Rebellion in the United States

Slavery, segregation, and racism

A situation of exploitation multiplies the previous situation of oppression; a situation of  subordination due to skin color multiplies the class oppression.

Roberto Saenz
Dirigente y teórico de la corriente internacional Socialismo o Barbarie.

The situation of subordination and oppression due to the skin color it’s a very important problem because it’s structural in the current social formation. This situation of oppression develops, contrary to common sense, as follows: in the imperialist countries the oppressed sectors are more oppressed and more exploited – in relative terms, it’s means in relation to the rest of the classes – than in the dependent countries. It’s as if in the imperialist countries the relations of oppression and exploitation were more heavy, more deep, than the underdeveloped. Also, even if there’s more exploitation, there are still «higher» layers of the working class calls according to Lenin «workers aristocracy», they are the best paid sectors of the working class of imperialism, even so their conditions have been deteriorating.[1]

The United States is the main imperialist power of the last 100 years (we have to see what happens with China but I will not go into that today), the USA bourgeoisie is very powerful Inside and outside of the country. In other words, it’s an imperialist, colonialist country outside the United States and also inside. The situation of “colonial submission”, even if it is put in quotation marks, is more complex than the mere situation of an employee-exploited. The capitalist squeezes exploited worker , the worker is exploited; but if you live in a country where there’s no totalitarian dictatorship, at the end of the labor day and leave the factory you have rights but not so a color mate, who is in his own country, where he was born, United States, as if he were in a colony, in addition to being super-economically exploited as a worker, leaves work and because of his skin color, he has no rights, he is double or triple oppressed (he is a sort of foreigner in his own country). You imagine that in a «colonial situation» there is exploitation, but there is also «national subjugation” :“If the post-war South American states of the USA are not strictly governed by an apartheid policy like Gandhi suffered in India or like Mandela suffered in South Africa, racial segregation imposed by  Jim Crow laws reduces black Americans to colonized people ”(“ Is nonviolence possible? Gandhi, Luther King, Mandela ”, Sylvie Laurent, Viento Sur [2]).

Extrapolating this a little, it’s as if the population of color in the United States, even though it is more or less integrated and / or  «assimilated», lives in a «colonial» situation, although contradictory, they identify themselves with the country.

The feeling of injustice for suffering this “colonization” it became harshly clear, for example, in the world wars and in the Vietnam war, where young soldiers of color were sent to fight for their country but also of the discrimination experienced in the military ranks themselves, they had the contradiction of giving their lives for a country that at most recognized them – and recognizes them! – as second or third category of «citizens».

The assimilation to the US of the African American population refers to how much they have a relation with their continent of origin, Africa, how much they still have today of a feeling of self-determination as a “nation” within the United States, or, simply, how much they feel «assimilated» to a country that they identify as their own and, yet, structurally discriminates against them.

A range of possibilities that goes from the rights of self-determination as a black population to the recognition of substantive political rights: from the end of national oppression to the end of structural racism [3]: “The point of view of the comrades I don’t think it’s totally convincing [American Trotskyists in the early 1930s reduced slogans against oppression of people of color to formal «political equality» without recognizing the rights of self-determination] (…) We, of course, don’t we force blacks to become a nation; if they are, then that is a matter of their consciousness, that is, of what they want and what they fight for. We say: if blacks want that, then we must fight against imperialism to the last drop of blood, so that they win that right, wherever and however they want to take a piece of land for them (…) today the White workers are the oppressors in relation to blacks, they are scoundrels, who persecute blacks and yellows, look at them with contempt and lynch them (…) An abstract criterion is not decisive in this matter, much more decisive is historical consciousness, their feelings and their impulses (…) Blacks can be educated from the point of view of a class only when the white worker is educated ”(León Trotsky,“ León Trotsky and the oppression of blacks in the United States ”).

A situation of exploitation multiplied by oppression, a situation of subordination multiplied by oppression, skin color and class location. There is an interesting note from Monthly Review that one of the most superfluous discussions in the United States is whether the condition of class or skin color is the determining factor when, in fact, they do nothing but combine: skin color locates the black population at the bottom of the social ladder (and furthermore makes people of color liable to beastly treatment).

In a similar way, and underlining that it should not serve as a shortcut to lose sight of the centrality of the class criterion, we can say with Kevin Anderson: “Marx developed a dialectical theory of social change that was neither unilinear nor exclusively classist. As his theory of social development evolved in a more multilinear direction, his theory of revolution, over time, began to focus increasingly on the interrelationship of class with ethnicity, race, and nationalism. . Marx was not a philosopher of difference in the postmodern sense of the term, inasmuch as criticism of a single encompassing entity, capital, was central to his entire intellectual endeavor. But centrality does not mean univocity or exclusivity. Marx’s theory of maturity revolves around the concept of totality, which not only offers considerable room for uniqueness and difference, but can also make these particularities – race, ethnicity, and nationality – determinative. for the whole ”(“ Marx’s writings on the civil war, 150 years later”).

It’s as if elements of “stratification” are added to the class problem. The two join, especially among the population of color, although it also happens to the Latino population, and although it is not exactly the same, of course, workers have also suffered – and suffer – slaps, massacres and / or lynchings whites, of course [4].

Let’s say this about slavery: there was a historic conquest that was formally abolished after the American civil war, ending in 1865. Then there was the phase, which I don’t have time to develop, which was called the laws of «racial segregation» Jim Crow, which were laws established especially in the South of the United States, but also in the North that, with characteristic and cynical hypocrisy, affirmed that whites and blacks were «united in the difference»: white men could be seated on the buses and the women of color had to go to the bottom, and if there was a white man standing, they had to stop and leave the place for them. In other words, there was discrimination in public transport, as well as in schools, universities, hospitals, public toilets, etc.… In summary: first-class services for whites and second or third services for blacks, in addition to being divided into two ( a segregation system everywhere, even bars, due to skin color). And even after the laws of racial segregation are defeated with the historic civil rights struggles of the 1960s, this element of structural racism continues, which is functional to the ruling class, which is endemic discrimination for skin color, social and political and ideological discrimination based on skin color, which divides the working class.

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But, in addition, there is another even deeper problem: have been a slave and coming from a condition of slavery, in your self-esteem, in your self-determination, in your subjectivity, is very hard; it is not easy to overcome. Keep in mind that slaves had no right to anything, no point of reference to forge their subjectivity, hence there have been few slave rebellions in history: they had no right to raise a family, to have a partner, to consider their children as Such, were disposable, the endless working hours, they were ready to be used and thrown away and they were not owners of their own life, or of anything, of any piece of furniture, of any good, of any house; nothing around which to structure personality [5].

A classic case before the Civil War (1861-1865), commented on appropriately by Marx, is that of Dred Scott, a slave who appealed to the Supreme Court for his freedom after the death of its owner in a territory free of slavery and He refused it: «It was established as a principle that the slave was not a citizen with the right to justice, but was a form of property like that of any animal whose owner can take it with him or transport it to any point in the country, the government must protect its use and enjoyment as that of all property (…) ”(Karl Marx,“ The American Question in England ”, New York Daily Tribune, October 11, 1861, written in London on September 18, 1861 [6]).

Especially if these inequality relations persist, it’s to overcome another determination (a double or triple effort that adds to your exploited condition): “(…) Marx’s concern was not only to explain this false consciousness [the author is refers to the false conscience of the racist white poor in the South]. It was also to examine the possibility of a new form of revolutionary subjectivity that could emerge from the depths of the southern social system, something that for hundreds of years the ruling classes were relentlessly trying to prevent: the possible alliance between poor whites and slaves blacks. The war itself could reverse the old social relations of the South, allowing such social contradictions to appear «(Kevin Anderson,» Marx’s writings on the civil war, 150 years later) [7].

This hypothesis finally did not occur, because after a decade of radicalization after the civil war, the bourgeoisies of the North and the South joined together to make an abrupt turn to the right in the United States, enabling, for example, the South to return to be ravaged by white fascist gangs and that the dominant ex-Confederate sectors continue to exploit feelings of social resentment by redirecting them against the ex-slave black population. The Ku Klux Klan arises from this counter revolutionary social forge: “Alarmed at the sight of free blacks, former officers and soldiers of the Confederation formed militias and patrols designed to defend white families from morbid imaginary threats, to deny land or hunting to the freedmen and to ensure that they remain available for work. In Washington, the new president shared or tolerated this white reaction from the South, dictating thousands of pardons for Confederate officers «(Robin Blackburn,» The State of the Union. Marx and the unfinished American Revolution «[8]).

Howard Zinn’s work “A People’s History of the United States”, a classic «story from below», reflected a person, a comrade of color, who said that he felt «infected», he felt like an infected person, «like I am infected and cannot sit down with a white ”… Imagine the problem of national oppression due to skin color multiplies the degree of subordination (that’s, you have to overcome more adverse elements than in a country without national oppression). So, in the United States, this has served, serves, to divide the working class. In the United States we have three «national components» in the population: white workers, black workers, and Latino workers. Those three components of the working class have been historically manipulated by the bourgeoisie to divide them.

But how do they divide them? Well, the white worker is exploited, and there are sectors of white workers with class consciousness, of course, but there’s also a more backward sector of the exploited, for example those who vote for Trump. Then we have the black population with structural racism. And finally, the Latino population  who has no formal citizenship rights, who lives illegally, largely hidden (only one part has the right to citizenship and the other part is “in the dark” so to speak, try not to make yourself known in any way). For example, I know a lot about Central America. When a person from Honduras, for example, goes to the United States to look for work, he is illegal in the “States” (as its inhabitants commonly refer to the USA) for years, and therefore cannot return to his country, see their children, see them grow, etc. Because if they leave they cannot enter

And all this not to mention the sufferings that the Asian population went through, the concentration camps for the Japanese-American population during World War II, along with endless  discrimination and injustice.

All this is something that we do not know in our Latin American countries. However we know other things. We know in Bolivia, for example, the question of the discrimination against native communities, another form of oppression. But this particular form of oppression in imperialist countries has its specificity, which is, for example, a white working class educated in racial resentment. And, simultaneously, the black working class educated in slavery, in submission, while the Latin working class is, in general, “dark”, it is illegal, and then it has a terrible slow down – although years ago there was a general strike Latin a May 1st-.

The point is that this makes a certain class structure. It is the combination of the national problem and the class problem. So the class structure is more complex as is also the women’s question, which also combines elements of women’s oppression with elements of the double or triple oppression of working women. If you see it in detail, these are deeper because it is US where there are «geological layers» of super exploitation and national oppression; they are deep social relationships that are inscribed in life, in the body of people. Of course, at the same time, it generates tremendous struggles, it generates historical struggles.

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An example that I want to take from Howard Zinn’s book: it place us in a round-up against the black population in ‘62, in the South of the country, in the midst of a boom in civil rights in the United States. Those mobilizations were so massive that very young black boys and girls were beginning to go. So, the sergeant was writing down the name of a hundred people who had been arrested and suddenly he was stopped by an 8-year-old boy and the guy asked him: What’s your name? And the little boy responds:Liberty . It’s terrific!: the 8-year-old boy tells him in the face of the sergeant, my name is Liberty. It is beautiful and also shows how deep the thing is. Liberty, an important word that we sometimes lose sight of in Marxism, that is, the equality-freedom pair (Marxism by Marx and Engels); the dialectic between both concepts. This boy says to the white sergeant’s face: my name is Libertad [9].

So, this problem it is difficult to explain, this problem of the relations of exploitation and oppression in an imperialist country, especially in an imperialist country like the United States, with such an institutional tradition, such stability. They have a very “heavy” structural relations: the political regime is «heavy», it has a lot of stability, it’s difficult shake the foundations of those institutions, to shake up those institutions is required historical struggles like the one we are living, like those that have always been lived.

It is like a manual saying: yes, conquests are obtained by fighting, because if not, you will not get a crumb. It is a manual of that United States. In fact, there is an immense tradition of the class struggle in the United States, of the women’s movement, of the working class, of youth, of the black movement, even of socialist currents with massive weight at the beginning of the 20th century (see the case Eugene V. Debs, Socialist leader several times running for president).

In the last decades this was lost – or was hidden, rather – because there were 40 years of decline of the struggles. But this brings us back to the same idea: if the rebellion that is currently underway means a rebirth of the anti-capitalist class struggle and perhaps, in the future, socialist in the United States, it will be historical, because it is – will be – very profound . But we must see, first, how far it goes: «After all, the international day of the working class, May Day [beyond that, paradoxically, this day is not celebrated today in the United States], reminds the Haymarket martyrs of May 1886. So, like the American capitalist, with his top hat and cigar, he typified the class of employers, the American worker, with his shirt and jeans or overalls, he became in the image of the proletariat ”(Blackburn, idem).

[1] It seems that after the neoliberal phase there is very little, really, of something that can be called «workers aristocracy» in the traditional sense of the term: highly privileged sectors of workers whose privileges, in part, are tributary to imperialist exploitation.
[2] The author adds: “(…) since the beginning of the 20th century, W.E.B. Dubois, theorist of the situation of blacks in the United States, tried to inscribe their emancipation within the broader framework of the liberation of peoples of color from European imperialisms ”(idem).
[3] In a recent CNN interview with Spike Lee, we were struck by how he was referring to the «motherland of Africa» ​​when he denounced persistent racism in the United States.
[4] Mindful that the skin color problem does not mean that African Americans are a «race» or anything like that. Modern, progressive, dialectical biology does not recognize the existence of races among human beings, but only nuances in the external features of their physiognomy, so to speak, but no verifiable genetic difference (see Not in the genes, a classic work dialectical biology of the 80s).
[5] Usually one imagines slavery as a beastly form of exploitation of labor, but one does not think about what it really means to be; the reduction to zero of personality, of subjectivity, the transformation of the person from the slave into a thing, having nothing to «hold on» to forge one’s place in the world, to establish the parameters of own personality.
[6] For this talk we did not get to do it, but it is recommended to read the writings of Marx and Engels on the Civil War, in addition to studying it as such; war that was a “true bourgeois revolution” beyond that unfinished: it guaranteed the national unity of the United States and the prevalence of modern forms of wage labor, but it did not emancipate the black population, which to this day remains a population subjected under the conditions of structural racism deeply rooted in the social and institutional structure of the country.
[7] In a scholarly note added by Anderson, however, he stresses that one of the few persistent political differences between Marx and Engels is that the latter, in narrowly focusing on the military futility of the Union leadership, believed that they were on their way to defeat. in the Civil War, while Marx correctly trusted that the more advanced social relations of the North would end up prevailing in the civil war, and it did.

For the rest, in addition to pointing out that the movement of the First International received great development in the United States after the Civil War, another scholarly note, in this case by Robin Blackburn, is that which indicates that Engels was charged with energy after his visits to New York and Boston in 1888.

[8] In the same sense with respect to the counterrevolutionary wave that came after the exhaustion and / or failure of the Reconstruction period, the swing to the right to limit the effects of the defeat of the slavers in the Civil War, by curbing the rise of the working class that this triumph unleashed, we have the following: “The double defeat of Reconstruction [a period of concessions that lasted a decade after the end of the Civil War] had crushed the rights of blacks in the South and restricted labor rights in the North. The JimCrow model in the south and the widespread appeal to the men of Pinkerton [private para-police gangs to break strikes] and other thugs in the North were victories of privatized violence and a minimal conception of the state ”(Blackburn, idem).
[9] Zinn’s work is highly recommended for understanding the history of the United States from its exploited and oppressed; a different look than most Hollywood movies exude, although lately not all.


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