The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 58 (Winter 1999).
Contrary to the claims of many, there is no vacuum of political leadership in the Black community today. The virtually unchallenged leader of Black America is William Jefferson Clinton.
This does not mean that most Black people actively support or even care much about Clinton’s political fate. The masses of Blacks, especially the most oppressed layers, are quite unenchanted with Clinton and his party. But the political leadership of the Black struggle remains in the hands of pro-Clinton middle-level Blacks who cannot provide an alternative to the powers-that-be.
What nonsense! The masses of Black and Latino people, especially the youth, are not fans of Clinton. Moreover, the poorest layers do not like the system they are forced to live under. They just do not see a viable alternative yet, even if they are fed up. But even today they hardly think of Clinton as “Brother Bill.”
Since the ghetto rebellions of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a significant minority within Black America has achieved middle-class status, although the large majority remain poor and working-class. This “middle class” is not a class in the Marxist sense; it has no special relationship to the means of production. It is an extremely varied layer containing professionals, government bureaucrats and labor aristocrats. At the top it blends into the bourgeoisie; at bottom, into the working class.
Black middle-class people have not been able to overcome systemic racism and therefore have not achieved social equality or incomes comparable with their white counterparts. Nevertheless, there is a sizeable income gap between the Black middle strata and working class. The contrast in material terms between the different classes and layers within the Black community explains much about the difference among Blacks in how Clinton is seen.
Despite the prosperity hype pushed by the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, the income gap between the better-off and the working class—Black, Latino and white—has been widening, and will widen more. It is up to the working class, especially the politically advanced layers of the Black working class, to fight for a real alternative.
It is no accident that the same politicians who support Clinton’s imperialist attacks abroad have accepted devastating cuts in domestic social programs too. In 1996 (see “The Bankruptcy of ‘Progressive’ Politics,” Proletarian Revolution No. 53) we exposed the connivance of the labor and minority leaderships in the smashing of welfare and the imposition of workfare. We wrote:
Coming on top of Clinton’s previous racist, anti-worker bills (immigration, “three strikes and you’re out,” anti-“terrorism”), this bill ended a pillar of liberal legislation won by the working class in the struggles of the 1930’s and 1960’s. … Clinton not only managed to deliver the welfare crackdown but was still able to maintain social peace. … The key reason was the support by the heads of mass labor, Black and Latino organizations, who didn’t blink an eye in urging the president’s re-election. They have the power to lead fights against the bourgeois attack—but chose instead to endorse the leader of the attack.
Before Clinton, welfare was a thin “safety net,” a poor substitute for full employment at decent wages and real community care. (See Stop Workfare—Jobs for All! in PR 54.) Still, its destruction removed substantial past gains won by the poorest workers. This happened because the “leaders” led nothing to stop it.
The welfare-to-workfare scheme dramatically exposed the gaping class fracture within the Black community. The liberal Black pols remained loyal to Clinton, grateful for the few patronizing dispensations that—to them—make up for the deadly backstabbings. They point to his appointments of Black officials and his lukewarm support for affirmative action. Can this make up for the hundreds of thousands of families knocked off welfare, denied health insurance, kicked out of housing, thrown out of jobs, beaten by racist cops or shoved into jail since Clinton took office?
The president whose legacy has been to put more cops on the street and wage a masquerade “war on drugs”—along with other efforts to brutally intimidate Blacks and Latinos—deserves hatred, not fervent support. The Black leaders’ enthusiasm for Clinton and the Democrats boils down to the old blind alley of lesser evilism. Their main claim is that Clinton’s right-wing opponents have a racist agenda of rolling back the social, economic and political gains won by Blacks. Whatever his faults, they say, Clinton remains the lesser evil.
It is obviously true that the Republican reactionaries do want to heighten racism and go after Blacks and other oppressed people, as well as the working class in general. In contrast, the Democrats do appoint Black officials and nominally defend affirmative action, in order to get Black electoral support—just as they offer token sops to women and unions. (This relationship has a long history: see our pamphlet The Democratic Party: Graveyard of Black Struggles.) That is the material basis for the “lesser evil” view.
The Democrats are just as driven to cut back the gains of minorities and the working class as the Republicans; they just use a somewhat different approach. And they get away with their attacks more easily than the Republicans because the masses’ misleaders are in bed with them.
No doubt the overt across-the-board attacks advocated by the Gingrich-Lott-DeLay conservatives have aroused anger in all reaches of the Black community. If it had been Republicans who pushed through their program, Blacks, Latinos, women, gays and trade unionists would have been outraged. At minimum, popular unrest would have forced their capitulatory leaders to organize mass protests. But as we explained in PR 53:
When Clinton carries out a chunk of that same program, the liberals and reformists work overtime to prevent mass action, lest it endanger Clinton’s re-election. It’s at least an even bet that if Bush were still president the welfare system would still be standing. In sum, the lesser evil cannot be seen as an unfortunately weak bulwark against the great evils’ assaults. It is Clinton’s program which delivers the greater blow, because Gingrich’s program cannot be carried out at this time. So, while Clinton is the lesser evil in theory, that makes him the greater evil in practice. As well, as the bourgeoisie is aware, it is part of a one-two punch, the left jab that softens up its victim for the later right cross—the knockout blow.
The Democrats, once forced to go along with progressive gains, today use that past record as credit to enable them to carry out the reactionary rollback. The Black politicians are their partners and pawns, presiding over an attack on people of color, especially on poorer workers. This tactic has worked for the moment but it can’t last, mainly because it has not prevented a continuing polarization among Blacks. Over the years, as the number of Black politicians in government rose, takebacks of past gains have risen in lock-step.
When the ghetto riots broke out in the sixties and seventies, there was no leadership for the government to buy off that the masses would listen to. That is why the powers-that-be allowed the expansion of the Black middle strata and opened the door for more Black faces in government. But the tactic is losing its power as it becomes increasingly transparent.
Nevertheless, over 80 percent of Black voters chose Clinton in his two presidential races, and both times they provided the margin for his victories. The reason for the apparent contradiction is the class differentiation among Blacks. In the 1998 elections, the Black vote in a few crucial areas in the country bucked the trend and swelled, and once again proved decisive. Surveys confirm the fact that it was better-off Blacks who provided the votes for the Democrats, not the younger and poorer workers.
A vague form of “nationalism” is often considered to be the dominant ideology within the Black community today. But to the overwhelming majority, this ideology does not refer to the classical indicator of Black nationalism, the goal of a separate nation-state.
Black nationalism in the U.S. started out as an attempt by small businessmen (and those who aspire to that status) to secure some leverage within a racist society. The Black petty bourgeoisie aimed, consciously or not, to become compradors or middlemen exploiting Black toilers in a white-dominated economy. As the immediate exploiters of Black labor, they hoped to govern a semi-autonomous economy—in effect, an internal Black colony. But then, as now, the overwhelming majority of Blacks worked directly for white-owned capital, a relationship that the latter has no intention of surrendering.
Today, along with the traditional petty bourgeoisie, layers of the new middle class are also caught up in Black nationalism. They do not fantasize about a distinct Black economy, but they do approve of a political outlook based on Black identity. Having achieved some economic gains, they are understandably bitter that the race barrier is still very much in place. (One glaring proof: anti-Black police brutality does not discriminate by class.) They can’t escape second-class treatment in the white world, so they seek redress via some form of “Black unity.”
The pervasive racist (and anti-working class) outlook in the U.S. automatically lumps together ghetto workers with the criminal lumpenproletariat that preys on them. Some middle-class Blacks share much of the negative image of the Black working class. Many of them not only admire Clinton but are also drawn to Louis Farrakhan, who demands that the Black poor “atone” and that Black men “take responsibility for their women and children” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Farrakhan’s clout in the ghetto holds out hope that the race as a whole can be “uplifted”—that is, achieve American middle-class values.
Nationalism’s appeal in the ghettoes has always been its stress on the need for a united Black defense in the face of perpetual racism. The working class, highly realistic, never bought the idea that this U.S. would turn color-blind. Therefore, while Black workers always welcomed every blow against Jim Crow segregation, they never took integrationism to heart as an ideology, even in its heyday. Black nationalists could speak on street corners in the working-class ghettoes even when people thought they were wrong; the integrationist NAACPers rarely attempted to. Pro-integration ministers did have a following, but the reality of their all-Black congregations counted for more than idealist prayers for color-blindness.
To the masses, integrationism looked like a theory that would isolate and therefore disunite Black people in the face of a still racist and dangerous environment. That is why court-enforced school integration— dispersal of their children onto hostile turf—was often viewed negatively by parents in the ghettoes. And given the inevitable failure of school integration under racist capitalism, the new middle class had to give up on its illusions as well. So integrationism is dead as an ideology, even though its former champions—including Mfume, Jackson, Waters, Rangel and Bond—have not replaced it with any other defined middle-class outlook, aside from a vague pluralism.
In 1995, the “Million Man March” led by Minister Farrakhan was one of the most massive events ever held in Washington. While the crowd was comparatively affluent, many poorer Black workers were attracted to the message of Black pride, assertion and self-organized unity that was woven into Farrakhan’s mixed message. Indeed, any other Black leader who called for reconciliation with the U.S. government and its “greatness” would have been labeled a Clarence Thomas. But Farrakhan got away with it because of his long history of anti-white and separatist rhetoric.
In saying that Clinton is in effect the leader of Black America, we mean that the post-integrationists are clearly no longer as authoritative or as independent in the eyes of the masses as in the past. With the Million Man March, Farrakhan moved to fill the vacuum. Because of his strong independent Black identification, he could rouse the community in a way that others no longer can. Thus he could force the post-integrationists to kowtow to him and thereby acknowledge that he has taken much of their base.
But there is also evidence that he cannot accomplish any more in the leadership position than they could. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam (NOI), publicly decried Black participation in elections. Nevertheless, he always made NOI’s power a factor in the machine politics of his Chicago home base, but in a cloaked fashion. Today, the cloak is impossible. Farrakhan’s march loudly pushed voter registration, echoing the incessant calls from the post-integrationist leaders. In November 1998, the NOI pulled out all stops, including a motorcade parade and a rally in Chicago, in a campaign to boost the Black vote. The NOI’s Final Call minced no words that this meant support for the Democratic Party, locally and nationally. The response was underwhelming from Black workers and poor.
Of course, Farrakhan makes clear that he’s not as tied to the Democrats as other Black leaders are. In fact, he openly calls for a Black “third force.” He says he wants to create a more independent electoral base, a new “political army” to carry out his economic program. He stresses Black petty capitalism, self-development and free enterprise, all of which have led him to laud a number of Republicans. But a formal link to the Republican Party is politically impossible. First, Farrakhan must appeal to Blacks who have moved upward by relying on the baby carrots doled out by the Democrats, and these “benefactors” will not buy a program which favors Black economic autonomy or anything besides the continuation of dependence on government power. Second, few Blacks are willing to buy the barely-shielded racism of the Republican right. So even though
Farrakhan doesn’t rely on elected office, he cannot seriously challenge the Democrat party any more than can the liberal post-integrationists. He is freer to play games within the structure and to posture as an independent, but he has no political gains to show for it.
Farrakhan’s impasse became clear when the impeachment threat against Clinton mounted. On television’s Meet the Press on October 16, he condemned Clinton’s “immorality” but pointed out that all presidents have been immoral. He concluded that Clinton was being “wickedly mistreated” and suggested that Monica Lewinsky was part of a Jewish/Zionist plot to nail him. He acknowledged his poor opinion of the Democrats, indicating that the Republicans are worse, but still emphatically urged Blacks to register to vote. He asserted that “something different must be done”— but couldn’t say what that is.
As Farrakhan moved toward a more statesman-like role, his former lieutenant, Khallid Muhammad, made a move to out-militant him. Muhammad tries to give voice to the growing anger among Black youth. His clout with the nationalist groupings, both Muslim and secular, is based on his claimed ability to attract alienated young Blacks, a capacity they lack. His actual base, although hyped as a tie with the street gangs, is to be found more among disaffected Black middle-class college students.
You don’t have to live in Harlem to hate Giuliani. This arrogant demagogue used the MYM in September as an excuse to terrorize that community in a naked display of the armed power of the state. But defending the march from Giuliani’s attack in no way meant that we politically endorsed it. The march was comparatively small, but thousands of people did attend, for various reasons. But the march in fact was designed for one purpose: to build Khallid Muhammad. It did not represent a fighting movement, and those who came with such hopes could only be disappointed.
Muhammad is also no foe of the Democrats. An important fact that has generally been ignored is that, for all the fiery nationalist denunciations of the “white devil,” Jews and Giuliani from the podium, there was no denunciation of the white-run, imperialist Democratic Party! Harlem congressman Charles Rangel and a variety of other mainstream Black Democrats who were unhappy with Muhammad and the rally came under attack, but not Clinton. Al Sharpton, who aspires to be the Democratic nominee for mayor or senator in future elections, was a featured speaker. Baptist minister Rev. Calvin Butts, another prospective Democratic candidate, was a major endorser. The former head of Harlem’s NOI Temple No. 7, Conrad Muhammad, who was recently cast aside by Farrakhan, is another likely candidate for a local office. In fact, a good deal of the infighting around the MYM by various groups and local political figures behind the scenes concerned contests for control of the Democratic machine in Harlem.
In the short run, Farrakhan remains the only Black leader with commanding clout nationally. However, as more middle-class professionals become angrier and as the prospects for small businesses dim even further, the more militant wing of reactionary nationalism can expect to grow. Muhammad seeks to forge his cadres among those militants. To that end, he has launched his own Muslim sect and the New Black Panther Party, a reactionary mirror-opposite to the original party which, despite its political faults, rejected religious obscurantism, despised cultural nationalism and proclaimed itself to be revolutionary socialist.
Openly pro-capitalist nationalism like Muhammad’s appears militant mainly because of its radical anti-white posture. It can win some hearing among the working-class and poorer sections of Blacks, who do not live in isolation from the influence of the petty bourgeoisie and middle class. But the systemic nature of the attacks that workers and working-class youth are increasingly facing also means that their very real but unformulated anti-capitalist consciousness will accelerate. The question is, can this sentiment be translated into an organization and program for action that truly represents the interest of the Black working class and the masses as a whole?
Earlier this summer another contender for Black leadership declared itself. Nearly two thousand Black leftists met in Chicago in June to launch the Black Radical Congress (BRC) as an alternative to Farrakhan and his ilk. The conference claimed to represent diverse progressive radical traditions among Black activists, “including socialism, revolutionary nationalism and feminism,” and its program spoke of the need to address the interests of the working class and the poor. In the face of the reactionary male-dominated family theme evoked by the religious and cultural nationalists, the BRC openly identified with women’s liberation and the rights of gays and lesbians. It explicitly rejected the Black capitalist path. Thus on the surface, the BRC appeared to be an avenue for advanced working-class Blacks looking for a challenge to pro-capitalist nationalism. But this was not to be.
The Congress adopted an 11-point Principles of Unity document, whose preamble carefully noted that the BRC would not “replace or displace existing organizations, parties or campaigns” but would mobilize around “common concerns.” The principles are purposely vague as to how to achieve the BRC’s chief goal: to “strengthen radicalism as the legitimate voice of Black working and poor people, and to build organized resistance.”
The conference itself stuck to this vagueness by treating contentious issues as threats to unity. Political and organizational disagreements were diverted from the floor to the leading continuations committee each time they came up. “Unity” was maintained, but at the expense of working out a specific radical strategy for Black liberation that is so desperately needed. None of this was accidental.
Major roles in the BRC are played by the Committees of Correspondence (CoC) and the Communist Party (CP), both of which, in somewhat different ways, are proponents of the Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus. But the days when the Stalinist CP or any group could singlehandedly dominate an event like the BRC conference are long gone: the sponsors included individuals and groups who at least nominally oppose the Democrats or who consider non-electoral actions important. Given this division, the BRC makes no explicit statement of support or opposition to the Democrats. This omission is supposedly in the interests of unity but in reality comes at the expense of political clarity. Thus there was no debate over the Democratic Party at a conference claiming to build a powerful radical alternative to the status quo.
The BRC’s goal of unity precluded any open endorsement of Clinton or the Democrats. But in practice, by excluding the possibility of a radical campaign for a political alternative, it in effect accepts the present dead-end strategy of the pro-capitalist Black leadership and its Democratic Party orientation.
This crisis is not only in the Black community. The only existing leadership of the American working class is the trade union bureaucracy, which has proved itself a nightmare for workers of all colors. This article has cited the increasing alienation of Black workers from capitalist politics. But Latinos and the vast majority of white workers, unlike the most aristocratic layer that often identifies with U.S. imperialism and racism, are also at sea politically. There is an increasing contempt for capitalist politicians, labor bureaucrats and the like throughout the working class. What is missing is an alternative.
This enormous crisis will be resolved only through enormous acts. Massive, united struggle is the means by which significant numbers of advanced workers can make a qualitative leap in building a new party of the working class and oppressed. For this to happen, an immediate fight for mass action must be coupled with an open struggle against the current misleaderships. It must be led by conscious revolutionaries determined to win their fellow workers to the work of forging a new leadership and strategy.
How can this be done? A case in point came after Giuliani’s attack on Harlem, when the December 12 Movement and other radical Black groups called for a general strike. Their leaflet urged Blacks to not go to work, adding “don’t shop, don’t go to school.” But this attempt, long after the immediate anger had died down, failed to get support among Black workers. One reason was that it was hard to distinguish from the perennial calls by nationalists to boycott white-owned businesses. And, of course, a general strike can’t be launched by a leaflet or word of mouth alone. It requires the machinery of powerful organizations with large resources and memberships, like the unions. Power has to be fought with an opposing source of power.
Suppose also that radicals helped build committees for the general strike among militant workers, students and other youth, putting out a call to all workers who wanted to oppose police brutality—and Giuliani’s other racist attacks. Such a campaign, unlike the electoralist petition against Giuliani, could have made a difference. Given the widespread anger, the misleaders would have been forced to go along or would have been put on the spot. Either way, a step towards a new leadership would have been taken, and possibly a mass upheaval would have occurred.
Blacks and Latinos are a decisive force in the big unions in New York. Even in a one-day strike, transport, production, services and the city government itself—the mayor notwithstanding—would grind to a halt. The impact would be tremendous. And it would open up a struggle which has been stifled by the labor bureaucracy and pro-capitalist misleaders of Blacks and the rest of the working class, for decades. Black, Latino and anti-racist white workers would be in the lead, demonstrating to less advanced workers that police brutality is their problem too—and that if they join with militant Black and Latino workers in fighting racism they will also be building the fight against the capitalist attacks. Workers, now cynical, would see their power.
Mass action by the working class is considered by many leftists today to be an old-fashioned idea to be cherished only in labor history books and conferences. Indeed, the working class has changed since the historic labor battles of the 1930’s. For one thing, Black and Latino workers are now in a strategic position in both private and public workforces; they hold a power they did not have during the earlier periods of upheaval. They can now exercise decisive strength, as was already exhibited in the wave of wildcat strikes that Black workers led in factory after factory in the early 1970’s. At that time, white workers followed Black militants in important union battles—a new phenomenon that did not go unnoticed by the bosses.
In response to those struggles the bosses have made conscious efforts to reduce the concentration of Black workers in key industries and locations. Layoffs have been one major tool, with more to come. But Black and Latino workers still wield powerful leverage because of their crucial role in production; their strength cannot be ignored when it is actually harnessed to fight the system.
We are trying to paint a true picture of the leading role that Black and Latino workers can play. But we don’t say that the struggles will automatically develop into the powerful united fight that is needed. Nor will politically advanced Black, Latino and anti-racist white workers automatically be granted leadership. None of this will come without preparation by a vanguard that adopts a revolutionary strategy from the start.
One fact is glaring: no present-day contender for leadership of the Black struggle is able to break with the Democratic Party. Thus Clinton rules over the Black community by default. Nevertheless, waning support for the Democrats among Black workers shows that openings already exist for building an alternative.
The economic crisis is about to erupt with devastating fury upon the U.S. working class. History shows that Black and Latino workers will be hit the hardest. But white workers and the middle strata of all races will be smacked hard and also be looking for a way out. Inevitably, the ruling class will step up its attempt to divide the working class through an even more naked racist offensive.
The reason we counterpose mass action to electoralism is that action is the way a vanguard layer will congeal as the working class discovers in living practice its own enormous strength. At this juncture, the initiative is in the hands of the capitalists and their agents; the working-class and the Black and Latino masses think of themselves as powerless, doomed to rely on politicians, preachers, presidents, demagogues and bureaucrats. Even revolutionary-minded workers have serious doubts about the Marxist class strategy, given the low level of struggle, the obvious racism of many white workers and the demoralization fostered by leaders accepting attacks for decades. To break from this malaise, mass actions like general strikes can teach more than just the advantage of unity. They give the class confidence in its struggle, they help it build its own trusted leadership and they educate the more backward workers so that they can be won over.
Racism can only be smashed if a revolutionary working-class party is built. To win over the many potential middle-class allies of the working class, the working class must champion a fight for all the needs of Blacks and Latinos. In particular, the revolutionary program must include a resolute defense of affirmative action and other gains important to the middle class and those who aspire to it. By making itself the tribune of all oppressed people against discrimination the working class can prove that its party is fit to lead.