Trotsky, communism and the self-determination of minorities

Introduction by Ugo Palheta

Mainstream journalists and politicians have in recent weeks incessantly rained down insults on anti-racism in general and UNEF in particular - all deemed guilty of “racialism”; a startling reversal which leads to blaming the victims of racism and those who are fighting alongside them. Why ? Because the anti-racists and part of the left organize non-mixed meetings for those who suffer from racial oppression, so that they can discuss what they are going through, ways to organize and fight, etc.

Ignorant or malicious, no doubt both, these ideologues and some media philosophers claim that they have thus broken with the legacy of anti-racist struggles (which these defenders of the social and racial order do not care about and which they often know nothing except for a few cliches). On the contrary, as Danièle Obono and Patrick Silberstein point out in their introduction to a collection of texts by Leon Trotsky (an extract from which we publish below) 1, the question of the political autonomy of the oppressed- including sometimes in the form of separate organizations - has been raised many times over the past century, and has been patiently discussed within the workers’ movement. 

Trotsky came up against this question at least twice: through the extreme violence of anti-Semitism in the Russia of his time and the existence of the Bund, an autonomous Jewish workers' organization and main component - at least numerically - of the socialist movement in the Tsarist Empire; and through the debates within the American communist movement concerning the political attitude that it should take towards Black people and Black movements, in order to combine the objectives of destroying racism and overcoming capitalism. 

It was thus in dialogue with American and Caribbean communist activists who were part of his anti-Stalinist current and shared his internationalist approach (in particular CLR James, the author of The Black Jacobins ), that Trotsky was led to debate, starting by obtaining information from his interlocutors, questions of Black self-determination; the need or not for a separate organization of Blacks for their liberation and slogans of national liberation (assimilating the Black question to a national question); the political significance of the calls for a “return to Africa” (Marcus Garvey), and so on.

We are a thousand miles here from the republican doxa, which has unfortunately contaminated entire sections of the workers' movement and which does not want to see or know anything about racial inequalities and the political organization of minorities. It dresses up white domination as “universalism”, and conscientiously applies itself to silencing any dispute and any autonomous discourse (because it is in fact those who dominate who practise the only cancel culture that has real effects). But we are also far from the temptation to reduce anti-racism to a question of individual introspection, educational effort or moral rectification.

Conversely, we find ourselves very much in favour of a policy of emancipation which does not deny the differences, inequalities and oppressions within the proletariat itself but which seeks, on the basis of this reality and the necessary dispersion that results from it, the paths, obviously tortuous, towards the liberation of everyone. Of course, the responses that the Russian revolutionary formulated (moreover with great caution) cannot be mechanically applied to contemporary reality. But we can draw inspiration from his method when it comes to posing, not in the hypocritical comfort of abstract universalism but in the heat of concrete struggles, the intersecting questions of communism and anti-racism.


Internationalist and “non-Jewish” Jew

Yanovska , where Lev Davidovich Bronstein was born in 1879, is a small Ukrainian village in the province of Kherson where Jews were allowed to buy land and cultivate it. Unlike the majority of Jews in Russia, the Bronsteins did not live in the city or in a shtetl (small town or village) in the Jewish zone of residence.1  In his memoirs My Life, published in 1930, Trotsky notes that there were some forty “Jewish agricultural colonies” in the region. Jewish farmers, he writes, “lived on an equal footing with the peasants not only in law […] but also in poverty”. In 1881, a new imperial decree prohibited Jews from acquiring new land. 

In the Bronstein household, they did not speak Yiddish, but Russian mixed with Ukrainian. In 1937, Trotsky confided to one of his interlocutors his regret at not having learned this language, which was for a long time a world vehicle for revolutionary ideas because of the Jewish diaspora. In fact, he only discovered Yiddish at school, where his ignorance of what was still called “jargon” prevented him from relating to his “fellow students”. As for the religious practice of the Bronstein family, it was reduced to the strict minimum:

“My father did not believe in God [but] belief in God was still recognized as official [... ]. There was no real religion in my family. At first there was some semblance of it due to the force of inertia : at big festivals , my parents would go to the synagogue of the colony ; on Saturdays, my mother abstained from sewing; at least she did not openly sew.”

Since his father wanted him nevertheless to acquire some rudiments of the Bible, the young Bronstein received private lessons in Odessa. Faced with his tutor's scepticism of his own teaching, he admitted that these courses “did not strengthen him at all in the faith of [his] fathers”. Also in My Life, he notes that as his family's well-being increased, the residual ritual practices gradually faded away.

In short, it was the process of assimilation as conceived by the social democracy of the time, which would permeate Trotsky for a long time. However, as Enzo Traverso notes, state anti-Semitism - one of the pillars of the Tsarist regime - raised “a barrier against assimilation”, which Russian Marxists, regardless of their national origin , scarcely remarked. For Trotsky, like for many Russian Marxists, Jewish or not, the assimilation of the Jews, as it had taken place in Western and Central Europe, in particular in Austria, was an irrepressible historical tendency, a process that must be supported, even promoted: capitalist economic development would tear down the walls of the ghettos, disperse the Jews in the surrounding world and assimilate them.2 As for the workers' movement, while being, in Russia as elsewhere, a powerful vector of assimilation of militants and the intelligentsia coming from minorities, it gave rise to apparently contradictory political and theoretical constructions. Like in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, we also saw in Russia the formation of organizations both defining themselves as internationalist and attempting a synthesis between socialism and “nationalitarianism” and structuring themselves on a national social basis.-

Lev Davidovich was eight years old when an imperial ukase established a numerus clausus setting at 10 per cent the number of Jewish pupils who could attend secondary schools. Secondary education was at that time divided into real schools (where the teaching was modern) and high schools (more oriented towards classical education) which were practically forbidden to Jews. He therefore entered the real school in Odessa. He notes that he did not feel this segregationist measure “directly”. Children of various origins were taught in Russian - Odessa was a multi-national city3 -, he received there, he writes, his “first lesson in cosmopolitanism”.  

Not speaking Yiddish, outside the Jewish world of his time and his country, unbeliever, the “non-Jewish Jew” Lev Davidovich Bronstein, as Isaac Deutscher put it, was “assimilated”.4 His subjectivity, his education, his youthful political choices, his living conditions, his fundamental convictions and his background confirmed this path. He says it himself, in a seemingly contradictory way, in his autobiography. Thus, he first asserts that nationality “had no special place” in his thoughts “because it did not arise in a very sensitive way”. Then, a few lines later, he adds that “the inequality of national rights was, probably, one of the hidden causes” which led him to enter into dissent against Tsarism. But this motive, he adds, was only one determination among other injustices, which “far from serving as a basis for me, did not even have an independent role. The feeling of the predominance of the general over the particular […] arose early in me and grew stronger with the years ”. However, he would gradually be brought to reconcile his internationalism in principle with the taking into account of a reality which sometimes went against the grain of general historical trends that he had thought he discerned.

Moreover, it was precisely during this period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that were invented and crystallized in Western Europe and the United States of America the foundations and models of nation-states with very narrow geographic boundaries and ethnocultural “identities”. And in the socio-economic and ideological hierarchies that were being constructed, Jews, Blacks and “foreigners” become categories and figures of exclusion and antagonism par excellence.

Trotsky says that in his adolescence, revolted by the Tsarist regime, he “idealized” Western Europe and America. He notes that he had to “attach to it the conception of an ideal democracy” and remembers that it seemed improbable “to his young rationalism [...] that there could be superstitions in Europe and that in America one could persecute. Black people ”.  

In 1929, while he was completely immersed in the struggle against the Stalinist degeneration of the international communist movement, seeking to bring together those who opposed the mainstream of the Communist International, he wrote to militants excluded from the Communist Party to warn them against the racial prejudices which permeated the American workers’ movement. “It would be tragic,” wrote Trotsky , “for the Opposition to be infected in the smallest way with these traits.” Negroes, he wrote, “must learn to see us as brothers”. In 1922, in a letter to the Jamaican writer Claude McKay, who had been invited to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, he stresses “the abominable stupidity and prejudices of the privileged upper layer of the working class” in North America, maintained by the policy of the American Federation of Labour (AFL), many of whose affiliated union prohibited Blacks from membership. 

He admitted in this same letter that he was unable, for lack of knowledge, to answer precisely the question of “the most suitable forms of organization for the Negro movement”. However, under the obvious influence of Claude McKay and Black delegates of North American communism, the Fourth Congress of the International – the preparation of which was largely the responsibility of Trotsky - adopted a resolution that it is certainly useful to quote at length here:

The penetration and intense colonization of regions inhabited by Black races pose the last great problem on which depends the future development of capitalism. [The] war, the Russian Revolution, the great movements that have raised up nationalists of Asia and Muslims against imperialism, have awakened the consciousness of millions of Negroes oppressed by the capitalists, reduced to an inferior position for centuries, not only in Africa, but perhaps even more so in America. 

History has given the Negroes of America an important role in the liberation of the entire African race. [They] worked under the whip of the American owners […]. The Negro was not a docile slave, he had recourse to rebellion, insurrection, underground plots to regain his freedom […]. When slavery competed with wage labour and became an obstacle to the development of capitalist America, it had to disappear. The Civil War, undertaken not to liberate the Negroes, but to maintain the industrial supremacy of the capitalists of the North, obliged the Negro to choose between slavery in the South and wage labour in the North. […] Four hundred thousand coloured workers were drafted into the American army, where they formed the “Jim Crow” regiments. […] They were [then] persecuted even more than before the war, to teach them to “stay in their place”. [Their] spirit of rebellion […] puts the Negroes of America […] at the forefront of Africa's struggle against oppression.

[The] enemy of the Negro race is also that of the white workers. This enemy is capitalism, imperialism. The international struggle of the Negro race is a struggle against capitalism and imperialism. It is on the basis of this struggle that the Negro movement must be organized : in America, as a centre of Negro culture and a centre of crystallization center of the protest of the Negroes [... ]. 

The colonial peoples fight with heroism against their imperialist exploiters, [they] rise up against the same evils as those which weigh down the Negroes (racial oppression, intensified industrial exploitation , blacklisting) ; these peoples must demand the same rights as the Negros: freedom and industrial and social equality.  

The Communist International […] is not only the organization of white workers in Europe and America. […]

The Fourth Congress recognizes the need to support all forms of Negro movement aimed at undermining and weakening capitalism or imperialism, or stopping its penetration. The Communist International will fight to ensure equality of race, political and social equality for Negroes. [It] will use all the means at its disposal to get the trade unions to admit Negro workers into their ranks ; where Negroes have the nominal right 'to join trade unions, it will conduct special propaganda to attract them; if that does not succeed, it will organize the Negroes in special unions  and will apply in particular the tactics of the united front to force the unions to admit them into their midst ”. 


Meeting theBlack Bolsheviks”

In his memoirs, Claude McKay recounts his meeting with the head of the Red Army in 1922:

“ When Trotsky [ … ] spoke to me about Blacks, he spoke wisely. He saw things from a human and universal point of view. He considered the Blacks as a people like others who were unfortunately late in the march of civilization “.

Trotsky then pressed the writer with questions about Black Americans, their organizations, their religions, their levels of education, their aspirations and their relationship to Africa. Eight years later, in a letter to the newspaper of the Jewish Left Opposition group in Paris, he made the “status of pariahs” the common point between “foreign workers” in France and “Blacks in America”.

In 1933, he criticized the position of his American friends who developed an argument that could be qualified as “workerist” and summarized as follows: Blacks are a particularly exploited and oppressed part of the American proletariat because of their colour, but they do not in any way constitute a national minority because they have no particular language, religion or culture.5 In short, they are “Americanized” and we must therefore fight for equality, “in the social, political and economic sense of the term”.

Trotsky , while stressing that he can only make general considerations, affirms on the contrary that if the Blacks are not “yet a nation, they are in the process of forming one “; since nations emerge , he says, “under specific conditions”. In the immediate post-war period, Raya Dunayevskaya , former secretary of Trotsky and party comrade of CLR James under the name Forrest, insisted that “neither Lenin nor Trotsky thought that the (American)Negroes] constituted a nation; however, without any hesitation they saw the Black question as an integral part of the national question ”. For Trotsky , no abstract criterion can “decide” the question. It is the “general conditions” which create the “historical consciousness of a group”. Driven by oppression, he says, the Blacks will advance towards political and national unity and will claim “autonomy”. How can we not read these reflections with more contemporary eyes, for example with those of a supporter of the Black Panther Party? There is therefore no reason to be surprised at the “strange alliance”, as it was described at the time by a journalist, which was formed in 1964 on the occasion of Malcolm X's participation in a debate on the “Black revolution” organized by the Militant Labour Forum - which was created by the main Trotskyist organization in the United States, the Socialist Workers Party.  

It was in fact starting in 1933 that Trotsky , then exiled to Prinkipo in Turkey after his expulsion from the USSR by Stalin, looked very concretely into the Black question in the United States by asserting, without any oratory precaution, that “white workers are the oppressors vis-à-vis the Blacks, the scoundrels who persecute the Blacks and the Yellows, despise them and lynch them ”. Here he bluntly states a key element that we believe should be understood as follows: in order for a “class in itself” to be constructed as a “class for itself”, workers must build their unity by shedding their own. antagonisms, especially racial. To do this, it is useful for them to equip themselves with organizations that are carriers of both universality and particularisms.

So while the Fourth Congress of the Communist International had recognized the possibility of creating Black trade unions in the United States if it was necessary6 , Trotsky examined in April 1939 the necessity and possibility of building a specific organization bringing together Black Americans: “A special organization for a special situation”. Why? First of all, because the oppression of Blacks is so strong “that they must feel it at all times” and that it is therefore necessary “to give this feeling a political expression in terms of organization”. To do this, he adds, the programme must be adapted by including “genuine civil rights, political rights, cultural interests, economic interests, etc.” “.

Following his discussions with Trotsky and in the tumultuous course of his engagement in the Trotskyist movement, CLR James wrote in 1944 that the American Negro is “nationalist in the depths of himself”. He is right to be so, he says, because it is through this nationalism that he acquires strength, self-respect and that he organizes himself “in order to fight for his integration into American society ”. It is, he adds, “a perfect example of dialectical contradiction. […] Blacks will thus be, in the next development of the struggle, one of the most powerful forces in the transformation of American society ”. 

A few years earlier, Trotsky had, moreover, gone against many points of view of his contemporaries by developing an approach to the movement of Marcus Garvey which tried to understand the reasons for the massive adherence of African-Americans to the slogan “ Back to Africa ”.7  Behind the abstraction of the return to Africa, “a fantasy and a reactionary expression of the revolutionary desire for a Black state”, wrote CLR James in 1939, it is the aspiration to self-determination that is expressed. Himself reserved on the question of the creation of a Black state, CLR James notes that while there is no indication that this could happen, “the desire to wipe out humiliating political enslavement and secular social decay may find its expression in the irrepressible demand for the creation of a Black state ”(1939). He adds that the Blacks do not want to return to Africa any more than “the German Jews had the desire to reach Palestine before Hitler came ”… 8

CLR James notes on the other hand that the proletarianization of Afro-Americans and their massive entry into a “multiracial” trade union movement, far from diminishing their democratic aspirations, pushes them on the contrary to assert themselves even more powerfully as an oppressed national minority.9

The 1930 census indicated that there were 12 million Blacks in the United States for a total population of 122 million: 75 per cent of them lived in the South, 21 per cent in the North, 1.3 per cent in the West and 57 per cent in rural areas. During the First World War, already one million of them had taken the road to factories in the North.10  It was during the Second World War that a new massive migration took place towards the “Promised Land”, from the South to the North and the West. At the end of the war, 25 per cent of Blacks were installed in the urban centres of the North and the North-West.11 It was during the war, writes Raya Dunayevskaya , that the Black question, or “question of the South” became “a problem concerning the whole country”.12 Even though the vast majority of them are still in unskilled jobs, Afro-American workers have now entered the heart of production. In the mid-1960s, when the civil rights movement began, only 50 per cent of Afro Americans still lived in the South; 5 million of them migrated to the big cities of the North and the West between 1940 and 1970. 


 19 April 2021


  • 1The zone of residence that had been assigned to the Jews since the eighteenth century comprised essentially Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Kiev province, Bessarabia and the provinces of southern Russia (including Kherson province. birthplace of Trotsky ). They were prohibited from residing elsewhere, except for special exceptions.
  • 2Lenin perfectly expressed in 1903 the mechanistic conceptions in force in the dominant sectors of the Second International. Everywhere in Europe, he wrote, the end of the accumulated dross of the Middle Ages and the advent of political freedoms were accompanied by the political emancipation of the Jews, who thereby renounced their language in favour of the language of the people in the midst of whom they lived. He concluded, contrary to what he would do in 1917, that the idea of a Jewish nationality was in opposition to the interests of the Jewish proletariat.
  • 3In the Russian census of 1897, Moldovans represented 53.7 per cent of Odessa's population, Russians and Ukrainians 20.3 per cent, Jews 19.7 per cent, Armenians, Bulgarians, Tatars, Germans and Poles about 6 per cent.
  • 4It is interesting to note that Vladimir Medem , leader of the Bund, also born in 1879, went the opposite way. Born into a fully assimilated family - his father, a convert to Protestantism, was a doctor in the imperial army - he learned Yiddish, making the choice, as Henri Minczeles says in his preface to his autobiography, to “become Jewish again in order to be understood by Jewish workers ” Karl Marx's daughter, Eleonor , also learned Yiddish to better propagate socialist ideas among Jewish immigrant workers in London. Nathan Weinstock notes that “with the exception of a statistically insignificant minority - from which, paradoxically, many of the future leaders of the Jewish workers’ movement would come - the Jewish population of Eastern Europe spoke the dialect of the ghetto, Yiddish ”. Claudie Weill evokes a movement of “dissimilation” which saw, for very varied reasons, militants turning to Jewishness to better fight for international socialism”.]
  • 5The Spanish spoken by the Hispanic minority is now on the way to becoming the first language spoken in several states in the country. In 2000, 47.6 per cent of New Yorkers declared that they spoke a language other than English at home.
  • 6Afro-Americans were excluded from the labour movement organized by the craft and class collaboration unionism of the AFL. Although the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, a revolutionary syndicalist organization created in 1905) had on the contrary allowed the organization of black workers (10 per cent of union members), it was only later, from 1935, with the birth of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), that Afro-American workers entered massively into both industry and the labour movement. Industrial unionism could only open up to Black workers, especially in the metalworking industry and the automobile industry. The formation of the CIO modified somewhat the perspective described by the Comintern. “After some hesitation,” notes CLR James, “the Black masses have responded magnificently to the call and are now powerful and progressive groups in many CIO unions”. However, as we will discuss below, subsequent developments in trade unionism raised concretely the question of “special unions”.
  • 7Marcus Garvey (1887-1940): Jamaican trade unionist, influenced by the ideas of Booker T. Washington, founded in 1914 the Universal Association for the Improvement of the Lot of Blacks (UNIA). Settled in Harlem in 1916, his goal was to unite the Blacks of the world into one nation and to organize the return to Africa of those from the United States. In spite of its separatist and somewhat confused programme, it mobilized Afro-Americans briefly but massively (the UNIA had 2 million members in 1919).
  • 8n 1882, the Jewish community in Palestine under Ottoman rule numbered 24,000 inhabitants. Zionist colonization developed from 1900 and the Jewish population was estimated at 85,000 souls in 1914. Between 1880 and 1914, 3.5 million Jews fled poverty and pogroms to take refuge in Western Europe and America.
  • 9Closer to home, Étienne Balibar evokes the issue of what he calls “class racism”. The second generation (“young people with an immigrant background”), if it takes over from the previous one, the generation of immigrant workers (if it is not excluded from work), “risks developing a much stronger social combativeness”, combining class demands and cultural demands ”.
  • 10For example, between 1910 and1920, the black population of Chicago increased from 44,000 to 110,000 people.
  • 11In the 2000 census, 12.3 per cent of Americans identified themselves as “Afro-Americans”. They represented 18.9 per cent of the population in the South, 11.4 per cent in the North-East, 10.1 per cent in the Midwest and 4.9 per cent in the West: 54 per cent of them lived in the South, 19 per cent in the Midwest, 18 per cent in the North-East and 10 per cent in the West. For the first time, the number of Latinos exceeded that of African Americans. Almost 7 million people said they belonged to “two or more races”: 35.9 per cent of New York's 8.2 million people were born abroad, 26.6 per cent of them self-identify as Afro-Americans, 27 per cent Hispanics, 9.8 per cent Asians.
  • 12The “desegregation” of the arms industries was decided by presidential decree in 1941. In 1943, while racial conflicts raged, the United States Attorney General recommended President Roosevelt to “contain the migration of Blacks to the North”...