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To Achieve Black Liberation, Class Independence Is Key

A united, working-class party fighting oppression is our only hope for Black liberation.

Tristan Taylor

February 29, 2024
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Black UAW workers, a black-and-white image, holding signs that say "UAW ON STRIKE."

Since Emancipation, the issue of Black political representation has been an important one, especially after the defeat of Radical Reconstruction by the reactionary Jim Crow regime, which took away the right to vote for Black people. Black people still face disenfranchisement and voter suppression. A greater issue still is the fact that U.S. electoral politics is a profoundly undemocratic two-party system dominated by the Republicans and Democrats, one that thwarts any chance for the working class and oppressed to build their own political parties.

For Black people, both parties, using different strategies, have tried to stop the fight for our full emancipation. The Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and abolitionism, became a party that not only accepted Jim Crow in the South but would later openly defend it. The Democrats, previously the party of the slave owners in the South, became the liberal party and the party of civil rights. This change in the Democratic Party didn’t happen due to some great moral restructuring of the party, but as a way to pacify the class struggle of workers and Black people for their rights. For example, the Democrats passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 not out of moral convictions, or even to win elections (Johnson said they would lose the South for a generation if they passed the bill, which is exactly what happened), but under pressure from the civil rights movement and growing urban rebellions, like the 1963 Watts rebellion in Los Angeles. By giving this important concession, they hoped to tamp down the growing militancy and anger in the Black community and build enough credibility to absorb the movement.

The Democratic Party continues to enjoy large influence over Black voters, but not because the party has been a consistent champion of civil rights. It is the racism of the Republican Party, and the absence of a political alternative, that explain this large influence. Today, however, growing dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party has put the Republican Party — and Trump in particular — in a position of winning growing support from Black voters.

The Washington Post published an article on February 26 entitled “Republicans See Improvement with Black Voters despite Themselves.” The article mentions that “the margin by which Black and Hispanic Americans prefer Democrats has shrunk since 2020.” It also mentions that under Trump, unemployment among Black people reached a historic low.

Trump has retained enthusiastic and strong loyalty in the base of the Republican Party. Despite facing multiple charges and federal indictments, he breezed through the Republican primaries, beating other presidential nominees by a commanding margin. His political style is a right-wing populism that uses his long years as a “celebrity” and as “aspirational” symbol of capitalist success. And it isn’t just white people who are inspired to be Trump. There are more than a few rap songs with lyrics showing admiration of Trump over the decades. Trump even has an ardent support in a famous rap artist, Kodak Black, and for a moment Kanye West.

Thanks to his populist style, Trump has a strong reach with precarious workers, which extends to even some Black precarious workers and immigrants. After all, he did call Biden out on his support for the 1994 crime bill and the mass incarceration, even mentioning that Biden referred to Black people as “super predators.” While Trump greatly exaggerated about “saving” HBCUs, Inside Higher Ed noted that “the White House and the U.S. Department of Education can make legitimate points when touting their support for the sector.”

Of course, Trump’s policies and rhetoric show that he isn’t a positive alternative for Black people. He showed complete disregard for Black liberation and Black lives during 2020, quickly mobilizing the National Guard against the Black Lives Matter protests, and said that “the shooting starts when the looting starts.” He wanted to “restore patriotic education” and referred to teaching about racism as a form of “child abuse.”

Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election — which included organizing supporters to intimidate Black poll workers in places like Detroit — shows his willingness to disenfranchise Black people. Trump is not only a dead end for Black people but a political threat to our rights and our lives. This has many Black people worried about another Trump presidency.

The Democrats hope to use the threat that Trump represents to help drive Black people to the polls for Biden in November. In doing this, they face a challenge: disavowing the fact that they have been a threat to the lives and rights of Black people, particularly in urban cities largely controlled and run by Democrats. These politicians often spearhead initiatives that lead to gentrification and displacement of long-term Black residents. They have championed increased police funding, and have even thwarted efforts for more police accountability. They were often the ones directly responsible for repressing protests against police brutality.

One strength of the Black Lives Matter Movement of 2020 is that it awakened not only the Black community but the entire nation against police brutality. Thousands of young people of different races, led by Black youth, radicalized their slogans, demanding the defunding and even the abolition of the police. In response to the fear that the masses would become radicalized and that the working class would take the BLM struggle into their hands, the U.S. regime had to put Derek Chauvin on trial. At the same time, the Democratic Party’s urban leaders  enacted a policy of police and state repression against the vanguard sectors who stayed in the streets after Chauvin was put on trial.

In essence, the U.S. regime and the Democratic Party employed a “carrot and the stick” policy to limit the process of mass radicalization.

As part of this strategy, the Democratic Party sought to appeal to the conservative elements of the Black community, with former president Barack Obama leading the charge. While acknowledging the righteous anger of the movement, Obama openly opposed the demands to defund and abolish the police. Furthermore, he emphasized the need to “protest and vote,” emphasizing the idea that real change occurs only at the ballot box. He also argued that Democrats ought to focus on the economy and move away from making trans rights and the fight against oppression their main campaign issues. This was an effort to win more conservative, suburban voters, but also Black middle-class and precarious voters who are socially conservative.

Trump has appealed to that conservatism too, and has even been able to hold court with left-wing union bureaucrats like Teamsters’ president Sean O’Brien, illustrating his connection to sectors of the working class, including its most precarious sectors. This should be a red flag for the labor movement, since Trump’s program includes harsh cutbacks and deregulation efforts that put “America first” by competing with low-wage workers in other countries. The only way to do that is by lowering workers’ standard of living, which Trump is more than happy to do. Trump failed to offer support to the Teamsters contract fight at UPS, or the UAW strike. He even spoke to a nonunionized factory during the UAW strike as part of his “pitch” to the UAW.

It is simply criminal for O’Brien to consider supporting such a reactionary politician, and his efforts only open up space for reactionary ideology to flourish in the labor movement.

At the same time, UAW president Shawn Fain’s endorsement of Biden is no better, especially since the endorsement cuts at the support for a ceasefire that the UAW executive board passed. To overlook the genocidal policies that Biden is supporting — especially in the aftermath of the 100,000 uncommitted votes in the Michigan Democratic primary — is giving up an important opportunity for the labor movement to maintain a strong connection with Arab workers inside and outside of the union, as well as the movement in solidarity with Palestine.

Still, the threat Republicans and the Far Right pose is real, which is one reason this election cycle is void of hope and excitement, especially among Black people and youth. Another reason is that Trump’s organized social base, the MAGA movement, is anti-Black and ardently defends the police. Far-right groups like the proto-fascist Proud Boys and “alt-right” leaders like Richard Spencer openly supported and campaigned for Trump.

In this context, what are Black people to do? The “obvious” answer would be to build a third political party that represents us, but there are political — as well as legal — obstacles that make this difficult. The United States is a bipartisan regime in which the Democrats and Republicans have maintained a stranglehold on electoral politics for over 100 years. Both parties have created laws that make it extremely difficult for third parties to exist. In fact, both parties conspire with each other from time to time to ensure third-party candidates don’t get ballot access.

To begin things, it has to be stated that Black people’s greatest gains were not won through the ballot box but through struggle in the streets, our communities, and our workplaces. That will remain true. Elections have never stopped the threat of the Far Right, and the 50 years of Jim Crow that followed the end of Radical Reconstruction is a particularly important example of that. So is the more recent example of Trumpism. Biden’s winning the elections did not defeat Trumpism. In fact, Trump is stronger and has amassed even more control of the Republican Party; in South Carolina, four out of 10 Republicans consider themselves part of the MAGA movement. The political party we need has to recognize these kinds of truths. That means it will seek to use elections to build class struggle and social movements, instead of using class struggle and social movements to win elections, as the Democrats do (this is co-optation).

We also need a party that understands that Black liberation, and the threat that liberals and the Far Right pose to that fight, have to be combated with anti-capitalist and socialist politics, since it is capitalism that created and maintains anti-Black racism. The material basis of this fact derives from the Transatlantic slave trade, which is the source of anti-Black racism, and the large source of wealth of European colonial empires.

The chattel slavery of the Transatlantic slave trade was a particularly brutal form of slavery that became exclusively reserved for Black people. Colonial powers in Europe, like Portugal and Spain, were in great need for laborers to extract wealth from their newfound colonies. They found Africans, who had the farming techniques they were seeking to build massive plantations that produced sugar, rice, and cotton to be an essential source of labor.

C. L. R. James, a Black Trotskyist and Marxists, wrote in “The Revolution and the Negro” that the “basis of bourgeois wealth was the slave trade and the slave plantations in the colonies. Let there be no mistake about this.”

Even after slavery, anti-Black racism proved essential, because it both helped divide the working class and allowed for deeper forms of exploitation. Leaders and thinkers of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s grappled with this reality.

Many of the Black Power movement’s leaders were civil rights activists who drew radical conclusions from their own experiences. Many turned to socialism because they believed that capitalism was beyond reform. Unfortunately, the consequences of McCarthyism meant that these activists either had a hard time connecting to previous revolutionary traditions or that those who carried that tradition on essentially abandoned it in response to the reactionary and conservative periods of the 1940s and 1950s.

To speak briefly about the 1940s and 1950s: it was a historical period that saw the strong revolutionary tradition of the working class and oppressed weakened and repressed by the state. In response to the explosive economic growth following WWII, many revolutionaries either succumbed to reformism, were greatly impacted by the reformism of this period, or faced intense levels of state repression and ostracism. The working class was made docile by the union bureaucracy, who agreed to contracts that exacerbated the inequality between white and Black workers, and huge sectors of white workers openly embraced reactionary and racist ideology. In this context, the civil rights movement and the social movements that followed it were incredibly important to challenging this conservative and reactionary period of U.S. history.

In trying to grapple with the social and political weight of Black struggle, some leaders — like Eldridge Cleaver and James Boggs — tried to theorize Black people as an oppressed group being the “revolutionary subject,” meaning that we were the ones who were going to usher in revolutionary change and transformation.

These theories rightly recognized the revolutionary nature of the struggle for Black liberation and revolutionary courage and sacrifice Black people displayed in our struggles for freedom. Though these theories were either too generalized, and did not deal with the fact that Black people are a multiclass group (albeit with a large sector being working class and unemployed) or specifically looked to the most precarious and unstable elements because they thought all other sectors were too bought off from capitalism. To their credit, they were grappling with a complex question, and had to fight against the economist tendencies within the Marxist movement, whose adherents believed that fighting exclusively around workers issues was enough to win people to recognize the need to overthrow capitalism.

What these theories were missing was a deeper and more concrete analysis with Black people’s relationship to labor, and how we were important sectors of the working-class — beginning as slaves, and continuing as manufacturing, logistics, and service industry workers, etc. — and is at the basis of the revolutionary character of Black struggle.

Going back to C. L. R. James and his article “The Revolution and the Negro,” he confirms the historical revolutionary role Black workers have played in history, seeing the struggle of slaves in Haiti and the U.S. as part of the revolutionary tradition of the working class. He points out how important Black people were in the struggle to defeat feudalism, the main economic system that predated capitalism, largely based on peasant farmers who either owned the land or rented it from a feudal Lord. James makes clear that the social weight we carried in that struggle exists in the fight against capitalism as well.

Coming back to the present, the limits of the movement in 2020 are bound with the absence of a strategic orientation toward the working class. Many workers participated in the protests and sought to contribute all they could to the movement. There were even limited, but important, work actions in solidarity with BLM, like the national work stoppage at SEIU and the one day strike of the ILWU in Oakland, California. The movement could have been the site of mass assemblies democratically controlled and run by the movement itself, in which collective discussion and decisions happened. These assemblies could have been a place where workers who were part of the movement could have organized themselves to take action at their workplaces alongside the movement. A key ingredient was missing, though: a revolutionary Left with a perspective of workers’ hegemony based on self-organization, which could have united the working class and oppressed and strengthened the independent character of the movement.

For revolutionary socialists, we have to take this experience to heart and recognize the strategic importance of institutions of self-organization, i.e., organizations created by the movement and run from below. The idea of workers’ hegemony is a key component of this perspective.

While Black people are a multiclass group, the vast majority of us are part of the working class, which includes the unemployed. Recently, the labor movement has shown its capacity to unite workers of different races, ethnicities, genders, and sexualities.

Recent examples include the UAW Big Three Strike, UPS Contract Fight, the creation of the Amazon Labors Union (ALU), and the organizing work of Starbucks Workers United. In all these examples, the issue of precarious workers played a prominent role in the struggle these unions put forward.

In an interview with Left Voice, Juan Dal Maso, a national leader of the PTS in Argentina, about his book Hegemony and Class Struggle: Trotsky, Gramsci, and Marxism, put forward an idea of workers’ hegemony, one that goes beyond identity politics and economicism. Dal Maso points out that, 

by re-examining the question of hegemony in Marxist terms, we can once again put forward the centrality of the working-class as a revolutionary subject. This in turn means taking up the demands of other social sectors affected by capitalism, both from the point of view of economic transformations and from the perspective of rights associated with matters of race, ethnicity, and gender.

The way Leticia Parks, a national Black leader of the MRT in Brazil, raises the question of workers’ hegemony in a rousing and politically rich greeting that was sent to Left Voice’s first national Congress, was that “we cannot be mere trade unionists or career politicians. We believe in more than a bill of rights and we cannot accept that our class must fight on separate days, ignoring the lack of rights of Mexicans, Colombians, Black people, [and] migrants.”

Black people can do more than despair about our future and the upcoming elections. Instead, we should begin a process of discussion and debate around what type of program a working class party that takes up the fight for Black liberation looks like. Left Voice has a draft program to begin that discussion, and we think it is important to build spaces and meetings to discuss what it will take to build the type of political alternative that we need.

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