History shows Blacks
in vanguard of fights
The following is the 10th in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest book, Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to study and discuss the book. This excerpt is from the chapter “Black Liberation and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Subheading is by the Militant.
BY JACK BARNES
Don’t start with Blacks as an oppressed nationality. Start with the historical record of the vanguard place and weight of workers who are Black—a place and weight disproportionate to their percentage among the toilers in this country—in broad, proletarian-led social and political struggles in the United States.
This goes back to the closing years of the U.S. Civil War and especially to the postwar battle for a radical reconstruction, in which Black toilers provided leadership in substantial parts of the South both to freed slaves and to exploited farmers and workers who were white. It continued in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the labor battles that built the United Mine Workers—at a time when most unions were not only organized along craft lines but either excluded Blacks or segregated them in separate locals. Sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and other rural toilers, both Black and white, waged struggles in the 1920s and through the Great Depression.
Workers who were Black were in the front ranks of key battles that built the CIO industrial unions in the 1930s. They were in the vanguard of working people during World War II who refused to subordinate or postpone struggles for justice in the name of “the patriotic war effort”—fighting discrimination in the war industries, protesting Jim Crow conditions in the armed forces, and demanding (unsuccessfully) that the Roosevelt administration and Democratic dominated Congress pass federal legislation outlawing racist lynchings. They were in the forefront of those who opposed that imperialist war. And many of us at this meeting know firsthand the lasting social and political impact on the working class and labor movement today of the mass civil rights movement and rise of the Black liberation struggle from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s.
We’re not speculating about the future. We’re pointing to a historical record. It’s a matter of fact. It’s a mind-boggling record, it seems to me. It bowls you over when you hear it. The same cannot be said of the big majority of oppressed nations or nationalities in general in other parts of the world. But this is the political record of the largely proletarian Black nationality in the United States. This is its specific political character since the defeat of chattel slavery, the effort to extend the victory in the Civil War throughout the South, and the beginning of the expansion of a modern hereditary proletariat in the United States.
It is this dynamic that Trotsky, already more than seven decades ago, was pointing to when he said it is possible “that the Negroes will become the most advanced section” of the working class, and “will proceed through self-determination to the proletarian dictatorship in a couple of gigantic strides, ahead of the great bloc of white workers.” It was for that reason that he was “absolutely sure that they will in any case fight better than the white workers” on the whole. And it was that same record of struggle that eleven years earlier had led the Communist International to also point out—in its resolution on “The Negro Question” adopted by the 1922 Fourth Congress—that “the history of the Negro in America fits him for an important role in the liberation struggle of the entire African race.” …
Malcolm X’s political trajectory
The SWP and YSA led the way in teaching “the revolutionary youth of this country to tell the difference between the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressor, to teach them to differentiate the forces of liberation from the forces of the exploiters; to teach them to hear the voices of the revolution regardless of the tones they take.” We were well known in the 1960s and 1970s for our political battles on these questions with opponents, including the Communist Party, which at least well into the 1970s dismissed Black nationalism as a “capitulation to racism,” or “racism in reverse.”
Party leaders from my generation, however, as well as Farrell [Dobbs], Joe [Hansen], and many others, believed that Malcolm had thought out, knew exactly what he was saying, and meant it when he said in the Young Socialist interview that he was “reappraising [his] definition of Black nationalism,” that he truthfully no longer believed “we [can] sum up the solution to the problems confronting our people as Black nationalism,” and that he hadn’t been “using the expression for several months” because he didn’t want to erect barriers to collaboration with other revolutionaries “dedicated to overturning the system of exploitation that exists on this earth.” …
Malcolm had become a champion of the socialist revolution in Cuba and of its proletarian internationalist leadership. He hailed the revolutionary government in Algeria headed by Ahmed Ben Bella and other leaders, who openly proclaimed their socialist course and convictions. Malcolm promoted the Militant newspaper and was deepening his political collaboration with the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance, two communist organizations. In fact, the great bulk of the “true revolutionaries” Malcolm admired and worked with were communists: in Cuba, in Algeria, those he sometimes called the “MLFers”—the YSA and SWP. Those are facts.
What is so essential in understanding Malcolm X is that we can see the fact—not the hope, not the faith, the fact—that, in the imperialist epoch, revolutionary leadership on the highest level of political capacity, courage, and integrity converges with communism, not simply toward the communist movement. That truth has even greater weight today as billions around the world, in city and countryside, from China to Nigeria to Brazil, are being hurled into the modern class struggle by the violent expansion of world capitalism. From seeing in life how that process unfolds, we draw confidence in the prospects for world revolution, in the development of a genuinely worldwide proletarian revolutionary leadership.