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Hugo Oehler

The Negro and the Class Struggle

(April 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 18 (Whole No. 114), 30 April 1932, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The National Committee of the Communist League of America (Opposition), by direction of the National Conference, appointed a commission to assemble material on the Negro question in America and to open a discussion In the League. The following article by comrade Oehler, a member of the commission, is a contribution to the discussion and presents his personal views. – Ed.

In modern Europe, where capitalism has long ago had its decisive battles with feudalism, there still linger remnants of the past, feudal carry-overs complicating the solution of the proletariat’s problems. This complication does not confront the workers of America, but in its place we have a variety of more conflicting inheritances. One of these was the carry-over of chattel slavery, a more backward system which gained supremacy over attempted feudalist inroads in new America by its economic advantages in the south for large scale agriculture production. The race form of chattel slavery in America gave impetus to this development.

The period when economic systems were gaining a foothold in new America cannot be separated from the class struggles in Europe at that time. The discovery of America which gave the feudal kingdoms greater land rights only accelerated the internal contradictions between the feudal land property relations and the developing bourgeois property relations. The commercial system of Europe was on the upgrade and the race for America reflected this. The discovery of America accelerated bourgeois development in Europe and logically expressed its growth in the colonies.

In Europe, feudalism ruled by the monopoly of land through the feudal estates and the Catholic church and by hindering the developing handicraft system, keeping it part of the feudal hand-tool production. Free land in America played havoc with feudal relations, not just because there was free land, but primarily because with this free land developed the bourgeois property relations. Bourgeois relations are made difficult by free land, but the presence of large tracts of usable free land in a new country smashes all feudal attempts at stability when capitalism moves in at the same time.

The Problem of Labor Power

Labor power and its control was the burning problem of the rulers of the colonies, not only its scarcity but also its control once obtained. Wage workers would soon disappear as free farmers, hunters and trappers. The white slaves and indentured slaves from Europe enabled the merchant and commercial classes to retain a sufficient supply of cheap labor power, but this could only be kept up by a constant influx from Europe. The land to the west was an escape for this labor supply. At the same time, however, this resulted in developing bourgeois agriculture relations in the northern part of the colonies.

In Europe, where capitalism was already at work appropriating those who had escaped feudalism through the handicraft system or by free peasant farming, and turning them into an army of propertyless wage slaves, there was no further escape. Either work as wage slaves, starve to death, or be killed or Imprisoned as beggars and thieves – these were the alternatives. In America the escape to the west was still open. But this “escape” laid the basis for the further development and strengthening of bourgeois domination in America.

In the south conditions were different. The kinds of crops and the climatic conditions called for a different form. The crops demanded large scale agriculture production, and, capitalist agriculture relations were yet in their infancy. Feudalism could answer this request but, it could not furnish Serfs tied to the land and accustomed to the hot climate, when livelihood could be obtained by hunting and fishing, and trapping and free land for farming. The only suitable alternative, that rising bourgeois relations could tolerate was chattel slavery; bringing in large scale agriculture production, labor power bound in slavery, suitable for the climate. It was proven that the Indian could not serve this purpose. The white man from Europe had too easy an escape, even if it were possible to brand him as a chattel slave. The Negro race answered the need. Indentured slavery was the closest form to chattel slavery possible for the white man of Europe. It sufficed for the recruitment of a supply of labor in the north, but was not suitable for cotton and tobacco production in the south.

The traffic in Negro slaves was just as profitable as the traffic in indentured slaves. The chattel slave was more profitable for the south under the conditions. But in the latter period of Slavery in America the bourgeois relation had far outstripped the other forces and had shown that the wage slave was by far the most profitable for the master class. The conflict of these two antagonistic systems reached its climax in the Civil War. The forceful expropriation of the chattel masters’ property in the form of the slaves put an end to the most dangerous internal enemy of the bourgeois system. However, this did not remove all the obstacles and give a free hand for capitalist penetration. The carry-over was as heavy as a mountain, hindering all speedy solutions.

The expropriation of the chattel masters of their property in the slaves, opened up new avenues for capitalist development and new markets for penetration. The dictatorship which the capitalists set up in the south after the Civil War soon reduced the chattel masters to submission to the new rulers of America. In fact, the dictatorship was becoming a boomerang. The former slave was taking his liberty seriously in an increasing degree. The exploiters of the wage slaves were not long in learning they had a hundred times more in common with the former chattel masters than with the former slaves. The freedom taken by the slaves had to be checked; the dictatorship against the chattel masters was modified when their resistance was broken, when they came to terms – the terms of the northern capitalists. From them on the capitalist supremacy took on a form of democracy for the white rulers of the south, and a new form of dictatorship against the Negro masses who were driven into worse slavery than before.

The New Role of the Negro

The freeing of the Negro from chattel slavery opened the door to a tremendous supply of cheap labor for the American capitalist. In fact the supply was too great for developing capitalism to absorb. However, it remained in reserve, ever ready to be used as expansion would warrant. Although capitalist development in America was fairly fast, the influx of European wage slaves, already trained, kept in check the rapid transformation of former chattel slaves into wage slaves. The slaves’ “freedom” turned out to be a bourgeois joke. The former slave found himself, free from his former master’s obligation to feed, clothe and shelter him, and keep him well as property, but not free from the economic exploitation and political domination of the capitalists and plantation owners. Left “free”, without economic means for a livelihood (land and tools), the Negro was free to starve to death, to submit to his former master in worse economic subjection than before, or to become a wage slave, providing he could find an employer. The “free” Negro, without land or tools, had only one road to travel as a class and race – to submit to the new forms of exploitation, since conditions were not ripe for a successful revolution to free themselves from their white masters and obtain the land and tools of production for themselves. As a race they adjusted themselves to the new condition – unassimilated as wage slave; not held as chattel slaves; reflecting the old and looking at the new, but representing neither. They started the process by eking out an existence on the land and as servants of the white rulers; part slave, part serf and part wage slave.

At the time of the transformation only the Marxists realized the historic significance of the “freeing” of the chattel slaves. The history of American labor cannot be written properly unless this current is traced back and properly connected with the development of the white and negro proletariat and their allies in the coming revolution.

Westward expansion, internal northern American development and colonial expansion could tolerate concessions to the white rulers of the south in return for their political support as plantation owners. Rule the Negroes in your own state as you like so long as you support your political hegemony, said the northern capitalist; and besides you can make more profits by your support than by resistance. And just as the freedom of the American revolution amounted to so many words and pieces of paper for the workers and farmers, so much did the freedom of the Civil War amount to for the Negro masses.

(To be continued)

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