Workers Vanguard No. 1083
12 February 2016
Spartacist League Speaker at Oakland Holiday Appeal
(Class-Struggle Defense Notes)
The following remarks, edited for publication, were given by Spartacist League spokesman Reuben Samuels at the January 31 Oakland event.
Black bodies stacked in cages, blood on the streets and poison in Flint’s drinking water: these atrocities reveal capitalist America’s racist impulse to genocide. Chilling videos of racist cop executions generate nationwide protests around the plaintive rallying cry “Black Lives Matter”—in a social order where they clearly don’t. Deindustrialization has turned too many black youth into an unwanted surplus population, to be gunned down or locked up.
The formal gains of the civil rights movement have been rolled back. Michelle Alexander’s indictment of the racist justice system made “the new Jim Crow” a popular catchphrase. In the streets, the cop pistol replaces the lynch rope.
There is a state-sanctioned war on black people, and it is a very old war: Black oppression is indispensible to American capitalism, which was built upon the lash-scarred backs of slaves. It keeps the mass of black people forcibly segregated at the bottom and the working class divided. That is why Alexander’s well-meaning prescription for “movement building”— pressuring for reforms from the very government that was built to enforce capitalist exploitation and racial oppression—is such a treadmill of defeat and resulting demoralization.
Achieving full social, economic and political equality for black people mandates socialist revolution. For precisely this reason, Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky told his supporters in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP): “We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by historic development to become a vanguard of the working class.”
Flint, Michigan, was the birthplace of General Motors, where militant sit-down strikes in the 1930s spearheaded the United Auto Workers union. But the big auto plants left, heading south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and Flint was turned into a debtors’ prison where more than 40 percent live below the poverty line. Democratic presidential contenders Clinton and Sanders may be wringing their hands now, but the cover-up of the Flint water crisis was a bipartisan criminal cabal condemning a generation of children to brain damage. It ran from Obama’s EPA to the Republican statehouse. And Obama still refuses to declare Flint a disaster, thereby denying the city the real money and resources it needs.
While Flint today is a far cry from its heyday as a bastion of labor power, a multiracial working class still exists in the region. Flint needs a working-class fight for a massive program of federally funded public works, employing union members at union wages to rebuild infrastructure. How do we get that with a labor bureaucracy that sacrifices workers’ needs to the bosses’ profits? Clearly, labor needs a different kind of leadership.
Last year, we published the pamphlet Then and Now, which drew the crucial political lessons of the 1934 strikes by Minneapolis truckers, West Coast maritime and Toledo auto parts workers. Waged in the depth of the Great Depression, after a decade-long decline of organized labor, these strikes confronted the full force of the bosses’ state. Unlike many strikes then, they won! Why? A key factor was that the strike leaders were committed to a class-struggle program, with no illusions that workers had common interests with the employers, their parties or their state: a leadership that grasped the class nature of American capitalism and the social power of those who made the economy run. Those victories changed history, inspiring the labor upsurge that built mass industrial unions.
But there was another development equally critical for charting a revolutionary perspective in America: the impact of the Russian Revolution on the black question. The early American labor movement was combative but was crippled by anti-black and anti-immigrant bigotry. In the age of the robber barons, Jay Gould bragged: “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”
It took the Russian Bolsheviks to begin to turn this around. To make a revolution in the tsarist “prison house of peoples,” Lenin had to wage a bitter fight within his own party for the Bolsheviks to become the champions of freedom and equality for oppressed nations and races, whom Lenin saw as crucial allies of the international working class in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.
In this spirit, we fight against deportations and for full citizenship rights for all who have made it here, not only because we fight all forms of social oppression. Immigrants often bring with them more militant traditions of class struggle that can invigorate the labor movement here and serve as the bridge of proletarian revolution to and from Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Immigrants help to internationalize the working class in this deeply parochial country.
After the Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Communist International (the Comintern) fought to transmit these lessons to their American comrades. As James P. Cannon, a founder of both the American Communist Party and later of American Trotskyism, would later write:
“The influence of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, even debased and distorted as it later was by Stalin, and then filtered through the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, contributed more than any other influence from any source to the recognition, and more or less general acceptance, of the Negro question as a special problem of American society.”
—“The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962)
As the Stalinized Communist Party abandoned the black struggle in order to support Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.S. imperialism, the then-Trotskyist SWP waged an aggressive fight for black rights and equality during World War II. That is our tradition. The SWP sought to link the fight for the defense of black rights to the working-class struggle against capitalism, recruiting hundreds of black workers and making a significant breakthrough in Detroit.
However, these gains and the tradition of “black and red” unity were largely wiped out in the ensuing Cold War period. Fighting black oppression was reduced to questions of discrimination and prejudice, which could be remedied without challenging American capitalism or its state. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision against Jim Crow education acknowledged the unequal distribution of resources as the root cause, but did not mandate redistribution as a remedy. The liberal-led civil rights movement could successfully overturn de jure segregation in the South, but it could not challenge black inequality in the U.S. as a whole. The best of a generation of black militants, the Black Panthers, were gunned down and locked up before they could be won to a revolutionary proletarian perspective; many of those who survived sold their souls to the Democrats, the other party of capital.
The dearth of class struggle today has created the climate of hopelessness and despair where angry black youth are sold “love yourself” identity politics and white anti-racists are told to “check your privilege.” The noted black spokesman for the politics of despair Ta-Nehisi Coates has some cachet because he dissed Obama for blaming blacks, especially black men, for their own oppression. But his best seller Between the World and Me collectively guilt-trips white people. Thereby it amnesties the truly guilty, the white American ruling capitalist class. According to Coates, every broken black body, like Freddie Gray’s in the back of a Baltimore police van, “privileges” the white race, because it wasn’t the body of their son, brother or lover. And there is nothing you can do about it, he says, except demand that whitey pay some blood money in the form of reparations.
Coates opens this work with a quote from acclaimed black writer James Baldwin, whom he claims to imitate: “And they have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.” This quote, taken from Baldwin’s essay “On Being ‘White’...and Other Lies,” has exactly the opposite meaning from that which Coates seeks to impart. Baldwin was a liberal integrationist and a universalist. In his searing indictment of racial and sexual oppression in America, Baldwin sought to debunk the myth of “white privilege,” as the title of the essay underlines. In the passage directly preceding the quote above, Baldwin said of whites: “By informing their children that Black women, Black men and Black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of Black people, they debased and defamed themselves.”
Although Baldwin would not agree with the means that we believe are necessary, he shared with us a passionate desire for a world where all forms of racial discrimination and oppression—along with the very existence of race, ethnicity and nationality as categories of any social significance—will be nothing but memories of a barbaric capitalist past. But getting there requires a series of workers revolutions to sweep away capitalist rule. Combating the very real racial, national and other prejudices that divide the working class is crucial to forging the revolutionary leadership needed for victory. That will allow our irrepressible sex drive (which never respected artificial boundaries, as Neanderthal DNA in our genome testifies) to do the rest. If you want to fight for such a world, come join us.