The oppression of black people has been a fundamental part of capitalism in North America since its inception. Along with nationalism, racial division has historically been the key ideological tool used by the ruling class to prevent the emergence a powerful united working class movement which could challenge its rule. Racism and the super-exploitation of the black population has also been the source of massive profits for the ruling class. But while this has remained a constant, the form of black oppression has changed enormously from the slave system to sharecropping under Jim Crow to the integration of a large section of black population in industrial production starting in World War I and the mass migration of black people to the Northern cities in the 1930s.
The fight for black freedom has gone through a corresponding series of phases from slave rebellions to the abolitionist movement to the the struggle of black workers alongside white workers to build industrial unions in the 1930s and 40s to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The labor movement and socialists have been confronted from the beginning in this country with the strategic task of challenging racism as part of mobilizing working people in their class interests.
Karl Marx famously said that “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” Marx and his comrades in the International Workingmen’s Association (commonly known as the “First International”) saw the war to end the slave system as a revolutionary event of world historic significance. Early American followers of Marx and other radical immigrants were active in the abolitionist movement and fought for the North. The most prominent of them, Joseph Weydemeyer, became a general in the Union army.
The Early Labor and Socialist Movement
The Knights of Labor in the late 19th century and the Industrial Workers of the World stand out in the early American labor movement for their determination to organize black as well as white workers. The IWW in particular saw fighting racism as a strategic task in building effective working class organization. This could not be said about the American Federation of Labor, the main union body at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact it was a feature of the AFL’s turn toward a conservative, craft based approach that it was prepared to accept unions that actively excluded black workers.
But it was in the building of the mass industrial unions of the CIO in the 30s and 40s that the question of uniting black and white workers was posed in a decisive way. For example the successful organizing of the big three automakers by the United Auto Workers was only assured when they won the large black workforce in Ford to the union through an anti-racist and class appeal and faced down racism within the union. The CIO’s failure to organize the South – which would have required the labor movement to lead a full scale onslaught on Jim Crow – was a defeat which marked the beginning of the end of the most promising and potentially revolutionary phase of the U.S. class struggle to date.
While the IWW, as a revolutionary syndicalist union, stood out for its proactive approach to fighting racism, the Socialist Party which grew to 100,000 members before World War I failed to go beyond platitudes about uniting all workers and did not see the centrality of addressing racial division. The party’s right wing at times openly pandered to racism. However, the party’s most famous spokesperson, the revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs, was an outspoken anti-racist, although he also articulated the party’s overall “color-blind” position. At one point Debs said “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races. The Socialist Party is the party of the whole working class, regardless of color—the whole working class of the whole world.” In the context of the time this was an advanced view but it was still extremely limited compared to what was necessary.
The Impact of the Russian Revolution
It was the effect of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the formation of the Communist Party in the U.S. as part of the Communist International (also referred to in shorthand as the “Comintern” or the “Third International”) that led to a decisive change in the thinking of American revolutionaries. It is no exaggeration to say that the Bolsheviks’ position on the national question was essential to the triumph of the October revolution. In particular the forceful advocacy of the right to self-determination of all nationalities oppressed by the Tsarist Empire and opposition to every manifestation of Great Russian chauvinism was critical to forging class unity in the course of the revolution. While defending the rights of national minorities, the Bolsheviks also stood for a unified labor movement made up of workers of all nationalities and a unified revolutionary party. The party’s position on the national question helped to build trust and overcome divisions. After the revolution, it played a critical role in winning the voluntary adherence of many nations to the Soviet federation.
Through lengthy discussions in the Comintern, the American Communists adopted many of the key elements of the theoretical framework for fighting racism which underpins our approach today. This can be summarized as the understanding that uniting the working class requires active opposition to racism in the white working class and that the struggle of the black masses will have its own dynamic into which Marxists must skillfully intervene with the goal of creating an integrated revolutionary party which included authoritative black leaders. The authority of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern and its call to fight colonial and racial oppression everywhere brought a number of black activists including many members of the African Blood Brotherhood based among Caribbean immigrants into the ranks of the early CP.
The discussions in the Comintern retain significance today. Looking at the situation in the U.S. within an internationalist framework is essential. After all while racism in the U.S. has particular and unique features, racism itself is hardly unique to the U.S.; it exists in one form or another in almost every society. Today, as in the past, the connection of the struggle for black freedom in the U.S. to the struggle of oppressed people internationally will be of great importance.
But during the 1920s the revolutionary movement was enormously set back when Stalin came to power in the Soviet Union at the head of a bureaucratic caste which destroyed all elements of workers democracy. The Stalinists then purged genuine revolutionaries from the parties of the Comintern worldwide and these parties became politically subordinated to the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. The American CP was forced to adopt the crude “black belt” theory which stated that there was a black nation concentrated in a number of Southern states and that this nation had the right of self-determination. This position did have an element of truth in an earlier historical period but by the 1930s with the mass migration of black sharecroppers from the South to Northern cities like Chicago it was not accurate.
What is striking about the CP in the 1930s, as it developed into a small mass party, is that, despite the “black belt” theory it continued to focus its practice on trying to organize black workers into an integrated workers movement and built itself as an integrated party. The CP’s often heroic work in fighting racism and segregation like their drive to organize black sharecroppers under Jim Crow and the campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys was what attracted thousands of black workers to their ranks not the theoretical position of self-determination for a black nation. In many ways it can be said that the work of the CP in the 1930s helped pave the way for the Civil Rights movement 20 years later.
But tragically the Stalinist policy of the popular front which meant a political alliance between the working class and a section of the ruling class led to the betrayal of the interests of the working class including the black working class. The CP subordinated itself to the Roosevelt wing of the Democratic Party. During World War II, the CP actively opposed strikes and mobilizations for black rights in the interests of “winning the war against fascism.” In particular they opposed the proposed March on Washington initiated by leading black radical A. Philip Randolph to protest discrimination in the war industries.
The Failure of the SWP
The Socialist Workers Party, led by James Cannon, began to develop a small base in the 1930s as a Trotskyist party opposing the sell-outs of the CP. The SWP played a leading role in the Teamster strike in Minneapolis in 1934, one of three labor battles that year led by leftists which helped launch the CIO. By the late 40s they had recruited several hundred black workers into their ranks. Unfortunately, however, they also adopted the false idea that there was a black nation and that Marxists should call for self-determination. This came out of a one sided interpretation of discussions with Trotsky in which he admitted that he did not fully understand the situation in the U.S. For example he asked the American comrades whether there was a separate African American language.
But for a period this remained only a theoretical position without major practical consequences. A lot of the SWP’s black working class members had left during the post-war anti-communist repression but the party consistently intervened in the early Civil Rights movement. However, as the movement began to really heat up in the early 1960s, the SWP began to tail black nationalism. This was part of a protracted political degeneration of the party in the 1950s and 60s which expressed itself in a loss of confidence in the revolutionary capacity of the working class domestically and internationally and in the possibility of building a mass revolutionary party.
The support for black nationalism became a rationale for not intervening in the Southern Civil Rights movement and not trying to recruit radicalizing black activists to the party. The SWP began arguing for a “black revolutionary party” which would clearly not be SWP. This implicitly meant the acceptance of themselves as a “white revolutionary party.”
This abdication had very serious consequences. It meant there was no attempt by any rooted Marxist force in the U.S. to win the thousands of black youth drawing revolutionary conclusions by the mid-60s. The SWP grew significantly out of the anti-war movement but on the basis of increasingly false ideas. It would have made a critical difference if a party based on Marxist ideas and methods had emerged out of the 1960s with several thousand members and a significant layer of black youth and cadre. Such a party would have had the potential to develop a semi-mass base in the 1970s by which time there were literally hundreds of thousands of revolutionary minded black and white youth in the U.S., including many young workers. There was a sharpening of the class struggle in this period, a deep economic and political crisis of the system and mass movements against the war, for women’s liberation as well of course as the ongoing movement for black freedom.
The SWP’s experience has clear lessons for our situation today as we see the emergence of the most significant movement of black youth since the 1970s. It is imperative that we learn the lessons of this experience and strengthen our program in order to build a truly multiracial working class revolutionary party with an authoritative black leadership in preparation for the even more explosive developments that are coming.
Marxism on the Central Dynamic of the Black Struggle
It should be said that there were individuals and groupings in the SWP who challenged their abstention from the Civil Rights movement and their accommodation to black nationalism. One of the earliest was Dick Fraser who in 1955 wrote a document entitled “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Struggle” to oppose the view that black people constituted a separate nation in the U.S. He began by reiterating the key features which Lenin and Trotsky had argued characterized a nation: “A people united by a system of commodity exchange, a language and culture expressing the needs of commodity exchange, a territory to contain these elements.” While there were arguably examples of peoples who were in the process of becoming a nation but did not possess all these characteristics, a separate territory was clearly critical. This simply does not describe the black population of mid-20th century America, living primarily in large urban areas, dispersed across the country and heavily integrated into industrial production.
As Peter Taaffe pointed out in an article in Militant International Review in 1972, “At the present time with the migration of the black population to the North together with their increasing proletarianization, even in the South, the movement in the direction of a separate state and a corresponding ‘national’ consciousness, in a Marxist sense, has been undermined. Now a majority of black people are concentrated in the North and in 1966 over sixty five per cent lived in the urban areas. In some cities such as Newark and Washington they are in a majority. The problems of the black workers are the problems of the working class as a whole, only in a far more acute form. They form a specially oppressed substratum of the proletariat.”
A generation earlier Fraser likewise argued that African Americans are “…not victims of national oppression but of racial discrimination. The right of self-determination is not the question which is at stake in their struggle.” Rather, “The goals which history has dictated to them are to achieve complete equality through the elimination of racial segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. That is the overthrow of the race system.” He furthermore argued that this struggle for integration was the main thrust of the struggle of black people historically. This is the opposite of the dynamic of a national struggle which is predicated on the idea of separation from a “mother country” which often seeks to forcibly assimilate the oppressed nationality. In the U.S. it is white reactionaries who have consistently sought to maintain racial segregation and separation.
Fraser also correctly pointed out that, while the struggle of black people is not the same as the class struggle and has an independent character, it plays a key role in pushing the class struggle forward as black workers are broadly more class conscious and have fewer illusions in capitalism because of their historical experience. Through common struggles starting “at the point of production” racial divisions can begin to be overcome despite the many differences in the experience of the black and white working class. Again, black workers were a key part of the post-war industrial workforce, particularly in steel and auto.
In the founding document of Labor Militant (the forerunner of Socialist Alternative) in 1986 we pointed out that it is precisely the historical trend toward common struggle that led the ruling class to continually inject racism:
“Practically all shades of opinion accept that U.S. big business has consistently used racism. There is, however, little recognition of why this has been necessary. There would have been no need to inject racism and division if there were not a tendency among the peoples to unite in the first place. From the arrival of the first slaves in the early 1600’s this tendency has been evident. Black slaves tended to unite with white indentured servants and native Americans in the early days of the colonies. 200,000 black soldiers fought together with the white forces of the North against slavery in the Civil War.”
“In the reconstruction period following the Civil War, from 1865 to 1876, black and white tenant farmers and sharecroppers came together. These forces again fought side by side in the populist movement in the last years of the 19th century. The most important reflection of this tendency toward unity was in the formation of the CIO in the 1930’s. 700,000 black workers joined with white workers as an integral part of the new unions.”
Overcoming racial division in the working class is a necessary precondition of a successful socialist revolution. But likewise, as a minority of the population, black people cannot achieve freedom except through a successful socialist revolution led by the integrated working class with an integrated revolutionary leadership.
We agree with Fraser that there is not a material basis for a separate black state and with a number of the other key aspects of his arguments although certainly not with all the formulations he used. He also had a simplistic view of the issue of federal troops intervening to force school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
As the article by Peter Taaffe quoted earlier shows, the Militant tendency of the British Labor Party, the forerunner of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) with which SA is in political solidarity, drew very similar conclusions. When Labor Militant was formed in the U.S. in the mid-1980s it reiterated and elaborated these ideas based on the experience and ultimate defeat of the black liberation movement in the 1970s.
Of course there have been points in history where black nationalist trends have arisen and even at points gained mass support such as the Garvey movement in the 1920s. In the 1950s Fraser argued that these trends expressed phases where the struggle of black people had been significantly set back and there was despair at the possibility of achieving equality in American society. We would add though that black nationalist moods or trends among sections of African Americans can express different things. Such moods can for example express a genuine stirring of black youth and workers against racial oppression, for their dignity and pride – which can have a very positive and progressive dimension. This was the case, at least initially, with the development of the “black power” wing of the Civil Rights movement.
In other situations, nationalism can be a political approach which is a cover for black middle class and bourgeois interests and is hostile to working class struggle. To be blunt, there is a small layer of the black population which has benefited from the continuation of ghetto conditions. At its extreme this type of nationalism has in the past taken on a poisonous and divisive character. We of course advocate community control of policing, schools, etc but we link that to the development of a mass, integrated movement with the working class at its heart. The idea that poor, segregated communities can solve their problems based on their own resources is completely false. It implies that everything would be ok if black people and white people each controlled their “own areas.” “Separate but equal” has always been a lie in the U.S. These ideas have been largely discredited but they could resurface in the future.
Marxists need to respond to genuine nationalist and semi-nationalist moods coming from the youth or other sections of the oppressed sensitively and skillfully. The call for black only organizations for example has sometimes come from radicalizing sections of the black youth and working class and sometimes from reactionary sections. At all points we are arguing for the building of an integrated mass working class movement and an integrated revolutionary party. But as in every other area of our work, we need to have extreme flexibility on tactics and organizational questions while being firm on the fundamental political ideas
It is important to understand the difference between black nationalism and the Marxist perspective for black liberation but it is also necessary to clearly distinguish between “revolutionary integrationism” (Fraser’s phrase) and liberal integrationism. Liberal integrationism was advocated by a range of forces often with laudable goals including opening up occupations previously closed to black people, replacing slum housing with better quality integrated housing and ending segregation in the school system.
Some important gains were made in the ’60s and ’70s before the end of the postwar boom but taken as a whole liberal integrationism has been an abject failure. Today public schools in the U.S. are more segregated than they were before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education. The main way poor neighborhoods are “improved” is through gentrification which just pushes ghetto conditions somewhere else. And black workers have disproportionately lost out in the massive reduction of better paying unionized industrial jobs. Marxists fight for every gain that can be made within the framework of capitalism but fundamentally we do not believe that segregation, poverty or structural racism can be overcome without ending capitalism.
The Lessons of the Civil Rights Movement and Its Aftermath
This period witnessed in a compressed way a whole series of phases and trends within the black freedom struggle, many of which showed enormous promise, but ultimately ended in the defeat of the radical wing of the movement. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that ending Jim Crow was in itself an enormous victory gained through the heroic struggle of the black masses with important support from the labor movement. It provoked a conflict within the ruling class with the dominant wing deciding to take measures to bring to an end a system of legalized segregation and vicious repression which was politically undermining US imperialism internationally in its Cold War campaign against the Stalinist states and radical national liberation movements.
The ruling class also decided to make concessions in order to contain the movement and avoid wider radicalization and upheaval. In this they were not successful as the movement moved North where legal discrimination did not exist. This posed deeper questions and the movement began to radicalize.
This process can be seen in the evolution of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, two towering figures of the black freedom movement, who came from quite different starting points politically but were moving towards similar conclusions at the end of their lives. Malcolm, in particular, saw the need for an internationalist approach linking the struggle of African Americans to that of oppressed peoples around the world. This echoed the ideas of the early Comintern. He drew the conclusion that this global struggle was not simply racial in character but was a struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors and that the capitalist social order was at the heart of the problem. Putting the African American struggle into this wider context was a very positive step but Malcolm did not have a clear class perspective. To be specific he did not see the potential social power of the black industrial proletariat as part of the wider working class.
Dr. King, on the other hand, saw increasingly clearly that the ending of Jim Crow could only be the first step in the fight for black freedom. Like Malcolm, he began to explicitly critique capitalism and in his final months was aiming to build “a multiracial army of the poor” aiming at nothing less than the “reconstruction of society.”
The loss of Malcolm X and MLK was in itself a serious blow to the movement but as events unfolded there were two other overarching problems. The first of these was the conservative leadership of the unions. It is hard from our vantage point today to fully grasp how powerful the labor movement, and particularly the major industrial unions, remained in the 1960s. But in many ways it was no longer the labor movement of the 1930s and ’40s. Its leadership had been quite thoroughly politically co-opted by the ruling class and a huge bureaucratic layer had been built between the leadership and the rank and file. As employers began to go on the offensive in the 1970s to roll back labor’s postwar gains there was a wave of wildcat strikes and the emergence of oppositional groupings in the unions expressing the rising anger of workers, particularly at the failure of the union leadership to fight back. But this movement unfortunately did not have a coherent national or political expression.
As a result the radical wing of the Civil Rights movement did not in general see the labor movement as an ally. And for younger black workers the unions were often associated not with the heroic struggles of the ’30s but with the toleration of racist supervisors and frequently an unwillingness to challenge racism within the unions themselves.
The other problem which we have outlined earlier was the lack of an authoritative and integrated Marxist organization that could educate the best activists and outline a coherent strategy to take the movement forward as the Communist Party did to a certain extent in the ’30s. Of course, the CP itself had not disappeared by the ’60s and ’70s and remained the largest left group in the U.S. and the one with the most proletarian and most integrated membership. But, despite having the brilliant Angela Davis as a spokesperson, it offered no way forward as they had completely abandoned a revolutionary program and subordinated themselves to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The SWP had tragically abdicated the fight to build an integrated revolutionary party and beyond them were a motley crew of Maoist and Trotskyist groups that had developed out of the heavily white student wing of the antiwar movement of the ’60s and early ’70s and collectively had almost no capacity to affect the black struggle. In fact they spent most of their time cheerleading from a safe distance.
In these circumstances, the “black power” radicals like Stokely Carmichael captured the imagination of the youth but, beyond rhetoric, they had no program to offer a way forward to the mass of black workers and poor. In the late 1960s there were repeated uprisings by the poorest sections of the black population in cities from LA to Chicago to Detroit to Newark. But while these rebellions graphically showed the truly desperate situation facing large sections of the black population under capitalism, they also represented a dead end.
Into this vacuum stepped the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966. The Panthers embodied much of what was best in the movement. They put forward an explicitly socialist and revolutionary program which was an enormous step forward and displayed enormous courage and self-sacrifice. However, their exclusive focus on ghetto youth rather than on the black working class was a serious mistake which contributed to their rapid isolation (see the accompanying article by Hannah Sell). Meanwhile the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit at the end of the 60s focused on building caucuses of radical black workers in the auto plants but they were actively hostile to white workers, even those who were inclined to work with them. They initially made dramatic progress but they too were rapidly isolated and put on the defensive.
It is important to have an honest balance sheet of the strengths and weaknesses of these figures and groups and not to romanticize them if we are to fully learn the lessons of this period and prepare ourselves for the period we are entering.
Updating the Marxist Program
It is necessary to ask what key changes have taken place in U.S. society since Fraser argued for revolutionary integrationism in the ’50s and since we wrote extensively on a Marxist program for black liberation in our founding documents in the mid-’80s. One very important trend we noted 30 years ago, which has continued, is the diminishing effect of racist ideology in the white population. This is not to say that racist attitudes do not continue to exist at different levels in significant sections of the white working class but overt anti-black racism is now rejected by most, especially young people. Things stood rather differently in the 1950s. Overt racism was a significant feature of mass consciousness in the white working class, North and South, through the 1970s.
This profound change which can be illustrated in many ways is partly the result of the Civil Rights movement, especially on the generations that grew up in the 60s and 70s and after. In many ways the changes are more dramatic in the South where the state officially promoted a white supremacist ideology until the 1960s.
Of course, the change in white attitudes, while positive from the perspective of the black working class and poor, does not fundamentally alter the conditions they face which are based on structural racism. And again the changes in attitudes have real limits. For example, the racist “war on drugs” deliberately played on the fears of conservative sections of the white population. But even here it is clear that younger white workers particularly have little enthusiasm for the war on drugs and the associated policy of mass incarceration. These changes can even be seen reflected within the Republican Party which of course relentlessly plays to racist fears to whip up their base. But it is striking that the “support the cops no matter what” view and support for locking people up for minor offenses now have detractors particularly among the libertarian wing of the party. This reflects the shift in some attitudes in part of their base.
But we should not conclude that the ruling class as a whole will not try in the future to re-inject more overt anti-black racism in the white working class particularly when faced with a serious challenge from a rebuilt labor movement. As we said in 1986, “Racism has undoubtedly been seriously weakened over the past 50 years but it is by no means extinct. It will gain strength again in the future unless a leadership is built in the working class which can show a way out of the crisis by ending capitalism.”
The diminishing of conscious racism is a very important pre-condition for the re-development of the class struggle. It is also important that black nationalism is, at this point, a very marginal phenomenon. It is particularly striking how open the black youth of Ferguson were to the presence of white supporters whether from the area or beyond. They were less open to “party politics” but that is not nationalism; it has more in common with the attitudes expressed at an early stage by many Occupy activists.
One issue that complicates the question of race in the U.S. is the impact of mass immigration particularly of people from Latin American over the past 30 years. As we pointed out in the material we produced during the mass movement of immigrant workers in 2006/2007 there is a profound shift underway in the racial and ethnic balance in the U.S. It is projected that “non-Hispanic” whites will be a minority of the U.S. population by the middle of this century. But, as we argued at the time, this is only one side of the question:
“In considering the impact of the current immigrant wave and especially the growth of the Latino population on the racial balance of society we must bear in mind that, after class, race, defined as white vs. black, has been the key division in the U.S. historically. Previous waves of immigration complicated this picture but did not ultimately change it. Catholic immigrants from Southern Europe, Jews from Eastern Europe and even the Irish were not initially considered part of the “white” population. Over time the definition of white expanded from white Protestants to include white “ethnics” as these immigrant groups were assimilated into the mainstream of American society. But as each group of European immigrants rose out of poverty into better working class and middle class jobs, African Americans were still left at the bottom.” (“Immigration and the Class Struggle in the U.S.,” 2007, SocialistAlternative.org)
Immigrant workers who often faced prejudice and discrimination when they arrived in the U.S. played a decisive role in the development of the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Second generation immigrants were the single biggest component of the CIO. As the movement in the mid-2000s indicated, immigrant workers in the U.S. are destined to play a similar role in the rebuilding of the labor movement today. This is why the movement met such ferocious repression.
But the effects of immigration on racial dynamics is more complex today. Overall, as in the early 20th century, there will be a trend toward the assimilation of large sections of the immigrant population in the next period into a reconstituted “white” or “non-black” majority. There are already indications of this trend.
Socialists are in favor of integration of immigrant workers into American society but not into America’s dominant racial paradigm. We stand for the creation of a new multiracial, multiethnic working class identity that celebrates and upholds the best of all cultures.
These considerations also point to certain limitations of the “people of color” concept. In some urban areas this term does somewhat describe a shared reality as there is a significant intermixing of African American, black people from the Caribbean, Africans, poor Latinos, etc. It also expresses the fact that all non-white people in the U.S. face racism to one degree or another. But we can’t put the experience of East Asian immigrants or the emerging and the rapidly assimilating Latino middle class, for example, in the same frame as that of African Americans.
It is striking for example that there is not a lot of active support from Latinos for the Black Lives Matter movement despite the police brutality that often afflicts Latino working class communities. There is a section of the Latino population that is clearly sympathetic or actively supports the movement but a big section does not. In part this reflects an understandable though clearly not progressive desire to focus on the problems that face their own community as it seeks to achieve real immigration reform and thereby move into American society and to not become actively involved in a conflict that could impede this.
Conversely during the mass immigration struggle there was little active support from African Americans. As we said then: “While there is considerable sympathy for the struggle of another oppressed layer of U.S. society there is also the feeling that this could be the beginning of another group ‘moving up’ and leaving them behind. It is also the case that the black working class is in more direct competition with immigrant workers than white workers generally are.”
In reality this shows that if issues are posed only in racial or ethnic terms within a capitalist framework each oppressed group will seek to address its own situation. The only way to unite the oppressed is on a class basis.
But in asserting “Black Lives Matter” and placing stress on the experience of black people, the new movement is correctly pointing to the underlying dynamic of race in the U.S. which has not changed.
What Does A Multiracial Workers Movement Look Like?
The key complication we face in winning people to our understanding of the road to black liberation is the huge decline in visible class struggle in the U.S. today. The unions still have very significant resources and millions of members but they are drastically weaker than they were 30 years ago. The enormous changes in the workforce since the 1980s as the result of globalization have also complicated the picture because of the decline of employment in particular industries like steel where black and white workers labored together and clearly had enormous social power.
How do we visualize the emergence of a multiracial working class movement in the actual conditions existing in the U.S. today and how do we articulate this key part of our program to a new generation? Of course we don’t tell black workers and youth to wait on the white working class to begin fighting against oppression. And indeed the struggles of African Americans can play an important role in spurring forward the class struggle. But nevertheless these are urgent questions given the necessity of a broader working class movement to accomplish the revolutionary transformation of society which alone can achieve true racial equality. They are also urgent if we are going to really win the best of the black youth to Marxism. It will not be enough to give examples from the past.
Part of the answer is that while the sectoral composition of the workforce has changed radically, the U.S. working class remains multiracial and many parts of the workforce are integrated. For example there are large numbers of black workers in the public sector, the part of the workforce that remains most unionized. Nor has industrial employment simply disappeared. One has only to go through any major airport to see the large number of black workers who are integrated into this vital part of the transportation sector. In the South there has been a certain development of industry and these factories are to one degree or another integrated.
The fight to rebuild the labor movement and to organize the unorganized will bring hundreds of thousands of black, white and Latino workers together in common struggle. The movement of disproportionately black fast food workers is an anticipation of this coming upheaval of the working class in which the black working class will again play a critical vanguard role.
A related issue is whether the working class can really unite given the serious divergence in its lived experience, particularly based on race. This is a serious question but we must point out that left liberal commentators who talk about the complete difference in their own (upper middle class) experience compared to that of working class and poor African Americans are right about that but they are blind to the deep class divisions in white America. At the end of the day poor whites (who are still numerically the biggest section of the poor) have more in common, despite all the differences, with poor black people than either do with the bourgeois of any color. It is these common interests which the bourgeois have always sought to obscure. And again on the basis of the reemergence of the class struggle on a mass scale, with a profoundly lower level of racial prejudice among white workers, common experiences will create a new class consciousness and forge multiracial working class unity.
As in the 1930s, socialists will have a key role to play in this process. As Lenin explained part of our role is to be the “memory of the movement,” distilling the lessons of previous struggles. But developing a program that will help to galvanize the best fighters and create a bridge from today’s struggles and consciousness to the socialist revolution is a two way street. Socialists need to be fully engaged, bringing in the ideas and lived experience of the new generation, not issuing pronouncements from on high.
Like Marx in his day we need to win people to the understanding of the complete interdependence of the fight for black freedom and the fight of the whole American working class for a socialist future. There will be no socialist revolution in the U.S. without the black working class and youth playing a central and leading role. Likewise the black freedom struggle cannot be victorious if it is isolated and not thoroughly integrated into the fight of all working people for freedom.
By Tom Crean, February 2015