Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Trotskyist Tradition and Black Liberation

Afro-Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James
A commonplace caricature of Marxism teaches us that Marxists are crude class-reductionists who have nothing interesting to add to the understanding of (or the struggle to overthrow) the oppression of Black people (or any other oppressed group for that matter). To be sure, it's quite true that some self-proclaimed "Marxists" have endorsed colorblind, and even racist views. Indeed, as is well-known, the majority of the Second International socialist partiesthe "Marxist" German Social Democratic Party includeddefended chauvinism, nationalism and imperialist war when WWI broke out. Then there's the legacy of Stalinism and its offshoots. It is undeniable that there have been people with terrible views who have called themselves Marxists.

But all this shows is that the Marxist tradition is, like any tradition worth engaging with, a contested one. It would be nothing but unthinking Cold War slander to paint the whole tradition with one brush, for this overlooks and ignores the sharp debates and disagreements within the tradition itself. To be a Marxist today is to stand for the best that the tradition has to offeraccording to some view about what "best" means. It means putting some view forward about what's essential to Marxism, about what the "real" Marxist tradition is. That is unavoidableone cannot stand for everything that has claimed the mantle of Marxism for that would mean embracing an incoherent jumble of opposed views.

Still, while it is important to acknowledge the presence of colorblindness and even outright racism within the Marxist tradition, it is nonetheless important not to make it sound as if the tradition has mostly been on the wrong side of such questions. That is not so, and to insinuate that it is would be to concede too much to the caricature of Marxism that many endorse today.

Whatever its faults, the Stalinist line in the 1930s embodied in the political work of the Communist Party of the United States, was that Black people constituted an oppressed, colonized nation which stood in need of national self-determination. The CP took this line seriously and fought against racial oppression and did some remarkable political workin spite of its top-down organizational structure and awful political line on other matters. Likewise, Maoism in the United States should be criticized for many things, but (in general) ignoring the oppression of Black people and colonized peoples is not one of them. What this shows is that there is a rich tradition within Marxism of rigorous theorizing about racial oppression and a long track record of waging a fierce fight against it.

The Trotskyist tradition within Marxism is no exception. This tradition has some of the sharpest and most nuanced treatments of the question of Black liberation in the United States. It's uncompromising internationalism and defense of socialism from below is one of the reasons for its continuing vitality. Let's glance at a handful of important interventions that document some of the early ideas about Black liberation in the Trotskyist tradition.

The first we'll examine comes from some of Leon Trotsky writings on Black Nationalism from the early 1930s. Trotsky criticizes the Stalinist line that Black people in the US constitute an oppressed nation who, in order to be fully liberated, need to win their own separate nation on the basis of self-determination. His complaint is, first of all, that this line is abstract and paternalistic. Whether it make sense to frame liberation in terms of "national self-determination" depends on what it is that Black people themselves want and are willing to struggle for. As Trotsky puts it:
"We do, of course, not obligate the Negroes to become a nation; if they are, then that is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they desire and what they strive for. We say: If the Negroes want that then we must fight against imperialism to the last drop of blood, so that they gain the right, wherever and how they please, to separate a piece of land for themselves. The fact that they are today not a majority in any state does not matter. It is not a question of the authority of the states but of the Negroes."
If Black people themselves stand up and demand national liberation, then that is what socialists should help fight for. But the role of socialists isn't to demand that Black people form their own separate nation. Whether that makes sense is a question of Black consciousness, levels of struggle and, most importantly, what the masses of Black people themselves demand.

Mugshot of a young Leon Trotsky
 Trotsky also argues that:
"...today 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. When the Negro workers today unite with their own petty bourgeois that is because they are not yet sufficiently developed to defend their elementary rights. To the workers in the Southern states the liberal demand for ‘social, political and economic equality’ would undoubtedly mean progress..."
This flies in the face of the claim that Marxism, as such, denies that white workers play a direct role in the oppression of other workers. It denies no such thing. Neither does it deny that some working men play a direct role in oppressing women. The claims to the effect that intra-working class oppression benefits the ruling class do not negate thisthey merely set it in context and show an important social function that oppression plays. Marxists are interested not merely in describing who does what to whom, but in understanding how social relations function within the system.

Trotsky also explicitly denounces colorblindness:
The argument that the slogan for ‘self-determination’ [for Black people] leads away from the class basis is an adaptation to the ideology of the white workers. The Negro can be developed to a class standpoint only when the white worker is educated. On the whole the question of the colonial people is in the first instance a question of the development of the metropolitan worker.
Trotsky's argument is that solidarity in the struggle against the ruling class is only possible on the condition that white workers reject racism and enlist themselves actively in the fight against racial oppression. To say that the struggle against racial oppression distracts from class, says Trotsky, is a concession to the racism of some working class whites. There is much more to say about this interesting document, but this should suffice to undermine the common misconception that Marxists have (traditionally) had nothing to add to the understanding of Black oppression. On the contrary, Trotsky's incisive contributions to these debates are still important today.

Another interesting document from the Trotskyist tradition is CLR James's "The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States" (1948). James, one of the most important Marxist theorists of the 20th century, is perhaps best known for his monumental work on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. Here is a representative quotation from James's resolution that gives you a sense of the basic line he defended on racial oppression:
We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.

We say, number two, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.

We say, number three, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.
This piece, written in 1948, proved to be remarkably prescient. The "Civil Rights Movement" proved to have a powerful influence upon progressive struggles of all kinds. It rejuvenated an ailing Left recovering from the lacerations of McCarthyism and gave inspiration and impetus to struggles as diverse as the Women's Liberation movement as well as the American Indian Movement.

To be sure, James wrote this document in an effort to distinguish the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) line from others on the Left. There was someone to argue with, which implies that James's line was by no means universally accepted across the broader Marxist Left.

But, as I said above, to be a Marxist todayas in the 1940sis not to try to redeem everything that everyone who ever called themselves a Marxist did or said. Such a project would make little sense. To be a Marxist today is to stand for the best that the tradition has to offer.

First edition of Lenin's Imperialism
We've taken a look at what Trotsky and James had to say about racial oppression and black liberation. But there are many other important works on these topics in the Trotskyist tradition, broadly construed. Lenin's theory of imperialism, for example, was a huge contribution to the Marxist tradition and was (and continues to be) the best basic framework for understanding colonial domination, neo-colonial practices, war, the exploitation of people in the global South, and so on---all of which are central understanding modern racism. Lenin's text was a fierce polemic against the positively awful politics of those so-called "Marxists" who chose to support their "own" national governments in inter-imperialist struggles. It was this analysis of imperialism that paved the way for a new international---the Third, specifically Communist International---that decisively broke with the nationalist, reformist and Euro-centrism of the Second International.

It's hard to overstate the importance the theory of imperialism has had for anti-colonial and self-determination struggles in what was called the "Third World". Inasmuch as the rise of modern racism is linked to slavery and colonial expansion, the Marxist theory of imperialism has been a massive contribution to the struggle for the liberation of non-white peoples all over the world. Lenin's views on self-determination and colonialism are also important and enduring for those thinking through the dialectics of black liberation today.

In a similar fashion, Trotsky's theories of uneven/combined development and permanent revolution are also important to making sense of the complex, global nature of modern racism. With a wooden, linear "stagist" version of Marxism in hand---such as that adopted by some Second International socialists and, later, by Stalinists---one comes dangerously close to "classic" apologies for colonialism by Europeans (e.g. such and such people are not yet "ready" and need to go through a definite stage of capitalist development which we will provide from above, etc.).

This "stagist" interpretation of history entails that oppressed colonial and semi-colonial peoples must first undergo a classic bourgeois revolution, followed by a lengthy period of capitalist development, at which point then---and only then---will they be "mature" enough to take control of their own destiny through socialist revolution. Trotsky breaks completely with this mechanical schema. In giving a dialectical analysis of international relations and their combined and uneven development paths, Trotsky paved the way for thinking critically about how to relate working class struggles in the highly developed capitalist nations to the emancipatory struggles of poor peasants and workers in oppressed, colonial and semi-colonial nations.

Anti-colonial militants during the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya
His analysis has been less influential than Lenin's work on imperialism among contemporary thinkers working in the area generally known as "post colonial studies". But it is surely true that the (relative) marginalization of Trotsky's approach here follows from the general marginalization of Trotskyism worldwide during the period of white-hot anti-colonial struggle in the 60s. Still, be that as it may, the theory of combined and uneven development (and permanent revolution) have been one of many ways of developing the core of Marxism to adequately address questions of national oppression, colonialism and its afterlives, imperialist competition and north/south relations, or what some Marxists would call core/periphery relations. To the extent that the black freedom struggle in the US takes on a stridently internationalist character each time struggle reaches a fever pitch, Trotsky's theories of global capitalist development merit consideration as contributions to the project of Black liberation.


herrnaphta said...

Thanks for this. Also worth looking at from the Trotskyist tradition:

James Cannon on the Russian Revolution and the Black Freedom Struggle - https://epress.anu.edu.au/archive/cannon/works/1959/black.htm

The American Socialist (Cochranites) archives and their coverage of the civil rights struggle - http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/amersocialist/american_socialist.htm

Shachtman on self-determination and civil rights - http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/359

t said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I haven't read any of these, but I'm eager to take a look.

Binh said...

The real question is why the Stalinists accomplished so much more than the Trotskyists despite the latter's alleged theoretical superiority.

t said...

I find it unhelpful to ask the question in this suggestive yet highly abstract way.

Everyone on the Left interested in fighting racial oppression today should take seriously the good work the CP did in the 1930s. We should read Hammer and Hoe, Communists in Harlem During the Depression, and Red Chicago. But we should also be sober about the CP's mistakes. We should be perfectly willing to criticize their line and their tactics.

One thing to say in reply to your question is so obvious that you must surely already know it. The Early Trotskyists were marginalized, slandered and murdered by Stalinists. The CP, on the other hand, could piggy-back on the prestige of the october revolution and claim a link to the Comintern. in the 1930s the CP was a mass party with tens of thousands of members, lots of resources and serious influence in the working class. That's why they were more effective than the small bands of Trotskyists who had been expelled in the 20s. Objectively speaking, the early Trots were in no position to be any more influential than they were. To blame this on their subjective failings is to attribute more power to them than they actually had to effect change. "Theoretical superiority" had virtually nothing to do with whether or not they had more pull in the 30s.

Nobody except a few irrelevant seclets thinks that "theoretical superiority" is the sole factor in political success. This tendency has been widely criticized (see, e.g. Duncan Hallas's 1970s piece "Trotskyism Reassessed"). What matters is what a group is doing on the ground, how they relate to existing struggles, how they interact with people and how they speak to the concerns of oppressed peoples.

That does require a clear political line--maybe you disagree but I don't think leading with the "black belt" analysis today is the best way to advance the struggle or win new recruits to the cause of black liberation. But having the right line, all by itself, is not worth much. I don't see why we can't both criticize Stalinism and learn from the practical successes that the CP had during the 1930s.

Binh said...

"Early Trotskyists were marginalized, slandered and murdered by Stalinists. The CP, on the other hand, could piggy-back on the prestige of the october revolution and claim a link to the Comintern. in the 1930s the CP was a mass party with tens of thousands of members, lots of resources and serious influence in the working class. That's why they were more effective than the small bands of Trotskyists who had been expelled in the 20s."

If this really is the explanation for why the Trotskyist tradition's contribution to Black liberation are wholly theoretical it begs the question: why haven't Trotskyists been able to create, lead, or become a mass parties able to win important fights against racism in the absence of all the above-named factors that allegedly made Trotskyism's success in the 1930s impossible?

t said...

You've now changed the subject. Before you were asking why the CP had more success in the 30s and now you're asking why later Trotskyists weren't more effective later on--presumably from the period after WWII to the present. You and I both know that's a complex question. I recommend the following two essays (which I assume you've read, but at any rate my views are more or less the same as those expressed in them):



Arvilla said...

Hey, yeah, and if socialism is supposedly so much better than capitalism, why isn't the world socialist by now?