First Published: As a series in the Guardian, 1975-1976.
Reprinted: Liberator Press, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
A considerable degree of heat–although not a corresponding measure of light – has been engendered by the ideological debate over the “national question” in the U.S.
There has, however, been a certain unrealistic quality to much of the debate so far. New theories have been invented and old ones revived with great facility but little concrete investigation. These have been followed by stentorian proclamations condemning to ideological perdition all those who have thus far remained unmoved by analyses that do not improve by virtue of a rise in the decibel count with which they are offered.
Among the national communist organizations, three positions have now been put forward relating to Black people in the U.S.
The October League (OL) believes that the analysis offered by the Comintern in 1928 and 1930 still corresponds to contemporary social reality and is, therefore, the principal basis for a strategy for Black liberation. Flowing from this, the OL sees “the right of self-determination, up to and including secession, of the Afro-American people in the Black Belt South” as the main demand and principal revolutionary slogan in relation to this question.
The Revolutionary Union (RU) tries to take into account the enormous changes that have taken place over the past half-century in the actual conditions of life of the Black masses and has concluded that the analysis offered by the Comintern, while once sound, no longer applies to the situation today. In the RU’s view, Black people in the U.S. as a whole constitute an oppressed nation, although “under new conditions.” These new conditions are primarily the “dispersal of millions of Blacks from the ’Black Belt’ as the result of both economic compulsion and terror. The RU, therefore, “upholds the right of Black people to return to and reclaim their homeland” in the Black Belt. While upholding both self-determination and “the right to secede,” the RU does not see either “reconstituting Black people in the deep South” or “self-determination” as “the main demand.”
The Communist League (CL), now the Communist Labor Party, also basing itself in large measure on the Comintern resolutions, advocates the establishment of an independent “Negro nation” in the territory of what was once the old Confederacy embracing some 13 states of the South, including but going far beyond the boundaries of the Black Belt.
The polemics waged between the upholders of these three positions have been characterized by sarcasm, self-righteous denunciations, innumerable quotations from Stalin, Lenin and Chairman Mao, analogies with Palestine, Puerto Rico and other national liberation struggles–and a minimum application of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete realities of the U.S. in the present epoch.
But despite the furious exchanges, these positions have some significant features in common. All base themselves on the assumption that a communist party in the U.S. must raise the demand for “self-determination” in order to win the support of Blacks to proletarian revolution. In fact, this is one of the chief arguments advanced by some who uphold one or another variation of the Black nation thesis; that the only way in which communists can effectively challenge the hegemony of bourgeois nationalists over the Black masses is by becoming themselves the advocates of “self-determination.”
The chief theoretical difficulty encountered in this process has been the historically tested Marxist proposition that only “nations”–not racial groups, tribes, national or ethnic minorities, religious groups, various social substrata, etc.–have not only the right, but the ability to exercise self-determination.
Furthermore, the Marxist description of a nation, put forward by Stalin in his classic work on “Marxism and the National Question,” has likewise won universal acceptance as providing the only scientific basis for determining whether or not a people constitute a nation. “A nation,” says Stalin, “is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture.”
This “definition” of a nation has been cited many times over in the course of the current debate. We will have occasion to go back to it–and to other extremely important concepts advanced by Stalin–in the course of this discussion. For the moment, however, let us confine ourselves to the immediate debate.
Even the most cursory examination of all the arguments that have been marshalled to explain the logic of the various “Black nation” positions demonstrates that the most fundamental precepts of Marxism-Leninism have been tortured beyond recognition in order to provide an ideological foundation for these various propositions.
In the case of OL’s “Black Belt nation” thesis, it has become necessary either to ignore, or to explain away as primarily bourgeois conspiracy, 50 years of historical development. The heart of the OL’s analysis rests on the view that the enormous changes that have taken place since the time of the Comintern resolution–the mass migrations to the north, the proletarianization of the Black peasantry, the qualitative transformation of the economy of the South which has eliminated most of those semifeudal characteristics which 50 years ago were dominant-have been nothing but monopoly capitalism’s plan to destroy the Black nation.
As a result, the OL slides over the fact that the Black Belt nation no longer retains all of those characteristics Stalin deemed essential in determining whether or not a nation existed. Some proponents of their theory actually argue that all the required conditions still exist-although great leaps in both terminology and inference are required to justify this. Others simply say that if the Black Belt nation is missing any of its crucial features, this is the result of the “deformity” imposed by imperialism and Blacks have not “accepted” this changed reality.
The RU’s thesis is not really so different. They too see the past half-century as fundamentally a plot by the ruling class. At the same time, they think the Black Belt nation does not exist any longer. They then develop a two-pronged argument: (1) that Afro-American people in the U.S. as a whole are a “nation of a new type” and (2) that the right of self-determination basically consists in their right to reconstitute the Black Belt nation if they choose to. In their most recent statements, however, the RU appears to have dropped the “nation of a new type” formulation, which is just as well, since providing a theoretical justification for this statement proved to be impossible without a major revision of Marxism.
The CL, for its part, seems to have opted for the notion of “in for a dime, in for a dollar,” and now promises Black people not only “independence” for the Black Belt, but a huge chunk of territory basically as “reparations” for four centuries of slavery and racist oppression–a meaningless piece of rhetoric which corresponds exactly to the CL’s view of the U.S. (white) working class as a “bribed” sector of the imperialist monolith.
Typically, most proponents of the “Black Belt nation” thesis in the current debate over the national question start their analysis with Stalin’s “definition” of a nation. To many, this undoubtedly seems to be a reasonable place to begin.
But to follow this method is to turn the whole process of Marxist analysis upside down. As Chairman Mao says in his “Talks on Literature and Art at the Yenan Forum”: “In discussing a problem, we should start from reality and not from definitions. . .We are Marxists, and Marxism teaches that in our approach to a problem we should start from objective facts, not from abstract definitions, and that we should derive our guiding principles, policies and measures from an analysis of these facts.”
To start from definitions is the approach of idealism, not historical materialism.
The Greek philosopher Plato, a defender of the slave system in his own time, based his whole world outlook on starting from definitions. According to him, every natural object and social phenomenon already existed (and therefore was already “defined”) in the mind of God. The human task, according to Plato, was to fathom this ideal and try to duplicate it.
Those who enter into the present discussion by asking: “What is a nation?” and “Do Black people in the U.S. meet this ’definition’ of a nation?”–even though they seem to be basing themselves on Stalin’s historical materialist analysis–in essence are taking the same approach that Plato and subsequent idealist philosophers did. They start with an idea rather than with reality.
Does this negate the importance of revolutionary theory? This, of course, is what the dogmatists charge their opponents with, accusing them of being pragmatists, empiricists, “worshippers of facts,” etc.
But in reality, dogmatism undermines revolutionary theory every bit as much as pragmatism does. By making Marxism-Leninism into a dead ritual rather than a living science, they discredit revolutionary theory in the minds of the masses and provide ammunition for demagogues and bureaucrats alike.
What does it mean, after all, to “start” with a definition of a nation? Do the communists go out into the world Diogenes-like, armed with their appropriate quotation from Stalin, in search of a social entity which corresponds to the “definition”?
Such a procedure, of course, is absurd. It is the methodology of bourgeois scholasticism which first establishes intellectual pigeon-holes and then proceeds to categorize all natural and social phenomena according to this preconception.
But ours is not the sociological task of classifying the world. It is the revolutionary task of changing it. And so we cannot start with a “definition” of a nation–even Stalin’s. Our only starting point is the real world and our aim in “starting” is to overthrow the rule of capital, establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and build socialism in the U.S. in harmony with the socialist revolution throughout the world.
Starting with the real world, in this case, clearly does not mean only the situation of the Afro-American people in 1975; but is does mean in the first place the actual conditions of the Afro-American people at the present moment, most particularly their class position. If we can agree that the principal contradiction in the U.S. is between the working class and the monopoly capitalists, it does not require any exhaustive examination to determine where Black people as a whole stand.
Not only are they overwhelmingly on the side of the proletariat, they are overwhelmingly of the proletariat.
This may be an obvious fact–but it is a relatively recent one. This was not the case when the Comintern issued its resolution “On the Negro Question in the United States” in 1930 and advanced the thesis of the Black Belt nation with the right to self-determination.
In 1930, the overwhelming majority of Black people in the U.S. were peasants, particularly in the South. They worked and lived under semifeudal conditions. They were tied to the land almost as rigidly as the peasants of medieval Europe. The sharecropping system, at that time the primary economic form in the agriculture of the Black Belt, was not significantly different in essence from the relations of production characteristic of agriculture under feudalism.
To fully understand the significance of this change in the class character of the Afro-American people, it is necessary to examine 400 years of history. Using the Marxist method of class analysis, it becomes immediately apparent that in class terms, the history of Black people in the U.S. is divided into three periods.
Each of these three periods is characterized by different relations of production; and in each period, the class character of Black people is fundamentally different from the period before.
Until the Civil War, 99% of Black people in America were slaves; that is, they were a definite social class. Skin color was a useful device for denoting their social class and white racism was the indispensable ideology for rationalizing this set of social relations. But the essential condition of Afro-Americans was based on their class position.
The Civil War ended the system of chattel slavery and brought about a fundamental change in the class character of the Afro-American people. Slavery was replaced with the feudalistic plantation system; the Black chattels became land slaves, peasants tied to the land and the plantation owners.
In terms of the real conditions of life for the former slaves, “freedom” was, in most respects, a wry joke. In some ways, “freedom” meant an intensification of repression and a lowering of living standards since the slave-owners no longer had either the “responsibility” or the incentive for feeding and housing the Black laborers. Having lost a significant hold over those required for the cultivation of their lands, the plantation owners resorted to forms of terrorism and oppression which were invented to correspond to the new situation.
Nevertheless, no one will deny that the change from being slaves to being peasants was qualitatively a significant leap in the development not only of Black America but in the general relation of class forces in the U.S. as a whole.
It was during this period–and precisely because the Civil War never completed the bourgeois democratic revolution to which it had seemingly aspired– that the newly “emancipated” Afro-American people living in the Black Belt area of the South developed all of the characteristics of a nation which Stalin summed up in his famous thesis.
In 1930, when the Communist International (Comintern) passed its “Resolution on the Negro Question in the United States,” Afro-Americans in the Black Belt South had developed all of the characteristics of a nation which Stalin had outlined in his theoretical work on the national question.
But it was not theory that had forced the Communist Party to confront this question. It was the emergence of a powerful nationalist movement during the 1920s, a movement which at its peak brought millions of American Blacks into political motion.
The Garvey movement–initiated and led by a West Indian pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey–had an impact on the consciousness of Blacks throughout America that was without precedent. Contrary to various themes of “self-improvement” or reliance on “talented” leadership, Garvey spoke to the millions, asserting racial and national pride bound up with discrimination that every Black person knew out of first-hand experience.
But Garvey’s separatism–like those that have followed it–was essentially the ideology of despair. Reacting to the racism that pervades the white workers, Garveyism failed to see that the class position of the working class placed it in objective contradiction to the source of white supremacy and that the racism of the white workers was a false consciousness that could be struggled against and eradicated.
Then again, it was not the responsibility of militant Blacks to “educate” the white workers. That was the task of a communist party, particularly its white cadre, and the adoption of the Comintern resolution was a significant step in that direction.
Eventually the Garvey movement collapsed. Government persecution hastened the process, but its fundamental weakness was that it projected a politics–“back to Africa”–that did not correspond with the real social conditions or the real aspirations of the overwhelming majority of Afro-Americans.
In considering the implications of the Garvey movement, the young Communist Party began to arrive at the political analysis which was to enable it to become a leading force in the Black community over the next decade. The concept that the Black Belt South was an oppressed nation with the right to self-determination was of the greatest importance. This was not because it was an idea that ever seized a significant portion of the Black masses but because it enabled the CPUSA to see the struggle for democratic rights and against all forms of Jim Crow segregation and racial persecution of Black people as a whole as an inherently revolutionary question.
As a result, the CPUSA was able to overcome what had been the signal weakness of the American left until that point–its failure to seize the question of democratic rights for Afro-Americans and make that question a matter of fundamental principle and prime strategic significance. There is no evidence to show that the party’s position on the Black Belt nation or in favor of self-determination ever had any measurable impact on the consciousness of the Black masses. But the party’s leading role in cases like those of the nine young Blacks framed in Scottsboro, Ala., or the case of Angelo Herndon, won it enormous prestige in the Black community.
And these, of course, were not isolated phenomena. Despite internal weakness, the communists became known as the foremost opponents of every form of racial discrimination. It was the communists who set the tone in the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s which brought both Black and white workers together in the newly formed industrial unions.
To fully appreciate the significance of the Comintern resolutions in setting the CPUSA on this course, one should study them not only for their theoretical insights, but also for their overwhelming concern for the particularities of the question. The Comintern resolution ties the question of self-determination to “the fact that the majority of the resident Negro population are farmers and agricultural laborers and that the capitalist economic system as well as political class rule there is not only of a special kind, but to a great extent still has pre-capitalist and semi-colonial features.”
It is a theme that the Comintern documents touch on again and again. In the 1928 resolution, the Comintern states flatly that “the agrarian problem lies at the root of the Negro national movement.” The 1930 statement, in laying the basic groundwork for its theoretical assessment, places the greatest emphasis on the fact that “at least three-fourths of the entire Negro population of the United States (12 million) live in compact masses in the South, most of them being peasants and agricultural laborers in a state of semi-serfdom, settled in the Black Belt and constituting the majority of the population.”
The resolution even says that “the great majority of the Negro masses in the South are living in slavery in the literal sense of the word,” (my emphasis–I.S.) in order to underscore the importance of the semi-feudal conditions of life.
In arguing against the Black Belt nation thesis today, some people have said that population shifts or the industrialization of the South–with the accompanying rise of a Black proletariat in the South–are the key factors that must be taken into account. These are important developments. But they actually reflect something of even greater significance: namely the break-up of the semi-feudal plantation system and the resulting transformation of the foundations of the southern economy.
In the framework of monopoly capitalism, the bourgeoisie has finally completed its own revolution in the South. But since the bourgeoisie is no longer a “progressive” class, not even as “progressive” as it was at the time of the Civil War, it has not concluded its consolidation of the domestic market in a “democratic way.” It has, in fact, followed the classical pattern of the bourgeoisie throughout the capitalist world. It has “resolved” the contradiction between a system of advanced monopoly capitalism-and a thoroughly wasteful and ultimately uneconomic semifeudal plantation system in the South not by giving land to those who worked it but by driving the peasants from the land and reorganizing agriculture along thoroughly capitalist lines.
In doing so, the bourgeoisie has in effect completed the class struggle it waged against the slaveowners, since transformed into feudal plantation owners, who dominated the South for more than 300 years. As with all bourgeois victories, its triumph was a cruel one, resulting in the uprooting and dislocation of the southern small peasantry–both Black and white.
But while this process changed the class position of the Black masses in the South, it did not, by itself, ameliorate in any significant degree national and racial oppression.
Still, it can hardly be coincidental that the powerful upsurge in the struggle for civil rights during the 1950s-marked particularly by the school desegregation struggles in the South and such militant actions as the Montgomery bus boycott-paralleled the breakup of the plantation system.
The bourgeoisie’s need for “free” labor-one of the hallmarks of the liquidation of feudalism–helps to provide the material foundation for new levels of militancy among the oppressed. As a result, in the 20 years since the historic Supreme Court decision on school desegregation, 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. 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. If all this weren’t enough to provide the monopoly capitalists with a large stake in the continuing national oppression of Black people, they also have the added benefit of a source of deep division within the working class through the deliberate sowing of racial hatred and ideological incitements.
Nevertheless, the proletarianization of the Black masses whicluresulted from capitalism’s conquest of the plantation system in the South is a good thing. It has brought the Black masses right to the center of the revolutionary process in every corner of America, immeasurably strengthened the proletariat by infusing it with a militancy which combines the struggle against national oppression with the struggle against class exploitation and hastened the day of capitalism’s final overthrow.
This process has also irreversibly altered in a most fundamental way some of those indispensable characteristics of a nation that prevailed in the Black Belt at the time of the Comintern resolution.
Sooner or later, the debate around the national question must come down to one fundamental question: Is there an Afro-American nation in the Black Belt today?
If there is a nation, then communists must and will uphold the right of self-determination for that nation as a matter of principle and political necessity. For a nation is not just a concept. It is a material force, a national social cohesion with a dynamic life of its own that is bound to come forward and grip the consciousness of that nation so long as its rights as a nation are denied or infringed upon.
But if there is not a nation, then advancing and upholding the right of self-determination is much more than a harmless error. It is an accession to reactionary bourgeois nationalism and a betrayal of the real interests of the Black masses because it projects a “solution” to their oppression that does not correspond to the real world and is therefore either unattainable or can be achieved only in a reactionary way, such as in the creation of the state of Israel.
The importance of concrete and particular historical conditions in resolving this question cannot be overestimated. In his work on “Marxism and the National Question,” Stalin points out that “the solution of the national problem can be arrived at only if due consideration is paid to historical conditions in their development.”
The phrase “in their development” is a critical one. Stalin emphasizes it in another passage. “Conditions, like everything else,” he writes, “change, and a decision which is correct at one particular time may prove to be entirely unsuitable at another.”
Have conditions in the Black Belt South changed so significantly in the past 45 years as to warrant a thoroughly new appraisal of the national question?
We have already discussed the most important change of all–the breakup of the plantation system which was the economic foundation of the Black Belt. The effect of this development on the demography of the Black Belt has been profound.
The “Black Belt” is a crescent-shaped area cutting across sections of 12 Southern states from Maryland to Texas and so designated because of the color of the particularly fertile soil. Because of the favorable material conditions, this is where slavery and the plantation system were concentrated.
For 50 years, 1860-1910, the ratio of Black to white population in the Black Belt remained quite stable, varying from a low of 56.4% to a high of 60.3%. The plantation system began to weaken around the time of World War I but still remained the dominant economic factor in the Black Belt for the next 30 years.
The very first changes in the plantation system produced a marked shift in population. By 1920, Black population in the Black Belt had fallen 53.6%. By 1930 to 50.3%. Such rapid changes in population over the course of two decades following a half-century of remarkable stability are themselves a reflection of important changes taking place in the underlying economy of the area.
But the point of qualitative change was not reached until after World War II when the semifeudal plantation system ceased to be the dominant form of agricultural production to be replaced by capital intensive farming and the trend–since further developed–of financial control by agribusiness set in.
Now the demographic changes accelerated. By the time of the 1970 census, Blacks constituted only a little more than one third (38.5%) of the total population of the Black Belt. Furthermore, while the actual number of people resident in the Black Belt increased by one-and-a-half million from 1930 to 1970, the number of Blacks living in the area decreased by more than half a million.
Accompanying this has been a dramatic change in the number of counties in the Black Belt where Blacks constitute a majority. In 1900, there were 286 such counties (out of 400) with a total Black population of some 4 million. In 1970 there were 105 such counties with a combined Black population of one million. But in 1900, and still in 1930, the counties with a Black majority were a contiguous territory encompassing most of the Black Belt. Today, these counties of Black majority are geographically isolated pockets throughout the South. And the trend toward further dispersal of the Black population is readily apparent.
Today, the overwhelming majority of Black people live outside the Black Belt. In fact, the combined Black population of six cities-New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles–is greater than the entire Black population of the Black Belt.
It has been argued by some that these demographic changes are irrelevant to the question of nationhood. Nowhere, it is pointed out, does Stalin refer to a “majority” of the inhabitants when he talks about a people’s “common territory.”
But the Comintern resolutions of 1928 and 1930, the most forthright presentations of the Black Belt nation thesis, thinks that the question of a Black majority is of the greatest importance. Over and over again, the resolutions emphasize this point, calling for “the right of the Negroes to national self-determination in the Southern states, where the Negroes form a majority of the population.”
The 1930 resolution specifically links the question of self-determination to the presence of a Black majority. ”If the right of self-determination of the Negroes is to be put into force, it is necessary wherever possible to bring together into one governmental unit all districts of the South where the majority of the settled population consists of Negroes. . .[The] right of self-determination. . .means complete and unlimited right of the Negro majority to exercise governmental authority in the entire territory of the Black Belt.”
It is true that Stalin never uses the term “majority.” But the reason for that is not hard to find. Given the historical context of Stalin’s work, the existence of a national majority on the “common territory” was so self-evident as to be redundant.
It is ingenuous to argue that the lack of a majority is not decisive in arriving at a correct conclusion on the national question. For the question that asserts itself immediately is how the democratic right of self-determination will be exercised in the absence of a Black majority?
Of course, communists would not recognize the right of the white bourgeoisie and landowners and their lackeys to have a say in determining the destiny of the Black Belt. But what percentage of the population would be so disenfranchized? Five percent? Even 10%? The only way in which the principle of self-determination for Black people in the Black Belt South could be carried out today is by negating the very meaning of self-determination as a democratic question.
This is not to suggest that the question of a “majority” is itself an absolute principle. Clearly there are circumstances in which imperialism can create an artificial majority in order to justify continued national oppression. Again, the example of Israel and the brutal displacement of the Palestinian people immediately comes to mind.
But the warning contained in the Comintern resolution against “artificially construed analogies” is worth remembering. It should be sufficient to point out critical differences between the situation of the Palestinians and the situation of Afro-Americans to see that neither question will be resolved in terms of the other.
The great majority of Palestinians who were uprooted from their homes and became refugees have not become economically integrated in their exile and have created a movement of return to their homeland. Even those who uphold the Black Belt nation thesis are not likely to suggest that the 82% of the Black population of America who now live outside the Black Belt are either similarly situated or have developed a similar movement.
The struggle for the full democratic rights of the Afro-American and other oppressed national minorities in the U.S. today is an indispensable aspect of the struggle for proletarian revolution. While there will continue to be, to some extent, sectional differences around this question for some time to come, these regional particularities are not the decisive aspect of the question.
What has already become decisive is the similarity of Black oppression both North and South and the forging of a common front of struggle that will ultimately link the aspirations of all the oppressed national minorities with the goals of the working class as a whole.
In his work on the national question, Stalin points out the indispensable features of a nation. Among these are common language, territory and economic life.
But Stalin’s “definition” of a nation is not an abstract law. It is a generalized conclusion that flows out of a very thorough and concrete examination of peoples and nations as they have evolved historically and as they existed at the time Stalin wrote his work.
Ultimately, the crucial question was not which particular label would be applied to a people–nation, national minority, nationality, etc.–but what was the correct revolutionary strategy for linking various people’s struggles against national, racial and religious oppression with the struggle of the working class for the overthrow of capitalism.
For the communists to deny the right of an oppressed nation to self-determination is to promote national chauvinism, divide the working class and deny the proletariat the strength of a powerful ally.
By the same token, for communists to advocate the right of self-determination for a national minority is also to promote division within the working class and a surrender to reactionary bourgeois nationalism.
Therefore, an examination of these indispensable characteristics of a nation cannot simply be an exercise in bourgeois scholasticism. It must be an investigation that sees the particularity of these characteristics and understands their relation to the whole process of historical development.
Take, for instance, the question of common language. It is obvious that two peoples can have the same language and still be separate nations: the U.S., England, Australia and New Zealand, for example, all speak English and are clearly separate and distinct nations.
From this self-evident conclusion it is usually argued that the fact that English is the common language of both the Black Belt South and the rest of the United States is of no significance in a scientific examination of the Afro-American national question.
But the question of language should not be passed over so lightly. For in virtually every case where an oppressed nation is physically a part of the oppressor nation, it is precisely the separateness and distinctness of the national language that has been a crucial factor in keeping the national identity alive. In fact, the defense of the national language is invariably a critical battleground in the struggle against national oppression. Examples that come immediately to mind are Quebec, the Basques and the non-Russian nations of the Soviet Union.
Viewed in an abstract, metaphysical way, it is true that the “common language” of the Black Belt being English would appear to conform to Stalin’s listing of characteristics. But when this fact is taken in conjunction with the whole process of historical development, it can also be seen that a significant prop in the maintenance of a separate economic life and cultural identity which has operated in other circumstances has not been a factor in relation to the Afro-American people of the U.S.
The drive for a single language has been characteristic of the bourgeoisie’s strivings for national hegemony. It is an invariable aspect of the drive to conquer the national market and to develop a single economy under capitalist rule. The inability of the oppressor bourgeoisie to eliminate a distinct national language has invariably reflected the survival of a common economic life among the nationally oppressed, for a common language is indispensable to commerce and trade.
And so, the fact that English is the common language of the Black Belt and the rest of the U.S. (with some notable Spanish-speaking sections) has made it that much easier for the Black Belt to be assimilated into the economic life of the nation as a whole.
Concededly, the matter of language does not by itself, prove anything one way or another as to the existence of a separate Black Belt nation in the South. But it is a particular phenomenon that should, at least, give us pause. I know of no other examples of two peoples so closely bound together physically-sharing the same territory–who speak the same language and yet have developed as separate nations.
In the years when the plantation system dominated the economic life of the Black Belt, the fact that Black and white spoke the same language was relatively unimportant. But with the breakup of the plantation system, the mass migrations out of the Black Belt and the subsequent transformation of Afro-Americans there from an absolute majority of the population to a minority of roughly 38%, taken together with the gains made by the Black masses in the South in the struggle against segregation, the language question must be examined once again in the light of markedly changed circumstances.
Stalin, in his work on the national question, after listing the “characteristic features” of a nation, says: “It is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be absent and the nation ceases to be a nation.”
In analyzing the Black Belt South it is virtually self-evident that two of these “characteristic features”–common territory and a common economic life–no longer characterize Black life in that area.
Some argue that the fact that the Black population of this area is only 38% of the total is irrelevant. Likewise irrelevant, presumably, is the demographic trend in the Black Belt which over the past half century has clearly been in the direction of further dispersion of the Black population with a subsequent further lowering of the Black proportion of the remaining population.
In considering the question of “a common economic life,” it has been argued in a somewhat tautological fashion that the existence of different classes in the Black Belt of economic activity in both town and country are prima facie evidence of a common economic life. But such reasoning is more suited to resolving catechismal questions than to serious analysis of social and political development.
A people’s common economic life is a great complex of integrally related productive and commercial relationships and must take place in a people’s common territory. A serious analysis of the economic life of Afro-Americans in the Black Belt would consider such questions as the nature and extent of petty industry, the exchange between town and country and what proportion of the economic life of the people was bound up in that exchange, the existence of a national bourgeoisie, the class character of the peasantry (percentage of free-holders and percentage of sharecroppers), etc. Further, a serious analysis would consider the main economic and demographic trends of the area, so that one might know which aspects were rising and which were on the decline.
But as anyone who has pored through the various documents issued by those who claim to have arrived at a definitive position on the Afro-American national question knows, this task has been undertaken only in the most superficial manner.
The objective case for the existence of either a Black Belt nation or a “new type” nation unconfined to national territory has certainly not been made by any of the various advocates. (In this connection it is interesting to note what the October League (OL) calls “a further development” of their position. In laying out seven minimal principles of unity for the founding of a new communist party in the August issue of The Call, the OL says that it “views the Afro-American people as an oppressed nation and supports the right of self-determination in the Black Belt South.” This new formulation sounds very much like the RU theoretical position that all Blacks in the U.S. are part of a single nation as well as the Puerto Rican Socialist Party’s “divided nation” theory.)
In fact, all of these various positions, while making a show of scientific analysis, ultimately fall back upon subjective factors and moral arguments to justify their conclusion. Thus, Harry Haywood, writing in 1959 and quoted in these pages some time ago (March 13, 1974) says: “The territory of the Deep South belongs to the Negro people. They have earned it as no other people have earned a homeland.”
The RU, of course, completely throws objective criteria out the window and collapses into mysticism in its effort to “prove” the existence of a Black nation. But the RU “analysis” is so clearly designed to provide the organization with a justification for proclaiming that it upholds “the right to self-determination,” that it is not to be taken seriously.
Another argument has it that if the Black Belt nation is missing some of its indispensable features, this is the result of capitalism and the working class movement is duty-bound not only to reject such developments but to reverse them. Thus, the Black Workers Congress, while conceding that Blacks have been “dispersed from our historic homeland,” says that “as long as the masses of Black people demand it, they have the absolute, unequivocal right to reestablish themselves as a political entity in their historical homeland.” This right to “reconstitute” the nation is also advanced by the RU.
Well, of course, all social phenomena in capitalist society are the result of the laws of capitalist development. Stalin points out that “in the higher stages of capitalism a process of dispersion of nations sets in, a process whereby whole groups, in search of a livelihood, separate from nations, subsequently settling finally in other regions of the state.”
This development cannot be separated from the other huge changes wrought by monopoly capitalism: the destruction of small-scale industry, handicraft manufacture and the family farm; the emergence of all the techniques for mass production; the centralization of capital. All of these phenomena–including the migrations of sections of the working class–while furthering the immediate needs of monopoly capital, simultaneously contribute to the polarization of society into two contending classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and provide the cauldron in which the revolutionary consciousness of the working class is forged.
But then how shall we account for the essentially nationalist deviations in the new communist movement around the Afro-American question? The ideas of communists, like all ideas, emerge out of social practice.
In this case, one cannot underestimate the importance of the New Left origins of many of the new communist organizations. Their outlook shaped to a considerable extent by two historic struggles–the civil rights movement of the early 1960s and the Vietnam war–they have seen struggles against national oppression as the chief forms of class struggle in their own experience. Many coming from the college-educated white middle class also came face to face with the pervasive white racism not only of America but of their own families and friends as well as themselves. “White guilt,” a widespread phenomenon on the left in the 1960s, has been revived in a more sophisticated theoretical framework in the 1970s.
Among some groups, this takes the form of seeing solidarity with third world struggles for national liberation as the principal (and virtually only) legitimate task for U.S. revolutionaries. Among others, it leads to a view that finds it incomprehensible (on emotional grounds) that a U.S. movement would not uphold the right of self-determination for victims of national oppression and white chauvinism. In these cases, scientific analysis (to the extent that it is used), is really only case-building designed to make it possible to uphold the self-determination banner. The other side of this development was the strong upsurge of Black nationalism that characterized the Afro-American movement in the 1960s. Clearly a response to a white supremacist society whose hypocritical pretensions to “enlightenment” were confounded by the daily reality of racist oppression, Black nationalism continues to be a significant and possibly a still dominant trend among the Black masses. This, of course, underscores the task of the communists, who, while seeing the progressive aspect of Black nationalism and uniting with it, cannot simply merge Marxism-Leninism with nationalism. The job of a revolutionary movement in the U.S. is to so conduct the struggle for democratic rights and against national oppression–particularly in winning the white workers to this struggle–as to help lay the basis for working class unity in the struggle against capital.
In bringing this series to a close, I should like to add a word about my purpose. It was with a great deal of hesitation that I undertook to write these articles on the national question. I have never had the illusion that a single individual could possibly come up with the thesis that would suddenly shed a great theoretical light on our movement.
Such a task requires a collective effort that would entail extensive concrete investigation and a summing up of collective practice as different aspects of a theoretical position were developed.
But my concern–and I know it has been shared by many others–is that the various organizations who see themselves on the verge of forming a new communist party have, in effect, foreclosed both the necessary investigation and theoretical study. For surely one cannot dignify the polemical exchanges between the RU and the OL on this matter as serious ideological struggle for a correct line.
Clearly, I believe that none of the positions already put forward have made their case. In fact, I believe that while honorably motivated they are in reality a muddle of revisionism, opportunism and petty bourgeois moralizing; revisionist because they have to either throw out or bend out of recognition fundamental Marxist propositions on the national question; opportunist because they appear to be more concerned with currying favor with Black nationalist tendencies than with developing a strategy that combines the struggle for the democratic rights of the national minorities with the key task of building working class unity; and petty bourgeois moralizing for the reasons stated a few paragraphs earlier.
In reading all of the available material for this series of articles, I have come across and made use of two works which I seriously recommend to all Marxist-Leninists who are not convinced that the last word on this question has already been written. One of these is an extensive study on “The Black Nation” by the Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee (Box 11768, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101). The other is a pamphlet, “Our Tasks on the National Question: Against Nationalist Deviations In Our Movement,” by the Communist Workers Group (M-L). This pamphlet sells for $1 and is available from Left Books, Box 881, Lawrence, Kan. 68044.
Both of these offer analysis and concrete investigation that are indispensable to the development of a genuine Marxist-Leninist position on the Afro-American national question in the U.S.