Workers Vanguard No. 930
13 February 2009
Revolutionary Marxists and the Fight for Black Freedom
(Young Spartacus pages)
(Black History and the Class Struggle)
To celebrate Black History Month, we print below an edited version of a public class given by Spartacist League Central Committee member Joseph Seymour on 16 August 2008 for the Bay Area Spartacus Youth Club.
The subject of this educational, the black question and revolutionary integrationism, has a special significance for me personally. The program and especially the strategy of revolutionary integrationism was the single most important reason why I joined the Spartacist tendency (it was not yet a league) in 1965 at the age of 21. Like most young leftist radicals at the time, I started out as a liberal idealist. I was impelled ever further to the left by the contradiction between my liberal democratic ideals and the actual policies and practices of the U.S. government both at home and abroad, under both the Republicans and Democrats.
When I graduated high school in 1961, the American South was still a white racist police state in which blacks were deprived of all basic democratic rights and freedoms. In the North, blacks were concentrated in the impoverished inner-city ghettos. Internationally, the U.S. government was supporting right-wing dictatorships, for example, in Latin America; reactionary feudalist regimes like the Saudi Arabian monarchy; and European colonial rule, for example, the French in Algeria.
I was a member of the political generation called the New Left. Unlike the “Old Left,” the New Left viewed the basic conflict in the world, including in the U.S., not as one between the working class and the capitalist class but rather between the oppressed non-white masses—peasants, workers, the urban poor—and the white American ruling class. This worldview was conditioned by the major events and struggles in the world at the time, including in the U.S. American society was being disrupted and polarized by the civil rights movement, first in the South and then extending into the North. The Cuban Revolution had occurred a few years earlier. Algeria had just won its independence from the French after a prolonged and especially bloody national liberation struggle. And in South Vietnam, a Communist-led, peasant-based insurgency was threatening to overthrow the U.S. puppet regime.
During the early-mid 1960s, there was a widespread leftist radicalization among black youth, not only college students but also young black workers and lumpenized ghetto youth. In 1963 I was, for a few months, a member of the youth group of the Progressive Labor Movement, a recently formed Maoist-Stalinist organization. On one occasion I was selling its journal, the Marxist-Leninist Quarterly, and I approached a couple of young black guys. They waved me off, saying: “Man, we know all that. When the shooting starts, call us, we’ll be there.” In one sense they were just being smart alecks. But they were also in their own way expressing hostility to the racist capitalist-imperialist system as they understood it. At the time most blacks, especially young blacks, opposed the war in Vietnam while most whites, including white workers, supported it out of anti-Communism. The prevailing attitude toward the war among black youth was expressed a few years later by the boxing champion Muhammad Ali when he refused to be inducted into the armed forces. He said: “No Viet Cong”—that’s what the South Vietnamese Communists were usually called—“ever called me n----r.”
Insofar as New Left radicals had a strategy for establishing socialism on a world scale, it was by increasingly weakening and isolating American imperialism through mainly peasant-based revolutions in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This idea was expressed a few years later by Che Guevara in the slogan, “Two, three, many Vietnams.” Unlike most New Leftists, I didn’t see how it was possible to build socialist societies in Latin America, India and East Asia as long as the U.S. remained a capitalist-imperialist state. If the American ruling class felt its existence was seriously threatened by Communist-led revolutions and states in those regions, it could resort to nuclear weapons. At the same time, I couldn’t see how a socialist revolution was possible in the U.S. in a historically meaningful time period. The large majority of the working class was white. And most white workers had racial prejudices to some extent; they supported U.S. imperialist militarism out of anti-Communist sentiment and, in some cases, out of racist disdain for the peoples of what was later called the Third World.
I wrestled with this problem for a year or so. And the concept of revolutionary integrationism as put forward by the Spartacist tendency provided a solution, a key to unlocking the potential for a proletarian socialist revolution in the bastion of world imperialism. Black workers, with their generally higher level of political consciousness and greater opposition to U.S. imperialist militarism, could act as a lever to move the mass of more backward white workers toward a class-struggle program and outlook.
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
As Richard S. Fraser stated in his 1955 document, “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question”:
“One of the main factors which prevents the development of class consciousness in the American working class is race prejudice. Specifically: white chauvinism .
“Segregation is the foundation of prejudice. The Negroes, in their struggle against segregation are constantly clearing the ground for the emergence of class consciousness in the working class as a whole.
“It is the historical role of the Negro struggle to break down race prejudice in the working class and thereby to lead white workers toward class consciousness.
“If the Negro struggle should change its course and strike out for racial independence, it would deprive the working class of its most class conscious, and advanced segments.”
—reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised), “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism” (September 1978)
This was restated by the early Spartacist League in our basic document on the black question, “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom”: “Because of their position as both the most oppressed and also the most conscious and experienced section [of the American working class], revolutionary black workers are slated to play an exceptional role in the coming American revolution” (Spartacist supplement, May-June 1967). Concretely, we put forward as a transitional demand directed at civil rights activists the formation of a South-wide Freedom Labor Party. Such a party would combine the struggle for black democratic rights and social equality with the struggle of labor against capital, for example, by promoting the unionization of the multiracial working class in the South.
Unlike in the 1960s, today there does not exist a mass black movement and there is relatively little working-class struggle of any kind. Nonetheless, black workers are generally politically to the left of the mass of white workers, for example, in their attitude toward U.S. military adventures abroad. Consider the current issue of Workers Vanguard with the headline “U.S. Imperialists Out of Afghanistan, Iraq!” (No. 918, 1 August 2008). In selling this to a group of mainly black workers, you would get a more positive or, at least, less negative response than in selling it to a group of predominantly white workers.
We describe blacks in the U.S. as an oppressed race-color caste integrated into the American capitalist economy while segregated at the bottom of American society. However, the idea that blacks are an embryonic nation was long discussed and debated within the American Trotskyist movement. Trotsky himself tentatively advanced this position in the 1930s. What is a nation and how is it different from a caste? What programmatic conclusions follow from recognizing that an oppressed people are a nation? These are the central themes addressed in Fraser’s 1955 document. Although he does not describe American blacks as a caste, that is the substance of his analysis.
A nation is a group of people who usually share a distinct language, culture and also territory. But the most basic character of a nation is the capacity to form a separate political economy, an independent system for the production and circulation of commodities. A nation can, under certain historical circumstances, become an independent bourgeois state with its own propertied and exploited classes. Our basic program with respect to an oppressed nation is the right of self-determination, that is, the right to secede from the state of the oppressor nation and form its own nation-state.
A caste is a group of people—who may be demarcated by race, ethnicity or some other factor—who occupy a certain position within the hierarchical structure of a given social and economic order. The concept of caste derives from Hindu society in India. All Hindus are born into castes that determine their future place in the social hierarchy. At the bottom of Hindu society are the so-called “untouchables.”
How many of you know who C. Vann Woodward is? He was a well-known white left-liberal historian of the American South. In his memoirs, Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (1986), he recounted:
“A new and extraordinary foreign perspective came my way during the Second World War while I was on duty as a naval officer in India. With a letter of introduction in hand, I sought out Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, acclaimed leader of India’s millions of untouchables and later a figure of first importance in Indian constitutional history. He received me cordially at his home in New Delhi and plied me with questions about the black ‘untouchables’ of America and how their plight compared with that of his own people.”
As Fraser emphasized, blacks have always played an integral and important role in the American capitalist economy since its beginning as a British colony in the 17th century. Racial oppression has always been directly bound up with class exploitation—first for slaves, then for tenant farmers and then for a component of the industrial working class. Historically, the basic thrust of mass black struggle has been to remove the obstacles separating black people from the rest of American society in order to achieve social and economic as well as political equality with the white majority. But that equality can be achieved only through the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a planned socialist economy under a multiracial workers government. This is the crux of revolutionary integrationism.
Black Oppression: Bedrock of American Capitalism
Blacks were originally brought to this country from Africa as slaves to work the agricultural plantations of the Southern colonies of British North America. They became the main labor force producing the country’s major agricultural exports—tobacco, sugar and later cotton—during the colonial era and under the American bourgeois state until the Civil War in the 1860s. Thus black chattel slavery in the South was a central factor in the development of mercantile, financial and later industrial capitalism in the North.
However, eventually the conflicts of interest between the Northern capitalists and Southern plantation owners, mainly over control of the national government, led to the Civil War, which, when the North won, resulted in the abolition of slavery. Here I want to emphasize that blacks played an important role in their own emancipation. During the war, hundreds of thousands of blacks fled from the plantations and took refuge behind the lines of the Union Army. At first they served the Union forces mainly as laborers. But by the war’s end, nearly 200,000 black soldiers and sailors served in the Union Army and Navy.
In the decade following the war, the Northern ruling class carried out a policy called Radical Reconstruction in the South under the occupation of the Union Army. Black men (all women were disenfranchised at the time) were given the right to vote and played an active role in political life. There were black judges, state legislators, even U.S. Congressmen. However the Northern capitalists, given their basic economic interests, did not expropriate the land of the former slave plantations and distribute it to the black freedmen. Most blacks therefore became tenant farmers on land owned by whites and were exploited through sharecropping arrangements, debt peonage and other mechanisms. This formed the economic basis for the restoration of white-supremacist political rule in the South when the Union Army was withdrawn in 1877 to cement the renewed alliance between the Northern and Southern propertied classes. Blacks were subjected to legally enforced racial segregation and stripped of all democratic rights. They were held down by savage state repression reinforced by the racist terror of the Ku Klux Klan.
Prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the large majority of blacks lived in the rural South. During the war there was a substantial migration of blacks to the Northern cities where many found employment in major industries like steel and meatpacking. Racial prejudice among white workers therefore became a major obstacle to working-class organization and struggle even at the most basic trade-union level.
At the same time, the black question was posed for the early American Communist Party. The impetus for this came from Communist leaders in Russia like Lenin and Trotsky. The founding leaders of the American Communist Party like James P. Cannon had come out of the left wing of the Socialist Party and/or the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World. The position of these tendencies on the black question can be characterized as color-blind workerism. This was clearly expressed by prominent Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs: “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races. The Socialist Party is the party of the whole working class, regardless of color—the whole working class of the whole world.”
The position of the Bolsheviks toward the many oppressed nationalities in tsarist Russia was very different. In order to combat and partly overcome the national divisions within the working class in the Russian empire, the Bolsheviks actively championed the rights and interests of the oppressed non-Russian peoples. And Communist leaders like Lenin and Trotsky applied similar principles to blacks in the U.S. They recognized and insisted that American Communists must actively fight against the oppression of black people in all its aspects. Not to do so would passively reinforce racial prejudices among white workers. And if the Communists did not fight against racial oppression, the mass of blacks would support liberal bourgeois parties that claimed to stand for their rights and interests.
The Revolutionary Tendency and the Civil Rights Movement
James P. Cannon, in an essay on the black question and the early Communist Party written in the late 1950s, emphasized:
“After November, 1917 this new doctrine—with special emphasis on the Negroes —began to be transmitted to the American communist movement with the authority of the Russian Revolution behind it. The Russians in the Comintern started on the American communists with the harsh, insistent demand that they shake off their own unspoken prejudices, pay attention to the special problems and grievances of the American Negroes, go to work among them, and champion their cause in the white community .
“The influence of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, even debased and distorted as it later was by Stalin, and then filtered through the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, contributed more than any other influence from any source to the recognition, and more or less general acceptance, of the Negro question as a special problem of American society—a problem which cannot be simply subsumed under the general heading of the conflict between capital and labor, as it was in the pre-communist radical movement.”
—“The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962)
Not coincidentally, when Cannon wrote this essay the Southern civil rights movement, struggling against legalized segregation and for democratic rights, was agitating and polarizing American society and dominating the country’s political life. As it developed, this movement offered a short-lived opportunity for even a small revolutionary party to make a historic breakthrough. By the early 1960s, a large and growing current of young black militants was breaking to the left of the liberal reformism and pacifism of Martin Luther King but had not yet latched on to separatist ideology. These young militants were experienced in struggle and were leading and organizing a mass movement that included large numbers of black workers. And many of them could have been won to a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party on the programmatic basis of revolutionary integrationism.
That was the perspective that the Revolutionary Tendency (RT, the forerunner of the SL) fought for at the time within the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the historic party of American Trotskyism. However, by then the SWP had moved sharply to the right. Its leadership willfully abstained from the civil rights movement while cheerleading from afar for both the liberal reformism of King and the reactionary separatism of the Nation of Islam. Against this, a 1963 RT document stated:
“The rising upsurge and militancy of the black revolt and the contradictory and confused, groping nature of what is now the left wing in the movement provide the revolutionary vanguard with fertile soil and many opportunities to plant the seeds of revolutionary socialism. Our task is to create a Trotskyist tendency in the broad left wing of the movement, while building that left wing . We must consider non-intervention in the crisis of leadership a crime of the worst sort.”
—“The Negro Struggle and the Crisis of Leadership,” reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised)
Over the next year or so the leaders and members of the RT were expelled from the SWP. The early Spartacist tendency then actively intervened in the civil rights struggles in the South as well as the North, raising demands such as for a Freedom Labor Party, for a Southern unionization drive backed by organized labor nationwide, and for armed self-defense against the Klan and other racist terrorists. This important chapter in our history is well documented in the early issues of Spartacist. Our forces, however, were very small and predominantly white. And the main body of young black activists was rapidly moving toward separatism.
To understand why that happened it’s necessary to consider the civil rights movement when it came North in the mid 1960s and how it differed from the Southern movement. The core demands of the Southern movement were for an end to legalized segregation and for democratic rights, centrally the right to vote. By the early 1960s, the dominant sections of the American ruling class were moving to bring the legal and political structure of the South into line with the bourgeois-democratic norms in the rest of the country. An important underlying factor was the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. Legally enforced white supremacy and racial segregation in the South had become an increasing embarrassment for American imperialism internationally, especially in the countries of Asia and Africa, most of them former European colonies.
The Civil Rights Movement in the North
As it happened, in 1956 at the age of 12 I spent three or four months in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where I attended a legally segregated, white junior high school. At the time federal courts had ordered school integration in Arkansas and other Southern states. And many of my classmates, knowing I was from New York, asked me what it was like to go to school with blacks. I said I didn’t know because there were no blacks in the school I went to in Queens.
The North was just as segregated as the South, at a personal level maybe more so. But the main basis of that segregation was the atomized workings of the capitalist economy. Blacks were, proverbially, the last hired and the first fired. Reinforcing these basic economic factors were certain laws, which, though they did not explicitly refer to race, in fact enforced segregation. Most blacks who lived in the ghettos did so out of economic necessity. However, their children then went to segregated public schools because the law mandated that students attend schools in their neighborhoods. In addition, there was white racial prejudice that could and did express itself in mass violence. For example, when in 1966 Martin Luther King led a march for “open housing” into the white Chicago suburb of Cicero, it was met and driven back by a racist mob.
A major demand of the civil rights movement in the North was for “open housing.” But even if realtors could have been compelled by law to sell homes in better-off white suburbs to black families from Harlem or Chicago’s South Side, how many black families could have afforded such homes? The everyday conditions of life facing the mass of blacks—widespread and chronic unemployment, rat-infested slums, rampant police brutality—could not be eradicated by Congress passing another Civil Rights Act. What working-class and poor blacks hoped to achieve through the civil rights movement in the North would have required a radical restructuring of the American economy and a massive redistribution of wealth. And that the American ruling class was not going to do.
Consequently, civil rights agitation generated a rapidly rising level of frustrated expectations, especially among lumpenized black youth, which exploded in what came to be called the ghetto rebellions in the mid-late 1960s in major Northern cities. Black youth took to the streets, battled the cops, looted and trashed stores. We wrote at time:
“As the struggle against the police expands, the black street-fighters turn on the merchants and shopkeepers, the visible representatives of the oppressive class society, and smash whatever cannot be carried off. Yet despite the vast energies expended and the casualties suffered, these outbreaks have changed nothing. This is a reflection of the urgent need for organizations of real struggle, which can organize and direct these energies toward conscious political objectives. It is the duty of a revolutionary organization to intervene where possible to give these outbursts political direction.”
—“Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom”
In line with this policy, at the time of the 1967 ghetto rebellion in Newark, New Jersey, we put out a very short agitational leaflet written by Jim Robertson, titled “Organize Black Power!” Incidentally, during the first years of our existence our name, Spartacist League, was obscure to most people, especially black ghetto youth. However, in 1967 Hollywood re-issued the film Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, about the great slave rebellion in the ancient Roman Empire. So when we distributed the leaflet, blacks would say, “You’re the Kirk Douglas group, you guys kicked the butts of the Romans.” And we’d reply, “Yeah, that’s our historical tradition.”
While the ghetto revolts were suppressed with murderous savagery by the police and National Guard, the ruling class also sought to dampen black unrest by offering certain reforms. Democratic president Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” that is, federally funded programs that were supposed to alleviate the horrific conditions of ghetto life. Busing black children into white neighborhoods was supposed to increase the level of school integration. Affirmative action for blacks in college admissions was supposed to increase racial integration in higher education.
Not only were these policies totally inadequate to improve the conditions of the black masses, but almost all were subsequently reversed by racist reaction. Busing, for example, was effectively killed in Boston in 1974 when white racist mobs attacked black school children. We actively intervened in the Boston busing crisis, agitating for mass, integrated labor-black defense guards to protect the black children in South Boston. We also called for low-rent, racially integrated public housing, for quality, integrated education for all, and for the implementation of busing and its extension to the suburbs as a minimal step toward black equality. However, the local Boston labor bureaucracy passively tolerated racist mob violence against black school children. (See “As Racist Mobs Rampaged, Liberals and Reformists Knifed Busing,” WV No. 921, 26 September 2008.)
The Bankruptcy of Black Nationalism
But let’s shift back in time to the mid-late 1960s and talk about what was called black nationalism. I say what was called black nationalism because it really wasn’t. The central demand of Basque nationalists in Spain is for an independent Basque state. Likewise for Québécois nationalists in Canada. While some of the self-styled black nationalist groups included in their formal programs the call for an independent black state, that was not what they were really about. No one took that seriously. I and other comrades had many arguments with black nationalists at the time and they never focused on carving out an independent state from the existing U.S. These groups are more accurately described as pseudo-nationalists or separatists. What differentiated them from liberal black groups and from racially integrated leftist groups was that they were exclusively black and advocated exclusively black institutions—schools, government agencies, cops—within the framework of the existing American capitalist state.
Despite their radical and often white-baiting rhetoric, most of these black nationalists quickly re-entered the fold of mainstream bourgeois politics. They offered themselves to the white ruling class as overseers of the ghetto masses. They became administrators of the various poverty programs and members of the entourage of local black Democratic politicos. For example, well-known black nationalist and white-baiting poet Amiri Baraka became an aide to the black Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1970s. In that role he tried to break a strike by the racially integrated teachers union that, moreover, had a black leadership. The Black Panthers described such political operators as “pork-chop nationalists” and dashiki Democrats (dashikis being a garment worn by men in Africa).
So what about the Black Panther Party, which described itself as “revolutionary nationalist” and “Marxist-Leninist”? Formed in 1966, the Panthers consisted mainly of lumpenized ghetto youth led by a small number of young black leftist intellectuals. In fact, they had a doctrine of lumpen vanguardism. Initially the Panthers attempted to build a black paramilitary organization in the ghettos that would coexist with and restrain the police—sort of an armed version of “community control of the police.” And for a short time they actually got away with it, especially here in Oakland, their original and strongest base.
But by 1968 the FBI and local police had launched an all-out campaign to destroy the Panthers. Thirty-eight Panther militants were killed outright and top leaders were imprisoned on capital charges. A few managed to flee the country and gain refuge, for example, in Algeria. The Panther leadership responded to the murderous repression by turning sharply to the right in an effort to gain liberal support for their legal defense. In 1970-71, the organization was effectively destroyed by a violent factional struggle.
As we later wrote about black nationalism in general, in all its diverse political expressions: “At bottom black nationalism is an expression of hopelessness stemming from defeat, reflecting despair over prospects for integrated class struggle and labor taking up the fight for black rights. The chief responsibility for this lies on the shoulders of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy, which has time and again refused to mobilize the social power of the multiracial working class in struggle against racist discrimination and terror” (Programmatic Statement of the Spartacist League/U.S., November 2000).
At the same time, the failure of the labor bureaucracy to improve the condition of the working class in general and to expand the scope of union power in the labor force as a whole conditioned what was called the “white backlash” in the mid-late 1960s. This was a widespread racist reaction against the black movement and minimal reforms like busing and affirmative action. Right-wing demagogues appealed with some success to the economic discontents and insecurities of white working-class as well as petty-bourgeois families. They said that the gains made by blacks, which they enormously exaggerated, had come at the expense of white working people, that their tax money was going to support black welfare mothers and “poverty hustlers,” that their children did not gain admission to the better colleges because colleges were giving preference to blacks.
The “white backlash” deepened the racial divisions and antagonisms within the working class, including in its unionized sector. And this helped set the stage for the effective union-busting offensive launched by the ruling class beginning in the late 1970s. The basic point is that labor and blacks go forward together or they will be driven back separately.
So what about today? First, it’s important to recognize that as a result of large-scale immigration from Latin America in recent decades the ethnic composition of the U.S. working class has significantly changed since the 1960s and ’70s. We are a small revolutionary Marxist propaganda group. As such we don’t have the capacity to lead the kind of labor, anti-racist and immigrant rights struggles that will raise the political consciousness of large numbers of workers whether white, black, Latino, native-born or immigrant. What we can and must do is develop a multiracial and multiethnic cadre that can lead such struggles in the future. And here I want to emphasize the importance of a multiethnic cadre. Racial and ethnic divisions cannot be fully and permanently overcome among the broad mass of workers under capitalism. At times of direct struggle, such as during strikes against the employers and government, these divisions are in one sense overcome. But then they subsequently reappear and are exploited and aggravated by bourgeois politicians. Look at the recent Democratic primaries where the overwhelming majority of blacks voted for Obama and most Latinos for Hillary Clinton.
Black communists will generally speak with greater political authority to black workers, and Latino communists to Latino workers. We need all kinds in the party. The unity of the working class in an all-sided and durable sense can exist only at the highest level of political consciousness organizationally embodied in a revolutionary vanguard party. And that’s what we seek to create.
March 3, 2009
Dear Young Spartacus,
I noticed an error in Seymour’s talk on the black question (WV930) [“Revolutionary Marxists and the Fight for Black Freedom” (13 February)], when he says that “King led a march for ‘open housing’ into the white Chicago suburb of Cicero.” In fact King cancelled the march to appease [Chicago mayor] Daley; it was others like SNCC and CORE who went ahead with it.
Is a correction already in the works? A useful book on this question is Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago by Anderson and Pickering.
What Seymour said is actually a widely held myth, and correcting it would be an opportunity to illustrate how the Democratic Party smothers the fight for black freedom.
(From WV No. 945, 23 October 2009.)