Black nationalism and the labor movement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Nov 24 12:08:43 MST 1999

Published by H-Labor at (October, 1999)

Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin. _Detroit:  I Do Mind Dying, A Study in
Urban Revolution_. Updated Edition.  Cambridge: South End Press, 1998. x +
254 pp. Includes annotated bibliography, filmography and index.  $18.00
(paper), ISBN: 0-89608-571-6.

Reviewed for H-Labor by Karen Miller <enzyme at>, University of

In 1998, 23 years after its original publication, South End Press reissued
Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin's _Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, A Study in
Urban Revolution_.  Georgakas and Surkin's book focuses on black labor
radicalism in Detroit from 1967-1974, examining the League of
Revolutionary Black Workers and the cadre of black revolutionaries that
worked at its core.  _Detroit: I Do Mind Dying_ remains one of the few
monographs to take black labor radicalism seriously.  Having been out of
print for a number of years, its republication adds immeasurably to the
literature on Black Power, Detroit history, labor history and the history
of the Left.  At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, the insights
offered by the League--and discussed by Georgakas and Surkin--about
capitalism, labor organizing, racism, solidarity and working class power
remain as urgent and relevant today as they were in the 1970s.

This "updated" edition includes a new forward by Manning Marable, a new
preface by the authors and two new chapters at the end of the book.
Otherwise, the authors only revised typos and technical mistakes that were
in the original.  Thus, as Georgakas and Surkin observe, the power of the
new edition lies in its preservation of the tone, perspective and tempo of
the 1975 study, not in new analyses, or a new historical perspective.

_Detroit: I Do Mind Dying_ examines the activities, perspectives and
changing formations of the cadre of black revolutionaries that worked at
the core of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.  It describes their
experiences in the League, leading up to the League's formation and
proceeding its disillusion.  Georgakas and Surkin move back and forth
between projects and organizations that members of the League participated
in or spearheaded, discussing the relevance of each project to the larger
organization and examining the theoretical and political underpinnings of
League activities and decisions.

The first project that they examine is the _Inner City Voice_ (ICV), a
black revolutionary paper inspired by Detroit's 1967 "rebellion."  Where
other underground papers offered readers the kind of yellow journalism
that exposed injustice, the authors argue, the _ICV_ provided its audience
with an agenda for revolutionary action that was connected to mass
political education. At the same time, the _ICV_ used its resources to
organize workers.  They hosted activist meetings in their offices,
maintained contacts and organizers inside plants, and educated workers
about the relationship between their struggles and racism in the rest of
the city.

Soon after the _ICV_ was established, one member of the informal
action/study group that produced the _ICV_, John Watson, became the editor
of the _South End_, Wayne State University's daily student newspaper.
Watson turned the _South End_ into "the voice of the de facto radical
united front" on campus and used the paper itself as an organizing tool
for struggles all over the city.  Often, Watson sent the majority of the
10,000-copy print run to his comrades to distribute at schools, hospitals
or factories.

A number of _ICV_ activists were also key players in the formation of
DRUM, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement at the Hamtramck Assembly
plant.  Organized by black activists in and outside the plant, DRUM
confronted Chrysler about unsafe working conditions, mandatory overtime,
and racist practices, concerns that the United Auto Workers had channeled
into its bureaucratic and ineffective grievance procedure.  Thus, at the
same time that DRUM activists organized against the company, they also
fought against an unresponsive union that prioritized peaceful relations
with management over its members' needs.  DRUM was more than just "an
angry caucus of rank-and-file workers;" it was an organization that
offered black workers a critique of white corporate power at the same time
that it confronted management.  Further, and perhaps more importantly,
DRUM connected black workers' experiences with racism in the city to their
grievances inside of the plant, inspiring black workers to participate in
militant action and develop a larger critique of American society.

DRUM's demands, the authors suggest, were more challenging to the status
quo than concerns about guaranteed pensions or annual cost-of-living
adjustments--preoccupations of the mainstream union movement. In fact,
DRUM was unsatisfied with the "labor peace" the UAW regularly brokered
with the Big Three--an implicit agreement that the union would manage the
workforce as long as workers received incremental improvements in their
wages, benefits and job security. DRUM activists were not interested in
managing workers for capitalists.  They were interested in revolution.

In May, 1968, in response to a speed-up, 4,000 black and white workers
shut down the Hamtramck Assembly Plant in a massive wildcat strike
organized by DRUM members.  This action was the culmination of months of
organizing and also represented the high point of DRUM activity. DRUM's
successes encouraged black workers in other factories to create their own
RUM organizations and also inspired the formation of the League of
Revolutionary Black Workers, designed to organize and support these
dissident black labor organizations.

DRUM activism and the push to establish RUMs in other plants were projects
of the in-plant-organizing arm of the League of Revolutionary Black
Workers.  The League was also involved in organizing outside of
factories--in schools, neighborhoods, and recreation centers.  While some
members pushed for the League to focus its energy on in-plant organizing,
others saw workplace-based activism as one component of a larger
organizing drive toward revolution and worked to expand the League's
support of neighborhood-based organizing.

Georgakas and Surkin clearly take sides in their discussion of the
internal politics of the League, suggesting that those members who wanted
to broaden the scope of the organization to include non-labor activism had
the right idea.  By the middle of 1971, the tensions between those members
of the League who prioritized in-plant organizing, and those who wanted to
broaden the scope of the organization came to a head and the League split
in two: members of the in-plant-organizing faction formed the Communist
League and the the others created the Black Workers' Congress.

The book includes many more rich accounts of League activism, layering a
series of interlocking stories in loosely chronological chapters.  Every
so often it is difficult to follow the chain of events, but this confusion
rarely detracts from the power of the unfolding story.  Georgakas and
Surkin tend to focus more attention on the theoretical debates and
conversations held by League members then they do discussing the
intricacies of organizing.  Sometimes this seems ironic, since they
clearly respect and frequently reiterate the League's ideological and
organizational commitment to activism on the ground.  Furthermore, the
authors' prioritization of the theoretical debates and the most prominent
voices means that the book offers an almost exclusively male picture of
the League.  While the authors do criticize the gender politics of the
League--pointing out that the organization never supported strong women
leaders--they also reproduce the minimization of women's roles by focusing
exclusively on the work done by men.  In fact, few women are discussed in
the book at all.  Those who are mentioned are often identified as wives of
their activist husbands and seldom receive more than a sentence describing
their work.

The authors are also interested in clarifying the differences between
reformism and revolutionary activism and they hold up the League as their
model of a truly revolutionary organization. They wonder aloud about what
defines a revolutionary and about how we, as scholars and activists, can
tell the difference between reformist actions that may look similar on the
surface but share few theoretical underpinnings.  However, Georgakas and
Surkin's distinctions between reformism and revolution remain somewhat
unclear.  For example, they argue that the _ICV_'s "consistent
anti-capitalist analysis transformed articles from simple expressions of
grievances capable of reform to a critique of the entire social order"
(17).  But, they do not explain how this worked.  At the same time, while
their treatment of this sticky and recurrent question remains murky, they
definitely push the question further than most historians, raising a
series of provocative issues.

The tone of the original book contrasts sharply with the two new chapters
the authors added on to the end.  The introduction to the first edition
most clearly positions the authors' original study in mid-1970s
radicalism.  Their conclusions that "the capitalist work ethic has been
discredited," and that "popular doubt about the ability of the dominant
class to govern effectively has become wide spread" reveal their belief at
the time that mass disillusionment with the contradictions of capitalism
was both probable and imminent (6).  More specifically, their tone
suggests that they saw the militancy of the League of Revolutionary Black
Workers as part of a larger trajectory toward a potentially massive, if as
yet unorganized, working-class revolt.  Clearly, the economic and social
transformations that the authors imagined in the mid-1970s remain
unrealized today.  Instead of fragile or tattered, many working class
Americans see global capitalism as inevitable and overpowering.  Rather
than appearing naive, however, the authors' hopeful tone is a refreshing
optimism, derived from their assessment of the power of grassroots
organizing conducted by the League and predictions about its legacy.

In their second-to-last chapter, "Thirty Years Later," the authors discuss
the current state of American capitalism, economic injustice and the
legacy of the League.  "What should disturb all Americans," they write,
"is that the analysis the League's founders offered now applies
increasingly to the nation as a whole."  The tone of this chapter is
different than the original study, since the authors' focus on national
trends instead of local struggles and since their enthusiasm about the
possibilities for change has been muted.  In this section, Detroit serves
as more of a metaphor for urban decline, it is no longer a vibrant city
full of the struggle and activism like the one they describe in their
book.  However, the authors clearly still believe in the power of

For the final chapter, "The Legacy of DRUM: Four Histories," Georgakas and
Surkin invited four Detroiters to write about their experiences and
observations since the heyday of the League.  These activists meditate on
their relationship to the League and on its legacy, both in their lives
and in their city.  The inclusion of two women in this group of
commentators seems like an effort to correct the male-dominated narrative
that the authors presented in their book.  Ultimately, the authors give
one of their commentators the last word, ending their book with a note of
hope: "never before have there been so many Americans who ought to be
natural political allies.  This is a great time to be a revolutionary."

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Louis Proyect
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