberty (London), Oct. 1995, and “Post-Trotsky Trotskyism,” Workers’ Liberty, Jan. 1996, and my rejoinder, “Renewing the Third Camp legacy,” Workers’ Liberty, April 1996.) Verso is particularly to be praised for broadening its horizons to include Shachtman. Here’s hoping that other left publishing houses prove similarly ecumenical in the future.
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  2. The fact that the audience for Marxism is still not what it was twenty years ago will probably prevent Race and Revolution from reaching the broad readership it deserves. Verso seems to have anticipated a limited readership by publishing the book only in hardcover — beautifully printed and illustrated — and pricing it accordingly. It is as hard to fault Verso’s business judgment as it is not to regret the consequences.
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  3. See Leon Trotsky, “The Negro Question in America” (1933), in On Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978, 28. Phelps notes that James and other participants in the late 1930s discussions with Trotsky in Mexico on Black Liberation were clearly familiar with Shachtman’s document, even if it wasn’t explicitly mentioned.
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  4. See Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economics in the History of the U.S. Working Class, London: Verso, 1986, 81-82.
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  5. See Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey through the “American Century,” Highland Park NJ: Humanities Press, 1994, 60.
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ATC 113, November-December 2004