Black nationalism and American Marxism

Max Sawicky sawicky at
Fri Jun 26 08:31:01 PDT 1998

Thanks for the illuminating treatise, Louis. I'm going to zero in on just a few parts.

There's no question that nationalism(s) have played an important and often positive role in class politics. We don't need to debate that straw man. Just as I wouldn't go before a group of white workers tut-tutting about racism, so I wouldn't dream of scolding blacks for nationalist leanings. Obvious to anyone with any political experience is that a nationalist-leaning black is more susceptible to class politics than the average Joe or Jane. Less obvious is that this would also be true of 'angry white guys.' One of my favorite polling results is from 1972, when it was found that for many white voters whose preference was for either George Wallace or George McGovern, the other was their second choice.

> . . .
> doctrinaire. One of the primary facts of American political life is that
> black nationalism has had an enduring presence in the black
> community since
> the days of Marcus Garvey to the present era of Louis Farrakhan. Marxists
> . . .

As you can appreciate, there are very different types of nationalism.

> . . .
> Writing for the party majority, McKinney put forward the classic
> "black-white unity" position of American socialism directly opposed to
> James's embrace of black nationalism:
> "The white worker must take the lead and offensive in the struggle for the
> Negro's democratic rights...The white workers are strongly organized, they
> . . .

This error is your cross to bear, not mine. I certainly don't buy it. It's perfectly plausible that a mass strike could begin as a black-only affair. Any such uprising begins with some particular circumstance that is wholly disproportionate to the ultimate conflict, not unlike the assassination of the Archduke "causing" World War I.

> . . .
> CLR James developed his position on black nationalism in 1943 against a
> backdrop of deepening racial polarization and violence. . . .

Though we are well short of liberation, the situation of minorities is much different today than in 1943. To some extent, you're locked in a position that has been historically superceded. This also goes to your later statements that the anti-racist struggle is inherently anti-capitalist, since capitalism cannot abide an end to institutional racism.

This last is much like left statements to the effect that capitalism cannot abide national health insurance, a higher minimum wage, etc. etc. These statements have never, in my view, been supported by any convincing economic analysis. The implication is that the system is always on the razor's edge of profitability, that mass bankruptcy and chaos result if the working class wins any concessions. The system is much more flexible than that, not because it is virtuous, but because capital is not monolithic. We can't know what limits exist before the fact. The only way to know is to push against them, in confidence that the process will educate people in superior alternatives.

> . . .
> The idea that black people should not wait for the white working-class to
> come to their aid, but that they should take initiatives on their own
> behalf, is at the core of black nationalism. . . .

This is the most telling statement you make. If self-defense is the core, then the ideology really is superfluous (at best). One need not be any sort of nationalist to support the idea of self-defense. And nobody in the world, not even the dumbest SWPer you can find, ever said black people "should wait for the white working-class to come to their aid." The most benighted white worker understands the morality of defending one's home or neighborhood in the absence of proper protection by the authorities.

I'd propose an alternative idea of positive nationalism, which follows from much of your post: within the working class are groups with much in common (both good and bad) which facilitates separate organization in initial stages, but such organizations' viability depends entirely on their amenability to linking up with the rest of the working class on a class basis. At the same time, the viability of such coalescing depends on others recognizing the problems unique to the separately-organized group. Maybe we don't disagree all that much.


More information about the lbo-talk mailing list