From International Socialist Review, Vol.29 No.1, January-February 1968, pp.39-55.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The most dynamic demand among Afro-Americans today is for black power. Although they are the biggest minority in this country, numbering 22 million people or over 11 per cent of the population, making up about 20 per cent of the work force, and due to become the majority in ten of the larger Northern cities by the 1970s, black Americans have been permitted little power of any kind, economic, social, cultural or political. The denial of real or proportional political representation to such a key sector is one of the most glaring injustices of this capitalist society.
How has the racist ruling class managed to keep black people in such a politically powerless state? How can this condition be overcome? This is one of the most pressing problems facing black Americans – and their future depends upon finding the correct solution to it.
To the extent that black people have participated in politics to date, it has been almost entirely through the two big capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans, that is within terms laid down by the representatives of their oppressors and exploiters. The main reason for the meager results achieved after 13 years of stuggle since the 1954 Supreme Court decision has been their dependence upon the two capitalist parties which have conceded little but a series of phony “civil rights” bills.
The lack of any substantial gains through this avenue underscores the need for organizing and exercising genuinely independent black political power. Here are some of the reasons why this kind of political action can bring considerable benefits to the black masses, give maximum leverage to their united power, and prepare them for the tasks of revolutionizing this oppressive racist capitalist society.
The black people’s lack of political power is so serious because politics is the key to breaking out of the vicious circle of social, economic and cultural deprivation and discrimination imposed on them by this system. It is not something far away from their everyday lives or divorced from their basic needs. Political power means the capacity to assert the needs and aspirations of a group and to see that they are fulfilled. Full political power means that a group runs its own affairs and determines its own destiny. Even the possession of some measure of political power means that the group has a voice in deciding the terms of its existence.
In the United States today black people are effectively excluded from all the crucial decisions affecting their fate. The policies that determine how they will live are made by others and imposed upon them. Every aspect of Afro-American life is governed by the decisions of the Democratic and Republican agents of the capitalist rulers of this country. Their actions (or inactions) perpetuate inequality, poverty, degradation, police brutality, insecurity, unemployment, low-paying jobs, bad schools, inadequate housing and medical facilities, a shorter life-span and all the other evils suffered by black Americans.
These intolerable conditions cannot be fundamentally changed except through a massive, united, all-out fight that hits the Big Business rulers at the center of their grip. This is their control of legal authority and state power. But in order to carry out an effective fight for black political power, Afro-Americans must have their own organization under their own control.
The masters of this country understand the need for political action that benefits them and for political organizations that serve them. That is why they have political parties – not just one, but two – which they control and through which they exercise a political monopoly.
Of course, it is not only through such parties that they maintain their rule. They have the ownership of industry, the power of money and credit, control of the mass media and schools, and ultimately the police and armed forces. But their power does not come out of the barrel of the gun alone. If they relied solely on naked force, the resources of their rulership would soon be exhausted by an incessant battle between the oppressors and the oppressed. Like other master classes throughout history, our own rulers practice deception to make their power and misrule seem legitimate and induce the subjugated and exploited classes to accept it without resistance.
The two-party shell game, and especially the portrayal of the Democratic Party as a party of the people, is an important part of this deception. While the role of this party in upholding and enforcing racism is clear in the South, it wears the mask of liberalism in the North. But in practice it is no less racist than the Republican Party there. Under duress it throws black people a few concessions, a few posts, a few tokens to placate them though it has no intention of ending racism. The two-party setup fosters the illusion that black people will get freedom through gradual reform of capitalism and its institutions. The history of the past hundred years testifies that this is a lie. 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.
Big Business and the racist system it preserves for its own profit cannot be challenged for control of legitimate authority so long as voters are restricted to choosing between the candidates and programs of the two parties under their thumb. However, the tradition of electoral democracy which the rich manipulate for their own ends is potentially a gun which can be loaded against them. It claims to permit people the right to establish their own political parties which can take over and run local, state or national government. Thus a black party independent of capitalist control could take advantage of this right to gain control of some areas of government. If the capitalists tried to prevent this, that would expose the farce of their electoral democracy and create conditions where the masses could legitimately fight “by any means necessary” for freedom against the tyranny of the very rich white minority – a far smaller minority than the millions of black people.
If it is to move ahead, the black liberation movement must be able to counter the enormous facilities for political deception used by its enemy. The 1964 campaign provided convincing evidence of the hold the treacherous two-party system has over black voters. No group in the country supported the presidential ticket of the Democratic Party in greater proportion than the black voters (almost 95 per cent). What did they get in return? A civil rights law in 1965 that is largely unen-forced, a civil rights bill in 1966 that was filibustered to death, a penny-ante “war on poverty” that leaves 90 per cent of the black people as poor as they ever were, housing and schooling that are more segregated then they were in 1964.
The ouster of Adam Clayton Powell from his congressional seat is one more proof of the tricksterism of the Democratic Party. Many black people looked upon Powell as a representative spokesman who had acquired a position of considerable influence on the summits of power in Washington. But he was only a lieutenant, a tool of the Democratic machine which neither he nor his black supporters controlled in any respect. So the real powers could easily get rid of him once they felt he no longer served a useful purpose.
The same is true about the others who work in the two capitalist parties and occupy decorative posts in them or at their mercy. While they get personal advantages and honors from these positions, that does not change the conditions of the black masses. How much good does the appointment of a black Supreme Court Justice do if the entire local, state and federal legal system is stacked against justice for the Afro-American?
The real face, and not the hypocritical mask, of the Democratic Party can be seen in its “white backlash” aspect which has come more into the open since 1964. Ex-governor Wallace of Alabama is preparing a nationwide bid for the presidency while still a ranking Democrat. And Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, publicly embraces the notorious Georgia racist, Democratic Governor Lester Maddox.
The notion that the Democratic Party (or its Republican duplicate) can be reformed from a party of racism into a party of liberation is wishful thinking to the point of fantasy. As Malcolm X said, a chicken is not constructed to produce a duck egg; similarly, a capitalist party is not constructed to produce freedom for Afro-Americans. The Democratic Party is capable of giving concessions, especially to certain mid-dleclass elements whom the capitalists expect to use to contain and police the black masses. But it is incapable of promoting and making the profound economic and political changes needed to solve the problems of millions of oppressed. Black people who think they are going to “take over” part of the Democratic organization and “use” it in the interests of the black masses are fooling themselves or the masses; they themselves are the ones who get taken over and used.
Equally futile is the concept of a “third force” advanced by some black power advocates and by Adam Clayton Powell. According to this proposal, black Democrats, black Republicans and black independents should get together politically, bargain as a united bloc with the two capitalist parties, and deliver or withhold the votes they influence depending on which one offered the best bargain. Although this is called “independent political action,” it is nothing of the kind. It is a spurious substitute because it would leave black voters dependent on the promises of two racist parties, rather than of one.
At most, it could bring a few more concessions rather than any fundamental changes. And it cannot even bring many concessions because it overlooks the fact that the two capitalist parties are controlled by the same forces, to whom it does not much matter whether black people vote Democratic or Republican. Just so long as that is their only choice, just so long as there is no alternative to the two parties they control, the ruling powers have the black voters at their mercy.
The only way that black people can get out of the Democratic fire without falling into the Republican frying pan is to establish their own party. They must do this because neither major party is free of capitalist control. 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.
But organized labor in the United States missed its chances in the 1930s and again in the late 1940s to cut loose from the Democratic Party and create its own party with the perspective of taking political power away from the capitalists and establishing a government of the workers and their allies. Just as Uncle Toms have failed to lead black people onto an independent road, so too at critical junctures in the past, union bureaucrats have prevented the American workers from forming their own party. An independent mass party of the workers will eventually be formed here as elsewhere. But it will not arise until the workers become radicalized and able to defeat and replace their present capitalist-minded misleaders.
Black people cannot wait until that 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.
Some ultra-lefts who are deeply disillusioned with the two major parties (or even certain radical parties) reject all political action as useless or diversionary. They mistakenly identify politics with narrow electoral activity or vote-catching. They fail to understand what politics really is or can be and what a powerful impetus an independent black party could give to the revolutionary movement.
There are different, and even opposite, kinds of politics. What Americans see all around them, and what usually passes for politics, is the phony, status quo politics of the racists and shysters, the horse-trading and hypocrisy of the Democrats and Republicans in which a few get rich at the expense of the many.
But there can be another type of politics. When black people get together and fight for control of the schools in their community, that is political action. When black people come out into the streets, pushed beyond endurance by racist cops, gouging merchants and landlords and all the other miseries of ghetto life, that too is a kind of politics.
The trouble with these attempts to change the policies that affect ghetto life is that they are limited, sporadic, unorganized, semi-conscious and unsustained. If such mass actions and direct struggles were combined with a consistently organized struggle to gain political power, if they were initiated and led by a political party that rightly claimed to speak and act for the struggling masses, this would be much more than a vote-catching device or an electoral doublecross.
Electoral activity need not be the opposite of revolutionary struggle; it has been and can be an essential spur to it. It can be a valuable part of the arsenal of struggle techniques in a war where every means necessary must be employed.
History has known political parties that combined running candidates for office with mass struggles under their leadership to abolish oppressive social systems. Lenin’s Bolsheviks are the best-known example.
A political party based on the ghetto could carry out many worthwhile activities in addition to running for or holding political offices. It could conduct education about black history and revolutionary struggles elsewhere; take measures to form cooperatives and credit systems to ease the economic squeeze; defend black victims of government persecution; initiate literary campaigns among adults; organize Afro-American cultural affairs and community recreation. Its contests for or control of legitimate authority would give it much more leverage in fights against landlords, brutal cops, and job discrimination. It could organize neighborhood patrols against crime and rackets and demand an end to the alien and repressive police powers of racist rulers. It could provide a broad framework for unifying various black groups in common struggle.
It will take more than spontaneous eruptions to win black liberation; it will require an organized, sustained, long-term fight. If a black party starts organizing and using its leverage effectively, the masses will learn from it, follow it, develop their consciousness in and through it. Such a party can become the best means for breaking out of the trap of capitalist misery and harnessing the enormous revolutionary potential of the ghetto masses.
The Newark, Detroit and other uprisings that rocked the country during the summer of 1967 have raised some basic questions in the minds of many militants. They ask: Hasn’t the black liberation movement already gone beyond the stage of electoral politics? Isn’t it too late to be talking about assembling the forces to build a party, about independent campaigns, candidates and programs? Aren’t we close to the final showdown with the white capitalist power structure? Hasn’t the time of the bullet superseded the casting of the ballot? Isn’t resort to armed struggle in the form of guerrilla warfare the only effective mode of action on the agenda? Don’t we need an army, or at least dedicated bands of guerrilla fighters, rather than a political party?
Such questions are not out of place; they have been imperatively posed by the fierce conflicts which have occurred in many cities and will flare up again. They have to be squarely faced and answered by all those concerned with the progress and prospects of the liberation struggle. Here is our view.
The explosions of 1967 testify to the revolutionary temper and potential of the black freedom struggle and mark its highest point. They demonstrate that the Afro-American minority is destined to play a vanguard role in the social changes leading up to the American revolution. Although the uprisings ran out of steam in a few days or were put down with heavy casualties and suffering, they are an inspiration to all genuine revolutionists, black or white.
With few exceptions the inhabitants of the ghetto did not feel that they met with defeat. On the contrary, their self-confidence and combat-iveness have been enhanced. By shattering the image of their alleged docility, they taught an important lesson to the ruling class. They also dealt a stiff blow to the myth that mass action by workers is no longer effective in modern, sophisticated, urbanized America. Finally they showed that the demand for black control of the black community is not a fringe notion in the ghettos but expresses the will of its residents.
While these determined demonstrations go far to refute the concept that the ghetto is “powerless,” it would be unwise to overlook or keep quiet about the shortcomings of these historic actions. The uprisings were spontaneous – nobody planned or instigated them, despite the lies of the witch-hunters who are looking for scapegoats and excuses for devising new repressive measures. They were uncontrolled eruptions against unbearable conditions.
Although in size and scope they were the most impressive upheavals the United States has ever seen, they did not go beyond the stage of protest. After they had subsided, the relation of forces had changed but the lives of the ghetto dwellers were not any better. For example, the social and economic conditions in Watts remain essentially the the same two years after the explosion there. The black freedom fighters still face the task of organizing the forces required to abolish the root causes of their degradation.
Malcolm X stated that the revolutionary movement must resolve to achieve “freedom by any means necessary.” The specific question at hand now is: What means are now necessary to best advance the struggle at this point? That is, what tactics are in order under the given conditions?
Some advanced elements in the black communities insist that only armed struggle is warranted and any one who advises different tactics is cowardly or worse. They believe that any sort of political organization and action is imcompatible with direct action. Their militancy is undeniable. But small bands of men, however courageous and self-sacrificing, cannot serve as a substitute for the organized urban masses.
The main task at the present rudimentary stage of the struggle for power is not to hurl unorganized, unprepared masses against the most highly organized, centralized and formidable power in the entire world, and even less to pit small and scattered groups of armed men against it. The basic problem is how most effectively to organize and educate these masses and equip them with the proper understanding, leadership, program and perspectives.
The time for armed struggle does not come merely because a few daring rebels are ready for it, talk about it or want it. It ripens as the culmination of a prolonged process of mass mobilization after other available methods of action have been tried and found wanting.
So far as the black masses are concerned, the stage of electoral activity has not been exhausted; in fact, it has hardly been tried. The same black people who came out into the streets and tore up districts in Newark, Detroit and elsewhere have still not broken with the Democratic Party, the party of the white supremacists, exploiters and war-makers!
A year after the big uprising in Cleveland and only a few months after Newark and Detroit almost 95 per cent of Cleveland’s registered Afro-Americans turned out to nominate and elect the black man Stokes as mayor on the Democratic ticket. In some ghetto districts Stokes received every black vote. In the same way a black mayor was elected in the steel center of Gary, Indiana.
Some will say that these developments only go to show how backward black people are. What’s actually bad is not their use of electoral action to get rid of hated city officials but the fact that this weapon was used along the old lines and is still wielded by the same old hands. The black voters in Cleveland, Gary and other places will now have to go through more experiences of disillusionment with their black Democratic mayors. Black militants can hasten this process only by showing an alternative acceptable to the masses at their present level of consciousness – and nothing will meet this need better today than advocacy of a political party controlled by the masses and not their oppressors.
The ultra-left opponents of political action, or abstainers from it, are mistaken in four respects.
- They hastily and uncritically transfer tactics and techniques which proved applicable at the advanced stage of the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnam revolutions to the far different, more complex and less matured conditions in the United States.
- They one-sidedly believe that electoral action is incompatible with any form of direct action whereas the two can be combined or alternated to the advantage of both.
- They proceed on the assumption that electoral action has been bypassed or outmoded when it is only entering a new phase.
- Finally, in their exclusive preoccupation with armed struggle and associated forms of direct action, however legitimate these may be, they fail to come to grips with the most pressing problem of the present hour.
That is the barely begun task of unifying into a cohesive force and educating the millions of ghetto dwellers who must shoulder the colossal assignment of overturning white supremacy and radically transforming capitalist America. This prolonged and difficult job cannot be impatiently waved aside or skipped over by those who aspire to lead the black revolution.
That first requires the organization of these masses into a formidable and independent political force. Blowing up the Democratic Party would be an explosion of greater magnitude and consequences than tearing down a hundred stores. Smashing the two-party system – which the strategically situated black minority can accomplish – would do a thousand times more damage to the structure of American capitalism than burning down a whole city. These political objectives can be achieved with a powerful and well-organized independent black party.
What makes it both possible and urgent for black people to build an independent party, which the ruling class does not want, is the system of racial segregation which the ruling class created and intends to maintain.
Segregation and urbanization have brought the black people together physically, especially in the politically decisive big cities where in many cases they will soon be a majority of the inhabitants. Segregation and discrimination are also bringing the black masses together psychologically. It is now necessary to unite them politically on local, state and national levels.
The rulers of this country do not care to have black people think of themselves as a distinctive group – with group consciousness, group interests and group objectives. They go to considerable trouble to persuade blacks to accept the same myths about “individual progress” that they have used to brainwash white Americans. But in pursuing their own ends the dominant powers create the very thing they don’t want. They not only force black people to live together; they also make them feel, think and react together and in similar ways to their oppression. The ghetto whose original function was to facilitate economic exploitation and to split the working class now plays an additional role unwelcome to the powers that be. It can serve as a base and force to unite black people politically.
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 anticapitalist forces, at least for the time being, have not opened up alternative roads for political opposition.
A base for an independent black party already exists and only awaits serious efforts to organize it. In mid-1966, according to a national poll made in Newsweek, 7 per cent of the black people said they were in favor of operating as a “separate force” in politics, rather than through the Democrats or Republicans. That survey was made prior to the ouster of Adam Clayton Powell from Congress, which added greatly to resentment against the two major parties and disillusionment in working through them.
To be sure, 7 per cent is a small minority of the black population. But it is not an insignificant minority when an independent party has not yet been started or widely discussed, when it is only an idea, and before it has had any opportunity to show it can be established, work and produce favorable results. No political party starts with a majority of the people it hopes to enlist. The majority has to be won over, through struggle and education, by the more far-seeing minority that creates the party. Seven per cent of the black population amounts to a million or so adults and young people in their late teens. This is surely enough to launch a new party and sustain it long enough to carry out the tasks of educating, mobilizing and winning the adherence of a majority of Afro-Americans.
An independent black party can unite the Afro-American masses of this country, North and South, urban and rural. It can draw into activity millions who have felt that politics is futile and it can raise the political understanding of black people as a whole. It can take over the political life of the black community. In fact, this is the only way the slogan and concept of black power can be politically realized.
In all areas where black people are a majority, it can run and elect to office representatives who will not have obligations and allegiances to the capitalist parties and who will be responsible to the black community. A well-organized continuing black party, democratically controlled by its ranks, can control its own candidates in office more strictly and thoroughly than any committee that is set up for a single election campaign can do.
A strong black party will not only isolate and destroy the Democratic and Republican party machinery in the ghetto, doing away with two-timing political Uncle Toms, but will bring about a vast increase in black representation at all levels of government. Instead of five or six members of Congress who are tied to the capitalist parties and subject to their pressures, there could be 50 or 60 who owed their election and allegiance to an independent black party. Instead of a relatively few state legislators and municipal councilmen, there could be a large bloc of hundreds and thousands of black men and women elected to office as genuine representatives and spokesmen for their people. They could take over the operation of big cities in the North as well as small counties in the South. For the first time black Americans would have a political voice that really spoke for them, a political weight that could not be ignored or swept aside, a political power that could make itself felt, both for defensive and offensive purposes.
Representatives of the black people will be able to govern in areas where they are a majority. In other areas, including Congress, they will be able to fight and or negotiate more effectively than in the past. Both in situations that call for political combat and situations that call for political negotiating, the representatives of an independent black party would compel respect from both their foes and their friends and would extract far more concessions than Negro Democrats and Republicans ever have done up to now because they would be bargaining from a position of strength.
If an independent black party accomplished only these things, its organization would be justified. But by its mere existence it will accomplish other things as well. The massive withdrawal of black voters from the Democratic Party – not to the Republicans, not into electoral abstention, but into a powerful party of their own – would shake the political structure of this country from top to bottom.
This comes from one of the basic facts of American life today. The black man can’t stand up erect, can’t even exercise his democratic rights (that’s what independent political organization would signify), without repercussions spreading throughout the United States. White men, rich or poor, upper or middle or lower class, would have to move over or stand up to or alter their stance in some other ways. When large numbers of black people act on their own, a lot of other people, like it or not, will have to act and react too. When black people will move on their own account in the political field, others will also find themselves moving politically, or being moved.
The Democratic Party is usually predominant not because it is controlled by the capitalists (this fact is kept hidden or denied as much as possible). Its strength comes from the support received from a combination of sizeable non-capitalist forces – the unions, segments of the middle class, the unemployed, the pensioners and retirees along with the great majority of black people. The defection of the black voters will create an immediate crisis for this Democratic coalition. Without the black vote, the Democrats will be unable to carry the big cities and thereby have great difficulties in winning national elections and control of the White House or Congress. Since the Democratic coalition is bound together not by any principles or identity of interests, but by the belief that it can win national and lesser elections, its growing incapacity to do so will undermine the coalition’s reasons for existence and in the end break it up.
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. Old alignments will disintegrate and new ones will be formed. An independent party will be the best means for black people to protect and promote their welfare. It will also be the best way for them to forge new alliances with other non-capitalist forces in the conditions that will ensue after the two-party system crumbles.
Back in Reconstruction days after the Civil War, political action by black freedmen in the South improved educational facilities, equalized taxes, cut down illiteracy, abolished imprisonment for debt and instituted many other reforms in city, county and state governments. Picture what unified political action by millions of Afro-Americans could accomplish today!
The character of an independent black party will, of course, be determined by its founders and members in accord with the needs and possibilities as they will see them at the time the party is organized. Without being able at this time to answer such questions concretely, it is nevertheless possible on the basis of past experience to discern certain problems that the builders of an independent black party will have to be concerned about both in the preparatory and initial phases of its organization.
How radical will such a party be? In terms of the political spectrum in the United States, a political party created to the left of the Democratic Party and in opposition to it will inescapably be labeled radical. How radical it will actually be, and what kind of radicalism it will actually express, will depend on the composition and outlook of the leaders and forces who launch the party and their evolution as they operate in the political arena. If, to them, independence of the capitalist parties means independence from capitalist politics, then it will surely be a radical party. The chances of this are strong because black militants and revolutionaries will probably be the chief advocates and founders of an independent party. But in the final analysis the degree of its radicalism will depend on the relationship of forces inside the groups that form and compose the new party.
Will it be a purely electoral party, or a party seeking to intervene and involve the masses in every area of struggle – economic and social as well as political – that affects the interests of black people? Will it seek to only elect candidates to office or will it also seek to mobilize and educate the masses by participating in and leading rent strikes, boycotts, demonstrations for jobs and control of decent schools, a-gainst police brutality and military interventions against colonial freedom fighters like the war in Vietnam? It is hard to see how an independent black party could become a mass force without following the practice of total involvement.
Will it be an all-black party (like the Freedom Now Party of 1963-4) or a party controlled and led by blacks (like the Lowndes County Freedom Party)? This is a question of tactical expediency, not of principle. Both approaches have advantages and drawbacks which will have to be carefully weighed.
The founders of the Freedom Now Party believed that an all-black organization would be more attractive to the black masses. Some of them still thought this was the best approach after the Freedom Now Party collapsed, while others felt it had been a mistake, not because of what white people thought about it but because they concluded it had been a deterrent to the recruitment of black supporters.
The founders of the Lowndes County Freedom Party in Alabama, on the other hand, left membership open to anyone who accepted its program and worked loyally for it. Despite this, control and leadership of the party remain with black people. The feeling among young militants in the North today is decidedly in favor of all-black organizations and they are likely to demand an all-black party when one is formed.
Just as it is difficult to envisage an independent black party confining itself exclusively to electoral activity, so it is difficult to imagine that its program would be restricted to so-called “racial” issues alone. 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.
When it opposes the drafting of black youth to kill colored people in Vietnam, it will be impelled to take a position for or against the war itself; its representatives in Congress will have to vote for or against military appropriations. When it demands jobs for blacks, it will have to take a stand on the fight for a shorter work week, a minimum wage, adequate compensation for all the unemployed. When it demands funds to replace the slums with decent housing for black people, it will have to take a position on the national budget and how it is divided. When it demands the right to control the schools in the black community, it will also have to take a position on the source of taxes and the way they are allocated.
Inevitably too, at some point, an independent black party will have to decide 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 thro ugh reform or requires revolutionary mass struggle. This will squarely pose the issue of capitalism versus socialism to the leaders, members and supporters of a party of black emancipation.
In the early stages many important and fundamental questions of program and perspective will very likely be left untouched, or even misjudged, as tends to happen at the beginning of every new party. These will have to be thought through and fought out in the course of the party’s development as it grapples with the problems involved in creating a better life for all Afro-Americans.
The two most significant recent experiments in independent black political organization have been the defunct Freedom Now Party and the apparently thriving Lowndes County Freedom Party of Alabama. What lessons do they teach?
Some opponents of independent black political action or downhearted former supporters of it contend that the attempt to build the Freedom Now Party turned out to be such a sad failure that all future efforts along that line are bound to be unsuccessful. From this negative judgment they conclude that the only realistic course now is to try and take over the Democratic Party in the ghetto and use it for the black community’s purposes. They disregard the fact that this policy has been tried much longer and has given far poorer results.
Others propose some version of a “thirdforce” that will be a pressure group but not a political party. Still others look for a third party like the Wallace Progressive Party of 1948 or talk about a “peace party ticket.”
In dismissing any future forms of independent black politics, they forget that all new and enduring political formations in American history or elsewhere have had short-lived predecessors. The Republican Party, launched in 1854, was preceded by the Liberty and Free Soil parties of the 1840s. John Brown’s band failed to overturn the slave power or abolish chattel slavery – but it prepared the way for the Civil War that did. Jet travel is common today. Yet the first attempts to build airplanes either crashed or never got off the ground.
The truth is that the project of an independent black party did not get a fair and full trial from the founders of the Freedom Now Party and any subsequent attempt will have to understand the mistakes that were made to avoid repeating them.
The organization of the Freedom Now Party was not undertaken in a sufficiently serious, systematic and sustained way. Anew mass party cannot simply be proclaimed; it has to be created by passing through a series of stages. The skeleton and backbone of the coming party has to be constituted through an initial stage of education and propaganda devoted to developing and clarifying its basic ideas, testing out its program, and training its cadres. Only when this indispensable preliminary groundwork is completed can the founding forces reach out and win over large numbers.
The national founders of the Freedom Now Party mixed up these two main stages and tried to do everything all at once. They thought it possible to leap over the tough preliminary chores of gathering, consolidating and educating the initial core. Then when the required organizers, administrators, educators, writers and all the rest did not come around rather quickly in substantial numbers, they became discouraged and gave up.
In the state of Michigan the Freedom Now Party did enlist a few hundred activists and manage to get on the ballot and run an election campaign in 1964. But there too the leadership attempted to rush through or skip over inescapable stages. Instead of concentrating at the start in clarifying the nature and problems of the new party for themselves and their followers and instead of developing a realistic long-range as well as an immediate objective, they pinned all their hopes on securing a big vote and possibly electing a few candidates. They counted on so impressive a showing on the first try that it would bring large numbers into the party right away.
Most of the Michigan leaders became discouraged when the party received only five thousand votes. Instead of regarding this support for a new, untried, unpopularized, largely unexplained movement as the beginning basis for sustained education and organization, they saw the low vote as evidence of total failure.
If in place of exorbitant expectations, they had been guided by a more realistic approach, the party might have survived, grown and spread to other places. The quick collapse of the Freedom Now Party did not prove that the black masses would not support and join an independent party. It only showed that they won’t go for it in a rush and all together at the first call. They will have to be convinced and won over, not by a one-shot crack at the ballot box, but by persevering education and organization.
The main point to be learned from the Freedom Now Party experience is that the founders of a new party will first have to organize themselves properly before they will be able to organize large numbers successfully.
Like the Freedom Now Party, the Lowndes County Freedom Party clearly opposes both the Democratic and Republican parties and seeks to create an alternative to them. But it is being built on a more realistic basis. It was not proclaimed as a full-fledged political party as soon as the idea struck a few pioneers. Instead, it was discussed at great length by its founders, soberly, in detail, and with careful attention to local needs, possibilities and peculiarities. This preliminary stage of discussion, when the movement was known as the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, unified and educated the founders and gave them a perspective, trusted leaders and the elements of an agreed-upon structure for going forward to the launching of the Freedom Party itself.
Some members and sympathizers of the Lowndes County Freedom Party expected it to win the very first election it contested in November 1966 because black people are a majority in the county. They underestimated the intimidation and pressure applied by the Democrats and the difficulties of conducting an election campaign for the first time. The new Freedom Party did not win; its highest vote was 42 per cent. But its leaders and most of its members were not crushed by the outcome. Armed with a long-range outlook, they took the result in their stride and have set about to do better on the next try.
Thanks to its foresighted and careful planning, the Lowndes County Freedom Party has a well-defined organizational structure which facilitates active participation by its members and democratic decision making. Its candidates and leaders are expected to respect these decisions. Through constant education and propagada it has sought to unify the black community and has displayed considerable skill and flexibility in bringing along most sections of the black community without sacrificing any of its basic principles or purposes.
While bidding for power and office through the ballot, it functions the year around to improve the living conditions of the black population through such projects as building a library, providing milk for children, etc. It has taken measures to ensure the self-defense of its supporters against racist terror attacks. It tries to better the conditions of the black people in all respects.
It remains to be seen whether it will continue to grow and become so deep-rooted that it cannot be disoriented or destroyed. In any event, it sets an example and provides a model for other black communities, North and South. If an independent black political movement can survive and grow under such difficult and isolated circumstances, how much easier could this job be done in a Harlem or a Watts!
It is in the very nature and logic of political struggle to seek allies. Even majorities seek and make alliances. The question is not whether an independent black party would seek alliances but what kind and with whom.
The necessity of alliances is not altered by the fact that Afro-Americans are part of a non-white majority in the world and even less by the existence of differences with prospective allies. Alliances are made specifically with forces and movements with whom an organization is not in essential or complete agreement. If there was complete agreement between the two, unity rather than alliance would be on the agenda. Practical agreements are made with forces which disagree on some or many matters. Alliances are concluded on actions and aims on which there is a coincidence of interests, even if only for a temporary period, while “agreeing to disagree” on other things.
This right to disagree on some points while working together on others is crucial. Without this right there is not an alliance of equals but a dependent relationship of a subordinate to a superior power. The existence of an independent black party would safeguard Afro-Americans against the wrong kinds of alliance. They would not be forced into unfavorable or unequal tieups because an independent organization always has the option of getting up and walking out. It is not necessary to agree to any move, tactic or strategy which will injure your cause so long as you are independent and able to withdraw and act on your own.
At this juncture the major alliances possible for an independent black party would be international. The American ruling class that oppresses and exploits black people at home has a large and growing list of enemies abroad. It is feasible and imperative for Afro-Americans to forge ties with the victims of US imperialism who are still in shackles, with those who have broken them, and with those who are in the process of breaking them. Malcolm X was stressing and striving to effect such alliances at the time of his assassination because he knew what healthy effects they could have on the progress of the liberation struggle within the United States. Stokely Carmichael’s speech at the OLAS Conference in Havana and other Third World capitals demonstrate that such alliances are in the making.
Once an independent black party has the power and acquires the skill to seek and make alliances on its own terms, then it will also be possible to create useful alliances with domestic forces. Among these will be the rebel youth, especially among the students; the anti-war movement; the Spanish-speaking people (Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans); the American Indians whose plight has been neglected by almost all the forces in the country; poor white workers; and radical opponents of both capitalism and the trade union bureaucracies. While none of these elements may approach problems in exactly the way black militants do, those who are enemies of the enemies of black people at home can become partners on certain issues and for certain stretches of the road, whatever their staying power in the long run.
Cooperation with allies is part and parcel of the strategy 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. An independent black party would best enable Afro-Americans to employ this tactic without surrendering their own interests, unity, autonomy or freedom of action. Successful maneuvering along these lines would 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.
The Socialist Workers Party 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 and with the rest of the world.
The Socialist Workers Party opposes the capitalist system and its political agents who run the Democratic and Republican Parties. It exposes all attempts to hoodwink and lure the working people, black or white, into supporting the candidates of these basically white supremacist and anti-labor parties on such pretexts as “it’s the man, and not the party, that counts.” The Socialist Workers Party does not endorse “people’s fronts,” anti-monopoly coalitions, “lesser evil” choices, “third forces,” so-called “peace candidates” or any other formations which have not clearly and cleanly cut their ties with the capitalist parties and asserted their independence of capitalist politics.
On the other hand, the Socialist Workers Party will support and defend those political forces and movements which represent a genuine breakaway from capitalist politics, whether or not they are socialist-minded or oriented. Thus it advocates the creation of an independent labor party by trade unions and would back such a progressive step, whatever criticisms it might have of a labor party’s program and leadership.
Similarly, the Socialist Workers Party favors the formation of an independent party uniting Afro-Americans in political struggle for their just rights and freedom. It believes that black people have the democratic right to decide their own destiny and that, without such a political instrument, they cannot effectively advance their immediate well-being or attain their ultimate goals. That is why the Socialist Workers Party supported the Freedom Now Party and supports the Lowndes County Freedom Party.
There is no contradiction between adhering to the ideas of revolutionary socialism and championing an all-black party. To be sure, the one is consciously opposed to the capitalist order whereas the other may be only partially and potentially directed against its domination. But both will stand arrayed against a common enemy in the capitalist ruling class and should travel along the same road toward the same destination.
Because black people are the most exploited, oppressed and aroused part of the population, it is reasonable to expect that they will become the first mass force to cut loose from the Democratic Party coalition and blaze a trail for others to follow. If they should establish an influential party of their own which carried through the fight against oppression and exploitation to the end, black Americans can be the vanguard of radical change in this country and play a decisive role in revolutionizing its political life.
Last updated on 19 June 2009