Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

The national question in the U.S. today [Review of Red Papers 5]

First Published: The Guardian, in two parts: January 10 and January 17, 1973.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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A crucial and difficult problem for the U.S. revolutionary movement, historically and today, is what Marxist-Leninists refer to as the “national question.”

Since imperialism divided the world into a handful of dominant, oppressor nations and a large majority of subject, dependent and colonized nations, the struggle of the oppressed nations for their emancipation assumed new importance as a component part of the proletarian socialist revolution.

Revolutionary forces in the U.S., in the main, have had little difficulty in grasping this development in the tricontinental area of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The national liberation struggles on the three continents are seen by most as the focus of the storm center of world revolution and as the strategic ally of the U.S. proletarian movement.

Where differences have arisen is on how the national question is to be understood within the borders of the U.S., most particularly in relation to the struggle of the Afro-American people. Red Papers No. 5, written by the Revolutionary Union, takes up these questions and formulates a theoretical overview and practical guidelines for the emerging revolutionary movement here.

The scope of the document is both thorough and systematic. It begins with a discussion of the historical and material basis of white supremacy and national oppression, the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery, followed by an analysis of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period in the U.S. South.

But the core of the work is addressed to the formation of an oppressed black nation in the Black Belt region of the post-Reconstruction South and its development and transformation over the past century into what the RU terms “a nation of a new type,” overwhelmingly proletarian in character and dispersed in urban concentrations through the country.

The “nation of a new type” formulation is the RU’s own contribution to the national question. It is seen as incorporating the essence of what is still valid in the Communist International’s 1928 “Resolution on the Negro Question in the U.S.”

“In the interest of the utmost clarity of ideas on this question,” the Comintern stated, “the Negro question in the U.S. must be viewed from the standpoint of its peculiarity, namely, as the question of an oppressed nation, which is in a peculiar and extraordinarily distressing situation of national oppression not only in view of the prominent racial distinctions (marked difference in the color of skin, etc.) but above all, because of considerable social antagonism (remnants of slavery).”

At the same time the RU sees its view as standing in opposition to two current lines within the U.S. left on the nature of the Afro-American people.

It’s differences are based on demographic changes in the past 50 years among the black people which demonstrate their transformation from a primarily rural and peasant existence to a primarily urban and proletarian existence. The investigation done in this section of the document is one of its most valuable features.

The RU believes its conclusions “underline our differences with the theory that the struggle for Black liberation today revolves around the establishment of an independent, new democratic republic in the Black Belt. In Red Papers No. 2, we pointed out that those who cling to this theory are forced into a dogmatic twisting of reality and of Marxist analysis, what Mao Tsetung once described as ’cutting the toes to fit the shoes.’

.. .Those who insist that independence in the Black Belt and ’land to the tiller’ are the essential demands for the Black people actually cut the heart out of the Black liberation struggle and play down the potential power of the Black people’s movement.

No national question?

The RU also says its line is directed against “those who swing all the way to the other side and dogmatically insist that there is no national question in the U.S.

There may have once been a Black nation in the U.S., they argue, but exactly because of the transformation of the Black Belt and of the Black people who were once concentrated there, that Black nation no longer exists: today, the Black people simply suffer class oppression plus racism, they say.

The RU argues instead that the transformation of the black nation has taken place within a “decaying, dying capitalism” and that “under these conditions, the breakup of the Black nation in the South has not and cannot mean that the Black people are assimilated into the society as a whole, that they simply merge into the class structure according to their relative numbers. Instead, Black people are overwhelmingly forced into the lowest, most exploited sections of the working class as a kind of caste; and, on the other hand, the class structure within the Black nation is reproduced, in its deformed character, within the present concentrations of the Black population–the urban ghettoes.”

While the RU is correct to argue against the liquidation of the national question in the U.S., it is at this point that its “nation of a new type” formulation runs into its severest difficulties. With its new formula, the RU has backed itself into the uncomfortable position of having to argue for the existence of a nation that has no common territory at the present time, since the “new type” nation exists everywhere Black people exist and they are dispersed in ghettoes throughout the country.

An essential aspect of any nation is also that it has a common economic life, which at least requires a diversification of class structure and a modicum of exchange between town and country. Within an oppressed nation, this national market does not have to be the dominant aspect of its economy in order for it to still retain its nationhood. In fact, the penetration and suppression of its “national” market is a key aspect of what makes it an oppressed nation.

But through its elimination of the question of territory from the present-day Black nation, the RU is forced to construct the weakest argument in its position. This is the view that the operations of petty-bourgeois black shopkeepers in the various black ghettoes constitutes “an economy within an economy.” The “merchant capital” accumulated by these elements, the RU argues, could be gathered up and reinvested ”once the question of a territory functioning as a national market is solved” in the Black Belt just as “merchant capital has historically, provided the base of industrial capital.”

There are a number of obvious problems with this. First, the entirely local exchange conducted by ghetto shopkeepers in no way constitutes “an economy within an economy.” Second, the RU refutes its own view on the territory question by locating the basis of a “national market” in the Black Belt. Third, black merchant capital can never develop into industrial capital on any scale under monopoly conditions.

Finally, by “reproducing” the class structure of the black nation in dispersed urban ghettoes, the RU avoids a particular, discussion of the black bourgeoisie in the Black Belt region and tends to separate the still remaining black peasantry from the “new-type” nation.

In anticipation of some of the problems their analysis raises, the RU quotes from Stalin’s work, “Marxism and the National Question,” which’ presents the traditional Marxist view that dispersed national minorities cannot be artificially united:

“There is no doubt,” Stalin wrote, “that in the early stages of capitalism, nations become welded together. But there is also no doubt that in the higher stages of capitalism, a process of dispersion of nations sets in, a process whereby a whole number of groups separate off from the nations, going off in search of a livelihood and subsequently settling in other regions of the state; in the course of this these settlers lose their old connections and acquire new ones in their new domicile and from generation to generation acquire new habits and new tastes, and possibly a new language. The question arises: is it possible to unite into a single national union groups that have grown so distinct? What are the magic links that unite what cannot be united? Is it conceivable that, for instance, the Germans of the Baltic Provinces and the Germans of Transcaucasia can be ’united into a single nation?’”

While the point raised here by Stalin does not exactly apply to the situation of the Afro-American people, it points to a crucial distinction in the analysis of the national question that the “nation of a new type” formulation obscures and renders unimportant: the distinction between an oppressed nation and an oppressed national minority.

The implications of this for both the analysis and programmatic line projected in Red Papers No. 5 will be discussed in the second part of this review.

[Second of two parts]

In its discussion of the national question as it applies to the Afro-American people the Revolutionary Union has put forward the formulation that black people “are nation of a new type: dispersed throughout the country, but concentrated in urban inner cities, overwhelmingly working class and part of the single U.S. proletariat.”

What this formulation avoids is the distinction Marxist-Leninists usually make between an oppressed nation and an oppressed national minority. The latter is the part of an oppressed nationality that has been forced, as a result of the rule of capital to migrate from its historical homeland to the oppressor nation, usually into its metropolitan centers.

The RU states its view this way: “The important question is not the particular word–’nation’–as opposed, say, to ’national minority.’ The crucial question is to understand the historical and present material conditions of Black people and the essential thrust of the Black liberation struggle today that flows from those conditions.”

The RU describes accurately the central position of the black masses today as a crucial part of the U.S. working class and points out that national oppression cannot be fully eliminated without the overthrow of capitalist rule. The RU’s conclusion is that the black worker stands at the center and plays a leading role in both the national and class struggle. On this point–which is the main thrust of Red Papers No. 5 and the fundamental basis for revolutionary strategy in the U.S. the RU is correct and sums up an important lesson for the new Marxist-Leninist forces.

But the RU’s view that the distinction between an oppressed nation and an oppressed national minority is relatively unimportant runs into serious problems. This is seen most clearly in its political characterization of the main aspect of the struggle against national oppression as a force for uniting the working class. The 1928 “Resolution of the Communist International on the Negro Question in the U.S.” poses the question as follows:

Two slogans

Should the slogan of social equality or the slogan of the right of self-determination of the Negroes be emphasized? . . . The struggle of the Communists for the equal rights of the Negroes applies to all Negroes, in the North as well as in the South. The struggle for this slogan embraces all or almost all of the important special interests of the Negroes in the North, but not in the South, where the main Communist slogan must be: “The Right of Self-Determination of the Negroes in the Black Belt.” These two slogans, however, are closely connected. The Negroes in the North are very much interested in winning the right of self-determination of the Negro population of the Black Belt and can thereby hope for strong support for the establishment of true equality of the Negroes in the North. . . .

When this was written, most of the Afro-American people lived as peasants or semi-proletarians in the rural areas of the South and constituted a majority in the Black Belt. (The “Black Belt” designates an agricultural region containing the core of the plantation system and was given the name because of the color of the soil.)

Today less than five million of the more than 20 million black people in the U.S. live there. Most are workers and they do not constitute a majority, except in a gradually shrinking number of counties. While this is the historical homeland of the black nation and its territorial location today, the rule of capital is clearly transforming the black nationality–North and South–into an oppressed national minority.

The Comintern was correct in the emphasis it gave to the slogan for the right of self-determination at the time. Moreover, in applying this demand specifically to the Black Belt, it was pointing out that the slogan described the right of a nation, which included the right to secede and establish an independent state.

Although also subject to national oppression and thus part of the movement for national liberation, the struggle of an oppressed national minority, however, was for equality and full democratic rights within the oppressor nation. This was because the lack of a common territory within which to develop a common economic life left the self-determination demand without a material base in the scattered minority communities.

Even given the prevailing conditions, however, the Comintern in another resolution in 1930 still concluded that the slogan “full social and political equality for Negroes” was the “central slogan of our Party for work among the masses…”

The Afro-American people’s struggle today is directed at the entire system of white supremacy which in turn serves as the keystone of capitalist rule. This struggle aims to eliminate every aspect of national oppression, eradicating in the process all national privileges developed by the bourgeoisie as a barrier to the class unity of the black and white masses. In the main it has taken the form of the struggle for full equality which advances the class struggle and the interests of the entire proletariat. The advanced contingents of the black liberation struggle are learning more forcefully every day that the road to victory is through proletarian revolution.

The RU does not oppose the demand for full equality, but its “new-type nation” formulation prevents it from placing the main emphasis on this aspect of the national and class struggle.

This stands out most clearly in a section of Red Papers No. 5 where a hypothetical conversation is depicted at a factory gate between a white worker, a black worker and a black activist who argues the views of the Republic of New Africa by calling for the formation of a separate black state in the South. The dialogue has two variations. In one, the white worker opposes the right of blacks to secede. In the other, the white worker argues against secession, but upholds the right of the black masses to decide the situation in either case. The RU’s conclusion is that the first line of argument serves to unite the two blacks while the second serves to unite the two workers.

Taken at face value, the dialogue presents the correct Leninist position. The main weakness of the presentation, however, is that it does not accurately reflect the actual struggles and arguments going on within the working class. Most activists would be hard put to recall an actual conversation of this type, but could immediately point to a myriad of factory arguments focused on the struggle for equality–upgrading on the job, equal pay, preferential hiring, school busing, open housing and many others.

The point is that these struggles reflect the main arena in which the battle for unity within the working class is being fought. The RU could have made a far more effective contribution to the workers’ movement if its dialogue proceeded along those lines and had included a white labor aristocrat rather than a black nationalist as the main barrier to black-white class unity.

Other problems

In addition to not placing this aspect of the question in its proper, central perspective, the “new-type nation” formulation creates additional interrelated problems. By one-sidedly stressing the self-determination slogan while at the same time defining a nation as “welding together of a people . . . from a common culture, experience of oppression and systematic “economic exclusion,” the RU has actually made a theoretical concession to the line of “cultural-national autonomy” of the cultural nationalist forces within the black movement.

Marxist-Leninists must uphold the right of self-determination for the Black Belt, even today when it is clearly a secondary aspect of the struggle. At the same time they must recognize that the demographic changes imposed by capital imply that the form this demand should probably take in practice is for a program of regional autonomy for the area, emphasizing the need–within the context of a socialist U.S.–for black proletarian rule there to finally liquidate the remnants of slavery and economic backwardness.

But posing the question this way shows that the demand for self-determination has its actual meaning when applied to an oppressed nationality within a common territory. Just raising the question, “Should Harlem secede? Or form an autonomous region?” should indicate that these options do not apply in a material way to the scattered minority communities. Yet this is a conclusion that can be drawn–however the RU may resist it–from the slogan of the right of self-determination for a “Black nation” that exists “today throughout the country.”

At the same-time Marxist-Leninists should understand that opposition to cultural-national autonomy–the view that nationalities should be organized separately wherever they live into a “national union” that would exercise sole control over their cultural life–does not mean the revolutionary forces should oppose the democratic ’content of many “community control” struggles being waged in national minority communities.

“The struggle for the equal rights of the Negroes,” states the Comintern document, “does not in any way exclude recognition and support for the Negroes’ right to their own special schools, government organs, etc., wherever the Negro masses put forward such national demands of their own accord.”

There are other problems with Red Papers No. 5 not focused on here which are nonetheless important. One is that the 77-page document hardly discusses the role of the labor aristocracy as a social basis of national oppression and, in fact, never uses the term once. Another is the analysis of the role of white labor during the betrayal of Reconstruction, which considerably plays down their class collaboration during the period. And a part that deserves more discussion is the question of whether black slaves should be seen as part of the proletariat or as a separate class.

Red Papers No. 5, however, represents an important and painstaking effort on the part of a multinational Marxist-Leninist organization to formulate a position on the national question in the U.S. today. There is much to be learned from it despite its mistakes and it should be read, studied and criticized by all anti-imperialist activists with the aim of achieving greater clarity, higher unity and a more thoroughly revolutionary practice in the national and class struggle.

“The evil system of colonialism and imperialism arose and throve with the en- slavement of Negroes and the trade in Negroes,” Mao Tsetung wrote in 1963, “and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the black people.”