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Workers Vanguard No. 897

31 August 2007

“Racial Oppression and Working-Class Politics”

Revolutionary Marxists at 1969 PL-SDS Conference

(Young Spartacus pages)

Letter Appended

Crystalizing out of student and youth struggles against segregation and, later, against the Vietnam War, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) became the iconic organization of the New Left radical student movement of the late 1960s. Originally the youth group of the Cold War “socialists” of the League for Industrial Democracy, under the impact of events, SDS was drawn increasingly to the left. In 1965, SDS dropped its anti-Communist exclusion clause and soon was separated from the League entirely. It grew rapidly, drawing in tens of thousands of young activists at its peak. However, after years of rejecting the history of the “old left” as sectarian, sterile and irrelevant, SDS found itself confronting the same questions, centrally: what force can bring about social change, what attitude should be taken toward the Soviet Union and other workers states, and how to combat racial oppression.

A broad span of tendencies began to gain followers within SDS, ranging from the Moscow-line Stalinists of the Communist Party to the revolutionary communist Spartacist League, as well as anarchists, Maoists and uncritical cheerleaders for Third World and black nationalism. Intense ideological struggles ensued in which spokesmen for various positions were able to compete for hegemony. Some of the petty-bourgeois radicals in SDS were able to overcome the oppressive weight of bourgeois ideology and re-learn lessons set forth in the Communist Manifesto regarding the working class as the modern agency of social revolution.

At the national SDS convention in the summer of 1969, a split took place between the National Collective, a bloc of groups that tailed national-liberation movements and dismissed the proletariat, and the crudely pro-working-class tendency of the Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) led by the left-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party (PL). The Revolutionary Marxist Caucus, supporter of Spartacist politics within SDS and forerunner of today’s Spartacus Youth Clubs, worked within the WSA wing (known as PL-SDS), struggling to transform SDS into a socialist youth organization open to all political tendencies seeking revolutionary political change. It was in this context that “Racial Oppression and Working-Class Politics” was produced as a position paper presented for discussion at PL-SDS’s December 1969 New Haven conference.

The National Collective degenerated rapidly on the one side into Weatherman-style anarcho-terrorist despair, and on the other into internecine Maoist factional squabbling driven by the twists and turns of the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy. (Today’s Revolutionary Communist Party is one result.) Some, such as Bernardine Dohrn, have found their place braintrusting the “New SDS,” a liberal talkshop whose main purpose so far seems to be drawing in youth to aid the Democrats’ prospects in the 2008 elections.

The PL wing of SDS also degenerated, although not as rapidly, eventually retreating into campus parochialism and ordinary reformism, leading pointless and tepid campaigns against “racist textbooks.” Today Progressive Labor, still Stalinist and now without the leftward pressure imparted by the radicalization of the 1960s, vacillates between increasingly hollow sectarian “revolution now” rhetoric and run-of-the-mill liberalism. Readers may also note that the position paper devotes some attention to the Labor Committee of Lyn Marcus, who is currently known as Lyndon LaRouche. While LaRouche today is a right-wing crackpot, at the time he was a left-wing crackpot. The Labor Committee was a tendency to be contended with in SDS, and served as a useful polemical foil for the exposition of our Marxist program.

Youth now are far more likely to encounter liberal hand-wringing over racism à la the “New SDS” than the distorted orientation to the working class that the RMC’s main fire was directed against at the time. However, this position paper, written in a period of significantly higher consciousness and struggle, remains a powerful exposition of a genuine Marxist approach to black oppression, laying out a perspective in which the struggle for black freedom is bound up with the general struggle for the emancipation of the working class.

* * *

It hardly needs saying that increasing black-white conflict is the dominant feature of the current American political scene. The polarization of U.S. society along racial lines has been reflected even within the left, which has become increasingly split between supporters of Black Nationalism and advocates of an oversimplified pro-working-class line, indifferent and sometimes hostile to the Black liberation movement. One effect of the increasing black-white hostility is that any struggle involving Black people is viewed as the same struggle. Everything, from demands for Black Studies departments to integrating the building trades, is seen as part of a larger Black liberation movement, and attitudes toward each particular struggle are determined by general theoretical outlook.

The position of this paper is that Marxists must aggressively fight against the oppression of the Black masses while rejecting Black Nationalist pseudo-solutions. This must be done in ways that are compatible with the over-all goals of socialism. This means making clear and careful distinctions between different demands and struggles of the Black movement and different facets of the race question generally. Our guiding concern must be to link up a pro-working-class political line with demands aimed at fighting the pervasive double oppression of Black workers.

Racism and Racial Oppression

One result of the ghetto uprisings in Watts, Detroit, Newark and elsewhere was that it was no longer possible to deny that Black people were deeply hostile to the state of American society. The liberals argued (e.g., in the Kerner Report) that the oppression of Black people was a result of the racism of the white population, rather than locating the source of oppression and hostility in the working of the economic system and the policies of the ruling class and deliberately obscuring the fact that some whites have qualitatively more social power than others. To blame the oppressed condition of Black people on pervasive racist attitudes is a variant of the classic reactionary argument that social ills stem from a flawed human nature. By placing the blame for racial oppression on the white population en masse, the liberal wing of the ruling class not only deny their own responsibility, but even pose as champions of the Black people against the ignorant and bigoted white workers. In some cases, blaming racist attitudes begs the question. Many liberal capitalist bosses do not believe any of the myths of racial inferiority, yet deliberately pursue oppressive policies aimed at dividing workers along ethnic lines.

The widespread acceptance on the left of the liberal myth that the oppression of Black people results from the racism of the white lower classes has been totally destructive of the left. Its most extreme exponents are, of course, the Weathermen, who regard the white working class as hopelessly corrupted by racism, and, therefore, “the enemy.” However, even those who realize that racism is against the long-term interests of white workers, such as the Worker-Student Alliance caucus, see changing racial attitudes as the key to the problem.

It is essential to make a distinction between those actively responsible for racial oppression and the masses, who passively accept it. An analogy of the relation between national chauvinism and imperialism is useful here. National chauvinism is rampant in the U.S.—look at the recent proliferation of American flag decals. Yet, no one would contend that U.S. counter-revolutionary policy in Viet Nam is the result of the nationalist attitudes of the American workers! National chauvinism helps sustain U.S. imperialism, but is not the cause of it. In a like manner, the racist attitudes of the white working class help sustain the oppression and economic degradation of the Black masses, but do not cause it.

Most white workers are neither active racists nor thorough-going integrationists. Rather, their attitude toward Black people is contradictory and differs according to the context. Many white workers will treat Black workers on the job as equals. Many believe Blacks should have equal rights, yet maintain racist attitudes on social and sexual questions. (A white worker might vote for a Black as union official, yet, as the saying goes, wouldn’t let his daughter marry him.) In general, there are many more white workers who will support the political and economic rights of Blacks and unite with them in struggle than there are who are really free of race prejudice. In addition, the level of racism is affected by the level of class struggle. Involvement in a militant strike action, for example, often combats backward consciousness on many levels.

The Southern Populist movement of the 1890s was the highest point of class struggle reached in the post-Reconstruction South. It not only united poor white and Black farmers around their shared economic interests, it also aggressively fought for the political rights of Black people. Yet, in deference to the white supremacist attitudes of most Southern farmers, the leaders of the Populist movement stressed that they were not in favor of social integration. Thus, by today’s standards, the Populist movement would be considered racist, although it aggressively fought for the political rights of Blacks. Certainly we should make no concessions to racism. But this example shows that fighting racism and fighting racial oppression are not identical.

For a Materialist Approach

The practical conclusion to be drawn from making this distinction between racism and racial oppression is that SDS is more likely to gain the support of white workers if we oppose concrete acts of racial oppression in the name of democratic rights and class solidarity, than if we rant about “fighting racism” as a social attitude (which has a moralistic tone to it—like fighting sin). Again, an analogy with the fight against imperialism is useful. In fighting American imperialism, we make specific demands, such as the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Viet Nam and all other countries. We do not approach this struggle mainly by calling moralistically on the American working class to give up its national chauvinism and solidarize with the international proletariat. To be sure, the demand for immediate withdrawal from Viet Nam implies an attack on patriotic attitudes, just as the demand to integrate a union implies an attack on racist attitudes. But we attack these attitudes at their weakest point, where they come into conflict with other powerful social attitudes.

There is an important tactical reason for using the terminology of fighting racial oppression rather than fighting racism. To announce that we are fighting racism within the working class implies that the rank and file white worker is the target of our hostility. To say we are opposing the double oppression of Black workers puts the responsibility where it belongs—on the capitalists and trade union bureaucrats. Rather than saying we expect the mass of white workers to oppose us, we are calling on white workers, as potential comrades, to fight the oppressors of Black people, who are the oppressors of white workers as well.

Black Rights and Economic Insecurity

Within SDS, the Labor Committee is considered the main exponent of the view that the widespread hostility of white workers to the Black liberation movement stems from a belief that Black equality will be achieved at their economic expense. So far as this view goes it is substantially correct. However, the Labor Committee has drawn a fundamentally wrong conclusion which leads to de facto tolerance for most forms of racial discrimination—namely that equality for Blacks be made conditional on whites not suffering any loss.

Given the insecurity of white workers, it is necessary to combine demands for equal opportunity for Blacks with demands aimed at assuring white workers that the benefits accruing to Blacks will not come at their expense. Thus, in demanding that more Black workers be admitted into skilled jobs, we should also raise demands (such as a shorter work week with no loss in pay) aimed at expanding total employment. However, an end to discrimination should not be made conditional to these broader demands being realized.

Under normal conditions, demands aimed at improving the condition of the working class as a whole are less within the power of the presently constituted labor movement than demands for the upgrading of one section of the class. Socialists have traditionally contended—and rightly—that permanent full employment and a continuously rising standard of living are not possible under capitalism. We can and must raise demands which take the level of consciousness outside the framework of capitalism—transitional demands which workers will accept as necessary but which cannot be achieved under this social system. But it would be a cruel joke on the legitimate aspirations of Black workers involved in struggle for socialists to make struggling for their rights conditional on the acceptance of other demands. If the attack on the economic oppression of Black people is to be postponed until the eradication of economic insecurity on the part of whites, racial oppression would continue to exist until several decades after the victory of the socialist revolution.

Labor Committee Default

In practice, the Labor Committee’s politics have meant toleration of racial oppression while posing ultimatistic solutions to the problem of the limited resources available to the working class under capitalism. A good example of this is the Labor Committee’s opposition to the so-called CCNY solution. After considerable agitation by Blacks, the City University system officials agreed to replace the existing admissions selection—based on academic qualifications—with an ethnic quota system increasing Black admissions. (The city government later rejected the agreement.) The Labor Committee argued that this was no solution to the problem and, correctly, called for open admissions for all working people. So far, so good. However, instead of critically supporting the CCNY solution against the present system, which is both class and race biased, while continuing to agitate for open admissions, the Labor Committee supported the status quo in effect, until the advent of free universal higher education. In other words, according to them the whites might as well have the lion’s share of social services until these services become unlimited.

The Labor Committee’s empathy for white workers worried about losing their jobs to Black militants causes them to blur an important distinction. It is the distinction between firing a white worker to replace him with a Black and eliminating discrimination in hiring. We should almost always oppose firing a white worker to replace him with a Black. On the other hand, we should always oppose discrimination in hiring even if this means (as it will in the building trades) that a larger percentage of the white labor force would be unemployed. The former would exacerbate racial antagonisms; the latter would tend to unite the working class in the fight against unemployment. The underlying principle is that Black workers should be treated as equals. We wouldn’t expect any employed worker to give up his job to an unemployed worker regardless of color. In a like manner, an unemployed Black worker should have the same chance to find a job as a white worker, and vice versa.

If the Labor Committee’s principle that the economic oppression of Blacks can be opposed only provided there is no re-distribution of income against whites is accepted, Blacks are slated to remain on the bottom of American society until socialism. If the desires of white workers must be substantially met before attacking the problem of racial discrimination, the benefits accruing to the Blacks will lag behind those of the class as a whole. In the Labor Committee schema, Blacks are given the role of residual claimants on the social and economic gains of the working class.

Black Rights as Class Demands

The Labor Committee’s belief that racism is simply a result of economic insecurity and will disappear when that insecurity is alleviated is as naive and wrong as the Weathermen’s view of racism as the radical equivalent of original sin. The Machinists and Shipbuilders unions attempted to maintain their white-only policies in shipyards and aircraft plants even in the middle of the World War II employment boom! On the other hand, some unions were established on an integrated basis during the Depression. The widespread racial oppression in the labor movement isn’t going to be eliminated without a political fight in the trade unions. Economic prosperity makes that fight easier to win. It doesn’t make it any less necessary.

The Labor Committee’s propaganda presents the economic effects of racial equality as only negative—namely, that such gains come only at the expense of white workers. It appears the Labor Committee has taken the arguments of racist demagogues too much at face value or that, for all their pretensions to expertise, they know very little about the economic facts of life. The upgrading of Black workers provides a higher floor for general wages and strengthens the competitive position of all workers. From the integration of the Mine Workers in the 1890s, the main factor bringing Black workers into the trade unions has been a desire to eliminate cheap, non-union labor, not moralism. One doesn’t have to be very sophisticated to see the connection between the systematic terrorization of the Black population and the maintenance of the South as a bastion of anti-unionism, low wages, and the runaway shop. If the indirect benefits of Black equality are not as obvious to white workers as the direct losses, part of our job is to make them obvious. Socialists have a responsibility to refute the lies of racist demagogues like [Alabama governor George] Wallace, that Black liberation means white workers will lose “their jobs, their money, and their women.” SDS should present the economic case for combatting racial oppression in the most attractive manner possible.

Black Liberation and Upward Mobility

An important aspect of the oppression of Blacks is the small size of the Black middle class. Not only are Black workers concentrated in lowest paid jobs, but there is a relatively small percentage of Black professionals, administrators and businessmen. Moreover, much of the Black middle class is restricted to the Black communities rather than being integrated into American corporate society.

Given the petty-bourgeois leadership of the Black movement, it is not surprising that many demands of that movement are aimed at increasing the upward mobility of the Black population. In its reaction against bourgeois aspirations in the Black movement, the WSA has made a major error—namely, it has refused to oppose those aspects of racial oppression expressly designed to keep Blacks out of the middle class. It is correct and necessary to denounce expanding the “Black bourgeoisie” as the solution to the problems of the Black masses. However, the WSA has taken the further step of refusing to fight discrimination against Blacks for middle-class positions. (Their position recalls a section of the French Marxists who thought they should be indifferent to the Dreyfus Case of anti-Semitism in the French officer corps. This sectarian disorientation actually facilitated their later collapse into opportunism.) The petty-bourgeois “hustlerist” aspect of the Black movement must be defeated politically, by being rejected by the Black masses. It will not and should not be defeated by erstwhile revolutionaries making a de facto alliance with the most reactionary sections of the ruling class to keep Blacks out of middle-class positions.

There is a parallel between the Labor Committee’s reaction to white workers’ fear of economic integration and the WSA’s approach to bourgeois goals in the Black movement. Both begin with correct premises, but reach conclusions which mean tolerance for certain forms of racial oppression. Thus, the Labor Committee opposes the CCNY solution because they don’t want educational resources redistributed against the white population, while the WSA opposes it because they don’t want more black B.A.s. Of the two positions, the Labor Committee’s is worse because it leads to acceptance of the worst forms of economic exploitation. However, the WSA’s position is also fundamentally sectarian.

The Worse the Better?

The principle of not opposing racial discrimination to the extent equality would strengthen the upward mobility of the Black population is impossible to implement. This is so because any improvement in the condition of the Black masses provides a basis for upward mobility. If the quality of ghetto primary school education is improved, for example, Black youth will be better able to compete for college admission. If Black workers have access to better-paying jobs, more of them will send their children to college.

The WSA’s position on this question is also incorrect at a higher theoretical level. Socialists have usually contended that racial oppression is inherent in capitalist society. The WSA, however, seems to be afraid that the ruling class is going to seriously ameliorate the oppression of Blacks. The whole line of argument has a “the worse, the better” flavor to it—Blacks should be kept down so they’ll be more revolutionary. It is similar to the position one usually associates with the Socialist Labor Party—opposition to reforms for fear that they may work! Coming from people who consider themselves orthodox Leninists, this faith in the ability of reformism to dampen class struggle and change class structure is as surprising as it is false, to say the least.

Moreover, from the standpoint of proletarian socialists, the expansion of the Black middle class would not be an unmitigated disaster. To the extent that the social structure of the Black population resembles that of the white population, class rather than race consciousness will be strengthened among both Black and white workers. The split between those Black Nationalists who consider themselves revolutionary and the “pork chop” Nationalists occurred precisely because the government was successful in co-opting large sections of the Black liberation movement. A Black worker who slaves for a few years under a Black boss is much more likely to see class, not race, as the fundamental division in American society.

The converse is also true. A white worker striking with fellow Black workers against a company which had a significant percentage of Black executive and managerial personnel would develop a more class-conscious attitude toward the Black population. It is precisely the overwhelming concentration of the Black population at the lowest social levels that tends to cause white workers to view Blacks with feelings of fear and contempt. The integration of sections of the ruling class would be paralleled by increased Black-white unity in the working class.

Trade Unions and the State

One of the most difficult problems facing American radicals is the widespread racial discrimination in the trade unions. In dealing with this problem, there is considerable social pressure, particularly on a campus-based group, to follow the lead of the liberals and use government action against discriminatory unions. Thus, most of the California left, including the Independent Socialist Clubs (now called International Socialists [predecessor of the International Socialist Organization]), supported a suit against Harry Bridges’ International Longshore and Warehouse Union under the Civil Rights Act. Likewise, there has been no significant left-wing opposition to the Nixon Administration’s “Philadelphia Plan” for the construction industry [aimed at breaking union hiring halls by setting quotas for minority hiring].

That liberals should look to the state to enforce equal rights in the labor movement is understandable. The fundamental principle of liberalism (and all other forms of capitalist political philosophy) is the supreme authority of the state over all other social institutions. However, Marxists consider the state an instrument of class oppression and regard the labor movement as the legitimate source of all social authority. In calling upon the state to integrate the unions, radicals are calling upon the capitalists to fight their battles for them, in a movement radicals eventually intend (or should intend) to lead against that very state. This is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled. Any increase in state control over the unions, regardless of the ostensible reason, must strengthen capitalism politically and ideologically.

A section of the ruling class realizes that the civil rights issue is an effective way to weaken the unions by turning Black people and middle-class liberals against them. Thus, a recent issue of Fortune magazine—an authoritative organ of the liberal bourgeoisie—contained an attack on the monopolistic abuses of the building trades unions. It concluded with a ten-point program, addressed to construction companies, on how to break the power of the unions. One of the ten points was union de-certification for failing to comply with the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

As the above example shows, ruling-class efforts to control the unions in the name of “public good” are usually a cover for union busting. The Nixon Administration is openly wooing Southern racists and doesn’t even pay lip service to civil rights. The only area of American society where Nixon is pushing civil rights is where unions are the target. This indicates that the motives behind the “Philadelphia Plan” are neither concern for the welfare of Black workers nor response to pressure from below. Rather, the only purpose is to discredit and weaken the labor movement.

When the ruling class seeks to weaken the power of the unions, they do not openly state they’re out to gouge the working class. They look for an attractive-sounding pretext. We are all against organized crime and for internal democracy in the unions. But the Landrum-Griffin Act hasn’t reduced gangsterism in the labor movement. Its principal effect has been to railroad Jimmy Hoffa, a tough and troublesome business unionist. And these laws would be used faster and harder against a communist union leadership than they will ever be used against the Mafia!

Permitting the government to determine the racial policies of unions gives the state a powerful weapon for union busting and influencing the selection of union leadership. And this weapon will not be used in the best interest of the working class. Whatever doubtful immediate gains Black workers get by the government opening up some jobs for them will be more than offset by the losses sustained by the entire working class due to the long-run effects of expanding state control over the labor movement. The only force on which we can rely is an organized, militant, class-conscious rank and file defending the gains of their unions against the bosses, the bureaucrats and the state.


I. In its propaganda and actions, SDS must concentrate on fighting concrete acts and practices of racial oppression, rather than simply opposing racism as a pervasive social attitude.

II. It may at times be necessary to support gains against Black oppression even if they imply short-term economic losses for sections of the white working class. However, our basic propagandistic thrust must be to keep gains for Blacks from being counterposed to white workers’ interests by raising the appropriate demands, and to seek to unite Black and white workers in common struggles.

III. SDS must oppose all forms of racial inequality, including those that are specifically designed to limit the upward mobility of the Black population.

IV. Under all circumstances SDS must oppose the expansion of state control over the labor movement, even when this is done in the name of the rank and file (e.g., fighting corruption, securing racial justice).

The New SDS: A Correction

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 900, 12 October 2007

3 October 2007

Dear Young Spartacus,

The introduction to “Racial Oppression and Working-Class Politics” in WV 897 wrongly describes the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as a “liberal talkshop whose main purpose so far seems to be drawing in youth to aid the Democrats’ prospects in the 2008 elections.” In our experience in New York, many SDS members have been repeatedly arrested in direct action protests. In March, for example, 23 SDS members were arrested after occupying a military recruiting center in lower Manhattan for two hours. Different SDS chapters have different characters—some are more explicitly anti-communist and anarchoid, some are more social-democratic, and some are influenced by ostensibly socialist organizations like the reformists of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization and Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (the Workers World Party’s youth organization).

What binds SDS together is lowest-common-denominator bourgeois liberal pressure politics. This means seeking to reform racist U.S. imperialism through appeals to the Democratic Party. This was illustrated at the SDS workshop at this spring’s Left Forum, where we exposed Manning Marable, the chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS—SDS’s “non-student” affiliate), for calling for a vote to John Kerry in the 2004 elections. We also pointed to the lessons of the Russian Revolution as a model for how to end capitalist exploitation. These two arguments evoked a hysterical uproar as MDS and SDS members in the room denounced us and the model of the Russian Revolution and “ideology.” This hostility toward “ideology” is an expression of anti-communism. What we want to argue with SDS members about is our revolutionary politics—not whether or not they are a talkshop.

Hal S.
New York Spartacus Youth Club

Workers Vanguard No. 897

WV 897

31 August 2007


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Part One


“Racial Oppression and Working-Class Politics”

Revolutionary Marxists at 1969 PL-SDS Conference

(Young Spartacus pages)


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