As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to prove its durability – a momentum propelled in large part by violence committed by agents of the state – the more forward-thinking section of the ruling class is stepping up its efforts to neuter the cause it represents. In order to understand Black Lives Matter, both its strengths and the ‘pressure points’ that allow the ruling class an opening to influence its development, it’s necessary to take a step backward and look at the movement’s internal contradictions as well as historical efforts to win Black liberation.
When this paper writes about Black Lives Matter, we tend to speak of the “movement” rather than a particular organization bearing the name – and this is intentional. There is only in the most technical sense an organization named “Black Lives Matter”, one practically amounting to a clearing house and source for the bourgeois media to solicit comment from. This is the formation initiated by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. In that sense, referring to a singular Black Lives Matter is only slightly less incorrect than referring to a singular “anti-war movement” body. BLM encompasses a large network, whether formally or ideologically tied (such as through use of the hashtag and adoption of the central slogan), within which exist groups like the Organization for Black Struggle, Dream Defenders and local networks or individuals. Then there are coalitions, such as the Movement for Black Lives (MBL), which includes both of the former groups. Prominent activist Deray McKesson’s line of demarcation is “all who publicly declare that Black lives matter and devote their time and energy accordingly.”
This organizational looseness, where even the most militant activists of the movement are basically isolated from co-thinkers elsewhere in the country and where democratic accountability is shrugged off in the name of ‘diversity of tactics’, is an ideal staging ground for agents of the ruling class to exert their influence. The most blatant example of this is the Ford Foundation, which has partnered up with a number of enterprises (including Google!) to launch the Black-Led Movement Fund (BLMF). Those of us who have concerns about the Ford Foundation’s influence on the movement can rest easy, as explained in its announcement: “…leaders have kept donors’ good intentions in check with candid reminders of how philanthropy can hurt a movement, as well as how it can help. Listening and learning is central to Ford’s approach, as we strive to be a thoughtful, effective social justice funder at this critical time.”1
Good intentions or not, it’s impossible to fight independently for the interests of oppressed people – for example, an end to mass incarceration and for reparations, both of which are planks in MBL’s platform – when ruling class institutions control the purse-strings and these reforms go against their interests. Even the invocation of ‘philanthropy’ itself is a top-down concept, one focused on a wealthy few’s benevolent charity rather than the conscious self-emancipation of the majority. The Black middle class imprints itself on the movement in various ways, whether through financial control via the non-profit industry, promotion of Black capitalism as the path to liberation (“buy Black!”), or the ‘official’ civil rights leaders like Congressman John Lewis who want Black Lives Matter to function as a Democratic Party pressure group. From whatever angle, these approaches have more in common with Booker T. Washington than they do with the liberation politics of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Huey P. Newton.
But there is another side of Black Lives Matter – one being demonstrated very recently in the Charlotte uprising as protesters courageously endured harsh repression in the name of fighting against yet another instance of state violence. The movement has its right wing, but it’s also brought tens of thousands into active politics, forged links with movements abroad fighting the same imperialist system that oppresses at home, and articulated demands which go beyond ‘just’ the end of systemic police violence.2
The fact that the movement has made steps toward organization beyond local groups and spontaneous protests is a positive thing, as local groups will always be limited in their capabilities and it’s impossible to maintain street mobilization indefinitely. The bravest BLM activists – some of the most conscious, most revolutionary fighters against exploitation and oppression – have been created in trials by fire through the revolts in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte et cetera, but at the same time we should not valorize the elemental revolt as the highest form of class struggle. Instead, what’s needed is democratic, united organization around a program for radical change. Fortunately, the BLM left is already taking steps to do just this. In Charlotte, for example, protesters are moving toward organizing a regional assembly in the South too coordinate the many local wings of the movement.3 Then there are organizations like the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a membership organization functioning through democratic decision-making – a welcome contrast to opaque ‘campaigns’ and ‘networks’ headed by this or that NGO or autocratic clique of activists.
While there is no precise blueprint from the past which can be copied in the struggle today, from the Black freedom struggle’s historical experience we can see that the most successful advances have always been tied up with the class struggle and socialism. This is because the liberation of all oppressed people is impossible without the end of capitalism, and the socialist revolution is impossible without the active support of the majority of the multi-racial working class.
Many activists of color see Marxism as a Eurocentric ideology, one whose political practice has more to say about the ‘classic’ proletarian (conjuring an image of a burly male factory worker somewhere in Minnesota) than anything else. Unfortunately, for some sections of our movement this has been true. The pre-WWI Socialist Party, for example, was a force to be reckoned with but at the same time inherently limited because, at best, it saw the ‘Negro question’ as one of capitalist exploitation pure and simple… or, at worst, was an active proponent of white supremacy.4
Compare this to the flowering of organized Black struggle after 1919, where American workers – inspired by the example set by the Russian Revolution and its conscious efforts to end national oppression in the former Russian Empire – recognized racial oppression’s key role in the class struggle. The new Communist Party consciously worked to recruit African American workers. Organizations launched on its initiative, like the National Negro Congress, worked tirelessly to fight discrimination and work for integration in the ‘official’ labor movement, campaign against state and para-state terror in the South, and provide legal defense in cases like the Scottsboro Boys’ trial.
Later the Communists would initiate the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, a sustained effort to raise up living standards for agricultural workers whose conditions scarcely differed from pre-1865 slave agriculture. Nor should Baltimore’s outstanding example be forgotten – the powerful “Baltimore Soviet”, only possible because of a militant and integrated working class, which controlled hiring and firing in the city’s economically strategic port and provided direct relief to the unemployed.5
What these events all had in common is that they were permanent organizations, with a political party standing behind them holding a general revolutionary strategy (however flawed it may have been) to tie together its immediate demands and the overall revolutionary goal. It’s impossible to simply will mass organizations into being, to declare them by fiat. Crucially we are missing anything resembling a party that unites the most conscious sections of the workers and oppressed. But our work today should be guided toward this destination: unitary, democratic organization merging Black struggle with independent working class politics, bridging immediate needs with the vision of a world without masters or slaves.
- Such as these demands circulated in Charlotte – http://imgur.com/iKDrbDy
- Victor Berger, one of the Socialists’ most prominent leaders, explained that “…the negroes and mulattoes constitute an inferior race,” warning against the dangers of interracial “free contact.” An editorial response in Appeal to Reason to a letter from a Black worker explained “…Socialism will separate the races.” (Socialist Party of America: A History, David A. Shannon.)