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Date: Mon, 4 Jan 1999 09:07:16 -0800 (PST)
From: Louis Proyect <lnp3@panix.com>
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Subject: [BRC-ALL] NON-BRC; SOCIALISM; HISTORY; CLR James and Malcolm X
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CLR James and Malcolm X

By Louis Proyect (http://www.panix.com/~lnp3/marxism.html), 4 January 1999

In 1943 CLR James submitted a resolution titled "The Historical Development of the Negroes in American Society" to the Workers Party for discussion and adoption. It was a conscious attempt to apply Lenin's support for the self-determination of oppressed nationalities in general to the specific problem of self-determination for black America, an internal quasi-colony.

His was a minority position. Within the Workers Party, James had been derided as an ultraleftist and an eccentric. Max Schachtman, the party leader, called James a "literary man" as a put-down. The fact that James had led study circles on Hegel and Capital was another sign that James was not a real Bolshevik. The party member most hostile to James, however, was Ernest Rice McKinney. He gave James the nickname "Sportin' Life", after the villainous pimp in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. (Again, I tip my hat to Scott McLemee who provides this background data in his excellent introduction to "CLR James and the Negro Question".)

Writing for the party majority, McKinney put forward the classic "black-white unity" position of American socialism directly opposed to James's embrace of black nationalism:

"The white worker must take the lead and offensive in the struggle for the Negro's democratic rights...The white workers are strongly organized, they have had ages of experience and they are powerful. On the other hand, no matter how great their courage and determination, the Negroes are organizationally, financially and numerically weak in comparison with the white workers, and woefully and pitifully weak in the face of present-day capitalism..."

This position has come in a variety of packages, from major formations like Eugene V. Debs's Socialist Party or the post-Black Belt CPUSA, to the puny, impotent Trotskyist sects of today such as the Spartacist League. It was a position that John Reed defended in the Second Congress of the Communist International. This Congress was completely absorbed with the question of the self-determination of oppressed nationalities and the American delegation which included Reed and Louis Fraina simply didn't understand the relevance of black nationalism to the American class struggle. (One shortcoming of Warren Beatty's excellent "Reds", which features him as John Reed and Paul Sorvino as rival CP leader Louis Fraina, is that there is absolutely no recognition of the black struggle, nor any leading black characters.)

During the discussion on the national question, Reed made the following comments:

"For American Communists the only correct policy toward the Negroes should be to see them primarily as workers. Despite the Negroes' backwardness, the tasks posed for agricultural workers and tenant farmers in the South are the same as those we must solve with respect to the white agricutural proletariat. Communist propaganda work can be carried on among Negroes working in industry in the North. In both sections of the country every effort must be made to organize Negroes into common labor unions with the whites. That is the best and fastest way to break down prejudice and foster class solidarity."

While the Comintern did not arrive at a fully thought-out position on the black struggle in the United States, there is a rejection of Reed's economism in Thesis 9 of the "The Theses on the National and Colonial Questions": "...all Communist parties must directly support the revolutionary struggle among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights (for example, Ireland, the Negroes in America, and so forth), and in the colonies."

CLR James developed his position on black nationalism in 1943 against a backdrop of deepening racial polarization and violence. In his article "The Race Pogroms and the Negro" written that year, he denounces the white riots aimed at southern black migrants in search of well-paying defense industry jobs in northern cities. In Detroit, 25 out of 28 dead in a major riot were black. One hundred percent of the arrested rioters were black even though the riots were started by white racists. In all cases, the police colluded with the white mobs.

The racial pogroms spurred some black newspapers to call for self-defense that year. The Baltimore Afro-American declared that "Colored communities must be prepared to protect themselves. Frederick Douglass said that the slave who resisted vigorously was almost never whipped. If mobsters attacking colored homes get a hot reception once, they will not repeat that visit." James was attuned to the anger of the black community and concluded his article with the following call:

"If only the workers see that the Negroes mean business, they are certain to respond. But the Negroes must rid themselves of the misleaders who are always looking to Roosevelt, or to Pearl Buck, or to Wendell Wilkie, for help--and also, incidentally, for the publicity which it brings. If the Negroes do not defend themselves, it is certain nobody else will..."

The idea that black people should not wait for the white working-class to come to their aid, but that they should take initiatives on their own behalf, is at the core of black nationalism. What James did is take the defiant mood of black America reflected in these sentences and transform it into a coherent theoretical framework when he composed his 1943 position paper in support of black nationalism.

In the section of the article subheaded "The Negro Question as a National Question", James displays a complex and dialectical understanding of the relationship between race, nationality and class:

"The 14 million Negroes in the United States are subjected to every conceivable variety of economic oppression and social and political discrimination. These tortures are to a degree sanctified by law and practiced without shame by all the organs of government. The Negroes, however, are and have been for many centuries in every sense of the word, Americans. They are not separated from their oppressors by differences of culture, differences of religion, differences of language, as the inhabitants of India or Africa. They are not even regionally separated from the rest of the community as national groups in Russia, Spain, or Yugoslavia.

"The Negroes are for the most part proletarian or semi-proletarian and therefore the struggle of the Negroes is fundamentally a class question.

"The Negroes do not constitute a nation, but, owing to their special situation, their segregation; economic, social, and political oppression; the difference in color which separates them out so easily from the rest of the community; their problems become the problem of a national minority. The Negro question is a part of the national and not of the 'national' question. This national minority is most easily distinguished from the rest of the community by its racial characteristics. Thus the Negro question is a question of race and not of 'race'.

"The contrasts between their situation and the privileges enjoyed by those around them have always made the Negroes that section of American society most receptive to revolutionary ideas and the radical solution of social problems. The white working class struggles against the objective rule of capital and for some subjective goal, which even on the very eve of revolution, is impossible to visualize fully in concrete and positive terms. The Negroes, on the other hand, struggle and will continue to struggle objectively against capital, but in contrast to the white workers, for the very concrete objective democratic rights they see around them.

"But the whole history of the United States and the role of the Negroes in American economy and society are a constant proof and reminder of the fact that it is absolutely impossible for the Negroes to gain equality under American capitalism.

"Such is the development of American capitalist society and the role of Negroes in it that the Negroes' struggle for democratic rights brings the Negroes almost immediately face to face with capital and the state. The Marxist support of the Negro struggle for democratic rights is not a concession that Marxists make to the Negroes. In the United States today this struggle is a direct part of the struggle for socialism."

James's resolution on black nationalism was rejected by the Workers Party. Both the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party, the two most important Trotskyist groups in the United States, continued to regard the black struggle as something to be subsumed within the working-class struggle as a whole. The events that followed the publication of James's resolution would tend to give credence to the class-only approach since the immediate postwar period was witness to the most powerful trade union battles since the 1930s. After the defeat of Germany and Japan, the American working class decided that there was no excuse for wartime austerity any longer and they organized one powerful and militant strike after another.

The Socialist Workers Party in particular viewed this labor upsurge as proof of a deepening radicalization. With a few exceptions, Felix Morrow in particular, the party leadership expected the 1950s to be a period of rapid growth and deepening influence. One thing that gave party leaders some inspiration was the large number of black workers who recently joined the party. I suspect that most of these workers joined on the same basis as white workers. They were products of the CIO radicalization which placed no particular emphasis on black demands per se. They saw the Socialist Workers Party as a party that fought for trade union rights, civil rights and democracy. The party proclaimed, as did every other left party, that these rights could only be achieved when workers ran society. When the cold war and McCarthyism sank in, most of these workers--black and white--drifted away. There was considerable incentive for them to get out of politics since auto workers, truck drivers, etc. were beginning to enjoy the fruits of post-WWII prosperity. Membership in a "subversive" organization could only be an impediment.

In the early 1950s, the first seeds of the civil rights movement were being planted. WWII had led to powerful anticolonial uprisings as the former major powers were weakened by 5 years of war. India, Indonesia, Indochina, Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, etc. were all swept by nationalist uprisings against colonial rule. In the United States, the ruling class began to feel compromised by the presence of Jim Crow laws in the south. Such de jure segregation could only tarnish the reputation of US imperialism as a leader of the postcolonial world. With this in mind, hesitant steps were taken to break down segregation. The Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools in 1954 was one such step.

This led to more assertive efforts by traditional civil rights organizations to rapidly break down Jim Crow in the south. This led to clashes between some of the more militant civil rights activists and the Democratic Party over the pace of desegregation. By the mid 1960s, young activists start to grow impatient with gradualism and they called for Freedom Now. They were organized in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). This current begins to sympathize with the ideas of Malcolm X, who is at this time is a leader of the Nation of Islam.

So it is out of the struggle of oppressed nationalities in Asia, Africa and Latin America that our modern civil rights movement gets its initial inspiration. As this civil rights movement begins to pick up momentum, it becomes transformed into a black power movement. This movement even begins to take on the dynamics of nationalist struggles in places like Algeria, Kenya, etc. Franz Fanon, the Algerian revolutionary, becomes widely accepted as the ideologist of a new type of American black nationalism.

It is Malcolm X, however, who becomes the patron saint of this new movement. The reason that he was killed is that the ruling class recognized that it had a revolutionary in its midst who was fully capable of leading 13 to 14 million black Americans in a militant struggle against white supremacy. In the last year of his life, Malcolm X started to understand the relationship between this struggle and the struggle for socialism. He was evolving toward a synthesis of the socialist and nationalist programs in a manner consistent with the views of Lenin, Trotsky and CLR James.

I heard Malcolm X gave his famous "Bullet or the Ballot" speech at a meeting sponsored by the Militant newspaper on January 7, 1965 19 days before my twentieth birthday. I was a senior in college at the time and was curious about what Malcolm had to say. (As a long time jazz fan, I had become interested in black issues as well. Many jazz musicians of the period were starting to articulate nationalist concerns.) In this speech he started off by tipping his hat to the Militant, the house organ of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. He said, "I always feel that it is an honor and every time that they open the door for me to do so, I will be right here. The Militant newspaper is one of the best in New York City. In fact, it is one of the best anywhere you go today."

Two and a half years later I was in the Socialist Workers Party myself and selling the newspaper door to door in college dormitories, housing projects, and at demonstrations. I was proud to be circulating a newspaper that Malcolm X thought so highly of. Although the Socialist Workers Party went into a sharp decline in the 1980s and the Militant newspaper is now unreadable, I still have a strong affinity with Malcolm X and a few fond memories of the party I joined 30 years ago.

These affinities made re-reading George Breitman's "Last Year of Malcolm X" a real pleasure. The book recounts Malcolm's political evolution toward socialism after he broke with the Nation of Islam. Breitman was one of the early champions of Malcolm X even when he was still a Black Muslim. He was also sensitive to new developments in the class struggle that did not arrive in the trade union forms that most party veterans expected. Nobody had more impeccable working class credentials than George. He was from a working class family in Newark, New Jersey and never attended college. He learned his Marxism in the street battles of the 1930s and not in the sociology department of an Ivy League university. He was the major party theorist of the new radicalization of the 1960s and urged the party to open its doors wide open to the student antiwar, black and feminist movements.

Throughout most of the 1970s, he was the head of Pathfinder Press in NY and oversaw the publication of the Collected Writings of Leon Trotsky. He came to work each day even though he was hobbled by an extreme case of rheumatoid arthritis that made it nearly impossible to hold a pen in his hands. When the SWP dumped Trotskyism in 1983, they dumped Breitman and a number of other veteran party members as well. It saddened me to see them kicked out the door, even though I had no confidence in their project to start a new Trotskyist party free of the mistakes of the past. They simply didn't understand that the decline of the SWP was a function of the underlying methodology and not because of a faulty application.

As Alan Wald said at the recent Socialist Scholars Conference, the best way to understand the SWP is as one of the expressions of an attempt to build the revolutionary party in the USA. It should neither be rejected in its totality, nor accepted uncritically. There are positive things to learn from its history, just as there are positive things to be learned from the Debs Socialist Party or the CPUSA's grass-roots struggles for industrial unions or civil rights. George's widow, Dotty Breitman, was in the audience at the reception for Alan's new book (co-authored with Paul LeBlanc) on American Trotskyism and berated Alan for being "just an intellectual" and not understanding the need for a "Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist" party. Old faiths die hard.

One of the positive aspects of the SWP certainly is its correct understanding of the black nationalism of Malcolm X. Black nationalism is more or less a permanent feature of American politics and it is important for Marxists to try to theorize clearly about it. George Breitman will be remembered as somebody who went further than anybody, except CLR James, to come to terms with black nationalism.

In the first chapter of "The Last Year of Malcolm X", Breitman presents an even-handed assessment of the Nation of Islam. At the very least what this obscurantist sect did was rescue Malcolm X from the dregs of the gangster world. In his autobiography, Malcolm X said that without the NOI, he would have ended up as an "old fading Detroit Red, hustling, stealing enough for food and narcotics, and myself being stalked as prey by cruelly ambitious younger hustlers such as Detroit Red had been."

Breitman points out that Malcolm was always stretching the boundaries of the NOI. He was an innovator who tried as hard as he could to turn the religious, self-help sect into a black activist formation. James X, the successor to Malcolm in the NY Mosque, complained that "it was Malcolm who injected the political concept of 'black nationalism' into the Black Muslim movement, which they said was essentially religious in nature when Malcolm became a member."

There were constant tensions between Malcolm and the NOI chiefs. Finally they came out in the open when Malcolm described the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a case of the "chickens coming home to roost". The white press went on a crusade against him for this bluntly truthful observation and the NOI suspended him. They were tired of his clashes with the ruling-class. They also made conditions for his readmission so onerous that he decided to split once and for all.

On March 8, 1964 he made a public statement that the Black Muslim movement "had 'gone as far as it can' because it was too narrowly sectarian and too inhibited." He elaborated on what kind of movement was necessary: "I am prepared," Malcolm said, "to cooperate in local civil rights actions in the South and elsewhere and shall do so because every campaign for specific objectives can only heighten the political consciousness of the Negroes and intensify their identification against white society."

After Malcolm left the NOI, he began to make statements that showed a new understanding of the relationship of black nationalism to the larger struggle. One of the influences on his thinking was the type of internationalism and political radicalism that he witnessed firsthand in his travels through Africa and the Middle East in 1964. This period is not accurately reflected in Spike Lee's abysmal movie based on Malcolm's autobiography. It turns into a spiritual quest climaxed with a trip to Mecca. Malcolm's real growth in this period is political rather than spiritual, as reflected to his remarks to a Militant Labor Forum on May 29, 1965:

"They say travel broadens your scope, and recently I've had an opportunity to do a lot of it in the Middle East and Africa. While I was traveling I noticed that most of the countries that have recently emerged into independence have turned away from the so-called capitalist system in the direction of socialism. So out of curiosity, I can't resist the temptation to do a little investigating wherever that particular philosophy happens to in existence or an attempt is being made to bring it into existence."

After Malcolm split from the NOI, he began to address the question of alliances. The narrow black nationalism of the religious sect did not even begin to consider the question of how 10 or 11 million black Americans can be part of a larger struggle for liberation. Mostly it preached for a return to Africa, or concentrated on small business enterprises like selling bean pies. Malcolm's interest in politics rather than small scale self-help projects first of all led him to the idea of linking the black struggle in the United States to the struggles of colored peoples around the world. He declared that Africans, Arabs, Asians and Latin Americans all had a common enemy: the "international power structure." His internationalism was of the sort that is expressed most frequently by the Zapatista movement today. Malcolm considered having the United States indicted for racism before the United Nations. He believed that this measure would have had tremendous propaganda value.

The question of alliances with American whites was much more problematic. At the March 12, 1964 press conference to announce his new organization, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X said:

"Whites can help us, but they can't join us. There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers' solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others, until we have first united with ourselves."

Malcolm was open to socialist ideas in the last year of his life, but not really a Marxist. He lacked a class understanding of American society that would allow him to see on at least a theoretical level how white workers could become allies in a fight against capitalist rule. He was much more articulate about the need to establish ties with "white militants". These people, who had broken with liberalism, would be trusted allies in the fight against racism such as the students who participated courageously in the civil rights movement. Malcolm did not live long enough to see a mobilized working class, such as the French working class of 1968 or the Italian working class of 1969-1970. It is entirely possible that his political evolution would have made him more and more open to a Marxist perspective.

Louis Proyect


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