The Forging of Oppressed Nationalities in the U.S.
By Jack Barnes
These excerpts from a summary to a political report made at an SWP National Committee meeting in February 1970 are reprinted from International Internal Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 10, July 1973, pp 24-6
The SWP has since abandoned Trotskyism and its analysis of Black Nationalism.
Before discussing our position on an independent Chicano political party, we should begin by clarifying how our view of an independent Black political party developed. We faced a situation that was unique. Lenin did not precisely foresee this demand in his writing on the national question.
Lenin was clear on the responsibility of the revolutionary party in stressing socialist demands and democratic demands; it depended on whether the revolutionary socialist party was in the oppressor nation or in the oppressed nation. The proletarian party of the oppressor nation gave unconditional support to the democratic demands of those nationalities that were oppressed by its own ruling class, and the party stressed this in its propaganda to the usually chauvinist-minded or racist-minded workers. The proletarian party in the oppressed nation, which supported and fought as part of the nationalist struggle for self-determination, stressed the internationalist and proletarian demands in order to win over the workers of its nation to the banner of proletarian internationalism. These were two of the key points that Lenin emphasized. In addition, he was crystal clear on questions like that of the Ukraine He supported the unconditional right of the Ukrainian people not just to organize and fight for their independence but to separate from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, if they chose. Taking this approach was the only basis on which the establish a strong Soviet Union and prepare for world socialism.
But we are faced here with some special circumstances. What Trotsky began grappling with, what he saw –and then what we saw later — in the Black struggles in the United States was a national struggle with the characteristics that Lenin had not dealt with. The Afro Americans are a nationality that did not originate like most others that the Leninist movement discussed. Black people were dragged to North America as slaves. They came here speaking different languages. They came here from totally different levels of historical and cultural development. They came here from totally different nations, from totally different tribes, from totally different sections of Africa. Certainly none of these characteristics was a common denominator.
Their common denominator became their servitude, the destruction of their native languages, the destruction of their native cultures, the destruction of their native religions by the slave masters. What happened was that on American soil, under unique conditions, these Black slaves became a new nationality not directly linked to their original nations or tribes, which spoke different languages, had no common bonds whatsoever and often didn’t know each other. That is the origin of what we today call the Afro-American nationality or the Black nationality.
Their common denominator became their skin color. Racism was reinforced with the defeat of Reconstruction and the rise of American imperialism, and an oppressed Black nationality was welded more strongly together by the oppressor. This was not a development like that of the usual oppressed nationality with a clear geographical boundary and a relatively long, homogeneous cultural-historical identity. It was a unique phenomenon. And that is why Trotsky —in his discussions with his American comrades, who didn’t see this because they concentrated on what was different about Afro-Americans compared to classical oppressed nationalities — stressed the lessons learned from the Bolsheviks on the national question, but also added some things that were new. He thought the American socialists were blind in not seeing the development of this new nationality that had been created due to the unevenness of the development of American capitalism.
This is a country that is creating new nationalities. Think for a minute about the Indians. The word “Indian” comes from the fact that the white man was so dumb that he thought he was inIndia. It had nothing to do with describing a single nation. The Native Americans had different levels of cultural development, came from different tribes, spoke different languages; some had no communications with others; there were no nation-states. They were one of the real genocidal victims of American capitalism. What happened was that their culture and the separate identities were to a large degree stripped away from them, and they developed a common bond, too, the common bond of being called goddamned Indians. And that was about all. They were herded together on reservations; they were further discriminated against — victims of the deepening racism and the rise of imperial arrogance; and it was in this process that a new national minority was created, the Indian or Native American nationality. It did not exist before, although this does not erase various differences among Native Americans from different tribal heritages.
In certain ways, this is true of the Chicanos. In this sense, the Chicano people are also a new nationality created by American conditions. Chicano nationalism does not reflect the desire to return toMexico in a geographical sense, but the determination to stand up united and win the right of self-determination right where they are — in Aztlán.
The real common language of the Afro-Americans and of the Native Americans is English. The oppressor’s language is their common language. Trotsky raised the possibility of Afro-Americans developing a separate language. But this would have had to be a new language. It could not have come from their former languages, which have been wiped away.
What did Trotsky say? In the discussions reprinted in Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination and in the articles on the national question reprinted as part of The Writings of Leon Trotsky [1939-40], he said that imperialism itself, under special conditions and out of racial material can create new nationalities. That’s exactly what happened here in theUnited States, and the specific process is outlined in the political report adopted by the last convention:
In the [political] resolution, a thumbnail sketch is given of the rise of American imperialism. It says that “after spreading across the North American continent, slaughtering and dispossessing the Indians and overpowering the slave system in the South in the process, it became a world imperialist power at the turn of the century. In the Spanish-American War,U.S.imperialism sized sectors of the decayed Spanish empire outright, dislodgedSpainfromCubaand proceeded to establish its own empire inLatin Americaand the Pacific.” In that thumbnail sketch are described all the components that American capital incorporated in its nation: Afro-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans.
It is not the working class but the oppressor class, in its drive to incorporate labor and territory under its national control, that created the oppressed nationalities.
In his contribution to the discussion for the convention, George Breitman raised the question for discussion: when exactly did the Afro-Americans become a nationality? I think they became a nationality with the defeat of Reconstruction, which showed the incapacity of American capitalism to integrate the former slaves, and with the rise of American imperialism. That is just my opinion, and someone else may choose another time. But certainly that period –with the growth of racism and the rise of Jim Crow, which were necessary to justify American imperial expansion against the colored peoples of the world and to help create pariah pools of unemployed low-wage labor and divide the working class –was a key point in the creation of this oppressed nationality.
Trotsky was conscious of lurking prejudice among workers of the oppressor and privileged nation, even among advanced workers. He said that it is not very, very difficult for the revolutionary party to teach an English worker to have solidarity with the rest of his class. It is a lot harder to teach him to have solidarity with a yellow coolie or a brown laborer. And it is harder still to teach him to have solidarity with the struggles of women. Something that we can learn from Lenin, Trotsky, and our own party’s experience and tradition, something we affirmed explicitly in the resolution we passed at the last convention, is that we, as the revolutionary proletarian party in the oppressor nation, the United States of America, have the responsibility to lead the fight for the unconditional right of these oppressed nationalities to organize independently and to determine their own destiny. This is a revolutionary democratic task that the American bourgeoisie has long been unable to carry out. Only the proletarian revolution can carry out this task, we say. And the SWP socialist fighters will prove it by being at the head of those who unconditionally fight at the side of the national minorities at each stage of their struggle.
Unlike every bourgeois politician or petty-bourgeois bureaucrat, we are not afraid of these struggles, because every independent democratic struggle is a fight against imperialism and a fight for the working masses. It is a fight against the enemy of the working class, and we will prove our worth in practice — whether it is a fight for preferential hiring, for open admissions, or for the establishment of a separate state.
At the last convention we discussed the fact that, although for many years we didn’t recognize the degree to which the national question applied to the oppressed nationalities in the United States, we supported independent candidates of these minorities. Unlike all other radical tendencies, we applied our class-struggle principles and supported every fight for democratic rights, up to and including independent political action. Before we adopted our 1963 position (really readopted our 1939 position in light of the unfolding rise of Black nationalism), we had a long history of supporting genuinely independent candidates of the national minorities. We understood this responsibility very clearly and acted on it.
At our last convention, we pointed out how the coming American revolution will be a combined revolution. Like the Russian Revolution, it will be a revolution of the oppressed national minorities for self-determination – complete independence and the right to determine their own future —and a revolution of the working class to overturn capitalism and establish a workers’ state. A very important fact, which makes our perspective of a combined revolution even more clear, is the overwhelmingly working-class composition of the oppressed national minorities in the United States. In fact, the odds are that it will be the oppressed national minorities in the United States who will adopt proletarian demands most rapidly and most thoroughly. We have seen nothing in the last thirty years to make us doubt Trotsky’s prediction on this.
If the national struggle is another, very complex form of the class struggle, as Trotsky insisted, then the nationalist consciousness of a heavily proletarian national minority is an important form of class consciousness. I think that the general nationalist feeling among the mass of working Afro-Americans is the most advanced form of class consciousness of any broad layer of the proletariat in this country today.