Workers Hammer No. 236
Just out: Black History and the Class Struggle no 25
To announce the publication of a new issue of Black History and the Class Struggle (no 25, July 2016), published by the Spartacist League of the US, we reprint below the pamphlet’s introduction.
As the capitalists and the kept media hype their electoral circus, the killings of black people by the racist cops continue to stir widespread anger. None of the candidates of the ruling-class parties much wants to deal with this issue...except for Donald Trump’s campaign going out of its way to insult and assault black protesters, the better to appeal to unashamedly racist voters. With the primaries concluded, black leaders and liberal media pundits will now focus on how to “stop Trump” by backing Hillary Clinton, another class enemy of working people and minorities. As the articles in this pamphlet explain, this is a losing game that perpetuates racist cop terror and the oppression of black people, which is rooted in the capitalist system.
Many activists have become aware that no amount of demonstrating has made black lives matter to the police or the government that employs them. It is the job of capitalism’s cops to enforce racist “law and order”, a job that includes brutalising and intimidating all those seen as threatening the stability of the system of exploitation. Police executions on the streets are not new, although better technology now exists for documenting such racist atrocities. It is also nothing new that what passes for black leadership in this country is working overtime to push the idea that one or another wing of the capitalist state can be pressured to curb the cops in their exercise of racist repression.
One of the atrocities covered in this pamphlet is the Charleston massacre of black churchgoers in South Carolina on 17 June 2015. These victims were not killed by cops but by an apparently lone fascist. When videos surfaced of the fascist killer, Dylann Roof, draped in the Confederate flag, many bourgeois politicians were prompted to urge the removal of slavery monuments. The Charleston slaughter showed the sick symbiosis between a supposedly aberrant individual and the official anti-black violence of the capitalist state. This connection was also shown by the 2013 acquittal of the racist vigilante who killed Trayvon Martin in Florida, with the prosecution’s collusion in painting the slain teen as a criminal.
When it comes to the Confederate flag, we are well aware that symbols have importance: when people can be symbolically slapped in the face every day by statues and street names, it encourages contempt and violent attacks. We have campaigned against official displays of the Dixie flag but it must be noted that in the wake of the Charleston massacre such talk was cheap and underlined that the posturing politicians have nothing to offer. When it comes to the realities of black oppression, the real role of the black Democratic Party politicians is exemplified by their direct responsibility (along with other Democrats like Bill Clinton) for the anti-drug crusade that created the now much decried phenomenon of mass incarceration.
The second section of this pamphlet looks at the historical context behind today’s events. The two-part article “Class-Struggle Road to Black Freedom” lays out a broad Marxist understanding of the central role of the black liberation struggle in US history. The article also examines some ideologies fashionable in the 1960s, a heyday of black radicalism, as well as addressing current forms of false ideology that are an obstacle to mobilising the working class and oppressed in a struggle against the capitalist system. Special attention is paid to the debate over “white skin privilege”. While the political climate today is a far cry from that of the 1960s, that bankrupt theory originating in the old New Left has been reborn.
The major historical study included in the pamphlet is “Defeat of Reconstruction and the Betrayal of Black Freedom”, an educational published in Workers Vanguard in two parts. The period of Reconstruction after the Northern victory in the Civil War was an exciting time of comparative racial democracy in the South. Protected by the presence of an actually rather small number of federal troops, a politically conscious population of freed slaves, including Union army veterans, actively debated Reconstruction policies and voted in elections. This development of bourgeois democracy was betrayed by the Northern capitalist ruling class.
The bourgeoisie’s class interests lay in re-establishing control of Southern black labour for the plantations (whose owners included Northern banks). Reconstruction was betrayed, as a war to the death against black people exercising their political rights was waged by the KKK and other race-terrorists. The end of Reconstruction marked the end of any historically progressive role as far as the US bourgeoisie is concerned. The task of black liberation today is intertwined with socialist revolution to emancipate all the working people and oppressed from capitalist class rule.
Other historical periods are taken up more briefly. “Leninism vs. Debs’s Socialist Party” discusses the role of the black question in the US Socialist and Communist movements in the early 20th century. Even the most decent of the early Socialists such as Eugene Debs failed to grasp the centrality of racial oppression in US society and the connection between anti-black racism and every other kind of social backwardness and reaction. It required the intervention of the Communist International to convince the early American Communists of the need for special forms of work and organisation to win black workers and intellectuals to the Communist movement.
The two film reviews introduce the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s, whose dominant leaders looked to the federal government and the capitalist Democratic Party to dismantle segregation in the South. “Selma” discusses this conservative wing exemplified by Martin Luther King. While the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover considered King a dangerous agitator and a Communist, more far-sighted politicians including President Lyndon Johnson understood that King was the alternative to militant currents that were gaining importance within a movement that had mobilised millions of youth and working people, North and South. The authorities also used direct means to spike the growth of black radicalism, from legal frame-ups to outright state murder. “The Black Panthers” discusses the more militant wing of the black struggle of the 1960s. In the South, official segregation, which had become an embarrassment, could be defeated by the civil rights movement led by Democrats and preachers. But when that movement came north it proved powerless to address the poverty of the inner cities and the many faces of inequality: de facto segregation in housing and schools, unemployment, racist cop terror — conditions little changed today.
Somewhat ironically, the greatest boost to the idea that electing more minorities to office could ameliorate the situation of the inner cities came when a number of black Democratic Party mayors were elected in major cities to quell the unrest unleashed by King’s assassination. Half a century later, black mayors and police chiefs preside over the same urban decay and cop repression formerly supervised by their white counterparts. Similarly, the appointment of more minorities not to mention women to the Supreme Court did nothing to improve this capitalist institution which has approved the continuing attacks on voting rights, presided over the dismantling of affirmative action and steadily chipped away at reproductive rights for women. And the urbane Wall Street Democrat Barack Obama presides over the wars and exactions of US imperialism around the world as well as the impoverishment of working people in racist America.
To weld the just anger of the black masses together with the power of the working class in a fight to destroy capitalism will require the intervention of a revolutionary party. In the fight for workers revolution, such a party will defeat the divide-and-rule schemes of the rulers by winning the working masses to understand their own real and long-term interests rather than fighting among themselves for crumbs from the masters’ table. What is needed is not more equality of misery. Certainly white youth are less likely than black teens to be murdered by policemen but this hardly makes them “privileged”: in fact compared even to their own parents, what capitalism has on offer for working-class youth of all races is nothing but insecure jobs at lower wages, with longer hours and worse conditions, capped off by the prospect of an underfunded retirement. In its own interests the multiracial working class must do away with capitalism, opening the prospect of a world socialist society without poverty, racism or war.