Black self-determination & socialism

To commemorate Black History Month, we are reprinting the first part of the 1992 Socialist Action resolution, “Black Self-Determination and Socialist Revolution in the United States.” 

African Americans are an integral part of the American working class. They are also an oppressed nationality, and we support their right to self-determination up to and including the right to form a separate nation. While nationalist aspirations have always been a part of the Black consciousness, whether or not this people sees its interests best served by separate forms of organization and goals or as an integral component of the broader class struggle has been shown by history to be dependent on both objective and subjective factors.

When the white majority is sharply divided, as it is from time to time, Black Americans might see their interests coinciding with those of this or that sector of the majority. When African Americans sense that allying with one or another sector of a divided white majority serves their interests as a people, they have vigorously responded.

Such a division led to the Civil War, which ended in the overthrow of the slave-owning class and the abolition of slavery. This second American Revolution—as was the first—was led by this country’s capitalists. A de facto alliance was formed between the whole Black people, free and slave, and the opponents of slavery led by Abraham Lincoln, the last of America’s capitalist revolutionaries.

Lincoln and Northern capitalism were driven further than they had intended to go—by Blacks, the abolitionists, and by the logic of the deadly struggle for capitalist supremacy over the slaveholding class.

Black Americans enjoyed a short period of relative political freedom during the period known as “Reconstruction.” Black political freedom was the means by which Northern capitalists consolidated their victory over the former slaveholding class.

Shortly after the Civil War, a new alliance was formed between Black and white poor farmers, who made common cause against the large landowners—formerly slaveholders—and Northern bankers. This alliance was crushed by the victorious capitalists, who by 1877 had concluded peace with the remnants of the old Southern ruling class. Because the old slaveholders were also landlords and owners of private property, including capitalist enterprises employing wage labor, their incorporation into victorious American capitalism was entirely logical and quite easily consummated. Thus the former slave masters were fully integrated into the expanded American capitalist class.

Once the domination of capitalism over the Southern states was assured, Blacks were soon subjugated once again—this time as a sector, or caste, of super-exploited workers and farmers. And in the rural Southern states the former slaves were eventually placed in a special form of bondage that had features of serfdom. They were chained to the land by the peculiar institution of sharecropping, backed up by juridical forms of second-class citizenship.

Many poor white farmers were similarly subjugated by the institution of sharecropping. But as whites, they were able to more easily extricate themselves from the bondage of debt to the landlord. Blacks, however, having no legal recourse and subject to terrorism of the KKK and other fascistic bands, were chained to the land substantially in the manner of feudal serfs.

“Jim Crow” laws, which constituted the American form of apartheid, were enacted in all the Southern states. African Americans were juridically segregated—a word that barely suggests its terrible consequences. They were denied the right to vote, denied access to all but the hardest and lowest-paid jobs, condemned to inferior, segregated schools and housing, and subjected to a variety of degrading insults of every imaginable kind. These ranged from segregated drinking fountains and toilets, and worse, to a de facto denial of access, more often than not, to the indispensable and vital requirements of modern civic life. There was no arena of public life in which Blacks were not confronted by instances of racial injustice, down to being compelled to stand at the rear of buses until every white rider had been seated.

In many cases, while white workers and poor farmers were not the real beneficiaries of Jim Crow laws, they were often among the Blacks’ worst tormentors. How did this come about?

First, those Blacks who had succeeded in becoming independent farmers were driven from their land by naked terrorism. Ku Klux Klan and other fascistic gangs then lynched and burned Blacks out of every occupation but the very worst. And those poor white farmers who had allied themselves with Blacks in a populist movement in opposition to the former plantocracy and Northern bankers also came under attack. The poor whites that dared oppose the extra-legal gangs—many of whom would mobilize in defense of their Black neighbors—were subjected to a dose of the same murder and mayhem inflicted upon Blacks.

Moreover, many poor white workers and farmers were deceived by capitalism, and its agents among them, into believing that they would materially benefit from the oppression of Blacks. While this was sometimes the case, with individuals here and there gaining the better-paying jobs taken away from Black workers, and gaining land at bargain prices taken from Black farmers, the white workers in factory and farm “gained” mainly by not being the immediate target of the terror campaign and all its horrendous consequences.

Then, as all resistance was suppressed, the living standards of white workers—and working farmers too—were in most cases also driven down to a level only somewhat better than that of Blacks. The method is similar to the practice of capitalist employers who will pay scabs higher than normal wages—until the strike is broken.

Many workers and farmers, terrorized into a culpable silence or brainwashed into thinking that they would gain economically from the assault against Blacks, were induced by their misleaders to take a more or less active part in the victimization of their class brothers and sisters. But the expected gain was an illusion because by driving down the living standards of Blacks, the standards of all workers—and working farmers too—were driven down. In fact, during the long period when Jim Crow was the law of the land in the Southern states, from the end of the 1870s to the end of the 1960s, Black and white workers in the Jim Crow states earned wages that averaged considerably lower than their counterparts in the North.

What began in the Southern states eventually was extended to varying degrees everywhere. The capitalist-initiated exclusion of Blacks created an artificial oversupply of Black labor. According to the laws of the capitalist market, this drastically drove down the price of Black labor power (wages).

But capitalist economics also dictated that Blacks thus forced to work for lower wages inexorably undermined the price of labor power for all workers, white as well as Black. White workers were regularly reminded by their bosses, when they showed dissatisfaction with wages or working conditions, that they could be easily replaced by Blacks “only too eager to work for less.”

The absurdly false perception spread, and was insidiously promoted among white workers, that Blacks voluntarily choose to work for lower wages because, racists falsely argued, “as an indolent and inferior race they need less to live on.” This myth provided the rationale for the treacherous practice of excluding Blacks from unions.

It was the privileged labor bureaucracy that led the unions toward self-destructive racist, exclusionary practices. Historically constituting the most backward layers of the workers’ movement, the bureaucracy serves as the main transmission belt into the working class for capitalist ideology. The racist role of the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class helped create the illusion among Blacks that racism derives from the exclusionary policy of white workers and their unions, and not from capitalism.

This myth is relentlessly promoted by the capitalist media and still distorts the perceptions of both Black and white workers despite the fact that white workers also suffer from the generalized reduction in the price of labor power resulting from racist practices. Meanwhile, capitalism continues to reap untold billions in superprofits because Blacks are systematically paid below the value of their labor power.

Unfortunately, once in place, the real source of the racist centrifugal dynamic disrupting the unity of Black and white workers became increasingly harder to perceive.

This opened the door wider to the divide-and-conquer policy of the ruling class. Once the practice of paying Black labor less than white labor had been institutionalized, capitalists could quite easily induce desperate Black workers, alienated by racist union practices, to serve as strikebreakers. Black workers, condemned by capitalism to serve as virtual permanent members of the reserve army of the unemployed—but perceiving it as caused by the racism of white workers—could see no good reason to act in solidarity with striking white workers. This, in turn, contributed substantially to further ingrain racist prejudices against Blacks among the more backward layers of the white working class.

Why Blacks turned toward separatism 

By 1876, the re-enslaved Blacks in many Southern states felt betrayed by their former allies among poor whites. They were thus receptive to movements for emigration to sparsely settled areas of the country. The idea of separation was, of course, not new. Many Blacks were captivated by dreams of going home—back to Africa—beginning with their enslavement in a foreign land.

In 1878, a group organizing an exodus form the Southern states had recruited 98,000 Black victims of racist terror from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, and Indiana. But the exodus proved a failure. “The emigrants were attacked and denied transportation by white mobs who realized their importance to the Southern labor market” (From Philip Foner’s “The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass,” Vol. IV, International Publishers, 1955).

Frederick Douglass, who still had faith in a capitalist-led reformation of the South, had opposed the exodus up until his visit to South Carolina and Georgia in 1888. Soon after his return, he wrote a letter in favor of emigration to one of the leaders of this movement:

“I had hoped that the relations subsisting between the former slaves and the old master class would gradually improve; but while I believe this, and still have some such weak faith, I have of late seen enough, heard enough, and learned enough of the condition of these people in South Carolina and Georgia, to make me welcome any movement which will take them out of the wretched condition in which I now know them to be. While I shall continue to labor for increased justice to those who stay in the South, I give you my hearty “God-speed” in your emigration scheme. I believe you are doing good work” (ibid, Foner).

A further review of U.S. history from the Civil War to the present day will show that the Black masses have followed the path to freedom that seemed most open to them. Though justifiably suspicious, they tend to readily collaborate with whites when convinced by the action of the potential ally that the alliance serves Black aspirations for freedom. American history has so far shown that it is after betrayal, when the prospects for reliable white allies seems hopeless, that a separatist mood tends to grow.

Such was the case after World War I. Capitalism during the war had encouraged a mass migration of rural Southern Blacks to work in the war-expanded industries of the North. At the same time, however, the capitalists insidiously worked behind the scenes to disrupt instinctive moves towards cooperation between Black and white workers. Capitalists and their agents systematically encouraged the most backward whites to vent their racist spleen against Blacks.

The Ku Klux Klan had steadily spread to the North after the crushing of Black resistance in the South. But it was kept within limits required by the needs of the first imperialist world war. After the war, the Klan-like groups were given the go-ahead when the war industries shut down and unemployment soared. Capitalism, which no longer required Black labor to work in their war industries, unleashed the full fury of its racist shock-troops to prevent a united working-class response to mass unemployment.

The Klan blamed Blacks for the misery of whites thrown on the scrap heap of the jobless. This effectively diverted the ire of the most backward workers from the capitalist criminals to its Black victims. And, typically, the bureaucratic and often overtly racist misleadership of the unions refused or failed to counter the boss-inspired scapegoating of Blacks.

This betrayal led to a renewed wave of nationalism and separatism engulfing the disappointed Black masses. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association grew into the largest mass movement of Blacks since the Civil War. The UNIA was more than a “Back to Africa” movement. Garvey tapped the deep sentiment for organizational and economic independence. The growing use of lynch-law throughout the land inspired a movement toward self-defense. Garvey’s organization attempted to meet this desperate need. The UNIA raised an army—which under the prevailing conditions was essentially symbolic—complete with officers, uniforms, and a “Black Cross” nurses corps. All “for the reconquest of Africa.”

Blacks enthusiastically flocked to the UNIA. They saw the Garvey-led “army,” above all, as a bold and necessary step that they hoped would be filled with real content. At its height the Association numbered several million members and had amassed considerable capital for its independently owned business ventures.

Black nationalism and permanent revolution

Leon Trotsky, who along with V.I. Lenin, led the Russian workers to victory over Russian capitalism in 1917, understood the progressive character of the nationalism of oppressed peoples. Trotsky applied this understanding to Black nationalism in the United States.

Lenin had blazed the trail on this. He taught that the nationalism of the oppressed in a distorted expression of class consciousness—an organic part of the class struggle. The Bolsheviks called for unequivocal solidarity by the workers with the struggles of any oppressed nationality for freedom, justice, and equality. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky carried on this defense of true proletarian internationalism and class solidarity.

As early as 1905, Trotsky predicted the course of the Russian Revolution in his Theory of Permanent Revolution. The working class would first overthrow the capitalist state, Trotsky’s theory predicted, and then give its peasant allies the land, dealing a fatal blow to the power of the combined landlord-capitalist class. After thus firmly cementing its alliance with the peasantry, the workers would then go on to destroy the remaining foundations of capitalist power, advancing the socialist character of the revolution.

Trotsky also blazed a trail on the related theoretical principle. He foresaw, 12 years before the Russian Revolution, that the democratic revolution—which includes the right of oppressed nations to self-determination—could only be carried out in the course of a social revolution led by the Russian workers.

Trotsky later went on to generalize the Theory of Permanent Revolution after it was confirmed by the actual course of the October Revolution. In the United States it meant that Black freedom, justice, and equality were impossible so long as the capitalist class ruled; that only a workers’ revolution combined with a struggle by Blacks could liberate the Black people.

In 1939, Trotsky engaged in a discussion about Marcus Garvey and Black nationalism with his co-thinkers in the American socialist movement. After listening carefully to the factual presentations of his American comrades, he argued for an understanding of the entirely progressive sentiment Black nationalism represents. He said: “The Black woman who said to the white woman [who had just pushed her in a street car], ‘Wait until Marcus is in power. We will know how to treat you then,’ was simply expressing her desire for her own state.

“The American Negroes gathered under the banner of the ‘Back to Africa’ movement because it seemed a possible fulfillment of their wish for their own home. They did not want actually to go to Africa. It was an expression of a mystic desire for a home in which they would be free of the domination of the whites, in which they themselves could control their own fate. That also was a wish for self-determination” (“Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination,” Pathfinder Press).

Trotsky had earlier explained, “I do not propose for the party to advocate, I do not propose to inject, but only to proclaim our obligation to support the struggle for self-determination if the Negroes themselves want it.” Indeed, to do otherwise would itself be a violation of the right of oppressed people to determine their fate. It would also cast a cloud over the absolute commitment of revolutionary socialists to a united working class based on true equality.

CIO: Break from labor’s racist past

When the mass-production workers began their historic assault on the citadels of American industrial capitalism in the 1930s, they made a profound break from the racist patterns of the past. They had drawn the bitter lessons of the previous harmful policy of the segregationist AFL and other unions—a policy that led to profound defeats.

The insurgent workers’ industrial union movement, organized at first within the AFL in the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), consciously united Black and white, men and women, for the stupendous task of forcing auto, steel, and other giant corporations to kneel to industrial unionism.

The CIO was more than a union. It was a social movement for freedom and equality. This is what gave it its great strength. The CIO also took the first steps in allying itself with Blacks as a people.

As history has proven time and time again, when whites take this road, Blacks naturally respond. And so did virtually the entire Black working class and middle classes—from common laborers to intellectuals and even small business people.

The conquests of this movement—although eroded by the privileged, self-seeking labor bureaucracy—are still alive and remain a source of great potential power. But most important, labor’s giant step forward toward class unity taken in the mid-1930s will inspire it to follow that example again.

The working class has been in retreat for over 40 years—a retreat that has accelerated since 1970. The unions have been crippled by a labor misleadership that foolishly and criminally whines for “unity” with alleged “good” capitalists in place of a struggle against the capitalist class as a whole. A class-struggle policy in which all of capitalism’s victims will fight together for economic and social justice is the logical way forward—not “unity” with the capitalist labor-bashers.

A break from the policy of supporting politicians in either capitalist party is indispensable for such a class-struggle policy. An independent labor party based on the unions is the logical political step toward uniting the working class and its natural allies for a generalized struggle. But the labor bureaucracy has obstinately blocked this independent road. This irresistible force of historic necessity, however, will impel labor’s rank and file onto the center stage of history. They will be compelled to sweep aside the privileged labor bureaucracy now blocking the road forward.

The aspirations of the Black community toward an independent Black party is an entirely progressive nationalist expression. This is despite the success of the petty bourgeois, pro-capitalist, Black political misleadership that has kept the Black masses chained to the Democratic Party. These fakers, like their counterparts in the labor bureaucracy, are forced to conceal their slavish subordination to the ruling class behind demagogic declarations of independence.

But the coming resurgence of mass labor militancy will pick up where their predecessors left off. A new anti-capitalist alliance of all the dispossessed will arise that will uproot capitalist exploitation and national and sexual oppression.

This resolution was drafted in February 1992 and adopted by the July 29-Aug. 2, 1992, Socialist Action convention. We will continue with Part II next month.

Photo: Members of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union at a rally in 1937. The union was a rare instance of Blacks and whites organizing together until the rise of the CIO in the late ’30s.


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