Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

American Workers Organization (M-L)

The National Question

First Published: People’s Voice, Vol. 1, No. 8, October 1973.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The national question is of importance to American Marxist Leninists because a correct understanding of the problem is a precondition for the achievement of unity between white and minority workers on day to day issues, for the liberation of minority people and for the creation of a broad united front for the ultimate establishment of socialism.

For this reason, prior to the publication of a detailed pamphlet on the subject, we are devoting a good deal of space in this issue to a brief discussion of national liberation and proletarian revolution in the U.S.

Discussion of self determination and what constitutes a nation has correctly proceeded from Stalin’s definition, which was approved by Lenin: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup ... It is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be lacking and the nation ceases to be a nation. ... It goes without saying that a nation ... is subject to the law of change, has its history, its beginning and end ...”


After the failure of reconstruction such a nation of oppressed black people was solidified in the South. But we must remember that this state of Jim Crow was forced upon black people by an alliance of Northern capital and the Southern bourgeoisie. Prior to that, during reconstruction, considerable unity had at times been forged between black and white trade unionists small farmers and tradesmen.

Prior to the solidification of Jim Crow, both populists like Watson (“You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both”) and black workers’ leaders like Thomas Fortune (“When the issue is properly joined, the rich be they black or be they white, will be found upon the same side; and the poor be they black or be they white will be found upon the same side”) spoke out for black-white unity against racism and monopoly capitalism.

By the end of the nineteenth century we find the existence of Jim Crow (segregation, exploitation, denial of democratic rights, legal racism) and a Black nation in the South. And a split between the black and white laboring masses. This was a pre-condition for the expansion and growth of monopoly capitalism. The healing of that split is a condition and key aspect of the struggle to overthrow US monopoly capitalism today.


Today black people are for the most part working people (proletariat and petty bourgeoisie), and a dispersed national minority living primarily in cities throughout America. The process of urbanization and proletarianization which has taken place at an extremely rapid rate in the South in the last ten year parallels the historical development of black people in this century. The Black Belt nation has been destroyed by dispersion (less than 30% in the South), destruction of the peasantry and the bourgeoisie, industrialism and integration.

Today over 55% of Afro-Americans live outside the South, three fourths of Afro-Americans live in metropolitan areas. Minority workers make up 40% of the work force in certain sectors of the economy: the capitalists make a $22 billion profit every year from the exploitation of black labor.


Common to many incorrect positions on the “left” is a voluntarism which minimizes class struggle and passes over the only possible objective basis for black separatism – the existence of a nation. For example, at their 1963 convention the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party embraced all forms of black nationalism on the following grounds: “What we advocate is the right of the Negro people to decide this question for themselves.”


In 1928 and 1930, before the dispersal and proletarianization of the Black nation, the Comintern and the then revolutionary CPUSA correctly advocated the creation of a Black State in the South. Then 86% of black people lived in the South, 74% in rural districts. This 1928 position is however parroted some forty years later by the October League in spite of changed historical conditions: “The US is a multinational state. That is, within the borders of the US there exist several oppressed nations and national minorities ... It is the resolute duty of the proletariat ... to resolutely uphold in practice the right of oppressed nations to self-determination (including the right to secede and establish its own independent state). ..” (O.L. May ’72 program).


One aspect of the “C”P reformist line is that black people can win dignity and full democratic rights by reforms under capitalism. Other aspects of the revisionist position were fully outlined by Claude Lightfoot in a 1967 report to the National Conference of the “C”PUSA. Lightfoot argued an American Exceptionalist position: “In dealing with the American Negro we are dealing with a people that has a history different from any other people on earth, and to fully understand his make-up we must take into consideration that here color, race and oppression operate independently of Stalin’s definition ... Certain national attributes that the Negro was evolving in his Black Belt experience could spill over when he came north.”


In the May Day 73 issue of “Revolution” Revolutionary Union summarized their updating of the autonomous nation line. As we have heard RU speakers talk out of both sides of their mouth on this subject, we quote In detail: “Blacks still constitute a nation within the US, but is has been transformed from an overwhelmingly peasant nation tied to the land to an overwhelmingly proletarian nation under new conditions. The territory of the Black nation, which includes all areas of Black concentration, exists within the same boundaries side by side with the white nation, i.e., the continental US... To say that Black people are not a nation but a national minority is to deny the right of Black people to determine their own destiny ... We uphold the right of self-determination, the right to set up a separate state, autonomous region or some other form, but in the US, the possibility of self-determination could only become a reality with the overthrow of monopoly capitalism”. (our stress)


But this is very un-Marxist, apriori, idealist phrasemongering and cannot stand up to the test of reality. It has its roots in the New Left and internal colony theory of the student movement of the 60’s. It has at its basis the American Exceptionalist idea that black people in the US constitute a factor unique in Marxist analysis (keep in mind that in some capitalist European countries one third of the labor force are foreign or minority workers). When the Black nation ceases to exist and becomes a national minority one simply invents a new category to justify tailing separatism and narrow nationalism.

For a nation dominated by imperialism (e.g. Vietnam) the struggle for national self determination is a revolutionary struggle. But if there is no nation, no multi-class internal economy, no territory, if the mass of black people form a key oppressed sector of the working class and people of a single nation, if there can be no progressive struggle for national independence – what then? “It is certain that, in such a situation, the O.L. and R.U. lines can only disrupt the militant movement of the Afro-American workers, encourage it to wear itself out in unreal struggle, and split it from the struggles of other sectors of the working class.

As a strategy workers and progressives cannot embrace an ideology which has its roots in the past and the petty bourgeoisie. However as a tactic it is of course correct to ally (“from the masses to the masses”) with oppressed people when they are making progressive demands, although they make take certain nationalist forms. This means defending nationalists against attacks by the police state, clearly distinguishing the spontaneous nationalism of black people from white racism, and in trade unions when conditions dictate, building caucuses national in form and class in content,as well as integrated left caucuses.


What is at stake however is more than a polemic on the national question. The concrete effect of advocating separatism, the “right” of self determination and narrow nationalism within the US is to split the working class and progressive forces.

Imagine organizing exploited “white” workers on the line that what communism will offer you is deportation out of New York or Boston or Chicago to a socialist ghetto someplace else in the country, for you and your family are presently living and working on the site of the future black autonomous region.

Division can also only result from moralistic appeals by white radicals to white workers that they should in some way acknowledge that they are “less exploited” (a liberal theory not only in its sense of collective guilt, but in its non-Marxist misuse of the term exploitation without reference to surplus value). Blanket moral and idealist accusations by well-meaning radicals that white workers are “racist” without examining and overcoming their class fears about crime, drugs and unemployment (“where do incorrect ideas come from?”) can only serve to divide. Fighting racism has nothing in common with liberal piety.

Uniting all who can be united against the capitalist corporate state cannot be accomplished by those who gloss over the fact that the majority of the American working class remains “white” (i.e. many ethnic groups or national minorities), suffers exploitation, a declining standard of living and economic insecurity, and has had a glorious, militant and violent history of class struggle.


The Afro-American people as a whole (proletariat, petty bourgeoisie, students, professionals etc) are oppressed by capitalism and imperialism (a fact overlooked by the Trotskyite PLP). As minority Americans black people suffer racism, denial of human respect and common dignity. Black people are victimized by the police are kept within slum ghettos, are denied vital social services.

All struggles in these areas are just, democratic and significant. Here the broadest front alliance amongst oppressed black people and other progressives should be formed; in addition existing progressive national forms of struggle should be supported. However as reforms in these areas can only be limited under capitalism, the cause of racism and oppression, these struggles must be guided by a Marxist Leninist perspective.

Black workers are hit most of all at the point of production. Black and other minority workers have played a leading role in the militant struggles of the US working class. Here is where the key fights will take place against capitalism, the corporate state and emerging fascism – in trade unions and workers caucuses that are the natural united fronts of the working class, as well as in related areas where workers are oppressed in the communities and neighborhoods.

The industrialization and dispersion that has broken up the Jim Crow nation has again created conditions for united class struggle. Future articles in PV will deal with the history of black workers’ struggle, with the unity achieved with other American workers, and with the role of a Marxist Leninist party in relating class struggle to the perspective of socialist revolution.