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, 1969
This article was written during the urban rebellions in the 1960s by militants of the French Trotsyist organization Lutte Ouvrière.
For the past three years, the United States of America, the leading world power and bastion of imperialism, has seen social warfare in its most radical form ravage its territory. Urban insurrection, which brings the masses into the streets and sets the cities on fire, is a form which seemed to have disappeared from Europe a long time ago, never again to reappear in a country enjoying a “high standard of living.” Only barricades are lacking for Watts and the Marais or the Croix Rousse to become synonyms a century apart.
True, the events now taking place in the U.S. are not workers’ insurrections; they are explosions of anger and of desperation by the black population which no longer accepts the situation imposed on them. This is not the first such explosion, since there were other important ones during World War II.
But in reality, if black people are fighting because of racial inequality, which is the rule in the United States, the origin of this inequality resides in the division of society into classes. It is because they belong to an oppressed racial minority that black people live in slums, are super-exploited, and are “the last hired into the worst jobs and the first fired.” But because society is divided into classes there exist badly paid labor, slums and unemployment. All this was not specially invented to oppress black people: these are the products of industrial capitalism. Racial discrimination has simply made sure that the most super-exploited strata of the proletariat is black. The same phenomenon can be observed in Europe, the difference being that the lower strata of the European proletariat are made up of whites, but “foreign” whites Spaniards, Portuguese, Turks or Arabs.
In a society based on exploitation, whether that exploitation be veiled or openly brutal, those set off by any particularity whether of race, religion or culture are always at a disadvantage. The dominant class quickly finds biological, religious or legal justifications for the situation it imposes on other classes.
Since the situation of the black population derives from the division of society into classes, the black revolt poses a danger to American capitalism. The American bourgeoisie can do nothing for black people. To eliminate racism, the bourgeoisie would have to be capable of eliminating super-exploitation, slums and unemployment in other words, to eliminate itself. (It’s enough to note the racism inherent in its repressive apparatus.)
Of course, blacks are not fighting to eliminate unemployment: they are fighting so as not to be its main victims, so that the color of one’s skin doesn’t automatically determine who is fired and who is hired. But this is impossible in American society so long as there is a single unemployed worker. The division of society into classes exists independent of racial oppression. But when racial division and social oppression exist simultaneously, social oppression easily follows the paths worn by habit and custom, by national and racial prejudices. The only minorities who escape this general rule are those who have been endowed by a fluke of history with more culture than the racial group composing the majority of the population, or whom historical development has integrated into the ruling class.
Black people are more and more ready to resort to violence because of the inability of American society to meet their demands. And this prompts the so-called friends of black people on both sides of the Atlantic to say that their revolt is not “constructive.”
A journalist of the Nouvel Observateur recently wrote: “Rap Brown is not alone with his racism, his hate, his desperate and despairing thirst for vengeance: America is full of Rap Browns who think, speak and act as he does. And those whites who are friends of the blacks and who have fought for them for years watch the phenomenon, powerless and discouraged.”
(It wouldn’t be the first time these whites “who have fought for blacks for years” we know with what success resign themselves to impotence.)
Of all contemporary events in the world, the revolt of American blacks is perhaps the most important for the future of humanity.
Several years ago, resignation to their situation was still the rule among the black masses of America, and the most influential organizations were reformist ones, such as the NAACP, whose leaders preached non-violence.
Today these organizations are being bypassed, and black people go into the streets not to beg but to fight. The leaders most listened to are those, like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, who stand forth as the spokesmen for violence. There is no doubt that black people’s consciousness of their situation has evolved. They know that legalistic demands will be answered with dilatory judicial devices; they know that peaceful demonstrations will be answered with police savagery; they know that police dogs will be set loose against proponents of non-violence. It is the repressive apparatus of the U.S. which has, through its actions, given this consciousness to black people and has thus brought the whole of American society to a situation it cannot escape unless it is profoundly transformed.
Socialists should, nonetheless, have no illusions in this situation. Black people have become conscious that their oppression rests on violence, to which they must oppose their own violence; that violence is carried out by a specialized apparatus; that this apparatus opposing them is the power of the whites; and that the blacks thus need a power of their own a Black Power. This consciousness is, itself, momentous: it produces revolution when taken hold of by a social class which is the majority, or is at least numerous.
But black people cannot, with only their own forces, destroy the white power, the power of the American bourgeoisie. Nor can they, a fortiori, replace it. Moreover, if black people are conscious that they need a state apparatus of their own to defend themselves, they are not conscious of the fact that they must destroy capitalism and the class structure of American society to have what they want. They could acquire this consciousness rapidly, in the course of struggle. But for this to happen, it is necessary that black organizations, leading the fight on this ground and with this program, be created.
An important index for appreciating the evolution of the consciousness of the black population is provided by the personal evolution of their leaders.
A man like Malcolm X went from the economic-religious reformism of the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims) with their commercial enterprises, banks, stores, schools all directed by blacks with the goal of creating a black economic autarchy within the framework of American society to the organized and violent struggle against the power of the state and its military-police apparatus. Through the intermediary of Islam, he progressed from a strictly nationalist point of view to a consciousness of the international aspect of the problem, discovering that the struggle of American blacks against the American state was related to the struggle of black Africans against imperialism.
Similarly, H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael moved from a philosophy of non-violence to an apology for violence as the midwife of social progress. They moved from a strictly American point of view to a consciousness of the kinship of their own struggle with that of Cuba or Viet Nam against the same American government. However, they have not, for all that, become conscious that their struggle cannot achieve its aims without the destruction of American capitalism and the establishment of a society without classes.
They are ready to destroy American society, at least they say so, and since making this assertion places their lives in danger, we can believe them. But when they speak of destroying American society, they think they are only making a threat, an ultimatum to gain their ends. They are saying, in effect, “Meet our demands or we will destroy you.” But they are not yet aware that, for their demands to be met, they would really have to destroy American society.
This is why the revolt of American blacks, while objectively revolutionary, has not, despite that, taken the road of social revolution.
It is difficult to predict the ultimate evolution of the movement and its leaders. For the time being, blacks have become conscious of the value of violence as a means of social transformation. But they have not yet become conscious of the aims and the breadth of the transformation needed to satisfy their demands.
Although the leaders of the movement have given up reformism and the utopia of their own state on separate territory, and although they fight for their own independent power, that is, a force capable of coming to terms with the state apparatus of the whites, they remain entirely on the ideological ground of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie, radical in methods but reformist in aim. They do not believe in the destruction of class society; they imagine that by threatening to use violence, or by actually using it, they can force the bourgeoisie and finally the whole white population to come to an agreement with them and to grant blacks a social situation equivalent to that of whites. American society is incapable of this. That is why violent reformism is fundamentally as ineffective as submissive reformism.
However, we must not underestimate the positive contribution to the black population that the total war envisaged by these black leaders can make in the short run. And these leaders have undoubtedly won the attention and confidence of the black masses. (Look at the moderate black politicians who are rallying to “extremist” positions; it’s an indication of how difficult it must now be to put submissive and non-violent merchandise on the market.)
The national and state governments can take economic and social measures in favor of blacks in order to prevent riots from becoming the rule. The police can mute their racism under this threat. The white population can learn to forget its racism, partly through solidarity with people who know how to defend themselves and partly through fear. True enough, none of this goes very far, since as long as there are 5 or 6 million unemployed in the United States, the number of black people unemployed will be disproportionate to their numbers in the population. Moreover, in less favorable contexts, the best social laws, even when enforced, usually work against those they are supposed to protect. (For example, allocations of welfare for women with children who have been deserted have contributed a great deal to the break-up of black families in the United States. In France, to give another example, increased pay for overtime has encouraged workers to seek overtime rather than discouraged bosses from using it.)
So all of these changes do not go very far; but, however little they change the basic condition of black people, such changes will be significant and will be felt as a true liberation. This can give black people a consciousness of themselves through racial awareness; it can allow them to become, by means of the fear they inspire, conscious of their own worth.
For these reasons the extremism of black leaders like Brown or Carmichael, and that of the people who went out into the streets in Watts and Detroit, is not only an only appropriate policy for black Americans, but is also the only possible one.
The black leaders who now choose to take this road and to preach revolt will be followed more and more by the black population and will become more and more representative of it.
Nonetheless, in the long run, the policy leads to a dead end: after the euphoria of its first successes, the black population will find itself in a situation which may be different in form but basically identical in content.
The black masses are at a different level of consciousness than the rest of the American proletariat. Perhaps blacks have less formal culture, but they are giving a lesson to all the peoples of the earth: the oppressed must build their own power to free themselves. This lesson has been forgotten by so-called communists who are the inheritors of the Russian Revolution, if they ever understood it. The proletariat of the West has ignored it, and the proletariat of the United States never learned it.
Today the most exploited of the exploited of American society are the furthest along the road to social progress, the road to revolution, that is, the crisis which shakes up societies pregnant with a new order.
It is obvious that blacks must struggle for themselves. Through success in the open struggle for elementary racial, social and economic rights, the whole black population can become conscious of its strength and of the role of emancipatory violence. Through their success in struggle, the fighters will recruit other fighters and will find allies. There is no revolution without battles and partial successes, which cement the unity of the masses and temper their will in the experience of struggle.
The so-called socialist who writes or believes that the black people of America should not use violence in the current situation, under the pretext that only the whole American proletariat, black and white, can take power, is badly mistaken. Only through the struggles of the most combative sections of the proletariat, constituted today by blacks, can the whole American proletariat achieve the same level of consciousness and a clear view of the unity of its interests despite its racial diversity. The revolution in the United States will pass through the struggle of the black people.
One important aspect of the problem is that the black population, as well as its leaders, is not conscious of the role that the whole American proletariat can play. Black people find white workers the most racist, second only to the police. It is the white workers who live near blacks and who think they are defending themselves from slums by keeping blacks out of their neighborhoods. The white workers are not refined enough to pretend not to be prejudiced nor rich enough to pretend to share their good fortunes with blacks. For the time being, the black population has no reason at all to believe that the white section of the working class can be its ally. Truly, none at all.
It is necessary to have a global vision of society, free of all passion, in order to be conscious of this possibility. You have to look at racial and social oppression from some distance, when not in oppression up to your own neck, in order to reach this kind of consciousness. You have to be able to anticipate what this or that group of individuals will do tomorrow when confronted by problems crucial for them, while not being influenced by what they do today about problems which are crucial for you. At present, the black masses, taken as a whole, cannot have that high level of consciousness, a level which has not been attained by any social stratum or class in the world in recent decades. Only a fraction of the most clear-sighted among them can, through Marxist analysis, come to a strategic vision of the struggle they must wage.
Therefore, in the current situation, no political organization of whites, whether majority white or even only minority white, can overcome the legitimate suspicions of the black population and win their confidence. But without that, no organization can lead the fight in which blacks have already engaged themselves, through all its difficulties and hard proofs.
American blacks will place their trust only in other blacks. Perhaps they will be deceived by this trust, but they have already had enough experience with whites. In fact, they have become conscious of the necessity of violence, of the necessity for power to rest in the hands of the exploited, mainly due to this simple opposition between black and white.
To ignore this is to turn one’s back on the struggle.
The most radical among the present leaders of the black movement have already evolved a great deal. Will they acquire a socialist consciousness in the course of struggle? Will they obtain a clear vision of the antagonistic classes, of the present and future of American society and of humanity, of the way in which the black struggle is integral to and integrated in that evolution, and of the strategy and tactics proceeding therefrom? No one can say they won’t. The most radical of the present leaders have already progressed a great deal and can continue to do so. But one must beware of illusions. What they now say about the American working class is very low level demagogy. The most unconscious of the country’s black inhabitants could say no worse. The present leaders not only ignore, but they also deny any community of interest between black workers and white workers. Despite all their declarations about socialism, this demagogy shows they remain on the ideological terrain of the American bourgeoisie, on the terrain of capitalism with its social classes, on the terrain of super-exploitation and unemployment, the main victims of which are black people. These leaders represent what the F.L.N. leaders represented for the Algerians: a petty bourgeois ideological radicalism directed against a particular situation which, however, does not call into question the whole social system, even though it uses violence against it. The Poujadist bombs in Corsica and the peasant riots in Brittany and southern France spring from this same ideology.
Perhaps in the course of the struggle, other militants, other leaders will emerge who will see the relationship which exists between the struggle of the black population of the United States for its immediate interests, that is, for a minimum program, and the struggle of classes against capitalist exploitation. Perhaps there will be other leaders who will see that these current battles, acts of the most conscious fraction of the exploited people whatever the origin of this consciousness are preliminaries in a war which can end only with the elimination of class society or with its opposite, the establishment of fascist barbarism throughout the world. In the latter case, the institutionalized criteria of race and caste would cover and demarcate class relations. A combination of fascist Germany, South African apartheid and Japanese feudalism is what fascism would mean on a world scale, and it would consecrate American hegemony over the entire planet.
All the energy of American revolutionary organizations, as well as those throughout the world, must now be directed toward facilitating the emergence and regroupment of such leaders. The first, indispensable step is to create a black revolutionary organization, completely independent at all levels, on the national basis, from American revolutionary organizations which include whites. It is not a matter of creating a mass organization. It is a matter of creating because the black population has the highest level of consciousness a revolutionary party, that is, a black Trotskyist party, an authentic organization of the struggle of American blacks.
This organization must be at the head of the struggle. Through partial fights, right now, the black population can raise its level of consciousness. Through organizing itself to fight, it can obtain a political education. There can be no temporizing, no pretending that now is the time for socialist propaganda, that whites and blacks will become conscious of their common interests through such propaganda, and that black people must wait for a more favorable time before beginning to fight.
It is in the struggle, in the fight, in the tactics used, that this community of interests will become apparent even to the least perceptive. It is action, correct action, which raises the level of consciousness of the masses, while propaganda can at best raise the level of consciousness of a few individuals. In certain periods of time purely propagandistic activity constitutes an individualistic reaction which ignores true class interests.
If the Trotskyists are incapable of taking the lead of the black movement as it is now constituted, in a manner appropriate to this movement, then they will have only a few years, if not a few months, left before they can do nothing but support leaders like Carmichael and Brown unconditionally, attributing to them an unconscious and transcendent socialism in order to appease their own consciences. At the present time, it is necessary to physically support the actions of Brown and Carmichael, while pointing out their limits unhesitatingly.
It would not be enough, however, to create an autonomous black revolutionary party without working out tactics and strategy for the rest of the American proletariat. The black population, mobilized in its own organizations for its own defense, can have a decisive weight on the class consciousness of the white proletariat.
Through its numbers, strength and discipline, the black proletariat could overthrow the bureaucratic leadership of certain unions. Its fighting organizations could purposefully intervene in the social conflicts affecting both black and white workers. Its propaganda about the war in Viet Nam could awaken the reflex of self-defense in the proletariat as a whole.
It is now too early to determine exactly what this organization’s strategy and tactics should be. The first stage of the struggle is precisely to give the black population cohesion, discipline and force. And cohesion, discipline and force can only be forged in the heat of combat. The black population is already going through this first stage without the revolutionary Marxists. And revolutionary Marxists are not created through improvisation: they must be formed. Roots in the history of the revolutionary movement are an indispensable attribute which only the Trotskyist organizations possess. And in this lies their historical responsibility. Leaders formed spontaneously in combat are leaders like Brown and Carmichael, who at least have the quality of providing banners to which fighters can rally. It is up to revolutionary Marxists to show they are not just as petty bourgeois as Carmichael and Brown, while being less effective.
If a Trotskyist organization would appear among blacks, this could through a quirk of history in which our epoch abounds bring down the international citadel of capitalism through a class struggle in which the national and racial factor is predominant at the beginning.
For the past 40 years, the American citadel of world imperialism has appeared impregnable, impossible to take from within. Or at least, the fall of this imperialism seemed the least probable when compared to the weak and vacillating bourgeois powers of old Europe. The strongest link, which had seemed destined never to yield, and which, on the contrary, seemed always to be able to provide the fist which would rescue the faltering arms of its European and Asian brothers, now reveals a flaw.
The flaw will cause the link to break. In three years the blacks of America have come a great distance. They will show the world that it is not necessary to have a revolutionary past in order to set out on the road of the future. They will find out how to create and forge the instrument of their own liberation, liberating the whole planet at the same time. They will be the ones to create a classless society on the world scale, a society in which whites will be a minority but will, nonetheless, have the opportunity to appreciate the liberty and humanity of a socialist society.
Reprinted from Class Struggle #8