[This document was passed at the 2008 National Congress of the Workers International League]
The United States is the richest and most powerful country on the planet, with more than enough wealth to provide a high quality of life for everyone living here. And yet, shocking inequality and the poison of racism are everywhere, and are in fact integral to the continued domination of U.S. capitalism. Despite the mass struggles of the past and the reforms of the last forty years, Blacks, together with the other racial and ethnic minorities, remain the most exploited and oppressed layer of U.S. society. Black youth are faced with daily harassment and intimidation by the police, and suffer disproportionately high unemployment rates. Blacks make up just 13 percent of the population, and yet are imprisoned and executed by the state at a far higher rate. Blacks continue to suffer from lynchings and violence at the hands of the state, racist organizations and individuals, as well as being forced to live under conditions of mass poverty, exploitation and oppression.
The Katrina disaster and aftermath revealed the ugly underbelly of institutionalized racism, poverty, and callous indifference to the suffering of millions in the U.S. Gentrification of the inner cities to make room for high-end condos and commercial zones has forced out hundreds of thousands of people, destroying many predominantly Black communities across the country. Once 67 percent Black, New Orleans is now estimated to be around 58 percent African American. Tens of thousands of working class and poor families have been displaced and may never be able to return. Those areas of the city that have received the most funding and investment are now predominantly White. After the hurricane struck, Republican Congressman Richard Baker of Louisiana had this to say in relation to the forced exodus of the poor, largely Black residents of a neighborhood near the world-famous and therefore lucrative French Quarter: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did.
Years of racism, police harassment and terrible social conditions has produced a volatile mix in many cities, especially among the Black and Latino youth. This has periodically erupted in social explosions, for example, the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, one of the richest cities in the USA. But riots have no perspective and arise spontaneously out of poverty conditions. If the labor leaders offered a real fighting alternative, then the energies of these youth could be harnessed in a positive direction.
The case of the Jena Six and other incidents of nooses found in workplaces and schools demonstrate that while abolished on paper, the legacy of racism continues to cast its shadow on the entire country. The poison of racism is deliberately fostered by the ruling class as a means of keeping the working class divided, of diverting attention away from the real problems of American capitalism. They fear the rise of a powerful Black working class and its inherent tendency to unite in action with its fellow workers regardless of race or ethnicity.
This policy of “divide and rule” on racial, ethnic, national or religious lines, has been a common feature of the ruling class internationally. As the Black Panther Bobby Seale correctly wrote: “Racism and ethnic differences allow the power structure to exploit the masses of workers in this country, because that's the key by which they maintain their control. To divide the people and conquer them is the objective of the power structure...” And as Malcolm X explained, “You cannot have capitalism without racism.” In other words, racial discrimination is a product and component part of capitalism, without which it could not exist. Therefore, the only way to lay the basis for ending racism and discrimination is by ending capitalism.
The struggle against racism and discrimination is of crucial importance for revolutionary Marxists. We fight at all times against all forms of oppression and discrimination. But we do this while fighting for maximum unity of the working class across lines of gender, race, ethnicity and religion, always linking this to the struggle for the revolutionary socialist transformation of society. There is no solution within the limits of capitalism.
It is above all a class question, and as always, we start with our general program. Our task as Marxists is to raise class unity, consciousness and confidence. We do not fight only for immediate gains, but also to raise the perspective and potential for plenty of jobs, health care, housing and education for all under socialism. We do not merely seek a “more fair” division of capitalist scarcity.
The post-Katrina grassroots organizing around housing and the right of return, the mobilizations to defend the Jena Six, and the embryonic efforts to build the Reconstruction Party, which is reaching out to all working people to build a new party that represents the majority, are an indication of things to come. United class struggle is the only way forward. As a super-exploited section of the population, Black workers and youth will play a key role in the coming socialist revolution.
Conditions Facing Black Workers and Youth Today
Over forty years after the heroic struggle of the Black masses and their allies against segregation and for equality, the quality of life for many African Americans has improved dramatically. Black Americans have made gains when it comes to middle-income jobs in the public sector, and are twice as likely as Whites to work for the government. In 2001, over half of Black households of married couples earned $50,000 or more. High school graduation and university attendance rates have improved dramatically. Improved access to jobs and education have led to the rise of a Black petty bourgeoisie and a layer of relatively well-paid workers. As a result, some Blacks are among the wealthiest and most influential in U.S. society. For example, Oprah Winfrey and Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson are billionaires. Figures such as Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama have risen to political prominence. Sports figures such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and entertainers such as Michael Jackson and Will Smith perpetuate the myth that through hard work and perseverance, anyone can “pull themselves up by their boot straps”.
But despite these improvements for some, for the vast majority of Black workers, along with the rest of the working class, conditions are deteriorating rapidly. No genuine equality is possible in a system divided into rich and poor, a system which uses race to divide and weaken the working class. What matters to us as Marxists is not the color of a person's skin, but the class interests he or she represents and defends. The vast majority of black people in the U.S. are workers. As such, they have the same fundamental interests as the working class as a whole.
Working people in the U.S. face a steady decline in their living standards and relentless attacks from big business and their government. Over the last thirty years, the disparity of wealth between rich and poor has increased dramatically. Real wages for the majority of U.S. workers rose during every decade from 1830 to 1970. But since the mid-1970s, real wages adjusted for inflation have either stagnated or fallen. So while real wages fell and literally millions of industrial workers were laid off between 1998 and 2006, worker productivity in the manufacturing sector grew by 43.7 percent. This signifies a massive increase in the exploitation of labor: fewer workers are doing more work for less pay. Working people are laid off or work harder while being paid less, while the rich get richer.
For example, in 2004, average income rose by 6.8 percent, but the vast bulk of the increase went to the top one-tenth of one percent of all Americans, whose one-year incomes rose by 27.5 percent. Over the same period, the income of the poorest 20 percent of the population – roughly 60 million people – rose by just 1.8 percent. But once inflation is accounted for, the result is a net decrease in income.
After years of declining poverty rates, the trend has now been reversed, and there has been a steep rise in impoverishment in recent years. There are now 38 million Americans, or 13.2 percent of the population, living in poverty. But for Blacks the situation is even worse. Poverty rates for the Black population stands at 25.3 percent (nearly 9 million people), more than double the rate for White Americans (10.5 percent, nearly 23 million people). Black women in particular are most likely to live in poverty.
While the official unemployment rate is relatively low, this is artificial, as millions of people have been unemployed for so long that they are no longer even considered to be “looking for work.” But even the official figures demonstrate the huge disparity between different sectors of the population. In 2007, the unemployment rate for Whites was 3.9 percent, while for Blacks it was more than double, at 8.2 percent.
The situation is even more glaring when it comes to rates of imprisonment. The U.S. imprisons more of its population than any other country on earth (even far more than China, which has four times as many people). Over 2.3 million people are in prison – one out of every 99.1 adults. An incredible 1,384 men out of 100,000 are in prison or jail. But the rate of incarceration for Black males is even more shocking: 4,789 per 100,000. Compare this to height of Apartheid in South Africa (1993), when 851 per 100,000 Black males were imprisoned. And for young Black males ages 25 to 29, the rate is 11,695 per 100,000 – an astonishing 11.7 percent.
The so-called “war on drugs” has been used to target poor, working class Blacks and other minorities in order to disenfranchise, criminalize, and crush their aspirations for a better life. For example, sentencing guidelines for possession of crack cocaine, which is much more predominant in poor, minority neighborhoods, have historically been 100 times harsher than those for possession of powdered cocaine, which is the drug of choice of more affluent Americans. Four out of five defendants in cases involving crack cocaine are Black. An entire generation of young black people has been criminalized and permanently driven into the shadows of society. And of the 799 people executed by the state since capital punishment was reintroduced in 1976, 374 of them, or 34 percent, were Black.
The same disparity can be seen when it comes to income and housing. In 2005, employed Blacks earned only 65 percent of the wages of Whites in comparable jobs, down from 82 percent in 1975. And although the median earnings of Black men surpassed the level of women of any race and of Hispanic men, it is still just 76 percent the level of White men. The median income of Black families in 1999 was $33,255 compared to $53,356 for White families. When the housing boom took off in 2001, it seemed the “American dream” of home-ownership would at last become a reality for millions of lower-income Americans, including many more Blacks. But Blacks and other minorities are now being hit hardest by the sub-prime mortgage and credit crisis, and as many as 2 million or more low-income families stand to lose their homes. As a result, Blacks are suffering the biggest loss of wealth in modern U.S. history. The collapse of this house of cards will lead to Black borrowers losing an estimated $72 billion to $93 billion dollars.
Despite the heroic struggles of the past, it is clear from the above that despite this or that improvement, for the vast majority of black people living in the U.S., things have remained the same or even gotten worse.
Slavery and the Beginnings of Black Struggle
Black Africans first arrived in the lands that would later become the original Thirteen States around 1619, as indentured servants, although the Spanish had brought Black slaves with them to what would later become New Mexico and Arizona as early as 1539. At that time, they were in a similar position to the many poor English people who, in exchange for passage to America, had sold several years of their labor in advance. At first, there was no distinction made between indentured servants of European or African descent. Race-based discrimination as a societal “norm” did not come into being until around the 1680s, in part as a response to Nathaniel Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. The conception of race simply did not exist in the ancient or medieval world; racial discrimination is a product of capitalist society. Throughout history, the slave-owner or feudal lord looked down on his slaves or serfs as inferiors, but this was due to their social position, to the class relationship between them, not because of the color of their skin. Malcolm X once said: “You can't have capitalism without racism.” We would add: “You can't have racism without capitalism.”
The formation of a modern, international racial ideology that defines white as “good” and non-white as “bad” can be traced via historical documentation to the institution of modern chattel slavery (more specifically to the transition from indentured servitude to chattel slavery) and the formative period of capitalism. It develops for very material reasons during the course of the 16th and 17th Centuries. One can even trace the changing use of language in letters written in the colonies, i.e. the racism that came to define the American colonies did not predate the colonies. By racism is meant an international ideology of shared “racial” superiority and inferiority based on one's skin color. This binary distinction, once developed, spreads like a disease from its American origin, framing the conception of race internationally, from the Caribbean to South Africa.
The geography and climate of the Southern U.S. was suitable for large scale production of certain crops, but only if a vast source of cheap labor was available. However, with so much cheap land available in the western territories, it was difficult to keep indentured servants working after their term of service was up and they were free to move on and establish themselves on their own. Therefore, a system of compulsory labor had to be imposed in order to take advantage of the agricultural potential of the South. With the virtual extermination of the Native Americans, plantation owners turned to the already existing Atlantic slave trade with Africa, where agricultural labor was plentiful and accustomed to the heat and humidity of the South. In other words, slaves were brought to the U.S. for one purpose: to create tremendous amounts of wealth for their owners.
The Atlantic slave trade, formerly dominated by the Arabs, rapidly became a massive and lucrative business, now under the control of the Europeans. In total, an estimated 12 million Black Africans were wrenched from their homelands and shipped to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 (5.4 percent) were brought in chains to what is now the U.S. (the overwhelming majority were shipped to Brazil).
In 1790, shortly after the founding of the United States, there were some 700,000 Black slaves. The importation of new slaves into the U.S. was officially banned in 1808, but illegal smuggling remained a profitable business for decades to come, and the slave population mushroomed, especially after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. By 1840, the slave population had jumped to nearly 2.5 million, and by 1860, on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, there were nearly four million Black slaves out of a total population of just over 12 million people in the 15 states in which slavery was legal. Another 500,000 free Blacks lived across the U.S.
Chattel slavery, in which the slave is the actual property of his or her owner, is an inefficient mode of production as compared to the “free” labor of capitalism, where the worker can sell his or her labor power to the highest bidder. Nonetheless, given the low cost of maintaining and keeping slaves alive, chattel slavery was profitable when pursued on a large enough scale. And with a skin color different from that of the majority of the free population, the new class of chattel slaves could be easily identified and kept in bondage, separate from the rest of society.
But in an epoch proclaiming the “Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity” of humankind, some kind of justification had to be found for the revival of slavery, a mode of production and social relationship that had died out in Europe centuries earlier, and was naturally reviled and looked down upon. Therefore, black skin, not slave labor itself, was transformed into the mark of social inferiority. It was thus that the concept of “race” based on skin color first emerged.
That different human populations have different colored skin is evident enough. Nonetheless, the concept of race as a biological category has been entirely discredited by modern genetic science. Modern humans are so similar to each other at the genetic level that it is impossible to determine “race” based only on a person's DNA. Race, therefore, is a socially constructed relationship based on the needs of capitalist exploitation. In biology, it has ceased to have any relevance. But in society, the concept of race is alive and well, and is used by the ruling class to divide and conquer working people.
Chattel slavery was a vital component in the “primitive accumulation of capital” phase of the U.S. capitalist class. The vast wealth created by millions of slaves enriched not only the Southern plantation owners, but also made possible the industrial revolution in the textile industry in Britain, and later on in the Northern U.S. As Karl Marx explained in a letter to Pavel Annenkov:
“Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilization. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World.”
Imposition of this system and its defense required increasingly harsh laws and inhuman violence on behalf of the slave owners. But by no means did the slaves, displaced and cut off from all ties with their former lands, families and culture, beaten, tortured, humiliated and treated like animals or worse, accept this without a fight.
For literally hundreds of years, slave uprisings and other forms of resistance including escape to the Northern U.S., Canada, or Spanish Florida characterized the struggle of Blacks in the U.S. Some 250 slave rebellions or insurrections involving ten or more slaves have been documented. As early as 1663, the first major revolt took place in Gloucester, Virginia.
These rebellions and their aftermath led to ever-increasing ruthlessness on behalf of the slave owners. One such turning point in the institutionalization of the system was the 1739 Stono Rebellion (also known as Cato's Rebellion) in South Carolina. It was timed by the slaves to take place before the Security Act of 1739, which required all White males to carry weapons on Sundays, took effect. In the course of the rebellion, the main demand of which was “Liberty!”, seven plantations were burnt down, and over 20 Whites were killed, along with 44 slaves. After being put down by a private militia of slave and plantation owners, the surviving slaves were decapitated and their heads were spiked on every mile post between that spot and Charleston. The Stono uprising led to a 10-year moratorium on slave imports through Charleston and the enactment of a harsher slave code, which banned earning money and education for slaves.
Perhaps the most important slave uprising in terms of the impact it had on public consciousness was Nat Turner's August 1831 uprising in Southampton County, Virginia. Starting with just a handful of trusted friends, Turner assembled over 50 slaves and free Blacks in the course of the 48 hour rebellion, killing some 57 White men, women and children. Although the uprising was swiftly suppressed, Nat was not captured until late October. He was then tried, hanged, flayed, and quartered. Another 55 Blacks were executed on suspicion of involvement in the rebellion, and another 200 who had nothing to do with the uprising were beaten, tortured and murdered by angry White mobs.
These events sharply polarized the South, accelerating the trend toward greater repression and reversing the modest growth of abolitionist feelings within Virginia itself. Fear of a repetition of Turner's uprising led to even more repressive policies against enslaved and free Blacks, whose freedoms were severely curtailed. Questioning the slave system was forbidden on the grounds that any such discussion might encourage slave revolts.
In addition to armed uprisings by slaves themselves, the abolitionist movement also waged a struggle against slavery. Made up primarily of free Blacks and Whites opposed to slavery for a variety of religious, economic, and political reasons, some were for the immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery, whereas others favored a gradual process of emancipation. Some opposed slavery on moral grounds, but believed Blacks were inferior and should be sent back to Africa instead of being emancipated. Others were for full racial equality, and still others feared the growing Black population, believed in White “racial and moral purity” and favored the resettlement of Blacks elsewhere. The idea of resettlement was a supported by a wide variety of individuals and organizations for a wide variety of reasons. In 1821-22, the American Colonization Society established the colony of Liberia in Western Africa, and over the next four decades, helped thousands of former slaves and free Blacks to move there from the U.S.
Some abolitionists in the South simply recognized that slavery was no longer as profitable as it had once been and that its geographic limits had been reached; further expansion of the system westward was simply not viable. Many Northern politicians resented the political domination of the country by the South, and understood that an end to the slave system would break that political stranglehold. Others in the nascent Northern capitalist class simply wanted to end slavery in order to free up millions more workers for capitalist production. Some Northern workers feared the influx of freed slaves would be used to drive down wages and conditions, while others understood that, as Karl Marx explained, “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is branded.”
The abolition movement had begun even before the formal founding of the United States. The first pro-abolition article published in the U.S. was written by none other than Thomas Paine, and appeared on March 8, 1775. The first formal abolitionist organization in the U.S. was the “Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage,” formed in April 1775 in Philadelphia, primarily by Quakers who fervently opposed slavery on religious grounds. After a brief hiatus during the American Revolution (during which, by the way, many Blacks fought on the side of the colonists for liberty against the British empire), it was reactivated in 1784, with Benjamin Franklin as its first president.
Evangelical Protestant abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown were as fervent about the Declaration of Independence as they were about the Bible. In 1854, Garrison wrote: “I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, 'that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' Hence, I am an abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form – and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing – with indignation and abhorrence . . . Convince me that one man may rightfully make another man his slave, and I will no longer subscribe to the Declaration of Independence. Convince me that liberty is not the inalienable birthright of every human being, of whatever complexion or clime, and I will give that instrument to the consuming fire. I do not know how to espouse freedom and slavery together.”
Others abolitionists were freed or escaped former slaves such as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, who fought tirelessly to emancipate their brothers and sisters still in chains. Douglass became perhaps the most renowned abolitionist of all, an inspired and inspiring speaker, in whose eloquent articles and speeches can be found the most passionate condemnation of the slave system. He believed that the United States was the rightful homeland of Blacks living here, even if they had originally been brought by force. As he put it: “All this native land talk is nonsense. The native land of the American Negro is America.” He also argued that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document, and maintained that the Civil War was a war to end slavery, not merely to “preserve the Union.” To this end, he believed that Blacks should be allowed to take up arms and fight for the freedom of all slaves. The Underground Railroad, made famous by Tubman, who personally helped free over 300 people, was an informal network of safe houses and secret routes to help slaves escape North, to Mexico, or overseas.
But it was John Brown's failed attempt to spark a general slave uprising with his raid on the federal armory at Harpers' Ferry in 1859 that made war over the question of slavery all but inevitable. He confronted his fate with the following words: "Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life, for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this Slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I say let it be done." On the day of his execution he wrote: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
The South began to arm itself in earnest, and with the election of Abraham Lincoln of the anti-slavery Republican Party in 1860, the secession of the slave states, beginning with South Carolina, was a foregone conclusion. And with secession, war.
The Civil War
In the decades that followed the founding of the United States, political, economic, and social tensions were leading inexorably toward Civil War. Various compromises had been attempted to maintain a political balance between the North and South, but eventually the fundamentally opposed interests of the two sides had to be resolved by force of arms.
While those that fought the war may have waged it for or against preserving the union, for or against emancipation of the slaves, or for or against federal authority vs. states' rights, at its root the U.S. Civil War was a war between ascendant Northern capitalism and decaying Southern slavery. By allowing slavery to continue after the Revolutionary War that freed the U.S. from the British Empire, such a confrontation was eventually inevitable. No lasting co-existence between these two entirely contradictory socio-economic systems was possible. As Abraham Lincoln explained in a famous speech: “'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
A revolutionary solution to the contradiction between a system based on slave labor and a system based on free labor was necessary. Despite the terrible bloodshed, destruction, and suffering it caused, this was a progressive war – the “Second American Revolution ” – which smashed the slave system and “cleared the decks” for the unfettered development of capitalism.
Capitalism has always been an exploitative and oppressive system. As Karl Marx explained in Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of Black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production ... If money ... comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
But in the late 19th Century, it still had a historically progressive role to play in developing the productive forces and strengthening the working class, thereby laying the material basis for the socialist transformation of society. The victory of the North was all but a foregone conclusion, despite the inept generals that fought for the Union. The economy of New York state alone was four times larger than that of the entire South. This, in the final analysis, determined the eventual outcome of the war. Karl Marx was a fervent supporter of the war and even wrote Lincoln, congratulating him on his re-election in 1864, urging him to continue the war even more energetically with the cry: “Death to Slavery!”
Hundreds of thousands of black people in both the North and the South participated in and played a key role in the eventual outcome of this long and bloody war. In the South, slaves were forced to build forts, dig trenches, haul artillery and supplies, set up military encampments, cook, and act as servants for Confederate officers and soldiers. Some free Blacks even fought for the Confederacy. But as Southern Blacks increasingly realized what a Union victory would mean for them, as many as 500,000 escaped to the North, many of them eventually fighting in the Union army. Others who deserted to the Northern lines served as scouts, messengers, and spies. Discipline on the plantations was rapidly breaking down as the war began to turn against the South. In response, the slave owners imposed severe restrictions on their slaves, even moving entire plantations to get as far away as possible from contact with Northern forces. The penalty for Blacks captured in Union uniform and for White officers commanding them was death.
In the North, free Blacks attempted to enlist in the Union Army from the beginning of the war. They not only wanted to fight to free their brothers and sisters in the South, but understood that their own freedoms in the North could only be assured and expanded if the Union won. Huge numbers of freemen and former slaves were used as laborers, but due to the racist fear of arming large numbers of Blacks, they were not allowed to actually fight until late in 1862.
The Massachusetts 54th Regiment was the first all-Black unit in the Union Army. Within two months, over 1,000 Black men from across the North had volunteered, and were led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of prominent Boston abolitionists. The 54th's ranks were decimated and Shaw killed in their heroic attack on Fort Wagner, but their example opened the way for thousands more Black soldiers to fight in the war. By the end of the war, some 220,000 freedmen had joined the Union Army, and 40,000 lost their lives.
For fear of sparking the secession of the slave-owning border states that had not seceded, Lincoln did not immediately free the slaves. But after the Northern victory at Antietam, he issued a preliminary proclamation stating that if the Confederate states did not rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, he would declare their slaves “forever free.” The slaveocracy did not comply, and the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect. However, since the the proclamation affected only those states in rebellion against the Union, it didn't actually free any slaves at first. It was the Union troops themselves that enforced the proclamation as they advanced through the South, with Texas the last state to be emancipated in 1865. It was not until the 13th Amendment, enacted on December 18, 1865, that all those held in bondage were formally freed. Freeing the slaves – who were not seen as humans but as pieces of property – was one of the largest expropriations of private property in the history of the world.
The surrender of Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 marked the end of the Civil War. Less than a week later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Now the question confronting the victorious North was how to rebuild the South's ruined infrastructure and re-incorporate it into the Union – without slavery as its economic basis. The economic and political aim of the North was to impose capitalist property relations and political domination on the South. In order to do this, they launched a program called the Reconstruction, which was energetically taken up by freed slaves and poor Whites across the South. Such was the scope of the Reconstruction that many refer to it as the “Second Civil War”.
The first phase of this period is known as “Presidential” or “Moderate” Reconstruction, and was initiated by Republican presidents Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson. It lasted roughly from the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to 1866. Their goal was to quickly reunite the country, and they proposed very loose conditions for the former Confederate states' re-entry into the Union. This was opposed by the Radical wing of the Republican Party, who viewed secession as having placed those states in a status similar to newly conquered territories.
In March of 1865, Lincoln and Congress established the “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land.” Known as the “Freedmen's Bureau,” its aim was to aid former slaves – who were now without jobs, homes or land – in their efforts to incorporate into society. It included programs to provide education, health care and to find employment. The work of the Freedmen's Bureau met with varying degrees of success and had to contend with open sabotage by the former slave owners, who made every effort to exploit the former slaves as ruthlessly as they had done previously.
Earlier in 1865, Union General William T. Sherman had issued “Special Field Orders 15”, a decree that divided up land abandoned by plantation owners among former slaves. This is popularly referred to as “forty acres and a mule,” and symbolizes the compensation that was to be paid by the federal government to former slaves to help them get on their feet. Within months, 10,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres of land in Georgia and South Carolina. But this order was reversed by President Johnson, and this early setback to more radical Reconstruction efforts set an ominous tone for the future.
While the former slaveocracy had to accept the end of the slave system, they would not accept the equality of the races. A hint of what was to come later in the form of “Jim Crow” were the “Black Codes” enacted in every Southern state in the immediate aftermath of the war. These statutes severely restricted the rights, employment opportunities, and mobility of the former slaves, or “freedmen”, who had been emancipated, but were not yet citizens of the United States. The Black Codes were the first attempt by South to institutionalize racial segregation among “free” men and women. These codes were overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which gave freedmen full legal equality (except for the right to vote). But they were quickly replaced by an informal code of discrimination, and would be re-introduced as “Jim Crow” laws after the collapse of Reconstruction.
For his part, President Johnson increasingly aligned himself with the more conservative Democratic Party, which dominated the South and opposed extending equality to Blacks. They opposed the proposed 14th Amendment (eventually passed in 1868), which would require the states to provide equal protection under the law to all persons within their jurisdictions. This was an attempt to secure the rights of former slaves, at least on paper. Johnson claimed executive war power to decide how to proceed to re-integrate the South, but in the 1866 mid-term elections, the Radical Republicans gained control of Congress and began implementing the “Radical” or “Congressional” phase of Reconstruction, which lasted until roughly 1873. After considerable debate, even among Radical Republicans, full citizenship as well as civil and voting rights were extended to all former slaves, while the right to vote was temporarily taken away from an estimated 10,000 or 15,000 White men who had been Confederate officials or senior officers.
Public education (albeit segregated) and literacy campaigns were implemented, often as a result of grassroots efforts by former slaves, and the South was modernized through the expansion of the railroads. The Radical Republicans aimed to bring about greater racial integration of Southern political institutions and society in general, and for a number of years, tremendous progress was made in this direction. Backed by martial law in the South enforced by federal troops including Black soldiers, a wave of political change swept through the South in the 1868 elections. The 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, which decreed voting rights could not be denied because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Over the course of the Reconstruction, some 1,500 Black Americans held public office in the South. Poor Whites also made economic and political gains during this period.
The Defeat of Reconstruction
But the Radical Reconstruction was not to last, as economic and political power still remained largely in the hands of the former slave owners. Freedmen had forced plantation owners to bargain for their labor, resulting in the sharecropping system, which at least on paper gave the former slaves greater economic independence. However, the means of production (land, tools, draft animals) were still owned by the big plantation owners, and, unable to get ahead by producing cash crops like cotton, which are prone to volatile prices on the world market, many sharecroppers soon fell into permanent debt and were reduced to a state of virtual slavery. Some freedmen were even auctioned off as servants when they were unable to pay their debts.
Even during the most radical phase of Reconstruction, the forces of counter-revolution were already at work to resist all efforts at greater racial integration. They unleashed a wave of terror against Black workers, sharecroppers, federal government employees, and Republican-organized armed Loyal Leagues. Also targeted were the so-called “carpetbaggers”: Northerners who had moved South after the war and who played a big role in implementing Reconstruction policies; and “scalawags”: sympathetic White Southerners who joined the Republican Party. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), founded in 1866 by veterans of the Confederate Army, physically intimidated, beat, tortured, and murdered thousands of Blacks and their White allies. Although federal troops at times cracked down on open anti-Black violence, at other times they explicitly refused to do so and allowed it to continue. The reign of political, economic, and physical terror that would later establish itself under Jim Crow had already begun.
The economic crisis of 1873 hit the South particularly hard, ruining many Northerners who had invested in the railroads. Cotton prices collapsed by half, and many small merchants and landowners were bankrupted. The Republican Party was increasingly divided and losing its post-Civil War clout. During the so-called “Redemption,” which lasted from 1873 to 1877, the revolutionary progress the Reconstruction had made in improving the economic, political, and social condition of former slaves and poor Whites was coming to an end. By 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the remaining federal troops from the South, all the Republican state governments had collapsed or been voted out. The Northern capitalists had achieved what they wanted: to root out the slave system and impose capitalist property relations. They could now toss aside the social forces they had leaned on to achieve their aims. As Thomas Hall, an ex-slave interviewed in the 1930s put it: “The Yankees helped free us, so they say, but they let us be put back in slavery again.”
Slavery had been overthrown, but the need for cheap, large-scale agricultural labor remained. In order to force millions of ostensibly “free” former slaves back to the plantations, they had to re-establish the social relations of the old slave system in a new form. To achieve this, they adapted the social relations of the obsolete and defeated slave system – racial discrimination, prejudice and segregation – to the needs of capitalist production. Old vagrancy laws and the Black Codes were dusted off, expanded, and given new form. Hundreds of thousands of Blacks were arrested and sentenced for the most minor offenses, and put to work on the great chain gangs that built the railroads. Now marked for life as convicts, it became nearly impossible to find decent jobs, housing, or to receive an education. Thus began the era of “Jim Crow” and the legacy of discrimination, exploitation, criminalization and the vicious cycle of poverty that continues for millions of U.S. Blacks to this very day.
Racism, which had been a necessary tool for the Southern slave system of exploitation, became a special and necessary tool of American capitalist exploitation, not only in the South, but throughout the newly re-united nation.
The Bitter Fruits of Defeat
From 1877 to roughly 1900, the “Redeemers” slowly but surely turned back the clock on the Reconstruction. They made it increasingly difficult for Blacks to be elected or even to vote, a policy of institutionalized disenfranchisement that continues today. Several important Supreme Court cases reversed the civil rights legislation of the post-Civil War period, for example, the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, which asserted that segregation was legal so long as there were provisions for “separate but equal” facilities. It would not be overturned until the case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education in 1954.
Under Jim Crow, Blacks could not go to the same schools as Whites; they could not eat in the same restaurants, travel on the same train cars, live in the same neighborhoods, or shop in the same stores. They also couldn't serve on juries, which meant they had little if any legal recourse. Whites could beat, rob, or even kill Blacks at will for minor infractions, and often did. The reign of terror that was hinted at in the “Black Codes” and the rise of the KKK, was firmly established under Jim Crow with the widespread revival of White supremacist militias which enforced racial segregation, and committed the most barbarous acts of brutality. It is estimated that between 1889 and 1922, some 3,500 people, almost all of them Black men, were murdered in racially motivated violence. As South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman proclaimed in 1900: “We have done our level best [to prevent Blacks from voting] ... we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
After the historic defeat of the Reconstruction, there followed a period of despair and isolation from the broader class struggle in the U.S. This led to the rise of figures like Booker T. Washington, who argued that Blacks should focus on bettering their conditions individually through “self-help”, hard work and cooperation with the White ruling class, effectively renouncing the political struggle for equality.
The rise of black nationalism and Marcus Garvey's pan-Africanist Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded in August 1914 with the aim of uniting all of Africa and its diaspora into “one grand racial hierarchy,” was another reaction to this defeat and the vicious oppression that followed. It is believed by many that the UNIA was the largest movement of Blacks in U.S. history, with even more participants than the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Garvey was the main proponent of the “Back to Africa” movement, which focused above all on economically developing the colony of Liberia so as to allow for resettlement by Americans of African descent. He believed that U.S. Blacks should have a permanent homeland in Africa: “Our success educationally, industrially and politically is based upon the protection of a nation founded by ourselves. And the nation can be nowhere else but in Africa.”
Many others, however, sought to improve their situation by moving out of the South. As early as the late 1870s, tens of thousands of Blacks moved out of the deep South to seek their fortune in the cities of the North and Midwest. At the turn of the century, ninety-five percent of Blacks lived in the South, in the so-called “Black Belt”, making up one-third of the population there, as opposed to just one percent in the North. But beginning around 1915, the intolerable repression in South led to what is known as the “Great Migration”. An estimated 1.6 million Blacks left the region between 1910 and 1940 in search of better employment and educational opportunities. However, they could not escape racism, which, as a component part of the American capitalist system, was encountered everywhere they went. In many areas, racism was intensified with the influx of Blacks from the South.
De facto segregation was the norm in the North, particularly in jobs, housing and education. In many areas Blacks could not serve on juries, and many cities made it a policy to make them feel “unwelcome” – by any means necessary. Lynchings were less frequent than in the South but not unknown, with mob attacks or “race riots” on Blacks occurring everywhere from Philadelphia to Houston to Duluth, MN to East St. Louis. Prominent researchers and academics produced “scientific evidence” of the inferiority of Blacks to justify their second-class status.
Southern Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1912, and he brought his outspoken white supremacist ideas to the nation's top office. He introduced legislation that limited civil rights for Blacks, and in effect re-segregated the federal government. He was a big fan of the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, which had re-emerged and was gaining national prominence. By 1924 the new Klan had some 4 million members and control or influence in several state governments, not only in the South, but in Indiana, California, Oklahoma and Oregon. Some historians even contend that Wilson's successor Warren G. Harding was inducted into the Klan at a ceremony held at the White House.
It was during this period of defeat, abandonment by the broader working class and segregation enforced by ruthless violence that a mass black nationalist consciousness and movement aiming to form a separate state could have taken root. With a large concentration of Blacks in several Southern states, the material basis for such a development was present. Indeed, for a time, Marcus Garvey's ideas received a certain echo among important layers of the Black population. But starting in the post-WWI period, and especially by the mid-1930s with the rise of the CIO, the Black struggle had once again taken the form of mass united action with white workers against their common exploiters. This was accompanied by a growing Black cultural and intellectual elite in places like Harlem and Chicago, which, like the abolitionist movement before it, crossed racial lines, and would later play an important role in the struggle against segregation. Most importantly, the factories were becoming increasingly integrated as capitalists hired greater numbers of Black workers in cities across the country.
As Marx had explained decades earlier, the Civil War and the smashing of slavery was the necessary precondition for the development of capitalism on the American continent. This in turn led to the strengthening of the movement of the working class: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, which ran with the seven-leagued boots of a locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California. The general convention of the National Labor Union at Baltimore (August 16, 1866) declared: ‘The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labor of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.’” (Capital vol. 1, Chapter X., Section 7)
The terrible conditions of exploitation and the economic crisis of the early 1930s eventually resulted in a mass upsurge of the labor movement and the bitter struggles that led to the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Hundreds of thousands of workers united across racial lines in defense of their fundamental class interests.
The Rise of the CIO
After the Wall Street crash of 1929, the labor movement had its head down for a few years, as workers struggled just to survive. But as the economy revived, the movement regained its confidence and moved on the offensive against the bosses.
One of the fundamental questions that had long been debated was how best to organize workers in the new, massive industries. With a few exceptions such as the United Mine Workers and Brewery Workers, workers that belonged to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had traditionally been organized into small craft unions, based on the type of skilled work they did (carpenters, printers, railroad engineers, etc.). But these types of unions were usually extremely narrow in their approach, focused exclusively on their own members' work rules and conditions, jealously guarding “their” jurisdiction over certain types of work, etc. There was a strict hierarchy between full members and apprentices, and the exclusion of less skilled workers, as well as Blacks, Jews, Catholics, women, those who were foreign-born, etc. These types of unions were not in favor of, and in fact thought it was impossible to organize on an industry-wide basis, i.e. into a single bargaining unit that would represent all production workers in a given workplace, as opposed to organizing them separately on the basis of the type of work performed within the overall production process. Some leaders of the AFL even worked openly to sabotage efforts at industrial organizing.
Supporters of industrial trade unionism understood that splitting the workplace into tiny sub-units based on the different types of work would not only weaken the collective power of the workers, but would also leave the majority unrepresented, as most of these new jobs were not skilled in the traditional sense.
In addition, the leadership of the AFL had a policy of class collaboration with the bosses, as exemplified by Samuel Gompers' “business unionism”. They felt that “what's good for the bosses is good for the workers,” even if that meant wage cuts, layoffs, worsening conditions, etc. They therefore did not mobilize members to prepare for or win strikes. But a wave of militant strikes in Minneapolis (Teamsters), San Francisco (Longshoremen), and Toledo (Autoworkers) in 1934, shook up both the bosses and the leaders of the AFL. In the Teamsters' strike, for example, militant class struggle tactics were used to mobilize the entire city behind the truckers' demands.
On the basis of this upsurge, the CIO was formally founded in November of 1935. A major victory was then won in 1937 when the United Auto Workers won recognition from General Motors after a bitter struggle that included a forty-four day sit-down strike. Later, Chrysler and Ford were unionized. The steel industry was also being organized on a massive scale. In the South, textile workers were being organized, but it was a bitter uphill struggle to unionize not only in the face of the bosses and a history of defeated strikes and organizing drives, but also the conservatism and racism of many white workers and even union organizers. But important gains were made nonetheless, and other independent unions achieved even more impressive successes by uniting black and white workers through more militant methods.
Racism was by no means eliminated, even within the most progressive layers of the labor movement, but Black workers in particular benefited from the massive wave of strikes and organizing that accompanied the formation of the CIO. In the early 1930s, less than 100,000 Black workers were members of a union. By the early 1940s, this figure was close to 500,000, and many Blacks rose to leadership positions within the unions. United class struggle was able to achieve in a few years what had seemed virtually impossible in the decades following the defeat of the Reconstruction.
It was around this time that the “Second Great Migration” began, lasting roughly from 1940-1970, which further transformed the demographics of the South and the entire country. During World War II, Black workers were drawn into the war industry in massive numbers, with a huge exodus of some five million people from the Southern states to the proletarian centers in the North, Midwest, and West, and from the rural, agrarian South to the main economic hubs of the region. Post-war, this trend of geographic dispersal continued. In addition, nearly one million Blacks served in the military and fought in World War Two – a war ostensibly fought in the name of “freedom” – while they had no such freedom at home. The irony was not lost on Black GIs, many of whom went on to participate in the mass movement for equality, Civil Rights and against segregation in the years following the war. It was this mass proletarianization and urbanization of the formerly rural and atomized Black population that laid the material conditions for the explosion of the Civil Rights movement. Sharecroppers and farmers have no concentrated economic power. Workers do.
The Civil Rights Movement
By the mid-1950s, the discrimination, oppression and second-class status that still confronted Blacks people in a so-called “free” society could no longer be tolerated. The result was the Civil Rights movement, considered by many to have been a “Second Reconstruction”. This was a mass revolt of Black workers and youth and their White allies which shook U.S. society to its foundations. Demanding genuine equality and an end to segregation, it succeeded in bringing down Jim Crow despite the vicious repression and violence unleashed against it. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” and other historic protests, sit-ins, and court battles, often accompanied by the violent intervention of state and federal troops, finally forced the government to pass comprehensive Civil Rights legislation.
In the face of such a massive and courageous movement the ruling class made some concessions on voting and civil liberties in the South, moved to integrate public schools and universities, and made efforts to combat discrimination. But above all, they sought to keep the movement within limits that did not threaten the capitalist system. To do so, they worked to channel the movement into the pro-capitalist Democratic Party, while orchestrating the murders of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and a number of leaders of the Black Panthers, who sought to go beyond capitalism and the Democrats.
Along with the broader Civil Rights movement, there was a revival of black nationalism among some sectors of the population. The explosion of the ghettos in the 1960s led to the rise of the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, the League for Revolutionary Black Workers, and other organizations that fought not only for political equality, but for “Black Power”. These movements were also inspired by the unfolding colonial revolution in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Their determination to find a solution to the problems confronting black people showed the revolutionary potential amongst the most oppressed layers of American society. Stokely Carmichael, one of the Black Panther leaders, first raised the slogan of “Black Power” as a rallying cry for Blacks to unite and challenge White domination of society. The demand for greater control over the Black community, for racial dignity, and for solidarity with the anti-colonial struggles represented a step forward insofar as they represented a radicalization of political consciousness and a break from the White liberals of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
The Black Panthers were open to the ideas of Marxism and were in favor of the creation of a new workers' party. In a short space of time they evolved from a largely black nationalist perspective to the perspective of socialist revolution. According to Bobby Seale: “We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black nationalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. And we do not fight imperialism with more imperialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.” Unfortunately, the Panthers' lack of a fully worked out working class program and perspective served to derail the movement. Subject to vicious state repression, the Panthers went into crisis and suffered a whole series of splits.
Similarly, Malcolm X, who had begun his political activity as a Black Muslim and Nationalist, came to understand that as they made up only 13 percent of the population as a whole, Blacks could never transform society by themselves. Toward the end of his life he began to come to the conclusion that what was necessary was a united class struggle against the capitalist system itself. As he put it: “It's impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg. It can only produce according to what that particular system was constructed to produce. The system in this country cannot produce freedom for the Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system period.” On another occasion he explained it as follows: “Racism is profitable, if it wasn’t profitable it wouldn’t exist.”
Martin Luther King Jr., had begun with a pacifist and reformist approach, but soon realized that formal political equality would not eliminate the institutionalized economic inequality and deep roots of racial discrimination. He was rapidly moving toward a class position on the eve of his murder. During a speech in Frogmore, SC in November of 1966 he said the following: “You can't talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can't talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums ... we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong ... with capitalism ... There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” He was in Memphis to support striking garbage collection workers when he was killed in April, 1968.
Tragically, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated before they were able to fully develop these ideas, but it is clear what direction they were headed. The magnificent Civil Rights movement, had it been able to link up with the struggle of the working class as a whole, could have been a massive force for social change – revolutionary change. This is why these leaders had to be eliminated. Unfortunately, the leaders of the labor movement, who were pursuing a policy of collaboration with the employers and their political parties, were incapable of leading the movement against discrimination and oppression and of uniting all workers on a class basis. No social movement can continue in ferment indefinitely. A series of important reforms collectively known as “Affirmative Action” policies were introduced, but by the late 1960s the movement began to ebb and the most radical elements were physically eliminated or co-opted into the Democratic Party. By degrees, the struggle was diverted from the streets and factories into the voting booths, boardrooms, law firms, and courts.
The result is the situation we have today. For a handful of Blacks, who have benefited from the concessions made by the ruling class, things are going quite well. But for the vast majority, things are as bad or even worse than they were 50 years ago.
When we look at the history of Black struggle, it is clear that the main trend, even before the Civil War, has been a struggle against discrimination and segregation, and for freedom, equality, and integration into American economic, political, and social life. This was exemplified by the Reconstruction period, a revolutionary democratic movement by the Black and poor masses against the old slave power in the South, after its military defeat by the capitalist North. This potential was consciously and deliberately sold out by the Northern capitalists, who fused with the former slave owners and established Jim Crow, reverting millions of “free” Blacks to a position of enforced servitude, exploitation, degradation, and institutionalized racial discrimination.
This in part explains the decisive revolutionary potential of Black workers, which is due not only to the super-exploitation suffered both as workers and as an oppressed racial minority, but because even the basic democratic right of equality cannot be meaningfully achieved within the limits of capitalism. Therefore, the struggle for genuine equality is of necessity a struggle against the capitalist system itself, which cannot exist without the poison of racism, which it consciously uses to divide and conquer the working class. In the coming period, Black workers, along with Latino workers and the working class in general, will be at the forefront of a mass revolutionary movement fighting for the socialist transformation of society. The socialist revolution in the United States will mean not only the liberation of the working class and oppressed in the U.S., but of the entire world.
Marxists and the “Black Question”
The role Black workers will play in the American socialist revolution has long been a question of tremendous importance for Marxists. Our approach to the struggle against racism and all forms of discrimination is a crucial aspect of the work of building a Bolshevik organization in the United States. As with every other field of work we engage in, we begin with our general program, ideas, methods and traditions. We also start from the standpoint that in the final analysis, there can be no solution to the scourge of racism within the limits of capitalism. Our aim at all times is to raise workers’ class consciousness, unity and confidence in their ability to collectively transform society. To do this, we raise transitional demands that bridge the gap between today's struggles and the need for socialism.
Countless volumes have been written on struggle of U.S. Blacks, and there have been many sharp disagreements on the subject. This is understandable, as there are many complex questions that must be addressed. For example, do Blacks in the U.S. suffer from national or racial oppression? Is the demand for self-determination appropriate? How can we most effectively bring about the unity of all workers in a united struggle against our common oppressors? If we maintain a clear working class perspective and approach, we can untangle much of the confusion that has arisen around these and other related questions.
Marxism and the National Question
The classical position of Marxists on the National Question can be found in the extensive writings of Lenin and Trotsky on the subject. In order to understand their position we must begin with an analysis of the origins of nationalities and the nation state. Throughout human history, people sharing common economic, social, linguistic, religious and cultural activities have congregated in different parts of the world to form more or less uniform communities. However, before capitalism became the dominant form of human economic and social organization, there were no national borders or countries as we understand them today.
The historical purpose of the nation state was to organize a more or less uniform market among a group of people living within certain borders with a common currency, system of weights and measures and political system, often with a common language, religion, etc. This was in order to provide a wider and less restricted arena for the development of capitalist economic relations than was possible within the narrow limits of the smaller and decentralized feudal statelets, each of which had its own laws, toll roads, monetary systems, etc., which made trade and economic development extremely inefficient. For example, until just 150 or so years ago, there was no “Italy” or “Germany” in the modern sense, only loose collections of different regions, city states, kingdoms and principalities. But the need for an ever-larger and more stable market for the expanding capitalist system and capitalist class, which grew out of the old feudal system, pushed toward the unification and greater centralization of these regions into nation states. This was often achieved by force, imposed by the strongest power in the region (for example, Prussia in the case of Germany). In other words, the nation state is a product of the economic needs and inner logic of the capitalist mode of production.
But the capitalist nation state, once historically progressive, in that it allowed for greater development of the means of production than had been possible under feudalism, has now become a fetter on the further development of the economy and society. This is why we see capitalism's irresistible push toward “globalization”, regional trading blocs, and entities like the Euro Zone which seeks to create a wider arena for economic activity than is possible within the limits of the relatively small European states. And of course, we have the international working class' struggle for world socialism and the abolishment of all these artificial and restrictive borders. Only then will humanity's vast potential to cooperatively and democratically develop the means of production without restriction and in the interests of all be unleashed.
In many modern nation states, there are national minorities living within the borders of more powerful nations, often against their will and suffering terrible oppression. National oppression and the unrealized aspirations of different historically developed nations for their own territory are at root the result of capitalism's inability to develop the means of production and provide enough for everyone. The working class of one nationality, race or religion has no interest in oppressing the workers of any other nationality, race, or religion. But when there is scarcity, people will turn against one another based on differences of religion, language, skin color, etc. The capitalist class encourages these divisions in order to divert attention away from the real problems confronting working people. They cynically defend the interests of “their” religion or nationality at the expense of others, in order to “divide and conquer”.
The National Question, therefore, is a problem of the belated socialist revolution and the contradictions inherent in the outmoded capitalist system. As such, there is no genuine and lasting solution to the problems facing oppressed national minorities within the limits of capitalism. All small nations are used as disposable pawns in the great game of world domination being played by the major powers. The only way oppressed nationalities can hope to achieve their own territory or autonomous region free from imperialist oppression is through the socialist revolution, which can only be accomplished through united class struggle against our common oppressors.
The Right of Nations to Self-Determination
Marxists do not define a nation subjectively or psychologically. Nor do we proceed from abstract, formal definitions. We start with a concrete appraisal of living processes, of things as they develop, change and evolve. A nation is not something fixed and static. It can and does change and evolve. Nations can be created where none existed before, or be absorbed or destroyed and cease to exist as separate entities. Historically, nations have been formed out of the available raw material under conditions of wars, invasions and revolutions which dissolve old connections and frontiers and create new ones. We can, however, give a general definition of a nation as a historically evolved community with a shared history, culture and consciousness, united by powerful economic ties in a common territory, often sharing a common language and / or religion.
The right to self-determination of nations has a very precise meaning for Marxists. It means that a national minority living within the political borders of another nation has the right to determine its own destiny, free from compulsion, up to and including the formation of a separate state, though it may also take the form of some kind of autonomy within the bounds of the existing state, or the decision to maintain the existing relationship. It applies only to nations or to those oppressed racial minorities that are in the process of becoming nations. It does not apply to groups, religious minorities, races or individuals. Lenin's correct approach to this question played a key role in the victory of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution of 1917.
Before the revolution, Russia was a “prison house of nations,” with literally dozens of different nationalities compelled by force to live within the borders of the tsarist empire, which was dominated by the Great Russian nationality. In order to forge unity between the workers and peasants of these nationalities, the Bolsheviks defended the right to self-determination as a way of proving in practice that the Russian working class had no interest in continuing the oppression these nationalities had suffered under the rule of the tsar. They explained that if the oppressed nationalities wanted to separate and form their own state, they had the absolute right to do so and that their decision would be respected. But the Bolsheviks did not take this position because they wanted to split up the tsarist empire into tiny statelets; on the contrary, all other factors being equal, a larger state is preferable as it allows for greater and more efficient economic development, which in turn makes it easier to provide for everyone's needs. They took this position in order to draw out the common class interests of the workers of all nationalities, on the basis of united struggle against their common exploiters. By uniting to overthrow the tsar, the workers of the various nations could then amicably decide what relationship they wanted to have with each other, on an equal basis.
However, the right to self-determination is a relative right. The demand for self-determination and the National Question in general always occupies a subordinate position to the class struggle in general and the perspective and needs of the world proletarian revolution. It is true that in a handful of cases before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Marxists actually supported separation. This was only under very specific circumstances, in which those national liberation struggles could potentially weaken imperialism and spark a broader revolutionary movement. But it has never been an absolute obligation for Marxists to support each and every movement for self-determination. In fact, in most cases, while defending the right of oppressed nationalities to determine their own destinies, the Marxists have patiently argued against separation and in favor of maximum class unity across national, ethnic and religious lines. The reason is because only through united struggle can we overthrow the capitalist system which exploits us all, and only then can the various national minorities determine their own destinies, free from compulsion. The Bolsheviks wanted the closest union of peoples, but on a voluntary basis. This can be defined as a socialist federation.
So although the right of self-determination means oppressed nationalities have the right to separate, the goal of the position is to increase class unity, consciousness and confidence. During the Russian Revolution, this policy succeeded in uniting the workers of various nationalities in the struggle against tsarism and capitalism. After the victory of the socialist revolution, most of the different nationalities eventually chose to form part of the USSR, a voluntary federation of soviet republics.
National or Racial Oppression?
When working out our approach to the question of the oppression of Blacks in the U.S., it is natural for Marxists to look to the classical position on the National Question as a starting point. That Blacks are a super-oppressed layer of American society is undeniable. That they have suffered centuries of exploitation, violence and discrimination is an indisputable fact. That they have made tremendous, distinctly “Black” contributions to American history and culture is beyond doubt. But are black people in the U.S. a separate nationality? Or do they suffer from a special and acute form of racial oppression and discrimination within the framework of American capitalism? Is the “Black experience” qualitatively separate from the “American experience” as a whole? Or is it an essential, component part of it? If U.S. Blacks are not a separate nation, do they have the potential to become one? If so, how likely is this perspective in the coming period? Is it appropriate to raise the demand of self-determination? In other words, is the “Black question” simply a variation of the National Question? Is it sufficient to apply the experience of the oppressed nationalities in the tsarist empire to the situation confronting Blacks in the U.S.? Or is the situation in many ways unique, given the peculiar origins and genesis of Black oppression in this country? What has been the dominant trend in the Black struggle throughout history? What is the most likely course struggle for Blacks in the U.S. in the coming period?
These are all important questions that must be addressed. For Marxists, the question of whether or not Blacks in the U.S. suffer from national versus racial oppression is of more than academic importance. We cannot take an emotional approach, but must base ourselves on the fundamental principles of the class struggle worked out by the great Marxists, and on the concrete facts as they exist today. Our conclusions and perspectives must flow from the actual state of affairs, as we examine the history of Black struggle and work out the most likely course of future events, in order to anticipate and effectively intervene in them.
We have seen how it was that historically, the black skin color became a mark of social inferiority, due to the special needs of the slavery mode of production. We have seen how, although the slave system was abolished as a result of the Civil War, the poison of racism as a socially constructed relationship remains a special and necessary component of capitalist exploitation. And when we examine the history of Black struggle in the U.S. over the last 400 years, it is clear that the dominant trend has been one of mass struggle against discrimination and segregation, and for equality and integration into American economic, political, and social life.
This is quite the opposite of the classical and present struggles for national self-determination in the tsarist empire, Europe and the colonial world. These involve historically evolved nationalities occupying a definite territory struggling against occupation, exploitation, oppression and repression of language, religion, customs, etc. by the dominant nation or imperialist colonial power. The aim of these struggles is for voluntary separation or autonomy, not integration. So while there are important similarities, the question of Black oppression in the U.S. is by no means analogous to the National Question in general. It is in many ways unique, and we must develop our understanding of it not according to a pre-conceived schema, but based on the situation as it has developed over history and as it exists today.
What may be called “Black identity” in the U.S. is intimately connected with the burning sense of indignity at the institutional inequality suffered by black people simply because of the color of their skin. It is a burning desire to smash that inequality and to achieve full and genuine equality. It is overwhelmingly a racial identity, not a national identity in the Marxist sense of the word. However, that is by no means to say that Black Americans are not an especially oppressed and therefore especially revolutionary layer of society.
There are two basic poles around which the Black struggle has manifested itself over the past few centuries: toward integration and toward separation. The trend toward integration has been overwhelmingly dominant, with only a brief period after the defeat of the Reconstruction when the potential for a broad-based black nationalist movement demanding separation existed, but was never fully realized. That potential was cut across by profound economic, political, social, and demographic changes, which completely transformed the situation. It is of course theoretically possible that the Black movement in the U.S. could at some point in the future develop in the direction of mass national consciousness and the desire for a separate state or some form of autonomy within the existing borders of the U.S. Until capitalism is overthrown, all kinds of variations can emerge. Much will depend on the course of the class struggle in the U.S. and internationally in the coming years. However, it is not at all the most likely course of development. We must base our perspectives above all on the most likely course of events, not on every more or less abstract theoretical possibility.
Since the 1930s, and especially since Word War Two, despite this or that periodic upsurge of support for the ideas of black nationalism among some layers of the population, the main trend among the mass of Black workers has been for mass, united action in conjunction with other working people. The vast majority of Blacks in the U.S. are working class, and share the same interests as every other worker. Even among many of those who are part of the black nationalist movement, the tendency is to reach out to the broader working class, to immigrant workers and to the trade unions, in order to build a united movement that can collectively struggle against our common oppressors: the capitalist class and its system. We must therefore win the best Black workers and youth on the basis of our working class program, not by adapting it and our approach to the ideas of nationalism, which are at root alien to working class internationalism.
At the present time there is no black nationalist movement among broad sectors of the Black population. Therefore, raising the slogan of self-determination is not relevant or appropriate. However, if such a mass movement did develop, if a black nationalist consciousness emerged on a mass scale and Blacks in the U.S. decided they wanted to move toward the formation of a separate state or some kind of regional autonomy, we would defend the right of self-determination. We would do so in order to forge maximum class unity by showing in practice that the working class as a whole will fight tooth and nail against the oppression suffered by Blacks under capitalism, and that it will not stop Blacks from forming a separate state or autonomous zone if that is what the majority decides. However, we would emphasize the common class interests of all workers regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, etc., that the common enemy and oppressor is the capitalist class, and that only through united struggle can we hope to end the capitalist system which exploits all workers.
In the coming period, under conditions of capitalist crisis and scarcity, U.S. society will be increasingly polarized. The ruling class will inevitably attempt to confuse and divide the class by intensifying the poison of racism. However, the most likely perspective is not that of a rise of black national and separatist consciousness on a mass scale, but rather, the tendency toward united class struggle across racial and ethnic lines. The Marxists and the labor movement in general must be at the forefront of combating racism and discrimination, of forging unity between all workers by fighting for quality jobs, health care, housing and education for all.
Black Nationalism and the Socialist Revolution
As the examples of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers show, the experience of many who start out from a black nationalist perspective leads them to the conclusion that a class perspective and struggle is necessary. For many, black nationalism expresses a progressive rejection of the status quo, of the conditions of oppression, brutalization, and economic exploitation faced by millions of Black workers and youth. It is indignation at the lack of recognition of the great contributions made by black people to world history, culture and science. Many black nationalists are also fervently against U.S. imperialism and its wars, and the effects these have here at home. And although some black nationalists are in fact in favor of separation and against the unity of all workers across racial lines, which plays a negative role in that it serves to divide the class, we must understand the essence of black nationalist sentiment in general, which is at root an expression of the desire to struggle against racial oppression and discrimination, not the desire for a separate state.
Many Black youth, when they first become politically radicalized, turn to the ideas of black nationalism. We must relate in a comradely and friendly manner to those who have nationalist sentiments, especially when they are in the process of breaking politically from the Democratic Party. By no means would we simply “reject” their sincere and urgent desire to find a solution to the dire problems confronting the majority of black people. But the key to winning the most militant Black workers and youth is to present them with a clear working class program and transitional demands for the socialist transformation of society.
We must offer patient and comradely critical support to black nationalists moving in the direction of class struggle, explaining and encouraging the need for a working class program and perspective. We must draw out and build upon key points of agreement while patiently explaining our points of disagreement, all the while fighting shoulder to shoulder in the struggle against racism and discrimination and for quality jobs, wages, conditions, education, health care and housing for all. In short, we must patiently explain the WIL's program, ideas and methods, emphasizing the need for united class struggle. This will not always be easy, and we will have many sharp disagreements. But there are no shortcuts to building our revolutionary organization and working class unity in general.
For example, several black nationalist and grass roots community organizations have called on the U.S. government to fulfill its unkept promise of “40 acres and a mule”, i.e. to make reparations to the descendents of former slaves. Although some call for some kind of individual monetary compensation, the main demand is for social reparations. The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America calls for “policies to correct racial inequalities and barriers to opportunity in Black communities, such as resources for education, health care, and promoting economic growth.” Others passionately argue that reparations in the form of a check are not enough, that the back of the system itself, which breeds racism and police brutality, needs to be broken.
The class instinct and desire to fundamentally transform society that lies behind these demands is clear. We must draw out the essence of these demands through patient discussion and united struggle to improve all workers' quality of life. The only way to truly achieve full reparations in compensation for centuries of discrimination and brutality is to fight for the expropriation of the capitalists, whose wealth and power is based on exploiting the working class, and who use racism to extract maximum profits. We must explain that only through the socialist transformation of society can we lay the basis for ending the discrimination and inequality inherent in the capitalist system.
In conversations with a black nationalist worker or youth, if he or she were advocating separation, we would explain that we absolutely defend the right of Blacks to do so if that is what the majority decides. But we would also patiently argue against it and for maximum unity of the class, explaining that in practice only the victorious socialist revolution could make this possible. In his discussions with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the 1930s, Trotsky explained the position we would take when discussing this question concretely with black nationalist workers: “Our Negro comrades can say, ‘The Fourth International says that if it is our wish to be independent, it will help us in every way possible, but the choice is ours. However, I, as a Negro member of the Fourth, hold a view that we must remain in the same state as the whites,’ and so on.”
Trotsky's Discussions with the SWP
An important point of reference on the subject of the Black struggle in the U.S. is the discussions Leon Trotsky had with members of the SWP in the 1930s. Along with V.I. Lenin, Trotsky was one of the leaders of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, and the founder of the Fourth International. His discussions with the SWP on this subject are a treasure house of Marxist theory and practice. Unfortunately, there has been much confusion and many mistakes made due to a misinterpretation of these texts. For example, the excessive emphasis many Trotskyist groups give to the perspective that the Black struggle will take the road of national separation or autonomy can be traced to a one-sided understanding of these conversations with the SWP.
What is most important to understand is Trotsky’s method, as well as the historical and political context in which these discussions were held. It must also be noted that these are excerpts from uncorrected transcripts of conversations, not fully worked out documents. His comments on the question were based on general considerations on the right of nations to self-determination, in particular as it applied to Europe and the tsarist empire and the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917. As he himself admitted, his observations were not based on intimate familiarity with the special situation of racial oppression suffered by of Blacks in the U.S., which is in many ways a qualitatively different question.
Due to their largely agrarian and rural composition, Trotsky approached the Black masses much as he approached the backwards peoples of the tsarist empire, who after centuries of Great Russian oppression might only awaken to national consciousness on the basis of great events: in the case of Russia, the ravages of the First World War, the crumbling of the tsarist empire, and the socialist revolution. Under these conditions, the right of nations to self-determination played a revolutionary role in the overthrow of tsarism and capitalism and the formation of the USSR. With an epoch of even greater instability opening up in the 1930s, Trotsky urged the comrades of the SWP to remain open to the possibility of a similar development for Blacks in the U.S. under the hammer blows of events.
The catastrophes of fascism, Stalinism and World War Two loomed over humanity, and earth-shaking historic events were on the horizon. The Fourth International was in its early stages of formation, having only recently broken with the Stalinist-dominated Third International (the “Comintern”). The Fourth International defended the ideas, methods and traditions of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, fighting for internationalism and world socialism, as opposed to the bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of Stalinism and the reactionary idea of “socialism in one country”. The embryonic forces of Trotskyism were fighting to break the grip the reformists and Stalinists had on the working class in the U.S. and internationally.
The Stalinist-controlled Communist Party (CP) was making gains in the American South, especially among Black workers in the textile industry, due to their energetic union organizing and anti-discrimination campaigns. With the revival of the labor movement in the 1930s, Black workers were engaged in an energetic and determined struggle to improve their quality of life in unity with many white workers, whose fundamental class interests were the same. At the time, the CP was artificially injecting the demand for self-determination of Blacks and the idea of a separate Black state at a time when no such sentiment existed among the vast majority of the Black population. On the contrary, Blacks were fighting for integration and equality, not separation. In fact, many Black workers were turned off by the CP's emphasis on self-determination, which many of them they understandably perceived as being a demand in favor of segregation. It was in this overall context that the SWP took up the question of self-determination of Blacks in the U.S.
These discussions were also aimed in part at “bending the stick” back against the the somewhat formalistic and mechanical position being put forward by “Johnson” (CLR James, a leading member of the SWP at that time), who seemed to characterize the demand for the right of self-determination of Blacks living in the U.S. as “reactionary” through and through, despite accepting that if this were indeed the demand of the Black masses, it should be supported “however reactionary it might be in every other respect.” Trotsky rejected the characterization of this demand as “reactionary”, as it it could under certain circumstances have a progressive content, and many of his comments were focused on Johnson's presentation of the question.
In 1910, 90 percent of Blacks lived in the South. Despite the “Great Migration”, by the 1930s, three-quarters of U.S. Blacks still lived in twelve Southern states. In 189 counties of the region, Blacks accounted for more than half the population. This was the so-called “Black Belt”. In two states, Mississippi and Alabama, they comprised more than 50 percent. Trotsky explained that “the Negroes are a race and not a nation: Nations grow out of the racial material under definite conditions ... We do, of course, not obligate the Negroes to become a nation; if they are, then that is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they desire and what they strive for. We say: If the Negroes want that then we must fight against imperialism to the last drop of blood, so that they gain the right, wherever and how they please, to separate a piece of land for themselves ...”
However, he was not in favor of advocating the demand for self-determination at a time when there was no sentiment for it within the Black population. While he said that under certain specific conditions such a movement could be positive, at no point did he say that it would necessarily be positive or that it should be advocated. This is an important difference. He was very careful in his analysis, making it clear that such a development was not at all certain.
In other words, much of what he said in relation to this subject was hypothetical and conditional. He was urging the comrades of the SWP to remain open to the possibility that such a mood might develop, in a period when tremendous events were in the making that could significantly change the situation. He had in mind history-changing events that could possibly cut across the general historic trend of the Black struggle for equality and integration. He said, for example, that an invasion of the U.S. by Japan, the victory of fascism in the U.S., or the outbreak of the socialist revolution might push Blacks toward the development of a genuinely national consciousness and the desire for a separate state.
Under such conditions, Trotsky explained that the Marxists would stand for the right of self-determination of Blacks, and this meant their right to form a separate state if they so wished. As he put it: “We must remain neutral in the matter and hold the door open for both possibilities and promise our full support if they wish to create their own independent state.” But as so often happens with broad, conditional historical perspectives, none of those possible perspectives came about.
There was no invasion by Japan, nor did fascism come to power in the U.S. In fact quite the opposite route was taken by the U.S. ruling class with Franklin D. Roosevelt's policy of reforms, state intervention, and social programs, as opposed to the fascist jackboot. The potential for socialist revolution was also cut across by the massive mobilization for the war and the subsequent post-war economic boom. Blacks did not further congregate in the South or express in any massive way that they wanted nothing do with the “White man's war”. In fact, there was a tremendous “Second Great Migration” out of the South and a million Blacks joined the military. All of this cut across the potential for the rise of a black national consciousness on a mass scale.
Also, contrary to Trotsky's general understanding of the question, Blacks in the U.S. are not a backwards peasant people. Blacks had been organizing and struggling for freedom and equality for literally centuries, and especially by the end of the war, were highly proletarianized. If at any time the potential for a majority movement toward separation was to have taken place, it would have been after the defeat of the Reconstruction and before the rise of the CIO, at a time when there was, in addition to the political potential, an overwhelming concentration of Blacks in the “Black Belt”.
However, the material basis for the development of a truly black national consciousness, as opposed to racial Black consciousness, changed dramatically. This is not a secondary matter. Trotsky's method and conclusions were absolutely correct at the time. But some of those groups who cling to his formulations today, without considering the colossal changes that have taken place since then, are drawing fundamentally false conclusions. If Blacks in the U.S. were an especially oppressed racial minority and not a separate nationality at the time of Trotsky's discussions, then at no time since then have they been transformed into a distinct and separate nationality. With the migration of significant numbers of the Black population out of the South, combined with their absorption into the working class, the tendency toward a national consciousness has been completely cut across.
In 1890, 80 percent of all Blacks and 85 percent of all Southern Blacks lived in rural areas. By 2000, some 58 percent of Blacks lived in large metropolitan areas. This is out of a Black population of approximately 39.9 million people, or 13.8 percent of the total U.S. population. At the time of the 2000 Census, 54.8 percent of Blacks lived in the South, 17.6 percent in the Northeast, 18.7 percent in the Midwest, and 8.9 percent lived in the West. Blacks are concentrated mostly in large urban areas, with New York, Texas, Georgia, Florida and California the states with the largest numbers of Blacks. New York City has the highest Black urban population in the country, with over 2 million Black residents (28 percent of the city). Chicago, with 1.6 million, or 18 percent of the metropolitan area is in second place. Gary, IN and Detroit, MI have the largest percentage of Blacks (84 and 82 percent respectively). Other important urban concentrations of Blacks are in Baltimore, Atlanta, Memphis, Washington, DC, and New Orleans.
There are those who put forward the idea that a national consciousness can arise where none previously existed, in a more or less abstract way, without a geographic, material and economic basis. However, the right to self-determination has a very specific meaning for Marxists. It means the right form a separate state or autonomous zone. This clearly requires a national consciousness and a definite territory and political borders within which to develop the national economy and relate to other nation states or regions. As Malcolm X put it when he was still a strident black nationalist: “Land is the basis of all independence.” Dr. James Turner, director of the African Studies program at Cornell University in the late 1960s, explained that “without control over land, resources and production, there can be no self-determination for a people.”
Nationalism is based on a people's relationship to a definite piece of land. The demographic changes of the post-World War Two period dramatically transformed the situation. As Theodore Draper explained in his 1970 book The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism: “These population movements have produced baffling problems not only for the cities but for black nationalism ... If the internal Black migration has been from South to North and from countryside to the cities, where is the 'black nation' in the United States?”
In other words, the idea of a separate Black state in the U.S. has become completely unviable. This is why raising the demand for the right of self-determination for black people is not appropriate at this point in time. As Draper explains: “The Black ghettos have no viable economic existence apart from their predominantly White hinterlands; they are separated from one another, often by hundreds of miles...” It is impossible for Blacks in Detroit, Atlanta, Harlem, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, etc., to link together in a separate state or autonomous region, which is the only form self-determination can take. The idea that these largely economically depressed populations could separate themselves off from the rest of American society is not only impossible but reactionary.
It is therefore hypothetical in the extreme, under present conditions, to lay excessive emphasis on the perspective that a mass black nationalist movement may arise in the coming period. Unfortunately, many groups have treated this as the most likely course of development, and have oriented to the Black movement accordingly. In so doing, they have to one degree or another adapted their programs and approach to a small layer of black nationalists, instead of patiently explaining the need for a working class perspective.
It is indispensable for us to refer to the classics of Marxism, which shed light on and deepen our understanding of complex questions. But in the vast majority of cases, simply citing this or that quote is by no means sufficient. We must get to the essence of the question involved, in particular the social, economic, and political context, the intended audience, and intent of the author (i.e., is it a public document, an internal discussion, a polemic, an educational illustration, a broad perspective, historical example, etc.). In the case of Trotsky's discussions with the SWP, we must understand his overall method and approach, the origins and development of the Black struggle in the U.S., the conditions that existed at the time those discussions were held, as well as subsequent developments over the last 75 years. Had Trotsky not been struck down by a Stalinist assassin in 1940, he would have surely changed his perspectives on this and other questions, in keeping with the changed conditions.
Use of the Term “Self-Determination”
As explained above, for Marxists, the term “self-determination” has a very precise, scientific meaning: the right of an oppressed nation to form a separate state if that is the will of the majority, though it may also take the form of some kind of autonomous region within the existing state, or the decision to maintain the present relationship. It applies to historically developed nations or racial minorities in the process of becoming nations. Others may use the term “self-determination” in a looser, more general sense, most likely borrowed from the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia. But as Marxists, we must be clear in how we use our terminology.
Other terms such as “fascism”, “imperialism”, “communism”, and so on have also entered the mainstream in a much more general and from a Marxist perspective, imprecise sense. While taking into account that for some people these terms may have other interpretations, we must be precise in explaining how we as Marxists use these words. If we blur the line between the terminology of scientific socialism and “popular discourse”, we will be left without a clear compass to guide us through the convulsive events and pressures that inevitably arise in the course of the struggle.
That many minority communities have raised the slogan of “self-determination” as a way of demanding greater say over what happens in their neighborhoods and schools is an understandable reaction to the impotence so many working and poor people feel in the face of corporate domination of our lives. But we believe that at root this reflects the beginnings of an awakening to political consciousness, organization and mobilization to improve the community's quality of life, not a broad-based demand for the right to decide whether or not to form a separate state or autonomous region. We must patiently draw out the real content of these demands, and orient the movement toward united class struggle to improve the quality of life of all working people.
For example, the U.S. SWP, began to use the term more “loosely” in the 1960s, due to its having entered “popular discourse”. They treated the demand by Black groups for “self-determination” in their communities – meaning they wanted more control over their local government, schools, etc. – as a form of actual self-determination. In effect, they interpreted the term as meaning that whatever a minority community decides at any given time, amounts to its having been “self-determined”, and must therefore be supported. This represented an abandonment of the Marxist definition of the term. They lent excessive emphasis to the perspective that a black nationalist consciousness would develop on a mass scale, and that some form of separation by U.S. Blacks would not only be possible under capitalism, but even progressive, something to be advocated. At that time, the SWP characterized Blacks in the U.S. as a separate nationality.
In the 1950s and 60s there was indeed a mass, self-sacrificing, and heroic movement of black people in the U.S. While there was indeed a revival of black nationalist sentiment among certain layers, the vast majority saw themselves as a racially oppressed population within U.S. society. The vast majority were not struggling in order to form a separate nation state or for some form of autonomous region, but rather, to demand that they be accepted and treated as equal members of the existing state and nation.
That this at times took the form of demanding greater input into the running of their communities is an understandable, natural first stage of development of the struggle when confronted by a hostile state and its institutional racism. But to draw the conclusion that this represented the first step toward the formation of a truly national consciousness, and furthermore, that this should be encouraged instead of emphasizing the need for a united struggle of all working people against discrimination and to improve all workers' quality of life, was absolutely incorrect. In an apparent attempt to find a shortcut to winning radicalized Black workers and youth, the SWP tailed the movement and adapted their program to the demands of the “Black community” in the abstract, that is, to petty-bourgeois elements in the leadership.
A Separate Black Party?
It is important to clarify the question of whether or not it is correct for Marxists to advocate the formation of a separate political party based on national, racial, or ethnic, as opposed to united class lines. All his life, Lenin fought against the influence of bourgeois nationalism in the workers' movement and emphatically opposed the idea of splitting up the workers' organizations. The Bolsheviks wanted the maximum unity of the workers and therefore waged a campaign against any taint of nationalism within the movement. They stood for a single unified workers' party and trade union organization throughout the Russian empire. The idea that Marxists would advocate a separate party for Blacks or any other minority group would have been considered a crime.
Unfortunately, the flawed perspectives of the SWP led them in the 1960s to an abandonment of the basic principles of Bolshevism when they advocated a separate party for Blacks. This was very different from lending critical support or orienting in a comradely manner to an already-formed party with our working class program and perspectives. What was being advocated was a new political formation for “black people” in general, irrespective of their class background or interests. Instead of arguing for a break by all workers with the Democratic Party, they more or less wrote off white workers, at least for the time being. They in effect took the approach of “first the unity of black people, then at some point in the future, the unity of the working class as a whole.”
To justify this, the SWP claimed to base themselves on Trotsky's 1930s discussions with the party. Here is what he said in relation to this question: “If another party had organized such a mass movement, we would surely participate as a fraction, providing that it included workers, poor petty bourgeois, poor farmers, and so on ... But the question remains as to whether we can take upon ourselves the initiative of forming such an organization of Negroes as Negroes – not for the purpose of winning some elements to our party, but for the purpose of doing systematic educational work in order to elevate them politically ... Theoretically it seems to me absolutely clear that a special organization should be created for a special situation... This organization can justify itself only by winning workers, sharecroppers, and so on ... If it does succeed, we will be very happy because we will have a mass organization of Negroes.”
What is clear from what Trotsky said was that the formation of a mass organization or movement of Blacks in the U.S. could be progressive, so long as it had a working class base which we could orient to with our ideas and program in order to raise class consciousness. In much the same way, a mass united front-type organization around the question of immigrants' rights would be a progressive development in today's situation, so long as it had a mass base of workers that we could orient to with our class program and perspective. This is qualitatively different from advocating the creation of a separate political party for Blacks or any other minority group.
As Trotsky explained in his discussions with the SWP just two months before his death: “The most important and common mean is a publication in the language of the minority in question. The education of the workers is hindered by differences in language. Even the most centralized party must find the means of communicating to different nationalities. The party is never a total of nation organizations. It is not a federation of national groupings and every worker is a member of a common organization. Channels must be created for the expression of these workers. This is true of the Mexican workers, Chinese, Jews, Polish, etc., but the Negroes have nothing to do with language. It is a social question determined by their skin. But it is not necessary to create a new paper; that is why it is not on the same level. That is why it is a different kind of means is not needed.”
As explained in the International Marxist Tendency's document Marxism and the National Question , to advocate a separate party goes entirely against everything the Bolsheviks stood for. In fact, one of the defining episodes in the formative years of the RSDLP was the struggle against the Bund, an attempt by the Jewish petty-bourgeoisie to have exclusive “control” over the Jewish workers by virtue of their being Jewish. An integral part of Lenin's policy on the National Question was his insistence on the need to maintain the sacred unity of the working class and its organizations above all distinctions of nationality, language, race or religion. He implacably opposed the attempts of the Jewish Bund to organize the Jewish workers separately and apart from the Russian workers. On this point he was most emphatic:
“In contrast to the nationalist bickering of the different bourgeois parties over questions of language, etc., workers' democracy puts forward the demand: absolute unity and complete amalgamation of the workers of all nationalities in all workers' organizations, trade union, co-operative, consumers', educational and every other, to counter-balance bourgeois nationalism of all kinds. Only such unity can safeguard democracy, safeguard the interests of the workers against capital – which has already become and is growing more and more international – safeguard the interests of mankind's development towards a new way of life to which all privileges and all exploitation will be alien.”
As explained in Marxism and the National Question: “It is one thing to combat racism and chauvinism in the majority nationality. It is quite another thing to split the working class on national, linguistic, religious or racial lines.
“This was never the position of the Bolshevik Party, or the RSDLP before it. Not one of the tendencies of the Russian Social Democracy (if we exclude the leaders of the Jewish Bund) agreed with splitting the movement on national lines. The Mensheviks had the same position on this question as the Bolsheviks. The question was thoroughly debated from the earliest period, when the demand was raised of giving the Jewish Social Democrats a separate organization within the RSDLP. The Bund (the Jewish Social Democratic organization) which was very strong in the West of Russia and Lithuania, where there was a large Jewish population, demanded that it alone should have the right to speak in the name of Jewish workers and should also have the right to set up a separate Jewish Social Democratic organization. This demand was resolutely rejected by Lenin and the Russian Marxists who insisted that there must be one party of the workers and one trade union. This remains our position today. The most important weapon in the hands of the working class is unity. This must be upheld at all costs. We are radically opposed to the division of the working class on lines of nationality, race, language, religion or anything else. In other words we take a class position.”
This excerpt clearly outlines the position of Marxists in relation to the creation of separate political parties (or trade unions) along national, racial or ethnic lines. Even in the radicalized conditions of the 1960s, it was absolutely incorrect for Marxists to advocate a separate party for Blacks in the U.S., and to do so today would be an even greater abandonment of the ABCs of Bolshevism.
The problems faced by black workers are the problems of the working class as a whole, only in a far more acute form. They form an especially oppressed substratum of the working class. But it is not a matter of asking the super-oppressed layers of the class to simply wait until the broader working class is good and ready to struggle. As Marxists we are at the forefront of the daily struggle against racism and discrimination. The burning desire to fight against oppression must be harnessed into raising class consciousness and unity, to break all workers from the Democratic Party, to build of a mass party of labor that can represent the interests all working people. The struggle against the double oppression of Blacks and other minorities must be linked to the struggle of the working class as a whole. In the final analysis, the only way Blacks and other minorities in the U.S. can achieve their emancipation is through the socialist transformation of society.
A good example of a principled approach is the position of the IMT in relation to the National Question in the Basque Country, although there are important differences between the Black question in the U.S. and the situation confronting the Basques. The Basques are are a historically developed nationality occupying a definite territory with the right of self-determination in the fullest sense. Our consistent and principled defense of that right, combined with our implacable position on the need for united class struggle against the common exploiters, our refusal to adapt our program and perspectives to the heavy pressures of Basque nationalism, including the genuine and sincere illusions of tens of thousands of Basque workers and youth fed up with the crass and brutal national oppression of the Spanish state, has paid off in recent years. The experience of the last three decades has confirmed our analysis and perspectives, and growing layers of the Basque nationalist movement are open to our ideas and methods. Yes, it took 30 years, but now in Spain we are currently growing fastest precisely in the Basque country, on the basis of our firm class perspective and orientation. There are no shortcuts to building a Bolshevik organization, and any concessions to bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalism can have the most negative and destructive effect on our work.
On the surface, the mass struggle led by Blacks in the 1950s and 60s was against segregation and for equal rights and opportunities for all. But the fundamental cause for this upsurge was the lamentable living conditions faced by the black masses as a result of Jim Crow and its more subtle yet equally pernicious Northern equivalent. The increasingly proletarianized black population was fed up with second-class status, second-class jobs, second-class schools, and second-class housing. A long and bitter struggle ensued, which galvanized the attention of the U.S. and the world. Under this pressure, the ruling class made some concessions in order to defuse the situation and maintain the rule of capital. Let us not forget – reforms under capitalism are never the result of the “good will” of the ruling class – they come about only through mass pressure from below and ultimately, the threat of social revolution. Jim Crow was abolished and comprehensive Civil Rights legislation was passed, at least on paper.
As we have seen, another aspect of the capitalists' strategy was to orchestrate the assassinations of the most radical leaders of the movement, and to buy off or otherwise pressure others into “playing by the rules”. Politically, the movement was derailed into the pro-capitalist Democratic Party – the party of the former slave owners. It is true that as a result of these heroic struggles, racism and discrimination have been reduced to a degree. But the fact remains that the conditions of life for the majority of Black Americans are in many ways even worse today, as we have seen above.
As part of the legislative initiatives of the Civil Rights era, the term “affirmative action” came into being. It was first used by President John F. Kennedy in an executive order in 1961, and again by Lyndon B. Johnson in another executive order in 1965. In the U.S., it is understood to include a broad range of legislation, policies and programs, ranging from anti-discrimination laws to language to encourage employers to “make extra efforts to employ minorities” to the use of race or gender-based quotas for employment and education. The motivation for these policies is to redress the effects of past and current discrimination by encouraging workplaces, schools, and public institutions such as fire and police departments, and the federal government to be more representative of the population.
Generally speaking, broad layers of the population perceive affirmative action positively. But there are also many misconceptions as to what affirmative action is and is not. While we do not base ourselves on academic definitions or opinion polls, the following excerpt from a report entitled Ten myths about affirmative action gives some indication as to how many Americans perceive this question:
“Public opinion polls suggest that the majority of Americans support affirmative action, especially when the polls avoid an all-or-none choice between affirmative action as it currently exists and no affirmative action whatsoever. For example, a Time/CNN poll found that 80 percent of the public felt ‘affirmative action programs for minorities and women should be continued at some level’ (Roper Center for Public Opinion, 1995a). What the public opposes are quotas, set-asides, and ‘reverse discrimination.’ For instance, when the same poll asked people whether they favored programs ‘requiring businesses to hire a specific number or quota of minorities and women,’ 63 percent opposed such a plan (Roper Center for Public Opinion, 1995b). As these results indicate, most members of the public oppose racial preferences that violate notions of procedural justice – they do not oppose affirmative action. (Plous, S. (2003).”
As Marxists we support the vast majority of the policies that fall under the broad term “affirmative action”. However, we must examine its component parts and define our attitude toward each of them, not lump them all together. We start from the perspective of how any given policy affects the working class as a whole, in particular its class consciousness, taking each case concretely. For example, we are strongly in favor of laws such as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We demand the implementation and enforcement of anti-discrimination and desegregation laws, and when necessary, we will certainly use the capitalist courts to defend our democratic rights.
We are also in favor of making extra efforts to ensure everyone has truly equal access to employment and educational opportunities, regardless of their race, gender, experience, educational background, etc. We are for job training and continuing education so that all workers can acquire the knowledge and skills they need. We are for the setting up of union-controlled hiring halls in poor communities to reach out to those who are under represented in the workforce. Above all, we fight for quality jobs, health care, housing and education for all.
We are not, however, in favor of quotas, which amount to dividing up capitalist scarcity “more fairly” on the basis of a person's race, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc. The root cause of racism and discrimination is the scarcity of jobs, education, health care, housing, etc. that exists under capitalism. The political problem with quotas is that they get workers thinking about how we can share the poverty of capitalism, relying on the “impartiality” of the capitalist state, rather than how we can all have more under socialism. The task of revolutionary Marxists is not only to fight shoulder to shoulder for day-to-day improvements in the quality of life of the working class, but also to show the big picture. We must raise the horizons of the most advanced workers, clearly posing the need unite the class in order to fight for the overthrow capitalism and for socialism, and recruit them to our organization.
Another reason we are not in favor of quotas is the pernicious role it can and has played in the labor movement, political parties and even united fronts, when the leadership is selected on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender, and not on the political program and class interests represented by the potential candidates. There are no shortcuts to achieving increased representation for women and minorities. Quotas cannot ensure that we have candidates or representatives that defend a working class program and perspective.
Some on the left believe that at times it might be appropriate to support the use of quotas in hiring and promotions, and point to examples where court-ordered quotas were used to integrate a work place. However, this approach does not raise class consciousness and confidence or serve to mobilize the class in a united struggle for our common interests. Quotas do not address the fundamental problem of scarcity under capitalism. They take the focus off of the inequality inherent in the capitalist system and instead get workers fighting with each other over the scraps. They invariably lead to resentment and situations in which workers of one race, gender or ethnicity blame workers of another race, gender or ethnicity for “stealing their jobs”.
Despite racism remaining rampant in U.S. society, desegregation of the workplace has to a large degree been accomplished in many sectors. Over the last 40 years, black workers have entered industry, services and federal / state / city jobs in large numbers. Black workers represent a big proportion of today's union members, and many of today's higher-seniority workers are black. Where seniority provisions are in place, this contractually mandates the bosses to offer jobs or training slots first to those workers with the most years put in. In the case of layoffs, it goes the other way around. Since this system is based only on years of work, seniority is in fact a defense against the racism and sexism of the bosses in that it protects all higher-seniority workers equally.
Seniority rewards workers for years of service with higher pay, better job protections and advancement opportunities, etc. Still, some on the left believe that it may be appropriate in some cases to abrogate the seniority system within the trade unions in order to give priority to black workers and other minorities when it comes to promotions or to avoid layoffs. The problem with this is that where a seniority system is in place, if we allow this or that exception, the bosses will use it to further divide the class. If workers are selectively promoted or fired based on their gender or the color of their skin, and not on their time of service or job qualifications, the bosses would be able to exploit or create divisions among workers by pitting them against each other.
We fight for quality jobs for all and against all layoffs. But if we lose the struggle against layoffs in a workplace and are forced to accept job cuts, the seniority system, while not perfect, at least provides a standardized mechanism for determining who will lose their jobs. This method also protects worker militants and stewards from victimization by the bosses. Without seniority, the bosses would be free to pick and choose who to lay off, or who to promote to better-paying positions, or who to select for training programs, based on their subjective considerations. The seniority system is a basic conquest of the labor movement and it must be defended unambiguously.
Others support the use of quotas because of supposed support given to them by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., who had this to say in one of his speeches: “If the proportion of Blacks to the total population was 12 percent, then we would ask that 12 percent of the employees be Black.” Or the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition in New Orleans, who demanded that 67 percent of all federal jobs involved in reconstruction in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina go to black workers (before the storm and its aftermath, New Orleans was 67 percent Black). However, we do not base our positions simply on what the leaders of the Black movement say, even mass leaders as influential and leftward-moving as Martin Luther King Jr. We base ourselves and on forging maximum unity and pushing forward the interests of the working class as a whole. More importantly, there are ways of ensuring that the racial makeup of the local population is represented in the job force without the use of quotas, ways which serve to mobilize workers or raise class unity and consciousness.
Uniting the Working Class
When we approach the question of racism and discrimination, we always begin with our general program. Once again: we fight for jobs, health care, education, and housing for all. For a shorter workweek with no loss of pay as a way of immediately creating more jobs, for example by using the slogan “30 hours work for 40 hours pay.” For union control over hiring and firing, and the setting up of hiring halls in communities most affected by unemployment and under-representation in the workforce, as a way of taking that function away from the capitalists who use discrimination to divide the class. For union-controlled training programs to provide job skills to the unskilled, also connected to the hiring halls. We call on the unions to reach out to groups of the unemployed, tenants’ associations, and the community in general to connect people with the training programs and hiring halls. We would also fight for the provision of daycare facilities at work and in the schools to facilitate the participation of women.
Putting forward these policies and demands serves to unite and mobilize workers and their unions in defense of their collective interests, and if achieved through struggle, would mean integrating and uniting the workplace while taking important functions such as hiring and firing out of the hands of the employers, courts and lawyers. A quota-based system does not do this. That the courts in some cases order quotas in order to enforce anti-discrimination legislation does not mean that we, as revolutionary Marxists, advocate, demand or raise any illusions that quotas or the courts can solve this question. The main point is that we must make positive proposals explaining what we are for, calling for equal jobs and educational and housing opportunities for all workers, not for the redivision by the courts of resources made scarce by capitalism, based on the gender or color of a worker’s skin. Again, we must always patiently explain that in the final analysis, there is no solution within the limits of capitalism.
Quotas may “integrate” the workplace in the sense that they may result in a workplace that more closely reflects the racial and gender balance in the community. But without linking this to the struggle for more and better jobs for all, it means opening job opportunities for some workers at the expense of others. If one sector of the working class feels that they are somehow the victims of “reverse discrimination”, then this does not further unify the class, but on the contrary, sows division and suspicion, focusing workers’ attention on the worker that “took my job” instead of the struggle against the bosses and their system.
The problem of jobs is a central issue. Does the labor movement simply ignore discrimination at work or elsewhere? Absolutely not! We must fight against discrimination over jobs, but link it to a fight against unemployment and for better wages as a whole. We must fight for a class alternative that can draw the ranks of the working class together in common struggle. Discrimination in the workplace must be fought through trade union control over hiring and firing. The labor movement must make it clear at all times that it will not stand for discrimination against Blacks or other minorities.
It is clearly not sufficient to merely call for trade union control over hiring and firing and nothing else. Many union leaders are racists and misogynists and we must fight against them tooth and nail. But our approach must be centered on the need to unite and mobilize workers. Most of today's labor leaders are quick to propose more “practical” alternatives as an excuse for not mobilizing the rank and file to fight discrimination in the workplace. But through their own experience, workers will learn that these are not the kinds of leaders they need. They will learn that instead of the current approach of class collaboration, where we are told that “what is good for the boss is good for the worker”, we need a class struggle approach that starts from the perspective that the interests of the workers are diametrically opposed to the interests of the employers. However, the fact that the current union leadership cannot wage an effective struggle against discrimination doesn’t mean that we shift the focus to the lawyers, courts and bureaucrats because it is “the only alternative”. Such an approach does not serve raise the class consciousness of the most advanced layers, who we are working to win to the ideas of revolutionary Marxism and the WIL.
The bottom line is that in the period of capitalist crisis we have entered, the bosses cannot tolerate even the most minor concessions they were forced to give in the past. They want total flexibility of labor and are attacking wages, conditions, pensions, health care, education, affirmative action and anything else that impedes them from maximizing their profits. We defend against these attacks, which are part and parcel of the attacks taking place against the class generally. At the same time, we do not sow any illusions that the problem of discrimination and racism can be solved within the confines of the capitalist system.
The oppression of Blacks in the U.S. is above all a class question. The vast majority of Black Americans and their families are members of the working class. As a result of the increased proletarianization that began even before Word War Two, a higher proportion of black workers have been in unions than workers of other racial or ethnic backgrounds for most of the postwar period. Beginning in the 1960s, Blacks were more likely to work in the heavily unionized auto industry than white or Latino workers. In 1983, the post-war peak for unionization rates, 27 percent of black workers were union members, compared with 19 percent for Whites. At that time, black workers were 50 percent more likely than other workers to be in or covered by a union. Since then, however, unionization rates for all workers has fallen precipitously, and even more sharply for Blacks, as a result of vicious attacks by the bosses and their government, a shift in the U.S. economy from manufacturing to services, and the class collaboration policies of the union leaders.
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR): “The share of African-Americans working in manufacturing declined from 23.9 percent in 1979 to 10.1 percent in 2006. Whites saw slightly smaller declines (from 23.5 percent to 11.9 percent), while Hispanics experienced a bigger drop (from 30.2 percent to 12.6 percent) ... Throughout the entire 1983-2006 period, black workers have made up 13-15 percent of all union workers. Over the same period, the share of Whites in the total union workforce fell from 78.1 percent to 69.2 percent, while the share of Hispanics rose from 5.8 percent to 11.5 percent of all union workers.”
According to the report, Blacks are considered to be “over represented” in auto manufacturing unions, but “under represented” in manufacturing as a whole, with sharper falls in unionization rates for Blacks in the manufacturing sector than workers of other races or ethnicities. Nonetheless, black workers today are still about 30 percent more likely than the rest of the workforce to be in a union. In 2006, Blacks were still more likely to be in a union (16.0 percent) than Whites (13.3) or Hispanics (10.7 percent), and are therefore also considered by the CEPR to be “over represented” in relation to their overall proportion of the population. This highlights the overwhelmingly proletarian character of the Black population, especially when we take into account the institutionalized unemployment and incarceration, without which, even more Blacks would be part of the workforce and in the unions.
Blacks are also more involved in the political process than other minority groups in the U.S., with high levels of voter registration and electoral participation. Unfortunately, Black voters remain for the most part tied to the Democratic Party, which like the Republican Party is a party of, by and for big business. However, in the coming period, this loyalty will be put to the test, as the Democrats increasingly reveal their true allegiance to the capitalist class. A mass party of labor armed with a program that can truly address the needs and aspirations of working people, including a class approach to fighting racism and discrimination, would get a mass echo among black workers, who will provide many courageous and energetic leaders for such a party.
The embryonic efforts to build the Reconstruction Party, which emerged from the Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans, and is reaching out to workers across the country, is an indication of things to come. Even the choice of the “Reconstruction Party” name evokes not only the need to rebuild the shattered infrastructure of the Gulf Coast and inner cities, but also the revolutionary Reconstruction period of the post-Civil War period, when the unity of the masses across racial lines gave the ruling class such a scare they were compelled to smash it with terror and violence.
In the recent period, black workers and youth have been engaged in many important struggles across the country. From the heavy involvement of black UAW members in efforts to resist the attacks of the Big Three auto companies to efforts to unionize the South; from the struggle to rebuild the Gulf Coast and the fight for the right of return of those displaced by Katrina to the struggles of many other largely black communities against gentrification; from the mobilizations to defend the Jena Six to participation in the anti-war movement, it is clear that after decades of relative inactivity, black workers and youth are stirring once again. The WIL must energetically participate in these struggles and united fronts against racism and discrimination, for example around the case of the Jena Six or the murder of Sean Bell. The implications of such a revival of the black struggle, especially in the context of the general crisis of the capitalist system, will be revolutionary.
Socialism is the Only Solution
In the coming period of increased economic, military, social and political turbulence on a world scale, racism and discrimination in general will be further exacerbated as scarcity increases and the ruling class uses this poison to divide the class (we can already see this in relation to immigrant workers). It is possible that the ideas of black nationalism may get a wider echo among certain layers of the population under these conditions. However, we believe the most likely trend will be toward united class struggle across racial and ethnic lines. This is why we must be there with our program, methods, and perspectives.
We say again: no solution is possible within the limits of capitalism, which is in a stage of advanced decay. Socialism is the only real and lasting solution to the problems facing black workers. The capitalist system is in crisis, and in Latin America in particular we can already see the first revolutionary convulsions as the working and oppressed masses move to take their destinies into their own hands. Revolutions do not respect the artificial borders of capitalism, and sooner than most people think, the U.S. itself will be in the midst of a revolutionary upsurge. We must do our utmost to ensure that the colossal potential energy of the U.S. working class is channeled into the revolutionary transformation of society. We must recruit the most militant black workers and youth to the Workers International League on the basis of our program.
In a society torn apart by racism, suspicion, and decades of deep-seated distrust, the idea of workers' unity across class lines may seem abstract or far-fetched to some. But look at any picket line and you will see Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Arabs, men, women, etc. In short, you will see workers defending their basic class interests through unity and organization. This is the way forward.
To raise the slogan of class unity in the fight against discrimination is our elementary duty, even if we are at times fighting against the stream and seem to be a “a voice calling in the wilderness.” As Leon Trotsky once explained, the working class “will accept tomorrow what it will not accept today.” It is the responsibility of our cadres through difficult and patient work to, as Trotsky put it, “blaze the trail with increasing success for our ideas and slogans, which will be shown to be correct, because they are confirmed by the march of events and not by subjective and personal assessments.” Our clarity of ideas and perspectives is what will win us the ones and twos, the cadres that will allow us in the future to win the majority of the working class to the ideas of socialism.
The labor movement must fight for equal employment prospects, wages and conditions for all workers. The special oppression of Blacks and other minorities must be linked to the oppression and exploitation of all workers. The bosses' strategy of keeping a pool of cheap labor helps to divide and weaken the working class as a whole. This situation cannot be opposed with mere words, but must be challenged by a program of action. For a 30 hour workweek with no loss of pay! A crash program of public works to provide jobs and housing for all! A living wage for all workers! Union control over hiring and firing!
This must be linked to the creation of a mass party of labor, a party fighting for a socialist program, a party that represents the interests of all working people. A workers' government would take over the corporate monopolies and banks under workers' democratic control and management. A socialist planned economy would unleash society's resources from the dead hand of capitalist greed to ensure everyone has a good job at a living wage, safe and affordable housing, universal access to quality health care and education, and a bright future for their children.
The general crisis of American capitalism bears down even more heavily on Blacks and other minorities. However, black liberation is inseparable from the liberation of the working class as a whole. As revolutionary Marxists, we have a responsibility to offer a perspective and a way forward for the movement at each stage, explaining its weaknesses and reinforcing its strengths. With the deepening crisis, it will be the class issues that inevitably come to the fore. The American working class will take the road of struggle in the same tradition at the mighty battles surrounding the formation of the CIO.
Black Americans have made immense and indispensable contributions to world history, art, music, literature, technology and science. However, the greatest contributions of black workers and youth are yet to come. In unity with their class brothers and sisters of all races and ethnicities, they will play an integral and leading role in the struggle to overthrow the racist system of capitalist exploitation once and for all.
Join the Workers International League and the struggle for a better world!