Blacks and the National Question: A Practical-Critical (Tactical) Approach
Reprinted here is the first section of Blacks and the National Question-an editorial first published in 1980 by United Struggle Press.
Socialist organizers in the United States today, like those in other countries and other historical epochs, in seeking to organize masses of unorganized workers, have been forced to confront the realities of special oppression of sectors of the working class on the basis of nationality or color. This means, among other things, the political engagement of the organizational manifestations of the efforts of such oppressed groupings to defend themselves against racist attack and, offensively, to liberate themselves from their oppression in capitalist society. The cluster of political and organizing issues raised by this tactical engagement is what we identify as the “national question.” This way of framing the question, viz., as tactical, is most important, since it places the issue within history rather than treating it as an abstract matter of principles. Such principles are of interest to an exploitative capitalist class desperately trying to materialize its authority; they are of no import to the international working class seeking to assert its power.
Accordingly, the development of an organization such as the New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council can only be fully understood in relationship to the national question. Equally true, an understanding of the national question has been scientifically informed by employing the Council as a to01 (and a result) in the ongoing analytic, practical-critical examination of this important issue.
The Council, a five-year-old growing political union of more than 10,000 welfare recipients, represents one materialization of a strategic perspective which identifies the lower strata of the working class (predominantly Black and Hispanic in New York City) as having a unique and critical role to play in the struggle for socialism in this country. The economic analysis on which that strategic perspective is based identifies the current crisis as an advanced stage of capitalism’s ultimate realization crisis from which there can be no permanent recovery!1 A consequence of this is that there is no hope of integration into the economic mainstream for the masses of poor Black and Hispanic people of the United States in the absence of a fundamental social transformation. In orthodox terms, these lower strata are describable as in limbo between their peasant origins (as immigrants to the big cities fro the rural South or the Caribbean and Latin America) and full membership in the industrial proletariat. Such definitions, however, are too static as they fail to consider the working class as an historical, dynamical whole whose makeup is determined both by its relationship to the productive processes and by what political actions the working class as a whole must engage in to achieve economic and political control over its own destiny. Relating to the class in these dynamical terms we identify as organizing the class-for-itself as opposed to the class-in-itself.
There can be no doubt that Blacks are and will continue to be a special target for scapegoating and other forms of attack by rightwing forces seeking to disguise the real nature of the current crisis of capitalism. In light of this, Marxists must be unconditionally committed to the defense of the Black population. Beyond this defensive situation, however, Blacks have a critical role to play in the economic-political class offensive. Their demands for a decent life (not just upward mobility for a few) cannot be met under the existing social and economic system. Poor Blacks (lower strata working class) have very little to lose as things stand now, and, therefore, less of a stake in the capitalist system than more privileged strata of the working class. Blacks are largely unorganized and as such, are often used as a justification for rightward movement by organized elements of the working class-as when welfare recipients are identified as a “burden” to the currently employed. As well Black Marxist leadership in Africa, as well as in the United States, is playing a critical international role in the current struggle for socialist revolution.
Firstly, it was not an attempt to build a parochial organization of Black or Hispanic people on the basis of their special oppression: an organization taking race, not class, to be the fundamental issue. Rather it was to organize specially oppressed people, particularly poor Blacks (who proved most responsive for various sociological reasons to the Council’s organizing drives) as a part of the working class which was demanding, through the Council, the right of econOfl!9 representation. That right is one we take to be fundamental to the existence and political development of the class-for-itself. This did not ignore the special oppression of Blacks. The Council defends the Black population in every way possible from racist attack and furthermore supports the right of Black people the same in whatever way possible. Rather it was to recognize that the struggle of Black workers must have an offensive component and is a crucial part of the overall struggle of the working class to free itself from all forms of oppression specifically at a point when capitalist production and distribution have reached specific limits of growth.
In working to build the Council, its organizers have confronted ongoing problems in teaching the complex dynamical relationship between the offensive and defensive struggles. There was the threshold issue raised by many Council members of why Black people should join an organization whose initial organizers were white. Then, there was the hostility active Council members encountered from other Blacks because they worked with whites. This came, not only from individuals, but from various community organizations whose perspective, implicit or explicit, was a variety of nationalism and called for exclusively organizing separatist organizations. Finally, the developing Black leadership of the Council were forced to confront their own relationship to the working class struggle here in the United States and internationally and the forces which seek to coordinate and provide leadership to it.
The national question first emerged as an object of extended analysis by socialist organizers in pre-revolutionary Russia (see Part III). One of the major problems for the leaders of the Russian Revolution was how to relate to the 52-odd specially oppressed national minorities in Russia and its border regions whose support for the revolutionary process was critical to its success. Most of the national minorities consisted of a huge peasantry eking out a “ParaLeft”>It was in this tactical context that the Bolsheviks developed their position on the national question. The position, formulated by Stalin under Lenin’s supervision was that oppressed nations should have the unconditional right to self-determination i.e., the unconditional right to determine (by majority decision of the population of the territory in which an oppressed nationality was dominant) their own political destiny as to secession from the nation state of which the oppressed nation was a component; annexation to another nation state; political alignment with other nation states; etc. A “nation” was defined by Stalin as “an historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological makeup manifested in a common culture.”2 Only those oppressed people who met all the elements of the definition had the right to self-determination. The right was unconditional in that while communists could support or discourage a particular expression of a nation’s right to self-determination, depending on the circumstances, the right of the majority of the oppressed nation to declare themselves a nation must be supported.
The success of the revolution required an appropriate, ongoing resolution of the national question. The plan which the Bolsheviks implemented entailed eliminating the material source of inequality among nations by reorganizing and centralizing agriculture and agricultural production while at the same time granting political autonomy to crystallized national units like Georgia and the Ukraine, under which minority languages, literature, and local cultural institutions would be encouraged to flourish.
Today, the issues of the rights of oppressed peoples, of whether and how to, support particular struggles of particular oppressed groupings, are no less pressing and no more susceptible of easy resolution. The grave practical implications of these issues can be seen, internationally, in Palestine, Afghanistan; the Eritrean separatist movement; Kampuchea; China’s invasion of Vietnam; the support of rival African liberationist groups by and the Soviet Union. They are of critical importance in the United States, as well, particularly in regard to the Black population.
The special oppression of Blacks has been a central feature of United States history, having its origins in the slave economy of the southern states (see Section IV). George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other “founding fathers” were slave owners and representatives of a class of plantation lords who played a predominant role in the development of the United States. Slavery was also a factor in the development of the merchant economy of the North, particularly in New England where many of the early merchant fortunes were made in the slave trade. The capital thusly accumulated was to play its part in the ensuing industrialization of the North. Subsequently, the struggle against slavery and its remnants was central to the political development and articulation of bourgeois democratic rights, North and South, from the abolitionists of the 1850s to the civil rights activists more than a century later. To the extent that socialists played a role in these struggles, the national question has been an integral part of the history of the progressive movement in this country. As well, the national question loomed large in the organizing of the industrial unions, as many workers in basic mass production industries were Black.
A specially oppressed Black nation almost certainly existed in the United States at the turn of the century when 9OWo of the Black population lived in the South (80% in the rural South) and formed the vast majority of the population and of the productive classes in the southern Black Belt. What was once a Black nation has subsequently been dispersed through successive out-migrations to the point where 75% of all Black people today live in 20 major urban centers, chiefly in the North and Midwest. Even in the heyday of capitalist expansion in the United States the economy could never provide decent jobs and living standards for more than a third of the work force. Now the stark inability of the moribund capitalist social and productive apparatus ever to absorb millions of unemployed and underemployed Blacks makes them a potentially explosive third force in the socialist transformation of the system responsible for their oppression.
A component of that developing base is the New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council. Other elements include the Association of Public Service Workers, a labor union organizing poverty workers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; the Bronx and Jamaica Health Consumer Unions, which are organizing with the support of progressive health care providers to demand more and better health services; the Coalition of Grass Roots Women, which is organizing poor and working women who have been ignored by the middle class feminist movement; Black Economic Survival, an organization of minority construction workers; an assortment of tenant and other community organizations throughout the city; and organizations of gay people like the New York City Union of Lesbian and Gay Men.
The organizing model is one of an electoral formation set upon, and responsive to, a base of newly organized and being organized unemployed and low Paid workers as well as organized labor and the middle class. Accordingly, NAP’s slogan is “People Instead of Profits” and it stands for a reordering of economic priorities in the interests of the most exploited and oppressed sectors of the working class (and, as the economy deteriorates, of all strata of the Working class as well as the middle class). It aims to build a new, independent, progressive, mass electoral movement by, among other things, exploiting the contradictions raised by the rightward movement (and recent debacle) of the Democratic Party. Its tactic is to run progressive candidates in the Democratic primary, pledged to run as independents (on the NAP line) whether they win or lose the primary.
NAP’s first electoral effort came in the summer and fall of 1979 when it ran State Senator Joseph L. Galiber, a well known, vaguely left-leaning center-Democrat and former head of the State Legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican caucus, for Bronx Borough President. Galiber, running on the NAP line in the general election, won 22,500 votes, finishing second behind Democratic machine candidate Stanley Simon (who also ran as a Republican) and ahead of the Liberal, Conservative and Right-to-Life candidates. Galiber, whose constituency is in the predominantly Black and Puerto Rican Central Bronx, had paid his dues to the Democratic machine and sought its support for the Borough President’s seat when the incumbent, Robert Abrams, was elected State Attorney General. Instead, the machine offered the nomination to Stanley Simon, a venal and ignorant party hack, with no support in the Black and Hispanic areas where a majority of the Bronx residents lived. Like so many other “left” Democrats, particularly those representing poor, Black and Hispanic communities, Galiber found himself the victim of a party moving quickly to the right. No socialist himself, he saw an opportunity to use NAP to strike a retaliatory blow at the machine and maintain his credibility as a political figure in the Bronx. For its part, NAP saw an opportunity to test its electoral tactic and to continue building a base in the poor communities of the Bronx. It supported Galiber in the Democratic primary (which he lost) and ran him as an independent in November.
Coming out of the Bronx race as a credible new independent force located squarely in the mainstream of New York City politics, NAP was approached by several Democratic Party politicians in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn looking to make a Galiber-type deal for the November, 1980 elections. The most promising opportunities were in the overwhelmingly Black Fort Green-Williamsburg-Bedford Stuyvesant-Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. There, veteran State Senator Vander Beatty had for some time been circulating a petition to amend the City Charter in order to permit voters to recall elected officials. The implicit particular target was Edward Koch, the former liberal Greenwich Village Congressman turned conservative, neo-fascist, racist mayor. Even before the Galiber race, NAP organizers had taken to the streets with the Beatty recall petition and with a petition of their own calling for the formation of an independent mainstream political party with a minimalist socialist program as a peoples’ alternative to the parties of the banks and big business. They found overwhelming support for the independent party concept in the City’s poor communities. The recall petition was expanded into a citywide “Dump Koch” campaign, a tailor-made vehicle for building an independent electoral organization by turning the community’s hatred of racist, anti-poor, anti-working class Koch against the Democratic Party which had sold out poor and working people so many times. As Blacks, organized and unorganized, were the most anti-Koch and Black politicians of various persuasions the most outspoken against him, NAP’s entry into “Dump Koch” politics necessarily engaged the national question. The politics of the Fort Green-Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn proved fertile ground for doing so.
Beatty, a sophisticated politician with a safe State Senate seat in that area and more than likely personal ambitions to be the anti-Koch candidate for mayor, was intrigued by the prospect of independent third party politics. He agreed to run on the independent NAP line in the general election. As he was absolutely sure to win the Democratic primary, Beatty’s candidacy presented the possibility of a real test for NAP, with the same candidate running on its independent line and the Democratic Party line. Beatty no doubt also saw the opportunity to use NAP against rival political forces headed by Black State Assemblyman Al Vann, with whom the Beatty forces were locked in struggle for political hegemony over the Black areas of Brooklyn.
Vann and political allies like the Reverend Herbert Daughtry and State Assembly candidate Roger Green were allied with the Black United Front. Both the Beatty and Black United Front camps are black nationalist, with the underlying political distinction being that the former are essentially bourgeois nationalist while the latter are predominantly revolutionary nationalist. Characteristically, movements of nationally oppressed people will harbor both tendencies (and many variations of each), sometimes working together against their mutual oppressor, sometimes fighting against each other. Nonetheless, it is useful to identify the dominant politic of the various nationalist groupings, as an understanding of their various strategic thrusts can provide a guide to the possibility of joint work and its practical dynamics. For example, the strategy of revolutionary nationalist forces calls for socialist transformation of society, as does that of the dominant political tendency in NAP. Yet the separatist road to revolution can make it more difficult for a revolutionary nationalist group to work with a multiracial organization like NAP than for a bourgeois nationalist group whose strategy is fundamentally oriented towards integration into the dominant white society. The Beatty forces are to be identified as bourgeois nationalist to the extent that they seek representation for Black politicians and their constituencies within capitalist and pro-capitalist institutions like the Democratic Party. With a politic tending towards assimilation, it is easier for Beatty to run on the NAP line and Work with NAP on a tactical level than it is for a Vann or a Green. Indeed, the Black United Front up until this time would not permit those it controls politically to run on the NAP line.
The Beatty-Vann rivalry aside, NA was in Brooklyn for the duration because it was committed to base building in this important area and was also running an independent Black leader, Moses Harris, for the United States Congressional seat occupied by white multi-millionaire Fred Richmond, a liberal Democrat living on Sutton Place whose “representation” of that area of Brooklyn (like Simon’s in the Bronx) exemplified the disdain of the white dominated Brooklyn Democratic machine for the Black community and, particularly, its poorer sectors. Harris is the leader of an organization known as Black Economic Survival, a militant formation of Black construction workers whose primary activity consists of forcing (by whatever means necessary) white construction bosses to hire Black workers. Harris considered himself a socialist and had a more class-wide orientation than either Beatty or Black United Front. Indeed, Harris had, years earlier, refused to become a part of the Black United Front because of its insistence on building separatist organizations. However, despite their differing strategic orientations, all these forces-Beatty’s, Black United Front and Harris’-gravitated towards the Democratic Party where they manifested a left-liberal mass line. Of the three, Harris was the most willing to be closely identified with NAP and the least tied to elements of the Democratic Party. He also was the one with the least developed political apparatus and mass base.
As the election campaign picked up steam, the Beatty-Vann rivalry flared into open warfare with NAP directly in the cross fire. Beatty muted his “Dump Koch” thrust and allied with the white machine against Vann and Green. Vann was knocked off the ballot in the Democratic Primary by a machine-controlled Brooklyn judge. Green was forced to run three times against machine hack Harvey Streizin, a white slumlord whom Beatty supported, after another machine judge invalidated Green’s primary victories for election irregularities which had obviously been committed by the machine loyalists who ran the polling places on election day. Beatty refrained from supporting Harris and endorsed Fred Richmond instead, adopting a de facto policy of non-association with the NAP.
Vann and Green stepped up their attacks on Beatty, saturating the neighborhoods with propaganda depicting him as a sellout to the machine and themselves as the anti-machine people’s candidates. They approached NAP for support of Green in his battles with Streizin, recognizing that the experienced organizers and volunteers NAP had mobilized for the Harris campaign could make the difference in the close race with Streizin. Indeed, Green was the most open to joint work with NAP of all the Black United Front forces.
The situation was a difficult one for NAP, and its organizers and supporters were subject to conflicting pushes and pulls. There was a natural attraction to the Black United Front forces whose political line (a revolutionary nationalist line) tended to be more progressive than that of Beatty (a bourgeois nationalist line) and who were involved, as was NAP, in a direct fight with the Democratic machine which had blocked with Beatty to destroy them. On the other hand, Beatty was running on the NAP line while the Black United Front candidates seemed willing to use NAP’s support but spurned open affiliation, although Green endorsed Harris. Organizers found it difficult to explain NAP’s support for Beatty to supporters who took at face value the Black United Front at tacks on him. As for Harris, there was a tendency to overly identify with him as the “real NAP candidate.” Harris himself over-identified with a hoped for victory in the Democratic Primary, despite his lack of a base. Indeed, after polling some 27 percent of the vote in the primary, Harris virtually disappeared during the weeks before the November election, the time when his campaigning on the NAP line would have been most important in terms of the long range base building objectives. Nonetheless, 5,000 people voted the NAP line in November. As for Beatty, he accepted the Liberal Party nomination as well as NAP’s and the Board of Elections invoked an obscure provision of the election law to list him as the joint Liberal-NAP candidate under the Liberal rather than the NAP column. Thus, the chance for a “laboratory” type test of NAP versus the Democratic Party was lost.
The position taken by NAP was one of support for both the Beatty and Vann forces, to the extent they moved to Dump Koch or challenge the machine, and criticism of them to the extent they engaged in sterile struggle with each other or blocked with the machine for immediate tactical advantage. it was recognized that such across-the-board support of all the anti-Koch anti-machine forces was the principled way of supporting both the defensive and offensive struggle of Blacks, and was the best way to heighten the contradictions within the Democratic Party and weaken its position as the arbiter of the struggle for political hegemony in the Black community-for to support one anti-machine faction over another in an intra-Democratic Party fight is only to legitimize further that increasingly racist, anti-poor political formation, and to fail to defend Blacks against racist attacks.
NAP’s position, despite its obvious correctness, proved difficult to implement consistently. The vacillation of NAP organizers (including leadership) and supporters reflects the complexities of dealing with the national question in real, historical terms. A critical analytical distinction-one developed by Lenin and Stalin in their seminal work on this issue-without which it is impossible to navigate these tricky political waters, is that between unconditional support for the right of oppressed national minorities to self-determination (to organize if they choose on a separatist basis) while at the same time engaging in ruthless struggle against the political perspective (or actions) of such forces (and nations) if such a perspective is contrary to the interests of the working class as a whole and, therefore, of Blacks. Thus, for example, we support the right of the people of Eritrea to declare themselves a nation, at the same time as we would reject any attempt by that nation to secede from the socialist (or proto-socialist) state of Ethiopia. Prior to the victory of socialist forces in Ethiopia, we would have supported secession by Eritrea from the feudal monarchy of Hailie Selassie.
At the same time we were critical of their engaging in internecine warfare with each other, and, more importantly, sought to organize their base away from a separatist perspective towards the multi-racial NAP and its class-wide perspective. In other words, to recognize the progressive character of nationalist, particularly revolutionary nationalist, forces, in this period, is not to accept their leadership in determining the direction in which the masses of unorganized Black poor and working people will move.
The political perspective of that separatist leadership is at root based on the assumption that 1) there exists some political/sociological entity domestic to the United States which is describable as a Black nation and 2) that the self-determined choice of that nation is for separatism, that is, in the context of this specific historical period, for the building of separatist organizations. The question of whether or not there has existed or now exists a Black nation is a important one which has been debated feverishly. We tend towards the analysis that there was once a Black nation within the boundaries of the United States but leave open the question of whether it still exists (though analytically we believe it does not). However, an issue of even greater tactical significance is how the answer to the questions posed by the right of self-determination of the Black masses is to be known. How can it be known, and not dogmatically imposed, given that there currently exist insufficient organizations of a truly democratic nature (proletarian democracy) of the Black population for the exercise and expression of the self-determination of Blacks to be possible?
Those leadership forces who on the one hand call for the exercise of the right of self-determination while failing to engage the question of whether or not the grouping in question wishes to be identified in a particular way, and what the organizational preconditions are for making that identification, are caught up in their own antidemocratic (read: anti-working class), middle class interpretations. The appeal to Black consciousness (surely a proper appeal as a defense against the vicious racism of United States society) denies, in the hands of the middle class separatist, the recognition of the difference between Black working class and Black middle class. To engage the national question meaningfully (historically) it must be engaged tactically in the context of building those organizations of the lower strata of the working class which allow for, which organize, the working class democratic exercise of the right to self-determination. Anything less would be to sell out the interests of the class as a whole, Black workers in particular and therefore Black workers as a whole.
Understanding the national question demands more than abstractly understanding and mechanically applying Stalin’s definition of a nation. The identification of a nation, i.e., the definition of nationhood as outlined by Stalin, is indeed a correct definition, precisely as Marx’s models or definitions function merely as part of dialectical understanding in a quite specific way. That is, they illustrate the contradictoriness of capitalism from within the framework of capitalism itself. They indicate the paradoxicality of capitalism as a thing-in-itself. But in themselves (like capitalism-in-itself) they do not express the historic-logico necessity of capitalism’s demise. While a system can be shown to be paradoxical (self-contradictory) it does not follow in the, abstract or in the historical reality (and, in the case of formal systems, these two are equivalent) that such a system is ontologically doomed. Only the profound rationalistic bias of 19th century science and Engel’s fetishization of it would suggest, a la Hegel, that contradictoriness in some way or another entails ontological extinction. Capitalism, both its ideology and its mode of production, will not disappear so easily. Hence the definition of nationhood by itself suffices only to provide us with a closed-system understanding. Again, it is understanding capitalism’s contradictoriness (ideologically as well as historically) from within capitalism.
Understanding the national question means understanding its tactical dimension- how to relate to nationalist forces in a specific political arena in a specific geographical area in a specific socio-historic context of capitalism in this particular late stage of its terminal crisis of realization. Indeed the special oppression of national minorities in this period is a reflection of the inability of capitalism to absorb their members into the economic mainstream, to fully proletarianize them. In the case of Blacks, this reality, combined with the fierce racial-cultural hatred of Black people by the white ruling class (and their lackeys in the Ku Klux Klan and other rightwing organizations) makes for special oppression of devastating proportions. This makes it all the more important to understand and support unconditionally the right of self determination of Black people and their right to organize for liberation in the organizational forms they choose. To deny this right is the equivalent of denying the right of other workers to organize trade unions as a defense against naked exploitation by the bosses. At the same time, socialists can no more support the backward political perspective of a particular separatist organization than they can support the backward sellout politic of business unionism.
A critical distinction must be made between the (strategic) right to self-determination and the (tactical) correctness in a particular concrete historical situation of a given expression of that right or of pursuing self-determination at all as a plan of action. Making this distinction requires, in order unconditionally to defend the right to self-determination, an absolute commitment to proletarian internationalism. Anything less can produce disastrous failures of perception with even more disastrous consequences for working and poor people the world over. A case in point is China’s not perceiving, or not wishing to perceive, that conditions in Africa and elsewhere have reached the point where national liberation struggles are explicitly socialist. This has consistently left China pandering to backward, often CIA-supported, forces in Africa while the people fight most vigorously for socialism.
Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, demanded that communists at all times and in every way place the interests of the entire working class foremost. This is not an invitation to ultra-leftism. Rather, it is a demand, among other things, to engage tactically the organizations of specially oppressed groupings in such a way that recognizes both their unconditional right to self-determination and simultaneously demands that that right be expressed in a way which is consistent with the needs of the entire working class (including its most oppressed members) to overthrow and put an end to all exploitation and oppression.
1. Hinman, Lou, “Capitalism’s Final Crisis-What the Politicians Won’t Tell You About the U.S. Economy,” United Struggle Press, 1980.
2. Stalin, Joseph, “Marxism and the National Question” (1913), found in Stalin, Joseph, Marxism and the National-Colonial Question, Proletarian Publishers, 1975 Ed., p.22.