The issue of Black Liberation is under all circumstances of decisive importance because it concerns the overwhelming majority of humanity who are not of primarily European (‘white’) descent and because this almost entirely overlaps with the division between the small number of imperialist states and the great majority of humanity who live in states dominated by imperialism.
This fundamental strategic importance is given still greater immediate actuality by the social explosion in the US following the racist murder of George Floyd. This movement, the largest and most advanced to be led by the Black population of the United States since the mid-1970s, is on a scale which altered the political situation not only in the US but globally – being a decisive factor in the defeat of Trump in the 2020 US Presidential election.
Because this is such a fundamental issue it is best understood in terms simultaneously of classical Marxist positions on the struggle against racism and imperialism, which reflect the most powerful global social forces, and the previous high point of the Black struggle in the US as it developed from the aftermath of World War II until it overlapped in time in the 1960s and 1970s with the deepest crisis in the modern history of the United States – the Vietnam War. This interaction of the Black movement in the US with the upsurge of the colonial revolution, and the decisive defeat of the US, produced what are the most advanced political movements in the history of the United States.
The US ruling class inevitably launched a ferocious onslaught against this upturn of US Black movement after World War II – including the assassination of Black nationalist leader Malcolm X, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, leaders of the Black Panthers and others, the launching of the overtly racist ‘War on Drugs’, and numerous other attacks. Following the final defeat of the US in Vietnam, the US ruling class then concentrated on regrouping its forces and launching an open attack on the entire US working class from 1980 onwards by Reagan. These defeats necessarily pushed both the US Black movement and the entire US working class backwards from the political peaks achieved in the 1960s and 1970s. But the new upsurge of Black struggle in 2020 necessarily began politically reconnecting with these previous peaks
The two analyses of the positions of Marxism on the Black struggle in the US and globally, and of the experience of the Black movement in the US, therefore necessarily overlap – because the Black movement in the US is the expression of these most powerful social forces analysed by Marxism. This article is therefore intended as a step back from simply immediate issues and as a contribution to understanding this process from a fundamental theoretical and historical point of view.
Imperialism, Socialism and Black Liberation
The US Black Lives Matter social explosion following the racist murder of George Floyd is the largest mass movement in the modern history of the United States – up to 25 million people participated in the protests. It plunged the US into its deepest political crisis since the Vietnam war.
The fuel for these events was not only a single outrageously blatant and brutal racist police murder – these are carried out routinely by the US cops, but the huge assault on the US population that inevitably followed from Trump’s policy of allowing Covid19 to spread in the US, with over 250,000 deaths and tens of millions unemployed. This huge assault on the US population, aimed to intimidate the US working class to accept a major increase in the rate of exploitation under the whip of mass unemployment, necessarily hit with the greatest force against African Americans.
What neither Trump nor the leadership of the Democratic Party anticipated was that the Black community of the US would strike back with such force against this and that it would receive majority support from the white population. Polls showed 81% of Americans considered that the use of force against George Floyd was unjustified compared to only 2% who believed that it was justified. This represented an almost complete reversal in attitudes to the policy of the US police. After the 2014 racist killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, 33% of Americans said that police were more likely to use excessive force against Black suspects; 58% disagreed. Two years later, the fatal shooting of Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minnesota yielded similar results. But in the wake of George Floyd’s death, 57% of Americans had come to believe that the police were more prone to use excessive force against Black people.
Overall, 74% of Americans said they supported the protests. There were massive majorities against Trump’s handling of these events – 66% of the US population disapproving of Trump’s handling of the protests compared to only 32% who approved, a majority of over two to one.
Trump responded to this by doubling down to launch the most openly racist Presidential campaign in modern US history. This was coupled with presidential incitement to police violence and praise for white supremacist ‘vigilantes’ – in reality armed fascists. This, therefore, was an open and blatant attack on the Black population of the US – and led to a strong response by the US Black population. Confronted with such fundamental events it is vital to go back and examine the classical positions of Marxism on the struggle for Black Liberation – which are very different to the caricature presented in parts of the ‘British left’.
Anti-racist organisation and Black political organisation
Racism was developed by capitalism over centuries as its most widespread and powerful attempt to try to legitimise its international imperialist policies, and for its attempts to divide the working class and oppressed within the imperialist countries. Precisely because racism is simultaneously an attack on the great majority of humanity, who live in countries dominated by imperialism, and on the working class and oppressed within the imperialist countries themselves, anti-racism is a political position and campaign which is vital for every oppressed and exploited group regardless of their ethnic origin. Given this is a common threat anti-racist campaigns are rightly therefore open to all regardless of their ethnic origin – although those most directly suffering racism will necessarily provide the most determined leadership of such campaigns.
Thus, for example, to take different examples of such anti-racist organisations, the civil rights movement in the US was, rightly, open to those of any ethnicity but it had a Black leadership. In Britain today an example such an anti-racist campaign, naturally on a very much smaller scale, is Stand up to Racism which is, and should remain, a united front against racism. That is, such anti-racist campaigns are and should be open to anyone of any ethnic group, or political affiliation, who opposes racism whatever their views on other issues.
However, precisely because racism strikes most savagely at the population which is not ‘white’ it is also necessary to organise those who are the most direct targets of racism. For that reason, simultaneously with anti-racist organisations open to those of any ethnicity there also simultaneously developed a number of organisations which are either open to all non-white people, to specific parts of the Black community, or in some cases organisations which combine an ethnic criteria for membership with certain political positions. Such organisations are obviously not open to people of all ethnic groups – although they may, and in many cases should, cooperate with organisations of different ethnic groups for common goals.
This combination was classically the situation of the Black movement in the US at the time of the civil rights movement. There existed at that time not only the civil rights movement itself but Black organisations with specific political platforms – Malcolm X’s Organisation of African American Unity, the Black Panthers and others.
These dynamics follow from the nature of imperialism itself and were therefore revealed at the peak of the anti-imperialist and class struggle in the US after World War II – at the time of the Vietnam war.
Consequences of global imperialism
This situation in the US as it evolved in the 1960s and early part of the 1970s was itself the expression of one of the most fundamental features of world politics. This is that the imperialist states were and are overwhelmingly ethnically European (Japan being the only significant exception) while the countries exploited by imperialism were ethnically African, South Asian, East Asian and other ‘non-white’ ethnic groups. Therefore, the struggle against the imperialist ruling classes, and its supporters in the (overwhelmingly white) labour aristocracy necessarily took the form of a struggle not only against economic exploitation, and other forms of oppression, but of a struggle against racism.
Classical Marxists did not hesitate to characterise this struggle against racist and imperialist trends within the working class in the harshest terms. Lenin noted at the Second Congress of the Communist International: ‘Comrade Quelch…. spoke of this in our commission. He said that the rank-and-file British worker would consider it treasonable to help the enslaved nations in their uprisings against British rule. True, the jingoist and chauvinist-minded labour aristocrats of Britain and America present a very great danger to socialism, and are a bulwark of the Second International. Here we are confronted with the greatest treachery on the part of leaders and workers belonging to this bourgeois International.’ Lenin demanded: ‘all Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies.’
Trotsky stated: ‘the white workers [of the US] 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.’.
In line with such analyses, after the Sixth Congress of the Communist International in 1928, the CPUSA adopted the slogan for the right of the Black population of the US to self-determination – that is to their right to decide whether they wished to remain within a single United States or to form a separate state. This position, despite his other differences, was supported by Trotsky.
The discussions on this within the Communist International and the CPUSA are for example described in detail by one of their participants, Black Communist leader Harry Haywood in his study of the period – most recently published as Black Communist in the Freedom Struggle. Regarding Trotsky’s position he carried out several intensive discussions on this issue, understanding that the Black movement in the US was not just a struggle against racism but was one waged by the most advanced section of the entire US working class – that is the Black working class: ‘If the workers aristocracy is the basis of opportunism… then the most oppressed and discriminated are the most dynamic milieu of the working class… We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class. What serves as the brake on the higher strata? It is the privileges, the comforts that hinder them from becoming revolutionists. It does not exist for the Negroes. What can transform a certain stratum, make it more capable of courage and sacrifice. It is concentrated in the Negroes.’
Any idea that there was an ‘automatic class unity’ among all sections of the working class, expressed around economic issues and in simplistic slogans such as ‘black and white unite and fight’, which in practice means to hold the Black movement back to the level of white working class, therefore had nothing to do with a classical Marxist analysis.
As Redmond O’Neill put it on this website in his article ‘Marxism and the Anti-racist Struggle’: ‘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.’
The position of the Communist International
The classic Marxist position in regard to the struggle against imperialism and racism necessarily followed directly from the one which Lenin reasserted in ‘What is to be Done’ that a Marxist’s ‘ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.’
Regarding the struggle against imperialism, a fundamental form of exploitation and oppression, this position of Lenin could take a precise international organisational form after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. Lenin set this out in fundamental terms in his ‘Address To The Second All-Russia Congress Of Communist Organisations Of The Peoples Of The East’. This established the key strategic international issue in the struggle for socialism which has been entirely confirmed by the entire period since – by the Chinese revolution, the Vietnamese revolution, the Cuban revolution, the Venezuelan revolution, and by the destruction of the colonial empires. Lenin noted: ‘the socialist revolution will not be solely, or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their bourgeoisie – no, it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism.’
Lenin formulates the fundamental positions of the Communist International
The decisive importance which Lenin attached to this question is shown by the fact that he personally wrote the draft of the ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Question’ for the Second Congress of the Communist International, participated in the discussion of the commission discussing the theses at the Congress, made the report from the commission to the Congress, and amended his own theses to further clarify some key issues.
As Lenin paid the greatest attention to precision in political issues it is therefore of particular importance to note those issues on which Lenin considered it necessary to further clarify the theses which he himself had drafted.
Lenin stressed in his report from the commission on the national and colonial question to the Second Congress of the Communist international that: ‘First, 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.’
From this it flowed that, for the Communist International, in a struggle between imperialist countries and those they oppressed it was necessary to unequivocally support the oppressed country and not be to be misled by claims such as that the imperialist country was a ‘democracy’ (within its own borders while oppressing other countries). Thus, in the struggle to dismantle the colonial Empires, the Communists were unequivocally on the side of the national liberation movements independently of the character of the leadership of those struggles. In the US war against Vietnam Marxists unequivocally supported Vietnam etc. Those who, for example, refused to oppose the US wars against Iraq on the grounds that the Iraqi leadership was a dictatorship, or who refused to oppose the US/NATO attack on Libya on the grounds of the nature of Ghedaffi’s regime, therefore had nothing in common with Marxism. This equally applies to supposedly ‘ultra-left’, in fact pro-imperialist, positions which refuse to take the side of the struggle of governments such as Venezuela or Nicaragua against the US on the grounds they are ‘insufficiently socialist’.
Within that framework of support for and participation in the struggle of oppressed countries against imperialism the theses on the national and colonial question noted it was also necessary for Communists to take an attitude to the leadership of such oppressed countries and of movements within them – which were frequently not socialist in character. It followed from the distinction between oppressor and oppressed countries that Communists had to fight on the same side as such non-socialist forces against imperialism. But it was also necessary, within that framework, to define a tactical attitude to such forces.
On this Lenin considered it necessary to move to a more precise position. In his original draft of the Theses on the National and Colonial Questions, consistent with this emphasis on the distinction between imperialist and oppressed countries, Lenin had written: ‘With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:
‘first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries…
’fifth, the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries; the Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks… The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form.’
This term ‘bourgeois democratic’, used by Lenin regarding the struggle in the countries dominated by imperialism was, of course, correct. This was because the most fundamental tasks of this struggle, the establishment of national independence and the elimination of feudal relations, in particular in the countryside, were the tasks carried out by the bourgeois democratic revolutions in advanced capitalist countries – and were in themselves not socialist in character.
But in the present epoch the bourgeoisie itself, for reasons of fear of mass struggle which may involve the working class, has abandoned the goal of carrying through a thorough going bourgeois democratic revolution. Therefore, Lenin concluded, in light of the discussion at the Second Congress of the Communist International, that it was necessary to more precisely clarify this issue.
In the report from the commission Lenin noted: ‘Comrade Maring, who has been secretary to our commission, will give you a detailed account of the changes we have made in the theses. He will be followed by Comrade Roy, who has formulated the supplementary theses. Our commission have unanimously adopted both the preliminary theses, as amended, and the supplementary theses. We have thus reached complete unanimity on all major issues….
‘I should like especially to emphasise the question of the bourgeois-democratic movement in backward countries. This is a question that has given rise to certain differences. We have discussed whether it would be right or wrong, in principle and in theory, to state that the Communist International and the Communist parties must support the bourgeois-democratic movement in backward countries. As a result of our discussion, we have arrived at the unanimous decision to speak of the national-revolutionary movement rather than of the “bourgeois-democratic” movement.’
Lenin explained the reason for this change and the adoption of the term ‘national-revolutionary movement’: ‘It is beyond doubt that any national movement can only be a bourgeois-democratic movement, since the overwhelming mass of the population in the backward countries consist of peasants who represent bourgeois-capitalist relationships. It would be utopian to believe that proletarian parties in these backward countries, if indeed they can emerge in them, can pursue communist tactics and a communist policy, without establishing definite relations with the peasant movement and without giving it effective support. However, the objections have been raised that, if we speak of the bourgeois-democratic movement, we shall be obliterating all distinctions between the reformist and the revolutionary movements. Yet that distinction has been very clearly revealed of late in the backward and colonial countries, since the imperialist bourgeoisie is doing everything in its power to implant a reformist movement among the oppressed nations too. There has been a certain rapprochement between the bourgeoisie of the exploiting countries and that of the colonies, so that very often—perhaps even in most cases—the bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries, while it does support the national movement, is in full accord with the imperialist bourgeoisie, i.e., joins forces with it against all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes. This was irrefutably proved in the commission, and we decided that the only correct attitude was to take this distinction into account and, in nearly all cases, substitute the term “national-revolutionary” for the term “bourgeois-democratic”. The significance of this change is that we, as Communists, should and will support bourgeois-liberation movements in the colonies only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organising in a revolutionary spirit the peasantry and the masses of the exploited. If these conditions do not exist, the Communists in these countries must combat the reformist bourgeoisie, to whom the heroes of the Second International also belong. Reformist parties already exist in the colonial countries, and in some cases their spokesmen call themselves Social-Democrats and socialists. The distinction I have referred to has been made in all the theses with the result, I think, that our view is now formulated much more precisely.’
As a result the formulation of the Theses was changed by Lenin from his original formulation to replace the term ‘bourgeois democratic’ with national ‘revolutionary’. Translated into English the amended Theses therefore became: ‘In relation to those states that have a more backward, predominantly feudal, patriarchal or peasant patriarchal character, special attention must be paid to the following points:
‘a) All Communist Parties must support the revolutionary liberation movement in these countries by their deeds. The form the support should take must be discussed with the Communist Party of the country in question, should such a party exist. The obligation to offer active assistance affects in the first place the workers of those countries on which the backward countries are in a position of colonial or financial dependence…
‘A determined fight is necessary against the attempt to put a communist cloak around revolutionary liberation movements that are not really communist in the backward countries… The Communist International should accompany the revolutionary movement in the colonies and backward countries for part of the way, should even make an alliance with it; it may not, however, fuse with it, but must unconditionally maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, be it only in embryo.’
The correctness of Lenin’s conclusion that extra clarity should be given, and the decision to adopt the phrase ‘national-revolutionary movement’, was rapidly confirmed by the greatest revolutionary struggle to break out in a developing country after the Bolshevik’s had come to power – that in China. There the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), while proclaiming it wished to create an independent capitalist state, first carried out massacres against the working class in 1926-27, and then subordinated the struggle against Japanese military aggression against China to the struggle against the Communist Party of China (CPC) – Chiang Kai-shek declaring that ‘ Communism is a disease of the heart, the Japanese are but a disease of the skin?’ Later, in line with the positions outlined by Lenin, the Communist Party of China (CPC) rightly entered into a united front with the KMT in the fight against the Japanese invasion of China but maintained its own organisation – indeed the CPC came to power after 1945 in large part because it had shown itself the most determined in the fight against Japanese imperialism, whereas the corrupt KMT finally showed failed to lead an equally thorough going struggle against Japan.
Bourgeois nationalist forces have on numerous occasions chosen to subordinate the struggle for national liberation, and against remnants of feudalism, to collaboration with imperialism. Classic cases are the bourgeoise of most countries of Latin America subordinating themselves to the US for large parts of their history since independence from Spain, the ruthless Indonesian bourgeois suppression of the Communist Party of Indonesia, and the policy of the Muslim Brotherhood after the ‘Arab Spring’ to make its main struggle against nationalist regimes in Syria and Libya, in direct alliance with imperialism, rather than pursuing a struggle against the colonial settler state of Israel and imperialism in the Middle East. This history entirely vindicates Lenin’s conclusion of the necessity to clarify that the alliance should be with ‘national revolutionary’ movements and not simply with bourgeois forces.
The Bolsheviks drew the necessary direct organisational conclusions from their analyses. They established on the one hand the Communist International, as an organisation of Marxist parties whose programme was the struggle for socialism, but simultaneously aimed to create wider organisations which included forces who were struggling against imperialism, colonialism and racism but which had not yet necessarily arrived at full Marxist conclusions. The most famous of these initiatives were ‘The Congress of Peoples of the East’ held in Baku in 1920, and ‘The First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East’ held in Moscow and Petrograd in 1922.
Convergence of the positions of those fighting against imperialism and racism with Marxist positions
The Bolsheviks themselves proceeded in their initiatives basing themselves on Marxist theory. However, groups oppressed by racism and imperialism themselves converged, not on the basis of Marxist theory but of their own direct experience, towards these positions. In some cases, this convergence became complete – Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh started as Chinese and Vietnamese patriots, and fighters against imperialism, who through their own experience became leaders of Communist Parties.
Ho Chi Minh set this out in moving terms in his ‘The Path Which Led Me to Leninism’: ‘Some comrades… gave me to read Lenin’s “Theses on the national and colonial questions”… What emotion, enthusiasm, and enlightenment and confidence they communicated to me! I wept for joy. Sitting by myself in my room, I would shout as if I was addressing large crowds: “Dear martyr compatriots! This is what we need, this is our path to liberation.”’
On a similar, if less historical scale, W.E.B. Dubois at the end of his life joined the CPUSA.
But naturally others, starting on the basis of their own experience of racism, moved towards these same strategic/fundamental conclusions without full organisational or political convergence with such Marxist positions. These were genuinely ‘national revolutionary’ currents. For example, to take one of the most advanced expressions of this, Malcolm X arrived at conclusions on this paralleling Lenin’s.
Regarding imperialism Malcolm X in 1964 stated: ‘Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country. He’s the earth’s number one hypocrite. He has the audacity – yes, he has – imagine him posing as the leader of the free world. The free world!- and you over here singing “We Shall Overcome.” Expand the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, take it into the United Nations, where our African brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Latin-American brothers can throw their weight on our side, and where 800 million Chinamen are sitting there waiting to throw their weight on our side.”
As Malcolm X makes clear by his references to Latin America and China for these advanced US currents, the concept ‘Black’ was a political and not a specific ethnic one. It did not refer only to those of African heritage but to all non-white social groups who were oppressed by predominantly white imperialism – those in Africa or of African descent, those from the Indian sub-continent, those from China and other East Asian countries oppressed by imperialism, the indigenous populations of Latin America and Australasia, and others.
Malcolm X noted: ‘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.’ This strategic approach was shown practically in the relations which developed between the US Black movement and Cuba, China, Vietnam and Africa.
Malcolm X wrote about the Bandung conference in 1955, where representatives from 29 African and Asian governments met to discuss peace, the Cold War, economic development and decolonisation, that: ‘At the Bandung Conference in 1955 one of the first and best steps toward real independence for nonwhite people took place. The people of Africa and Asia and Latin America were able to get together. They sat down, they realised that they had differences. They agreed not to place any emphasis any longer upon these differences and place emphasis upon areas where they had something in common.
‘This agreement was reached at Bandung produced the spirit of Bandung. So that the people who were oppressed, who had no jet planes, no nuclear weapons, no armies, no navies- and despite the fact that they didn’t have this, their unity alone was sufficient to enable them, over a period of years, to manoeuvre and make it possible for other nations in Asia to become independent, and many more nations in Africa to become independent.’
As Max Stanford, leader of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a Marxist, anti-imperialist, black nationalist current, which was active in the US student movement stated in 1965: ‘We are revolutionary black nationalist, not based on ideas of national superiority, but striving for justice and liberation of all the oppressed peoples of the world…There can be no liberty as long as black people are oppressed by Yankee imperialism and neo-colonialism. After four hundred years of oppression, we realise that slavery, racism and imperialism are all interrelated and that liberty and justice for all cannot exist peacefully with imperialism.’ Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were involved in RAM in California before they founded the Black Panthers.
Black self-organisation and the united front
In this framework Black self-organisation was an integral part of the struggle against imperialism – and a pillar of creating the basis for a united front of all those fighting against imperialism. Malcolm X broke from the Black Muslim position of refusing to cooperate with non-Black organisations, including in the civil rights movement, but always insisted that the necessary basis for such cooperation must be the independent strong organisation of Black Americans. It was therefore Black organisations which formed these relations with others subject to imperialist and racist oppression in Cuba, China and Vietnam and elsewhere. This was particularly reflected in the multiple links between those fighting for Black liberation in the US and those fighting against imperialism in colonial and semi-colonial countries.
To take only a few of the most advanced expressions of these links:
- One of the participants in meetings of the Marcus Garvey movement in the US immediately following World War I was Ho Chi Minh – during his exile from Vietnam. Based on this, and other experience in the US, Ho Chi Minh wrote a study of racism and the Black struggle in the US ‘The Black Race’.
- Paul Robeson from the 1930s was an active supporter of the struggle of China against Japanese invasion. Robeson became a Marxist in the 1930s and was a supporter of the Soviet Union and China until his death in 1976. He was a strong advocate of civil rights before it was popular, working with Black CPUSA leaders such as Ben Davis and William Patterson from the late 1920s. He was one of the most important early targets of McCarthyism, precisely because he made a connection between the struggle for civil rights in the US with the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle worldwide. He and Patterson brought a case to the UN against US segregation policies in 1951. As such Robeson was a forerunner of numerous currents in the US Black liberation movement – McCarthyism has naturally tried to erase his name from history.
- From the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, as already noted, numerous leaders of the Black Movement in the US visited or openly praised China – W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, leaders of the Black Panther party. The works of Mao Zedong were included in the education programme of the Black Panthers.
- Leaders of the US Black struggle met with, and in a number of cases maintained close relations with, the Cuban revolution – symbolised most famously in the meeting in Harlem of Malcolm X and Fidel Castro.
- All major leaders of the Black movement in the US were fierce opponents of the Vietnam war. A number of the most advanced of these directly supported Vietnam (the classic position of ‘revolutionary defeatism’). For example a full page editorial of the Black Panther’s newspaper entitled ‘The Black Man’s Stake in Vietnam’ declared: ‘The black man’s interest lies in seeing a free and independent Vietnam, a strong Vietnam which is not the puppet of international white supremacy. If the nations of Asia, Latin America and Africa are strong and free, the black man in America will be safe and secure and free to live in dignity and self-respect.’
Internationally certainly some movements of Black solidarity degenerated into bourgeois nationalist movements, no longer seriously resisting imperialism – particularly following the severe defeats of colonial countries and the US working class from the 1970s onwards. But the explicit international links and ideas of the movement of Black liberation in the US remains the political high point of the struggle of the US working class. As the struggle against racism and imperialism is by its nature international in character these links will inevitably be rebuilt as the struggle against racism in the imperialist countries recovers from the defeats suffered from Reagan onwards.
These movements for Black liberation, whether or not they had fully converged with Marxism, were deeply progressive and were to be supported. These were not organisations of the entire Black population but were those of a political viewpoint, a current, among the black population. On that clear political basis they could work with other organisations. Thus, for example, Malcolm X spoke three times at the US SWP’s Militant Labor Forums – this was before the SWP’s degeneration amid the major defeats of the US working class from the 1970s onwards.
Recovery from the defeats
Severe defeats were suffered by the US working class and Black movement leading up to, and from, Reagan’s presidency – following the US ruling class tactical decision to regroup and withdraw from Vietnam. This necessarily threw back the most politically advanced forces in the US – which had earlier been assaulted by the assassinations, forced exile, and other brutal attacks on US Black leaders. The links between the Black movement and the international struggle, as symbolised by Malcolm X and others, declined from their previous level.
But given the fundamental nature of international imperialism, immediately the US Black struggle dramatically recovered from previous defeats, shown in the intense mobilisations ignited by the racist murder of George Floyd, it inevitably began to push towards the political positions reached at the height of the previous Black struggle in the US. Furthermore, this occurred in a more favourable objective relation of forces.
For the first time polls showed that that Black Lives Matter movement had majority support in the US. While the Black population remained the most advanced section of the US working class, and support for Black Lives Matter is not at all equal to thorough elimination of racism in the US, nevertheless it would no longer be accurate to analyse that ‘ninety nine point nine per cent of the American workers… in relation to the Negroes… are hangmen’ The Black movement in the US is therefore in a more favourable relation of forces.
Furthermore, the Black movement itself starts from a higher level because of the achievements of the previous periods of struggle. In the US the civil rights movement has had more of an organised legacy that continues today and a bigger following than in other countries e.g. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, the NAACP. There are also more advanced organised anti-imperialist forces in the US which continue the approach adopted by Malcolm X and other key US Black leaders, such as Black Agenda Report and Black Alliance for Peace, although these of course as yet are less well known and have a smaller following than those at the peak of the struggle in the 1960s and early 1970s.
To see the way that this Black mobilisation necessarily links up with earlier trends it is only necessary to see the interaction between Margaret Kimberley, Editor and Senior Columnist of Black Agenda Report, and an audience in China at the No Cold War conference on 25 July. Publication of the video of her speech in video in China had a major response with more than 350,000 hits and 7,500 comments. Kimberley herself also denounced Trump’s attack on Chinese company TikTok. Similarly, Ajamu Baraka, National Organiser for Black Alliance for Peace, and Green Party candidate for Vice President in 2016, strongly attacked the US Cold War against China and the assault on TikTok.
Naturally these are the most advanced forces in US. The majority of the Black population of the US, let alone the majority of the US working class and oppressed, does not yet consciously understand that socialist countries such as China, Vietnam or Cuba, and countries fighting imperialism, are their allies. But the US population, by mobilising against the racist and economic attacks on them, is in fact objectively following the classical Marxist principle in imperialist countries ‘the enemy is at home’. That is, they are not pursuing the diversionary claim by the US ruling class that the enemy is in China or any other county.
Within that framework more advanced political currents develop, who re-join the great progressive tradition of the US Black movement.