As the bourgeois media turns its shallow and reliably fickle attention away from last month’s uprising in Baltimore, the socialist left should ask itself what the next likely steps are – and what role it has to play – in the Black freedom struggle.
Freddie Gray. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. Rekia Boyd. Tony Robinson. These are just some of the most well-known names of unarmed Black people whose lives were taken by police, which itself is only the sharpest and most immediately noticeable edge of an oppressive capitalist system. When a demonstration of a few hundred took place on April 18th, the day Freddie was unlawfully arrested and the day before he succumbed to his injuries, it passed by largely unnoticed outside the immediate area.
It wasn’t until April 25th that the pressure container burst, when Baltimore police inflamed the situation by essentially blockading1 students at Frederick Douglass High School, preventing them from returning home from school as a response to spurious Twitter talk of doing a “purge” (named after the 2013 dystopian flick where all crime is legal for one day.) When Gray was laid to rest two days later, anger boiled over – helped along by police provocations – as sections of the protests became violent. We all remember and mourn the fate of the poor CVS store in West Baltimore, taken so tragically before its time.
Make no mistake: what happened in Baltimore was an uprising, albeit an elemental one largely in the form of spontaneous outrage. A riot can’t transform society, but it can allow oppressed people to see themselves as the subjects, rather than the objects, of their own history. Communists are in favor of the most conscious organization of the working class and oppressed possible, so we don’t fetishize these spontaneous explosions as being somehow the highest expression of struggle. They have real limits and they sometimes channel their anger in counterproductive ways.
But we refuse to join hands with those who condemn protesters’ acts as “violence” and protesters themselves as “thugs” while the real perpetrators of violence go unpunished. Some actions were plainly political, like the looting of the payday loan place that left CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in stupefied disbelief.2 Even in the case of the now-infamous CVS, talking heads pulling out the old racist canards of rioters as savage, undisciplined animals, or the products of poor parenting or absent fathers et cetera miss the key political content. A payday loan, a pawn shop and even a CVS are not representations of community enterprise; they are examples of an alien force extracting wealth, a fixture of the ghetto economy. It’s a sad reflection of our official media that broken windows are more heinous than broken spines.
Demands raised in demonstrations have been multifaceted, speaking not just to police brutality in itself but to the generalized oppression suffered by Black America. Although formal equality under the law achieved by the civil rights movement fifty years ago was a real victory, conditions for Black workers and poor are in some ways worse today than they were during the post-war economic boom that stretched from the 1950s to the early ‘70s. Then, the historically unprecedented new lease on life given to capitalism after World War II allowed the ruling class to make certain concessions to the proletariat – even if these concessions reached Black workers at a trickle.
Now, in a period of stagnation and crisis, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Tens of millions have little hope that things will ever get much better, so it’s no surprise that what began as actions against police terror should grow into a generalized revolt. As we wrote after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in Ferguson: “When they are not killed outright, Black Americans – particularly when they are from the working class – are subject to larger rates of imprisonment for the same crimes committed as whites, lasting job discrimination despite formal equality under the law, media stigmatization and, most pervasive of all, crushing poverty. The everyday realities of poverty and inferior access to social services that are on the chopping block for all poor people but whose withering stings especially hard in poor communities of color are just as real as shocking events like the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the killing of Mike Brown.”3
The Baltimore city government’s response to the uprising shows the dead-end of relying on “black faces in high places”, as the International Socialist Organization’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor put it in Jacobin.4 Like most major cities, Baltimore is governed almost exclusively by the Democratic Party. Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake and the entire city council are all Democrats. Its status as a Black-majority city (64% African-American, not counting African immigrants) is reflected in government, too – even Police Commissioner Anthony Batts is Black. So unlike Ferguson, where the disparity between population and government evoked memories of apartheid South Africa and local policy lorded over the Black population with all but open racism, in Baltimore the liberal establishment has little basis to agitate for “getting the vote out” as a remedy.
Instead, we got to see what the Democrats do in power without the convenient Republican boogeyman to use as an alibi. Rawlings-Blake and Batts presided over more than 3,000 police officers and coordinated with 2,000 National Guard troops supplied by the Maryland Governor to impose a military-style occupation on the city. A curfew and state of emergency, both anathema to a democratic society, were used to detain hundreds of arrested protesters without charge, with bail bonds being set as high as half a million dollars. The most generous compliment we can give to the Baltimore administration is that they weren’t as heavy-handed in their repression as their counterparts in Ferguson – but then again, tell that to Joseph Kent, an organizer swept away by National Guardsmen in an armored car on live television for civil disobedience.
Naturally, President Obama lined up behind Mayor Rawlings-Blake to denounce protesters as “criminals” and “thugs.” True, the Obama administration is curbing the flow of military gear to police departments – talk about too little, too late. It also did its part in combatting the uprising by lending the use of two FBI spy planes to help coordinate police and National Guard efforts. That hasn’t stopped key Democrats from claiming victory in their usual combination of wild optimism and flaccid or nonexistent policy. Liberal Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings heralded “a new era of justice” after the charges were filed on May Day; the Mayor posed as a people’s champion when she claimed there is “no room” in the Baltimore PD for “racism and brutality.” But we have heard these lines before, and after the experiences of Ferguson and New York City a small but notable militant section of the movement is turning its back on the Democratic Party and its shepherds, including millionaire “official” Civil Rights leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
What has been the Left’s response in Baltimore? What can it offer to the radicalizing Black youth? The city is home to a number of socialist groups of varying ideological hues, as well as the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World. As is usual during any pronounced uptick in the class struggle, the results are mixed – with admirable ground-work combined with some questionable politics and the inevitable problems that result from our disunity in competing bureaucratic sects.
Take the Party for Socialism and Liberation as an example, a Marcyite5 sect known for its full-throated defense of nationalist dictatorships as part of its “anti-imperialism” and its economistic conception of socialism. In a May Day statement6 the PSL warned that, even though Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby had indicted the six officers responsible for Gray’s death under popular pressure, the police would quickly move to undermine this partial victory. All well and good. But in terms of what to do next, the PSL has little to offer except letting us know we need to “intensify the fight-back” (how, comrades?) and “organize, protest, [and] join together.” It’s not possible to sustain high levels of street mobilization forever; protests have already dwindled down to a small fraction of what they were since the prosecution announcement.
The Workers World Party, which the PSL emerged from in 2004, is a little better. Their front group, the People’s Power Assembly, has been out in force in Baltimore. To its credit, Workers World can mobilize an impressive number of people through the Baltimore PPA, given their small size. The PPA has spread basic class-related demands – for living wage jobs and the like – and collected aid for imprisoned youth. The same is true for the Baltimore Free School, backed by the Industrial Workers of the World, which opened itself up as a forum for community organizing. These types of organizations represent something of a break with spontaneity fetishism, but only a partial one. Aside from being another example of the sadly common practice of covering one’s Marxist politics with a front group, there is little perspective for the near and long-term future beyond turning bodies out for the next protest.
Horizontalist outbursts have an inherent tendency toward disintegration, and in any case aren’t powerful or conscious enough to change society on their own. Class struggle is inevitable, but victory – even in partial concessions, let alone revolution – is not. For that, we need a perspective based on the long-term institutional rebuilding of the working class movement, crucially of a Communist Party.
There is no communist party in this country today, no single organization with national reach welding together disparate sections of workers and oppressed people through shared commitment to a Marxist program for changing the world. Instead what we have is an array of confessional sects unified on a bureaucratic-centralist basis… until the next split, at least. Our sects are not fit for the tasks history poses for us today.
Charm City Bolsheviks
There are important lessons to be learned from the history of the Communist Party USA, which even after its bureaucratization and subordination to Stalinism in the 1920s remained a real working-class party until rather recently. Many of the CPUSA’s accomplishments are well-known in radical circles, but perhaps less known is what it was able to do in Baltimore, a city which at the time had a historically small labor movement and weak traditions of struggle.
Maryland has always straddled the dividing line between North and South, and not just geographically. During the Civil War it was a Union slave state, with this contradiction fueling Copperhead reaction up to and including the counterrevolutionary Baltimore riot launched by anti-war Democrats and Confederate sympathizers in the first year of the war. While racist terror wasn’t as openly expressed in Maryland as in the Deep South, it was by no means absent.
In the opening of the Great Depression, there was a political vacuum in Baltimore. The Afro-American, the city’s main Black newspaper, routinely complained that the traditional freedom organizations couldn’t “justify their existence.”7 The trade unions were quiescent, and in any case mostly unwilling to move beyond segregated craft unions for skilled white workers. Neither Republicans nor Democrats were in any rush to promote racial equality or relief for the working class beyond empty gestures – in fact, the CP was the only racially integrated party in town.
The Communists had to go it alone. Though they were small locally, they were part of a truly national party armed with an expansive Party press, a common program (albeit one hobbled at the time by hyper-sectarian “Third Period” nonsense) and a number of affiliated social, cultural and legal organizations. In Baltimore as elsewhere, the Communists had a well-earned reputation as the most determined enemies of racial oppression. Their main (though not only) avenue of work during this time was the Unemployed Councils. The Comintern launched “International Unemployed Day” for March 6th of 1930, which in Baltimore drew a modest crowd of a few hundred. While much smaller than in other major American and European cities, it was enough for the Baltimore Party to organize its own Unemployed Councils.
These councils, open to all “hunger fighters”, successfully blocked or reversed evictions through direct action, challenged relief denials for individuals and boisterously delivered collective demands. At one point, the Waterfront Unemployed Council took over hiring, firing and distribution of unemployment relief at the Port of Baltimore. In alliance with the CP-affiliated union at the port, the seamen desegregated jobs and administered state aid to the unemployed seamen under the auspices of a democratically elected “Baltimore Soviet”, as it was nicknamed at the time.8
The disproportionate effect of unemployment among Black workers was emphasized in recruitment efforts, agitation and demonstration locations. Of course, the Party’s work for Black liberation didn’t end with unemployment relief. It was one part of the multifaceted struggle to build a truly multi-racial working class movement. On the positive end, the national CP “put the Dixie-crat lynch mobs on the defensive”9 in their defense of the Scottsboro Boys and championed integration and civil rights – including through a broad organization, the National Negro Congress. On the negative end, the ultraleft Third Period line they upheld from 1928 to roughly 1934 lead them into some strange blind alleys. Among them was the demand for an independent country to be carved out for African Americans in the “Black Belt” in the Southern states. This idea, completely out of touch with political reality, never found any purchase among Black Americans and was mercifully ignored even by Party activists in practice.
Unfortunately, other exercises in Third Period adventurism were not ignored – and in Baltimore they would eventually cripple the Party’s unemployed work. The CP had abandoned the trade unions; when elements of the Baltimore Federation of Labor made tentative motions in an anti-racist direction they were denounced as “social fascists”, as was the Baltimore Socialist Party when it belatedly recognized the problem of Black poverty. Having isolated itself, the Unemployed Councils withered on the vine.
The Baltimore Communists’ record on Black liberation is key to understanding what our role as revolutionary socialists must be for the next Baltimore. We don’t endorse blindly emulating the old CP with all its bureaucratic distortions. Quite the opposite; extreme democracy is not only the only way the working class can rule the future socialist society, it’s also the most effective way we can organize our movement in the here and now.
Popular resistance to police brutality will continue, and already some activists under the banner of Black Lives Matter are forging links with the fight for $15.10 But if we are going to challenge the ruling class and its state effectively, we need to look beyond preparing for the next big demonstration and toward a strategic perspective of building (or rebuilding) the working class institutions – not front groups. This perspective is only tangible if we commit ourselves to creating a radical alternative political project – a Communist Party worthy of the name.
5. Named after Sam Marcy, founding leader of the Workers World Party. “Marcyite” politics combine elevation of economic struggle to the highest level of importance (economism) with support for ‘Anti-American’ bourgeois nationalist regimes abroad.
7. Andrew Skotnes, “The Communist Party, Anti-Racism, and the Freedom Movement: Baltimore, 1930–1934”, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40403552
8. Ibid, pp. 175.
9. James P. Cannon, “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement.”