Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The New Voice

A Brief History: The Issue of Racism and the Student Movement

First Published: The New Voice, Vol. IV, No. 14, July 14, 1975.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The habit of analyzing the racist super-oppression of black workers as a question of a black nation has grown up gradually in the communist movement in the last five years. Many who accept the pro-nationalist line do not know its history. In application to today’s situation it arose first, not in the workers’ movement, but in the student movement of the 1960’s. It was used then, not by revolutionaries who spoke for the interests of the working class, but by careerists and opportunists who openly attacked workers and revolution.


The primary left-wing student organization at that time was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Most SDS leaders between 1965 and 1968 held an open pro-student power and anti-working class view of social change. Workers, they said, were bought-off allies of the imperialist system. These leaders’ only sympathy with non-student struggle in the U.S. lay with the black civil rights movement, which they did not analyze in class terms. To early SDS’ers, black people (not black workers) were struggling for their rights against all white people; carrying this line further, white workers were seen as the most racist and reactionary.

Starting in 1967, the anti-working class line of SDS leaders was challenged by the Marxist-Leninists of Progressive Labor Party and the mass-based Worker-Student Alliance Caucus. PLP and WSA pointed out that workers are not bought off and do not benefit from imperialism; they have a direct interest in fighting the system, and only they have the real power to bring it to its knees.

PLP and WSA also introduced SDS to the class analysis of racism: the obvious super-oppression of black workers (that is, the differential between white and black workers) is an essential tool of the monopoly capitalists to keep the working class divided and attack the conditions of all working people. The differential is used to foster an illusion that “white workers benefit from racism.” But racism means profit to the capitalists; it means a divided struggle and therefore lower wages and worse conditions for all workers. If students were to fight racism, PLP and WSA pointed out, it is harmful to lecture white workers about their privilege, which does not exist, while isolating black workers in their struggle for equality. The correct approach is to identify the real enemy, the ruling class, and to unite black and white workers on their material interest to fight the racist differential that attacks them all.

Red Baiting

This was the correct Marxist-Leninist line that challenged the student-power spokesmen who ran SDS in 1967. At first, the reactionaries used standard anti-communism against pro-working class ideas. They branded PL “external cadre;” they ranted and raved that innocent members were being “duped” and that SDS was being manipulated by a well-organized, disciplined outside force. As late as 1969, M.K. [Michael Klonsky – EROL], Inter-Organizational Secretary of SDS, warned an assembly of 2,000 SDS’ers to beware of small workshop discussions, because they were “hunting grounds of PL” in its effort to “get inside new people’s heads.”

But the red-baiting flopped. WSA grew in size and influence throughout 1968. WSA and PLP explained social problems scientifically, based on class analysis, and they proved it in practice and struggle, most notably the anti-ROTC fights which rocked campuses nationwide in the late 1960’s. The outstanding campus battle against racism, the four-month strike at San Francisco State in 1968, was prepared in large part by PLP and WSA, whose good leadership throughout much of the strike made it the record battle it was.

Militant new members flocked to WSA, and the anti-working class forces had to shift from open anti-communism to “pro-working class” ideas and struggles of their own.

Moving from student power to workers’ power was bitterly difficult for anti-working class careerists.

Their first efforts displayed the hit-and-miss experimentation of opportunists seeking higher ground when a new situation has them on the run. They renamed themselves the “Revolutionary Youth Movement” (RYM), supposedly to include young workers in a united front which was a matter of age not class. Their discovery of the working class was marked by such new-found truths as, ”Lots of young workers smoke pot.” They distorted the nature of the working class with trash like the “new working class” theory, which fawned over professionals and technicians and identified consumerism as the main weapon of class struggle. The struggles they tailed were racist and anti-working class, typified by the Berkeley People’s Park debacle of 1969.

The “National Question”

The opportunists’ efforts to sound revolutionary only convinced RYM and everyone else that here was no pro-working class force. WSA continued to grow. RYM had to make a last-ditch anti-working class stand or lose control of the organization. The reactionaries made that stand on the question of racism, calling it a “national question.”

SDS had long held the “white skin privilege” line that white workers benefit from the racist oppression of blacks. Of course, while white workers earn more than black workers in general, this is no compensation for the fact that all workers are making less than fighting racism and uniting in class struggle can force from the capitalists. Since more and more members were becoming acquainted and impressed with Marxism, the opportunists had to shuffle the crude idea of white skin privilege around and call it a “national question” to make it sound more Marxist. The essence of the pro-nationalist line is no different from white skin privilege; it still portrays white workers, a part of the “white oppressor nation,” as participants in and beneficiaries of the plunder of blacks and other minorities, the internal “oppressed nations” in the U.S.

In fact, no black nation exists in the United States. (See The New Voice pamphlet Defeat the “National Question” Line in the U.S. and Unite to Fight Racism, $1.) Basing the fight against racism on such a fantasy holds back the class struggle and divides the working class. Specifically, the pro-nationalist line tries to tell white workers that they benefit from racism and can only oppose it out of feelings of guilt or morality. It gives white workers no material basis to fight racism.

PL’s Error

PL and WSA recognized the danger of pro-nationalist ideas and exposed them in SDS. But in the process the pro-working class forces committed a serious error of their own. They jumped from saying that nationalism is reactionary and divisive when there is no nation, which is correct, to saying that all nationalism is reactionary. They began to attack legitimate national liberation struggles, such as in Vietnam. This line was just emerging in 1969; in time it was to destroy PL as a Marxist-Leninist force. Today, the organization is thoroughly counterrevolutionary and reformist.

In 1969 the developing ultra-leftism and liberal racism of PL was secondary to the anti-working class politics of RYM as a wrecking force in SDS. RYM chose the national question as its do-or-die weapon against the working class in the student movement. RYM hid behind the Black Panther Party, screaming that PL and WSA were “racist” for not supporting the self-determination of nonexistent nations. Their demagogic appeal rallied just a large enough minority of the delegates at the 1969 Chicago convention to split SDS.

We refer to their pro-nationalist line because these opportunists, mostly white, are not mainly concerned about promoting nationalism among blacks but about using talk about a black nation to fight class consciousness in the communist and workers’ movements. The essence of their line is that it builds racism and is anti-working class.

The pro-nationalist line was the last of a series of bad attempts by anti-working class forces to appear pro-working class in the face of defeat. In fact, the line of a black nation was defeated in SDS in 1969. It has grown over the past five years only because the death of PL meant that no consistent, influential Marxist-Leninist force existed to insure that its defeat in SDS remained permanent.


The question might arise, “These events in SDS took place six years ago. Can’t people change and develop? Isn’t it possible that the opportunists of old have seen the light and are the Marxists of today?” Of course, it is possible. Opportunists can change in two ways. They can study Marxism and criticize their past errors; or they can shift their ground as conditions change, the better to cover their tracks. The only changes by the pro-nationalist opportunists have been in the second category. They used the pro-nationalist line to split SDS rather than see the student movement ally with the working class. There have been no self-criticisms of those activities. The opportunists have learned nothing but better methods of covering an anti-working class line with red-sounding phrases. But it is the same anti-working class line, and the same people are pushing it today to the same purpose.

The Bay Area Revolutionary Union (BARU) of People’s Park fame outgrew its parochialism and today is the Revolutionary Union (RU), infamous for its metaphysical “nations of a new type” and instant communist parties. RU still pushes white skin privilege just as it did in SDS:

We must divide ’one into two’ on the question of white workers. On the one hand, their privileges as members of the oppressor nation; on the other hand, their common exploitation and oppression, their common interests with the workers of the oppressed nationalities. (Red Papers VI, page 12.)

And M.K., the RYM leader who redbaited PL, who believed in the “new working class,” who pushed the drug culture, is now National Chairman of the October League, one of the leading pro-nationalist, anti-working class groups. His organization still sees the mass of white workers allied with reactionaries against blacks, as even a brief reading of The Call’s analysis of the Boston busing struggle will prove.

Today, the forces that once made up RYM fight among themselves like cats and dogs. This only proves that alliances among opportunists are fragile and fleeting; it is very difficult for more than one leading’ careerist to occupy a single podium for long. The RU, the OL, and the Guardian—all led by ex-RYM luminaries—still despise the working class. Their attempts to use the pro-nationalist line to attack the working class in SDS were defeated. Marxist-Leninists will see that they are defeated again in the party-building tasks of today.