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”
This is the second section of a longer piece; THE SLOGAN FOR A BLACK PARTY AND THE PROBLEM OF ADAPTING THE TRANSITIONAL PROGRAM TO THE BLACK LIBERATION STRUGGLE IN THE UNITED STATES. The first section is HERE
(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.
The SWP’s Case for a Black Party
The SWP, to its credit, did not make the formalistic mistakes which were made by most other Trotskyist groups. The Party responded to the rise of the Black movement by seeing the necessity to adapt its tactics to the actual character of the immediate mass struggle. The SWP put forward a call for the formation of a Black political party and undertook, over time, to adapt the transitional program to this end. In a later section I will discuss the question of the adapted the transitional program. For now, I want to focus on their call for a Black political party, put forward in their 1967 resolution, “The Case for a Black Party.”
In this resolution the SWP is primarily addressing itself to the question of how Blacks should organize in order to cohere and advance their raw militancy and developing consciousness and in the process best challenge the entire capitalist system. Their argument for the independent Black party rests on two basic premises: 1) the need for the Black movement to organize itself on the basis of a break from the two capitalist parties, and 2) given the absence of a labor party, the need for Blacks to initiate their own party independent of the major bourgeois parties.
The resolution begins by arguing that Black power, in order to be realized, has to begin with the acquisition of political power, of which Blacks are deprived by virtue of the two party system, which operates against their interests and perpetuates the oppressed/exploited position of Blacks in American society:
“Black people will never be liberated by supporting political parties that are controlled by their oppressors and that are so constructed and operated that they will always be controlled by their oppressors.” (“The Case for an Independent Black Party” in Black Liberation and Socialism, Tony Thomas, ed. Pathfinder,1974, p 65) It exposes the fraud of attempting to work through the Democratic Party, as well as other schemes based on lobbying and DP pressure, which “would leave Black voters dependent on promises of two racist parties, rather than one.” (ibid, p. 67) Blacks will have to form their own party, since neither is free of capitalist control. It calls on Blacks to take the lead in forming their own independent party, rather than waiting for other such parties to become a reality.
“In most large industrial countries, there are labor and other non-capitalist parties based on the working people and their organizations. If such a party existed here, Black people might find a real alternative in joining and supporting it…An independent mass party of the workers will eventually be formed here as elsewhere. But it will not arise until workers become radicalized and able to defeat and replace their present capitalist-minded misleaders. Black people cannot wait until this happens — they need political weapons now. Whatever allies they may get in the future, they have no alternative now but to build a political party of their own.” (ibid, p 67)
The type of party the resolution advocates is one which would do more than run candidates, but would be an ongoing party involved in all aspects of Black life, including culture, recreation
tenement exploitation, job discrimination, etc. The party would be a means of organizing the existing “sporadic”, “serni-conscious”, “limited” struggles currently conducted by Blacks on a political basis, as well as being a viable alternative to the “pick up the gun”, “direct confrontation” methods prematurely advocated by many Black subjectively revolutionary elements; methods which could only end in disarray, demoralization and repression. In
general, the party, by developing Black consciousness and organization, can “bring considerable benefits to the Black masses, give maximum :leverage to their united power, and prepare them for the tasks of revolutionizing their oppressive racist capitalist society”(ibid, p. 63).
According to :the resolution the basis for a Black party does exist. Such a party is possible because of the racial discrimination and segregation v/hich unites Blacks physically and psychologically, making. them a “distinctive group”, and th!s.”can serve as a base and force to unite Black people politically”. Once again, it was the combination of the perpetuation of racism and the lack of a labor party which had produced the specific political motion which laid the basis for a Black independent party:
“If the capitalist class had abolished racism, an independent Black party would not have been possible. If the labor movement had broken with capitalist politics and launched a revolutionary struggle along socialist lines that included the abolition of racism as one of its key demands, an independent Black party would not have been likely. Such a party is now possible and likely because capitalist development has created the objective preconditions for it and closed off other avenues for.effective political struggle, and because other anti-capitalist forces, at least for the time being, have not opened up alternative roads for political opposition.” (Ibid, pp. 72-3)
Aside from giving Blacks a means of organizing politically and greater representation, the party is also projected as a means of “shaking the political structure of the country from
top to bottom” by resulting in a mássive withdrawal of Black votes, and by that shake-up, and example pulling in other social forces to move in an independent political direction also. In particular, a Black party could give a major impetus to the formation of a labor party:
“Inside the unions those elements that are discontented with the pro-Democratic policy of the bureaucracy (and they are more numerous than is now apparent) will be strengthened and find it easier to win support for a struggle to establish an independent labor party.” (Ibid., p. 75)
The character (i.e. program) of the Black party should be determined by its founders and.members, of course, but the SWP suggests that 1) it will probably be a radical party because any party that works to the left of the DP will havë to be labeled radical, and 2) that’ that party will have a hard time restricting itself to racial issues only:
“Of course an independent Black party will proceed from the needs of the Black community but this very concern will inevitably lead it to consider positions and take actions’
on the most vital and urgent national and international issues.” (Ibid., p. 77)
The examples which are cited include having to take a position on the Vietnam War, fighting for a shorter work week, a minimum wage, etc., when demanding jobs for Blacks; addressing
the source of taxation when demanding the right to control the schools in the Black community; and leading to, in general, a decision being made whether “decent conditions” of life, equality and freedom for the Black people are really attainable under capitalism or whether a basically different, non-exploitative system is necessary — and whether a change of such magnitude can .be effected through reform or requires revolutionary mass struggle”
The composition of the party is also left for its founding members to decide (i:..e., whether it will be exclusively Black or simply led by Blacks) On the question of how the party will operate in seeking alliances, the resolution argues that such alliances will be necessary and that the key is deciding which kind. The SWP argues that.within their own party Blacks can approach
alliances from a position of strength and security. Cooperation with allies is seen as a means of “splitting white America and driving wedges into its constituent elements with conflicting interests so that some whites will fight others to the benefit of the Black people.” Here again, the party will set an example ”for other potential anti-capitalist forces by encouraging them
to break with capitalist politics and showing them what independent political action can achieve” (p. 82)
In its basic outline this is the way the SWP originally argued for a Black party. The resolution, it should be remembered, was passed in 1967. In later years the arguments for it were elaborated, particularly with respect to the SWP’s proposed program for the Black party. In 1969, they proposed the “Transitional Program for Black Liberation”* as the basis for the
Black party, which program was in turn based on the SWP’s new position that Blacks were a nation. But throughout those years the basic approach of that early resolution remained the same.
The important thing to remember is the historical context: a period in which Blacks .were in motion but the working class as a whole was quiescent. The tactic of calling for a Black party and its relationship to a labor party has to be judged in that context.
How, then, should the RMC approach the problem? As a preface to my further remarks, let me go back once again to the Workers League’s argument.
The Workers League, in addition to their general opposition to national demands, also opposed the idea of a Black political party. They counterposed the slogan for a labor party to it, arguing that objective conditions required a labor party, not a Black party, regardless of the actual consciousness of the masses at the time.
“Thus the objective situation requires a struggle today for the ]labor party demand, even though this demand has not arisen spontaneously among wide sections of the class…The objective impact of the creation of such a (Black) party will not be symmetrical but oppositional to the creation of a class party of all the workers This means that even though there is more sentiment today for an independent black party than for an independent class party, we must struggle against the formation of the former and for the formation of the latter. To accept the current level of consciousness of the cIass as a “given” and then work out some way to relate
to it is crass empiricism and opportunism of the worst sort.”
Black Liberation and Socialism, p. 38
In my opinion, the Workers League’s counterposition of the labor party slogan to the Black party slogan is just another instance of their general methodological errors. The Workers League sees the labor party slogan as a recipe to be used in the same way at all times regardless of the level and direction and specific character of the mass struggle and consciousness. In contrast, both Trotsky and Cannon saw the labor party slogan as a
flexible tactic to be used in relation to the actual development of the class struggle.
What follows from this is that we must know how to adapt the labor party slogan itself to concrete situations. As we have already seen, Trotsky saw no necessary counterposition between calling fo a special Black organization (which, in terms of functions, would be in fact a political party) and revolutionary work addressed to the class as a whole. In the concrete situation which existed in the US in the late 60’s, where there was a high level of Black struggle which was often expressed in a nationalist form, and where the working class as a whole was not moving, it was correct to put forward the slogan of a Black party as a specific adaptation of the transitional program and the slogan of the labor party.
The WL’ s argument that’ “to accept the current level of consciousness of. the class as a “given” and, then work out some way to relate-to it is crass empiricism and opportunism of-the worst sort” is simply sectarian. It’s of course true that we don’t base the transitional program on the subjective consciousness of the masses. But the method of the transitional program is to find a bridge which can link the current consciousness of the masses to the revolutionary program. What’s silly about the way the WL counterposes the labor party to.the Black party is that most of the argument which they throw against the Black party slogan could just as well be used agaInst the labor party slogan, whIch is also an adaptation of the transitional program to the subjective state of consciousness of American workers.
The problem with the WL is that they.approach everything as static categories, as abstractions. The labor party slogan is OK because it’s a “class” slogan. The Black party slogan is no good because it’s a “classless” slogan. But the whole point is to approach political developments from a strategic point.of view. In the context of the late 60’s, there was no motion in the direction of a labor party. The working class as a whole was relatively inert. Yet Blacks were struggling around their own demands. How then should we relate to this situation? Is there any way we can approach the Black struggle on its own basis in such a way as to turn it toward a proletarian to Black oppression?
Yes, there was. By calling for an independent Black party we could provide a slogan and at least a potential organizational vehicle for consolidating, strengthening and building the Black movement. At the same time, by putting forward proposals which would organizationally and programmatically glve Black workers the decisive weight in such a Black party, we would both further strengthen the Black movement and at the same time lay the basis for a class-wide
struggle and for an eventual labor party: And finally, by participating in all of these developments we would give ourselves the opportunity to raise the transitional program in a way which could directly link it up with the concrete struggles of those sections of proletariat and the Blacks a whole who were in motion.
The question of what such a party could become, that is, whether it would become a viable working class party (either of only Black workers or as a component part of a general labor party), or whether it would become merely a classless Black party under petty bourgeois leadership which would serve either to provide them with a means for gaining power and position (either as an independent party or as a front for the DP),is a question of the program and composition of the Black party as it developed through the struggle. It’s not a question that can be automatically answered in advance.
The approach of the WL (as well as other groups who basically agreed with them), on the other hand, necessarily leads to a dead end. Only one of two things could happen. Either the labor party slogan would be put forward in a purely abstentionist way as an abstraction counterposed to the actual motion of the Black masses — this was basically what the Spartacists did. Or you could run around and try to agitate around the labor party slogan directly, in a situation when it couldn’t generate any real support — which is what the Workers League itself did. with results that are well known.
To sum up, in my opinion the SWP was basically correct in its general orientation on the question of the Black party, and the Workers League was basically wrong. However, I have a number of criticisms of the way in which the SWP went about pursuing their strategy.
The major criticism which I have of the SWP’s approach is that while the SWP was developing a generally correct orientation to the Black struggle in the late 60’s, championing the demands of Blacks and putting those demands at the forefront of the general struggle,it nevertheless did so in a way which often adapted politically and not just pedagogically to the limited nationalist consciousness of the Black movement. This was not always so, of course, but all too often the combined character of the U.S. revolution was presented by the SWP in a way as to make it appear in practice as separate, parallel struggles of Blacks, women, workers, etc., without the cementing influence of the revolutionary program to fuse all these struggles under a united revolutionary leadership. This can be seen most clearly with respect to their “Transitional Program for Black Liberation” which I will discuss later. But it was also evidenced in their approach to the Black party.
Although the SWP’s attitude to the Black party is qualitatively superior to that of the: WL, there is a common error in both. The SWP and the WL both miss the boat (again, on qualitatively different levels — the SWP starts out on the right side of the question) because they don’t tie in the strategic/tactical call for the Black party with the kind of revolutionary program that would be necessary for it. The WL assumes that a Black party must have a nationalist, classless program. The SWP does not make it clear enough that the Black party must adopt a revolutionary proletarian program to succeed.
The SWP is right to say that because of the class. composition of Blacks and the special conditions of oppression which they suffer from, that motion toward a Black party contains a proletarian dynamic in it which socialists must try to strengthen and lead. The problem is that they make two mistakes: 1) they tend to assume that the potential for a Black party to develop in a proletarian direction is guaranteed, and is not ultimately question of program; and 2)
partly because of this, they themselves tended to adapt politically to the explicitly nationalist progams of elements which were in the forefront of the Black movement at the time.
In the Black party resolution, the SWP does suggest that class questions, and class positions,will have to be be taken up by the Black party “as a matter of course”. But they do not make clear that unless the Black party does so it can only move in a reformist direction which cannot answer the real needs of Blacks, nor of workers, especially Black workers. At that time, the SWP did not even directly offer a program. When, in 1969, such a program was put forward by the SWP in the “Transitional Program for Black Liberation”, it was a program that fell short of solving the problems which Blacks face under capitalism. Rather it vacillated between nationalist solutions and a genuinely transitional program. But more on this later.
Moreover, the SWP also failed to argue clearly for the necessity of a Black party to be basically working class in organization and composition. In the earlier writings, Blacks are presented as a “group”, with no references to the class ‘divisions among Blacks. In later writings, the SWP dealt with this problem by simply advancing the argument that since the vast majority of Blacks are workers that a’ Black party would therefore, more or less automatically take on a proletarian character.
This argument misses the whole point The fact that most Blacks are workers does not mean that a Black party will in fact organize Black workers as workers. There is nothing inevitable
about it. It depends partly on program and partly on fighting for the the kind .of organizational measures which would in fact give Black workers the predominant influence and control over a Black party. In fact, in the absence of a consistent Black struggle within a Black party to give the needs of Black workers priority, such a party will tend to reflect predominantly the interests of petty bourgeois Blacks and, at most, Blacks who are part of the labor aristocracy. The truth of this has been shown time and again in the historical experience of the Black movement — noe women’s movement.
By not emphasizing* ‘these questions of program and class composition, the SWP does not in practice make the Black party slogan a direct means for advancing the labor party slogan. In fact, the working class as a whole and its advanced elements (whether white, Black,, Chicano or women) are generally relegated to a secondary position. At best, “workers” are seen as only one potential “ally”for a Black party. This implicit counterposition between “workers” and “Blacks“ is just another indication of the SWP’s tendency to downplay the centrality of Black workers to a Black party.
The whole question of the relation of Black liberation to the proletarian revolution is left ambiguous. It is only brought in at the end of the resolution in a very vague way:
“The ‘SWP’ believes that only’ a revolution taking economic and political power away from the capitalist exploiters and abolishing-the system of production for profit can cleanse this country of racism and enable Americans to live in harmony, prosperity and equality with one another änd with the rest of the world.” (Ibid,, p. 82)
How about the role the working class will have to play in this process? Especially, how about the central role that Black workers will have to play in this process? How about the essential fusion of the Black struggle for equality with workers’ assault on capitalism. Because the working class was quiescent at the time, and not extending, itself as an ally to Blacks, the
SWP correctly saw that Blacks couldn’t wait, and put forward the slogan of the Black party. But the problem is that in doing so the SWP jumped over the question of political organization of the class, that is, the labor party question. This does not mean that the Black party slogan should be advanced simply as a “modified” labor party slogan. No, the Black party would and should begin as a party championing the special needs of.Blacks as a whole. But it remains the responsibility of socialists to aggressively seek out ways to make clear that the ability of Blacks to solve their oppression depends in the long run on overthrowing capitalism, which can’t be done in the U S simply by Blacks. The role of socialists is to use the Black party slogan in such a way as to further the struggle of Blacks while at the same time helping to build a general movement of all workers. In practice, the SWP saw the relationship of the Black party, and Black workers, to a labor party as a passive one. The SWP projects the Black party as an example, as a pressure to help ”bust open” the two party system, thereby making it easier for other non-capitalist parties to arise. But it doesn’t really put forward clearly and systematically the necessity for Black workers and Blacks as a whole (especially when organized in a Black party) to take the lead in organizing all the objectively and subjectively revolutionary forces, i.e., of being in the vanguard of the class struggle as well as the Black struggle
What should have been done? The slogan for a Black party should have been put forward in a way which programmatically linked the Black party to the labor party by having the program for the Black party basically a proletarian program that begins with the special needs of Blacks. Such a program would serve to strengthen the working class character of the Black party itself, and would serve to bring in the support of advanced white workers, students, women etc., under Black leadership. Whether the Black party would turn out to be the nucleus for a labor party, or whether it would serve as a less direct stimulus for a labor party, or whether it would merge with a labor party or remain an independent aIly of a labor party — all these variants would d
depend on any number of factors: the strength of a general movement for a labor party, the willingness of white workers to actively support the special demands of Blacks, the attitudes of the Blacks — especially the Black workers themselves, etc. But whichever variant came to pass, the Black movement as a whole and especially Black workers and revolutionary socialists would be in the best possible position. The organic programmatic link would be
*Thls point is important. The problem with the SWP is not that it completely ignored these kinds of class questions, It’s that they fairly consistently push them into the background- – especially until the recent turn. But socialists should not simply be raising class question “on the side”, so to speak. It’s our responsibility to be looking for every possible opportunity to push the class question to the forefront.
Upcoming: The Transitional Program for Blacks