Manning Marable defends socialism to a young African-American
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Sun Dec 19 20:34:19 MST 1999
Along the Color Line
A Dialogue Between Generations
By Dr. Manning Marable <mm247 at columbia.edu>
Several weeks ago I attended and spoke at a conference on race which was
organized at Stanford University. After delivering my lecture, I walked
down the steps from the stage. Clustered around the steps were several
male and female graduate students. One young black man, about 25 years
old, handsome and confident, began to raise a series of questions. I
quickly apologized, and explained that I had to leave immediately to be
transported by car to the San Jose airport, to catch the red-eye evening
flight back to New York.
The students expressed the desire to continue our conversation on foot,
and would even help carry my suitcase. I agreed. We walked across the
large campus at a quick pace, as I was peppered with queries. The young
black man wanted to know if I still considered myself a democratic
socialist, and if so, why?
I started to talk about the rich tradition of black American leaders and
scholars who publicly identified themselves as "socialists," including
W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Angela Y. Davis, Bayard
Rustin, Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Cornel West. At the end of their
lives, both Malcolm and Martin had increasingly come to believe that
capitalism as a social and economic system could never empower the
overwhelming majority of black people inside this country as well as
"But what makes you think socialism can be relevant or even make sense to
black people, when everywhere its been tried it has failed?" the young
black man asked sincerely. "What socialist societies can serve as
realistic models for us today?"
Well yes, I replied, the concept of socialism has been discredited largely
due to the collapse of Soviet Communism, as well as the retreat of
European Social Democratic Parties into neoliberalism. But despite their
problems, socialist economies did deliver many real benefits, such as free
education, universal health care, low cost housing and pensions, far
better than market societies.
Markets are engines of inequality, I asserted. When a group of people sits
down to play poker, at the end of the game everyone doesn't go home with
more money than they came with. It's a zero-sum game, with winners and
losers. And in a racist society, the economy is designed to insure that
African Americans, Latinos, working class and poor people are almost
always permanent "losers".
"Maybe you're wrong about history," the young black man countered, as we
walked to the parking lot, looking around for the car to take me to the
airport. "Look at the economic prosperity of the 1990s. Even poor people
in the U.S. have a much higher standard of living than anyone in the Third
That fact is of little comfort to the 44 million Americans who don't have
medical insurance, I replied. In 1999, more than 500,000 Americans will go
to hospital emergency rooms and will be turned away because they have no
health insurance. A black man born and raised in Central Harlem has life
expectancy of 49 years of age, lower than many Third World countries. How
can any of this be justified?
"I'm not justifying it," the young man replied. "But there's no
alternative to what is already out there, and the prospects for
fundamental change in the near future are almost nonexistent."
As the car finally pulled up to take me to the airport, I thought for a
moment and then said to the young man: "You're very intelligent, and
clearly committed to progressive ideas. But don't be intimidated by the
power of the system. People united in struggle can make new history."
We all shook hands, and then I stepped into the car. Slowly, through heavy
freeway traffic, we made it to the airport just in time. All along the
way, I thought about the generational divide that now cuts across black
America. Middle-aged African Americans who lived through the Civil Rights
and Black Power movements witnessed fundamental changes in politics and
society. Jim Crow segregation was destroyed; African and Caribbean
countries became independent. Black college enrollments in the U.S. soared
from 200,000 to 1.1 million in only twenty years. The number of black
elected officials rose from only 100 in 1964 to over 10,000 today. We were
convinced that history was on our side.
For the Hip Hop generation, recent black history has been largely a series
of reversals and defeats: the dismantling of affirmative action, the rapid
expansion of prisons and the incarceration of one-third of all young black
men behind bars, prominent cases of police brutality, and economic
marginalization. Even the decade's most significant public event involving
African-American young people, the Million Man March, did not consolidate
the mass outpouring of emotional energy into a strong grassroots network
and a coherent public policy agenda for black empowerment. Louis
Farrakhan's blend of Republican economics, patriarchy and conservative
black nationalism came to represent "black militancy" to many younger
African Americans, who were desperately searching for effective
leadership. Some could not discern the differences between the voices of
black progressivism vs. black reaction. Although many young African
Americans are active in political organizations and movements, others have
become disengaged from struggles within the black community.
Leaders aren't born, they are made. Those of us who may claim the mantle
of experience in the black freedom movement, must listen and learn from
the perspectives of the rising generation of African Americans. Through
dialogues and exchanges, we may find better ways to communicate our
knowledge and cumulative insights to younger people, without imposing our
own assumptions and dogma about social reality.
Only a leadership that learns from the past is capable of articulating a
vision for the future. But each successive generation must find its own
voice, its way of interpreting and understanding the world, in its effort
to change it.
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and
the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies,
Columbia University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge
to over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally.
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