BLM Liberalism vs. Trotskyism
At the end of January, video footage was released of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old black FedEx worker, being pulverized by Memphis, Tennessee, cops and left for dead. This recent episode of murderous police terror enraged many black people, workers and activists. But unlike when millions mobilized in BLM protests in 2020, that anger did not pour out into the streets. There is plenty of bitterness toward BLM, which has achieved nothing for black people—it only helped elect Biden as overseer of American capitalism. Despite all the time and energy expended, this country remains a recurring racist hellscape for black people. The rest of the left has no real explanation for this impasse and no solution. The presentation below, given by I.S. Secretary G. Perrault in New York City last summer as part of the fight against the programmatic liquidation of the SL/U.S., explains why the black struggle is paralyzed and provides the communist answer for how to go forward.
There have been two main waves of BLM protests in the U.S. At their peak in 2020, millions of people were in the streets. What have the results been? Well, Biden is in the White House, and Derek Chauvin is in jail. But when it comes to the conditions of black people in the U.S., they have only gotten worse. Blacks are gunned down as always, and the living conditions that are dreadful in normal times are getting ever more wretched due to rising inflation and other consequences of the pandemic.
That BLM has not led to any significant progress for black people is pretty obvious and uncontroversial. The real question is: why?
Black people are segregated at the bottom of American society. Any significant progress toward social integration and equality—whether it is ending police brutality, integrated housing, high-quality health care, free, integrated education—requires confronting the fundamental interests of the American capitalist class. You cannot resolve a single one of these questions while staying within the confines of capitalist America.
BLM, on the other hand, is a liberal movement for police reform. You just have to look at its main slogan—“black lives matter”—to see that it is not a call for freedom, for power, but an appeal to the ruling class to “care” about black people. The movement is based on a coalition going from liberal capitalists to unions to pseudo-Marxists. It is a classic popular-frontist movement whose entire political program and composition guarantee from the outset that it will not pose any challenge to capitalist interests. And since black liberation cannot make a single step forward without taking on these interests, a liberal movement like BLM necessarily means betraying the struggle for black liberation. Therefore, the subordination of the black struggle to liberalism and to the black petty bourgeoisie is the central reason for the movement’s current paralysis and impotence.
These liberal shackles must be broken—not as in the ’60s by black nationalism, which is just another dead end—but by a revolutionary working-class program. This raises two interrelated tasks for revolutionaries: first, to fight for a left-wing working-class break with liberalism; and second, to win activists involved in the BLM movement to Trotskyism, the only program which can bring about black liberation.
But where have the so-called revolutionaries been? They have been supporting different versions of BLM’s liberal politics. Whether it is in our own press, the Internationalist Group’s (IG) or that of Left Voice, the purpose has been to push the movement to the left, winning the more radical elements to a halfway house between the Democratic Party and revolutionary politics (which really means the Democratic Party). This is an utter betrayal of the struggle for black liberation and an utter betrayal of the struggle for workers revolution. It accepts that young black militants and others outraged by the realities of black life in America will remain tied to capitalist politics, which necessarily leads only to defeat and demoralization. While the pseudo-Marxist left is tiny and not very influential in the U.S., it nonetheless represents the main political obstacle stopping left-wing BLM activists from breaking from liberalism and finding their way to revolutionary socialism.
So far, our internal discussion has established well how the SL/U.S.’s intervention toward BLM was totally capitulatory. But this isn’t enough. It is necessary to concretely motivate revolutionary integrationism against BLM’s liberalism and the left’s tailism.
With the black movement clearly at an impasse, there is an urgent need for answers. Only Trotskyists can explain why BLM was such a failure and what needs to be done to go forward. In the rest of my presentation, I want to outline six key questions on which we have so far failed to draw a Marxist line against the politics of BLM and the left.
1. Police Reform
The main political demand by BLM is for police reform. There are a bunch of schemes—some utopian, some useless, some reactionary—all of them total dead ends.
The main response from the SL/U.S. and IG to the program of police reform has been to say that it is impossible and that only revolution can end police oppression of black people. This is as true as it is sterile. We learnedly explain that: “This system cannot be fixed by tweaking laws or cleaning out corruption, which is the content of the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement” (WV No. 1064, 20 March 2015). And then go on about the nature of the state and the need for revolution. No political conclusions are drawn as to the concrete tasks for Marxists toward a movement whose main objective is police reform. Advocating police reform is not simply a faulty view stemming from a misunderstanding of the capitalist state. It is a deadly program used to rope black people behind the Democratic Party.
The point we started to develop in our letter to the SL/U.S. is that the program of police reform is inherently class-collaborationist. Unlike the fight for reforms, such as better housing or better wages, whose achievement will benefit the working class and the oppressed, police reform can only serve to further tie the oppressed to the capitalist parties and their state. It means directly involving minorities and the working class in the management of the capitalist forces of repression, whether it is through civilian review boards, municipal budgets, legislation in Congress, or the selection of the police commissioner.
The point is that you can’t fight for police reform independently from the capitalists; it is an inherently popular-frontist demand. A BLM group that opposes the Democrats but still supports police reform is still in the popular front. It is not enough to explain that police reform is impossible and that the future revolution will solve everything; it is necessary to expose how today this program is used to bind the oppressed to their oppressors. The program of police reform must be rejected as a precondition for advancing the struggle for black liberation. This is precisely what the IG and SL/U.S. have not done.
It is also necessary to put forward a concrete counterposed alternative for right now. The gunning down of ten black people in a Buffalo grocery store shows once more the constant fascist threat that black people face. BLM and other leftist demonstrations are also in the crosshairs of fascists. To turn the tide of class struggle in this country, labor will need powerful, militant picket lines. Instead of putting faith in the cops and fostering illusions in cop reform, it is necessary to organize black and working-class power independently of the capitalist state. For labor/black defense committees, for the right of armed self-defense!
The only way to achieve black liberation is through the full integration of black people into American society. BLM mostly does not claim to be for integration, but plenty of liberals in and around the movement do call for various forms of integration in schools, housing, jobs, etc. The problem is that it is impossible to achieve any real integration without confronting deeply rooted capitalist interests, and thus it is impossible to achieve while staying in the good graces of the liberal establishment. For example, integrating New York City will require going against the real estate parasites, Wall Street and the Democratic Party. When Martin Luther King left the South, where the struggle was centered on formal legal equality, for the North, where the question was social equality and integration, he rapidly lost the backing of Democratic Party liberals and was forced to back down with his tail between his legs.
Liberal integrationism can offer only legal or parliamentary reforms through pressuring the Democratic Party. It necessarily betrays the struggle for integration because it can only push for it insofar as it is acceptable to the ruling class. And as I explained before, real integration is not and cannot be acceptable to the ruling class. Thus, to fight for real integration, it is necessary to break with liberalism.
The left, including the SL/U.S., has mirrored BLM in totally ignoring the fight for integration. Focusing solely on police brutality and cop reform is a way of keeping the movement on its liberal tracks. A concrete way to break the black masses from liberalism is to advocate and push the struggle for integration which will rapidly collide with the limits of liberal integrationism.
In contrast, all BLM articles in WV barely mention segregation, and revolutionary integrationism was nothing more than a meaningless jingle. Here is an example from the article “Class-Struggle Road to Black Freedom, Part One” (WV No. 1073, 4 September 2015):
In no way is it clear why revolutionary and liberal integration are counterposed. Liberal integration is presented as simply “utopian,” not as a program that fundamentally restricts and hampers the struggle for black liberation. The only way to advance black liberation is to win the black masses to the understanding that integration can only be achieved in struggle against all wings of the bourgeoisie, including its liberal wing. This is the premise for fighting for integrated affordable housing; free, quality health care; free, integrated schooling from preschool to university.
3. Overcoming the Racial Divide
The dominant pressure in the United States is to look at society through the prism of race instead of class. The white ruling class spreads racial prejudice against black people in order to keep the oppressed divided and at each other’s throats. In response to this, black nationalism and liberal identity politics present all black or non-white people as having a commonality of interests against the dominant white population. Despite being generally espoused in reaction to brutal discrimination and oppression, these programs are fundamentally false and are obstacles to black liberation.
All black people in the U.S. are oppressed due to the color of their skin, but they do not all share a common interest. The black cultural and business elite draws a large part of its success from the maintenance of segregated communities. Lacking the resources to compete with the white elites who dominate the U.S. economy and cultural institutions, among the segregated black population they can find a captive and receptive market in which they can have disproportionate influence. While buying black, guilt-tripping Hollywood into hiring more black actors and electing more black politicians is good for the careers of the black petty bourgeoisie, it does nothing for the black masses and, in fact, subordinates their needs to the distinctly pro-capitalist ambitions of this layer.
WV had two answers to overcome racial polarization. The first was using Lenin’s call for a party that is a tribune of the people, which we distorted into some do-good liberal formula (more on this later). The second is the classic social-democratic program of unity around economic class struggle. Part Two of the article quoted earlier makes a long list of demands which “benefit the class as a whole.” The article goes on to say that: “Under revolutionary leadership, struggles for these and similar demands would serve not only to win immediate gains but also to weld the class together and advance its consciousness, pointing toward the need to overthrow the capitalist system.”
Fine words, but the whole presentation promotes the illusion that such demands can be fought for without a revolutionary leadership in the working class. So, why do you need revolutionary leadership to overcome the racial division in the United States? Comrades in the SL/U.S. are wedded to the idea that all you need to do is raise good demands and the racial divide will be overcome. This is wrong. Revolutionary leadership is key. There has been plenty of economic struggle by the American working class, and while it can temporarily bridge the racial divide, that divide cannot be overcome on the basis of trade-union struggle. Increasing the size of the economic pie given to workers without addressing the fact that blacks are at the bottom and receive a proportionally smaller portion will maintain the basis for racial antagonisms.
Trade-union economism, which ignores the specific needs of black workers, will generate resentment and distrust and can only fuel black nationalism. In turn, black nationalism proposes to redress the condition of black people through separation and measures taken at the expense of white workers. In this way, black rights become associated with attacks on white workers, who are themselves oppressed by the ruling class. This, and the liberal moralizing that blames all white people for black oppression, can only consolidate the hold of anti-black racism. This reactionary cycle is constantly fueled by the ruling class to maintain its domination.
Demands that will unite the interests of the entire working class, and specifically address the oppression of black people, will not be acceptable to the bosses. The most basic measures will require momentous battles that confront the capitalist class and the state. Such battles cannot be won while the working class is blindfolded by trade unionism. It’s not just about having a bunch of demands; they are useless without a leadership that can fight for and win them.
The unity of the working class can be achieved only through white workers understanding that it is in their own class interests not only to temporarily unite in struggle against the common enemy but also to champion the struggle for full black equality, which itself cannot be achieved within the bounds of capitalism. The working class can be united only around a program that combines revolution and integration. Trade unionism does not do this, and is, in fact, a total obstacle to this program.
4. Workers Movement
BLM has mainly been a petty-bourgeois movement which has not intersected much working-class struggle. The main call raised by Left Voice, the IG and the SL/U.S. has been for the working class to fight in defense of black people. Here’s Left Voice’s version (leftvoice.org, 25 May 2022):
You will find pretty much the same thing as this throughout WV and the Internationalist. The propaganda by the left simply presents strikes and working-class demonstrations as inherently progressive. The ILWU Juneteenth “strike” was not a show of labor power against the capitalist class, but a rally behind liberal Democratic Party politics. To call for working-class action in the context of BLM, without it being based on a clear programmatic counterposition to liberalism and the Democratic Party, is simply building an alliance between the workers and the liberal wing of their exploiters. This is what the left, including the SL, has been doing. Workers must be mobilized in defense of black people, but not on the basis of BLM’s program. For the working class to advance its own interests and to champion the needs of the black masses, the precondition is to break with its political subordination to the Democratic Party.
5. Breaking with the Democrats
It is pretty common for pseudo-Marxists to call for breaking with the Democrats, especially these days. Recently, the main argument raised in the SL/U.S. against BLM is that it is organically tied to the Democrats. “Break with the Democrats” is, of course, a necessary and principled call. However, raising this call does not automatically draw a class line. For example, as the previous example shows, it is entirely possible to call to break with the Democrats and the bureaucrats while supporting the working class being mobilized on the political basis of BLM’s liberal program for police reform. Presenting the call to break with the Democrats as a sufficient condition for class independence is simply a way to conciliate the left-wing elements of BLM that are critical of the Democrats but who cling to liberal or black nationalist politics.
On characterizing the left’s intervention in BLM, the IG comes closest to the truth:
But the IG notes this truth only to better reject the crucial question: BLM is itself a bourgeois liberal force! The task of revolutionaries is not to merely observe the existence of the class line, but to clearly draw it in the course of struggle. In the case of BLM, that means fighting to break its militants from the liberal politics of BLM.
To the openly liberal slogan of BLM, the IG responds with its more “militant, class-struggle slogans.” But this is utterly meaningless because the IG’s propaganda is focused on liberal outrage and exposition journalism, entirely compatible and acceptable to the liberal politics of BLM. The class line can only be drawn by showing how BLM liberalism betrays black liberation, and counterposing to it a revolutionary program for black liberation that explicitly goes beyond what is acceptable to liberals. The IG (as well as our press in the past) talks about class independence from the Democrats, talks about revolution as the solution, but does not conclude from this that the task of communists is not to build the BLM movement, but to build a counterposed revolutionary pole for black liberation and socialism. This is the fundamental capitulation.
6. The Revolutionary Party
Throughout WV articles on BLM—and in most of its articles dealing with special oppression—we claim we want to build a revolutionary party and refer to Lenin’s conception of the party as a “tribune of the people.” In fact, the SL/U.S.’s program has been much closer to that of the Economist Martynov than Lenin’s.
Just like the SL/U.S., Martynov justified dumbing down the tasks of the party with the argument that current consciousness isn’t revolutionary. From this, he drew the conclusion:
To put this in the context of the black question, we, just like the Economists of Lenin’s time, did not put forward a positive program of action, did not point out how to wage the day-to-day struggle and abandoned the struggle for black liberation to the leadership of the liberals.
Lenin also quotes Martynov arguing that the party should function “merely in the negative role of exposers of abuses…we can only dissipate their hopes in various government commissions.” Sounds just like the Internationalist and WV, which merely write long turgid expositions of the abuses against black people while dissipating hopes in police reform. Blacks don’t need WV and the Internationalist to tell them how brutal police are. As Lenin responded to Martynov, they will find out directly from the police. Simply writing about different forms of specific oppression is totally compatible with today’s economism. In contradistinction to WV, which uses the tribune of the people point to justify liberal moping about capitalism, Lenin insists on the need to give the struggle of the various oppressed groups a revolutionary content and leadership.
Toward the groups oppressed by tsarism, Lenin explained:
Lenin’s whole point is that against the economists who restrict working-class struggle to economic struggle and abandon other opponents of tsarism to liberal leadership, a vanguard party must elevate consciousness and unite all opponents of tsarism behind its own banner in the struggle to overthrow the regime. At bottom, the question facing the SL/U.S. boils down to the same conflict: an economist program for the working class, leaving the black struggle under a liberal leadership, versus unity of the black and working-class struggle behind a revolutionary party.