Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Irwin Silber

’...fan the flames’


First Published: The Guardian, May 5, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This is a column to set the record straight.

In the course of his recently concluded 14-part series on the Afro-American national question, Carl Davidson raises a number of criticisms of my earlier series on the same subject.

Where they are correct–and in some cases they are–they help all of us learn some useful lessons about both the subject matter and the methodology of applying Marxism-Leninism concretely. Where they are unsound–and in a number of key respects the principal ones are–they may shed some light either on the wrong ideas advanced or the polemical style that has been used.

Of course, the most important difference between us is that we have come to differing conclusions on a key question confronting the U.S. revolutionary movement–whether or not Afro-Americans in the Black Belt South constitute a nation.

Both of us accept Stalin’s summation of the indispensable criteria for determining this question scientifically. “A nation,” writes Stalin, “is an historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture.”

Without restating the arguments put forth previously, suffice it to say that in my view two essential features of a nation–a common territory and a common economic life–are not present among the Afro-American people of the Black Belt South; the first because Blacks constitute only 38.5% of the population of the region and because there is no single significant stretch of contiguous territory in which the percentage of Black population rises above that figure: the second because whatever in the way of a common Black economic life prevails in the region is but a remnant of days gone by and because the main trend, already qualitatively developed, is toward economic assimilation. All evidence points to the fact that what Stalin called the “internal economic bond which welds the various parts of a nation into a single whole” simply does not exist in the Black Belt. Stalin concludes that “it is sufficient for a single one of the characteristics [of a nation] to be absent and the nation ceases to be a nation.”

OPPORTUNIST DEMAND

The direct political conclusion of this scientific investigation is whether or not the demand for “self-determination” is the appropriate one for the communists to put forth in the case of an oppressed people.

There is, undeniably, a certain political capital to be gained in advancing the slogan of “self-determination.” But the concept of self-determination is not an absolute nor can it simply be picked up as a slogan without regard to scientific analysis. It is necessary for Marxist-Leninists to be very strict about this. All kinds of Utopians, idealists and bourgeois nationalists are coming forward as upholders of “self-determination.” Some say that the left must support “self-determination for all oppressed peoples” whether national minorities, women or–in some cases–homosexuals.

Such a view is rife with opportunism and immediately weakens the concept of working-class unity by posing an unrealistic and separatist strategy of class struggle. This is why Marxist-Leninists have always fought for the principle that only nations–that is, political entities with the objective capacity for functioning as nations–(common territory and economic life and the other indispensable criteria enumerated by Stalin)–have the right of self-determination.

The scientific resolution of this controversy is, then, a matter of the utmost political significance and Davidson’s comments on my series should be viewed in that light. His two principal criticisms may be fairly summarized as follows:

1) The analysis put forward in my series of articles “took changes in the productive forces, rather than class struggle, as the motive force” of history; in this case, the history of Black people in the U.S.

2) As a reflection of the above, my view “indicates an erroneous understanding of the relation between politics and economics and the nature of the state.”

The first point is key. Davidson returns to it in his series again and again. He attributes to me the view that “the mechanization and capital-intensification of Southern agriculture is ’the most important change of all’ in the objective conditions of the Afro-American people in the Black Belt.” The reader will note, however, that the only words attributed to this writer are contained within the single quotation marks.

But what was actually cited as “the most important change of all” by this writer was “the break-up of the semifeudal plantation system.” This development, however, while made possible by the development of productive forces, was accomplished by the decimation of the peasantry in the Black Belt (mostly Black peasants, but white as well) and their consequent transformation into a predominantly urban proletariat–a large proportion of whom resettled not only outside their “historic homeland” but outside the south itself. In other words, it was precisely class struggle which determined the course of events.

The outcome of this struggle was an historic defeat for the peasantry–as it invariably has been in the advanced capitalist countries. But the very defeat suffered by the Black peasantry has given birth to what will be the eventual triumph of the Black masses, for as a result of this transformation the proletariat has become the most powerful class among the Afro-American people. More and more this class will play the leading role in the Black liberation struggle–not only in the Black Belt where only 18% of all Black people in the U.S. live–but throughout the U.S. Moreover, the Black proletarians already constitute the most militant sector of the U.S. multinational working class as a whole.

The effects of this transformation are already being felt. While the South–not just the Black Belt but the South as a whole–where some 45% of all Blacks live, will continue to be a critical focus, the liberation struggle is erupting all over. The urban ghetto rebellions of the 1960s were the surest testament to this. The division of that struggle into two parts–self determination for the Black Belt, democratic rights for the national minority elsewhere–becomes increasingly out of touch with the real aspirations of the Black masses.

Davidson’s second point of criticism, in effect, charges me with a form of economism because I wrote that “the source of Black oppression is not primarily in the political system” but is to be found in imperialism’s drive for superprofits, its need for an industrial reserve of cheap labor, its stake in a ghettoized market and the enormous benefits of racial divisions within the working class.

Davidson sees this as an effort to demonstrate what he deems a failure to deal with the centrality of the struggle for political power and then quotes Lenin to the effect that “politics cannot but have precedence over economics.”

But this is spurious word-juggling. The word “source” surely has a clear meaning. The bourgeoisie constructs a political system of oppression in order to exploit human labor for profit. Which then is the source of the oppression, the repressive political system or the underlying economic foundation?

Of course, the struggle to overthrow monopoly capitalism is primarily a political –not an economic–struggle. But the aim of that political struggle, the dictatorship of the proletariat, is not an end in itself. The working class seizes state power and establishes itself as the ruling class precisely in order to transform the relations of production and put an end to exploitation by establishing a socialist economic system.

Two other examples of word-juggling are worth noting. Davidson writes: “Contrary to the view argued in the Guardian recently, the fact that Blacks came to speak English is neither ’relatively unimportant’ nor a factor in their development only in ’an abstract, metaphysical way.’” In his concluding article, Davidson goes so far as to assert as my view that “a nation must not only have a common language, it needs a language separate from that of an oppressor nation if language is to be deemed a ’significant’ factor of its nationality.”

Again, the single quotation marks contain the phrases used in my series.

Nowhere in this series did I argue that the fact that “Blacks came to speak English” is either “relatively unimportant” or only an “abstract, metaphysical” factor. The suppression of the African languages which Blacks brought with them to these shores and the imposition of English as the common language was indeed an absolutely key factor in the political subjugation of the Black slaves.

What did I write? “It is usually argued that the fact that English is the common language of the Black Belt South and the rest of the U.S. 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.” I go on to argue against those who view this question “in an abstract, metaphysical way” and urge instead a more concrete examination that would see the question “in conjunction with the whole process of historical development.”

A particular point I made was that English being the common language of both Blacks and the rest of the country has meant a weakening in one of the factors that–in the case of other oppressed peoples–has helped to maintain a separate and distinct national identity. To suggest that the pointing out of such a fact is a revision of Marxism is indeed the opposite of Marxism–for it chooses to ignore the particular and the concrete when such an exploration might force a modification in a theoretical assertion.

In a second example of quoting out of context, Davidson writes: “Contrary to the view argued recently in the Guardian, Garveyism was not ’essentially the ideology of despair.’ Davidson’s criticism here is intended to demonstrate that I hold a one-sided view of Black nationalism, failing to take into account its progressive aspect and only emphasizing its negative character.

But what did I write? “The Garvey movement... 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 the common African heritage and a forceful protest against the intolerable racial 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.”

The reader will, of course, note the difference between “Garveyism” and “Garvey’s separatism.” In fact, Davidson himself makes essentially the same point. “There were two aspects to Garvey’s political line,” he writes, “one which was responsible lę>i its mass following and the other which resulted in its demise.... The second aspect was Garvey’s separatism, summed up in his reactionary Utopian scheme for all Blacks to emigrate back to Africa.”

SELF-CRITICISM

Finally, I want to acknowledge that a number of criticisms made by Davidson were correct. There was indeed a lack of scientific precision in my description of the slave-owning class in the South and Davidson is correct to point out that they were not a class separate from the rest of the bourgeoisie but a sector of the bourgeoisie whose capital was bound up in both the land and the direct ownership of the slaves.

Likewise, the statement that “99% of Black people in America were slaves” in the pre-Civil War period is, of course, historically inaccurate. Some 95% of Blacks living in the South were slaves, but there was also a sizable number of Afro-Americans who lived outside the South. These “free Negroes” provided the main political leadership and invaluable material support to the antislavery struggle and also were the foundation for the other social classes–free laborers, small farmers, petty entrepreneurs, intelligentsia and even a miniscule national bourgeoisie–that constituted the totality of the Afro-American people.

A more serious error on my part was an unfortunate statement which had the effect of dismissing the work of Harry Haywood as being based “upon subjective factors and moral arguments.” While the conclusions I have advanced obviously differ significantly from those of Haywood, his position has been put forward and elaborated with a great attention to both facts and scientific method and, in fact, his work is indispensable material for all those studying this question.

In conclusion. The Davidson series–while it has offered a great deal of useful historical information in concise form as well as several important theoretical insights–has, in my view, failed on two counts. It has not made the necessary scientific case to demonstrate the existence of a Black Belt nation in the South today; and it has unduly compromised itself by grave distortions of the particular position it was polemicizing against.