First Published: Progressive Labor Vol. 4, No. 3, March 1965
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: The convention to found a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party in the United States, called some months ago by the Progressive Labor Movement, will be held in New York City from April 15 to April 18, 1965. The following is a contribution to the pre-convention discussion. The purpose of the discussion is to arrive at a concensus for policy for the new party.
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Negro labor is a part, albeit the most oppressed part, of an army of exploited workers. It is the division of society into economic classes that is the fundamental cause of the plight of the Negro.
Having been stripped of whatever rights he had gained during the Reconstruction period, the Negro became imperialism’s main source of internal cheap labor. A rigid system of discrimination ensured this cheap labor and was an “ace in the hole” for the bourgeoisie: the chauvinistic concepts that emanated from the system could be used to confuse and divide the workers. Color became a great line of demarcation in American society. Not even those few Negroes who had risen to a status removed from labor could escape entirely from the restrictions imposed upon the darker skin.
Within Progressive Labor at the present time there is a controversy as to whether or not to characterize the Negro struggle as a struggle for national liberation. In order to resolve this question we must know first what a nation is and then see whether the Negro people fit into that category. Lenin, in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, formulated the problem this way: “The economic basis for these (national) movements is the fact that in order to achieve complete victory for commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, must have politically united territories with the population speaking the same language...”
Lenin here points out an essential component of the modern capitalist nation: an independent economy based upon commodity production. Language, culture and territory are consolidated to meet the demands of the economy.
Do the Negro people have a common economy (or the basis for such an economy) contained within a common territory? Harry Haywood, author of Negro Liberation, takes the position that they do, in the Black Belt of the South. Haywood’s position is supported by Bill Epton in his draft report The Negro Question and the Right to Revolution.
According to Haywood’s own figures, the percentage of Negroes for the entire population of the Black Belt had fallen to 48.7 by 1940 and is today in the vicinity of 45 per cent. The whole Negro population pattern has shifted radically within the last half century. The Negro, once concentrated primarily in rural areas of the South, has been forced off the land and relocated in the country’s largest industrial cities. Even in the South itself, the trend is for Negroes to leave the farm and go to the urban areas.
If imperialism had not encroached upon the Black Belt in the way that it did, it is conceivable that some day the Negroes there would have developed a full-blown culture of their own: a national consciousness and will that might have developed into a struggle for self-determination. But that is not what happened, and developments continue to lead away from such a solution.
Seeing the obvious difficulties of the Black Belt theory, some people in Progressive Labor who lean towards nationalism have adopted another position. It holds that the Negro people are a nation, or part of one, wherever they constitute a majority of the population. To refute this concept I need go no further than Milt’s statement in the last discussion bulletin:
When people begin to control their communities and their political affairs, it also puts them in the position of having to control the fundamental thing, that is, their economic affairs. But these ghettoes physically have no relationship to the means of production. The workers are here and the means of production are someplace else. To have freedom you have to have the means of production.
I don’t think we have a national liberation movement in the U.S. today, although I’ve used the term as much as anybody else. I think it’s just a mimicking of a term that’s developed in the international movement, that seems on the surface apropos to the situation here. We used it because we don’t have a clear position of our own and it sounds nice. Superficially you can make a case for it, but I don’t believe it’s what exists here at all. My own feeling is that what exists here is that the Negro question is fundamentally a class struggle...
Does the fact that the Negro people are not now a nation rule out self-determination as a possible future goal? Not necessarily. That would depend upon the will of the Negro people and whether autonomy could be made possible. The greatest mistake is to read a demand for self-determination presently into the minds of the Negro people. Today the Negro is engaged in a mighty struggle for his rights as an American. We must address ourselves now to this struggle. If separatism ever takes hold amongst the Negroes, it will come only after bitter defeats and will be a dismal failure of the Left. Therefore, let us get on to the main tasks before us.
It is harmful to relegate the solution of the Negro problem solely to the general class struggle, just as it is harmful to support Negro separatism. While most Negroes belong to the working class, they are barred by color from sharing even the limited benefits of their white counterparts. They comprise a social stratum below that of the whites. Their living and working conditions are in most cases qualitatively different from those of the whites. In an absolute sense the white working class cannot benefit from the racial oppression of the Negro. However, as long as capitalism survives the whites will always be in a better position relative to the Negroes. This very real economic and social factor, along with the constant racist propaganda of the ruling class, is the cause of white chauvinism. Therefore, to forego an independent Negro movement, to merge it indiscriminately within the class struggle, would be to abandon the very special demands for respect and equality of the Negroes as a people.
There is a civil rights movement today, but it is a movement that has won few gains for working class Negroes. By-and-large it is manipulated by the bourgeoisie. Depending upon our forces, it might be worthwhile to work in some of the more militant smaller organizations, or the more militant sections of larger ones. We could try to win these groups over to fight for working class demands. In the main, however, I think that new organizations will have to be created. They are being created; i.e. the self-defense movements, school boycott movements, etc.
In the struggle for Negro freedom, independent organization is only one side of the coin. The other side is the winning of white allies and united struggle to achieve goals that would benefit the whole working class.
On rare occasions, the major civil rights organizations have dealt with the problem of discriminatory hiring practices. They have put Negro workers in competition with white workers for a limited number of jobs. The result was that white workers attacked and insulted them, and in the long run very little was accomplished. This is because the Negro movement today does not see the Negro problem as a class question, but solely as a color question. It is incapable of linking the demands of white and black workers for more jobs, which is the paramount issue. It is not the Negroes, in seeking white allies, want benevolent aid in a struggle that bears no relationship to the needs of white workers. Marx said: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black skin it is branded.”
The demand for equality in jobs should never be divorced from the demand for more jobs for all workers: 30 and 40, public works, etc.
The slogan “tear down the slums and build integrated, low-cost housing” is one around which white and Negro workers can rally. This demand can be of double benefit to the working class. While providing more decent housing for all, it could also have the effect of putting many thousands of unemployed construction workers, and others, back to work. If Harlem, the Lower East Side, Bedford Stuyvesant, and other slum areas of the city were torn down and rebuilt, it would probably solve the unemployment problem in New York City, at least temporarily. New workers would be needed to accomplish such a gigantic task, and the Negro movement would hold firm to the demand that minority group people be hired on an equal basis. Under those circumstances, however I feel that very little resistance would be met with on the part of white workers.
“More and better schools for all” can be a slogan advanced by the Negro people. This slogan would win many white supporters. At the same time the Negro people would have to insist that educational facilities in minority areas do not lag behind those in white areas.
Militant Negro forces in the trade unions can be the advance guard in agitating for strikes, fighting corrupt union leaderships and putting forth a program of struggle around class demands.
Seeking white allies is not a concession to the enemy. Putting forward demands that would benefit white as well as black workers, is not a compromise. These are things intrinsic to the gaining of Negro freedom. We should not think in terms of two streams, black and white, both pursuing their own aims and merging sometime in the distant future around the goal of socialism There are grounds for unity now.
With a Marxist-Leninist method and a party which can apply it, we can begin to influence developments in the Negro movement, as well as in other areas of the class struggle. The building of such a party should now be the main task before us.
With the working class in power, the system of racial discrimination will be put to an end. Prejudice, while still existing in peoples’ minds after a revolution, will no longer be profitable to anyone. Some feel, however, that the irksome remnants of racism will have to be dealt with through some form of “guarantee” of rights to the Negro people. I think this should be the topic for another discussion in which the subject can be enlarged upon. But what remains as a constant is that only the winning of socialism by black and white can eradicate the roots of racism and put into any sort of guarantee something more than empty phraseology.