Workers Vanguard No. 865

3 March 2006


The Legacy of Richard S. Fraser

Revolutionary Integrationism: The Road to Black Freedom

Black History and the Class Struggle

Part Two

Part One of this article, which we conclude below, appeared in WV No. 864 (17 February).

It is profoundly wrong to assume that what actually happened in the course of history had to happen, that no other divergent paths, including radically divergent paths, were possible. The Southern civil rights movement in the early-mid 1960s offered a rare and fleeting opportunity for even a relatively small revolutionary organization to win to its program and ranks the best of a generation of young black (and white) radicals experienced in mass, militant struggle against what was then called the “white power structure.” Had such a development taken place, the subsequent course of U.S. and therefore world history would have been radically different. It was not beyond the range of historical possibility that today we would be living in a socialist world.

In the U.S. at the time, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was the only organization with a credible revolutionary past and traditions and with, at least formally, an authentically revolutionary program based on Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. However, by the early 1960s, ground down by the isolation and McCarthyite witchhunting of the 1950s, the SWP had lost its revolutionary bearings. The party’s qualitative departure from its erstwhile revolutionary working-class politics began around 1960, when it slid into the role of uncritical cheerleaders for the petty-bourgeois radical-nationalist leadership of the Cuban Revolution. The SWP thus abandoned the centrality of the working class and the necessity of building Trotskyist parties in every country.

The abandonment of the struggle for Marxist leadership of the black struggle in the U.S. was the domestic reflection of the SWP’s denial of the centrality of the proletariat in the destruction of capitalism. The “Freedom Now” resolution adopted at the SWP’s 1963 Convention codified a wholesale embrace of black nationalism and was accompanied by a policy of abstention from the Southern civil rights struggle. In the name of black “self-determination,” the SWP’s Militant became an unpaid public relations organ for all manner of black “leaders,” from the pacifistic liberal Martin Luther King to the reactionary nationalist Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam.

The Spartacist tendency originated in the early 1960s as a left opposition, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), in the SWP. A central axis of our political fight was for an active intervention into the Southern civil rights movement based on the perspective of revolutionary integrationism, i.e., linking the struggle for black democratic rights to working-class struggle against capitalist exploitation. At the 1963 SWP Convention, the RT presented a one-page amendment to the perspectives document arguing that the party should “expend significant material resources in overcoming our isolation from Southern struggles. In helping to build a revolutionary movement in the South, our forces should work directly with and through the developing left-wing formations in the movement there. A successful outcome to our action would lead to an historic breakthrough for the Trotskyist movement.”

After the leaders and many members of the RT were expelled in late 1963-early 1964, we sought, despite our small forces, to make the civil rights struggles, North as well as South, a main focus of our intervention into society. We raised the transitional demand for a Freedom Labor Party as a means of breaking young black militants from the capitalist Democratic Party in the direction of working-class politics. As we wrote in 1967:

“Only by the development of a working-class program and by explicitly opening the door to support by white workers can real political independence be maintained, real gains won and the basis laid for eventual working-class political unity. This unity will come about when the exploited section of the white South is driven into opposition and is compelled to forego color prejudice in order to struggle along class lines against its real enemies—the owners of land and industry.

“The creation of a South-wide Freedom Labor Party would serve as a tremendous impetus for similar action by Northern workers. The struggle for such a party would necessitate a rank-and-file revolt within the organized labor movement to overthrow the present labor bureaucracy.”

—“Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom,” Spartacist Special Supplement, May-June 1967; reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League”

We combined the call for a Freedom Labor Party with agitation for a labor-based campaign to unionize the “open shop” South.

Fraser on the
Civil Rights Movement

As the SWP began to move rightward in the mid-late 1950s, Richard Fraser often opposed the policies of the party leadership from the left, especially on the black question. Thus he strongly opposed the SWP’s periodic demand for the federal government to send troops to the South in order to defend black rights against state and local white-supremacist regimes and Klan terrorists. Fraser wrote in 1956 in “Contribution to the Discussion of the Slogan ‘Send Federal Troops to Mississippi’” (reprinted in Prometheus Research Series No. 3, “In Memoriam—Richard S. Fraser”):

“Under either Eisenhower or [Democratic presidential candidate] Stevenson, the most probable condition under which the Federal Government will send troops to the South will be that the Negroes hold the initiative in the struggle. As long as the white supremacists have the initiative and the lid of repression is clamped on tightly, the social equilibrium is not upset by a lynching or other terrorist actions. When the Negroes take the initiative it is a ‘race riot’ and the public security is threatened and an excellent reason is given for the government to intervene.

“When the Negroes hold the initiative it will be the function of the Federal army to restore law and order on the basis of the existing social system, and will involve severe repressions against the Negroes.”

A 1963 document by Fraser titled “Dialectics of Black Liberation” has recently been republished by the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) in the 2004 book Revolutionary Integration: A Marxist Analysis of African American Liberation, which also includes a 1982 document by the FSP’s Tom Boot, “Revolutionary Integration: Yesterday and Today.” Fraser’s document is scathing in its denunciation of the SWP leadership’s kowtowing before the black misleaders of the day: “The concept of ‘self-determination,’ a revolutionary demand when used by the Bolsheviks, is denuded of all meaning and becomes a rationale for the SWP position that anyone who is leading at the moment is a good leader and a destined leader, regardless of program.” He aptly described the SWP leadership as having “raised tail-endism to a political principle.”

However, as the mass Southern civil rights movement acquired an increasingly militant character in the early 1960s, certain weaknesses in Fraser’s analysis came to the fore. Because he believed that a bourgeois-democratic reform of the Southern legal-political structure was not possible within the framework of American capitalism, he ascribed to the civil rights movement an intrinsically revolutionary dynamic. Thus his 1963 document begins with the statement: “The Black revolt in the southern U.S.A. stands objectively on the threshold of a new stage in its development: a stage of political organization for revolution, involving a showdown struggle against the southern police state and for a new democratic political system” (emphasis in original). Here a revolution in the South is given an essentially democratic content. The struggle of labor against capitalist exploitation receded into the background.

Along similar lines, Fraser no longer emphasized the necessary struggle for black leadership in the racially integrated organizations of the U.S. working class: the Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party at the most advanced political level, the trade unions at the mass level. He now advocated, or at least endorsed, the idea of a separate “black vanguard party” as a transitional step in breaking black radicals from the Democratic Party:

“A Black vanguard party would furnish (a) a principled program, a rostrum, and an apparatus for independent Black candidates; (b) a graduate school for militants, specializing in political theory, the strategy of the struggle, and electioneering; and (c) an object lesson for the labor, peace and ‘progressive’ movements.”

Yet at the very same time, Fraser also advocated a Southern labor party, substantially the same programmatic demand that we expressed in our call for a Freedom Labor Party. He wrote in this regard: “A southern labor party is the only kind of organism which embodies the needs of class unity this side of socialism. Whatever it may be named, the construction of a political party serving the interests of Blacks and white workers is the next stage of development of the southern struggle.”

The FSP: Liberals with Attitude

The contradictions evident in Fraser’s 1963 document were carried into the formation of the Freedom Socialist Party. (As we noted in Part One, Fraser, who helped found the FSP in 1966, was cut off from the organization by a split the following year.) Under the leadership of the late Clara Fraser, these contradictions were resolved by openly repudiating the centrality of the struggle of labor against capital and embracing and glorifying various currents of petty-bourgeois radicalism—“people of color” ethnic politics, gay liberation lifestyle politics, and, above all, feminism.

As we have emphasized, a key aspect of revolutionary integrationism is that black workers, with their generally higher level of political consciousness, can and must lead the mass of white workers, mainly through the organizations of the labor movement. But Clara Fraser and her followers contemptuously wrote off white male workers as incorrigibly reactionary bigots. She declaimed in Freedom Socialist (December 1980): “Given the class-collaboration politics of the U.S. worker, the culture of bigotry and misogyny lock the privileged white males into a prison of conservative or slow reformism that has no exit” (emphasis added). She then went on that these “lackeys of the bosses” are “being swiftly replaced and ignored by the army of new worker militants from the ranks of women, youth, minorities and lesbian/gays.” Underlying this hostile contempt toward white male workers, which is shared by black nationalists (who extend their hostility to white women workers as well), is profound despair toward the prospects for a socialist revolution in the United States.

The FSP’s despairing attitude toward proletarian struggle and revolution is often masked by a fatuous triumphalism with regard to struggle by other oppressed social groups. In “Revolutionary Integration: Yesterday and Today,” written in the early years of Reagan reaction, the FSP’s Tom Boot exults: “And hearken to the dialectics of the sexual revolution: the vitality of the Black lesbian/gay sector is the catalyst for restoring the entire Black movement to the revolutionary path!” Such bombast might pass as bad vaudeville were it not pronounced just as the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the gay population, puncturing the last balloon of life-style radicalism.

The FSP abandoned and repudiated Richard Fraser’s understanding of the central importance of black oppression in maintaining the bourgeois order in the U.S. Thus Boot’s document denounced the Spartacist League for “an over-emphasis and unbalanced view of the importance of the Black worker. This simplistic approach to the race question in the U.S. writes off the revolutionary potential of the masses of non-white workers who are not Black.” In opposition to the FSP, we have always affirmed the revolutionary potential of all racial and ethnic components of the U.S. working class, including its white majority, while stressing the central importance of the struggle against black oppression in the fight for the American socialist revolution.

The FSP dissolves the black question into the fashionable notion of “people of color.” This notion obscures the ability of Latinos, especially lighter-skinned Latinos, and Asian Americans to move up toward the white end of the American racial-social spectrum through intermarriage and other mechanisms of social advancement. It also obscures the very significant class as well as racial and ethnic divisions among the various “peoples of color.” What does a third-generation Japanese American doctor really have in common with an undocumented Mexican immigrant farm worker? What does an Indian immigrant computer technician have in common with a black janitor who cleans the office building where the former is employed?

Just as the FSP abuses Richard Fraser’s concept of revolutionary integrationism, so it abuses Leon Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution. Trotsky’s understanding was that in countries of belated capitalist development, the tasks historically associated with earlier bourgeois-democratic revolutions can only be achieved through proletarian seizure of power, which must be extended internationally, principally to the advanced capitalist countries. Boot’s document begins by pontificating that revolutionary integration “represents a continuous contemporary thread in the ideological fabric of international Permanent Revolution, the uninterruptible march of all the world’s oppressed, led by the working class, toward social, political and economic equality.” Permanent revolution is here presented as an all-powerful, transcendent (one might almost say God-like) force that will eventually bring about the triumph of all good things—democratic rights and freedoms, the eradication of all forms of social oppression, economic equality—the world over.

What Fraser said in 1963 of the SWP’s misuse of “self-determination” can be said of the FSP’s misuse of permanent revolution. It is denuded of all meaning and serves as a rationale for liberal reformist politics and fatuous enthusing over various petty-bourgeois radical currents. According to Boot, “The theory of Permanent Revolution, first formulated by Marx and later extended and enriched by Lenin and Trotsky, states in essence that the unfinished tasks of bourgeois democracy can only be completed by proletarian socialist revolution” (emphasis in original). In other words, the goal of proletarian revolution is to realize the principles of bourgeois democracy, which presumably represent the highest, most noble-minded aspirations of humanity.

Like most groups in the U.S. that call themselves socialist, the FSP appeals mainly to young liberal idealists. Socialism is thus presented not in terms of progressive working-class struggle against capitalist exploitation but rather as the expansion and consistent application of democratic principles. Abusing and trivializing the theory of permanent revolution, the FSP invests any and every liberal reform or demand—defense of legalized abortion, the legalization of same-sex marriage, amnesty for undocumented immigrants—with an anti-capitalist revolutionary content, dynamic or dialectic.

There’s nothing very new about this. In The State and Revolution (1917), Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin explained how social democrats like Karl Kautsky distorted and vulgarized the ideas and doctrines of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in order to make them palatable to bourgeois liberals and petty-bourgeois democrats. The reformist left obscures the Marxist understanding of bourgeois “democracy” as simply a facade that covers the reality of the capitalist state as an instrument of organized force and violence—consisting at its core of the police, army, courts and prisons—for maintaining capitalist property and profits. It is the task of proletarian revolution to smash the bourgeois state and establish a workers state, laying the basis for the abolition of classes in an international communist world.

The Politics of
Petty-Bourgeois Sectoralism

We describe the politics of the FSP as sectoralist. What does that mean? They begin from the premise that the basic actors on the U.S. left are separate movements of different oppressed social groups, based on gender (feminism), sexual orientation (gay liberation) or race and ethnicity (“people of color”). The FSP views itself as representing these diverse sectors, integrating and balancing their particular interests and demands. On a minute scale, the FSP offers a leftist version of traditional Democratic Party constituency politics.

The FSP’s sectoralism is clearly indicated by its fervent championing of affirmative action and “community control,” two programs promoted by the liberal wing of the U.S. bourgeoisie to divert and undermine unified working-class struggle against the capitalist class as a whole. In a section of his document attacking the Spartacist League, Boot contends that “the SL’s through-the-looking-glass approach to affirmative action condemns women and people of color to no improvement in their status until after the revolution” (emphasis in original).

Boot falsifies our position while underscoring the liberal reformist confines of the FSP’s own outlook and practice. FSP members know full well, as do all regular readers of Workers Vanguard, that we have actively and consistently defended affirmative action programs in higher education against the right-wing campaign (now largely successful) to dismantle them. In an advanced capitalist country like the U.S., access to higher education should be feasible for everyone who wants it. We call for nationalizing the private universities and for open admissions and free tuition with a state-paid living stipend for students. Such a program can be achieved only through massive and sustained struggle by a greatly strengthened labor movement in this country.

However, in opposition to the FSP, we do not identify affirmative action as the only or even main way to improve the conditions of blacks and other ethnic minorities and women short of a socialist revolution. Affirmative action is at best a limited gain enacted in response to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Its basic premise is that there is a fixed number of jobs or college placements and that these should be redivided in favor of different oppressed groups. Thus, particularly in the workplace, affirmative action has tended to pit black and other ethnic minorities and women against one another and against white males, fighting for a bigger slice of a shrinking pie instead of fighting together against the capitalist class for a bigger pie.

Our answer to mass unemployment in the black ghettos and Latino barrios, especially among youth, is a labor-based struggle for a shorter workweek with no loss in pay to increase the number of jobs available. We have also called for unions to direct special recruitment efforts toward black, Latino and women workers.

But the FSP, in the name of affirmative action, supports the efforts of the U.S. ruling class to further weaken the labor movement. Boot writes that the SL “tells anyone within earshot that affirmative action is a ruling-class plot, devised by the bosses as a union-busting tactic.” It is an incontestable fact that the capitalist government has used affirmative action when directed at unionized work forces in precisely that way. Most of the significant early affirmative action court suits and programs were set up under the Nixon administration in the late 1960s and early ’70s. A case in point was the Philadelphia Plan, an attempt to break the union hiring hall in the construction trades through setting quotas for jobs for minority workers. Such plans were especially effective in turning middle-class blacks and white liberals (and many radical leftists) against organized labor in the name of securing “racial justice.”

Two basic features of trade unions in the U.S. are the closed shop (all workers being required to join the union) and the seniority list (layoffs determined by date of hire). These two features are the first line of defense against arbitrary management decisions and the victimization of individual workers. Seniority agreements are often to the disadvantage of blacks and women, who are typically the last hired. In this sense, they are imperfect but they are, along with the closed shop, essential to defense of the union. When the government rips up seniority lists in the name of affirmative action, this is union-busting. The result is no union or a terribly weakened union, to the detriment of all workers.

Another aspect of the FSP’s reformist politics is its championing of “community control.” This slogan was originally popularized by 1960s radical black nationalists, notably the Black Panther Party. Soon, other more moderate forces embraced the slogan en route to Democratic Party machine politics to which the Panthers, too, soon found their way. In the aftermath of the ghetto rebellions of the 1960s, management of the inner-city black enclaves became a profitable career for ambitious black activists. The ghetto is treated as a permanently depressed fiefdom overseen by black operatives in the government bureaucracy.

In particular, the FSP raises the slogan of “community control” of the police in response to the murderous cop rampages in the ghettos and barrios. In “Escalating Police Violence Renews Demand for Elected Civilian Review Boards” (Freedom Socialist, October-December 2000), the FSP calls for civilian review boards “elected from the community, not ‘yes men’ or women appointed by city officials” (emphasis in original). Such boards should have “full authority to investigate police misconduct, subpoena witnesses, and order training, discipline, and firings.” While conceding that these agencies would not “eliminate cop depredations,” the FSP assures us that they “could certainly reduce police rampages” (emphasis in original). The FSP writes that “honest cops should welcome an independent review mechanism, because it’s the medicine necessary to start getting rid of the racist, sexist, and macho viruses that infect the force” (“Curb Police Brutality with Civilian Review Boards,” Freedom Socialist, July-September 1999). Thus the FSP informs us that “community”-based review boards would effect a benevolent moral transformation among the cops themselves—i.e., the very hired thugs of the capitalists whose job is to brutally repress labor and terrorize minorities—resulting in a kinder, gentler police force sensitive to the needs and interests of the oppressed.

Reading this nonsense one is reminded of the New Testament account of the conversion of St. Paul. Formerly a vicious and violent persecutor of Christians, one day on the road to Damascus he saw the light and was redeemed. Alas, the redemption of the members and cadre of the FSP for the cause of proletarian revolution will not be so easy.

Richard Fraser: In Memoriam

The distance separating ourselves from the FSP of Clara Fraser and her followers has long been unbridgeable. In contrast, in the last five or six years before his death in 1988, Dick Fraser moved ever closer to the Spartacist League. We still had differences and disagreements, which were honestly acknowledged and seriously discussed. But we were always happy to bend the stick in favor of the areas of profound political agreement between us.

During this period, Fraser provided invaluable advice, informed by decades of practical experience as well as Marxist understanding, concerning the organization and work of the Labor/Black Leagues, transitional organizations of the Spartacist League involved in day-to-day struggles against racial oppression and capitalist exploitation. Addressing the SL/U.S. Seventh National Conference in 1983 on the question of organizing the Labor/Black Leagues, he spoke movingly:

“I’ve had some discussions with many comrades, which have been very gratifying, and I am humbled by the knowledge that the things I wrote 30 years ago, which were so scorned by the old party, have had some important impact, finally.”

In particular, Fraser greatly appreciated our policy of initiating labor/black mobilizations to smash the Klan and Nazis whenever these fascist scum raised their heads in public, especially in cities with a large working-class and black population. Richard Fraser’s last political act before his death was his endorsement of the 5 November 1988 mobilization that stopped a Klan/Nazi provocation in Philadelphia.