The American black power movement is a child of frustration. Thousands of civil rights supporters, having long since absorbed the few sops that capitalism can afford to give them, are running squarely into a sociological brick-wall—a wall they have termed the “white power structure.” Their response, the concept of black power, indicates that they have learned many lessons.
They have learned, for example, that “integration” as such is an empty issue when the integrated population still remains without any basic economic control over their own lives. They have learned that white liberals can do almost nothing for them. And they have learned that the Federal Government is not their friend; in the last analysis, it can never be anything but their implacable enemy. Anti-poverty and civil rights legislation masked for a time the nature of government, but last summer the mask was dropped. The spectacle of thousands of American troops, tanks, trucks, and jeeps being called out to crush rebellions on the part of other Americans, finally and fully revealed what governments exist for: to maintain the power of the ruling class by violent force. And they can never, of their own free will, enact any reform that will interfere with this function.
The black power movement itself is not a monolithic entity. The phrase “black power” means different things to the different groups which espouse it. Moderately interpreted, it means nothing more formidable than the idea that black people must be their own source of liberation; and to achieve liberation, they must cease to rely merely on street marches, and begin to make more extensive use of massive economic boycotts, large-scale rent strikes, black co-operative stores, and black political parties. Behind these proposals is often the feeling that American black people are not “Americans”, in the same sense as white Americans, because they are denied the rights and opportunities which normally attend American citizenship. Radical black power advocates assert instead that they are members of an exploited colonial nation, and, their colonial status cannot be changed until they acquire all the ingredients of nationhood: a separate territory, a separate economic unit, and a separate government and culture.
As victims of colonialism, they feel a special kinship with its other victims throughout the world: the Algerians, the Latin Americans, and the Vietnamese. And they are willing, like these other victims, to adopt violent insurrection as a method of separating themselves from their exploiters. American black nationalists, in short, appear to want a kind of North American Israel, a distinct rallying-point that will increase their ethnic dignity.
It is difficult for the Marxian socialist to explain his position to a black nationalist. The socialist rejects capitalist, imperialist, and colonialist ideology, and sympathizes deeply with all of capitalism’s victims. It is his outrage at being victimised, in most cases, that originally led him to become a socialist. He recognises, too, that certain sections of the working class take more punishment than other sections, and at the present time the black worker in America generally suffers more than his white counterpart. This is an obvious fact to anyone who has lived in the U.S. with his eyes open. Yet the socialist, because of what he knows about capitalism, must reject the black power concept as a hopelessly inadequate solution.
The exploitation of black workers is not due primarily to their skin colour, but to their position as wage workers. A prejudiced white is able to discriminate against them because they have no share in the ownership of the means for producing goods. Their real oppression does not consist of taunts like “nigger” and “jigaboo”; if it did, then white people should long ago have been reduced to the same social level by the choice epithets that blacks have invented for them. The facts are that black people, as wage workers, are propertyless, and like other wage workers, they must sell their labour-power for whatever price it will bring. They must sell it even if they have to polish shoes, wash dishes, and pick up cigarette butts after the people who call them niggers and jigaboos. The alternative is to roam the streets of some vast concentration camp like Harlem, still propertyless, and therefore without the power to oppose the constant harassment of the police. The mere fact that someone disliked the colour of a black man’s skin would be only a matter of annoyance and pity except for the weapons which the capitalist system places in the hands of his enemies—the threat to lower his wages, take away his job, insult him in the streets, and put him in jail. If capitalism were abolished, these weapons could not exist; nor, ultimately, would the urge to use them.
Private ownership of the means for producing goods divides capitalism into two basic classes: those who live on profit, and those who must sell their ability to work for a wage. This class division cuts across all the others. If the entire working class had precisely the same skin colour in a capitalist system, they would still suffer from the same problems: poverty, unemployment, wage slavery, discrimination, poor housing, inferior education, and conscription. These problems are generated by the system of wage labour and the sale of commodities for profit. Though in some countries they may fall more heavily on a particular ethnic group, they cannot be solved for any part of the working class until they are solved for the working class as a whole.
The black power concept, then, has several serious weaknesses:
As a nationalist ideology, it is anachronistic; it does not fit economic conditions in the U.S. Nationalism is basically a capitalist idea, since its political expression is in terms of territory rather than class. Nationalism may be useful in underdeveloped areas which must industrialise on a capitalist basis quickly; but in the U.S. any form of nationalism can only serve to distract workers from recognising their common plight as members of an exploited class. Because their exploitation is due to their membership in a subject class, they must free themselves as a class, not as a nationality. To adopt the black nationalist plan and divide the U.S. into competing nations would also weaken the productive power which capitalism in the U.S. has already built. Socialism, on the other hand, requires economic strength and unity in order to make its benefits available to all.
As an insurrectionist slogan, black power is suicidal. Only 15 per cent of the population in the U.S. are black. One needs no great mathematical skill to figure out who would be victorious in a racial war, not to mention the fact that a bottle full of gasoline is a rather inadequate defense against fleets of helicopters and tanks, armed with napalm, poison gas, and fragmentation bombs.
As a revolutionary theory, black power is divisive and self-crippling. Attacks on the “white power structure” mean little unless one understands that the source of its power is not the skin colour of the bureaucrats, but the enormous property values which employ them. We have already mentioned that any part of the working class cannot alone solve problems which stem from their position as wage workers; they must act together with the majority of their class. The concept of black power implies that black workers have basic interests which conflict with those of white workers. Both black power and white prejudice divide the working class against itself, thereby weakening the class and diminishing the power of each of its members. Black power is not a cure for exploitation, but a symptom of the disease.
Nevertheless, it is possible that black power may also be a healthy sign in the American, working class movement. The young insurrectionists of Detroit, Newark, Boston, Cincinnati, do belong to the urban working class, and this is the first time since the 1930s that masses of American workers have broken with “their” government and openly defied it to put them down. Some black power leaders also feel the need for greater support among white workers, and stress their goals of better schools and housing will benefit more white than blacks.
Class consciousness takes a long time to develop. One of the signs of its development is a wholesale rejection on the part of workers that a treadmill is their only possible alternative in life. The black powerists, the hippies, and the peace movement suggest that large things are happening in America which the socialist need not regret.