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Social Democracy Will Not Save Us

A white figure wearing a black blind fold. Map of the world is behind them, colored red.

The Black Liberation Movement in the United States has reached an almost unprecedented level of ideological confusion. Unlike in the 20th century, significant sections of the contemporary Black Left openly embrace an understanding of ‘identity politics’[i] that is based in philosophical idealism.[ii]  A somewhat resurgent US Left has, correctly, begun to critique these perceived political errors. Unfortunately, social democrats such as DSA, Jacobin and Cedric Johnson in his award-winning article[iii] add to the ideological confusion.  This essay asserts that contrary to the claims of advancing democracy and freedom, social democracy has consistently undermined the struggle for national liberation and socialism. 

In 1896, Eduard Bernstein, the leading theoretician of social democracy,[iv] wrote that the 2nd or Socialist International[v] should adopt a pro-colonial policy. Under the banner of social democracy, Bernstein boldly proclaimed through colonialism the “savage races” can be “compelled to conform with the rules of higher civilization.”[vi]  Fortunately, other, more principled socialists won the debate and the 2nd international officially espoused an anti-colonial position.[vii] Although this isn’t the first time that Western ‘radicals’ have betrayed colonized people,[viii]several leaders such as Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, saw this as a complete betrayal of the ‘national question’ and international socialism.[ix]

Lenin theorized that in the late 19th century, capitalism entered a new phase that he referred to as imperialism or monopoly capitalism.[x]  Under imperialism, “capitalists can devote apart of these super profits to bribe their own workers to create something like an alliance between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against the other countries.”[xi] In short, the capitalists use their extreme profits to create an aristocracy of labor in North America and Europe who sellout and look down upon workers in the global south. By the start of WWI, the process was complete: the Social Democratic Party of Germany and others had rejected their anti-colonial positions and voted to enter the war on the side of their own national capitalist class.[xii]  In one of his most influential works, Lenin clearly demonstrated WWI was fundamentally a war to determine which colonizer would control what part of the world. He called these opportunistic social democrats, “social imperialists, that is, socialists in word but imperialists in deed.”[xiii]

A year before Lenin’s seminal work, WEB Du Bois in the “African Roots of War” contends that the African continent was the ‘prime cause’ of WWI.  Similar to Lenin, Du Bois states

“the white workingman has been asked to share the spoils of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers.’ It is no longer simply merchant prince, or the aristocratic monopoly, or even the employing class, that is exploiting the world: it is the nation; a new democratic union composed of capital and labor.”[xiv]

According to Du Bois, white workers condoning, if not outright, support for lynching, legal segregation, poll taxes, and racist politicians had a material basis in the imperialist system. Dubois claimed that African America was a semi-colony[xv] with, more in common with other Black and colonized people in the rest of the world than US white workers. Preceding Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton’s call by thirty years,[xvi] Du Bois believed Black people must practice a form of voluntary segregation[xvii] for at least a short period, then, unite with white workers.  To be clear, like all the theorists discussed in this essay, Du Bois believed that the primary motivations for colonialism were economic.

In the early 20th century, the Socialist Party of America (SPA) began to accept the reformist, racist conclusions of Bernstein’s social democratic opportunism.  Hubert Harrison, one of the leading Black organizers in the SPA, opposed ‘evolutionary socialism’ and the explicitly racist voices in the party.  For instance, Victor Weyland, editor of the largest and most influential SPA publication, was a strict segregationist.[xviii]  On the so-called Left of the party, Eugene Debs, the most well-known socialists US politician, said ‘class struggle was colorless’ and “we have nothing special to offer the Negro.”[xix] After resigning from the SPA and moving to Harlem, NY, Harrison wrote “We say Race First, because you have all along insisted on Race First and class after when you didn’t need our help.”[xx] Using a materialistanalysis, he concluded the racism of white workers makes independent Black organizing a political necessity. In 1924, prior to the Communist International or Comintern,[xxi] Harrison founded the International Colored Unity League.  Demonstrating clarity on the national question, a central objective of the ICLU was the creation of a “Negro State.”[xxii]

Harry Haywood was a leading theoretician of the “National Question”[xxiii] in the Comintern. Haywood began organizing as a member of the African Blood Brotherhood, an underground, Black Nationalist and Socialist organization founded in 1919.[xxiv] In 1928, at the 6th Congress of the 3rd International or Comintern Haywood successfully lobbied for the adoption of the Black Belt Thesis.[xxv] The BBT asserts Black America, particularly in the American South, constitutes an oppressed nation with a right to self-determination.[xxvi] Comintern’s line rejected the social imperialism of the 2nd International and accepted the revolutionary potential of the Black Liberation Movement in the fight to end imperialism.  While social democrats claim nationalism homogenizes whole groups of people, Haywood showed that Black National Consciousness was, to a large extent, a product of class struggle.[xxvii]

Although it is often portrayed as narrow nationalist, the Black Power Movement (BPM) was, in fact, an international phenomenon.[xxviii] One example of the global scope of the movement was Marxist and Black Power advocate Walter Rodney. Rodney was an academic and organizer in the US, Canada, Caribbean, and Africa. Rodney, along with several US Black Power organizers, participated in the debates on race and class leading up to the pivotal 6th Pan African Congress in Tanzania.[xxix] While Great Society programs had some influence on Black Power leadership as Johnson claims,[xxx] they were primarily influenced and shaped by the Pan Africanist, Third Worldist, and Socialist movements that were prominent during the era. The Black Power Movement was a continuation of the Old Left’s ‘national question’ and a domestic expression of the post-WWII national liberation movements.[xxxi]

A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are two examples of the moderating, anticommunist, and social imperialist politics that the BPM rejected. For example, during the anti-communist Red Scare both of these ‘Leftists’ actively worked to distance and isolate fellow travelers and communists party members from mainstream civil rights organizations.[xxxii]  Rustin even advised the USA against supporting liberation movements in Africa because they had communist leadership.[xxxiii]  By the 1960s, Rustin argued that Black people should move away from militant, mass movement politics and instead enter the imperialist Democratic party.[xxxiv] On the other hand, the radical sectors of the BPM advocated for an anti-imperialist, socialist politics in solidarity with revolutionary movements in Cuba, Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola, and China.  

Rustin’s similarity to Bernstein’s revisionist ‘evolutionary socialism’ sixty years earlier is glaringly evident as is the BPM’s Leninist revolutionary influences. Contrary to Johnson’s assertions, it was following Rustin’s strategy of electoral politics that facilitated the transition of Black America from domestic colonialism to a form of domestic neo-colonialism.[xxxv]

While Johnson and others are correct to critique the idealist, liberal politics emanating from some quarters of the Black “Left,” they ultimately add to the ideological confusion by stating we should “support Democratic candidates in specific locales.”[xxxvi]  This a continuation of the revisionism of Bernstein, Browder[xxxvii], Rustin, Bernie Sanders[xxxviii], and other social democrats who promote reformism and social imperialism.  A word to the Millennial and Gen Z Left:  what historically distinguishes the US Black Left is our position on anti-imperialism and the ‘national question.’ That is one of the main reasons why DSA, even after a surge in membership, remains, a disproportionally white, middle-class organization.[xxxix]  Our generational mission[xl] is clear: To build a revolutionary, Pan-African working-class organization and unite with the international working class.

Down with Social Democracy!

Forward to Socialism!

Its NationTime!

Free the Land!

Izwe Lethu I Afrika! (Africa is Our Land)

Economic Freedom in Our Lifetime!

(and last, but certainly not least,)

Black Power!!!

[i] The first known usage of the term ‘identity politics’ in text was the Combahee River Collective Statement. “Combahee River Collective Statement”in How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective Ed. Taylor, Keeanga Y. Haymarket Books: Chicago. p 20.  The CRCS was grounded in Marxist theory or dialectic materialism.  In their own words… “We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources…. We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.”

[ii] Tse-Tung, Mao. “On Contradiction.” 1937.

[iii] Johnson, Cedric, “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now”, The Catalyst, Vol. 1, No. 1 For an extended conversation see ibid. The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now. Verso: New York. 2022. 

[iv] Bernstein, Eduard. Evolutionary Socialism.Social Democracy is the idea that society can transition from capitalism to socialism through ‘evolutionary’ or nonviolent, parliamentary means.  Bernstein wrote the “task of social democracy is to organise the working classes politically and develop them as a democracy and to fight for all reforms in the State which are adapted to raise the working classes and transform the State in the direction of democracy.”

[v] The Second or Socialist International was an organization of organizations from around the world committed to building a socialist society.  The First International was established by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels in 1864.  For more information see Foster, William Z. History of the Three Internationals. USA. 1955. “The congress which established the Second International opened in Paris on July 14, 1889, on the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille in the great French Revolution.  Called by the German and organized by the French Marxists, it brought together 391 delegates from 20 countries, four of the delegates being Americans. It was by far the largest international gathering in world labor history. The congress was held amid a great blaze of enthusiasm.”

[vi] Bernstein, Eduard. “Amongst the Philistines: A Rejoinder to Belfort Bax” (November 1896) Justice, 14 November 1896.

[vii] Foster, History of the Three Internationals.

[viii] Horne, Gerald. “Against Left-Wing White Nationalism,” Monthly Review. 2017 Horne asserts “the attempt to build “class unity” without confronting these underlying tensions often has meant coercing oppressed nationalities—Blacks in the first place—to co-sign a kind of “left wing white nationalism,” as reflected in the lengthy attempt to convert slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson, into a unifying symbol. Black failure to do so leads to our denunciation—in today’s terms as “identitarian” [sic], in previous decades, as “narrow nationalist.”  Actually, the class collaboration embodied in “whiteness” was seeking to impose “class collaboration” on the descendants of the enslaved, inducing us to align with enslavers and their descendants.  And given that pre-1865 U.S. history—and to a degree the era thereafter—involved deputizing Euro-American settlers as a class to patrol and coerce the Indigenous and the Africans, this too involved an often undetected class collaboration.  It also involved often lush material incentives for those settlers who complied and harsh disincentives for those who did not.” 

For a more in-depth materialist analysis of settler colonialism and class collaboration See Horne, Gerald. The CounterRevolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. New York University Press: New York. 2014. Horne, Gerald. The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy and Capitalism in Seventeenth Century North America and the Caribbean. Monthly Review Press: New York. 2018. Horne, Gerald. The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century. Monthly Review Press: New York. 

[ix] Lenin, V.I., “The collapse of the Second International” (1920). PRISM: Political & Rights Issues & Social Movements. p. 62 “The collapse of the Second International has been most strikingly expressed in the flagrant betrayal of their convictions and of the solemn Stuttgart and Basle resolutions by the majority of the official Social-Democratic parties of Europe. This collapse, however, which signifies the complete victory of opportunism, the transformation of the Social Democratic parties into national liberal-labour parties, is merely the result of the entire historical epoch of the Second International—the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The objective conditions of this epoch—transitional from the consummation of West European bourgeois and national revolutions to the beginning of socialist revolutions—engendered and fostered   opportunism. During this period we see a split in the working class and socialist movement in some European countries, which, in the main, was cleavage along the line of opportunism (Britain, Italy, Holland, Bulgaria and Russia); in other countries, we see a long and stubborn struggle of trends along the same line (Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland).”

[x] ibid. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism Lenin states Imperialism has 5 characteristics: “(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”

[xi] ibid. “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata No. 2, December 1916

[xii] Luxemburg, Rosa. “Rebuilding the International.” Die InternationaleNo. 1, 1915

[xiii] Ibid. Imperialism

[xiv] Du Bois, WEB. “African Roots of War”, The Atlantic, May 1915.

[xv] Pinderhughes, Charles. “21st Century Chains: The Continuing Relevance of Internal Colonialism Theory”, Boston College, 2009. p. 20.

[xvi] Hamilton, Charles & Ture, Kwame. Black Power the Politics of Liberation. Random House, New York, 1967. “The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks”

[xvii] Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963. Voluntary segregation, ca. 1935. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

[xviii] Perry, Jeffrey B. Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. Columbia: New York. p. 143.

[xix] Debs, Eugene. “The Negro in the Class Struggle” International Socialist Review, Vol. IV, No. 5. November 1903.

[xx] Harrison, Hubert. “Race First versus Class First” from A Hubert Harrison Reader Ed. Jeffrey B. Perry. Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, Connecticut. p. 109.

[xxi] Benjamin, Jesse & Kelly, Robin D.G. “Introduction” in The Russian Revolution: A View From the Third World. Verso: London. p lvi “Founded in 1919, the Comintern played a pivotal role in promoting revolution and Communist parties not only throughout Europe and the United States, but around the world. Unlike the Frist International (the International Workingman’s Association, 1864-1872) and the Second International (the Socialist International, 1889-1916), the Third International included ‘colonial and semi-colonial” people in its ranks and helped to promote and coordinate anti-imperialist movements.”

[xxii] Harrison, Hubert. “The Program and Principles of the International Colored Unity League,” from A Hubert Harrison Reader Ed. Jeffrey B. Perry. Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, Connecticut. p. 402. 

[xxiii] Stalin, Joseph. Marxism and the National QuestionProsveshcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May 1913.

[xxiv]  Kelly, Robin D.G. Freedom DreamsThe Black Radical Imagination. Beacon Press: Boston. p. 45-6

[xxv] Haywood, Harry. Negro Liberation. Liberator Press: Chicago p. 205. Haywood recalls “In 1928 an historic turn was achieved in the scientific understanding of the Negro question in the United States. In that year, the Communist Party adopted a program which clearly placed the Negro problem as a question of an oppressed nation suffering from an especially oppressive form of subjugation. The program pointed out that in the Black Belt all the objective prerequisites exist for a national revolutionary movement of the Negro people against American imperialism. It established the essentially agrarian-democratic character of the Negro movement, which under conditions of modern imperialist oppression could fulfill itself only by the achievement of democratic land redivision and of the right of self-determination for the Negro people in the Black Belt. Thus the new line of the Communist Party brought the issue of Negro equality out of the realm of bourgeois humanitarianism, where it had been the special property of bourgeois philanthropists and professional uplifters who sought to strip the Negro struggle of its revolutionary implications and to make it a feeble adjunct of safe and sane reforms— all obtainable presumably within the confines of imperialist law and order.” 

[xxvi] Ibid. Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist. Liberator Press: Chicago. 1977. p. 232 Haywood writes “Under conditions of imperialist and racist oppression, Blacks in the South were to acquire all the attributes of a subject nation. They are a people set apart by a common ethnic origin, economically interrelated various classes, united by a common historical experience, reflected in a special culture and psychological makeup. The territory of this subject nation is the Black Belt, an area encompassing the Deep South, which, despite massive outmigration, still contained (and does to this day) the country’s largest concertation of Blacks. The imperialist oppression created the conditions for the eventual rise of a national liberation movement with its base in the South. The content of this movement would be the completion of the agrarian democratic revolution in the South; that is, the right of self-determination as the guarantee of complete equality throughout the country.”  Also see Jones, Claudia. “On the Right to Self-Determination for the Negro People in the Black Belt,” in Beyond Containment: Autobiographical Reflections, Essays, and Poems.. Ed. Carol Boyce Davies. Ayebia Clarke Publishing. 2011. p. 60-70.

[xxvii] ibid. “The Struggle for the Leninist Position on the Negro Question in the United States”The Communist, September 1933. Herbert Aptheker, ed. “These struggles have led to a growing class consciousness of the Negro working class and its emergence upon the political arena as an independent class force in the Negro liberation movement. In the course of these struggles the Negro working class is rapidly liberating itself from the treacherous reformist influences. Thus the characteristic of the present stage of development of the Negro movement is the maturing of this most important driving force of Negro liberation — the Negro industrial working class. The Negro workers, in close organic unity with the white working class….is the only force capable of rallying the masses of Negro toilers in a victorious struggle against capitalism.”

[xxviii] Swan, Quito. “Caveat of an Obnoxious Slave: Blueprint for Decolonizing Black Power Studies From the Intellectual Governors of White Supremacy” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.6, no.2, July 2013. p. 55-63. “While several works critically address the inherent transnational dynamics of Black Power, a growing body of literature collectively demonstrates that Black Power globally was more than just a sidebar of Black activism in the US.”  For more info on Black Power in the United Kingdom see Egbuna, Oba. Destroy this Temple: The Voice of Black Power in Britain. William Marrow & Company Inc.: New York. 1971.  Also seeEd. Kate Quinn. Black Power in the Caribbean. University of Florida Press: Gainesville. 2014. Also see Ed. Nico Slate. Black Power Beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement. Palgrave Macmillan: New York. 2012. 

[xxix] For an example of these debates see Rodney, Walter. “Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and America,” April 1974.

[xxx] ibid. Johnson p. 22 

[xxxi] Dawson, Michael. Blacks In and Out of the Left. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. 2013. P 47-8. Dawson writes “there was less continuity between these periods of Black radicalism than one might expect largely due to what I call the ‘sundering’-the decade between 1945 and 1955, in which Black racial activists became isolated from other activists in variety of domestic and international domains.” Anticommunism had a detrimental impact on the Black Liberation Movement, but it did not completely break the movements continuity.  Several Old Left activists mentored the New Left such as Jack O’Dell, William Patterson, Ella Baker, Richard Moore, Harry Haywood, James Boggs, and Audley ‘Queen Mother’ Moore. 

[xxxii] Anderson, Jervis. Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen. University of California Press: Berkeley. 1998. p. 205. Rustin “realized you couldn’t really build a mainstream democratic left in this country with communists in it.”  

For Rustin’s views on fellow traveler Paul Robeson see D’Emilio, John. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 2003. p. 179. 

For Randolph’s views on Communists see Anderson, Jervis. A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. University of California Press: Berkeley. 1986. p. 372. In a 1940 New York Times article Randolph is quoted “The Communist party is not primarily, nor fundamentally, concerned about the Negro or Labor in America but with fulfilling and carrying out the needs and demands of the consolidation of the foreign position of the Soviet Union in world politics.” 

[xxxiii] Rustin, Bayard. “Africa, Soviet Imperialism, and the Retreat of American Power” Commentary October 1977

[xxxiv] Ibid. “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement”, Commentary, February 1965.

[xxxv] Allen, Robert L. Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History. African World Press: Trenton, NJ. p. 194 “The American capitalist, the American businessman…deeper interest is in reorganizing the ghetto ‘infrastructure,’ in creating a ghetto buffer class clearly committed to the dominant American institutions and values on the one hand, and on the other, in rejuvenating the Black working class and integrating it into the American Economy.”   Also, for an explanation of neocolonialism see Nkrumah, Kwame. Neocolonialism: The Highest Stage of Imperialism. PanAf: London p ix. “The essence of neo-colonialism is that the state which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty.  In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.” Others have argued that the US government used a Velvet Glove/Iron Fist strategy to maintain its oppression of the Black nation. See Bush, Rod. We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the United States. New York University Press: New York. “The repression of the radical wing of the Black Power Movement was accompanied by the cooptation of its more moderate elements, who were opposed to the system’s racism but thought the system could be reformed if Blacks were admitted to the system.” 

[xxxvi] Johnson p. 174.

[xxxvii]Foster, William Z. “The Struggle Against Revisionism”, Report to the Special Convention of the Communist Political Association, held in New York City, July 26-28, 1945, which reconstituted the Communist Party of the U.S.A. Also see “Discussion Article by Claudia Jones,” Political Affairs (August 1945): 717. Claudia Jones believed that Browder’s line was “based on a pious hope that the struggle for full economic, social, and political equality for the Negro people would be ‘legislated’ and somehow brought into being through reforms at the top.” 

[xxxviii] Greene, Doug.  “Not On Our Side:  Bernie Sanders and Imperialism” Left Voice, June, 18, 2019.

[xxxix] Du, Charles. “How to build a multiracial DSA” December 11,2019. “Within DSA, many members feel that our organization is “too white,” a shorthand that includes many different diagnoses of and solutions to the problem. And although DSA members of color have striven to achieve a nuanced balance between developing separate networks (such as the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus) and involving themselves in the general work of their chapters, these efforts have not yet brought working-class people of color into the organization at the scale needed to qualitatively change the makeup of DSA.” How to build a multiracial DSA – Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)

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