the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Dec 31, 1990
The fight of the American black population against racism and poverty escalated during the 1960s to become a huge social movement, which finally culminated in urban insurrections.
The movement of the black population changed the whole face of society. It forced the American bourgeoisie to do what it would not willingly have done: to junk the apartheid-like Jim Crow laws in the South and to get rid of the most openly discriminatory practices in both North and South. It opened many jobs to black people for the first time. It forced an increase in social programs, which helped the poor of the black communities, and the poor whites, as well.
At the same time, the black movement also played the major role inside this country, forcing American imperialism to give up its war against the Vietnamese people.
The black mobilization could do that only because broad layers of the black population had given up fighting for reforms within the framework of this system; they were not afraid to confront and threaten the social order of the American bourgeoisie, the class that rules this society.
The discussions revealed by the “Pentagon Papers” showed that, in 1968, the political representatives of the American bourgeoisie were debating whether to send the additional troops that General Westmoreland wanted in Viet Nam: 200,000 more soldiers. The most influential “presidential advisers”, according to the report, said, “The growing disaffection, accompanied as it certainly will be by increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities because of the belief that we are neglecting domestic problems, runs great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” The growing unrest in the cities? This was a polite way of saying rebellion and uprisings, like the one in Detroit in 1967. By early spring of 1968 (when Westmoreland’s request to expand the war was turned down) there had been open rebellion in the black communities for almost five years.
Johnson’s decision to not send more troops to Viet Nam, to slow down the war and bombing, to pull back from the war in Viet Nam came because black people had taken over the streets in the urban areas.
Of course, the Vietnamese themselves, by their decades of determined fighting, were the main factor which forced the U.S. to decide to pull back from the war.
Obviously, other layers of the population were also active against the war, and even more consciously with the aim of stopping the war. There were student demonstrations on and off the campuses. But this “recognized” anti-war movement, which was always a petty-bourgeois movement, stopped short of the kinds of actions needed to have stopped the war. In fact, it couldn’t have been otherwise, because the students as a class do not have the power to force the ruling class to give up something basic to the functioning of its system, as war is.
Of course, this movement was important. First of all, it was better for the students themselves that they took part in a movement. Moreover, their activity helped to break the country out of the many social limits on the population and on people’s behavior which the repression of the McCarthy period had imposed. But this movement alone would not have had much impact; in fact, it could probably not have existed alone.
The black movement did not start out with the goal of contesting with the American bourgeoisie for power, but its social base, which came from the poorest and most oppressed layers of American society, gave it the possibility to do so. At the beginning, the civil rights fights were led by organizations and leaders, usually ministers, who were also extremely cautious and emphasized moderation and non-violence that is, the passive acceptance of the oppressors’ violence by the oppressed at every step. But by the 1960s, the movement had become more widespread and deeper in the population. People were insisting that they would have changes and quickly. The cry became “Freedom NOW!” and then “Black Power!” At that moment in the mid-1960s, as the war in Viet Nam was raging, a much broader section of the black population began to act, and even out of frustration, to revolt. The uprisings began to make the ministers irrelevant, and, in many cases, despised.
In the summer of 1963, Birmingham was swept by rebellion after the bombing of King’s headquarters. In 1964 there was a rebellion in Harlem, which spread to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and to several New Jersey towns. In 1965, with Watts, the insurrections grew much more massive and powerful.
By 1966 things were heating up in a big way, with many, many people refusing to accept the usual insults of daily life, refusing to accept the lack of prospects for their lives. Look at the statistics: in 1966, there were black urban revolts in almost 100 cities including Chicago, Cleveland and a range of smaller Midwestern cities like Dayton, Des Moines and Omaha. There were several hundred more revolts in 1967 with major insurrections taking place in Newark and Detroit, and almost all the towns connected to these cities. Black populations rebelled, ready to take on not only the cops, but also the National Guard and the paratroopers.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in April 1968, insurrections brought business to a halt in practically every major city and town. This revolt, by a population in the midst of the main bastion of imperialism, loosened the grip of the rulers of this country on the black population and over the people of Viet Nam.
The black urban insurrections of the 1960s were fought in exactly the same way masses of people have always prepared to make revolutions on the basis of their own conditions. In the 1960s, black people in this country carried out the kind of fight which had not been seen in an industrial country for almost 50 years: urban street warfare. It was their capacity to fight, their courage, their readiness to stand up to the repressive state apparatus which maintains both racist oppression and class oppression, which forced the American ruling class, the most powerful ruling class in the world, to back down.
The black movement had the potential to bring down American capitalism at its very core. And by so doing, it could free the whole world.
The movement did make the American bourgeoisie, which before had been moving with “all deliberate speed” to alleviate the situation (emphasis on the “deliberate”), now begin to hurry to impose vast changes on recalcitrant parts of its own state apparatus. At the same time, the ruling class set up COINTELPRO, targeting the most militant of black leaders for elimination, and offering positions to buy off the more “responsible” leaders.
Of course, there were always some leaders like Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown who made the connection between their struggles and those of other oppressed and exploited people, like the people of Viet Nam. Many black people understood that their allies were other people struggling against their enemies. There were some leaders like Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown who said, as a threat, “If the man does not give us what we need, we will burn it down.” And they were serious. They were willing to risk their lives. And because leaders like this existed, the movement was able to go much further than it otherwise would have.
But something was lacking, nonetheless. There were no organizations at the time with the ear of the people who said, “You must end capitalism; it must be destroyed to get what we need.” While some leaders spoke against the system, none said clearly that there was no other way than a complete and total revolution against this capitalist system.
The war was stopped. Jim Crow was junked. But something much more important was lost. The opening for revolution, which existed in the late 1960s, was lost. No one moved to take advantage of that opening.
The movement of that time should have argued to take the struggle all the way through to the end, to squash capitalism once and for all.
If the movement in the 1960s had gone up to the revolution, we would not be looking at war in the Middle East today. It’s very likely that revolution could have happened without the loss of much more life or even with less loss of life than what the fights to reform the system cost. It certainly would have spared how many future generations the wars they will undergo, the hunger, the violence, etc., which are the marks of capitalist society.
We can’t know what might have happened in the 1960s if there had been an attempt at revolution. No organization with credibility in front of the masses stood up and argued for such a position. What’s worse, no revolutionary party was created during that time. Was revolution possible in the 1960s? We don’t know. But it would have been possible to have created a revolutionary party, one starting from a base in the black working class, which by fighting for the interests of working people, could have brought white workers along also above all, on the question of the war against Viet Nam, which the white workers also resented.
In any case, that revolutionary party was not built because the militants of the time, both in the black movement and in the anti-war movement, did not put that as their goal. Their goal was to fight against racism or against war or poverty, etc.
And so, as the black struggles and revolts receded, the ruling class, exploitative and racist, reasserted itself. Its economy continues to attack and rain down even more devastation on the black community, and on the working class as a whole. And today, there is no revolutionary party which could centralize a fight of resistance among the working people. It’s one big reason that people hold back. The organizations which fight for reforms are not able to mount a fight in a time period like this. Just as they were not able to mount the kind of fight which would have been necessary to stop the U.S. war on Iraq.
We still need a fight made against racism today. Racism still destroys lives and dreams to put an extra dollar in the boss’s pocket and keeps his foot on our necks. We still need a fight against the exploitation of the whole working class by American capitalism. It is obvious that we still need a fight against war today war, which is the inevitable product of capitalism’s drive for profits around the world.
The fight for those things can only be won by people ready for social revolution. When we see what happened to Iraq, we understand that the problems of the world will not be addressed if the working class of this country does not prepare to get rid of the American bourgeoisie. The power to make war on the whole world is centered here. It can only be brought down here.
A movement in the center of American imperialism’s stronghold has the means to take away the rule of capital, that is, to end the cause of war and of racist oppression forever.
Reprinted from The Spark