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George Breitman

The Future of the Negro Struggle

(Spring 1963)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.2, Spring 1963, pp.52-54, 60.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A symposium on this subject, celebrating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, was held at the Eugene V. Debs Hall in Detroit on Jan. 4, 1963. The speakers, in the order of their presentations, were George Breitman, writer for The Militant; Reginald Wilson, managing editor of Correspondence; and Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., Contributing editor of The Illustrative News. Melissa Singler was chairman. The symposium was sponsored and transcribed by the Friday Night Socialist Forum.

Tonight we are commemorating the 100th anniversary – 100 years and three days – of the Emancipation Proclamation, a convenient date to mark the approximate end of chattel slavery and the approximate beginning of second-class citizenship for the Negro people of the United States. We commemorate that occasion, in line with the subject of tonight’s symposium, not by discussing the events of the past, which certainly deserve to be examined in detail, but by turning our attention to the future of the Negro struggle, whose aim is to abolish second-class citizenship and achieve complete equality.

I NOTICE none of us three speakers has brought a crystal ball along with him. That’s good – it means we’ll have to rely on whatever powers of analysis, methods of analysis or theories we possess. The theory that I shall try to apply to tonight’s subject is Marxism, the theory of scientific, revolutionary socialism, which we think is the best instrument of analysis yet devised for understanding the world of today and tomorrow, even if some people mishandle it.

In trying to determine the probable future of the Negro struggle in this country, it is best to begin by considering the future of the world and of the country within which the Negro struggle will unfold. What we see there is a great and irrepressible conflict, headed for a showdown during the remaining years of this century. It is a conflict that will decide whether the world will continue to be dominated by capitalist and imperialist exploiters of labor, or whether the working people of all nations and colors will be able to free themselves from such domination, take their destiny into their own hands, and make the transition to a society where the exploitation of man by man will be abolished and replaced by a system capable of satisfying the needs of mankind, which include equality and peace as well as material abundance.

This irrepressible conflict is the world background and framework for the future of the American Negro struggle, and it is crucial for at least two reasons. One is that it will produce, already has produced, powerful allies of the American Negro all over the world, allies because they have similar objectives and because the enemies of the American Negro are their enemies too. The second reason why the world conflict is relevant to tonight’s subject is that no country is immune or will remain immune from the struggle for or against capitalism, not even the United States, the last stronghold of this dying system. Which means that here at home, as the world crisis of capitalism penetrates and deepens here, as the class struggle between the American capitalist and the American worker sharpens and explodes, here too the Negro will be able to find strong and numerous allies and reinforcements to fight together with him against their common enemy and exploiter. It’s unfortunate that lack of time permits tonight’s speakers only to state points rather than to develop them. But I think I’ve said enough about the world conflict to show that you cannot avoid thinking and talking about its direct and indirect impact on the Negro struggle here.

Turning now to the Negro struggle itself, I think we should start by noting the important developments in the Negro community during the last few years. I want to list some of these and try to explain what they mean, because I think their continuation and deepening are inevitable during the next period.

TAKE just the last three years: The sit-ins that began Feb. 1, 1960, and quickly spread all over the South, brought a new force onto the scene, the Southern Negro youth, displaying impatience with the old-style moderate Negro leadership and building their own organizations, like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, because they are dissatisfied with the old ones. May, 1960 – organization by Negro trade unionists of the Negro American Labor Council, dedicated to fighting discrimination in industry and unions. September, 1960 – the big pro-Castro demonstration in Harlem after the government had launched a massive campaign of propaganda against the Cuban revolution. 1960 – the year that the Muslims were transformed from a sect to an important movement because its spokesmen dared say things about racial oppression that most Negroes wanted voiced. The year that small groups around the country began to form in sympathy with Robert F. Williams’ call for Negroes to defend themselves. The year that the press began to complain openly all over the North about Negroes rallying to the defense of victims of police brutality, sometimes disarming the cops and putting them to flight.

Then 1961 – the small but symptomatic demonstration at the UN against the murder of Lumumba, in February; the freedom rides in the spring; the filling of Southern jails in the summer; the independent mobilization of the Negro community in the Detroit mayoralty election – I could go on with this list all night, but time is limited, so I cut it off, because even a partial list makes the point that something new is happening.

These new events have produced new organizations and have compelled old ones to act and talk more militantly. Along with them have emerged new moods, new feelings, new demands – if not altogether new, at least they are expressed in new ways, more sharply and unequivocally. And if these new feelings and ideas are not already shared by a majority of the Negro people, they surely are, as Loren Miller said in The Nation, rapidly gaining support and respect among the majority.

What are these sentiments, or the most obvious ones? Anger at anyone who tells the Negro he must go slow, take it easy, or wait for the proper time, which is always in the future and never today. Resentment at any kind of paternalism. Suspicion and mistrust of whites, particularly liberals. Rejection of the liberal perspective of very gradual reform, whoever offers it, white liberals or Negro liberals. Contempt for tokenism and those who are satisfied or deceived by it. Mixed feelings about integration and where it will lead, if anywhere. Impatience with progress through gradual change over an indefinite period, and insistence on Freedom Now. A strong desire for racial solidarity and unity. Determination that the Negro should control his own struggles, that these struggles should be led by Negroes, that their tactics and strategy should be determined by Negroes – all resulting in a pronounced preference for all-Negro organizations. Growing support for bloc voting, that is, voting to elect Negroes to represent Negroes, whether in public office or union posts.

NOW what do these new events and feelings represent, what do they signify for the future? We have given an answer in The Militant – that this marks the beginning of the radicalization of the Negro people. I still think that estimate is correct, but tonight I would like to approach the question, and if possible to throw light on it, from another angle.

What it signifies is that the Negro struggle is becoming more – independent. More independent – is that all and what’s so remarkable about that? My answer is: It’s the key to the whole future; when the labor movement starts out on the road to independence, as the Negroes are doing, everything will begin to change. What does Negro independence, complete independence, mean? Maybe you can grasp it better by considering what dependence means, the condition that has prevailed to a greater or lesser degree until now.

Dependence means that the Negroes must wait, wait until they get permission, the green signal, the OK, from other forces – from the employers, from the White House, from the Democratic Party, from Solidarity House, from City Hall. Dependence means that Negroes cannot act freely and in accord with their own interests as they see them; that they must wait for the go-sign before they can seriously launch their own demands, candidates and campaigns; that the Negro movement is and can only be the adjunct and appendage of other movements. In short, dependence has been the curse, the fatal weakness, the main source of defeats for the Negro struggle.

Dawn of New Day

And now at last, not slowly but rapidly, not tentatively but decisively and irreversibly, this state of dependence is being overcome, to use the Southern movement’s wonderfully expressive word. Dependence is being overcome, mental and psychological shackles are being broken and cast aside, and independence is becoming the goal, the hallmark, the method of decisive change all up and down the line. It is the dawn of a new day, so bright that not everyone has been able to adjust his eyes to it yet, a change every bit as momentous as the Emancipation Proclamation. I cannot think of any more favorable development in this country since the start of the cold war, nor one that holds greater promise for the future.

Conservatives are disturbed by this new tendency, and liberals recoil from it in horror with epithets about “racism” and “Jim Crow in reverse.” But revolutionary socialists support it and welcome it and hail it because it represents a transformation that spells nothing but good for the Negro people, nothing but good for the real interests of the working class, and nothing but good for the fight for socialism.

And here I cannot help using part of my precious time to inform or remind you that it was only the Socialist Workers Party, out of all political tendencies in this country, that foresaw this new development as long as 15 years ago – not in all of its concrete and complex detail, but in its essential characteristics; not only theoretically foresaw and predicted it, but even then, while it was still in an embryonic stage, even then advocated it and defended it as thoroughly legitimate, progressive and desirable. You will find the evidence for this claim, which is also a test of the relevance and validity of Marxism for radical-minded Negroes, in the new Pioneer Publishers publication which is on sale here tonight. It is entitled Documents on the Negro Struggle, covering the years 1933 to 1950, and the last two parts, dealing with the Socialist Workers Party’s 1948 convention resolution, are the ones dealing with the prospects and potential of the kind of independent Negro movement that is being built today.

NOW whenever the point is made that the immediate future will see the continuation and strengthening of the independent tendency that is already in motion, then certain questions and misgivings arise. I don’t mean the objections of conservatives and liberals, which I will disregard at this time. I mean questions that come up in the minds of Negro and white militants, which are pertinent and proper, questions like these:

“Granting that a truly independent Negro movement is necessary, is it enough to insure victory? How far can such a movement go alone?”

In the first place, the independent Negro movement does not have to go it alone. I said earlier it already has allies abroad; even now it has some allies at home. But how far could it go alone, if it had to? I don’t think anybody can answer that question exactly, can say that this movement will be able to go just so far, and no farther. This is one of those questions that can be answered only in action, in practice, through the testing of the relation of forces. But it can be said with certainty that an independent Negro movement can go much farther, can achieve much more, can force much greater concessions from the rulers of this country than dependent and semi-dependent movements have won up to now. Our rulers know this just as well as we do; that’s why they’ve employed so much brainwash, bribery and brutality to keep the movement in a dependent status.

Another part of the question was: Can an independent Negro movement, by itself, achieve its goal of complete and unconditional equality? Our answer must be that this is very unlikely. Saying this does not contradict what we have said about the many positive features and the presently underrated potential of an independent movement. It is a conclusion imposed on us by a fact, a cold hard numerical fact, that the Negroes are a small numerical minority of the population – between one-ninth and one-tenth. This creates strategic and tactical problems quite different from those existing in countries like South Africa, where dark-skinned people are an overwhelming majority and where racial oppression can be uprooted through majority rule. In our country Negroes can win equality only if the white population is divided, only if a substantial part of the white population is won to the side of the Negro people as an ally.

THE indicated major ally of the Negro people is the working class, the labor movement. For many reasons: Most Negroes are workers themselves. Negroes and white workers have common needs – decent jobs, housing, schooling, peace, etc. In addition, the white workers, even if most of them don’t understand it yet, are themselves injured by the Jim Crow system, and are weakened in the pursuit of their own main objectives by racial divisions and antagonisms. Nobody has to preach to the Negroes about the need and advantages of a labor-Negro alliance. They have been in favor of it for a long time; in fact, no section of the population has been more pro-labor during the last quarter-century than the Negro people.

If a labor-Negro alliance does not exist, or if it exists only in a partial and distorted way, it is not their fault, but the fault of the labor bureaucracy.

The real point is that there is no contradiction whatever, either in logic or in practice, between organizing or reorganizing the Negro movement along independent lines and achieving alliances with other sections of the population, starting with the working class. In fact, many militant Negroes view doing the first job as an indispensable condition for successfully doing the second. They believe – correctly, in my opinion – that first they must unite and shape and orient their own movement, and that only then will they be able to bring about an alliance that will have results – that is, an alliance of equals, where they can be reasonably sure their demands and needs cannot be subordinated by their allies. (When I say they must create their own movement first, I do not mean that they cannot also simultaneously begin the forging of alliances, but that if any temporary conflicts should arise between these two tasks, then priority should be given to the needs of creating the independent Negro movement.)

No Easy Road

So what revolutionary socialists foresee is this: The Negro people, drawn together by their common experiences as an oppressed minority, will build an increasingly independent movement, fighting militantly for equality under their own banner, with their own program and behind their own leaders. They will not build this movement easily, smoothly, without setbacks and defeats, without mistakes – but at least they will be the Negroes’ own mistakes, not those foisted on them by their enemies and false friends, and so they will be able to learn from such mistakes and correct them.

One effect of their independent struggles will be to shake up and divide the white population, which will simultaneously be shaken and divided by the many social and political conflicts flowing out of the international crisis and the domestic class struggles that I referred to in the beginning. Thus new alliances will emerge, particularly because the labor movement will not always remain as it is today, dominated and controlled by a narrow-minded and conservative bureaucracy; new op-positional and left-wing formations inside the unions will challenge the Meanys and Reuthers too.

A new alliance will be forged between the independent Negro movement and the leftward moving sections of the labor movement. We cannot supply any exact dates, or predict all the complicated forms this development will take, or foresee all the twists, turns, re-formations and realignments this will entail. But this alliance, we predict, will assume an advanced political character, breaking with the Democratic Party and building a new party whose goal will be to depose the present ruling class, and it will be the instrument through which the Negro people will win their second emancipation and the white workers their deliverance from capitalism. We place major stress on such a labor-Negro alliance because until it is created the next American revolution cannot take place, and because as soon as it is created basic social change will become a serious point at the very top of the American agenda. All this we socialists not only predict, but advocate and fight for.

I THINK I have time within my 30-minute limit to squeeze in just one more point, and it is this: It’s common knowledge here that revolutionary socialists say the capitalist ruling class will never grant genuine equality to the Negro people. I haven’t the time to repeat our reasons for this belief, which would require us to discuss the basic cause of racial oppression, and the ways in which racial oppression is inextricably intertwined with the roots of the profit system in the United States; perhaps these things will come up in the discussion period. Anyhow, that’s what we think, and whether you agree or disagree with us, you will have to admit that the position you take on this question necessarily plays a big part in any forecasts you make about the future of the Negro struggle.

We not only think that American capitalism won’t grant equality to the Negroes, but we also think that the Negro people, by fighting for equality under this system, will inevitably, through their own expedience and not out of some socialist pamphlet, come to the most far-reaching revolutionary conclusions – including the conclusion that capitalism must go if racism is to be eliminated.

The correctness or incorrectness of our analysis of American capitalism will not be settled by debate tonight. It will be proved or disproved through action, action in the streets and in the ballot booths, through struggle, through the struggle of the Negroes and their allies for equality – equality within the capitalist system if it can be won there, or equality outside this system if it can’t be won here. We are quite willing to put our analysis to that test, and to join the Negro people in fighting for as much equality as can be achieved under this system. We are confident that the outcome of such a test will be enlightening and beneficial for both the Negro and socialist movements.

(A speaker who identified himself as a Black Nationalist, opposing integration and favoring separation, asked what the small socialist movement had to offer black people, and why Debs Hall has pictures on the wall only of white men – Marx, Trotsky, Debs.)

The question was about the relation between the independent Negro movement and the revolutionary socialist movement. First, however, I’d like to comment on Rev. Cleage’s remark that during the war all the radical groups he heard in San Francisco advised the Negroes to subordinate their struggle to the war effort. I want to say that Rev. Cleage evidently didn’t hear what the Socialist Workers Party had to say during World War II. Because the Socialist Workers Party was that section of the radical movement which insisted that the Negro struggle should not be subordinated, and which fought against the Jim Crow system and made the fight against it a paramount issue from the beginning to the end of the war.

The question was about the relations between the two movements and what the socialist movement has to offer to the Negro people. Now, certainly in terms of numbers, which is the way the question was posed, the revolutionary socialist movement is much smaller today than the Negro movement. But what is involved is more than numbers, what’s involved is a question of ideas, of program, of a program that is concerned with the relation of forces between Negroes and other sections of the population. Socialists are opposed to the Jim Crow system for the same reasons that Negro people are opposed to it and for other reasons, not only because it oppresses Negroes but also because it hurts white workers. We don’t consider the development of an independent, militant, mass Negro organization as being in contradiction with that movement also working with whatever allies are available ...

(Interruption by questioner, who asked why black people should ally themselves with white workers when the latter are prejudiced.)

There is no intention whatever on our part to deny that a majority of the white people in this country are prejudiced. If the situation as it is now were to continue forever, then our program would have no application. But we believe that things change, and that the thinking of the white workers will change too. Not today, not tomorrow completely, but we think they will respond to certain needs of their own, to certain pressures, international and national pressures, including those that result from the action of an independent Negro movement. That is one of the things we are trying to do – to help educate white workers to understand that their real interests are similar to those of the Negro people.

Now there are two main reasons why white workers are prejudiced. One is that they do have certain advantages from the Jim Crow system; it gives them certain privileges. But these privileges and advantages are nowhere near as great as they think they are, and in addition the Jim Crow system affects them adversely too. It distracts them from the struggle for their real objectives, aims and interests; the divisions between white and Negro workers hurt them both as members of the working class. The other reason why white workers are prejudiced is that they too have been brainwashed for a long time. They too have been subjected to the racist propaganda of the ruling class. We don’t think that this propaganda is always going to be effective. We think that the workers will be able to shake off its effects in the course of fighting for their own needs. The Negro people have been brainwashed for centuries, no group has been brainwashed for a longer time. Yet we see now that they have been able to throw off the effects of this brainwashing, declare their independence and start off on a new road. If Negroes can do it, if Negroes can overcome the pernicious effects of brainwashing, then we say it’s also possible for white workers to do it.

Therefore, when we talk about the future, we are not talking about the working class as it is today, with the kind of leaders it has today; we expect that the working class will change, as a result of its own experience and the pressure of its own needs. And the kind of alliance we predict for the future, and advocate and fight for, is not an alliance between prejudiced white workers and Negroes, but of Negroes with those white workers who have shaken off the ideas of the ruling class, including the racist prejudices that the ruling class persistently fosters and inculcates, and who recognize the necessity of working together with the Negro people for their common aims.

The question was also asked about the hall here, why do we put up pictures of white people? We put up pictures of these working class leaders because of the program they represent, not because of their race, and we will put up the pictures of other leaders who represent the program which we are trying to convince the American people will lead them to liberation, equality and peace.

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