What would a “radical reconstruction” mean?

January 18, 2016

In her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, SW contributor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor surveys the history and current realities of racism in America, examining how it has created and shaped the structural problems that affect the majority of Black Americans, even as a minority has more political and economic power than ever before. And she goes on to paint a vivid picture of the context for the new struggle against police violence, showing the potential of the movement to reignite the struggle for Black liberation. Here, we publish an excerpt from the final chapter of the book that places the today's protests and struggles in the context of a long history of resistance to racism and capitalism.

THIS BOOK opens with a long quote from an essay Martin Luther King Jr. published in 1969. In it, he writes that the Black struggle "reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced." What would constitute the "radical reconstruction" of American society? This was a central question confronting the Black movement at the end of the last period of mass struggle. King himself had come to locate the crises confronting the United States in the "triplets" of "racism, materialism and militarism." King and hundreds of thousands of other angry Black, whites, and Latino/as across the country were rapidly radicalizing in reaction to the hypocrisy, contradictions, and brutality of capitalism. From the "massive resistance" of white supremacists led by the Democratic Party in the South to the expanding war in Vietnam, to the dense poverty exposed by waves of ghetto rebellions, the US government had become an emperor with no clothes.

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation | Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

This unfolding radicalization was not happening in isolation: it was part of a global rebellion against an old colonial order that was rapidly coming undone. During the course of World War II, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, and France all lost colonial possessions. After the war, in 1947, England went on to lose the British colony of India, which was partitioned into India and Pakistan. And 1960 became known as the "Year of Africa" when seventeen African countries achieved independence from their colonial overlords. Decolonization was achieved in various ways, from "peaceful" transference of power to armed nationalist struggles. The ensuing debates over the futures of postcolonial societies included arguments over how to transform export-based economies into ones that prioritized the needs of the local population. In several of these countries, the debates revolved around different interpretations of socialism. In many ways these debates were distorted, given the wide influence of the Soviet Union, a country that at one point had been socialist but by this period had been for many years a one-party authoritarian regime. The Soviet model of socialism was based on an extremely narrow, limited definition of "state ownership." But who owned the state was an equally important question. There were other questions generated by those movements, including: how to win state power, political economy, and how all of this would contribute to economic development and self-determination after centuries of colonial ruin. Nonwhite, formerly colonized people around the world hailed socialism (defined in many ways) almost universally as the means for achieving their freedom and reconstructing state power in their own names.

By the end of the 1960s, many Black revolutionaries took for granted that African Americans were a colonized population within the United States. In the book Black Power, Carmichael and Hamilton said as much: "Black people in this country form a 'colony,' and it is not in the interest of the colonial power to liberate them. Black people are legal citizens of the United States with, for the most part, the same legal rights as other citizens. Yet they stand as colonial subjects in relation to white society."[1] This idea was popular because it seemed an accurate way to describe the relationship between the impoverished, largely Black urban cores in the midst of much whiter, larger metropolitan areas. Colonialism could also explain the financially predatory relationship of business to Black communities, which was almost wholly organized around extraction, with little to no investment. All of these descriptions made sense of Black oppression and exploitation and seemed to fit with what was happening to Black and Brown people all over the globe. As Stokely Carmichael wrote, "Black Power cannot be isolated from the African Revolution. It can only be comprehended within the context of the African Revolution. Thus with Black Power . . . came an intensification as the African Revolution from Watts to Soweto went into the phase of the armed struggle."[2]

It was, however, inaccurate to describe Black Americans' relationship to the United States as colonial, despite these obvious similarities. The profits reaped from the exploitation of Black urban dwellers were not insignificant, but neither were they the important revenue streams back to the American "metropole." The outflow of capital from the inner city worked almost exclusively to the benefit of the layer of business owners directly involved in economically exploitative relationships with the urban ghetto, such as bankers and real-estate agents. This was not a motor of American capitalism compared to the cotton, rubber, sugar, and mineral extraction and trade that had fueled colonial empires for hundreds of years.

Being an oppressed minority population does not necessarily mean being colonial subjects. Calling Black people a colonized people drew the Black struggle into the global rebellion against the "colonial oppressors." Malcolm X spoke to this when he recognized that it was "incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as purely an American problem. Rather, we are seeing today a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter."[3] Placing the Black rebellion within the context of the "African Revolution" defied the idea that Black people were a "minority" population fighting on their own in the belly of the beast. The identification of the Black struggle with the anticolonial movement also reintroduced interpretations of socialism back into the Black movement. There had been thousands of Black socialists, communists, and other anticapitalists in the United States for years, but the anticommunist witch hunt led by the federal government had largely destroyed any links between the socialist movement of the 1930s and the new wave of struggle in the 1960s.

BY THE end of the 1960s, socialism was once again on the table as a legitimate alternative to the "evil triplets" King worried about. Most Black radicals were gravitating toward some conceptualization of socialism. It was easy to see why, considering how exposed the crimes of capitalism were. The United States had been experiencing years of economic growth, yet poverty, underemployment, and substandard housing were still the norm for Black and Brown people. In a speech Malcolm X gave at the founding of his Organization of Afro-American Unity, he said:

I'm telling you we do it because we live in one of the rottenest countries that has ever existed on this earth. It's the system that is rotten; we have a rotten system. It's a system of exploitation, a political and economic system of exploitation, of outright humiliation, degradation, discrimination--all of the negative things that you can run into, you have run into under this system that disguises itself as a democracy....And you run around here getting ready to get drafted and go someplace and defend it. Someone needs to crack you upside your head.[4]

He would go on to name that system:

All of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning toward 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 and it's impossible for a white person today to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can't have capitalism without racism. And if you find a person without racism and you happen to get that person into 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.[5]

Similarly, King, near the end of his life, connected the "fire" burning down the house of America to the inequities rooted deep in the country's political economy. In 1967, King was reckoning with several questions that pierced the heart of American injustice:

"Where do we go from here," that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty 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 I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. 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?"[6]

Black women were also connecting the system of capitalism to the hardship their families experienced. Black women who had been active in the civil rights movement went on to form the Third World Women's Alliance in 1968. By the early 1970s they published the Black Women's Manifesto, which analyzed racism and sexism in the movement and more generally: "The system of capitalism (and its afterbirth...racism) under which we all live, has attempted by many devious ways and means to destroy the humanity of black people. This has meant an outrageous assault on every black man, woman and child who resides in the United States."[7] Some of the women involved in the Third World Women's Alliance would also go on to form the Combahee River Collective. They too would link the oppression of Blacks and women to capitalism:

We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation....Although we are in essential agreement with Marx's theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.[8]

By 1970, the Black Panther Party, an unabashed revolutionary socialist organization, was the largest and most influential Black revolutionary organization, with more than 5,000 members and 45 chapters. In 1971, the Panthers' newspaper, the Black Panther, reached its peak circulation at 250,000 papers a week[9]--a reach far beyond their membership. Ordinary Blacks reading the paper would have found the Panthers' outline for Black liberation mapped out with their "Ten-Point Program." Among their many demands were an end "to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black community," "decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings," "an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people," and "land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace."[10]

Anticapitalism filtered into every aspect of Black life, including the workplace. In 1968, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, made up of former Black students and Black autoworkers in Detroit, made similar references. An organizer from that group, John Watson, said in 1968:

To struggle in our own interests means that the Black people of the ghetto must struggle to overthrow white capitalism. The struggle against capitalism is world wide [sic] and the revolutionary struggle of the ghetto is crucial and essential in the over all [sic] world revolution. If the Koreans and Vietnamese can overthrow imperialism in Asia, then Asia will be free. But if the Black Revolution can overthrow capitalism and imperialism in the US, then the whole world will be freed. This, then, is our role.[11]

By the end of the 1960s, there was widespread understanding that the capitalist economy was responsible for Black hardship and that socialism was an alternative way to organize society. Organizations that called for the overthrow of the government, like the Black Panthers, were so popular that in 1969 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared that "the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country."[12] The popularity of the Panthers--in concert with successive years of ghetto rebellions--compelled the economic and political elite to create more space for the development of a Black middle class, but for the majority the questions of inequality and injustice remained largely unresolved.


1. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Random House, 1967), 6.
2. Ibid., 197.
3. Socialist Organizer, "Malcolm X on Capitalism and Socialism," December 9, 2008.
4. Malcolm X, "Speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity," BlackPast.org, delivered June 28, 1964, New York City.
5. Socialist Organizer, "Malcolm X."
6. Quoted in Jack M. Bloom, Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 212.
7. Third World Women's Alliance, "Black Women's Manifesto," Duke Digital Collections, 19, 1970–75.
8. Combahee River Collective, "The Combahee River Collective Statement," April 1977.
9. Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Black Panthers and Their Legacy (New York: Routledge, 2014), 121.
10. Black Panther Party, "Black Panthers Ten-Point Program," October 15, 1966.
11. Quoted in Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1998), 17.
12. Roger Guenveur Smith, "Hoover and the F.B.I.," companion website to the documentary film A Huey P. Newton Story (Philadelphia: PBS and Luna Ray Films, 2002), accessed June 28, 2015.

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