Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Union

Debate on the national question

First Published: The Guardian, February 7, 1973.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Guardian Introduction: The following contribution to the Radical Forum was written by the Revolutionary Union (RU), a multinational, communist organization. It is in response to Guardian staff writer Carl Davidson’s review of the RU’s “Red Papers 5: National Liberation and Proletarian Revolution in the U.S.,” which appeared in the Jan. 10 and Jan. 17 issues of the Guardian.


The RU appreciates the considerable space and the seriousness that the Guardian devoted to reviewing “Red Papers 5.” There are, however, a few points raised by Carl Davidson’s two-part review to which we would like to reply.

Davidson’s main criticism of “Red Papers 5” seems to be that our formulation on the national question ̴avoids the distinction Marxist-Leninists usually make between an oppressed nation and oppressed national minority.”

Davidson, himself, first provides this formulation: “The rule of capital is clearly transforming the black nationality–North and South–into an oppressed national minority.” But it is hard to know exactly what he means with the phrase “clearly transforming.”

Apparently, Davidson really means that the RU formulation is wrong and that the correct formulation is today, as it was in 1928, that the Black people in the Black Belt South form a nation with the right to self-determination, while Blacks outside the Black Belt are a national minority, whose struggle is for equality but not for self-determination.

This is the conclusion from Davidson’s later statement that “Marxist-Leninists must uphold the right of self-determination for the Black Belt,” and his claim that the RU’s formulation puts us in the position of having to deal with the absurd question, “Should Harlem secede?”

Since Davidson’s arguments are already answered in some detail in “Red Papers 5,” we will only touch on one or two points here.

Unclear formulation

Davidson’s formulation of the “right of self-determination for the Black Belt” is at best unclear. Self-determination is the right of a nation, not a territory (the Black nation, not the Black Belt). This is not mere picking at words but brings out a crucial question. As we say in “Red Papers 5,” we regard as utterly wrong the notion that the people of the Black Belt as a whole, Black and white, form a single nation. The Black people there, as throughout the rest of the country, are a separate nation from the whites. It is the right of the Black people, as an oppressed nation, to self-determination that must be upheld.

Evidently, Davidson wants to hold to the Black Belt self-determination position because he believes that it solves very difficult and complicated questions concerning the development of the Black nation–the questions of common territory and common economic life, which are two crucial features of a nation.

But the Black Belt self-determination line doesn’t really solve the question. In the area of the Black Belt, as in the rest of the U.S. today, Black people are dispersed among and outnumbered by whites. This is because of the historic transformation of the Black nation in the U.S.–from peasant farmers concentrated in the plantation Black Belt South to wage-workers concentrated in the urban areas of the South as well as the North. Davidson himself emphasizes that “the investigation done in this section (of Red Papers 5) is one of its most valuable features.” But he wants to avoid the political conclusions that must be drawn from this analysis. He seems to want today’s facts but yesterday’s formulations, based on yesterday’s facts.

This is why Davidson rejects the formulation of the Black people as a “nation of a new type.” Clearly, however, they are a nation of a new type–and this is true whether you regard the Black people in the country as a whole, or just the Black people in the historical Black Belt area as a nation–because they are a nation made up mainly of workers: a proletarian nation. This is why we say that in the U.S. today, the national question for Black people is in essence a proletarian question, while historically Marxist-Leninists have held that, in Stalin’s words, “in essence, the national question is a peasant question.”

Under these circumstances the questions of territory and economic life for an oppressed nation have to be viewed differently than in earlier historical periods, when the national question was a peasant question. With regard to common economic life, we say in “Red Papers 5”: “The crucial question comes down to: Is there still sufficient internal cohesion for the Black people to form a nation? Specifically, is there still the class structure and interrelation of class forces among the Black people to make possible the establishment of a separate Black state? We are convinced that the answer is yes.”

Role of Black bourgeoisie

We then analyze this further, focusing on the role of the Black bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie–which are not-limited to shopkeepers as Davidson says in his review, but include also some small manufacturing and construction firms, insurance companies and other small capital. The fact that much of this is comprador (white-controlled) capital does not eliminate the Black bourgeoisie, but marks it exactly as the bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation.

With regard to the question of territory, we say that the common territory of Black people today, as a proletarian nation, is the large concentrations of Blacks in the urban industrial areas, especially in the inner-cities. This is true throughout the country as a whole, as well as the Black Belt South in particular.

In this situation what does the right to self-determination mean? Secession of Harlem? No, it means the right of the Black people as a whole to form a separate state. The most likely place for this–should it occur– would be in the Black Belt (including the adjacent industrial areas), because this is the historic homeland of Black people and they still live there in large numbers.

We point out in “Red Papers 5” that secession would in fact be a step backward for Black people, but as Stalin says, “A nation has the right even to return to the old order of things.”

“While upholding the right of Black people to self-determination, “Red Papers 5” makes very clear: “We have emphasized the right of the Black nation to self-determination because, although it is not at the heart of the Black liberation struggle, it is one current and a mishandling of this question can only set back the unity of the working class and its revolutionary struggle for socialism. This does not mean that we advocate separation. In fact, we uphold the right of separation because it is a genuine right, and in upholding this right we create the conditions for proletarian unity in opposition to bourgeois separatism.”

This raises the last of Davidson’s criticisms that we feel it is necessary to deal with here. He says that “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.”

Struggle for equality

He seems to have missed the statement, repeated several times in “Red Papers 5,” that the struggle for equality in jobs, housing and education, for community control, and against violent police repression and not the struggle for a separate state, is at the heart of the Black liberation struggle–exactly because the Black people are a nation of a new type, a proletarian nation, and for this reason the Black liberation struggle is an advanced component of the proletarian revolutionary struggle to overthrow imperialism and build socialism. Davidson seems to have failed to fully grasp the essence of the long section in “Red Papers 5,” which begins on page 41, which analyzes in detail why this is so.

In the same way, Davidson also seems to have missed the point of hypothetical conversations at a plant gate, involving a Black separatist, a Black worker and a white worker. The point emphasized in this section of “Red Papers 5” is not, as Davidson says, that Black nationalism is “the main barrier to black-white unity,” but exactly the opposite–that white racism and national chauvinism is the ”great obstacle in the path of working class unity ... (that must) be knocked aside.”

And the struggle against white national chauvinism includes winning white workers to support the right of self-determination, even where it is not at the heart of the struggle, even where, as Lenin said, there is only one chance in a thousand of actual secession.

In conclusion, we want to re-emphasize Davidson’s correct formulation of the main thrust of “Red Papers 5”: “The black worker stands at the center and plays a leading role in both the national and class struggles.” This is the key to Mao Tsetung’s statement that these struggles are bound to merge and this will eventually end the criminal rule of U.S. imperialism.

It is to contribute to these struggles and to help advance their merging that we have published “Red Papers 5.” We hope, with Davidson, that “Red Papers 5” will 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.”