(By Return to the Source)
Thousands rally for Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL.
In the past year, the United States has experienced an upsurge in black political consciousness as hundreds of thousands of organizations and people poured into the streets to demand justice for Trayvon Martin, the 17 year-old African-American youth brutally murdered in Sanford, FL. Martin’s case has drawn enormous attention to the daily terrorism inflicted on African-Americans by both the US government and vigilante terrorists, like George Zimmerman, who uphold and enforce a vicious system of white supremacy.
As the movement against police brutality and racist oppression continues to grow, Marxist-Leninists must grapple with the burning question of how to build a revolutionary national liberation struggle capable of ending white supremacy and imperialism in the United States.
Seeking to capitalize on the growing struggle against racism, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has republished a series of articles from the 1980s reflecting their understanding of “The History of Black America” in its newspaper, Socialist Worker. Complete with all of the errors endemic to their bizarre Trotskyite understanding of revolutionary history, these articles are a flaccid attempt for a mostly white organization – an organization that expelled several activists of color from its Washington DC branch in 2010, no less – to make itself relevant to the struggle of African-Americans against white supremacy.
However, one article in particular, republished on Saturday, June 16, stands above the rest in its historical revisionism, its fallacious analysis, and its generally poor syntactical construction. Lee Sustar’s piece, “Self-determination and the Black Belt” is a hit piece on the Marxist-Leninist demand for African-American self-determination, the entire concept of the Black Belt nation, and black nationalism in general.
Rife with historical errors, strawman characterizations, and misspellings, Sustar’s piece itself is barely worth a response. Never missing an opportunity to denounce and slander Josef Stalin, Sustar makes the totally absurd claim that “The Black Belt theory was part of a sharp “left” turn by the Communist International (Comintern) used by Joseph Stalin to mask his bureaucracy’s attack on the workers’ state,” arguing that somehow upholding the demand for African-American self-determination allowed Josef Stalin to better consolidate his so-called “state capitalist regime in Russia.” (1) The relationship between the struggle for black nationalism and the USSR is never explained or warranted by Sustar.
Neither is his claim that the demand for black self-determination was based “on the works of a Swedish professor who aimed to theoretically justify the political turns of the bureaucracy which was coming to control Russia.” (2) Sustar never names this Swedish professor, supposedly the progenitor of the demand for black self-determination, nor does he offer any evidence that such a professor had any impact on the development of the black national question adopted and implemented by the Communist International (Comintern). But a lack of evidence never stands in the way of the ISO’s vicious slander of Marxism-Leninism so the omission of key facts is both unsurprising and expected.
However, the continued relevance and renewed importance of the black national question in the 21st century demands serious consideration by Marxist-Leninists. It is important to respond to these unprincipled criticisms and slander of the experiences of black nationalist organizations and the CPUSA. The ISO may have published this piece nearly 30 years ago, but the same theoretical bankruptcy demonstrated in this re-published essay continues to inform their strange blend of Cliffite-Trotskyism today.
Instead, Marxist-Leninists must put forward a principled and materialist evaluation of the successes and failures of these various groups struggling for black liberation that appropriately contextualizes their specific struggles.
The Soviet Union and the National Question
The Marxist-Leninist position on the African-American national question and the Black Belt South developed directly out of the Soviet Union’s own experience with actualizing the demand for self-determination for oppressed nationalities. The October Revolution of 1917 and the founding of the Soviet Union marked the end of tsarist oppression of the nations in the transcaucasus and Central Asia. In addition to Russia, many other nations under the Tsarist empire participated in the proletarian revolution in October 1917, and the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, began to work towards the creation of a voluntary federation of free, self-determined nations.
The destruction caused by the Russian Civil War, waged between 1918 and 1922, along with the Allied invasion of Russia by fourteen countries in 1921, forged a sense of unity between the underdeveloped constituent nations of the former Russian empire and the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary government. After exiting World War I through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and emerging victorious over the tsarist White Army, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) met with representatives from these formerly oppressed nations and formed the Soviet Union in 1922. The Soviet Union’s recognition of its constituent nations’ right to self-determination finds its embodiment in the 1917 “Declaration of the Rights of the Russian People,” which legally guaranteed “equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia, the right of peoples of Russia to free self-determination up to secession and the formation of independent states, abolition of all national and national-religious privileges and restrictions, [and] free development of national minorities and ethnic groups inhabiting the territory of Russia.” (3) Thus, any analysis of the Soviet Union must account for the complexities of its international composition, rather than viewing it as a purely Russian political phenomenon.
After the formation of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) implemented a policy of korenizatsiya to encourage the indigenous development of revolutionary leadership among the USSR’s constituent nations. While the CPSU argued that the process of socialist construction for each nation was generally the same, it acknowledged a firm belief that “each nation which has overthrown capitalism seeks to plot the course of its economic, political and cultural development in such way as to be most in conformity with its concrete historical features and progressive traditions.” (4) Korenizatsiya was a means by which the CPSU would help create indigenous communist parties, culture, and economies tailored to the specific needs of the nation in question. The central component of this, in the view of the CPSU, was the cultivation of native communist leadership in each nation’s party and the promotion of national minorities in higher Soviet institutions. (5)
In practice, the CPSU “supported local languages, educated and promoted local elites and thus built new loyalties to the socialist cause” as a part of korenizatsiya. (6) Reza Zia-Ebrahimi of the London School of Economics & Politics describes this process in a 2007 article entitled “Empire, Nationalities and the Fall of the Soviet Union,” pointing out that “each Soviet republic was flanked with an official culture, official folklore and national opera-house. (7) Soviet authorities went as far as to develop written systems for local languages that had previously lacked them.” (8) She notes that this policy of nativization also had the effect of combating Russian national chauvinism, citing Ukraine in the 1920s as an example, in which “a Russian residing there also had to be educated in Ukrainian.”(9)
Though the precise manifestations of korenizatsiya oscillated over the history of the USSR and at times nations had less operational freedom – particularly during the glasnost period brought on by Gorbachev – the Soviet state’s dedication to raising the status of national minorities and guaranteeing political representation demonstrates a genuine ideological commitment to national self-determination that inspired oppressed nations around the world. (10)
Developing the Black National Question
Among the many activists inspired by the Russian Revolution was African-American communist Harry Haywood. In his autobiography, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist, Haywood recounts his excitement at the many achievements of the Russian Revolution, noting its specific importance to African-Americans: “Most impressive as far as Blacks were concerned was that the revolution had laid the basis for solving the national and racial questions on the basis of complete freedom for the numerous nations, colonial peoples and minorities formerly oppressed by the czarist empire.” (11) Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ handling of the national question in North Asia prompted Haywood to join the CPUSA in the winter of 1923 and to visit the Soviet Union as a part of a student delegation in 1925.
Sustar views genuine African-American revolutionaries like Haywood, who developed the demand for black self-determination in the Soviet Union, with condescending contempt. He writes, “For these leaders, the Comintern’s theory of self-determination for the Black Bell (sic) must have appeared as a revolutionary commitment to fighting the enormous racism in the U.S.” (12) The implication, of course, is that Haywood, Otto Hall, and James Ford were more or less passive recipients of the black national question line – a falsehood that flies in the face of historical fact – and that they were basically duped into accepting a position hoisted upon them by Stalin.
In actuality, the black national question established by the Comintern came about through vibrant debate and struggle between African-American comrades, the white comrades in the CPUSA, and Soviet comrades, who contributed their own first-hand experience in building a multinational republic of the 15 unique constituent nations of the USSR. During his four-year visit to the Soviet Union, Haywood meticulously analyzed the character of black oppression in the US alongside other comrades.
The CPUSA’s position at that time was that black workers were subject to harsh societal prejudice based on race, but fundamentally they experienced the same capitalist exploitation as white workers. Haywood and the Communist International (Comintern) came to criticize this position because “To call the matter a race question, they said, was to fall into the bourgeois liberal trap of regarding the fight for equality as primarily a fight against racial prejudices of whites.” (13) This simplistic view placed total emphasis on building the trade union movement irrespective of race, leading the CPUSA to mistakenly see the struggle for black civil rights “as a diversion that would obscure or overshadow the struggle for socialism.” (14)
Furthermore, looking at the exploitation of African-Americans purely as a question of race “slurred over the economic and social roots of the question and obscured the question of the agrarian democratic revolution in the South.” (15) In describing Reconstruction, Haywood writes that the “revolution had stopped short of a solution to the crucial land question; there was neither confiscation of the big plantations of the former slaveholding class, nor distribution of the land among the Negro freedmen and poor whites.” (16) The White Supremacist counter-revolution of 1877 brought an end to Reconstruction, and through fascist terrorism by paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan, African-Americans were denied the political rights and economic opportunities afforded to White citizens. Thus, Haywood writes in his 1948 book, Negro Liberation, “The uniqueness of the Negro problem in the United States lies in the fact that the Negro was left out of the country’s general democratic transformation.” (17)
Influenced by Lenin’s Draft Theses on the National-Colonial Question and Josef Stalin’sMarxism and the National Question, both of which identify African-Americans as an oppressed nation within the US, Haywood and the leadership of the Comintern launched an intensive study of the character of African-American people. (18) In Marxism and the National Question, Stalin outlines the objective conditions for nationhood, which are, “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” (19) Using the criteria set out by Stalin, Haywood notes that “Under conditions of imperialist and racist oppression, Blacks in the South were to acquire all the attributes of a single nation.” (20)
A common territory is one of the criteria for nationhood. Although African-Americans were spread out across the US, Haywood argued that the “territory of this subject nation is the Black Belt, an area encompassing the Deep South,” because even after the post-war Northern migrations of black workers, the Black Belt “still contained (and does to this day) the country’s largest concentration of Blacks.” (21) Additionally, Robin D.G. Kelley writes in his book, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression that “This region, dominated by cotton plantations, consisted of counties with a numerical black majority.” (22) The demographic concentration of African-Americans, along with their historical tie to the land, led the Comintern to adopt a resolution affirming the presence of a black nation in the American South at its Sixth World Congress in 1928. (23)
Sustar’s article spins a web of sophistry in trying to back-handedly argue that Lenin would have opposed the Comintern’s line on the black national question. While he acknowledges that Lenin viewed African-Americans as an oppressed nation, he then proceeds to ignore that fact in painting Lenin’s position as one in harmony with the ISO’s Trotskyite position: That the struggle for national liberation is simply “a means to fight chauvinism and racism in the working class.” (24)
In actuality, Lenin maintained that “it is necessary that all Communist Parties render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and subject nations (for example, in Ireland, among the Negroes in America, etc.) and in the colonies.” (25) True to Trotskyite form, Sustar leaves out any mention of the other toiling masses besides the proletariat, whose support is vital to the national liberation struggle. Lenin writes, “the cornerstone of the whole policy of the Communist International on the national and colonial questions must be a closer union of the proletarians and working masses generally of all nations and countries for a joint revolutionary struggle to overthrow the landlords and the bourgeoisie.” (26) The term “working masses” unmistakably refers to the peasantry and the petty-bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations, who can and must support the proletariat for a revolutionary national liberation struggle to succeed. Much as Trotsky held contempt for the Bolshevik line on a strategic alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry in Russia, the ISO holds contempt for the strategic alliance between the multinational working class and the other nationalist classes comprising the oppressed African-American nation. He can hold that position, but it is characteristically anti-Leninist, as is the entirety of Trotsky’s theory of revolution.
The Comintern’s groundbreaking new line on the African-American question maintained that “African-Americans had the right to self-determination: political power, control over the economy, and the right to secede from the United States.” (27) In a broader sense, however, Haywood’s line on the national question represented an affirmation of the revolutionary character of black nationalist movements, whose efforts could strike blows against US imperialism from within. While Marxist-Leninists view nationalism as a bourgeois ideology, it can nevertheless fuel revolutionary movements against imperialism in colonized nations, whose economic and social development were held back by foreign exploitation.
Organizing in the Black Belt Nation
Sustar has an incredibly superficial understanding of the black national question in theory, but his historical evaluation of its impact is equally flawed.
When Haywood returned to the US in 1930, the CPUSA had already begun implementing the African-American national question by sending party cadre into the Black Belt to organize and raise the demand of black self-determination. Suster claims that “the new perspective launched the CP into a series of senseless sectarian attacks on reformist Black and working-class leaders, alienating the party from the mass of workers,” the actual effect of the Party’s focus on the black national question was tremendous growth in its black membership. (28) The Alabama Communist Party was particularly successful in building strong ties with African-Americans through applying the theory to political organizing. Kelley notes that “From the beginning, Birmingham blacks exhibited a greater interest in the Party than did whites.” (29) The party’s appeal among African-Americans came from its outspoken opposition to racism and its support for national self-determination. Kelley writes that “During the 1930 election campaign, the Communist Party did what no political party had done in Alabama since Reconstruction: it endorsed a black candidate, Walter Lewis, for governor. The election platform included complete racial equality and maintained that the exercise of self-determination in the black belt was the only way to end lynching and achieve political rights for Southern blacks.” (30)
The Alabama Communist Party’s orientation towards building a strong, independent African-American movement translated into exponential growth in black cadre. Starting with a mere three organizers in 1929, the Party “was augmented to over ninety by the end of August 1930, and over five hundred working people populated the Party’s mass organizations, of whom between 80 and 90 percent were black.” (31) Contrary to Sustar’s baseless claims, the correct application of the national question to organizing fueled the early rapid levels of growth for the CPUSA among African-Americans.
Black workers were hit hardest by the Great Depression’s rampant unemployment due to racist firing preferences by White managers. In response to the mass demand among African-Americans for jobs, the Alabama Communists organized an unemployment relief campaign in 1933. By the end of the year “the Party’s dues-paying membership in Birmingham rose to nearly five hundred, and its mass organizations encompassed possibly twice that number.” (32) The unemployment relief campaign was particularly successful in its goal “to increase the number of black female members, who often proved more militant than their male comrades, from open confrontation to hidden forms of resistance, and would later prove invaluable to local Communists continuing their work in the mines, mills, and plantations of the black belt.” (33) The Alabama Communist Party maintained high diversity because of its attention to the plight of African-Americans, and in particular, the plight of African-American women.
Southern communists heavily involved themselves in the sharecropper labor movement, whose composition was primarily African-American. In Alabama, for instance, the Party organized the Share Croppers Union (SCU) in 1931, which grew to “a membership of nearly 2,000 organized in 73 locals, 80 women’s auxiliaries, and 30 youth groups.” (34) The SCU was openly organized by Alabama communists, and while it drew substantial support from the African-American community, it was also subject to a harsh crackdown by state and non-state actors. (35) Nevertheless, “the SCU claimed some substantial victories. On most of the plantations affected, the union won at least seventy-five centers per one hundred pounds, and in areas not affected by the strike, landlords reportedly increased wages from thirty-five cents per hundred pounds to fifty cents or more in order to avert the spread of the strike.” (36) The mass appeal of the SCU, an explicitly red trade union, and its tremendous victories demonstrate the power once possessed by the CPUSA in the American South.
Because sharecropping and rural wage labor was dominated by African-Americans, the SCU gave Alabama communists an interesting opportunity to apply the national question to trade union organizing. African-American communist Al Murphy was chosen as the Secretary of the SCU, and the bulk of the union’s leadership was always black. (37) Kelley writes that as Secretary, “Murphy, an unflinching supporter of the Party’s demand for self-determination in the black belt, had very definite ideas about the radical character of the SCU. He saw within each and every member ‘standard bearers of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Frederick Douglass,’ and regarded the all-black movement as the very embodiment of black self-determination.” (38) The SCU came to represent the embodiment of Black self-determination applied to organizing because African-American cadre themselves comprised the union’s leadership, rather than the white labor bureaucrats that marked most other industrial trade unions in the 1930s. Nearly all of the Party’s black leadership had no prior experience in radical movements, making the SCU an authentic people’s trade union reflecting the class conflicts of the South. (39)
Perhaps the only aspect of Sustar’s piece with a kernel of principled criticism is his claim that the black national question was never “consistently put forward in practice.” While the CPUSA did implement and adapt the theory to much success, the rise of fascism and the breakout of World War II produced zig-zags in the Party’s line on African-American liberation, much to the detriment of the Party. For instance, the CPUSA abandoned Haywood’s line on the national question in 1935 in order to collaborate with conservative middle class black organizations in anti-war work related to fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. (40)
It is important to understand that Sustar is completely wrong in his assessment of the line’s implementation. Contrary to Sustar’s claim that the black national question “means subordinating the needs of workers to those of the middle class in the oppressed nation,” it wasn’t until the CPUSA dropped the demand for black national self-determination in 1935 that the Party began tailing the conservative black petty-bourgeoisie. (41) While the demand for a black nation was gaining traction among the black proletariat in the American South, the political pivot to a more rightist position proved costly to the CPUSA and actually fueled their waning influence in the working class. Sustar’s claim is outrageously ahistorical, and the facts actually demonstrate that abandoning the line seriously damaged the proletarian character of the black nationalist movement that the Party was building.
This political zig-zag was the product of Northern communists, who dominated the CPUSA leadership at the time. (42) Additionally, the sudden appearance of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), one of the only national trade unions to allow black members, prompted communist leaders to fold the SCU into the CIO in 1936. Although organizing within the CIO had tactical advantages in terms of available resources, the dissolution of the SCU “exacted a costly toll from the Alabama cadre, especially black party organizers.” (43) Because of racist internal policies limiting African-American leadership, “Black Birmingham Communists, for the most part, did not (and often could not) become pure union bureaucrats in the way that their comrades had in Northern and Western CIO unions.” (44) Reflecting deeper changes in their political line, the Alabama Communist Party’s influence declined across the South as it gradually lost its mass base among the African-American Nation.
One of the more bold claims made by Sustar is his claim that the CP pushed a line not shared by African Americans: “in the early 1930s, it was the Communist Party–not Black workers and farmers–who called for self-determination of the Black Belt.” Exactly who else is to put out slogans and calls? Is it a communist party’s job to wait until the people have perfected their demand and in the meantime there is nothing to do but twiddle one’s thumbs and hope for the best? Absolutely not. We say it is the job of the party to collect the best sentiments of the masses and translate them into coherent revolutionary action. Additionally, the tremendous success of the Communist Party in the South, especially among African-Americans and despite incredible state repression, indicates that the workers and sharecroppers in the South responded positively to the line precisely because they demanded it.
Black Nationalism and the Struggle for Self-Determination
This demand did not evaporate when the CPUSA dropped the line and headed towards revisionism, but rather continued into the black nationalist movement in the 1960’s and 70’s. As World War II came to an end, the United States emerged as the premier imperialist power with Western Europe being completely reliant on the U.S. for support in their struggle against the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. U.S. imperialism manifested itself in the Korean War as well as interventions in Iran, Guatemala, and many other nations.
Imperialism at home was enforced as strongly as ever with Jim Crow laws, public lynchings, and KKK terror. This occurred to some extent throughout the whole country, but by far worst and most brutal in one particular area: the Black Belt South. Prior to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which deemed educational segregation unconstitutional, the states that mandated segregation were concentrated almost entirely in the South. When the Freedom Summer commenced in 1964, they weren’t driving to Chicago or Philadelphia, but rather to Mississippi to register black voters. To Sustar and others like him, facts such as these may seem incidental, but to anyone who seeks to derive truth from facts, it points to one particular conclusion: the Black Belt, like other victimized nations, lacked democratic rights accorded to other parts of the country and thus, according to Marxist-Leninist theory, is an oppressed nation with the primary contradiction being imperialism.
This conclusion helps us understand the history of the civil rights and black power movements. Since the proletariat’s primary party, the CPUSA, dropped the line of self-determination, there was not a clear vanguard in the struggle for democratic rights in the Black Belt in the 1960’s. It was into this void that the black petty-bourgeoisie stepped in what became the Civil Rights Movement. Though it had tremendous shortcomings, due to its petty-bourgeois leadership, the civil rights movement enjoyed incredible popularity with blacks because it spoke to their demand for basic democratic rights that they had been denied for so long. Dialectically, as the movement attempted to alter existing laws and power structures, it was itself changed and many leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., began to develop an internationalist and anti-imperialist outlook.
Simultaneously, black nationalism began to develop as a foil to the more reformist civil rights movement. Though he was not a communist, Malcolm X articulated the essence of Haywood’s line on the national question. In a March 18, 1964, speech before an audience at Harvard University, he advocates black nationalism as “the political philosophy which teaches us that the black man should control the politics of his own community.” (45) This is self-determination, plain and simple. This concrete demand made his message extremely popular to millions of blacks in the U.S. who saw the civil rights movement as having a overly reformist nature.
After Malcolm X was murdered in 1965, the task of organizing for black self-determination seemed to fall to his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU), but two young Marxists, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton would soon fuse Marxism with black nationalism. When founding the Black Panther Party (BPP), they developed a specific ten-point program that spoke to the demands of the toiling black masses and which included both their belief that “Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny” and their demand for an “end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community.” (46) By including both these demands, it shows their understanding of the nature of oppressed communities: that there are democratic political demands as well as socialist ones. Although the BPP was not based in the Black Belt South, making the demand for nationhood unviable for their immediate audience, they recognized the revolutionary importance of demanding black self-determination.
The popularity that the BPP enjoyed displayed the correctness of these demands as well as the revolutionary potential of the black community. The revolutionary upsurge of blacks in the U.S. during this period coincided with the many third world revolutionary struggles taking place at the time including in Vietnam, Mozambique, and Angola.
What highlights the oppressed nationality characteristics of the Black Power struggle is how brutally imperialism confronted it. Unlike student demonstrations and union strikes, the preferred method of confrontation was with brute military force. This included assassinations of leaders, bombings of headquarters, and a plethora of frame-ups. The U.S. government treated the Black Power movement qualitatively different than other movements precisely because they knew it was a national movement and therefore could draw from the momentum being created by the national liberation movements around the world. This is where Trotskyites like Sustar miss the point entirely. The imperialist state has shown that it will unleash everything in its disposal to crush the national movements here in the U.S. and yet the ISO wants us to strip the Black Power movement of its revolutionary potential. If the enemy has shown its brutality, why should we lay down our heaviest weapons? The lesson of the Black Panther Party was learned in a river of blood, and it would behoove us to remember that history when organizing to win in the present day.
The Black National Question in the 21st Century
Although African-Americans became more dispersed as a people than they were when the Comintern put out its position on the black national question in the 1930s, all of the objective conditions for black nationhood – “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture” – still exist today. (47)
A September 2011 analysis of the 2010 US Census data, released by the Institute for Southern Studies, notes that in addition to the rapid increase of Latinos in the American South, there is an “equally influential…return of many African-Americans to Southern states after a decades-long exodus during the Jim Crow era.” (48) Entitled ‘Black Belt Power: African-Americans come back South, change political landscape,’ the article proves that changes brought on during the Civil Rights movement have prompted many African-Americans to return to the historic land of their ancestors: the Black Belt. (49) The article continues:
“The result: According to the U.S. Census, the South’s share of the black population — 57 percent — is now the highest it’s been since 1960. That’s still less than the 90 percent mark before the Great Migration, but as the New York Times reported earlier this year, it’s a dramatic change.” (50)
The population map for African-Americans shows a clearly demarcated ‘Black Belt’ region where more than half of the entire black population resides. (51)
Large population centers like Georgia have experienced the largest increase in African-American migration – 579,000 since 2000 – and much of this growth has taken place outside of traditionally black counties, giving the region an ever-expanding national character. (52)
The Institute for Southern Studies seems to grasp what Sustar and the ISO cannot in its conclusion: “The shift could significantly strengthen the political power of African-Americans in the South, especially in the historic Black Belt stretching from the mid-Atlantic to east Texas.” (53) Even if one were to agree that the historically constituted nation in the Black Belt was dispersed in the post-war period, the population data demonstrates the renewed coalescing of a black nation in the American South.
The Black Belt nation continues to face exploitation under the yoke of American imperialism as an internal oppressed nation. A 2005 report released by the University of Georgia’s Initiative on Poverty and the Economy notes that “the 11 states that make up the Southern Black Belt have a combined rural poverty rate of 18.7 percent, translating into almost 1 in every 5 rural residents living in poverty,” and the “urban poverty rate for the Southern Black Belt is 14.0 percent.” (54) Compared to the rest of the country, the “Southern Black Belt has a poverty rate of 14.06 percent, while the national poverty rate is 12.38 percent.” (55)
On its own, though, the geographical concentration of poverty in the Black Belt does not prove the imperialist character of black oppression since it takes into consideration the entire population regardless of race. However, the same UGA report also analyzed the breakdown of poverty rates in the Black Belt by race, showing that 26.35% of African-Americans in the black belt were impoverished, with Latinos at a close 22.99% – despite making up a smaller percentage of the population – and a mere 10.11% of the white population in poverty. (56)
Perhaps the most damning evidence for the continued imperialist and neo-colonialist exploitation of the Black Belt nation came from the Auburn University Journal of Rural Social Sciences in 2010. Dale Wimberley, the author, analyzes the condition of the Black Belt South versus the rest of the American South and the entire United States in his study, ‘Quality of Life Trends in the Black Belt South, 1980 – 2005’. While noting that African-Americans made some gains in this period, Wimberley notes that “in both 1989 and 1999, Black Belt Blacks had higher [poverty] rates than Blacks elsewhere, but Black Belt Whites had lower poverty rates than Whites elsewhere in the South.” (57) He concludes that “For poverty, Whites actually seem to have benefited from living in the Black Belt as opposed to elsewhere in the South.” (58) The oppression African-Americans in the Black Belt enables whites in the same region to live better lives. There is a term for this relationship: colonialism, in which one nation conquers and rules another by taking over the governance and economic resources of the colonized nation.
Wimberley’s study concludes with this sobering assessment of the Black Belt:
“By the twenty-first century’s first years, some Black Belt indicators – unemployment rates, median family incomes, and race specific poverty rates – had changed little relative to other regions. Other indicators improved while another deteriorated, but most tell the same story: in the past, living conditions for the Black Belt’s disproportionately rural residents were much worse on average than for the rest of the U.S., and the most recent data show that they still are.” (59)
Additionally, the peer-reviewed Public Library of Science One (PLoS ONE) journal found in a 2012 study on life expectancy in the American South “that only 45 percent of black men would be expected to survive to age 70 in the least healthy counties, as (sic) 68 percent would live that long in the most healthy counties.” (60) In the same ‘healthy counties’, 77% of whites were expected to live to age 70, and in the ‘least healthy counties’, 61% of whites were expected to live to age 70. (61)
Wimberley’s aforementioned study speaks directly to continued imperialist exploitation of the Black Belt nation. He concludes:
“…Beginning around 1980, public officials and powerful interest groups undermined many potential solutions for Black Belt residents and other Americans: minimum wages; unemployment compensation; labor rights protection; Social Security disability benefits; antidiscrimination enforcement; progressive taxation; adequately-paid government jobs (often replaced with privatized services); government-supported medical care; and government-provided income, food, and housing support for the poor. Officials and interest groups also blocked universal national health insurance. This study’s empirical findings suggest that these ideological attacks on low-income assistance programs and the social wage have hurt the Black Belt.” (62)
These attacks referred to by Wimberley hurt the entire proletariat and African-Americans across the United States. However, they disproportionately harm the African-Americans residing in the Black Belt because of the continued white supremacist, neo-colonial order imposed on the black nation. Motivated by generalized ruling class interests, the brunt of these attacks are felt by the Black Belt nation due to the actually existing system of imperialist exploitation.
Critics of the black national question will argue that the oppression of African-Americans takes place across the entire United States and not just the southeast region where the Black Belt is situated. Unquestionably this is true, and in many respects, African-Americans could objectively constitute a dispersed nation. However, the oppression of African-Americans in the northern and western United States became possible precisely because of the ruthless neo-colonialism suffered by the Black Belt nation. James Allen, the editor of the CPUSA’s Southern Worker in the 1930s, explains this relationship in his 1938 pamphlet, Negro Liberation:
“The oppression of the Negros in the North, in the final analysis, finds its roots in the position of the Negroes in the Black Belt. For it was from this super-exploited and oppressed area that the capitalists recruited their “cheapest” workers for northern industry and obtained and continue to obtain from the labor of the Negroes on the cotton plantations some of the surplus profit used in strengthening the power of capital generally. The social and political discrimination of the Negroes in the South serves as a pattern for similar discrimination in the North. As long as the Negroes in the South remain oppressed and exploited within the semi-feudal tenant system of agriculture and the industries closely related to it, the Negroes in the North will remain an oppressed national minority, suffering all the economic, social and political discrimination of such a group.” (63)
Allen’s point directly refutes the claims that the African-American diaspora negates the existence and demand for a black nation and the right to self-determination. It is common in colonized nations for a sector of the population to emigrate to the colonizing country in search of job opportunities and a higher standard of living, as in the case of Indians in Britain or Arabs in France and Germany. Rather than disproving the existence of a colonized nation, the continued exploitation and oppression felt by the dispersed national minority after emigrating to an imperialist country confirms the continued imperialist oppression of a separate nation.
Since African-Americans constitute their own distinct nation in the Black Belt, the police brutality, discrimination, and rampant poverty experienced by blacks in northern and western states imparts to them the character of an oppressed national minority. The implication is that black liberation for the entire United States is intrinsically tied up in the resolution of national question posed by the Black Belt. Allen continues:
“In the South, and therefore in the North too, the Negroes can only be assured true equality by winning the demand of the right to self-determination, the most important of all democratic political rights.” (64)
The 2010 US Census data shows that the African-American diaspora is once again returning to the historically constituted Black Nation, which has created new conditions for the black national liberation struggle in the 21st century. The end of the white supremacist system of exploitation and oppression in the United States is inextricably tied up with the right of self-determination for the Black Belt nation. This right is manifested in “the right to set up a republic of the Black Belt in which the Negroes would exercise governmental authority…and determine for themselves whether their country should be federated to the United States or have complete political independence.” (65)
The Black Belt Nation & the Proletarian Revolution in the United States
Just as resolving the national question through programs like korenizatsiya was essential to the success and survival of the October 1917 revolution in Russia, the success of the socialist revolution in the United States will require a strategic alliance between the multinational working class and the oppressed nations within its borders. Among those oppressed nations are the African-American nation concentrated in the Black Belt, the Chicano nation concentrated in the southwest United States called Aztlan, and the Hawaiian nations in the Pacific. (66) Historically, the US has used the super-profits and land ruthlessly extracted from these nations in order to position itself as the world’s largest imperialist superpower. As such, the liberation of the oppressed nations within the US is necessary to defeat imperialism and secure victory for the socialist revolution.
Although the black proletariat suffers the greatest from this system of white supremacy, the national character of African-Americans’ oppression extends into all classes within the black nation. This presents the opportunity for a united front against imperialism, in which sections of the black petty bourgeoisie and the black national bourgeoisie can function as allies of the black proletariat in the national liberation struggle.
While the struggle for self-determination is a democratic demand instead of a socialist demand, the liberation of the Black Belt is a prerequisite to socialism in the United States. Allen describes this complex reality and the importance of the black national liberation struggle:
“Communism strives to bring the peoples of the world closer together, to unite them into larger and larger states. The Communist Party of the USA strives to unite the Negro toilers and the white masses of the country, but this objective cannot be reached until the Negroes have the freedom – which they do not have now – to enter of their own free will and without coercion into such a union. They must have the right to choose before we can say that they have chosen freely.” (67)
Allen continues by describing the need for self-determination to encompass the right to independence up to and including secession:
“The right of self-determination does not necessarily imply separation. It means the right to separate, if the citizens of the proposed new republic so choose, and it means the right to remain a federated part of the United States, if that suits the interests of the Negro people better, which depends on the circumstances.” (68)
While the proletarian revolution is international in scope, oppressed nations must obtain their right to self-determination, including the right to secede, before a truly free federation of independent socialist republics is possible. Demanding that African-Americans subordinate their struggle for national liberation to any other avenue of struggle at this period in history is fundamentally a white chauvinist demand derived from a total misunderstanding of the character of racist oppression in the United States. The black nation is forcibly denied its right to self-determination by US imperialism, and that right must become a material reality before a truly free and voluntary federation of independent socialist republics can be forged.
In the Soviet Union, the proletarian revolution brought forth the end of imperialist oppression of the nations within the Russian empire, and the Bolsheviks – in large part due to the contributions of Josef Stalin, a Georgian and national ethnic minority – granted those nations the right to self-determination. The multinational working class of the United States can achieve this same reality and far surpass it, but if the American proletarian revolution is to succeed, it must remember and meditate on these words of V.I. Lenin:
“Just as mankind can achieve the abolition of classes only by passing through the transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, so mankind can achieve the inevitable merging of nations only by passing through the transition period of complete liberation of all the oppressed nations, i.e., their freedom to secede.” (69)
(1) Lee Sustar, SocialistWorker, “Self-determination and the ‘black belt’,” November 1985, Republished June 15, 2012
(3) “Declaration of Rights of Peoples of Russia,” The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Moscow, 1957, sec. 19-20. http://bse.sci-lib.com/article022065.html
(4) O. Kussinen. Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. Foreign Language Publishing House. 1961. pg. 488.
(5) Ibid., pg. 468.
(6) Zia-Ebrahimi, Reza. “Empires, Nationalities and the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” The School of Russian & Asian Studies. August 5, 2007.http://www.sras.org/empire__nationalities__and_the_collapse_of_the_ussr
(10) Roger Keeran, Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union 1917-1991, International Publishers.
(11) Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist, Liberator Press, 1978, p.119.
(12) Suster, 1985.
(13) Haywood, Black Bolshevik, pg. 222.
(14) Ibid., pg. 229.
(16) Ibid., pg. 231.
(17) Harry Haywood, Negro Liberation, International Publishers, 1948, p.143.
(18) Haywood, Black Bolshevik, pg. 223.
(19) Josef Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question,” Marxist Internet Archive, March 3, 1913, <http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03.htm>
(20) Haywood, Black Bolshevik, pg. 232.
(22) Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, The University of North Carolina Press, 1990, p.13.
(23) Kelley, pg. 13.
(24) Suster, 1985.
(25) V.I. Lenin, Preliminary Draft of Theses on the Nation & Colonial Question, Peking Foreign Press, 1967, pg. 25.
(26) Ibid., pg. 26.
(27) Kelley, pg. 13.
(28) Suster, 1985.
(29) Kelley, pg. 17.
(32) Kelley, pg. 19.
(34) Ibid., pg. 52.
(35) Ibid., pg. 34-56.
(36) Ibid., pg. 55
(37) Ibid., pg. 44.
(38) Ibid., pg. 47.
(39) Ibid., pg. 92.
(40) Ibid., pg. 122.
(42) Ibid., pg. 147.
(45) Malcolm X, and Archie C. Epps. The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard. New York: Morrow, 1969. Print.
(46) Black Panther Party, Ten Point Program, http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/1966/10/15.htm
(47) Stalin, Marxism & the National Question.
(48) Chris Komm, Institute for Southern Studies, “Black Belt Power: African-Americans come back to the south, change political landscape,” September 28, 2011, http://bit.ly/nGrN4L
(54) University of Georgia, Initiative on Poverty and the Economy, “Black Belt FAQ,” Accessed 6/23/12, http://www.poverty.uga.edu/stats/faq.php
(57) Dale Wimberley, Journal of Rural Social Sciences, “QUALITY OF LIFE TRENDS IN THE SOUTHERN BLACK BELT,1980-2005: A RESEARCH NOTE,” 2010, http://bit.ly/Nxiz98
(60) Maurice Garland, Loop21, “Study Says Blacks In The South Have Lowest Life Expectancy,” April 19, 2012, http://bit.ly/HY9yET
(62) Wimberley, 2010.
(63) James Allen, Negro Liberation, International Pamphlets, 1938, http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/NL38.pdf
(66) Freedom Road Socialist Organization, “Statement on National Oppression, National Liberation, and National Liberation,” http://www.frso.org/about/nq/nq.htm
(67) Allen, 1938.
(68) Allen, 1938.
(69) V.I. Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin on the National & Colonial Questions, Peking Foreign Press, 1967, pg. 6.