For a materialist analysis of national and racial oppression

By Norm Dixon

Norm Dixon is a member of the National Committee of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party and a journalist for Green Left Weekly.

In his critique of my article in Links Number 13, "Marx, Engels and Lenin on the National Question", Malik Miah (Links Number 14) charges that "Dixon presents a formalistic and schematic understanding of the theory of the national question" and "narrowly defines what a nation is and what Lenin means by self-determination, and rejects the nationalism of many oppressed peoples".

The purpose of my article was to reassert that the Marxist theory of the national question as it was developed by Marx, Engels and Lenin and definitively outlined in Stalin's 1913 pamphlet, Marxism and the National Question is firmly based on a materialist, scientific analysis of what does and does not constitute a nation.

Another purpose of the article was to alert to the consequences that losing sight of this scientific socialist understanding of a nation can lead to at the least, ideological confusion, and, at worst, support for politically inappropriate, incorrect or even reactionary slogans and demands.

Miah's characterisation of my presentation as "formalistic and schematic", and as "narrow", stems from his contention that the African-American people constitute an oppressed nation rather than a racially oppressed minority within the US nation. Miah's view clearly contradicts the definition formulated by Stalin—endorsed by Lenin—in 1913: "A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture".1

As an oppressed racial minority, the African-American people share the same territory, economic life and language as the rest of the US nation. African-Americans are concentrated in the urban working class and are disproportionately represented in the permanent reserve army of labour.

Certainly, African-Americans share distinctive cultural particularities (which have fundamentally influenced US national culture) and a political consciousness forged through a common experience of racial oppression. But these alone cannot form the basis of a nation.

To maintain that African-Americans are a nation—and therefore able to exercise national self-determination, including secession to form a separate nation-state—without having the material basis of separate, common economic life and territory, Miah must reject or revise the Marxist theory on the national question in favour of one that emphasises non-material factors in its definition of a nation.

Materialism versus subjectivism

Miah makes much of my "criticism" of Engels' assessment, in 1849, that "apart from the Poles, the Russians, and at most the Turkish Slavs, no Slav people has a future, for the simple reason that all the other Slavs lack the primary historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions for independence and viability".2 I will leave it to readers to judge for themselves whether Engels' unambiguous statement was premature or not. The main point of the quotation was not to take Engels' predictions to task but to illustrate Engels' materialist approach to the national question.

As Miah correctly points out, "Marx and Engels based their analysis on the historical data and facts as they existed at the time". Marx and Engels' analysis was that the counter-revolutionary role played by certain Slav peoples in the 1848 revolutions was a product of material circumstances, i.e., their lack of "the primary historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions for independence and viability".

As I stated in Links Number 13, "Engels' view was based on the firm materialist reasoning that the various southern Slav peoples were not yet nations—were not oppressed as nations—and therefore could not exercise a self-determination independent of the reactionary Prussia-Austria-Russia axis".

Yet, on the basis of an Engels quote taken in isolation from a later Neue Rheinische Zeitung article, Miah turns Engels' materialist method on its head:

As Engels correctly explains, when an oppressed people fight their oppressors, their true history as a people then begins. It's why Marx and Engels saw the people of Poland and Ireland as revolutionary peoples. Their history of heroic resistance is the proof.

What's instructive for us today is the materialist method utilised by Engels and Marx. What peoples are revolutionary and with a future is based on the facts as they are, not as we wish or hope them to be or as they may become. It is a people's attitude toward throwing off their oppressors which is decisive. They held no sentimental attitudes toward people who refused to stand up for themselves. [My emphasis—ND.]

While the willingness of an entire people to fight for their right to political self-determination may be taken as strong evidence that they constitute a nation, the decisive evidence is whether or not "the primary historical, geographical, political and industrial conditions for independence and viability" are present. A people's "attitude toward throwing off their oppressors" is simply a reflection in their social consciousness that those objective circumstances may have become a reality. Miah substitutes a subjectivist—an idealist—definition of a nation for Marxism's scientific, materialist theory of national development. As he develops his argument, this becomes even clearer.

Imperialism and the national question

Miah claims:

... the famous article written by Stalin under Lenin's editorship in 1913 ... was based on the historical facts up to that period. The victory of the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Communist International later would lead Lenin to modify his views according to the new lessons learned.

He adds:

Stalin's four criteria for what constitutes a nation apply to a specific historical epoch—the rise of capitalism ... The age of imperialism, when the older capitalist powers oppressed the rest of the world and denied those oppressed the right to form independent nations, is a different context from the one Stalin's four criteria referred to. That's why Stalin's criteria for what is a nation can be used only as a guide, not a recipe book.

Miah claims that the advent of imperialism made Stalin's criteria redundant, that an oppressed people no longer needs to meet the four criteria to be a nation. Is this the case?

Miah misunderstands Stalin's point about the nation being "a historical category belonging to a particular epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism". Like Engels, Stalin situated the development of nations within a specific stage of the historical development of class society and the class struggle. Stalin made the point that nations are the product of the rise of capitalist economic relations and of the struggle of the rising capitalist class against pre-capitalist social relations and classes. Before the rise of capitalism, communities that exhibited the four criteria were not nations. Capitalism breaks up pre-capitalist economic formations, regionally distinct economies and peoples, and fuses them into a unified system of class and market relations. Pre-capitalist communities are unified (e.g. Bretons, Gauls, Teutons etc. into the French nation) and immigrants assimilated into a nation.

Miah is correct to point out that Lenin and the Bolsheviks modified their understanding of the dynamics of the national question in the context of imperialism. In the period of the victory of capitalism over feudalism—from the 16th through the 19th centuries—the national movements of both oppressed and oppressor nations were part of the worldwide development of the capitalist system and were led by the rising capitalist class. In the imperialist era, the primary content of the national question is the struggle of the oppressed nations, colonies and neo-colonies against imperialist domination of the world economy; it therefore is part of the worldwide struggle for socialism.

However, Miah seems to deny that, even in the imperialist era, there remain parts of the world where "rising capitalism" continues to attempt to break free of the fetters imposed upon it—the Third World as well as the oppressed nations within multinational imperialist states. The common description of the Third World as the "underdeveloped world" points to the simple fact that the "highest stage of capitalism" has not been achieved evenly throughout the world.

The bourgeoisies of the developed nations obtain national privileges over less developed nations, extorting monopoly super-profits from the latter by exploiting the uneven level of productive forces. The progress of indigenous productive forces in the less developed nations, colonies and semi-colonies is impeded by their domination by the bourgeoisies of the developed nations.

Contrary to Miah's claim that I overlooked the changed context, I explicitly referred to it when I stated:

Imperialist domination of the Third World is an insurmountable barrier to their independent industrialisation and development. Imperialism blocks their bourgeois-democratic revolutions. As a result, in the imperialist epoch, the principal content of the national question has been the struggle against imperialism by the oppressed nations, colonies and neo-colonies. The national movements have been driven forward by the working class and rural poor. They are part of the struggle to overthrow imperialism and for socialism.

I also noted:

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, building on the foundations laid by Marx and Engels and applying them to the new era, put great emphasis on the right of oppressed nations to self- determination as part of their revolutionary arsenal, both during the Russian Revolution and in the struggle against world imperialism.

But while the form and content of the national question change according to the stage of development of capitalism, this does not invalidate the historical materialist understanding of what constitutes a nation as summarised in Stalin's 1913 pamphlet.

Miah declares:

Lenin didn't use the four criteria of the 1913 Stalin article as a checklist to determine what peoples are nations. The class struggle did that. Lenin used the method of Engels and Marx applied to the imperialist epoch regarding which people deserved the support of communists and who had the right of self-determination.

Miah conscripts Lenin as a supporter of his mistaken view that for Engels and Marx what was decisive in determining whether a people was a nation was its "attitude toward throwing off their oppressors". This would be news to Lenin. In his 1914 article, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination", which spelled out the Bolshevik position on the national question, Lenin explained, as if in answer to Miah's assertions:

For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speak a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated. Therein is the economic foundation of national movements ...

Therefore, the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied.3

In the 1940s, well into the imperialist epoch, Leon Trotsky was under no illusions that Lenin had ditched Stalin's criteria. In a description of the Bolsheviks' debate with Austrian Social Democrats Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, in which Lenin and Stalin played a leading role, Trotsky wrote:

[Bauer and Renner] considered nationality independent of territory, economy and class, transforming it into a species of abstraction limited by so-called "National character" ... [Bauer and Renner's] program of so-called "national cultural autonomy" required that the citizens of one and the same nationality, irrespective of their dispersal over the territory of Austria-Hungary, and irrespective of the administrative divisions of the state, should be united, on the basis of purely personal attributes, into one community for the solution of their "cultural" tasks ... That program was artificial and utopian, in so far as it attempted to separate culture from territory and economy in a society torn apart by social contradictions; it was at the same time reactionary, in so far as it led to a forced disunion into various nationalities of the workers of one and the same state, undermining their class strength. Lenin's position was the direct opposite. [He regarded] nationality as unseverably connected with territory, economy and class structure ...4

Having dragooned Engels and Lenin as unwilling accomplices into his effort to revise the Marxist theory of the nation, Miah abandons all pretence of adhering to the materialist analysis of what constitutes a nation. He pooh-poohs my orthodox Marxist observation that it is "idealistic to speak of the formation of a nation without all four features", declaring this to be "narrow, formal thinking". He disputes the "idea" that "if an oppressed people is intermingled among other peoples, as is true for most native peoples in Canada, the US and Australia, they can't be a nation, since they don't live in a continuous single territory". He is shocked that Marxists may describe as politically "misguided" a movement that represents an oppressed people "intermingled" among others but which considers its struggle a "national" one (i.e., to form a separate sovereign state).

Miah finds "incredible" the statement: "Sometimes a nation and state coincide e.g. the United States and the US nation, Australia and the Australian nation, or New Zealand and the New Zealand nation". He accuses me of making "the national rights of oppressed peoples in these countries" disappear, and objects:

We all become discriminated castes within the nation Dixon thinks we all want to be part of. This is definitely news to me and most other Black Americans. I'm sure most Maoris of New Zealand and Aborigines of Australia feel the same way ... Blacks, Native Americans, Native Canadians, Aborigines, don't see themselves as part of these nations in the way that Dixon presents it. In all cases, they have a different national make-up from whites who see the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as their countries.

For good measure, Miah adds: "And what about Engels' definition? Haven't we Blacks in the US proved by our long struggle to be a `viable people' whose national rights should be supported by revolutionaries?"

All this emotive rhetoric avoids the basic questions that Marxist activists need to answer if we are to establish the correct strategy, tactics and demands to mobilise African-Americans and other racially oppressed peoples to end their oppression.

Can a racially oppressed people that shares the same economic life, the same territory and the same language as the rest of the US population—and has done so continuously for centuries—be a distinct nation? Can such a people exercise national self-determination, including secession to form a viable nation-state? What is the real nature of the oppression of African-Americans and the indigenous peoples of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand?

Miah has junked the Bolsheviks' view that a nation cannot exist without inhabiting a distinct common territory. As a result, a common, distinct internal economic and class development also becomes optional. Thus all Miah has left with which to determine if an oppressed people has a "different national make-up" from the rest of the inhabitants of their country is if they "see" themselves as part of it, "want" to be part of it or "feel" they are part of it.

For Miah, whether a group of people are part of a nation is not determined by material circumstances, but by their subjective feelings. This is as un-Marxist as determining whether a group of people are part of the working class on the basis of whether they "see" themselves as members of the working class or "want" to be members of the working class.

Yet, Miah does not argue that African-Americans and the indigenous peoples in North America, New Zealand and Australia can form viable, separate nation-states, nor does he argue that the objective political content of the demands they raise is for the creation of such states as solutions to their particular oppression.

"The former African slaves see themselves as second-class citizens demanding equal treatment", he explains. Isn't this an acknowledgement that, objectively, these people are not a separate nation and that the organisations and movements that struggle for African-American liberation do not constitute a national liberation movement? Isn't this why oppressed minority peoples in the US insist on adding "hyphen American" to their racial, linguistic and national origin designators? Their struggle is not to separate from the US nation-state, but for full social, economic and political rights within the nation of which they are already objectively a part. They demand to be recognised as Americans, i.e., members of the US nation.

"To say that these oppressed peoples are only raising demands for equality does not mean they've denied their identity", Miah states. Of course, it doesn't. Nowhere in my article was that suggested.

For Miah, "nationalists" are oppressed people who have become conscious of their oppression as a "people" and are willing to organise independently to fight to end it. This description applies regardless of the basis on which the people is oppressed—be it nationality, race, colour, religion or language—or the demands they raise or the solutions they propose.

"Black nationalist" is used by Miah to describe any black person or movement by black people committed to militancy, black consciousness, black pride and black self-organisation and self-reliance. "Self-determination" is independent black organisation, according to Miah. That is precisely the sense in which most activists in the anti-racist and indigenous rights movements in the US and Australia who call themselves "nationalists" regard the term.

Revolutionary socialists should welcome and encourage the growth of black consciousness, black pride and black self-organisation as a necessary part of the African-American people's realisation that they must fight against their special oppression as a racial group. However, for Marxists to recognise that these necessary first steps in political awakening are not "nationalism" in no way denies or minimises our understanding of black oppression.

Miah redefines basic Marxist theoretical categories such as "nation", "nationalism" and "self-determination"—as defined by Marx, Engels and Lenin—to align them with this general radical usage. As a result, they become devoid of precise, scientific content. The ritual insertion of "national" in front of the words "oppression", "struggle" and "rights" when discussing US capitalism's racism and the fight against it does nothing to clarify a Marxist understanding.

Specificity of racial oppression

Miah objects to an analysis he claims "disappears" the "national rights" of racially oppressed peoples in the US, Australia and New Zealand, seeing them as "discriminated castes within the nation" and "simply" racially oppressed minorities who are "only" raising demands for full equality. The implication is that a mass struggle against racial oppression is somehow less challenging to capitalism than a national liberation struggle; that demands for full social, political and economic equality are "reformist" rather than revolutionary transitional demands; and that the rhetoric of nationalism is better able to mobilise racially oppressed peoples than anti-racist consciousness and demands. This reflects the failure of the US left to develop a Marxist analysis of racial oppression, resulting in a persistent confusing of racial oppression with national oppression.

The US left historically has begun its analysis of racial oppression with the view that black nationalism is progressive, and from this it has deduced that African-Americans (and other racially oppressed minorities) must therefore be an oppressed nation.

As Linda Burnham and Bob Wing, from the now defunct US socialist group Line of March, explained in a very useful series of articles in the July-August and September-October 1981 issue of Line of March:

... the US communist movement ... has never actually developed a comprehensive theory and political line concerning the nature of racism and the struggle against it. Rather, it has utilized the framework of the national question and national oppression to explain the particular oppression of minority people in the US and to develop a strategy and program for ending that oppression ...

Overwhelmingly, the predominant view within the communist movement since 1930 has been that Black oppression is essentially a form of national oppression, that Black people constitute (or once constituted) an oppressed nation in the Black Belt South and an oppressed national minority in the rest of the country ...

The communist movement heretofore has not developed an alternative frameworkthat is, a comprehensive theory of racism ... This view is reinforced by the fact that in the past quarter century, struggles for national liberation in the colonial and semi-colonial world have been the focal point of the international class struggle so that the national framework tends to be associated with a revolutionary approach to any question.

But there is nothing inherently more advanced or more revolutionary about a national framework; and indeed, if that framework does not correspond to reality, it can easily give rise to a reactionary political line (Zionism is a prime example) or to an idealist and voluntarist line incapable of becoming a material force, let alone changing social reality ...

The latter is the case with the Black Nation line [named after the 1928 and 1930 Comintern resolutions that imposed the line on the US Communist Party] ... It fails to identify and analyze racism as the specific and decisive relation framing the oppression of Black people, viewing racism solely as an ideological phenomenon, a particular variant of national chauvinist ideology resting on the material basis of national oppression.5

Miah's critique is riddled with the confusion of racial oppression and national oppression, as these passages show:

... capitalism feeds on and reproduces race oppression just as it does class exploitation. Billions of dollars of profits are the stakes. Institutional oppression remains operative in the United States and Australia and will until socialism wins. This is the materialist source of national oppression, which is why nationalism of the oppressed will never disappear until they win their national rights ...

The ruling class will never allow Blacks and other oppressed peoples to become fully equal citizens in these countries. It is why the nationalism of the oppressed continuously raises its banner ...

Two nations in one state is the reality. The legal and now institutional racism of the white-dominated state is why Blacks constitute a separate nation ...

There are oppressed peoples (nations, and racial and ethnic minorities) in all imperialist countries. These nationally oppressed people have a right to self-determination because of that oppression. [My emphasis—ND.]

Miah, like most of the US left, uses the terms "national oppression" and "racial oppression" interchangeably. Disregarding the different material basis of these different forms of capitalist oppression leads to advocating national-democratic measures to abolish racial oppression. Does Miah seriously propose that "racial and ethnic minorities" can exercise national self-determination and "form independent nation-states or join a federation of autonomous regions"? Upon what part of the territory of the US nation does he think African-Americans could establish an economically viable, independent nation-state? The very fact that such a question could be posed demonstrates that African-Americans are not a nation. Real nations, even those existing within multinational states, already have a recognised, distinct national homeland (e.g. Québec in the case of the Québecois nation, Euskadi for the Basque nation, Scotland for the Scottish nation etc.).

On what basis could African-Americans form a "federation of autonomous regions"? Is Miah suggesting that the economically disconnected urban ghettos inhabited by large numbers of African-Americans might constitute such a "national homeland"? Ghettoisation (i.e., segregation) is one of the key mechanisms by which US capitalism imposes racial oppression on African-Americans. To hold it up as a solution to racial oppression demonstrates the reactionary-utopian logic of attempting to fit racial oppression into the framework of national oppression.

In the US, the socially defined "black" racial category is determined by whether a person has the slightest trace of African heritage. A member of the "white" racial group must appear to have no trace of African ancestry. Certain physical features—primarily skin colour—are isolated and fetishised into mutually exclusive racial groups. Other attributes, such as culture, history or class, are irrelevant to this racist system of social categorisation.

Recently arrived Africans, Caribbeans or Latin Americans of African heritage are treated no differently than African-Americans steeped in US black culture. They are subject to oppression as "blacks" not because they share a common culture or history with African-Americans, but because they are immediately placed in the social category of the "black" racial group on the basis of their skin colour. Thus a Puerto Rican or Cuban family can find some members treated as black and others as white as soon as they set foot on US territory. Two of the more recent examples of gross New York police racism starkly illustrate this: the shooting to death of Guinean migrant Amadou Diallo and the 1997 broomstick sodomisation of Haitian Abner Louima.

The white/black distinction in the US is not based on national oppression. National categories are indifferent to physical features but are determined by socio-historical factors such as the development of a common capitalist economic life, territory, language and culture.

Nations and racial groups are produced by qualitatively different social processes—national formation on the one hand, systemic racial discrimination on the other—although they both arise from capitalism's development. "White" and "black" are social categories produced by systemic racial discrimination. These categories are indispensable to the reproduction of white supremacy and black oppression in US capitalist society.

Whites and African-Americans have lived in the same economy and on the same territory since the 1600s. They have been fused into a single nation, with a common economic life, territory, language and culture. However, racism divides US society into antagonistic racial groups. As a result, whites and African-Americans experience US national life very differently. These qualitatively different experiences have given rise to distinctive cultural differences and social consciousness.

The Africans who were kidnapped to the western hemisphere as slaves did not have a common economic life, territory, language or culture (slave traders consciously avoided filling their death ships with Africans who spoke the same language for fear they would rebel; in many slave colonies all expressions of African culture were brutally suppressed). At the time of the origins of black racial oppression in the US (the late 17th century), the "black" racial group included a vast array of quite distinct tribal and ethnic groups.

Blacks became a racially oppressed section of the working masses long before this oppression fostered common cultural attributes and social consciousness. It was the experience of slavery and racism within the US that, by the end of the 18th century, had begun to amalgamate the different African peoples—influenced by the various European cultures they interacted with daily—into a distinct African-American people with definite cultural particularities.

Since that time, African-American culture has grown and deepened. This culture is both distinct and part of US national culture. Every field of US cultural expression today is thoroughly influenced by it.

African-Americans are central to the US nation and its culture. Racist ideology seeks to deny that African-Americans have made any significant contribution to US national culture. Racists claim the culture of the US nation—both material and spiritual—to be the exclusive product and property of whites.

Because they have a distinct culture rooted in a common condition of life and experience of racial oppression, it does not follow that African-Americans are a distinct nation. As explained by Lenin and Stalin in the debate with the "Austro-Marxist" reformists Bauer and Renner, a distinct and common culture, even one which is the outgrowth of a common condition of oppression, is insufficient basis for forging a nation. The African-American people have always been locked into an oppressive position within US capitalist society as a specially exploited labour force. Their cultural distinctiveness is the product of a common racial oppression and the struggle against it within US capitalist society, not the result of an economic life outside that society.

Miah writes: "The whites from Europe who colonised the Americas, for instance, created white nations. The coloured peoples were not considered members of these new nations." Miah seems to adopt a strictly racial criterion to define a nation. According to his argument, all African-Americans in the US are part of a Black nation; all whites are part of a White nation. Presumably other oppressed racial and language groups are also nations.

Assimilation of whites into the "Black nation" or African-Americans into the "White nation" on this basis is impossible. Recent immigrants to the US automatically "join" the appropriate "nation" according to their skin colour. The "Black nation/White nation" theory defines nations by race, irrespective of the material conditions and history in which people are shaped. This is a radical departure from historical materialism, which explains that a person's nationality is determined by history, not skin colour.

Most seriously, this misunderstanding of the Marxist theory of the nation bends to the racist view that the African-American people, indigenous peoples and other racially oppressed people are biologically different and therefore can never be part of the same nation with white Americans. It ignores the fact that black Americans' sweat and blood over centuries have made a huge contribution in building the US economy and society.

Miah hopes that "socialists in Australia will not polemicise against Aboriginal nationalism". Naturally, socialists must explain and discuss our understanding of the best political strategy, tactics and demands—which flow from our theoretical analysis—with Aboriginal activists sensibly and without sectarianism. The main method is to find areas of agreement and work from there. This is made much easier by the fact that most "Aboriginal nationalists" do not raise nationalist demands and solutions (i.e., the demand for a separate state), but propose a militant, independently organised fight for full political, economic and social equality within the Australian nation. I believe Miah would agree that it is a similar situation in the US today.

Our method is not to tail-end "nationalists" and tailor our theory to match their views. Our goal is to influence them—patiently and tactfully—with our scientific analysis of racial oppression and convince them that they need to become militant leaders of the overall struggle for full equality—something their espousal of separatism may hinder, leaving the struggle to be dominated by reformists.

While Marxists can understand the source of political confusion over what constitutes a "nation" and "nationalism" in the broader anti-racist movement, such fuzzy thinking should be avoided within a revolutionary Marxist party. A clear theoretical understanding of the material bases of, and differences between, national and racial oppression is not optional.

Marxism and the nationalism of the oppressed

The Democratic Socialist Party's approach to "Aboriginal nationalists" would be different if we analysed the oppression of Australian Aborigines as national, rather than racial, oppression. Then we would be obliged to "polemicise against Aboriginal nationalism", in the same way that Lenin and the Bolsheviks polemicised against Ukrainian, Polish, Georgian etc. nationalism, i.e., as an ideological obstacle to the development of "the proletarian struggle and the proletarian organisations, amalgamating these organisations into a close-knit international association, despite bourgeois strivings for national exclusiveness".6

Miah claims that it is wrong to say "as Dixon does, that all nationalism is simply a form of capitalist ideology", because this supposedly fails to distinguish "between the nationalism of oppressed and oppressor nations". As Doug Lorimer explained in his review of Michael Lowy's Fatherland or Mother Earth, Lenin argued that Marxists had to distinguish between "the nationalism of oppressor and oppressed nations" because

... the nationalism of the oppressor nations justified the national privileges of the oppressor nation, [whereas] the nationalism of oppressed nations "has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support" ... At the same time, Marxists combat the nationalist ideology, illusions and prejudices among the workers of the oppressed nations.7

Like the "nationalist-socialists" in the oppressed nations of the Russian empire whom Lenin polemicised against, Miah confuses support for the general democratic content of the nationalism of oppressed nations—opposition to oppression—with support for the bourgeois ideological form that this opposition takes.

The nationalism of the oppressed, as the spontaneous expression of opposition to national oppression, does not raise working people's proletarian class consciousness. Miah confuses nationalism—the bourgeois policy and outlook on the national question—with movements against national oppression.

However, as Lenin explained, "Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the `most just', `purest', most refined and civilised [i.e., democraticnd] brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism."8 Marxism does not support the nationalism of the oppressed nations. It supports the general democratic content within the policy and outlook of this nationalism.

As Lenin observed:

... the principle of nationality is historically inevitable in bourgeois society and, taking this society into due account, the Marxist fully recognises the historical legitimacy of national movements. But to prevent this recognition from becoming an apologia of nationalism, it must be strictly limited to what is progressive in such movements, in order that this recognition may not lead to bourgeois ideology obscuring proletarian consciousness ...

To throw off ... all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here, which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of.9

Was Lenin wrong on African-Americans?

Miah writes:

In his "Preliminary Draft Thesis on the National and Colonial Question", presented on July 28, 1920, to the Second Congress of the Comintern, Lenin ... specifically included African-Americans in his report under point nine: "all Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies".

In other words, US Blacks in 1920 were considered an oppressed nation by Lenin ... But if one used Dixon's interpretation of Lenin's theory of the national question, Lenin was in error for including Blacks in his report since they did not have a specific land mass or separate economy from the country as a whole.

Lenin's belief that "Negroes" constituted an oppressed nation contradicts the basic tenets of the Bolsheviks' theory of the nation (which, contrary to the claims of Miah, Lenin did not repudiate). It must be stated bluntly that Lenin was incorrect to characterise African-Americans as an oppressed nation.

It would be a useful exercise to trace the development of the Russian Communists' views on the African-American question from the early years of the Comintern, through the 1928-34 period in which the "Black Nation Thesis" was imposed on an unenthusiastic CPUSA and how its flawed framework was transmitted to the US Trotskyist movement. Perhaps this debate will encourage such a study. There is not space in this article to go beyond a tentative first sketch.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks never conducted a thorough study of the African-American question. The Russian revolutionaries did not develop an analysis of racial oppression because in Eastern Europe and European Russia, there were no substantial racial minorities. The Russian empire was a "prison house" of nations (i.e., peoples that accorded with the Bolsheviks' "four criteria"). The Bolsheviks' efforts were directed at developing an analysis of national oppression and integrating that into their revolutionary perspectives.

Lenin's references to African-Americans are usually made in passing, often in parentheses, and lumped together with the broader "Negro question" in the colonies of Africa and the Caribbean. In his first significant reference to the "Negro question", in February 1913, Lenin—dealing with the position of African descendants in the "New World"—compared the position of "Negroes" in the "advanced countries" with that of the Russian peasants:

What a strange comparison, the reader may think. How can a race be compared with a nation?

It is a permissible comparison. The Negroes were the last to be freed from slavery, and they still bear, more than anyone else, the cruel marks of slavery—even in advanced countries—for capitalism has no "room" for other than legal emancipation, and even the latter it curtails in every possible way ... capitalism cannot give either complete emancipation or even complete equality.10

In a November 1913 polemic with supporters of the Bauerite "cultural-national" program of separate schools for children of each nationality residing together in Russia's cities, Lenin used the example of segregated schools for African-Americans in the US South to denounce separatist policies based on a non-materialist definition of the nation.11

There was one oppressed minority in Russia and Eastern Europe in Lenin's time which did parallel the position of African-Americans—the Jewish people. The Bolsheviks' theory on the national question was formulated precisely to debunk the claim that the Jewish people's shared "consciousness" and "national culture" were enough to make them a nation, entitled to "self-determination" despite their inability to fulfil the material requirements for a viable separate state. The Bolsheviks and international communist movement fiercely opposed the Zionist movement on the same basis.

Yet, even at the height of this ideological struggle against "cultural-national autonomy", the Bolsheviks' lack of an alternate framework to analyse the oppression of religious, racial and ethnic minorities is apparent.

In his 1913 article, "Critical Remarks on the National Question", Lenin describes the Jews as "the most oppressed and persecuted nation"12 but then immediately states:

Of the ten and a half million Jews in the world, somewhat over half live in Galicia and Russia, backward and semi-barbarous countries, where the Jews are forcibly kept in the status of a caste. The other half lives in the civilised world, and there the Jews do not live as a segregated caste.

On the last page of his "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination" (written in February-May 1914), Lenin refers to an article in which a Vl. Kosovsky wrote: "Thus the formula: national self-determination, which implies the right to territorial separation, does not in any way affect the question of how national relations within a given state organism should be regulated for nationalities that cannot or have no desire to leave the existing state". Lenin comments that Kosovsky "understands perfectly well the real (and only) meaning of the term self-determination".13

In a January 1917 article, "Statistics and Sociology", Lenin states:

In the United States, the Negroes (and also the Mulattos and Indians) account for only 11.1 per cent. They should be classed as an oppressed nation, for the equality won in the Civil War of 1861-65 and guaranteed by the Constitution of the republic was in many respects increasingly curtailed in the chief Negro areas (the South) in connection with the transition from the progressive, pre-monopoly capitalism of 1860-70 to the reactionary, monopoly capitalism (imperialism) of the new era, which in America was especially sharply etched out by the Spanish-American imperialist war ...

The white population of the United States makes up 88.7 per cent of the total, and of this figure 74.3 per cent are Americans and only 14.4 per cent foreign-born, i.e. immigrants. We know that the especially favourable conditions in America for the development of capitalism and the rapidity of this development have produced a situation in which vast national differences are speedily and fundamentally, as nowhere else in the world, smoothed out to form a single "American" nation.14

Lenin seems to imply that African-Americans are a "nation" because they were denied formal equality after Reconstruction. But is Lenin describing "Negroes" as a nation in the same way he considered Jews a nation i.e., as a "nationality that cannot or has no desire to leave the existing state"?

Lacking an analysis of racial oppression and being relatively ignorant about the facts of African-American life, Lenin viewed the "Negro question" through the prism of his analysis of national oppression. The word "nation" seems to be used for both actual nations and religious and racial minorities—Jews and "the Negroes (and also the Mulattos and Indians)".

Thesis nine of the "Preliminary Draft Thesis on the National and Colonial Question", quoted by Miah, can be read in this light. An updated translation of the theses that were adopted on July 28, 1920, reads: "All Communist Parties must directly support the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent and do not have equal rights (for example Ireland, the Negroes in America, and so forth), and the colonies".15

The question of the Communists' attitude to minorities without territories was raised in the discussion of the theses. Ester Frumkina, a delegate from the Communist Party of Russia, criticised the document's lack of attention to "national minorities that do not possess a defined territory".16 A proposed amendment to spell out more clearly support for such minorities' struggles was not included in the final resolution.

Michael Kohn, of the Socialist Workers Party of Palestine, also noted:

... the theses on the national question take up above all the peoples concentrated in a single territory, that is, oppressed nationalities dominated by a foreign power. Minority nationalities living mixed in among other peoples are in general not discussed. Only thesis 9 talks of guarantees of the rights of minority nationalities. [My emphasis—ND.]

In the commission I proposed an addition to this thesis ... But the commission came to agree that thesis 9 expresses very clearly, if only in general terms, the need to defend the rights of minority nationalities and to establish social institutions to realize these rights, and that we should avoid introducing detailed demands into the thesis.17

What appeared clear in 1920 in relation to African-Americans is less so today. Did the Comintern consider "Negroes" an "oppressed nationality dominated by a foreign power" or a "minority nationality living mixed in among other peoples" that "does not possess a defined territory"?

US revolutionary John Reed presented the view of the Communist Labor Party, one of two US delegations at the 1920 congress:

Negroes have no demands for national independence. All movements among the Negroes aiming for separate national existence fail, as did the Back to Africa movement [led by Marcus Garvey] of a few years ago. They consider themselves first of all Americans at home in the United States ...

For American Communists the only correct policy toward the Negroes should be to see them primarily as workers. Despite the Negroes' backwardness, the tasks posed for agricultural workers and tenant farmers in the South are the same as those we must solve with respect to the white agricultural proletariat ... In both sections of the country [South and North] every effort must be made to organize Negroes into common labor unions with the whites. That is the best and fastest way to break down race prejudice and foster class solidarity.

But the Communists must not stand aloof from the Negro movement for social and political equality, which is spreading quickly among the Negro masses today as race consciousness grows rapidly. Communists must use this movement to point out the futility of bourgeois equality and the necessity of social revolutionnot only to free all workers from servitude but also as the only means of freeing the Negroes as an enslaved people.18

The Comintern seems to have gone along with Reed's view. Certainly, neither Lenin nor the Comintern, in 1920 or the remaining four years of Lenin's life, proposed slogans or tactics based on applying the right to national self-determination to African-Americans.

In November 1922, the Fourth Congress of the Comintern specifically discussed a "Thesis on the Negro Question". It dealt with problems of "Negroes" not only in the US but in the colonies of Africa and the Caribbean, and in South Africa.19 Its references to African-Americans suggest that they were not considered a nation:

For 250 years he has worked as a slave under the lash of American overseers ...

The civil war, which was not a war to free the Negroes, but a war to maintain the industrial predominance of capital in the northern states, confronted the Negro with the choice between slavery in the south and wage slavery in the north. The longings, the blood, and the tears of the "emancipated" negroes were a part of the fabric of American capitalism.20

The 1922 document did not call for the right of national self-determination for African-Americans but for "equality of the white and black races, for equal wages and equal political and social rights".

The evidence suggests that in Lenin's time, contrary to Miah's assessment of the 1920 theses, African-Americans were not considered a nation but a racially oppressed minority. However, it is also evident that no clear theory of racial oppression had been formulated outside the framework of the Bolsheviks' theory of national oppression.

US Trotskyism's conception of black nationalism

Malik Miah's views on black nationalism are inherited from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the US Trotskyist organisation of which he was a leading member in the 1970s and 1980s.

James P. Cannon, the founding leader of the SWP, pointed out in an article published in International Socialist Review in 1959, "The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement", that during the faction fight inside the US Communist Party that preceded the US Trotskyist movement's birth in 1928, "the Negro question did not appear anywhere as the subject of internal controversy between the major factions".21

The fledgling Trotskyist movement accepted the general line of the CPUSA's position on the African-American question, i.e., Stalin's 1928 imposition of the idea that the "Negroes" in the US south were an oppressed nation.

In the "Platform of the Communist Opposition", addressed to the sixth national convention of the CP, written by Cannon and other leaders of the expelled tendency and published on February 15 and 22, 1929, the Trotskyists demanded that the party recognise the importance of the African-American question, adopt a "correct policy" and "pay serious attention to it". The platform continued:

It must be the main task of the party in this field to mobilize the white workers to fight for the rights of the Negro masses to full social, economic, and political equality and to unite with them in their struggles ... The organization of the Negro masses for struggle goes hand in hand with the mobilization of the white workers for the defense of the Negroes against persecution and discrimination ...

The Negro question is also a national question, and the party must raise the slogan of the right of self-determination for the Negroes. The effectiveness of this slogan is enhanced by the fact that there are scores of contiguous counties in the South where the Negro population is in the majority, and it is there that they suffer the most violent persecution and discrimination.22

The Trotskyists faced the same dilemmas that confronted all previous revolutionaries who tried to fit the question of racial oppression within the framework of national oppression. In the introduction to Leon Trotsky's On Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, which includes transcriptions of discussions between US Trotskyists and Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1933 and 1939, SWP leader George Breitman wrote:

... the leaders of the CLA [Communist League of America—the Trotskyists expelled from the CP] were troubled by [the question whether the right to national self-determination applied to African-Americans] in the early 1930s. Like the CP, they ... recognised the need to formulate a program against racial oppression. But unlike the CP after 1928, they did not see "national" aspects in the Negro struggle.23

Reading these discussions, it is clear that the US Trotskyists' progress towards a clear understanding of racial oppression was arrested by Trotsky's misunderstanding of the Bolsheviks' theory on the national question and his ignorance of the political, economic and social conditions facing African-Americans.

the US Trotskyists' first question in their 1933 meeting was: "How must we view the position of the American Negro: As a national minority or as a racial minority?". They outlined the situation: the majority of African-Americans live in the south as sharecroppers and small farmers; in the north they are concentrated in industrial communities as industrial workers; the northern population is proletarian and the southern population is in the process of proletarianisation; none of the southern states has an African-American majority. They explained:

The Negroes have become fully assimilated, Americanized, and their life in America has overbalanced the traditions of the past, modified and changed them. We cannot consider the Negroes a national minority in the sense of having their own separate language. They have no special national customs or special national culture or religion nor have they any special national minority interests. It is impossible to speak of them as a national minority in this sense. It is therefore our opinion that the American Negroes are a racial minority whose position and interests are subordinated to the class relations of the country and depending upon them.24

In reply, Trotsky agreed that "the Negroes are a race, not a nation". But rather than deal with the demands of the moment, he said that, should African-Americans at some point in the future develop into a nation, then "we must fight against imperialism to the last drop of blood, so that they gain the right, wherever and how they please, to separate a piece of land for themselves". Whether the African-Americans are a nation, Trotsky said, "is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they desire and what they strive for ... The fact that they are today not a majority in any state does not matter."25 He objected to the demand for "social, political and economic equality" as "liberal" because African-Americans "can much easier be misled (`according to the law you have this equality')".26

In an amazing example of his lack of knowledge of even the most basic facts regarding African-Americans, Trotsky stated:

I am not sure if the Negroes do not also in the Southern states speak their own Negro language. Now they are being lynched just because of being Negroes they naturally fear to speak their Negro language; but when they are set free their Negro language will again become alive ...

Because of all these reasons, I would in this question rather lean toward the standpoint of the [Communist] party; of course, with the observation: I have never studied this question and in my remarks I proceed from the general considerations.27

The US Trotskyists persevered:

… the existence of a special Negro language in the Southern states is possible; but in general all American Negroes speak English. They are fully assimilated. Their religion is the American Baptist … Economic equality we do not at all understand in the sense of the law. In the North (as of course also in the Southern states) the wages of Negroes are always lower than for white workers and mostly their hours are longer … It is because of these conditions that we demand economic equality for the Negro workers.

We do not contest the right of the Negroes to self-determination … we contest the correctness of the slogan of "self-determination" as a means to win the Negro masses. The impulse of the Negro population is first of all in the direction toward equality in a social, political and economic sense. At present the party advances the slogan for "self-determination" only for the Southern states. Of course, one can hardly expect the Negroes from the Northern industries should want to return to the South and there are no indications of such a desire. On the contrary. Their unformulated demand is for "social, political and economic equality" based upon the conditions under which they live. That is also the case in the South.

It is because of this that we believe this to be the important racial slogan. We do not look upon the Negroes as being under national oppression in the same sense as the oppressed colonial peoples.28

Not surprisingly, the US Trotskyists were far from convinced at the conclusion of the meeting. Another delegation made the trek to Mexico again in 1939, this time led by the noted West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James. He outlined the objective situation facing African-Americans and argued that the "Negro desperately wants to be an American citizen".

Trotsky returned to his theme of six years before:

I do not propose for the party to advocate, I do not propose to inject, but only to proclaim our obligation to support the struggle for self-determination if the Negroes themselves want it … They are not very clear as to what they wish now and we must give them a credit for the future. They will decide then.29

Trotsky accepted that the African-Americans "have done everything possible to become an integral part of the United States, in a psychological as well as a political sense". However, he believed that they "will enter" the proletarian revolution "with a great distrust of the whites. We must remain neutral in the matter and hold the door open for both possibilities and promise our full support if they wish to create their own independent state."30

He added that African-American SWP members would participate directly in influencing the direction of the black masses' movement:

Our Negro comrades can say, "The Fourth International says that if it is our wish to be independent, it will help us in every way possible, but that the choice is ours. However, I, as a Negro member of the Fourth, hold a view that we must remain in the same state as the whites", and so on. He can participate in the formation of the political and racial ideology of the Negroes.31

In response, James declared: "I agree with you entirely". What he agreed with was that if African-Americans as a whole demanded a separate state in the south, their right to separate from the US nation-state should be supported, but African-American communists should try to convince them not to exercise the right.

In the very next sentence, James made clear he disagreed with Trotsky's assessment of the likelihood of that situation ever coming about:

You seem to think that there is a greater possibility of the Negroes' wanting self-determination than I think is probable. But we have one hundred percent agreement on the idea you have put forward that we should be neutral in the development … I consider the idea of separating as a step backward so far as a socialist society is concerned. If the white workers extend a hand to the Negro, he will not want self-determination.32

It is worth pondering the content of these exchanges because, in the 1960s and 1970s, the SWP placed great emphasis on Trotsky's words. What can we conclude? Trotsky, through ignorance and a misunderstanding of the dynamics of racial oppression, did not grasp the thorough integration of the African-American people into the US nation. However, Trotsky did accept that the African-American people were not a nation, but he slid towards an idealist definition of a nation. Furthermore, Trotsky believed African-Americans might in the future demand a separate state and that in that case Marxists should support their right to decide; and he believed that the most likely and progressive form the revolutionary radicalisation of African-Americans would take would be the demand for a separate state.

The US Trotskyists came away agreeing only that, should the mass of African-Americans demand a separate state, they would be entitled to the right to self-determination. However, they were clearly lukewarm on the idea that self-determination was an adequate demand to raise at that moment and preferred demands that focused on full social, economic and political rights.

However, the resolution on "The Right of Self-Determination and the Negro in the United States of North America" presented to the SWP's second national convention in July 1939 was little more than an edited version of Trotsky's statements. It reintroduced into party thinking the confusion over whether African-Americans were a racial or national minority, Trotsky's flawed assessment that a radicalisation among US blacks would most likely take the form of separatism (a view that has been proved wrong in each US black upsurge, before and since) and the view that the "raising or support for the slogan [of self-determination] by the masses of Negroes will be the best and only proof required" for the demand to be supported by Marxists.33

Real-life black struggles continued to lead US Trotskyists in practice to relate to them as struggles for full equality rather than as a national struggle.

The typically straight-talking Cannon in 1959 simply disregarded the "black nationalism" dogma when he wrote on the course of the black struggle and communists' involvement in it:

… the expansion of communist influence in the Negro movement in the Thirties happened despite the fact that one of the new slogans imposed on the party by the Cominternthe slogan of "self-determination"about which the most to-do was made and the most theses and resolutions were written, and which was even touted as the main slogan, never seemed to fit the actual situation. The slogan of "self-determination" found little or no acceptance in the Negro community; after the collapse of the separatist movement led by Garvey, their trend was mainly toward integration, with equal rights.

In practice the CP jumped over this contradiction. When the party adopted the slogan of "self-determination", it did not drop its aggressive agitation for Negro equality and Negro rights on every front. On the contrary, it intensified and extended this agitation. That's what the Negroes wanted to hear, and that's what made the difference. It was the CP's agitation and action under the latter slogan that brought the results, without the help, and probably despite, the unpopular "self-determination" slogan and all the theses written to justify it.34

Cannon went on to outline a perspective free of the "Black nationalism" shibboleth that was soon to be entrenched in the US Trotskyist movement:

In the next stage of its development, the American Negro movement will be compelled to turn to a more militant policy than gradualism, and to look for more reliable allies than capitalist politicians in the North who are themselves allied with the Dixiecrats of the South. The Negroes, more than any others in this country, have reason and right to be revolutionary.

An honest workers' party of the new generation will recognize this revolutionary potential of the Negro struggle, and call for a fighting alliance of the Negro people and the labor movement in a common revolutionary struggle against the present social system.

Reforms and concessions, far more important and significant than any yet attained, will be by-products of this revolutionary alliance. They will be fought for and attained at every stage of the struggle. But the new movement will not stop with reforms, nor be satisfied with concessions. The movement of the Negro people and the movement of militant labor, united and coordinated by a revolutionary party, will solve the Negro problem in the only way it can be solved—by a social revolution.35

By the 1960s, the accumulated theoretical confusions of the Stalinist and Trotskyist movements in relation to the African-American struggle and the national question were placed on a pedestal by the SWP. Trotsky's view that black revolutionism must take the form of "nationalism" was converted into a dogma. The various trends that had divorced the definition of a nation from its theoretical underpinnings in the Bolsheviks' "four criteria" allowed "nationalism" to be used to describe the growth of black consciousness. Self-determination became another term for black self- organisation and democratic control of racially oppressed people's communities.

As the mass civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s radicalised, and with Malcolm X's departure from the Nation of Islam and the development of the "Black Power" movement in late 1960s and early 1970s, the SWP sought to fit these developmentswhich continued to be movements for full social, political and economic equality for African-Americans and other racially oppressed peoplesinto its "Black nationalism" dogma.

"Black nationalism" and "Black nationalists" were redefined:

This Black awareness, self-confidence and self-organization has been summed up in the term Malcolm X usedBlack nationalism. It means the consciousness that if Black people are to win freedom, we must take our destiny in our own hands. It points the way toward abolishing racism. We want to take the power over our own lives out of the hands of the capitalists and their parties and supporters and place it in the hands of Black people.36

The goal of "Black nationalism" was no longer a separate state, because this was clearly not materially possible, but

… the strength of all oppressed people in this countryoppressed nationalities such as Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, and Asians and the strength of all working people, Black and white, who are oppressed and exploited as a classto launch a joint struggle against capitalism. We have to utilize all of our forces if we are to defeat the common enemy.37

George Breitman, writing in 1967, explained:

If we understand that the nature of a thing or tendency has primacy over the name given it, if we put the name in a subordinate position and do not let it distract or overinfluence us, then black nationalism can be seen as approximately the following: It is the tendency for black people in the United States to unite as a group, as a people, into a movement of their own to fight for freedom, justice and equality. Animated by the desire of an oppressed minority to decide its own destiny, this tendency holds that black people must control their own movement and the political, economic and social institutions of the black community. Its characteristic attributes include racial pride, group consciousness, hatred of white supremacy, a striving for independence from white control, and identification with black and non-white oppressed groups in other parts of the world …

The thing that is unique about [Black nationalism in the US compared to "classic" and "African black nationalism"] is that, despite its name, it does not share (or does not yet share) a commitment to a struggle for a separate black nation … One can be both a black nationalist and a separatist, but one can also be a black nationalist without being a separatist [i.e., without fighting for the right to national self-determination].38

This was not the view of Malcolm X, who explicitly dropped the use of the term "black nationalist" shortly before his assassination because he felt it was no longer an accurate description of his ideas and goals.39

Support for independent organisation

Rejecting the incorrect idea that African-Americans are an oppressed nation means that Marxists also reject nationalist demands and slogans (i.e., a separate state for African-Americans, either somewhere in the US or in Africa as some Zionist-like "back to Africa" movements have campaigned for) because they fail to challenge capitalism's racial oppression. However, Marxists do not reject those demands of "Black nationalists" that are objectively aimed at achieving full social, economic and political equality.

The Trotskyist movement in the 1960s and 1970s rejected the view of some radical feminists that women were an oppressed class. This did not mean that Marxists rejected all their ideas, such as the recognition that all women were oppressed as a group, that this oppression was rooted in a specific system of social relations or that women had a right to organise independently of men to fight their oppression.

African-Americans will attempt to organise independently of whites to fight racism precisely because they are an oppressed racial group, and whites, including white workers, gain privileges from the racism intrinsic to the capitalist social system. Designating African-Americans an "oppressed nation" does not make this progressive dynamic of the black liberation struggle any more understandable.

Marxists recognise and support the right of self-organisation of all oppressed groups. At the same time, we advocate the building of united front coalitions among the oppressed, in particular the need to orient to, and win, the active support of the entire working class and its mass organisations for the anti-racist struggle.

We do not need to designate women, gays and lesbians or young people as "oppressed nationalities" in order to understand why attempts at self-organisation by any oppressed group take place.

Most serious of all, the idea that "Black nationalist" demands are more "militant" or "revolutionary" than demands for real equality and affirmative action can lead to the view that anti-racist demands are merely "reformist". It can lead to the underestimation of the anti-capitalist dynamic of the demand for full social, economic and political equality.

As Malcolm X observed, racism is inherent in capitalism. Racism arose with capitalism and has been continually reproduced by it. Racism was the mechanism by which the capitalist class in the "New World" justified the extermination of the indigenous tribal peoples, the introduction of slave labour and, after the abolition of chattel slavery, the maintenance of African-American labour as a super-exploited section of the US work force.

Racism is more than a set of backward ideas or a conspiracy to divide the working class against itself. Racism in the US (and Australia) is a pervasive set of social relations deeply rooted in the objective, material functioning of capitalist society. It polarises the whole of society along a white-people of colour axis, and profoundly determines the opportunities and options available to people within the limits of particular class position. That's why racial oppression cannot be eliminated without first eliminating capitalism and why the fight against racial oppression is a powerful component of the struggle to overthrow capitalism that Marxists cannot ignore and must encourage at every step.


1. J. Stalin, Marxism and National Question, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1980, p. 13.

2. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 8, p. 367.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 20, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964, pp. 396-7. My emphasis.

4. Trotsky, Stalin, Vol. 1, Panther Books, London, 1969, pp. 227-8. My emphasis.

5. "Towards a Communist Analysis of Black Oppression and Black LiberationPart 1: Critique of the Black Nation Thesis", Line of March, July-August 1981, pp. 22-3.

6. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 454.

7. "Marxism or Bauerite Nationalism?", Links, No. 13, Sept-Dec 1999, pp. 133-48.

8. Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 34. My emphasis.

9. Collected Works, Vol. 20, pp. 34-5.

10. Collected Works, Vol. 18, pp. 543-4.

11. See Collected Works, Vol. 19, pp. 503-7.

12. Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 26. My emphasis.

13. Collected Works, Vol. 20, p. 454.

14. Collected Works, Vol. 23, pp. 275-6.

15. Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, Vol. 1, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1991, p. 286. My emphasis. See also Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, 1960, p. 337. Draper's translation reads: "Communist Parties must give direct support to the revolutionary movement among the dependent nations and those without equal rights (for example in Ireland, among the American Negroes, etc.), and in the colonies".

16. ibid., p. 260.

17. ibid., p. 271.

18. ibid., pp. 227-8.

19. Jane Degras, ed., The Communist International 1919-1943, Vol. 1, Frank Cas and Co., London, 1971, pp. 398-401. The document has an odd perspective, attempting to approach "Negroes" as a race irrespective of the particular social and national developments that have shaped them in the countries where they reside. This is also present in later Comintern documents. There is no space here to explore this potentially serious theoretical flaw.

20. ibid., pp. 399-401.

21. James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1973, p. 229.

22. James P. Cannon, Writings and Speeches, 1928-31: The Left Opposition in the US 1928-31, Monad, New York, 1981, pp. 107-8.

23. Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, Merit Publishers, New York, 1967, pp. 7-8.

24. ibid., pp. 10-11.

25. ibid., p. 13.

26. ibid., p. 14.

27. ibid., pp. 14-5. My emphasis.

28. ibid., pp. 15-6.

29. ibid., p. 29. My emphasis.

30. ibid., p. 31.

31. ibid.

32. ibid., pp. 31-2.

33. The Founding of the Socialist Workers Party: minutes and resolutions 1938-39, Monad, New York, 1982, pp. 353-6.

34. The First Ten Years of American Communism, pp. 236-7.

35. ibid., p. 242.

36. Andrew Pulley, "How to Fight Racism" in Black Liberation and Socialism, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1974, p. 98.

37. ibid.

38. George Breitman, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1967, pp. 55-6.

39. ibid., pp. 52-69.