First Published: The Guardian, February 28, 1973.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The following Guardian interview with Mike Hamlin, a leader of the Black Workers Congress (BWC), was made recently in Detroit, Mich. In it, Hamlin makes a critical analysis of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and discusses the position of the BWC on a number of questions, including that of democratic centralism.
Hamlin was one of the main organizers of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a caucus of black auto workers in Detroit, and later became a member of the executive board of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a citywide organization of black workers in Detroit. More recently, he was the first chairman of the BWC, a national Marxist-Leninist organization of black workers.
The interview was done by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin as part of a study and future book they are writing on the Detroit movement.
Could you give us some general background regarding the formation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and how you evaluate its significance?
The League played an important role in this country in a number of ways. During the period from 1957 to about 1965 many young blacks, black workers in particular, in northern cities like Detroit, found themselves greatly frustrated, alienated and disaffected by the conditions facing us. I engaged in a number of activities during that time and I was involved with people who later became prominent in the Republic of New Africa. I was engaged with the NAACP and CORE and various local black organizations with varying degrees of militancy; I also had some contact with the Socialist Workers party and the Communist party. It seemed that what I was looking for was just not there and that we had to create the kind of thing we needed, a new avenue of struggle, a new method of dealing with oppression and exploitation.
Around 1966, a group of us who later formed the leadership of the League began to meet to discuss the overall situation in order to develop a program for some kind of organization. It took some time for those discussions to get off the ground. The outcome was the publication of a newspaper, the Inner City Voice. In the grouping around the paper were individuals who had been exposed to Marxist theory as early as 1960-61. Many of us who had had less contact or understanding of Marxism were influenced by these other individuals.
The general anti-communist sentiment that had spread and that had affected us throughout our lives was limited because we came to the view that anything the ruling class or establishment in this country was against wouldn’t be so bad for us. We had been impressed by the talk of the SWP and CP about the working class, but we never could understand why they engaged in no work and had no practice involving workers in the city of Detroit. We came to believe that the working class had to make the revolution, had to lead the revolution and that we had to concentrate our energies on workers.
We didn’t really understand what making a revolution entailed, what a proletarian revolution was, how it took shape and how it developed. We did understand that the working class was the vanguard. We also understood that the white working class had been co-opted to the point of not being a revolutionary force and that we should concentrate primarily on black workers. We felt that the civil rights movement and the whole history of oppression in America had in fact made black people, particularly black workers in the North, more militant and more class conscious than white workers. So we began publishing our paper and directed it toward the working class population of the city of Detroit.
We experienced a lot of success even though we had many problems due to inexperience in publishing and inadequate finances. We didn’t give a damn about the laws against libel and slander. We would say whatever we felt like in the paper. We used strong language and called for a black dictatorship of the proletariat and workers control. We used to feature stories about conditions in the plant and about violence in the plant involving white supervisors and black workers. This dynamic approach gained us wide support in the factories.
General Baker, the general manager of the Inner City Voice, also worked at Dodge Main. He was part of the wave of young blacks who came into the auto plants during the Kennedy period when the fiscal policies were liberal and they were priming the pump by creating jobs. General had one of the longest experiences in terms of revolutionary theory and practice of anyone in our group. He had often expressed his revolutionary views at work but he had generally been rejected as too militant. He had also engaged in publishing mimeo newsletters and pamphlets aimed at black workers. These generally took a hard line against the idea of non-violence and advocated a course of armed struggle.
By 1967, the new wave of black workers had just about run the gamut of organizations designed to release some of the pressures they faced. These included integrated caucuses within the union, special black caucuses, various plant organizations, etc. Some of the workers General had previously talked with began to approach him anew. Gradually, he pulled together a group of workers who met in the offices of the Inner City Voice. Eventually General was fired for his leadership in a wildcat strike. One of the key persons in the plant was Ron March. It took him a long time to move from understanding that conditions in the plant were related to what was happening in Vietnam. Eventually he came to a sound analysis and with the rest of the group of workers decided to start agitation at Dodge Main.
They began by publishing a newspaper. The skills we had acquired in publishing the Inner City Voice were very helpful at this point. Our style had been very strong, very harsh and the workers dug it. It didn’t take us very long to train and motivate them to write about day to day things that were happening in the plant. It was primarily a question of convincing them that they could write and that they should write. Sometimes we would do the writing, but by and large, they wrote all the material themselves.
We began to put it out once a week at Dodge Main. We used the Inner City Voice office to draw on a reservoir of people from the street to distribute. Some were nationalists who had nothing else to do but sit around our offices. Others were students. Others were just off the street. We got them all involved in going out to the plant to leaflet. Interestingly enough in retrospect, some of them went out there because they thought it would be a chance to hit some whites, to jump on some whites. These people were called on to distribute because the workers could not. Many of them were incorporated into the League after we had developed from DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) and ELRUM (Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement) to the citywide League of Revolutionary Black Workers. We incorporated a lot of problems when we took them in. With the students and what James Boggs calls a street force, we had a lot of undisciplined elements, extremely nationalistic elements, a lot of metaphysical individuals. All kinds of problems. But we grew very rapidly.
Could you give some details about DRUM?
Well, it involved masses of workers, guided by a very small core group. This is why the level of struggle was impossible to sustain given the number of organizers we had. DRUM closed down the factory after nine weeks of leafletting. We had even higher participation of workers at Eldon Avenue Gear & Axle. At our Sunday meetings we would get as many as 300 workers from Dodge. During our peak at Eldon, we had 400 workers coming to meetings. We had nine people from Dodge as a steering committee. General and myself did work outside the plant. Ron March and Chuck Wooten were crucial inside the plant. Those of us who weren’t working in the plant chaired the meetings to prevent reprisals from the company.
Our strikes taught us a lot. At Dodge we closed the plant’s back gate completely and at the front gate we had about 60 percent of the black workers. At Eldon we got more than 75 percent of the plant. With the shortage of trained organizers we realized we could not sustain such struggles unless we had further training. We also needed to broaden our activities in order to survive. In one or two plants, Chrysler could crush us. At Eldon they got an injunction and fired 26 of our people. There were other incidents where Chrysler called in the cops to beat up people. I began to feel we must broaden our contacts within the community. We needed support to continue the struggle. I also felt we should build several kinds of resources to serve the struggle.
After the Eldon strike we moved toward building a wider organization. We developed a substantial publishing organization, a strong legal defense and wide community support. We built some community organizations and had alliances with others. At one time we had units in every high school in the city. We also had the support of innumerable whites, liberals and radicals. Our policy was to encourage their support as well as to encourage them to do organizing among whites, particularly white workers.
The League began to recruit large numbers of students and professionals. I think that our understanding of proletarian consciousness at that time was very low and we did not do a good job of transforming the understanding of our new members. We were held together by personal loyalties rather than by ideology. People were coming to us for the same reason we had started. They wanted to find ways to struggle. They would come in and we would work together but our ideology remained unclear.
Word of what was happening in Detroit got to workers in other cities. They began to wage similar struggles and they began to communicate with us. We started to discuss ideas about coalitions, affiliations, national caucuses, black workers organizations and so forth. We did not have the foundation to deal with this seriously because we had no trained cadre. For instance, we gave lip service to democratic centralism but it never operated. We had no meaningful political education program. We tried it a number of times but it was sabotaged by the attitude of reactionary nationalists. They didn’t want to study Marxism so they used various tactics to stop the classes. That is not to say that some of our instructors and classes were not dull for workers, but that’s another question. The nationalists would say that Marx and Lenin were white and not relevant.
There has been some question of whether the demands at Dodge were phrased correctly. Instead of asking for black foremen, you might have asked for workers control. The result would have been black workers electing black foremen but the straggle would have been advanced ideologically. White workers could relate to a demand to control foremen.
Well, from the beginning at Dodge we wrote off any possible mobilization of white workers during that period. That is not to say that some of us did not understand that the working class is multi-national and that there has to be unity of the entire working class. But during that time, we deliberately and consciously wrote off white workers. To answer your point specifically: workers control would not have clarified the issue of class struggle. They had to see some blacks in those positions. In fact, that is what happened. There are a lot of black foremen in the plants now and many of the locals we contested now have black leadership. Since conditions remain unchanged, the class struggle is now clearer than if we had tried to skip a stage.
Would you clarify how those of you who were out of the plant related to plant work?
There was an enormous amount of day-to-day work. Some of the workers were doing 10 and 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. They would come to the Sunday meetings, help plan a newsletter, do some mimeographing, but that was about all they had time for. Someone had to arrange the meeting places, secure legal advice and keep the resources producing. I was a truck driver at that period so I did a lot of that work. Also, a worker could not go out to the gate and begin passing out leaflets denouncing the foreman, the company, the unions, the stewards and so forth. That required people who didn’t work in that plant. Finally, once you got meetings going, the company would send spies. Someone has to take visible leadership at those meetings. It’s better if it is someone who is not involved struggle with the company being organized. That was our view because we were not in a position, especially in the initial stages, to defend a worker who had been fired. The in-plant leadership at those meetings would be among the mass of workers and they understood that and the necessity for it.
We’re interested in knowing how you see things shaping up in the 1970s. What difference exists in the present situation from that of the 50s and 60s?
The key thing is that the quest I engaged in when I returned from the Army in 1960 is no longer necessary. I would say that my alienation when I returned at age 25 was at the point of despair. People don’t have to go through that anymore. The civil rights struggle, the Panthers, DRUM, the League and all those events provide an access to a Marxist viewpoint. In my recent experiences and travels I see tremendous numbers of black people preoccupied with the study of Marxism.
It’s easy to forget what an impact the civil rights movement had on my generation. We came out of high school in the 1950s, went to Korea, lived through the Eisenhower period, suffered the recession of ’56-’57, etc. People who had more than ten years experience at Chrysler were laid off from two to three years. The 60s saw them hiring great numbers of blacks and exploiting us through speedup. That’s key. From 1954 to 1964 Dodge went from being an almost totally white plant to one with almost 70 percent black workers.
Production must have doubled or tripled during that period. There was no significant change in the machines, just simple speed up. One man took the job of two or three and that happened throughout the factory. While this was going on in the factories, there was widespread police brutality in the community. That was when the notion of community patrols to watch the cops developed. We were outraged about what was going on down South and then we saw it happening around us too. The rapid influx of blacks into factories began a process of socialization and increasing proletarian consciousness. This laid the groundwork for the great urban explosions of 1963-67. The Detroit insurrection involved substantial numbers of working class blacks. From this experience, the coming generation won’t have to go through the process we did. They don’t debate the question of armed struggle. They won’t have to go through all the cultural routes, the phases of cultural identification. They are already clearly pointed in the direction of the working class.
What do you think of the perspective of black and white organizations developing in the 70s? There was obviously a lot of separatism in the 60s. Will that continue?
I think there will be a change based on the fact that the working class is coming to the fore. In terms of the leadership of the movement, up until now, it has been by and large other than working class people, both among blacks and whites. I think that one of the reasons working class people haven’t been drawn into some movement activities in the past is because of the leadership and its politics which have been basically petty bourgeois. I think that the workers really don’t have such a separatist attitude now, certainly not as separatist as the students and petty bourgeois sectors. This results from their concrete situation. They work side by side with white workers.
This is not to say that this is going to be an overnight development, but the issues of the 1970s are class-wide issues. They are not just issues facing blacks. They are issues facing the entire working class. We are convinced that it is going to be necessary and that the white workers are going to begin to move, not at the pace of black workers in the movement because it is not going to hit them as hard or as quickly, but they will move. Certainly the issues of standard of living, speed-up and unemployment are hitting white workers already. The wage-price freeze has hit the entire working class. The union busting tactics of the ruling class in this country hits both black and white workers. The war policies affect both. We think that most struggles in the 70s will involve those issues and that they will have a class-wide character. Whites will have to deal with this. The white workers may be diverted by racism and other tools of the ruling class, but we just don’t see that happening–especially if we do our work.
What was the relationship of community based organizing to industrial organizing in the League experience?
I think our perspective on community organizing was correct. I don’t think our community organizing was responsible for the collapse in the plants. We didn’t properly understand how to work in plants, how to train workers, how to get them to give leadership to the community groups. We talked about working class leadership in everything we did but we were only successful in getting that started in a few places. We had workers running for school board and we had students distributing their literature door to door. Community organizing and industrial organizing are linked. They go together. The working class should lead the community effort.
The League never clarified its attitude toward the United Auto Workers which is a large, established, wealthy and liberal union. How do you envision caucus or DRUM type efforts emerging in the future? Is this a kind of dual unionism?
There’s a more basic problem than that. One of our problems was that we ended up alienating a lot of workers. We had widespread support among young workers which meant we had almost majority support in some of the plants. But our approach was such that we turned off what I would call the moderate worker, certainly the backward workers, and certainly the white workers. We made the mistake of attacking other workers individually, by name and as a group. We attacked their organizations verbally and in some instances physically. I think that was incorrect. I think we could have led that struggle and gotten their support if we had taken a different approach. I’m referring to other black caucuses, social clubs, individual leaders. We didn’t have to alienate those forces. There was an objective base around which we could have united with them on some issues. We foreclosed that possibility from the beginning. As a result, we were less successful than we might have been.
In terms of the UAW as a whole, I think we should continue to struggle within. We should continue to attack the leadership. We should continue to form black caucuses. We should attempt to unite with and give leadership to the white workers and certainly with other third world workers. I think we have learned a great deal about how to go about this as a result of our struggles here. We have the further problem of unorganized workers, especially in the South where Black Workers Congress has people working. I am still uncertain about organizing those workers into some of the established backward unions, but we’re grappling with the question and will come up with the answer.
You mentioned democratic centralism. Do you think it is essential to have a formal Leninist party or do you think some alternative structure is possible with less centralization and more democracy, especially at the local level? Generally the choice has been democratic centralism or chaos. But we have the experience of bureaucratism and commandism in the Leninist structures. Is there an alternative?
I understand that problem very well and how it develops. In the League, bureaucratic tendencies did develop at different times. They were struggled with but they did harm. The solution to the problem is an educated membership and a strong membership. One of our problems was that the membership was not politically educated and that we didn’t put as much into that as we should have. People came to rely on intellectuals and bureaucrats to interpret things for them. They were unable to make their own analysis. I think the only safeguard against this happening is a strong education program.
I don’t think a Leninist organization must develop into bureaucracy. I think it is a matter of whether a sincere program of educating the membership is undertaken or not. I can see it developing as a problem in almost any situation and the only response is to educate the people so they can make their own analysis of the situation.