- Category: Race & Liberation
- Created on Friday, 20 April 2012 09:55
- Written by Mike Ely
"We need to train ourselves (and promote among others) a "self-determinist spirit" -- one that is militantly anti-racist, internationalist, and open to the concepts and decisions of African American people themselves.
"The discussion of oppressed nationalities (their present, their future, the modes of liberation, how socialism will contribute to ending their oppression) takes place in a way that embodies a respectful understanding of agency and self-emancipation. In some ways, it is African American people themselves who will decide if integration or separation best serves their needs and liberation -- and (inevitably) many forms of solution will be presented on the terrain of actual politics (community control and autonomy, radical assertions of representation in political and economic centers of decision, consideration of proposals for independence and more)."
by Mike Ely
There has been a detailed and extensive discussion here of whether African American people form a nation within the U.S. I have very strong views on this matter that I would like to put forward.
I think it is clear (from history) that kidnapped African slaves were constituted as a distinctive community of people in a specific territory -- both through the process of enslavement, but then through the betrayal of Reconstruction, their exclusion from integration within the U.S. and the century of Jim Crow.
This is not how most nations are constituted. But then, there is not some "typical" historical way that nations are constituted. Society does not (actually) have "classic" forms (though some people think it does). Many nations are forged through the process of emerging markets under capitalism (often through the increasing linkages of previous groupings emerging from feudalism). But if you look at the world: The forging of India or Kenya also involved artificial, enforced and compressed processes (and in each of their cases, there is very specific investigation to be made into how nationality and culture relate to official borders and governments inherited from colonialism.)
The process by which kidnapped Africans became a single nation was artificial, enforced, extremely brutal and compressed (in time). But it also involved the creative development of new bonds and the incredible inventiveness of a new culture born in suffering.I.e. saying that they were "constituted" does not mean, one-sidedly, that it is just something that someone else did externally to the people. The emergence of a Black nation is a process where the African-descended people had a powerful role of creating community, language and common culture under horrific conditions.
And then (in actual historical fact) the growth of industrial capitalism, the labor shortages of world wars, the mechanization of semifeudal agriculture in the South, and the courageous decisions of Black people themselves, then all conspired together to cause a Great Migration during the twentieth century (by which African American people became geographically dispersed, urbanized and overwhelmingly working class). This was a huge, historic change in their existence as a people -- with profound implications both for how people are oppressed, and also how that oppression of Black people will finally be ended.
There is a great deal that is unique about the African American experience: including the way that the "color line" was used to enforce a castelike existence at the lowest levels of the laboring classes (as workers, sharecroppers, or slaves). And in the way that castelike existence reenforced the distinctiveness of national culture and identity (even after dispersal from their historic concentration in the former plantation regions of the Deep South).
In other words: Race, caste, class, and nationality are all elements that play into the social confinement and constitution of a distinctive people.
Orientation toward liberation: A self-determinist spirit
There is much to study, debate and understand about this very particular historic reality. But (to stress a point made elsewhere) any dismissive or patronizing tone toward the assertions of African American nationality is itself "part of the problem" -- even if it emerges among revolutionaries or sections of the people.
We need to train ourselves (and promote among others) a "self-determinist spirit" -- one that is militantly anti-racist, internationalist, and open to the concepts and decisions of African American people themselves. (And this is true for communists regardless of their nationality -- whether we are white, or Puerto Rican, or Hopi, or African American.)
The discussion of oppressed nationalities (their present, their future, the modes of liberation, how socialism will contribute to ending their oppression) takes place in a way that embodies a respectful understanding of agency and self-emancipation. In some ways, it is African American people themselves who will decide if integration or separation best serves their needs and liberation -- and (inevitably) many forms of solution will be presented on the terrain of actual politics (community control and autonomy, radical assertions of representation in political and economic centers of decision, consideration of proposals for independence and more).
In other words, in my view, the point of communist discussion of African American life and nationality is not (so much) to decide (for them?) "how their situation will be solved under socialism" -- but to develop a much wider appreciation among our audiences of the material oppression that Black people suffer, their existence as a distinct historic people (within a multinational "prison of nations" in North America), and their political right to self-determination as part of the liberatory process.
Put another way: I believe liberation (in North America) will come from a broad and multinational movement for socialism -- but that vision of socialism needs to involve a living support for self-determination by previously oppressed people. And movement for national liberation (Puerto Rican liberation, African American liberation, Chicano liberation, the legalization of undocumented immigrants and more) taking diverse forms will, inevitably, be crucial components of any future ecosystem of revolutionary movement here.
Points on method:
There is a limited value in "proceeding from definitions" -- i.e. plucking definitions of categories from previous communist discussions, and then focusing over whether a current group or people fits this definition or that definition. This is an idealist method, linked to a certain kind of dogmatism and orthodox thinking. (And it is embedded in the rather strange insistence of some communists to take the 1913 Bolshevik "definition of a nation" as something fixed and universal, and then debating, endlessly, whether African American people "fit the definition.")
If there is one thing that has always impressed me about the oppression of minority peoples within the U.S. it is the complexity of the issues and the uniqueness of their material conditions. One of the problems with many current theories (rooted in generic discussions of privilege and ideological racism) is that they tend to reduce oppressed nationalities to some genereic POC (people of color) -- when, in fact, the solution to the oppression of Lakota people is not the same as for Cherokee, and (even more so, obviously) the situation and oppression of Puerto Rican people (on and off the island) is different from African American people (and so within a historically unified process of liberation the specific solutions to that oppression will be diverse).
We need to start from the thing itself (the material conditions), not from our own inherited labels of things. And (inevitably) the objects of our study (and political practice) will have a complex relationship with our own inherited ideas. (And that again reveals the problem with the facile universalization of categories and strategies that was part of the Comintern and its codification of marxism-leninism).
Just a point on that: Stalin's work on the nationalities of Eastern Europe was extremely important (in 1912). But the actual practice of the Bolsheviks was not simple some extension of that theoretical work (in real life, matters of self-determination were not so simple -- and the Bolsheviks did, after all, try to end Polish independence through war, and did end Georgian independence through invasion).
Further: The Chinese revolution simply did not apply Stalin's theories on nationality -- they had and developed a different theoretical framework (rooted in their particular conditions, and the form that their revolution took). This was often a source of criticism from pro-Soviet forces (Claude Lightfoot wrote, for the CPUSA, an extensive polemic, if I remember correctly, that simply made the point "The Maoists are not applying what the CPSU(B) said was Marxist-Leninist theory on the national question.")
Here is the heart of it for me:
The expansionist development of the European settler state (from the east coast "colonies" on the Atlantic) colliding with previous inhabitants, and "importing" enslaved Africans, forged a number of peoples in distinctive ways. It forged waves of European immigrants into a distinctive white American nationality (over time) -- and the existence of "white ethnics" within that dominant nationality is not a proof that it doesn't exist, it is a remnant of seams from the process of that forging. It forged kidnapped Africans from many tribal peoples and locations into a distincive nationality within North America. It sought to shatter, conquer and kill Native peoples (of more than a hundred distinct cultural groupings) -- and then oppressed them in distinctive ways (on and off the rez).
One central component of any progressive and revolutionary struggle is the ending of that dominance: the attempt to associate the white nationality with the very nature of society over much of North America.
That shit is over, and needs to be buried. (And for about a quarter of the people in the U.S. forcefully reasserting a white, native-born, christian, English-speaking, conservative character to the U.S. is a major component of their politics.)
The assertion that the United States "is a nation" is a claim that concedes a great deal to the most reactionary visions of the future. The U.S. is a "prison house of many nations" -- it is a multinational country. There is no "American nation." There is no single "American people." This is a multinational country -- marked from its very beginnings by the brutal oppression (and conquest and enslavement) of whole peoples within it.
The emergence of a multinational working class is an important development (with a distinctive history, set of contradictions, and important implications). And it would be valuable for us to examine (concretely) the relationship between emergence of that class and the existence of oppressed people.
In other words: I don't think there is a "white working class" -- as a distinct class. Nor is there an "African american working class." This dispersal of oppressed people, and their participation in production in multinational settings means that even while the U.S. forged an African American nation, the urbanized workers of that naitonality exist as part of a multinational class. They are both part of a distinctive nation and part of a class that has over the last century emerged within a countrywide capitalist production process.
And here the definitional distinction between a nation of people and a country (with borders and government) is important. Most countries are multinational -- most LARGE countries (like Russia, China, India, and the U.S.) are highly multinational (with all the stress, oppression and complexity that implies).
What that means:
The borders of the U.S. are not sacred to us. Liberation might well mean creating different borders. (Certainly it would make possible the independence of Puerto Rico, possibly it might include the reallignment of southern border areas. And it is not yet known what form the self-determination of Native peoples would take -- though the material basis for full independence is relatively weak in almost all cases.)
The unity of the United States (as previously constituted) is not sacred to us (meaning to revolutionaries and communists) -- Liberation might well mean the break up of that previous multinational state. (Communists have historically argued that larger socialist nation-state formations are preferable over smaller ones -- that may be true, on one level. But enforced containment of oppressed people within a "carryover" of previous U.S. borders would represent a continuation of natinoal oppression.
At the same time, life and history have created a significant basis for a new multinational socialist state within North America (within the borders of the previous USA). There has been a significant dispersal of oppressed nationalities from previous territories (including obviously African American people from the Black Belt, but also Native peoples from the Rez, and the remarkable dispersal of Mexicano people from Mexico into virtually every corner of the U.S.) The fact that there are few large compact territories inhabited largely by oppressed nationalities means that it becomes less likely that liberation will take the form of independence (though the continued existence of compact urban communities raises the real likelihood of forms of political and cultural autonomy for those communities.)
There is an extremely important component of self-determination and self-emancipation in finally ending the oppression of the many oppressed peoples within the U.S. It is not something that a future socialist state will do for "them" -- and adopting paternalist language and politics is (in reality) to adopt a policy of not actually ending that oppression.