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The Farrakhan Fracas: Blacks, Jews and Nationalism

(Fall 1984)

From Proletarian Revolution, No. 22 (Fall 1984).
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Now that Jesse Jackson is out of the central media spotlight, the controversy over Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s remarks about Jews has ebbed. But only for the moment: Farrakhan is not just a media creation invented to harass an unconventional black candidate. Both he and the issues he has become associated with are here to stay.

The demands on Jackson to repudiate Farrakhan for his anti-Semitism were hypocritical in the extreme. The same critics did not demand that Walter Mondale repudiate friends like Ed Vrdolyak, the openly racist machine pol in Chicago, or Ed Koch, the less open but equally racist mayor of New York. Nor have they suggested that Mondale dissociate himself from those Jewish groups supporting him that regularly spew out anti-Arab caricatures, or that Ronald Reagan break from innumerable racist Republican supporters.

For that matter, they haven’t asked Jackson or Geraldine Ferraro to denounce segregationist George Wallace, to whom both made pilgrimages during their campaigns. And the Senate’s 95 to 0 vote condemning Farrakhan as a bigot was an abomination, coming from a body that has nothing to say about the bigots within it and never saw fit to condemn the Ku Klux Klan and similar white racist outfits.

It is true both that the attacks on Farrakhan (and through him, on Jackson) were racist, and that Farrakhan made anti-white and anti-Semitic comments. But the two cannot be equated: there is an essential difference between the racism of the oppressors and that of the oppressed. The view of many German Jews that the whole German people was responsible for Hitlerism was wrong, racist and disastrous for their resistance – but it was hardly equivalent to the Nazi crimes. Racism in America leads to mass violence against Blacks, whereas Farrakhan represents a dangerous ideology capable only of irreparably harming the struggle against racism.

Farrakhan Vs. Hitler

The uproar over Farrakhan started when he was accused of being an admirer of Hitler. He is, but in a specific sense. For example, he said that Hitler was not just “great” but “wickedly great.” He admired not Hitler’s massacre of the Jews, despite the Zionist smears, but rather his nationalism. He may aim to become a true Hitler in the future – his views favoring the most retrograde forms of capitalism, the subjection of women and the oppression of gays are already reactionary enough – but that’s not what he is saying now.

Here the Jews don’t like Farrakhan, so they call me Hitler. Well, that’s a good name. Hitler was a very great man. He wasn’t great for me as a black person, but he was a great German. Now I’m not proud of Hitler’s evil against Jewish people, but that’s a matter of record. He rose Germany up from nothing. Well, in a sense you could say there’s similarity in that we are rising our people up from nothing. But don’t compare me with your wicked Hitlers.

Nationalists think alike: the problems of their people can be solved by building a great nation. This is why Farrakhan admires Hitler. He sees Blacks as an emerging nation with their own emerging religion of Islam – a totality that includes all Blacks except “traitors.” So too he sees Jews as a totality: Judaism = Zionism = Jewishness. This parallelism does not of course mean that rival nationalists like each other. Each is out for his own nation within the existing world of capitalist imperialism and its unceasing war of all against all. Different nations and nationalists make alliances and break them; each is for his own at the expense of all others. Farrakhan puts it in religious terms:

This I want the Jews to know and we want the world to know: that they are not the chosen people of God. ... What will you do today when the lie is uncovered and we show the world that we are the chosen people of that promise? We are the people who have no land that we can call our own. ... We are the chosen people of God and can back it up. We are ready to do battle with you wherever you come from in the earth. It is the black people in America that is the chosen people of Almighty God.

There are apologists (including socialist ones) who insist that Farrakhan is simply anti-Zionist – opposed to the racially exclusive state of Israel – but not anti-Jewish. The Socialist Workers Party’s Militant (July 13) asserted that the charge of anti-Semitism “is a lie from start to finish.” But it had to admit that there was something a mite off the mark in Farrakhan’s reference to Judaism as a “gutter” (or “dirty”) religion, that while he attacks Zionism “he incorrectly equates those who adhere to the Jewish religion with Zionism.” Exactly: if he’s anti-Zionist but defines all religious Jews as Zionist, then he’s anti-Jewish. Likewise, when he singles out Judaism as a “gutter religion” while not attacking other religions, he is again anti-Jewish. The SWP notes that Farrakhan’s “mistake” in equating Judaism with Zionism is the same as the Zionists’ denouncing all critics of Israel as anti-Semites. Very true, but to show that Farrakhan uses the same nationalist logic that Zionists do is hardly a defense.

The Workers World Party also eulogizes Farrakhan. It not only campaigned for Jesse Jackson but also wanted to see his alliance with Farrakhan maintained. As for the “dirty religion” matter, Workers World demurred: “Unfortunately, this attack on an individual religion is incorrect and could well be taken as anti-Semitic.” Indeed it could, but we are not told how the WWP takes it. The SWP and WWP’s diplomatic delicacy in defense of chauvinism against Jews is really a demonstration of their patronizing attitude towards Blacks. Like the claim that Farrakhan is engaged in a sort of national-religious overstatement or “hyperbole,” it is contemptuous of the Black audience Farrakhan is trying to mislead.

Farrakhan Vs. Malcom X

To see this clearly one only has to read Malcolm X, who, even when he was a firm Black nationalist, characteristically aimed at clear, concrete explanations illustrated by sharp examples and metaphors. He sought to inform an audience he respected; he said what he meant and he meant what he said. Perhaps that helped lead him away from nationalism and its mystifications.

In any case, Farrakhan detested Malcolm so much that he contributed to the atmosphere of murderous threats that led to Malcolm’s assassination. (Farrakhan was hardly being hyperbolic when he wished Malcolm dead.) Of course, Malcolm’s clarity came from his politics. For one thing, he fully understood that Blacks’ reliance on the racist Democratic Party was a disaster – unlike Farrakhan and Jackson.

Farrakhan’s particular nationalist views are important even though Blacks in the U.S. are not a nation. The persistence of nationalism as an ideology shows that it reflects aspects of reality among American Blacks, just as does the persistence of assimilationism. Blacks constitute a specific caste in American society, placed in a contradictory position. Periodically the promise of equality and acceptance is dangled before them, but it is always obvious under the surface (and especially during crises) that capitalist America cannot allow true equality or integration. Out of this contradiction spring both integrationism and nationalism as different ways of fighting to survive.

Farrakhan’s rhetoric talks of creating a separate Black economy. He is a vigorous advocate of “free enterprise” and the hiring of Black labor by Black businesses. The fact that Black workers today are overwhelmingly exploited by the dominant white capitalists, while only a few work for the tiny Black bourgeoisie, determines that Farrakhan’s ostensible goal is to create a nation with an organic relation between its bourgeoisie and proletariat.

Nationalism AND Integrationism

Despite their difference, Farrakhan’s friendship with Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH is built upon a common social conservatism and business orientation. PUSH pushes to enlarge the realm of Black business by getting more and better franchises from white-owned corporations. It accepts the present corporate domination as a fact of life. Like Elijah Mohammed and Marcus Garyey before him, Farrakhan tries to develop a network of Black businesses in present-day America more independent than those visualized by the integrationists; his talk of a separate Black nation and economy in the future serves to attract Black masses yearning for solidarity today. Farrakhan the nationalist admired Jackson the integrationist not only for his pro-business leanings but also for bringing the growing Black consciousness to a head through his electoral campaign.

Just as Farrakhan supported Jackson’s attempt to gain clout within the system, many Blacks who do not share Farrakhan’s nationalist views still welcome his adherence to Jackson’s cause. The bloc seemed to represent the need for Black unity, self-assertion and self-defense. When the power brokers tried to hobble Jackson by hypocritically using Farrakhan’s words against him, Blacks saw the racist attack underneath the charges and lined up in support.

Each in his own way, Jackson and Farrakhan believe in the American dream: social mobility, working one’s way up the ladder provided by capitalism. The desire to “move on up” involves a change in class and is of necessity an individualistic outlook; small numbers of petty-bourgeois aspirants succeed, and this success serves to quicken the (doomed) hopes of the majority. For the excluded races, religions and nationalities, moreover, the few individual “successes” are possible only through consolidation of group power, the ability to exact demands from the ruling class.

Significantly, the Jews are a key model for many Black leaders engaged in this quest. Many Blacks (and many Jews) believe that Jews as a group, once beyond the pale, have “arrived” in the mainstream of American society. There has been some assimilation, but it was made possible only by the strengthening of Jewish solidarity on the terms of the bourgeois and professional Jewish organizations. This permitted the triumph of Zionist ideology among U.S. Jews, and was itself accelerated by Zionism and its result, Israel. The Black future that Farrakhan desires mirrors the Jewish development he despises as its rival. Not accidentally, until the 1960’s all wings of the Black leadership were pro-Zionist. Many believed that if the Jews could make it (both in the U.S. and in their own Zion), then Blacks could too.

The Jews, however, arrived during capitalism’s Indian summer, the postwar prosperity bubble. It won’t happen again: the pie is shrinking, not growing. Moreover, the bourgeois and middle-class sectors of groups that have recently “made it” are becoming capitalism’s border guards, trying to keep out newer claimants. The middle classes are being squeezed, and most American Jews are white-collar workers whose hopes of rising further are evaporating. Increasingly reactionary “neo-conservative” Jewish leaders are mobilizing against Blacks as the enemy whose “quotas” are seen as blocks to Jewish hopes. The fact that Jewish acceptance in America is so precarious (despite the new superpatriots’ illusions) only accelerates hostility to Black self-assertion. Yet there are still many Jews who know that becoming oppressors here or in Israel is no way to end the oppression of Jews. One distorted reflection of this was the higher vote for Jesse Jackson among Jews than among whites in general.

Nationalism Vs. Socialism

As the capitalist crisis deepens, the sense of desperation among Blacks is bound to grow. The divide-and-conquer tactics of capitalism are already apparent. The great hopes held by Black workers in the Democratic Party and in Jesse Jackson’s campaign are already being undercut; their enemy now seems to be not only those who precariously made it up the ladder but also competing “out groups” like Hispanics and women. The daily papers are full of stories about conflicts over positions and crumbs between the sectors’ rival brokers. In everyday life Black and Hispanic workers view each other not only as jointly oppressed comrades but also as competitors for jobs and housing. The potential for a separatist go-it-alone consciousness looms.

But capitalism itself also produces a deeper trend of working-class, interracialist and internationalist consciousness that recognizes all workers as victims of capitalism. Economic and social crisis makes radical polarization – toward both socialism and reaction – inevitable, and this will force the nationalists to alter or adapt their separatist message.

Nationalist ideology accepts the inevitability of capitalism, but desperate people do not so easily fall for the absurdity of “free enterprise” and “no state intervention.” The nationalists will have to take into account the appeal of their socialist rival and the mass need for social relief and self-defense (especially for Blacks) in the face of economic collapse. Farrakhan or his descendants will have to cover their capitalist beliefs with social demagogy in the name of the truest nationalism – as did the Hitlers and Coughlins of the 1930’s. His petty-bourgeois forces and lumpenproletarian base will inevitably move toward some form of fascist demagogy. Although Farrakhan is not now a fascist, he will be pushed that way if he tries to champion the “Black nation” in severely worsening times.

Nationalism Of Oppressor Vs. Oppressed

The Zionists and leftists who denounce Farrakhan as a “would-be Hitler” are missing a crucial point. Hitler’s fascism arose out of the nationalism of the dominant race; Farrakhan as a Black man can only represent the reactionary impulses of the petty bourgeoisie of an oppressed race. There is an ironic precedent for this sort of role: the Jewish Zionists in relation to Nazi Germany, and Farrakhan already knows their history. As he observed in his “gutter religion” speech, “So Zionists made a deal with Hitler. These are the same people that condemn me for saying Hitler was a great man, but a wicked man.”

It is true. Zionists concluded a deal with the Nazis to get money out of Europe to help build a Jewish state (on land where another people lived); they broke an international boycott of German goods to do this. The fascistic wing of Zionism also supplied Jewish police for the ghettoes, collaborating with Nazi rule in East Europe. During the war, radical right-wing Zionists tried to deal with Hitler to undermine British colonial rule in Palestine. The other side of the Zionist crime was to oppose resistance and class struggle in Europe on the grounds that Jews ought to go to Palestine rather than fight at home.

Of course, the Zionists never got the big deal they wanted with Hitler: an agreement that Germany would be for the Germans and Palestine for the Jews. Just as capitalism today needs to scapegoat Black people as a threat to the jobs of whites when the system plunges into crisis, so the Nazis used the Jews as a different kind of devil. The Jewish banker became the safety-valve enemy to release hatred of capitalism. Those Jews today who think they have achieved acceptance by getting America to view Arabs as money-grubbing bankers (and worse) are in for a rude awakening. American capitalism will not hesitate to follow the Nazi example when it feels the need to substitute the symbol of Shylock for the reality of Uncle Sam.

Extreme Black nationalists, whether Farrakhan or others, will inevitably be forced to try to deal with their oppressor as did the Zionists. But when capitalism is deeply in crisis, as it was then and will be again, oppressor nationalism demands not the end of capitalism but the destruction of another nation. In the coming crisis, Blacks will face a holocaust too, even worse than what their ancestors suffered on these shores. When “Black Zionism” seeks to strike a deal with imperialism, it will have as little success as did its model.

The Black Struggle Ahead

If the grim crisis we think possible turns into reality, it is not excluded that Black people in the United States could be forged into a nation. The possibility seems unreal now for most Blacks; it lies not so much in their nature as in that of their enemy. Holocausts have created nations before. Even though Marxists are not advocates of nations and national boundaries, we stand squarely for the right to self-determination of the oppressed, including U.S. Blacks. We urge Blacks not to choose separatism, despite their group oppression, because Black unity under capitalism (even Black capitalism) means continued subordination to imperialism; that has been the lesson of all the independent nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. But Black people have the right of self-determination, and the choice is theirs. The only alternative is a united proletarian resistance to capitalism; by our defense of Black rights we seek to demonstrate the possibility of genuine internationalism and class consciousness.

Only a mass working-class movement in the U.S. can break through the sectoralism that divides the masses in the rulers’ interest. Yet the Black masses, given their history of slavery and oppression, have a deep-seated need for Black unity, identity and defense. The Marxist attitude to this need is similar to our defense of the right to self-determination: we do not oppose Black unity to class-wide unity. U.S. history has given Black working people absolutely no reason yet to trust the white working class to defend them, and if the two are counterposed Black workers face a desperate choice.

But the two choices need not be counterposed. Black unity as proclaimed by the Jacksons and Farrakhans indeed means united exploitation under the imperialist boot. Black workers, however, through their more advanced political understanding compared to the majority of white workers, and in part through building their own organizations, will provide much of the leadership for the entire working class. Their strategic position in heavy industry and in the major cities enables them to play a leading role that would have been impossible decades ago.

One model for Black workers to avoid is that of today’s American Jews. In the past there was a powerful movement of revolutionary proletarian consciousness among Jewish workers, but it was dissolved by the advance of the Jewish bourgeoisie and the erosion of internationalism. It is not too late for all sections of the working class to learn from the Jewish experience. One lesson is central. In the 1930’s, inspired in part by the defeat of the European Jews, the black Marxist C.L.R. James and Leon Trotsky began to shape the idea of building an independent Black workers’ organization for unity and self-defense; revolutionaries would work in it and campaign to win the Black masses to the cause of socialism. It is still necessary to fight for this today as part of the struggle for building the revolutionary proletarian party in the United States.

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