Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


“Black Power” emerged as a battle slogan in the midst of the massive struggles of the Afro-American people in the 1960s.

It was first popularized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the rural areas of the Deep South in late 1965. Within a year the slogan had swept the entire country and had been embraced by millions of Afro-Americans as their own.

The inception of the slogan was simple enough. It was simply the logical consequence of the fight for the right to vote in the Black Belt states. Sooner or later the question “vote for whom?” was bound to come forward in practice. SNCC Chairman Stokely Carmichael explained the development of 1966 in the New York Review of Books:

In Alabama, the opportunity came to see how Blacks could be organized on an independent party basis. . . SNCC went to organize in several counties such as Lowndes, where Black people–who form 80% of the population and have an average annual income of $943–felt they could accomplish nothing within the framework of the Alabama Democratic Party because of its racism and because the qualifying fee for this year’s election was raised from $50 to $500 in order to prevent most Negroes from becoming candidates.

On May 3, 1966, five new county ’freedom organizations’ convened and nominated candidates for the offices of sheriff, tax assessor, members of the school boards. These men and women are up for election in November-if they live until then. Their ballot symbol is the black panther: a bold, beautiful animal, representing the strength and dignity of Black demands today. A man needs a black panther on his side when he and his family must endure–as hundreds of Alabamans have endured-loss of job, eviction, starvation and sometimes death, for political activity.

He may also need a gun and SNCC reaffirms the right of Black men everywhere to defend themselves when threatened or attacked. As for initiating the use of violence, we hope that such programs as ours will make that unnecessary; but it is not for us to tell Black communities whether they can or cannot use any particular form of action to resolve their problems.


Thus the “Black Power” slogan and the black panther symbol emerged in a specific context. First, it aimed for political power for the masses of Black workers, farmers and sharecroppers in the Black Belt. Second, it was combined with the advocacy and organization of armed self-defense against the reactionary violence of the state and the Ku Klux Klan. Third, its initial organization was a repudiation of the Democratic Party in favor of independent mass organizations of Black people.

None of this, of course, was consciously revolutionary in the sense that it aimed at the overthrow of the relations of private property and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was still a relatively spontaneous development, without Marxist-Leninist leadership and within the realm of bourgeois politics.

Nonetheless its directions and implications were revolutionary. This point was not lost on the ruling class, which lashed out at the development, slandering and vilifying both SNCC and “Black Power” in the press.

It also represented a crisis for the Black reformists and the Communist Party USA revisionists. Both had tied their political strategies to the coat-tails of the Democratic Party and to pacifism, either in the form of nonviolent tactics or in the illusion of a “peaceful transition” to socialism.

At first the “respectable” Black leaders lined up to denounce “Black Power” and attempted to isolate SNCC and others as “separatist” and “nationalist.” Black social-democrats, such as Bayard Rustin, were particularly vicious in this effort. The CPUSA revisionists made a similar attack on Malcolm X, whom they denounced as a counterrevolutionary police agent. But the effort was soon seen as futile. “Black Power” expressed the rebellious mood of the Black masses and their rejection of the liberal gradualism of the Black upper classes. Black opponents of “Black Power” found themselves quickly losing credibility. It became apparent that the only way to combat the revolutionary thrust of the movement was to embrace the slogan while redefining its substance. This was made all the easier by the lack of a genuine communist party.

In the meantime the Black masses spontaneously advanced the scope and level of the struggle. 1965 was also the year of the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles. A blatant act of police brutality produced an armed insurrection that saw some 4000 arrests and 34 killed.

Black people in the ghettos of the North and West were both infuriated with the repression in the South and outraged at the intolerable conditions in their own communities. Malcolm X, as an advocate of Black nationalism and armed self-defense, had gained wide respect and his influence survived his assassination.

In 1965 the Watts rebellion was considered the worst “race riot” in U.S. history. It was a distinction soon to be overshadowed. In 1966 some 43 major rebellions took place. In 1967, there were 128. And in 1968, with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there were more than 140 violent rebellions throughout the U.S.

The Black revolt erupted in all its fury. The old reformist leadership was brushed aside. New organizations came to the fore which were anti-imperialist, nationalist and revolutionary. The Black Panther Party was formed in dozens of cities, raising the slogans of armed self-defense and the right of self-determination and trying to popularize Marxism-Leninism as the ideology for Black liberation. In industrial centers the Black proletariat organized in various ways. The most advanced was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, which posed the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the means to win Black freedom.

But while all of these groups made a contribution to the struggle, none were able to carry it through consistently and lead it. Without the leadership of a Marxist-Leninist party, the national revolutionary upsurge was unconsolidated and splintered by a variety of petty-bourgeois Utopian and reformist tendencies.

The consequences of the two-line struggle in the CPUSA in the 1950s are most evident in this context. The revisionist liquidation of the revolutionary line, especially on the national question, was sharply exposed.


The CP could not claim to have been taken by surprise. The Black revolt of the 1960s had been forecast for them, along with a guiding line, by Harry Haywood and other Marxist-Leninists in the party at that time. As Haywood stated in his 1957 polemic, “Toward A Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question”:

The careful avoidance of a revolutionary placing of the Negro question runs like a red thread throughout the arguments of the revisionists.

They adopted a one-sided, economic-determinist approach, which bases itself upon long-range, evolutionary changes presumably dissolving the economic base of Negro national oppression without the nasty political upheavals–without the transfer of power to the submerged masses which is the precondition for a solution of the Negro national question.

True, there is a long-range trend toward the gradual dissolution of the Negro population concentration in the Deep South. True, the semislave plantation system is being undermined by changes in southern agriculture. But these are indeed long range. In fact they are so gradual that long before they can have a decisive effect on the Negro question, the ever-sharpening contradictions of imperialism will lead to a revolutionary crisis in that area.

Their emphasis upon ’long-range economic changes’ is intended to divert us from the real situation which exists presently in the Deep South, and the sharpening of all contradictions there. . .

The main thing is that the objective basis for a national revolutionary movement directed toward some form of territorial autonomy does exist in the Deep South. . .

In basing themselves on the ’long-range trend’ toward amalgamation under the aegis of imperialism and ’the forces of capitalist development of great expansionist power which has lasted well into the era of monopoly and imperialism,’ the proponents of the ’direct integration’ solution to the Negro question negate the countertrend, which is the revolutionary trend, toward national freedom. . .

There is a view prevailing in the party that we need only await a mass upsurge for our party to again come forward as the leader of the struggles of the working class and Negro people. However a mass upsurge is not enough. Our party must have a revolutionary line in order to lead the masses. Without a revolutionary line, our party can die even in the midst of a mass upsurge.


Haywood’s comments did not fall from the sky. Rather he had simply reaffirmed the party’s basic line on the Afro-American question, applying it to the actual conditions at the time. It was the line that had been established in 1928 and 1930 and reasserted in the late 1940s after the expulsion of Browder. Even in 1930, the Communist International had forecast the broad outline of the 1960s upsurge:

Insofar as industry is developed here (in the Black Belt) it will in no way bring a solution to the question of living conditions of the oppressed Negro majority or to the agrarian question, which lies at the basis on the national question. On the contrary, this question is still further aggravated as a result of the increase of the contradictions arising from the precapitalist forms of exploitation of the Negro peasantry and of a considerable portion of the Negro proletariat (miners, forestry workers, etc.) in the Black Belt, and at the same time owing to the industrial development there, the growth of the most important driving force of the national revolution, the Black working class, is especially strengthened. Thus the prospect for the future is not an inevitable dying away of the national revolutionary Negro movement in the South, as Love-stone has prophesized, but on the contrary, a great advance of this movement and the rapid approach of a revolutionary crisis in the Black Belt.

But Browderism, even without Browder, had won the day in the CPUSA. Several points are noteworthy about the recent six-part series on the national question in the Guardian in this regard. First, it never once mentions Browderism and Browder’s liquidation of the national question. Second, it never mentions the two-line struggle in the CPUSA over the Afro-American question in the 1950s. Third, the entire series makes only one reference to Haywood, which is as follows:

In fact, all these various positions, while making a show of scientific analysis, ultimately fall back upon subjective factors and moral arguments to justify their conclusions. Thus, Harry Haywood, writing in 1959, says ’The territory of the Deep South belongs to the Negro people. They have earned it as no other people have earned a homeland!


This claim that Haywood’s work only makes a show of scientific analysis and rests on subjective factors and moral arguments is a distortion and slander. It can be refuted simply by reading the Haywood document and seeing if the series in the Guardian has characterized it accurately or fairly.

The series in the Guardian also makes a number of other criticisms. It hits at Black reformism, the racism of the masses of the white workers, the “white guilt” of the student youth and the “opportunism” and “dogmatism” of almost the entire communist movement today.

But there is one target that gets off the hook altogether. The entire series never once mentions the labor aristocracy and thus never points out its particular role in perpetrating white chauvinism within the working-class movement.

The recent series in the Guardian also sums up the lessons of the Black struggle for equality in the last 20 years in the following way:

Afro-Americans have won many significant victories in the struggle to overturn the legal barriers to formal equality. But these legal gains have also helped to demonstrate that the source of Black oppression is not primarily in the political system. (Emphasis added.) The special oppression of the Afro-American people today continues to provide the monopoly capitalists with superprofits in industry, a large industrial reserve, a source of cheap labor for menial jobs and a ghettoized market.

This indicates an erroneous understanding of the relation between politics and economics and of the nature of the state. “Politics cannot but have precedence over economics,” said Lenin, “To argue differently means forgetting the ABCs of Marxism.” To put it another way, what is a greater primary source of Black oppression than the fact that the Black masses are living under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie? The great importance of the Black revolt was that it focused the attention of the Black masses, however imperfectly, on the question of political power, the context within which the dictatorship of the proletariat can be raised as the first step in the solution of the national question. Even Malcolm X, who was not a Marxist-Leninist, put the issue in a way that runs counter to the formulation in the recent series in the Guardian:

You don’t need to go to the employers alone, it is the government itself, the government of America that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of Black people in this country. And you should drop it in their lap. This government has failed the Negro. This so-called democracy has failed the Negro. (From “Malcolm X Speaks”).