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Workers Vanguard No. 864

17 February 2006

The Legacy of Richard S. Fraser

Revolutionary Integrationism: The Road to Black Freedom

Black History and the Class Struggle

Part One

When Hurricane Katrina left untold thousands of poor, overwhelmingly black people either dead or homeless, the reality of black oppression in the U.S. was laid bare. Half a century after the outbreak of the mass struggles for black civil rights, official Jim Crow segregation in the South is long gone. But the conditions of black life in this country—North and South—have worsened, from jobs and wages to housing and education, while cop terror runs rampant in the ghettos and masses of young black men have been relegated to years in prison. The situation cries out for massive class and social struggle against the racist U.S. capitalist rulers, based on a firm understanding of the roots of black oppression and the lessons of past struggles for social equality.

From the formation of the Spartacist tendency in the early 1960s, we have stood for the perspective and program of revolutionary integrationism. This position is counterposed to both the liberal reformist response to black oppression and to all political expressions of black separatism. The liberation of black people from conditions of racial oppression and impoverishment—conditions inherent to the U.S. capitalist system—can be achieved only in an egalitarian socialist society. And such a society can be achieved only through the overthrow of the capitalist system by the working class and its allies. As we wrote in “Black and Red—Class-Struggle Road to Negro Freedom,” a document adopted at the founding conference of the Spartacist League in September 1966 and subsequently printed in Marxist Bulletin No. 9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League”: “Because of their position as both the most oppressed and also the most conscious and experienced section, revolutionary black workers are slated to play an exceptional role in the coming American revolution.”

We have described the black population in the U.S. as an oppressed race-color caste. We noted in “Black and Red” that “from their arrival in this country, the Negro people have been an integral part of American class society while at the same time forcibly segregated at the bottom of this society.” Thus blacks face discrimination, in different degrees, regardless of social status, wealth or class position. Despite the increasing destruction of industrial jobs and erosion of union strength in recent decades, black workers, whose rate of union membership is a third higher than that of white workers, continue to be integrated into strategic sectors of the industrial proletariat, such as urban transit, longshore, auto and steel. Blacks also make up a large percentage of unionized government and public workers. Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will be the living link fusing the anger of the dispossessed ghetto masses with the social power of the multiracial proletariat under the leadership of a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party. Labor/black mobilizations initiated by the Spartacist League and its fraternal organizations, which defeated fascist Klan and Nazi provocations in a number of major cities over the past quarter-century, were concrete demonstrations of the fight for revolutionary integrationism.

The current expression of the concept of revolutionary integrationism derives from the ideas of Richard S. Fraser, a veteran Trotskyist who made a unique Marxist contribution to the understanding of American black oppression and struggle, particularly through his lectures and written documents in the 1950s. James Robertson, a founding leader of the Spartacist tendency, was won to Fraser’s views on the black question when both were members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the historic party of American Trotskyism which, however, underwent a process of rightward degeneration beginning in the late 1950s. Comrade Robertson later recounted that when he stayed a few days at Fraser’s home in Seattle, the latter pounded him incessantly with his views on the black question.

In 1963, the SWP leadership expelled the Revolutionary Tendency, a left opposition that was the forerunner of the Spartacist League. In 1964, within the first months of our existence as an organizationally independent tendency, we published Fraser’s “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question” (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [revised], “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism”). This document provided our members and supporters with the historical depth and Marxist understanding to combat the resurgence of black nationalism and its ersatz, bourgeois-sponsored offshoots like “community control,” which was adopted wholesale by most of the left.

Fraser accepted our invitation to be a co-reporter on the black question at our founding conference. While Fraser rejected our use of the term “caste” as applied to the American black population, he agreed in substance with the description of black oppression captured in this term. By the time of our conference, Fraser and his co-thinkers had left the SWP and formed their own organization, the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP). In 2004, the FSP published a book titled Revolutionary Integration: A Marxist Analysis of African American Liberation. It consists of two documents: “Dialectics of Black Liberation,” written by Fraser in 1963 when he was still in the SWP, and “Revolutionary Integration: Yesterday and Today,” written by Tom Boot and adopted by the FSP’s 1982 national conference.

While the FSP claims to be in Fraser’s tradition, Boot’s views are fundamentally contrary not only to the Spartacist League’s understanding of revolutionary integrationism but also to the main ideas of Fraser himself, who was cut off from the FSP by a split in 1967. The FSP saps the strong points of Fraser’s revolutionary integrationist perspective, exacerbates the weak points and, finally, distorts the entirety with the FSP’s own brand of eclectic reformism. It is necessary to examine and explain what revolutionary integrationism is and what it is not. In particular, we want to emphasize the strategic centrality of this concept in building a revolutionary vanguard party to lead the multiracial U.S. working class to power.

Marxism and the Fight
for Black Freedom

The October 1917 workers revolution in Russia, led by the Bolshevik party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, was a declaration of war upon the world capitalist system and a clarion call for all the exploited and oppressed to prepare for battle. This call was heard in all corners of the globe—Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and North America. In the U.S. it found a sympathetic response among workers and black people.

Within the early American socialist movement, the aim of black equality was treated with, at best, benign indifference, typified by Eugene V. Debs’ statement that socialism had “nothing special to offer the Negro,” ranging to outright hostility on the part of racists like Victor Berger. In The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962), James P. Cannon—a veteran of the revolutionary-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, a leader of the early Communist Party (CP) in the U.S. and later the founding leader of American Trotskyism—described the crucial intervention of Lenin and Trotsky’s Communist International in driving home the centrality of the fight for black freedom to proletarian revolution in the U.S. Cannon emphasized that Lenin and the Russian Revolution “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—a problem which cannot simply be subsumed under the general heading of the conflict between capital and labor” (emphasis in original).

The Trotskyist movement debated the black question beginning with the founding conference of the Communist League of America (CLA), formed by supporters of Trotsky expelled from the Stalinized Communist Party by 1928. Leading CLA member Arne Swabeck also discussed the black question when he visited Trotsky in exile in Turkey in 1933. Swabeck argued against the CP’s demand for “self-determination for the Black Belt” (a swath of majority-black counties across the Deep South), asserting that the race question was integral to the class question in the U.S. and that the main demand should be for full “social, political and economic equality” for black people.

Trotsky was inclined to support the self-determination slogan based on his experience with the national question in Europe. He admitted, however, that he had not studied the question and suggested, for instance, that Southern blacks might have their own suppressed “Negro language” (see “In Defense of Revolutionary Integrationism,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 49-50, Winter 1993-94). Trotsky was primarily concerned that the American Trotskyists have a serious orientation to the black question lest they capitulate to the backward consciousness of the working class. He returned to this question in 1939 discussions with American Trotskyist leaders, underscoring that without such an orientation, it would not be possible to make a revolution in the U.S.

Most of the CLA leadership adopted an integrationist, anti-nationalist position, which was the line of a lengthy 1933 document by Max Shachtman titled “Communism and the Negro” (recently reprinted in Race and Revolution, Verso [2003]). However, the CLA’s inchoate position was not theoretically grounded and developed. Unfortunately, Shachtman’s document was not widely distributed or discussed outside the leadership in the CLA. A 1939 convention of the SWP, which had been founded the year before, adopted two resolutions on the black question. While both were written by the West Indian intellectual C.L.R. James, they were contradictory in their basic thrust. The first, “The SWP and Negro Work,” stated that black people “are designated by their whole historical past to be, under adequate leadership, the very vanguard of the proletarian revolution.” The second resolution, “The Right of Self-Determination and the Negro in the United States and North America,” argued the theoretical possibility of the awakening of a national consciousness and mass demands for a “Negro state.”

In practice, the SWP was guided by an integrationist, class-struggle perspective. The party was able to recruit several hundred black workers during World War II by acting as the most militant fighters against racist oppression in the factories, armed forces and American society at large. The SWP’s courageous work, carried out in the face of government repression, was in the starkest contrast to the Communist Party, which, in line with its support to the Allied imperialist “democracies,” explicitly opposed struggles for black equality during the war.

Dick Fraser joined the Trotskyist movement in 1934. He was a founding member of the Socialist Workers Party, serving on its National Committee from 1940 to 1966. He began a study of the black question in the late 1940s in response to the loss of hundreds of black worker recruits with the onset of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. He concluded that the problem was not with the SWP’s practical, day-to-day work fighting discrimination and victimization of blacks but with the party’s inadequate theoretical understanding. Vital to the development and consolidation of a black Trotskyist cadre is a scientific (materialist) understanding of black oppression and a program corresponding to the actual living struggle for integration and equality.

Fraser began from the premise that black people, whom he described as “the most completely ‘Americanized’ section of the population,” were not an oppressed nation or nationality in any sense. Crucially, black people lacked any material basis for a separate political economy. Whereas the oppressed nations and nationalities of Europe (e.g., in the pre-1917 Russian tsarist empire) were subjected to forced assimilation, American blacks faced the opposite: forcible segregation. Hence, in the struggle against black oppression, the democratic demand for self-determination—separation into an independent nation-state—does not apply. As Fraser wrote in “Dialectics of Black Liberation”:

“The Black Question is a unique racial, not national, question, embodied in a movement marked by integration, not self-determination, as its logical and historical motive force and goal. The demand for integration produces a struggle that is necessarily transitional to socialism and creates a revolutionary Black vanguard for the entire working class.”

He had earlier noted in “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question”:

“The goals which history has dictated to [black people] are to achieve complete equality through the elimination of racial segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. That is, the overthrow of the race system. It is from these historically conditioned conclusions that the Negro struggle, whatever its forms, has taken the path for direct assimilation. All that we can add to this is that these goals cannot be accomplished except through the socialist revolution.”

Separatism or Social Equality?

Fraser emphasized that the entire history of mass black struggle—from the abolitionists through the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction to the civil rights movement—was in the direction of integration, not separatism. Radical Reconstruction in the South following the Civil War was a period of racial equality and black political empowerment unique in American history. In the 1930s, black workers participated in and often played leading roles in the great labor battles that created powerful, racially integrated industrial unions. The civil rights movement was directed against legalized segregation in the South and de facto segregation in housing and education, along with job discrimination, in the North.

Significant political expressions of black separatism have come in the aftermath of defeats and consequent demoralization in the face of a seemingly intractable racist capitalist order. Marcus Garvey’s ephemeral “Back to Africa” movement, which peaked in the early 1920s, was conditioned by the violent anti-black reaction at that time. Many black workers who had gained employment during the industrial boom of the First World War lost their jobs, the victims of racist discrimination and harder economic times. This period saw the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and in a number of cities, white racist mobs attacked and terrorized black communities.

The upsurge of “revolutionary” black nationalism in the late 1960s, best represented by the Black Panther Party, was a response to the frustrated expectations of the Northern civil rights struggles. Those struggles promised much but left unchanged the hellish conditions of life in the inner-city ghettos that are rooted in the capitalist profit system. As an expression of despair, black nationalism, or separatism, would deny blacks their birthright: the wealth and culture their labor has played a decisive role in creating.

Fraser pointed out that the whole notion of “race” has been proven to be scientifically absurd. There is only one “race,” the human race. But he also noted that any black person in the U.S. would laugh if you said that race does not exist, and he would be right. Race is a scientific absurdity but a social fact.

The color bar is the American social measuring stick ranging from blacks on the bottom to whites on the top. The social standing and prospects of all “people of color” are largely determined by this measuring stick, with dark-skinned people tending toward the black end and lighter-skinned toward the white end. This is clearly indicated by the extent of intermarriage (the basic mechanism of social integration) across racial and ethnic lines. The level of intermarriage between whites and Latinos or Asian Americans is far higher than that between whites and blacks. The U.S.-born daughter of a Chinese immigrant family is far more likely to have a white husband than is a young black woman whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains three centuries ago.

The racial division of black and white is the fundamental fact that defines American culture and shapes political discourse, even though black people constitute a relatively small minority of the population (roughly 12 percent). Of course, the fundamental economic relationships operating in the U.S. are the same as in all other capitalist class societies: the basis of oppression, including racial oppression, is the exploitation of labor by capital. Anti-black racism is the greatest obstacle to working-class unity in the U.S., providing an illusion of common interests between white workers and their class enemy, the white capitalist exploiters.

Until the substantial entry of blacks into industry in World War I, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigotry was the capitalists’ chief weapon in dividing and holding back the working class and impeding the development of a strong, politically conscious workers movement. Since that time, anti-black racism has been the most prominent factor in the lack of even a reformist mass political party of the working class organized separately from the capitalist parties, such as exists in all other advanced capitalist countries (and many not-so-advanced countries with a substantial working class). In the U.S., workers remain chained to the “liberal” capitalist Democratic Party. Anti-black racism is at the root of the backwardness of the working class and, in general, of the reactionary features of U.S. society. It is on this basis that the centrality of the black question to the American workers revolution must be understood.

The Legacy of Slavery

The racial divide between black and white is the legacy of slavery and the defeat of Radical Reconstruction. Fraser held that blacks on the slave plantations of the Old South had developed a democratic and egalitarian subculture that enabled them to play a key role in the second American bourgeois-democratic revolution: the Civil War that smashed the system of chattel slavery and the period of Radical Reconstruction following the war. Fraser wrote in “Dialectics of Black Liberation” that the cultural attitudes of the black slaves

“inundated the transplanted Anglo-Saxon culture of the slave owners. In the rest of the country a cultural vacuum prevailed, born of the melting pot, of class fluidity, of constant migration and immigration. The vacuum acted like a sponge in absorbing Black folk culture. It was readily apparent that the chief barriers between Black and white were sociopolitical, not cultural, and that whites basically needed and responded to the Black culture.”

The War of Independence—this country’s first bourgeois-democratic revolution—freed the American colonial mercantile capitalists and farmers from subordination to the British ruling class in the late 18th century. The Civil War was a social revolution that freed an oppressed, exploited class—the black slaves—and destroyed the South’s basic ruling-class institution, the slave plantation. The ensuing period of Radical Reconstruction brought such gains as political enfranchisement and public education for black freedmen and poor whites alike. This period also saw an enormous expansion of democratic rights for immigrant and native-born white workers in the North as well. For example, the extension of citizenship rights to all those born in this country, codified in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and now challenged by anti-immigrant bigots, was a direct result of the revolutionary destruction of the Southern slavocracy.

Spearheaded by the Ku Klux Klan, the white propertied classes of the South waged a war of terror against the Reconstruction governments and the black communities that were their core base of support. The fate of the post-Civil War South was determined by the now-dominant Northern capitalist class, whose members shared no fundamental interest with the black freedmen and poor whites of the region. Quite the contrary. Black labor was vital to the Southern agricultural economy that was, in turn, vital to the national capitalist economy. A renewed alliance of the propertied classes in the North and South was built on the broken back of black labor.

The former black chattel in his freedom was reduced to peonage. As slaves, blacks owned nothing, not even their own bodies, and worked collectively on large plantations. Black sharecroppers owned their bodies and a share of the crop, but not the land they worked individually on divided lots of the former plantations. Whereas the slave was held as property to the plantation owners, the sharecropper was held in debt to the white landlords and financiers, many of them members of the former slavocracy. In New Data on the Laws Governing the Development of Capitalism in Agriculture (1915), Lenin polemicized against the notion that the U.S., which had never known feudalism, was free from its economic survivals, noting: “The economic survivals of slavery are not in any way distinguishable from those of feudalism, and in the former slave-owning South of the U.S.A. these survivals are still very powerful” (emphasis in original).

As Fraser explained in “Dialectics of Black Liberation”:

“After the Civil War and Reconstruction destroyed the old slave-owning class, northern capital, from economic and political motives, betrayed its promises and created a revised, capitalist form of race relations based upon many of the traditions and social relations of slavery. Segregation took the place of the chattel slave as the main prop of the new racist order.” [emphasis in original]

Fraser also pointed out in the same piece that the re-establishment of white- supremacist rule in the South, supplemented by the extralegal violence of the KKK, and the violent and complete suppression of black democratic rights had a profoundly reactionary effect on American political culture as a whole:

“What was original to U.S. culture were certain progressive institutions—the plebeian folk-hero, democratic and informal manners, the relatively advanced position of women, unionism, the public school, individualism and free speech, and many more…. But these were all corrupted by the victory of Jim Crow and segregation following Reconstruction.

“Denied the opportunity to further absorb Black creativity, white American culture was left in a feeble state. The mores and habits of the imperialist ‘robber barons” took over. This new capitalist class, produced by the Civil War, stamped its ruthless, vulgar and Philistine image on American thought. A new house of culture was built upon White Supremacy and American Superiority.”

The End of Legalized Segregation in the South

With the benefit of hindsight, a serious analytical error on Fraser’s part—exploited and vulgarized by the latter-day Freedom Socialist Party—was his belief that Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution was applicable to the American South. Briefly stated, this concept is that in backward capitalist countries the historic tasks of the bourgeois revolution—i.e., removing the obstacles to socio-economic modernization, centrally imperialist domination and feudal-derived survivals in economic relations and political structure—could be achieved only through a proletarian revolution. Such a revolution would replace the capitalist system of production by a planned, collectivized economy, leading, through the international extension of proletarian revolution, to a socialist order.

In Fraser’s view, the struggle against the white-supremacist regimes in the South, which he described as “fascist-like,” was an uncompleted task of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the U.S.—an advanced capitalist society despite the backward conditions reigning in the South:

“The permanent revolution in America reveals itself in the following manner: the Southern system represents massive survivals of chattel slavery. These survivals take the form of great social problems unsolved by the Civil War and Reconstruction: an antiquated system of land tenure, the absence of democratic rights, segregation and racial discrimination….

“This circumstance leads to the inescapable conclusion that although the tasks of the liberation of the South are of an elementary democratic nature, they have no solution within the framework of American capitalism: they become part of the socialist struggle of the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist system of production.”

—“Resolution on the Negro Question” (1957), reprinted in “In Memoriam—Richard S. Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990

Additionally, Fraser argued that the black middle class had a direct material interest in the preservation of segregation. Hence the black working class would be propelled into the leadership of the struggle for democratic rights. To be sure, black businessmen, such as the owners of local department stores and funeral parlors, wanted to retain a monopoly of commercial trade in the segregated black communities South and North. However, by the late 1950s, the social character of the black petty bourgeoisie was undergoing a significant change. A college-educated managerial/professional stratum wanted access to government, corporate and educational bureaucracies on the same footing as their white counterparts. And it was this stratum, which used to be called “the talented tenth,” that was the main beneficiary of the civil rights movement. The sons and daughters of black businessmen typically became government functionaries and middle-level corporate managers.

In general, Fraser did not fully recognize the substantial changes in the socio-economic structure of the South at the onset of the civil rights movement. The white-supremacist regimes had as their basic purpose the suppression of the mass of black rural toilers, typically sharecroppers. The increasing urbanization of the South and the modernization of its agriculture in the 1940s and ’50s eroded the social and economic basis of the Jim Crow system. These were the fundamental developments that gave rise to the civil rights movement: the mobilization of the black populace in the struggle for basic democratic rights. Additionally, legally enforced white supremacy in the South had become an embarrassment for the U.S. imperialist rulers in their global Cold War against the Soviet Union, especially among the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Between the 1960s and the late 1970s, the legal-political structure of the South was brought into alignment with the bourgeois-democratic norms in the rest of the country. This development underscores the fact that the root cause of black oppression lies in the workings of the U.S. capitalist economy, not the legal sanctions of the bourgeois state. Today, blacks possess at least formal equality under the law, although this is pervasively violated in practice. The past two or three decades have seen increased segregation, particularly in Northern urban areas, along with higher black unemployment and homelessness, a racist purge in higher education, the scourge of AIDS and the massive imprisonment of young black men carried out in the name of “the war on drugs.” Black pockets of the rural South are still marked by deep poverty and vicious repression, to say nothing of the plight of black New Orleans. These conditions cannot be eradicated by a new civil rights movement and a new Civil Rights Act but only by the overthrow of the capitalist system through proletarian socialist revolution.



Workers Vanguard No. 864

WV 864

17 February 2006


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Israel Out of the Occupied Territories! For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!


The Legacy of Richard S. Fraser

Revolutionary Integrationism: The Road to Black Freedom

Black History and the Class Struggle

Part One


"Brownie" Spills Some Beans

New Orleans Racist Atrocity: Crime and Cover-Up


Racial Oppression and the Supreme Court Hearings

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