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Blacks In and Out of the Left
Michael C. Dawson
Harvard University Press, $24.95 (cloth)
Since the March on Washington fifty years ago, the condition of black people has deteriorated; today they are subject to injustices ranging from mass unemployment to mass incarceration. Yet gone is the rhetoric of militant hope, black liberation, and economic equality generated by the Third World revolutions five decades ago. It is difficult even to draw on the lessons and legacies of these revolutions, for the state suppression of radical organizations in the 1960s has extended into the suppression of their history. As Mumia Abu Jamal explained, young black people are suffering from “menticide,” deprived of their tradition, its strategy and tactics, and the hope it provides.
Michael C. Dawson’s important new book Blacks In and Out of the Left expands on Jamal’s diagnosis by characterizing one of its sources: the abandonment of the Black Power movement by white liberals and social democrats who claimed that a black-led movement was inconsistent with their “universalist” ambitions. Yet Dawson’s history shows the immense unifying power that black groups had. They brought together marginalized groups, created networks of support, and built a creative community. Indeed, restoring black politics means restoring a multinational, multiracial left.
• • •
In the ’60s many liberal whites believed black separatism threatened the possibility of a unified left. This belief led a generation of white leftist writers to attack the achievements of the black liberation movement, resulting in the repression, distortion, and caricature of the historical record of black leadership. In this context, Dawson’s frontal challenge to liberal and social democratic pontificates and his passionate defense of the black revolutionary tradition is a great gift to all students, especially black youth who have been robbed of their own history. Dawson brings to life the complexity of building a black and multi-racial left and highlights the profound achievements of black leaders and organizations that were purged from popular history. He emphasizes several important leaders who are too-little known today: Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, Claudia Jones, W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, and Fannie Lou Hamer. By reminding us that black revolutionary action has a long and influential tradition that extends well beyond the ’60s, Dawson challenges the white intellectuals who saw the unification of minority groups as a threat to their own interests. Here, for example, is Todd Gitlin:
In the late 1960s, the principle of separate organizations on behalf of distinct interests raged throughout ‘the movement’ with amazing speed. On the model of black demands came those of feminists, Chicanos, American Indians, gays, lesbians. One grouping after another insisted on the recognition of difference and the protection of their separate and distinct spheres. . . . from the 1970s on, left-wing universalism was profoundly demoralized.
As discouraged as white social democratic males may have felt, their domination caused a similar reaction among the revolutionary forces. Separation from the imposed universalism of the imperialist enlightenment allowed black groups to establish their own leadership, explore their own cultures, and use their own identities as the basis for self-determination. For most, separation was not separatism but an attempt to integrate self-determination into the multiracial, world struggle for socialist revolution. Indeed, the common future envisioned by blacks, Chicanos, and American Indians also attracted many whites. Rather than fracturing the left, black radicalism’s internationalist perspective provided an alternative to a universalism that was not universal.
To recover this history from its ideological misrepresentation, Blacks In and Out of the Left calls attention to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), who “developed their own unique version of Marxism-Leninism and black nationalism.” Dawson sees their work as both a black national struggle and a multiracial workers struggle, showing how the two can work in tandem.
Headquartered in Detroit from 1968 through the early 1970s, the LRBW built shop floor organizations in auto factories (as part of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement), led wildcat strikes, and organized white and Arab workers alongside blacks. By challenging Detroit’s auto industry—the symbol of American mass consumption—they “represented a real and present danger to American capitalism and the hegemony of unions that had reached an often racist accommodations with corporate America.” By extension, they challenged the aggressive support the American Federation of Labor and the United Automobile Workers had garnered for the anti-communist project internationally—including support for the war in Vietnam. Taking Lenin’s advice that workers should be tribunes of the people and respond to all forms of oppression, not just their own, they ran South End, a citywide paper; worked with “multiclass black united fronts”; opposed police brutality; initiated calls for reparations to be paid from white churches to black communities; and produced the influential film Finally Got the News (1970).
Another example of the effort to synthesize revolutionary black nationalism and Marxism was the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), which operated from 1978 until 1990. It was the largest and in my view most effective of the groups that comprised the New Communist Movement. As Dawson explains, the New Communist Movement included groups that believed the United States needed a new Communist party, allied with the People’s Republic of China against the Soviet Union. The LRS was the first large multinational group created through the merger of formerly national communist groups—the Congress of African People, which had become the Revolutionary Communist League; the (Chicano) August Twenty-Ninth Movement; and the (Asian/Pacific Islander) East Wind and I Work Kuen groups. The LRS included whites who wanted to work in an organization the majority of whose members and leaders were oppressed nationalities and women of color. As the LRS demonstrated, oppressed groups conceived of themselves as promoting universalism rather than precluding it.
The internationalism of black radicals was an alternative to a universalism that wasn't universal.
The LRS envisioned a socialist revolution in the United States as part of a world revolution in which a black nation in the American South and a Chicano nation in the Southwest would ally with the multinational working class—including white workers—and the peoples and nations of the Third World. The LRS set up a national office and ran a national newspaper, Unity/Unidad. It also had hundreds of cadres working in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Newark, and New York. Taking seriously the Marxist slogan “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” those of us who were well-paid autoworkers—I was a member from 1975 to 1985—made non–tax deductible contributions of $250–400 a month, ensuring that the organization was staffed with comrades who, working long hours, could at least pay their rent and support their families. We set up a childcare service so women could play leading roles in the organization and so children would make friends of all races, growing up in the society we wanted to build. One of our goals was to advance cultural integration as well as economic justice.
Across the country, LRS members got jobs in meatpacking plants, molten foundries, and auto factories. Like the LRBW, the LRS was instrumental in union reform movements that challenged the UAW leadership’s class collaboration. In St. Louis the LRS built a powerful UAW black caucus in a major auto factory, and in East St. Louis, Illinois, it founded the Organization for Black Struggle, which challenged police and slumlords and recruited militant and politically conscious black youth. In Los Angeles, LRS members in UAW Local 645 led an unprecedented campaign to keep GM Van Nuys open. A large and diverse group of workers built a labor/community coalition rooted in the black and Latino communities. We threatened GM with a boycott in L.A. County—the largest new car market in the country—and built a movement so strong that GM backed down and kept the plant open for ten years. I worked on the assembly line at Van Nuys for a decade and was the chair of the campaign, a story told in my book, Taking on General Motors (1987), and in a fine film by Michal Goldman, Tiger by the Tail (1986). In Oakland black LRS cadres worked with the Transit Workers Union and in New York they helped to lead the fight against police brutality.
• • •
Given the creativity, tactical brilliance, broad appeal, courage, and moral vision of the thousands of independent black cultural, women’s, and social service collectives, how can we explain the decline of black-led radical organizations? Having participated in such organizations for almost five decades and studied the history of revolutionary movements my whole life, I see three major reasons.
First, we should not take for granted how difficult it is to build and sustain any revolutionary organization. Contradictions among members and constituent groups make voluntary unity difficult to maintain. The larger an organization is, the greater the diversity in race, class, sexual orientation, and personality and the more internal contradictions.
Second, since the 1960s, the U.S. government has increasingly refused to concede even the smallest demands of working people and the poor. Social welfare programs are being shut down, unions are being broken, and civil rights, voting rights, and labor laws are being reversed. While in theory this can also generate a revolutionary response, and sometimes does, it can also discourage people as they begin to see revolution as a lost cause.
Third—and, in my view, the primary reason for the decline—is the brutal suppression of social movements by the state. The history is unequivocal: it is when black people garner mass support within their own communities and achieve a high level of unity with revolutionaries of all races that the heavy hammer of the white power structure comes down the hardest. Marcus Garvey, the brilliant leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was convicted in 1925 on a spurious charge of federal mail fraud, spent two years in prison, was deported to Jamaica, and was never able to rebuild his organization from exile. Claudia Jones, a great feminist and internationalist leader in the U.S. Communist Party during the 1930s, was deported to England where she played a major role in black politics but died in poverty. Paul Robeson said that black people would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union; as a result he was under constant police surveillance, denied his passport and therefore his livelihood as a globally renowned singer, and driven to a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered. W.E.B. DuBois was also denied his passport and prosecuted as “an unregistered agent of a foreign power.” He eventually left the United States to live and die in Ghana. Martin Luther King, Jr. was under constant police wiretapping; J. Edgar Hoover’s explicit plan was to drive him, as well, to a nervous breakdown. These prominent leaders were among thousands of dedicated freedom fighters who were beaten, tortured, and imprisoned.
But the largest victim of state suppression during the 1970s, and historical suppression now, is the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. With thousands of members in thirty major cities, it mobilized black, Latino, and white allies to carry out the only mass, armed self-defense movement for black people since black slaves joined the Union Army during the Civil War. The Panthers monitored police behavior, ran the Breakfast for Children program, produced the weekly paper The Black Panther, took a strong stand against the war in Vietnam, and traveled all over the world in solidarity with Third World movements. COINTELPRO, a counter-insurgency program run by the FBI, sent trained informers and agents provocateurs to infiltrate the Panthers and destroy the organization from the inside by instigating disputes among its members and even killing its leaders. Dawson documents the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, dynamic Panther leaders in Chicago, who were drugged by a police informer in their midst and assassinated by the police as they lay sleeping in their beds. Many of the negative actions attributed to the Panthers were actually initiated and carried out by the police informers in an attempt to bring the organization down.
That attempt succeeded. If you want to understand the decline of radical movements, don’t look first to the challenges of being revolutionary—look first to the state.
• • •
Dawson’s historical analysis provides a model for reinvigorating the revolutionary organizations of today. Emphasizing what he calls the “Third Path” leading from black self-determination to multiracial structures of resistance, Dawson rejects the white chauvinism of social democracy and the impressive but ultimately unsuccessful work of the predominantly white Communist Party in advancing black liberation and socialism. He courageously argues that the black revolutionary tradition—and, I would add, the black-Latino alliance—can lead “a radical domestic agenda that is tied to a worldview that demands justice for all of humanity, not just those who live in rich and privileged countries.”
There are many important experiments today trying to carry out that mission, among them the Black Workers for Justice and the Malcolm X grassroots movements. My own organization, the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, is based on the lessons of my many black and Latino teachers. The Labor/Community Strategy Center is a leftist initiative, which was launched in 1989, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, to figure out what revolutionary organizing in the age of reaction would look like. Our work focuses on training a new generation of black and Latino activists in the traditions of black revolutionary, Third World, and communist organizing.
To understand the decline of radical movements, look first to the state.
We have won major structural changes over the past twenty-five years, a testament to the value of the black revolutionary traditions. By 1990 we formed the Labor/Community Watchdog to fight environmental racism by mobilizing Latino immigrants to demand reductions in toxic emissions from Texaco and other oil refineries. In 1991 we collaborated with Accion Ecologica in Ecuador to organize an international boycott of Texaco in light of its environmentally devastating “drill and run” policies.
We also formed the Bus Riders Union in 1992 to protest Los Angeles’s “third-class bus system for Third World people” and, with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for establishing a separate and unequal transit system. Through sit-ins, a “no seat, no fare campaign,” and federal court orders, we forced the MTA to buy 2,500 compressed natural gas buses, reduce overcrowding, and lower bus fares for a decade. When the “Fight Transit Racism—Billions for Buses campaign” began, the MTA ridiculed us. But so far we have won $2.7 billion for buses for low-income black and Latino riders. Our strategy was to demand change in funding using rhetoric that unified many marginalized groups against a transit system that favored the rich. Our campaign captured the imagination of black and Latino bus riders and many middle-class white allies.
Today, in an effort to combat menticide, we are mobilizing young black and Latino organizers in Los Angeles high schools to fight the school-to-prison pipeline and the mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos. As our recently released study, Black, Brown and Over-Policed in L.A. Schools illustrates:
It is common experience in many low-income black and Latino neighborhoods for a student to walk out their door in the morning and run a gauntlet of Los Angeles Police Department in their neighborhood, then Sheriffs (LASD) patrols on public transit (stopped and frisked for ‘fare evasion’) then Los Angeles School Police Department and Probation Department at their school all day, at the front gate, in the halls, the cafeteria at lunch, in random disruptions of their classes. At the end of the day, they must pass through the same gauntlet in reverse to get home.
Seventeen-to-twenty-five-year-old organizers are leading Taking Action clubs where the students share experiences and connect their lives to the study of political consciousness and strategy. With training, they see themselves as organizers building a black and Latino united front against racism and subjugation in the high schools of Los Angeles. The movement convinced the Los Angeles Unified School Board and the Los Angeles School Police Department to stop issuing truancy citations. In just four years, more than 35,000 tardy students were ticketed on their way to school, arrested, handcuffed, and forced to pay $250–$1,000 fines. Our current project is to end school police involvement where teachers, administrators, students, and parents should handle discipline. We are also proposing an Equal Protection Plan that decriminalizes fifteen so-called violations, including “disturbing the peace,” “disorderly conduct,” and “possession of marijuana, alcohol, and markers [used for graffiti].”
Last year we initiated Fight for the Soul of the Cities, which asks organizers and community members to rally around a political platform that, as Dawson advises, offers a vision of a new society in which minority groups unite. Can we motivate black people to support open borders and amnesty? Or Latinos to support justice for Trayvon Martin?
I have spent my whole life working for what Dawson describes as a radical, anti-imperialist movement independent of both capitalist parties, with strong black leadership rooted in the 20th century’s great black-led experiments in resistance. Dawson brings the work of many important black leaders and organizations to our attention while the ruling class works to suppress its memory.
As a critical part of this effort, I urge a new generation of “young, gifted, and black” revolutionaries, together with Latinos, indigenous people, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and whites to use history to inform your organizing work. Read Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, V. I. Lenin’s What is to be Done?, Harry Haywood’s Black Bolshevik, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Carol Boyce Davies’s Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, Mao Tse-tung’s On Practice, Paul Robeson’s Here I Stand, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” Brooks and Houck’s, The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X’s Message to the Grassroots, the LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, Alexis De Veaux’s Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, Alan Wieder’s Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Edward Galeanos’s The Open Veins of Latin America and—of course—Dawson’s Blacks In and Out of the Left. Read as if your life depended on it; engage in the debate; join an organization; get out into the fields, the factories, the buses, the community, the high schools, and the prisons.
Eric Mann is director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, host of KPFK's Voices from the Frontlines, and author of Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer. He was a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality and a national officer of Students for a Democratic Society. He can be reached at [email protected].
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