Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Jim Griffin

Dogmatism and Black Liberation

First Published: The Organizer, Vol. 3, No. 2, February-March 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Labor can never be free in the white in as long as it is branded in the Black. – Karl Marx

As Marx noted well over one hundred years ago, the struggle of Black people for equality is part and parcel of the struggle of the whole working class for its emancipation. Today this statement is even more true. Today the inequality between Back and white plus the ideology of white supremacy form a mighty pillar for capitalist rule. This inequality is the source of billions of dollars in super-profits to the employers. Racism is the central division within the working class, diverting white workers from the path of class struggle and pitting them against the Black workers.

Racism serves as a powerful wedge, weakening the people’s movements and preventing them from uniting against capital. Racism provides much of the fuel with which the monopolists fire up the furnace of reaction, whether it be over busing in Boston or public housing in Whitman Park. For the last two decades, from the time Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, down to the present, the Black Liberation Movement has supplied the cutting edge of the struggle against monopoly capital.


All this underlines what revolutionaries in the U. S. can ignore only at their peril: the fight for Black Liberation is a central and overriding task. Here as in all else the true test is practice. Commitment is measured not on the basis of fine-sounding-phrases, but only to the extent we actively take up the struggle for equality. But for there to be a revolutionary practice, there must be a revolutionary theory, a theory that can comprehend our tasks integrate them into an overall strategic framework.

Here as in other areas, dogmatism is incapable of supplying a theory which can be a guide to revolutionary action. Characteristically, theory in the hands of the dogmatists is a collection of abstract concepts and revolutionary sounding phrases which serve to cover for an opportunist practice.

The starting point for revolutionary theory in relation to Black Liberation must be an analysis of the objective social and historical character of the Black people. The dogmatist trend, with few exceptions holds that Black people in the southern Black Belt region of the U. S. are a nation and a national minority elsewhere. The PWOC and other Marxist-Leninists argue that the Black nation has been broken up by the process of industrialization the collapse of the plantation system, and the migrations out of the Black Belt.

As a result of these changes, Black people are no longer tied to the land, but have been dispersed and incorporated into the economic life of the cities as a super-exploited labor force and a reserve army of unemployed. Black people today are an oppressed national minority throughout the U.S.

A full discussion of the debate between these two positions is outside the limits of this article. We urge our readers to read Black Liberation Today, Against Dogmatism on the National Question for a full treatment of this question. However, the approach of dogmatism to this question and some of the implications of their position illustrate the bankruptcy of this trend.


Marxist theory bases itself on an analysis of concrete conditions. It views history not as a fixed quantity but as a process of constant change. Changes in the material realm, in the sphere of production and economic life, are the starting point for its analysis. Given this, it is easy to see that the approach of dogmatism is most un-Marxist.

The dogmatists derive their theory not from a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, but from the texts of resolutions passed by the Communist International almost fifty years ago. These resolutions in 1928 and 1930 recognized the existence of a Black nation in the Black Belt and advanced the demand of self-determination (the right to secede and set up an independent state) for the Black nation.

This was the policy of the CPUSA in those years, and in the main it was a correct one. In fact, it represented an enormous breakthrough, in that previously the revolutionary left had not recognized that Black people were oppressed by capitalism as a people.

But the concrete conditions with which the Comintern dealt have undergone radical changes since that time. In 1930 the population of the Black Belt was over half Black. Today as a result of the migrations it is slightly more than a third Black. In the 1920’s there were close to a million Black operated farms, the vast majority of which were owned by large planters and operated on a tenant or sharecropper basis. Today there are less than 100,000 Black operated farms and only one out of five is operated on a tenant basis.

As we noted earlier, the Black people have been transformed from a largely rural people tied to the land to a predominantly urban and largely proletarian people. For the most part, the dogmatists have simply refused to reckon with these changes and simply reiterate the analysis and slogans of the half-century-old Comintern resolutions. Naturally, when pressed, the dogmatists are forced to acknowledge the existence of these changes, but they continue to seek to minimize their extent and belittle their implications.

This argument is demonstrably false and represents not Marxism but moralistic demagogy.


For Marxist Leninists the goal is an end to national oppression and the achievement of equality for all people. For oppressed nations this means advancing the demand for the right to self-determination. For national minorities the equivalent demand is full equality within the framework of a single state. The right to self-determination has no meaning in relation to national minorities, because they have neither the interest nor the means to secede and form an independent state in the first place. The goal is the same in both cases, but the form of its realization is different, owing to the objective differences between a nation and a national minority.

The term self-determination has a very specific and narrow meaning in Marxist-Leninist theory – it means the right of a nation to secede. In popular political usage, self-determination has a much broader rhetorical meaning – roughly the right of any group to determine its own political destiny. In this sense one hears talk of self determination in relation to women, students, or even particular communities. The dogmatists demagogically try to make the issue appear to be that those Marxist-Leninists who do not advance the demand for self-determination for the Black nation are trying to deny Black people the right to chart their own political destiny. This is simply absurd.


In our view, the Black people do not possess a common territory or common economic life, two of the fundamental features of a nation. Even the most principled and sophisticated elements of the dogmatist trend have been unable to demonstrate the presence of these features among the Black people.

Essentially the dogmatists argue: once a nation, always a nation. They deny the possibility that a nation can be assimilated.

Part of why the dogmatists are so unwilling to consider this possibility is because the notion of a Black nation is bound up with the demand for self-determination. The dogmatists say in effect that Black people must have the right to self-determination, and thus there must be a Black nation on which this right can be based. The facts must be twisted to fit this preconceived need. The implication of this position is that by refusing to advance the idea of nationhood and the demand for self-determination, we are betraying the struggle for Black Liberation.

In fact, it is the dogmatists with their theory of the Black nation who do harm to the aspirations of the Black people for liberation. This is because the dogmatist theory does not take into account (or at least minimizes) the revolutionary implications of the changes in character of the Black people over the last half-century. Today, as a result of these changes, the importance of Black Liberation is greater than ever before. While the question of the fight for equality was always a major part of the larger question of achieving class unity and deepening class consciousness, today it is undeniably the central question.

Its strategic importance has been enormously heightened by the changes in the national character of the working class and the class composition of the Black people. Heavy, highly socialized industry, where we find the strategically critical elements of the proletariat, was almost all white fifty years ago, whereas today Black workers are a majority in many production categories and a substantial minority in most others.


The assimilation of millions of Black people into the urban labor force has not only underlined the urgency and importance of the struggle for Black Liberation, it has also laid firmer foundations for winning the mass of white workers to that struggle, by bringing together white and Black workers at the point of production where the material conditions favor collective action and where the need for such action is most obvious. The fight against white chauvinism or racism which acts as a powerful ideological deterrent to achieving unity simultaneously takes on greater significance.

These developments are the positive consequences of the process of assimilation. They are the very same consequences that Lenin noted in relation to the oppressed national minorities of his day in Russia. The dogmatists tend to gloss over or minimize these developments because they refuse to admit the assimilation of the Black nation. By so doing, they cannot but help to distort and play down the real centrality of Black Liberation. This is why the struggle over the question of a Black nation is no mere academic exercise. What is involved is a correct orientation toward the strategic weight of the Black Liberation struggle.

To this last point at least the dogmatists could agree. But they argue that it is impossible to carry out a consistent struggle for democratic rights unless one recognizes the existence of the Black nation and its right to self-determination. Unfortunately, for them, the practice of the dogmatist trend does not support this proposition.


The Worker’s Viewpoint organization and other groups associated with the so-called “Revolutionary Wing”, for example, are exponents of the Black nation theory and loudly uphold the right of that nation to seIf-determination. But the only thing that is “consistent” about these groups in relation to the struggle of Black people for democratic rights is their opposition every real step forward in the struggle for equality. In practice, these groups, along with the Revolutionary Communist Party and others, liquidate the struggle against racism.

The fight for school desegregation, the key democratic struggle at the moment, is in their view a plot by the bourgeoisie to split the workers. Demands that speak to the special oppression of Black workers are generally opposed as “divisive”. Black nationalist sentiment is seen one-sidedly as “reactionary”. No amount of phrase-mongering about Black people’s right to self-determination can conceal the fact that this political line does a profound disservice to the Black struggle and to the whole working class.

The leading organization of the dogmatist trend, the October League, if it cannot point to the practice of its fellow dogmatists, can at least argue that its own practice supports the idea that upholding the right to self determination is the key to “consistency” in the struggle for democratic rights. It is true that the OL has actively supported the major democratic demands of the Black people and has criticized the abject chauvinism of other communist organizations like the RCP and WVO.


Nevertheless, there are serious weaknesses in the OL’s approach to the Black Liberation struggle that are at least in part a product of their failure to grasp the importance of the whole process of assimilation.. Their line around busing illustrates these weaknesses. While the OL has opposed the anti-busing movement, they have not come out in favor of busing and desegregation. They view desegregation as analogous to the right to secede. They say, in effect, that Blacks should have a right to go to all-white schools, but remain neutral on the question of whether or not Blacks should actively seek to attend such schools. The OL boycotted a pro-busing demonstration called by the NAACP on the grounds it was “assimilationist.”

The OL has also denied that there is any particular relation between desegregation and the fight for quality education. OL Chairman Mike Klonsky compared the struggle for school desegregation with the struggle to desegregate lunch counters, saying that getting to sit at those lunch counters had nothing to do with the quality of the hamburger you might get.

In our view, Marxist-Leninists cannot be neutral on the question of desegregation. It is not simply a question of abstract rights. Desegregation is necessary to build class unity. It is necessary to achieve equality. The doctrine of separate but equal was a lie and fraud when the Southern reactionaries used it to strip away the gains Black people made during Reconstruction, and it is a lie and a fraud today.

And Mr. Klonsky to the contrary, the hamburger is usually better where the white folks eat; and surely there is a difference between lily white suburban schools and ghettoized fire traps where Black children are forced to go. To deny or ignore this undercuts our whole ability to win over the working class as a whole to the fight for desegregation. Again the OL’s errors on this question are at least in part a product of their minimizing and misunderstanding the whole process of assimilation.


The Marxist approach to the oppressed nationalities must take into account what Lenin describes as the “two historical tendencies in the national question...” 1) the existence of national oppression and the struggle against it and 2) the amalgamation of peoples that is the consequence of economic development. Programmatically, this means that Marxist-Leninists must fight all forms of national or racial privilege on the one hand, and against the idea of national aloofness or separatism on the other.

The main line of demarcation between Marxism-Leninism and opportunism can be expressed in terms of whether or not these two tendencies are taken into account. Opportunism in relation to the struggle of the oppressed nationalities always takes the form of ignoring one or the other of these two tendencies.

In the case of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the “Revolutionary Wing”, we have a clear case of liquidating the first tendency. In practice, these groups ignore the existence of national oppression and the struggle against it. In the case of the OL, it is equally clear that they ignore the second tendency – the amalgamation of peoples on the basis of capitalist economic development.

Opportunism sacrifices the long range interests of the class as a whole for either real or imagined short run gains for a section of the class. Opportunism is an adaptation of the interests and outlook of the working class to that of the ruling class. We see these features of opportunism clearly in the dogmatist trend’s posture toward the struggle of the oppressed nationalities.

Groups like the RCP and WVO, by refusing to wage a struggle for the democratic demands of the oppressed nationalities and fight against the grip of white racist ideology among the white workers, sell out the Black and other oppressed sections of the working class. Their appeasement of white chauvinism amounts to adapting the outlook of the proletariat to the ideology of the bourgeoisie.

While this approach may, in the short run, make it easier to appeal to white workers, it is bound to set back the working class – including the white workers – because class unity and consciousness cannot be forged without a consistent struggle against racism. This is the dominant and most dangerous form of opportunism.


The other major form of opportunism, practiced most blatantly by the Sojourner Truth Organization and other advocates of the theory of white skin privilege, and less obviously by the OL, caters to narrow nationalism among oppressed peoples. This trend promotes the bourgeois idea of “my nationality first”. It feeds the sentiment among oppressed peoples that it is “white people” rather than the white capitalist ruling class which is responsible for racism. It too retards the process of building class unity and consciousness.

The OL’s catering to narrow nationalism is less obvious because it is coupled with a rhetorical call for class unity. However, the OL’s theoretical treatment of the question of the Black nation and their programmatic stance on a number of issues reveal this weakness. Their failure to link up the question of desegregation with improving the quality of education for the whole working class – whites included, is one example. Their demand for super-seniority which promotes the interest of one section of the class at the expense of another rather than uniting both against the class enemy is another.

The fight against opportunism in this critical area should be of obvious importance. The history of the revolutionary left in the U.S., as well as the history of the anti-revisionist Communist movement, makes it clear that the most pervasive and dangerous form of opportunism is white chauvinism. Just in our own generation we have seen groups like the Progressive Labor Party and the Revolutionary Union (now the RCP), which once showed great promise and generally promoted the struggle for Black Liberation and the fight against racism, degenerate into white chauvinism: PL caricaturing the FBI by attacking the Black Panther Party... the RCP mimicking Louise Day Hicks by advancing the slogan that the workers must “unite to smash busing” in Boston.

These are lessons we should learn well. But at the same time, we must guard against swinging in reaction to embracing narrow nationalism and liquidating a class approach to the struggle against racism. The task is, to borrow Lenin’s phrase, to walk between these two ruts of opportunism. On that narrow and difficult path from which so many have strayed lies the way forward.