The following is an edited version of the report by SL/U.S. National Chairman Erica Jones on the black question, given at the 16th National Conference of the SL/U.S.
The title of this presentation is “For Black Trotskyism (II).” Thanks, Donau, for the suggestion.
I thought it would be good to begin this report by talking about a discussion I had earlier this week with the International Executive Committee delegation and a number of comrades on the current slate proposal. It came off a discussion I had about Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the Revolutionary Blackout Network (RBN). I argued that I didn’t think that RBN was a black nationalist organization because they don’t argue like hardened “down with whitey” nationalists. And, yeah, they may be an all-black group, but that doesn’t mean they are nationalists. What’s wrong with an all-black organization, we call for black transitional organizations? This was completely wrong!
First, I was being totally soft on RBN. They are not calling to build an integrated party, they are calling for a black-led group with “allies,” not dissimilar to the Panthers, and we have to argue how that is counterposed to what’s necessary to win black liberation, that is, building a multiracial Leninist vanguard party. That is the only basis on which to build a Leninist party in the U.S. This fundamental point must be motivated in counterposition to what RBN is pushing. We’re not gonna be able to win any black workers or activists to Trotskyism by tailing them on this question.
Second, our call for a transitional organization of the black struggle is based on its standing as a connecting link between the party and the broader masses. It is an application of our fight for revolutionary integrationism. Its purpose is to facilitate winning black Trotskyists—and not just black Trotskyists, but white Trotskyists, too—to our party. It’s about cutting through the racial divide and building unity in the class based on a revolutionary program to fight black oppression. As we further explain in “For Black Trotskyism” (1963):
I adapted to the pervasive social pressure that exists in the black population, that you are not gonna be able to win white people to the fight for black liberation. It’s an expression of liberalism and defeat, coming from a different place than most of you in this room. It is, nonetheless, liberalism, destructive and counterposed to fighting for revolutionary integrationism. It was hard for me to recognize that I was capitulating to this pressure. But once I did, I couldn’t stand it, which is why I’m able to give this report right now. It’s not just to break the liberal shackles from myself, but from everyone in the SL/U.S. and especially those in this room, to win you to the importance of and need to fight to build a multiracial Leninist party.
In order to win white workers to the fight for black liberation, to the understanding that they have a shared interest in fighting black oppression, you have to win them to communism. It’s the same for comrades in the party right now. In order to defend the interests of black people and fight for black liberation, comrades, you have to be won to a communist program. You have to fight to build a Leninist party to lead the struggles of the oppressed.
Now, I think a lot of the social pressure for white comrades in the party has been guilty white liberalism. Black people who join a communist organization usually do so with a healthy dose of pure hatred for patronizing, guilty white liberalism. And it’s reflected everywhere in the U.S., from schools and the workplace to every what-not “movement” out there. It’s nothing but bourgeois liberalism—which reinforces the racial polarization in U.S. society and has no place inside any organization claiming to be communist. In fact, the two programs cannot mutually exist in the party. Either you are fighting on the basis of a communist program or a liberal one. There is no middle ground.
By the time that BLM arrived on the scene, it was clear that the SL/U.S. no longer saw Leninist leadership as a relevant factor. In the 2015 SL/U.S. conference document, we laid out our liquidationist approach to BLM stating that:
Ick! Our response to BLM, and what we desired to win black people, Latinos and other minorities to, was not a Trotskyist program, but an anti-racist liberal program. The liberal conception of the party that the SL/U.S. wanted to build was akin to affirmative action—to recruit blacks and Latinos to help us look more like a multiracial party. Pure guilty white liberal rubbish. Our black cadre are not “precious” delicate little flowers. We fight for black equality inside the organization, too. That includes the equal right for black comrades to be fought with, as well as to be taken seriously based on the content of our political interventions, not because we are striving to meet a quota; which is what that quote sounds like to me.
We want to build a multiracial party and win black Trotskyist cadre, not because we have some quota to fill, but because if we don’t, the revolution won’t happen. Now, we’ve all heard how it’s a difficult period, how we haven’t been able to recruit like we used to in the 1970s and ’80s, and that because of the special oppression of black people, recruitment can be difficult. All of these points are true. But I have a real suspicion that one of the reasons we haven’t been able to recruit as much as then is because we abandoned the Trotskyist banner.
Here’s something to consider: If you wage a really hard and uncompromising fight against liberalism, like the International Secretariat did with us, put a dagger through the “do-good” bleeding heart of liberalism and show how it’s not the road to liberation and why only Trotskyism is, we would have a better chance of winning the oppressed layers in this society—you know, women, black people, immigrants and other oppressed minorities—to a communist program. And we would have an even better chance of winning white workers to fight for black liberation.
Now, I am not saying all this for you all to feel like guilty liberals but to understand this core point. It’s not a moral question, but a question of on what program are you gonna fight against the oppression and racist segregation of black people. One that leads them to the slaughterhouse or one based on communism, the only program that can lead them to liberation. That’s what this conference is about.
Liberalism is nothing but the liberal bourgeoisie’s way to further the racial divide. The fight for revolutionary integrationism is the way to cut through it. To underscore this point, I want to talk about black oppression and how it divides the working class.
How Black Oppression Divides the Working Class
For over 150 years, the U.S. bourgeoisie has been able to prevent their wage slaves from revolting against them through the special oppression of the black population. While the Civil War emancipated black people from chattel slavery, black people are in no way free from capitalist wage slavery and racial oppression. Black people in the U.S. are a specially oppressed race-color caste, forcibly segregated at the bottom of society. The majority of black people are workers, who while segregated at the bottom of society are also integrated into the economy as part of the proletariat. The reason that the capitalist rulers keep blacks at the bottom is in order to polarize U.S. society along racial and not class lines, to make it easier to pit one section of the working class against the other and obscure who the real enemy responsible for their exploitation and oppression is.
The special oppression of black workers is an attack against the working class as a whole. The bourgeoisie uses the degradation of black workers in order to degrade the entire working class. This includes white workers, whose wages and working conditions are also driven down as a result of black oppression. For example, there is the false idea in the “open shop” South, that if you unionize, the wages of all workers would go down to that of its lowest layers, primarily black workers. Having a layer of more exploited workers beneath you is bad news for the whole working class.
Racist capitalist oppression has made life a living hell for black people. Its most heinous expressions have meant outright racist terror from the cops to attacks by the Klan and other fascists, like in Buffalo recently. It has kept black people isolated in dilapidated ghettos, where families are crammed into high-rent apartments, their children are sent to rotting, segregated, cop-patrolled schools and their elderly and sick are left with little to no access to quality health care. It has meant massive unemployment and that they are the first fired and last hired for the most menial and lowest-paid jobs. To begin to address any of the conditions of black oppression requires eliminating the cause of that oppression, which is racist capitalist class rule.
At the same time, the forced segregation of blacks at the bottom of society means that black oppression cannot be reduced to an economic or trade-union question. (We talked about this yesterday.) It is necessary to have a communist program that concretely addresses the special needs and problems that black people face as a result of their special oppression, linking these struggles to the fight for the freedom of the proletariat as a whole from capitalist exploitation.
The struggle of the entire working class for its emancipation from capitalist wage slavery is impossible without fighting against the racial segregation and special oppression of black people and for their integration into society on an equal basis. This is why uniting the working class across racial lines on the basis of a program for revolutionary integrationism is a life-and-death question for the American revolution. This is exactly what the SL/U.S. has rejected. The task during the Trump years was to fight against every form of liberalism and social-democratic opportunism as a precondition for building the kind of Leninist party necessary to lead the struggle for revolutionary integration and to win black and white workers to communism. So, I want to emphasize the importance of winning white workers to the fight for revolutionary integrationism, including those that pull the lever for the Republican Party. But first let’s look at why white workers supported Trump.
White Workers and Trump
As explained in the conference document (see page 3), in response to the devastation carried out by Obama’s liberal capitalist administration, a layer of white workers turned to Trump’s racist populism in search of an alternative. The Obama administration paved the way for Trump’s election, which was a right-wing reaction to their existing conditions. The housing crisis, the bailout of Wall Street, the attacks on pensions, health benefits and the unions in general caused workers to look to Trump. It was in reaction to the utterly crappy conditions that they faced under the Obama administration. Workers who voted for Trump saw his “anti-establishment” and populist rhetoric as an appealing alternative to what was offered by Wall Street Democrats like Hillary Clinton. Extensive deindustrialization and offshoring have been happening under both Democratic and Republican Party administrations going back decades. Now, why wasn’t it in the interest of white workers to vote for Trump?
At an ILA longshore sale earlier this year, I tried to sell to a white worker, and he said, “I hate the liberals and the Democrats.” I laughed, and said: “Well, I do, too, but we’re probably coming from two different places. Let me tell you why I hate the Democrats.” I only had the election leaflet to give him, because for the past nearly three years we haven’t been able to put out a paper that draws a class line against liberalism, but now we will. Now, I’m sure he was a Trump supporter and no doubt a part of the white segregated local. But think about what we would have had to say to him four years ago: “Stay in the segregated local because black people are better off without you” or that he was a reactionary, white-supremacist, racist yahoo, part of Trump’s base. Door slammed shut.
We needed to explain how Trump was not the answer! Supporting one wing of your capitalist oppressors against the other will not get you better housing or jobs or improve your quality of life. Capitalist rule is always for the benefit of the capitalists, at the expense of the entire working class, which is forced to sell its labor power in exchange for the most minimum of wages in order to survive. It is against capitalist interests to improve working conditions and wages. They are driven to keep their wage slaves just fit enough to amass the maximum possible profits off their backs.
Workers who looked to Trump found only the continuation of the capitalist degradation that occurred under Obama, culminating in lockdowns, layoffs, wage cuts and death during the pandemic. Under Biden, the conditions of the working class have only further deteriorated under the pressures of inflation and U.S. imperialism’s role in Ukraine. And just like every capitalist administration before, it has kept blacks firmly in place at the bottom of the political economy and workers pitted against each other. The needs of the black population and the working class go beyond what the capitalist class will ever provide.
Addressing the Social Needs of Workers, Black People
What is actually necessary to address the basic social needs of white workers (and workers in general)? There is a raging war to depress wages and lower the standard of living that is being executed against all workers by the capitalist class. The special oppression of black people at the lowest rungs of the political economy worsens the standard of living of the whole proletariat, because it keeps the working class weak and divided. White workers have a material interest in making the struggle for black liberation their struggle, too, because it is the only way that they will make any advancements for their own emancipation from wage slavery.
Addressing the social needs of the working class for better housing and health care, and to combat unemployment and poverty, requires a revolutionary class-struggle fight against the bosses and the capitalist state. You can’t wage that battle if the workers are disarmed by racial divisions. What’s necessary is a program that makes clear to all workers that the struggle against racial oppression benefits all workers and has an integral relationship to the advancement of the liberation of the whole working class.
For example, because of the apprehension of many white workers, it is necessary to combine demands for equal pay and opportunities for black workers with demands aimed at assuring white workers that the benefits accruing to blacks will not be won at their expense. Therefore, in demanding that more black workers be admitted into skilled jobs, we should also raise demands aimed at increasing total employment, such as a shorter workweek with no loss in pay (30 for 40).
As mentioned earlier, special demands that speak to the felt needs of black workers are a crucial component of the fight for revolutionary integrationism. Against the segregation of black people in the worst neighborhoods, schools and jobs under capitalism, the fight for black freedom poses a massive encroachment on capitalist private property and other capitalist interests in order to integrate society. Massive public works projects are required, such as the construction of low-rent, quality integrated housing, quality integrated schools and state-of-the-art health care facilities. None of the aspects of the special oppression of the black population can be solved within the confines of U.S. capitalist rule, because they all require confronting the interests of the bourgeoisie. This means that the road to freedom for black workers lies through struggle with white workers and the rest of the class to abolish capitalism and establish a socialist society.
You can’t fight the bourgeoisie if you are in bed with it, which is why the working class will never win any of the above demands under the current sellout misleadership of their unions. For example, fights for union control of hiring to combat racial discrimination by the bosses, for full employment and for organization of the unorganized must start in the trade unions, led by communist fractions in opposition to the reformist sellout bureaucracies. It requires fighting for leadership of the working class and splitting workers away from the political agents of the bourgeoisie who run the unions and subordinate the interests of the workers to the bosses and foster racial divisions within the class. The prerequisite for meeting the needs of workers and the oppressed is breaking the working class from the grip of both the Democratic and Republican parties on the basis of class independence and fighting for a multiracial revolutionary workers party that is committed to waging class war against the bourgeoisie.
SL/U.S. Capitulated to Liberalism
Now, I want to talk about how the liberal reaction to Trump further polarized society along racial lines and how the SL/U.S. capitulated to it.
In the Trump years, one of the main ways that the Democratic Party and liberals helped stoke poisonous racial divisions was by mobilizing anti-racists against the “reactionary” white workers who voted for Trump in order to kick out the “white supremacist” in the White House. This meant building an alliance of anti-racists, liberal capitalists and Democratic Party enforcers of segregation and writing off the white working class. This program was also pushed by the left, including the SL/U.S., which published the same concept of Trump’s base, placing the blame for black oppression on the racism of white workers rather than the ruling class. This is fundamentally counterposed to advancing the fight for black liberation and for class unity on the basis of white workers’ objective interest in combating black oppression.
Initially, WV embraced the liberal concept of Trump’s base, stating: “Like the roundups and detentions at the Mexican border, Trump’s ban plays to his white-supremacist base, including border guards and other law-and-order forces, whipping them up for further acts of racist violence” (emphasis added). Here WV (No. 1137, 27 July 2018) was saying that Trump, the Republican president of U.S. imperialist rule, “plays to” the tune of his “base” of voters. This was a lie and nothing but a cover for the brutal dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which is, in fact, responsible for the reactionary Trump administration and its policies. WV’s embrace of “Trump’s base” also alibied the role of the liberal bourgeoisie and the Democratic Party in enforcing racial oppression and segregation. It was a blatant capitulation to the liberal bourgeoisie’s pushing responsibility for black oppression onto the “backward” white masses. Later, WV issued a correction, which in centrist fashion repudiated the use of the term “Trump’s base” but did not draw the conclusion that the task of communists was to fight against this poison to the working class.
What the SL/U.S. Should Have Done
What was necessary for the SL/U.S. to have done? It was the duty of the SL/U.S. to wage an uncompromising battle against liberalism. It is impossible to unite the working class on a revolutionary basis with lines like “Trump’s base.” It was an unprincipled rejection of the need to win white workers to the revolutionary party and to the fight for black liberation. The SL/U.S. should have combated the liberal leadership of the black struggle in the Trump years by advancing class unity against dead-end alliances of black people with the ruling class, which betray the fight for black liberation. While there are certainly racist attitudes in the working class, to blame racial oppression on those pervasive racist attitudes is a reactionary argument because it alibis both wings of the capitalist class, whose rule is the source of this oppression. For example, Jeff Bezos, who is part of the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie that waves the BLM flag, directly benefits from racial oppression and intentionally enflames racial divisions to maintain the brutal exploitation of Amazon workers. A white Amazon worker has absolutely no shared interests with Bezos, but every interest in common with fellow black workers.
The false consciousness of the working class must be fought not on a liberal basis but on the basis that it weakens the ability of the white workers to defend themselves against the capitalists and the ability of the black workers to combat their double oppression. Instead of cheerleading for the Democrats by denouncing Trump’s base, the pages of WV should have cut through this polarization and exposed the lies of the liberals, who push that the fundamental line in society is between “progressive” and “racist” forces rather than class against class. In opposition to the liberal anti-Trump popular front, the SL/U.S. should have built a communist opposition to Trump.
Black Lives Matter
Lastly, I want to discuss another significant moment during the Trump years: June 2020. It was the explosive reaction to racist police killings that saw millions of multiracial youth, workers and leftists take over the streets in outrage over the cop murder of George Floyd. It was a pretty big deal, one of the largest outpourings of protest in the U.S. since the civil rights movement. BLM is a popular-front movement based on a coalition that includes Democratic Party politicians, liberal activists, union bureaucrats and fake socialist organizations.
It is a bourgeois liberal movement to appeal to the racist white ruling class and its politicians to recognize that “black lives matter.” But ameliorating the conditions of black people is fundamentally against the interest of the capitalist ruling class being appealed to. BLM had an underlying contradiction. There was an enormous swell of anger against the brutal oppression of black people, for which the only solution is to smash racist capitalist class rule. However, its program could only lead to defeat for the working class and black masses.
The whole basis of BLM’s program was cop reform, which is inherently class-collaborationist. They put forward a variety of either reactionary utopian or useless police reform schemes to combat racist cop terror. To call to reform the police means collaborating with the capitalist class in the policing of the black population. The very role of the state is to defend capitalist rule, to enforce black oppression and racist segregation and to suppress workers revolution. Cop reform is a deadly and suicidal program that keeps black people tied to the Democratic Party. Many protesters were met with massive state repression. Meanwhile, the BLM program leads the oppressed into alliance with liberal bourgeois forces to manage the repressive state wielded against them. You can’t fight for revolution in alliance with forces that are against revolution. Any step forward in the fight for black liberation requires confronting the interests of the capitalist class. The course of the movement into the Democratic Party could only lead to defeat.
There have been massive defeats and demoralization coming out of the BLM movement. Today, Biden is administering decaying U.S. capitalism, and the racist status quo has only been strengthened. People are looking for answers as to why this is all that came out of their efforts. The subordination of the struggle for black freedom to a pro-capitalist program is the reason the movement could not advance the fight for black equality. That there was no revolutionary pole against BLM to win people to is the fault of the SL/U.S.
The SL/U.S. Response to BLM
The SL/U.S. rejected the need to fight for the leadership of the struggle for black liberation in opposition to the reformists and the liberals. It refused to fight for the Trotskyist program for revolutionary integrationism in order to win over blacks, workers and youth to the need to build a Leninist party and fight for socialism. This betrayal meant that workers and militants were left with their wretched liberal misleaders, who keep them tied to the racist white ruling class responsible for their oppression. Instead of fighting to split workers and youth from BLM and win them to revolutionary Marxism, the SL/U.S. adapted to the prevailing bourgeois liberal ideology and became a left pressure group on BLM. What we had to say to the militant youth and workers around BLM was: “We’re not gonna fight with you, just make you more effective liberals.”
BLM is an obstacle to the fight for black liberation, and so were the pages of Workers Vanguard and every fake socialist group that served as a left tail on BLM. The SL/U.S.’s task was to lead the struggle to build a revolutionary party, to fight against BLM’s program of betrayal, to fight the popular front and to win workers and activists away from its liberal program. BLM was overwhelmingly greeted with open arms on the left. While Left Voice sees BLM as a model on which to build new liberal-reformist movements today, centrists like the IG and the SL/U.S. sought to act as left advisors to it by criticizing the most overtly liberal excesses of its program, like open support to the Democrats. While revolutionaries want blacks and workers to break with the Democrats, this in and of itself does not draw a class line. The call to “break with the Democrats” is insufficient and meaningless if it is not combined with calls to break with BLM and its liberal program. Opposition to the Democrats on a non-revolutionary basis will only lead back to the Democrats.
WV’s fundamental betrayal of accepting the liberal leadership of BLM led to tailing it as left critics. In a centrist manner, the SL/U.S. did not openly hail BLM. WV criticized BLM for not understanding that “[t]he entrenched oppression of black people in this country, a legacy of chattel slavery, is rooted in the capitalist profit system” and opposed BLM’s program of cop reform because the capitalist state “cannot be fixed by tweaking laws or cleaning out corruption, which is the content of the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement.” WV claimed that reforming capitalism is a dead end, but refused to break with BLM, a liberal force whose program is to reform capitalism. As opposed to fighting to break workers from the bankruptcy of BLM’s program on a revolutionary class-struggle basis and to win them to the need to build a communist leadership of the unions, WV was attempting to build a labor wing of BLM.
The Task of Revolutionaries
What should we have done in response to BLM? WV’s response should have been to counterpose the Trotskyist program for advancing the black struggle today by making the basic point that revolutionaries must break with BLM as a precondition to waging a fight for black liberation. This is the difference between acting as an independent communist pole versus being a left tail on a liberal movement whose program is to have black people manage the state that carries out their oppression.
What draws a class line is building a Leninist party that fights for class independence against the BLM popular front, that fights to break workers from BLM’s liberal grip, counterposing a revolutionary program of struggle against black oppression. And since everyone is all hung up on transitional demands, I’m gonna propose one in response to cop terror that Perrault suggested to me: For the cops to open their records and secret files of murder and abuse of black people and the rest of the proletariat!
The bottom line is that our aim is to win black Trotskyist cadre, as part of a revolutionary internationalist vanguard to help lead the struggle to reforge the Fourth International. The course that the SL/U.S. has followed is the same as the Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) course into Pabloite liquidation, abandoning the fight for revolutionary leadership of the black struggle and abdicating the responsibility to their class, the proletariat. Instead of polemicizing as Marxists in struggle, the SL/U.S. became enthusiastic, tailing-after opportunists for BLM. The SL/U.S. codified this at its 2015 National Conference:
Before being expelled for waging a principled fight against the SWP’s political degeneration, our Trotskyist forebears in the Revolutionary Tendency fought the liquidationist concept that the communist program has nothing to offer the black masses by reasserting the necessity of revolutionary leadership:
For a multiracial Leninist vanguard party! Finish the Civil War! For black liberation through socialist revolution! Forward to the Fourth International! These are not jingles, comrades.