The past and future of black politics and the Left
Pascal Robert, Ashanti Alston, and Rutledge Dennis
Platypus Review 153 | February 2023
On June 5, 2021, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted this panel with panelists Pascal Robert (co-host of This is Revolution, and a contributor to Black Agenda Report), Ashanti Alson (anarchist, on the steering committee of the National Jericho Movement, formerly of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army), and Rutledge Dennis (a professor of sociology at George Mason University, W. E. B. Du Bois scholar, and a former member of Students for a Democratic Society). The video of the panel is available online at <https://youtu.be/OcJkTMjwQjg>. An edited transcript follows.
Pascal Robert: I’d like to thank Platypus for putting together this panel. I’d like to say greetings to my esteemed fellow panelists, to the elders on the panel who are veterans of the 60s black liberation movement. I give you greetings, and thank you for your work and sacrifice, for getting us to this point. You all tried the best you could.
The best place to start is to ask the question, “why is it important for black America, or a black American, to develop Left politics, and what does ‘Left politics’ mean?” From my vantage, Left politics do not mean liberal politics. The Hegelian notion of liberal democracy does not challenge the functional fulcrum that requires the subjugation of black people in the overall political economy of liberal democratic societies. Blackness in a capitalist order, or even sometimes a social-democratic order, must be rendered to the reserve army of labor disproportionately, with all the social ills that come along with that, in order to create the illusion, in the minds of the white majority, that capitalism only fails black people even though more of the reserve army of labor is actually white.
For all of us who studied Marx, black or white, this is not a new understanding. We’ve heard this many times, but we often obscure it and say things like, “racism is important to capitalism because it divides the working class.” Does racism divide the working class? Yes, but that’s not what makes racism important to capitalism. What makes racism important to capitalism is that capitalism demands the natural rate of unemployment to stop inflation and to maintain economic functionality. Even the reactionary capitalist Milton Friedman said that. If whites were considered the majority of the poor, this would cause rebellion that the state and capital cannot understand.
What is the consequence for black America? The reserve army of labor is socially ostracized, poorly housed, and placed in prison so they won’t rebel and destabilize society. This shows how mass incarceration and the social dislocation of families are economically-rooted policies. Blackness becomes a metaphor for poverty (even though the top 10% of black families own 75% of black wealth).
Socialists from the 1880s onward dealt with this somewhat, but they had their own racial chauvinism. Probably the most effective manifestation of a white Left who understood these realities were the communists of the 1920s–40s period. I suggest everyone read The Cry Was Unity (1998) by Mark Solomon, which discusses a period of time in America during which white and black working-class communists had the joint goal of abolishing capitalism, not only for black liberation from racism but also to provide a communist alternative to the egregious economic order.
We can go back, pre-Republic, to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 to find a cross-racial alliance challenging what Theodore Allen calls “the origins of whiteness” in America. It was the first time the notion of whiteness was implemented and written down. Abolitionists picked this up, then socialists in the Populist era.
So, why did the notion of challenging the material conditions of American society evaporate from the consciousness of white liberals and the white Left? Even more dangerously, why did it evaporate from the consciousness and memories of black Americans? The obvious answer: the McCarthy era and the rise of anti-communism in the United States saw people arrested and deported for raising such questions. They became obscured in people’s minds intentionally and flushed down the toilet. You had stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement like Ella Baker, who herself was a member of a dissident communist movement in her youth and who became a literal agent of the state to drive out black communists for the state to protect the sanctity of the Civil Rights movement. America’s image as a Jim Crow apartheid state was bad for business during the Cold War, so that was a primary reason for passing the Civil Rights Act. This led to the condition we have today where liberal anti-racism is divorced from political economy.
The kind of politics we need is a black politics — or even a Left politics, it doesn’t have to be a black politics — rooted in the understanding that capitalism is racialized to render blacks as surplus labor. It has to be fought on those terms to change the society for everyone who is suffering under capitalism.
Ashanti Alston: The 1960s rebellions were my entry into radical politics. For me it was the Black Power movement. Being here in this empire for 400 years through slavery, Jim Crow, and everything else, we had to fight for revolution.
As people of African descent, we not only wanted an end to all kinds of oppression, but we also wanted to control our community. We wanted the self-determination heard in voices like Huey P. Newton, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Eldridge Cleaver. Then in the Black Panther Party (BPP), I was exposed to Marxism as a tool for our liberation struggle.
Not only did we read Das Kapital (1867) and the Communist Manifesto (1848), but we also read W. E. B. Du Bois, Robert Williams, and Frantz Fanon. We were hooked. We wanted anything with a Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, or even a Trotskyist perspective. They led me to want to learn more about other struggles, and so I got an understanding of the importance of a class analysis and came to see how struggles are interconnected.
So it was not just about self-determination in what we called black colonies in our anti-colonial perspective. We actually had to get to the roots of how this empire was formed. Liberation theologians will speak of the two original sins in the foundation of America: the near total extermination of indigenous First Nations peoples, and the enslavement of African peoples. Those original sins still determine our future for developing a black politics.
I’m an anarchist now, but I’m not one to throw out the baby with the bath water. To this day I still see the importance of dialectical and historical materialism. They are vital for furthering us along this liberation path. I cannot look at any situation without using those perspectives to break down what’s going on. But we need more than class analysis. We need a race analysis, an anti-colonial analysis, and an anti-imperialist analysis.
This empire has to go. It cannot be reformed. We need coalitions that can agree on how this nation came about. The same people who were brought at the bottom of slave ships are still the people who are at the bottom of this society.
Rutledge Dennis: As graduate students at Washington State University and as members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), we all became well-grounded in Marxist literature. We debated Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, and all the others. Marxism made sense to us. We wanted to bring theory to life. The question was, “how do you apply those theories to the real world?”
For me, the real world was black America. Radical, revolutionary politics suggested a drastic transformation of black society and white society both. I experimented politically: I briefly joined the Socialist Workers Party and later worked closely with though never joined the Progressive Labor Party. I was searching for a home.
Then I attended an anti-fascist conference in California, and Bobby Seale was the speaker. He really cursed us students out by saying, “what the fuck are you doing in school while the people need you in the streets?” We felt very guilty. I wanted to crawl under my seat. But it was a lesson for us. How do we define ourselves as radical students in the midst of things happening in the streets? How can I use Marxism-Leninism as a radical professor?
I became a Du Bois scholar. Du Bois was not always a Marxist. His early dealings with the Socialist Party in 1906–11 were very unpleasant. Even though he voted with the Party, he later rejected the Party because the Party would not allow him to focus on those uniquely black issues that he saw as relevant.
The relationship between black radical politics and white radical politics has been a very uneasy one, beginning with David Walker’s appeal and Frederick Douglass’s entrance into the movement. Except for the labor movement (which has a well-defined mission), the white radical movement has been derelict in explaining to the white community what the radical movement should be. White radicals always wanted to direct the ship and assisted black radical movements because the black issue was paramount in society. This they saw as their mission.
We see this more in the 60s–70s. Take the BPP or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As soon as they formed alliances with the white radical movement, they de-emphasized the issues in the black community. They moved immediately into Marxist-Leninism, Maoism, Castroism, etc., so many blacks believed that they had deserted the cause. The black community was not ready for Marxist-Leninism.
White radicals could assist blacks with the Civil Rights movement, which was a good cause, but as blacks moved towards the Black Power movement, whites could not be of assistance because blacks wanted to be in charge and do things for the black community. If you read Marx or Gramsci or Mao, they say you can’t be too far ahead of the population you’re trying to address. You must let your roots grow and emanate from the people. For viable black radical movements and white radical movements to survive, each must be more mindful of the community they’re trying to address. There is enough black thought in Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois that blacks don’t have to go to Marx and Lenin. The latter haven’t addressed the roots of what we need to address.
PR: I got my political education from people who came out of the 60s era. As a result of my engagement with my mentor Bruce Dixon, I closely analyzed the utility of black politics in my writing for Black Agenda Report. Those who know me know that I’m a big acolyte of Adolph Reed Jr.
This is going to be controversial for many of you, but I came to understand that black politics in the American context is a politics of containment. It always has been. I’m not talking about the radical politics of black communists and socialists but the black politics that interfaces with the ruling class to determine the policies and prerogatives of the state that will be implemented in the lives of black and brown people. I’m talking about the establishment of the black political class.
The black political class phenomenon goes back to the Civil War, to the small cadre of black ministers who negotiated with the state to determine what “you people” want after the war is over. This continues through the Civil Rights movement, when beneficiaries of the war on poverty took that political education and their working-class pedigree and became the leaders of the so-called “black community.” Now we got a bunch of bureaucrats trying to create an ethnic patronage politics wearing blackface.
The problem of black mis-leadership is not that we have black misleaders, but the fact that we believe that we need “black leaders” per se. We don’t need leaders. We need to teach people how to lead themselves. “Speaking truth to power” is a waste of time. Power already knows the truth — that’s why it’s in power. Black politics doesn’t work for black people because it’s contained, so you believe that the problem is your skin, but the problem is that your skin needs to be discriminated against to protect the function of capitalism.
As much as I love Douglass, Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., it’s not an accident that MLK talks all those years about racism, racism, racism, then he talks about capitalism for less than a year, and bang! He gets killed. Malcolm X for all those years talks about racism, racism, racism, then he starts to talk about capitalism, and bang! He gets killed. They were assassinated when they tied the condition of black people to the function of capitalism.
I’m not interested in making politics black or white. I’m interested in effective politics that changes the condition of poor, working-class people. The elite cadre of petite-bourgeois, professional managerial class negroes, who have governed the affairs of black people for over a century, are the cancerous problem, not the solution.
AA: From my time in the BPP, I remember the Rainbow Coalition with Fred Hampton in Chicago. I remember we thought we should hook up with white Leftists and progressive folks because they got the money to put Eldridge Cleaver on the presidential ticket. We were open to working with different people if you showed commitment to moving in a common direction, to struggling against capitalism and racism. There were all kinds of ideologies. We learned about Castroism, and the concept of Juche from Kim Il-sung. From those we learned we had to rely on ourselves.
On the black political class being for containment, that has held us back. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is falling right into that. My comrades in the Black Liberation Army were defeated, and we saw our defeat as laying the groundwork for the establishment of that black political class. We know our failure then is what got us today the election of Barack Obama.
I want to end on a critique of academics. They’re important as long as they do not feel that their information is what should make them the leaders. The leaders should still be grassroots folks. We got to get back into the community. There is too much reliance on social media and technology. People will not go out there and do face-to-face anarchism. We need that back. As the Zapatistas would say, “we don’t need all the answers. We’ll figure it out as we go.”
RD: If you read the Marxists, many of them argue about the process of getting to communism. There is the radical Leninist process of the vanguard party staging a revolution, but there is also Rosa Luxemburg, who talked about rallying people in a mass movement against the powers that be.
Being a university professor is a unique position. How do you juggle all those radical thoughts in your mind and put them to use in the classroom? It was a radical move to create a Black Studies program and to hire more faculty of color. There are many things we can do that are not just street activities. Many people think working in academia automatically makes you a sellout. You’re not going to have a revolution in the institution, but you can certainly bring change in small ways. We need to think evolutionarily, not revolutionarily.
Q & A
Pascal, you named McCarthyite anti-communism and ex-communism as being the main reasons for the divorce of black politics from Marxist political economy after World War II. What about efforts at party building during the interwar period, specifically Trotskyism? In what way, if at all, did the problem begin to develop in this earlier period?
PR: I concede that mistakes were made. In the face of the rise of fascism, the Communist Party (CP) and the Comintern decided that in the U.S. it would be best to support the liberals and the Franklin D. Roosevelt agenda in order to create a united front against Nazi Germany and Mussolini. This is when the issues of blacks in the CP started to play second fiddle.
When A. Philip Randolph was putting pressure on Roosevelt about the availability of military jobs or hardware development jobs for black workers, the CP attacked Randolph, saying that he was causing trouble for Roosevelt while they had a popular united front effort to fight fascism. That’s when the “white Left” started to show its face, but it was not because they had never been truly dedicated to the empowerment of the black working class. It was the decision to give cover to the liberal Democratic Party in the face of their fight against fascism. I would argue that this was the beginning of the end.
RD: One of the problems in the 1950s was the increasing corruption of the Russian Communist Party under Stalin, and unfortunately many communists in the U.S. either didn’t know or didn’t care about that because they thought capitalism was even worse, even when Khrushchev himself came out at the UN in 1957 and talked about the brutality of Stalinism and the assassinations of Russian citizens who disagreed with him.
I taught a class on Du Bois two semesters ago, and my students were disappointed when they read in his autobiography how he cravenly talked about Russia and China. These students knew about Stalinist corruption and oppression in China, and they were embarrassed for him.
AA: Becoming an anarchist meant that I had to study the history of anarchist movements, and when you study the relationship between the Russian Communist Party and the anarchists, you see that the party formations that begin to attain power become corrupt, and they will do whatever they can to stay in power. They betrayed many of the anarchists, even in the early days of the Russian Revolution under Lenin.
Even leading up to Khrushchev, there was no change. They would pull out black folks like Paul Robeson and treat them well, but it was all part of a strategy to make the Soviet Union look great. There were people in the U.S. who felt that the vanguard party was always the correct thing, but there were folks who had the courage to say no. Even into the 50s–60s, folks were not having it. When the BPP identified with Marxist-Leninist politics, the CP questioned what they knew about it.
For me, it was important for the leadership to identify a Marxism-Leninism from the black experience. It made a hell of a difference. And then you could look at others and see that there could never be one way to analyze or look at things through a Marxist-Leninist lens. You could have a Marxist-Trotskyist lens, or a Marxist-Fanonist lens. We fall into traps sometimes, because of momentary successes. But we have to be free thinkers. We have to come from our experience: what would it mean for a First Nations person to take on a Marxist-Leninist perspective? It’s not going to be the same.
Some of the leaders of the Zapatista movement came from out of the universities and were also inspired by Marxist-Leninist thinking. They were able to see that what was more important was that their analysis was rooted in the Mexican-Mayan experience. What they did was fundamentally different to the structured, so-called traditional Marxism-Leninism. We have to be open.
RD: I agree with that. When we look at the whole scope of the communist movement and Marxist theory, we see the uniqueness of Mao’s take on Soviet Marxism, which caused a split in the China-Moscow relationship. We also see the ways in which Vietnamese communism differed from communism in Russia and China. Each people has to redefine and interpret.
This was Harold Cruse’s main point in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), that black Americans who became Marxists were trying to fit Marxism into the Russian mold rather than trying to create a unique Marxism for black America.
PR: Marxism is a tool to challenge capitalism. It’s not a religion; it doesn’t have to be a way of life. Some orthodox Marxists turn the ideology into almost a quasi-religion, and I don’t think we should do that with any ideology. They’re not divinely inspired. Just like you can practice a form of martial arts that is Buddhist in nature but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to know those skills, I use Marxism as a tool to challenge capitalism. Capitalism originated in primitive accumulation, which meant slaughtering native Americans and enslaving blacks, and I defy anyone to find a black country where the majority of black people are actually thriving under capitalism.
RD: I don’t see many countries that are really thriving under communism, except perhaps China.
PR: I don’t disagree with that, but the oppositional pressure on any kind of Marxist experiment from the Western capitalist world is immeasurable compared to the lack of any kind of pressure put on the capitalist hierarchies.
Marx is responding to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, which is a reification that came from Hegel’s experience of witnessing the Haitian revolution — reifying liberal democracy as the end of history to protect the hierarchies of civilizations and peoples. Marxism, which was the only major Western philosophy that advocated for the liberation of blacks from slavery, tries to universalize history by challenging the Hegelian hierarchies.
Using Marxism as a tool is a logical thing. But I would never say that Marx had the perfect idea of a political project in terms of how to form a nation state. You have to take the seeds that the theory gives you and adjust it to your reality in order to construct the most humane economic paradigm, divorced from capitalism, for as many human beings as possible. Marxism is the main tool in trying to do that.
RD: Marxism has to deal with several things that it has not addressed: the rights of the individual, the freedom to assemble, the freedom of the press. In most Marxist countries, there’s only one political party, with the authorized, national press. These are legitimate questions.
PR: Don’t you think that’s a consequence of always being attacked and undermined from Western imperial powers? I don’t agree with the form of government you describe, but for example, Cuba, a country that’s 90 miles away from the U.S., being put under the longest economic embargo in U.S. history and still surviving, under a Marxian economic model, and producing some of the best doctors in the Western world, is a point of pride, not a point of derision.
How do the panelists consider the election of Barack Obama and the way it impacted the Millennials who were reconsidering the Left, beginning in the anti-war movement? Many at the time talked about him as a figure marking an exhaustion with traditional black politics, e.g., his backing away from Jeremiah Wright, but his presidency was also the origins of BLM. How do you think the Millennial generation understood Obama, and was this understanding adequate?
PR: Obama was a corporate, ruling-class, manufactured Trojan Horse. It was probably one of the cruelest political tricks that the American ruling class manufactured in terms of black political history. His whole first-term cabinet was chosen from Citibank executives. He was an acolyte of the most nefarious Secretary of the Treasury in American history, Robert Rubin, before he became president. He was basically chosen by the banks to give cover to their bailout after the subprime mortgage crisis and to keep playing ideological charades with America, as he created a political project that transferred more wealth upwards than at any time since the Gilded Age. People were enamored with the symbolic value of his charade of the first black presidency being a liberatory project. They were deluded and betrayed by their own naïve expectations.
AA: From an anti-authoritarian, anarchist perspective, why would we think that anybody who comes into presidential office is going to be our savior? Why do we think anybody in political authority is going to be our savior? The anarchist position is that you have to be able to get rid of these authoritarian figures. But like my brother just said, the media made Obama palatable to us, even though he’s not even really from the black experience.
We have to stay focused on what brings power to the people. If we can get people into that type of thinking, they won’t buy into Barack Obama, Joseph Biden, Kamala Harris. Stay focused. There is an empire that got us here. Individuals within the empire who become political figures are not important. Don’t get hung up on Obama. Part of the problem is that we are all susceptible to exceptionalism. People still think of the U.S. as this exception, that we can bring the empire down through the vote, or through moral reasoning. Sometimes we lose sight of what’s happening on the ground. The most important thing, always, is face to face.
RD: I do think that we are an exceptional country, but we are a flawed exceptional country. There is no country I can point to that is perfect. The flawed inconsistency shows up when the nation elects a black president while many people are saying, and the data tells us, that this country is a forever-enduring racist country. We can’t deny that we are exceptional in many ways, but we are flawed. I love this country, but I’m very critical of this country. I don’t think any other country tries to grapple with racism and recognizes it on the level that we have. I don’t think any country has resolved its racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural problems, and these problems exist in almost every country in the world.
We are trying to deal with a problem that we created in 1619, and that we went through a dramatic Civil War to resolve, and following the Reconstruction we grapple with Jim Crow laws and segregation. It’s been the merit of even those reformist blacks who formed the NAACP and other groups, that they have tried to deal as best they could with these problems. Sometimes we have to appreciate the reformists, because they will move us an inch along the way, whereas we want the radicals to move us ten paces. But the reformers who move us an inch keep us moving towards a goal.
Each of us will have some ambivalence about how fast and how far we want to go; I’ve had these ambivalences all of my life. I was born in Charleston, South Carolina. I grew up with it as a very religious young man, and I went through my Marxist-Leninist, even Maoist, days, and I appreciate the insights that I gained from them. I try to direct those insights into what I can do for black people and the broader American society, because I am above all an American citizen. I served in the army, I have kids and grandkids who live here, and therefore I care about their future. The fight will be an ongoing fight for me. I am 82 years old and still teaching, still working, and I hope still fighting. The battle never stops. We can’t become discouraged.
What’s the best model for black America, and the nation? It can’t be forced, it can’t be precipitous. How do you catch people where they are, and move them along the path of radical social change if possible, but reformist change if not? The fact that you’re moving is important.
Dennis mentioned white socialists directing the ship. This raises the question of leadership. Is there a difference between being a black leader of black politics and a black leader of socialist politics? What is the relationship between being for an ethnic identity and leading a movement for socialism?
RD: These two movements have been parallel movements to a great extent. SNCC later moved towards more radical black politics, and we saw the clear distinction between them and the Black Power movement — that is, blacks going it alone, trying to create and construct the institutions in the black community, and out of that movement came the richness of black theater, an attempt for a black economics, black urban development, and a host of other things which were designed to capture a black community that had rejected to some extent whites, but had been rejected by whites.
Radical black politics went into the avenue of socialism and communism and therefore adopted Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro, and Ho Chi Minh as their models. These models were foreign to black people. The Black Power movement stalled and died, but the remnants are still there. The black radical movement, which included the Marxist movement, has not made that much headway, because they have not directed their attention towards the black community. This may not require knowledge of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.
The two movements went in different directions. The Black Power movement was a separatist movement, beginning with the Nation of Islam. The black radical movement sought white alliances and white coalitions. Neither took hold for long. Those advocating black power, and those advocating black radical movements, did not do their jobs, maybe because they didn’t know how, but they didn’t do enough to attract the masses in black communities.
PR: The reason why the NAACP is so popular in the black community is because the NAACP works at the behest of the ruling class and capital, and at the patronage of those who enslave black people. It’s never been a threat to the ruling class. The negroes, to control those organizations, control the ideological infrastructure of the black community, and they can pacify black America with a politics that concedes everything to the agenda of the ruling class.
The black radicals, on the other hand, in every form, have always been crushed by the ruling class in this country for their attempts to challenge capitalism. I disagree with the characterization that they were obsessed with Marxism and Leninism and offered nothing to black people. Why do we think that the BPP were wearing afros? Why did they have a Third-Worldist, Africanist worldview? They integrated the African consciousness into their aesthetics, and into their ability to manifest Marxism and Leninism in the way that they felt was beneficial to black people, by embracing things like “black is beautiful.” I’m not saying that that’s necessarily good politics, but they did not attempt to realize Marxism-Leninism as some European phenomenon that was divorced from black people.
After 1971, every negro in this country had an afro. Why? Because the cultural appeal of what these movements were promoting to black people caught on. The political message caught on. Between 1967 and 1971, what were black people doing? Burning cities down, all over the country. They weren’t going to the NAACP, they weren’t going to the National Urban League. The notion that these radical movements had nothing to offer black people is a canard.
RD: Don’t forget that the NAACP began as a radical movement. Du Bois was one of the originators.
PR: That was not his radical period.
RD: What they were doing at the time, though, was considered radical. To ask and to fight for integration, to fight for justice for blacks in prison, to fight for better education: these things were radical in 1910.
PR: Was Du Bois radical compared to Hubert Harrison?
RD: We’re looking at Du Bois trying to construct a program of blacks who were under duress.
PR: He created a program of racial uplift: be like white people going to college with nice suits and ties, and you’ll be liberated.
RD: You’re trying to suggest that blacks should have been as radical then as they were, or should have been, in the 1960s. We’re looking at the transition of a people.
AA: Why not be as radical? There were groups back in the 1920s, such as the African Blood Brotherhood. I think even during the Tulsa massacre (1921), some members of the Brotherhood were involved in trying to defend the black community.
What we have to grapple with here is that the NAACP changed over time, because the system figures out a way to co-opt them. They got all kinds of corporate sponsorships. If you got that, you can’t be trusted to have the interests of black people at heart. There were times in the BPP’s history where there was a need for lawyers, and the Panthers didn’t reach out to the NAACP, and the NAACP didn’t reach out to the Panthers. There have to be those who recognize that there is a need for the total transformation of this empire. For me, it’s George Jackson: we got to bring this empire to its knees.
RD: What will the position of black people be when we bring this empire to its knees? We are assuming that blacks are going to be treated fairly, as equals. Why?
AA: James and Grace Lee Boggs, as Marxists coming out of the Trotskyist tradition, pointed out that black people were being concentrated in the urban centers, which made them a political force. If they could learn how to utilize that, they could shut down the urban centers, and technically shut down this empire. We cannot be free as long as the empire breathes. I don’t think even BLM understands that today. I was so enthusiastic at first about BLM, I wanted to cry, and then you watch how they’re incorporated into the system. Nonetheless, there are a lot in BLM who want to bring this empire to its knees, and we, from our backgrounds, have to figure out how to help them. The traditional stuff may not be the answer.
Ashanti said Black Power was very formative for him as a young Leftist. He mentioned Stokely Carmichael and others. How do the panelists see the old historical debate between black nationalism and radical integrationism? Is it still a debate today?
PR: We’re beyond that debate. I think it’s a narrow casting of black political history. If you read Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis (2012) by Preston H. Smith II, he uses a different framework which he calls “racial democracy,” which is race-specific policy, race politics, and social democracy, which is rooted in class politics that is beneficial to everyone in a particular class. What he finds is that, whenever black people ask for racial democracy, when that policy comes, it always improves the condition of the black elite. It always ends up with the black poor and working class getting the gristle and the crumbs, and the black elite getting the fatback and the biscuits.
When social democracy has been chosen, the black poor and working class generally do better, but black elites, whether it be Booker T. Washington or others like him, try to sabotage those cross-racial alliances, because they realize that their utility as ventriloquists for the suffering of the black masses is neutralized, and they try to kneecap that politics. I am a recovering black nationalist. I do not support black nationalism at all anymore. Black nationalism facilitates the politics of containment.
RD: The history of every revolution is the history of class hegemony at the top. Every communist government has had a class system at the top, e.g., those who belong to the Bolshevik Party. The records show that the members of the elite communist class had the best advantages, they lived in the best homes, they sent their children to the best universities, they could travel abroad. Every class system is an unequal system. If we think that there’s going to be, all of a sudden, no racism in America when the American whale falls, I don’t think we’re being realistic. If we believe, now, that racism is a pervasive feature of American society, how is that racism going to be demolished when the American enterprise falls?
PR: Would you care if a white person was racist against you, if his racism had no effect on your quality of life, material condition, or your ideological worldview?
RD: No, I don’t care.
PR: If you don’t care, then why don’t you create an economic reality where he doesn’t have the power to make you care?
AA: Or, if you don’t care, let the black community move towards positions of political power, where they’re not only able to defend their communities, but they can control the institutions of their community, even if that means being in direct opposition to the interests of the empire, even if it means being in a situation similar to the Palestinians, where we have to deal with these Zionists who have taken over our land and who have placed us in a massive prison.
PR: The only reason why racism is a factor is because the material reality of capitalism allowed it to become an operational phenomenon that people today call “white supremacy.” Without the material reality of primitive accumulation, whites believing they’re superior would mean nothing to the black and brown world. It is the material accumulation of wealth, resources, power, and weapons that makes this phenomenon called “white supremacy,” and I as a Haitian American hate even saying the words, because there’s nothing superior about these people in my eyes. There’s nothing mystical or ontological about the phenomenon; it’s based on materialism.
Pascal noted how racism divides the working class, but it seems today that it is more so the Left’s obsession with race that does this. I was amazed by a recent interview I heard with Margaret Kimberly, a regular columnist for the Black Agenda Report, on Doug Lain’s Zero Squared podcast, where she insisted that the inherent interest of white workers is in keeping black workers below them, and that white workers would never let blacks earn as much money as them. Does this renunciation of the working class, whose interest is understood along racial lines rather than material-social relations, not also contribute to the division of the working class?
PR: Margaret Kimberly is a friend, comrade, and mentor, but I would disagree with her on that notion based on the history alone. If you read Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity, not only were the white workers arguing for fair pay for blacks equal to them, they asked for a special dispensation to compensate blacks for past generational exploitation in their pay structure. This notion that the white working class will always be unwilling to work on equal footings with blacks is ahistorical.
The question is, does the ideological superstructure of America today make it more difficult to achieve that parity? I would argue that it does, in the age of a rising fascist movement like Trumpism, but that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of genetic impossibility.
RD: There may be singular cases to support what Pascal is saying, but the history of black-white labor relations has been a very negative one. Du Bois talks about this in Black Reconstruction (1935): the planter class was able to get the poor white farmers to side with them, whereas many blacks during Reconstruction sought to draw the poor white farmers and laborers into a coalition. It failed for the same reason that the progressive movement failed at the end of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries: the white laborers were largely unwilling to form a coalition with blacks. Looking at the broader labor movement, we don’t see this optimism that Pascal is talking about.
PR: I would never deny that history, but we have plenty of history showing otherwise as well. My point is that no one is arguing that it’s going to be a kumbaya process. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be a tough fight. You have to be willing to take it to the white folk who are trying to deny you what you deserve, period, whether it’s intellectually, argumentatively, or physically. But the bottom line is that as long as we believe that there’s some kind of ontological obstacle to black and white people working together to improve their mutual interests, that belies the Civil Rights movement, that belies the abolitionist movement, because the bottom line was that there were white people who were sacrificing their lives to improve the condition of blacks, when there was not much benefit for them to do so.
If we can pierce this racist charade in the minds of certain segments of whites and Latinos enough that they, like our comrades at this panel, would be willing to hear the black perspective on this history, it will be a step towards us being able to penetrate this racist charade of stupidity, to fight the capitalist and imperialist world economy.
RD: I agree with you, and this is why my first comments were about the fact that the white radical movement has failed. It should have been involved in the white community, particularly in the South, where much of the overt racism existed. Had the white radical movement directed its energies there, things may have been different.
AA: In my experience with the BPP, you had folks from the SDS that moved into the Weather Underground. None of them would say that they were working class, but their intention was to aid, to be allies to First Nation folks and folks of African descent. They would put out information to break down some of these false reasons why we couldn’t get together. That helped us to understand that the multiracial struggle was still important, and it showed the possibilities of folks from different racial backgrounds uniting around a vision that was about creating a new land.
What’s the horizon of imagination for change? If the standard of success is making black lives better, then that’s the same as the Democrats and Republicans. Is the goal here a New Deal 2.0, or when you all say “socialism” do you mean something more radical?
PR: I mean something more radical, but I wouldn’t balk at a New Deal 2.0 either, as long as it included black people, unlike the first New Deal. But that’s not going to stop me from fighting for a broader socialist project.
AA: I don’t care what it’s called. I like liberation, and we can figure it out. That’s a Zapatista thing. We don’t have to have all the answers; we can figure it out and ask questions as we go, collectively. But the bottom line is that it must empower people all the way. It must deal with all the intricacies of our history here in this empire. It must not ignore First Nations people, it must not ignore what happened and continues to happen to people of African descent. It must not ignore that Chicanos are still dealing with the theft of their land. How can we create a world where many worlds exist? That’s what moves me.
RD: Social change will come about when there is honest coalition politics. Coalition politics is necessary. At the same time, the cultural foundation and heritage of each group in the coalition is important. There are unique things to black America that will help to further the advancement of black America and the nation. I’m interested in national improvement. When there is a coalition of blacks with like-minded groups who have an interest in social change — radical or reformist — who recognize the unique cultural contributions of each group to the coalition, that’s when we can honestly sit down and map out where we want to go. I think that is possible. We’ve had that in the past, and it can be repeated to some extent. But there has to be honest dialogue. The reason why coalitions didn’t work in the past was that whites in such coalitions wanted to be the head driving the body, and as blacks began to mature politically, they rejected that. Social change is possible, but it has to be done in ways that we didn’t try in the past. This has to be a unique, innovative way of applying social change, while recognizing the heritage and cultural understanding of each group. That’s what I hope and pray for. |P
Transcribed by Mike Atkinson and Ethan Linehan
 Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998).
 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
 Preston H. Smith II, Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Postwar Chicago (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).