Black Power–Class Power

Black Power–Class Power

Once Again On Black Power

[Reprinted from Spartacist West, Vol. 1, No. 8, 30 September 1966]

Until fairly recently the dominant tone of the black movement in this country, in its image if not its reality, was that set by the liberal integrationists, the Martin Luther Kings and the Bayard Rustins. Theirs was the politics of black liberalism. The goal was formal, legal, equality; civil rights; or the northernizing of the south. The beneficiaries of this campaign were to be that narrow segment of the black population which is middle class or close to it and is commonly called “the black bourgeoisie.” The political strategy was to seek the support of, and to avoid antagonizing, the liberal establishment, and, logically enough, to seek to bring to bear the powers of the federal government which is controlled by this establishment. The tactics to be used were characterized by a heavy reliance on non-violence and moral confrontation.

The civil rights movement was thus a coherent whole, one whose politics, tactics, and ideology were well adapted to the social stratum which led it and benefitted by it. The hitch, of course, was that this movement meant very little for the overwhelming mass of the black people in America, who are either working class or economically and socially marginal and hence even more deprived. The black troops of the bourgeois generals began to demand that the movement turn its attention to their needs. This pressure was able to throw up a militant left wing, mainly but not exclusively within SNCC. At the same time, the locus of the struggle began to shift to include the northern ghettos, the bastions as well as the prisons of the black masses.

In contrast to the reform program of the civil rights movement, the demands of the black masses are necessarily and inherently class demands, and demands which the ruling class cannot meet. The call for jobs, for housing, and for emancipation from police brutalization (attacking the very basis of the state)–these cannot be answered by another civil rights bill from Washington. Their pursuit leads inevitably to a sharper and sharper confrontation with the ruling class. It is this transition which is represented by the black power slogan. Its popularization represents the repudiation of tokenism, liberal tutelage, reliance on the federal government, and the non-violent philosophy of moral suasion. In this sense, therefore, black power is class power, and should be supported by all socialist forces.

However, this development occurs at a time when the working class as a whole, except for its black contingent and isolated cases here and there, is quiescent, and in a mood to go along with the status quo. This contradiction between the black vanguard and the rest of the class distorts the black movement, and this distortion is reflected in the “black power” slogan. “Black power” has class content only conditionally, that is, the slogan in the abstract is classless, and takes on class content only from the specific historical context from which it emerges. This weakens the slogan profoundly, and opens it up to various kinds of abuse. It can be used by petty bourgeois black nationalist elements who want to slice the social cake along color rather than class lines and to promote reactionary color mysticism. More seriously, it can be degraded to mean mere support for black politicians operating within the system. To Adam Clayton Powell the slogan means, or he hopes it will mean, just himself and a bunch of black aldermen.

For these reasons, the support that Marxists give to this slogan must be critical, seeking always to deepen its class content. To say that the slogan now has nothing to offer the white workers, has no appeal to them, is true, but irrelevant. This is an error into which I feel C.K.’s article in our previous issue falls. The black movement today sees the white working class mainly in the form of the Cicero rioters, to whose sensibilities no concessions are due. When the class as a whole, including its backward white section, emerges as a self-conscious and active force, then it will be possible realistically to raise the question of transcending the old slogan. “Black power” will become “workers’ power.” In the meantime, black power represents a new and more advanced stage of the social confrontation in America.