Black Americans (1932)

by Paul Mattick

Seventy years after the American Civil War officially abolished slavery in this country and made Negroes “free” citizens with voting rights, there is still a “Negro question” in the United States. This Negro problem will not cease to be a problem until a socialist consensus takes hold in society. The liberation of the Negroes is only possible with the liberation of labour. Seventy years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book which like no other provoked an unprecedented sympathy within the Christian world, five million slaves still exist throughout the world under similar or even worse conditions than those described in the novel.

The first Negro slaves were sold to America in 1619. For a century already, Dutch and English entrepreneurs had conducted a lively trade in Negroes, capturing them on the African coast and selling them in the West Indian colonies. During this period, a shortage of “free labourers” prevailed in North America. Children were kidnapped off London streets and destined for the New World, while English prisons were emptied and convicts shipped to America—these were the ancestors of the bona fide 100% Americans of 1933.

Even with all this, labour shortages prevailed. Paupers who hoped for an independent life settled on the abundant open territories rather than work on the plantations of the large landowners. Due to this, slaves became a necessity. And according to the morality of the landowner, whose worldview was precisely that of landed property, what is necessary is also permissible. Initially, slaves cost $300, but the price slowly rose until it reached $4000 just before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Statistics indicate how profitable the acquisition of slaves must have been; by 1760, half the population of 300,000 were black. The growth of slavery paralleled the development of the tobacco trade and broke all records when cotton production began. As the consumption of tobacco and cotton increased, so did the consumption of Negroes. No longer was the exploitation of Negroes a long, drawn-out process, as was the situation at first, rather they were used up as quickly as possible. One literally beat as much out of them as possible in the shortest amount of time.

At the time of the cotton boom, the average working life of a slave was seven years. His social position was that of a horse or a dog—if you consider that animal protection societies were still unknown, such that the situation of a Negro then cannot be compared with the situation of a horse today. People with rich imaginations, such as Madame LaLaurie of New Orleans, kept slaves to relieve the boredom of sunny Sunday afternoons.1 This lady kept her living property chained to the walls of her Spanish-style mansion, scissored off their ears, or repeatedly burned them. Anyone who did not own slaves was not considered a fully-entitled member of society. George Washington was not only America’s greatest hero, but also one of the greatest slaveholders. Slavery was “natural”, however, only as long as it was profitable. In principle, no one favoured slavery, except for victims of their passions like Madame LaLaurie. During a debate in 1808, Ellsworth quite nicely stated: “Let us not intermeddle. As population increases poor labourers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless. Slavery in time will not be a speck in our Country.” And John Adams agreed with this view: “In some countries the labouring poor were called freemen, in others they were called slaves; but that the difference as to the state was imaginary only.”

The rising cost for Negroes soon conflicted with industrial development. In 1853, the London Economist wrote: “Slaves are very expensive instruments of production. They raise the price of commodities. They eat and consume even when there is no work for them. Wage labour is different. There, the employer’s responsibility ends as soon as he has paid the daily wage. Higher profits today result from using wage labour than slaves. The Rothschilds and Astors, because they used wage labour, are millionaires, not the plantation owners of the South.”2

With the development of industry in the Northern states, and with the huge quantity of surplus value produced through the exploitation of wage labour, the North’s capitalists became the economically strongest class. Governmental power, however, still resided in the Southern states, who used it to advance their own interests that were closely tied to slavery. The rising capitalists formed the Republican Party and challenged the South’s Democratic Party. As capitalists, they sought protective tariffs and railroads, laws that permitted trusts, and an aggressive policy against workers, who by then had begun to stir. The Democrats, on the other hand, had completely different interests, namely free trade, slavery, and more land for the plantation owners. These alone were the reasons for the Civil War, not the nobleness of the North or the inhumanity of the South.

The Civil War of 1861-1865 ended with the victory of the industrialists and led to the capitalist development of America, eclipsing all that had gone before. Now there are only free labourers without regard to skin colour: one no longer buys labourers, but labour power. The Negro was upgraded from a dog to a second-class human being, a level on which he will be kept until the exalted manufacturers lose their special status. Even today, “educated” people write the English word “negro” in lower case, while all similar names like “Indian”, “German”, “Italian”, and “Japanese” are capitalised.

Twelve million Blacks lived in the United States as of 1930, with five million living on farms. In urban industrial areas, they perform the “lowest” and hardest work. They are coal trimmers, miners, road workers, hotel employees, and more. Their wages are almost always lower than the wages of whites. Many companies refuse to employ Negroes, others do so exclusively. In any case, the bourgeoisie tries to maintain the separation of Blacks and whites by all means. Many states prohibit marriage between Blacks and whites. Even the reactionary labour organisations cultivate racial hatred by refusing to admit Negroes. The majority of downtrodden workers are just glad not to be included among the lowest rung of humanity, and consequently treat the “niggers” like dogs.3 Their attitude toward Negroes is based on complete ignorance. Avoidance, no contact or familiarity, and yet judgments are ready made. There are people who have lived in America for fifty years without getting to know even one Black person, yet they can talk for hours about the unpleasant aspects of those Negroes.

Racial hatred finds its highest intensity in the popular celebrations known as “lynchings”. The “lynching instinct” is a product of the press and is often used for the most primitive business. A Negro worker, for example, went to his employer’s office and demanded his wages, which had not been paid for months. To save this wage, the small businessman claimed that the Negro had attempted to rape his wife. That same evening, the victim was hanging from a tree. An exceptional case? Certainly not, only a very clear one. Cause for lynching is present whenever a Negro exercises his right to vote, when he acts as a witness against a white man, or merely contradicts him. Southern newspapers love making accusations of rape of a white woman after the fact, whenever white perpetrators have been apprehended and are expected to stand trial.

With the rising danger of economic warfare in the South and a fearful common strike front between whites and Negroes, it became necessary to break this front by creating and inciting senseless racial hostility. The result was the Scottsboro case, with eight Negroes in the electric chair.

This murder sentence is part of the “legal” lynching that unfortunately is not captured in any of the statistics. The unlawful cases alone occur in numbers that make any cultured person shudder. From 1882-1927, 3071 Negroes were lynched in the ten most backward states:

Mississippi 517
Georgia 510
Texas 370
Louisiana 347
Alabama 304
Florida 247
Arkansas 244
Tennessee 213
South Carolina 165
Kentucky 154

In 1931, there were “only” 13 unlawful lynchings in the United States.

In the North, hatred of Negroes is slowly receding. Unemployment and welfare support have a levelling effect. Workers learn from practical experience that they are all poor devils, whatever the colour of their skin. The radical labour organisations campaign against racial prejudice. Joint demonstrations have become commonplace. Only in the South has nothing changed. The unemployed, who haunt workplaces there and see Negroes working, curse at the competition and mutter even more vehemently, “Those goddamn niggers!”

The emancipation of Black Americans was nothing but an emergency economic measure. They were given the “right” to sell their labour power and forced to sell it cheaply. The labour crisis faced by white workers only increases their competitive hatred against Blacks. Were labour power to cease functioning as a commodity, competition would disappear, and with it the foundation of racial prejudice. The Negro question can thus be solved only through socialism.


Originally published in Urania, Kulturpolitische Monatshefte über Natur und Gesellschaft, 1932, Vol. 9, No. 9, pp. 262-5.