Workers Vanguard No. 1062

20 February 2015


U.S. Capitalism and Black Oppression

(Quote of the Week)

In a 1933 document, Max Shachtman, then a leader of American Trotskyism, explained that the racial oppression of black people serves as a fundamental prop of capitalist class rule and can only be overcome with the multiracial proletariat seizing power through socialist revolution.

With all the discrimination practiced against him, the American Negro has brought forward gifted men and women in the scientific, artistic, political and cultural world, men and women of talent and genius. It is a tribute to the race that these talents have emerged from the abyss of slavery in which they were kept for hundreds of years and from the purgatory of social, economic and political inequality where they have since been kept. They have risen in spite of the lack of educational opportunities, in spite of the barring of every door to their race, in spite of the hounding and harassment and insult and violence to which they are subject.

But the ruling class is in urgent need of the theory of racial inferiority. The historical background for it is the condition of chattel slavery once imposed upon the Negro. The difference in the economic, and consequently social, status of Negro and white upon which the ideology of inferiority was constructed has since been eliminated, but the ideology has outlived the foundation on which it was built. The bourgeoisie needs this theory for two reasons: first, it affords them a moral justification for the super-exploitation and persecution to which it subjects the Negro. If trifling sums are allocated for Negro education, he is, after all, “only a n[----]r”; if housing conditions are abominable, if the Negro is scandalously underpaid, if he is deprived of every democratic right, he is, after all, an inferior who does not deserve or require any better; if he is hanged from a tree and riddled with bullets, or soaked with oil and burned to death by a mob of savages, it is, after all, “only a n[----]r” who suffers. Secondly, the theory of racial inferiority is of invaluable assistance to the ruling class when it permeates the white workers. It serves to erect walls of prejudice between black and white wage slaves, to keep them divided, to pit the one against the other so that they may not pit their joint strength against their common adversary....

The militant proletariat inscribes upon its banner in this country the uncompromising demand for full and equal rights for the oppressed Negro, so that he may rise out of the position of debasement and the backwardness to which he has been forced by a decadent ruling class to the level of human dignity and consciousness that will make him the invaluable comrade-in-arms of the white proletariat. In their joint struggle for the proletarian revolution, they will sweep away the abominable structure of imperialist capitalism, rooting out the barbarous remnants of slavery and serfdom, and abolishing the poisonous system of caste inequality, ostracism, misery and exploitation under which the millions of American Negroes suffer today. Any other road is a deception, leading through mirages to the brink of the precipice. The proletarian revolution is the road to freedom.

—Max Shachtman, “Communism and the Negro” (1933), reprinted as Race and Revolution (Verso, 2003)