Workers Vanguard No. 1073
4 September 2015
Class-Struggle Road to Black Freedom
The Roots of Black Oppression
We print below 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.
With Martin Luther King Jr. all the rage these days, I thought I’d open with Malcolm X’s rejoinder to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. In addition to earlier calling the March a farce, Malcolm said: “I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy.... I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare” (“The Ballot or the Bullet,” 3 April 1964). Fifty-one years later, for the ghetto masses that nightmare has only gotten more terrifying.
The roll call of recent victims of racist cop terror is well known: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and now 19-year-old college football player Christian Taylor to name just a bare few. Taylor, a Black Lives Matter activist, presciently tweeted last year: “Police taking black lives as easy as flippin a coin, with no consequences.”
The explosions of outrage following the police strangulation of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the gunning down of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson and the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore have triggered in the capitalist ruling class some post-traumatic stress disorder flashbacks to the hundreds of ghetto upsurges between 1964-68. Compared to the flames that engulfed Watts, Newark, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Cleveland and many other cities at that time, the past year’s events could be characterized as bonfires. However, in mobilizing the National Guard, enacting draconian curfews and brutalizing and arresting protesters, the capitalist rulers express their apprehension that everyday cop terror, grinding oppression and poverty have built up enormous social tinder that could ignite in a broader social explosion.
Our comrades joined protests in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and elsewhere, highlighting our class opposition to the racist Democratic Party of Obama/Clinton and combating illusions expressed in calls for federal oversight, “community control” of the police, and civilian review boards, whose role has always been to whitewash the killers in uniform. Notable was the occasional utterance of the epithet “white skin privilege” in attempts to silence our Marxist intervention.
Some younger comrades, though familiar with other methods of anti-communist censorship, had not been acquainted with what we older folk thought was a relic of the New Left of the 1960s-70s. Apparently, “white skin privilege” has become a regular feature of college curricula, radical-liberal conferences and the blogosphere. Now the term is even used in the mainstream media. “Privilege checking” has become one of the latest additions to the dictionary of political correctness. In early July, for example, the New York Times website ran a short documentary, A Conversation with White People on Race. One woman’s comment was representative: “I think we are all implicated in a racist system, and I play my part in it as a white person. So I do have individual responsibility and accountability.”
This increasingly common view flips the matter on its head. Prejudice is not the cause of black oppression; rather, the capitalist rulers’ special oppression of black people, integral to American capitalism, fosters anti-black discrimination. What she expressed is the smoke and mirrors by which the capitalists throw the responsibility for the oppression of black people upon the population as a whole—if white people weren’t prejudiced, there would be no problem. In the 1950s and ’60s, this refrain was common to the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which cautioned civil rights activists to “go slow” in pushing for change, claiming the need to patiently win over the hearts of segregationists.
For those like Noel Ignatin (Ignatiev) and Ted Allen, who around 50 years ago advanced “white skin privilege” theory while professing adherence (albeit tenuous) to Marxist revolutionary politics, the white working class was seen as materially benefiting from black oppression and to have a vested interest in perpetuating anti-black hostility. Ignatin & Co. eschewed any prospect of integrated struggle to further the common interests of black and white workers and dismissed the unions, which are the basic defense organizations of the working class, as bourgeois institutions—a way of making common cause with the class enemy. Similarly, they declared the Soviet Union (a workers state, although bureaucratically degenerated) to be capitalist, thereby writing it off and aligning themselves with their own imperialist masters.
The theory of “white skin privilege” serves only to conceal that the oppression of black people persists because it is a key prop for capitalist rule and profits. The forcible segregation of black people serves to divide the working class and suppress wages for black, white and immigrant workers alike. The horrific conditions of life—rotten schools and dilapidated housing, widespread unemployment and low-wage jobs, no health care—that blacks and immigrant workers have long endured are now increasingly faced by the working class as a whole. This reality exposes the lie that white workers materially benefit from the oppression of their class brothers and sisters. The unemployed white crystal meth addict in the Ozarks, whose father and grandfather haven’t had a regular job in decades, likely recognizes he isn’t very privileged. In fact, his perceived lack of privilege is soil for recruitment to the fascist race terrorists.
It used to be very fashionable to view the U.S. through the same lens as South Africa. A comparison with apartheid South Africa, whose development produced a near-complete overlap between class and race, is instructive. Practically the entire industrial proletariat of that country consists of black Africans, with some coloureds in the Western Cape and Indians in Durban. After 1948, what had been a sizable and privileged white working class, along with poor white Afrikaner farmers, was concentrated in the state bureaucracy. By the mid 1990s, one-third of the white labor force was employed in the government sector, mainly as useless pencil pushers. They enjoyed lives comparable to the upper layer of the American petty bourgeois—owning plush suburban homes, with swimming pools and household servants.
This strict racial hierarchy is not the case in the U.S. While blacks are on the bottom of society, whites as a whole are not on top. Millions of white women and children are on welfare (even after many were thrown off the rolls under Bill Clinton’s welfare “reform”), lack medical coverage and survive on food stamps. The large number of poor whites would be inconceivable in South Africa.
What black people have suffered for generations, continuing to this day, is defined by the particulars of U.S. history—slavery, the defeat of the Southern slavocracy by Northern industrial capitalism in the Civil War, and the bourgeoisie’s betrayal of Radical Reconstruction and its promise of equality. This history led to the racist segregation of black people despite the economic integration of black toilers into the proletariat at the bottom.
Race and Class in America
The racist contempt that is deeply embedded in American culture is rubbed in the face of the black population on a daily basis. It’s not just stop-and-frisk and physical abuse by the police for “walking while black”; the “zero tolerance” rules under which black children as young as five years old have been arrested for acting out a bit in school; the rotting public housing and the redlining to assure residential segregation. It is also expressed in the hideous demands recently made on the families of the victims of cop terror to forgive the killers. Forgive?! This from a ruling class whose Supreme Court has declared capital punishment—a legacy of slavery—to be one of the “principles that underlie the entire criminal justice system,” and that locks away fighters for black rights such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Mondo we Langa, Ed Poindexter and Albert Woodfox, among many others framed up for crimes they never committed. Some have been kept in solitary for decades.
The pro-slavery, pro-KKK movie Gone with the Wind is still revered as a classic, even by liberals who would soil their pants if a German film festival featured the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. “Classic rock” radio DJs wax on about their “peace and love” Woodstock experiences and then play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s segregationist anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.” The same contempt is seen in the Confederate flags that continue to adorn fairgrounds in New York State. It is also expressed in the vitriol directed at some of the greatest athletes of our time—foremost among them Barry Bonds, whose alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs is portrayed as violating the bogus ideal of American society as a meritocracy. Bonds and others are reviled by the same people who fawn so much over the parasitic British royal family (whose only accomplishment was to be born intact despite generations of inbreeding) that when Prince William’s wife sneezes they might as well tweet across the ocean “God Bless You Kate.”
Racism infects the working class precisely because the rulers of this country devised the myth of black inferiority to justify slavery and then propagated and constantly reinforce race prejudice to divide the laboring masses. As a result, the U.S. is the only advanced capitalist country never to have had a mass workers party representing even a deformed expression of the political independence of the proletariat. Writing in 1893 to a comrade in Hoboken, New Jersey, Karl Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels counted among the obstacles to forging such a party “especially, immigration, which divides the workers into two groups: the native-born and the foreigners...who understand only their own language. And in addition the Negroes. Very powerful incentives are needed to form a single party out of these elements. There is sometimes a sudden strong élan, but the bourgeoisie need only wait passively, and the dissimilar elements of the working class will fall apart again.”
Wait passively is not what the American bourgeoisie does. The last 125 years have seen heroic integrated struggles—including the pitched battles in the 1930s that forged the CIO industrial unions, the greatest gain for black people since the Civil War and Reconstruction. At the same time, the bourgeoisie has undermined those struggles by pitting blacks, whites and immigrants against one another over scarce jobs and other resources. This divide-and-rule has resulted in atrocities—like the racist pogroms amid the massive strike wave of 1919 and the Detroit racist riot of 1943 over public housing.
Black and Red
“White skin privilege,” as propounded by Ignatin in his 1967 letter “White Blindspot” to the Progressive Labor Party and adopted by a current of the New Left, emerged in a particular historical context, the same as the ghetto conflagrations mentioned earlier: defeat of the liberal-led civil rights movement headed by MLK as it moved North. This defeat accelerated black separatist sentiment. The purge of leftists from the unions in the late 1940s and ’50s meant there was no significant left opposition in the labor movement to challenge the racist practices of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy and fight racial oppression in society at large. One other factor was the absence of any revolutionary Marxist organization that intervened early in the civil rights movement before young black activists turned to black nationalism.
It was in the period of the civil rights movement that our organization emerged, originating as the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) opposition within the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the historic party of Trotskyism in the U.S. By the early 1960s, the SWP had lost its revolutionary bearings and was tailing non-proletarian class forces, seen domestically in its policy of abstention from the Southern civil rights movement as well as its later embrace of black nationalism.
By 1963, the SWP majority had explicitly renounced the fight for communist leadership of the black struggle, relegating itself to the role of a “socialist” vanguard of the white working class. Before its expulsion beginning in December that year, the RT fought inside the SWP for the party to seize the opportunity to recruit black Trotskyist cadre to its ranks. The RT put forward a series of demands linking the fight for black rights to the broader struggles of the working class and addressing immediate needs, such as organized self-defense and unionization drives throughout the South.
As we elaborated in “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom,” adopted at the founding conference of the Spartacist League/U.S. in 1966:
“Because of the generations of exceptional oppression, degradation and humiliation, Black people as a group have special needs necessitating additional and special forms of struggle. It is this part of the struggle which has begun today, and from which the most active and militant sections of Black people will gain a deep education and experience in the lessons of struggle. Because of their position as both the most oppressed and also the most conscious and experienced section, revolutionary black workers are slated to play an exceptional role in the coming American revolution.”
A Materialist Understanding of Society
The purpose of this talk is to motivate a Marxist materialist program for the fight for black freedom as opposed to the idealism embodied in both black nationalism and guilty white liberalism, including the concept of “white skin privilege,” which falsely substitutes individual psychology for struggle against the racial oppression rooted in the capitalist profit system. We fight for black freedom on the program of revolutionary integration including mobilizing the working class against every manifestation of racial oppression. This approach is counterposed to liberal integration, which is premised on the utopian notion that equality for black people can be attained within the confines of this class society founded on black oppression.
Our program of revolutionary integrationism flows from the understanding that the American black population is neither a separate nation nor a separate class but rather is a doubly oppressed race-color caste. Freedom for blacks in the U.S. will not come about without a socialist revolution. And there will be no socialist revolution without the working class taking up the fight for black freedom. As Karl Marx wrote shortly after the Civil War, “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”
As Marxists, we view the motor force of history as the struggle between the oppressor class—today the capitalist class, which owns the means of production like land and factories—and the oppressed class. Under capitalism, that class is the proletariat, workers who have nothing but their labor power, which they sell to the capitalists in order to live. Capitalism is an irrational system based on production for private profit. It is incapable of providing for the needs of the world’s masses.
To preserve its class rule, the tiny capitalist class has at its disposal the vast powers of the state—the core of which is the army, cops, courts and prisons—as well as potent means of ideological subjugation in the schools, press and religion. The police truncheon, machine-gun fire, electric chair and firing squad have been the rulers’ rations for both white and black workers seeking to organize for their class interests. The capitalist state cannot be reformed to serve the interests of workers and the oppressed. It must be swept away by the proletariat and a workers government established in its place.
The proletariat is the only revolutionary class in society. This isn’t a moral question—i.e., exploitation and oppression do not make you more virtuous or progressive. Rather, it is a consequence of the proletariat’s unique role in capitalist production (and transport). Workers, toiling alongside one another in large numbers, generate the profits that go to the capitalists. It is because of this role in production that the working class has its social power. Indigenous peasants in southern Mexico may have harder lives, but they don’t have the social power or collective interest that the workers have in auto factories in that country’s north. Similarly, black people who left farms in the U.S. South for factories in urban centers found a potential social power that they could only have dreamed of before, along with a commonality of interest with their white co-workers. Shutting down production and transport through strikes and solidarity actions—these are the proletariat’s weapons in the class struggle.
Integral to capitalist production and class rule is ensuring that some part of the working class be unemployed—what Marx called an “industrial reserve army.” This “surplus population” is needed in order for capitalist production to expand during periods of boom and to hold down wages through competition for jobs. It also provides a pool from which to recruit strikebreakers and union-busters. Prior to the end of slavery, the U.S. recruited its surplus population from immigrants driven off their land in Ireland by famine; later, immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe as well as Asia played this role. Emancipation of the black slaves gave the American bourgeoisie a new, domestic source for its industrial reserve army, one that became increasingly important in the late 19th century, as U.S. capitalism entered the epoch of imperialism. From then to now, black people have been the last hired and first fired.
Black People in the U.S.: A Caste, Not a Nation
In much of the world, the consolidation of capitalist nation-states by a nationally homogeneous ruling class was accompanied by the forced incorporation of other peoples, some constituting a nation and others not. Those making up oppressed nations are subject not only to greater terrorization and discrimination in employment and housing but also to the suppression of the national culture—language, schools, religion. For example, Turkey long denied the existence of the Kurds, calling them mountain Turks, forcing them to adopt Turkish names and prohibiting the use of the Kurdish language.
Tsarist Russia was a prison house of peoples encompassing oppressed nations (like Poland and Ukraine). At the same time, there were non-national groups who were brutally oppressed: religious minorities, Jews, Turkic speaking peoples, etc. The Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, which led the working class to power in the October 1917 Russian Revolution, proclaimed the right of nations to self-determination. Their irreconcilable opposition to anti-Jewish bigotry and pogroms, discrimination against Roma (Gypsies) and all national, religious and ethnic oppression was instrumental to uniting the working class, with the support of the peasantry, to smash capitalist rule and maintain proletarian state power in a civil war against reactionary forces backed up by 14 invading capitalist armies.
The Bolshevik Party is our model. As Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done? (1902):
“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.”
The Russian Revolution was not made solely for Russia, but was considered the opening shot of a necessarily international struggle of labor against the rule of capital. It was an inspiration to the oppressed masses of the world and had a direct impact on the struggle of black people in the U.S. The intervention by the Communist International in the 1920s turned the attention of the American Communists to the necessity of conducting special work among the oppressed black population—a sharp break from the practice of the earlier socialist movement. (On that topic, I highly recommend the new book by Jacob Zumoff, The Communist International and U.S. Communism, 1919-1929 [see article, page 4].)
“Self-determination” is not an all-inclusive term applicable to the various oppressed sectors of the population: e.g., self-determination for gays, women, immigrants and so on. As Lenin described, self-determination is a democratic demand applying to oppressed nations that “means the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state.”
As should be clear from the above, the American bourgeoisie didn’t invent the strategy of dividing the working class by national origin, religion and ethnicity. Race, however, is purely a social construct developed to justify the use of black Africans as slaves in the Americas. The oppression black people face in the U.S. is not the forcible assimilation of an oppressed nation, but rather is forced segregation. In contrast to the successive waves of immigrants who were met with ruthless discrimination only to later be welcomed into what’s called the American “melting pot,” black people have been deprived of the right of assimilation. The historic struggles of black people in the U.S. have been for immediate economic, political and social equality—not for an independent state. For good reason.
Black people do not share a common territory with which to form an independent state. In 1928, the Communist Party adopted the view that the states in the Deep South Cotton Belt formed the basis for a black nation, a notion adopted by the Maoists and some black nationalist groups in the 1960s. Max Shachtman, then a leader of the American Trotskyists, noted in his 1933 document Communism and the Negro (published in 2003 as Race and Revolution) that although the Cotton Belt once held the majority of black people, they had no particular attachment to it, as shown by the Great Migration to the North. Shachtman wrote, “A common territory the Negroes have, but it is the United States as a whole and not any section of it.” He added: “The Negro cannot be said to constitute a national question within the Black Belt and something else outside of it without making a caricature and a sport out of the conception of a people as a nation.”
Black people in the U.S. comprise a race-color caste, integrated into the lower rungs of the economy while socially segregated. What determines their caste status is skin color. All black people—from unemployed workers to a distinguished Harvard professor—face discrimination based on the color of their skin. Black workers face double oppression—exploitation as a worker and racial discrimination. And black women workers are triply oppressed.
The Social Construct of Race
There is no biological basis for dividing humans into separate races. The race concept itself arose out of the need to demarcate black people as slaves and accordingly keep them separate from the rest of society. As veteran American Trotskyist Richard Fraser described at the onset of the civil rights movement:
“First the black skin was despised because it was the mark of a despised mode of production. But this despised mode of production was the creator of untold wealth and prosperity, and capitalist society cannot despise riches for long. So they turned the whole matter on its head....
“It was not the mode of slave production which was to be despised, but the slave: that the reason the black skin was the mark of the slave was that it was first the mark of human inferiority.”
This white-supremacist ideology contaminated not only lower-class whites in the South but also the emerging proletariat in the North. Before the Civil War, the Democratic Party, then dominated by the Southern slavocracy, gained support among the Irish Catholic immigrants who made up the bulk of unskilled urban workers in the North. The Democrats combined a posture of hostility toward the Yankee ruling elite with racist demagogy that abolition would result in black freedmen taking white workers’ jobs and driving down wages.
Despite pervasive racist attitudes among all social classes in the North, the compelling historic interests of Northern capital led to a war against the Southern slavocracy. The Civil War was the last great bourgeois-democratic revolution, resulting in the abolition of black chattel slavery and the destruction of the old Southern plantation agricultural system. There followed a turbulent decade of interracial bourgeois democracy in the South implemented by freed slaves and their white allies and protected by federal troops, many of them black. This period, known as Radical Reconstruction, was the most egalitarian experiment in U.S. history.
The Compromise of 1877 sealed the betrayal of black freedom by the Northern capitalists. With the withdrawal of the Union Army from the South, a new system of racist oppression was established through the systematic repression of the freedmen’s fight for land, education and civil rights. The former slaves became tenants and sharecroppers, toiling on land owned by the white propertied class, which consisted of elements of the former slavocracy and a new Southern bourgeoisie with strong ties to Northern capital.
As Fraser observed:
“In the southern system and the race relations which derive from it, all Negroes are the victims of discrimination. But except for a minority of capitalists and privileged middle class people, the white population as such does not derive benefit from it. On the contrary, the white worker and farmer are as much the objects of class exploitation as are the Negroes. A majority of the workers and farmers in the South are white. But their standard of living and general social condition is directly determined by that of the Negroes.
“Therefore, while the dark race is the direct victim of discrimination, the group which gains from it is not the lighter skinned race but a class: the ruling capitalist class of the United States.”
Fraser added, “Race prejudice...is one of the means by which the extreme exploitation of white workers themselves is maintained.”
In the late 1800s, the Populist movement was initially multiracial, encompassing poor white and black farmers as well as small businessmen. The heroic efforts of its organizers in the South were defeated when an alliance of big planters, Southern capitalists and Northern financial interests initiated a campaign of violent race hatred, carried out by local Democratic Party enforcers, which destroyed the developing black-white unity. Black people were disenfranchised, stripped of all legal rights and denied access to adequate education. The racism stoked during this period has had an ongoing impact on the South, where wages are far below the rest of the country, effective union organization is lacking and rural poverty crushes black and white alike.
A rigid system of legally enforced racial segregation called Jim Crow was imposed and maintained by lynch-rope terror and police-state repression of blacks and anti-racist whites. The rise of Jim Crow, which was law in the South but whose white-supremacist and segregationist spirit infected the whole country, dovetailed with the emergence of the U.S. as an imperialist power and served to fortify colonial oppression and exploitation. In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld “separate but equal” segregation in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson.
This remained the law of the land until the civil rights movement led the U.S. ruling class to acquiesce to granting the same political and legal rights that existed in the North to black people in the South. But even in the North, black people faced pervasive racist oppression. Two weeks after enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, protests against the cop killing of 15-year-old James Powell in Harlem were met with a full-scale police riot. Within days of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act the following summer, the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles exploded after the arrest of a black motorist. MLK fully supported the brutal suppression of the enraged populace of Watts, declaring: “It was necessary that as powerful a police force as possible be brought in to check them.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]