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Race, the National Question, Empire and Socialist Strategy in the USA

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By Bill Fletcher, Jr.


When envisioning a piece for this ZNet exchange I originally thought in terms of elaborating on a vision for socialism or the importance of raising the question of socialism in the context of the current intersection of crises (economic, environmental and of capitalist state legitimacy).  While I believe that such a discussion remains legitimate, the question of strategy and history looms over my thoughts, most especially, the weight of the history of racist oppression, national oppression and imperialism on the practice, consciousness and vision of the US Left.  For that reason, the following will suggest a framework in considering an approach toward socialist strategy in the USA.

It should be noted that the observations and analyses offered here are not meant to be universal in their application.  This essay focuses on the nuances relative to strategy in the USA.  Certainly there are lessons that can be drawn that are applicable elsewhere just as there are international lessons that are applicable to the USA.  Nevertheless, this essay focuses on the problem of the construction of a radical/socialist Left in the USA that will have a chance to succeed.

“Race” and empire continually emerge as factors that distort both the objectives of the US Left, but also distort the intermediate steps towards achieving said objectives.  In fact, as I have repeatedly argued, “race” in particular is the tripwire of US politics.  It is the feature of US politics that repeatedly unsettles and destabilizes progressive political movements.  Combined with empire, the US Left is remarkably different from other Lefts around the world, not just due to nationally-specific conditions, but due to the unevenness of the Left vision itself.

A classic example of this problem is found in the work and life of the famous novelist Jack London.  Author of The Call of the Wild and The Iron Heel, London was an important socialist in the early 20th century, and is proudly declared as such by many white socialists to this day.  Yet London was a very contradictory figure.  While an open advocate of socialism, he saw no contradiction between his notions of “socialism” on the one hand, with white supremacy on the other (which, according to many critics, played itself out even in his heralded, The Iron Heel, the novel describing a fascist-like government and a socialist resistance).  London saw no contradiction in being in favor of socialism, yet a “socialism” for white people.

In the development of any Left strategy generally, and socialist strategy in particular, there must be recognition of the centrality of racism and national oppression in the USA.  This formulation is not aimed at suggesting that racism and national oppression are “more important” than other forms of oppression.  Rather, what is being suggested is that the history of the USA and its formation as a racist-settler capitalist state necessitates a proper understanding of the forces that hold the formation together and simultaneously serves to undermine insurgent social movements.  To put it another way, this is not about the perception of oppression; this is about the actuality of social contradictions and their implications for change.

Race and the Left

It is almost a cliché to speak in terms of “race” as a socio-political construct, nevertheless, “race”, as we have come to know it since the 1500s, is undeniably so.  For the purposes of this essay the critical features of an understanding of contemporary race and racism in the USA include:

Ø  The lack of scientific relationship to biology since there is only the human race.

Ø  The creation of categories of inferior and superior based upon arbitrary characteristics and definitions.

Ø  The creation and perpetuation of a system of oppression of the “inferior” group in all aspects.

Ø  The reinforcement of a relative differential in treatment—and its ideological justification—between those considered inferior and those considered superior.

Ø  The use of race as a principal means for social control.

Ø  Rendering irrelevant the experiences and viewpoint of the subordinated population except and insofar as interpreted by dominant population.  This specifically has been applied to African descendents, Indigenous peoples, Asians and Latinos, those usually referenced as “people of color.”

Race is, then, not a state of mind, but a socio-political reality.  Even though there is no scientific basis for race, it occupies a real space and the institutions of the racial-capitalist society reinforce this reality every day.

Much of the Left, particularly what is described as the “white Left”, has failed to appreciate the significance of race.  The dominant approach has been to either attempt to ignore it or to attempt to inoculate against race and racism.  These two approaches are often linked.  In the popular movements and the Left notions of avoidance, either through “see no evil” or “inoculation” mediums, are recurring themes.  In either case, the mistake comes from viewing race and racism as matters of the mind, or perhaps of the imagination, rather than being the mortar of US capitalism.

“Inoculation” generally takes the form of concentrating on so-called common economic issues as a way of taking everyone’s eyes (and minds) off of race.  This practice is very common in the labor union movement, but it is not restricted to organized labor.  The Alinskyist approach to community organizing also contains this feature.  In addition, this obsession with common economic issues was associated with the old Socialist Labor Party, the Socialist Party, and the early Communist Party. The Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary syndicalist labor federation, had a complicated understanding of race, on the other hand.  More than most other US radicals, particularly white radicals, they appreciated the significance of race as a divisive force and held that racism must be opposed.  At the same time, their understanding of race and racism was limited to a ‘divide and conquer’ analysis and, as such, was not at all linked to national oppression and self-determination.

The white Left’s failure to appreciate the significance of racist oppression also could be found in their misappraisal of the importance of Reconstruction and its ultimate overthrow.  The white Left in the 19th century was not only divided on the question of slavery, but later divided over how to interpret Reconstruction.  It did not see in Reconstruction a revolutionary moment in which Black freedom could have been won and which represented a challenge to class forces dominating the USA.  In fact, for much of the white Left, Reconstruction was, at best, a footnote.  Standing in contrast, W.E.B. Dubois’ Black Reconstruction in America (a leftist challenge to the maligning of Reconstruction) is a must-read, even today, for any radicals attempting to understand the historical reality of race and social control.

Another important example of both the construction of race and the inconsistent approach of the white Left towards it revolves around Asian immigrants.  It is ironic that as intense as was racist oppression against African Americans, Asians were regularly excluded from otherwise progressive formations that would include African Americans.  In the mass movements this was in evidence in organized labor with the exclusion of Asians from the Knights of Labor, and later their exclusion from many unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. [Note:  There is the infamous example in the AFL of the effort by the Japanese Mexican Labor Union of California to affiliate only to be told that the Mexicans would be accepted but the Japanese must be left out.  The Mexicans rejected this “offer.”]

The capitulation to anti-Japanese bias during World War II is one of the more ignominious moments in the history of the Communist Party, USA.  This capitulation, taking the form of support for the interning of Japanese and Japanese Americans, did not come out of nowhere, however.  It was rooted in the demonization of Asians and a stereotypical portrayal as being sly, sneaky and otherwise untrustworthy.  The betrayal, later acknowledged and self-criticized, nevertheless undercut the important work that the CPUSA had carried out over the years to organize Asian immigrants.

Thus, if there were one feature or characteristic of the US Left that can be identified as being at the root of its dilemma, it would be a form of “economism,” to borrow Lenin’s term, i.e., the belief that the pure economic struggle is the road to the emergence of revolutionary consciousness.  This economism, by the way, played itself out both with regard to race but also with the matter of empire, as shall be discussed below.

Settlerism and the National Question

The USA is not only characterized by a racial capitalism, but a racial-settler capitalism.  Specifically, capitalism in the USA was constructed within the context of a settler state.  By a settler state we mean a state based upon the forceful imposition of an alien population onto an indigenous population.  Settler states are always racial, but not all racial states are settler states as such.  Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel and Canada can be described as settler states.  The settlers did not seek to accommodate the indigenous population at all, absorb them, nor did they simply set up outposts and attempt to control indirectly.  The aim of the settler state is generally to remove the indigenous entirely, by whatever means is necessary.  This may or may not involve extermination (Note: in the case of the USA there was a combination of displacement and extermination).

With a settler state comes the assumption of who is civilized and who is not.  It is also accompanied by a variety of myths, most of which are religious or quasi-religious.  The settler state acts on behalf of the settler, seeking the territory that it believes that the alien population is entitled to control.  As such two (or more) different worlds come into existence; the world of the settler and the world of the indigenous, this resulting in a complete distortion in any notion of class struggle or democratic struggle.  It is not an exaggeration to speak of two worlds.  An examination of Israel, for instance, reveals that there are political forces that are on the right, center and left WITHIN the world of Israel, nevertheless with regard to the Palestinian Question may adjust where they fall dramatically on the ideological spectrum.   An example of this was the “Black Panther” movement that arose in Israel in the early 1970s.  Adopting their name from the Black Panther Party of the USA, this was a movement within Israel largely of Jews from the Arab World.  Their principal claim was that Afro-Asian Jews were being discriminated against by the European Jews.  While this may appear to be a progressive struggle, the irony was that the “Black Panthers” were in no way sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians!  Thus, as settlers they were on the “left” within the context of the settler state and the settler world, but with regard to the Palestinians, their position was far from being on the Left.

It is in the context of the creation and expansion of a settler state that the national question and US imperialism can better be understood.  Each of these, of course, is linked with race and racist oppression, however, they also have their own respective identities.  Most of the US Left has chosen to ignore the matter of a settler state and the national question entirely, or to submerge it within the broad category of race; the assumption being that the borders of the USA are the borders and, in effect, that which was done—Manifest Destiny and the like—was done and there is no turning the clocks back.  This is why, unfortunately, so many people on the Left (and not just the white Left) see the demand for reparations as both fanciful and unrealistic, not to mention, lacking relevance to the contemporary struggle.

The construction of a settler state complicates the matter of the determination of what actually constitutes a “nation.”  Most definitions of a “nation” diverge little from the notion that they are a people, usually the inhabitants of a specific territory, who share common customs, origins, history and frequently language or related languages. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language).  In Marxism the notion of nations is identified with the emergence of capitalism, recognizing that other forms of organization and relationship preceded (and often overlap) its development (e.g., tribes; ethnic groups).

Yet the notion of a “nation” is more often than not associated with the development of nations in Europe, and ultimately with the development of the European nation-state.  In its attempts to look at the development of nations, the Russian Bolsheviks did not alter this basic view until the 1930s, at which time they elaborated an intriguing notion called “national-territorial delimitation.” The theory in essence proposed—under socialism—the creation of modern nations out of peoples who existed as tribes or ethnic groups, but had not yet approached the contemporary notion of a nation.  [Note:  among other groups, national-territorial delimitation was applied toward Jews in the USSR who had been viewed by most Russian Marxists as not a nation but a national minority.  Nevertheless a Jewish republic was established in Birobizhan, though by all accounts it was a failure.]

European colonialism, a subset of which was the settler state, encountered existing peoples who lived as tribes, ethnic groups, kingdoms and empires.  In some cases, these peoples were developing or near developing capitalism.  In other cases they lived in what Samir Amin has described as “tributary social formations” (e.g., feudalism); and in still other situations their social formations were less developed.  In any case, the entrance of European colonialism, to borrow from Amilcar Cabral, took these peoples out of their own history.  Among other things this meant that their economic and social development was shaped around the needs and aspirations of colonialism rather than their internal needs.

In this sense, nations in what we today term the “global South” (Asia, Africa, Latin America) developed very differently than in Europe.  In some cases one could argue that nations, as such, did not develop even though nation-states did.

Settler capitalism in the thirteen colonies in North America and then in the USA created a nation-state, initially through the amalgamation of many European peoples who came to be defined as “white.”  The characteristic of the settler state was that of being a “white” settler state whose raison d’être was the protection of the interests of the white bloc, i.e., the settlers.

The settler state found itself defining its existence largely through a definition of the “Other.”  The first clear “Others” were the African slaves and the Native Americans.  The racial settler state acted in the interests of the white settlers on multiple levels including land acquisition.  The racial settler state, through its aggression, forced the annihilation, removal or amalgamation of peoples.  In the case of African Americans it forced a reconfiguration among hitherto separate peoples; what had not existed—a nation—slowly came into existence.

The oppressed nations that emerged in the USA over the last two hundred years did so as a direct result of the calculations of the settler state.  This does not mean that the settler state set out to create oppressed nations.  More accurately, it means that a binary system exists between settler states and oppressed nations.  Ethnic groups, tribes, and similar kinships take on a different existence and, indeed, are transformed through the mechanisms of the oppressor/settler state.  They are forced to assume an identity (not in a post-modern sense) and a collective history that they may not have once thought possible.

In the case of the Native American, the great Shawnee leader from the early 19th century, Tecumseh, attempted to articulate the path toward Indian nationhood as a necessary and conscious step.  His was not a vision simply of an alliance of tribes against the white USA but rather the development of a structure to counter the invasion—an Indian nation-state.  In certain respects Tecumseh’s vision was not altogether different from that of the Japanese elite that pursued the Meiji Restoration later in the 19th century in response to the aggressiveness of the USA and Western Europe.  From the standpoint of the Native American and other oppressed peoples, Tecumseh’s efforts unfortunately failed.

In the US Southwest, the Mexicano/Chicano people developed an independent history from Mexico with the annexation of the northern part of Mexico by the United States in 1848.  The US settler state constructed a de facto Jim Crow existence for the annexed population, subordinating them to white settlers.  Ironically, while the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo of 1848 classified the annexed Mexicans as “whites” [the alternative was to be classified as Black (slave) or Indian] and guaranteed them their land rights, they were treated as anything but white.  Though annexed, the soon-to-become Chicanos did not cease to have contact or a relationship with Mexico.  Nevertheless, their existence was to be defined by their relationship with the settler state and its efforts to shape the annexed population (or displace them) to meet the needs of the settler state.  The defining feature of the annexed population, then, was (a)their annexation, and (b)their relationship with the settler state.  To that extent efforts undertaken by many theorists to define the independent identity of the Chicano people, while historically important, are in many respects secondary to the question of annexation.

Puerto Rico, on the other hand, was annexed wholesale.  A population that was moving toward nationhood with the fusion of European, African and Taino blood, was recast when turned over to the USA by Spain and deprived of its right to self-determination.  Within the borders of the USA, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii provides examples of more of the classic colonial mold, whereas the development of African American, Chicano, and Native American nations has come about for the most part due to their relationship to the racial settler state.

With national oppression emerge forms of national consciousness, not all of which are progressive.  Yet the development of national consciousness is a critical step in the development of nationhood and the possibility for emancipatory action.  During the post war period and through the 1970s the revolutionary aspect of national consciousness was very much apparent (and as noted by Frantz Fanon, was a step towards internationalism).  This was true both domestically and internationally.  Again drawing from Cabral, national consciousness sought to return oppressed and marginalized people to their own histories.  As such it represents an effort to create a new ‘identity’ for peoples that had existed, hitherto, as isolated (and often hostile) pockets within a given territory.

National consciousness in the USA was very much linked with this international phenomenon (the rise of anti-colonial and pro-national liberation movements).  It was, to a great extent, racial/national in that it represented the rejection of racism and racist oppression.  It represents the rejection of racist categories and subordination, and the rejection of even the notion of racial privilege.  It was (and is) also racial in that it did not always conform to specific ethnic groups.  African American national consciousness was/is at the same time “Black” [i.e., not white; being of the Diaspora] and African American [of the population that had been brought to the USA as slaves, added to which were Cape Verdeans and Caribbeans who integrated into the greater fabric of the African American people].  National consciousness among Asians did not necessarily conform to their individual identities as Chinese, Filipino, etc., but overlapped both the individual national identities as well as the broader “racial” category of “Asian”.  [Note:  Asians in the USA would not correspond, in either numbers or their relationship with the settler state, to one or several oppressed nations.  Nonetheless, this does not make them in any sense less important social movements.  It is simply a different categorization.]

Frantz Fanon pointed out what he termed the “pitfalls of national consciousness.”  There are many.  In the USA it became evident from the 1970s on, that among oppressed nationalities there was a devolution away from a radical national consciousness.  Our movements have tended more in the direction of an ethno-nationalist consciousness where the particular ethnic group, nation or nationality counterposes its interests to other groupings, including but not limited to other oppressed groupings, rather than against the oppressor state.  Among African Americans this could be seen earlier, for sure, in the contention between African Americans whose roots lay in North American slavery vs. those from the Caribbean (and in a different way, those from the Cape Verde Islands).  Nevertheless, “Black America” underwent significant demographic changes and racial/national consciousness served as something of a unifying force.  By the 1970s, however, the devolution had begun such that—and despite progressive efforts such as Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition—African American racial/national consciousness (or at least a segment of this consciousness) was being counterposed to the interests of other oppressed groups, most notably more recent Latin American immigrants.

A final point about racial/national consciousness.  Racial/National consciousness in the context of the USA has historically both a domestic and international character in that it offers a challenge to domestic racism, as well as to global imperialism.  Pan Africanism, in general, serves as one example, having promoted various solidarity movements with struggles against colonialism and imperialism over the years.  Forms of Indigismo and Raza consciousness have represented an analogous tendency in opposing domestic national/racial oppression, but also US imperialism in Latin America.  The relationship, then, between race and empire were and are keen elements in racial/national consciousness.

A significant section of the US Left has failed to appreciate these features of the “national movements” in the USA.  For much of the white Left (and a small numbers of leftists from among oppressed nationalities), any form of racial/national consciousness is perceived as threatening, if not divisive.  Thus, the fact that racial/national oppression results in the potential for a multi-class anti-imperialist project can be portrayed by segments of the Left as class collaboration (in the obviously negative sense, as opposed to class alliances).  For example, despite the vigilance of their anti-racism, the IWW nevertheless failed to get the national character of the struggles of African Americans, or for that matter the Chicanos (Note:  though as internationalists they did seem to recognize that the Chicano struggle and the Mexican struggle—in Mexico—were interrelated.]  For the IWW, the only struggle was the class struggle, therefore making the IWW allies of a component of the struggle against racist and national oppressions.

The empire

The westward expansion of the settler state was deeply linked to the development of empire.  As noted elsewhere, the Founding Fathers saw no necessary contradiction between a [white] democratic republic and an empire.  The first steps towards empire involved, in fact, the westward expansion and the defeat of the Native Americans.  This is not simply a historical footnote.  Often, it is stated that the USA did not seek a territorial empire (with colonies).  That was true at a certain moment and to a certain extent. The expansion westward, much like the Russian expansion eastward toward and into Siberia (and actually into Alaska and northern California), did not involve the absorption of uninhabited territories.  Territories and peoples were forcefully absorbed into the USA and concurrently the construction of a system was undertaken to ensure the suppression, passivity or complacency of the indigenous population.  It was after the securing of the continental USA that the ruling circles could generally agree to an overseas expansion, albeit a complicated one that did not place a priority on the direct rule of significant numbers of colonies.

The point is that for the USA, the settler state and its expansion was linked to the development of empire.  It is not the case in every settler state.  Moreover, it historically accurate that the vast expansion did not go unchallenged, even from within the settler population.  The US war of aggression against Mexico, for instance, and certainly the war of aggression against the Philippines witnessed significant domestic opposition, coupled with the resistance from the victims of the aggression.  The reasons for the domestic opposition were not always noble, but resistance it was nevertheless.

Particularly because the US empire did not rely, primarily, on direct colonies, defense of empire was less about territory and more about ‘mission.’  Mission was treated as being equivalent to patriotism.  As a result, each action by the USA overseas was supposed to be accepted as having a righteous objective.  What compounded this was a particular form of isolationism that became quite popular in the USA whereby there would be tolerance for US activity overseas particularly when it did not necessitate the deployment (and loss of lives) of US troops.

The US Left has historically been very divided over whether and how to challenge empire, in part because challenging empire has been portrayed by the mainstream as precisely the challenging of patriotism.   When challenges are mounted they tend to be at times of military conflict, but much less attention is devoted to non-military involvement, or for that matter, even covert military operations.  The accumulation of wealth that results in the centers of capitalism from imperialism is, as an issue, either sidestepped or is the source of moralizing.  The US Left rarely engages in a concrete discussion concerning the need for a global wealth redivision.  Rather, it is more likely to engage in the assumption that wealth redivision need not be discussed because with the advent of a post-capitalist society everything will be taken care of for everyone.  This is the global counterpart to domestic economism when it comes to matters of race (related, indeed, to what Lenin termed “imperialist economism” during World War I when he was pressing Marxists to address the national question).  That is, in recognizing that the matter of global wealth redistribution (and how the wealth came to be so unequally divided in the first place!) is a hot-button matter, much of the Left would rather take a pass or reserve such discussions for study groups rather than to ascertain a means to make that a significant component of the mass left politics that need to be articulated and practiced.

The US Left, then, is challenged by the need to take on, that is confront, imperial consciousness, something that it cannot do successfully through an ‘economist’ framework.  Empire will not be challenged by promoting the notion that a rising tide raises all boats.  Global wealth redistribution will necessitate a different way of living in the global North, and throughout the entire world for that matter.  The need for wealth redistribution does not necessitate poverty, although it will indeed represent a frontal assault on capitalist consumerism.  Further, it will necessitate a challenge to the manner in which wealth is distributed within the capitalist states of the global North.

Implications for socialist strategy

Socialism, at least according to its original theorists, was/is to represent an expansion of democracy.  For Lenin and those Marxists who followed him, socialists were to be those upholding the struggle for what he termed “consistent democracy,” the basic notion being that democratic capitalism is, by definition, wholly inconsistent.  This ranges from the division of wealth to the control over the means of production.  It also, and all too often overlooked, relates to other features of society, particularly areas of gender and nationality/race.  Therefore, socialists should be the ones that are at the forefront of struggles against the unjust and undemocratic practices of capitalism and through such struggles represent in practice the sort of world that we wish to bring into being.

When it comes to racist oppression and national oppression, 20th century socialism (and now 21st century socialism)—and not just in the USA—was been inconsistent.  While generally better than practices in the capitalist states, socialists—in and out of power—often stumbled when it comes to race and national oppression (not to mention gender and sexuality), often in the name of keeping issues of class central.  The reality is that rather than keeping matters of class central, these socialists have fallen prey to the economism and economic determinism that Lenin and others warned about so long ago.

In reviewing the successes and failures of US socialists in addressing race, national oppression and empire since the 19th century, there are important conclusions that need to be placed squarely on the table for further examination:

(1)Race and the national question keep “getting in the way”: Attempts by those on the Left to avoid race and national oppression are doomed to failure.  Similarly, focusing exclusively on economics or in the post-modern framework putting all “oppressions” on the same plane, are approaches that are doomed to failure.  The history of the USA should demonstrate the particular power that exists when it comes to race and national oppression.  Not only does ambivalence on racist oppression and national oppression lead to alienating groups historically victimized by racism and national oppression, but it ensures that whites continue to live in a dream world that ignores the realities of structural oppression.

(2)Right-wing populism and imperial consciousness will block the revolutionary potential of a significant percentage, if not a majority of whites: This is a controversial point but one that needs serious attention.  The US Left has generally assumed that most whites can, eventually, be won to be part of the historic bloc that brings into being a revolutionary post-capitalist (what I would describe as socialist) system.  This may not be the case.  Right-wing populism and imperial consciousness exert a very strong pull on white America.  It is very much wrapped up with the myth of US history and the blindspots that have continue to exist when it comes to racism, national oppression and empire.  Challenging these myths and embracing what can be described as a counter-narrative regarding US history will be central to uniting with a Left historic bloc by whites in the USA.  Thus, a historic bloc in the USA may be a majority of its people, but it may not be a majority of whites.

A second aspect of this point is that right-wing populism and imperial consciousness exist as a cancer in the US political scene.  This particular cancer can metastasize into significant right-wing social movements, one of which could be neo-fascist.  Concretely, this means that active work against right-wing populism—at the ideological and practical level—must be a central component of the work of the Left.

(3)Anti-racism must be more than diversity, and instead go to the heart of power: In an age when mainstream discourse revolves around the myth of “post-racialism” it is critical for the Left to identify the concrete manifestations of structural racist and national oppression.  The political Right is doing all that it can to redefine racism as an abstract concept that is equivalent to personal prejudice.  We, on the other hand, must demonstrate that racist and national oppressions are real world and manifest themselves in a differential in treatment in all spheres, including but not limited to education, health, jobs, housing and political participation.  Demonstrating this differential involves more than policy papers.  Progressive struggles must be conducted that identify these sites and forms of oppression and work to demolish them.

(4)Movements of internal oppressed nations in the USA will continue to be waged for self-determination, even if the demand for self-determination is not explicit: “Self-determination” is a term that has a very broad usage in popular language, but in this instance it refers to the right of a nation to determine its own destiny, including matters of sovereignty.  It goes way beyond the notion of ‘we can do it on our own.’

There are not currently major movements in the USA, with the exception of Native Americans, that have made territorial sovereignty a plank of their central demands.  This does NOT mean that the demand for land has disappeared.  In both the African American and Chicano movements there continue to be demands for land (e.g., African American farmers; Chicano land and water rights demands).  In the case of African Americans and Chicanos, however, while there are political tendencies that have and continue to demand secession and the establishment of an independent homeland, these tendencies are small.

The limited discussion regarding the matter of land and sovereignty may lead many to believe, mistakenly, that the demand for self-determination is outdated or otherwise inappropriate.  Self-determination, in the sense of national sovereignty, is more complicated today due to the realities of globalization.  For those of us in the USA, it is further complicated by being in the heart of the empire.  Despite this, self-determination remains a critical demand for nationally oppressed groups.  In the 21st century, the form that it takes may change a great deal from struggles that have taken place in other countries and at other times.

The USA, unlike Czarist Russia (which contained many oppressed nations), has geographic areas that have large concentrations of oppressed nationalities, e.g., the Black Belt South (African Americans); the Southwest (Chicanos), however, these areas are not so separate nor so overwhelmingly populated by these respective nationalities that territorial separation can be viewed as a realistic option in the foreseeable future unless dramatic political and demographic changes take place. [Note:  Puerto Rico is an obvious exception to this, where in fact, there is an independence movement, albeit weaker than it once was.] Those geographic areas can, however, be major base areas for these national movements as well as for democratic and left-wing multi-racial/multi-national movements.  In Czarist Russia, for instance and by contrast, the territory that is now known as Uzbekistan had few ethnic Russians (though those there existed in a relatively privileged position over the native Uzbeks) and was clearly controlled by the Czarist regime.  In effect, it was colonized.  The expansion of the US settler state created the conditions for an African American and Chicano nation but never allowed those areas of concentration to be significantly separate from both the Anglo/white population (except in a Jim Crows sense) and their integration into the overall US political system.

Self-determination in a US context may more take the form of the demand for reparations, whether or not the term “reparations” is used.  It may take the form of concrete demands and struggles around the end to structural oppression.  Within that the demand for land will be important, but not necessarily as a demand for a separate national-territorial existence.  Reparations, then, is part of a global struggle for a re-division of the wealth as well as being a demand of the nationally oppressed groups in the USA who have been robbed of their histories, land and labor.

(5)Movements of racially/nationally oppressed peoples in the USA can challenge imperialism domestically as well as building alliances with external anti-imperialist movements: The demands of the racially and nationally oppressed peoples are counter to the inconsistencies that are contained in democratic capitalism, but also to the external practices of US imperialism.  These movements have seen the underside of the “American Dream” and their demands challenge the myths of US history.  Insofar as their demands call for an expansion of democracy, they are key allies of other progressive social movements.  Indeed, these movements are generally the leading forces in the cause of consistent democracy.

Yet, these are multi-class movements, a fact with which sections of the Left—as noted earlier—have difficulty.  They are multi-class because the various classes within these racially and nationally oppressed peoples have an interest in the end of racism and national oppression.  The situation has changed dramatically, however, since the 1970s, as desegregation partially materialized.  Desegregation led to erosion in the economic barriers—in place since slavery, and certainly since Jim Crow segregation was established—that had often allowed a weak ‘internal’ bourgeoisie to develop among these peoples that was based almost exclusively on the market created by these racially/nationally oppressed groups.  An example would be the African American cosmetics firm Johnson Products that, for years, was protected from competition from the larger white firms because the latter had no interest in the African American market.  This changed in the 60s and 70s when the white firms discovered the ‘green’ in the African American market.  Resistance was futile, forcing firms such as this to adjust their entire strategies, or in some cases, to be absorbed into larger white and transnational firms, or go out of business altogether.  In political terms, the change was evident in the declining support by the Black elite for progressive social movements after the victories against legal segregation (and externally, in the victory over white minority rule in southern Africa).  We should be clear that for the Left, multi-class alliances within these national movements can be particularly tricky and, therefore, must be approached carefully.

The conclusion from all of this is that the movements of the racially and nationally oppressed must be recognized as central to the historic bloc the Left needs to win socialism.

(6)Challenging imperial consciousness means challenging the empire: Socialist strategy, which is always purported to be internationalist, must identify at least three key components in the struggle against empire:

Ø  Immigration:  The fight is not simply for improved immigration policies.  There has to be a broader recognition in the US public that current immigration is largely the direct result of imperialism.  The massive waves of migrants are directly related to the legacy of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and the destruction of economies in the global South.  Far from an external invasion, immigrants are refugees from the literal and figurative battles carried out over more than two hundred years by imperialism.  In fact, the current migratory patters and the anticipation of its increase the world over require that immigration policies must reflect the current objective conditions.

Ø  Democratic foreign policy:  The immediate struggle must be for a dramatic shift in US foreign policy, a shift that actually speaks to matters of respect for national self-determination and global governance.  This includes the closing of US military bases around the world; de-nuclearization; commitment to international agreements to address the global environmental crisis; revising or rewriting trade agreements; and the end to US bullying.  While, as Leftists, we realize that imperialism cannot change its spots, at the same time we recognize that there can be significant policy changes that give other countries the requisite breathing room in order to exert their sovereignty.

Ø  Reparations and global wealth redistribution:  Reparations is not only a domestic demand, but an international one as well.  It is a demand that falls before the countries of the global North and particularly the main centers of historic imperialism, e.g., the so-called G-8 nations, which have enriched themselves directly through the suppression, pillage and rape of the global South.  The demand for reparations and global wealth redistribution is not a demand that can await socialism, but must be one that we act upon now through our struggles for reform in the international arena.

Written by revolutionarystrategy

19 June 2009 at 10:00 pm

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