Workers Vanguard No. 1148
8 February 2019
Black Liberation Struggle: The Key to American Socialist Revolution
In observance of Black History month, we are pleased to publish an educational presented in December by comrade Jacob Zorn at a gathering of the Spartacist League in New York.
When I was asked to give a class on the black question, I was somewhat taken aback. The black question covers much ground and is central to both American society as a whole and our own history. I am not going to even pretend to cover the entirety of the history of black oppression in North America, much less the entire world. I want to underscore that being a cadre requires constant political study, and part of this is studying the black question. No class can teach you everything you need to know about the black question.
What do we mean by the “centrality of the black question”? Black oppression is still central to almost everything about culture and society in the United States. Discussions about health care, education, religion, sports, music, food, sex are usually at bottom discussions about race. Much of what makes the United States different from other advanced capitalist countries—the extreme religiosity and superstition, the lack of health care, the weakness of unions—is directly or indirectly due to black oppression. Black oppression hits you in the face a million ways each day.
As Marxists, our goal is to build a party that will lead the multiracial working class in struggle to take power through workers revolution. Racial divisions allow the capitalists to derail class struggle and class consciousness. This is the main reason that the United States is one of the few imperialist countries that does not have a party that speaks, even in a distorted and reformist way, in the name of the working class. In the United States, it is common among black people and white leftists to believe that some sort of ahistorical, metaphysical “white supremacy” applies to all white people, who are seen as irredeemably racist. In the New Left, this took the form of arguing that white workers were “bought off” and enjoyed “white skin privilege,” a notion that is once again in vogue. This is not Marxist: if true, socialist revolution would be impossible in the United States.
It is certainly true that many white people in the United States have held and still hold some form of racist ideas. But there is a difference between the racism of the ruling class, which depends on black oppression to maintain its power, and the racism of white workers, which is an obstacle to their class interests. At several times during U.S. history, white working people have fought alongside black working people for their common interests. It is the task of Leninists in the United States to build a party, with a heavily black and Latino leadership, that mobilizes white workers to fight black oppression. This points to the “subjective factor”: communist leadership and interracial class struggle can break down racial (and ethnic) divisions within the working class, raising the consciousness of the proletariat.
Any party which sets out to lead a workers revolution in the United States but which does not fight for black liberation will fail. The struggle against black oppression has proven its ability, time and again, to shake American capitalism to its core. Since the U.S. is at the moment the most powerful imperialist country in the world, the fight for black liberation here is an integral part of the struggle for the liberation of the masses throughout the world. This may appear obvious to us today, but it took the intervention of the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky in the 1920s to bring this idea to the Communist movement in this country.
The black question is also key to the development of the fight by our political founders of the Revolutionary Tendency against the degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the early 1960s, and hence for the survival of authentic Trotskyism in the world. It is impossible to be a cadre of the International Communist League for the long term, no matter where you are stationed, without having at least a rudimentary understanding of the black question in the United States. The black question is so important for the working class in the U.S. and throughout the world that it cannot be left to communists just in the United States.
When we say that black Americans constitute a race-color caste, we mean something quite particular. Caste is not just another way of saying special oppression. Among academics and reformists of all sorts, a common criticism of Marxism has been that it is “class reductionist,” that is, Marxists don’t understand that there are forms of oppression besides class exploitation. This is false. Just to read Marx and Engels shows that they recognized national oppression and women’s oppression.
The current academic vogue of “intersectionality” obscures an understanding of special oppression. The key insight, as it were, of “intersectionality” is that there are various forms of oppression that intersect each other in different ways and at different angles. In looking at any individual, this is surely true. But from a political standpoint it dissolves each person into a mosaic of personal attributes while denying that any of these actually have anything to do with how society is structured. “Intersectionality” either empties any sense of political struggle into the need for mass therapy, or ends up in the old New Left dead end of sectoralism: black people fight for black people, gays fight for gays, women for women, etc.
Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1902) explains:
“In a word, every trade-union secretary conducts and helps to conduct ‘the economic struggle against the employers and the government’. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy [as revolutionary Marxists called themselves at the time], that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade-union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”
Academic critics and pseudo-socialists deny just this: that the multiracial and multiethnic working class can struggle not just for its own benefit but for the liberation of society from all oppression. The working class includes white workers, who also have an interest in overthrowing this racist capitalist system, contrary to the ideology of “white skin privilege.” Lenin understood, however, that the working class would not struggle to overthrow capitalism except under the leadership of revolutionary Marxists. Part of providing this leadership is to stress the need for unity of the working class, and for all workers to champion the fight for black liberation.
Much of this presentation is based on the writings of Richard Fraser, the veteran Trotskyist and scholar of the black question who was a mentor to our founding cadre. He pioneered our analysis and program on this question. But one of the differences that Fraser had with us is our analysis of black oppression as race-color caste oppression. In a 21 April 1984 letter, Fraser wrote, “I have searched in vain in your literature for any theoretical analysis of the Black question which demonstrates that blacks are a caste.” This is a fair statement, and I think that it is worth going into the question a bit.
At the July 1963 SWP National Convention, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) supported Fraser’s resolution against George Breitman’s view that the black question was a national question. But the RT submitted a statement that we had some important criticisms of Fraser, in which we stated: “The Negro people are not a nation; rather they are an oppressed race-color caste, in the main comprising the most exploited layer of the American working class.” More than 20 years later, in his polemical letter to us, Fraser claimed that our first use of the concept “race-color caste” came in a passage from a 1969 SDS position paper:
“Are Black people simply working-class, in their vast majority? No. They represent a specially oppressed color caste within the U.S. working class. There are other such specially oppressed strata, or ‘castes,’ within the working class, and within the petty bourgeoisie as well. The special oppression of Blacks is qualitatively similar to that endured by women, youth, many American Indians (some of whom would qualify for a national status in the Marxist sense), and white ethnic minority groups. These examples, too, are predominantly working-class in composition, though sometimes less overwhelmingly so than Blacks. Each of these groups suffers special oppression in addition to the fundamental oppression of the working class under capitalism.”
—“The Secret War Between Brother Klonsky and Stalin (And Who Won),” Spartacist (English-language edition)
No. 13, August/September 1969
Comrade Fraser seized upon this formulation (which appeared in a signed article, and which we never repeated) because it wrongly equates black oppression with other forms of special oppression and argues that all forms of special oppression are at bottom caste oppression. He rightly understood this as wrong.
Consider particularly the case of American Indians, some of whom are wrongly considered nations in the above quote. As Leninists, we fight against all forms of oppression. But not every form of special oppression is strategic to the workers revolution. A strategic question really has two aspects. First, that the working class cannot come to power without fighting against that particular form of oppression. Second, that it is impossible for capitalism in a particular country to continue to exist without that type of oppression—in other words, this form of oppression is a central prop of bourgeois rule. Without a fight against black oppression, the revolutionary unity of the working class is impossible; without black oppression, the rule of the bourgeoisie in the United States could not exist.
In the United States, black and white people are essentially culturally the same. This is different from Québécois and English Canadians, for example, who despite having lived under the same state power for more than 250 years still have distinct cultures because they are different nations—unlike black people and white people in the United States. In 1963, Fraser wrote in an unpublished article titled “Revolutionary Integration!”:
“Among the oldest non-native inhabitants of this country, the Negro has contributed a huge share to its wealth, progress and world pre-eminence. He has played heroic and sometimes decisive roles in all of the historically important events. His life is inextricably involved with whites. Precisely because this is his homeland, prejudice and discrimination are infuriating. He has no other home. His Afro-Americanism doesn’t indicate a previous nationality, for a continent is not a nation, and his culture and customs are not those of any African nations. Indeed, he knows not where in Africa his ancestors lived, and often feels strange with Africans (and vice-versa). His affinity for Africa is racial and internationalist.”
In a Los Angeles lecture in 1953, Fraser pointed out: “In spite of the stigma of the black skin...the mutual assimilation of Negro and Anglo-American appears as an overriding law of American historical development which defies the laws of segregation, the prejudice of skin color, and the customs and social relations of the Jim Crow system” (printed in “In Memoriam—Richard S. Fraser,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990). Four hundred years after the first people of African descent arrived in Virginia in 1619, two things are clear: their descendants are as American as their white counterparts, and they are still subject to racial oppression.
Despite centuries-long integration of the black population into the American political economy, black people remain forcibly segregated at the bottom of society. They are “the outcast[s] and the untouchable[s]...the pariah[s] at the bottom of the social structure,” as Max Shachtman put it in Communism and the Negro (1933). As comrade Jim Robertson underlined, “In caste-ridden countries...the invariant criteria for caste is a sexual line of division drawn in blood.” This is what anthropologists call “endogamy.” Alongside everyday police violence and extralegal terror, the prevention of interracial marriage is a central aspect of forced segregation.
When President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill in March 1866, he asked, “If Congress can abrogate all State laws of discrimination between the two races, in the matter of real estate, of suits, and of contracts generally, Congress may not also repeal the State laws as to the contract of marriage between the races?” This emphasizes that any struggle for social equality raises the specter of interracial marriage. Opposing interracial marriage remains the war cry of reactionaries and fascists to this day.
There is another mechanism for enforcing the caste nature of black oppression: the one-drop rule, or what anthropologists call “hypodescent.” This is the race-color aspect of caste oppression. In the United States, race really isn’t about skin color; it is about ancestry, and anybody who has any black ancestry is considered black, even if he or she looks white. Accompanied by violence, this prevents intermarriage. In the same 1953 lecture previously cited, Fraser observed, “It is not the purpose of the law to keep a visibly white person of one-sixty-fourth Negro ancestry in the ghetto in segregation with dark people, but to prevent social contact between white and black in the beginning of such a family descent by stigmatizing the offspring of mixed marriages as black.” Race has no biological basis; its basis is in society. Race in the United States is a permanent and hereditary status that is maintained through hypodescent and forced endogamy.
If one were to develop capitalism in a laboratory, one probably would not think of mixing caste into it, since in an abstract sense, caste cuts against the class-centered basis of capitalist society. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote, “Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses...this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms.... Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” Logically, this process should have destroyed all castes, just as it destroyed the medieval guilds. But this did not happen.
The three examples of caste oppressions that I am familiar with—in India, in Japan and in the United States—all originated in pre-capitalist forms of oppression that the bourgeoisie in each country made use of to bolster its own position as the ruling class. The rise of capitalism led to legal emancipation and equality in each country, but in each case, rather than being swept away, caste oppression became an integral part of the capitalist system. In all three countries, the capitalist class came to power in a belated, non-“classical” way: in India through British imperialism; in Japan through what we’ve termed a “bourgeois non-democratic revolution” (the 1867-68 Meiji Restoration); and in the U.S. through a belated Civil War (which brought the bourgeoisie to power on a national level). This points to a key aspect of the Marxist approach to caste oppression: since the mechanism of caste oppression is built into the fabric of capitalist society itself, the destruction of the caste system requires the working class to overthrow capitalist rule and take power in its own name. Applied to America, this is the program of revolutionary integrationism: the fight for the full integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society.
In writing this class, I searched our website for the term “race-color caste” in Workers Vanguard over the past dozen years. We have tried in several articles to give a sense of when race-color caste oppression began. We have given conflicting explanations of its origins and the consolidation of black people as a race-color caste: in the period after Bacon’s Rebellion (in 1676); in the existence of slavery generally; the defeat of Reconstruction; the establishment of legalized segregation with the Plessy Supreme Court decision in 1896; the defeat of the Populist movement around the same time; and the Great Migration during World War I. Many of these are signed articles or forums. Truth be known, many of these are found in signed articles or forums by me.
There are three key junctures in the formation of race-color caste oppression in the United States. The first was the consolidation of chattel slavery in the late 1600s and early 1700s, when the American concept of race as we know it originated. The second was the consolidation of the black population in the South as a race-color caste after the Civil War destroyed slavery and in the aftermath of the failure of Radical Reconstruction in the late 1800s. Finally, the third key period was the establishment of a national system of race-color caste oppression with the mass migration of black people to the urban North and their integration into the industrial working class, in the early/middle part of the 1900s. The legal abolition of Jim Crow segregation in the 1950s and 1960s did not change the nature of black oppression, but it did change some of its outward forms.
Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism...and Race
Ancient slavery was not race-based. Slavery had largely disappeared during the Middle Ages, but as capitalism developed, it resurrected slavery. Slavery was an integral part of what Marx labeled “primitive capital accumulation.” This included the slave trade itself, as well as the production of commodities—especially sugar—in the Americas. Africa was an important market for products that were manufactured in Europe. In the U.S., slavery was the bedrock of capitalism, with the wealth of cotton and other slave-produced products helping the capitalist system get started. To give two examples: Brooks Brothers profited from selling clothing to slaves, while the investment bank Brown Brothers and Co. owned slave plantations.
Race in the United States has always been inseparable from labor. Before the slave trade, the English had no concept of race as we understand it. As Fraser put it in an unfinished manuscript from the 1980s called “The Race Concept”: “The fact that slaves were black and masters were white was an accident of history.... Skin color was a fact of life that differed between these two people. That difference had an ancient and interesting origin, but it did not have anything to do with the ability of Europeans to enslave Africans.” The first Europeans to use enslaved Africans as a labor force were most likely the Portuguese, who developed sugar plantations in their colonies off the coast of Africa—for example, the Azores and Madeira—in the mid 1400s.
The English came to use slavery later. The first English slave colonies in the Americas were Barbados and Virginia, but English planters there did not use African slaves at first; they used indentured servants—poor people, criminals, Catholics, Irish, Scotsmen and others not seen as fully human. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, planters in both Barbados and Virginia transitioned to a workforce of black slaves. While the number of Europeans willing to be indentured servants was declining, there was a steady supply of Africans since there was a growing slave trade. Life expectancies were also increasing, which meant that slaves would provide more years of labor, and that indentured servants would survive their indentures and demand the land they had been promised.
In the 1600s, according to one estimate, at least 100,000 indentured servants became free in British North America (Charles Beard, A Basic History of the United States ). For the planters, this posed a danger. Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 underlined that colonial Virginia was a tinderbox ready to explode. Before the American Revolution, Bacon’s Rebellion was the largest popular rising in the colonies. Under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon, thousands of Virginians—including indentured servants and slaves—rose up against Governor William Berkeley, accusing him of being too friendly with the Indians. This shook the planter elite, and they wanted to drive a wedge between white servants and black slaves. In the decades after Bacon’s Rebellion, black slaves became the dominant labor force in Virginia and skin color became a way of telling one’s place in society. Without glorifying Bacon, this episode underlines that race has always played a role in dividing the working people and stabilizing the rule of a small ruling class.
The consolidation of slavery gave rise to the concept of what was known as the “Negro” and “white” races. This was part of what Fraser referred to as the process of “how a social difference got transformed into a biological difference.” This color line became permanent and hereditary. Black slaves remained black slaves, as did their children and grandchildren. Unlike in ancient Rome, when an enslaved woman had a child, that child was also enslaved. Robert Beverley, a Virginia planter, published a book in 1705 that contains a chapter called “Of the Servants and Slaves in Virginia.” This chapter is a useful guide to the difference between indentured servants and slaves. It begins: “Their Servants, they distinguish by the Names of Slaves for Life, and Servants for a time. Slaves are the Negroes, and their Posterity, following the condition of the Mother.... They are call’d Slaves...because it is for Life.”
Black skin became a mark of permanent servitude, and was reflected as such in law. Black people were essentially cast out of the human race as pariahs. They became a race apart. The concept of race was created to justify slavery: slaves had black skin, and slaves were inferior; therefore, black skin was a sign of inferiority. This was the origin of the creation of race, but not yet caste.
[TO BE CONTINUED]