|Afro-Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James|
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 offer—according 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 unavoidable—one 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 work—in 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|
"...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 this—they 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.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.
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.
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 today—as in the 1940s—is 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|
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|