Date: Tue, 14 Sep 1999 01:00:57 -0400
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From: Bill Fletcher Jr <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Can Black Radicalism Speak the Voice of Black Workers?
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Can Black radicalism speak the voice of Black workers?

By Bill Fletcher, Jr. <>, Race & Class, Vol.40 no.4, April–June 1999

From 19–21 June 1998, some 2,000 activists and scholars came together in Chicago, Illinois, as part of an initiative called the Black Radical Congress (BRC). Constructed by 150 Black activists from around the US over a period of more than two years, the conference generated a response which took everyone by surprise. The BRC was sparked by an effort to rebuild Black radicalism in the US, particularly in the face of the neo- conservative political and economic programmes emerging in Black America. There were many striking features to the conference and to the project as a whole. One was the significant turn-out of Black workers and trade unionists. In addition to a workshop on labour, there were caucus meetings of Black labour activists interested in helping to shape the Congress, as well as build ties among themselves.

Despite the important political thrust of the BRC towards Black workers and the Black poor, two incidents related to the conference illustrated the challenge of re-fusing Black radicalism and the Black working-class experience. The first was the question of the Black working-class/trade union segment of the BRC. In some important respects, the activity of this segment was not qualitatively different from the role of the Black labour segment of the National Black United Front (NBUF) formed in 1980.1 The labour committee of the NBUF set out to build a network of labour activists within the context of the NBUF itself. This labour work was intended to be independent, as well as of help in the building of the NBUF. Though efforts were made to pressure the NBUF to recognise the importance of Black labour (epitomised by the slogan ‘Black workers take the lead’ advanced by some on the Left at the time), the perspective of the Black working class could not be said to have dominated or led the NBUF.

Though much has changed in eighteen years, there were some tendencies towards a similar approach in the BRC labour section. Discussions were held about networking. Concerns were expressed that efforts be made to shape the BRC in a way which was pro-working class. And some exchanges were held about independent Black worker initiatives. This, however, did not speak to the character of the BRC itself and what had to be new and different about the BRC in order to make it a voice of the Black working class.

A second incident followed shortly upon the actual BRC conference. I happened to have a discussion with a young trade unionist who had attended the Chicago conference and who expressed a great deal of support for the BRC and radiated enthusiasm. In the course of this, the trade unionist mentioned discussions with other activists from the same city who had also been at the Chicago conference. They were attempting to decide upon appropriate follow-up activities and were considering, quite seriously, building a special day to support Black business. They saw no inconsistency between the platform of the BRC (which is anti-capitalist and pro-worker) and the notion of building, as a first major campaign of the BRC in that particular locale, an initiative around supporting Black business. While I suggested other activities, the fact of the matter was that Black radicalism was seen in very different terms by this trade unionist, despite the person's job and focus of activity.

The paradigm of Black radicalism

Black radicalism has always been a multi-tendencied phenomenon, going back to the days of slavery. Within this tradition, there have been faith-based activists (Christian, Muslim, Jewish), radical democrats, socialists, communists, revolutionary nationalists and feminists. None of these traditions has ever been able to claim, credibly, the sole legacy of Black radicalism. At the same time, Black radicalism has principally been about the interconnection between ‘the masses struggle defiance transformation’.2 It is a tradition which has advanced ‘independence', broadly defined, in a manner reminiscent of the South African / Azanian slogan ‘we are our own liberators’. That is, Black radicalism has identified the source of Black liberation as in the power of the Black masses, even when, if or where, Black radicals believed in the necessity for strategic alliances with other sectors or ethnic groups. While within the tradition of Black radicalism there have always been those who have advocated (or supported the right to) outright, territorial independence for an African-American/Black/New African nation within the current borders of the US, national-territorial independence has never been the sole defining characteristic of Black radicalism.3

It should not be surprising that, in the 1980s, as the larger Left, socialist and national liberation movements faced strategic crises, Black radicalism also declined as a trend. Ironically, however, as Black radicalism declined as a coherent left-of-centre political tendency within the African-American movement, the notion of Black radicalism was altered in the popular minds and the link between the masses struggle defiance transformation was broken. Thus, in the 1980s and early 1990s, as racist oppression intensified, and the Black Left was noticeably absent as a force from the field of battle, ‘Black radicalism’ came to be seen as anyone or any organisation which expressed defiance in the face of white supremacy and promoted some version of independence, irrespective of whether such independence was derived from left-wing or right-wing ideological sources. Therefore, ‘independence’ came to mean not a reliance on the Black masses to struggle for Black liberation but, rather, some degree of autonomy from white people and, to varying degrees, from the ‘system’.

The severing of the linkage between the masses struggle defiance transformation set the stage for socio-political trends such as the Nation of Islam to emerge and be perceived as radical. Standing up in the face of white supremacy, which the Nation of Islam clearly does, and insisting on the humanity of people of African descent, came to be seen as a radical act, despite the fact that the Nation of Islam draws most of its social philosophy and practice from sources on the ideological Right rather than the ideological Left.

Thus, while it was somewhat unsettling, it should not be surprising that younger activists, in connecting with Black radicalism, could come to the conclusion that an assertion of independence through the promotion of Black business was entirely consistent.4 An additional factor here is the national character of the African-American people's struggle. That the African-American people are, and have been, engaged in a struggle against white supremacist national oppression and racialised capitalism will result in an objective united front of forces which are in opposition to those systems of control. As has been evidenced in national liberation struggles in the former colonial world, some of the most militant and radical advocates of national liberation can, at the same time, advance a pro-capitalist agenda. In the struggle against national oppression they constitute allies but, in the struggle against capitalist economic exploitation, they will tend to be, at best, neutral and, at worst, opposed. Despite the reality regarding the possibility and viability of small business in the era of monopoly capitalism, Black business in particular, as both statement and phenomenon, often appears to be a riposte to national oppression. Given the existence of a white supremacist society which daily demonstrates its commitment to the suppression of African-American people, establishing a Black business can seem an act of defiance. Thus, a business can appear as an example of independence.

Class and Black radicalism

Black radicalism, like other manifestations of a progressive, populist approach to politics, has a multi-class character. In broad strokes, it embraces the struggle of the ‘have-nots’ against the ‘haves', the poor against the rich, the disenfranchised against those in power. At different periods in the Black liberation struggle, Black radicalism has itself undergone various changes, reflecting the main contradictions facing the African-American movement at that particular moment. In addition, different tendencies within Black radicalism have co-existed.

Within the pro-worker tendency of Black radicalism, one can find, by way of example, the Black activists of the Industrial Workers of the World (‘Wobblies’) and the African Blood Brotherhood of the early part of the twentieth century. In both cases, and to varying degrees, there was an effort to connect the national oppression of African-Americans to the class question of capitalism. Thus the struggle for Black liberation had not only to be against white supremacy, but also against capitalism.5 This banner was later advanced by the Communist Party (and those in the African-American movement around it) and still later by other forces on the Left, including revolutionary nationalists and Maoists. In the 1950s, Black radicalism evolved both as a result of McCarthyite, right-wing repression as well as through the growth of what came to be understood as the Civil Rights Movement. Working-class Black radicals, particularly those focused on the labour movement, attempted to organise against the backtracking under way in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) on race and racism.6 The promise of equity which had emerged in the 1930s with the growth of the CIO had been frustrated, in part as the CIO fell victim to anti-communist hysteria and purges. Radicals were expelled from the trade union movement, along with several important unions. The trade unionists expelled (and often vilified) tended to be those who took the strongest stands against racism. With their expulsion, the CIO became a shadow of its former self.

Black worker radicals mobilised against this and other backtracking. The National Negro Labor Council (NNLC, I951-55) was one vehicle both for the expression of protest at the adverse economic conditions facing Black America after the second world war, and for the demand that the CIO fulfil its promise. The NNLC demanded jobs for Black workers (from the corporations); opposition to Jim Crow segregation, and equity within the trade union movement. A victim of anti-communist repression, the NNLC was forced to dissolve at precisely the moment that the Civil Rights Movement was emerging.

The irony is obvious. At a time when Black worker activism and leadership was most needed by the reinvigorated African-American movement, it was being suppressed. In addition, other Black radicals, explicitly those to the left of centre, such as W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson, were being repressed by the state. This led to a Civil Rights Movement (I950s and early 1960s) that was dominated primarily by liberals, a marginalised Left and a slowly growing, militant, Muslim movement, outspoken on white supremacy but profoundly right-wing in its internal operations and social philosophy.

Militancy evolved into radicalism under the leadership of individuals such as Malcolm X and organisations such as the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). With respect to Malcolm X, post-Nation of lslam and post-1963, his radicalism was characteristically populist. Although class issues could easily be inferred from his speeches and remarks, the reality is that his approach, so well captured in his metaphor of the ‘house Negro’ and the ‘field Negro’, focused on the individual's relationship to the struggle against national / ‘racial’ oppression (i.e., whether one was willing to take up that struggle militantly or whether one was a capitulationist). While recognising Malcolm's evolving interest in socialism as a given, it is true to say that class was not a major preoccupation for him, nor did he offer an explicit class interpretation of the African-American struggle against white supremacist national oppression.

In part because of this articulation of the struggle, many of those radicals who saw themselves following in the tradition of Malcolm were (a) silent on the class question; (b) openly opposed the utilisation of such a framework in the African-American situation, or (c) came to embrace it as, at least, a factor for consideration. Many of the latter subsequently adopted a class viewpoint as central both to understanding the oppression of African-Americans and for the future of the African-American movement. But, in any case, Malcolm's legacy did not include a consensus on matters relative to class and the Black experience.

Those who did adopt a viewpoint which integrated ‘race’ (the national question) and class did not themselves necessarily agree on the implications. Thus, the struggle to define Black radicalism in class terms often took very bizarre turns. In the 1970s, leftists of different stripes attempted to speak for the working class in the African-American movement, sometimes by class-baiting those opposed to their specific positions. In other cases, a principled position on the necessity of Black working-class leadership in the African-American movement mutated into simple assertions of such leadership. These problems were evidenced in the rise and decline of the African Liberation Support Committee, the outgrowth of the highly successful 1972 African Liberation Day mobilisations.7

What is worth noting here is that, during the high point of labour activism in the twentieth century (1934–50), Black freedom was often articulated in relation to, but not determined by, the goals of labour and the working class. An example of this was the National Negro Congress (NNC), founded in 1936 in the midst of the CIO's rise, with its approach of industrial unionism. The NNC, though arising primarily in response to the harshness of the Depression and the particularly devastating impact it was having on African-Americans, recognised that a key moment had emerged for a strategic alliance between the goals of Black freedom and those of the more progressive sections of organised labour.

One result was the emergence of a new crop of leaders in Black America who were working class as well as identified with the trade union struggle. These leaders were individuals who were often also community leaders, or would go on to become such.8 This meant that the face of Black freedom was not limited to those from the petty bourgeoisie, but included working-class leaders. It also meant that Black freedom itself, as could be seen in the work of groups such as the National Negro Labor Council, was defined with respect to the needs and issues of the Black working class. Civil rights, for the NNLC, included as central the demand for jobs, equality and fairness (not just in the work-place, but from one's union as well). Much of this was lost as a result of McCarthyism and the redefinition of Black freedom.

By the 1970s and 1980s, despite the re-emergence of left-wing forces which promoted the needs and demands of the Black working class, the voice of Black freedom, while sung by Black workers, was all too often written by the Black petty bourgeoisie a petty bourgeoisie which had changed and grown as a direct result of the struggles of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. This growth was both economic and political. Greater numbers of Black college graduates, together with the entry of African-Americans into corporate America in professional positions, formed part of the social base for this sea change. This sector was also represented by emerging political elites (primarily at the municipal level) which advanced pro-business agendas.

The response by many Black radicals to the fracturing of the African-American movement was frequently, though not always, formulaic and dogmatic: an assertion that the Black working class must lead the African-American movement, coupled with a failure to define a project which was integral to Black working-class experience. Such an approach failed on all counts, never rooting such projects in the Black working class itself and, more often than not, chasing away badly needed allies.

At the same time, for those who shied away from or actively opposed dogmatism and abstract rhetoric, practice involved more of the type of activity carried out within the National Black United Front, that is, claiming a place at the table and working to build the visibility of labour activists. While this generally constituted a superior practice, an honest assessment would have to conclude that a Black working-class project was not fundamentally advanced. Pro-working class Black radicals organised for an important and needed project, but Black radicalism was not, as yet, speaking the voice of the Black worker.

Writing the words

The challenge facing Black radicalism for more than twenty years has been to interpret the demands for Black freedom in ways which are integral to the experience and demands of the Black working class itself. This means that the project of Black freedom must be interpreted by Black workers themselves. It also means that specific campaigns and initiatives developed by Black radicals need to be those which consciously aim to unite with the Black working class as a social force.

Before exploring this point, a note of caution. This is not a call for head counting. While the demographics of any organisation are critical, the necessity for Black working-class leadership and a Black working-class project has all too often been interpreted mechanically and/or dogmatically. Sometimes such a project has been defined by the number of working-class activists participating. While this is important and certainly significant vis vis the roots of the project, it does not necessarily mean that the class politics of the project will be working class. Therefore, it is suggested here that a Black radical working-class project needs two principal elements. It has to interpret Black freedom via the demands of the Black working class and it has to have the Black working class as central to its construction. The first issue, that is the rearticulation of Black freedom in terms of the Black working class, actually brings us full circle to the problems posed at the beginning of this article: both the relationship of Black labour activists (and workers generally) to the Black Radical Congress project and the interpretation of campaigns need to be scrutinised.

First of all, there needs to be an accurate assessment of the period in which we live, for this speaks clearly to the issue of class. While it is certainly the case that the racist/national oppression of African- Americans (and other oppressed nationalities) has increased over the last twenty years, it is also the case that immense class polarisation has taken place within Black America. Different theorists have written about this and come to varying conclusions, but, briefly, the strategic consensus which was the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ had collapsed by the early 1970s. By that juncture, the demands of the movement, which were primarily political and legal had been largely accomplished, at least in relation to the stated objectives of the movement (real political power was never gained by African-Americans), but the question of economic justice remained unanswered. The matter of economic justice had plagued Dr Martin Luther King shortly before his assassination, and it was an issue which sections of the African-American movement would raise, but around which there was no general agreement.

That the objectives of large sections of the Black petty bourgeoisie had been met resulted in their taking a different course of action sometimes at the expense of the Black working class and sometimes displaying pure benign neglect. The collapse of the Civil Rights consensus coincided with the offensive of US capital against the working class. Living standards for the average US worker declined significantly from around 1973 onwards. For Black workers, this decline has been matched by a growing gap between themselves and white workers, in which one factor was the disproportionate impact of so-called de-industrialisation on Black workers.

By and large, established Civil Rights organisations paid only formal attention to this polarisation. Resolutions were passed in conventions and by executive boards, but little was done in terms of organising, mobilising or other relevant assistance. Instead, their attention was often drawn to the problems facing the Black petty bourgeoisie. One interesting example of this was the boycott of several US hotel chains declared by the NAACP in spring 1998. Ostensibly, the reason for the boycott was the lack of small business concessions for Black entrepreneurs. But what is striking about this decision is that little thought and attention seems to have gone in to how a multi-chain boycott could be carried out (e.g., how to identify allies who would help to make it a success). More important, however, was the lack of any real attention to the question of the Black worker. Was there, for example, any correspondence between lack of concessions for Black entrepreneurs and the condition of the Black work-force in these hotel chains? If so, it has not been aired. It is particularly this decision that betrays, once again, the reflexive bias of the established Civil Rights organisations when it comes to the Black freedom struggle. For them, the cutting edge issues revolve, by and large, around the needs and demands of the Black bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.

For many non-left-wing nationalists, the declining living situation of the Black worker was not necessarily a focus for organising, except insofar as it was connected to various ‘self-help’ programmes. For the Left, this could have been a source of greater mobilisation and organising, but the weakened state of the Black Left specifically, and Black radicalism generally, limited both the possibilities and effectiveness of such efforts.

Black radicals faced an additional dilemma: the way in which the issues were framed. Returning to the experience of the National Black United Front, one sees that the issues facing the Black working class and the Black poor were programmatically important, but they were not necessarily seen as central or strategic. Some of the most important work carried out by NBUF affiliates was against police brutality and, for a few, over electoral issues, but little was done in organising the unemployed (or semi-employed), supporting union organising efforts or, for that matter, over issues of economic justice. Such areas were clearly seen as secondary to more militant-seeming efforts which, for many Black radicals, were a safer ground for action, for example, opposing state-sponsored violence.

Thus, for a project such as the Black Radical Congress, it is not enough for economic justice issues to be an add-on to its programmatic thrust. Economic justice (nationally and internationally) has to be at the core of its work. At a more general level, a consensus needs to be redeveloped in the African-American movement and led by Black radicals which defines Black liberation in direct connection to economic justice. Three examples of such work will, it is hoped, illustrate this point: living wage campaigns, organising former welfare recipients and support for trade union organising efforts.

Living wage campaigns were initiated in the early 1990s by several unions and community-based organisations as a means of attacking the declining minimum wage and addressing the privatisation of public services. In essence, the living wage demands attempt to set a municipal, county or state wage level which more closely approximates to what is necessary for a family to survive. The living wage is to be set, in particular, for all publicly administered funds and contracts, such as privatised services. During the Reagan / Bush years, the minimum wage was not adjusted and, as a result, the actual living wage, once inflation was factored in, declined in real terms. With the steady rise in privatisation, the incentive existed for public agencies to utilise substandard contractors to carry out work previously done by public sector workers. The living wage initiative has two advantages. It addresses one line of defence for the public sector work-force (which, incidentally, has a high proportion of Black workers). It also addresses the often marginal work-forces which are employed by these contractors, workers who include immigrants and African-Americans. Many of the workers employed by private contractors are those often referred to as the ‘working poor', that is workers who remain at or below the poverty line, despite being employed.

Organising former welfare recipients has a considerable history. In the late 1960s, welfare rights organising was led by the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). The NWRO was a direct outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement and carried on the proud history of direct action and civil disobedience. In many respects, it represented some of the possibilities which were contained in Dr King's ‘Poor People's Campaign', initiated shortly before his death. NWRO declined as an organisation after the death of its principal leader, George Wiley, and following the intervention and sectarian antics of the National Caucus of Labor Committees (a peculiar organisation led by Lyndon Larouche, then known as Lyn Marcus, when he posited himself as a leftist). The banner of welfare rights organising was subsequently taken up by a myriad of primarily local organisations. Work at a national level re-emerged through the efforts of organisations such as the National Welfare Rights Union (led by Marian Kramer from Detroit).

With the passage of the draconian welfare repeal legislation in 1996, the situation for unemployed and semi-employed welfare recipients changed dramatically. The elimination of welfare as an entitlement programme and its replacement with a time-limited programme which combines a work requirement has created a situation of near-indentured servitude for millions of former welfare recipients. By forcing welfare recipients off the welfare rolls and into work, a stratum has been created immediately beneath the existing work-force who will do much the same work, but for substantially less pay.

Welfare repeal has created a new terrain of struggle. The battle now is not simply that of ‘welfare rights’, in the way in which this has been known for the last thirty years, but has been turned into one for economic justice, jobs and, to the extent possible, a counter-attack to rebuild a social safety net. It is a battle that has the potential to unite former welfare recipients (now referred to as ‘workfare’ participants or workers) with existing work-forces. But it also offers the possibility of contention between the two sectors in the fight for survival.

Organising in support of workfare workers offers an opportunity to tackle directly the larger question of poverty and its growth over the last twenty years. In addition to poverty at the general level, there is, equally, the problem of wealth polarisation. Organising workfare workers (as with those directly affected by living wage campaigns) poses the question of what will happen to an apparently redundant work-force, as well as to those in what has come to be known as the secondary labour market, many of whom are workers of colour.

Trade union organising, and the support which can be offered to it, has been an important part of the Black experience in the US. While Black workers have had an admittedly contradictory relationship to the organised labour movement, it is also the case that Black workers, and the African- American movement as a whole, have tended to support those trade union efforts which seek to include the disenfranchised and dispossessed, and have played an important role in influencing such efforts. As noted earlier, the work of the National Negro Congress in the 1930s was particularly critical in advancing the organising of unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

After years of inertia and decline, new efforts at union revitalisation came to a head in 1995 with the victory of John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson in their bid to lead the AFL-CIO. This new leadership has committed itself to a significant increase in resources for organising and outreach to build coalitions with non-labour groupings.

While important victories have been scored, what remains lacking is a broader sense of a worker's movement and a general fight for economic justice. A trade union movement will not be fully revitalised, nor will a labour movement be reborn, without the active input of progressive social movements such as the African-American movement. In essence, this means that where trade union organising is taking place, the spirit of a crusade that goes far beyond the particular fight at any individual work-place must grip the locale. It is in this setting that an intervention by the African-American movement generally, and Black radicals in particular, could make the difference. It should also be added that, in the US, the key site of intervention in trade union organising for the Black freedom movement remains the South where the majority of African-Americans reside and which remains one of the most conservative parts of the US.

These three examples living wage, organising workfare workers and support for trade union organising are noted because they represent key sites of struggle where the Black working class is currently engaged. In some cases, these struggles take the offensive, for example, living wage campaigns and in other cases, they may be defensive, for example, some of the organising among workfare workers. But in every case, there is motion going on at the base. What is lacking is a coherent set of national politics which ties this work together into a transformative socio-political movement against capitalism.

These sites of struggle represent opportunities for Black radicalism to base itself in the real experiences of the Black working class. In some ways, basing Black radicalism in these struggles also offers the opportunity to rearticulate more profoundly the essence of Black freedom. Black freedom involves a combination of the fight for political power (including self-determination) with the fight for economic justice (ultimately including the fight for socialism). Black radicalism, by focusing on struggles such as the ones noted above, would identify the major actors in Black liberation for the twenty-first century. It would also identify what the actual struggles and social forces are which will be critical if there is to be a successful Black freedom movement. Thus, Black freedom is defined less by a legal victory on affirmative action (which is nevertheless important) or the expansion of Black entrepreneurs than on the success of the Black working class in getting organised and changing power relations, first locally and then nationally. Yet building Black radicalism as the voice of Black workers is not solely a matter of choosing these sites of struggle. Integrally linked to this must be the mobilisation of Black workers to participate in the construction of this project.9

The issue facing Black radicalism is whether the Black worker is an actor on his or her own behalf, or whether things are being done for and about the Black worker by others. In practice, the add-on programmatic approach, such as in the NBUF, involved more doing for the Black worker, rather than the Black worker doing for him or herself. Altering such a practice is extremely complex because it calls upon the Left to operate in a very different fashion than it has often done.

The first point to recognise is that workers are already involved in the Black radicalism project generally and in the Black Radical Congress in particular. Such a recognition acknowledges that Black radicalism is not a petty-bourgeois current, alien to the reality of the Black worker. And it highlights the importance of recognising the worker-intellectuals who have helped to shape Black radicalism. This latter issue is of some importance, because when some activists get into the ‘head-counting’ mode of identifying workers, there is, all too often, a tendency to treat worker-intellectuals as non-workers, and only to see as workers those who are grass-roots activists, frequently with low levels of education. This tendency is both inaccurate and condescending. The second point to stress is that workers already involved in the Black radicalism project must be central to choosing sites of struggle and developing overall strategy.

This does not mean that workers get called upon to address only those issues which affect workers but, rather, it means that worker-radicals are involved in looking at the big picture as well. Third, the project of Black radicalism or, more specifically, the rebuilding of Black radicalism needs a popular education and leadership development component at its core. The Black radical project needs to set out to identify and strengthen Black working-class leaders.

Study/discussion groups have to be an active component of the Black radical project to make it a working-class project. There is a long history of study groups and book clubs in the African-American movement generally and within the radical movement, in particular. We must build upon that. The study / discussion groups, however, must not assume that the group leaders are the sole repository of the truth and all knowledge. Their approach needs to be drawn from popular education methodology or, in the language of Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire, it must be a pedagogy of the oppressed.10 The existing knowledge of the participants has to be drawn upon and strengthened with analysis and the introduction of new knowledge, in order to create a higher level of unity and practice. This practice has to be about transformation, that is transformation of the larger social system and transformation of the oppressed (the building of national and class consciousness).

The unity of this practice of education and the strategic identification of sites of struggle becomes a means of identifying and strengthening the real leaders of the Black working class. Equally, it aims to bring to the fore of the Black radical project these same working-class leaders.

The task facing Black radicalism is, to borrow from the words of the late French Marxist Louis Althusser, overdetermined. One layer of the task is redefining Black radicalism or rearticulating it as the unity of the masses struggle deflance transformation. This does not mean that Black radicalism will ever amount to one theoretical proposition or tendency but that the ideological and political currents of Black radicalism are those which practise the type of unity described above. Only by rearticulating the connection will it be possible for the Black Left to defeat neoconservative tendencies which drape themselves in the red, black and green of Black liberation.

Rearticulating this unity must mean, particularly in light of the changes in Black America over the last twenty-five years and the polarisation of class and wealth, a focus on the Black working class as the vehicle and soul of the new Black radicalism. As I have attempted to argue, this involves far more than an additional point on a long programme. It involves the identification and strengthening of existing leaders within the Black working class, the engagement in a dialogue towards a more advanced theory for the strategic direction of the African-American movement and the prioritisation of critical sites of struggle which are relevant to the Black working class. If we are successful in this, Black radicalism will not only be reborn as a national current within the African-American movement. It will have transformed itself to address the needs of building a transformative social movement for the twenty-first century.


1 The National Black United Front represented the coalescing of Black leftists and nationalists. It brought together several local efforts which had emerged for a variety of different reasons, including struggles against police brutality as well as fights for political power. By 1983, it had declined significantly, though many activists associated with the NBUF played important roles in the Black-led electoral upsurges of the early and mid 1980s.

2 The ‘masses’ as opposed to elites; ‘struggle’ as opposed to capitulation, regardless of the odds; ‘defiance’ as opposed to complacency; a willingness to ‘speak truth to power’; ‘transformation’ as opposed to modification an interest in altering the social, economic and political fabric of the US so as to advance the interests of the masses of Black people.

3 Supporters of the right to national self-determination and advocates of national-territorial independence have crossed ideological lines and included various tendencies of socialists, communists and nationalists.

4 None of this is to launch an attack on Black business per se . Rather, class views have played themselves out consistently in the fight for Black liberation and also in the construction of Black radicalism.

5 The IWW as an organisation, although very anti-racist, failed to recognise the independent character of the African-American movement. Therefore, while as an organisation it helped to advance the fight against white supremacy, it was oblivious to the African-American movement as a movement.

6 The Congress of Industrial Organizations emerged as an independent labour federation after a split with the American Federation of Labor principally on the question of whether and how to organise the mass production industries. The two federations also differed on the matter of organising workers of colour, with the CIO emphasising a need to organise all workers, whereas the AFL equivocated on the question. The CIO, however, was far from monolithic in its approach to the ‘race’ question, and its uneven practice played itself out as the second world war ended and the cold war began. The expectations that CIO unionism would result in racial equity were inconsistently met.

7 African Liberation Day, held in May 1972, was an expression of support for the struggles then under way in Africa against Portuguese colonialism, as well as the white supremacist regimes then in power in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa. This effort resulted in a broad coalition of forces ranging from cultural nationalists and established bourgeois politicians to revolutionary nationalists and non-nationalist Marxists. The African Liberation Support Committee was established to continue the work.

8 This included people such as the late Coleman Young, former United Auto Worker activist and subsequently Mayor of Detroit, Michigan. It also included people such as the late E.D. Nixon, from Montgomery, Alabama, who was a leader in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one of the leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Less well known are people such as Miranda Smith, from North Carolina, a leader of the Food, Tobacco and Allied Workers, who nevertheless built a local union which was solidly rooted in the Black community.

9 This is an issue which has been raised directly within the Black Radical Congress project by several forces, including a Seattle, Washington-based grouping called the ‘Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office’. LELO is a long-time multi-ethnic activist organisation which has addressed issues of economic justice and racial/ethnic/gender equity in the work-force. I0 A pedagogy which equally draws from the theoretical work of Mao Ze Dong.