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Black Liberation... Only possible through socialist struggle
To mark Black History Month, Hugo Pierre, Socialist Party black and Asian group, looks at the historic struggle for black liberation and the lessons we can draw from it for today.
Before they were assassinated, the two foremost civil rights leaders in the US began to draw the conclusion that 'black unity' alone would not end the horrors of racism. They concluded that they would have to engage in a war against exploiters, or a class war, to win a society free from racism.
Malcolm X increasingly spoke against capitalism - "you can't have capitalism without racism". Martin Luther King explained, "what good is the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy a hamburger".
Both leaders took part in galvanising support for strikes and attending picket lines, especially in their later years. King explained in an interview to the New York Times in 1968 his work was "engaged in the class struggle".
Rooted in capitalism
The ideas of racism are firmly rooted in capitalist ideology. The idea that a group of people could be enslaved, used as products and sold on the open market on the basis of their skin colour was the justification for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was justified on the theory that black Africans were sub-human.
It is true that slavery existed prior to this - in Africa. But the opening up of colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean demanded a huge amount of labour to grow and harvest crops such as cotton, coffee, tobacco and, above all, sugar. Against this background, slavery developed from being mainly part of the bounty of war to an industrial and commercial activity.
This activity accumulated enormous wealth for both the slave traders and the slave owners. Much of this wealth gave rise to the accumulation of capital that developed the industrial revolution.
The struggle against racism, initially the anti-slavery movement, has been portrayed in many ways. The impression portrayed in the UK is that the struggle was primarily a parliamentary fight by the abolitionist movement against the interests of the colonies - reform from the top. But that could not be further from the truth.
There were many slave revolts that took place across the Americas and the Caribbean.
The most successful was the revolt that took place in Haiti - described in vivid detail by CLR James in his book the Black Jacobins. This revolt, led by black slaves took place in one of the largest and most profitable islands in the Caribbean.
The French revolution of 1789 prepared the ground for an epic battle that would eventually lead to France being the first colonial power to abolish slavery (although Napoleon would later reintroduce it).
The slaves fought against French, British and American armies attempting to take the island as their colony. Colonial rivalry and the beginning of the end of slavery as a profitable system of production saw the ending of slavery in 1804, and the complete independence of the island from French colonial rule.
In Britain the abolition movement was a mass movement with support in many early working-class communities. Pitt, the prime minister at the time, wanted to use the movement both as a way to undermine his foreign enemies - France in particular - and also to have a 'safe leader' at the head of the movement.
The development of 'African Unity' or 'Pan-Africanism' was also presented as the best way to fight racism, especially post slavery. The theory that displaced Africans in the colonies could unite with their brothers and sisters in the motherland was popularised particularly in the 1910s and 20s by Marcus Garvey.
Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) numbered 100,000s of members at its height. This movement's aims were to unite black people across the African diaspora to improve their condition. Garvey developed the 'back to Africa' movement, even purchasing two liners to that end.
This movement was the forerunner of other organisations such as the Nation of Islam. They argued that capitalism could be made to work for black people, and Africans in particular, if there was unity among them.
This cross-class movement eventually collapsed when Garvey himself, hounded by the US state forces, was eventually jailed and extradited back to Jamaica.
Malcolm X, 12 March 1964 , photo Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Ed Ford, World Telegram staff photographer
The idea that black capitalism, a separate nation even, could liberate blacks from the horrors of racism and segregation did not die with the collapse of the UNIA. But at the same time, the powerful impact of the Russian revolution was also taking hold in the minds of many young black radicals.
Some, such as George Padmore, joined the Communist Party. They developed further the ideas of Pan-Africanism.
However, during the late 20s and 30s, the early workers' state in Russia became bureaucratised under the leadership of Stalin. By the 1930s his foreign policy was one of 'Popular Fronts' - the working class should make alliances with 'progressive' capitalist forces.
This impacted on the tactics for both the struggle against racism and the anti-colonial struggle in places like Africa. Rather than uniting the exploited in common cause against the exploiting ruling class, there was a call to unite with nationalist movements against imperialist powers and set aside the programme for socialism until that battle was won.
In speaking to black and leading socialists in the US, Trotsky (one of the leaders of the Russian revolution) argued firmly against this policy. When discussing the actions they should take to oppose racism he said, "to tie our hands in advance - to say that we will not introduce the question of socialism because it is an abstract matter - that is not -possible".
The struggles against imperial domination in the colonial world were fought out against the situation following World War Two.
The influence that the Soviet Union had on the communist parties in the post-war period, and the weakened position of the main European imperial nations, determined the military struggles that gained independence. Some of the leaders were more radical than any of those of today.
Held to ransom by capitalism
Black leaders have come to power, particularly in Africa. However, without a genuine socialist plan of production, and the organisation of a socialist state federated with others in the region, these leaders are increasingly being held to ransom by the big companies and capitalist powers, or amassing huge wealth through corrupt regimes.
The plight of the mass of black workers, poor peasants and even the middle classes has become worse throughout the globe. In the US, even a black president did not make any difference to the material conditions facing blacks.
One in three black children live in poverty, black males are more likely to be in prison than in college and black people continue to be murdered.
In many African nations, the idea that 'black unity' can bring about 'black liberation' will be incomprehensible.
The ideas of reform from the top, black capitalism and black unity have all been tried but still not delivered for the overwhelming majority of blacks. Yes there are now a few who have joined the wealth club - Oprah, Jay-Z, Beyoncé. But on the ground the situation is worse.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were both assassinated before they further developed their methods for struggle. They were both clear that militant black organisations were necessary to fight racism. But they were also seeking alliances with workers' organisations for struggles against capitalism.
A socialist struggle to transform society must overcome the divisions and racism which capitalism fosters and unite workers if it is to be successful.
A new society based on public ownership, democratic planning and co-operation would release the resources to guarantee a decent life for everyone and lay the basis for ending racism once and for all.
In The Socialist 30 October 2019:
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