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Nigel Harris

Black Power and the ‘Third World’

(June 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.79, June 1975, pp.23-25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

HOW DO the politics of black power relate to building a united workers’ movement? Some black power militants – and their white supporters – argue that in effect colour defines a separate national minority whose identity is more important than the class or classes to which the members belong. Because white racialism is so widespread, black people can rely only on themselves. This is an understandable defensive reaction against physical, economic and cultural repression. It has provided the basis for a powerful assertion of identity and confidence among black militants – black is beautiful.

In a period of growth in the system, labour scarcity ensures employers are more concerned with exploitation than discrimination. Racialism is used on a personal and cultural level rather than structured by the ruling class. Boom also makes possible an escape from the ghetto for a minority, some on the basis of leading black people. They use their blackness to build a base for self advancement, simultaneously trying to become assimilated into a white middle class. The common proletarian character of the black community is contradicted by a middle class leadership – whether community leaders, barristers, shop or restaurant owners or small businessmen. Such a leadership has a vested interest in corralling the black community and holding it separate from class issues as the basis for its own ambitions.

Economic crisis changes all this. It hits white workers in the leading sections of the working class movement, and promotes the possibility of a militant working class alternative as well as increasing the possibility of a racialist attack on black workers as scapegoats for the failures of the ruling class. It also blocks the advancement of the black leadership – it ties them to their colour, whether they like it or not. Simultaneously it exposes the black community to the realisation that they cannot win against the system solely on the basis of their community, their colour, any more than the white working class can win while being racialist.

But these are only ‘possibilities’. Whether opportunities are turned into real action depends on leadership, on the alternatives offered by the white working class movement and the black community leadership. If the white leadership accepts ruling class interests as embodied in racialism, there is no possible solution. If the leaders of the black community will not relinquish the basis of their power, colour, for a class position, this is a serious obstacle to building a united party. Blacks who – because of their experience of oppression under capitalism – ought naturally to be over-represented in the leadership of the working class movement, ought to be leading white workers, become trapped in a political ghetto. White racialism then has the last victory by locking up the potential of black leadership in a community prison.

In the united States, we can see how successive struggles by the blacks have been converted into ghetto issues by white racialism. The American ruling class has been able to isolate and stifle the natural leadership of the working class, the blacks, forcing them into exporting their hopes to some illusory foreign saviour in Africa. The most extreme case is the radical break with American ruling class culture which is embodied in Black Islam. The black Muslim leadership has now degenerated into a million dollar corporation, fleecing the black community in the name of religious separatism. The Black Panthers owe much to the radicalism of the Muslims, but they also were unable to break out of the ghetto to class politics. The militants became guerrillas, isolated from the black masses, with only Africa to console them. Others became a black pressure group in the Democratic Party, yet again adjusting to the system rather than overthrowing it.

We are now entering a major crisis in world capitalism in which the possibility of a working class alternative becomes more serious than for decades. Given the bitter legacy of white racialism – where white workers have been, from the point of view of blacks, the main racialists – can a united workers’ party be built? Some black militants insist that this is not a problem. It is up to white workers to prove their good faith. The blacks will organise in any case, and need no help in pushing the system to its limits. Among Asians in Britain – where identification with the politics of blackness is much less common than among West Indians – there is a similar case among Maoists. Asians, they say, are a national minority which should organise separately. When a white working class revolutionary party has been setup, they will ally with it. So far, they have not pushed the case to its conclusion – namely, that a separate area of the country should be set aside as an independent black state (this was a position advanced by the Communist Party of the United States in the ‘thirties for American blacks). The position as a whole is attributed to Lenin.

What was Lenin’s position on this question, the ‘right of national self-determination’ for minority peoples in Tsarist Russia, and the question of separate organisations in the struggle for power?

Lenin and National Self-Determination

THE JEWISH workers of Tsarist Russia were the victims of vicious anti-semitism. Tsarist pogroms expelled hundreds of thousands of Jews from the country. The Jewish Bund organised Jewish workers, and for a time allied with the Marxists, the Social Democratic Party. However, when the Bund protested against the Social Democrats recruiting Jewish workers, even in localities where there were no Bund members, Lenin sharply reproved them. The right of national self-determination of the Jews did not take priority over the working class revolution.

Social Democracy, as the party of the proletariat, considers it to be its positive and principal task to advance the self-determination of the working class within each nationality rather than the self-determination of peoples and nationalities. We must always and unconditionally strive to achieve the closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and only in isolated and exceptional cases may we advance and actively support demands tending to set up a new class state or to substitute a loose federal unity for the complete political unity of a state’
(Selected Works, 2, 1936 edition, p.322)

It is correct to recognise the right of self-determination, but that does not mean supporting every demand of nationality. Marxists, he says, are distinguished from liberals on exactly this point, for they subordinate the demand for self-determination – the right of a people to have its own state – to the needs of the class struggle.

The oppression of the Russian Jews had produced what Lenin called ‘estrangement’, encouraging Jewish workers to organise separately against Russian racialism. Should Marxists support separate organisation so that Jewish workers would have their own independent role in the revolution?

This estrangement is a very great evil’, Lenin writes, ‘and a very great obstacle in the struggle against Tsarism, and we must not legalise this evil or sanctify this shameful state of affairs by establishing the “principle” of the separateness of parties or a “federation” of parties.’
(Ibid., p.330)

The unity of the workers’ party is absolutely necessary. One centralised fighting organisation is required in the struggle with a centralised and armed Tsarist State.

The Jewish Bund accuses Russian workers of anti-semitism, and confuses the people who support the ruling class with ruling class interests. If Russian workers are anti-semitic, that is because they support the ruling class. Only a class attack on the ruling class can beat back anti-semitism, not a retreat into race consciousness.

For the Bund, race took priority over class – even though its leadership claimed to be Marxist. Jewish workers were the exclusive property of the Bund. The perfectly reasonable demand of Jews to defend themselves had passed over into a demand for a separate Jewish revolutionary organisation, which would then enter into a revolutionary federation with non-Jewish workers as a separate entity – as if Jewish workers were a separate class from Russian workers. Lenin replied:

‘We must act as a single and centralised fighting organisation, we must have behind us the whole of the proletariat, without distinction of language or nationality ... we must not set up organisations that would march separately, each along its own track, we must not weaken our offensive by breaking up into a number of independent political parties, we must not breed estrangement and isolation, and then have to cure, with the aid of these famous “federation” plasters, an artificially injected disease.’ (Ibid., p.337)

What can we learn from this discussion? Black consciousness and the pride of Asians in their own culture and identity can hardly be overestimated as first steps in a rejection of the values, not of ‘the English’, but of the white ruling class. White workers who adopt the interests of the ruling class as their own will see this assertion of an independent identity as a threat, as ‘black racialism’. Dimly, they understand that black militancy is an assault on the ruling class and therefore on the interests they support. But there is no ‘black racialism’; racialism, like imperialism, is a one way process, from dominant to dominated. The defensive reactions of the oppressed should never be treated as the same as the offensive of the oppressor, as if there was nothing to choose between tyrants and their victims.

Does the assertion of a cultural identity earn the right to a separate state? For Lenin, it was not so. The revolution required support from those culturally and geographically distinct peoples, the Ukrainians, Georgians, Turkmen and so on, and their loyalty could only be secured by guaranteeing their right to a separate state. But the Jewish people lived closely interwoven in Russian, Polish and Ukrainian cities, a fundamental part of the working class. They had every right to develop their cultural identity, but not on the basis of a series of independent ghettos. Of course, later on the Jews were exiled to Central Asia, but that was the result of Stalinist anti-semitism, not the Leninist emancipation of the Jews.

In Britain, West Indians, Africans, Asians and others are, like the Jews of Tsarist Russia, a fundamental part of the working class, not geographically distinct nationalities. There is a basis neither for a series of separate states, nor for separate revolutionary organisations. An argument for separation can be advanced only in defence of a reformist leadership that aims to use colour to achieve advancement, a leadership prepared to sacrifice the interests of a class to the advance of its own power.

Ideologically, the black power leaderships need to compensate for the numerical weakness of the black communities in white societies by identifying with the black majority in other countries. The politics of the ‘Third World’ are a necessary complement. There is also a leadership which is black and anti-imperialist, and which frequently denies the local existence of class – classes are less important than nations. What happens in the ‘Third World’ therefore directly affects the viability of a separate black alternative to class struggle.

The ‘Third World’

THE ‘THIRD WORLD’ is an alliance of the ruling classes of the economically backward countries, and it stands in contrast to a world working class, some of whose sections exist in economically backward countries. Should working classes in backward countries fight the local ruling class against imperialism? It was a question the second Comintern Congress (1920) avoided by preparing two drafts which were both included in the record even though they could be contradictory. In practice, with the defeat of the European working classes in the 1920s, the whole direction of Communist Party policy shifted towards alliance with anti-imperialist ruling classes. It was argued that the working class was too small and too vulnerable, and revolution was liable to upset the balance of international power to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union. Yet the experience of the alliance produced catastrophes – the local ruling class used the Communists to dragoon the workers, and then turned on it and destroyed it.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the majority of former colonial countries won their political independence. They were necessarily anti-imperialist and some of them also regarded the Soviet Union as no less imperialist than the United States – they chose ‘non-alignment’. Furthermore, they rejected both capitalism and what passed for socialism in the Soviet Union as the model for their own regime. They proposed a third alternative, often involving a large public sector, national planning, curbs or nationalisation for foreign capital, and a verbal concern with popular welfare.

The ‘third alternative’ was anti-imperialist. But it was also anti-working class. Trade unions were tightly controlled or eliminated; strikers were gaoled; and real wages held down in order to increase the rate of exploitation. Over time, also, the anti-imperialism weakened, for the new ruling classes needed foreign capital, weapon imports and foreign markets for their exports. It would not have mattered if world capitalism had grown fast enough to deliver jobs and incomes to a large enough proportion of the workforce in the backward countries. In the 1960s, the stagnating growth of the backward countries has undercut the claims of national independence, or a third alternative. The black ruling classes have a declining chance of competing with the white imperialist powers, and therefore are forced to opt to join forces with the whites. Rising unemployment, declining real wages, the collapse of most efforts to develop, isolates the new ruling classes as parasitic and privileged strata in the eyes of the local people. They can recapture loyalties only by force at home and wars abroad – by squabbles with other ‘Third World’ ruling classes. The ‘Third World’, an alliance of ruling classes, crumbles, leaving a world working class, with a heavily oppressed peasantry, facing a world imperialist order, some of whose sections are black.

This is the lesson of a whole range of offensives by working classes in backward countries over the past eighteen months – from the gigantic Indian railway strike, the rash of strikes in Burma, Thailand and Malaysia, the widespread agitation in Pakistan, the general strike that overthrew Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, the explosion of militancy in Nigeria, Jamaica, Trinidad and Dominica. The victory in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos becomes the final stages of the past strategy of national liberation struggle, not the forerunner of a revolutionary response to the crisis of world capitalism.

The situation in southern Africa illustrates most sharply how events are moving. The revolt of black workers in South Africa has done more damage to apartheid in eighteen months than two decades of non-worker agitation, whether by white and black liberals or by guerrillas. It has made Vorster and the dominant section of the white ruling class desperate for means to win over a section of the black working class, to create a black middle class loyal to the South African regime. To do that, the challenge of the black ruling classes of Africa has to be ended. South Africa has to have black allies abroad, particularly among those best known for their anti-imperialism and opposition to white racialism in South Africa. To win them, Vorster has to settle the Rhodesian issue in favour of a Zimbabwean black middle class. Such an ambition would have been absurd only a short time ago, but the world economic crisis has, fortunately for Vorster, driven into his arms a whole flock of willing black rulers.

It was not merely the well-known right-wing leaders that wanted access to South Africa’s economic power. Last year, the price of copper collapsed at the same time as Zambia’s maize crop partially failed. The interests of survival of the Zambian ruling class diverged sharply from those of the black working class of South Africa, and President Kaunda made his peace. Vorster was quite cynical about the exercise:

‘I think that we have whetted the appetites of a number of African countries to have a closer look at South Africa – in every sense of the word,’ he is reported to have said. ‘I also think we have made countries realise that their own economic interests demand that they buy in the nearest, the cheapest and the best market’ (Cape Argus, interview, May 7 1975.)

The spirit of collaboration has become so close that it was the Zambian Foreign Minister who announced that South African troops would evacuate Rhodesia by the end of May. In return, Zambia has pushed the radical Zimbabwian forces into an alliance led by the conservative nationalists, arrested ZANU officials in Zambia and banned all nationalist groups except the conservative African National Congress. What South Africa was seeking to achieve by the use of troops, Kaunda is now doing – trying to destroy the guerrillas. Nyerere of Tanzania has followed Kaunda’s lead, and together they presented the ‘moderate’ case at the last Organisation of African Unity conference in April. The FRELIMO, for six months participants in office in Mozambique, have provided no alternative perspective, for, like Kaunda, their interests as a new ruling order are powerfully threatened by the crisis in world capitalism.

The crisis is separating the interests of the black ruling classes and the masses, pushing the first-for-survival-into the arms of a world imperialist class. The ‘Third World’ provides no third alternative, only a temporary resting point that depended upon the economic growth of the world system in the 1950s. The African working class is beginning to move, and as it does so, it clearly illuminates that the central issue is one of class.


THE FACT that the economic base for black politics is ending does not spontaneously produce class politics, however. Indeed, for black people in Britain – facing the daily savagery of racialism on the shop floor, the buses, the streets – the decline of a political alternative can produce demoralisation, a flight from reality to an imagined utopia in Africa or ‘home’. The necessity of the ghetto is made into a virtue.

This situation comes about if there is no class alternative, if the black leadership makes a virtue of its isolation and the white worker leadership does not deliberately fit its demands to the situation of black workers (as it must fit its programme to carry both the advanced sections of the working class and all peculiarly oppressed strata). Fighting racialism on the shop floor and outside the factory, fighting the National Front, is not a virtuous act of a do-gooder. It is the precondition for building a united working class alternative.

The role of black leaders is also vital. By their experience of white oppression, by their concentration in the worst organised trades, their capacity for revolutionary leadership will be far greater than their numbers. They are, as Trotsky described the American blacks in the 1930s, ‘the most dynamic milieu of the working class’, the most capable of revolutionary courage and sacrifice, and inevitably over-represented in the leadership of the working class. But this is only possible if they see the struggle against racialism as part of the development of a united class alternative, so that they then have the courage to lead not only black workers, but also white. The high number of Jews in the leadership of the Bolshevik party shows how far this conception was effected in Tsarist Russia.

Already, there are a number of important examples of outstanding black leaders of white – or majority white – workforces. The more this develops, the more powerful the class alternative so that black and white workers have more in common than black workers and black businessmen, shopkeepers and policemen. There is already a thin stratum of black capitalism in Britain, often based upon the exploitation of the black community (whether as customers or workers). It seems to offer an exit from racial and class oppression, but the crisis walls up that exit for all except a very few. We should welcome the ‘promotion’ of black capitalists so that the ruling class is more clearly identified. It is that ruling class – in Britain or the United States or India or Tanzania or Nigeria or Jamaica – which is the obstacle to the emancipation of mankind. Black workers have a decisive role in its overthrow.

Socialists must give unconditional support to all efforts which defend both oppressed nations in the world and national minorities in the heartlands of imperialism. But defence will not bring socialism. For that we need a united international workers’ party, where the divisions of nationality and colour are subordinate to the development of a workers’ leadership.

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