The Theoretical Underpinnings of Our Advocacy of a Black Workers Party in the U.S.
By Alan Benjamin
The advocacy of an independent Black Party in the United States is rooted in the history and traditions of the Socialist Workers Party going all the way back to the discussions between Leon Trotsky and leaders of the SWP in 1938.
The political rationale for such a position was put forward in various SWP texts. This is how it was motivated:
“The coming American revolution will have a combined character. It will be a socialist revolution by the working class and its allies against the bourgeoisie. At the same time, it will be a revolution of national liberation by Blacks and other oppressed nationalities. Only through the establishment of workers’ power in this country will this combined struggle be brought to a successful conclusion.
Only a government based on the working class and all the oppressed will guarantee the democratic rights of all oppressed nationalities. There can be no solution to the national democratic demands of the oppressed nationalities apart from the solution to capitalist exploitation by the workers. The revolution, if it is to be victorious, must combine the uncompleted tasks of the democratic revolution—including the right to self-determination of all oppressed nationalities—with the socialist revolution.
The revolutionary party supports the independent organization of Blacks and other oppressed nationalities. This will advance both their own struggles for self-determination and the struggle of the working class as a whole.”
Blacks are a constituent part of the American nation. The struggle for their emancipation was at the heart of the Second American Revolution—the Civil War. But the failure, or rather, the limitations of the post-war Radical Reconstruction period, enabled the struggle for Black freedom to retreat into the abyss of Jim Crow and segregation.
One of the most solid presentations by the SWP of the Black Party question and how the Black Party would tie into the overall struggle for independent working-class political action is contained in the resolution adopted by the 1963 convention of the SWP titled, “Freedom Now: The New Stage in the Struggle for Negro Emancipation and the Tasks of the SWP”. Unfortunately, though, the political orientation contained in this text would soon be abandoned under the “sectoralist” pressures of the movements of the 1960s.
The section on “Independent Political Action” (section VII) in this 1963 resolution correctly articulated the struggle for a Black Party and the struggle for a Labor Party in its treatment of the “Labor-Negro Alliance.” Basing itself firmly on what Trotsky, in his discussions with Curtis and C.L.R. James, described as the “dialectic development of the Negro struggle for self-determination,” the resolution stated that Blacks as such would have to “divide” from the whites and form their own independent political party in order to then “unite with the white working class in the overall struggle against capitalism.”
The resolution noted that “while the Negro community is predominantly proletarian, the Negro people are more than just another more heavily exploited section of the working class, and the Negro movement is more than just a part of the general working-class movement. As an oppressed minority … their position in society is special, their consciousness is influenced by racial and national as well as class factors.”
The 1963 resolution goes on to note that “the labor and Negro movements march along their own paths” but went on to underline the fact that “they [the Negro and labor movements] do march to a common destination, and the freedom of the Negroes from oppression and of the workers from exploitation can be achieved only through the victory of their common struggle against capitalism. … Negroes cannot win their goal of equality without an alliance with the working class.”
Noting further on that “the tempos of development of the two movements are uneven,” the resolution stressed the need for “Negroes to … first unite [in their own party]” in order than they could be able to “bring about an alliance of equals, where they [the Negroes] can be reasonably sure that their demands and needs cannot be neglected or betrayed by their allies.”
Finally, the resolution pointed out that there is no contradiction between advocating a Black Party and advocating a Labor Party: “Our support of such a [Black] Party in no way conflicts with our … continued advocacy of a labor party. On the contrary, we believe that a Negro party … and a labor party would find much in common from the very beginning, would work together for common ends, and would tend in the course of common activity to establish close organizational ties or even merge into a single or federated party.”
In fact, the resolution states elsewhere, if a Black Party were to be formed first, it would be a major spur for the development of a Labor Party: “The creation of a Negro party running its own candidates would rock the whole political structure to its foundation. … Advocates of a labor break with the old parties would get a bigger and better hearing from the ranks. Thus the creation of a Negro party would benefit not only the Negro but his present and potential allies.”
In the late 1960’s and early ’70s, the SWP broke from the method contained in its 1963 resolution, which consisted in linking the issues of the Black Party and the Labor Party. The struggle for a Black Party became detached from the struggle for independent political action by the working class as a whole.
An orientation to the labor movement and to the fight to build a Labor Party based on the unions took a back seat. In its place, as I pointed out above, arose a “sectoralist approach” wherein all the various sectors in political motion at the time were seen as present or potential allies of a Black Party—but not the organized working class as such.
The SWP would later criticize its “sectoralist” approach, referring to it as an impressionistic adaptation to the social movements that were active at the time. This was most clearly spelled out in the SWP’s 1975 resolution—but not all the lessons were drawn concerning how this “sectoralism” had detached the struggle for a Black Party from the struggle for a Labor Party.
One example among many to show the effects of this sectoralist approach on the Black Party orientation is contained in the resolution adopted by the SWP in 1967 titled, “The Case for a Black Party.” That resolution states, in part:
“Once an independent Black Party has the power and acquires the skill to seek and make alliances on its own terms, then it will also be possible to create useful alliances with domestic forces. Among these will be the rebel youth, especially among the students; the antiwar movement; the Spanish-speaking people (Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans); the American Indians whose plight has been neglected by almost all the forces in the country; poor white workers; and radical opponents of both capitalism and the trade union bureaucracies. … [T]hose who are enemies of the enemies of Black people at home can become partners on certain issues and for certain stretches of the road, whatever their staying power in the long run.”
Not only is the working class dropped from the picture in the SWP’s 1967 resolution (poor white workers becoming just another sector along with rebel youth and antiwar activists), the understanding that Black equality cannot be attained without a fusion with the working class is also abandoned. This “sectoralist” approach to the Black Party would guide the SWP’s advocacy of and involvement with Black Party movements from that point on—even though a formal rejection of sectoralism was contained in the SWP’s 1975 resolution. The continuity with the method of the 1963 resolution was broken.