In November of 1864, as a civil war raged on the other side of the Atlantic, Karl Marx and his comrades sent a letter to the President of the United States. President Abraham Lincoln attracted the attention of the Central Council of the First International because the renegade states were fighting to defend the ascendancy of the slave-owning aristocracy and the economic life built directly on the backs of human chattel slavery. Marx and his comrades concluded their letter:
While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
In contrast to what Marx’s reputation would be in the United States by the 20th century, Marx received a warm reply from the nascent imperialist power’s ambassador. Conversely, only the least critical “Marxists” in the 21st century would be able to hold back sharp criticism for Marx’s assessment both of the war that was in progress at the time he wrote to Lincoln and of the US history leading up to that war. Marx’s romantic letter to Lincoln, “the single-minded son of the working class” uncritically accepts the most generous version of the history of the settler-colonial oppressor nation, but was written at a key juncture in the history of the oppressed “Negro” people of North America. As the war which Marx hoped would initiate “a new era of ascendancy” “for the working classes” came to a close, the southern battlegrounds of that war to reunify the so-called “American nation” would become the soil for the development of a new “Afro-American” nation.
This piece will attempt to briefly outline from a Marxist perspective the development of a separate territory in the US south, and the struggle of the downtrodden Afro-American people* who populate it, a story which is crucial to understanding the dynamics of US imperialism “within the belly of the beast”.
The so-called “American people”: born as slave-masters and settler-colonisers
Marx opens his 1864 letter with congratulations to “the American people” for their re-election of Lincoln. Who are “the American people” to whom Marx refers? Much to the chagrin of most of the rest of the continent of America, the term brings to mind the dominant national group of the imperialist United States of America, one of the countries on the continent. This group developed from a core of early white settler-colonists who spoke English, and whose every territorial expansion across the continent was accompanied by genocidal campaigns against the indigenous peoples, whose inhabited land they craved. The descendants of Africans brought over in chains to America, still enslaved in their thousands at the time of Marx’s letter, were not only economically and socially distant from most of this population, but legally distinct and subordinate. There was no meaningful initiative by the early US government to address this inequality, who on the contrary were so set in defending the “rights” of the slave-owning aristocracy that many Afro-American slaves fought on the side of the British against this new “democracy”.
Some scholars, such as Gerald Horne, author of the controversial book “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America”, argue that the leadership of the early United States was actually more reactionary than the British Empire, and was motivated by the defence of slavery to “rebel”. Specifically, the claim is made that the so-called “revolutionaries” of the US War of Independence were actually fighting to preserve their ascendancy in a system built on chattel slavery within an empire which was rapidly industrialising. The class struggle, in Horne’s view, was not between bourgeois “Americans” and a feudal British state, but between a slave-owning aristocracy (who did indeed wield political power in the United States for decades) and a capitalist-imperialist British Empire (which was rapidly industrialising and sending its excess labour abroad to act as settlers in defence of empire, as feudal relations were receding). It is an undeniable fact that Marx praised the US War of Independence, and that Lenin repeated this error decades later by appraising the US War of Independence as a kind of bourgeois democratic revolution: “the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery” (Lenin, 1918). But this praise was indeed in error: which leftist in the United States today can seriously claim, as Lenin did a century prior from across the ocean, that white settlers were the colonised and not the colonisers, that they were the enslaved and not the slave-owners on this continent?
Indeed, the emancipation of slaves took place more rapidly in “British North America” (today’s Canada) than in the United States. While it is true that the abolitionist movement in Canada had not won “the war” by the time of US secession, it was a less pressing issue: the Canadian economy did not rely on slave labour as the US economy did, and the practice was outlawed in 1833, over two decades prior to the US Civil War (and without a war across the British Empire over the question). These facts would seem to support Horne’s argument.
But we must also understand that the United States was not born as a slave society akin to those in much earlier history, somehow ejecting capitalist development which the British had brought in 1776. The British Empire was developing the United States on capitalist terms, and slave labour was sublated within this. These economic relations remained in the early US, and the slave economy reflected the developing capitalist market with which it existed in uneasy peace:
the negro labor in the Southern States of the American Union preserved something of a patriarchal character, so long as production was chiefly directed to immediate local consumption. But in proportion, as the export of cotton became of vital interest to these states, the over-working of the negro and sometimes the using up of his life in 7 years of labor became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products. It was now a question of surplus value itself. (Marx, 2002: 345)
Agrarian slave economics, no matter the legal protections afforded by the state, were sublated in a capitalist world order, and slave-owners were competing on capitalist terms. This afforded great economic and therefore political power to the northern industrial capitalists of the early United States. While chattel slavery was indeed a major economic force in the early United States, the country had to develop on capitalist terms to remain competitive and not fall under the economic domination of European imperialist powers. This the United States did, and was able to compete for land and resources with the other rapacious European imperialist powers sweeping across the continent and indeed the world in the decades to come.
This development of industrial capital took place largely in the north of the US, while chattel slavery remained dominant in the old “cotton belt” south. The new settler-colonist capitalist and the slave-owning aristocracy were also in competition for resources and profits with one another within the US, just as the individual capitalist is in competition with other capitalists. This economic competition manifested itself as US imperialism expanded west in the question of whether conquered territories would help expand northern industrial capitalism or add to the agrarian slave economy of the south.
The fact that this economic competition related to the rapidly expanding imperialist state made it an unavoidable political contradiction. The social movement for the abolition of slavery in the United States exploited this to put political pressure on the south to modernise its means of exploitation of human labour. The southern slave-owning aristocracy, seeing the direction of history turning against them, were forced to make the same choice the slave-owning “Founding Fathers” of the United States made: accept their subservience to a changing world, or hold off this change by means of secession.
Like the founders of the United States, the southern “rebels” dressed their declaration of “independence” in a demand for “democracy”, a democracy of the exploiters and oppressors: “states’ rights” implied it was a question of a more decentralised government, just as “taxation without representation” allowed white settler-colonists whose economic life depended on the genocide and enslavement of much larger populations of “non-white” people to pose themselves as champions of equality and self-determination. But the Industrial Revolution was changing the entire world, and slave-owners could no longer pose as democrats to anyone but themselves.
Up until this point, the entirety of the English-speaking European settler-colonist population had undergone a common and independent social and cultural development to parallel their economic development. This “Yankee” people were no long simply a population of English (or at least English-dominated) white settlers in North America. They were perceived as another nation by the English in England (and referred to as “Americans” in political documents of the time, including Marx’s works). But simply because they had crowned themselves masters of all they surveyed, did not mean that they were the only people on the land they conquered.
Marx did not overlook the question of slavery: he hoped for the US government to bring this population into capitalist modernity, resolving the contradiction of slavery and preparing them for the struggles brought on by the contradictions of capitalism. It was his hope that Lincoln is genuine in his campaign against slavery as a mode of production and the social ills it has brought.
This hope proved naïve, for reasons that are easily explained using Marx’s own method: Lincoln’s political position was not held up by abolitionists in the US, either “Black” or “white”, who cried out for human liberation. It was held up by the nascent imperialist power of northern capital. Slavery was an ill for the ruling classes of the United States only in so far as it was not subservient to the interests of capital. We will see in the aftermath of this “war against slavery” the extreme tenacity of oppressors and exploiters, the endless capacity of capitalism to sublate within itself the most retrograde features of outdated modes of production in the service of the profit motive.
Reconstruction and betrayal
Despite eventually becoming the military and political head of the campaign against the slave-owning aristocracy in the south, Lincoln did everything possible to avoid war, including attempts at compromise with the slave-owners. The ruling classes offered no support to the peaceful abolitionist movement in the north, nor defence of the righteous slave rebellions in the south, including the famous two-day rebellion led by the Afro-American hero Nat Turner. Shortly before the Civil War, the white abolitionist John Brown was executed by the north for attempting to lead a slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. Throughout all of this, the south and north were tensely aware of the role of slavery in politics: northern states were increasingly opposed to slavery and any support for it within their own territories, as was the federal government to expansion of slavery to newly conquered territories. When Lincoln was elected in 1860, he was viewed as provocatively anti-slavery to the southern states, for reason of his support for the measures outlined above. But even when they declared their secession from the United States, Lincoln’s only concern was regaining control of the south, by peaceful means and not by invasion, and not abolishing slavery. It was the south who forced the north to war in 1861 by attacking a military outpost in the south, Fort Sumter.
As the US Civil War raged on, the positions of the two sides seemed to harden. Lincoln was reelected, and the abolitionists within and without his party gained more influence. Thus it was that Marx remarked, in his aforementioned 1864 letter:
“If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.”
Lincoln’s enemy was the so-called “Confederate States of America”, a self-declared state whose entire territorial economy was based on enslaved Afro-American labour. The Afro-American people built with their blood sweat and tears everything which was owned by the ruling classes who were seeking to turn back the clock on their liberation. Paraphrasing Marx attempting to quote Hegel, history was repeating itself: from the tragedy of a new republic being born headed by a slave-owning aristocracy, to the farce of trying to preserve this order in the south when its economic basis had nearly been broken down. It seemed as if the United States might save its soul, redeem itself, repent, by conquering these “rebel states” and freeing the slaves. The enthusiasm of abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic for a Union victory must have been the source of Marx’s own enthusiasm.
But the outcome of the US Civil War was tragically reminiscent of the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe. After a bloody and protracted campaign, the US military, led by Lincoln, retook the south. The Republican Party of which Lincoln was the head contained many radicals, the aptly named “Radical Republican” faction, the would-be Robespierres of the settler-colonial Yankee nation. Their ideas were radical in that they wished to utterly destroy the slave-owning aristocracy in the south: no compensation to slave-owners, no political rehabilitation for them or their political representatives, real democratic equality between Black and white. They organised themselves in the US south and pushed forward with their programme of radical reconstruction despite opposition from both the slave-owning aristocracy and the political representatives of northern capital. Lincoln made every attempt at compromise with former slave-owners and moderates alike up until his assassination, which emboldened the Radical Republicans more. Their work in the south alongside the former slaves led to violent confrontation with the KKK, a counter-revolutionary terrorist organisation dedicated to the preservation of white supremacy in the south and allied with the conservative Democratic Party. But northern capital would not back the Radical Republicans, and so the bourgeois revolution could not be sustained: so long as the southern aristocracy accepted their economic and political subservience to northern capital, the north would not intervene to save the Radical Republicans or the Afro-American people.
Between the Democratic Party and the KKK, a new order fell over the US south, over Afro-America. This order was designed to maintain the economic and political ascendency of the old slave-owning aristocracy, and by means of racist ideology, the lower class whites were made into accomplices. The “Jim Crow” laws were passed, which made free fraternisation between whites and Blacks a crime. The Afro-American people, having been led to the threshold of belonging in a democratic republic, were abandoned to the shadow order of KKK terror by night and legal segregation by day. Afro-Americans were forbidden from intermarrying with the white population (any person whose “racial” belonging was in question was subject to the “one-drop rule”, by which they were considered to be non-white if they had any known non-white ancestry), were sent to separate and inferior schools, denied civil services, and were left powerless to contest this by legal means as their votes were suppressed by gerrymandering, racist dictats, and threats from the KKK. The Afro-American people, denied incorporation into society, developed their own parallel society in the south, where they numerically predominated in many areas, held down politically by the settler-colonial and racist order.
Their radical wing defeated and their base in the south destroyed, the Republican Party slid further and further to the right, until it became nearly indistinguishable from the Democratic Party. So it was that by the 20th century, when the Republican Party moved to the Democratic Party’s right, becoming the new friend of KKK terror and white supremacy in the south, it became a rarely mentioned ironic fact that this party which secured votes from those who waved “Confederate” flags first came to power to destroy the so-called “Confederacy”.
To peruse the bourgeois history books of the United States is to see the Civil War presented as a betrayal by slave-owners of a democratic order. To travel to the south, more than a century after the war, is to see an entirely different story: those class and national elements who fly the flag of “secession” from the United States are those who enjoy the protection of the imperialist US state in their economic dominance and political violence against the downtrodden Afro-American people. The so-called “Confederate flag” is flown alongside the US flag on private homes and at KKK gatherings, as it has been for decades. These twin symbols show that the real interests of US imperialism in the south has never been the liberation of the Afro-Americans, but on the contrary, economic dominance predicted upon white supremacy, the same white supremacy which has conquered the continent and committed genocide against the indigenous peoples wherever it has spread.
No matter how “treasonous” the so-called “Confederate army” may have once been in the eyes of northern capital, in the final instance US imperialism recognises itself in the settler-colonial supremacist mentality and social relations which sympathisers of “the Confederacy” in the south defend. As elsewhere in the world, US imperialism sees the rights of the oppressed peoples (whether the indigenous in the United States or the Kurds in Kurdistan) as useful only in so far as they further US economic interests, and no further.
This piece cannot possibly do justice both to the history of Afro-America and the various indigenous peoples who were massacred and driven from their lands to make space for settler-colonial “Yankee” America. But let it be noted that while European settlers drove further and further west, confronting the indigenous peoples and subjugating them through the most brutal violence, the descendents of slaves found their destiny tied to the territory of the south, and the question of racist terror designed to politically, economically, in a word, socially subjugate them.
Marxism and the Afro-American national question
By the beginning of the 20th century, little had changed in the US south in legal or ideological terms since the introduction of the “Jim Crow” laws. The state did everything in its power to hold history still. But history is always in motion, driven by the class struggle, and Afro-America was no exception.
Economic and demographic changes in the south meant that the poor were being drawn into cities where they faced stiff competition for work. Black and white workers were separated in the south by the “Jim Crow” laws, and KKK terror was directed against attempts by the socialist movement to unite these workers, as well as against Afro-Americans in particular to incentivise collaboration or at least silence by the white poor. Afro-Americans began to flee to the north, where they became a lower tier section of the labour force living in refugee camp ghettos.
As the communist movement in the US grew stronger and the labour and Afro-American questions became intertwined, Marxists in the United States began to theoretise the Afro-American experience. Those US Marxists familiar with this history would rightly reproach me were I not to mention Harry Haywood, an Afro-American Marxist-Leninist and member of the CPUSA who put forth the thesis that Afro-Americans were a nation according to the Marxist-Leninist definition.
His thesis, unfortunately, was opportunistically buried by the CPUSA during the much-maligned Browder period, and never resurrected. When the Sino-Soviet split occurred, Haywood became the figurehead of the larger of two trends which married their critique of Soviet revisionism (and its US servants, the so-called “Browderites”) with a fierce defence of the centrality of national question within the United States. Harry Haywood’s “New Communist Movement” was the beginning of a trend of multinational communist elements across the US who distinguished themselves by their adherence to Haywood and Mao, most of whom eventually merged within the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), which exists to this day, and upholds the national question as key, in their own words:
National oppression in the U.S. is white supremacist national oppression. This white supremacist system propagates ideas of European superiority and other racist ideologies and allows the white population of the U.S. to hold relative material advantage over the oppressed nationalities. Socialists and revolutionaries in the United States must uphold the right to self-determination, in order to build a strategic alliance between the working class and the movements of the oppressed nationalities to overthrow imperialism and establish socialism. The demands of the oppressed nationalities must become the demands of the entire proletariat and be placed at the center of our own class strategy. The main obstacle to building such a strategic alliance is white chauvinism, which must be overcome for the victory of socialist revolution. (FRSO 2004)
The other trend, much smaller and more orthodoxically Marxist-Leninist rather than adhering to some variant of “Mao Zedong Thought”, was the so-called “Hammer & Steel” trend, led at one point by Homer Chase, who found himself not only engaged in fierce polemics with the CPUSA on the national question, but also engaged in trans-Atlantic polemics with Maoists in Britain on their own erroneous line on Wales and Scotland:
After reading your material and your letter we conclude that MLOB does not know what a national democratic revolution is all about. This conclusion is reached after reading your views on China, the Black Belt, Wales and Scotland.
J.V. Stalin was a great M-List theoretician on the national question. This does not mean that everything either he or Lenin wrote in one period can be mechanically applied to another period. The essence of Stalin’s teachings contradicts his statement concerning the national question being resolved, except for Ireland, in the British Isles. M-Lists who uphold Stalin’s life and work will support Scottish and Welsh efforts to destroy English imperialism now.
You are not taking a serious M-List view on the Afro-American question in the US. It is simply nonsense to deny, as you and Laski do, the contradiction between non-proletarian Afro-Americans and US imperialism. You and Laski claim to uphold national democratic revolutions in genera}, but in the specific you insist that only socialist revolutions, with proletarians firmly in leadership, should receive support. Since the present objective situation is not favourable for Socialist revolutions, this leaves you opposing revolution in stages and serving counter-revolution strategically. Of course the working class will eventually unite with the rural poor and lead national democratic revolutions in oppressed nations. This is precisely why H & S exposes pseudo-Marxists in all countries who oppose liberation struggles. (Chase 1970)
This trend eventually became today’s Revolutionary Organization of Labor (ROL-USA), and remains smaller than the FRSO within the US, but with more extensive connections outside the US. Both trends distinguished themselves and continue to distinguish themselves from the CPUSA on many issues, but they almost always first raise the issue of the national question, with the ROL and FRSO pouring resources into popular front activity for oppressed nationalities while the CPUSA tails the more chauvinistic elements of the “white” left.
Because of its historical betrayal, it would be very easy to simply paint the CPUSA as the source of chauvinism against oppressed nationalities, including the Afro-American people, whose struggle against US imperialism from “within” the United States constitutes an Achilles heel to this imperialist power. But the CPUSA was not the cause, but a symptom of a chauvinism of the “white” left in the United States. The source of this chauvinism may be said to have material origins in the fact that the Yankee proletariat has historically been bought off by its greater access to resources gained through the superexploitation of the oppressed nationalities at home and abroad: in English, there is a word “lot”, which original referred to luck or fate, but came to mean something which is your right by fate. In US English, this came to refer to a certain portion of land, because “white” settlers were effectively handed land (of varying quality based on their class background of course) which was, of course, stolen from the indigenous peoples of the continent which was being conquered by and for “the white race” (as was the US state’s open and unapologetic official rhetoric up until the 20th century). This trend was continued more covertly to maintain a class difference on national lines even in the 20th century, with returning WWII soldiers being greeted with affordable home-ownership schemes across the country… so long as they were white.
When the CPUSA abandoned the organisation of Black sharecroppers in 1936, the pretext was that of Afro-Americans having “embraced” or “chosen” “American” (that is, Yankee) nationality, thus the fight should be for equal democratic rights, facilitating a unified class struggle by workers of all “races”1. Naturally it was crucial that the CPUSA did campaign for civil rights as a reformist goal which was necessary for Afro-American democratic rights and struggle. But where was the embrace of “American” identity that Afro-Americans supposedly shared with their white class brothers and sisters? In the south, under “Jim Crow”, Afro-Americans were not even yet allowed to make such a “choice” to merge with white Americans into a single national identity, as anyone who violated segregation laws and procreated across “racial” lines created children who were Black, not white, and subject to the same exclusion from white society as their Black parent!
Even after nominally gaining equal civil rights by the mid-20th century, nobody can seriously claim that Afro-Americans are actually equal members of US society, in the economic or political spheres. And nowhere are they less equal before the law than the Black Belt South, the territory whose particular quality the CPUSA denies, and where the Democratic Party (for whom Afro-Americans consistently vote) basically refuse to seriously contest Republican Party control of the south. Thus, from the “Marxists” to the liberals, the “white” left ignore the geographic significance of this struggle, its historical origins, and national implications. Instead, the question is relegated to one of “fighting racism”, which, while crucial, would never be accepted as the sum of the line on the question of the Irish under British rule, or the Kurds in Turkey.
“Race” and nation
The position that Afro-Americans are not a nation is aided by the fact that according to US law, Afro-Americans are a separate “racial” group. Police records, census records, government statistics, and all manner of state bureaucracy frequently categorise US citizens according to “race”. It was the CPUSA’s argument that the Afro-American people may be “racially” distinct from the US majority, but they were not a separate nation. Indeed, Stalin makes it quite clear that “race” and nation are two distinct concepts. Are US anti-revisionists guilty of substituting “race” for nation?
A “race” is not a nation, but racism in the US is played such an intense role in separating citizens, compared to some other countries in the Americas, such as neighbouring Mexico, where a large “mixed” (mestizo/a) population came to be known as “the Mexican people”, that newcomers to the United States of Sub-Saharan African origins are often drawn into this social formation which goes back to the descendents of the slaves in the Black Belt South, while other newcomers (but particularly those of “white” European extraction) are assimilated into a Euro-American “Yankee” nation, which oppresses them. The two are in constant contact, but they have not merged. They have developed a separate sense of history. “White” Americans imagine a democratic history going back to George Washington, with their own particular ancestors having come over as “immigrants” or settlers at some point between then and now, largely being accepted as equal citizens immediately. Afro-Americans know that their ancestor’s original African culture was beaten out of them, their languages and history taken away, and subsequently, that they were not even legally equal human beings until the Civil War, after which they remember decades of KKK terror which drove them in large numbers from their homeland into refugee camp “ghettos” in the north.
In the north as in the south, Afro-Americans have a distinct version of the English language, which every native English speaker can immediately distinguish from “White American” English as immediately as they could tell a Scottish person’s English from a Bostonians. Dialectal divisions exist between all the major US cities, such that an Afro-American in New York speaks differently to their cousin in Atlanta, but neither can be confused with the speech of their white compatriots.
Afro-Americans have their own national festivals, such as Juneteenth, when they celebrate their actual liberation from slavery (when the news of their new status as “free citizens” reached Texas, the furthest outpost of “Confederate” power), and their own national anthem (which they refer to as such!), “Lift Every Voice and Sing”.
Even foreigners are fully aware that the Afro-American people have a distinctive artistic culture, one of the richest and most influential in the world. Without Afro-American artists, there would be no blues, no jazz, no R&B, no rock and roll, no hip hop. The culture of poetry, song, and story among Afro-Americans is so highly developed that people across the world seek to emulate it, either for reasons of its profitability or its relatability. They have their own novelists, their own filmmakers, all of whom tell the distinctive story of their people, their pain, their triumphs, their ability to survive as a stolen population, beaten in captivity, unwanted in freedom.
Even if the word “nation” is not constantly and publicly used in reference to the Afro-American people, every US citizen, white and Black, knows that if an Afro-American uses the phrase “my people” or “our people” with a nationalistic pride, they do not refer to all US citizens.
Clearly, to genuine Marxist-Leninists who are concerned with the national question, the Afro-American people are no less a nation than the Scottish are from the English, just as Homer Chase emphasised in 1970. This begs the question: why has their liberation been so long delayed?
Why is Afro-America not free?
It is of course the case that part of the fault lies with US imperialism. This should be assumed from the beginning, that a mighty imperialist power such as the US will not easily let a large population which can threaten them in terms of territory, labour, and resources, simply seize their rights uncontested. The Afro-American struggle has been and will continue to be one of the most difficult in the world, precisely because it serves as an Achilles heel to US imperialism.
It is also the fault of the socialist movement in the oppressor Yankee nation. “White” workers have been taught to fear, distrust, and hate the Afro-American people as every oppressor nation is taught to hate the oppressed. Even, and sometimes unfortunately especially, the poorest whites are those who most jealously guard their meagre sense of superiority over the oppressed, including the Afro-Americans. Surely, as socialists, it is a foremost task to correct the chauvinism in the movement and of the workers, and build a movement of genuine solidarity for common liberation on the terms of oppressed peoples such as the Afro-Americans.
But let us not view the Afro-American people themselves as if they were some objective material that white America, its ruling class and its proletariat, are to contain within their own social dynamics, benevolently or malevolently. Betrayed and trapped though they may have been for centuries, the Afro-American people are themselves a subjectivity, they can reshape history themselves. Having been abandoned by US “democracy” time and again, the Afro-American people have also developed their own national heroes, their own leaders. The remainder of this piece will focus on briefly introducing but a few of these, specifically chosen because I am sure they will interest the readership of Abstrakt. I beg the more knowledgeable readership forgive the many omissions, I have chosen the names below because they serve as focal points for understanding the general history of Afro-American struggle, not because the entirety of this history can be summed up in my modest summaries of their lives.
An Afro-American statesman, Frederick Douglass was a key figure in attempting to bring the abolitionist cause to the level of “high politics” in the United States. Born into slavery, Douglass was educated by his master’s wife, a rare occurrence as literacy was viewed as a dangerous weapon in the hands of slaves. This perception turned out to be quite accurate in the case of Douglass, who dedicated his life to the cause of liberation, and was known as a fierce orator whose rhetoric struck at the core of the dominant ideology of the United States.
Regarding claims of the United States as a society founded to defend slavery against British industrialisation, his quote about his time in Britain and Ireland is pertinent:
Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here! (Douglass 2003)
On July 4th, the most important US “national” holiday, which celebrates the independence of the US from the British Empire, Douglass was invited to give a speech on the meaning of the holiday, and making skillful use of the second person, drew attention to his own people’s separate history of suffering under the “freedom” of the nation to which he could not say he belonged:
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse”; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
Every July 4th, progressives in the United States share this second paragraph on Facebook, a harsh reminder of the history and present of US “democracy”. Frederick Douglass’s brilliant use of the English language stands as a monument to the harshest criticism of the existing order, not only for his own people, but for all victims of the hypocrisy of US imperialism.
Harriet Tubman was an Afro-American woman abolitionist who, like Douglass, war born into slavery. Beyond mere rhetorical campaigning for her people’s freedom, she was active in practical work during the darkest years before and during the US Civil War. She met with the radical white abolitionist John Brown, who gave her the nom de guerre “General Tubman” as she helped him recruit Afro-American fighters for his fateful raid on Harper’s Ferry, after which Brown was executed by the US state. Following his death, she made no apologies, hailing him as a hero who “done more in dying, than 100 men would in living”.
She was a leader of the Underground Railroad, a network to help slaves escape the south prior to abolition, where, in an allusion to the Jewish story of escape from slavery under the pagan Egyptian kings, she earned the nom de guerre “Moses”. She also went to the front during the Civil War and worked as a nurse, treating union soldiers fighting against the “Confederacy”. Despite her wartime medical service for the US state and the particular symbolic significance of her work as an Afro-American woman, she was denied pension money and died in poverty, having dedicated the rest of her life to the cause of gaining women the right to vote, a cause she would not live to see fulfilled.
Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X abandoned his birth surname in prison upon his conversion to the Nation of Islam, an unorthodox political-religious group in the US which mixed Afro-American nationalism with Islam. The group drew attention to the fact that most Afro-Americans carry surnames taken from the slave masters who beat them, raped women, separated families, insulted and overworked them, and robbed them of their original culture, language, and history. The Nation of Islam sought to introduce Afro-Americans to an Islamic African heritage, in opposition to the imposed European Christian heritage of their oppressors.
The group gained converts through prison outreach, and through positive social initiatives which were sorely lacking in Afro-American communities. Having survived as a criminal for years, Malcolm X began reading the dictionary in prison, educating himself and using his newfound love of literacy to recruit for his cause. He was so successful that he rose within the ranks of the organisation, and became more famous in the eyes of the media than Elijah Muhammad, the group’s leader.
His fierce convictions and critical worldview eventually brought about a split with his former leadership: while the Nation of Islam sought to eventually make a sort of deal with US imperialism to purchase the land they needed for their national peace, Malcolm X could not refrain from commenting on controversial world politics, landing afoul of his leadership for belittling the assassination of US President Kennedy as “chickens coming home to roost”, that is, that the US imperialism’s violence around the world and at home made violence striking back at imperialism expected. He also became critical of Elijah Muhammad’s use of his position to seek sexual favour from secretaries in the organisation.
He would go on to split with the group, travel to Mecca, and convert to Sunni Islam, which now has a small but socially significant following among Afro-Americans, based mostly around converts gained from those who followed Malcolm X’s leadership. His conversion to Orthodox Islam did nothing to dampen the strength of his core convictions: he continued to preach Black nationalism, albeit in a more nuanced way, rather than speaking only about race relations in the US, situating the Afro-American struggle alongside the other anti-imperialist struggles, such as Vietnam or Palestine. He continued to preach self defence and liberation “by any means necessary”.
Near the end, he was sure he would be assassinated, as other Afro-American leaders of his day, such as Medgar Evers, head of the more moderate NAACP, had already been murdered. On February 21st, 1965, Malcolm X was gunned down in New York City before a speech. The gunmen appeared to be affiliated with his former organisation, but a US state role has long been suspected.
To this day, Malcolm X is remembered as one of the strongest symbols of Afro-American resistance and self-determination in their national history, and he would go on to inspire nearly all Afro-American strugglers who came up after his death.
Among the trends in Afro-American struggle following Malcolm X and later Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, one of the most famous is the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Drawing inspiration from Mao Zedong and anti-colonial struggles the world over, the Black Panther Party distinguished itself from other pro-Mao trends both by its exclusive recruitment from within the Afro-American community, and by its work within the community, providing free breakfasts for children, etc., which made the group extremely popular and caused the FBI to view them as a particular threat. A campaign of infiltration, assassination, and politically motivated frame-ups decimated the group’s leadership.
Assata Shakur was organised within the Black Panthers, but her disenchantment with the macho leadership and her higher theoretical standards caused her to gravitate towards the Black Liberation Army offshoot (Shakur, 1999: 221-4). The more militant Black Liberation Army was involved in clandestine guerrilla actions and clashes with the state. Shakur personally was accused of several crimes while active in the group, finally being imprisoned for her alleged murder of a police officer, a charge she categorically denies.
Former BLA guerrillas broke her out of prison in 1979, escaping to Cuba in 1984, being granted asylum by the Cuban government, continuing a tradition of Cuban solidarity with Afro-American political prisoners going back to Robert F. Williams in the early 1960s. In Cuba, Shakur continues to write and speak about her experience, referring to herself as “a 20th century escaped slave”.
Unlike the other figures in this list, Shakur is still alive, and references to her innocence and struggle are commonplace among Afro-American radicals and women in particular. As a symbol of her people’s resistance, Trump made sure to vilify her in particular, demanding “the return of the cop–killer Joanne Chesimard” (what Shakur would refer to as her “slave name”) as a condition of better relations with Cuba (Tanenbaum 2017).
Conclusion: does the struggle go on?
Despite all attempts to bury the reality of the “nation within a nation”, the struggle of the Afro-American people maintains its national quality: those who travel to their homeland are immediately greeted with the sense of being in a different country, the Afro-Americans a distinctive people, their common fate tied to the usual contradictions of national struggle within a multi-national state.
What are the means by which struggle continues at present for this downtrodden people? Various explicit nationalist organisations exist, of particular note being the Republic of New Afrika, the New Afrikan People’s Organization, and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Various popular front struggles are taking place, perhaps the most noteworthy of which being the Cooperation Jackson project in Jackson, Mississippi, which seeks to build economic cooperatives in this Afro-American city as part of a project of dual power. The organiser Kali Akuno speaks often of his work in Jackson as being part of a larger project called “the Jackson-Kush Plan”, by which popular power can be built around cooperative economics across the Afro-American territory.
Surely more examples could be listed, such as Black Lives Matter, the National Black United Front, or various neo-Black Panther collectives across the United States. The crux of the matter, however, is this:
The Afro-American people have a vested interest in struggling against US imperialism. They have a large population with a strong consciousness thanks to their historical experience, which has taught them that solidarity means survival. But who have they to turn to for solidarity? The international communist movement has largely abandoned their national struggle when the CPUSA did. Neither China, nor Albania, nor even Cuba have been bold enough to expose the true gravity of this national oppression against the Afro-American people on the world stage.
For years, the white working class movement in the US, while relying on Afro-American labour and numbers for trade union organisation, has found it comfortable to ignore excessively “radical” demands from Afro-America. While Afro-Americans continue to face violence, starkly unequal access to resources, and political injustice in every part of the United States, their struggle is weakened by a lack of international solidarity not only “abroad”, but “at home”.
Afro-Americans will take to the streets, in the north and the south, demanding their rights. Their struggle will go on, just as the struggle of every group who are collectively denied justice by the capitalist-imperialist world order still manages to go on, against incredible odds. But they have not achieved victory, and in this, the failure is ours. Their struggle is our struggle, just as all of toiling humanity has one common struggle. By ignoring them, by abandoning them, we divide this struggle, we betray our creed of “workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!”
–Malcolm X (1992)
–The Birth of a Nation (2016)
*** The second part of this piece will be published in the coming months, and it will take the vantage point of the history of organized resistance, particularly in the South.
Chase, H. (1970) “Centrist” Revisionism in the United States: A letter from Homer Chase, of “Hammer & Steel Newsletter”, https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/1960-1970/mlob-chase.htm, accessed July 18, 2018
Douglass, F. (2003) My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I – Life as a Slave; Part II – Life as a Freeman, New York: Random House
Douglass, F. (2012) ‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’, https://www.thenation.com/article/what-slave-fourth-july-frederick-douglass/, accesssed July 18, 2018
FRSO (2004) National Oppression, National Liberation and Socialist Revolution, http://frso.org/main-documents/statement-on-national-oppression-national-liberation-and-socialist-revolution/, accessed July 18, 2018
Haley, A. and X, M. (1965) The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, Leyden: Aeonian Press
Haywood, H. (1976) The Negro Nation, Chapter VII of the book Negro Liberation, https://www.marxists.org/archive/haywood/negro-liberation/ch07.htm, accessed July 18, 2018
Horne, G. (2014) The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, New York: NYU Press
Lenin, V.I. (2018) Letter to American Workers, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/20.htm, accessed September 21, 2018
Marx K. (1864) Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1864/lincoln-letter.htm, accessed July 18, 2018
Marx, K. (2002) Capital, http://content.csbs.utah.edu/~ehrbar/cap1.pdf, accessed July 18, 2018
Shakur, A. (1999) Assata: An Autobiography. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books
Tanenbaum, M. (2017) “Trump demands return of New Jersey ‘cop killer’ exiled in Cuba”, https://www.phillyvoice.com/trump-calls-return-new-jersey-cop-killer-exiled-cuba/, accessed July 18, 2018
Workers Advocate (1985) On the history of the CPUSA and the CI on the Right to Self-Determination, https://www.communistvoice.org/WAS8511CPUSA-BNQ.html, accessed July 19, 2018
* Throughout this piece, I use the term “Afro-American” and “Afro-America” frequently. Both terms are somewhat academic at present, although they can occasionally be encountered in social discourse outside of the academy. The term was also the final preferred term of Malcolm X, prior to his death.
The term “African American” was avoided throughout the piece due to its association with bureaucracy, as the US state uses this terminology to imply a similarity in the identity of “African Americans” to, for example, Turkish Americans. There can be no comparison: US citizens of Turkish immigrant background exist in a state of tension between two national identities caused by migration, often by choice. The entire Afro-American people exists not because of immigration, but as the descendants of slaves brought to North America against their will, whose national identity was formed in North America after their original African cultures were stolen from them by the slave trade and the associated violence.
The term “Black” is frequently used and employed frequently by Afro-Americans and Yankees alike. “Negro” is now very dated and may sound pejorative, but is frequently encountered in historical documents (written by Afro-Americans, Yankees, and foreigners alike) without this connotation.
The land in question is almost never referred to as “Afro-America” in conversation. Most US citizens almost invariably refer to the territory in question as “the South”, or “the Deep South”, including most Afro-Americans. A more romantic term among the Afro-American people outside of their homeland is “down home”, often used as an adjective (“down home cooking”, to refer to traditional Afro-American cuisine). Harry Haywood (and some US government commissions) found it convenient to refer to “the Black Belt”. More recently, the term “New Afrika” has been proposed, though it has yet to gain wide acceptance. Among those who refer to “New Afrika”, the Afro-American people may also be known by the name “New Afrikan”, which is understood as a final break with US ideology and defence of their self-determination.
1“At the founding convention of this organization the keynote speaker was none other than A. Philip Randolph, the notorious social-democrat and betrayer of the black people. In that same year the Sharecroppers’ Union was liquidated and its membership merged into the Agricultural Workers’ Union and the Alabama Farmers’ Union, the latter being strongly influenced by the racist and Coughlinite forces and organized on a Jim Crow basis. By the late 30’s the Party theoreticians were writing articles and books on how Roosevelt’s policies were improving the conditions of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers and how Jim Crow was breaking down and would eventually disappear. Actually, Roosevelt’s politics were directed at helping the plantation owners and almost no help ever reached the black sharecroppers and tenant farmers.” (Workers Advocate 1985)