Prasad V //
Thousands of people came to the streets in major cities all over the world despite the coronavirus pandemic, in protest against the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for minutes in Minneapolis on May 25. While the agitations were continuing all over the world, on June 12, a 27-year-old black man named Rayshard Brooks was also shot and killed by Atlanta police. Through these incidents, the Donald Trump administration has proved unequivocally that there is no end to racial discrimination with his administration.
A video of the murder of George Floyd showed him saying “I can’t breathe” multiple times became viral in social media. Despite his pleas, the officer was preventing Floyd from breathing for three minutes after which he became unresponsive. The phrase has become the rallying call for the subsequent protests. The phrase is actually derived much earlier from the words of Eric Garner in 2014 which was also uttered by several other African American men shortly before they died during their arrests. Subsequently this has become the slogan of mass movements like ‘Black Lives Matter (BLM)’ which is an organized movement advocating for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against incidents of police brutality against African-American people that started some years back following the killing of some blacks and the non-punishment of the culprits..
Why The Unprecedented Mass Movement?
Hundreds of black people were killed by the American police and administration earlier also. Why did the protests become so unprecedented this time?
George Floyd’s murder was a clear-cut case of injustice. The circulated video clearly revealed that the person was unarmed and was virtually begging for release from his neck. Whenever such killing occurs, usually the police comes with a narrative with some cooked-up stories in order to confuse the people. This time, people clearly saw the truth. More than that, the anger against racial oppression was growing in the last few years in US society.
But more than the above said reasons, the present situation is to be seen in the backdrop of the Corona pandemic which has made the condition of poor people more pathetic. The poor people become further unemployed or underemployed. They were unable to get any treatment due to lack of money. The Corona patients had to pay lakhs of dollars due to the absence of Government funded hospitals in the US. The American administration absolutely failed in managing the situation. The neoliberal policies they have implemented in Health care and education destroyed whatever was available in those areas. The rulers of America were advocating that the policies of neoliberalism will solve the problems of American people. But the Corona pandemic has disproved it. Many of the third world countries performed much better in comparison with the US. This intensified common people’s doubt regarding the administration. Today, the poorer sections of the masses are suffering enormously. In general, 90% of those who die due to coronavirus infection are poor people, of whom a large number are black.
The global capitalist economic crisis that began in 2008 has led to massive unemployment and poverty in the US. For the American capitalist class, the crisis did not pose any major problems because a significant portion of its capital is now outside the United States. That section of the capital now invested in third world countries is making enough profit due to the comparatively low cost of labor there. But for the ordinary people of the US, the situation is just opposite. Even though the profitability of the companies has become better in relative sense following the crisis, the employment situation has not become better. The US government has tried to get over this problem by strengthening the police and suppressing popular uprisings following the economic crisis.
The killing of unarmed George Floyd happened at a time when the people’s anger was intensifying against the American administration on the one hand. On the other hand, the condition of the black people has become worse due to the economic conditions as well as increasing racial oppression in the recent past.
Capitalism Divides Common People
In a multinational, multi-racial, multi-linguistic country like America, dividing the people based on any of these identities is basically in the interest of capitalism. Without this division the American capitalism cannot continue with its exploitation continuously. Capitalism creates divides within the working class – for the utmost threat to ruling class power would be the unity of the proletariat. This policy of ‘divide and rule’ has been a common feature of the capitalist class all over the world. As the Black Panther Bobby Seale correctly wrote once: “Racism and ethnic differences allow the power structure to exploit the masses of workers in this country, because that’s the key by which they maintain their control. To divide the people and conquer them is the objective of the power structure…” And as Malcolm X, the assassinated leader of the civil movement explained, “You cannot have capitalism without racism.”
The ruling class try to instigate the white workers against the black workers as well as reversely in order to divide the class. They will ask the white workers to identify with the capitalists in order to climb the corporate ladder. A section of the white workers also think that it is in their own interest. But the fact remains that all the workers cannot become capitalist. A tiny section may achieve that – in that process those who are aligned with the capitalist class get an advantage. Consequently, in the corporate world white men predominate in management and executive positions.
As such the white workers enjoy a better standard of living than their Black counterparts. Still they have much more in common with black workers than Bill Gates or Zuckerbergs. Similarly, at the level of class, black workers have more in common with white workers than they do with black capitalists. According to some studies, the richest whites have seventy-four times more wealth than the average white family. But among African Americans, the richest families have a staggering two hundred times more wealth than the average black family. This commonality in terms of class should be the uniting force between workers of all races to fight against their oppression.
Covid-19 And The Black People
In the US, data shows that African Americans have died from the disease at almost three times the rate of white people. Across that country, African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans. At the level of individual states, the statistics are all the more shocking. Bottom of the table in terms of racial disparities is Kansas, where black residents are dying at seven times the rate of whites. In other states, the gulf is almost as extreme. In the capital, Washington, the disparity in death rate between blacks and whites is six times, in Michigan and Missouri five, and in major hotspots of the disease – New York, Illinois and Louisiana – three. While comorbidities are a factor, there is mounting evidence that black Americans are disadvantaged in terms of access to diagnostic testing and treatment for the disease.
According to the 2015 National Medical Association Scientific Assembly, the risk of diabetes was 77% higher among Black people than for white people. Depending on where they live, black women were two and a half times more likely to die giving birth in 2018 compared with white women. (National Center for Health Statistics, Jan. 30)
General Condition Of The Blacks In US
It is a matter of fact that in the last few decades the condition of life of the black people have improved somewhat within the United States. This change can be seen evidently in the middle-income groups. But even after this change, the condition of the working class as such is deteriorating in the United States. In a society where there is a huge divide between the rich and poor such a type of change is natural. It is to be kept in mind that the vast majority of the black people belong to the working class. Real wages of the American working classes improved from 1830 to 1970. But after 1970 onwards till now the real wages were either stagnant or decreasing. Naturally, the condition of the blacks also has become worse as they wear the underprivileged section of the working class.
The social condition of the black is more glaring if one looks into the rate of imprisonment. Imprisonment rate in the United States is more than any other country in the world. The citadel of freedom the United States imprisons more people than China which has four times its population. Over 2.3 million people are in prison – one out of every 99.1 adults. An incredible 1,384 men out of 100,000 are in prison or jail. But the rate of incarceration for black males is even more shocking: 4,789 per 100,000. Compare this to height of Apartheid in South Africa (1993), when 851 per 100,000 black males were imprisoned. And for young black males belonging to age 25 to 29, the rate is 11,695 per 100,000 – an astonishing 11.7 percent. Racial discrimination is that much.
Racism And Its History
Racism is an ideology which believes that human beings are superior or inferior according to their race which is manifested by skin color. The proponents of racism tried to define the system of slavery by characterizing the Africans-Americans as inferior human beings. Here it is to be stated that the concept of race as a biological category has been entirely discredited and discarded by modern genetics.
By characterizing Africans and their African American descendants as inferior human beings, the proponents of slavery attempted to justify and maintain that system of exploitation while portraying the United States as a bastion and champion of human freedom, with human rights and equality.
The formation of a racial ideology can be traced in history to the institution of modern chattel slavery. Chattel slavery is the most common form of slavery known to Americans. This system, which allowed slaves – considered legal property – to be bought, sold and owned forever, was supported by the US and European powers in the 16th to 18th centuries.
Black Africans first arrived in the US around 1619, as indentured servants. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries people were even kidnapped from Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and labor in the production of crops such as tobacco and cotton.
As such there was no distinction made between indentured servants of European or African descent in the beginning. The conception of race simply did not exist in the ancient or medieval world. Throughout history, the slave-owner or feudal lord looked down on his slaves or serfs as inferiors. But this was due to their social position; to the class relationship between them; not because of the color of their skin or Race. Capitalist society created the race-based discrimination as a societal “norm”.
The geography and climate of the southern U.S. was suitable for large scale production of certain crops. But a large amount of cheap labor was necessary for that. However, with so much cheap land available in the western territories, it was difficult to keep indentured servants working after their term of service was over and they were free to move on and establish themselves on their own. Therefore, a system of compulsory labor had to be imposed in order to take advantage of the agricultural potential of the South. For this reason, the modern chattel slavery developed in the later period.
During the founding of the United States in 1790 there were 700000 slaves in America. Even though importation of new slaves was banned officially in 1808, illegal smuggling remained a profitable business. By 1840, the slave population Increased to nearly 2.5 million. In 1860, on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, there were nearly four million black slaves out of a total population of around 12 million in the 15 states in which slavery was legal.
In the US history of struggles of the slaves, nearly 250 rebellions or insurrections are documented in which more than 10 slaves were involved. Each rebellion led to ever-increasing ruthlessness on behalf of the slave owners. Along with armed uprisings by slaves themselves, the ‘abolitionist movement’ also waged a struggle against slavery. Comprising of primarily free Blacks and the Whites opposed to slavery for a variety of reasons, they demanded abolition of slavery. ‘Abolitionist Movement’ which was initiated in the mid-19th century resulted in a great debate over slavery and the division of the country in the Civil War.
US Civil War
The American Civil War fought between northern states loyal to the Union and southern states that had seceded from the Union from 1861 to 1865. The civil war began primarily as a result of the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of black people.
In the 1860 presidential election campaign, Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, supported banning slavery in all the U.S. territories. With the victory of Lincoln, the South was outraged, and before his inauguration, seven slave states with cotton-based economies declared secession from the US and formed the Confederacy. The first six to declare secession had the highest proportions of slaves in their populations, with an average of 49 percent. Eight remaining slave states continued to reject calls for secession. Outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan and the incoming Republicans rejected secession as illegal. But by 1961 the situation turned to be that of civil war. This was a progressive war – the “Second American Revolution” – which smashed the slave system and created the favorable condition for the unfettered development of capitalism.
On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation, and on January 1, 1863, he made it official that “slaves within any State, or designated part of a State…in rebellion… shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Previously enslaved men and women received the rights of citizenship and the “equal protection” of the Constitution in the 14th Amendment and the right to vote in the 15th Amendment, but these provisions of Constitution were often ignored or violated, and it was difficult for Black citizens to gain a foothold in the post-war economy due to restrictive ‘Black codes’ and regressive contractual arrangements such as sharecropping. Despite seeing an unprecedented degree of Black participation in American political life, Reconstruction was ultimately frustrating for African Americans.
Even though four million enslaved people were freed through civil war, the legacy of slavery continued and still continuing through racial oppression. This has led to the civil rights Movement in the 20th century which is hundred years after the emancipation.
The Civil Rights Movement
Civil rights movement was the revolt organized by the Black workers and youth along with its allies against discrimination, oppression, and second-class status of the black people. The movements virtually paralyzed the US society for years.
On the one side massive repression and violence was unleashed against the movements by the State. But at the same time, many democratic rights were granted and successive steps were taken to accommodate the black rights to the extent possible as it is not against the capitalist system. Further steps were developed to accommodate most of the leaders of the movement gradually into the pro-capitalist Democratic Party. On the other side, the more radical leaders like Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X were killed.
Towards the end of his life Malcolm X has come to the conclusion that what was necessary was a united class struggle against the capitalist system itself. As he put it: “It’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg. It can only produce according to what that particular system was constructed to produce. The system in this country cannot produce freedom for the Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system period.” On another occasion he explained it as follows: “Racism is profitable, if it wasn’t profitable it wouldn’t exist.”
Like that Martin Luther King Junior, who was a reformist, soon realized that formal political equality would not eliminate the institutionalized economic inequality and deep roots of racial discrimination. He was rapidly moving toward a class position on the eve of his murder. During a speech in Frogmore, in November of 1966 he said the following: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums … we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” But tragically, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were both assassinated.
As a result, a series of important reforms known as “Affirmative Action” policies were introduced. As no social movement can continue in ferment indefinitely, by the late 1960s the movement began to weaken.
Unfortunately, the compromising leadership the left movement at that time was not in a position to take up the issue of discrimination and second-class citizenship. If they had been able to take up the issue and was able to absorb the black movement against discrimination and oppression along with the working-class movement, the left would have developed to a very powerful movement.
The result is the situation we have today. For a handful of Blacks, who have benefited from the concessions made by the ruling class, things are going quite well. But for the vast majority, things are as bad as or even worse than they were 50 years ago.
Marxism And The Black Question
The emergence of a new group of anti-racist protestors and theorists alongside the crisis over immigration and growth of right-wing populism in US and elsewhere, makes it essential to conceptualize racism while going beyond the scope of identity politics which treats such issues primarily in cultural terms.
The Indian society from where we are looking at the situation is also suffering from a multitude of oppressions for a long time. The caste oppression, the minority religious oppression, oppression of nationalities, etc. are some examples. The caste oppression is to be mentioned here with emphasis. That is a specific problem the Indian society is confronted with for a long time. The Indian State is often trying to intensify the division based on above identities in order to strengthen its policies of neoliberalism. But at the same time without the division already existing, the State cannot impose its trickery. Naturally, the ongoing struggles world over is a pointer to the Indian working class and other oppressed sections of the country from which it has to take lessons.
First of all, let us examine how great Marxists approached the issue. Marx has shown at a very younger age that the existence of slavery is central to the development of modern capitalism. As Marx theorized this relationship in 1846 in ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’: “Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns, as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies that have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.”
Capitalism first emerged as a world system by utilizing the anti-black racism. Marx states that “Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin (Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy).” Despite attempts by political and intellectual groups to deny Marx and Engels’ uncompromising stance against racism, it is clear that the founders of scientific socialism thoroughly understood that racist oppression served as a tool for the capitalist exploitation of all workers.
The relationship between capitalism and racism has only grown stronger in subsequent generations. Chattel slavery was a vital component in the “primitive accumulation of capital” of the U.S. capitalist class. The vast wealth created by millions of slaves enriched not only the plantation owners, but also made possible the industrial revolution in the textile industry in Britain, and later on in the Northern U.S. As Karl Marx explained in a letter to Pavel Annenkov: “Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he have transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilization. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World.”
As Marx had explained decades earlier, the Civil War and the smashing of slavery in turn led to the strengthening of the movements of the working class: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, which ran with the seven-leagued boots of a locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California. The general convention of the National Labor Union at Baltimore (August 16, 1866) declared: ‘The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labor of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.’” (Capital vol. 1, Chapter X., Section 7)
Thus, Marx explained the role played by slavery in the process of primitive accumulation, focusing on the relationship between the slave trade and industrial development in England.
In 1920, John Reed wrote a report at Lenin’s request, describing the situation of black people in the U.S. to the Second Congress of the Third International: The Communists must not stand aloof from the Negro [sic] movement which demands their social and political equality and at the moment, at a time of the rapid growth of racial consciousness, is spreading rapidly among Negroes. The Communists must use this movement to expose the lie of bourgeois equality and emphasize the necessity of the social revolution which will not only liberate all workers from servitude but is also the only way to free the enslaved Negro people.
From the above given quotes, it is clear that the leaders of the working-class movement considered the struggle against racism as central to the workers struggle.
Dialectics Of Approaching Movements Against Oppression
According to Mao, a process of development has many contradictions. However, within a process of development there is always one principal contradiction.
“But whatever happens, there is no doubt at all that at every stage in the development of a process, there is only one principal contradiction which plays the leading role.
Hence, if in any process there are a number of contradictions, one of them must be the principal contradiction playing the leading and decisive role, while the rest occupy a secondary and subordinate position. Therefore, in studying any complex process in which there are two or more contradictions, we must devote every effort to finding its principal contradiction. Once this principal contradiction is grasped, all problems can be readily solved. This is the method Marx taught us in his study of capitalist society. (On Contradiction – Mao)
First, a specific contradiction is what primarily defines a thing, making it what it is: it is not a mistake, a failure, the malfunctioning of a thing but, in some sense, the very feature that holds a thing together. If this contradiction disappears, a thing loses its identity. A classic example: in all history hitherto, the primarily “contradiction” that defined every society was class struggle. Second, a contradiction is never single; it depends on other contradictions. Mao’s own example: in a capitalist society, the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is accompanied by other “secondary” contradictions, such as the one between the imperialists and their colonies.
By developing and enriching the theory of people’s democratic revolution in China, Mao clearly shown, how to develop the struggle against National oppression to the level of proletarian revolution. During the time Mao was the leader of Chinese revolution, the universal contradiction has already turned to be a contradiction between the working class and capitalist class. But in colonies and semi-colonies, struggle against National oppression has become the principal form of struggle. While leading the struggle against National oppression, one has to understand primarily, that is a National movement. National movement is a program of the capital in order to establish the national market. The communists have to be careful in not falling into the trap of the capital. At the same time the communists have to lead the struggle for National liberation. While the dominant aspect of the struggle is against the imperialist powers, the secondary aspect of the struggle is against the emerging National capitalists. In other words, that is considering the National movement not as a homogeneous movement; but as a movement with a further class division. In the same way, while fighting for nationalism, considering the imperialist country also as class divided and taking support from the revolutionary section of that country itself.
While fighting the Japanese imperialism, that is, taking help from the Japanese working class. While unifying with the Chinese nationalism, isolating the Chinese big capitalist and comprador class. In short, the principal contradiction in a movement and secondary contradiction are interrelated. Properly understanding the relationship between the two contradictions is crucial to leading the movement. These aspects are points of consideration while leading other movements against different types of oppressions in present times.
Now let us come back to the study of oppression based on identity. Over recent years there has been a growth in support for what can broadly be described as ‘identity politics’ among many, mainly young people who are rightly angry about their experience of racism, casteism and other forms of oppression. In one sense, identity politics is an inevitable part of the political awakening of many members of oppressed groups within the society. Recognizing that one is oppressed, and that one can fight against that through a common struggle with others is a vital beginning. While those involved in struggle may see this mainly as a means to fight back, the form of identity politics that has emanated from the universities and has dominated over recent decades concentrates overwhelmingly on discussing personal experience of oppression rather than trying to find the means to end it.
However, the history of struggle against oppression shows that, on the basis of experience, gradually, those participating tend to go beyond identity politics as they recognize the root cause of their oppression lies in the structure of society. The highest point of the vast rebellion against racism in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, was reached by the Black Panthers, who were founded in 1966 with the magnificent concept: “We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism”. Today, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ rebellion did not begin where the Panthers left off, with a socialist outlook. Nonetheless, there is a growing anti-capitalist mood among young people in the US, which is a first step to drawing socialist consciousness.
Today the working class worldwide remains the sole social force capable of overturning the existing order and vanquishing the social minority of capitalists that maintain the exploitation and oppression of millions around the world. This is because of the strategic position the working class occupies in production. The bourgeoisies fear nothing more than the instances when the class struggle manages to overcome internal divisions among the oppressed to build up a unified force of struggle against the State.
While deep-rooted racism remains in the US, there also has been an improvement in social attitudes. There has been the development of a black middle class and even small black capitalists. This is reflected in the election of a black man as US president. The vast majority of the black population, however, remain among the poorest and most oppressed in society. The fact that one hundred and thirty-five African Americans were killed by the police in the first half of 2015 alone, will show the degree of violent state repression.
Racism does not just come out from individual prejudices but from something more basic. Capitalism, as Karl Marx famously said, came into being “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 31) He was referring, particularly, to the role of slavery in the accumulation of capital.
The Role Of The Working Class
The crucial issue for anyone determined to end oppression, therefore, is to study how to overthrow capitalism and to build a world that is free of oppression. Today, the working class is the key force on the planet capable of ridding us of this bankrupt system.
At the same time, it would be ridiculous and unacceptable to argue that those fighting their particular oppression should hold back and ‘wait’ for a unified struggle of the whole working class. Mass struggle is a thousand times more effective than exhortations to individuals to change their attitudes in winning social progress. It is always the case that a movement has a greater chance of success if it is able to reach out to other sections of the working class, and that therefore it is important that the programme put forward by a particular movement attempts to do this. However, that is in no way to suggest that any group should artificially delay fighting back until them, for example, convince more white or male workers of their cause.
Nonetheless, to permanently end racism in the US, for instance, will require ending capitalism and will therefore have to involve a struggle uniting different sections of the working class. This is a practical question. The African American population, who suffer the worst police sponsored racism, are only 13% of the population and will not be able to win alone. Further, the capitalist class will try to increase divisions between different sections of the oppressed, particularly at times of heightened struggle. The oppressed need to increase their power by trying to maximize unity.
Achieving unity does not mean downplaying the importance of combating the specific oppressions in society. On the contrary, it is vital that communists campaign for the workers’ movement to take up every type of oppression. On the other hand, increasing numbers of young people when becoming active in concrete struggles, will be attracted to communist ideas as the only way to achieve real liberation for all humanity including them.
Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 3/ July ’20)