There’s a tendency to assume, perhaps unconsciously, that radical political analysis gets better and more sophisticated over time. Sometimes it really does. But certainly not always. Often, when we think we’re discovering something new, what’s actually happening is that we’re groping towards a rediscovery of the long-forgotten but hard-won insights of earlier generations. Too often, the collective intelligence and accumulated wisdom of the powerful and transformative social struggles of yesteryear have been carelessly consigned to oblivion by what one famous historian of poor people’s movements has called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”
In light of the recent intensification of the struggle against police killings of working-class Black people, it is worth taking a look back at how radicals of earlier generations, especially (in this case) some US-based Black revolutionaries, thought about the strategic questions posed by struggles of this kind.
When we do look at what they had to say, the superficial campus cliché according to which early 20th century marxists were “class reductionists” who ignored anti-racism altogether, or at best “subordinated anti-racism to class struggle,” begins to unravel in the face of a reality that bears little relation to the old liberal talking points.
Back in the 1940s, CLR James tried to sum up the early-20th century marxist view of anti-racist strategy for the USA in three points:
“We say, number 1, that the [Black] struggle, the independent [Black] struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.
“We say, number 2, that this independent [Black people’s] movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.
“We say, number 3, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the [wider] revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a real contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.
“In this way we challenge directly any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent [Black people’s] struggle for democratic rights. That is our position.” (From CLR James, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the US,” 1948).
[[Note: in the passage above, in order to focus the reader’s attention on the meaning, rather than the obsolete terminology, I replaced the word “Negro” with “Black,” but in the quoted passages below, I leave the wording as it appeared originally.]]
These three points — which James equated with “the position of Lenin thirty years ago” (see below) — have their roots in Karl Marx’s view of the relation between anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism, according to which “the most important object[ive]” for European workers hoping “to hasten the social revolution” against capitalism should be to help secure “the national emancipation” of colonized peoples, which workers in the colonizing nations should recognize as “the first condition of their own social emancipation.” In his main work, Capital (1867), he famously applied this same logic to racism in the US: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”
Since I do not think the development of anti-racist politics in the US has been entirely for the better in the years since James underlined his three points (in spite of some hugely important advances, like this, this, this, this, and this, to name a few), I want to encourage anyone who hasn’t studied early marxist views of anti-racist strategy in the US to look into a few of the classic contributions to the marxist tradition in this area. Below, I provide links to several key texts, including one by Marx himself in 1870, and then seven others published in the first half of the last century. For each of the links, I have included a brief excerpt, hoping to whet the appetite of possible readers. Apart from Marx and Lenin, all of the others — George Padmore, CLR James, Harry Haywood, WEB DuBois, and Claudia Jones — wrote the relevant pieces while living in the United States, as far as I can tell. (On the other hand, it’s striking that three of them — Padmore, James, and Jones — were born and initially educated in Trinidad.)
I should point out that — unsurprisingly — the opinions elaborated in the following works do not all neatly comply with James’ formulation of what he depicts as “the” marxist view. In many cases they diverge from one another very directly, and in important ways. But the divergences are also instructive and important, and repay careful study.
“And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life….He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards [Irish workers] is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A…..This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the…working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”
2. V.I. Lenin, “Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions” (1920)
“The Communist International’s national policy…cannot be restricted to the bare, formal, purely declaratory and actually non-committal recognition of the equality of nations to which the bourgeois democrats confine themselves….In all their propaganda and agitation—both within parliament and outside it—the Communist parties must consistently expose that constant violation of the equality of nations and of the guaranteed rights of national minorities which is to be seen in all capitalist countries, despite their ‘democratic’ constitutions….[A]ll Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies. Without the latter condition, which is particularly important, the struggle against the oppression of dependent nations and colonies, as well as recognition of their right to secede, are but a false signboard….”
3. George Padmore, “Black Slaves in the New World” (Chapter 2 of The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers) (1931)
“Even in the United States, which the apologists for bourgeois democracy consider the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave,’ we find 15 million Negroes brutally enslaved. The story of the oppression of Negroes in the United States forms one of the darkest pages in the history of capitalism. In no other so-called civilised country in the world are human beings treated as badly as these 15 million Negroes. They live under a perpetual regime of white terror, which expresses itself in lynchings, peonage, racial segregation and other pronounced forms of white chauvinism….Race prejudice or white chauvinism is one of the chief weapons in the hands of the capitalist class in order to oppress and enslave the black workers. In the United States the working class is made up of different nationalities and races which are grouped into white and black. In order to prevent these workers from uniting together in militant struggle against the bourgeoisie who rob them all alike, the employers and their agents in the Labour movement…encourage the workers to hate each other by playing up racial and national differences….Even in the North, where Negroes are supposed to be better off than in the South, they are still the victims of varied forms of social oppression. First of all they are isolated from the rest of the working class by traditional social codes imposed upon the workers by the bourgeoisie, in order to maintain an ideological influence over the white workers, who are taught to hate and despise their black comrades. Therefore, we find that the less class-conscious white workers, like the capitalists, have the tendency to consider the Negro workers as social outcasts – members of a pariah race.”
4. Harry Haywood, “The Struggle for the Leninist Position on the Negro Question in the United States” (1933)
“The emphasis upon the development of economic struggles among the Negro toilers does not mean to slacken but on the contrary to increase in every way the struggle around general issues of Negro liberation, such as Scottsboro and the fight against lynching. It is necessary to broaden out and deepen these struggles, bringing forward our full program of social equality and right of self-determination and building the broadest united front on these issues. Our chief task, however, is to bring this struggle into the shops and factories and on the land, linking it up with the more immediate demands of the Negro toilers, making the factories the main base in the struggle of Negro liberation and our trade unions the main lever for the organization of the Negro working class. At the same time the revolutionary mass organizations and particularly the trade unions must come forward more energetically in the struggle on behalf of the political demands of the Negro toilers. This must go hand in hand with the ruthless combating of all forms of chauvinist and Jim Crow practices and the patient, systematic but persistent struggle against the ideology and influences of petty-bourgeois nationalists among the Negro toilers.”
5. WEB DuBois, Black Reconstruction (1935)
“That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States — that great majority of [hu]mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry — shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name…–how shall we end the list and where?…Here is the real modern labor problem….Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts….The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.”
“Up to 1935, organized labor, as represented by the AFL, discriminated against the Negro as sharply as the capitalist class; today the poor whites of the South are the most savage of lynchers and the most rabid upholders of the theory of white superiority….[N]ot even a socialist revolution can immediately destroy the accumulated memories, mistrust, and suspicions of centuries; and today, in this period of capitalistic decline in America, the racial prejudices are more than ever based on economic privileges, possessed by one group of workers at the obvious and immediate expense of the other….Three centuries of property and privilege have used their wealth and power to make the Negroes feel that they are and must continue to be outcasts from all sections of American society, rich and poor; and the political backwardness of the American working-class movement has made it an easy victim to this propaganda, fortified by tangible if slight economic advantages….The desire to wipe out the humiliating political subservience and social degradation of centuries might find expression in an overpowering demand for the establishment and administration of a Negro state….Should the masses of Negroes raise this slogan, the [marxists], in accordance with the Leninist doctrine on the question of self-determination and the imperative circumstances of the particular situation, will welcome this awakening and pledge itself to support the demand to the fullest extent of its power.”
7. Harry Haywood, “The Negro Nation” (Chapter 7 of Negro Liberation) (1948)
“The ‘white supremacists’ insist on presenting the Negro question as one of race. This makes it possible for them to ‘justify’ the notorious color-caste system in the name of spurious race dogmas which depict the Negro’s servile status in American life, not as the result of man-imposed prescription, but as a condition fixed by nature. Negro inequality is supposedly due to natural inherent differences. In this credo, Negroes presumably are a lower form of organism, mentally primitive and emotionally undeveloped. ‘Keeping the Negro in his place’ is thus allegedly prescribed by nature and fixed by Holy Writ. Color of skin is made an index to social position. Race…[is] used as an instrument for perpetuating and intensifying Negro subjugation. The Negro problem is explained in terms of natural conflict between races, the result of inborn peculiarities. This hideous distortion, whose roots go back into ante-bellum times and beyond, permeates the entire cultural pattern of the South; this vile calumny is fixed in the South’s folkways, mores and customs, sanctioned in its laws, and, in the last analysis buttressed by violence and lynch terror. The lie of natural, innate and eternal backwardness of the Negro and other dark-skinned peoples is the theoretical foundation upon which rests the whole noxious system of Negro segregation and its corollary, ‘white supremacy.’ Formerly a rationalization of chattel slavery, it is used to justify the Negros present-day vassalage….From its taproot in the semi-feudal plantation system, anti-Negro racism has spread throughout the country, shaping the pattern of Negro-white relationships in the North as well. With the clandestine encouragement of Yankee financial power and its controlled agencies of public opinion, art literature, education, press, and radio, the dogma of the Negroes ‘inherent inferiority’ has been cunningly infiltrated into the national consciousness of the American people. Woven into the national fabric, it has become an integral part of the ‘American way of life,’ despite repeated refutation by authoritative science.“
8. Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Woman” (1949)
“The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman, and for good reason. The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women undertake action, the militancy of the whole Negro people…is greatly enhanced. Historically, the Negro woman has been the guardian, the protector, of the Negro family. From the days of the slave traders down to the present, the Negro woman has had the responsibility of caring for the needs of the family, of militantly shielding it from the blows of Jim-Crow insults, of rearing children in an atmosphere of lynch terror, segregation, and police brutality, and of fighting for an education for the children. The intensified oppression of the Negro people, which has been the hallmark of the post-war reactionary offensive, cannot therefore but lead to an acceleration of the militancy of the Negro woman. As mother, as Negro, and as worker, the Negro woman fights against the wiping out of the Negro family, against the Jim-Crow ghetto existence which destroys the health, morale, and very life of millions of her sisters, brothers, and children.”