[Marxism] I'm not convinced that Blacks are a nation within the USnation.

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sat Mar 4 22:39:11 MST 2006


Rohan Gaiswinkler: Joaquin Bustelo is one of the contributors on this
list whom I admire for his experience and insight on a range of matters.
For eg, his criticism of the lack of dedication amoung revolutionary
leftists for organisational unity is pertinent and deserves much
reflection here. 
 
On the question of Black nationalism, however,  I am yet to be
convinced, Joaquin, by your argument that Blacks constitute a nation
within the US.  I am waiting for your reply to Nick Fredman (see below)
as I find his argument more convincing than yours (so far). 
 
In solidarity, Rohan G 
 
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Joaquin Bustelo: 
 
I'm not really very concerned with the right "definition" of the term
"nation." That Blacks don't fit the classic definition of "nation" only
means the classic definition is inadequate. 
 
Nick Fredman: 
 
Well this is completely circular. Blacks are a nation because Blacks are
a nation. Surely if there's some great importance in defining the black
question as a national question, you've got to have some idea of what a
"nation" is. You seem to be implying something along the lines of the
Otto Bauer definition of a nation, that Stalin was polemicising against,
that nations were "aggregates of people bound into a community of
character by a common destiny." It was Michel Lowy's agreement with this
sort of definition that led him in his book /Fatherland or Mother
Earth?/ to define African Americans as a nation, but this leads to all
sorts of difficulties, e.g. Lowy by the same token sees Jews as a
nation. 
 
What reason is there for seeing Blacks as a nation, rather than an
oppressed racial caste, besides the view national questions within an
imperialist country being supposedly inherently more important than
racial questions. But why can't the struggle against racial oppression
be absolutely central to the class struggle in the US, even if it isn't
a national struggle per se? And Fred: Rohan is not yet convinced, which
may simply mean that the struggle in the United States will have to go
forward without Rohan's agreement. Nick says "What reason is there for
seeing Blacks as a nation, rather than an oppressed racial caste." 
 
I think overall the caste analysis of the Black question arises out of
the search for an alternative to the national question. The basic
method, including that of Oliver C. Cox who developed this theory as an
alternative to elements of nationalist movement and national
organization and consciousness that had arisen around him in the United
States, which he opposed.  Basically, the method of caste analysis of
Blacks operates by expanding the definition of caste like Plastic Man,
while squeesing the definition of nation tightly like a little insect
between thumb and forefinger. 
 
One of the methodological mistakes is that the issue tends to be
presented as how  we "see" Blacks.  But more important is how Blacks
have come to exist and organize and "see" themselves. There is a large
degree of subjectivity in the development of nations.  It in not a pure
economic or political or military process that excludes consciousness
and thought.  One of the things I think Marxists still have to conquer
is human thought and consciousness as a material and social reality, not
just "ideal" spooks to be contrasted to materialism and material
reality. 
 
We also have to grasp that Black national consciousness and nationalism,
Blacks' sense of being a people with a common destiny arose out of
resistance to forms of oppression that were not distinctively national.
In fact, I believe that the oppression of Blacks today has more of the
characteristics of classical national oppression than ever existed.  And
that is because Black people, in the process of becoming a nation, broke
through and participated in shattering as a people the framework of
slavery and Jim Crow "caste" restrictions that enveloped them, and now
relate to the system in a way more typical of oppressed "nations within
a nation." Partly because they became strong enough to shatter these
forms of oppression, in alliance with others, the oppression they face
is more national in character.  They are free labor, not slave labor.
They have the right to move about from one part of the country to the
other.  They can vote.  But the masses are still roundly oppressed as a
group by the capitalist state and the workings of the capitalist system,
as happens to many other oppressed peoples in the world. 
 
There has been some real convergence, won in battle, with the conditions
of other oppressed nations from an origin which was really rather unique
-- the specific form of slavery in the United States. 
 
And in fact the oppression of Blacks has not always been strictly
national or racial in character. Blacks came to the United States as
neither a race nor a caste but as a raw material for a laboring class,
the slaves, which became for many years the most important
surplus-producing class in the nation. What existed for many years was
fundamentally a social relation between owners of the means of
production, including labor, and the exploited Black producers. Racism
arose in the United States, and to some extent in the world, to defend
that relation.  But Blacks were not brought here as slaves out of
racism, but because of the need for slave labor to develop and maintain
the plantation system, although other forms of slave labor also existed
for a time.  So Blacks were originally neither a race nor a caste nor a
nation, but a CLASS. Blacks did not come to the United States as a
conquered nation, but as people sold into slavery.  They were and are
not an African nation, despite  the importance of the link to Africa,
and certain cultural features that did survive. The Black slaves were a
class. Caste restrictions of all kinds were imposed on free Blacks
around that relation, and initially to defend it and justify it. Racial
hatred was built up to rally broader white support for the owners
against the laborers, and for the settler-colonizers against the "red
Indians." 
 
They were the kiind of raw material from which certain types of nations
arise and have arisen, not an oppressed nation, but an exploited class. 
 
After the Civil War and the defeat of reconstruction the caste
restrictrions were generalized, mainly in defense of keeping the Blacks
as a superexploited agricultural labor force in the South. I think there
are some useful observations of this in Dollard's Caste, Class and Race
in a Southern town, although his methodology excluded the fearful term
"nation" from consideration in the package. 
 
But economic changes and the rise of the labor movement and finally the
explosion of the Black struggle destroyed the Jim Crow system.  (This
fact, as well as the decay of northern cities and the labor movement, is
key to why there is now a movement of Blacks who had broken out of
confinement in the South, are now showing a tendency to move back. 
 
The nation was forged in response to this history of oppression, and
exists as a fact of life in the United States.  It has a very strong and
deep subjective character. And it is a powerful force in the United
States. 
 
It may be that a southern-concentrated Black movement for
self-determination could arise, but I think the "pan-American" character
of the Black nationality has become an extremely important fact.  I
think the Black struggle, which shows constant tendencies in this
direction, is historically a struggle for state power in the United
States, not just the South, let alone the "Black Belt."  I do not
believe it is about self-determination only where Blacks are a majority,
but wherever Blacks live.  How this will play out concretely, I don't
claim to know.  But I am convinced that the alliance with Black people
as a people, with the Black nation as a nation, will be absolutely
central to the struggle against capitalism in the United States,
although this struggle is not simply and purely a struggle for socialism
in itself but includes extremely important unconquered democratic rights
-- with the right of self-determination as the apex. 
 
Personally, I think that if all list members are really prepared to
accept that Blacks are "a people" and  play a role in the class struggle
that revolves around that reality, then they should stop fighting over
whether this is a national question, because they are in fact admitting
it. 
 
Finally, important as racist ideology is in this country (and it just
wouldn't be "America" without it, that's for sure), racist ideology and
prejudice are not the creators and promjoters of Black oppression, which
today arises out of the capitalist state and the workings of capitalist
exploitation.  As Lenin said, national oppression is state oppression.
The capitalist state must defend, wherever, possible the oppression of
Blacks as a people for economic, social, and political reasons, and
racism is a powerful weapon for maintaining and developing these
structures of oppression/exploitation. 
 
But the system is not a product of white racism, and the system does not
exist primarily because whites are racist.  It is important to remember
that declines in racist prejudice among individual whites, which took
place in the context of the civil rights movement, cannot eliminate or
even necessarily ameliorate this setup, and it can even worsen while
racism declines somewhat.  I often hear the assertion that anti-Black
racism has grown worse in the US, and this is why conditions for Blacks
are worsening despite the gains of the civil rights struggle. 
 
But I believe this is false.  I don't think anyone who lived in the
1950s can seriously believe that white people, on the average, are just
as racist toward Blacks as they used to be.  It simply isn't so.  The
prejudice is still widespread and deep, but it does not have the
virulence and violence and sheer hatred of the old days.  But this in
itself changes nothing.  It only makes possible a more effective fight
against racist and national oppression in the future.  And it will not
prevent the rise of fascist movements on a racist foundation,etc. 
 
But it does mean that an alliance between Black people as Black people
and  the working class (including many white workers) has become more of
a possibility.  And this possibility is the basis for some optimism that
capitalist rule and the national oppression of Blacks are headed for a
big shakeup, for in the long run the oppression requires the ideology
(ideas are a material  and social force, not just inhabitants of an
ideal realm in contrast to  the "real world." 
 
Finally, I want to say a word about the Jewish question.  I don't quite
say that Jews are a nation, but I do think that Jews rightly belong in
the family of issues covered by the national question.  Further, if Jews
were not a national group posing a national question, I don't see how
they could have been mobilized at the end of World War II to  conquer
Palestine or have sustained themselves as a "Jewish state."  Nick treats
the fact that it could be applied to Jews as ruling out Lowy's useful
definition of a nation (because it is accurate while loose and flexible,
although no definition ever completely captures and no definition ever
dictates to social reality). I think this  is a positive aspect of
Lowy's theory but I suspect that Nick may wrongly believe that if you
recognize the Jewish question as being authentically related to the
national question, as Lenin and Trotsky did, you will have to recognize
the Jews' right to a state in Palestine, where they are one of the
world's oppressor nation's par excellence. 
 
I don't agree with Ahmedenijad's politics at all, but I think it was
useful for him to raise the question of why the Jews did not seek a
state in Europe, to which they would have been entitled of course,
instead of setting off from Europe with every good wish from their
former oppressors for the conquest of Palestine -- probably the world's
champion example of a reactionary imperialist "solution" to a national
problem. 
 

But I do not think that any Jewish state whatever has the "right to
exist" in the Middle East. Fred Feldman 
 
But I don't think recognizing the Jewish question as part of the
national question 
 

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