Trotsky reading the Militant newspaper (1936)
I was rather startled to see Marxism list subscriber Joaquin Bustelo state that “Trotsky specifically urged voting for a Black Democrat under certain conditions.” Joaquin, a brilliant and wise former member of the Socialist Workers Party, has dispensed with much of the dogma that marked this one-time very influential group but I cannot go along with his recent “re-thinking” around support for the Democratic Party. I want to take this opportunity, therefore, to actually review what Trotsky said and also to relate it to electoral questions facing the left today.
Joaquin first alluded to Trotsky and Black Democrats in reply to a subscriber whose hostility to the Democratic Party is about as deep as my own:
This is, of course, the old SWP schema of “class lines” in elections. It is not a Marxist nor Leninist position. Marx and Lenin both voted for capitalist parties (on occasion) and Lenin specifically advocated calling for a vote for bourgeois-imperialist “social-democratic” and “Labour” parties as part of a tactic to undermine their base among working people. Trotsky specifically urged voting for a Black Democrat under certain conditions.
Since I have already challenged Joaquin on Marx and Lenin’s positions, I did not want to repeat my arguments. But Trotsky’s alleged support for “voting for a Black Democrat” was a new one on me. When I asked Joaquin to provide a citation for this, he replied:
The passage occurs in the Pathfinder book, Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism, and in the discussion on the creation (backed by the SWP) of a Black organization. Trotsky posits this group could sponsor or back candidates for office. He says we would propose revolutionaries, but of course we might lose. If a Black Democrat is nominated, we could support that candidate, making clear we support “the Negro,” not the Democrat, which I understand to mean, as an expression of our support to the democratic right of Black people to political inclusion and representation, not an endorsement of the specific views/outlook/program of this Black candidate. The SWP editors of the Pathfinder edition add to this a footnote to the effect that Trotsky MEANT provided this “Negro Democrat” ran as an independent candidate on the ballot. I think the footnote is bullshit. Trotsky, neither here nor elsewhere, presents anything to indicate he is in the slightest aware of or concerned about the minutiae of U.S. election laws of ballot practices.
Since this seems so counter-indicative to everything that Trotsky ever wrote about electoral politics, I decided to stop by the Columbia University library at lunch and take a look at the Pathfinder book, something I haven’t done in over 10 years. (The last time I referred to it was in order to prepare an article on the national question.)
The reference to Black Democrats occurs in an April 11, 1939 article titled “Plans for the Negro Organization”. As Joaquin points out, the SWP was trying to help launch a new group that sounds quite a bit like what Malcolm X was trying to do with the Organization for Afro-American Unity. In fact, this article was written just 6 days after “A Negro Organization” was written to announce this new initiative. This article stated that the Trotskyists alone could provide the organizational impetus since “None of the parties can now assume such a task because they are either pro-Roosevelt imperialists or anti-Roosevelt imperialists.“
Turning to “Plans for the Negro Organization”, point 2 in the section on Political orientation is quite specific: “To inculcate the impossibility of any assistance being gained from the Republican and Democratic Parties. Negroes must put up their own candidates on a working class program and form a united front only with those candidates whose program approximates their own.”
In other words, the new organization would run against the two “imperialist” parties.
The article takes up a number of proposals that were discussed with Leon Trotsky and SWP leaders in attendance, including CLR James. Proposal 12 deals with “The relationship of the Negroes to the Republican and Democratic Parties”, the source of Joaquin’s assertion that Trotsky urged a tactical vote under certain conditions for Black Democrats.
Indeed, Trotsky states that since Blacks are underrepresented in Congress, “we can often oppose a Negro candidate to a white candidate.” But he adds, “This Negro organization can always say ‘We want a Negro who knows our problems.’ It can have important consequences.” In other words, it is pretty clear that Trotsky was not referring to Black Democrats but candidates from the new group that they are hoping to launch.
Owen, another participant in the meeting who is probably Sherry Mangan, states that CLR James “has ignored a very important part of our program-the labor party.” This leads James to assure him that when there are rival candidates from the labor party (albeit non-existent at this point) and the new Negro organization (also non-existent-obviously some things have not changed since the 1930s in terms of independent political action), the Blacks in the Labor Party should support the independent Black candidate because “his [sic] demands are good for the working class.”
Charles Curtiss, also in attendance at the meeting, frets that Blacks voting for Blacks is just another version of the Popular Front. Clearly, Curtiss is reflecting the kind of class fundamentalism in the Trotskyist movement that Leon Trotsky and CLR James were challenging.
James tells Curtiss: “This organization (in other words, the one that they want to launch) has a program. When the Democrats put up a Negro candidate, we say, “Not at all. It must be a candidate with a program we can support.”
Let there be no doubt about this. CLR James is saying that just because the Democrats are running a Black, the left is not under any obligation to support him or her because program comes first. In other words, CLR James was saying pretty much the same thing that the Black Commentator is saying about Obama today.
Finally, Trotsky chimes in on this question:
If this organization puts up a certain candidate, and we find as a party that we must put up our own candidate in opposition, we have the full right to do so. If we are weak and cannot get the organization to choose a revolutionist, and they choose a Negro Democrat, we might even withdraw our candidate with a concrete declaration that we abstain from fighting, not the Democrat, but the Negro.
What was Trotsky talking about? It should not be hard to figure out. He is saying that the new Black organization that is running candidates for office might have a variety of aspirants. Some will be revolutionaries and some might come out of the Democratic Party. But he is urging the SWP’ers to set aside their hostility to the Democratic Party background of the candidate as long as he is running as a representative of the new organization.
In a footnote, the SWP states:
What Trotsky was proposing here was that the SWP give critical support to the candidate of an independent Negro organization running against the Democratic and Republican party candidates, even though the candidate might be a Democrat instead of a revolutionist. The crucial point would be that such a candidate of an independent Negro organization would be opposing the candidates of the capitalist parties. Trotsky never advocated support of candidates of the Democratic or Republican parties.
I strongly believe that this footnote gets things right.