Marxism and the anti-racist struggle

First published: 24 July 2007

By Redmond O’Neill

Those who suffer from an oppression are the only people who understand all its implications and ramifications. It is for this reason that it is a basic principle that women must lead the struggle against women’s oppression and sexism, that gay and lesbian people must lead the struggle against homophobia and, to take the subject of the present posting, that those communities oppressed by racism must have the leading role in the movement against it.

Racism is of course used to divide the whole of the working class. But above all, racism is a set of institutions and ideology which justifies the oppression and exploitation of the non-white majority of humanity.

Seen from this perspective the anti-racist struggle, and black self-organisation as a decisive part of it, is a fundamental struggle of this epoch. The anti-racist struggle is therefore an indispensable and central aspect of the international class struggle against imperialism.

Racism is the ideological product of first capitalist colonialism and then imperialism, as these expanded from western Europe to world domination over a period of 500 years. The majority of peoples on earth are oppressed by racism and imperialism. Any socialist movement which does not place the struggles against imperialism and racism as a central part of its political perspectives simply is not socialist – it is restricting its concerns to those of a relatively privileged minority of the human race: the white population within the imperialist countries.

It is therefore important to trace the formulation of positions on the struggle against racism. It was Lenin who trenchantly formulated the relationship between the socialist and the anti-imperialist struggles: ‘The socialist revolution will not be solely, or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians of each country against their own bourgeoisie – no, it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries, of all dependent countries against international imperialism. Characterising the approach of the world social revolution…, we said that the civil war of the working people against the imperialists and exploiters in all the advanced countries is beginning to be combined with national wars against international imperialism. This is confirmed by the course of the revolution and will be more and more confirmed as time goes on.’

Lenin’s view contrasted sharply with the chauvinism which had progressively destroyed the Second International until it collapsed in the carnage of the First World War. One of the first symptoms of the rot was the attitude to racism.

At the 1907 Congress of the Second International in Stuttgart minorities wanted to support both colonialism and immigration controls. For example, Morris Hilquit, a US delegate, argued that immigration ‘threatens the native-born worker with dangerous competition’ and that the Chinese ‘cannot be organised. Only a people well advanced in its historical development such as the Belgians and Italians in France can be organised for the class struggle. The Chinese have lagged too far behind to be organised.’ History of course, in the Chinese revolution, and the recent stupendous success of the Chinese economy, has rather vividly left this as a classic case of a racist utterance – it turned out that Chinese workers were far ahead in organising compared to US workers!

On colonialism Bernstein argued: ‘We must get away from the utopian notion of simply abandoning the colonies. The ultimate consequences of such a view would be to give the United States back to the Indians… Socialists too should acknowledge the need for civilised peoples to act somewhat like guardians of the uncivilised.’ Eduard David argued: ‘Europe needs colonies. It does not have enough of them. Without colonies we would be comparable from an economic standpoint to China.’ The ‘civilised’ behaviour of the imperialists in their colonies (Ireland, the slave trade, tens of millions of deaths from famine in India and Iraq to take only a handful of examples) is of course well known.

The congress fortunately rejected this racist nonsense and instead rightly agreed: ‘The congress considers that by its inherent nature, capitalist colonial policy must lead to enslavement, forced labour, or the extermination of the native population of the colonised regions. The civilising mission that capitalist society claims to serve is no more than a veil for its lust for conquest and exploitation.’ But the vote was only 127:108.

The internationalist current which became the Communist International in 1919 forged its ideas against this degeneration of the Second International.

In his ‘Report on the National and Colonial Questions’ to the second congress of the Comintern, Lenin spelled out that the fundamental division between states was between imperialist, oppressor states and oppressed states: ‘What is the cardinal idea underlying our theses? It is the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations. Unlike the Second International and bourgeois democracy, we emphasise this distinction… The characteristic feature of imperialism consists in the whole world… being divided into a large number of oppressed nations and an insignificant number of oppressor nations, the latter possessing colossal wealth and powerful armed forces. The vast majority of the world’s population… belong to the oppressed nations…’

Lenin stressed in the sharpest manner the damage that would be done to the revolutionary movement by any concessions to chauvinism: ‘It would be unpardonable opportunism if, on the eve of the debut of the East, just as it is awakening, we undermined our prestige with its peoples, even if only by the slightest crudity or injustice towards our own non-Russian nationalities. The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world, is one thing… It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism. But the morrow of world history will be a day when the awakening peoples oppressed by imperialism are finally aroused and the decisive long and hard struggle for their liberation begins.’

In this spirit the Communist International in 1922 called for ‘an international black movement’ because ‘the black question has become an integral part of the world revolution.’

Lenin believed that it was the revolutionary struggle in the east which would drive forward the international socialist revolution. He spelled this out in one of his last articles Better Fewer, But Better, written towards the end of his life: ‘In the last analysis the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe. And during the past few years it is this majority that has been drawn into the struggle for emancipation with extraordinary rapidity, so that in this respect there cannot be the slightest doubt what the final outcome of the world struggle will be. In this sense, the complete victory of socialism is fully and absolutely assured.’

In his discussions with C. L. R. James and the US Socialist Workers Party in the 1930s, Trotsky applied these principles to the position of the communities oppressed by racism in the United States in an equally uncompromising manner: ‘the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt, and lynch them’ and ‘ninety nine point nine per cent of the American workers are chauvinists; in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen as they are also to the Chinese etc.’

Trotsky supported not only the right to black self-organisation but also, if it was wished for, a separate black state: ‘The argument that the slogan for self-determination leads away from the class point of view is an adaptation to the ideology of the white workers’ and ‘the worst crime on the part of the revolutionaries would be to give the smallest concessions to the privileges of the whites. Whoever gives his little finger to the devil of chauvinism is lost.’

Malcolm X, coming from a black nationalist, not a Marxist, tradition, formulated the relation of the struggle against racism in the USA and the international struggle against imperialism in very similar terms: ‘the black nationalists… don’t look upon themselves as Americans, they look upon themselves as part of dark mankind. They see the whole struggle not within the confines of the American stage, but they look upon the struggle upon the world stage. And, in the world context they see that the dark man outnumbers the white man. On the world stage the white man is just a microscopic minority.’

As Malcolm X never tired of explaining, the most important blows against racism in the postwar period were the decolonisation struggles and colonial revolutions in Asia and Africa. Objectively the most important ally of those struggles was the Soviet Union and later China. That is why Malcolm X saw the socialist struggle as an ally of the anti-racist struggle. In 1965 he said: ‘all of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning towards socialism, I don’t think it’s an accident. Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries, and the last bulwark of capitalism today is America. It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into a conversation and they have a philosophy that makes sure they don’t have racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.’

This is the fundamental reason why McCarthyism and witch hunts have no place in the anti-racist movement – they are designed to split two of the key components of the broad anti-racist struggle, black self-organisation and the left. That is also why McCarthyism was always a weapon against the anti-racist and civil rights movements in the United States. Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were the objects of US government red-baiting campaigns.

It is no accident that the most advanced international currents of Marxism in the 20th century, and Malcolm X, the outstanding leader of the black struggle in the United States, should come to such similar conclusions. Malcolm X’s life was cut short by an assassin. But the direction of his political evolution, particularly in the last year of his life, was towards translating the kinds of international alliances which had taken forward the post-war struggle against colonialism into the struggle against racism within the United States. The resurgence of racism in Europe and the United States today poses the necessity of developing the strategy of the antiracist struggle from the point at which Malcolm X was forced to break off.