Workers Vanguard No. 906
18 January 2008
Break with the Democrats! For a Class-Struggle Workers Party!
The Obama Campaign and the End of Racism Myth
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
The candidates of the capitalist Democratic Party say their 2008 campaigns are all about “change.” After seven years of rule by the demented Bush gang (or what’s left of its inner circle), much of the American populace does indeed want change. The widely unpopular, bloody imperialist occupation of Iraq drags on, the economy teeters on recession, the wages and living conditions of those with jobs have taken a pounding, home foreclosures are soaring, civil liberties have been increasingly shredded. The racist atrocity in the face of Hurricane Katrina is the domestic signature of the Bush administration; millions watched angrily as the poor and black residents of New Orleans were left to die or suffer intolerable conditions. From Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo Bay, the lexicon of torture has become a matter of “civilized debate” in bourgeois circles.
The trade-union bureaucrats and the black bourgeois politicians, tailed by the reformist left, seize on social discontent to peddle the lie that support to the “lesser evil” Democratic Party will serve the interests of working people and the oppressed. But the policies pursued by the Bush regime are not simply the product of a particularly vicious administration. Imperialist war, racism and repression are endemic to the capitalist system. As Marxists, we fight to break workers and the oppressed from illusions in the Democrats, the other party of war and racism, and to forge a workers party that fights to overturn the capitalist system through workers revolution.
In the 2008 presidential race, the Democrats offer two front-runners who would have been unthinkable even a few years ago: a black man, U.S. Senator Barack Obama, and a woman, former first lady Hillary Clinton. Obama took the Iowa caucuses; Clinton the New Hampshire primary. The third top candidate in the Democratic Party race, former vice presidential candidate Senator John Edwards, poses as a populist out to fight the “special interests” and “corporate greed.” In stump speeches, they’re all for “healing,” “hope” and “unity.” They’re “fired up and ready to go,” not least to restore the battered image of U.S. imperialism in the world, including with some belated nods to the popular demand to withdraw sooner rather than later from Iraq.
The Democrats’ rhetoric is meant to refurbish illusions that the shell game of bourgeois electoral politics can work in the interests of the working masses. The Republicans revel in inflicting suffering on working people and the oppressed. Just look at the Republican debates where the candidates were competing over who could be the most racist and anti-immigrant bigot. For their part, the Democrats put on a more kindly face, the better to deceive the working people and give a more popular facade to the racist capitalist status quo. As Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin captured it in his 1917 work, The State and Revolution, “To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament—this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism.”
We revolutionary Marxists do not extend any support to any capitalist politician. Nor would we run for executive office—such as mayor, governor or president—ourselves, although Marxists have and can run for parliamentary office as a tactic to propagate our revolutionary program. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels taught long ago, the capitalist government is the executive committee that manages the affairs of the capitalist class as a whole. In the U.S., the president is the chief executive responsible for the most massive military power in history and for the domestic machinery of repression that maintains social oppression and exploitation. To run for executive office means to aspire to be the next Commander-in-Chief who decides who gets tortured, who gets bombed, who gets invaded (see Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 60, Autumn 2007).
At the time of the 2006 midterm elections, we wrote in “For a Class-Struggle Workers Party!” (WV No. 881, 24 November 2006):
“Our task in analyzing social discontents, including as revealed through the distorted prism of the elections, is to lay bare the irreconcilable class antagonisms at the base of this society. It is the working class, with its strategic black component, that produces the wealth of society. This is the only social force with the objective interest and potential social power to smash the capitalist system and lay the basis for the construction of an egalitarian socialist society. We stand for the complete political independence of the proletariat from all capitalist parties—Democrat, Republican and Green.”
Democratic Party vs. Black Liberation
Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, is perceived as a charismatic, honest politician, above the mudslinging and corruption that define American politics. He is particularly popular among college youth. And in the face of the history of black oppression in this country, the possibility of the election of the first black president, whatever his actual policies, will likely propel many even previously skeptical black people to support him. If this deeply racist country, where religious obscurantism and anti-woman bigotry are pervasive, ever sees a black or female president, it would certainly be a significant development. But it would do nothing to change the oppression of women, which is rooted in the institution of the family in class society, or of black people, which forms the cornerstone of American capitalism. Simply put, the liberation of black people and women will not happen short of the destruction of the capitalist system through socialist revolution.
In the eyes of the capitalist rulers, Obama is potentially acceptable as chief executive because his entire campaign is based on the “end of racism” lie, the claim that black oppression has been overcome. Columnist Gary Younge commented in the Nation (31 December 2007) that the value of black leadership “is, it seems, directly proportional to its distance from the black community and its experiences. Its cheerleaders desire not so much to refashion black politics as to eliminate it altogether, not so much to eliminate racism as to eradicate discussion of it.” The article quotes black radical-liberal writer and former Communist Party spokesman Angela Davis aptly noting that Obama “is being consumed as the embodiment of color blindness.”
In his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama declared: “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” This message was recently echoed by no less a capitalist mouthpiece than the Wall Street Journal (10 November 2007) which headlined: “Whites’ Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-Blind America.”
Dream on. A year after Obama’s speech to the DNC, the horror of Katrina would expose (again) this present-day liberal lie for what it is. In response to this glaring racist atrocity, Obama declared that “the incompetence was color-blind.” What’s “color blind” about the ongoing purge of black people from New Orleans? Then when some 50,000 overwhelmingly black people converged upon Jena, Louisiana, in September to protest Jim Crow justice against six black youth, Obama said he just wanted “fairness” and claimed it “isn’t a matter of black and white.” Tell that to the black people outraged over the proliferation of hangman’s nooses around the country after the Jena protest. Those who came out to Jena were mobilized by black Democrats Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson with the aim of funneling anger into the Democratic Party and appeals for “justice” to the federal government. Obama did not even bother to show up.
The daily reality of racist oppression can be measured in astronomical unemployment rates for blacks and decrepit ghetto housing; rampant police terror and the consignment of nearly one million black men and women to America’s hellhole prisons, mainly due to the “war on drugs”; prison-like inner-city schools and the purge of black youth from higher education. Obama looks upon all this and claims, as he did in his speech in Selma last year, that the civil rights movement brought America “90 percent of the way” toward racial equality!
Certainly such a position serves Obama’s career. It means blaming the oppressed for their oppression. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, he declares that “minorities, individually and collectively, have responsibilities as well” for their own condition. They suffer from “too much television,” “lack of emphasis on educational achievement” and “the collapse of the two-parent black household.” Obama lectures that black people should acknowledge that “perhaps the single biggest thing we could do to reduce such poverty is to encourage teenage girls to finish high school and avoid having children out of wedlock.” And “we should also acknowledge that conservatives—and Bill Clinton—were right about welfare,” a reference to Clinton’s ending of welfare “as we know it,” which consigned millions of poor and black people, especially women, to the scrap heap. Such is Obama’s program for “change.”
Contrary to the myth promoted by Obama and other liberals, black oppression continues to be the central defining feature of U.S. society. It is materially rooted in and central to American capitalism. As against both liberal integrationists and black nationalists, our struggle for black liberation is based on the program of revolutionary integrationism. While opposing every manifestation of racist oppression, fighting in particular to mobilize the social power of the multiracial labor movement, we underline that full equality for the black masses requires that the working class rip the economy out of the hands of the capitalist rulers and reorganize it on a socialist basis. Only then will it be possible to eliminate the material roots of black oppression through the integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society based on a collectivized economy with jobs and quality housing, health care and education for all.
As we elaborated in “Black and Red,” a key document adopted at the founding conference of the Spartacist League in 1966:
“The struggle of the black people of this country for freedom, while part of the struggle of the working class as a whole, is more than that struggle. The Negro people are an oppressed race-color caste, in the main comprising the most exploited layer of the American working class . 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.”
Black Oppression and American Capitalism
The roots of black oppression lie in chattel slavery, smashed only by blood and iron in the Civil War, the Second American Revolution. In this “conflict between the system of slavery and the system of free labor,” as Karl Marx described it, some 200,000 black troops entered the fight and helped turn the tide for the Northern Union Army.
Despite the victory over the slavocracy and installation of the most democratic period for black people in American history under Radical Reconstruction, the promise of black freedom was betrayed as Northern capitalists looked at the devastated South and saw an opportunity not for building a radical democracy but for exploiting Southern resources, and the freedmen. The Compromise of 1877 sealed this betrayal and, with the withdrawal of the remaining troops of the Union Army from the South, a new system of racist exploitation was established through the systematic repression of black people’s fight for land, education and civil rights. The former slaves became tenants and sharecroppers toiling on land owned by the white propertied class, consisting of elements of the old slavocracy and a new Southern bourgeoisie with strong ties to Northern capital. Jim Crow segregation became entrenched, enforced and maintained by Klan terror and police-state repression. Black people were effectively completely disenfranchised.
The Southern Jim Crow system made an imprint on the entire country. The capitalist rulers have long fomented ethnic and religious hatred. Well into the 20th century, the central dividing line was one which pitted “native” Protestants against mainly Catholic German, Irish, Italian and other immigrant workers. With the mass migration of blacks from the South to the industrial cities of the North, particularly during World Wars I and II, the bourgeoisie promoted anti-black racism, making the color bar a fundamental dividing line that has served to obscure the irreconcilable class divide. All this has served to retard the political consciousness of the American proletariat. The U.S. is the only industrial country where the workers have not historically had their own independent political party, even a reformist one, reflecting the interests of labor, which are counterposed to the interests of capital.
The courageous struggles of the black and white foot soldiers of the civil rights movement in the 1950s-’60s played an instrumental role in overturning Jim Crow. The creation of a Southern black proletariat fundamentally eroded the Jim Crow system of segregation. The bourgeoisie eventually acquiesced to legal equality in the South, in part because Jim Crow had become an embarrassment to U.S. imperialism’s posture as the defender of “democracy” and “human rights” in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the industrial and military powerhouse of the non-capitalist world.
The struggle for black equality intersected growing discontent and opposition to U.S. imperialism’s losing counterrevolutionary war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants. The potential for an explosive and revolutionary transformation of American society was evident. But from its onset, the civil rights movement was dominated by a black middle-class leadership allied to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The aim of liberal-pacifist leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. was to pressure the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to grant formal, legal equality. In the context of the current spat between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over her claim that Johnson did more than King for black rights, it is worth recalling that King supported the suppression of the 1965 Watts ghetto revolt while Johnson dispatched federal troops to crush the 1967 Detroit upheaval.
In the 1960s, the Spartacist League, despite our small forces, put forward the perspective of a class-struggle fight for black freedom. As we stated in our Programmatic Statement, “For Socialist Revolution in the Bastion of World Imperialism”:
“In our intervention into the civil rights movement, the Spartacist League raised the call for a South-wide Freedom Labor Party as an expression of working-class political independence and the need to mobilize the labor movement to fight for black emancipation. This was linked to a series of other transitional demands aimed at uniting black and white workers in struggle against the capitalist class enemy, like organizing the unorganized and a sliding scale of wages and hours to combat inflation and unemployment. We called for armed self-defense against racist terror and for a workers united front against government intervention, both in the labor movement and in the use of federal troops to suppress black plebeian struggles. This program is no less urgent today.”
The bankruptcy of the liberal program of the civil rights movement’s leadership was quickly revealed when the movement swept out of the South and into the North, where black people already had formal legal equality. The struggle for a fundamental change in conditions of life in the ghettos—for real equality, for jobs, decent housing and adequate schools—collided head-on with the realities of American capitalism. Many black militants, frustrated with and opposed to liberal conciliationism, turned to black nationalism, which rejects the multiracial working class as the motor force for revolutionary struggle against this racist capitalist system.
The bourgeoisie responded to growing black militancy—represented by Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and others—with vicious repression, killing 38 Panthers and imprisoning hundreds more through COINTELPRO. Police repression along with cop riots in major U.S. cities resulted in the spontaneous eruption of ghetto rebellions across the country. At the same time, the bourgeoisie sought to and did co-opt a layer of the liberal black misleaders into the Democratic Party, reflected in the election of a number of black mayors in major American cities over the next couple of decades.
By the late 1960s, a racist backlash was already beginning, and in succeeding decades many of the gains of the civil rights period were reversed or eroded. A key turning point was the defeat of busing in Boston in 1974-75 on the streets by racist mobs and in government halls by liberal politicians. Last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning school desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville eviscerates the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that banned school segregation. The racist backlash was soon followed by an onslaught against the labor movement, exemplified by the 1981 smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers union by the Reagan administration using plans drawn up by the Democratic Carter administration.
Barack Obama is a beneficiary of the civil rights movement. He also embodies the utter failure of bourgeois liberalism to address the needs of the black masses. A graduate of Harvard Law School, and the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama’s rise to political prominence was meteoric, an effort helped in no small part by elements within the Chicago Democratic Party Daley machine. Twenty years earlier, during Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, in which he won 13 primaries and caucuses and got over seven million votes, we pointed out in “Jesse Jackson, Racism and the Democratic Party” (WV No. 451, 22 April 1988): “Class divisions are sharpening within the black population, marked by the gulf between a thin layer of black professionals, who poured through the gates forced open by the civil rights movement, and the massive ‘black underclass’ of the permanently unemployed, swollen through the devastation of American industry in the ’70s and ’80s.”
When Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 as part of forming his Rainbow Coalition and again in 1988, he was attempting to exert pressure on the party, including through bringing in more voters, but had no chance of nomination. Obama’s campaign today, however, poses the possibility of the election of the first black president. And he may well face attack from racist vigilantes and terrorists; threats along those lines have led to the early assignment of Secret Service protection. As a black worker in North Carolina bluntly put it: “I think he will certainly need to beef up his security, because I think there’s these wackos that will go to any extent to make sure he doesn’t win” (Washington Post, 5 January).
When black Democrat Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983 and faced a vicious racist backlash, we underlined that “Washington has the right to take office with all the normal prerogatives. Blacks have a right to elect whoever they want to office” (WV No. 326, 25 March 1983). But as opposed to many on the reformist left, we refused to give one ounce of political support to this longtime machine Democrat and warned, “Harold Washington Will Betray Black Chicago” (WV No. 328, 22 April 1983). And, indeed, he did, slashing jobs, services and overseeing Chicago’s murderous police department.
It is the role of black elected officials to keep a lid on social struggle and administer racist capitalist rule. As former New York City Democratic mayor David Dinkins quipped when he was running for office in 1989, “They’ll take it from me.” A grotesque example was the 1985 bombing of the MOVE commune in Philadelphia, which slaughtered eleven black men, women and children and destroyed an entire black neighborhood. This was carried out by black Democratic mayor Wilson Goode in collusion with the Feds.
Obama and the Fake Left
The way forward in the struggle against this deeply racist capitalist system is to break the political chains that bind workers, blacks, immigrants and the oppressed to their class enemy, particularly through support to the Democratic Party. This means waging a political struggle not only against the labor tops, many of whom are leading lights within the Democratic Party, but also against the reformist left. Today, as Obama’s popularity mounts especially among blacks and youth, the reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO) paints him as a symbol for “those who want a break with the stale right-wing orthodoxy that has dominated mainstream politics for a generation” (Socialist Worker, 11 January).
Despite various criticisms of Obama, the ISO made clear its stand when at an 11 February 2007 rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus ISO-led protesters unfurled a banner pleading: “Obama: Stand Up! Cut the funding!” (for the Iraq war). This is part of their fight to give the Democrats “a backbone,” which is supposed to be provided by “a grassroots antiwar movement that can pressure politicians from outside the established party system” (Socialist Worker, 2 March 2007). Of course, no less an establishment Democrat than John Kerry has endorsed Obama, who has also received significant support from Wall Street financiers.
The Workers World Party (WWP) is more blatant; the conclusion of its editorial “Behind the Votes for Obama & Rodham Clinton” (Workers World, 9 January) unmistakably leaves open the possibility of support to this capitalist politician:
“With an Obama candidacy, working-class and revolutionary organizations will have to stay sensitive to the impact of racism on the electoral campaign, even as the left differentiates itself from Obama as well as the Republican [sic]. The left will also have to adjust its approach should there be an active intervention of the population in the electoral process, especially if an economic or war crisis arises during the election.”
Indeed, WWP supported Jackson in 1988 and other black Democrats such as Congressional candidate Cynthia McKinney in 2004 and New York City Council member Charles Barron in 2006. For his part, Barron raised the slogan: “Let’s get back to Black and vote for Barack” (Amsterdam News, 15 November 2007).
Obama is, in fact, to the right of both Clinton and Edwards on many domestic issues. He is at one with the Clintonian “center” in support of the racist, barbaric death penalty. In the context of vicious attacks on immigrants, he wrote in The Audacity of Hope: “I’m not entirely immune to such nativist sentiments. When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment.” Along with Clinton, Obama’s “patriotism” led him to support the “Secure Fence Act,” mandating the construction of a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
As for his international policy, in addition to a cautious and uneven opposition to the Iraq war and occupation, Obama’s article on “Renewing American Leadership” in Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007) is instructive. He makes clear that he wants to bring the occupation of Iraq to a “responsible end” in order to redeploy and significantly escalate American military forces and operations around the world. Like the other Democrats, Obama is foursquare behind the murderous occupation of Afghanistan. He is bellicose against Pakistan, as well as Iran and the North Korean deformed workers state, writing: “We must develop a strong international coalition to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program . In confronting these threats, I will not take the military option off the table.”
He goes on to proclaim: “To defeat al Qaeda, I will build a twenty-first-century military and twenty-first-century partnerships as strong as the anticommunist alliance that won the Cold War to stay on the offense everywhere from Djibouti to Kandahar.” It is no accident that Obama’s foreign policy consigliere is one Zbigniew Brzezinski, the veteran of Cold War II who, as part of Jimmy Carter’s Democratic administration, worked to militarily and ideologically rearm U.S. imperialism after its humiliating defeat at the hands of the heroic Vietnamese workers and peasants. The Carter administration launched an anti-Communist “human rights” campaign against the Soviet Union, including massive support to Islamic reactionaries in Afghanistan against the Soviet Red Army’s intervention on the side of elementary human progress.
For the most part, the reformists marched in lockstep with the imperialists during Cold War II. Today, in the wake of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, they have given up even lip service to the struggle for proletarian revolution. As revolutionary Trotskyists, we stood for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state and the deformed workers states of East and Central Europe while fighting for political revolution to oust the ruling Stalinist bureaucracies and install regimes based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism. Today, we apply this same program to the remaining deformed workers states of China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba.
The restoration of capitalism in the USSR was a world-historic defeat for the international proletariat. Today, rapacious U.S. imperialism declares itself the superpower of a “one superpower” world, and the capitalists internationally are intensifying their class war against working people, immigrants and the oppressed. Retrograde “death of communism” consciousness has led to a number of backward offspring, from the mythology of the “end of racism” to widespread despair among working people over their ability to fundamentally ameliorate their conditions. It is a telling statement of the decomposition of the left that radical-liberal writer Alexander Cockburn is now promoting right-wing libertarian Republican Ron Paul—a fanatical proponent of “free market” capitalism—as a “principled fellow” and “a candidate leftists can and should support” (Nation, 21 January).
There will be no effective resistance to the immiseration of American working people without the unity in struggle between the trade unions and the black and Latino poor. It is necessary to fight for a new, class-struggle leadership in the labor movement that fights to mobilize and extend union power not only in defense of workers’ livelihoods but also to combat racist discrimination and anti-immigrant attacks. Such a class-struggle leadership would fight against deportations and to organize immigrant workers, demanding full citizenship rights for all immigrants. As we wrote in our Programmatic Statement:
“Despite the destruction of industrial jobs and erosion of union strength, black workers, who have a significantly higher rate of trade-union membership than do white workers, continue to be integrated into strategic sectors of the industrial proletariat, which alone has the power to shatter this racist, capitalist system. Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will be the living link fusing the anger of the dispossessed ghetto masses with the social power of the multiracial proletariat under the leadership of a Leninist vanguard party.”