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February Is Black History Month
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
How the Liberals and Reformists Derailed the Struggle for Integration
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard Nos. 830 and 831, 6 August and 3 September 2004.
We print below a forum, slightly edited for publication, given by comrade Don Alexander of the Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee at a regional educational in New York City on April 3.
I had to take a little time off in preparing this talk to keep from getting too involved in it, and comrade Karen and I went to hear a Southern liberal academic, who had written a book on the history of intermarriage in the U.S., particularly the striking down of the laws on the books that culminated in the 1967 Loving case. It was a quite interesting talk, a lot of anecdotes. In listening to his presentation, I noticed that the words "slavery," "segregation," "racism" weren't mentioned once. That's a pretty tall task in America, especially when you're talking about black-white intermarriage, because it's really the question of the persistence of caste. They can't deal with it. It really goes to the heart of this racist capitalist system. He was a rather charming gentleman, as they say.
There is a lot of talk today about multiculturalism, diversity, whiteness and "racialized subjects" and other liberal jargon that essentially attempts to erase the centrality of anti-black racism and black oppression in racist capitalist America. Recently, in preparing this talk, I read something professor Barbara Fields of Columbia University wrote. She was one of the few professors who endorsed our rally at Columbia against the Conservative Club's anti-affirmative action "bake sale." She made the point that all of these academic types are talking about "whiteness" and all this stuff—how the Irish became white—but they never talk about how "African and African-Caribbean immigrants became black." I thought that was a very interesting comment.
The Spartacist League has consistently, over the years, fought for a class-struggle program for black liberation as an inseparable part of the fight for the emancipation of labor from capitalist exploitation. Our program flows from a Marxist understanding of the nature of class society, of the role of class struggle as a motor force of history and the necessity of working-class rule. Capitalists like to dress up their rule in terms of general abstract slogans, pretending that they represent the "general will," the "people" and the like. But in fact, they have an executive committee that runs their affairs to perpetuate their brutal class rule, and that's called the state. This hideously oppressive and unequal society has perfected the machinery of deception and repression. There's a huge mountain of lies claiming that the U.S. is an "open society," a shining beacon of democracy where there are no classes and everybody is either in the middle class or becoming middle class, and where racism has largely been eliminated through civil rights laws, which have leveled the playing field. I know that if I keep on going in this vein you'll run me out of here, because it does make your blood boil.
If you read our publications, Workers Vanguard, Black History, Women and Revolution (which continues to be incorporated in Workers Vanguard and Spartacist), you'll see that we apply a revolutionary program to fight against national, sexual, racial and all oppression because that is part of our fight for world socialist revolution. In particular, when we raise the slogan for black liberation through socialist revolution, it sums up our strategic tasks. It encapsulates our fight for a third American revolution, a workers revolution that will put an end to this very brutal, decadent and violent ruling class. The realization of the age-long dream of black freedom, that is, the complete smashing of the color bar, can only occur through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. This means confronting the unfinished business of the Civil War—finishing the Civil War, which was a social revolution that destroyed slavery; but the social relations of anti-black racism were incorporated into the capitalist mode of production.
I want to cite part of what the veteran Trotskyist Richard Fraser wrote, in particular in his lectures of November 1953, "The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution." We had a comment about comrade Fraser when we put out the bulletin, "In Memoriam Richard S. Fraser" (Prometheus Research Series No. 3 ). We wrote that
"Although he was hampered by little formal scholarly training, his Marxist understanding and his broad experience in militant struggles with black workers sharpened his insight into the lessons of history. His dedicated study sprang from his conviction that in order to forge a program for black liberation, it is necessary to study the social forces that created the American institution of racial oppression.... To Fraser, understanding the roots of black oppression in the United States was no armchair activity; he carried his theory of Revolutionary Integration into struggle."
And that's really a very appropriate introduction to what I have to say.
We often quote Karl Marx's statement that "Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded." Fraser argued against the prevailing liberal ideology of his day that "prejudice" is the root of black oppression. He said:
"The racial division of society was born with capitalism and will die only with the death of this last system of exploitation. Before capitalism there was no race concept. There was no skin color exploitation, there was no race prejudice, there was no idea of superiority and inferiority based upon physical characteristics.
"It was the advent of Negro chattel slavery in the western hemisphere which first divided society into races. In a measure the whole supremacy of western capitalism is founded upon this modern chattel slavery. The primary accumulation of capital which was the foundation of the industrial revolution was accrued largely from the slave trade."
This was written in 1953 and is a powerful scientific, materialist analysis that has stood the test of time. It is particularly important because we hear this newfangled stuff about how race is somehow a "socially constructed category." Fraser also talked about how race was "socially constructed" and noted that as a biological category, race doesn't exist. But he emphasized the unique racial oppression of the American black population, the stigmatization of skin color, which was a product of the system of chattel slavery and was grafted onto the subsequent capitalist system.
Black Oppression and Capitalist Society
What are we fighting for? You have to look at the situation in this country where there is not a class-conscious proletariat today. The proletariat has yet to declare its political independence from the parties of the capitalist ruling class, thanks to the multiple betrayals of the reformists in this country, the petty-bourgeois liberal spokesmen for the black masses and, especially, the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy, which works overtime to derail any serious struggle.
It was over one hundred years after the Civil War that black people got the right to vote, and today black former prisoners have to fall on their knees before Florida governor Jeb Bush to beg for their rights back. This is a reflection of the fact that under capitalism, democratic rights are reversible and that every step of the way we have to fight.
The class divisions in this society are increasingly sharp and hard to paper over. Therefore, the lies become more brazen and the repression more severe. The U.S. imperialists say that those who are resisting the imperialist occupation of Iraq simply don't want to see that freedom has taken root. If you're standing in an employment line here with no prospects for a job in sight—which is the fate of millions—this will sound pretty hollow because these sweet-sounding words of "freedom," "equality" and "democracy" are coming out of mouths of the parasitic ruling class of the most brutal imperialist murderers in history. No, what they mean by "freedom" is the right to starve and to have their boots ground into your face. We hear a lot today about how opportunities are there if you just have the pluck and the patience to grasp them instead of whining for a handout. You hear a kinder, gentler version of this coming from black capitalist politicians and their mouthpieces, who complain that black people don't stick together like other races, they engage in "self-sabotage," and they hold each other back. You also hear the N-word, which lends legitimacy to this lie of black inferiority and is a reflection of its internalization. This scapegoating of the oppressed black masses in the name of "black power" or "black pride" is a reflection of petty-bourgeois contempt for the poor and oppressed. It is also an expression of the fact that today the black population, no less than the white population, is increasingly class-divided—in fact, even more so in terms of income and other inequalities within the black population.
Recently, I read a comment made by a Howard University black student who attended the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech—an event that Malcolm X correctly dubbed the "farce on Washington." What she had to say was, perhaps, typical of a certain train of thought: "We are tired of the struggle for equality and we are tired of the struggle for integration.... If the response is positive, we must organize. If the response is negative, we must organize."
This despairing tone is a product of the utter absence of any militant black leadership today and the failure of liberal integrationist programs. It is understandable, but it must be combatted. Consider who spoke at the rally, and you can understand this. Among others, there was the quintessential political hustler, black Democrat Al Sharpton. He railed against the Bush administration, saying that the checks sent to black America have bounced and are coming back marked "insufficient funds." You also had Martin Luther King III preaching a "revolution at the ballot box" in 2004—in other words, vote Democrat. These pro-capitalist hustlers have time and again led anti-racist struggles into the pigsty of bourgeois electoralism and lesser-evilism precisely at the moment when record numbers of black and Latino youth are in jail—when, as one writer describes it, the ghetto and the prisons are on a continuum. In sharp counterposition, we fight to mobilize the power of the multiracial working class—the only class in society which, because of its unique, strategic role in production, can smash this racist capitalist system and establish in its place a collectivized, planned socialist economy that produces for human need and not for profit. This will take a fight to forge a revolutionary leadership of the working class that stands at the head of the struggles of all the oppressed and exploited.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the post-Civil War post-Reconstruction period, you had a certain conservative black leader, Booker T. Washington, who came out openly for segregation, abandoning the fight for social equality. His rise to national prominence came in September 1895 when he delivered a speech at Atlanta's Cotton States and International Exposition. Basically, his speech told black people to stay "in their place." Here is what Washington asserted that black people are:
"The most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen.... In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.... The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly...."
Now, the black nationalists today are cut out of the same cloth. Their bankrupt, petty-bourgeois program of "self-help" and black capitalism is pushed to line their own pockets and defend their own class interests against the ghetto poor. It tells the masses to accept the racist status quo, a product of centuries of racist oppression, and to stay in their so-called place. The Million Man March, organized in 1995 by the black-separatist, anti-woman, anti-Semitic bigot Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, stood in this retrograde tradition. No wonder that march met with favor from Bill Clinton's White House. It was an appeasement of the capitalist exploiters. Meanwhile, the jails are filled with American capitalism's victims, the so-called "surplus population" of black and Latino youth. In New York City alone, nearly one out of two black men is unemployed. In the entire country, 40 percent of black children live in poverty. Black women are the fastest-growing victims of the AIDS epidemic. This is a society characterized by unprecedented, truly monstrous class divisions. This is the reality of color-caste oppression. It is not negated by the partial reconfiguration of this caste with the growth of a black middle class, which finds out very quickly that there is an invisible, but very real, glass ceiling.
It is sickening to hear Colin Powell and other representatives of the U.S. imperialist military, which is soaked from head to foot in the blood of the oppressed around the world, talk about how integrated their killing machine is. This was one of the themes of General Wesley Clark on the campaign trail—especially in front of black audiences. Clark even had the nerve to say that the U.S. Army integrated the Little Rock, Arkansas high school in the bloody battle there in 1957. The truth is otherwise. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was president at the time, had opposed the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. His whole attitude toward the Brown decision was to never publicly support it. He made some really gross comments about overgrown black males sitting alongside white girls. He sent the troops into Little Rock to prevent the black masses from fighting back against the rampaging white racist mobs.
Right now, it is this same supposedly integrated imperialist army that has invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Its racist, colonial occupation has spilled the blood of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, along with increasing numbers of Haitians. We demand that the imperialist troops get out—and that the UN stay out. The working class and oppressed here have a very direct stake in opposing this colonialist occupation which can only further embolden world history's most monstrous imperialist power.
The Class-Struggle Road to Black Freedom
Under capitalism—the system of private ownership of the means of production, in which the workers have only their labor power to sell as a commodity—a handful of capitalists are the dominant economic class. So it's futile to appeal to the nonexistent conscience and morality of the ruling class. It is not now and never has been in their interests to have a society based upon genuine peace, plenty and equality. Theirs is a system of production for profit and of anarchy resulting in inevitably recurring economic crises—a boom-bust cycle of overproduction of commodities giving rise to cyclical and structural unemployment and generalized impoverishment. Ending this requires a fight for the abolition of U.S. and world capitalism through international proletarian revolution.
Our interests lie in common, integrated class struggle against the racist capitalist rulers. The Spartacist League stands in the tradition of the early Communist International, the Comintern, under Lenin and Trotsky. Through insistent prodding, they reoriented the American Communist Party by uprooting the colorblindness characteristic of the early socialist movement. That movement had said that it had "nothing special" to offer to blacks and that their oppression was an economic problem. The Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky fought tooth and nail against this position, and actually laid the basis for the American Communist Party to lead an aggressive fight for black equality in the late 1920s and early 1930s. James P. Cannon—a founder of the Communist Party and early leader of American Trotskyism—wrote his seminal essay "The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement" in 1959, five years after the Supreme Court Brown decision, as that movement was unfolding. He pointed out:
"It is customary to attribute the progress of the Negro movement, and the shift of public opinion in favor of its claims, to the changes brought about by the First World War. But the biggest thing that came out of the First World War, the event that changed everything, including the prospects of the American Negro, was the Russian Revolution. The influence of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, even debased and distorted as it later was by Stalin, and then filtered through the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, contributed more than any other influence from any source to the recognition, and more or less general acceptance, of the Negro question as a special problem of American society—a problem which cannot simply be subsumed under the general heading of the conflict between capital and labor, as it was in the pre-Communist radical movement."
— The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962)
The Spartacist League's several decades of efforts and principled struggle to mobilize the working class in the fight for black freedom and in the liberation of the working class as a whole stands in this tradition and is unique.
As a consequence of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, which was a gigantic defeat for workers and oppressed around the world, the capitalists have been emboldened to intensify their attacks against hard-won gains. It is no mere coincidence that, beginning in 1991, they have more energetically pushed for the resegregation of the school system—not that they began then, but they stepped on the pedal. There is no Soviet Union today to embarrass U.S. imperialism about the endemic racism which is inherent to this system.
Because of the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union, consciousness has been thrown back. And this has been in the making for a while. In 1983, Jesse Jackson, a former leader in King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helped knife protests in defense of busing in Norfolk, Virginia. Coleman Young denounced busing in Detroit when he was the black Democratic mayor there in 1974, agreeing with the Supreme Court decision that struck down cross-district busing of black schoolchildren from the inner city to the white suburbs. In 1997, the historically integrationist NAACP held a debate that called into question integration.
Furthermore, this retrogression in consciousness has also affected the so-called "progressive," radical black intellectuals such as Robin Kelley and bell hooks, along with outright pro-Democratic Party hip-hop capitalists such as Russell Simmons. Simmons, who slams integration and also pushes black capitalism, helped organize a massive rally at City Hall in June 2003 (some of us sold Workers Vanguard at it) which was joined by Democrat Andrew Cuomo to call for not ending, but reducing the sentences of the draconian Rockefeller-era anti-drug laws. This is the same Cuomo who in the Clinton administration, in the Department of Housing, actually used the money that was supposed to go to building new housing to build prisons in upstate New York. So they were down there at City Hall supposedly trying to reform these drug laws. We say: Down with the racist war on drugs! We are for the decriminalization of drugs. The so-called New Democrat Clinton escalated the bourgeoisie's attacks on the ghettos and barrios "to end welfare as we know it," expanding the racist death penalty, and putting about 100,000 more cops on the streets.
In a recent interview, Simmons spelled out his program. He said his program is 40 acres and a Bentley. His undisguised hostility to integration is quite understandable in that light. This is what he said:
"Economically, some families in our community had more financial stability during segregation. We had the black dentist, the black lawyer, the black teacher. We had jobs. We had things we had to do for our community and services to provide. Integration tore that down. It damaged our economic stability in our little communities.... They took all of our business."
— Henry Louis Gates, America Behind the Color Line (2004)
Well, first, what jobs? Ghettos are impoverished hell holes, and in periods of labor shortage, they used to be some kind of reserve army of the unemployed—and I stress used to be. These people are pushing black capitalism, which is really about feathering their own nests and flipping a bone to the rest of us.
The so-called "left" black feminist, bell hooks, harking back to a mythical golden era of cross-class black unity, argued:
"That sense of solidarity was altered by a class-based civil rights struggle whose ultimate goal was to acquire more freedom for those black folks who already had a degree of class privilege however relative. By the late 1960s class-based racial integration disrupted the racial solidarity that often held black folks together despite class difference. Pressured to assimilate into mainstream white culture to increase their class power and status, privileged black individuals began to leave the underprivileged behind, moving into predominantly white neighborhoods, taking their money and their industry out of the segregated black world."
— Where We Stand: Class Matters (2000)
Well, this is an utterly fantastic description of what actually happened. Some of what she points out, such as who benefited from the civil rights movement, is true. But the notion that there was ever in the past, or that there ever will be in the future, a significant black capitalist class along the lines of the Carnegies, the Mellons and the Rockefellers is utterly fantastic and utopian. Moreover, there is no such thing as "separate but equal." And that's the point: they have capitulated to that.
Now, there's the very voluble left-nationalist academic Robin Kelley. He rhetorically asks, "Integration: What's Left?" (Nation, 14 December 1998). He deliberately conflates the struggle for racial integration with liberal integrationism and submission to white liberal gradualism:
"Although black civil rights activists had always emphasized ‘desegregation'—the removal of all barriers that kept black people from enjoying full access to public facilities, decent housing, education and so on—in most white liberal circles racial integration came to mean solving the ‘Negro problem' by bringing black people into formerly all-white institutions.... The goal was to produce fully assimilated black people devoted to the American dream. Sharing power was rarely part of the equation."
And what is his program?
"Rather than a new integrationist movement under a left-wing banner, I would like to see a new, revitalized left launching a full-scale assault on white privilege—a new divestment campaign in which white people refuse the benefits of a racist society."
In particular, what Kelley is saying to the mass of white workers, which of course happens to be the most numerous class in this society, is: Prove your commitment for the poor and the oppressed by voluntarily impoverishing yourself. This can only reinforce the hold of the white ruling class upon white workers. Moreover, if he took that to any picket line they'd run him out on a rail.
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which was a radical-nationalist organization in Detroit in the '70s, had the opportunity to actually make common cause with white workers. They refused to pass out their leaflets to them. Their program was for more black foremen, for blacks on the board of General Motors and the like. Our program of revolutionary integration, of class struggle, cuts across these kinds of divisive schemes. Our program is to get rid of class exploitation and the brutal racial oppression that props it up, not to pit sections of the oppressed and exploited against each other so that both can be conquered. The depth of the political bankruptcy is astounding, but not surprising.
From our inception in the early 1960s inside the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) as the Revolutionary Tendency, a left-wing opposition that fought against that party's abandonment of a revolutionary working-class program, we have emphasized common class struggle against a common class enemy. We say that there is an alternative to liberal integrationism—which favors the gradual absorption of "deserving blacks," one by one, into this system—and pro-Democratic Party capitalist politics. And that's the program of revolutionary integrationism, the struggle for black liberation through overturning this racist capitalist system by linking the struggles of the ghettos to the organized labor movement under a class-struggle leadership.
I need to point out that the ruling class today is forced to admit that increasingly U.S. society is being resegregated. In a special education supplement (New York Times, 18 January) on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, a writer admits that "Millions of black students are celebrating Brown's anniversary in schools almost as segregated as when it was decided. It is now true, as the court held, that ‘separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal.' But 70 percent of black students attend schools in which racial minorities are a majority, and fully a third are in schools 90 to 100 percent minority." Professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, has done quite an extensive investigation of the growing resegregation in the U.S. He argues that, practically speaking, the U.S. today hasn't qualitatively progressed beyond the era of formalized segregation embodied in the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that sanctioned state-supported segregation in public accommodations.
When you look at what's going on as the schools become more segregated today, the fastest-growing, and now the largest minority affected are Latinos. We, as fighters for a revolutionary vanguard party, point to the common interests of all sections of the oppressed. Our task is to combat not only anti-black racism within the immigrant milieu, but the anti-immigrant chauvinism of many black workers and black people. This is critical from the standpoint of fighting for socialist revolution in this country. What we see is that the ruling class has thrown increasing layers of the population on the scrap heap.
In the annals of judicial history, what they call "Brown I" was the Supreme Court decision in 1954 that struck down Plessy v. Ferguson. And in "Brown II," the second decision a year later, the Supreme Court ordered desegregation with "all deliberate speed," i.e., slowly. In other words, they gave the green light to Southern segregationist foes of integration to obstruct the implementation of that decision. Consequently, by early 1964, a full decade later, only 1.2 percent of black children in the eleven Southern states attended schools with whites. So the law is one thing, and the reality on the ground is another.
These legal decisions are never made in a vacuum, but they are a product of social struggle. Thus, far from being friends of black people, many judges opposed Brown. For example, leading segregationist Mississippi Circuit Court judge Tom Brady, in line with the white-supremacist Citizens Councils, asserted that this was "Black Monday" and that the Supreme Court was leaning toward Communism. The segregationists in Little Rock were circulating questionnaires essentially asking whether black boys would be permitted to solicit the white girls at school soirées? Would they be allowed, white girls and black boys in drama classes, to get together? Someone could really do an interesting study on when was the first time, if ever, Othello was performed in that part of the country.
When the first Brown decision was handed down, it was trumpeted by U.S. imperialism as an expression of American democracy in its finest hour. In 1954 Secretary of State Dean Acheson underlined their interest in Brown:
"Other peoples cannot understand how [school segregation] can exist in a country which professes to be a staunch supporter of freedom, justice, and democracy. The sincerity of the United States in this respect will be judged by its deeds as well as by its words."
— International Politics and Civil Rights Policies in the United States, 1941-1960 (2000)
And of course, they were increasingly embarrassed because the Soviet Union reminded them quite frequently and regularly of the vicious, legalized segregation, while the U.S. rulers railed against "Soviet Communist totalitarianism."
The State Department didn't waste any time in trumpeting the progress in race relations: within an hour of the Supreme Court's decision, the Voice of America broadcast the news all over the world in 35 different languages. And Carl Rowan, a black journalist who was the face of the State Department abroad, traveled far and wide to convince the Third World that America was finally making progress.
Of course it was bull because, in the aftermath of the Brown decision, white racist defiance quickly developed. Autherine Lucy, a black woman who wanted to get into graduate school, was attacked by mobs at the University of Alabama when she tried to attend school there in 1956. That angered a lot of European and African governments.
A year earlier, in 1955, Emmett Till fared worse. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was lynched for the alleged "crime" of whistling at a white woman. His horribly mutilated body was shown. His mother insisted upon an open casket funeral, and all over the world people saw the barbarity of lynch law. Thousands of black people all over this country marched after that, and many say that the beginnings of the civil rights movement began with the demonstrations around Emmett Till. A couple of weeks ago the New York Times (22 March), in an editorial titled "The Ghost of Emmett Till," said that there is a reinvestigation of his murder being planned by the Justice Department because they have new information on Till's murder. If somebody is nailed, he'll probably be 95 years old, on a respirator with one lung, one kidney and one hour to live. And if it's not that, the system is still one of murderous legal lynchings and racist frame-ups that keeps on keeping on. Just look at the cases of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the many other class-war prisoners in this country, like Jerry Dale Lowe.
Every step forward for workers, black people, women and all the oppressed has been won by militant struggle against the racist capitalist system. Reliance on the bourgeois courts politically disarms the workers and oppressed. The unions in this country were built by defying the bourgeoisie's laws against trade unions, laws that called unions "criminal conspiracies," which the capitalists could revive again.
Black youth hurled themselves against the infernal machine of the racist, segregationist, law-and-order establishment, playing a very important role in shattering the McCarthyite Cold War consensus and atmosphere in the South. The law had to adjust to the new facts on the ground. In other words, it was no thanks to good-hearted and benevolent judges that the walls of Jim Crow segregation came tumbling down.
Robert Weisbrot, the author of Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement, noted that before the Brown decision:
"Sporadic local protests also sent a message of growing Negro assertiveness, but few, black or white, received it. In November 1953 forty-eight black soldiers in Columbia, South Carolina, were arrested and fined more than $1,500 because one sat next to a white girl on the bus. That same year a Negro boycott of buses in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, lasted a week before officials permitted blacks and whites to occupy some seats on first-come, first-served basis."
Now, after several decades of bipartisan racist reaction and attacks on the standard of living of the working masses, sections of the ruling class openly embrace the "ghosts of the Confederacy" and their heirs. For example, Attorney General John Ashcroft has expressed his admiration for the Confederacy. Trent Lott, the Republican Senator, got a slap on the wrist for openly stating his support for the segregationist Strom Thurmond. Thurmond was the rabid segregationist who led Southern racist resistance to the integration of the armed forces under President Harry S. Truman and bolted from the Democratic Party to form the Dixiecrat Party in 1948. And none other than the current head of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, wrote a memo in support of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. This is the ruling class that is in power.
The Failures of the Civil Rights Movement in the North
When the civil rights movement went North, it ran into a brick wall. It went up against the bedrock of the economic oppression of the black population. It was not de jure (in law) segregation but de facto segregation that they had to contend with. The collapse of that movement flowed from Martin Luther King's and the SCLC's bankrupt, liberal pacifist program of reliance on the racist federal government and the Democratic Party. That is what crippled that struggle.
As a result of the inability of the liberal-led civil rights leadership to address the capitalist roots of black oppression, many black activists embraced a separatist road and rejected integrated class struggle, which is not only in the interest of blacks but is in the interest of the entire working class. The result was that the best of an entire generation of young black militants, particularly embodied in the contradictory radical-nationalist Black Panthers, was cut down through murderous FBI Counter-Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) repression, facilitated by murderous internal factionalism.
Some of this history is being revised in the anarchist milieu. You have, for instance, the Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC). They recently had an article, "A Synthesis of Race & Class: A Look at the Black Panther Party & Its Goal of Liberation" (Northeastern Anarchist, Summer/Fall 2003). What the anarchists say is quite interesting because it indicates why their rejection of a Leninist vanguard party makes them incapable of understanding the fact that what really led to the demise of the Panthers was not simply FBI repression. It was not simply what the anarchists call the Panthers' "authoritarian, top-down structure" or their advocacy of a vanguard party (which was of course vanguard in name only, because there was male chauvinism within that organization). What NEFAC says is this:
"The Black Panther Party was the most important revolutionary organization in America during the late 20th century.... [The party] was able to develop a truly revolutionary political platform that presented a more just and viable alternative....
"Perhaps the party would have benefited and maximized its potential as a Revolutionary Black Nationalist organization by broadening its struggles to both remedial and immediate programs as well as more militant activities so long as they were both aimed at a common and revolutionary goal: the necessity for black people to gain control of the institutions in their own communities, eventually transforming them into cooperatives, and of one day working with other ethnic groups to change the system."
This petty-bourgeois rejection of the working class is exactly the Panthers' type of New Left sectoralism. Thoroughly anti-working-class, it is based upon the utopian, classless notion of a "black community," or "black communities," which are really impoverished ghettos. What are you going to control? The Panthers were nationalists; they were radical nationalists. They wanted social revolution, but they rejected mobilizing the integrated working class to sweep away this system. This is the key reason for their political demise. It wasn't simply that the state was all-powerful. There was sympathy among white workers in the Bay Area. In the early 1970s we had supporters who worked in a General Motors auto plant in Fremont, California. This was a factory where the Panthers briefly had a caucus, which they later liquidated.
Today, the effects of the destruction of the Panthers' organization and the defeats of the movement are deeply felt. The black population is leaderless. Under the conditions of relentless racist attacks today in the name of the "war against terror" at home and abroad, it is vital to know who our friends and who our enemies are. Things didn't have to turn out this way. If you really look at the road forward, it has to be based on this program of class-struggle revolutionary integrationism, by forging a revolutionary workers party that tells the bitter truth. In that regard, we have to clear the ground of the reformist and centrist obstacles that block the road to power.
Don't be fooled by the occasional socialist rhetoric. The International Socialist Organization (ISO) is a good example of what we're talking about. Time and again, they stand with the Democrats against workers and the oppressed. On 23 October 1999, they were out there in the rally organized by Sharpton to defend the Klan's right to march. He went to court on behalf of the Klan, whereas the Spartacist League and the Partisan Defense Committee, along with the Labor Black League, mobilized a mass labor-centered mobilization that stopped the Klan.
So what does the ISO say is the way forward? In a recent article called "Racism in America Today" (International Socialist Review, November-December 2003), they say that, despite the persistence of institutional racism in America,
"It would be wrong, nevertheless, to conclude that things are just as bad as they were before the civil rights movement. Many of the legislative gains from that period—from affirmative action to ending segregation—are under attack. But the impact of the movement has been longstanding, fundamentally changing the attitudes and perceptions of millions of people about African Americans."
Where do you start, right? One thing to say is that the lie of black inferiority, the recrudescence of "scientific racism" in this Bell Curve book, which was a bestseller at the time it was published in 1994, which preached the genetic inferiority of black people, struck fertile soil. The point is that the civil rights movement failed to end black oppression because it was tied to the Democratic Party, and these fake socialists cover up that fact because they are busily tailing the Democrats today. There was nothing in that article about breaking with the Democratic Party. I think it is because the ISO's whole perspective is to reform this racist, capitalist system. And, of course, they supported every counterrevolutionary nationalist movement, every anti-Soviet struggle in the past, which culminated in the destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state.
So their program is very illustrative of what we are dealing with out there. We have so-called socialists in this country who practically ignore the growing resegregation of the U.S. In the case of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), they actually openly champion segregation—for example, opposing school busing in Boston. Their virulent hostility to integration is no accident since they are virulently Stalinophobic, anti-Soviet. Rejecting defense of the gains of the Russian Revolution led to accommodation to American imperialism at home on the strategic question for proletarian revolution in the U.S., the fight for black liberation.
The kind of "integration" that the ruling class is interested in aims to recruit the best of those minorities whose skills and training can be utilized to defend the capitalists' interests at home and abroad. This involves being able to intervene into countries with large non-white populations, sitting astride regions where there is oil, gold, diamonds and the like. So the white ruling class will drop the color bar to get a Colin Powell and a Condoleezza Rice to do their bidding in enslaving and murdering thousands of dark-skinned peoples, and other oppressed peoples, around the world. This has nothing to do, of course, with the obliteration of the color line, but rather the obliteration of horribly impoverished people around the world. So the class enemy has a consistently counterrevolutionary strategy and program, and we have to have a consistently revolutionary strategy and program.
If you want another example, look at the support from sections of the U.S. officer corps for retaining affirmative action at the University of Michigan last year. Why? They remember their long, losing and dirty colonial war against Vietnam—which was conducted with a racially torn military. Now, they have a Hispanic commander leading troops in Iraq.
The bourgeoisie wants "integration" insofar as it furthers their struggle for unbridled exploitation. We defend affirmative action as one of the remaining minimal and very inadequate gains of the civil rights movement, which were wrested from the white ruling class in struggle. However, affirmative action does not and cannot attack the race and class biases inherent in this system. In the universities, we fight for open admissions, free tuition and a fully paid state stipend, especially to enable minority and working-class youth to attend those schools. Very recently, the Spartacus Youth Club mobilized actions at Columbia University against an anti-affirmative action "bake sale" sponsored by the Conservative Club, which is in cahoots with an assortment of sinister racist imperialist elements, such as the pro-slavery ideologue David Horowitz. The Conservative Club had in their cross hairs blacks, Jews, Hispanics, gays and others. We mobilized against their racist provocation at Columbia while organizations like the ISO refused to endorse the SYC-initiated action because they were basically trying to pressure the administration to defend minority students.
Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
We fight to build a vanguard party that bases its program not upon the current consciousness of the working class, but upon its objective interests, its interests as a conscious revolutionary class. This is really the hallmark of what we're fighting for, a party that is a tribune of the people. Under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky's Bolshevik Party, the workers of Russia smashed the outmoded capitalist system. This was the first and the only successful workers revolution in history. Today, U.S. imperialism is seeking to destroy the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states in China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea. Despite the political misrule of the Stalinist bureaucracies in these countries, the smashing of capitalism there is a good thing for the workers internationally. We Trotskyists unconditionally defend those workers states against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution. It's a good thing that North Korea has nukes. Otherwise, the U.S. imperialist bandits would have obliterated them a long time ago. We fight for workers political revolution in those countries to oust the treacherous Stalinist bureaucracies whose anti-internationalist, anti-working-class program facilitates the imperialist drive toward capitalist restoration. To be a Marxist, a Trotskyist, a fighter for world revolution, you have to be a proletarian internationalist. Our task here is to build that revolutionary Trotskyist party and finish what the Bolsheviks started in 1917 by fighting for new October Revolutions.
The class-struggle program for black liberation is directly tied to the struggle for proletarian revolution. In this regard, every generation comes to revolutionary consciousness in their own way. My personal road was tortuous, starting as a follower of the petty-bourgeois radical-nationalist Frantz Fanon, who seemed to be offering an uncompromising assault on the citadel of racism and imperialism—looking for the "wretched of the earth" to rise up spontaneously to drive off the imperialists. Only when I joined the Spartacist League did I learn that Fanon's "radical" nationalism was an expression of the prevalent New Leftism which propagated the myth that the working class was not the agent of revolutionary change, but had been "bought off" and integrated into the racist capitalist system. I'll skip some of the other delusions that I had to discard along the way.
We've learned a lot from the Bolsheviks. When you look at some of the history of what the Spartacist League has fought for, such as the struggle for busing in Boston, it is really important to see how we swam against the stream. I was fortunate to spend some time with Dick Fraser, along with other comrades, in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. We tried to assist him in various ways—he was a very sick man at the time. We had one friend in common, a guy by the name of Earl Ofari [Hutchinson], who was a friend of mine, and Dick had done some writing with him too. In the early 1970s, Ofari played a role in breaking me from the dead end of "revolutionary nationalism" and in telling me over and over again that a woman's work is never done. He wrote a useful book called The Myth of Black Capitalism which really assisted me in developing a class perspective.
We had a big argument in 1974-75 about the demand, which Ofari supported, that the government send federal troops to Boston to protect black schoolchildren, who had been bused to integrate schools in South Boston, a white enclave. At the same time, Ofari denounced the Maoist Revolutionary Union, the predecessors of today's Revolutionary Communist Party, which capitulated to the racist anti-busing forces in Boston and came out with an infamous headline in their press: "People Must Unite to Smash Boston Busing Plan" (Revolution, October 1974). This was a gross capitulation to the racist scum from the Nazis and the Klan to Louise Day Hicks, who was a leader of the racist outfit called ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights).
Ofari's main fire, however, was directed at the so-called "sectarian" Spartacist League. We were in the forefront of fighting for mass integrated labor-black defense to defend the black schoolchildren against the howling racist mobs in South Boston. We fought for low-rent, racially integrated public housing, for quality integrated education for all, and for the implementation of busing and its extension to the suburbs as a minimal—although inadequate—step toward black equality. We weren't successful in getting the labor movement organized along those lines. However, this was in the interests of workers and the oppressed.
The trade-union misleaders in that city didn't lift a finger so as not to alienate the Democratic Party so-called "friends of labor," such as Teddy Kennedy and others. Initially, Kennedy made some mild support statements, and they ran his butt off the stage.
We linked this fight to the struggle for socialist revolution and a workers government. In contrast, the reformist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) called for federal troops to "defend" black people and tailed behind the petty-bourgeois liberal NAACP. In pursuit of their class-collaborationist bloc with the liberals, the SWP sought to rewrite history by claiming that through mass pressure the armed forces of imperialism could be made to fight for the oppressed. They consciously distorted history to suit their reformist appetites. They tried to erase the indisputable fact that every time troops were called in, particularly in response to black rebellion, it was to suppress those who were fighting back. The capitalist state—its cops, its courts, its armed forces—is not neutral. These bodies are instruments of capitalist rule and racist repression. The Workers World Party of Sam Marcy was tailing behind this black Democrat, Bill Owen, who opposed busing and was looking for a political career. Marcy put out a pamphlet, Busing and Self-Determination, which should have been titled "The Right to Tailism." In it, they stated: "Separation or Assimilation—It's Up to the Oppressed." So they simultaneously tailed the petty-bourgeois liberals of the NAACP and the Black Muslims. They betrayed the struggle for black equality.
Finally, the fight against the resegregation of America cannot be separated from the unrelenting ruling-class offensive against labor and oppressed minorities, which has resulted in increased concentration of wealth at one end of society and increased segregation and misery at the other. The recent five-month-long, bitter, sold-out UFCW grocery workers strike in Southern California indicates that there are today thousands of workers determined to resist the capitalist attacks. They fought, and it was not impossible for them to have won. But the treacherous trade-union bureaucracy isolated that strike, refused to extend it nationwide and played by the bosses' rules. That's why we say you need a class-struggle leadership of labor to unleash its power. Such a leadership is based upon the recognition that the fight for the emancipation of the working class is inseparable from the struggle against the brutal, racist oppression that is endemic to this capitalist system.
How can this power be brought to bear? A powerful message would have been sent to the bloodsucking capitalists had there been ten thousand transit workers, hospital workers, city workers downing their tools to protest the racist killings of black woman unionist Alberta Spruill and black youth Timothy Stansbury. Or, a few years ago, Amadou Diallo. Or the several Latino youth killed by New York's "finest" racist killers. Or in defense of class-war prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal. That social power must be mobilized. The capitalists would be forced to take notice if there were a significant presence of workers out there on behalf of women's rights—especially in the fight for abortion, which is under attack. The possibilities of integrated class struggle are palpable and, on a modest scale, very real. White, Latino and Asian workers were out there together on the picket lines during the recent UFCW strike. They fought, and their union wasn't broken, even though they were bitterly sold out.
How do we get that kind of leadership? By drawing the class line. By breaking with the program of class collaboration that preaches the lie of a "community of interests" between the workers and the bosses and of "lesser-evilism," which is pushed by the reformists and labor fakers. That party will be built by unmasking the enemies of the workers and the oppressed, no matter what their color or nationality is. A necessary task for the working class in this country is the forging of such a revolutionary workers party, a political weapon to advance a fight for jobs for all through a shorter workweek with no loss in pay, for free medical care, for free universal education, for full citizenship rights, for immigrant rights, for militant defense of the rights of gays. The fight for free abortion on demand, the fight for freedom of all class-war prisoners is a fight for a socialist America. And this fight will be realized through expropriating the capitalist class.
I want to end with this quote from a black youth in Roxbury, Boston, who was inspired by the struggle for integration in that city. It underscores one of the points that we've made, namely, that in the past, on most occasions, the black population has sought every opportunity to fight for integration and equality as opposed to opting for a separatist road. It is only in periods of defeat and out of despair that some have turned toward pseudo-nationalism. Reflecting the egalitarian sentiments of a significant number of black people in the civil rights era, an eleven-year-old black youth said: "Busing's just got to be, man. Got to be. We got it coming to us. We got to open up ourselves, spread out. Get into the city.... Go to good schools, live in good places like white folks got.... That's why they're busing us" (Brown v. Board of Education ). To realize this dream of genuine equality, you must fight for a socialist revolution. You can't get it unless you have a party that swims against the stream and that bases itself upon the lessons of the class struggle and the fight to smash capitalism on a world scale.