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New from Haymarket Books by Ahmed Shawki
Black liberation and socialism

February 17, 2006 | Pages 6 and 7

AHMED SHAWKI is the author of a new Haymarket Books publication, Black Liberation and Socialism, which uncovers the largely hidden history of the struggle for Black liberation in the U.S.--and reveals how, throughout that history, the ideas and actions of socialists have been an integral part of the struggle. Here, we print excerpts from the book's introduction--and from the many voices of the struggle quoted in Black Liberation and Socialism.

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HURRICANE KATRINA, which hit the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005, left areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama devastated. Katrina exposed the priorities of the U.S. government, as thousands of people were abandoned to fend for themselves.

Hurricane Katrina also exposed--or rather, exposed again--the simple fact that African Americans in the United States are the victims of deeply rooted racism.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing and, for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence.

It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical.

Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

 

As the images of devastation and desperation were broadcast across the country and around the world, the chief of the U.S. government's agency charged with dealing with such disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, blamed the victims of the hurricane for the situation they were in. After all, argued Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, they should have left town as advised by local authorities.

Leaving aside that evacuation orders went out late, the simple fact that a good portion of New Orleans' poor--largely Black--didn't have the means to leave town, or had nowhere to go, was not a matter of concern.

The message being sent by the Bush administration was clear: If you're poor and Black, you are plain out of luck. You are not a priority.

Less than a month later, at a mass demonstration of opposition to war and the occupation of Iraq, a Black woman held up a sign that evoked the now well-known phrase used by Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxing champion. When asked by a reporter why he was applying for conscientious objector status instead of going to fight the U.S. war against Vietnam, Ali replied, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."' He added pointedly, "no Viet Cong ever called me nigger."

The sign held at the antiwar demonstration in September 2005 read: "No Iraqis left me on a roof to die."

This woman was not alone in making the connections among the unnatural effects of Hurricane Katrina, the priorities of the system and the war in Iraq. Many resources that could have been mobilized to cushion the impact of Katrina were not available because they were diverted--funds, equipment and people--to the war and occupation of Iraq. Thousands, if not millions, understood what many signs at the September 2005 antiwar demonstration spelled out, "Make levees, not war."

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WITH THEIR disgraceful mishandling of the aftermath of Katrina, George Bush and his administration stood naked in front of the world. This has fuelled a tremendous anger already brewing in the United States against the way this society works--or doesn't--for the majority of people.

As many writers have suggested, it is a grave mistake to think that U.S. society is stable, or that the promise of neoliberalism is the solution for most people. The United States is headed for an inevitable and tumultuous conflict.

And as in every other period of radicalization in the past, Blacks will be at the heart of the effort to change the United States.

MALCOLM X

[A]ll of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning towards socialism. I don't think it's an accident. Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries, and the last bulwark of capitalism today is America.

It's impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can't have capitalism without racism. And if you find one, and you happen to get that person into a conversation, and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don't have this racism in their outlook, usually, they're socialists, or their political philosophy is socialism.

 

The aim of Black Liberation and Socialism is twofold: (1) to give an overview of some of the main ideological and political currents in the struggle for Black liberation in the United States; and (2) to argue the case that both historically and in the future, socialist ideas and organization are an integral part of this struggle.

In today's political climate, many may find this idea untenable. But it is irrefutable that the United States has gone through waves of radicalization on a mass scale--when millions of people showed their opposition to the existing system and how it is run.

In the late 1960s, radical politics, including Marxism, were integrally connected to the movements for social change in the United States. Key figures and organizations in the Black freedom struggle identified themselves with some form of socialist or Marxist politics. And the Black struggle had profound effects on U.S. society.

The mass mobilizations of the late 1950s and 1960s to end segregation in the South helped break the stranglehold of McCarthyism and conservatism that dominated U.S. politics. The civil rights movement smashed "Jim Crow" laws--the apartheid-like segregation laws introduced at the turn of the century--that denied Blacks the most basic rights.

The Black Power movement of the late 1960s represented a further radicalization of the movement involving hundreds of thousands of activists, Black and white, in political activity and mobilization.

All kinds of political ideas flourished during this period. For the first time since the demise of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s, Black nationalist ideas gained a hearing on a mass scale.

KARL MARX

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry...[T]o do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

 

By the late 1960s, sections of the movement underwent an even greater radicalization. The Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, for example, spoke of the need for revolution and declared themselves "Marxist-Leninist" organizations. It was commonly asserted, in however partial, confused, or ill-conceived ways, that reformism was a dead end and that only revolutionary politics could achieve Black liberation.

Whatever weaknesses the movement had, it remains a tremendous source of inspiration and holds many lessons for us today.

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YET MORE than three decades later, the situation has changed completely. While the officially sanctioned racism of Jim Crow is a thing of the past, there has been a steady erosion of the gains Blacks won in the 1960s. Still today, in 2006, the polarization between Blacks and whites in incomes, living standards, education, health care and just about any other marker remains substantial.

The State of Black America 2005, an annual report published by the National Urban League, documents the continuing reality of racism and discrimination in the United States. The executive summary of the report points out:

The biggest divide between Blacks and whites is economic status, nearly 20 percent worse than any other category.

In 2005, Black unemployment remained stagnant at 10.8 percent while white unemployment decreased to 4.7 percent, making Black unemployment over 2.3 times more than whites.

Home Ownership: The home ownership rate for Blacks is nearly 50 percent versus more than 70 percent for whites. While African Americans' mortgage denial and home improvement loans rates did improve, Blacks are still denied these types of loans at twice the rate of whites.

Health: The health index showed slight declines compared to 2004 due to a faster increase in obesity rates for African Americans than whites...

Education: Teachers with less than three years' experience teach in minority schools at twice the rate that they teach in white schools.

Social Justice: 2005 showed the equality gap between whites and Blacks in the criminal justice system is worsening, going from 73 percent to 68 percent. Blacks are three times more likely to become prisoners once arrested and a Black person's average jail sentence is six months longer than a white's for the same crime; 39 months versus 33 months.

At the same time as these major inequalities have hardened, there was a corresponding retreat from left-wing ideas, leading to an almost complete absence of mass political activity today around these fundamental questions. The decline and disorientation of the left movements of the 1960s began in the late 1970s and has affected not just Blacks, but also the labor movement, and movements for women's and gay rights, among others.

By 1987, the activist and scholar Manning Marable wrote, "The political mood across Black America ha[d] grown more pessimistic. Allies of the Black freedom struggle have abandoned their previous support for affirmative action and expanded civil rights legislation.

"Among Blacks, there is a deepening sense of social alienation and political frustration, generated partially by the continued popularity of President [Ronald] Reagan, the conservative trend in the Democratic Party, and the intense economic chaos which plagues Black inner cities despite three years of national economic 'recovery.'"

And if the mood was pessimistic in the late 1980s, it is altogether bleaker today. There is a greater sense of alienation and powerlessness in Black America and an even greater fragmentation of organized forces--at the very time the need for an organized movement of resistance has grown more urgent.

Over the past three decades, the left has largely abandoned revolutionary politics in favor of some variety of reformism--what is often described as the politics of "realism." This development did not occur overnight. Many activists on the U.S. left, for example, supported Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 presidential bids, arguing that the Rainbow Coalition was the historic continuation of the struggles of the 1960s.

To quote Marable again, "The essence of the Jackson campaign was a democratic, antiracist social movement, initiated and led by Afro-Americans, which had assumed an electoral mode. Its direct historical antecedents--the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, the formation of SNCC and the sit-in movement of 1960, the Birmingham desegregation campaign of 1963--were revived in a new protest form within bourgeois democratic politics."

Leaving aside the validity of this argument for now, what is clear today is that supporting candidates like Jackson, once seen as a means to achieve left-wing or radical aims, by 2004 had morphed into supporting anyone who declared he or she was opposed to the right wing, regardless of their actual positions.

MARTIN LUTHER KING

We must honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there 40 million poor people in America?"

And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And to ask questions about the whole society.

We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?" These are questions that must be asked...

When I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are tied together...

A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them, make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments...and will have to use its military might to protect them.

All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!"

 

Thus, virtually the entire left in the United States called for, and worked for, a vote for Democrat John Kerry against President George W. Bush, despite the fact that Kerry had virtually identical positions to Bush on the war in Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and a host of other questions.

In this way, much of the left radicalized in the 1960s and 1970s has migrated wholesale into the Democratic Party, the party that in the 1960s prosecuted the war in Vietnam and upheld Jim Crow in the South. In so doing, this left severed itself from the tradition of struggle that the 1960s revived.

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THE BOOK Black Liberation and Socialism seeks to reaffirm the need for a struggle against racism and the economic and political system that maintains it--capitalism. An examination of the history of the fight for Black freedom in the United States confirms the need for such a strategy.

This book also makes the case that such a struggle needs to aspire to the radical reconstruction of society if racism is to be overcome and Black liberation truly realized. This is not to suggest that advances, reforms, or real victories cannot be achieved under capitalism. Rather, it is only to underline that whatever reforms are won can, will and many have been taken away--unless there is a fundamental restructuring of a system that relies on exploitation and oppression to survive.

Lastly, and on a more personal note, I want to acknowledge the significance of the 1960s struggle in helping shape a whole generation for the better. Even if many of the advances made in the 1960s have been rolled back today, the movement's impact cannot be measured only by its impact on government policy, or even by its effect on the economic and social conditions for Black people in the United States.

One of the most important legacies of periods of mass struggle is that those involved are transformed--and that their actions also help shape and transform others. Speaking, or writing, for myself, the example of Muhammad Ali standing up to the U.S. war in Vietnam, or the outrage that exploded with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, had a profound and lasting impact.

Growing up outside the United States, two images of this country were etched in my mind. One was the image of war--Vietnam, napalm and the massacre at My Lai, captured so famously in the image of a naked young girl, running for her life, weeping in pain. The other is of the Black struggle--of courage and heroism, of a wronged people standing up to a juggernaut.

The United States is today's only military superpower. It is seen around the world as a bully abusing its power for profit and empire. But the United States of 2006 is no different than the United States of 1968 with regard to who prosecutes and who benefits from its wars.

And, in reality, just like 1968, there isn't one United States of America, but two.

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