Marxist Bulletin No 5 Revised
What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism
The Negro Struggle and the Crisis of Leadership
Draft Resolution on Civil Rights
Submitted by D. Konstan, A. Nelson and S. Stoute
Reprinted from YSA Discussion Bulletin Vol. 7, No. 5, August 1963
“In the politics of Marxism the tactics of the day, as well as the strategy for the long run, flow from a theory which, in turn, is a generalization of previous experience in the evolution of class society in general and of capitalism in particular.” [emphasis added]
—James P. Cannon, The Road to Peace, p. 15
“For the proletariat, however, [national] demands are subordinate to the interests of the class struggle.”
—V.I. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, p. 23
(1) The new level of militancy reached by the Negro people in their struggle for equality sharpens the contradictions of capitalist society, highlights the problem of the crisis of leadership, and furnishes the first significant breakthrough for the participation of revolutionary socialists, especially youth, in struggle since the post-war reaction. However, the peculiar racial distortions of American proletarian consciousness, in addition to the oppressive lag of organized labor in the struggle, pose the special problem of tactics and organizational forms which can serve to unite the American working class to overthrow capitalism.
(2) This difficulty is further compounded by the fact that the NEC Majority has a basically false and disorienting theory on the Negro movement, which essentially holds that integration is a “merely” bourgeois demand, far surpassed by black nationalism which is profoundly revolutionary and inevitably drives, under its own steam and without Marxist leadership, toward socialism; we thus have a reliable, though non-Marxist, ally. A further consequence of this “theory” is that the struggle in the south is of secondary importance; here again, moreover, objective conditions are supposed to give birth to a revolutionary leadership, and thus our presence in the south is entirely unnecessary. It is “sufficient,” we are told, for the YSA to endorse SNCC without reserve, and with the assistance of the federal government and a thoroughly confused misrepresentation of the permanent revolution, Trotskyist leadership becomes utterly dispensable.
(3) The labor bureaucrats well served their masters–the American capitalist class–when they failed to extend the organizational drive of the CIO into the south, and when they divided labor in organized areas by permitting end encouraging discriminatory practices in the unions. The pattern of struggle for the American working class was in large measure determined by these defeats. While the labor bureaucracy conservatively maintained its privileges by ignoring the needs of the most oppressed layer or caste of the working class, the Negro people lost confidence in their white allies and grew prepared to take independent action to secure equality.
(4) The Korean War, like all wars, speeded up social processes, increasing the militancy and consciousness of the Negroes and leaving in its wake the palliative Supreme Court decision on segregation in 1954. Legalistic tactics were surpassed when the Negro people in Montgomery discovered the weapon of the economic boycott; “they pushed the whole movement towards a higher stage of development” (The Class Struggle Road to Negro Equality, p. 10). Furthermore, the growing independence movement in Africa increased the confidence and consciousness of the Negro masses in America. The next major tactical development in the Negro struggle was the sit-ins, which spread throughout the country.
(5) However, in the bosom of this new militant movement there erupted the same infection which had corrupted labor’s drive toward integration: a conservative bureaucracy which took root in the absence of revolutionary leadership. Thus the tactics of self-defense, against violent racist attack, of Robert F. Williams, which are vitally necessary to furthering the struggle in the south, and which have been deliberately hushed up by the bourgeois press, were opposed and condemned by the conservative leaders of the Negro movement.
(6) Mass pressures have resulted in the limited radicalization of the older civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP and CORE, despite the repressive efforts of the bureaucratic leaderships, while new militant organizations have been formed in response to the needs and aspirations of sections of the Negro people (SNCC, SCLC, RAM in Philadelphia, etc.).
(7) Moreover, the recent period has seen the rapid growth of the nationalist (separatist) movement. However, nationalism must be seen as a product of the crisis of leadership in the northern movement. (Note: nationalism is a popular term which does not lend itself to scientific or concrete definition. It may refer generally to anti-white feelings or to strong sympathies with the African independence movement [LCA]. In some circles it has been generalized to mean simply militancy. Most specifically it refers to separatist movements organized along racial lines. This sense is the only one which has any meaning for Marxists. The movement best representing nationalism today is the Muslims.)
(8) Nationalism is a bourgeois demand. Its economic base lies in the need for subject nationalities to liberate and organize themselves in order that commodity exchange (capitalism) may develop more freely and rapidly. It can be supported, from an independent proletarian point of view which fosters no illusions of patriotism or national superiority, only when the oppressed nation has a nascent economy which is kept from development by oppression. In the oppressor nation, the right to self-determination may be advocated as a counter-measure to chauvinism.
When the problem of nationalism is posed in its classical Leninist form, it becomes apparent that separatism is not in itself a revolutionary demand, requiring the unconditional support of Marxists.
(9) The separatist demand of the Muslims, their advocacy of the building of a separate black economy, and their dangerous abstentionism with respect to the mass integration struggle are utopian and petty-bourgeois. The class base of their ideology is the petty-bourgeoisie of the northern big-city ghettos (especially New York and Chicago).
(10) The Muslim movement is fundamentally a religious organization. It is dominated by a tight bureaucratic structure. This makes it virtually impossible to work within the movement. Nevertheless, the Muslims have a broad appeal to the black working class, which is perhaps the dominant element in their composition. This is due ultimately to the lag in consciousness and lack of revolutionary leadership in the labor movement; to the absence of an alternative Negro revolutionary leadership and organization; and to the Muslims’ vitriolic denunciation of “white society” plus their assertive self-confidence, which correspond to the new mood of the Negro people. We can best reach the working class elements in the Muslims by working with them when possible, defending them against the attacks of the capitalist government; at the same time we must publish critical appraisals of their ideology in our press, exposing its petty-bourgeois content.
(11) Existing civil rights organizations are naturally responding to the heightened consciousness of the Negro masses. The NAACP, for example, has experienced a “revolt of the youth” at its last convention in Chicago, July 1-6. A new turn in the northern movement has been marked by the fight against racism in the unions and the mass picketing of construction sites. Another example of the turn to mass action is Philadelphia CORE’s current fight against the slum-lords. CORE has also made efforts to support SNCC’s work in the south, and is the primary vehicle of militancy in the “united front” organization which has continued to picket the Downstate Medical Center construction site in New York City despite the withdrawal of support by the ministers after Rockefeller’s token proposals.
(12) The rise in militancy of the masses and the changes reflected in the leadership show many contradictions; thus while a section of the leadership of Philadelphia CORE still firmly upholds the doctrine of non-violence, and tends to eschew mass demonstrations, the leadership as a whole nevertheless busily mobilizes an angry mass and leads it in militant actions. These contradictions afford an incomparable opportunity for revolutionary socialists.
(13) Our general task in the coming period must be to recruit a black Trotskyist youth cadre to the YSA. We do this by participating in the civil rights organizations openly as revolutionists fighting for militant mass actions. The basic method of Trotskyists working within these organizations is clearly to establish left-wing revolutionary caucuses by means of a transitional approach embodying a succession of concrete programmatic slogans. The long-range perspective is of course to develop an alternative leadership based on class struggle solutions in these groups; this inevitably involves a polarization and confrontation of political tendencies, which is preparatory to a split of revolutionary from conservative petty-bourgeois forces in the organization.
(14) The specific programmatic slogans must be geared to the particular circumstances and organization. In the north, general slogans may be:
A) A pre-arranged percentage of all newly hired apprentices or laborers must belong to minorities (Negroes and Puerto Ricans or Mexicans)–cut the hours of work sufficiently to provide jobs for all, with no cut in pay.
B) Workers themselves, through their weapons of mass action (picketing, sit-downs, demonstrations) must reform their class organizations; against decertification suits.
C) Demonstrations must continue despite promises by government officials until the specific terms agreed upon by the membership have been met; against Cecil B. Moore-New York ministers type of sell-out.
D) End all restrictions employed to soften demonstrations–against strait-jacket approach of the bureaucrats (the March on Washington).
E) End support to traditional capitalist parties.
F) Support independent Negro candidates and socialist candidates who run on principled programs of civil rights.
G) For independent political action by minority peoples for civil rights.
(15) The southern region of the United States is a doubly exploited area: the average wage is approximately half that of the northern region. This is made possible by the absence or weakness of unions, and by widespread racial antagonisms. It is only the super-exploitation of the Negroes which, in the era of imperialist decline, maintains a tense stability in the south.
(16) The contraction of the world market, and increasing foreign competition are responsible for the drastic cuts in American steel production: steel factories are currently operating, it is well known, at less than 50% capacity. In Birmingham, primarily a steel town with the highest concentration of proletarians in the United States, the contraction of steel output and automation have resulted in a major unemployment crisis. Negroes are the first to be laid off industrial jobs, when they have them (about half the union locals in Birmingham have no Negro members at all–a fact which is not true of industrial unions in the north). Worse than this, Negroes now face unfair competition in local menial jobs from unemployed whites–whites invariably get preference. There is thus an army of frustrated and angry unemployed Negroes in Birmingham
(17) Against this background enter the petty bourgeois ministers, raising their petty-bourgeois demands (one sales clerk position, etc.). Committed to non-violence and fearful of proletarian militancy, the King-Shuttleworth-Abernathy leadership have only one weapon: to put pressure on the big bourgeoisie–represented by the federal government–to intervene on their behalf. The federal government (i.e., Robert Kennedy and Roger Blough) can act at the expense of the local bourgeoisie to head off future demonstrations by granting the mildest, most meaningless concessions. Nevertheless, because racism is an essential divisive factor in the working class which is propping up American capitalism in the epoch of its decay, it is impossible for the big bourgeoisie to grant any significant demands. The only action by the Kennedys in the Birmingham crisis was sending troops–directed against the Negro community rather than to protect them. The latest civil rights bill is such a farce as to have received vehement criticism from the NAACP and the Urban League.
(18) Utterly frustrated by the suffering endured for the sake of King’s utterly insignificant demands, and enraged to see even these bargained away without a struggle, the unemployed workers, who previously had stood on the sidelines, took the incident of a bombed motel to vent their anger in violent resistance. The responsibility for this undirected violence, and for the subsequent campaign of terror against the Negroes which has been waged and is being waged in Birmingham, must be laid to King. While it is true that King’s leadership has been largely discredited, the price was very high–possibly widespread demoralization. (See statement by James Foreman, executive secretary of SNCC, concerning Birmingham in National Guardian, May 30, 1963: “The usual effect of long waiting periods after a few concessions is to kill the Movement.”)
(19) Even though SNCC, which is not homogeneous, has maintained its militancy and its attachment to the aspirations of the masses, events like the Birmingham crisis are entirely beyond the scope of the organization because of its formal commitment to non-violence and its self-imposed limitations on its perspectives.
(20) SNCC is the most viable part of the southern civil rights movement. Its cadre continually come into conflict with NAACP, CORE and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King). Its statement of purpose is a credo of non-violence, but people of different ideologies are not excluded. SNCC does not have a worked out program but their workers condemn the “black bourgeoisie” and orient toward the poor masses. They have very close ties with SDS, which is practically dominated by YPSL, and with SCEF. SNCC is the left wing of the southern civil rights movement, and it is a movement which we should be a part of.
(21) The SNCC leadership is every day formulating concepts of struggle for the movement. The empirical changes in orientation stem from their experience in the day to day struggle alone. While this cadre is militant and is tied to the aspirations of the black masses, it harbors many illusions as to the nature of the oppressor, the nature of capitalist society, and therefore the nature of the struggle itself. From this flows an incorrect conception of the methods necessary to effectively combat racism.
(22) The masses of black workers and the SNCC leadership and ranks will not pragmatically come to understand and adopt the science of Marxism simply by virtue of their militancy and readiness to grasp any methods within their reach that they find may be necessary to the forward surge of the fight. They are groping for answers, and some of the more conscious of them have picked up pieces of phraseology without fully comprehending their significance which seem on the surface to indicate the necessity to change the system; but this must not be mistaken for a true revolutionary class consciousness.
(23) 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. Our ideas will help the movement, not hurt it. We must consider non-intervention in the crisis of leadership a crime of the worst sort.
(24) It is our duty to send a small fraction of YSAers to work consistently in the south in SNCC. The task of this fraction should be to establish itself as a part of the movement by proving its dedication and devotion through hard work. We should seek to recruit individuals through extensive discussion with militants while projecting to the movement as a whole certain immediate programmatic demands, as well as transitional demands, to be adopted. We work in these movements because we want to fight racism in practice as well as in theory, because we know that it is only through the socialist revolution that racism can be wiped out. To build the revolutionary vanguard is to participate in and build a revolutionary leadership of the current struggles of the working class–of the fight for Negro liberation. In the course of these struggles the cadres of the world revolution will be built.
(25) General demands in the south must be:
A) For organized self-defense movements in southern cities–for the tactics of Robert F. Williams; against federal military intervention, which always supports the status quo.
B) Against discrimination in unions and industries–especially companies with government contracts or subsidies.
C) For drives for union organization.
D) For independent political organization– make voter registration meaningful.
(26) The most oppressed stratum of the working class is in motion. It struggles bravely but blindly to remove the unbearable burden of capitalist exploitation from its shoulders. There is only one program which can point the way to the Negro masses north and south: Trotskyism, the vanguard consciousness of the proletarians of all the world. The American working class still idles in a false and quickly dissipating security; the doubly exploited Negro caste has special demands corresponding to its peculiar needs and the pervading crisis of leadership. These circumstances dictate special organizational forms which reflect the independent activity of the Negroes. It is essential that Trotskyists help crystallize and guide these transitional forms, preserving the independence of the black proletariat from bourgeois influences, and preparing the Negro people for the task which they will share with the white sector of the working class–the revolutionary transformation of society.
August 18, 1963