How Phil "Zinoviev" Ferguson would have led the SWP

Richard Fidler rfidler at cyberus.ca
Tue Nov 26 08:27:13 MST 2002


>> I think people who stayed in the sect/cult until very recently also need
to appreciate that some of us who saw through it rather earlier and/or
those who were expelled - eg the class of '83 in the States - are going
to be somewhat suspicious of them and that we are not likely to be
impressed by being lectured at by people who never revolted against the
appalling things which have been done over the past 20 years.  It's easy
to leave the US SWP now that it's finished.  But some of us broke with
that tradition and started again at a time when the relationship of
forces was much more in Barnes' favour. << [Phil Ferguson]

Fred Feldman, who in recent months has made valuable contributions to this
list by, among other things, keeping us informed of developments in
Venezuela and the U.S. antiwar movement, posted a valuable and extremely
interesting account of his own trajectory in the SWP. I consider it a very
credible and completely understandable (to those who wish to understand)
explanation of why he stayed so long, and how difficult it was to resist and
then to leave.

His account, in my opinion, is persuasive proof of a point Fred has made
more than once in this discussion: that no one among those who still
militate in small revolutionary-minded groups can prima facie be written off
as "finished" for all time in revolutionary politics.

I wonder how Phil Ferguson, with his apparent sense of original -- or is it
unredeemable -- sin, his unwillingnesss to judge fellow militants on the
basis of their _present_ views and actions, can hope to be successful in his
regroupment activities if that is the approach he applies. Or is this just
another case of "two weights, two measures"?

I also wonder, in light of all the attacks on "Zinovievism" on this list -
meaning in part misguided intervention from afar in the activities and
programs of revolutionary organizations in other countries - how someone in
New Zealand (who I don't think has ever visited the United States, let alone
lived there) can be so sure that some white guy in Seattle had figured out
the correct orientation to the black question and a host of other issues in
U.S. politics back in the 1950s and '60s, especially when we have a few
decades of subsequent developments to show just how wrong he was.

While Phil goes off to beaver away at his PhD - in history, he says, imagine
that! - some comrades may be interested in a closer look at the ideas of
Phil's SWP doppelganger, Richard Fraser.  The following is from a letter I
wrote to Phil in March 2001.

Fraser, as we know, left the SWP in the mid-1960s. He later gravitated
toward the Spartacists, and the introduction to the book I cite states that
"Comrade Fraser was not only a cherished friend but a theoretical mentor of
the Spartacist League." Now how's that for original sin?

[excerpts from letter follow]

... In particular, I consulted the compendium "In Memoriam Richard S.
Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work" published in 1990 by the
Spartacist League's Promotheus Research Library, which I picked up at the
U.S. Trotskyism conference in NYC last October.

The key pieces on the Black struggle in the Spartacist booklet are "The
Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution" (two talks delivered in 1953)
and Fraser's "Resolution on the Negro Struggle", which he presented to an
SWP convention in 1957. There are also some articles spelling out his
opposition to the SWP's demand that federal troops be sent to the South to
enforce desegregation. The booklet omits Fraser's "For the Materialist
Conception of the Negro Question" because it is available in another
Spartacist League publication. I have that document somewhere in my files,
but unfortunately they are packed away for my impending move, so I did not
consult it recently.

You praised Fraser as "historical, realist and open" in contrast to George
Breitman, whose views you describe as "just a load of dogma". I strongly
disagree.

The Schema

I must acknowledge it is rather jarring, to say the least, to read Fraser's
views almost 50 years after they were developed. Here is an ostensible
Marxist who conflates racism in the United States with segregation and
segregation with capitalist rule and concludes that segregation, or the "Jim
Crow" system, will be overthrown only with the overthrow of capitalism -
even while the capitalist ruling class was moving to abolish segregation,
and did so within 10 years of Fraser's major writings on the Black question
without in any way undermining their own rule (or eliminating racism).

How Fraser arrived at this schema becomes clear, of course, upon examination
of his underlying project. As I understand it, Fraser's main concern was to
purge the race question in the United States of any analogy with the
national question. In his view, treating it as some form of national
question would give race undue stability and permanence. "Any attempt to
classify the Negro question as a caste or national question serves only to
confuse it. For such a classification lends to race relations some of the
stability and historical justification of the centuries of Indian
civilization, or the worldwide development of nations." (p. 35; all page
references are to the Spartacist publication.) This would reinforce
differentiation within the proletariat, and undermine the potential for
united struggle of the working class.

His argument goes roughly like this.

Nations (and hence nationalism) develop only in the process of formation of
states (as in the 19th century in Europe) or in opposition to colonial
oppression based on the domination of a less developed mode of production by
one that is more developed. The U.S. Blacks have no distinct territory of
their own and no language or culture distinct from that of the United States
as a whole. In fact, Black "culture" (jazz, popular art, etc.) is almost
synonymous with "American" culture. So they cannot build a state of their
own, and they are not a colony. The only thing that distinguishes Blacks
from the rest of the U.S. population is their skin colour or "race". But
while the Black struggle against racism may take the form of race
consciousness, its content is fundamentally for integration and
"assimilation" into American society. Nationalist or separatist sentiment
among U.S. blacks is fundamentally reactionary because it represents a
retreat from the perspective of integration and an adaptation to the
segregationist regime imposed by the whites.

Unsupported assumptions

In the course of developing his argument Fraser articulates a number of
assumptions, all of which are false in my opinion.

1. His views on the relationship between segregation and capitalist rule.
Like most Marxists, Fraser traced the roots of segregation and the "Jim
Crow" system to the failure of U.S. capitalism to eradicate the remnants of
chattel slavery. But unlike the SWP majority, he saw the Jim Crow system as
an "integral" part of U.S. capitalism. As he put it in his Resolution on the
Negro Struggle, "a whole social system became organized around the
degradation of the Negro - a system which became an integrated and
indispensable part of the economic, social and political structure of
American capitalism." The capitalists had "proved incapable" of removing the
"survivals of chattel slavery", which he described as "an antiquated system
of land tenure, the absence of democratic rights, segregation and racial
discrimination".

"So these survivals of an antique system of exploitation have become
integrated into the
capitalist structure and form a component part thereof .... Now, when amidst
the decay and death
agony of capitalism, these problems have become integrated into its very
structure, the capitalist
class will positively not prove able to solve them. This circumstance leads
to the inescapable
conclusion that although the tasks of the liberation of the South are of an
elementary democratic
nature, they have no solution within the framework of American capitalism
...." (p. 61)

(Ironically, this argument, by representing Black oppression today as a
direct and ongoing result of the alleged failure to fully eliminate an
inferior mode of production, comes dangerously close to incorporating the
colonial model used by some in other contexts to justify nationalist
demands. Fraser seems to be attempting some sort of gloss on Trotsky's
theory of permanent revolution, arguing that the U.S. bourgeoisie was
incapable of solving some unfinished tasks of the national democratic
revolution.)

2. In Fraser's analysis, anti-Black racism was completely identified with
the existence of segregated social relations, and would disappear with them.
"Without segregation, discrimination and race relations would soon
disappear," he said (p. 34).

"[Racial] prejudice... is the product of the reciprocal relation between
discrimination and segregation. At the foundation of the southern system are
the great economic, political and social advantages which capitalism derives
from color exploitation, and the advantages accruing to a small white middle
class. The principal prop of this system of discrimination is segregation.
Without segregation the racial division of American society is meaningless
and withers away." (p. 47)

However, even while Fraser was articulating these views, the U.S. ruling
class (for its own reasons, of course) was preparing to dump the Jim Crow
system. This shift in strategy was signalled, as we all know, by the Supreme
Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and consummated only
ten years later with the passage of the Civil Rights legislation.
Segregation was ended, but not racism and racial discrimination, still less
capitalism.

Incidentally, Fraser's opposition to the SWP's demand that Washington send
federal troops to Mississippi to enforce school desegregation stemmed
directly from his views on the centrality of segregation to capitalist rule.
In 1956, he wrote: "The real reason that it would be wrong to use this
slogan is to be found in the relationship between the southern social
system, American capitalism and its state .... The nature of the southern
social system and its relation to American capitalism dictate that the army
would play only a reactionary role in the South." And "The government can
indeed claim that it is acting to protect the Negroes, but the logic of
events and indeed the class character of the army will impel it to protect
white supremacy against the Negroes." (pp. 52-53)

3. In his eagerness to differentiate the U.S. race question from the
national question, Fraser identifies racism with segregation so completely
that he articulates a form of "American exceptionalism" and even treats all
manifestations of racism elsewhere in the world as a product of American
influence.

"Race relations in the colonies are derived primarily from the existence of
the race question in America and particularly in the United States." (p. 34)

"Throughout the colonial world we see expressions of racism. However, in
every case they are derivative phenomena dependent upon the American system
of race relations." (p. 36)

"Europe was virtually free of color prejudice until the white American army
began its indoctrination of the `American way'." (p. 50)

I think these formulations grotesquely misrepresent the reality. But I would
be interested in knowing whether and/or how you integrate Fraser's analysis
into your PhD dissertation on "White New Zealand" immigration policies at
the turn of the last century.

And conversely, to drive home his point about the exceptionally "pure" form
of the race issue in the United States (as opposed to any national form),
Fraser argues that even in South Africa, the struggle against apartheid (an
extreme form of segregation) is in "essence" a "national struggle against
colonial oppression" (p. 36).

The separation/assimilation paradigm

The schematism of Fraser's analysis of the objective situation of U.S.
Blacks and the structure of racial oppression is carried over into his
analysis of the forms of consciousness and struggle adopted by Blacks. He
constructs a logical paradigm: While European immigrants were required to
assimilate and become "Americanized", the Blacks (albeit the most
"Americanized" because they had no distinctive culture apart from American
culture) have "been prevented from exercising American citizenship, and thus
are deprived of the right of assimilation .... At every point, the ruling
class has calculated to maintain this factor of racial separation. And
conversely, the basic advances which the Negroes have made through the
entire historical period from the founding of abolitionism in the 1830's to
the present day have been achieved in the struggle against separation, and
essentially for the right of assimilation into American society." (p. 41) To
the degree that the struggle is not for assimilation, but for some form of
separation, it is a retreat and an adaptation to the segregation regime.

This polar differentiation between separation and assimilation colours
Fraser's entire discussion of "race consciousness", which he is at pains to
distinguish at every point from national consciousness.

"Race consciousness among Negroes in the United States is primarily their
consciousness of the desire for equality, and the universal expression of it
is apparent in the militant struggle to achieve this equality. This is at
the root of the every important movement either of the masses or of the
Negro intelligentsia which has arisen during the past twenty-five years. It
is different from the manifestations of race consciousness in the colonial
world, as for instance the anti-white struggle in Kenya unfolding before us.

"The demand for immediate equality has been the cornerstone of the NAACP,
was the premise of the March on Washington Movement, of the movement against
discrimination in industry, on the job and in the labor unions. Above all,
it is the basis of the Negroes' recognition and support of the CIO.

"Thus in contrast to the Africans, where race consciousness inevitably
expresses nationalism, the primary expression of race consciousness by
Negroes in the U.S. is the demand for the right of assimilation into
American society." (pp. 43-44)

Fraser's list of forms of "race pride" is revealing. It may express the
desire to struggle jointly with white workers against the bosses, it may
take the form of sympathy with the colonial peoples, it may take the form of
the "vindication of the history of the darker peoples". But "race pride is
the Negroes' consciousness of equality." It is "another means by which
Negroes justify their demand for full equality in the United States." (p.
44)

What I find most interesting about this limited enumeration is that it
completely overlooks the significance of any shift in consciousness that
expresses a rejection of "American society" (based precisely on its
inability to "assimilate" them) and that seeks some alternative that
represents an attempt to build a different society based on the idea of
Blacks' definition of their own needs and their own institutions. And yet
that is what we saw in fact with a whole layer of Black militants and youth
in the 1960s and 1970s. They drew no such formal distinction between race
consciousness and national consciousness. And why should we as revolutionary
Marxists?

The struggle as it developed during that period encompassed a wide range of
forms and expressions: from "integrationist" demands for "civil rights" and
equality to demands of a relatively nationalist nature around the central
theme of Black control of the Black community. Far from projecting some
dogmatic schema that saw the struggle inevitably and automatically
developing in some nationalist direction, as you allege, the SWP carefully
analyzed (in most cases actively participated in) each manifestation - the
Montgomery bus boycott, Robert Williams' armed self-defence action in
Monroe, N.C., the Southern sit-ins, school desegregation, the marches led by
M.L. King Jr. and his Christian cohorts, the radical evolution of Malcolm X
from nationalism to internationalism, the various efforts to establish Black
political organizations (Freedom Now party, Black Panther Party, etc.), the
ghetto revolts in Newark, Los Angeles, Detroit, etc. And out of this they
developed a "Transitional Program for Black Liberation" that took the
demands and forms of struggle developed in the real movement and tied them
together with a program for socialism (not nationalism).

Fraser's counterposition of integration/assimilation to
separation/nationalism is a false one. I think Tony Thomas expressed this
rather well in his polemic with Harold Cruse, "Leninism, Stalinism and Black
Nationalism", published in Black Liberation & Socialism (Pathfinder, 1974).
I quote (if you wish, change "national oppression" to "racial oppression"):

"The national oppression that Black people have faced on this continent for
the past four hundred years has developed a common cultural, political, and
economic situation among them. Black liberationists have expressed a number
of different strategies to eliminate this oppression. Some solutions are
integrationist, basically demanding that oppression be ended by establishing
equality between Blacks and whites in this country - removing the national
oppression within the context of one nation-state. Though this approach does
leave an opening for reformists who advocate assimilation into "American"
culture and the system as is, reformism is not inherently wound up with
integrationism. In fact, within the context of integrationism, only a
program that outlines an economic and political struggle against the
exploiters and oppressors of the mass of Blacks can solve the problem.

"On the other hand, there is the nationalist current which calls for Black
people to solve the problem of national oppression by gaining control of
their own destinies, and establishing an independent Black national
identity - politically, economically, and culturally. Nationalism calls for
a more abrupt break with American society than integrationism, and is
therefore much more likely to develop a concrete social program of its own:
socialist, capitalist, welfare statist, etc. With this program it has a
better chance of winning large-scale support within the mass of the Black
community - the proletarian core - and mobilizing working-class elements
within the Black community.

"Within the context of these two trends, however, the differences between
militancy, revolutionism, and social conservatism do not hinge on the
question of nationalism versus integrationisn, but rather on the attitude
taken toward the white-capitalist power structure." (pp. 170-71)

Thomas goes on to note that one could be a Black separatist but not a
nationalist (Booker T. Washington was an example, cited by Fraser as well).
Likewise, not all nationalists were anticapitalist (the Black Muslims, for
example). While the nationalism of the oppressor is reactionary through and
through, the nationalism of the oppressed, which is more likely to have a
progressive thrust, is not exempt from backward expressions. But insofar as
it is serves to mobilize masses in struggle against their oppression it has
a progressive content, which we seek to develop toward anticapitalist
conclusions. The problem with Fraser's rigid and undialectical distinctions
is that he rules out this progressive potential. And he assumes that demands
by Blacks that take a nationalist form will necessarily lead toward
separation and away from united action with white workers.

Thus he writes that "the various theories of Negro nationalism and the idea
of self-determination for Negroes have the effect of justifying the system
of racial segregation, without which discrimination could not exist." (p.
45)

Logically, then, he must oppose all manifestations of nationalist
consciousness among Black people. And sure enough, he writes:

"Revolutionary socialists stand squarely upon this program: for immediate
and unconditional economic, political and social equality. An important part
of this stand is to reject and condemn every proposal for the solution of
the Negro question through racial separation ...." (p. 46)

Consistent application of this approach would have placed the SWP foursquare
in opposition to any expression of Black nationalist consciousness,
including Black community control and Black political parties.

Economism

As should be clear from the above quotations, there is a strong streak of
economism in Fraser's analysis, expressed in part in a disturbing tendency
to trivialize the negative impact of anti-Black racism on both Black workers
(through hindering their ability to see class solutions to their oppression)
and white workers (their inability to understand how anti-Black racism
undermines the struggle of their social class). For example, Fraser states
that "the great majority of these white workers and farmers [in the South]
are victimized by the racial division in society nearly as much as are the
Negroes. Race prejudice, which is the form of white race consciousness, is
one of the means by which the extreme exploitation of white workers
themselves is maintained. It is in direct opposition to their material
interests. We are therefore justified in maintaining that there is no
material foundation for race consciousness among the white working class: it
is just a matter of prejudice, which goes against their material interests."
(p. 43, my emphasis)

To say that racism is directly contrary to white workers' material interests
does not necessarily means that "there is no material foundation" for
racism, or that it is "just a matter of prejudice". In fact, relative to the
Black worker under segregation in the South, the white workers were an
aristocracy of labour. Nor did they suffer the terror of the lynch mob, the
inferior educational facilities, the denial of voting rights, etc. suffered
by the mass of the Black people. "Just a matter of prejudice"? Give me a
break.

In fact, Fraser seriously misrepresents the impact of racial division and
racial discrimination on
the U.S. working class. In recent years a number of studies have documented
the deep and
overriding influence of racism in shaping all aspects of U.S. history,
politics and labour struggles.
One of the best that I have read is The Color of Politics: Race and the
Mainsprings of American
Politics by Michael Goldfield. While the objective class interests of white
and Black workers are
identical, not antagonistic, this identity may be obscured by racism in ways
that are crucial to the
process by which class consciousness can and will develop among both.

Similarly, I think Fraser misrepresents the depth of nationalist and even
separatist sentiment historically among Blacks. He says Garvey's movement
was the only mass separatist movement. In fact, there have been separatist
movements with varying degrees of mass support among Blacks appearing and
disappearing at intervals over the last 150 or more years in the United
States. When I have unpacked my files, I will look up an article I copied
years ago by Theodore Draper (in Commentary, I believe) that detailed the
history of such movements. Among others, Mark Solomon and Michael Goldfield
(see reference above) have also documented more recently the relationship
between some of the pre-Garvey nationalist movements and the Black militants
who became active in the U.S. Communist party in the 1920s. This is not to
say that Black struggles inevitably take the road of national
self-determination. But the real history of such struggles should alert us
to the possibility that they may, and to the radical potential that often
(not always!) lies in such orientations.

All of this brings me back to a point I raised in my earlier correspondence
with you, when I suggested that nationalist forms of consciousness among
Maori workers might be the obverse of a lack of class consciousness and
solidarity among white workers. It is striking how little attention Fraser
pays not only to the actual forms of consciousness among Black workers, but
also to the state of consciousness among white workers. The latter can be a
crucial factor in shaping the political consciousness of black workers,
whose nationalism may well be a reaction to the lack of real perspectives
for joint action with white workers. It is the white majority who will be
decisive to those perspectives. Rather than preaching to the blacks about
how they must assimilate, wouldn't our efforts be more effectively directed
to showing whites how it is in their interests to support Black struggles
against their oppression?

But Fraser, instead of really analyzing Black consciousness both
historically and in the here and now, sets up a formal schema of objective
class interests and formally dependent relationships (capitalism =
segregation = racism) and then extrapolates from this an equally formal and
undialectical analysis of how Black consciousness will develop (assimilation
vs. separatism). Frankly, I find his approach completely "dogmatic".

There are a number of issues you raised in your February 22 communication
that I have not addressed here (such as more general theories of nationalism
and the national question). And I have based these comments solely on my
reading of the documents published in the Spartacist compendium. (For
example, I have not consulted the SWP majority's replies to Fraser, which no
doubt raise other considerations.) However, I will stop here with this
critique of Richard Fraser, whom you have cited a number of times on the
Marxism list as your authority on Black nationalism and the race question. I
frankly fail to understand this attraction. And I wonder, based on your
dismissive and absurd characterizations of Breitman's and the SWP's
positions, just how well acquainted you are with those positions, or with
the actual history of the Black struggle in the United States. I think you
are fundamentally mistaken in tracing the SWP's recent degeneration to their
historically developed position on the Black struggle.

[end]


~~~~~~~
PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.



More information about the Marxism mailing list