National Sections of the L5I:

Race, class and nation in Black America

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In a continuing debate over the black question in the USA, GR McColl argues that the comrades of the Trotskyist Fraction remain wedded ahistorically to Trotsky’s slogans of the 1930s rather than developing a concrete analysis of today’s situation.

During discussions between the Trotskyist Fraction (TF) and the LRCI over the last two and a half years one point of difference that has emerged has been the assessment of the struggle of blacks against oppression in the United States and the revolutionary programme for the struggle against racism.

The TF criticises the LRCI for holding an economistic position because we maintain that the slogan for the right of national self determination is not a key or central part of the programme for black liberation in the United States today.

They refusal to accept that since the 1930s historical developments have altered the terrain of struggle against racial oppression in the USA.

The comrades follow Trotsky in seeing racial oppression as basically an underdeveloped form of national oppression.

They ignore the manifest, real daily “self determination” of US blacks to fight racism where they experience it, in the inner city ghettos across the entire continent.

Lastly the comrades misunderstand what “separatism” and “black nationalism” mean in the US today and make unnecessary concessions to them.

First, let us state our common ground with the comrades of the TF.

The everyday reality of racial oppression in the USA is an undeniable fact.

The fightback against it must be a central axis for revolutionary strategy in the worlds mightiest economic and military power.

Deeply ingrained racist ideology, directed most violently and consistently against African-Americans is still the major obstacle to working class unity.

Along with other forms of racism and ethnic chauvinism it is a vital component of the US ruling class way of maintaining its rule.

In no way do we believe like real economists that working class unity must be bought at the price of blacks shutting up about their oppression so as to achieve unity with privileged white workers.

Quite the reverse: white workers must take up the struggle against each and every case of black oppression as a central part of becoming a working class for itself.

Ignoring black oppression indeed acting as stupid tools of this oppression is the source of the political backwardness of the US proletariat - resonant of Marx’s view of the relationship between British and Irish workers in mid nineteenth century Britain.

The discrimination and structural inequality suffered by black Americans can be expressed in figures: the median income of black households is less than 60% that of whites; there are more than 600000 African Americans in US jails, including 40% of the 5, 200 prisoners on death row.

Nearly one quarter of black males aged 18 to 29 find themselves dragged into, and mangled by, the machinery of the criminal justice system.

In black inner city neighbourhoods of Washington DC infant mortality rates can be found which are higher than those in Kingston, Jamaica.

Recent cuts in affirmative action programmes at US colleges have seen a dramatic decline in the enrolment of African-American students in a wide range of courses.

As some of the important gains of the great Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s have come under vicious attack the historic leaders have passed from the scene.

The most visible figure to fill the void in recent years has been Louis Farrakan of the separatist Nation of Islam rather than the liberal integrationist Jesse Jackson.

It is this fact plus the Million Man March which convinces the TF comrades that defence of the right to separation is a central issue today. We disagree.

We do not think that the black population of the USA is now set on a course for separation, that is, towards the formation of a separate national state for themselves.

There can be no doubt that Farrakan’s stinging attacks on the racism of white society strike a chord with millions of black Americans.

This resonance was given expression in the Million Man March.

The hysterical attacks on him by the establishment only confirm black Americans in their impression that, in him, they possess a powerful tribune capable of frightening this elite.

But it would be a serious mistake to conflate popularity won in this way with support for his specific policies, let alone to take it as proof of the impending triumph of the Nation of Islam.

It is doubtful that most of those who took part in the March really know about or support the Nation of Islam’s reactionary programme with its naked anti-semitism, its tacit support for attacks on Korean shopkeepers and its moralistic attacks on welfare programmes.

As Farrakhan has become a more mainstream respectable leader he has precisely abandoned the nationalist objective of constructing a distinct black nation state within the borders of the existing USA.

Many ethnic immigrants in the USA have integrated into all the major classes of US society within two or three generations But the historic discrimination and social oppression which keep black Americans at the bottom of the pile are a direct consequence of the fact that black people did not come to the USA as political or economic refugees.

They came as slaves and remained so for over a hundred and fifty years With the exception of a few years immediately after the abolition of slavery near total denial of civil lights continued in the former states of the Confederacy “Jim Crow” - a type of apartheid - continued until the great movements of the 1960s.

But as early as the First World War a massive shift of the black population from the southern states to the cities of the North began.

Though initially sparked by the economic opportunities associated with employment in war related industries the massive northward push by blacks from the rural South continued until long after the end of the Second World War.

Between 1940 and 1950, the number of black people living outside the 11 former Confederate states rose from 2.4 million to 6.4 million.

Most of the industrial cities of the midwest witnessed an increase in their black populations at a rate 500 to 1,000% higher than that recorded for their white residents during the same decade.

By the mid-1960s, for the first time ever, the majority of the African-American population lived in the North and West, outside of the former Confederate states.

This great migration altered the objective social class structure of black America, consolidating the growth of an industrial proletariat, which was increasingly organised in the trade unions.

Even in the southern states.

there were some 450.000 black members of affiliates of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) by 1946, while in the component unions of the less conservative Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) hundreds of thousands of black workers were becoming active trade unionists.

Some 95,000 African-Americans belonged to the Steelworkcrs of America, while in a single branch of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the Detroit area there were an estimated 100,000 black members by mid-1945.

The growth of black membership in multi-racial unions would have been higher but for the persistent colour bar to union membership and skilled employment, practised especially by labour aristocratic craft unions until the 1970s at least.

But the abysmal treatment of black members by union bureaucrats and many racist white workers was not the whole story in the midwestern locals of the UAW.

The Civil Rights Movement focused on the Jim Crow states of the South and operated under a clerical and professional middle class leadership.

But much of the financial as well as moral support for the fight to achieve desegregation and formal equality under bourgeois law came from unions such as the UAW.

Militant black caucuses eventually emerged in a number of UAW locals by the late 1960s, forming the basis for the Ford and Dodge Revolutionary Union Movements, which in turn were the backbone of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

While these organisations suffered from serious political defects and squandered opportunities to relate to white UAW members, their ideology was not that of nationalism.

In no recognisable sense was their goal the creation of a separate African-American state.

The reason for emphasising the existence and the struggles of the black proletariat is not to ignore the existence of a large stratum of urban poor.

Rather, it is to emphasise that today there is an organised black working class which revolutionary communists have to put at the centre of their strategy for both black liberation and socialist revolution.

The migrants to the northern and western cities encountered racial oppression in the form of low-paid jobs, no jobs, and the poorest housing.

This - as well as the subjective racism - led to the creation of ghettos in the inner city.

It is this socially imposed “separation” within urban America, now replicated right across the continent that gave rise to “separatism” or even “black nationalism".

That, and the miserable failure of the project of reformist integration to substantively change this. Thus voting rights within an incredibly corrupt, millionaires’ democracy, and “affirmative action” programmes on a declining tax budget, have not reversed the trend except for a privileged elite .

Small as this stratum is compared with other “ethnic groups” we should not ignore the influence of the black petty bourgeoisie and intelligentsia - the main beneficiaries of civil rights and affirmative action.

Even though the black population’s poverty and oppression has made it difficult for a strong middle and upper bourgeoisie to emerge, the black “middle class” is far from a negligible quantity when it comes to providing (mis)leadership through the churches and the political parties.

These classes are clearly divided over whether to pursue an integrationist or a separatist strategy.

But what is separatism and what is nationalism? Separatism, as a term, does not necessarily mean seeking a separate state.

Indeed, its widest use today is to signify voluntary economic, social, cultural and political-organisational separation from the non-African-American population.

Nationalism is a term which encompasses many meanings. It can express the aspirations of what turn-of-the-century Marxists used to call “nationalities": that is, those who do not seek separate statehood as well as those of “nations” who do.

However, it is far from the LRCI’s method to turn any of these terms into bureaucratic-juridical categories and then claim that the right of self-determination applies to one but not to the other.

We unconditionally recognise the right to self-determination of oppressed races or nationalities. This fully applies to the black population in the USA.

In no sense are we, as the Trotskyist Fraction comrades claim, some sort of Luxemburgists.

But for an ethnic group, a ‘race’, a people, a nationality, to establish a separate nation state does require a territorial basis.

This was Lenin’s position on the national question and Trotsky completely supported it.

Without it the material basis for national separation does not exist; and without the ability to secede, self-determination is a fraud perpetrated on the oppressed.

But some people do misuse “self-determination” and “separation” to mean something else altogether.

They use it to mean the self-maintenance of a people in a caste-like existence within a state, similar to that advocated by the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer and the Russian Jewish-Bund, though they called this “cultural-national autonomy".

This split the workers’ movement along national lines and handed over each fragment of the proletariat to its own, national bourgeoisie.

Lenin objected to this because a unified bourgeois state requires a unified workers’ movement to fight it.

Our argument is that whilst we would support the US Afro-Americans’ decision to secede if they expressed it - despite all the material obstacles - we believe that the overwhelming majority of US blacks do not dream of such a solution.

And this is not because they are afraid to express their views or because their movement is weak and underdeveloped.

Of course, it is not impossible that this could change in the future.

If, for example, a far-right racist or even fascist movement were to appear and threaten to seize power, this would clearly mean the loss of all the existing rights of black people, never mind the possibility of achieving equality within the USA.

The first three decades of the twentieth century did indeed see a number of movements which combined elements of separatism and nationalism, and, indeed “returnism".

The call for a “return” to Africa became the central slogan of the movement founded by the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, which came to command substantial support among African-Americans in the 1920s, particularly among the first generation in the northern ghettos.

Trotsky rightly saw the social import of this movement not in its reactionary-utopian, back-to-Africa project but in its affirmation of the self-worth and ambitions for political liberation by the blacks in the USA.

The original Nation of Islam was again a movement which also gained its most substantial following in the northern cities, especially among the marginalised sections of the petit-bourgeoisie and lumpen proletariat.

Under the leadership of Elijah Muhammed, it disdained any involvement with the Martin Luther King-led, integrationist Civil Rights Movement.

The Black Panthers of the late 1960s often appealed to a similar social base as the Nation.

They emerged as a direct response to the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to address such realities as poverty and police harassment in the northern ghettos.

In contrast to earlier manifestations of separatism, however, the Panthers explicitly drew their ideological inspiration from Maoism which could not distinguish unemployed and even lumpenised ghetto dwellers from the black proletariat.

Indeed, it regarded the former not the latter as the real revolutionary vanguard.

Nevertheless, despite the reactionary and Utopian sides of all these movements’ ideologies, Marxists recognise in them a progressive element of self-reliance and of resistance to racism.

These universally accepted facts have sparked sharp debates between and within avowed Marxist currents.

These hinge, not on the question of whether US blacks should or should not have the right to form a separate state, but whether US blacks must develop a separate party, movement and trade unions and what the class character of such separatist organisations should be.

Revolutionaries have to orient themselves both within the realities of black oppression, of ongoing black struggles and within the political currents and conflicts which have arisen.

The TF comrades want to stretch the slogan of self-determination into one of primary significance, as their key to answering the “black question” in the late 1990s.

For them “it is necessary to raise a policy that defends the right of blacks to choose the forms of organisation that they themselves want to build: autonomous rights or separation".

The TF comrades think they have found a ready-made answer to what they characterise as the “emergence of the black question” in the USA.

This is drawn from conversations and correspondence between Trotsky and the West Indian-born revolutionary CLR James, as well as other leading figures in the Socialist Workers’ Party (USA) of the 1930s.

Their other authoritative source is the Third International’s “Thesis on the Black Question", developed in the late 1920s.

Trotsky’s remarks are very important for their stress on the need to fight the racism of the white workers, on the importance of being very attentive to the aspirations of the black population and resolutely defending their right to decide their own future ("self-determination").

But Trotsky was far more tentative about whether to advocate a separate state.

He himself inclined to the view that the US blacks were developing, or would develop, into a nation and that this movement would be an important part of the revolution in the USA.

But by his own admission, “he had never studied the question".

Indeed this is revealed in the fact that Trotsky thought the blacks “speak their own Negro language ... (which) they naturally fear to speak (...) but when they are free their Negro language will come alive again".

Yet, however sketchy Trotsky’s knowledge of the condition of US blacks was, it is clear from the minuted discussions that when he advanced the slogan of self-determination he was using it in the Leninist fashion: namely, as the right to secede and form a distinct governmental-territorial entity - a state.

Respect and attention to Trotsky’s teachings is essential but, at the same time, the method of historical materialism requires Marxists to make a concrete analysis of changing historical conditions and ideological changes which flow from them.

In a real sense the TF comrades are bad disciples of Trotsky since their analysis takes no account of the most substantial peace time migration in the history of an imperialist country.

Nor do they ponder the significance of the absence of any serious forces calling for a separate state for over half a century - years not of black passivity but of quite remarkable struggles!

Nor can one put this down to the subdued and defensive political aspirations of the black masses as the TF comrades do, doctrinairely following Trotsky’s argument in the 1930s.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, no one can seriously ignore the evidence that black people have been fighting, and will continue to fight, against their exclusion from the democracy and prosperity that the US is supposed to offer all its citizens (the “American Dream").

Against this background, the LRCI maintains that the overarching strategy for African-American liberation must start from the existing integration of black workers as part of the US proletariat.

It must go on to seek a much greater unity on the basis of a revolutionary struggle against racism and exploitation. In particular, it means drawing into common action the unemployed or semi-employed of the ghettos.

This is not an accommodation to the racism still widespread within the white working class, but the only serious challenge that can be made to it.

The strategy of “revolutionary integration” allows a wide scope for caucuses of black workers within the unions, for black organisations of the unemployed as well as for armed, disciplined self-defence organisations among African-Americans.

It also allows for a united front with separatist and black nationalist forces whenever they take up a progressive cause and really fight racism rather than running away from it.

In contrast to this, an abstract call for self-determination does nothing to relate to the very real and immediate crisis of political leadership in the African-American population as a whole and its working class in particular.

This crisis is a key, inseparable component of the unresolved crisis of proletarian leadership among the whole of the working class in the world’s most powerful imperialism.

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