C.L.R. James

The Gathering Forces

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II. Contemporary International Class Struggles

Negro Americans Take the Lead

Not Congress but the Supreme Court has mirrored some vital changes in American life since the years of the New Deal. The Supreme Court is the interpreter of the American Constitution, maintaining continuity if not in actuality then in popular imagination with the words of the Founding Fathers.

The Supreme Court is a conservative institution. Let there be no mistake about that. Yet in its very conservative tradition there is the insight of the great English conservative, Edmund Burke, who saw statesmanship in relation to the American people to be the ability to adapt to the deepest, if hidden, currents in the midst of the population. Thus, it was this Supreme Court, sensing a transformation in process, which in 1954 declared that all segregation of school children according to race was forbidden. The nation was now to be united by the law of the land, the Declaration of Independence reaffirmed.

This reassertion of the fundamental social contract in the United States had a most profound impact in .American life. While today there are more Negro children going to segregated schools than at the time of that decision of 1954, the whole outline of what is America a a nation, and what is America’s place in the world, has shifted.

What is known throughout the globe is that while revolutionary Russia had only one Petrograd, the United States is simply loaded with potential Petrograds from coast to coast. The whole of the American nation is preparing itself for the inevitable choices. Either the Negro will help drive the whole nation forward to some as yet undefined direction or the Negro will be forcibly driven back and everything progressive will be utterly demolished.

A most modern, urban population, the Negro people of the ghettoes, unites in itself the naked force of the movements of the peasantry and the urban sophistication of industrial workers. Consider the weapons used in the uprisings of the Negro people of nearly one hundred cities. Arson, for example, has been in the past most familiarly associated with peasant revolts which have taken to the torch to make life unlivable for those who had made peasant existence unbearable. But today’s uprisings are taking place inf urban American territory.

The revolts in the city not only unite town and country. They are of wide scope and international character. It is a movement capable of taking the book Wretched of Earth of Frantz Fanon, West Indian by birth, French by training, Algerian in revolutionary experience, and finding in it its own answers to the question “What is to be done?”.

All this takes place because there is no adaptation of the old social contract to the new social conditions. There is negotiating but no contractual obligation possible between the Ghetto mass and the manipulative administrators of City Hall and Capital Hill. But the tradition of the social contract is not lost for it expresses itself at its best when wedded to the drive to self-determination and direct democracy. The history of that struggle since the Civil War has been based upon the development of that self-determination and direct democracy of the Negro people.

The original Constitution of the United States had left Negroes out entirely. A great Civil War had to be fought to add a few amendments to that constitution that would touch upon their condition. These amendments, as soon as the Republican Party lost interest in the Negro as a voting bloc, were no longer enforced. The efforts of a peasant people in the South, a black peasantry, to reconstruct that region after the Civil War, efforts which produced great if temporary results, were defeated by a political and economic oligarchy hell-bent on the accumulation of capital by any and every means.

Two main directions for Negro Americans were marked off in the post-Reconstruction United States. One, that of Booker T. Washington, came from the realit of the Negro of rural life. The other, that of W.E.B. DuBois, came out of citified Negro life.

What Booker T. Washington wanted was to separate the question of civil-political rights from the economic transition he thought was the most immediate need of the unskilled Negro laborer. Although there is no doubt that Washington’s view was adequate as a static response to the realities of the late nineteenth century, it was not able to project a view that would be meaningful in twentieth century industrial America.

Indeed, the mark of the difficulties of Washington’s views can be seen in the fact that the welfare state apparatus, sixty-five years later, has taken on his approach. The White Power Structure in the United States today advocates that Negroes have to be educated to the level of urban-industrial existence as the first step in their gradual integration into an unchangeable American reality. (This view has been rejected by the Negro American population who in explosion after explosion indicated the government’s war on poverty as being a wholesale onslaught upon the city poor.)

W.E.B. DuBois took a position opposite to that of Washington. DuBois and the organisation that grew from his views used the most advanced methods of propaganda, research and legal action to achieve equality and dignity for Negro Americans. This was an urban movement which, while it did not involve the mass of Negroes for several decades, provided a centre of work and agitation for those unwilling to accept continual oppression.

World War I and the Russian Revolution were a watershed between an elder America and new one. This was true for black Americans as well as white. The war brought Negroes flocking into industry in the northern cities. Tens of thousands were drafted into the army and thereby plunged into national institutional life. This new urbanisation, combined with the internationalism of the Russian Revolution, produced the movement of Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Soon to involve millions who had moved to the city for the first time, the movement of Marcus Garvey became a twentieth-century propaganda miracle. On the one hand it looked back to the beginning of the racial crisis: the slave was brought here to grow cotton and tobacco, these were no longer great economic factors in the life of the country, therefore, send his descendants back home to Africa. On the other hand it looked forward to helping Negro Americans arrive in the new urban environment. Through its Liberty Halls where a rural Negro in the city for the first time could find a meal, a place to stay, companionship and information about the city, the U.N.I.A. made the Negro feel at home and defended in his new experience in the city.

The Negro intellectuals, centred around DuBois, also moved to meet :this new urbanisation. They produced the conception of the New Negro, urban man producing his own music, poetry, history and literature. And the work they did indeed produce had such a profound impact that white intellectuals and artists flocked to take part in this new movement. A once despised and dispossessed mass held in peonage now created a major focus of the 1920s in America: jazz, major literary works, an artistic movement and a new sociology and anthropology. And on an international scale DuBois helped found the first Pan-African Congresses.

The first four Pan-African Congresses in whose creation DuBois played such a monumental role, led to the Fifth Pan-African Congress, held in Manchester, England, in 1945. Organised by George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and others who had been the International African Service Beau, this congress sounded. that call for African independence which within less than two decades liberated most of an entire continent. Through this work Africa became an integral part of the world’s knowledge and sensibilities.

In the 1930s America entered into a decade of mass unemployment. Ele ental needs of working class unity brought hundreds of thousands of Negro workers, doing the most laborious jobs in heavy industry, into the new trade union organisations.

But the dominant political ideas were white middle-class in nature. To offset the possibilities of social revolution everywhere, the American bourgeoisie undertook to create a variant of state capitalism with some weak welfare measures – and greater bureaucracy. Garvey’s question about the fate of the Negro in America now that the rural past was past, was. answered with make-work projects, some public housing, the dole and a determined indifference to the questions which most concerned Negro Americans.

By 1940 this New Deal was over and a new stage in the internal life of the nation began with the threat of a Negro march on Washington demand equality. The proposed March’s organisers acted with decisiveness and independence They slammed the door on the Communists and excluded all whites. They were ready to tackle the government in the midst of a grave moment in World War II when France had fallen, England was in danger and America was gearing itself for war. The threat of this march had the impact of forcing the Roosevelt administration to recognise, for the first time, demands of Negro Americans. The Roosevelt administration issued an order banning discrimination in all war industries, the first legal onslaught on the oppression of Negro Americans since the reconstruction following the Civil War.

The March on Washington was the intervention of the Negro working class. Only one Negro as ever achieved any national prominence at the top level of the American labour organisations: A. Philip Randolph who had begun to organise the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in response to the Garvey Movement. It was Randolph who was in the position to lead and did lead the March on Washington movement. While unable to respond to the contemporary Negro mood with full understanding, it was the same Randolph who was the major organiser of the sequel to the 1940 March on Washington movement – that demonstration in Washington, D.C., in August of 1963 which forced the reluctant president of the United States to join in the chorus of We Shall Overcome. The movement of the 1950s and early 1960s was begun by middle-class Negro students and the black population of a small southern city, Montgomery, Alabama. It embraced rural and small town people. Its public voice was the Reverend Martin Luther King, who grounded his philosophy of non-violent protests on many sources, outstanding among which was the doctrines of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian peasant leader.

The efforts of the official labour organisations had not been able to undo the hold of Southern Bourbons upon the Democratic Party nor alter the corruption of the political party system itself. Negroes moved beyond these efforts. In the heart of the one-party state, the South, they began to organise themselves in cities and on the countryside against the ancient boss-black system. Starting in the mid-1950s in Montgomery, the movement spread first to the countryside. A decade later it emerged in the industrial capital of the South, Birmingham, Alabama, where black steel workers fought pitched battles with the racist police.

The development in action of the unity of town and country in the Negro struggle in the United States has as its central reality the evolution of the remarkable organisation originally called Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. This movement began by sending black and white studentsinto the South, into the rural South at that, for the purpose of moving the Negro population there into economic self-help, mass registration for the vote, education and community organisation in general. The work of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee compares both in aim and magnitude with the actions of the remarkable Russian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century that went out to work on the Russian countryside.

SNCC soon confirmed its growing reputation among the organisations of the Negro Revolution when it established itself as an all-Negro organisation, when it declared to the world that it had an uncompromising attitude both to the white power structure and the power of the black community. SNCC now struggled on a national and indeed international level for what it had begun to put into action in the South. If the white man did not move out of the way so that the Negro could pass into full possession of the fruits of the twentieth century, the whites would have to be pushed out of the way whatever the cost. The slogan of Black Power raised by SNCC in rural Mississippi and Alabama where Negroes are in the majority moved into the ghettoes of the Negro urban working class.

This movement of the black community for self-determination had found a most able and forceful spokesman in Malcolm X, a man whose consummate self-possession so unhinged U.S. society that sectors of white society may very well have felt compelled to remove him from the scene.

Today the work of Malcolm X has been carried on and the internationalism which had been one of his great contributions to the struggle of black people has been intensified and broadened by Stokely Carmichael of SNCC. In the American South, in the urban North, in England, in Cuba, in North Vietnam, Algeria and throughout the revolutionary world, Stokely Carmichael has appeared as an outstanding spokesman for the peoples of the Third World. And in his great speech to the OLAS Conference in Havana in mid-1967, Carmichael included in the revolutionary alliance of peoples struggling against oppression the white working class of the United States if they would join, not the Negro struggle, but the struggle against their own exploiters.

The movement, in becoming urban, showed a remarkable self-discipline. This was most significantly shown in two large demonstrations, one that took place in Detroit in June of 1963 and the other in Washington, D.C., in August of that year, demonstrations which involved over a half-million self-disciplined people who maintained their order in the face of any and all provocation.

All sectors of American society have reacted to the Negro Revolution. Not so long ago whole sections of the middle class were participating in demonstrations and supporting the civil rights movements. This mood gained momentum at the very time that other mass association, the unions, were losing their middle-class sympathy and support. Today, however, large sections. of the middle classes are leaving the major cities of America, partly to get away from the Negro who had moved into those sections the others were leaving behind. And yesterday’s white civil rights militants have often become, tired and bitter in the face of the fact that the Negro organisations have been captured by – black people!

But sectors of white middle class society still are drawn to the Negro community, particularly the youth who are joined by their peers from other social classes. Also seeking autonomy for itself, and unincluded in the previously established social contacts, the youth are trying to imitate the social forms of Negroes. When the Negroes rise at the centre of the city the disaffected youth and the dispossessed, recently agrarian Southern whites, tend to join in at the fringe. That was the experience of Detroit.

The political import of all this is that whole sections of the American people want to represent themselves and not be misrepresented by some national political party. The parties themselves are being steadily reduced to paralysed bureaucratic castes, incapable of providing even the minimum guarantee of governments: the maintenance of bourgeois order. The old social contract having been breached and branded inadequate, the government makes it clear that it views its function as shouting with ever greater persistence: law and order. As an obvious instance of its inability to even maintain a minimum of this order and authority, there is the incessant confusion about the murder of President John F. Kennedy.

The impulse to direct democracy directs the ghetto revolts. The same impulse directs the efforts of the American working class to express itself independently of the trade union which now exists to discipline that class in the interests of capitalist society. The focus of any American social theory must remain on the parallel though differentiated development of the Negro people and white working class. From the failures of the National Labor Union in the immediate post-Civil War years to unite black and white workers, a failure based upon the coincidence of racial lines with the demarcations between skilled and unskilled workers, to the present, Negro Americans have been in the forefront of the struggles of the American people; in the forefront, but fighting independently. Thus in the struggles of the Populist Movement, Negro sectors of that movement represent historically the interests of the working class as a whole in pushing towards a new third party. As we have shown, in the March on to Washington Movement, Negroes demonstrated to the working class as a whole that only action independent of the bourgeois parties could bring forward motion.

Today both white and black workers through the activities of the trade unions are being dragged behind the Democratic Party. But today increasing sectors of the black population move on their own, leaving the Democratic Party behind.

Only the parallel but independent movements of the Negro mass and of the working class can settle the question of which direction American society will now move in. Whites move against the bastions of privilege and international oppression in the United States not in support of Negro demands but in order to make effective their search for a new social contract that can meet the needs of a modern population. The insistence by local shop and factory communities in different parts of the nation for autonomy from the national union structures in the fight against capital corresponds, not only in point of time but in the very high intensity of its activities with the insistent self-reliance of the Negro movement.

From the period of the Watts Insurrection to the Detroit uprising American capital has been under the greatest siege of transport strikes in its history. Airline mechanics, pilots, longshore and railroad workers, subway men and teamsters have all had their turn. Transport plays a most crucial role in contemporary American capitalism. To make up for the extensiveness of the division of labour there must be dependability of continuous movement between the different points in the process of production, and the movability of the final product to the market place ahead of possible competition, domestic or foreign. The government has retaliated by forcing railroad workers to compulsory arbitration and hounding, at great expense politically and financially, the teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa into jail, ashe obviously could not be incorporated into the state structure.

The ability of transport to tie up the national economy has been paralleled by the activities of auto workers in Mansfield, Ohio, workers who were producers of crucial parts in the entire industry. Against the strong opposition of the union, the bosses, and the state, they went out on strike. In their effort to achieve control over crucial aspects of production, they brought much of the national automobile industry to a standstill.

Resistant sections of American society are ready to finish up with everything oppressive and reactionary inside the United States – and the reactionary role of the American state throughout the world. Transport workers threaten the viability of the market economy itself; the emphasis on local issues on the plant level asserts the workers’ struggle to control production; the risings in the ghettoes make unmistakeable the need to reconstruct social relations in all major cities.

The very heart of American capital has been attacked. Stores have been opened where no money is required. Dollar bills have been rained down from the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange as a demonstration of contempt for the preoccupation with making money and expanding capital. Administrative agencies on gigantic college campuses have been paralysed by students and their supporters. Military agencies have been blocked and threatened with mass occupation.

In the United States which has always demonstrated the impulse to sudden and drastic action, a country which suffers only the absence of a social theory by which the population can understand itself through the very actions it has taken, a revolutionary people are preparing to join the worldwide insurgence against ancient grievances and modern tyrannies.

In the London Observer of 29 October 1967, Anthony Howard, commenting upon the fact that relatively few Negroes joined the demonstration in front of the Pentagon on October 21, said:

... there is an alternative explanation for the reserved and restrained Negro attitude to last week’s march – and it is one that, far from bringing any reassurance to the Administration, could well eventually turn out to constitute the most direct challenge that it has ever had to face. According to this theory, the whole bloody encounter at the Pentagon last weekend was a test case, not of the capacity of the American defence headquarters to withstand mob pressure, but of the ability and readiness of whites to deal in violence.

Nor is it just a theory. One black extremist has already made it clear (though admittedly in retrospect) that that was what the whole thing was about. In rare moment of generosity, John Wilson, Rap Brown’s No. 2 man in SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) announced the other day that as a result of what happened last week, Black Nationalists had ‘gained a new respect for the white Left’. The demonstration, he went on, was useful if only because ‘it proved one thing to white America – that this government will whip you, too.’ Nor did he hesitate to add a prophecy. ‘I predict,’ he said, ‘that white people in this country will be rebelling before the year is over. The only thing the Government understands is violence.’

At Chicago two months ago the forces of the New Left and Black Power may have signally failed to build an orthodox anti-war political alliance. It seems just possible that outside the Pentagon last weekend the first links were forged in a very different type of movement – one dedicated to active resistance rather than symbolic protest.

Only those unable to comprehend the meaning of the Bolshevik Revolution and of the forces unloosed on the world that that event heralded can fail to see that the struggle in the United States has reached a new point. “Orthodox” political alliances – the forced unity of blacks and whites in which the numerically outnumbered blacks follow the lead of white radicals – are being abandoned for those massive independent struggles of whites and blacks which will unite at the rendezvous of victory.

Last updated on 18 October 2020