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George Breitman

Question of Alliances in Negro Freedom Struggle

(Winter 1965)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.1, Winter 1965, pp.21-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

As much as any tendency in this country, the Socialist Workers Party has attempted to understand and explain how much the Negro people, although a minority, can accomplish through struggle on their own, alone and unaided if necessary. (See the SWP’s 1963 convention resolution, Freedom Now: The New Stage in the Struggle for Negro Emancipation, and How a Minority Can Change Society.) At the same time we have always believed and stated that in order to win genuine and complete equality the Negroes will need powerful and reliable allies, at home as well as abroad.

But not all alliances are good.

Recognition of this fact is the chief virtue of an article about the problem of Negro-white alliances, The Negro Revolt: The Push Beyond Liberalism, by Sam Bottone in New Politics, Summer, 1964. Bottone is a member of the Socialist Party’s national committee and evidently a member of one of its left wings since he opposed support of Johnson. His views on the Negro struggle are unorthodox in his party; another SP leader, Paul Feldman, attacking Bottone’s position on Johnson in the Oct. 15 New America, needles him this way:

“Does Bottone support the Freedom Now Party? ... His articles on the civil rights movement hover on the brink, but he has not publicly, to my knowledge, taken the plunge.”

“The question of Negro-white alliances,” writes Bottone, “is of vital importance and in the long run, the success of the civil rights movement will hinge on the alliances it develops.” With this we concur, provided that the phrase “in the long run” is not overlooked. He continues:

“Three distinct strategies on this question have begun to emerge: 1) the Negro-labor-liberal alliance is the movement’s most immediate need and must be achieved at almost any cost, even the sacrifice of the movement’s militancy and, if necessary, the weapons [demonstrations, direct action, etc.] which brought it into being; 2) the Negro-labor-liberal alliance is a fraud; the Negro must achieve his freedom by his own efforts, rejecting entangling alliances; 3) the Negro-labor-liberal alliance must be forged on the civil rights movement’s own terms, not by sinking to the level of current liberalism but by pushing the labor movement beyond liberalism.”

Bottone is opposed to Strategies No.1 and 2, and favors No.3. We think we know what he means by No.3, but his formulation is rather confusing. He says he wants a Negro-labor-liberal alliance, but he doesn’t want it at “the level of current liberalism.” Jokes could be made at his expense: Does he want an alliance at the level of past liberalism or future liberalism? Is he silly enough to think that liberalism is capable of becoming its radical opposite, or that if it did, it should still be called liberalism? We doubt that, judging by the generally critical appraisal of liberalism elsewhere in his article.

Then why does he include the liberals in the kind of alliance he favors? What he actually wants, if we read him correctly, is a Negro-labor alliance supported by other sections of the population, with the labor component of that alliance pushed “beyond liberalism,” which is labor’s present ideology. In short, an alliance of the Negro movement with a radicalized labor movement, that is, a labor movement considerably different from the one that now exists. We shall return to this point after considering his remarks about Strategy No.2.

Rustin Tendency

On Strategy 1, Bottone is at his best. Here he is writing about the predominant position of his own party, although he refers to it as the “Bayard Rustin tendency.” (It is also essentially the position of the Communist Party, the labor bureaucracy and various middle-class radical groupings.)

Rustin, as Bottone notes, is one of the most influential figures in the civil rights movement. He “has considerable influence with Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and sections of CORE and SNCC” (and also the Reuther section of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, sections of the pacifist movement, etc.) Rustin has “long been identified with militant and radical views,” but he now expresses “a distinct political tendency in the civil rights movement whose appeal is militant and radical in rhetoric, but quite the contrary when put into action ... His views illustrate how seemingly radical conceptions can have a conservative influence and lead away from building and strengthening a militant movement.”

Bottone documents his indictment, showing that on a wide range of incidents and issues Rustin has become a foremost opponent of militant actions that might embarrass or antagonize white liberals and labor leaders. This is hardly a new position in the Negro movement. But Rustin presents it in the following modern, sophisticated, pseudo-radical dress:

The civil rights movement has now gone as far as it can on its own; its economic and social objectives can be won only if fundamental changes are made in society; such changes can be made only through a realignment of the political structure into consistently liberal and conservative parties; and only a Negro-labor-liberal alliance can bring about such a realignment. But you can’t get allies by doing things they don’t like. So you must stop doing such things, and limit yourselves only to things they approve of.

Don’t call this Uncle Tomism, call it Bayard Rustinism. Whatever it’s called, this policy would, in Bottone’s words, disarm the civil rights movement “ideologically in the face of the enemy, who would transform it into a pale appendage of liberalism and the Democratic Party.” Not only would, but has, with few exceptions.

Much less satisfactory is Bottone’s treatment of Strategy No.2 (“the Negro-labor-liberal alliance is a fraud; the Negro must achieve his freedom by his own efforts, avoiding entangling alliances”). This position he attributes to “various separatist and black nationalist tendencies in the Negro movement” and to “‘left’ political tendencies” “operating on their fringes.”

In the first place, the way he presents this position is neither clear nor adequate. If somebody wants to avoid entangling (impeding, obstructive) alliances, does that mean he is opposed to all alliances, to non-entangling alliances?

Unrelated Groups

Some Negro tendencies are undoubtedly opposed to all Negro-white alliances now and forever; others are opposed to harmful alliances, like Strategy No. 1, but are open, by implication at least, to other kinds, to useful and helpful alliances, if not now then later. Lumping together different and unrelated groups under Strategy 2 – Black Muslims, Freedom Now Party, Liberator, Socialist Workers Party, Monthly Review, Progressive Labor Movement, Revolutionary Action Movement or RAM, – merely because they have some similarities, may make it easier for Bottone to dismiss them all, but it prevents clarification of the alliance question.

We don’t have room here to discuss all the groups Bottone takes up under Strategy 2. Some of them are really irrelevant; the Muslims do not engage in politics at all, and RAM, in its own ultra-leftist way, similarly has no time for such mundane activity as the Freedom Now Party’s efforts to organize the Negro people in political opposition to the Democratic and Republican parties.

But let us discuss the FNP, which is relevant to the question of political alliances. Bottone locates it “somewhere to the left” of the Muslims as one of the “separatist and black nationalist” groups expressing a new “ideological militancy which rejects integrationist goals as conservative.”

It would have helped if Bottone had defined some of these terms, instead of assuming that everyone accepts the same definitions. For example, what does “separatist” mean to him? That the FNP wants to separate the Negro people into a nation of their own? No unit of the FNP anywhere has taken that position. Does it mean that the FNP seeks to organize the Negroes independently, in their own party? This of course is its primary aim, but independent is a better and more precise word to describe it than separatist. (Bottone seems to feel Negro political “separatism” is bad; does he also think Negro political independence is bad?)

And what does he mean by “reject integrationist goals”? That FNP members are opposed to desegregation of everything everywhere? Or that they do not aim at assimilation into the present society? Desegregation and assimilation are not the same thing, although both words unfortunately are widely used as synonyms for “integration.” If I, or Bottone, fight to end racist segregation and discrimination and at the same time express the belief that Negroes will never get equality in a capitalist society, does that make us rejectors of integrationist goals? Bottone is a long way from clarifying things about the FNP that are closely connected with the question of alliances.

FNP Program

This becomes even clearer when he declares, “The program of the Freedom Now Party is ‘radical’: it rejects the existing parties and calls for the nationalization of basic industries.” Bottone is plainly ignorant of the fact that the FNP groups scattered throughout the country have never had a national convention and have never adopted a program. The FNP’s only state convention so far was in Michigan, and all it adopted was a brief, general, state platform, with no reference whatever to nationalization of industry.

The FNP is therefore in an incipient stage, its program still in the process of being worked out and far from being adopted. It doesn’t even call itself radical as yet, although by rejecting the existing parties and proposing a political alternative for the Negro people it surely occupies an objectively radical position in the American political spectrum. (We leave it to Bottone to explain why he insists on using quotation marks around “radical” when he talks of the FNP, as he does when he describes the SWP as “left.”)

Continuing his remarks about the FNP, Bottone says:

“Its focus is on building an organized Negro political power which can pressure the white power structure into granting the Negro economic and cultural freedom. But the FNP rejects any relationship to other social forces in American society, and therefore ends up with the idea that the Negro community, if organized around something like the FNP, has sufficient power to win its demands from a hostile and inherently racist white society. The very nature of this approach pushes the FNP toward separatist solutions.” It is premature, we repeat, to speak of the FNP “ending up” with an idea when it is virtually starting to formulate its program and strategy. Some members may “reject any relationship to other social forces in American society.”

Others don’t; and still others are trying to decide what relationships to other forces are possible, now or in the future, before deciding whether or not to reject them. (Does Bottone really think that Negroes breaking with the capitalist parties, breaking to the left of them, would really reject any relationship to a mass revolutionary working class movement fighting for a program that included the eradication of racism?)

Similarly, some FNP members may be sure that an independently organized Negro community does have the power, by itself, to win its demands from this society; others may not be sure but want to test the validity of this proposition by organizing and fighting and letting the answer be given through the outcome of struggle. (Not at all a bad way to find an answer.) At any rate, nobody knows at this point what the FNP, when constituted on a national basis and with an adopted program, will decide about such questions.

All-Negro Party

Bottone isn’t only weak on the facts about the FNP, he is deficient in his grasp of the whole concept. This becomes manifest when he says: “An all-Negro party makes sense only if the movement rejects integrationist goals and seeks economic, political and cultural separation from white society.” But saying so doesn’t make it so. Let us check the correctness of Bottone’s statement about the “only” thing that would make sense of an all-Negro party by imagining we are listening to a discussion between an agitator for a Negro party and another Negro he is trying to convince.

A: We want genuine equality in this country.

B: You mean integration?

A: We don’t mean what they call integration in the North today. We mean full freedom, where we have the same rights and opportunities as anybody else. But call it what you like. To get it, mighty big changes have to be made. Right?

B: Right.

A: But we’ve learned from long and sad experience that the Democrats and Republicans are our enemies, political agents of our oppressors. So we need a new party really dedicated to our freedom. We have also learned from experience that we can’t trust white or white-dominated groups. Very few whites seem to want a new party anyway. So we’ve got to organize ourselves and all other Negroes into a party of our own. That way we can have a party controlled by ourselves and won’t have to worry about it selling us out to the white power structure.

B: Our people have been brain-washed so bad it will be hard convincing them to build such a party.

A: Everything worth doing is hard, but we think it can be done. Why don’t you pitch in and help us?

B: But what are you going to do after you get a lot of Negroes in your party? What can 10 percent of the population do by ourselves?

A: Ten percent can do a lot. In areas where we are a majority, and they are many because of segregated housing, a mass Negro party could elect its own city, county, state and congressional representatives. They wouldn’t owe their election to the Democrats or Republicans but to the black community, so we would control them. For the first time we would have real representatives in office, who could speak and act for us without divided allegiances and without having to get permission from the major parties, the liberals or the labor leaders.

B: But we’d still be a minority. A: Sure, but in a much different and much better position than now. By solidly organizing a decisive part of the Negro community into our own party, we will have some real, undiluted political power for the first time. Meanwhile, the other side will be weaker.

B: What do you mean? A: When Negroes walk out of the Democratic Party, it will be weaker. Without the Negro vote it won’t be the majority party, it won’t be able to win elections, it will begin to come apart. The unions’ ties to the Democrats will be strained and, if it can’t win elections, broken. The whole political structure will be scrambled up merely by our getting together in our own party.

B: But won’t we still be a minority?

A: Yes, but I keep telling you, we’ll be in a better position than ever before because we will have some real political power, which we’ll be able to use for bargaining and negotiating purposes.

B: Bargaining and negotiating with whom?

A: With any “other social forces” that are willing to work together with us on our “own terms,” formally or informally, temporarily or permanently.

* * *

Doesn’t this concept of an all-Negro party, which is held and has been expressed by at least some FNP members, make as much “sense” as Bottone’s dictum that such a party must reject integrationist goals and seek separation? We are not saying that this concept will or should shape the strategy ultimately decided on by the FNP forces; we are saying only that it is perfectly compatible with the organization of an all-black party. Bottone is a prisoner of rigid, formalistic, undialectical categories. (“Integration” through “separation” seems impossible where thinking is frozen this way.) This becomes painfully clear when Bottone discusses the organizational structure of the political alliance needed to destroy racism in this country. He says:

“The civil rights movement must express itself through a political party which fights uncompromisingly for its goals, a party free of ties to status quo forces. This is not and cannot be the Democratic Party. Nor can it be, as some have proposed, an all-Negro party. It must be a party which all working people can support and in which they can participate actively and democratically; a party which translates the demands of the civil rights movement in a broad economic and social program which will shape and guide the future of the entire nation.”

On the whole, very good. We have only one but. Why must there be a political party, one political party and only one, to accomplish what he wants? Who has ordained, on earth or in heaven, that this job can be done only by one party? Why can’t there be two or more than two parties, an alliance of parties as well as of social forces – and why can’t one of these be a party built by the Negro people, having their confidence, and maintained by them as a safeguard against sellout until such time as they no longer need fear one?

Unions Default

If the union movement had done its job 25 years or even 10 years ago, if it had created an independent labor party fully committed among other things to the struggle for Negro equality, then it is possible, even likely, that the Negro people would have flocked to its banner as they did to the CIO in its early days, and the question of a black party might never have come up historically. But the unions defaulted, they clung to the Democratic Party, they did everything they could to keep the Negroes in the same trap. And they are still doing this today.

That is why the FNP arose and strives to become a national party. It may turn out that the FNP, through its example of independence and through the effects it will have on the Democratic-labor coalition if it is successful in tearing the Negroes away from that coalition, will be a major factor stimulating the unions into long-overdue entry onto the road of independent labor political action. This surely is not a logical impossibility.

Bottone’s Strategy 3, if we interpreted it correctly as well as charitably, calls for a Negro alliance with a radicalized labor movement, attracting the support of other forces willing to accept the leadership of that kind of alliance. But there is no such labor movement yet, unfortunately. The labor movement today is not pushed “beyond liberalism,” but stuck deep in the quagmire of liberalism. So what does Bottone advise militant Negroes to do in this situation?

Does he advise them to WAIT, to wait politically until the labor movement begins to move? That of course is what the liberals in and out of the labor movement advise and insist. Or does he advise the Negroes to go ahead and organize themselves politically?

That is just what the FNP is trying to do, at a time when strong and acceptable allies are not in sight. If he can unfreeze his thinking a little, Bottone surely should be able to see that the organization of a mass FNP, disrupting the present coalition around the Democratic Party, is precisely one of the factors that will push the labor movement beyond liberalism and toward the kind of alliance he wants.

One of the most encouraging developments of recent years has been the way some Negroes have freed themselves from fetishes about “separation,” “integration,” “two-party system,” etc. The result has been the unleashing of political creativity and initiative, which this country so badly needs. It is time for white radicals to overcome their fear of being ridiculed as white “black nationalists” and get rid of some fetishes of their own. The result here too would be refreshing and productive all along the line.

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