The SWP and the Black struggle
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Nov 12 15:16:50 MST 2003
Subject: SWP and Black struggle
The following was written after the various items I wrote for the list
on the SWP and Proposition 54 in response to a request for
clarification from a friend, Walter Lippmann, about my experience in
the party on the Black question. Since the SWP shows signs of
entering a new stage of its evolution on the issue of the Iraq war, I
thought it would be useful to send this in as part of reviewing the
evolution of the party over the past period. As I have said, I hope
for some resistance in the SWP to the new escalation of the move away
from real working-class politics, but none of us can do anything to
further this and the chances are, of course, uncertain.
Counterposed perspectives and slow pace of struggle
This is still an abstract counterposition of perspectives not strategy
or practical tactics and not a description of each individual debate
that took place in the party from the mid-80s. Also remember that
there has not been any sweeping test of events in the Black struggle
that would clearly lead to flat out counterposed lines in the class
Nonetheless the views I hold are counterposed programmatically to
those put forward by the SWP today, even though the party has made no
formal changes in program on this issue.
Under today's circumstances, this is as close as I could get to laying
out the differences that developed in the party. In my opinion, the
leadership's views, while I know of no open challenges, are still --
less consciously than in my case -- running into what Trotsky (in
Volume 2 of Challenge of the Left Opposition) termed the steady "dull
resistance" of the ranks of the party. For years, the leadership has
been pounding away, under the banner of opposing adaptation to
petty-bourgeois nationalism, at this quiet but stubborn inability to
It is an indication of the slowness with which things have been
developing in this field that the Proposition 54 statement is one of
the ACTIONS most clearly counterposed to the approach that I defend.
The range of practical conflicts that have arisen is so far limited by
the relatively low intensity of the Black struggle for the last couple
One partial exception: the influence or role of nationalists in his
defense has often been among the pretexts for abstention from the
defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Affirmative action: the division in practice
However, the issue of affirmative action is one where the implicit
differences have begun to surface as counterposed lines of action on
Both standpoints support affirmative action and give it great
importance, but the Barnes position tends to present it as primarily a
demand aimed at unifying all workers so they can struggle more
effectively against the employing class. I don't disagree with that,
but place the democratic fight to end the oppression of Blacks, women,
etc., in the revolutionary interests of the working class, more at the
center of the argument.
The Barnes-Britton explanation, as the statement on Prop 54 suggests,
views affirmative action as a purely class and even communist demand,
while I view it more as a democratic one that arose originally out of
the Black national and women's struggles.
Barnes and Britton, as I think their statement on Prop 54 shows,
grope for a "color-blind" defence of affirmative action. I think there
may be mixed feelings in the SWP leadership about the wording of Prop
54 (they do not oppose the measure or what it says per se, but reject
voting for it because of the anti-affirmative-action intentions of
Connerly). Some may believe that the government's collection of racial
data really does divide the working class along racial-national lines
and should be opposed -- but I admit this is pure speculation.
I have long thought that the Barnes approach can make the party more
susceptible to pressure to retreat from defence of the fight for
affirmative action. This can take place when events show that the
fight for affirmative action, while it does contributes over time and
through struggle to uniting the class, also immediately highlights and
forces to the surface some of the deep and potentially tense
long-standing lines of division among the strata of the class.
A standpoint that starts by placing the desire for general
unconditional working class unity at the center of the affirmative
action issue, and supports affirmative action almost exclusively on
this basis, comes under intense pressure when affirmative action
becomes the subject of sharp debate, or even conflict and
confrontation, within the class, as it always does.
My approach, which I learned in the civil rights movement and the
party and from Lenin, seeks to unite the class around the perspective
of leading every fight against the oppression and exploitation of the
imperialist rulers including battles that take the form of fights by
sections of the working class, nationalities, women, gays, etc.
I think this is the perspective the party had when we were able to
stand up to the pressure and fight for affirmative action against the
bureaucracy and sections of the working class in the 1960s and 1970s,
up through the initial stages of the turn with our participation in
the Weber fight. The shift in the axis undermines the ability to
resist the pressure, no matter how much the party leadership may
But the Prop 54 statement was the first overt instance I have noticed
of a political retreat by the SWP from defence of affirmative action
under this kind of pressure.
The different approaches to the national question also seem to me to
be shaping responses to the issue of reparations, which I support but
which the Militant never mentions. I think the Militant is repelled
by this kind of affirmative action demand because the demand is placed
on an explicitly national basis, while the party currently holds that
affirmative action should be presented as an exclusively working-class
So here goes. As Tom Kerry used to say, read it and weep!
I am among those who never let go of the centrality of this question,
and never even put it aside. On this level, I feel a sympathy with
Melvin on the Marxism list, who also clearly feels the centrality of
this issue in his bones and blood, even though I don't agree with his
views derived from Stalin.
I was recruited to the YSA and party in large part through
participation in the civil rights movement (Ken Shilman and Nelson
Blackstock were others). I was active in the Maryland part (Baltimore
and Eastern Shore) of the Freedom Ride movement, and I was arrested
ten times in civil rights protests of one kind or another.
When I moved back to Philadelphia after my stay in Baltimore, I became
part of the leadership of University of Pennsylvania NAACP where we
organized protests at construction sites following on the gains of the
mass demos organized by the citywide NAACP in 1963. In 1964, I spent a
couple of months doing on-the-street organizing for a rent strike in
the North Philadelphia ghetto. My last major-violation arrest was
there for inciting to riot. I was acquitted since I had already
learned my defensive formulations well.
In May 1965, the NAACP at UofP, at Robin Maisel's and my initiative,
organized a three day sit-in at the Liberty Bell in Phillie's
Independence Hall in solidarity with the struggle in Selma.
I was recruited to the party as much by Malcolm X as by Pearl and
Morris Chertov. I saw Malcolm X debate a liberal assimilationist,
August Meier, at Morgan State College in 1962 (when he was still in
the Nation) and I was electrified by the experience. I had already
been inspired by the demo Malcolm organized of suited Muslims outside
a New York police precinct to win release of a jailed Muslim. The
Militant and Muhammad Speaks were my newspapers of record.
I was a convinced supporter of Black nationalism from the start, even
though I did not think that separation was necessary or desirable
although a right. I still believe an autonomous or independent Black
state can emerge in this country without separation.
I firmly believe that coming out of a revolution (and before as well)
Blacks will want "their own thing" no matter how nicely the white
workers behave. Frankly, without demonizing the white workers or
labor aristocracy at all, it is reasonable to assume that their
behavior will not be perfect.
But regardless of this -- regardless! -- people who have been denied
self-determination in this country for almost 400 years will want to
control their own national fate. Unity of the working class will not
be enough to satisfy them.
I've hated the color-blind jive from the time I was in high school in
the 50s, when liberal teachers presented it as the answer to racism. I
remember my first reaction when I heard that we should all be color
blind: "What's wrong with color? If people have different colors,
what's wrong with seeing it."
The instinctive character of this response was related to strong
nationalist feelings on the Jewish question, reflecting the moral
impact of the holocaust on my family. I was and remain at heart a
gut-level anti-assimilationist. When I would hear talk about Jewish
assimilation, I would think: "Assimilate to what? Why? What's so much
better about them that I should assimilate to them?" Yes, the "goyim"
were always partly "them" to me.
So "adaptation to nationalism", as it came to be called in the Barnes
era, is not a "deviation" I picked up on the way but almost a basic
Malcolm X and party program. Breitman's role
I remember being actually shocked -- despite my opposition to his
group's overall policy at the time -- when the Breitman tendency in
the 80s said so little, or so it seemed to me, about the Black
question, because of the role Breitman had played in this area
previously. (But in 1979, Steve Bloom did write an article raising
questions about workerist trends on this and other issues). Breitman's
earlier articles on nationalism and self-determination --particularly
those debating with Richard Fraser (Kirk) -- need collecting and
But Breitman's most important contribution to the party was to
popularize the ideas of Malcolm in the party and lead the way in
integrating them into the party's basic continuity, which is what
happened. Lenin and the Comintern, Trotsky, Breitman, and Malcolm X
(with Robert F. Williams having a smaller but significant part in the
package) thus combined to firmly establish the Black struggle as a
national struggle and a basically sympathetic-to-nationalism stance in
the party's program. This is a much firmer continuity politically in
fact than the party's tradition on Cuba.
As a result, Barnes can't just say Malcolm was wrong, as he says so
very, very often about Fidel, but has to interpret, explain, and
"evolve" him to suit the needs of the party leadership.
Once he broke from the Nation, the story now goes, he "evolved"
rapidly into a Barnesian role model: a workerist-"internationalist,"
a militant foe of nationalism seething with outrage against
petty-bourgeois nationalists, an advocate of color blindness awash
with enthusiasm about white people. Okay, I'm rhetorically
exaggerating, but this has been the drift.
His actual positions were, to put it very delicately indeed, more
nuanced, more interesting, and much more politically relevant. But in
the party today, despite the publication of his works which remains a
contribution of historic value, Malcolm X is much more interpreted
than read, aside from selected quotes. Little is truly absorbed about
him except that he "evolved" from naughty (but in those bad days,
forgivable) nationalism towards the acme of perfection represented by
the ideas of the SWP today. And, though he died 37 years ago, he is
still "evolving" as the requirements of the leadership "evolve."
In spite of my differences with Breitman on Cuba etc., I came to
consider myself as trying to defend and continue his work in the party
in the face of the reaction against it in the party. The reaction fit
the phrase that Barry Sheppard used to describe the workerist program
of the Internationalist Tendency in 1973: "An expression of Thermidor"
against everything we had learned and experienced on this issue up to
and through the 1960s.
But the fact is that the counterrevolution in the party has never
taken as completely on the Black question as in other areas, I think.
one reason for wave after wave of ideological bullying of the
membership around the tendency to "adapt to nationalism."
A source of chronic resistance in SWP
The fact that the party leadership managed their Elian scandal more or
less successfully internally, while the Prop 54 scandal does not seem
to be going as well for them (that is my read) reflects changing
times. But it also reflects the deeper assimilation of a revolutionary
attitude to the Black struggle by a section of the party membership in
contrast to the much weaker integration of a correct position on Cuba.
The de facto rejection of the historical line on the Black struggle
has left an open wound that never completely heals.
I'm not claiming that the Black struggle was the central question --
that place clearly belongs to the organization question. But it has a
much more important place in the process than most people spun off by
the political counterrevolution in the party think.
My own record provides another indication of this. Having been
expelled the previous year, I SUPPORTED the Militant's position
against the rescue of Elian Gonzalez which the US government was
forced to carry out against the kidnappers to whom the U.S. government
had delivered him.
Compare my buying of the leftist anti-INS rhetoric which provided
cover for this with my long-standing tendency to see through the
leftist posturing that has covered the shift toward hostility to Black
nationalism. I can assure you that even just out of the party, I
would not have similarly fallen for the current position on
proposition 54 as I did for the position on Elian. I think I was
reflecting the fact that the pro-Cuba position in the party program,
and in my head as well, had weaker roots than the stand in favor of
the Black national struggle.
Cuba and Black struggle in SWP
The party has never been as close to the mark programmatically on Cuba
as it was on Malcolm X and the Black struggle. The party, with
Breitman leading the process, really ceased to see Malcolm X as a
competitor and approached him as a fellow revolutionary to be
collaborated with as such.
The party recognized Malcolm X as someone with ideas we needed to
listen to and assimilate, and there was no attempt to place him in a
special category of programmatically defective "revolutionists of
action" to highlight his inadequacy. (Trotsky used this term to
describe ALL future revolutionists, not just non-"Trotskyist" ones.)
This was an advance over sectarianism that was never fully carried out
Fidel's ideas have never been treated with as much respect as those of
Malcolm X were, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fact
that the party would disagree publicly with Malcolm on the United
Nations -- an issue where Malcolm's basic approach was right and the
party's wrong, in my opinion -- does not change the fact.
Disagreements did not change the profound respect the party had for
Malcolm as a thinker who was teaching us, not just learning from us.
Compared with the way the party approached Malcolm, Fidel, on the
other hand, always tended more, in my opinion, to be judged narrowly
by whether he was thought to be moving toward or away from the
positions of the party, the Fourth International, towards us or toward
the Stalinists who were always regarded as the alternative destination
for him. He tended LESS
to be recognized as a political thinker and strategist to be learned
from, although there were periods when this idea came more to the
Not conflict between workers, but struggle against imperialist state
The pivot of my attempt to defend and apply the party's tradition was
NOT denial that race relations had been substantially changed by the
civil rights movement. I did not claim that white people, or white
workers, or the labor aristocracy were just as racist as they had ever
been because I knew that was not true.
I knew that white workers, including the labor aristocracy, were less
racist in general than they had been, even though there were actual
and potential conflicts stemming from the tendency of the aristocracy
to defend its privileged position in the racial hierarchy at the
expense of the common interests of the entire working class (the
In contrast to Barnes, I held that the national question was not
primarily a division between two groups of workers, which needed to be
resolved by working class unity, but a conflict between the oppressed
nationality and the imperialist state and ruling class. This could
only be resolved by the oppressed nationality winning their NATIONAL
rights, including self-determination in all its forms. Even the
decision to unify in a common state or as part of a federated union
can only be made legitimately if Blacks have won unchallenged
SOVEREIGNTY as a people.
Improved relations between Black and white workers was a gain but did
not eliminate national oppression or even necessarily reduce it, and
the friendlier relations would not prevent national oppression from
greatly increasing in a crisis. I reminded Barnes and others that
national oppression was carried out by the ruling class through its
state, and was NEVER PRIMARILY carried out by white workers or
farmers. National oppression was still taking place regardless of the
decline (very far from disappearance) in racist attitudes among white
>From my experience nationalist feeling remains intense among Black
workers -- not primarily in the form of hostility to white coworkers,
but as a deep sense of nationhood, a sense that Blacks are a PEOPLE
who ought to have their own destiny.
This is expressed socially in the way Blacks stick together in the
workplace even though friendships with whites have developed,
collaboration is relaxed, and really strained personal relations
between the two groups are relatively rare.
One of the most profound truths I ever heard about capitalist class
relations came from a currently job-hunting Black worker who visited a
friend for lunch at a Steelworkers-organized mattress plant I was
working at in Linden, New Jersey. The Black had been driving around
all day looking for work and not finding it, and the coworker of mine
said to him: "Brother, we are still in bondage."
This was one of the highest expressions of what you might call
theoretical or programmatic consciousness that I have ever heard on
the job. But it did not arise from class consciousness directly, but
from looking at the class relations from the standpoint of the history
of the Black nation in the United States. Frankly, the phrase stuck
in my mind and it has made it easier for me to understand Marx's
Capital ever since.
The changed relationship between Black and white workers greatly
improved the potential for uniting them to fight national oppression,
but, in and of themselves, the improved relations changed NOTHING
fundamental in the national oppression of Blacks.
Without further class struggle including the national struggle,
nothing will be gained and nothing will be resolved.
"Why can't we all just get along?" is a sentiment shared by millions
of workers of all nationalities and from all strata of the working
class, but it is not the solution to national oppression or class
exploitation or any other social problem.
For Barnes, the national question is a division in the working class
produced by the blind workings of capitalism. This division must be
overcome, through affirmative action and other measures, so that the
working class as a united class can confront the bourgeoisie, win
strike battles, and take power. Hence the attraction of the
assimilationist perspective of "color blindness."
For me, basing myself on my experiences and observations of the
society around me and also on my understanding of Lenin, national
oppression is primarily POLITICAL oppression (as distinct from a
purely economic condition). And the bottom line of political
oppression is the denial of self-determination which for the Black
nationality begins with the Middle Passage.
The Black struggle (like all real national struggles whether in
Hawaii, Harlem, Quebec, or Kurdistan) is basically a STRUGGLE FOR
STATE POWER and cannot be resolved short of the achievement of state
power in some form by the oppressed nation, and even then cannot be
completely resolved short of a socialist transformation. Hence the
Black party, Black control of the Black communities, and all the rest
Working class unity, to the extent that this will be achieved, is not
the SOLUTION to this conflict but a WEAPON for resolving it in favor
of the oppressed nation as a central aspect of the overall working
class struggle for power.
Do ideas matter to SWP leadership?
Do ideas matter to the SWP leadership or are they (he) just cynical
fakers trying to get attention? My impression of Barnes is that he
always is completely convinced of the truth of whatever he is saying
at the moment. If it isn't true, he isn't saying it, and if he is
saying it, it must be true.
In all sincerity, Barnes regards himself as completely free of
cynicism and defines cynicism as skepticism about or disbelief in him.
His ideas are very important to him, even if they change every ten
minutes (and the basic ones don't change nearly that often).
To the extent that Barnes has moved to the right over the years, and
that is obvious to both of us, the national question in the United
States has been a continual and central aspect of this shift.
One more fight in SWP?
Difficulty which you describe in understanding my views on the
Black struggle may be a product of more than long paragraphs and
complicated sentence structure, which I really need to work on. It may
also be related to the long retreat of the Black struggle and other
national struggles in the United States since the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, the massive national feeling of workers who are Black and Black
youth has almost no real political or struggle outlet. On the left, it
has become common to view nationalism only as a characteristic of
small nationalist sects.
Blacks who do not share the narrow sectarian or racialist assumptions
of these little groups are assumed to not be nationalists or even to
have "gone beyond" nationalism as Malcolm X did. But as a people, as
a nation Blacks can only go beyond nationalism in a struggle that
leads to the resolution of the national question in their interests as
This retreat has not reversed the fundamental gains of the civil
rights movement. However, awareness of the depth of national
oppression and the insolubility of national conflicts in the U.S.
under capitalism has been worn down, and not just in the SWP.
I think the current wave of fights by immigrant workers, with
nationally conscious Latino workers in the lead, may be beginning to
revive awareness about this.
I believe that something in the party is still unresolved. I think
there is one more fight coming to "save" it. However, the
organizational norms of the party, have effectively removed any RIGHT
of organized opposition to exist. The leadership can, as they wish,
PERMIT one to be formed or even INSTRUCT people to form one whether
they want to or not, but there is absolutely NO RIGHT to organize
opposition to their views at any time including preconvention
discussion periods. So this is probably another way of saying there is
one more political purge left in it.
Of course, I have basically thought something like that since the late
'80s and so far nothing has transpired. But something is in the air.
There are too many members and supporters who are still
unreconstructed in some core of their being, in my opinion, especially
about the Black question but also on other matters where there is
party tradition such as the antiwar fight and the GIs. They still hang
on hoping for a positive turn.
They are reluctant to accept the mountain of evidence that the Barnes
leadership is today organically incapable of such a turn.
Each time things open up a little -- a little glasnost, a little
turning outward toward struggle -- their hopes rise. Then when the
opening is shut down and the fight against "adaptation" resumes, they
sigh and trudge on sadly but doggedly behind the indispensable leader.
A rigidly ideological and dogmatic current
The leadership very much cares about being seen by the members as
having the correct ideas. I think the leaders also sincerely believe
in their intellectual and moral superiority to all who think
differently. They may have wanted a big scandal about Proposition 54
but I don't think they are happy with what they got, because I
estimate that the correctness of their ideas came to be more in doubt
in the eyes of some of the members.
Barnes deeply and genuinely cares about being the world's number one
AND ONLY major "proletarian" intellectual, the sole outstanding
representative in the world today of "Marxist culture." He is very
competitive with Fidel on this level, I believe. He needs to believe
he is in the right on all substantive issues and have that accepted
"voluntarily" and near-unanimously by those around him.
The party today -- and, as you often point out, this is not a brand
new phenomenon, although it is true on a qualitatively different scale
than in the past -- is very ideological, very programmatic, very
dogmatic. Its concerns are not basically pragmatic and immediate.
They don't even care that much about recruitment, partly because
they've grown very used to not having much of it. Everything is
formally answered on the level of ideas, very dogmatically and
Even expulsions are handled that way. By this time, logic-chopping
reports on norms and so forth would fill a big public library case at
least -- a kind of Corpus Juris Secundum of organizational norms and
precedents. The approach to the organization question is both
IDEOLOGICAL and DOGMATIC.
The membership is regularly harassed about adaptation to alien forces
and alien ideas, ESPECIALLY ADAPTATION TO NATIONALISM. In the SWP, the
official term of art among the professional administrators-for-life
for the working-class instincts of the rank and file is "adaptation."
Your letter to Marxmail on the Militant's latest coverage of
Venezuela, in which their assertion about the complete nonexistence of
class struggle leadership suddenly appears at the end of reportage
that clearly indicates the opposite, shows how rigidly ideological and
even literary their approach to the issue really is.
And then there is the literary=ideological sell-the-books political
Anyway, WE should be serious about ideas
The debate over whether the party is concerned about ideas sounds to
me like a blind men and the elephant debate. I suspect we are both
approaching a piece of the truth on the basis of different
But you CAN win a pissing contest with a skunk if skunk-ites, who are
not really sure that's the kind of critter they want to be, are
watching the contest. I believe that so far the critics have come out
ahead in the pissing contest over Prop 54.
This highlights the importance of taking our own ideas very seriously
in debates with or about the SWP, whether or not the SWP leadership
take their ideas seriously.
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