Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 10, 2008

Did Trotsky urge voting for Black Democrats?

Filed under: african-american,socialism,third parties — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

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.


  1. See this. This is the statement of Worker’s Int’l League, about the Afro-American struggle, and the question of a black party. It’s long, but worth reading.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — October 11, 2008 @ 2:37 am

  2. On the one hand, I find it hard to believe that anyone who comes out of the Trotskyist tradition and bothers to still quote Trotsky would go to such lengths (or sink to such depths) to support “Black Democrats” when the one that’s obviously in question has proven himself to be little more than an errand boy for Wall Street, the Pentagon and AIPAC and avoids “Black issues” more than most white Democrats do. This kind of selective cherry-picking from the scared texts might have been more apropos (but just as wrong) vis-a-vis Jesse Jackson’s rainbow Coalition in the 1980s. At least Jackson had a mass movement behind him. Media creation Obama has little more than an internet fan club tightly controlled from the top down that few radicals will gain any ground no matter how deep they try to bury themselves in it.

    On the other hand, considering the 1960s and 70s SWP’s uncritical adaption to nationalism, there is, to use a favorite expression of Jack Barnes and his ideological mentor on this question, George Brietman, an “underlying dynamic” that would lead an ostensible Trotskyist to take a position like this. After all, according to both of them, “consistent nationalism leads to socialism.” Only in this case, identity politics, the offspring of co-opted nationalism, leads to class-collaboration.

    Unless of course the holder of this position has succumbed to the pressures of the petty-bourgeois “progressive” milleau and actually believes in “lesser evilism” and the politics of the “popular front” that underly them and just quoting Trotsky to feel good about the whole thing.

    I tend to think that it is the “other hand” that is calling the shots on this one and pulling the lever as well.

    Comment by MN Roy — October 11, 2008 @ 3:06 am

  3. Interesting article. I am from the UK and the question of non-party candidates of struggle (such as black activists/victims of immigration laws/Irish republicans) has come up in the past. Currently there is a debate about new workers party/trade unions standing candidates etc in opposition to New Labour of Blair and Brown. Most of these would stand on a left reformist programme, although the past month has seen these programmes tack very left on nationalisations of the banks, price controls, etc. The major weaknesses tend to be “HOW?” ie what sort of mobilisations, organisations etc are going to achieve these demands.

    So what are the “fundamentals of a programme we can support”?

    I was reading the New International on the workers party tactic, (up to 1938-9) and there the point is made that if a third party (ie farmer-labour type) stood independently of the Reps or Dems, then they could be supported. (I believe there is a reference to such an event in Struggle for a Proletarian Party where Cannon lays into the PC for dithering).

    So from that I would guess: independence from the existing capitalist parties and a progressive programme (although not what the SWP or Trotsky would consider revolutionary).

    So position of Trotsky and James did appear to share the same methodology on black organisations as they did on third parties (ie farmer-labour types). And within the context of a struggle for a labour party.

    Does anyone know of more detailed discussions on the question of “third parties”, was there much in old copies of The Militant, can never find it online.

    Comment by keefer — October 11, 2008 @ 9:49 am

  4. Louis — interesting article and great blog. Kudos!

    As for JB’s statement that about Trotsky urging socialists to vote for Black Democrats, you have clearly shown that to be complete fantasy, but given the source it’s not surprising that such an outrageous claim could be made. Notice how he hasn’t responded to your post about this on marxmail.

    Comment by Mingo — October 11, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

  5. Good stuff, Louis. It’d be great if someone with your gifts for explaining the more arcane areas of theory could also explain why a vote for a third party candidate in current U.S. politics is not the same as the sort of “splitting” that went on in German social democratic politics prior to the rise of Hitler. Imperial progressives like Chris Hitchens have been bandying that one about for awhile.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — October 11, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

  6. Lenin, Trotsky and the early CI were for giving “critical support” to reformist workers parties as an aspect of the “united front” policy; i.e., as a tactic for winning hegemony within the workers movement as the Social Democrats still exercised considerable influence on large sections of the organized working class in many European countries at the time (and unfortunately still do). The call for a Labor Party based on the trade unions was the American version of this tactic and the “anti-imperialist united front” was its extension to Third World countries where the combined (permanent) revolution was on the agenda. The Stalinists resurrected the old Social Democratic policy of class-collaborationist “coalitionism” under the guise of the “Popular Front” in Europe and America and the “bloc of four classes” in the Third World along with the Menshevik “two-stage” revolution.

    The SWP, in its desire to tail after Black nationalism in the 60s and 70s, attempted to utilize the theory of the “combined” or “permanent” revolution, meant for Third World countries by Trotsky, to the US, to give a gloss of “orthodoxy” to this sectoralist tail-endism, especially in their polemics with the Mandelites of the IT, who defended a class-struggle perspective. Most of those individuals thrown out by Barnes in 1980s (who went on to form the FIT and SA) remained loyal devotees of the “consistent nationalism leads to socialism” line while the ex-Mandelites gone soft in Solidarity gave up on the class struggle line in favor the more trendy sectoralism of “identity politics.”

    Moving along, how is not voting for a neo-liberal pro-war, pro-Wall Street bourgeois candidate who barely differs at all from his Republican “rival” the same as Stalin’s refusal to form a united front with another working class tendency against fascism? Granted McCain certainly qualifies as being a reactionary (as did Bush, Nixon, etc.), but I’ve yet to hear anyone make a sound case that he is some kind of fascist with an armed para-military force based on a mass movement of the middle class (i.e., a Hitler or a Mussolini) out to destroy bourgeois “democracy” and the labor movement. McCain only wishes that he had that kind of mass support…even at the ballot box.

    Or was it the KPD’s not voting for Field Marshall von Hindenburg (the original “lesser evil”) against Hitler, the way the Social Democrats did (rather than running their own candidate) the original sin of “splitting?” If I recall, once returned to office by the votes of the Social Democratic workers and trade unionists, the “lesser evil” appointed the “greater evil” chancellor and gave his blessing to the destruction of bourgeois democracy in general and the labor movement in particular. Now, that’s really smart “strategic” voting on the part of the reformists, even without “safe” and “non-safe” states, isn’t it?

    And considering who voted for the PATRIOT Act and every other piece of police state legislation that Bush has asked for to date, it’s kind of hard to see how voting for Nader or McKinney is a vote for “fascism.” Seems more like a vote for the Democrats is a guarantee of some of the particulars of it, i.e., austerity, war, racism and repression without the swastickas and jack-boots.

    Comment by MN Roy — October 11, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

  7. I love Joaquin, but he sometimes practices what I call “Chinese Menu Marxism.” That is, he’ll stake out a position on a particular issue, say school vouchers, and then line up quotes from “The Masters” to back up his position: One from the Marx column, one from the Lenin column, one from the Trotsky column, etc.

    Groups in the Trotskyist tradition have been riding the “Independent Black Party” or “Independent Chicano Party” hobbyhorse for some time, due mainly to these comments by Trotsky. I’m dubious myself about the whole idea of ethnically based political parties, because they tend to be a disaster everywhere they’ve been tried (Nigeria, Yugoslavia etc.) Not that this is anything like what Obama is doing.

    You know what? Like Joaquin, I’m going to vote for Obama in November not because I think he signals any radical break with the status quo but because he’s better than the alternative. That is, I’d rather have an intelligent person guiding the ship of U.S. imperialism that a deranged, senile old war criminal and his even more deranged Bible-thumping running mate. And having a black U.S. president with a Muslim name who is half-white and half-Kenyan is just so “out there” that it’s some sort of a victory for our side, even a symbolic one. I’m easily satisfied that way.

    The difference between me and Joaquin is that I don’t have any “socialist” or “working class” justifications for my vote. There are none, not even as much as there were 20 years ago for Jesse Jackson (and I disn’t think there were even then). I think the socialist or working-class critique of the Obama campaign is perfectly valid. I’m just dealing with the realistic options that are on the table. In other words, I give up!

    Joaquin should just admit that this is how he sees things too.

    Comment by John B. — October 11, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

  8. I don’t see any Afro-American migration to the Black Belt of the South.

    The SWP took Trotsky saying if there is a mass movement of black people, toward seperatism or a party of their own, to much farther levels, than Trotsky ever advocated.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — October 12, 2008 @ 3:20 am

  9. Re: John B;

    I get it, you’d rather be “realistic” and have the suave, smiling sound-byte running the show so that he can better butcher (or starve) other dark-skinned people around the world in the name of “human rights” and enforce belt-tightening austerity at home in the interests of his Wall Street pay-masters in the name of “sacrifice” the way JFK and Bill Clinton did. With “victories” like that, who needs defeats?

    Besides the fact that all of the “symbolism” will benefit the empire, not the so-called left or poor and working class Black people, both of whom will be further politically disoriented by it, such symbolism won’t put any bread on the table or roofs over any-one’s head when the “symbol” in question just voted to give $680 billion to the Pentagon and $700 billion to Wall Street!

    As for me, as a New Yorker, I already got all of that, on the city-scale, from David Dinkins in the late 1980s. Although, I guess I was lucky that I wasn’t in that Black neighborhood in Philadelphia that that other symbol, Wilson Goode, bombed in 1985! Show’s you what “realism” will get you.

    Comment by MN Roy — October 12, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

  10. M.N. Roy: I’ll admit it, I’m a chump, and I’m not kidding either. I don’t disagree with your reasoning. The biggest mistake socialist and radical groups could make is to get into the whole lesser-evil thing. I’m glad that some of these groups are offering a radical critique of the Obama movement and proposing an alternative. Whoever wins in November we need to keep building an independent movement to fight for social justice. I don’t advocate for anyone else to follow my example and vote for Obama. It’s just that I don’t think that my vote for Roger Calero or whoever will have the slightest bit of impact.

    Comment by John B. — October 12, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

  11. Wrong again. It’s voting for the “lesser” (or greater) evil Democrat that ensures that you won’t have the slightest bit of impact. Like old sly boots Bill Clinton, they will continue to take you and the thousands of others like you for granted, since “you have no place else to go.” And as Ralph Nader, the man I’ll be voting for (“critical support”), says, “when you get taken for granted, you get taken.” But, at least you’re up front and not hiding behind Trotsky or Marx, so, no hard feelings.

    By the way I agree with you that consistent nationalism leads more in the direction of genocide and ethnic cleansing than socialism. Usually it just leads to the same old neo-colonialism, only with a few new faces at the top carrying out the imperialists’ dirty work instead of the old ones.

    Comment by MN Roy — October 13, 2008 @ 12:21 am

  12. So according to Joaquin, if FDR was black, the SWP would’ve supported him in the 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944 elections?

    Comment by Binh — October 14, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

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