Workers Vanguard No. 1074
18 September 2015
Class-Struggle Road to Black Freedom
Marxism vs. the Myth of White Skin Privilege
We print below the second part of a presentation, edited for publication, given to a Spartacist League meeting in New York City this summer by Workers Vanguard Editorial Board member Paul Cone. Part One appeared in WV No. 1073 (1 September).
When the civil rights movement turned to the North, it rapidly found that no Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act could alter the hardened economic foundations of black oppression, manifested in rat-infested slums, mass unemployment, etc. Collision with the realities of racist American capitalism resulted in a fracturing of the civil rights movement and the emergence of its more militant wing. This polarization was powerfully reinforced by U.S. imperialism’s Democrat-led bloody counterrevolutionary war in Vietnam. In 1966, 24-year-old Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael raised the call for “black power.” Yet, while they were critical of the pro-Democratic Party pressure politics of the liberal civil rights leaders, the young Black Power militants had no counterposed political strategy or program—they themselves called for more black Democratic politicians, cops, judges and administrators.
To some extent, the Black Power demand reflected an attempt to grasp for solutions outside the framework of U.S. capitalist society. But, as we warned in “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom,” “The slogan ‘black power’ must be clearly defined in class, not racial terms, for otherwise the ‘black power’ movement may become the black wing of the Democratic Party in the South” (1966, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9). This is exactly what happened. A case in point is Georgia’s longtime Democratic Congressman John Lewis, who had been a radical SNCC leader in the 1960s.
With the union officialdom failing to mobilize labor’s social power in support of the civil rights movement, black militants who lacked a class perspective gave up on the idea of a racially egalitarian society and accepted segregation and racism as an unchangeable norm. Organizational separatism became a psychological compensation for the manifest impossibility of acquiring a separate black nation-state. SNCC purged its white members. Other nationalist groupings emerged, most prominent among them the Black Panther Party, which formed in Oakland in 1966.
The Panthers courageously stood up to the racist ruling class and its kill-crazy cops. Counterposed to the petty-bourgeois “pork chop” nationalism exemplified by Ron Maulana Karenga, who joined in the cop/FBI COINTELPRO vendetta that killed 38 of their members, the Panthers groped for a way out of the hell of black life in America through means that went beyond what was acceptable to the capitalist rulers. That is, they were subjectively revolutionary. But the Panthers’ glorification of ghetto rage and their rejection of the working class as the agent of socialist revolution and black freedom left them more vulnerable to state repression. The Panthers ran up against a vicious government campaign of assassinations, provocations, frame-ups and imprisonment aimed at beheading black struggle. In the end, they could only alternate between adventurism, with its bitter consequences, and appeals to the liberal establishment. Many of the Panthers who were not killed or locked away eventually made their way to the Democratic Party.
Against this backdrop emerged the doctrine of “white skin privilege” as announced by Noel Ignatin (Ignatiev) in his 1967 document “White Blindspot.” This concept was soon adopted by a section of the New Left, which impressionistically wrote off the American working class in its entirety as a labor aristocracy.
Underlying Ignatin’s “theory” is disdain for the need for a programmatically cohered revolutionary leadership. As we set forth in “Black and Red”: “Our immediate goal is to develop a black Trotskyist cadre. We aim not only to recruit Negro members—a shortcut to the working class in this period—but to develop these black workers into Trotskyist cadres who will carry a leadership role in organizing the black masses, within the League itself and elsewhere.” The period may have changed, but this goal, restated in the early 1980s as an aspiration for a 70 percent black party, has not changed in the nearly half-century of our existence.
Ignatin & Co. ignore the contradictions of capitalism that make proletarian revolution both necessary and possible. They also efface the history of integrated struggles and the betrayals of those struggles by both the union misleaders and the Stalinists, from whose milieu Ignatin came.
The Great Migration of black people out of the rural South, beginning around World War I, led to black workers increasingly becoming part of the industrial proletariat in the North. A similar process happened in the South as new industrial centers developed there over subsequent decades. Thus, rural sharecroppers were transformed into proletarians in large-scale factories. With white and black industrial workers sharing a clear identity of class interests, there was a basis for integrated class struggle and the struggle for black freedom. The forging of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) through a series of militant strikes in the 1930s opened the door for the integration of black workers into powerful industrial unions.
The Communist Party (CP) was in the forefront of fighting for black workers and farmers and against racial oppression and lynch-law terror during the early 1930s. CP-initiated Unemployed Councils in major cities fought against evictions. In the famous Scottsboro case, Communists led the struggle to free nine black youths who were framed up in 1931 on charges of raping two white girls on a freight train and jailed in Scottsboro, Alabama (eight of them sentenced to death).
The CP built the Share Croppers’ Union (SCU), which represented thousands of evicted black farmers as well as cotton pickers, largely centered in Alabama. The struggle to organize the SCU was conducted in a state of perpetual civil war with both legal and extralegal armed vigilante groups. By 1935, the SCU claimed some 12,000 members. The black-led SCU also sought, with great difficulty, to recruit rural whites to its ranks. In counties where the SCU was active, the CP routinely received hundreds of votes from an all-white electorate. Those impoverished whites who didn’t dare join a black-led union demonstrated their solidarity by voting for CP candidates when and where they could.
Courageous as this work was, the Stalinist CP by this time was no longer a revolutionary organization. After Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, Stalin proclaimed the Popular Front—an alliance with a mythical “progressive bourgeoisie.” Its American incarnation was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal alliance. In 1941, the CP hailed U.S. entry into WWII (which came six months after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union) and worked overtime to enforce a “no strike” pledge issued by the trade-union bureaucracy. The Communists demanded that black people forsake their struggle for equality in the interest of the imperialist war effort. The betrayals of the CP during the war years helped wipe out gains for black people and served to discredit radical movements generally, although hundreds of black workers joined the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
While calling on class-conscious workers to militarily defend the Soviet Union, the SWP opposed the interimperialist slaughter. For this, 18 Trotskyists and Minneapolis Teamsters leaders were imprisoned under the anti-communist Smith Act by the FDR administration in 1941. The SWP maintained a revolutionary course through the difficult WWII years and the immediate postwar period. During the war, the SWP took up and publicized the defense cases of black soldiers victimized for opposing Jim Crow segregation. In the aftermath of anti-black riots in Detroit in 1943, the Trotskyists fought for flying squadrons of union militants to stand ready to defend black people menaced by racist mobs. As a result, the SWP made a major black recruitment breakthrough in that city. However, under the intense pressure of the Cold War, most of these recruits left the party over the next few years.
In the late 1940s, on the heels of a massive postwar strike wave and at the outset of the anti-Soviet Cold War, the Democratic Harry S. Truman administration launched a massive anti-Communist witchhunt to purge troublemakers from the industrial unions and smash their militancy. The Taft-Hartley Act barred Communists from holding union office and banned a whole host of militant strike tactics. The CIO bureaucracy opposed Taft-Hartley in words but adhered to it in practice. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the United Electrical union and nine other CP-led unions with a total of around one million members—almost 20 percent of the entire CIO membership—were expelled from that union federation. A key figure in leading these red purges was United Auto Workers (UAW) president and social democrat Walter Reuther, who later headed the CIO and collaborated with Martin Luther King.
The anti-red witchhunt took place alongside the obscenely named “Operation Dixie,” the official (and unsuccessful) CIO campaign to organize the South. That campaign’s failure lay in the refusal of the union tops to take up the cause of black rights, a refusal bound up with their fealty to the Democratic Party, which then ruled in the South. Hard terrain the South was, but the region had already experienced significant union growth in industries such as coal, metal mining, oil refining, mass transit, pulp, wood and paper. In its November 1946 issue, Fortune magazine grudgingly described resistance to the unions as weak and predicted that complete organization of the South would be inevitable.
Rather than reviving the mass militant workers mobilizations that built the CIO in the 1930s-’40s, the union tops sought acceptance from the white Southern elite. To that end, the CIO mostly restricted its organizing efforts to white workers. It targeted the largely white textile mills, shunting aside the more racially mixed tobacco, transportation and wood industries, which held more promise for success. By excluding left-wingers from Operation Dixie staff, the CIO sidelined those with proven experience in organizing the South. Declining to appeal to black workers, the all-white, conservative leadership lost union elections in textile plants with a large percentage of black workers.
The union bureaucrats not only failed to organize the South but also destroyed existing outposts of opposition to the Southern racist hegemony by raiding left-wing unions. Militantly anti-racist white unionists with large followings among black and white workers were driven out of the maritime, metal mining and tobacco unions. The sharp decline of union membership in recent decades can be traced to the failure to organize the South.
What this meant was that when young liberal activists—black and white—entered the political scene during the civil rights struggles, they saw a labor movement that had no significant (or even insignificant) left wing sharing their own views toward racial oppression and Cold War militarism. All wings of the labor bureaucracy were rabidly anti-Communist and staunch anti-Soviet Cold Warriors. All wings defended the racist status quo in the North and only paid lip service to opposing legalized racial segregation in the South. Even racially integrated unions like the UAW were pervaded by racist practices. For example, the UAW skilled trades section in this period was almost exclusively white.
The History of
“White Skin Privilege”
Ignatin’s “White Blindspot” theory hinges on a W.E.B. DuBois quote from Black Reconstruction in America (1935): “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white.” Ignatin spins this thread to alibi the capitalist rulers by positing the poison of white chauvinism as “the ideological bulwark of the practice of white supremacy, the general oppression of blacks by whites.”
According to Ignatin:
“The U.S. ruling class has made a deal with the mis-leaders of American labor, and through them with the masses of white workers.... You white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force, and we will repay you with a monopoly of the skilled jobs, we will cushion you against the most severe shocks of the economic cycle, provide you with health and education facilities superior to those of the non-white population...enable you on occasion to promote one of your number out of the ranks of the laboring class, and in general confer on you the material and spiritual privileges befitting your white skin.”
He goes on to disparage the prospect of integrated struggle, writing that white workers “have more to lose than their chains; they have also to lose their white-skin privileges, the perquisites that separate them from the rest of the working class.” In other words, no gains can be attained until white workers reject their purported white supremacy.
For Ignatin, the role of white leftists was to uncritically support the “black liberation struggle,” while confining their own efforts to organizing only white activists and admonishing white workers to shed their privileges. Of course, he and his cothinkers offer no prescription for how to do so, other than telling white communists to go up to workers and “say frankly: you must renounce the privileges you now hold.” In practice, this instruction meant calling on white workers to give up their jobs, accept lower wages, renounce upgrades and reject job protections like seniority rights, which had been won through hard-fought union struggles to shield militant workers (black as well as white) from dismissal at the whim of the bosses. During the Boston busing battles in the 1970s, Ignatin opposed a proposal to link the defense of busing to the fight for better quality education for all.
I feel a bit odd going on about Ignatin, as he would barely be a footnote in the history of the American left had he not sired this “white skin privilege” theory. His Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) was one of the more insignificant spin-offs from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the main organization of the New Left. Nonetheless, Ignatin is representative of a broader layer of his political generation.
SDS split at its 1969 National Convention as the Weathermen and the Revolutionary Youth Movement-II, headed by Maoists Mike Klonsky and Bob Avakian, broke away from the Progressive Labor Party (PL)-led Worker-Student Alliance. This anti-PL lash-up, which lacked even the semblance of a working-class orientation, soon dissolved into competing clique-organizations, supposedly differing on the “central question” of how best to tail black nationalist and “Third World” movements.
The New Left generally held that the working class had become completely “bourgeoisified” and no longer had any revolutionary potential. The 1968 upsurge of French workers largely punctured that belief. To be sure, many American radicals, and especially black nationalists, maintained that in America, unlike in France, the white majority of the working class benefited materially from black oppression. While the Weathermen maintained their hostility to the proletariat, by the early 1970s, a time of heightened labor struggle in the U.S., the Maoists turned toward the working class.
In doing so, Avakian, Klonsky and Ignatin, now leading separate organizations, continued to identify the working class with its most backward members. By 1974, Avakian’s Revolutionary Union (precursor to the Revolutionary Communist Party) decided to compete for leadership of the anti-busing forces on the streets of Boston. Denouncing the busing plan as a “capitalist hoax,” the front-page headline of the October 1974 issue of its paper, Revolution, demanded: “People Must Unite to Smash Boston Busing Plan.” We fought to defend the busing program that, however inadequate, was a step against racist segregation. We raised the call: “Implement the Busing Plan! Extend Busing into the Suburbs! Integrated Quality Education for All!” We also agitated for key integrated unions to organize labor/black defense of black schoolchildren terrorized by racist mobs in the streets.
Within a few years, the Avakianites adopted anew the “white skin privilege” mantle as they turned their back on the proletariat altogether and Klonsky’s group disappeared into the Democratic Party. For its part, STO left the factories to concentrate on “anti-imperialist” support to guerrilla forces in the Third World. They subsequently threw themselves into the 1980s anti-nuke movement, which to them had the virtue of being their target audience: almost entirely white and petty-bourgeois.
In a 1975 article “A Golden Bridge,” Ignatin described blacks who scabbed on the Great Steel Strike of 1919 as “heroic.” He later published the journal Race Traitor and became a bit of a celebrity with his book How the Irish Became White. As an academic, Ignatin was provided a platform to rail against “white skin privilege” for over two decades, first from behind the ivy-covered walls of Harvard University and then the Massachusetts College of Art.
The Fight for
No less than black workers, many white workers also live one or two paychecks away from the street. They, too, have rent or mortgage payments, car notes and repairs to pay, child support, medical bills, tuition, etc. Admonishing white workers that they are complicit in black oppression and should shed their jobs and other means of survival is, to be kind, not a very realistic way to convey the unity of interests of black and white workers and the need for joint class—and ultimately revolutionary—struggle. Rather than uniting black and white workers, such appeals echo racist lies that white workers’ interests are threatened by black equality, the stock in trade of racist demagogues like George Wallace, who had a good chance of winning the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1972 before he was shot and paralyzed, and more mainstream politicians up to the present day. As long as workers are pitted against each other in competition for a limited pool of jobs, the necessary consequence will be a divided and weakened labor movement.
Since I referred to the 1969 SDS convention, I thought I’d describe our intervention into it. The Revolutionary Marxist Caucus, which was formed by our supporters in SDS, issued a position paper stating:
“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 workweek with no loss in pay) aimed at expanding total employment.”
We also pointed out that while fighting against discrimination in hiring, we would oppose firing a white worker to hire a black worker (which would fuel racial antagonisms). At the same time, we pointed out that the upgrading of black workers would provide a higher floor for wages in general and strengthen the position of all workers.
We seek to unite employed and unemployed workers—black, white and immigrant—in common struggle around demands that benefit the class as a whole. We call for union hiring halls, with special union-run programs aimed at reaching out to and training minorities, linked to the fight for jobs for all. The available work should be divided among all those capable of working through a shorter workweek with no loss in weekly pay.
We also seek to mobilize the labor movement to defeat attacks on what social welfare programs remain. However, our program is not the defense of the miserable status quo. At best, welfare (to the extent it still exists) relegates the least skilled section of the unemployed to poverty and exclusion from social production. We oppose the vindictive treatment of ex-prisoners and support the restoration of their full civil rights. We call for low-rent, quality, integrated public housing and free, quality, integrated public education for all as an essential part of the fight for a workers America. Under revolutionary leadership, struggles for these and similar demands would serve not only to win immediate gains but also to weld the class together and advance its consciousness, pointing toward the need to overthrow the capitalist system.
The Sectoralist Revival
At the same time that Ignatin and his cothinkers were writing off the working class, considerable labor discontent and unrest was breaking out on the shopfloor. In 1968, there was a postwar high in wildcat strikes (work stoppages not authorized by the union leadership), especially in the Midwest auto plants.
But rank-and-file hostility to the Reuther regime in the UAW, and to kindred union bureaucracies in other industries, polarized along racial lines. In Detroit, black militants involved in the wildcats formed the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). The LRBW called for a separate union for black auto workers and combined legitimate demands against the bosses’ racist practices (e.g., for more black apprentices in the skilled trades) with demands for more black foremen and other supervisors. Unlike the Panthers and other black nationalists, these militant black workers recognized that black people had social power as part of the industrial proletariat. However, the LRBW union groupings actively discouraged militant white workers from following their leadership and denied membership to whites, who were deemed “the historic enemy, betrayer and exploiter of black people.”
Ultimately, the majority of the LRBW abandoned its connection to labor’s social power, leaving the plants in a turn to community work. The LRBW played a big part in penning a “Black Manifesto” presented to the 1969 National Black Economic Development Conference. It demanded reparations of $500 million from white churches and synagogues and called “upon delegates to find within the white community those forces which will work under the leadership of blacks to implement these demands by whatever means necessary. By taking such actions, white Americans will demonstrate concretely that they are willing to fight the ‘white skin privilege’ and the white supremacy and racism which has forced us as black people to make these demands.”
The late 1960s was the heyday of sectoralism: blacks should organize blacks, Latinos organize Latinos, women organize women, gays organize gays. It didn’t last long. Some components of the New Left went directly into the Democratic Party, while others were recruited to Marxist organizations. With the now decades-long dearth of any significant social and class struggle, and especially following the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, there has been a recrudescence of all sorts of backward ideology, “white skin privilege” and sectoralist identity politics among them. The only difference is that with today’s “privilege checking” there is no pretense to revolutionary politics.
Which brings me back to reparations. We do not advocate reparations, which are a completely ridiculous proposition in a society where so many black people can’t find jobs, much less get welfare. What is really posed is the need to take the whole pie, that is, expropriate the bourgeoisie. And why stop at black people? From Native Americans to Koreans, there is a very long list of victims of the U.S. capitalist ruling class. The many crimes of the U.S. imperialists stretch from the slaughter in the Philippines at the turn of the last century to the WWII atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the ongoing devastation in the Near East. The only just deserts for the imperialists will be socialist revolution, putting the resources of U.S. society in the hands of the working class and in the service of the oppressed.
The proponents of reparations have an entirely different framework. As seen in the LRBW statement, the demand for reparations has ridden in tandem with the idea of “white skin privilege.” Both serve the purpose of laying the responsibility for black oppression not on the capitalist rulers but rather on the white population as a whole, whether desperately poor or in penthouse offices at JPMorgan Chase.
The reparations fad has come, gone and seemingly come again with an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic last year. In making his case, Coates declares: “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to a spiritual renewal.” He cites as precedent the reparations paid to the Zionist state of Israel by the West German government in the 1950s, adopting the view that all Germans were guilty of the Holocaust. We reject the concept of collective guilt. It was not the German working class that was responsible for Hitler’s ascent and the Holocaust but the capitalist rulers served by Hitler, whose first victims included Communists and socialists.
A postulate of the whiteness studies and “privilege checking” crowd is that being white is a choice that one can reject. Coates adopts this outlook in his new book, Between the World and Me. He repeatedly refers to white people as “people who believe they are white” and who seek a piece of the “American Dream” at the expense of black people. Meanwhile, in the real world, Rachel Dolezal, then a leader of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, who identified as black despite having been born white, received a torrent of abuse when exposed for trying to choose not to be white.
What rejecting one’s whiteness is all about is captured in “The White Anti-Racist is an Oxymoron,” a June 2003 contribution to Ignatin’s journal Race Traitor. Why an oxymoron? According to the author, to be white means to accept domination over non-whites; but even if you oppose this domination, you can’t not be white because you are white! So what can one do? The author has an answer: sympathetic whites “must be willing to do what the people most affected and marginalized by a situation tell them to do.” The writer added, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you. If we need your resources, we will contact you.” In the same vein, a leaflet passed out earlier this year at a Baltimore rally protesting the killing of Freddie Gray was titled “How to be a White Person in Solidarity With the Baltimore Uprising.” It asserted, “We are all upset about the injustice our fellow Baltimoreans face, and it is important to speak out against that injustice. But when you are supporting a movement led by oppressed peoples it is vital that you follow their leadership.”
For Black Liberation
Through Socialist Revolution!
This worldview, which rejects the multiracial working class as the agent of revolutionary change, necessarily leads to seeking redress through bourgeois electoral politics as well as placing oneself in bed with the agencies of the capitalist state. This is precisely where the black nationalist and New Leftist predecessors (and in some cases, braintrusters) of today’s activists ended up. For example, in a June 19 New York Times interview, Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale offered: “On the Black Lives Matter, I’m pushing for the youth in these groups to get more political and more electoral; you’ve got to take over some of these seats. And you’ve got to get more [Baltimore state’s attorney Marilyn] Mosbys elected to some of these political offices. And you got to put some measures on the ballot.”
While the spawn of Ignatin & Co. were busy checking their privilege, the Spartacist League, together with our trade-union supporters and associated organizations, the Partisan Defense Committee and Labor Black Leagues for Social Defense, have engaged in work to impact the real world. Our comrades and allies organized workers defense guards in Chicago for a black worker beset by racist mobs when he desegregated a white neighborhood, mobilized auto workers to drive Nazi foremen out of a Detroit plant and initiated numerous labor-centered mobilizations against the KKK and Nazis. We revived a program, dating back to the early American Communist movement, of support to class-war prisoners—many of them former Panthers. We also launched an international campaign to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a onetime Panther spokesman who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit before a federal court overturned his sentence, only to condemn him to what appears to be a rapidly approaching death behind bars.
We’re old school; we continue to look to the social power of the multiracial working class. The workplace remains the most integrated part of American society. Black workers are the most militant, experienced and advanced sector of the proletariat. They have the potential, when armed with a revolutionary program, to lead the working class to smash this capitalist system that is a hell for just about everyone. As we concluded in “Black and Red”:
“The victory of the socialist revolution in this country will be achieved through the united struggle of black and white workers under the leadership of the revolutionary vanguard party. In the course of this struggle unbreakable bonds will be forged between the two sections of the working class. The success of the struggle will place the Negro people in a position to insure at last the end of slavery, racism and super-exploitation.”