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George Breitman

In Defense Of Black Power

(October 1966)

From International Socialist Review, vol. 28 No. 1, January–February 1967, pp. 4–16.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Up to now the capitalist masters of this country have been able to control or contain the efforts of black people to liberate themselves. Directly and indirectly, they have set down the rules and the boundaries within which the Negro organizations have operated. As a result, the leaders of those organizations have usually been “the right kind” — moderates and liberals, who know what they may and may not do, who abide by the rules and do not cross the boundaries. The main reason why black Americans are not closer to their goal of freedom, justice and equality is that they have lacked a mass movement and a leadership truly independent of the ruling class, its ideology and its institutions.

Malcolm X set out early in 1964 to build such a movement, but he was killed before he could do more than expound some basic principles and offer a personal example of fearless independence. The Black Power tendency is an attempt, starting from a slightly different direction, to do essentially the same thing that Malcolm tried to do. Its appearance marks another stage in the radicalization of the Negro people, in accord with the law that the more independent any oppressed group is of the ruling class, the more radical it tends to be.

Organizationally, the Black Power tendency is only in the early stages of its development; the various groups and individuals who have raised the Black Power banner have not yet defined their relations to each other or united into a single movement or federation. But numerically it is already considerably stronger than the organized adherents of Malcolm’s movement. The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), groups in the new tendency, are national organizations, with thousands of members or sympathizers. They have an experienced cadre of dedicated leaders and activists, hardened in battle along many fronts and equipped with a variety of skills. They represent the best of the new generation of young freedom fighters who appeared on the scene around 1960, with a consistently more militant outlook than that of previous generations and an enviable ability to learn from experience and grow.

Ideologically and politically, the Black Power tendency is also still in the process of crystallization. But its direction-to the left-is unmistakably indicated by the way it has broken away from several of the premises and shibboleths of the old “civil rights” consensus. Internationalist and anti-imperialist, it expresses solidarity with the worldwide struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism, condemns the US war in Vietnam and rejects the contention that the freedom movement “should not mix civil rights and foreign policy.” It spurns the straitjacket of “non-violence” and proclaims the right of self-defense. It challenges the fraudulent claim that freedom can be won through the passage of a series of civil-rights laws that are largely un-enforced and benefit mainly middle-class Negroes.

Some of its adherents still believe in working inside the Democratic Party, but others advocate a complete break with the Democrats and Republicans and the establishment of independent black or black-led parties — not only in Lowndes County, Ala., but in the Northern ghettos. Some accept capitalism; others are talking rather vaguely about a cooperative based economy for the black community that they think would be neither capitalist nor socialist; and there is also evidently a pro-socialist grouping, as was shown when delegates at a Black Power planning conference in Washington Sept. 3 posed the need to “determine which is more politically feasible for the advancement of black power, capitalism or socialism.”

It was therefore to be expected, and logical, that Johnson, Humphrey and the capitalist brainwashers would oppose and attack Black Power, and not surprising that most liberals tagged along behind them. But how account for the attitudes of the Socialist and Communist parties and the forces close to them? Why do they respond with distress, fear or hostility, to the development of a radical and potentially pro-socialist movement among the Negro people?

Radical Critics of Black Power

Bayard Rustin, social-democrat and director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, is one of the harshest critics of Black Power. Writing in the September issue of Commentary, he says that it “not only lacks any real value for the civil rights movement, but that its propagation is positively harmful. It diverts the movement from a meaningful debate over strategy and tactics, it isolates the Negro community, and it encourages the growth of anti-Negro forces.” SNCC and CORE once “awakened the country, but now they emerge isolated and demoralized, shouting a slogan that may afford a momentary satisfaction but that is calculated to destroy them and their movement.”

Paul Feldman, a member of the Socialist Party’s national executive committee and editor of its paper, New America, is equally antagonistic. In the June 30 issue of his paper and in the September-October issue of Dissent, he says that Black Power “as it is practiced by SNCC means only the continuation of protest outside the political framework.” “Slogans like ‘black power’ are substitutes for some painful rethinking; they are an attempt to stir a lagging movement by injecting heady verbal stimulants.” In the same way that the social-democrats in the McCarthy era used to criticize Truman and Eisenhower for “encouraging communism,” Feldman charges that:

“Through the inadequacy of its approach to poverty and unemployment, the Johnson administration has encouraged nationalistic tendencies in both the civil rights movement and the Negro community.”

James E. Jackson, a leading Communist Party spokesman, is more circumspect than Rustin and Feldman. That is because he burned his fingers last June at the CP’s national convention when he criticized Black Power; among the younger members of the CP and among the DuBois Clubs there is sympathy for Black Power, and even some sentiment for black nationalism, and they voiced strong objection to Jackson’s remarks. As a result, Jackson’s article in the September issue of Political Affairs finds some favorable things to say about the Black Power tendency, and he couches his opposition to its essential characteristics in softer language than the kind he used to use about Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams. But this does not alter the CP’s basic position, which remains, like that of the SP’s, opposed to the most radical aspects and implications of Black Power.

In their efforts to belittle the Black Power tendency, Rustin and Feldman occasionally go to ridiculous lengths. “In some quarters,” Rustin says, Black Power connotes “a repudiation of non-violence in favor of Negro ‘self-defense.’ Actually this is a false issue, since no one has ever argued that Negroes should not defend themselves as individuals from attack.” No one! Ever! Rustin must think his readers have short memories or have never heard his ally, Martin Luther King, admonishing black people that if blood must flow, it should be theirs. In an attempt to support his claim, Rustin adds a footnote recalling that “as far back as 1934” (he means 1943) he, A. Philip Randolph and others “had joined a committee to try to save the life of Odell Waller ... a sharecropper [who] had murdered his white boss in self-defense.” But that doesn’t prove anything; it is perfectly possible to defend someone on trial for self-defense while opposing self-defense, just as it is possible to defend a terrorist on trial for his life while remaining opposed to terrorism.

Anyway, Rustin completes the circle and compounds the confusion by adding the charge that “the new militant leadership, by raising the slogan of black power and lowering the banner of non-violence, has obscured the moral issue facing this nation [?], and permitted the President and Vice President to lecture us about ‘racism in reverse’ instead of proposing more meaningful programs for dealing with the problems of unemployment, housing and education.” Of course this doesn’t explain what kept Johnson and Humphrey from proposing “more meaningful programs” before the Black Power tendency “permitted” them not to. But it does show that “someone” is still arguing against self-defense. Feldman does not discuss self-defense at all. Jackson endorses the concept, but seems a little uneasy at the suggestion, by “some speakers,” that “Negroes could organize their own policing system to counter the violence of the racists and the police.” He deems it necessary to remind Negroes that they must continue to demand that “the government ... discharge its duty to safeguard the lives and property of all its citizens.”

Feldman doesn’t concede that the Black Power tendency is militant, let alone radical. [1] “The militant verbiage that frightens so many whites may well hide conservative tendencies,” he says. This may explain why he never mentions the SNCC-CORE opposition to the Vietnam war, which is certainly couched in militant and radical terms, and is one of the main reasons for the conservative-liberal attack on Black Power. This is an odd omission for the editor of a paper that is in its own way critical of the war. Odder yet is Rustin’s sole reference to the Black Power position against the war:

“Floyd McKissick and Stokely Carmichael may accuse Roy Wilkins of being out of touch with the Negro ghetto, but nothing more completely demonstrates their own alienation from ghetto youth than their repeated exhortations to these young men to oppose the Vietnam war when so many of them tragically see it as their only way out.”

Such contortions — by a man who still calls himself a pacifist — are all the more notable because this is the first time that a significant section of the organized freedom movement has flatly opposed a major war of the American ruling class. It may be news to Rustin, but the Black Power stand against the war is one of the major sources of its popularity in the ghetto, among both young and old. This is something that Jackson has the sense to recognize, despite his trepidation on other points.

If, in the political arena, the Black Power tendency was concerned only with electing black representatives to public office, our three critics would have no objections. Jackson approves the objective of winning “the political power in those areas where Negroes predominate,” and says the CP has long advocated this. Rustin sees “nothing wrong” (and “nothing inherently radical”) in “the effort to elect Negroes to office in proportion to Negro strength within the population,” although he doesn’t think it important because there are only 80 counties and two congressional districts in the South where Negroes are a majority. Feldman says its all right too, but adds that no special strategy is needed in Southern areas where Negroes are a majority because they would win office anyway “more or less naturally as more and more Negroes in the Black Belt got the vote.”

Independent Political Action

But their reaction is quite different when certain advocates of Black Power call for the election of black representatives through independent political action, through the creation of political parties independent of the Democratic Party-such as the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (“Black Panther”) in Alabama. Then the fur begins to fly.

Rustin rejects independent black political action (“SNCC’s Black Panther perspective”) as “simultaneously Utopian and reactionary” – Utopian, because “one-tenth of the population cannot accomplish much by itself”; reactionary, because “such a party would remove Negroes from the main area of political struggle in this country (particularly in the one-party South, where the decisive battles are fought out in Democratic primaries), and would give priority to the issue of race precisely at a time when the fundamental questions facing the Negro and American society alike are economic and social.” Rustin says that “Southern Negroes, despite exhortations from SNCC to organize themselves into a Black Panther party, are going to stay in the Democratic party ... and they are right to stay,” because their winning the right to vote “insures the eventual transformation of the Democratic party, now controlled primarily by Northern machine politicians and Southern Dixiecrats.” The Black Power perspective, he declares, flows from despair, frustration, pessimism and “the belief that the ghetto will last forever.” The best alternative that he can see is “a liberal-labor-civil rights coalition which would work to make the Democratic party truly responsive to the aspirations of the poor.”

Feldman’s arguments are similar. Since Negroes are a minority, they can at best be “a swing vote under certain conditions.” The Black Panther strategy will deprive them of the ability “to affect the choice between a Wallace and a Richmond Flowers.” SNCC’s “most positive quality” has been “prodding liberal elements into action” and that will be dissipated if it breaks from the Democratic Party coalition. “The quick demise of the all-Negro ‘Freedom Now’ Party started in 1963 does not augur well for those who would start a similar political group in the North.” Black Power “continues to bring the racial issue to the forefront when it is vital instead to raise and make central the economic issues that can unite the black and white poor against their exploiters.”

“The real alternative to the coalition strategy for the Negro community is not, as SNCC would have it, a radical movement of the Negro masses but the kind of Negro machines run by Congressmen Powell in New York and Dawson in Chicago, who act as the middle men between machine hacks and power centers in the Democratic Party.”

Black Power “is aimed at the liberal coalition as well as at white racists; and it signifies a rejection of alliance with liberals. It sounds militant, but it marks a retreat into the ghettos of the North and enclaves in the South — a continuation of protest without politics.” And probably worst of all, if SNCC and CORE turn away from a coalition strategy, “the coalition itself faces a major crisis” and may disintegrate.

Breaking with the Democratic Party

What comes through very distinctly from Rustin and Feldman is the notion that black people are helpless, impotent, unable to do anything significant by themselves, doomed to the auxiliary role of “prodding liberal elements into action.” The social-democrats of course did not originate this view; they absorbed it from the capitalist ideologists — so thoroughly that it is as natural to them now as breathing in and breathing out. Ossified by the dogmas of gradualism and reformism, their minds cannot entertain any part for Negroes to play beyond helping “to affect the choice between a Wallace and a Richmond Flowers” in 1966 (like the choice between Goldwater and Johnson in 1964). Their thinking is so frozen that they equate “political framework” with “Democratic Party,” as though political action outside the Democratic Party, by Negroes or anyone else, is the ultimate absurdity. The revolutionary conception of the American black minority — as a vanguard of social change — is utterly alien to them.

But the most advanced Black Power forces are moving toward this conception, even though their spokesmen do not always formulate it consistently or precisely. Some of them are beginning to grasp the fact that, thanks to discrimination and segregation, which keep them at the bottom of the social structure but also tend to unite them in resistance to their oppression, the Negro people of this country, although they are a minority, are in the uniquely favorable position of being able, through their own efforts (“by themselves”) if necessary, to set into motion a series of changes that can upset the social and political equilibrium and transform the whole future of the United States.

The first step in this process is political — a break by the Negro people with the Democratic Party and the two-party system as a whole, and the formation of a political party of their own. (Whether such a party will be black-led and controlled like the Lowndes County Freedom Organization or all-black, like the Freedom Now Party of 1963–64, is a secondary and tactical question.) This would give them, for the first time, a political instrument that they themselves controlled, through which they could elect their own representatives in both the Southern counties and the Northern cities where they are majorities or the single biggest bloc. For the first time in American history Negroes would have a party that really represented them and that they could count on to contend in their interest against the parties of their oppressors.

And that would be only part of the story. The other part would be the effect their withdrawal would have on the Democratic Party and its coalition with the labor leaders and liberals. In a word, it would be devastating. Without the support it now enjoys from Negroes, the Democratic Party would come apart at the seams; the coalition would be thrust into what Feldman fears so much — “a major crisis.” The Democratic Party would cease to be the major national party. The unions would be forced to reconsider their relations to a party that could no longer win national elections; in the long run, this would strengthen sentiment for independent labor politics and a labor party. Political realignment, about which there has been so much talk for so long, would become a probability, and along more fundamental lines than the liberals have ever conceived. All this would not yet give the Negro what he needs and wants, but it would create infinitely better conditions for him to obtain it than he now has. Contrary to Rustin, “one-tenth of the population” can do quite a lot by themselves when they utilize all the opportunities within their reach.

Rustin claims that independent black politics is “utopian,” but he is the last man who should use that word; it is impossible to think of a more Utopian task than trying to make the world’s major capitalist party “truly responsive to the aspirations of the poor.” Rustin and Feldman attribute Black Power to despair and frustration, but the only sense in which this is true is that increasing numbers of black people are beginning to recognize the futility of trying to reform the Democratic Party; in general, desperate and frustrated people do not undertake a task as difficult as building a new political party. Feldman argues that independent black politics must fail because the Freedom Party suffered “a quick demise.” By this “logic” — that you should never try anything again if it doesn’t succeed at the first attempt — he would have a hard time justifying his policy of working in the Democratic Party after so many decades of defeats and betrayals. The fact is that there is already a sufficiently large body of Negroes disillusioned with the Democratic and Republican parties to provide the initial mass base for an independent black party. According to a recent national survey by Newsweek (printed Aug. 22), 17 per cent of the Negroes [2] are in favor of “dumping the Democratic Party, and going it alone in all-black political organizations, while 74 per cent are against this course. A majority of black people are not yet ready for an independent party, but no political party starts with a majority of its intended constituency. If around one-sixth of the 22–23 million black people are in favor of an independent party now, before it exists, then the possibility of starting such a party, and winning the majority of Negroes to it, certainly cannot be dismissed as Utopian.

When Rustin argues that Black Power moods result from “the belief that the ghetto will last forever,” he may be right. Of course forever is a long time, and it is unhistorical to think the ghetto will survive long after the system that brought it into being is replaced by a non-exploitative system. But militants who expect the ghetto to last forever are more realistic than Rustin, who thinks it will be eliminated by a reformed Democratic Party. Correct strategy and tactics must flow from the understanding that the ghetto is here to stay as long as capitalism stays, and that capitalism will stay as long as the two-party system remains unchallenged. Anyway, all such beliefs are subject to modification through experience. The real question is not how long one believes the ghetto will last, but what one proposes to do about the ghetto: Do you strive to keep its residents handcuffed to capitalist politics, or do you work to liberate them for action by organizing them in a party of their own to fight against capitalist, that is, racist, politics?

The Black Power tendency is clearing the ground for the emergence of an independent black party. The basis for such a party is the oppression common to the Negro people, or, to use the shorthand equivalent in this racist society, their “blackness.” When Rustin complains that Black Power “would give priority to the issue of race” and Feldman that it “continues to bring the racial issue to the forefront,” they are standing things on their heads. The “racial issue” is already to the forefront, it already has priority. The responsibility for that rests on the ruling class, not on SNCC or CORE. What they are attempting to do is utilize a situation that they did not create in order to change the situation; they are attempting to extract certain tactical advantages from that situation that will enable them to organize the black masses, whom the old civil-rights movement never organized and who cannot be organized by the Rustin-Feldman method of denying the importance of the “racial issue.” At the end of this process lies not racism but equality, which will be advanced by the proper mobilization and politicalization of black consciousness, just as a classless society will be achieved through the promotion of proletarian class consciousness.

Jackson’s article avoids many of the pitfalls plunged into by Rustin and Feldman, but only by refusing to discuss some of the basic questions. He is for Black Power if all it means is “the struggle to create the conditions for the Negro people to exercise the power in the areas of their majority.” But he adds, ever so delicately, “In terms of the country as a whole, Negro Americans are more often than not cast in a minority situation.” So? So “more than the political and organizational build-up of ‘Black Power,’ more than the self-organization and militant action of the Negro people themselves is required.” He even seems to be willing to grant, conditionally without enthusiasm, that a “Black Panther” approach may be permissible in certain local situations, but he insists that a different strategy is needed nationally:

“The perspective and struggle to establish Black Power bases of local political control in the deep South and in metropolitan slums of the North ... would prove useful to a total strategy of Negro freedom only insofar as they enhanced the capability of the Negro movement to consummate more favorable alliance relations with comparable disadvantaged and objectively ‘anti-establishment’ classes and forces among the white population.”

Anti-Monopoly Coalition

This doesn’t mean quite what it may seem to the unwary reader. When Jackson and the CP talk about “objectively ‘anti-establishment’ classes and forces,” they are not talking only about poor whites or white workers and they are not proposing an anti-capitalist alliance. What they favor is a coalition against the monopoly capitalists, in which “good” and “liberal” capitalists would be included. Politically, they mean the Democratic Party, the same thing the social-democrats mean. The CP wants the black people to remain inside the national Democratic Party even if, in isolated instances, Negroes create local political organizations outside the local Democratic Party. Jackson’s article neither proposes nor attacks the “Black Panther” approach — it is written in the hope of influencing Black Power partisans in a pro-national Democratic Party direction. He will attack the Black Power tendency if it definitively rejects such “favorable alliance relations.” He will call it “political isolationism” — the CP’s name for any breakaway from the Democratic Party to the left.

It is misleading to read “isolationism” into the statements of the major Black Power spokesmen. When they project a new, more independent and more radical movement, and concentrate on the questions that will help to bring it into being, that does not mean they are opposed to alliances with other forces, or indifferent to them. It means only that they are putting first things first. Feldman tries to make fun of the “small groupings of alienated white radicals” (he means chiefly the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialist Alliance) who do not see any contradiction between the independent organization of black people and their subsequent collaboration with revolutionary white workers in a struggle against capitalism. He wants us to insist that black people must commit themselves to such collaboration even before they have organized themselves. Thanks immensely for the unalienated advice, Mr. Feldman, but the days are gone when militant Negroes will give blank checks to anyone — and that, we think, is the best thing that’s happened in decades. First things first.

First the Black Power movement will seek to organize the black masses independently, and then they will consider the question of alliances. How can we be sure? Because every movement does that, and has to. Capitalists look for allies, small businessmen look for allies, the labor movement looks for allies. The real question is what kind of alliances will an independent black movement seek. Will it be the kind that has existed up to now, where the methods and goals are dictated by other forces, and where black people are subordinates, with little voice and little choice but to do the legwork? Or will it be a new kind of alliance, where the blacks will have an equal say in the leadership and determination of policy — and the power to withdraw from unsatisfactory arrangements precisely because they are independently organized? The difference between an independent movement and a dependent movement is not over their willingness to enter into alliances, but over the kinds of alliances they enter.

The thing that worries the Socialist and Communist parties about the Black Power tendency is not that it may reject alliances, but that it may reject alliances limited to reforming capitalism and the Democratic Party. Here their fears are soundly based. For the emergence of an independent mass black movement will create “a major crisis” for the non-revolutionary Socialist and Communist parties as well as the Democratic Party.

October 1966

* * *


1. In the summer Stokely Carmichael and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell jointly announced that a Black Power conference would be held in Washington later in the year. Powell’s advocacy of Black Power was seized on by Feldman (“it is especially to be noted”) and Rustin (“it is no accident”) as evidence of its non-radical character. It turned out to be poor evidence. On Sept. 8 Powell explained that he was trying to “channelize” the tendency to assume constructive roles in American society. Later, on Oct. 9, the Harlem opportunist publicly denounced Carmichael and said, “Any effort to tie me with the SNCC definition of black power is totally erroneous.”

2. There is a close correspondence between this figure and the 19 per cent of the Negroes surveyed who voiced approval of Floyd McKissick and Stokely Carmichael as leaders.

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