THE SLOGAN FOR A BLACK PARTY AND THE PROBLEM OF ADAPTING THE TRANSITIONAL PROGRAM TO THE BLACK LIBERATION STRUGGLE IN THE UNITED STATES Linda M.B. (name withheld)
“*This document is based on a presentation given a few weeks ago to the SCAR fraction”
(Note: My best estimate of the original publication date is 1977. The National Student Coalition Against Racism (NSCAR) was a united front anti-racist organization initiated by the US SWP during the Boston Busing struggle. I will be posting documents and articles related to the Boston desegregation fight over the next few months. The Revolutionary Marxist Papers were published by the Revolutionary Marxist Committee, a short-lived US revolutionary organization that originated in a split from the Revolutionary Socialist League. The RMC dissolved itself into the US SWP in 1978. References to “Johnson” in discussions with Trotsky are to the party name of writer CLR James. The Workers League has changed its named to Socialist Equality Party and is the owner of the world socialist web site -wsws. )
Revolutionary Marxist Papers #10* establishes the basic position of. the RMC toward the question of Black liberation in the United States. The purpose of this document is to elaborate further the RMC’s approach to Black liberation by discussing two of the major strategic problems which arise: the question of a Black party. and the problems .involved in adapting the transitional program to the specific conditions of the Black struggle.
The document begins with a discussion of. the Black party slogan. I briefly discuss the attitude of the Workers League to the question in order to lay a basis for later drawing out what I think are the errors in a formalistic, sectarian position. (which was what was adopted in one form or another, by most of the.Trotskyist left). .Then, I discuss Trotsky’s approach to the question, following which I move on to lay out the SWP’s position as.it was origihally developed in 1967. The final part of this section of the document then discusses what I think the RMC’S position should be.
The second half of the document goes. on to discuss the question of the adaptation of the transitional program to Black Liberation. I begin with a discussion of Trotsky’s opinions. Then I summarize the SWP’s approach, especially as put forward in.their 1969 resolution, “A Transitional Program for Black Liberation”. And I conclude by putting forward what I think our approach ought to be.
The Slogan for a Black Party
The SWP’s call for a Black Party was formulated in a resolution called “The Case for a Black Party”, passed at their 1967 national convention. It was formulated against a backdrop of intense militancy and struggle .among Blacks in the US. The civil-rights movement’s slogans and forms of opposition had largely given way to a rise of Black consciousness, commonly called “Black Power,” which wás expressed in many different forms, through new leaders (The Black Panthers,, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X), new ideologies (Pan-Africanism, Black Nationalism), and new forms of struggle (the Watts rebellion, community control, community defense). All were evidence of a dramatic increase in Black consciousness which challenged American capitalism.in various ways.
The student movement was also flowering at the time, as well as the antiwar movement in general. The working class, however, was yet to awaken to the wave of opposition affecting the country, forfeiting its social and political responsibilities to support and lead these struggles. Under a conservative and class collaborationist bureaucratic leadership, the unions as a whole resisted active participation in the mass struggles of the 60s.
As had been pointed out in RMP 10, this rise of Black consciousness — much of which was expressed in a nationalist form — threw most of the left, including the Trotskyist organizations, into confusion. Many Trotskyist organizations responded in a sectarian, imperialist-economist way to the demands of Blacks for community control, separate Black organizations, Black caucuses in the trade unions, preferential hiring, and so forth. They viewed each such demand as reactionary and refused to support them on the grounds that these demands were either utopian and/or divisive to the working class. Each such demand was relegated to the category of “nationalism vs. socialism”. Black caucuses in the unions were by definition counterposed to revolutionary or “class-wide” caucuses. Community control of the schools, no matter how expressed or what its social content, was automatically counterposed to socialist control of education. The method which underlies this attitude was one which could not recognize the democratic, anti-capitalist content of struggles around such nationalist slogans and demands, thus being unresponsive to the progressive aspirations for equality expressed in them.
The Workers League was probably the most simon-pure representative of this train of political logic, which found perhaps its clearest expression in their pamphlet “The New Nationalism the Negro Struggle.” Theoretically, the Workers League’s approach was based on a rejection of the applicability of the permanent revolution in advanced countries, specifically, on their argument that national self-determination and national demands were reactionary in advanced industrial countries such as the US.
“The question of self-determination of nations is not applicable under every and all circumstances…this demand is part of the general bourgeois-democratic program for countries where the bourgeois-democratic revolution has not been completed. When applied in advanced imperialist countries this demand, rather than bringing the class the class together in a common struggle against capitalism, fractures the working class, subordinates sections of it to petty-bourgeois movements and fosters fascistic tendencies.” (Page 6)
On this basis the Workers League argued against all special demands for Blacks other than “pure” demands to end discrimination. For instance, they supported demands to end discrimination in hiring but opposed demands for preferential hiring and layoffs. More generally, on this basis the Workers League argued against the formation of special organizations for oppressed minorities in the U.S., such as Black caucuses in the trade unions.
It should be clear that we disagree with the Workers League on these basic questions. Their rejection of the applicability of the permanent revolution in advanced countries is based on the kind of objectivist methodology which Bruce Landau attacks in “The Standpoint of the Proletariat” (RMC Internal Bulletin, Vol. 3, No 7, Mar. 1977) Similarly, their rejection of the right of national self-determination in advanced countries is based on approaching political questions as formal abstractions, rather than approaching them from the political-strategic standpoint of the proletariat’s revolutionary struggle.
Their refusal to accept the idea of of separate and special organizational forms for oppressed minorities is just another instance of this abandonment of Trotskyist methodology. Trotsky himself rejected such a schematic and formal approach. When the question was raised as to whether or not the U.S. Trotskyists should take the initiative in forming a Black organization, Trotsky acknowledged that the problem was a new one for the SWP, which depended primarily on the tactical situation. He indicated that he felt that such an organization would probably be necessary because of:
“t(wo) fundamental facts: that the large masses of the negroes are backward and oppressed and this oppression is so strong that they must feel it every moment; that they feel it as Negroes. We must find the possibility of giving this feeling a political organizational expression. You may say that in Germany or in England we do not organize such semi-political, semi-trade union, semi-cultural organizations; we reply that we must adapt ourselves to the genuine Negro masses in the U.S.” Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination (LTOBNASD)
In Trotsky’s opinion, there were two key factors involved in the question of a Black organization. The first was that it had to be a genuine mass organization of Negroes, especially Negro workers.
“Theoretically, it seems to me absolutely clear that a special organization should be created for a special situation. The danger is only that it will become a game for the intellectuals. This organization can justify itself only by winning workers, sharecroppers, and so on. If it does not succeed, we will have to confess that it was a failure. If it does succeed, we will be very happy because we will have a mass organization of Negroes. In that case I fully agree with Comrade Johnson…It is a question of awakening the Negro masses…” (LTOBNASD)
Secondly, Trotsky argued that it would be necessary for the SWP to adapt the transitional program to such an organization and advance that program as the SWP’s proposed program for the organization.
“We should take the initiative. I believe it is necessary. This supposes the adaptation of our Transition Program to the Negro problems in the states — a very carefully elaborated program with genuine civil rights, political rights, cultural interests, and so on. It should be done” (LTOBNASD)
At the same time, Trotsky was not for making the Transitional Program a precondition for the SWP initiating such an organization. Depending on the tactical circumstances, he argued that a modest minimum program would be correct so long as the revolutionary socialists retained the right to propagandize their program within the organization.
“The program may be very modest, but at the same time it must leave to everyone his freedom of expression in his speeches, and so on; the program must not be the limitation of our activity, but only our common obligation. Everyone must have the right to go further, but everyone is obliged to defend the minimum. We will see how this minimum will be crystallized as we go along in the opening steps.” (LTOBNASD)
But while Trotsky was very flexible in his attitude toward the programmatic basis for such an organization, he at the same time insisted that the SWP must use the opportunity to advance their full program wherever possible.
“I do not believe that we can begin with the exclusion of socialism from the organization. You propose a very large, somewhat heterogeneous organization. (It was intended to be an organization for all Negroes, not restricted to Negro workers. LMB)…We will be cautious; but not to tie our hands in advance–to say that we will not introduce the question of socialism because it is an abstract matter– that is not possible. It is one thing to be very attentive to the concrete questions of Negro life and to oppose socialism to capitalism in these questions. It is one thing to accept a heterogeneous group and to work in it, and another to be absorbed by it…I would even go so far as to have every one of our speakers end his speech by saying, My name is the Fourth International!” (LTOBNASD)
In the course of this discussion with Trotsky, Johnson proposed that this organization should run Blacks as candidates on a working class program in order “to inculcate the impossibility of any assistance being gained from the Republican and Democratic parties.” (p 41 LTOBNASD)
Trotsky indicated his general acceptance of this proposal, but went on to say that because of the lack of democratic representation of Blacks in the U.S. Congress the Black organization “can often oppose a Negro candidate to a white candidate. This Negro organization can always say, ‘we want a Negro who knows our problems.’ It can have important consequences.” That is to say, Trotsky also supported running candidates simply on a democratic program.
What should be clear from all this is that Trotsky in no way shared the WL’s formalistic and objectivist approach to the question of Black organizations. Late on, I will talk about what the RMC’s approach to the question should be, but first I want to discuss the way the SWP developed these ideas in the late ‘60’s.
Part two: The SWP’s Case for a Black Party
a pdf copy of RMP #10 is available on request