Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Amiri Baraka

Dr. King’s birthday and the Black struggle for democracy

First Published: Unity, Vol. 4, No. 5, March 20-April 21, 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The failure, traditionally, of large sections of the left including of the communist movement in the U.S., to be able to mobilize and organize the Black masses has been rooted in their failure to understand the Black liberation movement in its totality in an all-sided way and from a truly scientific perspective. Clearly it has net been the great teachers’ failure to deal in depth with the national question. The great Marxist works deal broadly and generally with this question, and also with a particularity that provides a sound basis for clarity.

The problem has been that the left and even the communist movement in the U.S. has been largely petty-bourgeois and white, and too often what should be made absolutely clear by day to day American reality (extending back in history) is distorted and made unclear by white chauvinism and petty-bourgeois subjectivism.

Some recent articles by so-called communist forces on the great demonstration (over 200,000 people) in D.C. in support of making Dr. King’s birthday a holiday bring attention again to the dismal fact that sections of the left have still not even theoretically understood the Black liberation movement, much less “penetrated” it and sunk deep roots in among the Black masses.

For instance, the Black liberation movement is essentially the struggle of the oppressed Afro-American nation for self determination, which can only be gained by winning political power, the source of which is the ultimate possession of the land, the Black Belt South.

The demand for self-determination is a democratic demand, a demand for equality. A people without political power cannot be equal to people who have political power. Political power is the necessary element for Black equality.

And even though the demand for law and political power, for self-determination is a democratic demand made by democratic forces communists must support it because to oppose the struggle for democracy in any way is to oppose the struggle for socialism. But it can nevertheless only be gained by revolutionary means. Support for the struggle for self-determination for the Afro-American nation in the U.S. is an absolute requirement for communists, just as support for the struggles of the third world peoples against imperialism, is internationally.

It is mainly white chauvinism that makes the Black liberation movement seem somehow “different” in essence from all the other struggles characterized by the phrase, the third world vs. imperialism. The Black liberation movement is made small of by people otherwise spouting revolutionary phrases.

All kinds of theoretical absurdities have been put forward to cover such base chauvinism, which Lenin called opportunism in its most developed phase.

There were groups like PLP who claimed “all nationalism is reactionary.” And flying in the face of Lenin and Stalin who said in Foundations of Leninism, “the revolutionary character of the national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or republican program in the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens disintegrates and undermines imperialism.” PLP claimed that the revolutionary nationalist sectors of the BLM were reactionary. This was simple chauvinism.

It is important to realize that within the Black liberation movement there are many tendencies, distinct classes, each with their own aspirations, but there is a basic national liberation focus, a general motion towards self-determination, however it is articulated. The Black liberation movement is a national movement, but its enemies are the same class that opposes and oppresses the multinational working class in the United States, that is the white racist monopoly capitalist class. There is a national character to their struggle which must be recognized even by internationalists. As Mao said, “To separate internationalist content from national forms is the practice of those who do not understand the first thing about internationalism.” (Mao Zedong, “Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War,” Selected Works, Vol. II, p. 210)

The old RU talked about a “nation of a new type” which openly abandoned Marxism-Leninism and babbled about the Afro-American nation being dispersed by migration – when simple Department of Commerce statistics proved otherwise – and that the nation was everywhere Blacks were, or more literally nowhere.

The RU’s “new theories” contained both right and “left” deviations from the Marxist stand and outlook on the national question. Especially in the early history of the RU the right forms were dominant. They gutted the revolutionary content of the democratic demands of the national movement, narrowly portraying those political demands as only trade union or economic issues. They called upon the Black masses (and other oppressed nationality masses) to tail after the leadership of the national petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. In their fervent desire to project the petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie as leaders, they even acted to destroy revolutionary organizations with a more working class orientation, and to pit various reform-minded middle forces in the national movement against the revolutionary-minded ones. In the early 1970’s they came to Newark to try to destroy the Congress of Afrikan Peoples and committed the treacherous act of turning state’s witness against CAP members and members of the Black Panther Party, hoping to liquidate their revolutionary activities by landing them in jail.

In their later years the RU line took on more “leftist” forms, such as their echoing of the PLP line with only slightly different wording, “all nationalism is nationalism.”

But the “proletarian” cover of the RU’s was even smaller than the proverbial fig leaf since their statements on the Afro-American national question were so outrageously chauvinist. For instance, the “main danger” in the communist movement was “narrow nationalism,” as if even the bourgeois nationalism of some Blacks (and other oppressed nationalities) could overshadow white supremacy, chauvinism and racism as methods of social organization and ideologies impacting on the U.S.

RU’s siding with the backward sectors of the working class, as in their support of anti-busing forces in Boston, or their pronouncement that the “advanced” worker could even be racist or anti-communist, made it obvious to many people that their errors around the Afro-American national question stemmed from white chauvinism fundamentally.

Then, there were the errors of the OL and later CPML, who said they supported the right of the Afro-American nation to self-determination, but at the same time did not uphold the option of Black separation. Could this be anything else but chauvinism? Stalin said in Foundations of Leninism, “The weight of emphasis in the internationalist education of the workers in the oppressing countries must necessarily consist of their advocating and upholding freedom of secession for oppressed countries. Without this, there can be no internationalism. It is our right and duty to treat every Social-Democrat of an oppressing nation who fails to conduct such propaganda as an imperialist and a scoundrel.”

The Comintern as well said, in speaking about the Afro-American national question, in a document that appeared in 1930, “As long as capitalism rules in the United States the Communists cannot come out against governmental separation of the Negro zone from the United States.” (The Communist International, Resolution on the Negro Question in the United States, 1930) To “withhold” any of the options of self-determination is obviously to oppose self-determination. But for some people, the idea that Black people might opt for separation is impermissible and intolerable.

It was completely within the framework of such erroneous ideas that the OL (and later CPML upheld this) put for-ward the incredible formulation that the “Black liberation movement was a struggle for integration” and that “it has always been” such. These were chauvinist ideas, and the only shaky “reference” for them was possibly the thought and actions of one narrow section of the Black petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie who could only see the struggle for equality as “integration.” Such a statement shows the propensity to tail the Black petty-bourgeoisie and not even its most advanced sectors.

To uphold self-determination is to uphold Black people’s right to decide what the Afro-American nation’s relationship will be with the United States, even a socialist United States. At the point where the question is relevant as to what that relationship will be, then communists must take the line that is beneficial to the whole working class, but those conditions do not exist today. To make opposition to separation principal over the right to self-determination is white chauvinism.

Unfortunately, these old erroneous lines on the Afro-American national question, even though they’ve been held up to ridicule previously within the communist movement and made generally disreputable, continue to linger in the movement, and in this current period of sharp reaction, have even made some resurgence, though not necessarily in the same words.

A recent article by people associated with the old RU and OL/CPML tendencies continues this open lack of understanding of the Afro-American national question, even including a white chauvinist overview. These forces focus presumably on the movement to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday.

Despite the fact that we are in a period of extreme reaction and general motion to the right, the Black masses have indicated that the level of resistance and struggle is also on the rise. The rebellions of Miami, Chattanooga, Philadelphia, Wichita show this. The building of resistance to the reappearance of the Klan; the rising movement to commemorate the young victims of the Atlanta massacre. All are signs of the Black masses’ accelerated motion, even in the midst of a right wing period.

These actions are in the main the actions of the Black masses, sparked and having as a catalyst the righteous anger of the Black working class. It is the working class of the Black nation whose revolutionary actions propel forward, with the greatest force and impact, the positive motion of the whole Afro-American nation and oppressed nationality. Within the democratic revolutionary struggle that is the Black liberation movement, it is the Black working class that is most consistently revolutionary among the Black masses. Also, the working class of the Black nation is an integral part of the multinational working class of the United States, which through its vanguard communist party must ultimately lead that movement, through its stand, viewpoint and practice.

But the above-mentioned article continues this old astigmatic misunderstanding of the Black liberation movement. The “rage in Miami” is described as an “indication of nationalist resentment.” No, it can’t be understood unless it is seen sharply as the resentment of a whole people, the rage of the Afro-American nation sparked and carried forth by its working class. Such rage is the expression of the Black struggle for national liberation. But there is not one mention of national liberation and the struggle for land, power and self-determination as the context of Miami. Either the authors want to tail the sector of the Black Liberation Movement that calls themselves, ideologically, “nationalists”, which is relatively small, or they think of militancy as “nationalism” alone. The national aspirations of the Black masses are not “nationalist” but national-democratic and revolutionary.

Communists in the Black liberation movement must unite with the national sentiments of the Black masses which are progressive and revolutionary. The petty-bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie have progressive and even revolutionary nationalist sentiments which must be united with. But it is the Black working class which can shape and direct the sentiment for national liberation in the most revolutionary direction, and communists have the responsibility to base themselves in the working class and give leadership to all the class sectors fighting for democracy and freedom.

But the old RU used to tail whatever movement or sector they deemed “nationalist” and in doing so liquidated from the right what was revolutionary in the democratic and national liberation struggle. They constantly tailed after the petty-bourgeois sectors of the national movement, whether nationalist or reformist-minded, including even the most backward and narrow petty-bourgeois nationalist sectors.

In speaking about the movement to establish Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday, it is important to realize that such a struggle is an on-going part of the struggle of the Black masses for democracy too. It is a Black mass struggle, even though Dr. King was objectively a representative of the Black petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. But even as a leader of the “civil rights movement”, King was a leader of a Black mass movement for democracy. And the fact that he was an activist attacking racism and injustice with mass confrontation was a strength born of reliance on the Black masses, even though his articulation of the goals of such a movement and the direction in which he was leading could only reflect and ultimately satisfy the needs of the Black middle and upper classes most completely.

But the whole of the Black nation is oppressed, even its petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. The resentment at this is national but not restricted to nationalists. The whole of the Black nation (except traitors) is involved in the Black liberation movement, but with different methods, views and needs depending on the class they represent. The united front is the basic weapon of national liberation struggles because it seeks to unify the oppressed majority across class lines, based on their common oppression. The front gives voice to the whole nation’s cry but can only give overall revolutionary guidance if led by the working class because only the working class can carry the revolution through to the end to the stage where “the last shall be first.” Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were part of such a united front, both articulating the needs and goals of different classes within the Black liberation movement and within the Afro-American nation and oppressed nationality. It is a communist’s responsibility to represent and be a part of the working class of any nation. The communist understands that the united front is an absolutely necessary weapon for destroying national oppression, and so communists work to build such a front and struggle to bring together all sectors of the nation in such a front. Creating antagonism between the working class and middle class sectors of such a front is reactionary and non-communist. Also, the communist understands that all sectors of the oppressed nation will show “resentment”, will react against that oppression – but in different ways. But all such opposition to oppression must be encouraged, supported, highlighted, no matter where it comes from. But at the same time the revolutionary communist knows that only the working class can lead the national struggle to its revolutionary destiny.

The fact that Martin Luther King is highlighted and thrust forward by the Black middle class is normal and predictable, and their struggle must be supported. The fact that Dr. King’s birthday is not a holiday is merely another example of the lack of equality Black people must suffer because they lack political power and self-determination. The communist fully supports the struggle for equality because it is another aspect of the whole democratic revolutionary struggle.

However, the communist cannot tail the Black petty-bourgeoisie or project them as leadership of the Black liberation movement because this is neither revolutionary nor objectively correct. The communist struggles to see that the interests of the working class are upheld, and that the revolutionary leadership of the working class fully emerges.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was more activist and mass oriented in the 1960’s, though less so today, because it was a Black petty bourgeois organization. The NAACP and Urban League are staffed by the Black petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie, but their real line and method of the national leadership are dictated by the white racist monopoly capitalist class that financially controls them.

The Black petty bourgeoisie is better organized than the Black masses based on their material resources, including education and access to the media. The largest number of “organized” Black masses are in the churches, “led” by Black preachers who are also representatives of the Black middle class. The democratic struggle in the Black belt began in the 1950’s as mass actions which were soon led by the ministers. But the church leaders had to rush to the fore of these mass movements and then guide them, and their churches were the backbone of organizing.

Yet we must see that even though the middle class did mount the mass movement, through organizations that existed in the church, the most militant organizations developed later in the Black liberation movement, the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, who were more militant precisely because there were leaders within them who identified with and articulated more the interests of the Black working class.

And after the march on Washington in 1963 and its repudiation, the Birmingham bombing which killed four little girls, by 1964, the line of “self-determination, self-respect and self-defense”, a line which more truly represented the interests and aspirations of the Black working class and could unite the broadest front, generally came to dominance in the Black liberation movement, especially as articulated by Malcolm X. Rebellions in Jacksonville, Florida; Harlem; Rochester, New York; Jersey City, New jersey; Patterson, New Jersey; Keensberg, New Jersey; Dixmore, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – that hot summer of 1964, more than confirmed it! That the Black masses had gone beyond the middle class leadership that the march on Washington represented.

The tailing of the Black middle class by people calling themselves communist has been typical of the Communist Party U.S.A., too, since its fall to revisionism in the late 1950’s. Not only couldn’t these revisionists integrate themselves with the most advanced sectors of the Black masses, that is the working class, but they even openly attacked Black working class leaders like Malcolm X, calling him a police agent. This was caused by the CPUSA’s wild desire to mislead the Black masses that “integration” and nonviolence could bring progress and permanent change, even socialism. Since the CPUSA upholds peaceful transition to socialism through elections and interracial marriage, rather than socialist revolution.

Today the line of tailing the Black middle class is being raised up again, touted now as a “new and creative theory.” But actually it is an old chauvinist theory. Its proponents are one-sidedly criticizing “ultraleftism” (certainly a serious problem that has plagued the communist movement) but are really reviving a rightist, tailist line that is no better.

The mark of progress toward the building of a genuine Marxist-Leninist communist party in this country can be measured by the degree of clarity that exists on the Afro-American national question. The elimination of white chauvinist lines and development of a correct scientific analysis of the Black liberation movement is a major task of the still young U.S. communist movement. The Black liberation movement is an independent revolutionary democratic movement for land, power and self-determination. At the same time, it is one of the forces objectively ranged against the common enemy of this society’s people, monopoly capitalism. The Black united front is the Black national movement’s basic weapon of day to day struggle against monopoly capitalism, and it combines all the classes, organizations and ideologies fighting against monopoly capitalism and for equality, democracy and self-determination.

But the fundamental weapon of the majority of the U.S. people, especially of its multinational working class, is a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist communist party. Because it is only such a party, composed of the most advanced elements of that multinational working class, that can give guidance and leadership to all revolutionary movements in this country, transform them into conscious practical allies, ultimately make revolution and build socialism in the U.S.A.

The oppressed nationalities are the strategic and most important allies of the multinational working class (and indeed, the greatest part of these oppressed nationalities are members of the working class). To misunderstand the Afro-American national question or any of the national questions is to misunderstand revolution, and to oppose the Black national struggle for self-determination or the Chicano struggle for self-determination is literally to oppose revolution. Lenin said to tail any sector of the masses, even the working class, is opportunism, and there can be no revolution without a consistent struggle against opportunism.