Which Way for Blacks in the USA - Black Nationalism or Socialist Revolution?

The United States is the richest and most powerful country on the planet. Yet despite this, the poison of racism remains an integral part of America. Blacks, together with the other racial minorities, remain the most exploited section of society, mostly employed in the lowest-paid and menial jobs. Racism remains an everyday part of their desperate existence. Today, despite all the "reforms" of the last thirty-odd years, blacks continue to suffer from lynchings and violence at the hands of the state, racist organisations and individuals, as well as being forced to live under conditions of mass poverty and oppression. The recent gruesome murder of a black man in Texas who was dragged to death behind a truck is a vivid reminder of American racism. Black youth are faced with daily harassment and intimidation by the police.

Thirty years ago, a commission headed by Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois, found that America was "moving towards two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal." Today, despite all the promises from successive Administrations, a follow-up report claims the situation has grown far worse for the mass of blacks.

The new report, which comes from the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, while conceding that the black middle class has grown, and that black high-school graduation rates have risen, points to the fact that unemployment in a large number of black inner-city neighbourhoods is at "Depression levels" of 50% or more. Unemployment amongst blacks is twice the rate for whites.

America's child-poverty rate is four times higher than Western Europe, and the rate of incarceration for black men is four times higher than in the days of apartheid South Africa. Figures from the Justice Department show that between 1985 and 1995, as the number of white men sentenced to more than a year in gaol rose by 103%, the number of black male convicts grew by 143%.

In 1997, the number of black Americans in poverty was 9.1 million while the number of poor Hispanics was 8.3 million. For children, the situation is horrific. Black infant mortality is twice that of whites. 45% of black children live below the poverty line compared with 16% of white children. These are the kind of figures you would expect in a third world country.

In the US, blacks earn only 58% of whites' earnings. In 1979, a black worker was likely to earn 10.9% less than a white in a similar job, but by 1989 that differential had grown to 16.4%. According to the book "The State of Working America 1992-93" by Mishel and Bernstein, "This 'black-white earnings gap' jumped up 50 percent from 1979 to 1989... Education-wise, the greatest increase in black-white earnings gap was among college graduates, with minimal 2.5 percent differential in 1979 exploding to 15.5 percent in 1989." While the black middle class has grown, affirmative action and quotas have not prevented this deterioration for the mass of blacks.

At the same time, the class divide has never been greater. The rich got richer, while the position of the majority has deteriorated. Corporate America has made a bonanza. Bill Gates has an income equal to the combined income of 115 million Americans.

The poison of racism is deliberately fostered by the ruling class as a means of keeping the working class divided, and diverting attention away from the real problems of American capitalism. This policy of "divide and rule" on racial, 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..." This situation also confirms the words of Malcolm X, "You cannot have capitalism without racism."

The fact that the ruling class uses racism is also the fear at the rise of a powerful black working class and its inherent tendency to unite in action with its fellow white workers. Thus the working class as a whole is facing deteriorating living standards and attacks from big business. The 80% of the workforce that hold working class jobs saw their real weekly income decline by 18% from 1973 to 1995. With the emigration of blacks to the north (between 1940 and 1970, four million blacks left the country for the towns), they played a major role in the building of the trade unions. By 1983, 27% of black workers were union members compared with 19% for whites.

Years of racism, police harassment and terrible social conditions has produced an explosive mix within the inner cities, especially amongst the black and Latino youth. This has periodically erupted in riots, most recently 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 labour leaders offered a real fighting alternative, then the energies of these youth could be harnessed in a positive direction.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the revolt of the blacks against their discrimination and social position shook the ruling class to its foundations. Despite the oppression and the violence unleashed against the civil rights movement, the black revolt defeated the Jim Crow laws. This movement, if it had been linked to the struggle of the working class as a whole, could have been a massive force for social change. Unfortunately, the labour leaders, who looked to the pro-capitalist Democratic Party, were incapable of leading this movement against racism and the oppression and of uniting all workers on a class basis.

As a result, the ruling class, in order to control the situation, made some concessions on voting rights and civil rights in the south. It sought to confine the movement within the confines of capitalism by moving in the direction of affirmative action and the quota system. This strategy went hand in hand with the murder of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and a whole number of Black Panther leaders, who sought to go beyond capitalism and the Democratic Party.

Since that time, while the position of the majority of blacks has grown worse, a substantial section of the black middle class has prospered. They have done well out of affirmative action. They have managed to further their careers and carve out a niche for themselves. A layer of political careerists has ended up in the Democratic Party. Some even in the Republicans, such as J.C.Watts, the conservative black congressman from Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, others have promoted black nationalism. This idea has a long history amongst American blacks. It became a mass movement in the 1920s led by Marcus Garvey, which advocated that the blacks return to Africa. In the 1930s, Oscar C. Brown established a movement for the establishment of the "Forty-Ninth State". Before the war, the American Communist Party took up the idea of a separate black state, and came for ward with the slogan of the right of Negro self-determination in the south.

During the height of the black revolt in the 1960s, 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 society. In so far as it represented a break at the time from the white liberals of both the Democratic and Republican parties it represented a step forward.

As the black population made up only 13% of the population as a whole, it was clear that blacks by themselves could never transform society. Malcolm X, who began as a black nationalist came to the conclusion that an alliance with white workers was the only way forward. He was murdered before this idea was fully developed. But it was the Black Panthers that arrived at even clearer ideas on class unity and the struggle to transform society. 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."

The only way in which the socialist transformation of America can come about is through the united struggle of black and white workers and youth, and the establishment of a mass workers' party based on the trade unions and committed to a socialist programme. This does not mean that blacks have to wait before engaging in struggle. However, a revolutionary black movement needs to appeal for a united struggle with sections of radicalised white workers. Black liberation is inseparable from the liberation of the working class as a whole. Marxism has a responsibility to offer a perspective and a way forward for the movement at each stage, explaining its weaknesses and reinforcing its strengths.

Unfortunately, there are those on the American left, who even purport to be Marxists, who raise all kinds of confusions in relation to the black question. Some, like the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP), simply bowed before black nationalism, advocating self- determination for blacks and the need for the creation of a separate black party. Rather than class unity, they promote racial separation in an attempt to reinforce black nationalism. Another similar group "gives uncompromising support to Black nationalism and the right of the oppressed to self-determination. We place no conditions on the social movements of oppressed people... The point is that it is up to Black people to decide what their future will be." It then goes on to call for "Black control of the Black community!"

The mistakes of these groups can be traced to a misrepresentation of the writings of Leon Trotsky on black nationalism. These are based upon discussions between Trotsky and the American SWP in the 1930s. Here Trotsky drew upon the rich theoretical heritage of Bolshevism in regard to the national question. Lenin himself fought a battle to defend the right of nations to self determination as a means of winning the confidence of the oppressed nationalities that made up the tsarist empire. This did not mean that he advocated separation, on the contrary, he wanted the closest union of peoples, but on a voluntary basis. This can be defined as a socialist federation.

At the same time, Lenin fought against the influence of bourgeois nationalism in the workers' movement. He emphatically opposed the idea of splitting up the workers' organisations on national lines. 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 one unified workers' party and trade union organisation throughout the Russian empire. The idea that Marxists would advocate a separate party for blacks would have been considered a crime.

A national minority constitutes a nation with the right of self-determination, if it constitutes a majority in a certain territory, with a common language, national culture and consciousness. The right of self-determination does not apply to groups, religious minorities, races or individuals. It only applies to nations or to those which have the potential to develop into nations.

But when Trotsky discussed with the SWP in the 1930s, three-quarters of American blacks lived in the twelve southern states. In 189 counties of this area, blacks accounted for more than half the population. In two states, Mississippi and Alabama, they comprised more than 50%. This was the so-called 'Black Belt'.

At that time, the American Communist Party put forward the slogan of the right of Negro self-determination in the 'Black Belt'. This idea was originally opposed by the SWP leaders, but Trotsky explained that it was possible, if the fascist movement began to grow in the United States, which would persecute the blacks, that the blacks would demand a separate state in the south. In 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.

He explained that "the Negroes are a race, nations grow out of racial material under definite conditions." However, Trotsky was very careful in his analysis, making it clear that such a development was not at all certain. He also criticised the Communist Party for putting forward this demand when there was no sentiment for it within the black population. In fact, the demand, under those circumstances, could be interpreted as being in favour of segregation.

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. With migration of the black population to the north, together with their absorption into the working class, the tendency towards a separate black state, and a "national" consciousness, has been completely cut across. In 1890, 80% of all blacks and 85% of all southern blacks lived in rural areas. By 1960 the percentage of the black urban population was 72.2% in the US as a whole, 58.4% in the south, and 95.2% in the north and west. By the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of blacks were living in the north. According to the 1960 population census of the five southern states (Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia), whites numbered 67.4% and non-whites 32.6%. Blacks were dispersed throughout the cities of the United States, drawn into the workplaces alongside white workers. Indeed, in 1970, blacks were more urbanised than whites.

"These population movements have produced baffling problems not only for the cities but for black nationalism", states Theodore Draper (The Rediscovery of 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 USA - which is the only form self-determination can take - has become completely unviable. Therefore the demand for the right of self-determination for black people is no longer relevant. It is impossible for the blacks in Detroit, Harlem, Los Angeles, etc., to link together in a separate state or nation. It is under present conditions a false idea from beginning to end. The belief that these ghettos could separate themselves off from the rest of American society is both ludicrous and reactionary. "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..." states Draper.

The migration to the north has not solved the problems of blacks. There they face new horrors in the ghettos: racism, police brutality, poverty, unemployment and slum conditions. The problems of 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 working class. The struggle against the double oppression of blacks and other oppressed minorities must be linked to the struggle of the working class as a whole. The only way the American blacks can achieve their emancipation is through the socialist transformation of society.

When the ghettos exploded in the 1960s, the movement led to the rise of the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, the League for Revolutionary Black Workers, including the demand for black power. These movements sprang out of the brutal conditions faced by blacks. They were also inspired by the unfolding colonial revolution. Their determination to find a solution to their problems showed the revolutionary potential amongst the most oppressed layers of American society. Many, especially the Panthers, became open to the ideas of Marxism and favoured the creation of a new workers' party. In a short space of time they evolved from a largely black nationalist movement to a revolutionary movement. Unfortunately, the Panther's lack of clear perspectives or a programme served to derail the movement. Subject to vicious state repression, the Panthers went into crisis, and suffered a whole series of splits.

On top of the policy of state repression, the ruling class made a series of concessions which served to undermine the movement. These became known as affirmative action policies, which set quotas for the number of blacks to be employed in jobs. This system, in reality, has helped only a small minority of blacks, mainly from the middle class. The conditions of the mass of black people have deteriorated, as the above figures testify.

Many on the left support affirmative action as a step forward. It is regarded as a "practical" measure to overcome years of discrimination. The problem with affirmative action is it attempts to solve a problem within the confines of capitalism. That is why Clinton can give his support for it. It does not challenge the rule of big business, seeking only a fairer division of existing jobs between the working class. Concretely, it serves to divide workers along lines of race and sex and keeps the movement within the limits of capitalism. For example, the school board Piscataway, New Jersey, used the quota system to cut a member of staff. It fired a white teacher, to maintain the racial balance. The school board recently agreed an out of court settlement to pay the teacher, who took the board to court, $433,500. Affirmative action takes the issue and puts it in the hands of lawyers, courts and bureaucrats who are controlled by big business and relish the in-fighting over the crumbs from the capitalists' table. The quota system cannot show any way forward. On the contrary, it is used as an excuse which is used by the labour leaders for not taking effective action.

In practice, affirmative action has not worked. During this period, real wages and living standards have declined and the jobs market has shrunk. The position of black workers is no better than before - in fact, it is worse. However, the recent court attacks against affirmative action in Texas, Colorado and Maryland, as well as at a federal level, mean the American capitalists want total flexibility of labour, to fill any job with whom they choose. While we have no illusions in affirmative action, these attacks are part of the general attack by big business on the working class, and therefore must be opposed as such.

The problem of jobs is a central issue. Does the labour movement simply ignore discrimination at work or elsewhere? Absolutely not! It must fight against discrimination over jobs, but link it to a fight against unemployment and better wages as a whole. We must fight for a class alternative to affirmative action, that can draw the ranks of the working class together in common struggle. The fight against discrimination against minorities in hiring must be fought through trade union control over hiring and firing. The labour movement must make it clear at all times that it is not prepared to stand for discrimination against blacks or other minorities.

Labour must fight for equal employment prospects, wages and conditions for all workers. But 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 labour helps to divide and weaken the working class as a whole. This situation must not be simply opposed by words, but must be challenged by a programme of action. For a 32 hour, four day week with no loss of pay! A crash programme of public works! A living wage for all workers! Union control over hiring and firing! Mobilise the labour movement to combat racism!

These must be linked to the creation of a workers' party committed to a socialist programme, as the basis for class unity. A workers' government would take over the corporate monopolies, banks and finance houses under workers' control and management. A socialist planned economy could unleash the resources to give everyone a job, a decent wage, a house and a real education and future for their children. The struggle of blacks and the oppressed minorities for a better life cannot take place in isolation from the working class as a whole and the need to transform society on socialist lines.

The general crisis of American capitalism bears down heavily on the blacks and other racial minorities. But the Million Man March and the Million Youth March, despite its leadership, indicate the stirring once again of the black population. With the deepening crisis, it will be the class issues that will 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 foundation of the CIO. The black working class, as with all the oppressed racial minorities, constitute the most courageous and determined section of the class. It is destined to play a vital role - along with its white brothers and sisters - in the future struggles to transform American society on socialist lines.

Rob Sewell
February 1999

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