Marxist Bulletin No 5 Revised
What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism
Preface to Revised Edition
Any organization which claims a revolutionary perspective for the United States must confront the special oppression of black people–the forced segregation of blacks at the bottom of capitalist society and the poisonous racism which divides the working class and cripples its struggles. There will be no social revolution in this country without the united struggle of black and white workers led by their multiracial vanguard party. Moreover, there is no other road to eliminating the special oppression of black people than the victorious conquest of power by the U.S. proletariat.
Against the anti-Marxist theories which posit the existence of a black “nation” in the U.S. to justify some variant of petty-bourgeois black nationalism, the Spartacist League holds that U.S. black people constitute an oppressed race-color caste. Against black nationalists and their vicarious supporters on the left who claim an “independent” separatist road to black liberation, we hold that black liberation is inseparable from the proletarian class struggle, although requiring special modes of struggle.
Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised) contains selected documents on the black question from the perspective of Trotskyism, the revolutionary Marxism of our time. This perspective was defined in political combat against the Socialist Workers Party’s conscious revision of Trotskyism during its centrist (and then reformist) degeneration, and against black nationalism as a petty-bourgeois radical current predominant on the left and among black activists in the 1960’s.
As originally produced in 1964, MB No. 5 consisted solely of “The Materialist Conception of the Negro Question” by R.S. Fraser (reprinted from SWP Discussion Bulletin A-30, August 1955). We are now reissuing MB No. 5 in much expanded form, including articles from the Spartacist League’s public press as well as two earlier documents from our formative period as the Revolutionary Tendency of the SWP. Readers of this bulletin are also referred to “Black and Red–Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom.” Adopted by the SL founding conference in September 1966, this document is reprinted in MB No. 9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League,” Part I.
The Bankruptcy of Black Nationalism
The documents of MB No. 5R span the important period from the rise of the civil rights movement through the dissipation of the black nationalist movement. In 1978, a decade after the height of 1960’s black nationalism, it is obvious that what was touted as a “new vanguard” was an episodic petty-bourgeois current. In its residual forms black nationalism occupies the corners of a declining number of academic institutions or has been absorbed into urban ghetto “street culture.” More insidiously, CORE has become a supporter of Idi Amin and the U.S./South Africa intervention in Angola; the Black Panthers have found their way to the Democratic Party; and Eldridge Cleaver has given himself over to the most repulsive sort of “born again” imperialist hucksterism. The 1971 Black Political Convention, much heralded by the SWP, ushered in nothing except perhaps the Democratic Party’s Black Caucus. Most of yesterday’s leftist cheerleaders of black nationalism are silent on the results of their patronizing tailism: a generation of black activists demoralized and squandered or corrupted and bought off.
There is no more telling demonstration of the bankruptcy of black nationalism than the utter absence of a black nationalist response to the recent assaults on the partial but hard-won gains of the civil rights movement. There is no black nationalist mobilization against the racist mobs that attack black school children, or against the increasingly brazen activities of fascist groups. Last year a public Nazi “bookstore” was set up in the middle of Detroit, once the national center of many black nationalist groups, and closed down only by a long, legalistic eviction battle. There has been no black nationalist outcry against the intensifying poverty of the black masses, the catastrophic deterioration of the “inner cities,” the escalating unemployment especially among black youth, the growing wage differential between black and white workers. There does not now exist a single significant black nationalist organization which is not either a religious cult or a hireling of the domestic analogues of the CIA, with the sole exception of the openly reformist Panthers.
But if the black nationalism of the 1960’s has waned, it has not been politically defeated. A widespread black nationalist mood continues to exist especially among black youth. While broad sections of the black population presently retain some loyalty to the Democratic Party as the “lesser evil” (or are simply alienated from politics), given the pervasive racism of American society and the absence of a mass proletarian class-struggle alternative an upturn in significant social struggle among blacks will likely regenerate active identification with black separatist ideology, especially among ghettoized youth. Thus it is not only in the interests of the historical record that we republish these documents, but because the final reckoning with black nationalism is still on the agenda.
American black nationalism was for a time the sharpest sectoralist challenge to the Leninist principle of a centralized vanguard party. This series of documents constitutes a reaffirmation of the need for a Leninist party as the “tribune of the people,” the embodiment of the proletarian program which fights on behalf of all the oppressed.
Trotsky on U.S. Blacks
Rivaling the cynicism of the Communist Party’s continued references to Lenin, the SWP has sought to make use of the authority of Trotsky to buttress its capitulation to black nationalism. It has collected fragmentary discussions with Trotsky during the 1930’s in a pamphlet mistitled “Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism.” In these discussions, Trotsky demonstrated a proper concern that American revolutionists, with their correct concentration on building a base in the U.S. trade-union movement, not fall victim to the prejudices of the relatively better off white workers and become insensitive to black oppression.
But the discussions indicate that Trotsky was somewhat ill informed about the reality of racial oppression in the U.S., as demonstrated by his question about a persisting separate black language. His tentative position was that American blacks constituted an embryonic nation analogous to the more backward nations of tsarist Russia, and that it was therefore the responsibility of revolutionists to struggle for their right to self-determination.
This analysis of the American black question had some validity for an earlier period, when black people were overwhelmingly concentrated in the South and on the land. It is conceivable that sixty or seventy years ago, before the great migrations of two world wars, a social catastrophe could have walled off black people from the rest of American society and compacted a black nation in the “black belt” of the South. But the mechanization of southern agriculture and the labor needs of two imperialist wars drove blacks into urban ghettos scattered across the U.S., thereby completely undermining the material foundations for black nationhood.
Trotsky never contemplated any kind of support for black nationalism and would have been outraged by the Bundist programmatic conclusions (e.g., dual vanguardism, “community control”) the SWP pretends to draw from his hypothesis. To illustrate the fantastical nature of the “black belt” theories and the counterposition between defense of self-determination and support to nationalist ideology, we have included in this volume “The Secret War Between Brother Klonsky and Stalin.” This polemic, originally produced for the June 1969 SDS convention, was directed against New Left/ Maoist Mike Klonsky’s effort to resurrect the long-discredited Third Period Stalinist slogan of “self-determination for the black belt.”
SWP: From Theoretical Weakness to Reformism
Trotsky’s misreading of the U.S. black question as a national question was incorporated as a theoretical weakness into the SWP’s program. But so long as the SWP remained a revolutionary party, the thrust of its propaganda and work was to fight to break down the barriers of Jim Crow and to pose revolutionary integration, the assimilation of black people into an egalitarian socialist society.
Whatever its deficiencies (discussed in the original preface to MB No. 5, reprinted here) Fraser’s “The Materialist Conception of the Negro Question” was an early attempt to correct the inconsistencies of the SWP’s position. It was an able theoretical defense of the view that the black question was one of racial, not national, oppression mandating a program of revolutionary integration as the road to black liberation.
The SWP’s earlier theoretical weakness on the black question was in itself not decisive so long as the party was imbued with a revolutionary purpose. When the SWP began to lose that at the end of the 1950’s, no theory of the black struggle, separatist or integrationist, could save it from an opportunist course. With the upsurge of mass civil rights struggle, the SWP’s theoretical disorientation became a point of departure for opportunist accommodation, first to the liberal, pacifistic leadership of the civil rights movement and later to black nationalism and Bundist-type dual vanguardism. The Dobbs/Hansen majority saw the SWP as a “white party” which should not seek to win communist leadership within the black struggle. Instead it transformed itself into a cheering squad for whatever black leaders were most popular at the time.
One of the central issues in the formation of the Revolutionary Tendency in the SWP was the black question. The abstentionist opportunism of the SWP, refusing to intervene to challenge the dominance of pacifism and liberalism over the developing civil rights movement, helped pave the way for the more militant wing of the movement to make a hard turn toward black nationalism, falsely identifying multiracial unity with subservience to the liberal bourgeoisie. Included in this bulletin are two documents from the Revolutionary Tendency’s struggle to reverse the SWP’s abdication of revolutionary leadership: “For Black Trotskyism” (reprinted from SWP Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 30, July 1963) and “The Negro Struggle and the Crisis of Leadership” (reprinted from YSA Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 7, No. 5, August 1963). The latter document used a formulation on preferential hiring which did not anticipate government-engineered schemes to exploit preferential hiring for union-busting. To such schemes we counterpose preferential recruitment of minority workers by the unions themselves within the context of the fight for the closed shop and the union hiring hall. The call for critical support to “independent Negro candidates. . . who run on principled programs of civil rights” referred to candidates who ran against the capitalist parties. Such breakaways from the Democratic Party as the Lowndes County Black Panther Party in 1964-65 indicate the historically specific opportunities for the intervention of revolutionists through the tactic of critical support in order to present an independent proletarian-centered perspective.
In the service of hardened reformist appetite, the SWP’s earlier muddled theory of black separatism gave way to a hard anti-proletarian line pushing poisonous nationalist rhetoric in place of a perspective for united class struggle against racial oppression. Shouting about “community control,” the SWP played the role of strikebreaker in the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike and adopted “affirmative action”–the capitalist government’s scheme for union-busting under the guise of rectifying racial discrimination–as its program.
“Black Power” and Dual Vanguardism
As the liberal-pacifist civil rights movement inevitably began to falter, many young activists turned to the ideology of black nationalism. This change was signaled by the adoption in 1966 of the “Black Power” slogan by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), then the most militant civil rights organization. We have included in this bulletin two articles from 1966, “Black Power and the Fascists” and “Black Power–Class Power,” which addressed the contradictory character of the slogan. “Black Power” expressed the desire to organize blacks independently of all white political parties, based on the despairing assumption that most whites were racist and could play no revolutionary role; at best, some whites could be organized in support auxiliaries to the black movement. But by posing the question of social power in contrast to the “moral witness” liberalism of King, “Black Power” could also be filled with a revolutionary working-class content.
But due in large measure to the abstentionist tailism of the bulk of the “old left,” the “Black Power” left wing of the civil rights movement never found the bridge to the program of workers power. When the Stokely Carmichael leadership of SNCC raised the “Black Power” slogan, it was used to justify the exclusion of whites from the then-integrated organization.
Black separatism also entailed a subjectivist theory of social oppression, seen in large part as subjective dependence on members of the oppressor (white) population. The creation of exclusionist organizations was seen as a key mechanism for overcoming oppression, independent of whether the material conditions of oppression were altered. Black nationalist exclusionism became a major tenet of New Left politics, the model for other radical nationalist groupings such as the Puerto Rican Young Lords and later for the women’s liberation movement and its offshoot, gay liberation.
The Spartacist League stands on the program and tactics of Lenin/Trotsky’s Comintern. Basing itself on the experience of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ struggle against the Jewish Bund and the Austro-Marxists, the Comintern counterposed to multi-vanguardism the transitional organization, a mass organization of a specially oppressed stratum (e.g., women, youth, national and racial minorities) expressing both its special needs and its relationship to the broader struggle for proletarian power. Neither a substitute for nor an opponent of the vanguard party, it is linked to the party both programmatically and through winning over its most conscious cadres to party membership.
Unable to find the road to a proletarian perspective, many black militants embraced the slogan of “community control,” a route to “Great Society” poverty programs and Democratic Party machine politics. In the aftermath of the mid-1960’s ghetto rebellions, black management of the ghetto became a profitable career for articulate black activists. “Black Power” became the rhetoric for the application to the ghetto of conventional American ethnic politics whereby the petty-bourgeoisie of an oppressed ethnic group pressures the ruling class to allow it greater participation in the government bureaucracy. “Straw boss” exploitation of black nationalism became popular among aspiring black mayors, ghetto police chiefs, welfare administrators and school principals. The ghetto is treated as a permanently depressed fiefdom of these politicos, who have a stake in the continued segregation of black people just as Zionists have always had a stake in anti-Semitism to justify an Israeli garrison state.
The explicitly anti-working-class character of “community control” was dramatized by the 1968 New York teachers’ strike, where almost the entire left and liberal establishment lined up behind the Ford Foundation-financed “community control” confrontation with the United Federation of Teachers. The Spartacist League was unique in defending the UFT strike without blunting its denunciation of the Shanker bureaucracy’s adaptation to racism and its appeals to the cops against ghetto residents. The correctness of the SL’s principled stand was reconfirmed in the 1971 Newark teachers’ strike, when once again a liberal mayor, joined by black nationalist demagogue Imamu Baraka (Leroi Jones), attempted to exploit “community control” rhetoric to break the teachers’ union. But unlike the predominantly white UFT, the Newark Teachers Union–30 percent black and with a black woman as its president–could not be successfully baited as a “racist” union and was able to enlist broader support for its class struggle.
The Black Panthers
During the height of black nationalism, the one organization which struggled, in a contradictory way, to remain independent of the bourgeois establishment was the Black Panther Party. The Panthers’ unique position reflected not only their militant nationalism but also their partial thrust toward a rudimentary class opposition to racist, capitalist America. As a consequence they were the only organization of militant black struggle to acquire a national following, attracting many of the most serious black radicals. Their scathing attack upon reactionary black cultural nationalism caused the SWP to attack them from the right for not being nationalist enough. In contrast, the SL in its polemics with the Panthers sought to provide the bridge between the Panthers’ independence of (and at times adventurist opposition to) the bourgeois state and the program of proletarian revolution against that state. Because they were black and militant the Panthers were frequent victims of bourgeois repression. Where it was not precluded by the Panthers’ simultaneously sectarian and opportunist defense policies, the SL sought to aggressively intervene in united front defense work on the Panthers’ behalf.
“Rise and Fall of the Panthers: End of the Black Power Era” originally appeared in Workers Vanguard in January 1972. It analyzed the 1970-71 Panther split and its impact on the U.S. left. Since the article was written, the Cleaver wing of the split has disappeared as an organized grouping, though the politics associated with that tendency—“Third World Marxism-Leninism” justifying small-group armed confrontation with the state–continued to lead a semi-underground existence for a period in such sects as the Black Liberation Army. The predicted reformist degeneration of the Newton wing occurred at an exceedingly rapid pace, highlighted by Bobby Seale’s May 1973 campaign for mayor of Oakland as a Democrat. The Panthers have traveled the same path as their one-time opponents, the “porkchop” cultural nationalists, demonstrating once more that black nationalism leads logically to a remerger with ethnic Democratic Party machine politics or to the self-defeating terrorism of the isolated Black Liberation Army.
The Panther split, reflecting the collapse of the attempt to base a revolutionary struggle against black oppression upon black nationalist and lumpen proletarian ideology, signaled the end of old New Leftism among black radicals. Little has emerged in its wake, although a small section of the black movement, in line with a “workerist” turn on the part of most of the U.S. left, sought to enter the working class without abandoning a nationalist approach. “The Rise and Fall of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers,” written in January 1974, traces the impulses which led such groups as the Dodge Revolutionary Workers Movement (DRUM) and the Black Workers Congress to seek to develop a program based on the contradictory elements of trade-union struggle and black nationalist ideology.
An important weakness of the Fraser document, at variance with its main thrust, is treating blacks as an unconscious vanguard with a continuous political expression tending toward revolutionary integrationism. This analytical error is more serious in its effect today than when the document was written in 1955, since it overlaps the black nationalist view that it is the unique revolutionary tradition of black people which determines their present capacity to struggle. In fact, black history is not one of continuous revolt. As radical academic Eugene Genovese has stressed, particularly in his polemics with Stalinist historian Herbert Aptheker (e.g., in Studies on the Left, November-December 1966), the objective character of the oppressive chattel system in the U.S. prevented American blacks from conducting the massive uprisings seen in the Caribbean and northeast Brazil. The closure of the slave trade in 1808 and the consequent Americanization of slave society, as well as the military correlation of forces in the American South, constituted objective conditions making a successful independent slave rebellion close to impossible.
The widespread excitement generated by the 1977 television production of Alex Haley’s Roots demonstrated more than simply a continuing concern among blacks for “black history.” It showed that the black cultural myth has taken its place in the service of liberalism. Therefore we are including in this bulletin “Behind the ‘Roots’ Craze,” originally published in March 1977.
The cultural nationalist concept of “black tradition” is idealist in that it is abstracted from the actual mechanisms and institutions which transmit knowledge and habits of the past to the present generation (the church, educational system, press, political parties, the labor movement). For example, as the civil rights movement showed, even during periods of militant struggle many blacks remained chained to the church, which was for generations the only allowed form of black social organization. It is significant that nearly every important black mass leader has been deeply religious or church-centered. But while the church remains among the most pervasive and effective organizers of the black masses, the religiosity of Nat Turner or Denmark Vesey is hardly comparable to the reactionary godliness of M.L. King.
The Proletarian Road to Black Freedom
Since Roosevelt’s New Deal and the mass migrations of blacks into the cities, insofar as black people have not been excluded from the American political process they have been tied to the Democratic Party. In large part due to opportunist betrayal by the American Communist Party, Roosevelt was able to transform the Democrats into a rejuvenated “people’s party” embracing Stalinists at one end and Dixiecrats at the other. Even after decades of Democratic administrations have brought nothing but bloody imperialist wars and token amelioration of racial discrimination combined with real deterioration of black living standards, black people still vote Democratic. Their resistance to the assault upon the limited gains of the civil rights movement is channeled into the dead end of liberal Democratic Party politics by black Democrats like Coleman Young and Ron Dellums who cohabit in the same party with George Wallace and “ethnic purity” Carter. It is as much a sign of the times as of the SWP’s own degeneration that this champion of black separatism today makes the focal point of its black work the liberal integrationist NAACP.
For all its dislocation and hardships, black urbanization has also meant black proletarianization. Black people are not only segregated at the bottom of U.S. society; they are also integrated into strategic sections of the industrial proletariat in whose hands lies the economic power to shatter this racist, capitalist system. With few exceptions, the black nationalists have willfully ignored this fact–indeed, they have generally posed the drive for black equality as an attack on the trade unions.
In turn, black hostility to the labor movement is the product of a union bureaucracy which has been–at best–indifferent to the needs and aspirations of black people. With their reactionary politics and job-trusting policies, the labor lieutenants of capital have once again proven themselves the worst enemies of the workers they purport to lead, driving the potentially most militant sector of the proletariat into a posture of hostility to the unions which is a godsend to the union-busters. The labor fakers’ only active interventions into the black struggle have been to channel struggle into Democratic Party liberalism, as occurred during the 1963 March on Washington.
Unlike chattel slavery, wage slavery has placed in the hands of black workers the objective conditions for successful revolt. But this revolt will be successful only if it takes as its target the system of class exploitation, the common enemy of black and white workers. The struggle to win black activists to a proletarian perspective is intimately linked to the fight for a new, multiracial class-struggle leadership of organized labor which can transform the trade unions into a key weapon in the battle against racial oppression. Such a leadership must break the grip of the Democratic Party upon both organized labor and the black masses through the fight for working-class political independence. As black workers, the most combative element within the U.S. working class, are won to the cause and party of proletarian revolution, they will be in the front ranks of this class-struggle leadership. And it will be these black proletarian fighters who will write the finest pages of “black history”–the struggle to smash racist, imperialist America and open the road to real freedom for all mankind.
–[Spartacist League/U.S.,] September 1978