Editor’s Note: On December 6, 2020, the membership of Marxist-Humanist Initiative adopted the following statement as part of our organization’s Perspectives.
“Black Lives Matter” and the Vanguard Role of Black Masses Today
[T]he black people are the touchstone of American history. At each stage in history, they anticipate the next stage of development of labor in its relationship with capital; they anticipate the next surge forward of humanity’s development. Because of their dual oppression––as race and as class––and because of their self-activity, creativity, it could not be otherwise.
Raya Dunayevskaya’s pamphlet, “American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard” (ACOT), originally written in 1963, remains foundational to our thinking. In addition, Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s 2018 Perspectives thesis, Resisting Trumpist Reaction (and Left Accommodation), especially its section on “Combatting White Nationalism,” has mapped out our orientation to the dialectic of race and class in the struggles for human freedom in the US today.
More recently, when the uprising for Black lives erupted after the police murder of George Floyd, we promptly published an initial response to the uprising, as an editorial in With Sober Senses. That response is included as an appendix to the present document, which seeks to update and supplement it, and to offer further thoughts on the still-ongoing struggle for Black lives.
Achievements of the Current Struggle
The ongoing Black Lives Matter (BLM) struggle may well prove to be a turning point in US history, because of its multiracial character. It is totally new, unprecedented, for a mass struggle for racial justice in the US to be multiracial. Of course, whites and Blacks also joined forces in past struggles, and many white leftists and liberals participated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But the BLM uprising is the first moment in US history in which massive numbers of whites have actively participated in a struggle for racial justice. This stands in marked contrast to the lack of mass white support for the ghetto rebellions of the 1960s and for racial-justice struggles during the more than half-century since then.
Other noteworthy features of the new stage of BLM activity include the following: there has been massive and widespread international support for and identification with the struggle; youth have played a dominant role in the struggle; and young Black feminists have especially significant leadership roles in BLM organizations.
What makes the multiracial character of the struggle a potential turning point is a fact that ACOT developed at length and that we called attention to in our June 2 editorial, when we wrote, “The pivotal moments of forward movement in the US have always been those moments when white working people took their lead from the black masses and coalesced with them.” Why is this so?
The answer is that racist ideology and racial oppression are used, again and again, to divide Black and white working people. They do so by inducing white working people to think of themselves as superior, to hate and/or fear Blacks, to identify with the ruling class of “their” country, and to seek to maintain their relatively privileged position within society. All this greatly impedes, not only the Black freedom struggle, but the forward movement of the working-class struggle as a whole. As Karl Marx put it in Capital, shortly after the abolition of slavery in the US through civil war, “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”
For this reason, the fate of working-class struggle in the US is bound up with and dependent upon the fate of the Black freedom struggle. Although Blacks are a small minority of the population (13.4% as of mid-2019), their freedom struggle is what Dunayevskaya called the “Achilles’ heel … of American civilization” (ACOT, p. 26), a small area of vulnerability within US capitalism that can lead to its end––if and when sufficient numbers of whites and others coalesce with the Black struggle. The coalescence is a sign that the ideology of white supremacy, and white working people’s identification with their capitalist rulers––and thus the racial division that is so crucial to the perpetuation of the US working class’s subordination to capital––are starting to unravel. This is why our June 2020 editorial, commenting on the multiracial character of the mass BLM uprising, said, “It is this, more than anything else, that is causing the rulers to tremble.”
Thus, the foremost achievement of the new, mass stage of the BLM movement is its own multiracial working existence.
It has achieved several other important things, as well, in the few months since it emerged. Despite deadly reaction from militarized police, white-supremacist vigilantes, and Trumpism generally, and despite having to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. The movement has not let up. The struggle continues. For example, there continue to be protests in Louisville over the police murder of Breonna Taylor; and when a grand jury failed to indict her murderers, a nationwide wave of protests erupted in cities and towns throughout the US. And notwithstanding the massive amount of work devoted to grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts in Philadelphia, to help drive Trump from office, protests in that city broke out after the cops fatally shot Walter Wallace, Jr. on October 26. Indeed, the protests continued through Election Day, and beyond it. The next day, the demonstration against the murder of Wallace, and the demonstration to make sure every vote is counted, merged in Philadelphia’s City Center.
2. The movement is not only inter-racial; it quickly became international as well. As the title of an article by Jen Kirby in Vox put it, “‘Black Lives Matter’ has become a global rallying cry.” In the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Israel, South Korea, Brazil, Australia, Kenya, Liberia, and numerous other countries, protestors have solidarized with the American BLM movement and have linked their own struggles against racism and police violence to it. For example, the US uprising impelled protesters in the UK to call into question pervasive stop-and-search practices in that country. In Germany, it quickly led to the government’s announcement that it will establish an independent commission to investigate police racism. The international character of the movement has helped to disclose that, among the many social divisions in the world today, the deepest division is between the “two worlds in every country,” the world of the rulers and the world of humanity struggling for freedom.
3. The movement has already won a number of victories in the accelerated fight to remove Confederate statues and other symbols of the Confederacy. Although these victories are over symbols, they are not “only symbolic,” because they are not being separated from the fights to effect substantive changes.
4. The movement has begun to shift the “Overton window” with regard to attitudes toward police, the funding of police departments, and acknowledgement that racism is a systemic problem, not reducible to prejudice of individuals. Ideas which were banned from mainstream discourse prior to the murder of George Floyd––the idea that racism is systemic, and the idea that brutality is a feature of US policing, not a bug that has infected “a few bad apples”––have now forced their way into that discourse.
5. The movement has won many small, “first-step,” victories against police violence. First, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to “defund” the city’s police department (though the issue is still being fought out). Then Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York passed police-reform laws that do things like ban chokeholds, mandate that cops wear body cameras, and create independent commissions that can terminate cops for misconduct. Most recently, in the November elections, voters across the country approved ballot measures to reform policing. In Los Angeles County, they voted to divert significant funds from police and prisons to social services. Measures to establish independent oversight of police were approved in Columbus, Ohio; King County, Washington (Seattle area); Kyle, Texas (near Austin); Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Portland, Oregon; San Diego; San Jose; and Sonoma County, California. Voters in Oakland and San Francisco approved measures that strengthen the powers of already existing oversight bodies. In Akron, Ohio, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, other police-reform ballot measures passed as well.
Movement activists understand that these ballot measures are largely symbolic, or demonstrations of strength. They are oppressively aware that things like independent oversight of police are no panacea. Efforts to establish civilian oversight have existed in the US since the late 1940s, and they began to take hold in the 1960s. As of 2016, there were more than 100 civilian oversight boards in various localities. Yet police brutality goes on as before. As Jamie Smith Hopkins and Kristine Villanueva recently noted,
The story for more than 70 years has been a struggle between community advocates working to enact [civilian oversight] and police trying to block or defang it, with elected officials choosing sides. State laws often serve as stumbling blocks. And year after year, officers keep killing unarmed people like [Tiffany] Crutcher’s twin brother Terence, many of them Black men.
Real change will come only if and when the cops are made to pay a substantial price for their crimes against humanity, only if and when the cost of engaging in brutal conduct is increased to the point where it exceeds the benefits (to the cops and to the interests they serve) of such conduct. Institutional and technological quick fixes will not impose the necessary costs.
And if we take seriously the fact that the current system of policing works the way it is supposed to and designed to work––i.e., to brutalize and thereby keep down a restive and potentially rebellious oppressed minority––it becomes clear that shifting some money from the police to social services is likewise not a panacea. This can gum up the works, make the system of brutality less efficient and effective, but armed and organized white-nationalist thugs have shown that they are ready and waiting to pick up the slack.
Real change will require a mass movement that imposes the necessary costs––on brutal cops, on white-supremacist vigilantes, and on officials and juries who would otherwise stand in the way of justice. Given that the current system of policing works the way it is designed to work, the ultimate question confronting the struggle for racial justice is whether fundamental change to the system of policing requires a social revolution that transcends capitalism and the systemic racism that helps to perpetuate it.
There is no doubt that the crushing of white supremacy and police brutality is contrary to the interests of US capitalism as a whole. Yet capitalist governments do not always have free rein to act in the interests of capital. By means of its activity and the public support it won, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s forced the US government to side with it, however reluctant, partially, and inconstantly, at key moments. Thus, it remains to be seen what role the (hopefully) incoming Biden administration will play.
The President-elect has not, historically, been a friend of the Black community; nor has Vice President-elect Harris, a former prosecutor. Yet Blacks now have much greater influence within the Democratic Party than they used to have. And Biden in particular is deeply in political debt to Black voters. They rescued his terminally-ill campaign for the Democratic nomination in South Carolina. They then gave him disproportionate support in the primaries that followed. And in the general election, their votes were decisive––it is their votes, after all, that the Trumpites are declaring illegitimate and illegal and are trying to throw out. Biden’s November 7 victory speech included a public acknowledgment of his awareness of the debt he owes: “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
In addition, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security under Biden may be compelled to reverse the Trumpites’ policies and side with the victims of white-supremacist terror instead of the perpetrators. While the Biden administration would undoubtedly prefer a return to the pre-Trump status quo, such a return may be impracticable, owing to the growth and increasing virulence of white-supremacist activity in the meantime. As even the Trumpites’ own Department of Homeland Security was compelled to acknowledge, in a threat assessment released in early October, white supremacists are now the most lethal threat to Americans:
Among DVEs [Domestic Violent Extremists], racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs)—will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland. … WSEs have demonstrated longstanding intent to target racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, politicians, and those they believe promote multi-culturalism and globalization at the expense of the WSE identity. Since 2018, they have conducted more lethal attacks in the United States than any other DVE movement.
If the new administration does mount a serious counterattack against white-supremacist violence, this will have an impact on policing as well, because a serious counterattack will necessarily reach deeply into the multitude of police departments that have ties to violent white-supremacist groups. Although knowledge of these relationships is still quite incomplete, the ties that former FBI agent Michael German was able to document, in a recent Brennan Center report, are extensive, pervasive throughout the US, and alarming (though not at all surprising).
A New Anti-Racist Majority?
Turnout among Black voters, and among others––especially youth––who oppose the racism of Trump and his presidency, were critically important factors driving his defeat in the latest election. Even before that moment, however, noted commentators were raising the possibility that a new anti-racist majority may be emerging in the US.
In his letter as guest editor of Vanity Fair’s special September 2020 issue, “The Great Fire,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote,
It is possible … that for the first time in American history, a legitimate anti-racist majority is emerging and thus giving birth to a world beyond Founding Father idolatry, where we can seek not merely to defeat the incumbent president, but to erase his entire philosophy out of human existence.
Shortly thereafter, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer expressed a similar view:
There has never been an anti-racist majority in American history; there may be one today in the racially and socioeconomically diverse coalition of voters radicalized by the abrupt transition from the hope of the Obama era to the cruelty of the Trump age. All political coalitions are eventually torn apart by their contradictions, but America has never seen a coalition quite like this.
One factor underlying these evaluations was, of course, the truly massive and truly multiracial BLM protests that followed George Floyd’s murder. In polls conducted in June by four different polling organizations, between six and ten percent of US adults indicated that they had taken part in the protests. This implies that between 15 million and 26 million people protested, making the BLM uprising the largest protest movement in US history. (For the sake of comparison, note that the massive Women’s Marches following Trump’s inauguration drew about 4 million people nationwide.)
Opinion polls also provided striking evidence of widespread support for BLM as well as a rapid shift in public sentiment. A Monmouth University poll of June 2––a week into the uprising––found that 78% of respondents said that the anger underlying the protests was either fully or partially justified, and 54% said that protestors’ actions were either fully or partially justified. Racial and ethnic discrimination in the US was said to be “a big problem” by 76% of respondents (as against 51% in January 2015); 57% said that police are more likely to use excessive force against Blacks (as against 33% in December 2014); and 53% said that race relations have worsened under Trump, while only 10% said they had improved.
A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center between June 4 and June 10 found that 67% of all US adults supported the BLM movement, either “strongly” or “somewhat.” The movement had at least some support from 86% of Blacks, 77% of Hispanics, and 75% of Asians. There was also a surprising degree of support from non-Hispanic whites, and even from the Republicans among them; 60% of all non-Hispanic whites, and 37% of those among them who are Republicans or “lean” Republican, supported BLM to some extent.
Three months later, however, Pew found that support for the movement had weakened. Now, only 55% of all adults supported it “strongly” or “somewhat,” a decline of 12 percentage points. But the magnitude of the decline varied widely by group. It was especially pronounced among non-Hispanic white Republicans and Republican-leaners––falling by 21 points to 16%––and among non-Hispanic whites overall, falling by 15 points to 45%. Support among Hispanics had fallen by 11 points, to 66%. Among Asians, support for BLM declined by only 6 points, to 69%. Blacks’ support for it remained firm, actually ticking up 1 point, to 87%.
Given the sizes of these different groups, it is clear that the decline in support for the BLM movement is quite localized. It is overwhelmingly due to non-Hispanic white Republicans and Republican-leaners having withdrawn their support. This accounts for roughly two-thirds of the total decline. Almost all of the remainder of the decline is attributable to falling support among Hispanics and among non-Republican/non-Hispanic whites, whose contributions to the total decline were roughly equal to one another.
What accounts for the decline in support for the BLM movement among these groups? It is not plausible that the “violence” of some protesters was a major cause. The Pew poll taken in June, when support was at its peak, came after protesters’ expulsion of the cops from Minneapolis’ third precinct, and at a time when street battles were taking place continually throughout the nation. It is far more likely that declining support among these groups is attributable largely to the fact that their support for it was soft to begin with––in the June poll, only 7% of non-Hispanic white Republicans and Republican-leaners “strongly” supported the BLM movement–– and to the Trumpite campaign of fear-mongering and vilification having become more successful over time, through incessant regurgitation. As the party line came to dominate their thinking, BLM’s fair-weather friends withdrew their support for it.
What does all this suggest about the possibility of an anti-racist majority? Even in the September Pew poll, the BLM movement had majority support, barely. However, the important question is not whether anti-racist forces are literally a majority of the US population. The more important issues pertain to the strength and stability of the surge in anti-racist sentiment. Even if the estimates of direct participation in the May-June protests––15 to 26 million people––are greatly exaggerated, there can be little doubt that the movement for Black lives is now a mass and potentially powerful movement. And for now, it seems, only the most tepid of its verbal “supporters” have abandoned it.
Yet almost half of those who continued to support BLM in September did so only “somewhat.” Even more worrisome is the possibility that much of the upsurge in “support” is not the result of genuine rethinking, nor the result of irrefutable visual evidence of cops’ brutality having been thrust in front of peoples’ eyes. It is possible, instead, that large numbers of white and Hispanic Americans who identify with the Democrats have simply come to learn what their “correct” party-line response should be.
Given that much of the support for it is soft, this anti-racist struggle will not be won by securing a numerical majority that “supports” it. That would be true in any case. What makes it even more true are the country’s pro-racist near-majority (Trump received about 75 million votes in the November election) and the ability of Republicans to dominate the Senate and the judiciary in the absence of majority support. The success of the anti-racist struggle will depend on its persistence and on the deepening of its core support.
Democrats in swing districts took a beating in the 2020 elections for the House of Representatives. The losses are widely being attributed, in part, to voters’ abhorrence of the “violence” that occurred during this year’s uprising and the Democratic Party’s supposed indifference to or support of it.
While the right wing of the party may wish to pander to this nonsense, our responsibility is to set the record straight. In the first place, almost all protesters were peaceful and the “violent” protest that did occur was mostly against property––police stations and vehicles, and Confederate monuments––not against people. Furthermore, the leadership of the protests did not condone, much less advocate, violence. And much of the violence that did occur seems to have been perpetrated by far-right provocateurs and others without connections to the BLM demonstrators.
A far more important consideration, however, is that those who voted for Trump and the Republicans in the November elections were by no means expressing opposition to violence. They were embracing a President and party that staunchly supports the wanton police violence that led to the uprising, as well as the wanton police violence unleashed in an effort to crush it. They were embracing a President and party that supports Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin; a President and party that featured Mark and Patricia McCloskey––wealthy attorneys who have been indicted for using weapons to threaten BLM demonstrators and for tampering with evidence––as speakers at the Republican National Convention. And the list goes on.
Such voters were not voting for nonviolence. They were voting for the free exercise of violence by one side in the struggle and abject capitulation by the other side. They were showing the side of the struggle on which they stand. The one-sidedness and hypocritical nature of their supposed outrage over violence makes this unmistakably clear. To think that such people would be allies in the struggle for Black lives, if only the protestors would mind their manners, is the height of lunacy. Proponents of racial justice need to recognize that we confront a hostile and implacable pro-racist near majority.
Beyond Color-Blind Economistic Populism
The special role of Marxist-Humanists in the new, mass stage of BLM activity is to do what we can to ensure that “the left” does not impede or thwart its ongoing self-development. The left needs to be a force that stands for freedom and human rights for all once again.
The BLM uprising constitutes a massive and decisive repudiation of the “class based” and “color blind” economistic orientation that Jacobin magazine, and many others on the anti-neoliberal “left,” have promoted. The struggle for racial justice, not a grab-bag of social-democratic economic programs, is what has captured the minds and hearts of millions upon millions of people throughout the world, what has impelled millions to turn out in months of protests, and what has helped to radicalize a large segment of a new generation.
To cover over the fact that masses of people have decisively repudiated their orientation, and have instead embraced something they have long disparaged as “identity politics,” the Jacobin types have been busy rewriting history. In a June 19 New York Times article, Sydney Ember noted that Bernie Sanders “described the protests as a validation of his theory of social change.” As she went on to point out, however, “in reality his campaign avoided discussing race and culture in favor of emphasizing inequality and social democratic proposals.” She also noted that, although “Sanders supporters say that racial justice was a central part of his campaign,” it was “always couched in terms of how economic proposals would decrease inequality.”
As an example of that attitude, consider the line that Jacobin put out on May 25—the very day that George Floyd was murdered––in a piece by Dustin Guastella. By no accident whatsoever, the piece was entitled “We Need a Class War, Not a Culture War.” Guastella argued that “we should avoid the alienating cultural appeals that are so often grafted onto an otherwise popular political program”––i.e., social-democratic economic measures––and that none of the “culture war” fights “help organize the have-nots together by virtue of their shared economic interest against the haves.” He advocated a “simple message built around destroying the obscenity of inequality and providing universal public goods,” assuring readers that this message “would likely do well to unite workers across race, gender, region, and ideology”––provided that it isn’t “paired with an alienating ‘woke’ aesthetic.”
What is the warrant for calling this “color-blind,” economistic line a leftist analysis? What is specifically leftist about it? Consider how Tucker Carlson, the racist, white-nationalist Fox News commentator, trotted out a very similar line in service of his arch-reactionary rant of June 5 against the uprising for Black lives:
racism [is] hardly the only problem we face. So why do they keep telling you that it is? … Because telling you that, benefits them. It is a cover. It is a diversion designed to protect the people getting rich ….
America’s core problems in fact are economic. Can your kids earn enough to form stable families of their own and live with dignity? … [T]hat’s what most Americans of all colors worry about most, so of course it’s the one thing our leaders hate to talk about. That’s not accidental. Again, it’s by design. What you’re watching is class war disguised as race war. Keep the population at one another’s throats, angry, suspicious, tribal––and maybe they’ll never figure out how much we’re stealing.
The biggest change to American society over the past 50 years has been the death of the middle class. … Most of our population has become poorer in real terms, while a shrinking number of people control an ever-expanding percentage of our wealth. That means that fewer Americans overall have a meaningful stake in the society, and more are dependent. … These riots really shouldn’t surprise you.
It is hard to know exactly who is responsible for these sad changes to America, but it is easy to see who is benefiting from them. They are the same people lecturing you about “white privilege” and “systemic racism.” This isn’t accidental. … These people are scam artists. They are playing you.
Despite recent attempts by Jacobin types to argue that racial justice has been central to their vision and politics all along, the fact is that they consciously and consistently assigned anti-racist struggle a subordinate role, because it was considered divisive, in contrast to an economic redistributionist message, which was thought to have universal appeal. They consistently put forward the line that socialist politics should focus primarily on “class” and redistributionist politics. To the extent that they did discuss anti-racist politics, it was typically subsumed under an economic redistributionist message and program.
Claims that racial justice has been central to the Jacobin types’ vision and politics make sense only if we employ the term “central” in a peculiar way. The racial divide has not been an integral component of their class analysis. For them, race and class are just separate things that sit side by side.
However, because of the history of slavery and the persistence of racism in the US, Blacks remain very disproportionately working class, and at the bottom of the working class. Thus, the class struggle and the Black struggle cannot properly be treated as separate. The struggle against racism is itself a class issue, and an important facet of class struggle. That is the case both because the overwhelming majority of Blacks occupy a subordinate economic position in US capitalism, and because the rulers’ exploitation of white-supremacist thinking among white working people is used again and again to divide and conquer the working class.
The anti-neoliberal “left’s” inability to recognize the inseparability of the Black struggle from the class struggle is not a “methodological” problem. In other words, it doesn’t stem from an inability to see how two things might be dialectically unified even though they’re different. After all, the anti-neoliberal “left” does recognize clearly that eradication of racism requires profound economic change. The problem is simply that it doesn’t want to recognize the flip side: that the eradication of class oppression requires a profound struggle against white supremacy and white nationalism.
When they were highlighting their economic-redistributionist proposals, which supposedly had universal appeal, what the Jacobin types were in fact doing was pandering to the white-nationalist Trumpite base, trying to win it over with something it would supposedly find appealing—and relegating the Black masses to the back of the bus, if not actually throwing them under the bus. In this respect, and in general, the strategy was to “meet people where they’re at”—engage with them on the basis of what they currently think. Although that may initially sound good, this approach is especially dangerous at this moment in history, because it normalizes Trumpism. It treats Trumpism, not as a threat and abomination that must be eliminated, but as a legitimate rival for the allegiance of the “white working class.” It seeks to out-compete its rival on the basis of an alternative-but-comparable “positive program.”
Pandering to white nationalism, trying to outcompete it in popularity, while covering this over with abstract rhetoric about interracial and international unity, isn’t a solution. It has contributed to the crisis we now face. The left needs to foreground the struggle against white nationalism and fight it directly. The new uprising for Black lives is a promising beginning.
The unity of working people is indeed crucial. But that is no justification for a color-blind orientation that sweeps racial divisions and racial oppression under the rug, in the interests of some fake unity. The need for genuine unity of working people is precisely why we have to directly confront racial divisions and racial oppression, and to prioritize the fight against them. There is no greater obstacle to emancipatory self-activity from below than politicians like Trump, who pit working people against one another—on the basis of race, national origin, and so on––in order to divide and conquer them, and who strive to make them his followers. Only the defeat of Trumpism can deflate the supremacist pretensions of Trump’s white-nationalist base, and re-orient it toward genuinely independent—i.e., anti-racist, internationalist, emancipatory—self-activity.
The opposition between pandering to the white-nationalist Trumpite base and direct struggle against white nationalism is discussed in greater detail in the “Combatting White Nationalism” section of Resisting Trumpist Reaction; the preceding three paragraphs draw heavily on that discussion.
At this moment, when the genuine, grassroots left has decisively rejected the “class based” and color-blind economistic orientation that has dominated the anti-neoliberal “left,” the crucial theoretical task is to identify the factors that led it into this dead end, so that similar errors can more easily be avoided in the future.
What is the source of the anti-neoliberal “left’s” economistic orientation? And what is the source of its desire to win over the white-nationalist Trumpite base on the basis of a social-democratic economic program? We think that, in both cases, the source is the “Left First” orientation of the anti-neoliberal “left.” Practitioners of Left-First politics confuse and conflate what’s good for working people with what’s good for “the left,” i.e., themselves––and in practice they have prioritized the latter. They have been concerned with taking over the Democratic Party, concerned with building their own power. As a result, they have portrayed neoliberalism, the Democratic Party establishment, and so on, as the main enemy. And, for this reason, they have again and again dismissed and downplayed the real danger of Trumpism and other manifestations of far-right politics.
In Resisting Trumpist Reaction (and Left Accommodation), our perspectives thesis for 2018 that continues to guide our work, we contrasted this Left-First orientation to Marx’s perspective, which was about encouraging and aiding the “independent movement of the workers,” and which eschewed substituting the interests of “the left” for the interests of working people themselves. We now need to further internalize and concretize this perspective, and to offer it as an alternative to the kind of “left” politics that the new BLM uprising has decisively discredited.
Brooklyn, New York, May 30, 2020. Credit to MHI.
US Explodes with Protests over Police Murder of George Floyd
Mass Interracial Solidarity against Police Violence
Tens of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets—and occupied them—since the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by white policemen in Minneapolis on May 25. We are witnessing the most widespread rebellion against police violence in the US since the 1960s. Youth are in the lead; black and white youth predominate in the scores of protests that are continuing and spreading daily.
The current uprising is much more racially diverse than the urban rebellions of the 1960s. For the first time ever, there is mass interracial solidarity––in actions as well as in words––against police violence. It is this, more than anything else, that is causing the rulers to tremble. The pivotal moments of forward movement in the US have always been those moments when white working people took their lead from the black masses and coalesced with them.
This time, the interracial solidarity extends beyond white and black. Ruhel Islam, a Bangladeshi restaurant owner in the 3rd precinct of Minneapolis, put a “Minority Owned” sign on the front of his building in an effort to save it. It was nonetheless attacked and burnt out. His daughter, despite being a Black Lives Matter supporter, was upset. But he said, “let my building burn, Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.” His daughter agreed.
Racism, which has been the Achilles heel of US civilization from its founding––and the massive and ongoing fightback against racism—have managed to snatch the country’s attention away from the ever-growing COVID-19 death toll and from a rocket going into space. All eyes are on the unfolding youth-dominated rebellion as it demonstrates, every day, the meaning of “no justice, no peace.”
This uprising builds upon the last four years of mass mobilizations by the Resistance to Trumpism and the Black Lives Matter and youth against gun violence movements. At the same time, its massive multiracial character indicates a new dimension of revolt.
Cops Not Invincible
The wave of protest began in Minneapolis-St. Paul, right after George Floyd was murdered. By Thursday, May 28, protests had spread across the country. More recently, they have erupted in many additional cities and towns throughout the US, and elsewhere around the world, such as London, Cardiff, Copenhagen, and Berlin.
Protesters’ defeat of the cops in Minneapolis’ third precinct on May 28––they overwhelmed the precinct station, caused the cops to flee, and burned the station down––seems clearly to have been a major catalyst behind the spread of the protests. The victory over the third precinct shattered the myth that has weighed so heavily on the struggle for racial justice: the myth that the heavily militarized police are invincible, that all we can do is bear witness and wait until we have to endure the next act of police violence. The torching of the precinct station was a potent symbol that positive change still remains possible. It was a crackling heard round the world.
In addition, protesters are clearly fed up with having to stay home, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and mass unemployment, while on the streets police brutality and murder continued to flourish everywhere.
Tens of thousands of people have come out in Minnesota’s Twin Cities and suburbs; in Washington, DC; Atlanta; Baltimore; New York; Chicago; Los Angeles; San Jose; Sacramento; the San Francisco Bay Area; Louisville; Cincinnati; Columbus; Houston; Dallas; San Antonio; Miami; Nashville; Denver; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Salt Lake City—and many more places.
Louisville’s demonstrators are calling for action against the policeman who murdered an African-American woman, Breonna Taylor, in March. The cops broke into her apartment and shot her eight times in her bed. She was an EMS worker and was mistaken for someone the police were seeking. That suspect turned out to have been already in custody at the time of the warrantless break in and killing of Taylor.
The vast majority of protesters have expressed their rage at the murder of George Floyd by marching and shouting, not by torching, looting, or fighting. Yet the president, our racist-in-chief, has tried to portray the protests in their totality as the actions of looters and arsonists, anarchists and leftists. In unsubtle tweets, he has called for them to be shot––“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The violent suppression of the rebellion that Trump is inciting comes on top of the massive loss of life he has caused by failing and refusing to act to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which has had a greatly disproportionate impact on people of color. In the US, there are currently 105,000 confirmed deaths due to the coronavirus (the actual number is undoubtedly far greater). And the COVID-19 death rate among blacks is double the rate among whites. This is due to their poorer health before the disease, which in turn is a result of a health care system that discriminates against people of color and the poor.
Charging the Minneapolis Cops
By now, everyone in the world has seen the horrendous video of the Minneapolis cop, Derek Chauvin, with his knee and full weight on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, while Floyd died. Three other cops who had helped Chauvin pin him to the ground remained unmoving while Floyd cried, “I can’t breathe” and called for help. Fortunately, a 17-year-old girl, Darnella Frazier, captured the whole of the incident on video, enabling the world to know at once that the unarmed man had done nothing to cause the cops’ brutalization of him.
This particular police murder was reminiscent of that of Eric Garner in Brooklyn in 2014. Garner was apprehended for selling loose cigarettes on the street and put in a chokehold until he died. Garner’s murder, like Floyd’s, was recorded on video, but it took until last year for the perpetrator to be fired from the New York City police department. He has still not been charged for his crime. Garner had called out “I can’t breathe” over and over, just as Floyd did six years later. “I can’t breathe” is now a rallying cry at the protests that have erupted throughout the US and beyond, along with “Hands up—don’t shoot.” The latter slogan harkens back to the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, as he walked away with his hands up.
As of May 28, none of the cops involved in the murder of Floyd had been arrested or charged, and authorities claimed that additional investigation was needed; charges could not yet be brought. Then, that night, Minneapolis’ third precinct station was torched. Fifteen hours later, Chauvin had been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. But this did not put an end to the protests in Minneapolis. Protesters demanded that the other three cops involved in the murder also be arrested and charged. They also supported the wish of Floyd’s family that the perpetrators be charged with premeditated murder, a more serious crime that carries a much longer prison sentence, even though that would make conviction more difficult.
Police Riot, Trump Flees to Underground Bunker
During the last few nights, curfews have been imposed in Minneapolis and many other cities, and cops throughout the US, as well as National Guard troops, have responded to the rebellion with what is widely being called a “police riot.” They have treated even nonviolent protesters in the most brutal fashion––plowing through them with vehicles, pushing them to the ground, shooting them with rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray, setting off flashbang grenades in their midst, and so on. Much of this is common practice among urban police forces in the US, but what is different this time is that the whole world is watching. Thus, in many cases, the cops have intentionally singled out journalists to be targets of their brutality. A CBS cameraman was crouched behind a parked car when he was shot, clearly intentionally.
Between Thursday and Sunday, police arrested at least 1,669 people in 22 cities, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Nearly a third of those arrests came in Los Angeles, according to a report in Talking Points Memo.
Despite the curfew, demonstrations in Washington, DC took place close to the White House on Saturday and Sunday, with hundreds arrested. On Sunday night, Trump had to temporarily abandon his fake tough-guy persona and flee to an underground bunker below the White House.
In their efforts to justify the cops’ extreme brutality, they and their apologists (including Trump as well as “progressive,” social-democratic, Democratic Party politicians like Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, and Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago) keep harping on acts of burning and looting, and on other “unacceptable” acts by protesters, such as halting the forward movement of a police SUV and carrying bottles filled with urine.
Yet almost all protesters have been nonviolent, and mainstream media have been reporting evidence that some of the violent protesters are provocateurs––members of white-supremacist groups and “boogaloos.” There is also speculation that they include police infiltrators. Rather than being an attempt to stop looting and burning, the recent orgy of police violence we have witnessed may well be, instead, the cops’ attempt to show us that they “are still boss” after the humiliating defeat they suffered in Minneapolis’ third precinct.
An Entire Generation Radicalized within a Week
Although the cops may think that they now have the upper hand, their rioting is both ironic and pathetically desperate. They have confirmed beyond any shadow of doubt that charges of police brutality are true and outrage over police brutality is justified––by displaying their brutality, nakedly and repeatedly, in real time, at a moment when the whole world is watching.
As our correspondent in Columbus, Ohio noted, “the ‘violence’ has mostly come from the police.” This has been the case in city after city. Our correspondent in Raleigh, North Carolina, wrote that “[t]he cops are just having a field day shooting tear gas and rubber bullets. On Sunday, the protest was completely peaceful until the cops attacked.”
But because of the state-sanctioned brutality, “an entire generation is being radicalized within a week,” as our correspondent from Brooklyn puts it. “Despite the seemingly unending resources that the city threw at this protest, the spirit of youth who demanded that their lives not be ground up in this racist system was irrepressible and obviously exhausting to the police.” The struggle continues.
 P. 1 of “A Discussion of Racism and Class,” Marxist-Humanist resolution submitted to the 1969 National Convention of Students for a Democratic Society, included in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, pp. 4582–8.
 The editorial reflects the status of the uprising as of June 1, 2020 (its seventh day), when it was completed. It was published the next day.
 We use the term “Black Lives Matter” to refer to the slogan and the idea it expresses; we do not necessarily endorse particular groups that use the name. In light of white-nationalist reactionaries’ visceral and violent reaction to the idea and slogan, it is appropriate to use “Black Lives Matter” as the name of the new movement.
 American Civilization on Trial discusses key moments of past Black-white coalescence in the US. These include Abolitionism, the agrarian populist movement, opposition to US imperialism at the end of the 19th century, and labor-union activity (in the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations).
 See also our analysis in Part V of Resisting Trumpist Reaction.
 Emphasis omitted.
 However, such a commission has apparently not (yet) been established.
 Some people use the term “defunding the police” to refer to shifting of money from police to social services. Others use the term in different ways.
 The latest instance of this fear-mongering and vilification is the racist attack against the Reverend Raphael Warnock, Democratic candidate for a US Senate seat in Georgia, leveled by his Republican opponent and her supporters. To combat the fear-mongering and vilification, provision of correct information and fact-checking are insufficient; disinformation succeeds because it finds a receptive audience, which does not want to know the actual facts. And, as we have learned, the Trumpite base is implacable and incorrigible. The fear-mongering and vilification will be vanquished if and when it is vanquished.
 Earlier this year, Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner wrote, “The difficult part is separating changes in actual prejudice from changes in how much prejudice people are expressing. That is, are white Democrats giving less racist responses to survey questions now because they are actually less racist, or is it because they understand that norms within their party and social circles are shifting?”
I benefitted from reading this article. Although I’m tempted to agree with just about any criticism of Jacobin, I probably belong more on the “economistic” side of Marxism this article critiques. It’s a good corrective for anyone who’s tempted to argue that fighting for reforms is unimportant (& I recognize that I’m in that category far too often!)
Things have changed since Lenin criticized economist reductionism in ‘What is to be Done?’ At the time, there was a clear need to supplement the economic understandings of the party with a broader knowledge of society. Both the Bolshevik party membership its & base understood oppression too narrowly through the economistic lens and Lenin argued it needed to develop its understanding of “every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life.” (Lenin, WITBD)
Has this not happened? Has the left’s focus not left economic matters? Jacobin sees its raison d’etre as trumpeting the importance of economics to a broad left that had mainly abandoned class until only about a decade ago. (See Patricia Hill Collins’ ‘Intersectional Definitional Dilemmas’). Considerations of class were dropped during the Cold War when capitalism was doing fine, better than the apparent alternative.
MHI follows the philosophy of Raya Dunayevskaya whose own political trajectory was clearly shaped by the diminishing hope radicals could place in the USSR. She followed Trotsky away from the leadership of the USSR before breaking with him as well over his continued defense of the USSR. She then became an advocate for the emancipation of the marginalized within capitalism. This is the familiar story of a radical’s disillusionment with the old anti-capitalist left & their likely half-hearted hope of creating a capitalism that doesn’t suck.
*I think that both Jacobin’s & Dunayevskaya’s takes are too one-sided.*
From my POV, there’s an army of activists working for racial equality. The article says that “between 15 million and 26 million people protested, making the BLM uprising the largest protest movement in US history.”
Realistically, will all those people develop their knowledge of Marxian economic theory? No.
Should they? No.
Should enough of them study Marxist political economy to ensure that the others have someone they can turn to when they are, inevitably, confronted by a conservative or liberal apologist for capitalism? If we think transcending this system is necessary for freedom, the answer must be ‘YES!’ A sufficient number of that type of organic intellectual seems like a precondition of an anti-capitalist movement that can actually go somewhere.
Do we have this knowledge base? No.
So, we need to develop it. More of us need to study & learn political economy to convincingly connect seemingly isolated problems with asshole bosses & douche landlords to the system.
I really like the way it correctly lets individuals off the hook by succinctly pointing to the far greater reality that racism is not about individuals, but rather is itself systemic. Bad apples do exist, but going down that road allows every lunch hour Tucker Carlson and online Sean Hannity to paint a claim ala Fox News that BLM/Lefties/Progressives/Neo Marxists are calling everyone a racist, which prompts the counter argument put to such people as “you know you’re not a racist ergo that entire claim of racism emanates out of a false claim, so the entire claim that racism is happening must itself be wrong”. As we know and as the article correctly highlights, Institutional/systemic racism does not require individuals be racist, in order for racism to exist. This is very well put in this essay.
I mean of course we know that we have many individuals who are racist, but that isn’t where the power of a racist ideology comes from, so let’s get past the patently obvious that so often waylays/holds up so many positional statements on the issue of race. This essay allows one to get to the meat and drink the subject at hand. It let’s us speak to what is really going on, it addresses the key concerns, rather than getting stuck in some more superficial territory of conjecture.
If I was to surmise the two issues on race that create an impasse which few discussions can emerge from, they would be:
a) The fear and weaponisation of being called a racist individually: that those in the gallery fear, the worried white majority scared of being called a racist causes people mistake racism as being about nothing more than individuals, when it is greatly more about systems and institutions, both in culture and practice.
b) The language of: that is to say how many discussions on racism descend into nothing more than a language game/argument over nomenclature.
In reality we know that racism is the enacting of prejudice, not simply language. That is why when a society improves it moves from overt racist language to covert racism. We see societal improvements, but much that was surface level now becomes more opaque and hidden. It was easy to know who the racists were in apartheid South Africa, or even 1970s UK, thanks to improved societal attitudes and norms, nobody (very few at least) says the N word, but the police still pull black people over in stop and search in much higher numbers. In London alone this was around 25 times more than that of white counterparts in 2020, a few years ago it was around 27 times more often. Across the board in every age category employment statistics paint a reality: racism in action, alive and well if not thriving, and still the N word is rarely if ever in plain sight. Far more it relates to the job not got, the attitude taken without language.
If I may use the biblical King James Bible quote as an atheist:
“Ye shall know them by their fruit”
^ In other words it’s in actions (thought technically too via omissions) that any individual, organisation, government or society needs to be judged. Words are the things we say and claim. They don’t always map onto reality. The essay makes a tighter more powerful argument but removing an unnecessary burden with a) and thankfully has avoided the language trap of b). It’s well written and It counters the would-be counter narrative too as I said. The position is correct/true and the ground it gives up (some people as individuals are racists) is worth it because it allows you to paint a truth that resonates much more powerfully.
I really like the way that BLM and systemic racism is cast as part of the class struggle, that’s something that often goes unsaid and I think that’s exactly what it is, by extension in the UK this also applies here to what Tory MPs might call the immigrant problem, because of course immigrants also mostly stem from the working class – again divide and rule. Divide and rule stateside was part of the Fox News Roger Ailes playbook and it’s ingrained into right wing politics, It’s vital for right wing republican/capitalist owners interests that white and black working class are separated and come to think, or rather be told that they have different interests. So everything said in this regard is correct in my estimation. It set out a perfectly good and rational argument that most could follow that connects race to class and by extension why capitalism as it stands has a white supremacist connection and ‘interest’ at play. Many people not only separate class and race as pointed out, but some people cannot see how capitalism in the US can possibly be invested in racial division, with some pointing to the diversity they see in the corporate world. This essay, positional statement call it what you will: it helps explain otherwise, it provides the reader with the correct narrative or lens of class through which matters need to be viewed/perceived. It is this understand which is need in order to break the false divide and conquer separations that the right construct/erect at every turn. The triad of the right, white supremacy and hegemonic power own ownership will never be broken unless BLM and race activism in general continues to bring people together by exposing and re-exposing the same basic lies time after time. Only in shattering the us vs them paradigm separations of rural rust belt white America and and dirt rural poor black people, only by doing the same re the inner cities will success and a progressive move forward be possible. This essay only gets to be as effective as it is by the arguments and positions it gives up, omission here is as important as that which is selected. This essay gets it right because the battle picked ensures the fight is on the correct terms in bringing people together, in not being waylaid by arguments from morality that are true yet unhelpful in terms of ultimate aim and goal.
I must say, I might have liked the class based argument detailed in a compact summation to drive the matter home in a more explicit fashion, but other than that it’s excellent.
Of course nobody is working class in America. Everyone likes to think of themselves by definition as the squeezed middle. It’s hilariously sad, painful that we have the rich and the middle…only a sub class of drug dealers, gang members and illegal immigrants below that (the homogenised soup of judgment) but everyone the middle – the working class Dead in absentia – non existent in thought it might be said.
The working class exist, they need to wake up and see themselves for what they are, equally the working class need to recognize that racism is not an issue for other people, neither is it a side issue, it’s a key battleground of thought and an opportunity for solidarity, something vital in the aftermath of the George Floyd shooting and all that has followed. How does this change in attitudes and relations and become the permanent wished for claim, rather than just a point in the tide, rather than a high water mark of decency and fellowship? It seems obvious that it relates to asking the right questions and to class consciousness, essays like this afford clarity and understanding, it’s a sterling effort and piece of work that can only help to empower those that read it.