The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 68 (Fall 2003).


Black Liberation and the Working Class

In the Workers Vanguard article responding to our debate report, as well as in Don Alexanderís speech, the SL “exposed” itself as an opponent of Black workersí initiative in the class struggle. For one thing, they chose to reprint an absurd charge against the LRP from Alexanderís speech. Because it reveals the SLís own backward stance on Black liberation, it is unfortunately worthwhile to quote it at length and take it apart.

Alexander said:

So the LRP also claims that white workers are a “labor aristocracy,” which means that theyíre bought off, and they lump them with the white racist rulers. This is how they put it: “Black workers no longer have to wait upon whether or not white workers will lead a struggle or not. Black—and Latino—workers are now strategically placed in major industries and in the dominant cities. Their militancy and their actions can be a decisive pole in what the white workers do.” This is a pseudo-leftist rejection of the centrality of the working class in the fight to abolish the racist capitalist system. If white and black workers donít have common interests, which means a common fight against the racist exploiters, then you drive the white workers into the arms of the white ruling class and, at worst, the fascists!

How can any serious struggle for proletarian power be undertaken by an organization that has just consigned a significant section of the American working class to the scrap heap! In the late 1960ís, when the radical-nationalist League of Revolutionary Black Workers refused to hand out their leaflets at Detroit auto factories to white workers, this was a big blow against working-class unity, and a missed opportunity to win them to a program of revolutionary struggle. So this is what the LRP passes off as revolutionary strategy in the imperialist epoch.

Read it twice. The SL speaker claimed that the working-class struggle is doomed if—as Matthew Richardson put it—“Black workers no longer have to wait upon whether or not white workers will lead a struggle or not….”

If indeed we had just written off the white working class forever, it would not be just a rejection of “a significant section of the American working class,” but given the numbers of white workers, it would indeed have meant that we were giving up all hope for proletarian revolution in the U.S. The contention is obvious nonsense. We meant exactly what we said: Black workers do not have to wait for white workers to fight back; they themselves can initiate and lead struggles.

Why is this not what the SL is hearing? Does the working class have to be led by white workers rather than Black on every occasion and at every step to merit the SL stamp of approval? Other than that, we can find no sense to the inflamed objections from the SL.

Centrality of Black Workers

We are interracialists as well as internationalists. Therefore we do not question the desirability and ironclad necessity of united working class struggle. The question is how and on what basis to reach these goals. Our booklet Marxism, Interracialism and the Black Struggle argued that working-class unity will not occur immediately by decree but through struggle, and sometimes not by the direct or pure path that the SL prefers. We pointed out, however, that the Black working class was now in a far better strategic position to play a decisive role in the class struggle than ever before. Black and other workers of color toil in large numbers in the heavy industries and the essential urban occupations which keep the nation running. Despite suffering disproportionate layoffs in recent decades, they still have enormous power.

In any given working class there are different strata with differing levels of consciousness due to different material, historical and social experience. Since Black workers are generally more advanced in their consciousness, out of proportion to their numbers in society, we ask the SL: why is the likelihood of encouraging a vanguard role a terrible thing? Only if one has an integrationist, i.e. assimilationist, mentality that denies both the inevitability and desirability of independent Black action, could such objections seem to have any “logic”. Trotsky already pointed out the vanguard role of Black workers in the 1930ís; the SL still hasnít learned the lesson.

We say Black workers must assert their fighting demands and not subordinate them. And we provide concrete examples where this led to advances for Black workers and all workers. In the early 1970ís, for the first time in U.S. history, white workers followed Black workers in serious strikes and struggles (even in the South!). Black working-class presence had become vital in industry, and Blacks had become self-confident militant fighters.

The SL charges us with seeing the whole white working class as an aristocracy of labor. That is not our view. But we do think that white workers in general are in an aristocratic relationship to Black workers, in the relative sense: white workers still earn more on the average for equal work; they still have more advantages and opportunities by far than do Black workers. And of course the totality of racism goes far beyond economics into every crack and crevice of society. Can there be any doubt that white workers have these advantages? Does the SL wish to deny all the material and social differences?

But recognizing the relative advantages in no way means that we see the white working class as a whole as a hardened, permanent aristocracy of labor. The working class contains various strata, with better-off white workers forming the bulk of the aristocracy and oppressed workers of color forming the bulk of the worst-off layers. Moreover, capitalismís ability to maintain that transitory material stake in the system is getting more and more problematic, as the sops granted to the middle strata and the labor aristocracy get smaller as the crisis of profitability deepens. A united fighting working class could win far greater gains than the racially-based sops capitalism dispenses unequally.

White workersí vested interest in the system still exists but is diminishing. But unless revolutionaries militantly intervene, the response will be a movement to recover a greater racial differential, based on reinvigorated racism and the growing state persecution of immigrants, offsetting the movement toward class solidarity, egalitarianism and revolution. We can win, provided that Black workers take the lead in pressing the struggle for the common fighting interests of the interracial working class as a whole.

Black Self-Organization

The SL also opposes Black self-organization. As our speaker spelled out, our view is parallel to our support for the right to self-determination for oppressed nations. Given the racism of U.S. society, including that within the working class under its present leadership, we recognize the right of Black people to organize independently. Further, situations arise where it is not only correct to recognize the right but to actually advocate separate organization.

That doesnít mean that we advocate or agree with the decision of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to refuse to distribute leaflets to white workers, as the SL implies. But even when we disagree, we understand why Black workers would choose to organize separately, under the concrete conditions of the auto industry and the autoworkersí union at that time. To not recognize this is, again, to ignore the reality of racism. The SL hurls out one example, a mistaken policy of the LRBW over thirty years ago, to denigrate the whole notion of Black self-organization. Their LRBW example hardly proves the undesirability of Black self-organization or independent Black struggle.

Ghetto Rebellions

The SL went into even greater apoplexy over our support for the Black rebellions against police brutality that swept America in the late 60ís. Their report proudly quoted an SL floor speaker who “ripped apart the LRPís empty cheering over the ghetto upheavals”:

Yes, there are spontaneous outbursts of rage and yes, they are understandable. And from í64 on, we defended them…. We sought labor defense of the ghetto masses, linking the ghetto to the factory floor where minority workers have real social power…. Look at the neighborhoods where those ghetto rebellions happened. What was the outcome? Whole swathes of neighborhoods destroyed and never rebuilt.

Our difference with the SL is not over the desirability of transcending partial struggles in favor of generalized working-class struggle—whether the struggles are by Black communities under siege in the United States or oppressed peoples under siege anywhere in the world. The best response is the united working-class response. Our difference is that the SL does not see these community rebellions as expressions of the working class at all. Therefore they do not intervene in them as class struggle, even though they do “defend” them.

Their unwarranted fear of independent Black action has caused them to terribly denigrate these struggles rather than intervene in them to fight for a revolutionary path. This is demonstrated by their need to distort history. The SL says that they defended these uprisings but that basically they were reflections of lumpen (hoodlum) rage against the system, which accomplished nothing. The SL sneeringly claims that Blacks just destroyed their own communities.

It is no accident that the SL, wedded to an integrationist-assimilationist outlook, would not want to face the fact that these riots occurred precisely because of the dead-end of integrationism. As we pointed out at the debate, the ghetto rebellions were spearheaded by masses of angry unemployed and underemployed Black workers who didnít have middle-class aspirations and wanted their own gains—jobs, decent wages, real equality, etc., which Martin Luther King et al didnít get for them. These rebellions were in fact only marginally backed by the Black hoodlum lumpen proletariat that the SL always likes to invoke. Even though they were not centered around the industrial core of the working class, they were working-class rebellions.

Moreover, they threatened to get completely out of hand and expose the U.S. during the period where the colonial revolution around the world was escalating. Consequently, even in the absence of a class-conscious proletarian party leadership in the struggles, the American bourgeoisie still felt tremendous pressure and ceded very real, if only limited and still unequal, gains to the Black revolts—in terms of jobs, “affirmative action” and educational opportunities. Young Black workers in Detroit, for example, got more jobs in the auto industry than were ever thought possible before—leading exactly to the period of Black worker militancy just discussed. Was not the emplacement of more Black workers in industry a terrific gain for the class struggle? For the LRP, the answer is obvious. Across the country, employment and educational opportunities, albeit limited, opened up for Black people to a degree never seen before in the U.S.

But for the SL none of this exists. The speaker they quoted went on: “What was the real gain of those rebellions? Black mayors, Democratic Party mayors in cities across the country for the purpose of keeping the lid on the struggles.” For the SL, that is all.

This is both denial and cynicism. There was nothing inevitable about the system succeeding in putting a lid on the struggles. Nor have the gains of the struggles been completely erased. What is necessary is to intervene in all working-class struggles where possible, not only in the unions, to fight for revolutionary leadership and program.

Despite the fact that rebellions today cannot even win temporarily what they won in the past, they are still happening. (See our Benton Harbor report on page 2, for example.) It is happening because of the overwhelming fact that white workers still do not see racist police brutality as their issue, and that Black working class people and youth cannot and should not wait to begin their struggles.

Why the denigration of independent Black struggle, not only in community riots but also in the workplace? Why the denial of the necessity for independent initiative in the face of racist police brutality and other attacks where white workers are not yet ready to take action? All of this (and more) is rooted in the Spartacistsí denial of the decisive character of the imperialist epoch, which deepens all the divisions within the international working class by its very nature. The same thinking that denies the inevitable conflict between the recognition of the rights of oppressor and oppressed nations, that place an equal sign between the defense of imperialist “national identity” and the rights of immigrant workers, canít see that assimilationism-integrationism is a doomed perspective for the imperialist epoch.

Assimilation and Malcolm X

To help make our point, Alexander objected furiously to our polemics on assimilationism. And a leading member speaking from the floor challenged us to find any proof that Trotsky opposed assimilationism. Our speaker had no problem with that. He quoted Trotsky in his summary: “During my youth I rather leaned toward the prognosis that the Jews of different countries would be assimilated and that the Jewish question would thus disappear in a quasi-automatic fashion. The historical development of the last quarter of a century has not confirmed this perspective.”

Not only does the SL not answer our questions, but when we meet their challenges and answer theirs, they pretend it didnít happen.

If assimilationism was an impossible perspective for Jews earlier in the epoch, it is certainly an impossibility for American Blacks today. “Revolutionary integrationism” or “revolutionary assimilationism” is a contradiction in terms. Malcolm X, who was not a revolutionary socialist but a heroic and incisive Black leader who was a master at peeling away the middle-class liberal pap being fed to Black people, understood the essence of this question better than the SL. In fact, some of the most penetrating remarks came in the fundamental programmatic statement made by the group he founded after he declared that he was no longer a Black nationalist. The Basic Unity Program of the Organization of Afro-American Unity stated:

Careful evaluation of recent experiences shows that “integration” actually describes the process by which a white society is (remains) set in a position to use, whenever it chooses to use and however it chooses to use, the best talents of nonwhite people. This power-web continues to build a society wherein the best contributions of Afro-Americans, in fact of all non-white people, would continue to be absorbed without note or exploited to benefit a fortunate few while the masses of both white and non-white people would remain unequal and unbenefited.

Significantly, the program document went on to add, “Therefore, we must reject this term as one used by all persons who intend to mislead Afro-Americans.”

Not only did Malcolm understand the racist manipulation inherent in integrationism, his non-socialist organization was pointing out that integrationism was a defense of exploitation, which of course goes unnoticed by the pseudo-socialist Spartacist League.

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